Livable Streets and Reclaiming Public Space for People (Instead of Automobiles)

One of clearest ways that cities and towns can start to de-couple their economic fates from the addiction to oil is to create alternatives to automobile centric lifestyles. One way that New York and other cities are adapting their land use policies is to reclaim space from automobiles to encourage a rich pedestrian environment that attracts people to sit, relax, walk around their neighborhood or commercial districts

For anyone who is down in the dumps and thinks that nothing can be done to change the car-culture where you are, I hope this post offers a glimmer of hope, optimism and inspiration on what can be done when we re-think our public domain.

Here are a few examples of reclaiming space from automobiles (courtesy of Streetfilms) to create more of a livable streetscape or car-free environment from all around the world.

Madison Square Park

Summer Streets 2008

London Public Spaces Program

Paris Velib Bike Sharing Program

Columbia: Ciclovia Car-Free Streets

Melbourne Livable Streets

Boulder Colorado Goes Platinum Biking

Ocean City New Jersey Calms an Intersection through Public Art

And Finally, a mockumentary about a mythical creature that once inhabited pubic spaces all over the world that may have started it's return from the endangered species list because of all these livable street initiatives: THE ZOZO

There's something subliminally terrifying watching these videos. It is like watching the frog in the boiling water starting to twitch as the temperature begins to rise.
Cities are huge energy-sinks, there is no getting away from it, it is part of their nature. This has that diet-coke-with-the-big-mac kind of futility going on which, combined with that up-beat feeling of the videos makes it disturbing viewing to me.

I lived and worked in NYC back in the 90's and it is a bit disconcerting to see people sitting outside in shirtsleeves in February enjoying the sun. I know that weather is not climate but I left the Big Apple after the Blizzard of 96 to move to Miami Florida. I can remember snow storms in April back in the 80's. Balmy February day just sounds wrong. Still I'd rather have bikes and pedestrian plazas as opposed to private cars in a city space any day.

Sometimes, challenging 'Cities' is as vague as decrying 'Technology'..

We've had cities for millenia. They serve a number of functions, at their varying scales, and represent certain benefits of scale that we don't get from Towns and Villages. They are surely an investment of some of our energy, but this concentration also produces efficiencies not possible in the country. They will have to shift and rescale, many drastically, and some fatally (Vegas?..) But it's a very deeply ingrained part of human society now, and not a product of the Oil Economy.

I have at last, after several months' experience, made up my mind that it is a splendid desert--a domed and steepled solitude, where the stranger is lonely in the midst of a million of his race. A man walks his tedious miles through the same interminable street every day, elbowing his way through a buzzing multitude of men, yet never seeing a familiar face, and never seeing a strange one the second time. He visits a friend once--it is a day's journey--and then stays away from that time forward till that friends cools to a mere acquaintance, and finally to a stranger. So there is little sociability, and consequently, there is little cordiality. Every man seems to feel that he has got the duties of two lifetimes to accomplish in one, and so he rushes, rushes, rushes, and never has time to be companionable--never has any time at his disposal to fool away on matters which do not involve dollars and duty and business.
~Mark Twain 1867

and so, as there will always be cities, there will always be fine folks who have no interest in them, too.

But my wife and I have realized that what we miss the most about our beloved NYC is the hugs. The friends we have there are so affectionate and we connected so well with them, we sometimes wonder how long we'll be able to stay away.


Cities are huge energy-sinks, there is no getting away from it, it is part of their nature.

The same is true (even more so x2) of Suburbia, and also towns and villages and even many farms (cotton, tobacco, feed lots, etc.).

Denser cities are inherently energy efficient/capita.

BTW, New York City has a unique zero energy potable water source.

Best Hopes for Energy Efficient cities,


Denser cities are inherently energy efficient/capita.

Best Hopes for Energy Efficient cities,

We need cities to work. A future where cities don't continue to function isn't worth thinking about. Take the UK, if London can't still support the best part of 10m people in 2030 then we're in too much of a mess to proactively plan for. The 'hills' aren't anywhere near large enough to support the collapse of cities.

I would add my streets in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans. 28' wide (8.5 m), one way, parallel parking on both sides. Speed limit 25 mph and typical speed slightly less. Shared by pedestrians, bicyclists, skateboarders and cars. All in an easy natural way without announced gov't initiatives, etc.

