Streetbeat, Vol. XXIIX
The e-bike effect, semester's end, and squad-ing up.
There is a gut punch so unique to America. And this month was full of ‘em.
About two weeks after Angela and I moved back to the United States from the United Kingdom in December 2020, a group of fascist insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol, and at least seven people died. This month, the day we returned from Angela’s delayed Oxford graduation, a gunman entered a school in Texas, her home state, and murdered 21 people—19 of whom were children. Just a week ago, a similar horror struck in my home state, up north in Buffalo. 10 died.
The moral arc of the universe bends towards justice, but sometimes it’s hard not to call bullshit. Are we progressing? Are we becoming a more just society? If so, what are the measures of success? Because it can feel so often like we’re being penned in by our own collective failures. This is the worst school shooting in a decade. America just passed one million deaths from COVID. Our carbon emissions are at record levels. There seems to be a general feeling that the bonds and cohesion that keep our social contract working are fraying.
A big part of the reason I yap on about cities so much is because they solve problems. They try to address gun violence. They try to contain pandemics. They try to cut our toll on the Earth. And from all of it, they try to come out anew—a stronger place; a more just society. They offer hope. And even if it doesn’t always work, even if we make tons of mistakes, cities do something—an action that seems so very un-American right now. What a shame that is.
Now, back to our regular broadcasting:
If you’ve read Streetbeat, then you’ve gathered that I’m obsessed with e-bikes. I ride them almost every day (thanks to Citi Bike), and seek them out wherever I go—this month, Lime allowed me to do this in D.C. and London. I gab about them to friends, and usually, if you spend 24 hours with me, you’re riding alongside by the end of the day. If I’m lucky, I might even convince you to get one yourself. (Currently at it with my dad for his 70th birthday. Happy V-Day, Big Vin!)
And that’s because, at their core, I think e-bikes will be a game-changer. When I interviewed riders for my feature on their popularity in The New York Times late last year, the experience they described was akin to driving a car for the first time—a major mobility milestone in modern life. It’s child-like exuberance met with speed. But most importantly, no other mode poses such potential to sub in for the short- and medium-length car trips that dominate our towns and cities.
In New York, I’ve been covering e-bikes since their legal battles back in 2018, which then paved the way for dockless experiments. That all feels like light years ago. This month’s premiere of Citi Bike’s silver bullet (which, if you’re visiting, do give a spin if you can find one) is a sure sign of this pandemic-fueled phenomenon, which shows no signs of slowing down.
So what now? I rode with Laura Fox, the GM of Citi Bike, and heard from a wide array of voices about what policymakers can do to safely, equitably encourage the wave. It’s the subject of my newest exclusive for Bloomberg CityLab + Green.
Not sure about you, humble reader, but I surprised myself by how overjoyed I was to see college graduations unfolding this month after two years’ slumber. Here’s a sentence that wouldn’t have made sense a few years ago: NYU made room for a triple-header at Yankee Stadium—the classes of 2020, 2021, and 2022, all under the same roof. (Thankfully, they got a beautiful day—and Dr. Taylor Swift.)
Most of the students in my Advanced Reporting class were there that day, and I couldn’t be more proud. Now, as honorary class dad, I’m going to embarrass them all by blowing up all the great capstones they wrote to get the journalism degree. That is 3,000 words of reported material about a major issue facing cities today—no easy feat! We’ve got stories about food waste and insecurity, cannabis tourism, climate adaptability, parks equity, and so much more. Check ‘em out!
(And if you know a pre-college or NYU student yourself, encourage them to take my first-ever summer course in July and August, which is all about how New York City is taking the climate crisis head on. Get ready for some field trips!)
I’ve gushed about End of the Line here before, so I’ll spare you. (Although seeing former New York City Transit chief Andy Byford—who now leads Transport for London—cut the ribbon this month on the Elizabeth Line with the Queen did make me ponder alternate universes.) Many of you asked where you could watch the documentary about New York City’s subway crisis after it premiered this last November at DOC NYC. And now, Streetbeat has your answer: on Apple TV and the iTunes Store starting June 14th!
