Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos

Why Walkability Matters

Eve Kessler

April 11, 2023

By redesigning street spaces, cities can enhance public safety

By redesigning street spaces, cities can enhance public safety

Call it the revenge of Jane Jacobs.

In Manhattan, the city has turned Broadway from 23rd to 21st streets into a “slow street,” forcing the motorists who used to whoosh by the Flatiron Building to move at 5 mph and share the road with walkers and bikers. 

In Brooklyn, business leaders launched an elaborate “public realm action plan” to extend the pedestrianized areas around the Fulton Mall even further into the surrounding downtown.

In Queens, residential 34th Avenue, which became an “open street” during the pandemic, now features five car-free blocks in what the city calls Paseo Park.

Some New Yorkers are calling for tearing down the crumbling Brooklyn–Queens Expressway, the Robert Moses–built transborough highway that epitomizes midcentury car culture, and the capping of another Moses project, the Cross Bronx Expressway. 

What’s happening? New York City’s streets are at a crossroads — literally.

The idea of people-centered streets is simple: Streets must be designed not only for safety, but also to promote civic connection and improve the quality of life.

In the last two decades, but especially since the pandemic, city residents have used the streets differently and more often — increasingly for recreation, dining, commerce and enjoying the arts. It’s an organic expression of the times, but also the product of decades of advocacy by urbanist and street-safety groups such as Transportation Alternatives, CHEKPEDS (Clinton Hell’s Kitchen Chelsea Coalition for Pedestrian Safety), Families for Safe Streets, Open Plans and others. 

As the safe-streets movement has advanced and cycling and micromobility have boomed, many New Yorkers have come to see vehicle crashes (“traffic violence,” in movement parlance) as similar to crime or pestilence — and have demanded an equally tough official response. The advocates first pushed the city to adopt the program of Vision Zero — joining the worldwide movement to eliminate traffic deaths through education, safer street design and tougher enforcement. More recently, they have sought to reverse the car-centered midcentury thrust of city planning, which sundered many old-line neighborhoods, and to replace it with “people-centered streets,” which seek to reconnect them. 

The idea of people-centered (sometimes called “liveable” or “walkable”) streets is simple: Streets must be designed not only for safety, but also to promote civic connection and improve the quality of life. It is also popular: In recent Regional Plan Association polling, a majority of New Yorkers expressed the desire for a reversal of the current apportionment of street space, in which 70% is dedicated to cars and 30% to pedestrians.

Mayor Adams, bowing to the people-centered streets movement, recently named safe-streets advocate Ya-Ting Liu as the city’s first chief public realm officer, with a mandate to coordinate public spaces “across city government, community organizations, and the private sector.”

Eyes on the Street

Jane Jacobs was the great popularizer of people-centered streets, of course. In her 1961 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” Jacobs argued that midcentury planners had sacrificed messy, vibrant city neighborhoods for highways, housing projects and grandiose cultural buildings — tearing the traditional fabric of cities under the guise of “urban renewal.” They removed the “eyes on the street” — shopkeepers, customers, window shoppers, kids playing — who maintained civic order by virtue of being present on streets day and night. The sheer size of the projects also made walking around them difficult and separated neighborhoods. By making it physically hard to reach one another, they discouraged community building and encouraged social anomie and crime. 

As New Yorkers dealt with the fallout of urban renewal, the notion of people-centered streets has gained a political constituency among two groups hurt by the ripping out of the old neighborhood downtowns: the business community (especially the business improvement districts) and small not-for-profits that seek to restore communities. Both groups have come to advocate for pedestrian-friendly streets and car-free plazas — the former for the “foot traffic” that drives commercial sales, the latter for public space for civic and cultural activities. Both want the enhanced security that comes from more “eyes on the street.” 

A majority of New Yorkers expressed the desire for a reversal of the current apportionment of street space, in which 70% is dedicated to cars and 30% to pedestrians.

Two examples: The Flatiron NoMad Partnership worked with the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) on a shared stretch of Broadway. And the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation pressed for and won a Black Lives Matter Plaza in Brooklyn.

The pandemic advanced the movement for people-centered streets in several ways. Volunteers (or, in some cases, business improvement districts) have run hundreds of “open streets,” creating car-free or car-light blocks for set hours during the day. And “open restaurants” claimed space in the public right-of-way, on an emergency basis, for more than 12,000 curbside dining establishments. (The city credits the initiative with saving the restaurant industry and 100,000 jobs.) Both are supported by supermajorities of New Yorkers. Some Open Streets are now enshrined in a permanent DOT program, while the City Council is close to finalizing a bill that would make the Open Restaurant program permanent, according to Speaker Adrienne Adams

The new movement of people into the streets has not only raised the number of “eyes on the street” by multiplying the number of people using our thoroughfares, but it also has promoted community building.

