Urban Idealist

The musings of an urban planning student living in Jersey City.

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As many of you know, PARK(ing) Day was celebrated in communities around the world this past Friday, September 20th. It’s an annual event that invites people to turn on-street parking spaces into parks, cafes, art installations, and other creative public uses for the day. 

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I actually participated in two this year — Manhattan on 6th Ave & West 3rd St during the day (above) and Jersey City on Grove & Wayne (below) in the evening. Admittedly, we don’t have the snazziest parks ever. If you want to see more of those, check out flickr.

What I love most about the event is that it starts conversations. People walking, biking, and driving by are naturally curious about why a bunch of people are hanging out in the street. It gets people thinking about the amount of public space given to cars. According to PlaNYC, roads cover 36% of Manhattan before accounting for parking! PARK(ing) Day is another opportunity to see what an alternative use of that space could look like. 

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In Jersey City, PARK(ing) Day also ended up being a good way of meeting new allies. When a local bar owner saw that a bike advocacy group was occupying a spot near his establishment, he came over to introduce himself and seek our help. It turns out he had been going to the city every year for the past four years to try to convince them to let him put a bike rack in front of his bar. He had worked with some folks to come up with a nice design and offered to pay for it and install it himself. 

Now for the hang up. Apparently the Historic Preservation Commission doesn’t feel that a bike rack belongs in a historic district, which his bar happens to be located in. Isn’t that absurd? So here is this business owner, so convinced that providing bike facilities for his patrons is worthwhile that each year he works to try to rally more support in hopes of eventually winning approval. As unfortunate as this situation is, I must say I am extremely happy about the tide shift this signals. More and more businesses are realizing that accommodating bicyclists makes business sense. 

Part of a bicycle safety campaign by Metro in Los Angeles. Separated bike lanes and bike signals are important, but I don’t discount the positive effect of more signage and awareness. I’d love to see more of these everywhere! 

If you follow my Twitter feed, you might get the impression that I do a lot of biking. Well let me clear that up for you — I really don’t. What I am is a bicycle enthusiast, an advocate for safer streets and bike-friendly design, who has been too fearful and anxious of riding city streets on my own to make it a part of my daily life.

You may recall the typology of cyclists developed by Portland’s bicycle coordinator. Well for most of my life, I’ve felt like I fit squarely in the “Interested but Concerned” category, preferring to ride recreationally in parks or as part of organized group rides. 

And then Portland happened. 

Alex (my “Strong and Fearless” cyclist boyfriend) and I took a trip to Portland this past June. Biking in Portland was so stress-free compared to biking in New York or New Jersey — cars yielded; loads of bicycling infrastructure and signage made it clear that bikes should be on the road; there were plenty of bike racks near shopping & restaurants; and perhaps most importantly, tons of other people on bicycles all the time! We also happened to be in town during Pedalpalooza and caught a super geeky ride led by Portland’s own traffic engineer. He’s doing some great things with bicycle signaling throughout the city. 

Needless to say, Alex and I did most of our sightseeing the Portland way — by bicycle. It was so thoroughly delightful to ride from place to place by bike. It was certainly way better (and cheaper) than renting a car and driving, and much quicker than relying on just public transit and walking. I think it’s fair to say that Portland got me hooked on cycling for everyday purposes and put me on a mission to change my cyclist typology. 

Even though we were coming home to a much less bike-friendly place (Jersey City currently boasts just one 5-block bike lane), Portland inspired me to get even more involved in advocacy efforts and to start confronting my fears of riding in NY/NJ traffic. Over the past several weeks, I’m proud to say that I’ve made definite strides in the direction of being an “Enthused and Confident” rider. I’m excited to share my experiences and stories here on Tumblr along the way! 

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Me in Portland with my bike rental from Everybody’s Bike Rentals (highly recommend checking them out if you’re ever in Portland!)

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… sprawling cities can have traffic fatalities at twice the rate of compact cities. 

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In preparation for Hurricane Sandy hitting the East Coast, all transit has come to a halt. Here are photos of some of the busiest transit hubs in NYC in a way you never see them — empty! 

As an urban planning student and environmentalist, I often find myself thinking about cars — why we have them, why we subsidize them, what makes us give them up in favor of other modes of transportation. 