One innovation is not having one way streets alternate direction. Two one way streets may both go the same way.

Best Hopes for shared streets,


Mew Orleans is still Way too auto dependent, w/ grocery stores miles away, etc. That St. Claude Ave, bridge is a terrifying death trap for bikers and too many drunk or indisciplined drivers, far too many massive SUV's and monstrous 6 wheel pickup trucks all driven many miles over the speed limit.

As for NYC, the DOT is always behind the curve. The biggest problem in NYC is the heavy trucks at all hours and on every street. Non- stop tractor trailer use of Canal Street and Broome and 'Cut thrugh' traffic on BQE between New Jersey and New England. Long haul trucks cross the Verrazano Bridge (no toll) and then cross back into Manhattan and north on Madison Avenue/3d Avenue into the Bronx to avoid tolls.

Bloomberg tried to initiate a per- car servive fee for anyone entering Manhattan w/ a car but that was shot down. The best times be be in NYC was during taxi strikes because 1/3 of traffic would disappear. Also after 9/11 when single occupant vehicles were barred from crossing the East River. A lot of changes can and need to be made.

- Install tolls inbound on Verrazano bridge tolls both way on Holland and Lincoln tunnels for trucks.

- Install tolls on East River crossings - ban single occupant autos at all times.

- No cars at all South of 96th Street in Manhattan during the day. People have been crying out for this one for decades.

- Install electric trolley bus transit lanes on BQE, FDR Drive and West End Avenue.

The entire issue is mired in politics:

Residents Demand Relief from Canal Street Trucks

On July 8, more than 100 residents of Tribeca, SoHo, and the West Village attended a meeting with officials from the City's Transportation, Planning, and Police Departments to discuss the growing truck nightmare on Canal Street and in their neighborhoods. Much of the traffic comes from trucks headed from Brooklyn or Long Island to New Jersey via the Holland Tunnel as a way of avoiding the costly toll on the Verrazano Bridge. Angry residents had a whole shopping list of familiar complaints: fatal dangers to pedestrians (especially kids); unhealthy air pollution levels, particularly lung-destroying diesel particulates; noise and vibrations from trucks barreling along their streets; the non-enforcement of rules against oversized trucks; and truck drivers straying from approved routes.

At the meeting, residents, T.A. and elected officials, including Congressman Jerrold Nadler, Councilmember Kathryn Freed, Assemblywoman Deborah Glick and State Senator Tom Duane, denounced the ever-growing Canal Street fiasco and offered a range of solutions, from two-way variable-price tolling on the Verrazano Bridge to new regulations that would limit truck size to a maximum of 33 feet (from 55 feet currently) and stepped-up enforcement of truck routes and size. Representatives from the City provided few answers other than the time honored "we're doing the best we can" and "we'll have to wait and see." T.A. called for an oversized trucks crackdown, and has filed for NYPD's truck enforcement statistics under the Freedom of Information Law.

There is a long way to go, while attractive, the initiative so far are just scratching the surface of the problem. There is no real leadership and the transit authority is proposing major service cuts, meaning more not less auto traffic into the city.

Mew Orleans is still Way too auto dependent, w/ grocery stores miles away, etc. That St. Claude Ave, bridge is a terrifying death trap for bikers and too many drunk or indisciplined drivers, far too many massive SUV's and monstrous 6 wheel pickup trucks all driven many miles over the speed limit.


One, pre-Katrina New Orleans was tied with New York City for the fewest VMT by residents. VERY different urban structure, comparable results.

Latest #s are 3% of New Orleanians bicycle to work.

I have 5 places to buy groceries within 7 blocks, my preferred is Zara's (2nd generation) but Walmart (7 blocks away) has more variety and longer hours.

The flooded areas lost many of their corner grocery stores (and chains too) and that has been one of the slowest parts of the recovery.

St. Claude Avenue was the first Louisiana State Highway to get bike lanes (later widened by 8"). It is a major semi-truck route but now a heavily traveled bicycle route as well (bicycle shop just opened on St. Claude). And has been shown many times elsewhere, heavier bike use = safer bike use. There is a sharrow on the outside lane of the St. Claude bridge now.

I would *MUCH* rather bicycle amongst Big Easy drivers than Big Apple drivers. We are *FAR* more considerate and mindful of others on the road.

Best Hopes for both urban solutions,


Maybe he meant it in a Churchillian vein..

