What Is a City Street? And What Will It Become?

Hey, that’s my block! In 2030 or so. Maybe. Photo-Illustration: Street Plans Collaborative/Carly Clark, via Streetopia

The most essential designed component of New York is not a skyscraper or a station, but the street. That basic workhorse of public space carries people, freight, and vehicles on its surface; water, sewage, power, gas, steam, and data below. It is a complex but archaic machine — improvised, mistreated, and endlessly patched up. It needs an overhaul, and it needs one now.

Streets are not timeless blanks. They evolve as cities and societies do, shape-shifting as needed into outdoor sewers, open-air bazaars, ceremonial boulevards, freight arteries, instruments of government control, routes of leisure, and so on. These functions often collide and combine. Today’s New York is adapting to new pressures, as ever-denser pedestrian crowds and flocks of bikes cohabit with (mostly empty) Uber SUVs, parked food trucks, and delivery services rushing the books or boots or appliances you ordered yesterday online. Barring a calamity, those demands won’t ease. As the subway system continues to seize up thanks to neglect or reconstruction, and as driverless cars make their entry into the city, the chaos, at least in the short term, seems likely to increase. All of this requires a new set of decisions and designs, not just a let’s-see-how-it-all-works-out attitude. The street of the future should look nothing like today’s.

We use our streets in primitive ways. Every time an agency or a utility company needs access to the largely unmapped tangle of conduits, pipes, cables, sewers, tubes, transformers, and trenches, it dispatches men with jackhammers to tear up the surface and then put it back for the next team to rip up all over again. The asphalt’s impermeability means that storm water sheets toward the gutters or seeps into fissures, blocking drains and bursting into potholes. In winter, plows clear lanes for traffic — at pedestrians’ expense. Snow towers on sidewalks and at bus stops, leaving narrow goat paths that only the most athletic pedestrians can safely navigate and forcing the elderly or disabled to stay at home. By night, dozens of private waste-hauling companies swarm areas that are dense with stores and restaurants, so workers can fling leaky garbage bags into trucks. Long-distance truckers triple-park their semis in front of a drugstore to unload a few cartons of deodorant, then go snorting off to their next destination a few blocks away. And even though the network of roadways has been optimized for cars, drivers regularly find themselves unable to go forward, reverse course, or hop out and walk, so they sit in caged fury, pumping toxins into the air. Stop-and-don’t-go traffic is more than just a nuisance: The nonprofit think tank Partnership for New York City recently estimated the cost of hours spent festering behind the wheel at $20 billion a year.

In recent years, New York, like other cities around the world, has started to rethink its streets, fitting them out with bike lanes, corner curb cuts, and free Wi-Fi stations. But we’re still catching up, trying to refine 20th-century priorities without satisfying present needs, let alone planning for future ones. We should start with a few basic principles:

Driverless vehicles are coming, so let’s get ready. Rather than wait for car manufacturers and software engineers to set the agenda, cities should determine what they want technology to accomplish, and how. For cities, the great promise of autonomous vehicles, or AVs, is that they can form an efficient, ubiquitous fleet of taxis that can be summoned by app, don’t need to cruise, and need never park on the street. (They will also force tens of thousands of drivers to search for new professions.) Part of that future is already with us, and we are not handling it well. As app-based ride companies take over the streets, they jostle with plumbers’ vans, family cars, taxis, emergency vehicles, and so on, contributing to the streets’ sclerosis. Having given up the struggle to rein in Uber, New York could do what other cities already have: Designate protected lanes and entire streets for cabs and their equivalents. Hail-a-ride cars could plot separate itineraries, a privilege that riders would pay for with a small surcharge, and those routes could evolve into pathways for driverless cars. Over time, cities can create separate channels for different kinds of AVs, like local delivery carts, shuttles, and long-haul trucks. Cities should coax manufacturers to design vehicles for the complexities of urban environments, instead of holding our streets hostage to whatever products the companies feel they can sell. All those outsize, anti-urban Suburbans and Explorers now muscling through Manhattan make clear how dangerous it is to mismatch vehicles with the streets they ply.

Pay to park; pay to drive. The debate over whether people should pay to drive into New York’s heavily trafficked core is still mired in bad faith and archaic models. Mayor de Blasio believes that imposing tolls on East River crossings would discriminate against residents of Brooklyn and Queens; Governor Cuomo is all for congestion pricing, although he doesn’t want East River tolls, either, and says he is studying other ways to draw the map. In any case, charging a fixed entry fee is hardly a perfect solution. Sure, some drivers would think twice before crossing the notional border, but others — Uber’s army of freelancers, say — would amortize the expense by sticking to Manhattan as long as they can, making traffic potentially worse. Instead, we should be working toward a GPS-based system that puts a virtual taximeter in every vehicle and charges drivers for time spent and distance traveled in high-traffic hot spots in multiple boroughs, with fees varying according to time of day. You want to glide through midtown Manhattan at 4 a.m.? Knock yourself out. You plan to inch along Flatbush Avenue in Downtown Brooklyn at rush hour? The city will put that on your E-Z Pass tab.

Streets foster health and movement, not sickness and fear. Walking and breathing shouldn’t be dangerous. In the course of a generation, the danger of being mugged, stabbed, or shot has abated, leaving New Yorkers free to crave unpolluted streets they can cross without being accidentally crushed. Promoting electric cars through tax incentives and charging stations would improve air quality. Even more important, we need to abandon the belief that every vehicle should have access to every address at any time. Ever since Henry H. Bliss stepped off a streetcar on Central Park West in 1899 and was killed by a taxi, it’s been clear that when pedestrians share space with cars, they die on a regular basis. De Blasio’s Vision Zero program has made significant progress toward making those interactions safer. But pedestrians over 65 are hit at a disproportionately high rate, and the city’s aging population will only exacerbate the problem. Toll schemes may help reduce the number of vehicles in the city, but we can also do a more methodical job of separating cars from their potential victims.