Business leaders, meanwhile, tout the benefits of walkability for people and profits.“Pedestrian-friendly streets that prioritize the health, safety and enjoyment of the people who use them are essential to vibrant communities and bustling commercial corridors,” James Mettham, the president of the Flatiron NoMad Partnership, wrote in an email. “In addition to enhancing the experiences of residents, employees, shoppers and visitors, they instill local stakeholders with a sense of pride and shared stewardship that further invigorates our city’s neighborhoods.”

Opposing Voices

Enhancing walkability typically involves restricting the speed and egress of cars and removing street parking spots in order to enhance pedestrian safety at intersections and to “open” many more streets. One popular method, so-called road diet, constricts the lanes given to cars. The evidence suggests that these and other “traffic calming” methods can reduce crashes and save lives

Nonetheless, these interventions are exceedingly unpopular with car users. Pro-car residents in the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan recently have brought a handful of (unsuccessful) lawsuits against DOT projects. Others have voiced their opposition at community boards, where car owners are well represented. During the pandemic, many New Yorkers eschewed public transportation and bought cars, creating a fresh constituency for street parking (or, as the activists call it, “government-subsidized free car storage”). 

Opponents argue that safety or transit improvements, especially those that remove parking, will inconvenience car drivers, hurt local businesses or depress property values (although evidence suggests that such treatments help businesses and raise property values). Some populists see it as a new kind of interference by central planners who don’t understand their neighborhoods.

A recent “road diet” plan for Hylan Boulevard in Staten Island prompted a vociferous reaction from local councilmember Joe Borelli. Borelli pronounced himself “100% opposed” to the city’s plan and objected to the inclusion of a bike lane in particular: “Thousands who use this road each day will be inconvenienced by DOT central staffers who couldn’t pick Tottenville Pool out on a map if I dared them, all for the benefit of 251 aspiring Greg LeMonds who cycle this stretch on the weekends.” He did not change his view even after a crash on the street killed three teens. 

Borelli is white and Republican, but such opposition crosses party and color lines. People in less dense, outer-borough neighborhoods rely more heavily on cars for transportation and thus on car-centric infrastructure such as wide streets and parking. 

Credit: NYC Department of Transportation. “Unity,” a pedestrian-only zone designed by Britney Lenzi in partnership with the DOT Public Space Unit and the Jerome Gun Hill Business Improvement District.

What Comes Next

Because New York, for reasons of history and geography, is the densest city in the nation, it ranks high on indexes of walkability and enjoys many economic advantages that accrue to such spaces. 

The Brookings Institution has measured the benefits of high-walkability cities, which it has dubbed “walkable urban places,” or WalkUPs. Brookings documented the economic success of walkable cities. Perhaps counterintuitively, “WalkUPs are also associated with positive indicators of social equity,” according to the Brookings researchers. 

While that’s good news, American cities still lag their European counterparts substantially when it comes to walkability. Many cities around the world began pedestrianizing their “old towns” decades ago. Helsinki and Oslo have eliminated pedestrian deaths.

The policies that create more walkable spaces around the world are far from popular here. As Bloomberg Businessweek recently described these policies, they boil down to “three simple reforms:

1. Stop requiring off-street parking for new developments. 

2. Price street parking according to market value, based on the desirability of the space, the time of day, and the number of open spots.

3. Spend that revenue on initiatives to better the surrounding neighborhoods.”

In New York, all of the above is still in the embryonic stage. While Hartford, Buffalo, San Francisco, South Bend and others have eliminated parking requirements for new development in recent years, Mayor Adams only on June 1, 2022, announced that he would reform city zoning in that direction. New York has 3 million parking spaces. This is some of the most valuable real estate on the planet, but most spaces are free. The city in recent decades has learned to extract value from its air rights, yet the fight to properly price its massively undervalued curbs has only just begun. And the battle over congestion pricing in New York, a measure that passed the legislature in 2019 but not yet put into effect in the streets, remains ongoing.

The city lost 255 people in traffic crashes in 2022 — an improvement over the 273 lives lost in 2021 but not great news overall. After the institution of Vision Zero in 2014, the city had experienced dropping traffic fatalities, from 299 deaths in 2013 to 206 in 2018, but the last several years saw a reversal. There have been more than 100,000 crashes each year in recent years, around 300 a day, or one about every five minutes.

While New York is a long way from becoming Helsinki, people-centered streets have become official policy. In 2019, progressive urbanists on the city council enacted the Streets Master Plan, which went into effect last year. The ambitious law seeks to establish many hundreds of miles of bike and bus lanes, cleaner sidewalks, more accessibility for disabled people, and the redesign for pedestrian safety of hundreds of intersections annually. 

Advocates say that Adams hasn’t funded the initiative adequately, and many think that the DOT is too inefficient and bureaucratic to execute it effectively. Moreover, DOT projects for the benefit of pedestrians, cyclists and bus riders will continue to meet pitched resistance from car owners and their allies, particularly via community boards. The battle for people-centered streets will have to be waged neighborhood by neighborhood and street by street.