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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.

FTGMlogo4webIn 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.

Paul White.
[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.

Elizabeth Press is a Filmmaker for Streetfilms. She joined Streetfilms in 2007 to focus her video work on advocating for better biking, walking and mass transit.

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  • What up Buttercup?

    I am down with the teachings of Paul Steely White.

  • Jon

    Really enjoyed this one in particular. I look forward to more in this Fixing the Great Mistake series. Thanks!!!

  • http://cartky.org Dave in KY

    Is that Matthew Modine?

  • http://ibikelondon.blogspot.com MarkA

    Bravo! This is a superb film; the fact that he is sitting on all that remains of the Park on Park Ave tells you everything you need to know about how wrong things have gone and how hungry the world is to fix this kind of thing. Superb.

  • sebastiao

    New York should look more closer to what other cities are doing concerning this issue, some cities of south and central america, asia and europe can inspire you...

  • Lee Goode

    It was a great mistake to let cars take over and it's good to see that we're beginning to realize this. Now, how do we convince everybody else?

  • Joakim Bjerhem

    Great film - It's all quite simple. But let's not forget the importance of density - We need increased density in the suburbs to make public transport economically feasible! Increase density, increase public space and fewer car lanes and we've solved it all, in Stockholm as well as New York City

  • ga73

    Awesome video-- I just wish the rest of the United States can understand how great it is to live in a place like New York City which is slowly taking back the city. I live in a place that is progressive (Ithaca in upstate NY) and kinda understands the importance of fewer cars, but the instinct is always to defer to making things more car-friendly.

  • bansheecle+

    Great piece/love the effort! Just a fyi - 1:04 in the video, that's an aerial view of Terminal Tower complex in downtown Cleveland.

  • http://www.streetfilms.org/ Elizabeth Press

    bansheecle+ thanks for the good eye. Video has been updated. I should have looked closer at the opening sequence of the Arteries of New York. http://www.archive.org/details/Arteries1941

  • http://www.vision42.org Roxanne Warren

    A perfect little film -- it says it all!

  • http://www.vision42.org Roxanne Warren

    A perfect little film -- it says it all !

  • Jim Denny

    I believe you're mistaken in regards the NYC administration's efforts to make the City more bike friendly. I've ridden in the City since 1981 and what the City does for bicyclists is just tinsel and white wash. Bike lanes in Manhattan are ignored by drivers and pedestrians and not enforced bu the police. They give a false sense of security to bicyclists.
    Making street areas into pedestrian areas seems more an effort to make the City more "European" and cater to tourists, which is still the #1 industry in the City, and less about making the City more habitable for bicyclists and pedestrians.
    If the City was trying to make the City less friendly to vehicles why did it not pass the bridge toll idea of balancing the budget? Instead pedestrians need to pay for it - the extra 50-cent tax on all taxi rides. It's not the vehicle that's being taxed, it's the pedestrian who doesn't have a car and needs to hire a taxi.
    If the City wanted more people to ride bikes why did they do away with 95% of the bicycle parking in NYC? Because they wanted more space to park cars. TA has stated that the City removed all the sidewalk parking meters because they found that more vehicles would fit in a block without the meters as a guide or limit.
    Gon't think these new "pedestrian/bicyclist friendly" initiatives are anything other than ways for the City to make money. There hasn't been a decrease of motor vehicles in NYC but there has been a decrease in bicycles in the past two years.

  • http://www.coastalsurvey.com Rob

    Right on! Car-centric development is dead and doesn't know it yet. Every bike lane and greenway built in this city points the way to a smarter future.

    Small cities all over the US and around the world look to NYC for innovation. We should show them how it's done.

  • Lou Rubin

    Paul is a true visionary who is helping make the world a better place. I bicycle EVERY day and it is the most beautiful way to live in harmony with the world and the city.

  • kari

    Paul Steely White you are one awesome man. Great video. I think if everyone hopped on a bike and remembered how much fun it is to ride them, the world would be a better place.

  • Frank Kalinski

    This is an open invitation to the City of Detriot, a city that has been destroyed by the automobile. We are now de-populating vast areas of "Motown" because we can not support them with basic water, sewer, police and fire services.

    And now we want to build a light rail line with very limited stops on Woodward Avenue but the working poor and those that don't have the ability to drive can't get a bus.

    We still have a two bus systems here in the "D". One in the City and one in the suburbs. A strange monument to our troubled past.

    But its a blank slate! You need to come to the Detroit area and see the width of the roads: use Google Earth on Highland Park, MI between Six Mile and Manchester streets where the original Ford plant still sits vacant: 8 lanes wide!

  • http://www.nycewheels.com Bert

    I agree, Paul Steely White - you are one awesome man..

    If you could figure out how to clone yourself, like 10 times, we would be living in an even more significant, wonderful city very soon.

    Keep up the great work, love your videos.
    I always post them on our blog at: http://site.nycewheels.com/blog/tag/transportation-alternatives/

  • mary beth kelly, Upper West Side Streets Renaissance

    Thank you, Streetfilms and Elizabeth for yet another terrific video which really gets the enlightened word out so well! Well done, Paul Steely White!

  • Jingles

    At LAST!!! Someone has seen the light and is spreading the word that PEOPLE COUNT. Our village is in the process of a traffic calming streetscape project. The intention is to do just exactly what is presented in this video.

  • http://www.carfreebaltimore.com Mark

    Excellent. City streets should become the living rooms of neighborhoods once again.

  • Bertie Phillips

    You da man!! Steely this is a really great ~ terrific movie. Keep me posted. Bertie