Seeing New York through European eyes reveals our flaws – streetsblog New York City
I moved from Europe to New York a month ago and I’m still getting used to the difference between things here. It’s not only the multitude of wonderful sandwich choices, but as a member of the Luxembourg City Mobility Commission I have also spent a lot of time looking at how infrastructure is moving New Yorkers.
There are a lot of recent developments in New York that I wish we had copied. To ambitiously cover the city with open streets was a great idea, and I understand why many of you want to make them permanent. Cities like Ghent do this on a much smaller scale, but they complement the streets with benches, playgrounds, and artificial turf. Outdoor seating for restaurants is common in Europe, but instead of just putting a few chairs and umbrellas on the sidewalk like we do, you’ve made it cozy and beautiful with cabanas. Don’t let anyone take them away.
Other differences are less inspiring. Not many people drive in New York City, and those who drive tend to hate it. So it is amazing how much capacity you reserve to move car traffic. A city’s public space is allocated as a budget, and you have chosen to spend most of yours on cars, at the expense of green spaces and pedestrians, bicycles, or public transport.
The 80 percent of Manhattan’s people who don’t own a car certainly can’t be happy with the situation? Car use increases with income – why are you voluntarily subsidizing the driving of the richest among you?
It’s not just about space: the one-way system is supposed to improve traffic flow, but it also makes the grid hostile to cyclists. Why are so few one-way streets cyclable in both directions? The majority of them are more than wide enough to make it even safer than in Brussels, where this is common.
I also wonder why street parking is so cheap here. Next to some of the most expensive real estate on the planet, you can park for cheap or even for free. As a result, it is extremely difficult to find a parking space as the spaces are too expensive. Like a line outside a Communist-era bakery where bread is cheap but scarce, driving New Yorkers line up for a parking spot. The many parking spaces where private cars are stored forever does not seem to be the best use of this space. Cities that manage to allocate their space differently not only make their streets more livable, profitable and quiet, but also allow more people to pass through them. Paris has just halved its number of parking spaces and asks residents what they want in their streets instead.
Like New York, European cities made the mistake of getting rid of their streetcar lines around the 1950s and replacing them with private cars and buses. But European cities are rebuilding these lines and reinventing the public space that surrounds them. The new trams in cities like Strasbourg are not the slow bone shakers of a century ago, but comfortable moving sidewalks that glide over lush carpets of grass. They are cheaper than subways, have greater capacity and have greater user satisfaction than buses.
In European cities, I used to cycle in most places. I was very surprised at the randomness and danger of New York’s cycle paths. The beautiful, protected lanes come to an abrupt halt and push you into traffic on a blind bend. No one likes to cycle between two lanes of traffic. Shared lanes are a nasty joke. Why isn’t there a lane on either side of every wide avenue? On avenues that have a lane, why are they dangerously built in both directions and on the left side? Do the people who plan and build these paths use them with their children? Tracks built to Dutch or Danish standards would only take a little more effort, but convince a lot more to ride a bike and put them away from those who have to drive.
Links to easily cross rivers by bike also seem to be lacking: if you’re lucky you get a steep climb over a bridge, and a narrow alley. I sent a video to friends in Europe of me cycling on RFK Bridge – I sent it to scare them. Rotterdam and Antwerp built tunnels for cyclists and pedestrians under the Meuse, which is similar to the East River. I understand that the Queens-Midtown tunnel is the legacy of Robert Moses, but nobody thought of adding a tube for people without a car?
Because of this poor infrastructure, New York cyclists tend to be daredevil young men like me. You don’t see parents taking their kids to school in cargo bikes like you do in Europe. It’s not because Europeans are smarter or greener: the cities there have also had to offer competitive, safe and convenient alternatives to traffic jams to convince people not to drive.
The biggest puzzle for me is why New Amsterdam doesn’t tap into this huge untapped potential to become a bit more like old Amsterdam.
Guillaume Rischard is on Twitter at @grischard.