Sunday, December 30, 2012

NYC Post Sandy: Darkened Traffic Intersections

Hurricane Sandy, with its combination of the storm surge and timing of high-tide, wreaked havoc in parts of every borough in New York City.  Amongst the damage were the striking images of half of the New York City skyline powerless and darkened.  While taking some time to explore the city (by the best means of transit in the days following Sandy: bicycle) I found myself fascinated with the darkened intersections in which the traffic lights were not functioning in the large swath of lower Manhattan that was left without electricity.

While most of the darkened intersections were manned with traffic police, I was very surprised to find that the intersection of Houston, Chrystie St and 2nd Avenue - a very complicated one - was left without police direction.  I took some time to photograph and video document how vehicular, bicycle and pedestrian traffic all came together in a beautiful ad hoc ballet.  There are many fascinating things happening in this scene, though first it should be clear that the volume of traffic for this intersection was much less than the normal.

The video above was taken after electricity was restored and everything in the area had returned to normal.  This is to provide an understanding of the baseline conditions to contrast with the scenes of the darkened intersection below.

The video above shows the scene of the darkened intersection.  To be honest the most shocking thing about this footage to me is that for the entire 1:30 of this video, and for the entire 30 minutes I spent observing the scene, not a single horn was honked!

The situation for pedestrians was certainly more precarious.  For one, they have to wait for  appropriate spacing between vehicles before stepping out into the street.  Then, once out into the crosswalk, they never at any one moment had the entire crosswalk to themselves.  By the time a pedestrian reached the center of the street a vehicle will have already passed behind them and/or they'll be waiting again for another space to cross the second half of the street.  Although the environment was more dicey, in the time I watched, this choreography all went along without a single hiccup.  Quite notably I witnessed no pedestrian that ever felt that they were at enough risk that they needed at any point to run.

The video above shows cyclists navigating the darkened intersection.

The video above shows cyclists navigating the intersection in which the traffic lights are functioning.

Cyclists clearly seemed to be the least affected by the loss of rule and order that traffic lights provide.  Cyclists are generally maligned for their interpretations to the rules of the road in which they commonly roll through red lights and stop signs at intersections.  In the event of the darkened intersections this was the rule of the road and unsurprisingly cyclists were most adapted to the darkened conditions.

Cars, trucks and buses all slowed in their approach then carefully assessed their respective opportunity to proceed through the intersection.  Without traffic lights and the normal set of traffic rules in place, the approach of motor vehicles to the intersection was essentially identical to that of many cyclists' well known tactic to slowly roll-through intersections.  It is rather clear in watching the two videos that the speed of vehicles in the darkened scene traveled much slower.  The critical difference appears to be in that with traffic signals everyone is aware of their respective turn to go and when someone is not moving they're ever-impatiently awaiting it.

Then, since the rules are designed to create clear routes of passage, when their turn finally arrives they will typically accelerate as quickly as possible without much regard or worry that something or someone may be in their path.  However, these rules may in fact lead to more dangerous behaviors: vehicles dangerously speeding and running red lights; pedestrians, vehicles and cyclists all encroaching into paths of on-coming traffic; and finally pedestrians crossing the street without paying proper attention (most often glued to their cell phones).

In observing how road transportation in the city functioned without the normal structure that street signals provide brought to mind questions of how society reacts when the rules become suddenly absent: does chaos ensue or do more reasonable minds prevail?  What I saw was that in the absence of the everyday rules of the road, sidewalk and bike lane, people responded with incredible decency and courtesy towards one another.  Cars, trucks and buses proceeded cautiously, pedestrians were more alert to the dangers of crossing the street -- I observed no pedestrian enter a crosswalk paying more attention to their phones than the traffic -- and cyclists carried on as if little at all had changed. 

To my knowledge there were no reports of injury or death at any of the darkened intersections in Manhattan.  Sadly this was not the case everywhere that lost power in the region.  In New Jersey and Long Island there were incidents in which pedestrians were struck by cars and killed while attempting to cross roads. In the incidents I found each occurred at night and suburban car-oriented environments.  Apparently even as cars approached pitch-black darkened intersections they were travelling too fast to recognize someone crossing the street and conversely too quickly for the pedestrians to escape the on-coming danger once it became apparent.

Non-conventional streetscape interventions, such as psychological traffic calming,  are becoming increasingly popular in the United States and around the world.  Given this and the growing demand for safe, walkable environments it is quite intriguing to think about the possibilities of studying and designing environments in which darkened intersections could be utilized as safety measures.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Raleigh Roundabouts

While visiting Raleigh, North Carolina this past summer to visit friends we visited the campus area of North Carolina State University.  While walking around the campus area - in sweltering late-July heat - we came upon a couple of roundabouts.

The first was along Hillsborough Street as you first approach the campus from the east.

Here you can see the lay of the land and notice immediately that this is a very recent intervention.  We approached the intersection from the right-hand side of the image on the north sidewalk.

