Ulrich Franzen’s Street

In 1969, architect and urban planner Ulrich Franzen articulated, through the film above, a bold vision to reclaim Manhattan’s congested streets as open space free from cars and trucks. Forty years later, our sense of urgency about the ecological imperative of transforming how we transport goods, information and people from place to place has increased, but the terms of the debate about how to accommodate the various competing uses of our streets have not changed much. Road-based, limited-occupancy vehicles still provide the most flexible and often most comfortable routes around the city. And as much as we may like to think otherwise, bicycles and subways are only part of the answer. Critics who pit cars against people often seem to forget that people drive cars, buy the products trailer trucks deliver and produce the waste that garbage trucks remove.

These days, the policy prescriptions that aim to limit city-dwellers’ reliance on cars tend to take the form of disincentives and prohibitions, such as congestion pricing or restrictive parking. While recent design initiatives in New York City, most visibly the Department of Transportation’s appropriation of street space for quiet zones or bicycle lanes, represent pro-active steps in a positive direction, rarely do they address how best to service the city through deliveries and removal. Building a new physical superstructure that would serve to segregate uses – as Franzen’s film argues – at first glance seems to be as unfashionable a grand projet as housing the poor in “towers in the park” or ramming expressways through vibrant neighborhoods. The challenges such large public works engendered did much to discredit the planning profession in the 1960s and 70s and pushed urbanism away from large-scale physical design and towards local, social-scientifically informed and policy-oriented interventions. Only in the last few years has there been a resurgence of the big vision in urban planning and design. Perhaps the new stimulus plan just approved in Washington will provoke – in reaction if not in implementation – a serious reconsideration of our country’s thus far inconsistent and uncoordinated approach to infrastructure, energy and transportation.

In this light, Franzen’s film has much to teach us. The challenges facing our cities are not new, and yet our historical memory is very short, particularly about radical propositions that went untested and unbuilt. This is not to suggest that we try to implement the plan expressed in this film wholesale, but rather that we learn from past arguments that simultaneously propose new infrastructural forms while advocating for sharing resources through use-on-demand systems. The boldness of Franzen’s vision and forms belies the intricacy of his thinking, the subtle interplay between street and city, between retrofitting and building anew, between applying design expertise and consulting citizens’ priorities, and lastly between two urban concepts that are uttered so often that they have almost lost their meaning: sustainability and infrastructure.

–Cassim Shepard
Project Director,
Urban Omnibus



8 Responses to “Ulrich Franzen’s Street”

  1. Steve Blumling says:

    Interesting article. Very interesting reading. I thank Carter Craft for bring this to my attention

    Sincerely,

    Steve Blumling
    Staten Island, NY

  2. Benjamin Tailor says:

    The street level experience in most of Manhattan is actually pretty great. I love the wide avenues, they give the city a raw energy and precious sky light, while at the same time remaining anonymously intimate and full of bustle. They’re too noisy and full of particulates, but they feel “right” at the pedestrian level. Small enough to cross at mid-block, big enough to handle cement trucks and fire engines.

    The video was fun to watch, but I found myself much more engaged by the actual streets. The lack of realistic light (especially winter light) in the drawings is deeply disturbing. Take another look at the underground mall… where is all that light coming from? No thanks, I’ve been in that mall/bus terminal/baggage claim and I couldn’t wait to get outside.

    Having streets with trees and benches is great. Trying to engineer the city as if it was a big airport? I think we can all guess how well that will turn out.

  3. Keith Rodan says:

    As for the film, Ulrich Franzen’s vision of a utopia is attractive enough, until we recall that the streets he sees reclaimed for the people would come at the expense of vast stretches of waterfront sacrificed to infrastructure – factories, transit hubs, sanitation depots, etc.

    Franzen, and the writer of the above UrbanOmnibus introductory article continue to stand up for the auto industry and private ownership of cars.

    But we have a planet to restore, as well as a city, and the trade-off, which would be as psychologically difficult, yet as health-restoring as giving up smoking, is to wean ourselves off of cars, taxis and even large buses.

    An ultralight, slim, electric surface rail system is a green alternative that would occupy the space of two lanes of an avenue-sized street, and cost far less than underground construction. A third lane would be reserved for delivery and emergency vehicles, and those delivery vehicles could be restricted to overnight hours. What’s left, on a typical Manhattan avenue, is 3-4 lane spaces that may now be given over to public open space uses – like the ones the film mentions. Eventually, side streets could be served by mini-buses instead of cars.