'NYC and NOLA are the World's WORST cities for car and truck traffic, except for all the others.'

My Daughter's very into kitties (5 going on 6).. I think I'll have to introduce her to 'Mew Orleans'.. it'll give me an excuse to make up some Beignets and Chickory Corfee.

When life fails to satisfy, there's always some joy in a good Typo!


Yeah you right. NOLA's Old Urbanism looks a lot like the New Urbanism.

I guess that (not entirely) benign neglect has allowed our 19th century, pre-automobile, city to skip the post-war "development" boom and plunge straight into the future.

We live on one of those narrow one-way uptown streets; two corner groceries, restaurants, bars, cleaners, banks, miscellaneous shops (including two costume shops) within a couple of blocks walking. One block from the bus, four blocks from the streetcar. Half mile to Zara's, but closer to Rouse's market. My experience is that it's easy and safe to bicycle anywhere in the city with the exception perhaps of N.O. East, but including the easily traversed St. Claude Ave bridge.

Car speeds on our street are generally far less than the 25 mph limit due to the traffic calming effects of potholes, rough pavement, and S&WB sinkholes. There are several two-way streets with parking on both sides and barely enough room for a single car to pass - fosters cooperation. Our WalkScore = 94.

Other factors creating useful public space include mixed use areas, mixed income housing, small houses close together (lots of doubles for renters), front stoops and porches near the street behind low iron fences and under shade trees. No need for re-claiming -- it's always been there.

Corner stores took a big hit during the flood, but are coming back even in the flooded parts of Central City. Schools improving (from a terrible bottom); would be an urban paradise if we could get more better jobs and reduce the crime and racism.

I truly love the pictures accompanying this article. Sunny, blue skies, lots of people enjoying themselves - what's not to love.
Not to be a downer, but where is anyone working, producing, making anything other than a video. I'm getting a bit into random association here, but this is looking to me rather like the shadow of Zoning that seems to have been a huge damper on the development of street life in Can/America. I want to have shopping and office and factory and workshops and housing all on the same streets, with commerce and production and daily life and living all interacting on the same streets - not car-free, but not car-infested and auto-intimidated. Someone has to deliver the beer.

The closest approaches to this little utopia of mine were towns in old Europe and Mexico, and usually because they were not rich enough to try and segregate and zone each little activity like some autistic kid playing with toy soldiers (yes, I remember). They could have been cleaner and they could have been quieter, but things were lively and jolly, and it was real life, not a disneyfied version.

One-way streets have always seemed like a direct concession to car culture - less interference, go faster. But narrow is definitely good, and maybe the double parking helps by narrowing the street. And if it works there, let there be no complaints.

Remember, for authentic urban experience: Congestion is a Town's Best Friend.

We have some 28' wide two way streets with parking on both sides. These are "interesting".

All streets are two way for pedestrians and bicyclists often go both ways on one way streets.

Minimum width for ANY modern street is 32' I believe.

Best Hopes for narrow streets,


BTW, there is a small scale (back of store) decorative tile production and praline candy production within 3.5 blocks. And several artists produce art at nearby homes. Commercial diary & bakery within 7 blocks. The port is a mile away. I agree about mixed use (a half square block sheet metal fabrication plant shut down in the French Quarter about 7 years ago, a loss IMHO).

The first video (NYC) shows a bunch of deck chairs, aluminum umbrellas, plastic potting containers... Are these things built to last? Who brings the chairs in at night? How difficult is it to knock over a plastic planter? Is the plastic UV-resistant?

This all looks very temporary to me - maybe just Round One of NYC urban redesign at this intersection. Are these furnishings typical of European public spaces (plastic, aluminum, instead of stone, steel, concrete)?

Bryant park uses some nice Steel Folding Chairs for their Lunch-Crowds.

Baby Steps, Brother. If you're putting out a fire, you might have to start with any old thing that carries water.

I am surprised to see no one has mentioned City Repair .....
and their intersection repairs in particular...
Portland OR has an annual 10 day Village Building Convergence where folks come together to create their own community amenities.

From the website...

