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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 73 · No. 6 > World Class Streets

May/June 2010
Vol. 73 · No. 6

Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-10-004

World Class Streets

by Megan Cornog and Dan Gelinne

New York City is transforming itself into a metropolis that is friendly to bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit riders. Learn how the Big Apple is doing it.

A bicyclist waits in a "bike box," a street marking designed to promote safe and visible movements for bicyclists at intersections. New York City's transportation department has initiated a number of bicycling improvements, reflecting a commitment to designing streets for all users.
A bicyclist waits in a "bike box," a street marking designed to promote safe and visible movements for bicyclists at intersections. New York City's transportation department has initiated a number of bicycling improvements, reflecting a commitment to designing streets for all users.

Over the past decade, New York City's avenues and boulevards have been undergoing a transformation. What was until recently a metropolis with streets intended mainly to move automobiles now is becoming a city where all users -- bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit riders, as well as motorists -- are integrated into the metropolitan transportation system.

Improvements in bicycle infrastructure, combined with rising fuel costs, over the past 10 years have resulted in unprecedented spikes in bicycle commuting, and improvements to pedestrian facilities have increased safety. But the need to tackle problems such as inadequate public spaces and insufficient amenities for pedestrians and bicyclists culminated in a commitment to create a livable community. In 2007, New York City released PlaNYC: A Greener, Greater New York, a long-range, comprehensive plan to address economic, social, and environmental concerns facing the city's five boroughs: the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island.

One year later, in spring 2008, the city turned its focus specifically to transportation and released Sustainable Streets, a strategic plan for the New York City Department of Transportation (NYC DOT). This document emphasizes planning and designing a transportation system with all road users in mind. Strategies include enhancing existing sidewalk networks, expanding bicycle facilities, and improving transit accessibility.

To answer questions such as how its streets are being used and what is missing from the sidewalks and public plazas, NYC DOT commissioned a consultant to conduct public life surveys around the city. To understand how people use city spaces, the consultants counted the number of pedestrians at various points around the city. Meanwhile, volunteers conducted activity surveys, recording their observations of pedestrian activity at various sites.

NYC DOT released the findings in a 2008 report, World Class Streets: Remaking New York City's Public Realm. According to the count results and surveys, several key types of public space need improvement. Overcrowded, obstructed sidewalks force pedestrians into the streets. Lack of seating leaves many New Yorkers and visitors with no places to rest. Few children and elderly citizens are present on the sidewalks, a sign that the streets are not comfortable for all users.

NYC DOT took on these challenges. In the report, the department outlined an overall approach called the World Class Streets initiative. Included under this initiative are a number of new programs and guidelines that respond directly to overall problems and individual issues on specific streets: the NYC Plaza Program, Broadway Boulevard, development of complete streets design guidelines, Safe Streets for Seniors, and Summer Streets.

"Describing these unique initiatives will help other communities learn from the challenges New York City faces -- and is overcoming -- to make the city a more livable and sustainable community," says Gabe Rousseau, bicycle and pedestrian program manager at the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

NYC Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan writes in the World Class Streets report that her department seeks to promote "a broad strategy for developing and caring for the public realm -- the space between buildings" to ensure that it remains safe and accessible for all users.

These heavy planters (left) serve as bollards to separate auto traffic from public space. Use of temporary features like these enables the city to evaluate new public plazas before moving from pilot phases into permanent changes.
These heavy planters (left) serve as bollards to separate auto traffic from public space. Use of temporary features like these enables the city to evaluate new public plazas before moving from pilot phases into permanent changes.

Public Plazas

Some of New York City's streets and vacant lots are underused and uninviting to the boroughs' many pedestrians. Despite the city's renowned Central Park and recent expansion of other parkland, many residents still lack access to nearby open space. PlaNYC states that the amount of green space per resident is inadequate at present and will become increasingly insufficient as the population continues to grow.

According to the plan's chapter on open space, "as competition from housing, office space, and other uses intensifies, the need to create new parks and open space will increase." In response, the plan includes a goal to ensure that all New York City residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park.

