Fixing the Great Mistake: Autocentric Development
"Fixing the Great Mistake" is a new Streetfilms series that examines what went wrong in the early part of the 20th Century, when our cities began catering to the automobile, and how those decisions continue to affect our lives today.
In this episode, Transportation Alternatives director Paul Steely White shows how planning for cars drastically altered Park Avenue. Watch and see what Park Avenue used to look like, how we ceded it to the automobile, and what we need to do to reclaim the street as a space where people take precedence over traffic.
[0:07] I am sitting on what is left of the park of Park Avenue. As its name might imply, Park Avenue used to be a real park. In the late '20's, early '30's it became all cars, all the time. This happened throughout New York City. Whereas before, our streets were really like the living rooms of New York. Where people interacted and kids played and people walked.
[0:30] In the '30's and '40's, virtually all major streets in New York were widened, so that the sidewalks that used to be 20, 25 feet wide, become 15 and 10 feet wide. And what's interesting is that there were a lot of very heated battles about the future of New York City streets in the earlier part of the 20th century. Where you had residents up in arms about the fact that their stoops were being sheered off to make room for more cars or that entire facades of buildings on 5th Avenue had to be built back.
[1:00] This was a wrong turn that New York made. It didn't have to be this way. We didn't have to turn over all of our public space to the motor vehicle. You would be very hard pressed to find an accredited urban planner or architect who believes that we should continue this pattern of auto-centered development in our cities. Virtually everyone now understands that we need to turn it back the other way. Right now in New York is a very exciting time because we have an administration at the Department of Transportation and a permissive mayor who's really allowing the DOT to reclaim some key parts of the city.
[1:33] And what's happening in Times Square, what's happening with the Bike Network being expanded. What's happening with more block parties and street closures giving people a taste of what their lives could be like every day of the year if our streets were simply designed in a portion for the majority.
[1:50] The big question is, will this continue? Will we see this continued reclamation of New York City's streets? I think that the cat's out of the bag. I don't think we're going to go back to the days when it was all car, all the time. The only question in my mind is, how quickly this is going to happen and if the streets are going to be reclaimed soon enough to really stem a lot of the environmental problems that we're seeing and also to be enough of an inspiration for the world.
[2:14] Peace Meal improvements here and there will not a revolution make. We need to transform New York. If New York can do it, the world is watching. I think right now, what we're seeing around the world is really the consequences of New York taking that wrong turn. A lot people don't know that Robert Moses worked all over the world. His highway and automobile-centric urban planning was replicated in Sao Paulo where he worked very directly.
[2:38] But really throughout the world, where everyone thought the future of cities was all about the car. So now we have a real opportunity and I think responsibility to the rest of the world because of the wrong turn that we helped everyone else make. And show that vibrant, business-friendly, happy urban life is really about streets that are inviting to people on foot and on bike and that give all residents a decent transit alternative.
[3:04] That's something I think we need to do better as a movement, is understanding that a lot of people in New York do rely on their cars because the bus sucks in their neighborhood. They live a half hour bus ride from the subway and so we need to bring good quality transit service to all corners of the city. But what's been proposed to date is certainly not radical. We're talking about giving the majority people on foot and on transit a little more room to breathe.
[3:29] I'm confident that Times Square and some of these other public plazas and biking experiments are going to show the way for a more thorough reclamation of the streets of New York.