This driverless transit proposal will bring 24 miles of park to New York
While everyone seems mesmerized by increasingly Jetsonian images of what the impending driverless car revolution will look like, one young firm, who’s DNA - somewhat ironically - is utterly steeped in technology, has instead turned their attention to the seismic societal shifts that this technology could provide.
Rather than submitting to comic book fantasy, Edg has taken a hard and thoughtful look at how we might be able to harness this coming technology in a way that could actually restore so much of what we've lost in our careless rush towards expansion.
They have calculated, with incredible deliberation, how to maximize the use of driverless cars for public transit in a way that not only separates them a bit from the general traffic thereby minimizing initial safety concerns, but have calculated a shockingly implementable way to add more than 200 acres of green space running the length of Manhattan, completely exploding urban life as we know it.
While that kind of dramatic urban greening may feel like a quixotic dream for most veteran New Yorkers, Edg details a surprisingly practicable approach.
Taking advantage of existing infrastructure, Edg has designed an elegantly simple “micro-highway” named Loop NYC. By reserving one lane of major cross streets (initially 14th, 23rd, 42nd 57th, 86th and 110th) and one lane in each direction on both the FDR and the West Side Highways for autonomous-only public transit, they propose to harness the resulting efficiencies of this coming technology to provide an inexpensive, reliable, sustainable and infinitely expandable mode of transportation.
While we have no empirical data with which to calculate what this new technology will bring, Edg calculates that the trip from Grand Central to lower Manhattan, traditionally a 40-minute ride, could be completed in 11 minutes. This could save the average New Yorker an average of 30 minutes on their daily commute, which, over the course of a lifetime, would yield the return of a full year.
THE RESULTING PARK:
With the increased ease of commute both from the outer boroughs, and within Manhattan, the number of cars entering the city and clogging our streets would diminish, alleviating traffic that would enable NYC to reclaim two streets to create a park running the 13 mile length of Manhattan. Beginning in Battery Park, the pedestrian green would split at Union Square, continuing north on both Broadway and Park Avenue.
THE COSTS OF URBANIZATION:
While ambitious, there is precedent internationally, within the U.S. and in NYC for the success of such a bold reclamation.
Urbanists like Jan Gehl and Peter Calthorpe have, for decades, extolled the virtues of pedestrian driven streets, and urbanization has long been as considered a potential threat to mental health and wellbeing. Our increasing awareness of both the benefits and risks has provided the impetus to reclaim areas for pedestrian malls, and park space. Portland, which leads the nation in urban greening, is only now beginning to quantify the impact of environmental policies on the health of its citizens.
But this is not a new concept. In fact, a study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, drawn from 18 years of panel data from more than 10,000 participants explored the psychological health of individuals over time and the relationship between urban green space, wellbeing and mental distress. Findings show that urban green space can deliver surprisingly significant benefits for mental wellbeing.
In comparative terms, living in an area with higher levels of green space was associated with improvements in our wellbeing indicators roughly equal to a third of that gained from being married, or a tenth as large as being employed vs. unemployed, which is a staggering statistic.
Even as NYC endeavors concertedly to catch up on urban greening—Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2014 Community Parks Initiative has been a hopeful (if inadequate) step in the right direction—the city stacks up poorly against other major urban centers (particularly on the international stage).
Indeed, in a recent/much-talked-about MIT analysis of 20 large cities, New York scored a meager 13.5% on researchers’ Green View Index, ranking third to last in degree of canopy cover — a metric measuring the amount aboveground trees and vegetation perceivable by the average pedestrian.
SOLUTIONS HERE AND ABROAD:
Globally, many cities have done a much better job of addressing this increasingly important issue. From Spain’s installation of superblocks – multiple 9 block areas closed to vehicles, to Paris, where the Mayor has banned cars on more than two miles of the Right Bank, and on to Hamburg, Madrid, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Zurich, all currently prohibit cars on major avenues in the city centers.
Here in NYC, we have largely focused our restrictions upon the creation of pedestrian malls, which, while wildly successful by many measures, do not add additional green space. As of 2016, 53 pedestrian plazas had been built across NYC, and 20 more were currently under construction, totaling 27 acres. On Broadway, which Edg proposes closing to vehicles completely, there are already more than 30 blocks of pedestrian malls.
