“And tell me what street compares to Mott Street in July” — August

IF you don’t know this line from the Rodgers and Hart song Manhattan—you should (and here it is in a medley sung by Ella Fitzgerald that combines two Rodgers and Hart songs, Manhattan and I’ll Take Manhattan. I’m calling Mott today’s #StreetoftheDay because we’re having such fabulous weather in New York that you can’t walk down Mott without humming this song.

That seems to be the upside of climate change—we’ve been having a lot of beautiful days in spring, summer, and fall. Today’s temperature eventually climbed to 79•, but this is August, when brown, sticky days in the high 90s were historically common. And the humidity was only 35%, while there was hardly a cloud in the sky. We’ve had lots of days like this for years now, but with early, cold, and sometimes long winters. August is usually the worst time to be in New York, but not recently.

Mott 1
Mott 2
After the jump, more pictures of Mott Street (and a little history).
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Vote! The Cosmopolitans and #StreetoftheDay

The Cosmopolitans
I’VE watched all five of the Amazon Original Pilots this year. Two are dreadful, while The Cosmopolitans easily beats the other two. You can do your part for American culture in 2014 by voting for it to be one of the pilots Amazon funds for a full season of shows.

After the jump, a #StreetoftheDay from The Cosmopolitans:

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Ferguson, Missouri and the Cost of Sprawl

ENGINEER CHARLES MAROHN makes his usual insightful and interesting points in a post about Ferguson, Missouri on the Strong Towns blog (below). I happened to read the post just before reading an article in the Guardian that had many long quotes from Roger Scruton’s new book, The Soul of the World. I frequently disagree with Scruton, particularly when he’s talking about religion, but the quotes in the article are interesting. There’s one that I suspect Marohn would agree with, even though his (Marohn’s) points are mainly about money and economics.

“Everyone has a sense of desecration,” Scruton writes: “there are things everybody values which, when they are spoiled, are not just moved or destroyed, they are desecrated. Something that is vital not just to you but the world. People have this sense when they see their towns pulled apart and concrete blocks put in the middle of them.” That seems to apply to Ferguson too.

Marohn writes,

I’ve spent some time on Google looking at the area where the shooting took place and the QuikTrip that was the flashpoint for events that followed. While this is a fairly ubiquitous pattern of development here in the United States, there are some important things to note. What I see with Ferguson is a suburb deep into the decline phase of the Suburban Ponzi Scheme. The housing styles suggest predominantly 1950’s and 1960’s development. We’re past the first cycle of new (low debt and low taxes), through the second cycle of stagnation (holding on with debt and slowly increasing taxes) and now into predictable decline. There isn’t the community wealth to fix all this stuff — and there never was — so it is all slowly falling apart.

Decline isn’t a result of poverty. The converse is actually true: poverty is the result of decline. Once you understand that decline is baked into the process of building auto-oriented places, the poverty aspect of it becomes fairly predictable. The streets, the sidewalks, the houses and even the appliances were all built in the same time window. They all are going to go bad at roughly the same time. Because there is a delay of decades between when things are new and when they need to be fixed, maintaining stuff is not part of the initial financial equation. Cities are unprepared to fix things — the tax base just isn’t there — and so, to keep it all going, they try to get more easy growth while they take on lots of debt.

In 2013, Ferguson paid nearly $800,000 just in interest on its debt. By comparison, the city budgeted $25,000 for sidewalk repairs, $60,000 for replacing police handguns and $125,000 for updating their police cars. And, like I pointed out last week, Ferguson does what all other cities do and counts their infrastructure and other long-term obligations as assets, not only ignoring the future costs but actually pretending that the more infrastructure they build with borrowed money, the wealthier they become.


(full post here)

Posted in Architecture, Culture, Current, New Urbanism, Street Design, Urbanism | 1 Comment

Urban FedEx

A narrow, electric FedEx truck in SoHo, August 2014
A narrow, electric FedEx truck in SoHo, August 2014

THIS CITY-SIZED electric delivery truck is no longer made. Built by NaviStar (once known as International Harvester) with a grant from the Obama administration, it seems like exactly what our cities need to save energy and reduce pollution and congestion. Big Business prefers large trucks and one-way arterials to walkability and healthy people, cities, and climates. The experiment has been dropped, and Americans suffer.

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One of the Good Kind

Yardhouse, London, Assemble Architects
Assemble Architects, Yardhouse, London, UK
Yardhouse, London, Assemble Architects
Assemble Architects, Yardhouse, London, UK
Yardhouse, London, Assemble Architects
Assemble Architects, Yardhouse, London, UK
Yardhouse, London, Assemble Architects
Assemble Architects, Yardhouse, London, UK

A “social and collaborative work environment” in East London, built for £80,000. The architects clad the building with concrete tiles made on the site.

Rowan Moore, “Assemble: from pop-ups to grown-ups,” The Observer (5 July 2014).

