"Today we look at traffic like it’s the weather—a force of nature,” observed Aaron Naparstek, the moderator and organizer of the forum. “But that’s not so. It’s a human-made problem.” Several creative examples from other cities were cited during the evening: London minimizes car traffic with congestion pricing. Paris turns an expressway into a waterfront urban beach. Copenhagen prizes bicycles. Bogota, Colombia builds lanes for bus rapid transit (BRT). Even downtrodden Detroit has built a park around a downtown crossroads. A current exhibit at the Municipal Art Society emphasizes Livable Streets.
The Atlantic Yards angle
The forum, sponsored by the Park Slope Civic Council drew more than 200 people on a chilly night to the Old First Reformed Church. The topic was far broader than the Atlantic Yards project, though both developer Forest City Ratner and the city Department of Transportation (DOT) declined to participate, saying that “the discussion was maybe premature,” PSCC President Lydia Denworth told the crowd. (Later, she told me that both entities had said they were waiting for the Empire State Development Corporation to release a Draft Environmental Impact Statement regarding the project.)
City Council Member David Yassky, who at the ESDC scoping hearing in October testified cautiously about Atlantic Yards, got to speak before the panel began and declared, “This is far from premature. This is exactly what we need to be doing right now. I think the traffic and parking issues… are a first-order obstacle.” Even if the scale of the project can be reduced and the community benefits can be locked in, he said, “unless there’s a serious and concrete plan” regarding traffic, “I think the project has to be resisted on that ground alone.”
The DEIS will address some of the issues, Yassky said, “but I don’t want to count on it…. We have to demand from the city some fairly big responses.” Also present were several other public officials or their representatives, and representatives from borough and city agencies.
Public spaces, not auto spaces
Flatbush Avenue and Downtown Brooklyn came in for much criticism—even as the nearby brownstone neighborhoods remain lures. “This is one of the greatest challenges I’ve seen in a major city, trying to restore a core area that’s been dominated by traffic,” declared Fred Kent, president of the Project for Public Spaces (PPS). “I can’t think of any intersection in the core of Brooklyn that’s comfortable to walk through.”
Still, he offered a sign of progress. “There are no great public spaces in Downtown Brooklyn,” he said, but a director of an unnamed Brooklyn Local Development Corporation had invited PPS in for a meeting to begin to address that.
Like other panelists, Kent suggested that other states—not merely European cities—were far ahead of New York. “We’ve trained 600 traffic engineers in New Jersey,” he said. “No project in New Jersey can be scoped out without placemaking.” He said that traffic engineers in New York typically take a “project approach,” which looks at issues narrowly. A “place-driven approach,” by contrast, invites community input and a broader perspective.
"The DOT is not into this idea,” Kent said. “They can be brought in, with enough pressure.” Jon Orcutt, Executive Director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign criticized the city’s transportation policy as “muddle through, hope nothing really bad happens, and give developers what they want.”
Orcutt pointed out that the Downtown Brooklyn Traffic Calming Study was still on the shelf, and that the rezoning of Downtown Brooklyn and the Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront “took place with virtually no thought of transportation.” Only subsequent pressure from influential entities in Downtown Brooklyn led to a follow-up traffic study.
“We just came through a political campaign where traffic and transportation did not register one blip on the screen,” Orcutt said, contrasting New York with the political maturity of London, where candidates competed to promise they’d get cars of the street. One of the problems, Orcutt said, is that authority is spread across a multitude of city and state agencies
But the solution, he said, “is appreciating how bare-knuckled New York City politics and blame the mayor.” It can work. Activists from car-choked Staten Island got Mayor Bloomberg to put traffic there near the top of his agenda, and in his State of the City address delivered at SI’s Snug Harbor on January 26, the mayor announced that he had given city agencies 60 days to produce new traffic initiatives for a growth management task force.
Some kind of Brooklyn transportation coalition will have to create an agenda for Brooklyn, he said, and indeed, the meeting last night was just a start; panelists will be making presentations before other civic groups. One of the first thing such a coalition must do, Orcutt said, is to “get a real picture of the impacts of development.” He said the city pattern, for the West Side Stadium and other such projects, is to “give the developer what they want” and then adjust the impacts on the EIS.
And Orcutt had some cautiously optimistic words regarding Atlantic Yards. “I have a bit of a better feeling from the Ratner EIS, which is not a city project.” Why, he was asked later. Because the developer seems to have a greater grasp on some of the challenges: “From talking to them, they understand the issue of transit access to the site.” Yes, but the numbers deserve some more explanation.
Earlier, Kent took a swipe at Frank Gehry, architect for the Atlantic Yards plan, quoting Gehry as having said, “I don’t do context.” Gehry’s creations “may be placeholder icons,” Kent said, but “they’re placeless buildings.”
Practical steps, bold steps
Karla Quintero, project coordinator of Transportation Alternatives, provided a preview of a new study, titled “Traffic’s Human Toll: How Cars and Trucks Affect New Yorkers’ Quality of Life.” The results not unsurprisingly show that people living on lightly-trafficked streets find their environments more pleasant than those living on heavily-trafficked streets.
A Brooklyn transportation coalition would have a lot to talk about. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Naparstek pointed out, is studying the possibility of Bus Rapid Transit on Flatbush Avenue: “This is the kind of thing we can get behind.”
A residential parking program is also a possibility, especially since the Atlantic Yards project could generate intense demands for parking spaces.. Orcutt said citizens must pressure their elected officials, “but you don’t want a study… You need to say: ‘we want a test.’”
One questioner lamented that Grand Army Plaza is inaccessible to pedestrians because of high-speed traffic. "It would be a great question for DOT," Naparstek observed, but Kent had a more audacious suggestion: close streets around it as a test, and see what happens. After all, Paris creates a beach every summer.
Where do the cars actually go, when a city closes streets? "The traffic disappears," Kent responded. "They realize they can get there other ways." Orcutt followed up, saying, "The infrastructure tells you what to do." Easier said than done in Brooklyn, but expect the conversations to continue.