By Barry Benepe

“A city should be built to the convenience and satisfaction of those that live in it and to the great surprise of strangers,” so said a sixteenth century architect. “We have to improve the experience of all who walk around our city,” echoed City Council President Corey Johnson who initiated and shepherded through to passage the Streets Master Plan establishing a five-year integrated plan for bicycle, bus, vehicle, ferry, and pedestrian infrastructure.

The city has been progressing in building and protecting an environment that will be safe and suitable over many years for those of us on foot. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia instituted Play Streets, closing streets in residential neighborhoods where kids could safely play stick ball. Mayor John Lindsay arranged for periodic closings of Madison Avenue where a sea of shiny metal cars was replaced by a street of brown fuzz, the bare heads of the men in the hatless Kennedy years. Sixth Avenue has been car-free on Earth Day. Block associations have obtained street activity permits for block parties and street fairs. Farmers markets have done the same.

Mayor Edward I. Koch made giant steps forward in appointing Ross Sandler as Commissioner of Transportation who assigned his deputy David Gurin the job of widening sidewalks and converting underutilized road space to pedestrian space, though these capital improvements were slow and expensive. Nassau Street has been closed at Christmas/Chanukah, bringing throngs of shoppers to the area. Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed the brilliant and visionary Janette Sadik-Khan as Transportation Commissioner who brought multiple colors to road surfaces by creating seating areas, pop-up cafes, and pop-up parks to replace parked cars. She also made great strides by creating safe curb-side bike lanes which have been added to by current Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation Polly Trottenberg. These lanes not only make cycling safer, but increase pedestrian safety by reducing the number of traffic lanes to cross and giving jay-walkers a better view of oncoming cars.

Broadway and 17th Street showing a portion of the street painted, landscaped and furnished as an outdoor cafe by then Commissioner of Transportation Janette Sadik-Khan under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Photo by Barry Benepe.

Corey Johnson’s master plan to create livable streets acknowledges and builds on these accomplishments. Reporting that “injuries to all street users on Ninth Avenue decreased by 58% when the DOT installed pedestrian islands, protected bike lanes, and instituted split-phase traffic signal design,” the plan recommends the expansion of these initiatives. Asked what his earliest experiences of the city which led him in this direction were, Johnson responded, “I’ve never owned a car. I always experienced the city as a pedestrian. I walked from one LGBTQ landmark to another, wanting to experience the places where my own coming out was made possible by previous generations of activists, to be able to do that walking on my own two feet, to walk the same ground. We have to improve the experience of all who walk around the city. We know that people love pedestrian spaces and we will be hard at work identifying areas where we can create some new ones. Passing this bill has been a great step forward in claiming space for pedestrians.”

Charles Montgomery, who was featured in the 2014’s second issue of Reclaim magazine, published by Transportation Alternatives, said, “The way we design our streets, our public spaces and our transportation systems influences how we feel, how we behave, and how we treat other people in ways that most of us never realize.” The recently passed Streets Master Plan is a gateway to realizing that vision.

Mr. Benepe is the author of “Pedestrian in the City” published by the ENO Traffic Quarterly in 1965 and, subsequently, in three languages, by the International Federation of Housing and Planning.

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