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Maybe I was wrong: Pedestrians Gone Wild, The Movie

A few days ago I wrote,

Why? Because the pedestrians and cyclists are not killing the drivers: drivers going fast enough to kill any pedestrian they hit are causing one-hundred percent of the fatalities. If the drivers slowed down to truly safe speeds, they would hit few pedestrians (as we shall see), and kill almost none of them.

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Getting to Vision Zero

EIGHTY PERCENT of the residents of Manhattan don’t own a car. Most of the more than 45 million tourists who visited Manhattan last year didn’t bring a car with them. But even after all the positive changes on Manhattan streets during the Bloomberg administration, we still have auto-centric policies that only benefit a small number of people dominating the design of the public realm. The car is still king, and as long as it is, we will not get to the zero traffic deaths that Mayor DeBlasio has promised us.

Why? Because the pedestrians and cyclists are not killing the drivers: drivers going fast enough to kill any pedestrian they hit are causing one-hundred percent of the fatalities. If the drivers slowed down to truly safe speeds, they would hit few pedestrians (as we shall see), and kill almost none of them.

At the same time that the NYPD is putting 1,000 new police officers on the street to counteract a rise in murders and violence, 4 police officers were deployed today to ticket cyclists using a busy cycle track who didn’t stop and wait for the entire duration of long red lights on the Hudson River Greenway, even though for a good ninety percent of the time there were no vehicles crossing the cycle track. Riders stood astride their bikes in the hot sun, with no cars in sight, while policemen watched them to make sure they obeyed the law. Then the riders awkwardly started up again (the reason many states allow bike riders to use the rolling “Idaho Stop” is that it’s easier to go very slowly on a bike than to stop and restart).

The tickets are written in the name of safety, but it’s actually an old way of thinking that reflects a philosophy that accepts more than 35,000 traffic deaths in the US every year as the cost of keeping traffic flowing. The safety promoted by traffic engineers is part of an auto-centric paradigm that puts safety in a context in which it is understood that safety is balanced against allowing cars to go quickly and easily from here to there, without too many fenderbenders or deaths. That means that the free flow of the car comes before the convenience of pedestrians and cyclists.

The Swedish Vision Zero movement correctly points out that there are two ways to get to zero traffic deaths: separate the moving vehicles from the pedestrians, or, where cars and pedestrians can come into contact, slow the cars down. To that we can add that as long as we allow cars to legally drive outside the city at high speeds, we will have traffic deaths, no matter how many air bags are in the cars, or how far the pedestrians are from the roadway.

But our concern today is New York City, where getting to zero deaths requires that we fundamentally change the way we think about the city’s streets. Paris recently announced that with the exception of a few streets, all Parisian streets will have 30 kilometer per hour and 20 kilometer per hour speed limits—our equivalents would be 20 and 12 miles per hour. New York has taken the major and important step of changing the city speed limit to 25 mph, but that is probably just the first step in a process that will eventually make us more like Paris. That’s because a person hit by a car going 25 mph is still 10 times as likely to die as pedestrian hit by a vehicle going 15 mph. And, the driver going 15 miles per hour actually sees almost twice as much as a driver going just 25. Plus, the driver going more slowly also has more time to react, giving the slower scenario a triple advantage over the higher speed limit for saving lives.

The way to make places like the cycle track in the Greenway safe is to think about them differently than we have up until now. Instead of forcing everyone on the sidewalks and tracks to stop and wait during the long red-light cycle required for the left-turn process on the adjacent Joe DiMaggio Highway, the stoplights for the bicycle track and the pedestrian walk should give the advantage to the greatest number of people—the pedestrians and cyclists. The small number of drivers who want to cross to and from the highway should understand that when they cross they must go slowly enough that they won’t hit or hurt anyone. Experience in Europe shows that when cars and cyclists move at pedestrian speed, everyone can safely negotiate their way without accidents. One example is shown in the video of Seven Dials in London, seen below.

This seems strange to us, because we’ve all grown up in the age of the automobile. But in fact, this is what New York City streets used to be like, before what we sometimes call Organized Motordom realized that increasing car sales and oil sales depended on kicking pedestrians to the side of the road, so that cars could go faster (see the second video below).

The Bloomberg administration, and NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan in particular, began the process of turning this around when they reclaimed large chunks of roadway in places like Madison Square and Gansevoort Square for the pedestrian. Now that the DeBlasio administration has promised us Vision Zero—a wonderful pledge to reduce pedestrian fatalities in New York City to zero within ten years—it is time to build on that earlier work by expanding it to all places where the pedestrian and the cyclist should assume the privileged position previously given to King Car. Let’s stop ticketing cyclists on cycle tracks and transform the places where pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers have to share the road.

Seven Dials, London, ©2014 Ben Hamilton-Baillie. The cars, trucks, taxis, and tourists successfully manage mutual use of this shared space.

Broadway at Herald Square, New York, New York, 1907. Most of the pedestrians stay over on the sidewalk, but they feel comfortable stepping out into the street, which is also where they wait for the cable cars. Organized Motordom had not yet invented the term “jaywalker,” let alone pass legislation against it.

