Streetbeat, Vol. XXII
E-bikes, collective action on streets, and hope for our traffic safety problem.
Oof, what a month.
The overwhelming sense of hopeful dread coming out of COP26 in Glasgow. The anxious applause for action from Washington. The feeling of stasis with the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict. A seemingly never-ending global pandemic. And, in many places, the holiday season.
I don’t know about you, humble reader/traveller, but I am tired. Maybe it’s a reflection of world events or the new 4:30pm sunset, but work itself has taken on a new glaze of burnout that has been hard to shake this month. And personally, I haven’t looked forward to time off this much in years. (On that note: Thanksgiving in Texas with my parter’s family was a great success.)
Feelings aside, I want to briefly talk through the INVEST in America Act, which is the official name for the infrastructure bill signed into law this month. Since it overlaps with so much I write about, and, also, I get asked about it often.
Was it a perfect bill? Of course not. Roads are getting way more than public transit at a moment of climate crisis, and $1.2 trillion just barely scratches the surface of what’s needed. (Although more could be coming in the Build Back Better Act, its more complex sequel.) Then add in the worries about squandering it all, and sure, the picture isn’t rosy. But everyone should know by now that ‘perfect’ and ‘politics’ are never in the same sentence.
Do I think it’s good at all? Absolutely. For one major reason: our social contract. Optimism in anything is in short supply these days, and so many Americans haven’t seen their government invest or act like this in their lifetimes. Coming out of the pandemic, at a time when democracy itself feels weak—our economic lives, similarly tenuous—that, to me, is a big deal.
I’ll have much more to say in the coming weeks, but for now, the good stuff:
The e-bike revolution
I’m not sure when, but at some point recently, e-bikes were suddenly everywhere I looked. Not only was I seeing them on streets and riding one myself, thanks to Citi Bike (see above), but I kept hearing stories of friends and family members who had donned an electrified two-wheeler. And, subsequently, they were floored by it. Hundreds of people on Twitter then proceeded to tell me the same.
The numbers match it. You wouldn’t know it from our discourse but at the current moment, e-bikes—not cars—are the best-selling electric vehicles (EVs) on the planet. And should that trend (likely) continue, it could transform the way we travel, calling into question the half of all car trips that are typically under three miles. That, to me, is the real potential of e-bikes, more than just talk of them being sweat-free and fun, which dominate news clips.
This month, I was invited to write about the phenomenon for The New York Times’ “Future of Transportation” series. The piece was republished in the Seattle Times, and referenced on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update.” (Thank you, Michael Che!) I also spoke to Portland’s Electric Bikes for All group about the reporting, as talks continue over the Build Back Better Act, which would extend subsidies and pre-tax dollar qualifications to e-bikes.
But watch this space! I have another installment coming next month.
And we’re live!
It was certainly not intentional that ‘End of the Line’ had its world premiere during the actual Infrastructure Week, but here we are.
Real talk, though: it was a truly special moment in my career to attend the world premiere at DOCNYC with my dad, the great Phil Clarke Hill from London (who filmed the Byford interview) and his lovely partner to see the tireless work Emmett, Ian and the whole crew put into this remarkably prevalent documentary about the rise, fall and (hopeful) return of New York City’s transit systems over the years. And yes: it was very weird seeing myself on the big screen; I’m still getting over how many times my hair has changed since 2017.
If you haven’t seen the doc yet, follow End of the Line’s Instagram for more details. Know of other places where it can/should be shown? Give me a shout!
I made mention last month of my Bloomberg CityLab piece on Downtown Brooklyn’s emerging plan to go (almost) entirely car-free—one of the most ambitious, surely, in an American city, and a lasting imprint from the pandemic, which has forced downtowns to rethink their basic ingredients of appeal. On that note, I was delighted to moderate a NYCxDESIGN panel with Regina Myer (Downtown Brooklyn Partnership), Claire Weisz (WXY) and Kate Cella (Bjarke Ingels Group). We spoke about the plan, adapting to changing times, and what this next year looks like for New York’s streets.
Watch it here.
An Open Streets market
Something that’s mentioned less in conversations around our changing streets is economic potential. We know, for example, that pedestrians and cyclists spend way more than parking spots—I’ve mentioned this in previous newsletters—which bolsters advocates’ case for bike corrals, outdoor parklets, and other people-focused spaces. But another mechanism here is putting small businesses on the map by giving them space to sell that’s otherwise cost-prohibitive in increasingly expensive cities.
So instead of high rent, entrepreneurs can use… well, the street.
That was the thinking behind the upcoming holiday market at my local Open Streets, which I’ve been involved in organizing. Thus far, we’ve had fifty (!) vendors sign up from our interest form, with an incredible diversity of options and representation unfolding quite naturally. The entry fee is low, doubling as a donation to the great folks at the Astoria Food Pantry. Hopefully, every year, the street is seen as a place where not just driving and parking can happen.
