When drivers get out of their car along this Amsterdam canal, they have a one foot margin of error. It is an accepted risk and no one would file a law suit. In fact, I have parked my car many times along the water, you get used to it.

Ottawa Moves – part 2/3 – Andrew Wiley Schwarz


After Gil Peñolosa’s talk at Ottawa Moves the night before , it was time for Andrew Wiley Schwarz on a sunny Thursday morning, November 3 to talk about bike and pedestrian infrastructure in New York City. Andrew works for the New York City Department of Transportation as an Assistant Commissioner. His talk was a frank case study and lessons learned on New York City’s changes in the urban landscape.

From studies, NYC discovered that there were more pedestrian movements than they’d thought there were; they also learned that parks don’t connect in NYC (sounds familiar?). People moved around in isolated areas instead of covering distances. Not good if you want people to leave the car at home a bit more. Andrew talked extensively about the project to close Times Square for cars; they had calculated that the part of Broadway around Times Square could be closed without having an impact of traffic flow.

An interesting remark he made was that ‘the day you make a change in public space, people have to understand why you make the change” so the plan was to put out chairs immidiately after the closure and organise a party. It turned out, Andrew’s crew wouldn’t be able get the chairs out in time after they blocked the square off, as it would take the city’s procurement office six weeks to get four hundred chairs. Bank Street BIA (“we love bikes, but not in our front yard“) take note: the local business community chipped in and low and behold, the next day the place was covered with four hundred foldable chairs and the square had its street party. It has been a big success.

Retail up 100%

Today, 74% of the New Yorkers love the new set up. Retail is up 100%, the Disney Store moved back in (yes, that is  considered a success) and sub concessions at the square bring in revenue to organise other events. (So what is wrong with Sparks St, it is the street or is it the people?)

screenshot of Times Square from above, note Broadway’s  painted pavement, which stretches over 4-5 blocks.

So how do Andrew and his friends roll the programs out? They basically ‘wait’ for neighbourhoods to apply for support for an idea, so they are guaranteed support from the citizens. Andrew shared lots of pictures from New York’s applied changes.  Activities on NYC wish list are a way finding and signage system. Andrew stated that awareness of cycling is #1 for safe cycling.

There was a question from the public about the back lash against all this healthy improvements for walking and cycling. It appears the news on those protests is greatly exaggerated. Andrew explained that the press needs to have two sides of a story, but that the reality is that “the polls that are coming out show routinely solid support for the bike lane program”. Community involvement is key though, he mentioned.

Crowd sourcing

screenshot of the crowd sourcing NYC bike share program

NY is also introducing a bike rental program in 2012. No less than 10,000 bikes will roll in NY streets soon, supported by 600 stations. The city set up a cool crowd sourcing website, asking the public where the stations should be placed. You can see the proposed stations real time on a special bike share website. NYC’s bike share is run by Alta Bicycle Share, an affiliate of Alta Planning (of Mia Birk and Portland fame). Alta Bicycle Share estimates that more than 200 jobs will be created by locally sourcing maintenance and support for the system.

Screenshot of Ottawa Biking Problems by Alex deVries

This is the stuff I like in Web 2.0. Similar to New York, we have our own Ottawa Biking Problems website, with citizens involvement; it is where citizens have real input in decision making, without having to take a day off to go to council meetings to make a five minute plea. Although the Ottawa website is run by volunteer CfSC board member Alex deVries, city staff does use the cyclists’ requests. Update: City councillor Holmes would like to see a simular site developed for pedestrian problems in Ottawa.

Bureaucrats & Liability

Nancy Schepers (Ottawa Deputy City Manager, Infrastructure) just happened to leave the room when the Q & A started, but looked over her shoulder and smiled when Eric Darwin of Westsideaction fame expressed worries about nervous bureaucrats, while pointing to a picture with a woman sitting on a chair, reading a book, leaning backwards on the two legs of the chair along a road, feet on a planter. “In Ottawa, bureaucrats would worry she’d tip backwards, citizens suing the city for not having the chairs bolted down, or being nervous for the chair ending up on the road, thereby denting a car”, he commented not without irony, referring to liability fears. Andrew jokingly pointed out that “NY has a special locker for them”. More seriously, he explained he does sit down with city lawyers and insurance companies to analyse the risk and basically said that the city does have to accept that there is a certain amount of risk in what a city does. They do look what is absolutely necessary though but avoid going overboard.

When drivers get out of their car along this Amsterdam canal, they have a one foot margin of error. It is an accepted risk that you could fall into the canal; no one would file a law suit if it happens. In fact, I have parked my car many times along canals, you get used to getting out of your car, holding your laptop really close to you.

If Amsterdam would have to worry about their canals, all canals would have to have six feet fences around them; instead, they leave it to the citizens’ own responsibility to look after themselves. Rightly so.

Next blog: Ken Greenberg, Urban Design consultant, who is working on the plans for Bank street, south of Billings Bridge, who spoke in the evening.

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