As part of the World Class Streets initiative, NYC DOT is partnering with merchant and neighborhood associations to transform sections of streets into vital public plazas. The NYC Plaza Program uses a competitive application process to help NYC DOT identify, design, and construct new public spaces throughout the city. The program prioritizes projects based on lack of open space paired with availability of local nonprofits willing to maintain the plazas.

The program identifies some plaza projects as part of transportation improvements that are already in the works. Additional opportunities arise from Greenstreets, a program run by the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation. Third, the city is creating more open space in an especially innovative way by reclaiming some of its 6,000 miles (9,656 kilometers) of streets and rights-of-way for use as plaza spaces. The city asks local nonprofit groups to identify potential spaces in their neighborhoods and apply to the program to have those sites transformed from roadway to plaza. The groups also must accept maintenance responsibility for the plazas once they are built. The first round of the NYC Plaza Program, launched in the summer of 2008, drew 22 applications from the five boroughs. Out of these, NYC DOT selected nine locations in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, based on factors such as adjacent land uses, pedestrian traffic volumes, and the absence of any nearby parks. Other factors included whether the site under consideration was an NYC DOT property and whether the project would require traffic rerouting.

The program has generated significant interest, as indicated by the number of applications. NYC DOT is reviewing a subsequent round of submittals and launched a third round in spring 2010. Thus far, the department and its area partners have begun improvements on 21 plazas across the city.

Once a location is selected, NYC DOT funds the design and construction of the public space, based on community input. The department attempts to ensure that plaza enhancements are sensitive to the history and culture of the area, as well as the vision and expectations of the neighborhood's residents, visitors, and business owners.

Plaza construction may include the addition of trees, planters, bollards (posts set at intervals to exclude vehicles), and seating; signs and information; paving and painting; and other pedestrian or bicycle amenities. With these enhancements, New York City is attempting to ensure that its streets are destinations and resting spots for residents and visitors alike, and to increase life and vibrancy at the street level.

"We are looking explicitly at opportunities to provide social places for people to gather, rest, and hold events," says Assistant Commissioner for Planning and Sustainability Andy Wiley-Schwartz, creator of the program. "These spaces not only make neighborhoods more livable, they also help encourage people to walk to their commercial centers by providing comfortable places for them to sit, eat, or meet friends."

At the plaza at Madison Square, planters and seating create a safe, inviting place to rest, relax, and enjoy the views.
At the plaza at Madison Square, planters and seating create a safe, inviting place to rest, relax, and enjoy the views.

Madison Square, at the intersection of Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and 23rd Street, is home to one of the most extensive and successful public plaza transformations undertaken to date under the NYC Plaza Program. Prior to improvements, the square -- an oddly shaped confluence of streets -- presented safety and operational challenges for pedestrians, bicyclists, automobiles, and buses. Areas of concern included confusing traffic patterns, sidewalk diversions, street crossings that equaled the length of two football fields, incomplete bicycle lanes, and inefficient bus routing. In addition, the street arrangement divided the neighborhood and adversely affected area businesses.

In September 2008, NYC DOT completed the pilot phase of the Madison Square transformation. The project included a number of changes, such as a simplified traffic pattern with lane reductions; a furnished and landscaped plaza space that echoes the shape of the Flatiron Building, a major tourist attraction located nearby; shortened pedestrian crossings; additional bicycle lanes; and more direct bus routing through the intersection. In total, the project created more than 16,000 square feet (1,486 square meters) of public space.

Broadway

For years, traffic congestion and pedestrian injuries and fatalities plagued Broadway in midtown Manhattan, a destination for tourists and residents alike. In addition, despite high volumes of pedestrian traffic, locations along Broadway such as Times Square provided minimal space for people. According to World Class Streets, only 11 percent of Times Square was designated as resting and walking space, while 89 percent of the area was road space accommodating cars.