Most recently, it was my mother who reminded me just how deep our car culture runs. 

About two years ago, my brother got in an accident on the New Jersey turnpike and totaled his car (no injuries, luckily). Knowing that he was about to start student teaching in Delaware and wouldn’t be able to get around easily without a car, my mom helped him out in buying a new one. Always wanting to be fair, she told me she’d give me the same amount towards replacing my car, which she thought was way overdue for an upgrade. Granted, I had been driving the same ‘98 Ford Contour since I was 16. It’s been to Florida and back, and driven many miles in between. The gas gauge, speedometer, and odometer rarely work. The trunk leaks. It had definitely seen better days. 

But here’s the thing. Over a year ago I moved to Brooklyn, NY. I don’t need a car, and I really don’t want one. In fact, I don’t ever really see myself needing my own car again. Yet despite my protesting, my mom kept that old Ford Contour parked in her driveway for month after month, just in case I came to my senses and decided that life without a car was too much to bear. After telling her for the bazillionth time that walking, biking, and public transit were all I needed, she finally gave the car away to a mechanic down the block. 

So remember that extra money she set aside for me for a new car? Well, it’s just sitting in an account somewhere. I could use it tomorrow if I were to change my mind and decide to buy a car. My mom just can’t let go of the idea that in order to have a perfectly fulfilled life, I need 4 wheels under me. Meanwhile, there are a ton of other things I could use a little extra monetary help with (ahem, NYU tuition). It’s one thing to decide you’re the type of person who can live a carfee life, but it takes a bit more discipline to have money for a new car staring you in the face and still declining. (Don’t worry - I’m holding strong!) I’ve just been caught off-guard by how insistent my mom has been, as she’s generally not so insistent about anything. It’s a reminder that it really is still a tough battle to convince folks that as a society, we are all too reliant on cars when there are so many other options available. 

I have been admiring this piece of subway art on my daily commute on the F since it was installed, and I just found this excellent video of the artist, Sophie Blackall, explaining her work. She truly captures the richness and diversity of life one encounters in a subway car. 

I also love that she has illustrated Craigslist’s Missed Connections posts. I need to get my hand on a copy of that book! 

Excuse the hiatus. Life has been busy indeed. 

I’m hoping that I’ve given myself enough of an adjustment period and will now be able to update this more regularly. 

Being that research is my life now, I thought it’d be appropriate to share a quote I recently came across that I quite like: 

"All advances in scientific understanding, at every level, begin with a speculative adventure, an imaginative preconception of what might be true - a preconception which always, and necessarily, goes a little way (sometimes a long way) beyond anything which we have logical or factual authority to believe in. It is the invention of a possible world, or of a tiny fraction of that world. The conjecture is then exposed to criticism to find out whether or not that imagined world is anything like the real one. Scientific reasoning is therefore at all levels an interaction between two episodes of thought - a dialogue between two voices, the one imaginative and the other critical; a dialogue, if you like, between the possible and the actual, between proposal and disposal, conjecture and criticism, between what might be true and what is in fact the case."

Medawar (1972) 

On the heels of a recently released report in Injury Prevention Journal, the Department of Public Safety at NYU just sent out a Community Safety Alert about the dangers of walking while wearing headphones or earbuds. In fact, this report has been widely circulated by local and national media all week. In NYU’s statement, they cited the fact that “accidents involving people hit by vehicles while wearing earbuds have tripled since 2004.” 

Now that does sound pretty alarming, doesn’t it? 

Well, maybe it will sound less alarming when you consider that these 116 incidents only make up about 0.3% of all pedestrian fatalities during that time period. 

Transportation for America does a great job of illuminating one of the major reasons why pedestrians continue to fall victim to the streets (hint: it has to do with the car-centric design of our towns and cities). 

It’s always worthwhile to be aware of your surroundings, and I personally try not to walk or bike with earbuds in, but the coverage of this report has just been ridiculous and a distraction from the real problem: The prevalence of unsafe walking conditions throughout our country. 

My individual board for our final Intro to Urban Design project. I focused on improvements to 116th St in Harlem as part of our overall vision to better connect East & West.