Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Summer Streets

Summer Streets, New York’s seven-mile road closure (or “opening”) on three consecutive Saturdays from 7:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., is over. The City DOT will presumably now compile and analyze all sorts of the data to ascertain the program’s success. The biggest question to answer, and the one that has been most publicized, is this: were businesses hurt, as some had predicted, or did they experience no change or actually benefit? Other questions come to mind as well: did Summer Streets function as planned? What opportunities presented themselves that had not been considered beforehand? What problems? Did potential partnerships present themselves? What potential revenue generators are there? And what potential cost-cutting measures?

My wife and I missed the first two weekends of Summer Streets, but we made it out this past Saturday, the last day, starting at the Brooklyn Bridge and heading north. Unfortunately, our time was limited, so we only got as far as 32nd Street or so. But what we did see was very thought-provoking. It was a novel experience for New Yorkers (and tourists), many of whom looked almost like characters at the end of a weather disaster film, when people emerge from their homes, a little disoriented, to watch the storm retreat into the distance. Their faces convey deep relief and a renewed sense of hope, but also weariness, and a little confusion as to what to do next.

Sight, Hearing, and Smell
I hadn’t expected the sensory experience of Summer Streets – it was powerful. I noticed different sensory inputs in succession. First, I was giddy at the sight of a major road taken over by people walking, running, and riding. Then, after several blocks, I noticed how wonderfully, peacefully quiet it was – the loudest noises came from the air conditioning systems of the buildings aligning the route. But the most pervasive sounds were those of footfalls, the various workings of bicycles, and people talking.

Then, much later, it hit me that the air was…well, clean; as a regular New York City bicycle commuter, I’d become used to the near-constant exhaust of cars, buses, and trucks along my route between home and my office. So it was a pleasant surprise to be able to breathe deeply and easily.

The Value of Ambiguity and the Problems of Uninsurable Guarantees
I would personally have liked to see more ambiguity and more mixing of uses. The reason for this is that I think that trying to limit ambiguity actually creates more confusion: no one can follow the rules perfectly 100% of the time, and, of those who are following the rules at any given time, many cannot or will not account for the errors on their part or on the part of others. I think this can end up making for more unsafe conditions. In an obviously ambiguous environment people know instinctively what to do: slow down and pay attention.

(Again, I would push ambiguity only in a limited number of specific situations. Also, the degree of desired ambiguity depends on the overall goals.)

To explain my point I’ll take, for comparison, an environment in which the dominance of a user group is absolutely clear and perfectly manageable: a motor-vehicle tunnel. In this setting people – motorists, in this case – are guaranteed not to encounter other people, say, walking in a lane (I’m sure there are some exceptions to this, but they are aberrant and rare). But in an environment where there isn’t absolute control and clarity as to which user group or activity dominates, providing someone with a guarantee of her complete, unquestioned dominance of a space is tricky. If that guarantee cannot be backed up it provides only an illusion of safety, sometimes leading that person to be less observant and more prone to error.

I’m not sure how to add more ambiguity to the mix in the Summer Streets program, and I know that there must be hundreds of considerations of which I’m unaware. One such consideration maybe the setup and breakdown of stages and other event infrastructure: imagine if one were to propose setting up the mini-events – the classes, &c. – closer to or even partially jutting into the main Summer Streets drag. The small window of time the organizers are allowed to set up and break down would not allow this – hence the locations on side streets, which are easier to block for a longer period of time.

A Series of Events? Or a Thoroughfare?
Another possible result of the illusion of safety appears to be anger: when people’s dominance is suddenly put into doubt, they get pretty pissed off. Case in point: when we saw a tennis class for little kids on a side street, my wife and I slowed down gradually to watch. We were blocking about half a lane, and the road wasn’t crowded at that point. After about half a minute, someone tore by and yelled, “Not a good place to stop!” I replied, “Yeah, relax, buddy”; I wish I’d remembered my standby for people who seem to think they’re racing in the Tour de France – “We love you, Lance!” My wife and I had thought that a big part of Summer Streets was the ability to wander, stop once in a while, observe, participate, &c. Clearly, “Lance” didn’t agree with that notion.

The tennis workshop was an example of intermittent punctuations along the thoroughfare by small concerts, classes, and demonstrations of various activities and sports. I was struck by how stark – through the use of signage, cones, physical separation, and marshals – was the distinction between riding and running on one hand, and, on the other, the events.

I’d be very interested to see the data on any user conflicts, whether or not they resulted in accidents. I’d be even more interested in seeing how those data were gathered and interpreted. Sometimes the most valuable information can be anecdotal – for instance, if someone observed the “tennis for tots” area for an hour or so, taking notes and video, she could greatly inform how such areas are planned in the future.

Chute Alors!
A “chute” mentality seemed to take hold of most riders. Instead of watching out for people crossing and ceding way to them, the majority of riders rode through, encouraged by cones and the closures of (most) cross streets to cars to think that they had the supreme right of way, and that they didn’t have to look out for anyone else. It was very easy to behave in this way; it wasn’t until after we turned around that my wife and I realized that there were people at every intersection waiting to cross.

“Nature Abhors a Vacuum”: Summer Streets for Recreation, or More?
When we turned onto Centre Street upon arrival in Manhattan from Brooklyn, it was immediately apparent how similar Summer Streets was to a recreational trail for biking and running. Later, as my wife and I rode our bicycles back to Brooklyn, she said that she bet that there were no fewer runners and cyclists on the bikeway along West Street that day than any other. “Nature abhors a vacuum,” she said, as a metaphor – if a recreational resource opens up for use, people will fill it and use it.

I don’t know how far Summer Streets was supposed to go beyond “active” recreational use (I hate the term, but I see no alternative here, and I use it to mean running and bicycling). There’s certainly evidence that this was the primary focus, but, either way, the program will no doubt develop over time. I think that, in future editions, the program could use more events and activities along the way. For instance, a variation on some business improvement districts’ (BIDs) “taste of” events (such as Times Square Alliance's). Also, over the years, through careful tweaks in timing and through patient work with business owners and other stakeholders, the initiative may even lead to New Yorkers (and visitors) re-conceiving the city’s streets and thinking about transportation in a different way.

1 comment:

Adam said...

Impressively complex and comprehensive as always.
As you no doubt recall, Memorial Drive is closed every summer Sunday from 10-5, from Eliot Bridge to River Street.

It is never crowded by any one type of user, and so has the ambiguity you describe. It's large enough that there's room for different users to find their own pace and way.