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Transforming New York’s Streets – lessons for Auckland?

Here’s a great video of New York City transport commission Janette Sadik-Khan, talking about the transformation of many streets within New York City over the past few years to be much friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists:

Perhaps the best suggestion she highlights are the benefits from changing streets quickly, cheaply and in a way that can be reversible if it doesn’t work. While Auckland’s shared spaces are fantastic, they take an awfully long time to implement and are pretty expensive. It would be great to see some quick improvements using paint, moveable chairs and other reversible approaches.

For a start, how about closing off the section of Queen Street between Wellesley and Victoria to anything but buses – narrow the street down to half its current width and then cover the pedestrianised half with paint, moveable furniture and a few umbrellas for shade? It’d be great for the upcoming summer.

And a question I keep asking myself, who’s going to be Auckland’s Janette Sadik-Khan?

18 comments to Transforming New York’s Streets – lessons for Auckland?

  • Fred

    Imagine if she was CEO of Auckland Transport? How different things would be….

  • Bryce P

    More to the point, why aren’t we already doing this? I’d put my hand up for the role but I a) have no formal qualifications and b) haven’t worn a skirt since sometime in the mid 90′s at the ‘Podium’ bar on the ‘shore. (free drinks after 10 if you were in a skirt

  • Dan

    NZTA’s requirement for Temporary Traffic Management Plans is one reason why AT are reluctant to experiment with temporary (even one-off) closures. Over-sensitivity to local grousing is another. The willingness to experiment starts at the top. AT’s board of directors is simply not interested if there’s potential to cause even perceived conflict with motor traffic.

  • Ben S

    This is awesome – like rapid prototyping for urban movement. Love the image of the NYC Transport Commissioner going down to Walmart and buying lawn chairs for Times Square – and igniting a revolution. Now imagine how many committees, consultants… how much red tape, bureaucracy, petty squabbling and ‘public consultation’ there’d be before change like this could happen in AKL (hello Draft Ponsonby Masterplan – yawn!).

  • I have a post coming on this peculiarly Auckland inertia….

  • Having seen and read a little about NY’s experience, it occurs to me there are four key elements to making this kind of so-called “green paint” intervention work.

    First, be prepared to measure the right data (not just traffic engineering quantities, but also marketing type terms like neighbour satisfaction, retail activity, etc). And collect them at a fine grained level around the project, so you get quick feedback to test changes with.

    Second, know your basic trade-off. Your intervention is limited in time, meaning users, neighbours and objectors in the community get to try before they buy, so your barrier to consent is eased. Your materials and construction can forgo finish, polish and some structural work, so the capital cost is very low (and you can more easily get approval from within an agency). Being lightweight means it is flexible and can be evolved as you go, which help because there will be high upkeep costs compared to fixed, passive infrastructure. However, you must preserve the intervention’s primary functional nature, its features, geometry, scale and extent. You’re giving up permanence and polish (at first), never viability and operational completeness. While the temporary intervention is available, most people need to be able to give you feedback as if it was serious, fixed infrastructure. (Elsewhere, this is known as a “minimum viable product”.)

    Third, the success of the project depends on iterating rapidly. You need to be testing variants, constantly evolving the installation, setting up and tearing down as needed to keep it alive for long enough to get results. It needs hand-holding, monitoring and curating to the end, not paint and walk away. If successful, the final cycle should conclude with an upgrade to the intervention, making it permanent and formal. Or else it should be rolled back to more or less how it used to be (or whatever the community settles for), just as you guaranteed at the start to get them to consent to a trial. Green paint does not make for good permanent infrastructure.

    Fourth, the community, including residents and businesses, should be an active part of the process. From the start, the planned outcomes should be made clear and guaranteed (i.e. upgrade or rollback). The results of any ongoing measurements should be shared. And any changes or new initiatives should be open to community involvement. You don’t just want their buy-in for the long term, you want them to “own” their streets and public spaces, once they see that they like it.