The roundabout in an urban setting presents a few problems.  One is that it requires the person on the sidewalk to go a significant distance out of their way - in the case of August, sweating in 99° heat while air-conditioned vehicles cruise by effortlessly.  

Another is that the pedestrian is required to cross a 2-lane (Pullen Road-whichruns north-south) twice.  Pullen Rd south of the roundabout is 4-lanes and north of the roundabout is 3-lanes.  The small pedestrian island in the south crosswalk would be good whether this intersection is a roundabout or conventional 4-way intersection with a traffic light.  Although if the intersection were as the north crosswalk appears, more akin to a 2-lane street, the roundabout does nothing but over-complicate the pedestrian crossing.

Along Hillsborourgh there simply are no crosswalks!  And to make certain no one crosses fences are put in place.  This move makes it clear that this space is primarily for cars and secondarily for people on foot.

The image above shows what the streetscape looks like from the human perspective.  The first thing is plainly obvious, it is in a word: massive.  Granted, in a car this is a breeze: well marked lanes, fewer points of car-to-car conflict, and most importantly no stop light.  But from a pedestrian or cyclists' perspective this is not necessarily a friendly scene: narrow sidewalks with a fence on one side and wall on the other, one is required to look in unfamiliar directions for traffic, the lack of stop light means there is no cross-walk light, and ultimately there are no bike lanes.  How such an apparently recent intervention was designed and constructed with no bike lanes near the city's major state university campus is mind-boggling!

A second, smaller roundabout, located just north of the aforementioned.

Roundabouts certainly have their place.  They reduce car-to-car points of conflict and keep traffic flowing.  Though I certainly question any claims that they are safer for pedestrians for the reasons pointed out above and believe that the place for roundabouts is simply not in an urban environment.

Incredibly enough not even a stone's throw from that roundabout wasteland is a nice local bar with sidewalk seating - a textbook example of pedestrian friendly streetscape.  So all was not lost: after traversing those roundabouts we found a table in the shade here, enjoyed a couple cool local beers and the famous North Carolina barbecue pork.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Talk of Columbus: The New Kroger in The Short North

An article in Monday's New York Times Real Estate section focused on The Short North neighborhood of my beloved Columbus, Ohio. Having lived in Columbus - colloquially known as Cbus - for almost 5 years from 2002 to 2007, I know the city quite well.

The article primarily discusses the increased amount of development occurring in the neighborhood. But it also mentions (nearer to the end) the new Kroger grocery store which opened last summer on High Street in The Short North.

When I visited Columbus last summer I was blown away by how much was happening and how much had developed in not only The Short North but the city as a whole. But of all the new development that had taken place since I had previously visited, the one thing that almost everyone was talking about was the Kroger grocery store on High Street in The Short North. On one hand, it was absolutely worth a good laugh: leave it to sleepy Columbus Ohio to be so enthused about a new grocery store! But on the other, the previous Kroger was extremely unsuccessful and everyone had long been awaiting a new store at this location which better responded to the surrounding neighborhood.

The new Kroger is a simple replacement of an old Kroger which sat on the same property. Everyone knew the old one as the ghetto Kroger. Despite it's location in The Short North and very walkable distance from Ohio State's South Campus, it's massive parking lot along High Street was the largest 'missing tooth' along High Street between downtown and campus. This block-long stretch had a very negative impact on the immediate surrounding area.

Fortunately Google has not update their satellite views of Columbus in quite awhile! In this aerial it's clear to see the massive parking lot and the store set back from High Street.

Within the context of Ohio State's South Campus to the north and the heart of The Short North to the south the void is still very apparent.

Street view of the existing condition.

And the new Kroger! Still a significant length of the block is parking lot (sorry I can't seem to find a plan view of the new one). It does engage the street very closely though at the corner of High and East 6th Streets

Duane Reade has been remodeling their stores around New York City for a few years. The redesign features large floor-to-ceiling glass windows along the sidewalk which notably are not plastered with signage. There are clear views both in and out of the store.

The new Kroger has windows along High Street providing visibility both in and out of the store which is very good. Although if there can be any criticism, it's that the floor of the store is two or three feet higher than the elevation of the sidewalk, which is just a little awkward for people on each side.

The entrance is oriented towards the parking lot, parallel to High Street (in the distance in this image). This to me is a tremendous mistake. Essentially this is a classic suburban store, only different in that along one single side it is located right up on the sidewalk and has windows along that side (at an awkward height). At least they provided bike loops.

Furthermore the parking lot is still very black and very impervious. No provisions made for storm-water management or urban heat island affect and minimal plantings.

