A Big Future for Small Changes

In the science-fiction future of my youth, advanced civilizations solved all their transportation troubles with amazing gadgets like flying cars, teleportation machines, hoverboards and jetpacks. Even today, in the New York City of my adulthood, some folks are still searching for that singular, silver-bullet solution to traffic. The kid in me wishes them all the luck in the galaxy.

But the advocate with his sleeves rolled up would like to direct them to a series of new studies showing how a suite of small, low-cost modifications are remaking some of New York City’s biggest streets, helping to tame traffic, increase safety, boost business and foster healthier lifestyles.

Little changes like protected bike lanes, pedestrian islands, wider sidewalks, narrower car lanes, parking layouts that don’t obstruct sightlines, and even bus lanes and enforcement cameras are changing the way New Yorkers live, shop and travel, particularly on the wide, heavily-trafficked thoroughfares that engineers call “arterial streets.”

The portions of First, Second, Eighth and Ninth avenues that have some, or all, of these treatments now have injury and fatality rates between 37 and 56 percent lower than streets that don’t. Citywide, a reduction like that would mean 100 fewer traffic-related deaths and 30,000 fewer injuries every year.

The same stretches of street, which now have room for more people, are attracting shoppers and investment, yielding double-digit growth in local retail activity and bolstering property values. Many of the businesses that once opposed these changes are now their biggest boosters.

The enhancements are also paying for themselves: the small capital outlays associated with their construction are recouped through fewer lawsuits and reduced emergency service costs (which a recent study by the City pegged at $4.29 billion annually).

More than any one gizmo ever could, these simple “complete street”-style modifications to arterial thoroughfares are making a huge impact on New York City’s future. In the coming months and years, Transportation Alternatives will fight for their expansion. Our medium-term goal is to build two complete street arterials in every borough. Imagine a city of big streets transformed into havens for walking, bicycling, better bus service, local commerce, social interaction and play.

It’s not quite a hoverboard future, but it’s a lot more useful. And it’s coming soon.


Paul Steely White
Executive Director
Transportation Alternatives