Wednesday, October 1, 2008

New York's Summer Streets: lessons for Chicago

by John Greenfield

For years now New York City has looked to Chicago as the model for big-city bicycling improvements. For example, New York, with almost three times the population, has installed only a fraction of the number of bike parking racks our city has, and when NYC adopted our theft-resistant, square-tube racks they called them “Chicago Racks.” We’ve also had them beat in terms of miles of bike lanes proportionate to city size, education and outreach programs, and other metrics.

So it’s ironic that New York beat us to the punch this month by staging three ambitious, highly successful ciclovia events, called “Summer Streets,” with only a few months of planning. Meanwhile, after years of fundraising and negotiations between the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, the City and community members, Chicago is finally getting around to staging Sunday Parkways on only two days in mid-fall, October 5th and 26th, on compromised routes.

As VWYF readers know, the ciclovia movement began in Bogota, Columbia, where for decades residents have been biking, walking, skating and hanging out on a network of largely car-free streets on Sundays. Nowadays the events regularly draw over 1.5 million people to recreate on a 70-mile route each weekend. This year ciclovias have begun to take off in the U.S. In addition to Chicago and New York, Portland, OR, staged a wildly popular event, also called Sunday Parkways, on June 22 and San Francisco will be holding “Sunday Streets” on August 31st and September 14.

Despite the efforts of the hard-working staff of the bike federation and other boosters since 2003, Chicago’s Sunday Parkways promises to be the least inspiring of the bunch. Our two ciclovias, bankrolled by the CBF via grants, will be taking place after peak bicycling season, on two separate 3.5-mile routes through neigborhoods a few miles away from the city center. The South Side route includes many blocks of gritty, treeless terrain and a half-mile that hugs the Eisenhower Expressway. The events will be far from car-free: autos will be driving on service roads parallel to most of route and in some cases four out of six travel lanes on the boulevards will have cars on them.

Contrast this with the three Summer Streets events that took place during prime cycling season on a 6.9-mile route through the heart of Manhattan. The route went from Central Park to the Brooklyn Bridge, along Park Ave. and Lexington Ave., through some of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the country. As in other cities with successful ciclovias, expenses were largely covered by the city government, in this case the NYC Department of Transportation. Best of all, motor vehicles were almost completely banned from the route.

I traveled to New York last weekend to check out the third and final run of Summer Streets firsthand on Saturday, August 23. When I joined the route on foot at 14th St. at 10 am the weather was lovely and the streets were packed with smiling people, mostly cyclists with a few walkers, joggers and skaters.

Police officers and traffic aides were directing motorized traffic on the cross streets while yellow-shirted volunteers held up signs reminding non-motorized traffic to be prepared to stop at the intersections. The volunteers I spoke with said they’d had no problems with participants disobeying traffic signals.

Heading south on Lexington, I soon met up with my friends Michael and Shenglan and their two-year-old daughter Altai, who was pushing a toy stroller. “We’re walking in the middle of the street,” cried Michael. “There’s throngs here, Altai, throngs!”

As we continued down Lexington we encountered an aerobics demo in front of a gym, a kids area with games and chalk drawing, and a live music stage featuring an opera singer, then a funky cello player. Other scheduled events along the route included African and salsa dancing, double-dutch jump-roping, yoga, bike handling classes, break-dancing, akido and a “hackey sack zone.” It was a vibrant scene.

At an info tent for Transportation Alternatives, NYC’s advocates for biking, walking and transit, who spearheaded the event, I asked deputy director Noah Budnick to explain the New York / Chicago role reversal. How was his city able to pull off such a daring, successful event in a few months while the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation labored for so long and faced so many roadblocks?

TA's Noah Budnick

New York’s achievement is particularly striking since bike planning was fairly dysfunctional there only a few years ago. When NYC DOT’s bike director Andrew Vesselinovitch resigned in 2006 he sent a letter to colleagues, reprinted in
the New York Times, savaging then-commissioner Iris Weinshall for shooting down half of his proposals for new bike lanes. Budnick gives a lot of credit for Summer Streets to the DOT’s progressive new commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan who took over in 2007. “This absolutely wouldn’t have happened without her,” he said.

Budnick called New York’s political situation last year a “perfect storm” – ideal conditions for proposing an ambitious green transportation initiative. Along with the arrival of the new commissioner, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced PlaNYC, his environmental sustainability plan which included targets for bicycling improvements and a proposal for congestion pricing. So when Transportation Alternatives brought up the idea of Summer Streets last winter, the City was all ears.

“The commissioner was completely committed to Summer Streets and Mayor Bloomberg said ‘Alright, let’s give this a try,’” Budnick reported. “I’ve heard the CBF has had a lot of resistance from the police but we had a police commissioner who wanted to proactively make this happen.”

Asked if he had any advice for Chicago and other cities planning ciclovias, Budnick said, “Whenever you try to do anything new in a city there are going to be people who will complain and give reasons not to do things, which is why it takes political leadership to make things happen.” Staging the events on Saturdays rather than Sundays in NYC avoided the resistance from churches which has led to delays and compromises in planning Chicago’s Sunday Parkways. The early hours for Summer Streets, 7 am to 1 pm, also minimized conflicts, said Budnick. “New York City’s not up before noon on Saturday,” he said.

As we spoke, a fire truck left a station along the route with its siren blaring but had no problem making its way to the cross street. “They could have said, ‘You can’t do this here because there’s a firehouse on this street,’” said Budnick. “But as you can see it’s actually easier for the truck to get through traffic when there are no cars.”

He urges cities like Chicago to make no small plans when staging ciclovias - “You can’t do this by half measures.” He added that the events should cover significant mileage, be completely car-free, and take place on consecutive weekends so that the attendance and community support can build. “Anything that waters it down sucks the energy out of it.”


Bob said...

The routes are different, but the biggest difference I note is that NY held them on Saturday, not Sunday.

Considerable opposition came from the churches, and compromises were made to accommodate car traffic on Sundays.

So why wasn't Saturdays chosen, and a better route?

Anonymous said...

Should we sit and throw stones or help make sure this is the best damn event we can and with the most turnout so we can show the City how important this is?

Let me answer the questions:

1. Sunday has a much greater chance of success than Saturday for many reasons: less people have planned activities on Sunday and less traffic to impact on Sunday. This has been learned from other cities.

2. We intentionally chose neighborhoods that bordered our great boulevard system, had signficant partnership with local community based organizations, and were in real neighborhoods that would have the potential to impact people's lives encouraging physical activity. This event does not occur without this neighborhood support. Not a single other group of neighborhoods had the political will and interest that was shown by the great folks in Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Garfield Park, Lawndale and Little Village.

By the way, the churches are on board and have been for a while. Please come on out.

Todd Allen said...

I was really glad to see NYC prove that this could be a success in a big American city.

I'm hoping our event will be a success in spite of all the shortcomings John so well pointed out.

Even if our parkway event stumbles at first at least we have an example of how it could be. Most of the shortcomings that our event will suffer this year could be easily corrected next year if we can gain better support from the city.

Anonymous said...

Okay, Noah is cute all all, with those pink shoelaces and toned arms, etc. But wassup with those baggy boxers bunching up between his t-shirt and pants? That's helluva lot of fabric there so you have to wonder how big his boxers are...