The official launch of New York CIty's bike share program is approaching quickly and, as expected, opponents are becoming more and more vocal about all the problems that might occur. The New York Times reports, "Bike share was easy for New York City to love in the abstract...But with the program two weeks away, many New Yorkers have turned against bike share." In the case of the bike share, New Yorkers are aggravated for a host of reasons including, though not limited to, the fact that the bike share stands are not exactly what you'd call aesthetically pleasing. And while it's true that these bike stands are obtrusive and have quickly become a popular places for dogs to pee, it is also true (an incontrovertible fact, really) that people hate change. Even though New York might have a reputation as a city that is constantly evolving, New Yorkers are no more predisposed to adapting new things at a more rapid rate than people in other places are.
In fact, New Yorkers might even be less inclined to adapt significant changes. I mean, I still complain constantly about the fact that the traffic signals have a man and a hand instead of the WALK/DON'T WALK of my childhood. But I digress! My feelings on the bike share are of the wait-and-see variety. Am I a little skeptical that New York can handle hundreds of cycling day-trippers on clunky bikes that weigh as much as a golf cart riding all over the city? Sure. But I've also seen how efficiently the program works in Paris of all places, and I have to say, that if Paris can do this, so can we. And, frankly, Paris is an infinitely more beautiful city than New York, so we don't really have the grounds to complain about the aesthetic blight of the bike share, not if Parisians can deal with it. And anyway, there have been many instances in New York City's history when a big public works project was announced, only to encounter widespread opposition. Here are five times in our city's history when a project moved forward without an overwhelming amount of public approval, and ended up changing New York—for better or for worse.
The Commissioner's Plan of 1811
A little over two hundred years ago, the original design plan for Manhattan's streets was finalized, forever defining the grid pattern that is so closely associated with New York all these years later. Many believe it to be "the single most important document in New York City's development" and it is easy to see why. New York had, till that point, been developed in an organic way, the streets were more likely to follow well-trod cow paths than they were to have any semblance of external order. However, the city's population was booming and the financial and commercial possibilities of expanding the city in an orderly, deliberate way were seductive to many of the people who were running the city. Much like the present day bike share, the street grid plan was sold to the population as a public health measure, with the City Council claiming "laying out Streets... in such a manner as to unite regularity and order with the public convenience and benefit and in particular to promote the health of the City ... [by allowing] a free and abundant circulation of air" to prevent the spread of disease.
But, much like the bike share, there were protests by people who can best be classified as "not in my backyard"ers, people like Clement Clarke Moore (famously the author of "Twas the Night Before Christmas"), who protested the grid's affront to Manhattan's natural beauty and, of course, to his own estate, which would be divided up in the plan. Moore said at the time, "The great principle which governs these plans is, to reduce the surface of the earth as nearly as possible to dead level. ... The natural inequities of the ground are destroyed. and the existing water courses disregarded. ... These are men who would have cut down the seven hills of Rome." Moore wasn't the only famous person who hated the plan. Henry James said the grid was nothing less than a "primal topographic curse," and Alexis de Toqueville disparaged the plan for its "relentless monotony."
However, despite these naysayers, the grid persisted and it's hard to imagine the city laid out in any other fashion. I can't even bear to think of how confusing it would be for the millions of tourists—who can't even grasp the simple elegance of the grid system—had to navigate a whole borough laid out like the West Village. Plus, without the grid system, there would never be Manhattanhenge. And Manhattanhenge is amazing. All in all, I think this was a win for the city.
"Greensward Plan" aka the Creation of Central Park
Not long after the implementation of the Commissioner's Plan of 2011, New York City's population quadrupled, and it became clear that the city would need to plan not just for gridded streets, but also for green spaces. The city's legislature approved the idea of a large, 700-acre park in 1853, and architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux were chosen to design the great park based on their "Greensward Plan." Now, while it might seem like such a plan would be relatively uncontroversial—after all, who hates parks?—the path to Central Park was actually full of hurdles. One major hurdle was the fact that people were living on the land where the park was to be constructed. Unfortunately, because the people who lived there were universally poor (many were free African-Americans) they were quickly kicked out and there aren't records of their protests such as we have from Clement Clark Moore and Henry James. The residents of the park were kicked out under the power of eminent domain, their villages and communities were razed, and the park was constructed into a state very similar to what we see and enjoy today. Well, there aren't any sheep in Sheep's Meadow anymore, but otherwise it's very similar.
