The Social Business

What can Leeds learn from a New York City streetfight?

I’ve just finished reading Streetfight – Handbook For An Urban Revolution – by ex New York City transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.  It documents her seven years in the role – making massive changes to the city’s streets, including creating over 400 miles of new bike lanes and more than sixty new public spaces.

I’m fascinated by how we can make our cities better places to live.  In particular, I’m interested in how we all get around our cities – and the problems many of us face in places where motor traffic dominates.  My city, Leeds, regularly grinds to a halt – and has some of the worst air pollution in the country.  And it’s certainly not a city where cycling feels like an easy, or particularly safe, option.

Whilst every city is different – and will have its own challenges, there’s loads we can learn from places that have begun to deal with the issues many of our cities face – primarily how to enable lots of people to get from A to B – and how to make our streets places where people want to linger, chat, and, of course, spend the money that keeps the city going.

There’s so much in the book – and it’ll take me a while to digest it all – but I’ve tried to pick out a few key themes – in particular ones that I think are relevant to the city I live in.

It’s not just about bike lanes – it’s about the kind of city we want

When I first heard about Janette Sadik-Khan’s work (via Toronto chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat’s Twitter feed) I focussed immediately on the work she’d done to create hundreds of miles more bike lanes in New York.   As someone who makes most journeys in my city by bike, I liked the sound of that – particularly as I imagine New York to be a city where the automobile rules.

And that’s still the bit I’m most excited about, as I can see how everyone in our city could benefit if 10-20% of us regularly got around by bike.  But in the book there’s as much talk about creating public space as there is about creating safer routes for people on bikes.  Under her leadership the city created over sixty new public spaces – taking space from cars and providing people with the opportunity to sit, eat, think, drink, spend.

Creating more people-friendly cities isn’t just about how we get around – it’s also about creating better public spaces.  What Brent Toderian would call sticky streets – places where people want to hang out.  Places that are safer.  Places where people linger – and spend money.

The benefits of acting quickly and cheaply

It feels like change can take forever.  Just look at Leeds.  There’s been talk of a tram system in the city ever since I came here in 1991.  And  changes to the City Centre Loop (such as closing City Square to traffic) may have been announced last year, but won’t happen for a good few years yet.

Why do things have to take so long?  Budgets, consultations, planning – all important stuff.  But what might we gain if just tried a few things out?  A common theme in the book is of New York’s Transportation Department trying things out quickly and cheaply – a lick of paint to designate a new public space – filled with a couple of hundred $10 chairs from a hardware store.

Could we do more of this here?  Yes, consultation matters.  Yes, we need to spend public money wisely.  But what if we just tried things a few things out?  Put a few cheap chairs outside the Town Hall and watched what happened?  Or created a temporary bike lane, with temporary barriers, on a few city centre streets in August for a few weeks?  Trying things out – and helping people to visualise how our city could be different – might just work.

2016 will be the year of the bikelash in Leeds

The clue’s in the name of the book.  It’s not “How we found a comfortable middle ground that everyone in the city was happy with”.  It was a fight – and it still is.  There was lots of opposition – to creating new bike lanes, to taking parking spaces away, to creating new mini public squares.

Congestion will get worse.  Pollution will get worse.  Shops will lose trade.  Pretty much all the arguments you’re hearing in London right now, as they expand their cycle superhighway network.  And, arguments that you’re hearing in my city – and which will increase in volume once the City Connect route opens later this year.

I don’t know whether City Connect will be a success – I trust it will be – and I hope it will be.  But one thing’s for sure – within days of it opening there will be countless people on social media and in the local media telling us how much of a waste of money it is.  And you won’t be able to move for tweeted photos of empty bike lanes, next to gridlocked traffic.  Those of us who think that City Connect has to be the first part of a city-wide network of protected bike lanes need to be ready to fight – and to make the case that better designed streets – and more space for cycling and walking – will benefit all of us, however we get around.

More analysis, fewer anecdotes.

Sadik-Khan’s boss was Mayor Bloomberg – a man known for many things, including the phrase: In God we trust. Everyone else bring data.