Live in the area and want to get involved? Email us here.
Solutions Corner: Build Your Block
One idea I think about often is Donald Shoup’s ‘Parking Benefit Districts.’
In his seminal text The High Cost of Free Parking, Shoup, a UCLA professor, pitches this scheme where, essentially, neighbors collectively decide how to spend parking meter revenue in their community. Think new trees and planters; filling in potholes and cracked pavements; or installing bike racks. Like participatory budgeting, you get to decide how to spend your money.
For me, what stands out most is the social connectivity that a concept like this could generate. A key issue facing infrastructure in 2021 is our feeling of detachment from its shared benefits. Folks grumble about any fees levied by government (towns, cities, counties, states, federal), but when they can tangibly see those benefits—and even control what those are—it could have a lasting impact on community engagement. And, in turn, help beautify the neighborhood.
That’s what came to mind when Jackson Chabot of Open Plans—a Streetbeat regular at this point—told me about Building Blocks, a new iterative design concept that his organization is pitching to New York City’s borough presidents, who have a small capital budget and team to work with.
The problem they identify is the following: people don’t know how to interact with their streets. This is something I’ve grown keenly aware of myself, both through reporting (asking people how they’d change the streetscape is often met with shrugs) and volunteer efforts (i.e. Open Streets, street trees). Processes do exist to get involved, but they’re not made clear to residents, who may desire certain changes as an ends, but are unsure of the means to get there.
What Open Plans propose is a pilot program where neighbors on a specific block learn—and then implement—what’s possible. The process would last about a year: the borough president’s office would first meet with residents, where options would be presented: curb extensions, bike corrals, ‘shared streets,’ daylit corners, loading zones, and other measures that could add to the block’s character. After a walk-through, the local community would create, vet and vote on a proposal. It would then be implemented and fully maintained, with space for ongoing discussions and improvement.
Ideally, it would be the start of rethinking a block. The budget is small (around $5,000 per block, with funds set aside for childcare at meetings), but the ultimate goal is connecting people to their neighborhood. A problem deeply ingrained in the contemporary city is this transitory nature, which we can attribute to a lot of things: highly vulnerable rentals, the fluidity of the job market, technology’s isolating effect, etc. This doesn’t address those heady concepts, of course, but it gives residents a reason to stay—and invest—in a place.
Bright Side: (Finally) Combatting Traffic Violence
In honor of this month’s World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims, which memorializes those lost to the normalized epidemic of traffic crashes (I’m sure we all know our fair share), I’d like to dedicate this month’s ‘Bright Side’ to what feels like a hopeful turn for the safe streets movement.
The U.S. is at a wave crest moment—traffic deaths haven’t been this high in years, as ‘Vision Zero’ efforts in cities to tame cars inevitably failed when put against the pandemic-era spike in reckless driving. (More on that next month.) It’s likely that 2021 will be a historic year for death, and not just by virus.
So, what next? Where do policymakers go from here?
Well, good news is that the closest we’ve ever gotten to a national traffic safety vision will emerge from the infrastructure bill. The money pales—and, I mean, pales—in comparison to how much road-building is getting. But the idea is that it’ll build momentum for a long-lasting movement to finally address the scourge in a pragmatic way. (Secretary Pete’s words encouraged advocates as well.)
That said, here are just a few highlights of what’s coming down the pike:
An additional $200 million a year for Vision Zero initiatives nationwide;
$1.4 billion a year for bike lanes, sidewalks, and other active infrastructure;
Improved standards for crash reporting data;
Drunk driving sensors and updated headlamp standards for new cars;
Essentially warning labels about pedestrian harm at point of purchase;
Check out the full list of policies from Streetsblog here.
Parklet of the Month: November 2021 Edition
Name: AWOL Bar & Grill (Manhattan, NYC);
What: Streatery with space for bikes;
FKA: 2-3 cars.
What are wedges, you might ask?
Wedges are the bit of street space left over by outdoor dining that aren’t big enough for a parked car (in theory), typically found in between structures or right before the crosswalk. More recently, I’ve seen them take on more informal uses—some restaurants put cones, barricades, or planters in wedges to help prevent cars from damaging their structures, while others allow delivery couriers to hang out with e-mopeds or e-bikes. Another turned it into a bar counter. But I think it’s time for a citywide wedge plan. How can we best utilize these slivers of space, and maybe achieve some policy goals in the process?
Got a parklet you want to give a shout-out to? Submit it here.
Streetbeat Gig Board
Publications Director, NYU Journalism. Come work with me at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, where we’re currently looking for someone to really lead on publicizing and promoting the stream of great writing coming from students and faculty alike. Apply here. (I’ll be around all spring and summer! Do shout if you have any questions.)
I was told that my newsletter didn’t have enough content of our cat. So, I addressed that here.