'Intersection Repair' is the citizen-led conversion of an urban street intersection into a public square.
The community works together to make the place special. They make it a place where people want to go to, where they feel safe and welcome. They make it beautiful and interesting. They make it meaningful, an expression of their own local culture.
Each Intersection Repair project is the work of neighborhood residents. It is the people who live in the neighborhood who decide that they want the public square, what it will look like, how it will function and how it will develop. One neighborhood may paint a giant mural on the intersection and stop there. Another may go through many phases: painting the street, installing a community bulletin board, building a mini-cafe on a corner, reconstructing the intersection with brick and cobblestones, opening businesses to make it a village center… and on and on!

"The streets of our cities and towns ought to be for everyone, whether young or old, motorist or bicyclist, walker or wheelchair user, bus rider or shopkeeper. But too many of our streets are designed only for speeding cars, or worse, creeping traffic jams. They’re unsafe for people on foot or bike — and unpleasant for everybody.

Now, in communities across the country, a movement is growing to complete the streets. States, cities and towns are asking their planners, engineers and designers to build road networks that welcome all citizens."


In my humble opinion, this will never be overcome. Not here in Southern California.

Too many people in cars.

Too many of them think that they can leave at the last possible second and trim off 5 minutes of their trip by speeding and putting EVERYBODY ELSE'S safety at risk.

Too many of them will NEVER get rid of their cars. EVER.

And nobody is talking about this is open public forums or on tv.

Not gonna happen. Not any time. Never.


Thanks for the refreshing glimpse of reality. It is amusing that we still aren't at the point where autos are purchased based primarily on fuel economy (which would be stage 1) yet the discussion revolves around stage 2, which might arrive in the distant future.

Credit contraction and unemployment mean many of us will skip right past Stage 1. Sure, subcompacts are the cheapest new cars out there, but it's still $15000 that most people don't have, either cash or credit. Forget about $25000 for a hybrid.

Your certainty about this is understandable, but a little amusing.

That 'Never' can turn on a dime.. and that dime is probably less than a decade away.

I suppose nobody ever did take the rifle out of Charlton's cold, dead hands, and he clings to it still, not that it'll do him much good. And at this point, taking it would just be mean.

What do you expect when the "car culture" and its trapping has been pounded into the heads of children from the time they can learn to read, if not sooner?

Why is it that, in California, the greatest day in a young person's life is not their graduation day from high school, but the day they get their driver's license?

This doesn't happen by accident but rather through relentless advertising, both direct and subliminal. It doesn't happen to nearly the same extent in Europe. Why? Gasoline or diesel costs the equivalent of 5-7 dollars a gallon. The people there accept this because they are educated enough to understand that, in return, they get essentially free health care and six weeks of vacation a year, in addition to a workable public transportation system (did I forget to mention a job?)

Until US citizens recognize that half a billion dollars a day disappears from the economy to pay for imported oil they refine and waste driving SOVs, you are absolutely right--the public will always be behind the curve on this, they will listen to the politician that promises them that their way of life is non-negotiable, and vote for these lizards; the heat will keep being added to the pot until everyone is cooked.

It used to be normall in Holland to bring your kid to school either walking or on a bike (ditance < 1.5 km). Now a days they are brought from the same neighbourhood to the same school by car as "there are so many cars it's dangerous for them to cross the street"

People are crazy...

While this sort of thing is certainly a step forward, the fact remains that these cities were designed largely for automobile traffic. I did a long series on Traditional Cities which should illustrate what a true pedestrian environment looks like. Even 19th U.S. century cities (like Manhattan) don't really make it, as there was a trend toward giantism already established even though it predated cars by almost a hundred years.

While Alan's 28-foot roadway is OK, a true pedestrian street might be about ten feet from building front to building front. I've walked down streets (not alleys) in Asian cities where I could touch the buildings on either side with my hands.

This is what a true no-car city looks like:

You can have some large avenues for transportation, of course, but the street should look mostly like this.

I hope this is the sort of image people will hold in their heads when thinking of a no-car city, not rollerblading on a six-lane blacktop.

These are also pre-bicycle streets.

It would be interesting to find the optimum width for pedestrians, bicycles and the occasional small truck (delivering furniture, moving, fire trucks & ambulances "when needed").

My guess, 13' or 14'.

An overlooked point is that every ft2 devoted to the automobile is one less ft2 for people. This automatically places people further apart and helps isolate them (see Phoenix, >50% of area devoted to cars).

Best Hopes,


Not all the streets look like this. Typically there are some "arterial" streets of considerably wider width for bicycles, commercial vehicles etc. If you are within 200 meters of an "arterial" street then there are no real transportation issues even if the last <200 meters is a little slower.