One of the things I found most interesting in the book was the emphasis on data – in particular to help them to analyse the impact of the changes they were implementing.  It would seem – and others have said the same – that our methods for measuring what happens on our streets is often inadequate.  Mostly, what is counted is traffic – the number of cars.  And even when we do collect other data – collision data for example – the data isn’t rich enough for us to analyse (or we just don’t bother analysing it).

In New York they put a lot of effort into coming up with new ways to “measure their streets”.  So anecdotes (“the traffic has slowed; more people are riding bikes on pavements; shops have lost trade”) were replaced with data.  And, (unsurprisingly to those of us who follow this stuff) the data mainly told good stories.  Fewer road casualties.  More trade for local businesses. Improved traffic flow.  Data that built the case for the next plaza, the next bike lane – and crucially – got local people  requesting infrastructure improvements in their neighbourhoods.  There’s lots of good work happening on data in Leeds – by people like Leeds Data Mill and ODI Leeds.  What data could we collect and analyse to make our city streets work better?

So they’re my immediate thoughts.  Like a lot of people who care about this kind of thing, I get a bit worn down at times, constantly having the same arguments, regularly being told “that’s all very well, but it really isn’t possible.”  But having read this book, I feel like I’m ready to fight for better streets again.



Categories: Green issues, Social change, Social Justice

Leeds needs to decide what kind of city it wants to be » « How can we improve recycling rates in Leeds?

1 Comment

  1. it is always nice to find a book that confirms your view of the world and gives you confidence for the future. The danger of this is that it leaves the inherent prejudices and limitations in your view point unaddressed.

    So it is the partiality of this account that I want to challenge, in particular then constant use of the words “we” and “our”. Presumably the reader has to identify themselves with the “we”; that her interests coincide with the word “our” and that she is happy for the writer to speak on her behalf..

    Speaking personally first of all I can say that I identify with “we” and “our” to some extent but not entirely. Yes I agree that traffic and air pollution is a problem but there is no way I am physically able to cycle or for that matter much of public transport so unfortunately I am considerably bound to my car for personal mobility. So for myself (and presumably many other people who are mobility impaired cycling may have a small secondary benefit and more cycle lanes will men less lowered curbs and less accessibility to buildings as the same public money cannot be spent twice.

    Beyond the emphasis on cycling as a solution to city issues there is a more worrying generalisation about the nature of the good city and that is that public spaces are open to all and what this will lead to is some form of dubiously beneficial conviviality. This to me is naïve in the extreme and ominously narrow in its prescription. I always find it simplistic when anyone goes on about public spaces or worse the public realm since this seems to assume there is one amorphous public and when “we” all get together in the same space “we” all get along really well together. This I would argue is optimistic in the extreme – it seems equally possible to say that spaces are constantly contested and that minorities arriving in spaces which are not “theirs” will not feel intimidated and threatened – as an older person living in an ageist society from personal experience I would certainly feel that was the case. I wold suggest that even in chairs in the square so much approved of this would be the case e.g. for a non-white person.

    So will data and experiments in urban design make a difference – well frankly not very much in my opinion. as far as data is concerned: data cannot unfortunately be separated from the framework of analysis which surrounds it so if this is weak or ideological or both then the “data” will only confirm existing prejudices which leads to cynicism in public life as with “consultations”. the same applies to small scale experiments they too are contain their own values as I have illustrated by the example of whether in practice chairs in the squares are quite as accessible as their purchasers might wish to claim.

    The appeal for small scale experimental urban design projects in Leeds seems to come from two sources – they are good in themselves as compared to modernist grand projets – this is debateable but I won’t elaborate. But more importantly for a despair that the Leeds City Council could deliver such a project even if it was given the money – I wouldn’t argue with this except to say no doubt one could point to other examples of civic leadership elsewhere where in roads into the issues of public transport, air pollution and in creating a more inclusive public culture have proved successful.

    The critics of past efforts at urban improvement have been condemned for misplaced utopianism but for me what passes new and exciting approaches to the management of cities strikes me vacuous idealism.

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