Street Design Lessons from the Big Apple

As the Bloomberg administration completes its term in New York City, it’s a good time to reflect on the remarkable changes that have taken place over the last several years. Under outgoing Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, New York has undertaken nothing short of a renaissance in not only how its streets function, but how transportation is perceived by residents and visitors alike.

Recently the New York City Department of Transportation published “Making Safer Streets,” a synopsis of lessons learned as many of the city’s streets were reinvented. Although New York has many unique characteristics as compared to America’s smaller cities and towns, some of these lessons apply across the country. Here are a few points that resonated with me as being especially appropriate to the places where I’ve worked, large and small alike.

Data drives decisions. It’s one thing to estimate the safety (or other) benefits of transportation improvements. It’s another thing entirely to track those benefits in great detail to justify to policymakers that those improvements are sound investments. During the last seven years NYCDOT has taken great pains to perform before-and-after studies of each of its street design innovations to see what worked and what didn’t.

Complete streets are safer for everyone, including drivers. Some communities see significant focus on walking and bicycling as a “war on cars.” This is especially true if those projects involve reducing motor vehicle capacity or touching the proverbial third rail of urban street design, on-street parking. Data from NYCDOT show that’s simply not the case from a safety perspective.

The fundamental characteristic of the successful projects is that they create the opportunity for drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists to move through the street network simply and easily, minimizing the unexpected, the confusing, and the potential for surprises.

Return to first principles. As transportation professionals, we often rely on toolboxes of safety countermeasures to fix typical problems. Sometimes it’s good for us to re-examine what we learned in school or early in our careers: why those countermeasures are effective. The NYCDOT report offers five core concepts that have resulted in the most significant safety improvements. Quoting from the document:

  1. Make the street easy to use by accommodating desire lines and minimizing the complexity of driving, walking, and biking, thus reducing crash risk by providing a direct, simple way to move through the street network.
  2. Create safety in numbers, which makes vulnerable street users such as pedestrians and cyclists more visible. The same design principle, applied to arterial streets when traffic is light, reduces the opportunity for excessive speeds.
  3. Make the invisible visible by putting users where they can see each other.
  4. Choose quality over quantity so that roadway and intersection geometries serve the first three design principles.
  5. Look beyond the (immediate) problem by expanding the focus area if solutions at a particular location can’t be addressed in isolation.

Using these principles in concert with robust community collaboration, any place can make its streets safer and more desirable for their users.

Where have you seen any of these principles work well in your community? And where are problem areas where they might make a difference?  Let us know in the comments!


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