Accepting those premises should lead to specific actions and a powerful sense of urgency. New York is lumbering in the right direction, its enthusiasm tempered by overcaution. In the last decade, New York has begun to carve out bike lanes and pedestrian plazas. Queens Boulevard, once the “Boulevard of Death,” has undergone life-saving surgery. Still, too many avenues consist of three columns of moving traffic and two parking lanes, with pedestrians shunted to overcrowded sidewalks. When designated lanes consist of nothing more than stripes of colored paint, rogue delivery trucks and parked police cars block them with impunity, so buses swing out into traffic and bikers have to negotiate a hazardous steeplechase. The city has an impressive arsenal of tools to rationalize this system, and it’s started to experiment with some of them. Raised curbs have vanished from parts of Times Square, alleviating pedestrians’ sense that they are relegated to a strip of pavement. Foot traffic drifts freely through a perimeter of slender bollards that will, however, stop a speeding truck. A raised and canted bike path dissuades pedestrians from wandering into it. All of these tools subliminally give people on foot sovereignty over their terrain, and they should quickly become ubiquitous.

Actually, I would go much further: Turn Broadway into a pedestrian and bike avenue from Bowling Green to Spuyten Duyvil, widen the Park Avenue medians into a true linear park, reserve some crosstown streets entirely for bicycles, and bar most vehicular traffic from many residential blocks, landscaping them into public greens with lanes for drop-offs and emergency vehicles. After snowfall, plow for bikes and pedestrians first. Gradually replace the asphalt crust with permeable pavers, and construct a network of underground cisterns so that heavy rains no longer drown the sewer system and pump raw effluvium into our waterways. These suggestions may seem radical, but they have been the status quo for decades in other cities. (Some are collected in the online exhibition Streetopia, mounted by the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives.)

Improving the streets also means demanding more from their users. Express buses should have their own physically separated lanes (as they do in, say, Jakarta) that can’t be choked by errant cars. Toronto has experimentally closed its car-clotted King Street to vehicles and turned it over to streetcars, which instantly benefited from higher ridership and quicker rides. If the city sacrificed some parking spots, as Buenos Aires does, the sanitation department could distribute closed trash bins that get hooked to trucks and lifted by motor instead of muscle. Borås, a small Swedish city so monstrously efficient that it recycles virtually everything, uses gas made from garbage to power its garbage trucks.

The delivery system could use some major modernization, too. Last year, two state agencies commissioned a report compiled by the architecture firm WXY, which proposed an extensive menu of ways to streamline the process of getting bok choy to restaurants and cat litter to pet shops. In place of the big-rig derby that now thunders through the city and clogs the streets, packages could flow through centralized sorting facilities and get distributed to smaller electric (eventually driverless) carts that bridge the last mile to your front door. Instead of confiscating electric bikes, as the NYPD has started doing at de Blasio’s behest, we should regulate and promote them.

All of these interventions have costs: short-term inconvenience, the pain of breaking habits, investing in new equipment. But think of the payoff: a city where kids can play in side streets, ambulances can respond efficiently to calls, the wheelchair-bound and visually impaired can navigate comfortably, and cycling is safe and appealing for people of all ages and genders. The effect of well-designed streets will be felt in three dimensions: good public spaces go hand in hand with better architecture, and streets that please pedestrians are good for storefront businesses, too.

In the 20th century, when vehicular traffic shaped urban design, optimizing streets was a process of constant trade-offs. A corner wide enough for a fire truck to maneuver is a terrifying one to cross with a stroller. Shortening drive times kills kids. Bus lanes crimp the flow of cars. The future street, though, will cut through those tensions. Cutting cars, easing travel, weaving nature through the cityscape, promoting good health, crafting technology, and creating a more vibrant city — these goals all reinforce each other, and are all eminently within reach.

Unless, of course, we decide that they enjoy gridlock and fumes too much to give them up.

Bloomberg, 2017, Taming the AV, 6 Core Insights

  1. There is a narrow window to shape the spread of AVs. Over the last 30 years, automakers and academics laid the foundations for the breakthroughs that are now upon us. AVs will spread slowly at first, but as costs fall in quick fashion, they will spread across the globe even faster than the automobile in the 20th century. Cities could fall behind in the blink of an eye.
  2. Automation is changing the automobile, mostly in ways that will help cities. Cities have long struggled with the car’s demands for space. But AVs can be designed for many more forms and functions, creating new opportunities to right-size vehicles for urban use.
  3. Automated highways are an obsolete vision of the future. Most AV pilots in the last decade focused on high-speed highways. But the AV’s future is in cities, where its biggest market demographics are concentrated. City driving will be a tough technical challenge but a far bigger commercial prize, increasing demand for real-world urban testbeds.
  4. AVs are a vital technology for enabling populations to age in place. By 2030, the world will be home to more than 1.4 billion people age 60 or over. As the spread of AVs reaches peak intensity in the 2030s, this group will shape the AV market. For cities, AVs will allow more people to age in place and stretch public spending on their well-being.
  5. Cities have an opportunity to focus private sector AV innovation on urban challenges. Both the tech industry and traditional automakers see great opportunities in cities, and the competition will be fierce. Cities can shape markets to focus private sector attention and investment on the needs of cities and the people who live in them by mobilizing infrastructure, talent, and other assets to support the right kinds of AV-based solutions.
  6. The implications of AVs will cut across every facet of government, society, and the economy. AVs promise significant improvements in urban transportation. But the full range of benefits and risks of cheap, automated mobility are yet to be fully understood. In order to maximize the good and minimize the bad, cities will need to tap many sources of expertise inside and outside of government.