TESTING THE IDEA:
When then Mayor Bloomberg initially instituted Green Light for Midtown, it was determined that the diagonal path of Broadway cutting in to the Manhattan street grid, actually slowed travel time. The DOT, tasked with finding new ways to increase both pedestrian safety and traffic flow, decided to ban vehicles in both Times and Herald Squares. They found that, despite the increased traffic on 6th and 7th avenues, travel times actually decreased.
DOT collected and analyzed extensive data from GPS units in taxis to understand the impacts on this project for travel in and around midtown. Findings show:
Travel speeds for northbound trips throughout West Midtown improved 17%, compared with 8% in East Midtown, which was unaffected by the project
The speed of eastbound trips increased by 5% and westbound trips by 9% over the same time period.
Bus travel speeds increased by 13% on Sixth Avenue and fell by only 2% on Seventh Avenue.
Safety has also been vastly improved as a result of this project.
Injuries to motorists and passengers in the project area went down 63%.
Pedestrian injuries went down 35%.
And the project has had additional benefits as well.
The number of people walking along Broadway and 7th Avenue in Times Square went up 11% and pedestrian volume went up 6% in Herald Square.
CENTRAL PARK AND THE HIGH LINE:
We have long recognized and valued our green spaces and the enormous benefits that places like Central Park provide to the city’s inhabitants and visitors. As the most visited urban park in the United States, (with 40 million visitors in 2013), it’s 843 acres were estimated by property appraisal firm Miller Samuel to be about $528.8 billion in December of 2005, so one can only guesstimate it’s current worth. Yet, there has never been even a whisper about developing it, because its impact is unquestioned, and incalculable.
At two and a half miles long and a half a mile wide, this cherished parcel of green space is high on any list of what makes NY livable. Yet, because of it’s location, enormous swaths of Manhattanites don’t have easy access. As real estate prices around the perimeters of parks continue to skyrocket, this only adds to NYC’s tremendous imbalance in access to quality of life amenities.
Most architects are intimately aware of this vexing problem, and are trying to fix it, usually one building at a time. ODA has made a particular mission of creating these quality of life amenities across the economic spectrum, from public housing, affordable rentals and, of course, extremely high end residential. But easy access to this life altering amenity remains primarily a benefit bestowed upon those that have the means pay for it, and pay for it they do. Outdoor price PSF can run up to 50% the cost of indoor space.
And while no one will dispute the remarkable success of the High Line, the surrounding property values have skyrocketed, forcing inhabitants out.
THE WORLDS MOST LIVABLE CITY?
What Edg is proposing, is to create a pastoral park filled with bike paths, trees, and rolling hills over the tunneled cross streets below. On Broadway alone, this would create an uninterrupted 13.3 mile expanse from top to bottom, and by further expanding the median on Park Avenue, pedestrians and cyclists would gain the opportunity to ride or walk almost 24 miles up and down the length of Manhattan, with access never more than six blocks from any of the cities inhabitants.
The endless reverberations from this reclamation would truly upend urban life, as we know it. Aside from the health benefits and quality of life issues derived directly from it’s use, It would also provide environmental benefits like air and water purification, wind and noise filtering, microclimate stabilization, and as we’ve now come to realize the importance post-Sandy, increased drainage. Socially, open space encourages use, which in turn, increases the social integration and interaction among neighbors. Lastly, the economic benefits, from increased pedestrian traffic for the shops and restaurants, air purification by trees that reduces costs of pollution prevention; and, promotion of the city as a tourist destination.
With Edg’s plan, because the area interacting directly with the planned park path is so extended and vast, the quest to finally democratize such a life-altering resource for all of New York City’s inhabitants could truly, for the first time, be achieved, both in NYC, and around the world.
“NYC, like so many urban centers, is facing an imminent infrastructure crisis as the continuous influx of residents will soon be insupportable. As a proactive response to the inevitable driverless vehicle technology, we created a solution that is simultaneously simple and implementable. By automating a portion of the traffic grid with driverless vehicles, we opened some really captivating opportunities to reimagine infrastructure, enabling us to reclaim both Broadway and Park Avenue to create parkland running the length of the island.”
John J. Meyers – Founder and Managing Partner