World Class Streets notes that, unlike many other well-known cities around the globe, New York City is a skyline city, one in which the human-scale details often are overlooked. The report identified Broadway as a project where an acute sensitivity to pedestrian needs could lend vitality to the streets and benefit businesses and visitors.

In the summer of 2008, NYC DOT quickly and dramatically reclaimed much of the street space along Broadway for pedestrian use. In some cases, the transformation occurred overnight. The department converted parts of Broadway between 42nd and 35th Streets into "pedestrian living rooms," areas delineated by pavements that have gravel mixed into the surface. These pedestrian spaces are furnished with planters and lawn chairs and other street furniture, creating an inviting environment for residents and visitors to experience one of the city's most famous landmarks.

Another improvement was the addition of new bicycle lanes. The lanes, painted green, are adjacent to the furnished pedestrian spaces, which separate the bicycle lanes from automobile traffic. To accommodate these facilities, NYC DOT narrowed the road from four lanes of traffic to two. Other improvements, such as changes in signal timing to remediate existing traffic congestion, coincided with the addition of the public spaces.

According to The New York Times, NYC DOT spent an estimated $700,000 to construct linear plazas along the seven-block stretch of Broadway. Three area business improvement districts partnered with the city and agreed to maintain the new plazas.

Complete Streets

With the variety of transportation options available throughout New York City, calling the city's streets "incomplete" might seem counterintuitive. In addition to providing space for cars, taxis, and delivery vehicles, most New York City streets have sidewalks, curb ramps for people with disabilities, and street crossing aids, and are served by transit. Pedestrian volumes and high rates of transit ridership indicate the intense use of these facilities.

On occasion, however, the safety and comfort of some road users, such as pedestrians with or without disabilities, can be compromised due to street design. The World Class Streets report indicated that sidewalk crowding, obstacles such as street vendors, and lack of seating can affect the pedestrian experience. These conditions appear to disproportionately affect seniors and children.

Across the United States, communities and States are beginning to adopt complete streets policies. These policies indicate a commitment to constructing streets that are safe for everyone, including bicyclists, people with disabilities, transit riders, children, and seniors. Complete streets policies vary significantly, ranging in scope, geography, and the strength of their regulatory teeth.

NYC DOT, in cooperation with 12 other city agencies, included a complete streets vision in its Street Design Manual, updated in May 2009. Four of the seven goals in the manual emphasize the importance of considering all road users and modes of traffic when designing and constructing streets. The manual's overall goal is to ensure that creating safe and inviting streets for all users is taken into account in all projects that affect road design. Using the manual's design standards, New York City has begun the process of institutionalizing comprehensive and inclusive street planning.

This "before" view of Times Square shows a streetscape that is not very friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists.
This "before" view of Times Square shows a streetscape that is not very friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists.
This "after" shot of Times Square shows an area that is inviting to residents and visitors alike.
This "after" shot of Times Square shows an area that is inviting to residents and visitors alike.

The department has constructed several complete streets projects and, under the guidance of the Street Design Manual, many more are in the works. Completed in October 2008, one project -- the 9th Avenue transformation -- serves as a model complete street, with safer and more convenient facilities for pedestrians and bicyclists, improved safety for turning vehicles, and traffic calming measures to increase safety for all road users. To meet these objectives, the project included a bicycle lane that is physically separated from traffic by a row of parked cars, signal-protected pedestrian and bicycle signaling that reduce conflicts at intersections by giving each mode (pedestrian, bicycle, and automobile) its own crossing phase, refuge islands to assist pedestrians who are crossing 9th Avenue, increased tree coverage, and turning bays to make left-turn maneuvers safer.

"Thus far, the manual has been well received," says NYC DOT's Wiley-Schwartz. "New York City agencies appreciate that it helps them to create and maintain streets that are inclusive, safe, environmentally sustainable, aesthetically appropriate, and historically aware. Developers appreciate that the manual brings some daylight to what previously was a rather opaque process."

Wiley-Schwartz adds that the complete streets program and the Street Design Manual will transform streets that were designed for 20th century transportation into streets that are appropriate for the 21st century.