In my experience, bikes are not really that useful in a well-designed city. Typically, there are a) too many pedestrians, b) too many cars (as would be the case on the wider streets), c) nowhere to park the bike (this is a real problem!), d) it gets your clothes dirty, e) not so good in bad weather, f) no real need for it -- everything is in walking distance of a train station.

This is just my personal experience, of owning a bike for three years while living in Tokyo and not riding it once during that time.

13 or 14 feet building-to-building is not a bad idea. Here are some examples:

A typical residential neighborhood. Note that there are no cars. Easy biking.

note that there is no automobile traffic and the pedestrians are walking right down the middle of the street. This is central Tokyo, a few minutes' walk from Ueno station, one of the largest train stations in Tokyo.

I can well believe that Tokyo is not a bike friendly city. However, a well designed city should be.

Bicycles can fill a travel niche where walking is a bit too far, Urban Rail "doesn't go" without a transfer and it is faster to bike. Say distances from 1 km (0.6 mile) to 4 km (2.4 miles) (YMMV).

Best Hopes for all forms of efficient Non-Oil Transportation,


That's true. It is best when used as a stopgap between walking and riding a train. However, if you make everything too "bike friendly" you might end up with something that's not very pedestrian friendly, while if you make things pedestrian-friendly it will probably be just fine for bikes as well.

Bikes aren't really necessary in a proper urban environment. Of all the people who live in Manhattan, Hong Kong or Paris who don't have a car, how many have bikes? I think there's a danger, especially among Americans, of substituting "I need to have a mechanical device = car" with "I need to have a mechanical device = bike". If you make things right, as they are in very many cities in the world today, most people don't need a car, or a bike, or a scooter, or an electric bike, etc. etc. A minority will find that a bike works for certain trips that are inconvenient for either walking or trains.

You can make a few concessions for bikes like dedicated "bike avenues" and bike parking areas near train stations, but that's all you really need. It's easy.

Would that our biggest urban problem was "too many bicycles" !

In theory, I can appreciate your point (although I may debate it), and the proper mix can vary from city to city (New Orleans is really not a very large city for example).

Best Hopes for too many rude bicyclists in New York City,


Tokyo is a very bike-friendly city, but it is an even better city for walking. So, you don't need a bike.

Bikes are used more often in the suburban areas, where it is common to bike the 1-2km or so from the house to the train station. When you're more than a 15 minute walk from the station, a bike starts to look appealing.

In a proper train-based city, however, most of the important stuff is within a 15 minute walk of the train station, and more like 5 minutes. All of the commercial enterprises, and the high-density apartments, are close to the train station because a) that's where all the foot traffic is, which is good for commercial businesses, b) that's where your employees want you to be if they're commuting to your business, c) that's where you want to live, so you have easy access to the train.

So, even though, geographically only perhaps 50% of the land area is within at 15 minute walk of the train, in practice 90%+ of the "destinations" are within an easy walk of the train. So what do you need a bike for? The areas farther from the train station are used by a) people living in single-family detached houses, which require a lot of land; b) businesses which require regular truck access like warehouses, certain factories etc.; c) businesses which require a lot of land like car dealerships etc.

For about three months, I commuted by bike. It kinda sucked. The train is much better.

When in Holland I take a bike for 300 meters, just because it is faster to take a bike then to walk. Further you can attach a trailer and do your shopping as you can pull 50 kg pretty easy (try carrying that). A standard "bigger street" in Holland will have a bike area next to it. And will be 2 way. Something like this. 1 meter pedestrian, curb, 1 meter bike, 7 meters cars (2 directions) 1 meter bikes curb and pedestrians again. Add most of the times 2 times 2 meters to park your car. Who takes the space on the road?

Further in Holland the fastest way through the city is the bike. So there are couriers on a bike.

Missing my bike in Warsaw.....

Where is room for horses in all this? I don't see a hitching post, water trough or boot scraper in any of the vides. We will still need some way of making commercial deliveries and moving large items around cities.

We still have a few of all three in New Orleans (forgot to remove them, then tourist carriage rides came into vogue).

However, short range EV trucks may be the preferred solution.

Thus my 13' to 14' wide street width.

Best Hopes for Good Design,


Lots of horses give a sanitary problem, it is realy good that they will have a hard time competing with biogas and electrical wehicels.