    So this is really about finding a way to build trust with local communities, working around their natural resistance to change (as well as the inertia inside a public agency), using a technique resembling a marketing product demonstration. It isn’t a way of scientifically discovering whether parks or cycle lanes are any good, or if they will harm or benefit retails, etc (those things are well proven).

    Stepping back a bit, yes, this agenda needs to be pushed. I don’t think it needs to be a JSK-shaped person, though. The key to the NY strategy is adapting to local context — which they did using Jan Gehl’s precedent. I think an Auckland solution will be a little different — it could be an individual or a nameless ad hoc group, within a public agency or without, having a transport-specific interest or not… who knows. One thing is for sure, I’m not keen on waiting for Commissioner Right to turn up!

  • I have had the incredible fortune of chatting with Ms Sadik-Khan in May. She was wearing a bike helmet and was about to ride the 5 Boro Tour, which is one thing — but the main thing that came through was the focus on “streets are for people, not just cars” — powered by this willingness to prove things, and prove them *fast*.

    Same thing Paul Steely White explained when he was over: put some planters out and see what happens. If it’s detrimental, take them away. If it’s not detrimental (and it almost never is), then build the facility properly — or leave the planters there and invest the money on more planters elsewhere, instead.

    I’m typing this as I work in an office overlooking the Victoria tunnel & flyover, which is mostly empty right now (noon, Saturday) but was jam-packed both ways at 6pm last night. Traffic and people’s behaviour around roads is so damned dynamic that closing off a lane here or there simply won’t break the entire system. People acting like traffic is a non-compressible fluid make me grumpy — especially when there’s data. For example? Swapping a lane on Prospect Park West from cars to a cycleway has had almost no effect on *car numbers* using the road, but has *increased the number of people*: moving from four lanes to three means the same number of cars per hour, slower but closer together — but as well as the same number of people in cars, there are now plenty of people on bikes too. Imagine that.

    And who will be our Janette Sadik-Khan? Easy. Steven Town as our new CEO and Lester Levy as Chair of AT just have to start acting like our streets are for people, not just cars.

    I’m excited. Are you?

    • As Patrick was saying to me yesterday, it sometimes feels like we are in the dark before dawn at the moment. There are probably a few more nightmares to come yet but then we should start to see some real improvement.

  • Have we given up on Len Brown making a real difference to Auckland? Or do we feel that he has given up, because all he is concerned with is the preservation of his job?

    • The mayor is still talking the right way and setting the right sort of environment at the political level, but what we need is a transport czar on the operations side to really get the delivery rolling.

  • After watching this great talk and going along to Paul Steely White’s fabulous presentation last month I also asked the same question.
    I am feeling more hopeful with the appointment of Stephen Town as CEO but a big culture change is needed at Auckland Transport before we are really going to see a transformation of Auckland’s streets.

  • Frankone

    Was the new AC CEO not at Tauranga City Council for eight years or something….? That place sounds like it has some of the worst debt and transport/sprawl issues outside the big three cities.

    Looks like change at KiwiRail too:

    • Max

      He was, but we have heard he managed to do some good things there even in the dark days of the 90s and 00s – but no, he didn’t create the change we want to see. That needs a lot of factors to come together if you want to do more than doctor around the edges. JSK herself would have achieved nothing if not backed by a mayor who gave here the leeway to go for it.

      [We - Cycle Action Auckland - have found Stephen Town very good to work with during his time at NZTA here in Auckland. Again, he hasn't created a revolution, but he changed NZTA from a closed entity to one that has become massively more open to input from walking & cycling advocates, and he was one of the leading voices that made SkyPath possible to go as far as it has, compared to the previous "No way, Jose" attitude]

      • Yes I agree, we too here at the blog, have found the same thing and are excited about what we hope he will bring to the Council.

        We also hope that Tommy Parker, who we assume will take over for now at NZTA Ak, will at least continue Town’s quality of understanding that their work affects everyone, not just people when driving.

  • Brian

    Driver and cyclist behaviours and the negligible penalties for careless driving even when leading to the death of a someone (albeit a cyclist).

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