NYC 2016: Experiencing the city by bike

I noticed right at the beginning of the residency month that using only the subway and walking was going to kill my feet. We thought cycling is an answer for that. I have previously done sightseeing in many cities from Kyoto to Berlin by bike and found it a nice way to get to know the city. Biking in a much larger city like New York made me a bit nervous in the beginning, even though I knew that numerous procedures done in recent years makes it easier and safer to bike in NYC nowadays.

How did NYC become (more) bike-friendly

The change into a bike-friendly environment happened thanks to Janette Sadik-Khan, a former Transportation commissioner of New York City. As she tells herself, in just two years after she started in the job, they had created a 200-mile bike lane network in NYC, doubling the existing 220 miles of bike lanes. I didn’t happen without resistance. One of the hottest arguments was about bringing a bike lane to Prospect Park West. Park Slope next to Prospect Park happens to be a nice and expensive neighbourhood. Prospect Park West on the other hand didn’t seem heavily trafficked at all when we went there one Friday afternoon, one of the busiest rush hours of the week. Clearly the bike lane has not been the disaster opponents were expecting, even though a former 3-lane street was transformed to a 2-laner. Actually quite the opposite has happened, since the number of accidents has decreased and traffic flow has improved, as Jeff Speck tells in his book Walkable City.

NYC (285).JPGProspect Park West.2012guidance_protectedcycletrackNYC’s Department of Traffic has worked closely with NACTO in creating street design principles. Here is an example from NACTO’s Urban Bikeway Design Guide 

Broadway bike lane and plazas

In 2008, the vehicle lanes of one of the most prominent and central streets of NYC, Broadway, were narrowed down to make room for a bike lane. Simultaneously, a series of plazas were created in the corners where diagonal Broadway meets avenues from Times Square to Union Square. In some of these plazas all motored vehicle traffic is forbidden.

NYC (552).JPGCycling in Broadway.

In action it seemed that the bike lanes and plazas slowed the motored traffic down a bit, but at the same time speeded up cycling tremendously. The sense of safety, which I very much appreciate, was better than in most streets of Helsinki. Plazas were cozy and popular places to sit down, even though they looked temporary (on purpose). It was actually hard to imagine Broadway how it must have looked like before the change.

PLACES0.jpgPlaza and a Citi Bike station along Broadway.

Biking environment in general

Subway stations are usually about ten streets or roughly one kilometer apart, and they run effectively only towards downtown both in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Luckily New York City has a Citi Bike system since 2013 and we decided to give it a try.

citibike.JPGAdjusting a Citi Bike.

Citi Bike was super easy to use and we found it affordable. You can choose between a 1-day pass, a 3-day pass or a yearly membership. You find the whole station map on their website. As usually in shared bike systems, you have to return the bike within a half an hour, but you can take as many rides as you want to. Citi Bikes are apparently popular in work commuting. During rush hour and near big workplaces Citi Bike stations were sometimes empty, but otherwise there was always a bike to rent.

We explored the city by bike several times. The combination of subway and Citi Bike worked seamlessly together and we didn’t have to walk in the heat any more than necessary. Manhattan traffic culture was quite forgiving towards cyclists and car traffic was so slow that fears quickly disappeared. It felt different to cycle in less central areas of Brooklyn, where driver is still clearly the king.

NYC (389).JPGCycling in Midtown Manhattan.

All in all, New York City has succeeded making cycling a real, approachable option in commuting and moving in the city. This has happened in just a few years, and the walking environment has improved a lot at the same time. We have a bike boom in Finland as well, so let’s keep it growing! If change  is possible in NYC, it is possible anywhere!

– Laura


NYC 2016: Visiting local planners pt.2

WSP – Parsons Brinckerhoff visit

Our second chance to meet local planners was at my current (and Laura’s former) employer, WSP – Parsons Brinckerhoff’s local office in NYC. The NYC office’s history has its background in Parsons Brinckerhoff, which was founded in NYC in 1884 and merged with WSP group in 2014. PB has a long history of projects in NYC, as one of their early projects was NYC’s original IRT subway line which was opened in 1904. So we got a chance to visit a company whose designs we had also experienced as users during our trip.

newport_bridge.jpgWe crossed the Newport Bridge, which is designed by Parsons Brinckerhoff.

We had a casual meeting where we exchanged ideas about current urban planning and design topics in Finland and in the US and our approaches on design.  The contexts and scales vary of course, but a lot of the issues behind our assignments are the same at the moment. We both have projects dealing with freeway removal, transit oriented design, walkability and street transformations. These are of course global trends, so it is not that big of a surprise. But since this was a meeting between two units within the same company, we didn’t have to market ourselves.We could also talk about our daily practice and the difficulties in it openly. And surprisingly, a lot of the everyday challenges were so similar as well!

Besides the projects, the meeting was of course about cultural exchange within a global company. When you give or see presentations abroad it is not only interesting to see what is presented, but also how it is presented. We dare to say that we are at least decent presenters by Finnish standards, but we realized there’s a lot to be learned from the way US professionals present their work. They present even the every-day projects with such a confidence that many times you would expect to see something really groundbreaking, yet you don’t get the feeling of exaggeration.  I think it just shows that they take the project seriously and do it with pride. There is something endearing in our way of being (too) humble in Finland when we talk about our work, but a pinch of self-confidence wouldn’t hurt.

WSP-PB in NYC has a great midtown location which offered us a peak into the daily office life in those busy quarters. After seeing their work environment, we also got an invitation to see their after-work environment in a nearby restaurant. While the atmosphere in the initial meeting was already laid back and welcoming, it was also nice to see the ties loosen up a bit and get to know the people a bit more.

-Tomi & Laura