Was it worth it? I would be inclined to say yes. The tragedy of turning people out of their homes and villages is obviously a considerable one, but the rapacious land-grab that was going on at the time almost certainly means that, without the construction of Central Park, the city would be an unending sea of blocks and buildings. And, instead, there is a stately park which doubles as a bird sanctuary right in the middle of the city. That can't be all bad.
The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway
First of all, everyone should probably stop reading this post right now and go read Robert Caro's The Power Broker and understand all there is to know about how Robert Moses, an unelected official who held an office that had never before wielded significant power, managed to transform the city of New York more than anyone else since the Commissioner's Plan of 1811. One of the biggest achievements (and I use that word loosely) during Moses' tenure, was the construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. This highway was proposed in the 1930s as a way to ease street traffic and actually make life more bearable for residents of the outer-boroughs. And while, theoretically, easing car congestion is a positive, in practice the BQE only encouraged more car traffic in both Brooklyn and Queens. Beyond that, the BQE was erected in the middle of several vibrant neighborhoods, including Williamsburg, Red Hook, and Windsor Terrace, effectively splitting them apart and ruining the formerly cohesive atmosphere in these parts of Brooklyn. Moses was notoriously cold-hearted about the human cost of his projects, but you can't really say that he didn't get things done or that he didn't change the city. He did. But he did it in a way that was corrosive and detrimental to the city that he claimed to be helping.
The Smoking Ban
Just over ten years ago, Mayor Bloomberg began his crackdown on tobacco by enacting a smoking ban which prohibited lighting up in restaurants and bars, effectively ending nightlife as everyone knew it. By which I mean, you could suddenly go home without your clothes reeking of cigarette smoke to such a degree that you had to get out of them the second you stepped inside, thereby being naked and potentially facilitating sex with whatever random person you went home with that night. Basically, Bloomberg stopped everyone from having sex. The end. Well, ok. That's not exactly what happened. In fact, despite all the uproar from bar owners and smokers that New York's economy would lose approximately bazillions of dollars a year and that everything would be terrible forever and ever after the ban was enforced, we're now a solid decade in and people still go out to drink in New York. Not only that, but the Bloomberg administration proudly points to statistics that claim the ban is responsible for "the prevention of roughly 10,000 premature smoking-related deaths, and a 6.7 percent decrease in New York City smokers between 2002 and 2011." Beyond the effect that the smoking ban had on the city's tobacco enthusiasts, this one act foreshadowed the rest of Bloomberg's approximately 800 years in office by demonstrating just how much Bloomberg likes to tell people what to do. And, um, he likes it a lot. Like, way more than is natural. I really wonder how he's going to occupy himself once he's no longer mayor. What's he going to ban? Who will pay attention? So many questions.
Bikes—so controversial! Which is interesting really, because what could be more innocuous than a bike. I mean, children ride them! And yet, whether it's the bike share ruffling feathers or the huge rollout of miles and miles of bike lanes by NYC Dept of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik Khan, bikes cause problems. And one of the biggest trouble-makers of recent years was the introduction of bike lanes all throughout the city—an introduction that forced traffic reconfigurations that were not only designed to facilitate cycling, but also to improve car and pedestrian safety in general. It's a little early on to declare the bike lanes a victory of city planning, but it was definitely the introduction and (grudging) acceptance of these bike lanes that helped make the city bike share program possible. Plus, statistics have shown that even some of the more controversial bike lanes, like the one on Prospect Park West, have objectively improved traffic conditions in the neighborhoods they run through.
Change and evolution are inevitable. And in New York, these changes tend to happen so fast that we don't always realize how they've affected our lives until we already start to take them for granted. It's hard to say what will happen with the bike share program. It's too soon to say whether or not it will prove as popular as it has in other cities where it's been launched, like Washington DC, but we'll find out before too long. It is, of course, important to remember that even though change might be inevitable, it's essential that we practice our civic rights and protest the things that infringe upon our rights in a harmful way. By which I mean, protest corporate greed and unfair zoning laws, not the fact that the bike share stations take up a few of your neighborhood's parking spots. Take the hint, anyway, get rid of your car. That would be the ultimate way to give Robert Moses the finger for the BQE.
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