It's Time to Take Back the Streets and to Make Our Sidewalks Grand Again

CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter/ Seventh Avenue

Riding a Citibike in New York City can be scary, especially in rush hour. I was in the city recently for a conference and dealing with the trucks and big black cars was hard enough, but the hardest part was riding down Seventh Ave and dealing with people walking in the street. It was clear that they were there because the sidewalks are just too crowded to cope.

Winnie Hu of the New York Times covered the subject recently, in New York's sidewalks are so packed, that pedestrians are taking to the streets.

The problem is particularly acute in Manhattan. Around Penn Station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal, two of the city’s main transit hubs, commuters clutching coffee cups and briefcases squeeze by one another during the morning and evening rushes. Throngs of shoppers and visitors sometimes bring swaths of Lower Manhattan to a standstill, prompting some local residents to cite clogged sidewalks as their biggest problem in a recent community survey.
She describes what people are doing simply to get to where they have to go:
Veteran pedestrians have tried to adapt. They shoulder their way into bike lanes or walk purposefully on the street alongside cars — eyes ahead, earphones in — forming a de facto express lane. They move en masse along Seventh and Eighth Avenues like a storm system on a weather map, heading north in the mornings and south in the evenings.

But it is not just New York, it is every successful city. In a post earlier this year, Walking is transportation too, I noted some statistics:

About 107.4 million Americans use walking as a regular mode of travel. This translates to approximately 51 percent of the traveling public. On average, these 107.4 million people used walking for transportation (as opposed to for recreation) three days per week....Walking trips also accounted for 4.9 percent of all trips to school and church and 11.4 percent of shopping and service trips.
Lexington before and after

© John Massengale

But people can be squeezed and cars can’t, so the sidewalks were removed, as shown in John Massengale’s great photo comparison of Lexington Avenue. Streetsblog points to a 2009 article in the Times describe similar changes to 5th Avenue:

5th avenue 1909

© New York Times archives

The New York Times ran an extensive article on June 27, 1909, on how Fifth Avenue — then effectively only one lane of traffic in each direction — lost seven and a half feet of sidewalk on each side and gained an extra lane of roadway in each direction from 25th to 47th Streets. Stoops, gardens, courtyards — all had to be refashioned for the asphalt. Big losses were suffered by a number of churches, and by the Waldorf Hotel, which had a 15-foot-wide sunken garden. Until then, Fifth Avenue had glorious 30-foot-wide sidewalks.
“Nineteenth-century planners saw our streets as promenades, and many sidewalks were twice as wide as they are today,” said Wiley Norvell of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy organization.

On Streetsblog, Ben Fried calls for change. "What New York needs now is to take entire lanes reserved for motor vehicles in Midtown and repurpose them for wider sidewalks."


Taras Grescoe/Screen capture

He's right; the cars have dominated our roads for a century and it's enough already. As Taras Grescoe notes, we need a little more 19th century transportation (including walking). Perhaps it is time for some more 19th century planning, and making our sidewalks promenades again.