Babe Ruth and Harold Lloyd, Broadway Follies of 1927. We have met the enemy and he is us.

The difference between this 1927 video and the 1907 video is that drivers are demanding the right to go fast.

Posted in New Urbanism, New York, Pedestrian, Street Design, Urbanism, Video | 1 Comment

The 21st Century Will Be Different Than The 20th

We’re starting to see that people in the 21st century are rejecting many of the trends of the late 20th century. Just as architecture and urbanism in the second half of the 20th century were very different than they had been in the first half of the century, change is happening again. (One of those changes is dropping the ideological embrace of change for the sake of change.)

Here are a few Before & After word pairs. Please feel free to comment and suggest edits or additions.

UPDATE: I’ve made some changes in response to comments from the internet. Please keep them coming. Thanks.

Late 20th century

Early 21st century











Glass walls

Renewable materials





Machine made

Hand made

















Global market

Local economy

Constant growth

Smart Growth











Form giving

Place making



Streets for cars

Streets for people



Top-down planning

Tactical Urbanism


Slow Food

Big Pharma

Alternative medicine

Darwin / evolution

Neuroscience / mind body

Posted in Bicycle, Classical, Culture, Current, New Urbanism, Pedestrian, Street Design, Urbanism | 3 Comments

A Sidewalk Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

IN 1919, the car hadn’t yet conquered West 57th Street in Manhattan. Together, the sidewalks for the pedestrians were still significantly wider than the roadway, and the modern detritus of the traffic engineer was nowhere in sight.

West 57th Street in 1919, looking east towards 7th Avenue
West 57th Street in 1919, looking east towards 7th Avenue

MCNY image from “West 57th’s Hodgepodge Block,” by Christopher Gray

West 57th Street today, looking east towards 7th Avenue
West 57th Street today, looking east towards 7th Avenue

Also see Winslow Homer Walk, which would go next to the Vornado Building, the black tower in the After picture. You can download a PDF about Homer Walk here.

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Turn Lanes Are Anti-Pedestrian & Therefore Anti-Urban


A NEW YORK CITY MTA Bus almost ran me over this morning as I WALKED my bike in a crosswalk with a green light. Before he almost ran me over the driver honked at me, loudly, to tell me to get out of his way. And I repeat, I was walking in a crosswalk, with the walk light.

That’s what turn lanes and turn lights do. They give drivers the idea that they have a right to turn, without people getting in their way. And green turn lights and boldly marked turn lanes encourage drivers to go quickly and “take the lane,” because they are clearly in an environment set up for cars—just like in the suburbs. The bus was going at least 35 miles per hour, and so was a long stream of traffic behind him. If the bus had hit me while going 35 miles per hour, I would have almost certainly been dead. While walking with the light in a crosswalk, on an island where 80% of the people don’t own cars.

Earlier this morning, I was at the corner of Broadway and 56th Street and watched while pedestrians going both ways (across Broadway or crossing 56th Street) all had to wait after the turn light went green, giving drivers the go-ahead to turn left onto 56th Street. That should never happen in Manhattan.

FACT: There is an inverse relationship between a traffic engineer’s or DOT’s Level of Service (LOS) and the degree of walkability. That’s why in our petition to the US DOT we proposed a Walkable Index Number (WIN) for towns and cities instead of an auto-based Level of Service. WIN versus LOS equals walkability versus drivability.

Residents of Manhattan deserve better. So do all the tourists walking around the city. The only way Mayor DeBlasio’s Vision Zero pledge to reduce traffic fatalities in New York to zero will work will be to level the playing field and stop giving so much of the “space between the buildings” to the small number of people who drive in New York. Even the planet would be improved if we got over the idea that everyone has a God-given right to ignore the best transit system in America and drive into the city.

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“Buildings endure. Fashion rarely does.” (comment at the Design Observer)

THIS IS WORTH REPOSTING because it was through this post that I met my friend Robert LaValva, who founded and runs the New Amsterdam Market. I made the following comment at Design Observer in response to a post on the South Street Seaport that brought up the usual Disney comment (= Not Modernist). The Seaport is at the end of Fulton Street, a short walk from my office at the time:

MY OFFICE is at the corner of Fulton and Nassau streets. Sometimes at lunch I’ll walk over to the river and either on my way back or on my way to the river I’ll usually walk down Fulton. Each time, I’m struck by what a disaster Robert Moses’s urban removal on both sides of the Brooklyn Bridge was. It’s an enormous hole in a fabulous part of the city. Most of the massive postwar buildings from Water Street to the FDR Drive are almost as bad for the city.

The fact that you have to cross an architectural DMZ to get to the Seaport increases the Disney factor when you get there. But the difference between the poor urbanism of the Seaport and the bad urbanism of Mosesland and the buildings along Water Street is that the Seaport can get better over time, while the buildings in the urban removal section never will.

Urbanism always has to take time into account. You don’t like the stores and restaurants that are in the old seaport buildings this month? Wait a few years and they’ll be gone, replaced by something else. That’s true now more than ever, because the period of unprecedented spending we’ve been going through is over.

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