Plazas, Bikes, and Public Art: A ‘Streetfight’ Panel Discussion

Photo from the NYC Department of Transportation

In 1997, New York City had virtually no bike infrastructure. There were a few lanes scattered through the middle of Manhattan and maybe one or two running through Brooklyn and Queens. According to Sean Quinn, Senior Director of Bicycle and Pedestrian Programs for the Department of Transportation (DOT), 20 years of progress have produced vast increases in bike routes covering a large part of the boroughs. New York has definitely made tons of progress in their bike programs, though it was reassuring to hear from Quinn that they’re far from finished with their goals. There’s still plenty of gaps in the 2017’s map, especially in places that need it the most, where cars are not an affordable option, but streets aren’t inviting enough for bikers.

The discussion, titled Plazas, Bikes, and Public Art: A ‘Streetfight’ Panel Discussion, took place at Pratt Institute’s school of architecture on Friday, March 30. It was held in a small but open and sunny classroom. It was geared to be a discussion about Janette Sadik-Khan’s Street Fight:Handbook for an Urban Revolution. The event, hosted by the American Planning Association’s (APA) New York Metro Chapter Student Representative Committee, was moderated by assistant professor at Pratt, David Burney, who teaches classes in sustainable development and public space. He is the Director of the Urban Placemaking and Management program, served as Mayor Bloomberg’s commissioner of the Department of Design & Development, is the interim Executive Director of the New York City branch of the American Institute of Architects, and founder of the Center for Active Design, of which he currently serves as the Board Chairman. 

Wendy Feuer,
Nick Koster,
Sean Quinn and
David Burney. Photo by author.

Sean Quinn discussed the number of bike and pedestrian initiatives that the DOT is running and elaborated on where the agency is heading for the future. Bike lanes have been a big focus over the recent years of course, and Quinn showed that ridership numbers are up and stats on how people respond to protected vs unprotected bike lanes. He argued that bike networks could be an important response to the L train shutting down in 2019. He also made sure it was clear that the DOT does much of its construction work with an in-house team. They don’t want to rely on subcontracting and this allows them to have guidelines that are easily followed and repeatable by the in-house team. Quinn’s work with the city includes not only bike lane development, but also pedestrian safety. It’s clear that everyone  (on the panel at least) agrees that American streets have for so long been too focused on cars, with the rise of Robert Moses in NYC especially, agreeing that pedestrians, public transportation, and more sustainable forms of transportation need to take back the streets. According to the reviews of Jennette Saik-Khan’s Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, taking the streets back from cars is a primary focus, Sadik-Khan’s work has been a guiding force for many as she was the former commissioner of the NYC DOT, and took many steps towards fighting for pedestrians and bikers. Quinn noted that NYC and the DOT work around the Vision Zero framework, which is a multinational program that aims to achieve a highway system with no fatalities or serious injuries involving road traffic. For Quinn, this means designing better sidewalk crosswalks, medians, and intersections so they prioritize pedestrians. He showed the format of things that they focus on in terms of design, with expanding space for pedestrians and any ways you can get cars to slow down more.

NYC Bicycle Master Plan, 1997 and 2017, photo by author

Wendy Feuer presented on her work as as the DOT’s Assistant Commissioner for Urban Design and Art. She talked about the various public art projects that the DOT commissions and their goals with public art. The department oversees smaller community commissions of up to $12,000. Many of their projects seek to make construction elements, such as jersey barrier or side walls, more beautiful. Some temporary public art sculptures will go in public spaces, one example being the Last Three Rhinos sculpture currently in Astor Place. The sculpture has become a spectacle for the Astor Place Plaza and has brought attention to a seriously endangered animal, the Northern White, of which there are now only two since one died a few weeks ago.

Then Nick Koster, project manager of the Norwegian Architecture firm Snøhetta, spoke on the private sector. Snøhetta is an internationally recognized architecture firm that has carried out a number of high profile public space projects, including the World Trade Memorial plaza and the Norwegian National Opera building. The firm has and is currently working on a number of projects in New York City, but the project of focus for the discussion was the Times Square plaza project. Only a few years ago, Times square was packed with people crammed and spilling over the sidewalk onto the streets. The space was clearly overcrowded and not originally designed with pedestrians in mind. In 2016 Snøhetta finished its redesign of the two main points of intersection in the square, closing down a section of Broadway and expanding pedestrian walking and leisure space. They space has been an instrumental Koster noted that his firm works to study human behavior and how people use space, and they’ve worked hard to gather data on where people are going.

Panelists Wendy Feuer,
Nick Koster,
Sean Quinn and
David Burney. (Not in order.) Photo by author.

When the panelists all sat down for questions, we started off with discussing a highly controversial topic lately: E-bikes. Quinn seemed to have a slightly difficult time covering this since there are a lot of sides to it. Nonetheless he found a way to talk about the positives. As the DOT see’s it there’s two sides of the electric bike, assist versus throttle. Quinn highlighted that we can’t turn away from e bikes all together because sometimes they help in assisting bikers who have trouble pedaling or who have to pedal long distances from far parts of the city and are saving energy and easing accessibility. However, throttled bikes that cause danger, weave through traffic, and go on sidewalks, give e-bikes a bad name. This raises interesting questions on how workers, often immigrant communities who rely on e-bikes from their livelihood in delivery services might be targeted and stereotyped.

Another interesting question and response in the discussion was Wendy Feuer’s view on community art in large projects. Freuer stated that she doesn’t believe largely funded permanent art grants should go to lesser-known local community artists, but instead those projects should go to more experienced well renowned artists. Her stance is that the smaller temporary projects are what goes to the local community and there’s a place for one and a place for the other. It was an interesting view since being in such a global city like New York might push the definition of what “local” means. After all, the Last Three Rhinos, a temporary installation, was done by artist couple Gillie and Marc, based in New York and Sydney, Gillie born in the UK and Marc in Australia.

Times Square, photo by Snøhetta.

All in all, it was a good conversation that may not have focused heavily on the social implications and issues of public space and accessibility, but had many important discussion on how to design safe walking and biking spaces. There are clearly plenty of people in New York looking to make the city a safer place and reclaim the streets for bikers, walkers, and social interaction. It will be interesting to see how the city works to implement this and what spaces are prioritized in terms of aesthetic upgrades and attention. We will have to continue to work towards safer streets, but just as important, equitably designed neighborhoods.