Brainstorming Now, In Hopes of Progress Later

Event: PlaNYC Update: Transportation Issues and Opportunities
Location: Center for Architecture, 08.12.11
Speakers: James E. Wright, AIA — Partner, Lee Harris Pomeroy Architects; Robert Eisenstat, AIA, LEED AP — Assistant Chief Architect, Engineering/Architecture Design Division, Port Authority of NY and NJ (Co-chairs, AIANY Transportation and Infrastructure Committee)
Organizers: AIANY Transportation and Infrastructure Committee; AIANY Planning and Urban Design Committee; New York New Visions; AIANY; APA NY Metro Chapter; ASLA NY Chapter; Citizens Housing and Planning Council

2011 NYC Cycling Map.

Courtesy NYC Department of City Planning.

Urban transportation inevitably evokes enthusiasm, anecdotes, and strong emotions, even in professional settings. This orderly working session on the transportation component of PlaNYC 2030 thus took an unexpected turn into an animated collective brainstorm, connecting specific policy points to broad quality-of-life questions. The policy paper intended to emerge from these discussions, an AIANY Transportation and Infrastructure Committee response to the updated plan, will reflect both technical expertise and a range of personal civic commitments.

Since PlaNYC, initially rolled out during the transient flush times of 2007, is evolving under markedly different budgetary conditions — and since the Bloomberg mayoralty will inevitably end — it is an open question whether the plan will continue to guide purposeful changes over several decades or evaporate under the political and financial pressures of a new administration. Committee Co-chair Jim Wright, AIA, guided the participants through the differences between the initial plan and its April 2011 revision, developed at another workshop on 07.08.11. Charted side by side, PlaNYC 2.0 shows more specificity than the original version in some areas — expanded Select Bus Service in the outer boroughs, East River ferries, Muni-Meters, transit-oriented up-zoning, traffic-management systems, and anti-congestion technologies — but not, overall, a corresponding increase in ambition. “The update,” noted Committee Co-chair Robert Eisenstat, AIA, LEED AP, “seems to be somewhat of a retreat; the goals are not as high or extensive.” The committee aims to lay groundwork now for better times ahead, when measures currently off the table (e.g., the Lower Manhattan Rail Link or a reconsideration of congestion pricing) may become feasible again.

Audience contributions were thorough and pointed. Roxanne Warren, AIA, cited Rutgers transportation specialist John Pucher’s observations that in intermodal bicycle-transit access, New York ranked last of 10 cities studied. Despite all the recent progress in public bike infrastructure, several commentators agreed, inadequacies in critical aspects such as NYPD cooperation and bike parking (the Center’s dog-shaped David Byrne rack excepted, of course) imply a need for multimodalists to challenge the city’s premature claims of victory. About an hour into the discussion, one unidentified audience member opened the floodgates of speculation with a critique of the conditions facing pedestrians:”primitive, like our medieval sanitation system…. Every 200 feet you can get killed by a two-ton steel object.”

Attendees proceeded to extend this commentator’s observation that “civilization has to do with fundamental interactions of human beings” to myriad approaches to the inherently adversarial human-vehicle relationship. These include simple traffic-calming measures, such as speed bumps and improved walk-light coordination, to sophisticated GIS applications that can give residents detailed interactive data on neighborhood hazards and maintenance issues (one of several suggestions by Yves Deflandre, AIA, president of the new Initiative for a Sustainable Midtown East). The conversation also considered various accountability mechanisms for cyclists, including registration, and new insurance arrangements that could address the problem of motorists causing injuries with legal impunity. Beyond the array of imaginable technical and policy fixes, the obstacles of interagency coordination, and PlaNYC’s long-range environmental goals, one statistic mentioned by Wright continues to haunt debates about transportation reform: roughly 35,000 Americans die in traffic every year, the equivalent of a Boeing 737 crashing daily, and somehow we’ve come to accept this fundamental interaction as normal.