You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you may even gain some faith in America! (But probably not.) Let me know what you think!
Beautify the Bikeway
Using this monthly missive to plug (sorry!) an upcoming street tree clean-up I’m organizing along the new two-way Crescent Street bike lane, which has changed the game for cycling in western Queens. NYC Parks will bring the mulch and supplies; volunteers should just bring water and good shoes. The short: we clean out the beds, fill them with some lovely soil, and then high-five in mid-air.
If you’re: a) in NYC on 06/25; b) love the planet; and c) wanna feel good about sprucing up our precious trees, come join me, your humble Super Steward!
OSA: The Die-Hards
I’ve been all over the place this month, which means I’ve had little time to help out with the day-of operations of the 31st Ave Open Street. But it hasn’t skipped a beat. As opposed to the last two seasons, when we were in a constant scramble to put out barricades and street furniture, this year is different. First, that’s due in large part to the Horticultural Society (The Hort), who’s now in charge of those baseline duties. Secondly, it’s a testament to the team- and trust-building that’s occurred, which is the theme of this month’s OSA.
I’m reminded here of a numerical range advocates use for gauging the support of elected officials, which, as a volunteer group, we’ve deployed as well. It goes from 1-10. The first bit (1-3) are what I’ll call the ‘uncompromisables’, or the folks who will never see eye-to-eye with you. The second bunch (4-7) are the people on the fence; they’re interested but could go either way, depending on what they see working for them. And the last bit (8-10) are your ‘die-hards’. This is your squad; the people who will go to bat for you because they truly believe in the cause, and want to make it a reality.
After a year of drumming up support for the Open Street, we still see the full range. But thankfully, the 1-3’s and the 8-10’s have become much more clear.
We know the programmers who will always be out there on our behalf—a special shout-out to The Rolling Library, who’s filling Sundays this month with free book fairs and clubs; Dave’s Lesbian Bar, the OG OS mega party-thrower; and Tikkun BBQ, whose equipment and funds help the street happen. (And of course, all the newcomers—we love you, too.) And we know our own: we’re attracting scores of volunteers each week, and while many come and go, a core group emerges to take on social media, business liaison, outreach, and everything else that makes this wild experiment work each weekend
But that assurance took a proof of concept. Yes, we made some concessions (we trimmed hours, blocks, and the season length), but we also fine-tuned the product: eight hours on Saturday and Sunday for community-driven events and activities. And we’re constantly learning: who’s best for what; how to effectively collaborate and communicate; how to handle varying personalities. But for a dynamic space to form, it takes an entire community, or collective, behind it.
P.S. I just started a sponsor drive for The Connected Chef, which operates its weekly Urban Farm Stand every Saturday on the street. They’ve been such great partners (newcomers!), and we all believe it’s the start of something big in the community. So if you’d like to support their Lifeline Groceries program—which offers fresh food to families in need across Queens—join the team here.
City in Spotlight: St. Louis, Missouri
I had never been to the famed ‘Gateway to the West’ before this month, so I was excited to visit for the Spring Urban Parks Roundtable on behalf of Central Park Conservancy. The Institute for Urban Parks team made the two days’ discussion on equitable parks development beyond engaging; we talked about community engagement, ownership, and what happens when boards or staff don’t want to answer tough questions around race and class. In other words: conversations that everyone should be having right now.
St. Louis has its wounds. We stayed across the street from the Old Courthouse, where the 1857 Dred Scott decision—where the Supreme Court denied a Black man his freedom, thus precipitating the Civil War—was made. The city is bifurcated by skin color; the notorious ‘Delmar Divide,’ along the east-west Delmar Boulevard, cuts the city in half. The county is home to Ferguson Township, where Michael Brown was murdered in 2014—a match point for the Black Lives Matter movement. And the downtown is quiet on a good day, putting the city’s depopulation, now coupled with the pull of remote work, on full display.
