Big Apple's ‘no' to forbidding traffic

N. Ramakrishnan | Updated on: Nov 14, 2017


Streets are valuable real estate, not just for moving traffic. Pedestrian-friendly, safe streets drive urban economy.

Does New York City offer a lesson in planning and traffic management for Indian cities grappling with the problem of unbridled growth and urbanisation? Definitely yes, one would think, judging by the interaction with three people from The Big Apple — one an entrepreneur who also runs a venture that aims to make New York City's streets liveable, and two from the city administration — during their recent visit to Chennai.

Apart from Delhi — thanks to being the nation's capital that has seen huge amounts of money being poured in to improve its infrastructure — no other Indian city, including the commercial capital Mumbai, has civic amenities to match either the demand or their pretensions of being global cities. Mr Mark Gorton, CEO of Tower Research Capital, spearheads a campaign to make New York's streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists. He also would like planning to help people use public transport rather than their own vehicles. He is 45, and cycles to work every day, come rain or shine. That provided the private sector perspective.


But what was more interesting was the interaction with Ms Janette Sadik-Khan, Commissioner, Department of Transportation, and Ms Amanda M. Burden, Commissioner and Chair, City Planning Commission, New York City, on the city administration's efforts to make New York a greener city — streetscape, as they called it — by providing pedestrians facilities and reducing their dependence on personal transport. In the end, this helped businesses too. All their decisions were taken in consultation, especially with businesses that stood to gain the most. In Chennai, the two addressed a gathering organised by the Chennai City Connect Foundation and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy; a fair number of participants were property developers.

It isn't as if their task has been easy and hassle-free. Each one in New York believes he or she is a transportation expert. “New Yorkers are a very sceptical lot,” Ms Sadik-Khan told the gathering. “The notion that you are from the government and you are here to help was an oxymoron.” At least, in that way, Indian cities are no different. As Ms Sadik-Khan pointed out, everybody is competing for space. “It is a ballet.” New York City's population is expected to go up from 8.4 million to 9 million, by 2030. “We needed to change how we use our streets,” she said.

The administration's task was to provide sustainable mobility, look at the streets as valuable real estate — in the past, they were looked at as places to move cars from one point to another — and to make them safe. When you invest in a beautiful streetscape, you find more people spending time there, and it is better for business. Surveys have shown that pedestrians spend more money a week than those commuting by cars, buses, taxis, cycles or even the rail system. The city administration's efforts to clean up some of the landmark areas, such as the Times Square, and make them more pedestrian-friendly, have seen a spurt in retail activity. Times Square is among the top 10 retail destinations globally, and at least five major retail chains have moved in there in the last four years. As part of the pedestrian-friendly initiatives, seats have been provided in a number of places. Seating and pop-up cafes change the character of a city dramatically.


In all its efforts, the City administration relied on hard data and technology. It was constant dialogue with the business community, and the help of GPS devices on the nearly 13,000 taxis that ply on the streets, that provided it with 13 million records a month to see how traffic flowed. Taxis made up one half of all the vehicles in mid-town.

The administration hopes to roll out by July a bicycle-sharing system that will be run by the private sector. It will locate at least 600 stations where people can hire cycles and deposit them. The stations themselves will be powered by solar power, and can be moved around, depending on how well they are used. “If you are a member, for a year, it will cost less than $100. That is, less than the cost of a monthly metro card to get on the subway for an entire year. And if you take a bike, and your ride is less than 45 minutes, your ride doesn't cost any more,” explains Ms Sadik-Khan. More than 500,000 people use bikes every week, and the city administration has seen biking more than double in the last four years, ever since it started taking steps to make it safer and easier to move around by bicycles.


But the most interesting point came from Ms Burden, who said that in Manhattan, there is no mandated parking for any of the new buildings coming up. But the maximum number of slots that can be provided is specified. The administration's logic is simple: if there is good public transport nearby, you don't need to have a car. Manhattan has a good subway system. Therefore, new buildings are allowed to provide for only 20 per cent parking — that is, if there are 100 apartments in the building, parking can be provided for only 20 vehicles. Of course, special permission can be sought for more parking slots. The logic is to discourage people to use cars and instead use the public transport.

Outside of Manhattan, in the far-flung areas that aren't well-served by public transport, people need cars to move around. Therefore, the administration discourages development in these places. “Keep those areas very low. You freeze development if there is no public transport.” Is there anyone listening here?

According to Ms Burden, the administration's goal is to have 95 per cent of all new development within 10 minutes walking distance of the subway by 2030. “I am allowing a lot of new development near the subways, and no development away from subways,” says Ms Burden. The administration has done zoning for one-third of the city and the results are fantastic — 87 per cent of all new development is within a 10-minute walk from the subway.

Real estate developers have started using this while trying to sell their projects. There is going to be a predictable location for developers to build that can be sustained with time. “I have height limits everywhere, so people know how tall buildings are going to be,” says Ms Burden. To be a good city, you need to integrate the transportation and planning agendas. They cannot work in isolation. Growth is good, but it has to be thought of in a controlled way. “We want to grow, but not change,” Ms Burden remarks.

Published on March 03, 2012
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