Safe Streets for Seniors

Adults aged 65 and older make up 12 percent of the city's population, but from 2002 to 2006, they accounted for39 percent of its pedestrian fatalities. Despite this grim overrepresentation, older pedestrians are underrepresented on the streets of New York City, according to the study commissioned by NYC DOT. The study found that only 10 percent of pedestrians observed were seniors or children, while those two age groups make up 30 percent of the city's population. With the city's senior population expected to nearly double within the next 25 years, pedestrian safety for older adults has become a priority for NYC DOT.

In January 2008, NYC DOT and the city's Department for the Aging partnered to announce the Safe Streets for Seniors program. Using crash history, NYC DOT identified 25 focus areas where pedestrian injuries and fatalities that involved older adults were particularly high.

From these 25 neighborhoods, NYC DOT selected five pilot neighborhoods -- one in each borough -- to test the program. The sites were Brighton Beach, Brooklyn; Fordham/University Heights, the Bronx; Lower East Side, Manhattan; Flushing, Queens; and New Dorp/Hylan Boulevard, Staten Island.

The project focuses on safety concerns for senior pedestrians, including insufficient crossing times, broken or missing curb ramps, crosswalks and street markings that are difficult to see, drainage problems at curbs and in crosswalks, and driver behavior problems such as turning vehicles that fail to yield to pedestrians.

Countermeasures involve installing new or upgraded pavement markings, high-visibility crosswalks, and advance stop bars to encourage drivers to stop before a crosswalk rather than in it. Maintenance activities include replacing missing roadway signs, repairing broken curb ramps, and installing needed ramps. The city also has employed other pedestrian-friendly treatments such as leading pedestrian intervals, which activate a walk signal before vehicles get a green light so pedestrians can have a head start into a crosswalk. Leading pedestrian intervals are a particular help to pedestrians who have slower walking speeds.

In 2008 and 2009, NYC DOT moved quickly to assess problems in its five pilot neighborhoods, identify and implement countermeasures, and launch comprehensive educational campaigns about the Safe Streets for Seniors program and associated traffic changes. In the pilot project in Flushing, Queens, NYC DOT took a multipronged approach to address heavy pedestrian and vehicle volumes, conflicts caused by failure of the turning vehicles to yield at crosswalks, dangerous pedestrian behaviors, and long crossing distances.

Marked bicycle lanes like this one reduce points of conflict with automobile traffic. The network of bicycle lanes has expanded at a rate previously unprecedented for New York City.
Marked bicycle lanes like this one reduce points of conflict with automobile traffic. The network of bicycle lanes has expanded at a rate previously unprecedented for New York City.

In this pilot, NYC DOT added 23 new signs instructing users to "Wait for Walk," "Yield to Pedestrians in Crosswalk," and "Wait for Green Light." The department also added several pedestrian refuge islands, left-turn bays for vehicles, high-visibility crosswalks, and advance stop bars. In some cases, NYC DOT narrowed streets by reducing the number of vehicle lanes. The results from this combination of improvements are encouraging. For instance, injuries at the intersection of Northern Boulevard and Bowne Street have decreased by 45 percent since NYC DOT installed a pedestrian refuge island at that location. Pedestrian refuge islands and a road diet (reduced number of lanes with freed space converted to parking, bike lanes, landscaping, walkways, or medians) on Manhattan's Chrystie Street resulted in a 66 percent reduction in pedestrian crashes.

Having completed improvements at the pilot sites, NYC DOT is continuing progress on the Safe Streets for Seniors program. The department selected 10 of the 25 focus areas as phase I projects and currently is reviewing the engineering studies and recommendations prepared for those areas. Studies for phase II areas began in January 2010.

Summer Streets

Streets in New York City are shared by a number of users, including cars, buses, taxis, bicyclists, and pedestrians. As noted earlier, however, congestion and potential traffic dangers make it difficult for pedestrians and bicyclists to fully enjoy the sights and sounds of the city's streets.