That was the backdrop when we heard from partners at Tower Grove Park, Forest Park Forever, and Gateway Arch Park Foundation, who are doing outstanding work driving equity through their projects and processes. Tower Grove is helping restore an old stream with input from the Osage Nation; Forest Park Forever created an accessible playground for children of all disabilities (and did more than just build a ramp); and Gateway Arch recently decked over the interstate to make a park that is more accessible to non-car users.
But I want to specifically highlight Great Rivers Greenways. A voter referendum created this new intergovernmental unit, whose mission is to “reknit” the city through greenways, many of which are federally funded. Their greatest vision is The Brickline, a multi-piece, multi-year project that will add green corridors for cycling and walking to connect segregated neighborhoods; flip old train lines into vertical parks; and try to restore dignity to communities like Mill Creek, a neighborhood razed for ‘urban renewal’ like so many other Black and Brown communities in the 1950s and 1960s. The vision is still contained to flashy architectural renderings but the team has done impressive groundwork, speaking with neighbors for years about what they’d want to see after years of being told here’s what you’re going to get. Construction starts next year.
Change of Scene
The Solutions Corner section has been tough for me to write, as I’ve either published my own research or simply rehashed someone’s else. It didn’t feel genuine to me, so I’ve decided to close out this section, and instead, weave solutions throughout this newsletter. Which I’d like to think I do already!
If you’d like to read previous Solutions Corners, check out the archive—there’s plenty to sift through.
Bright Side: Transit-Oriented Developer
If you’re a transit lover like me, then you know the big news this month was the opening of the Elizabeth Line, or Crossrail, the most monumental addition to London’s transport network in decades. (I’ll let my colleagues at Bloomberg explain why it’s so neat.) But another story went under the radar, which is equally as exciting: Transport for London (TfL)—the agency that oversees trains, trams, bikeshare and buses in the Big Smoke—is becoming a property developer.
Think about it: transit agencies own huge swaths of land. And if they build new stations, their footprint expands even further. TfL has always had its traditional holdings: they own 1,000 retail units at stations, and 850 arches (which we love). But now, they’re moving in an entirely new direction. They started with developing 600,000 square feet of offices, and now they’re looking at adding 20,000 homes (half affordable) as well. All above growing hubs.
TfL isn’t the first to do this. Hong Kong Metro is perhaps the most cited example—the transit agency essentially built the condos and offices above each station, and then continued to grow its network from there. New York’s MTA has entertained the idea, too. (I reported on this for CityLab a while back). But the idea picked up new steam during COVID, when TfL’s finances were thrown into disarray. Tenants mean residual income and ridership, and both mean more predictability. Not a bad formula the post-COVID landscape.
Parklet of the Month, May 2022 Edition
Name: Ch-An BONBON (Manhattan, New York)
What: A terrace.
FKA: An unshaded (hotter) piece of tar.
As we hit record temperatures in May, I recently read that if we increased NYC’s tree canopy by just ten percent, heat-related deaths would come down by about 3,800, and the city would gain $31.5 billion in economic value. (A reminder, courtesy of NYT: how heat affects you correlates with the size of your wallet.)
Reigniting the Million Trees Initiative seems like a no-brainer in an age of climate crisis, but why not consider parklets as potential tools to help here? One of my favorite consequences of the Open Restaurants program in New York is how much new shade there is now on sidewalks. This lovely spot I passed on East 9th Street reminded me. Check it out.
Want to shout out a parklet where you live? Submit yours here.
Streetbeat Gig Board
A reader-led space to post jobs and opportunities for Streetbeat readers.
Streetsblog, the news outfit covering safe streets and active mobility, is seeking a general reporter to add to their growing team.
New York City’s Department of City Planning, who is helping with the permanent Open Restaurants program and other public realm work, is hiring a computational urban designer.
OpenPlans, a longtime friend of Streetbeat, is now looking for an organizational growth and operations associate.
Street Light, which does all sorts of neat work with mobility data, has a posting out for an account executive.
Have a job to post? Submit it here.