So years and years of talks, negotiation and planning for this sidewalk with new building facade which features no entrances nor exits along it. Yes, this store is very good for Columbus and represents a positive step forward in its city-wide movement towards pedestrian-oriented design. It is also a huge improvement from the original Kroger and as the Times article points out, marked a symbolic moment for developers in Columbus. Yet it is a store with significant urban design flaws and that could have been much better than it is.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

NYC DEP Enhanced Tree Pits

New York City under Mayor Bloomberg has been making huge strides to improve the built and natural environment of the city. While other cities may be making bigger dents faster where it pertains to managing storm-water runoff, perhaps  in no other city is the problem  quite as big. The problem are Combined Sewer Overflows. In storm events the massive amounts of rainwater collected combine with the cities sewer pipes and are discharged into the surrounding waterways: The Hudson, East River, Harlem River and Jamaica Bay just to name a few. This all leads to high levels of polluting toxins and at times raw sewage being discharged into these waters. Think about that next time you're swimming out at Coney Island!

A couple weeks ago while riding on Carroll Street in Brooklyn I came across a new New York City Department of Environmental Protection Enhanced Bioswale Tree Pit. Then just the other morning I rode by and noticed that it had been completed!

As you can see this design is specific to intersections which provides the added benefit of shortening the pedestrian street crossing distance (more on that in an image to follow). Note the concrete baffles of this bio-swale which are intended to really slow the water down even further.

The entry point.

While not a bio-swale, this is a great example of DOT's new curb cuts which shorten the pedestrian street crossing distance at Atlantic Avenue and Hoyt Street. Interventions like these are being implemented throughout the five boroughs as a means of increasing pedestrian safety. These could also be a great opportunity for an enhanced tree pit bio-swale. All of the water which currently rockets into that catch basin could be slowed and filtered.

This bio-swale is located on Dean Street at 4th Avenue. This example is also at a street end (there are several other identical bio-swales along the mid-block portion of this section of Dean Street) though it does not extend out into the street to either capture water or provide additional pedestrian safety. In this design the water enters at the curb cut in the foreground of the above image and exits at the curb cut nearest the intersection.

The entry, again - also same as the exit.

Name tag with non-clickable url. You can read more about this design here.

As I was photographing the bio-swale on Carroll Street an gentleman in a car slowly rolled by with his window rolled down and arm sticking out of it gesturing towards the plantings. He exclaimed for me to hear (in a classic New York accent): Stoopid shit! It's really just people resisting the unfamiliar (phrase credit). When you consider the waterway that was just one block away, the famous Gowanus Canal and it's incredibly polluted waters, the irony of what he said is really like, stoopid. 

This is the Gowanus Canal and an outflow at the Carroll Street Bridge, just one block from the bio-swales. The big picture, is that little by little, with every bio-swale installed, we lessen the amount of pollution being discharge from this outflow. 
I really hope to follow up on this post with some images taken during a rain storm to see how these interventions perform precisely when they're intended to.

Monday, July 16, 2012

9/11 Memorial

On July 4th I had the opportunity to finally go check out the 9/11 Memorial designed by Peter Walker and Michael Arad. I had heard plenty about the fountains but did not know much about the plaza before going.

To gain access to the memorial you must first go online to reserve a time slot (and make a donation) weeks in advance - probably contributes to why I'd not yet visited. The time slot issue means that there are plenty of people that end up loitering outside the entrance waiting their turn. But unlike the dentist's office there are no cushy seats nor Good Housekeeping Magazines - just as well without the latter, people watching is far more entertaining - although a few simple park benches wouldn't have been a terrible idea.

Later in the circuitous entering process I found the benches, on the other side of the stanchions, to bad this is beyond the point where anyone is ever actually, spending time.

As I said, the entering process is quite circuitous. Also, pro-tip: they have airport level security, I was lucky that a security supervisor let me pass through with my pocket-knife.

Finally made it to the fountains. In a word: incredible.

There were no plants in the beds, just the starts of some ivy and tons of mulch. I was told after that last fall the beds were planter with Liriope, but they were immediately trampled by foot traffic. We shall see, but I wouldn't expect a result any different with ivy. These plant choices are nice choices given the design mood for this memorial, though they are not right for the crowds which will always be using the space. Taller and more robust flowering perennials. Also in my opinion the memorial space wouldn't hurt to have some color and hope as every other material is very muted: green, grey, black and bronze.

I was shocked by the modernist brutality of the plaza space (and I don't particularly hate modernism). Sharp and square monolithic benches in the baking sun. One might argue that when at maturity the trees will provide shade for the benches, though honestly I'm skeptical that they will. 

Could probably fry an egg, or your butt.

And what would a visit to a high profile public space be without some good old American over-policing. No ma'am, you cannot stand on this uncomfortable bench - which admittedly is good for nothing more than standing - to take a photograph.

While the fountains were truly an amazing spectacle (I particularly loved the 'bottomless pit' attribute) the landscaped plaza was anything but amazing. Although it should be said that when you call upon a corporate plaza landscape architect to design a space you should not be surprised to get anything less in the end. It will be interesting to see how the space evolves as the rest of the site is completed. Eventually the plaza's identity will become less about the temporal visitor and much more about fulfilling the everyday needs of those who live and work in Lower Manhattan. Whether this design is successful at each is yet to be determined.