The New York City Summer Streets program is modeled on similar initiatives in cities around the world. In Bogotá, Colombia, the presumed birthplace of these types of car-free streets programs, 70 miles (113 kilometers) of street are closed to traffic every Sunday and on major holidays for a weekly event called recro-vias, which brings residents and visitors into the streets for fun and physical activity. In most places, this kind of program is part of a larger livable streets movement that aims to make streets more welcoming to nonmotorized transportation.

Connections between boroughs for bicyclists and pedestrians, such as the Williamsburg Bridge shown here, help ensure safe and convenient access for all road users.
Connections between boroughs for bicyclists and pedestrians, such as the Williamsburg Bridge shown here, help ensure safe and convenient access for all road users.

New York City began experimenting with a car-free streets program in August 2008. For three consecutive Saturdays, the city closed a 6.9-mile (11-kilometer) stretch of road from the Brooklyn Bridge to Central Park. NYC DOT worked with the City of New York Police Department to ensure that the chosen route would have a minimal impact on traffic. The department marketed the program as a new way to enjoy the streets of New York, using the motto, "Your city, your streets, your playground."

An estimated 150,000 people enjoyed the three 2008 Summer Streets road closings. Positive feedback from users, area residents, and news media encouraged NYC DOT to host Summer Streets annually. In 2009, the NY Metro Chapter of the International Special Events Society recognized the success of Summer Streets with a Best Green Initiative award. The department partnered with business improvement districts and neighborhood associations to host similar events in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, and plans to expand the dates and locations in 2010.

Evaluation

To test the programs' impacts, including public reaction, NYC DOT implements some of the improvements as pilot projects. This approach means that not only are projects subject to change and removal, but also they are constructed out of materials that are less expensive and easier to remove. The department uses several techniques to evaluate a pilot project and determine whether to make it permanent. Using observation, crash data, survey responses requested from the public on streets or other locations, and studies of road user behavior at targeted locations, NYC DOT can obtain a sense of a project's impact on traffic congestion, safety, and use of space, as well as public reaction. The department also uses public input received via NYC 311, a phone service and Web site that enable users to access and report information relevant to city government operations.

In February 2010, NYC DOT announced that it will incorporate permanently the changes implemented along Broadway as part of its Green Light for Midtown pilot program. The Green Light for Midtown Evaluation Report provides a detailed look at the analysis performed to measure the outcomes of the network changes and justification for the decision to adopt the improvements permanently. In addition to pedestrian safety improvements, such as a 35 percent decrease in pedestrian injuries, improvements in traffic flow and mobility were demonstrated. The enhancements were also shown to be beneficial to businesses, as 42 percent of surveyed residents indicated that they have shopped in the neighborhood more often since the changes were made.

Next Steps

NYC DOT continues to make strides in creating public spaces for residents and visitors. The department is installing bicycle lanes and other facilities in line with PlaNYC objectives. Other components of the World Class Streets initiative -- redesigned bus stops, street furniture, and a public art program -- also have enhanced the city's environment and public spaces. As a measure of success, in November 2009, the city announced yet another increase of 26 percent in transit commuter bicycling from the previous year.

Although it is a large city, New York has overcome many of the same barriers that exist in smaller cities and towns across the United States. "By creating public space and taking advantage of public and political support for improving conditions for all users, New York City has created innovative programs that any community could emulate," says FHWA's Rousseau.

Bicyclists and pedestrians cross the Grand Central Terminal Park Avenue Viaduct (shown here) during a Summer Streets event.
Bicyclists and pedestrians cross the Grand Central Terminal Park Avenue Viaduct (shown here) during a Summer Streets event.

Megan Cornog is a project coordinator for the National Center for Safe Routes to School and the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center (PBIC). She received a master's degree in city and regional planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Daniel Gelinne is a program manager for PBIC. He received his bachelor's degree in geography and environmental studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

For more information, contact Megan Cornog at 919-962-7411 or cornog@hsrc.unc.edu, or Daniel Gelinne at 919-962-8703 or gelinne@hsrc.unc.edu.

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