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Bike Infrastructure As A Public Health Issue

Cycling is often promoted as a neighborhood revitalization tool and sustainable transportation option, but it’s easy to forget that it’s a public health and safety issue too. Every block of protected bike lane is a subtle yet important victory: A possible heart attack prevented. An automobile crash avoided. A day of feeling good being physically active instead of sitting in traffic.

There’s enough information available about the benefits of cycling that it amazes me that every city in the country isn’t making this stuff a priority. Even places that do get it sometimes have to be prodded a bit. Check out East Harlem, NYC:

This is the story about how East Harlem residents and street safety advocates — with leadership from Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito — banded together to win complete streets on First and Second Avenues. After the city backtracked on a plan to build protected bike lanes and pedestrian refuges up to 125th Street on the East Side of Manhattan, this coalition mobilized to put the project back on the table. Later, when the safety improvements came under attack from a few business owners, public health professionals joined Mark-Viverito and NYC DOT to combat misinformation about the redesign and see it through to implementation. Source: Street Films

Friday Reading

The Tissue of Straight Lines: a meditation on NYC’s grid street network from Kneeling Bus, one of the few blogs I read which leaves me saying, “I wish this guy wrote more articles.”

The grid that originated in 1811 will never be finished as long as it remains in place, because it will never stop challenging its inhabitants to infuse its neutral, rectangular blocks with the vibrant content of humanity and culture.

Designs For Working: Malcolm Gladwell on Jane Jacobs and how her ideas have been co-opted by corporations looking for collaborative, social working environments. See: Zappos’ plan for Las Vegas.


Sparely populated suburbs may look appealing, she said, but without an active sidewalk life, without the frequent, serendipitous interactions of many different people, “there is no public acquaintanceship, no foundation of public trust, no cross-connections with the necessary people–and no practice or ease in applying the most ordinary techniques of city public life at lowly levels.”

“The Solomon Curve, developed in 1964, states that those driving slowest will be at the greatest risk of crashing. This outdated model, which ignores pedestrian safety entirely, still guides traffic engineering toward higher speeds.” StreetsBlog

This has been going around like wild fire. The 85th Percentile Rule in Traffic Engineering from Copenhagenize: an outdated way of setting traffic speeds which ignores neighborhood context, pedestrians and cyclists. This model is still being used in almost every city in the world.

Imagine a street where the average speed is 50 km/h. If the speed limit is reduced by 5 km/h then, according to this archaic model, the drivers are allegedly exposed to a higher risk. What is most shocking is that this entire concept completely ignores pedestrians and cyclists. Another horrific conclusion from this graph is that when you increase the speed limit, the crash risk is alleged to be less than for slow speeds.

The Institute of Traffic Engineers wrote: “The 85th Percentile is how drivers vote with their feet”. They forgot to mention that, when it comes to establishing speed limits in cities, pedestrians and cyclists are excluded from this election. They don’t even get the chance to go to the polls.

All this right now in 2012. In your street. With your tax money.

And finally, the benefits of preserving local manufacturing districts. Proximity is Creativity: Unlocking the Value of the Garment District from Urban Omnibus. There are some things China just can’t do.

Let’s say it’s your last year at school, and you have a set of starter designs that are very marketable. What happens next? You need to get someone to make your production patterns; you need to able to source fabrics; you need to be able to sell, to have access to the stores. So let’s say you come up with a 20-piece order. You can go out into the Garment District, find a cutting room or a sewing room, and have your 20 pieces produced and shipped to a store. You can’t get only 20 pieces made in China, not today, not ever. That is what validates what goes on in the District today: the capacity to produce short runs, samples made with a quick turnaround time.


[Your City] Should Take Traffic Lanes Away From Cars – Part I

The New Times Square. This used to be a traffic lane filled with angry cabbies. Nobody is angry in this picture.

What if WTMD played Rush all day, every day? Sure, I like a few of their songs, but hearing them non-stop would cause my head to explode.  What if there were huge networks of roads crossing entire cities that had one sole purpose?  You’d think it was a waste of real estate, right? And pretty monotonous.  Like, people do so many more things than the one thing this network was designed for. What if this network was also designed for the most deleterious mode of transport? Isn’t it common sense that this network should be re-adapted to include other people who may not want to use these machines?

You get my point. On a trip to NYC over Thanksgiving, I saw again how NYC DOT is pushing the envelope and creating places for people which were previously dominated by cars. Take the Green Light for Midtown project. Several lanes of traffic were closed and cars rerouted to turn Broadway between 42nd and 47th into a pedestrian plaza. This design, once a pilot project, is now permanent. Let me try to convey the magnitude of this change. 50,000+ cars a day, probably the busiest/most congested intersection in the U.S., complex traffic patterns, and a huge number of angry cabbies. And NYC DOT, with the help of tons of stakeholders and the Bloomberg administration, closed entire traffic channels and transformed the space so that people could sit on a lazyboy with their feet up in the middle of the road in Times Square. And it works.

Broadway. A more rational balance.

Some results from NYC DOT’s website:

  • Travel speeds increased through the remaining traffic lanes – more drivers are using parallel streets
  • Injuries to motorists and passengers in the project area fell by 63%
  • 74% of New Yorkers surveyed by the Times Square Alliance agree that Times Square has improved dramatically over the last year.

Columbus Circle, Herald Square and entire stretches of Broadway have also seen similar treatments. Auto capacity reduced, more public plazas, Copenhagen style bike lanes, dedicated transit ways – and gridlock does not ensue. The traffic justification (gridlock!) used to build thousands of miles of interstates through dense urban areas, widen an ungodly number of road miles to accommodate “future traffic volumes”, and destroy hundreds of neighborhoods to accommodate these roads can pretty much be thrown out the window.

A caveat, though. Some parts of Manhattan have a pedestrian volume/capacity ratio higher than 1 , meaning there are more pedestrians than the streets can handle – especially in Times Square. This overflow will naturally spill onto any additional space created. You put out a  bench coated with maple syrup in Times Square, and I bet a few people would be sitting on the thing within a few minutes.

In Baltimore, because we don’t have the pedestrian volumes nor the outdoor cafe culture NYC does, we have to be more selective when we convert traffic lanes into people lanes.  As the new dedicated bike/bus lanes on Pratt and Lombard show, even on our busiest roads, we have excess capacity.  Most of our street network was built out when we had almost a million people. Granted, we have higher car ownership rates now, but the doom and gloom naysayers are off the mark when they use congestion and gridlock fear mongering as a justification for maintaining the status quo.

So where in Baltimore should we take traffic lanes away from cars and give them back to the people? More on this in Part II.

Also see: Streetfilms: Carmaggeddon Averted As Broadway Comes to Life