    For a relatively modest start, eliminate traffic on 5th Avenue, which runs down the middle of Manhattan. North and Southbound at-grade surface rail service could be a hybrid of express and local, making stops every 5 blocks instead of every 1 or 2 or every 10 or 15, as buses and subways do.

    Dig We Must: With the exception of major streets like 57th, 42nd, 34th, crosstown streets would tunnel under 5th at each intersection. This would cost billions, unless some sort of Works Progress Administration came into being to employ and train a popular, rather than elite construction workforce. The model envisioned is the Can-do public spirit that built the subway lines in the early 20th Century. If the forecast of an economic disaster materializes, this idea may not seem so far-fetched or anti-union.

    Private cars are so yesterday. They are piggy, unegalitarian and immoral, not to mention dirty, dangerous and decadent. The American dream, sold to us for years by Big Business, of a car for everyone is, in reality, an everyday, quality of life, soul-destroying nightmare. Consider – we’d be far richer without cars in our urban environment.

    In addition to wonderful street spaces for people, an enlightened public transit system could offer truly pleasing aesthetics and comfort, if it were as well designed and popular as, say, Starbucks, Apple products or any number of inspired retail and public areas people like to be in.

    These days, as GM and Chrysler slowly disintegrate, imagine how they, and a large part of the auto service sector could somehow be transformed to build, repair, operate and maintain public transportation. Not just in cities, but in outer boroughs and suburbs. Building transcontinental bullet trains would substantially reduce our dependence on oil and take fuel-thirsty, polluting planes out of our skies.

    Let’s think about what kinds of jobs could replace those held, for instance, by an army of traffic agents, and how the city could relieve itself of its long dependency on income from traffic fines, tolls and fees.

  4. New Yorker says:

    “Road-based, limited-occupancy vehicles still provide the most flexible and often most comfortable routes around the city. And as much as we may like to think otherwise, bicycles and subways are only part of the answer. Critics who pit cars against people often seem to forget that people drive cars, buy the products trailer trucks deliver and produce the waste that garbage trucks remove.”

    The author of this article is misinformed:

    1. Public transit and bicycles are the fastest and most flexible travel options in New York City (unless you’re traveling from LGA to JFK), not to mention the safest, most affordable and sustainable. The reach of mass transit can be extended by projects such as bus rapid transit and other surface transit options that are low-cost and easy to maintain.

    2. This critic has forgotten the fact that the majority of “products trailer trucks deliver” are being consumed by non-drivers in New York City. New York City is the only city in the nation where more than half of residents do not own by cars, and only a 1/3 commute by automobile. In Manhattan, up to 75% of residents do not own cars.

    3. “These days, the policy prescriptions that aim to limit city-dwellers’ reliance on cars tend to take the form of disincentives and prohibitions, such as congestion pricing or restrictive parking. While recent design initiatives in New York City, most visibly the Department of Transportation’s appropriation of street space for quiet zones or bicycle lanes, represent pro-active steps in a positive direction, rarely do they address how best to service the city through deliveries and removal.”

    What are you saying here? Road pricing is the most sensible way to fund transit and reduce unhealthy traffic in the city–and is just as proactive and necessary as design solutions. This has been tested again and again in other cities worldwide. Great design cannot be successful without controlling demand for street space and the resulting traffic.

    This is an excellent blog, but I hope that future posts are more forward-thinking and have less windshield perspective.

  5. Benjamin says:

    The current DOT’s progressive approach to reforming our streets is much more practcal and will be much more effective than the type of project that Franzen suggested in this video, or any comparable “big new infrastructure” project.

    Franzen was right on track with his desire to re-allocate existing street space to make its use more efficient and its impact on people’s quality of life better. But we can achieve that without the complicated addition of massive infrastructure (pneumatic tubes?? underground shopping malls?).

    As Franzen pointed out, we already have a huge chunk of our land set aside for moving goods, garbage and people– 1/3 of our city’s space. The problem is that our current allocation of land for these purposes is misguided and inefficient.

    Our current progressive DOT is addressing this directly. They’re noticing that you can move many more people around the city with a bike lane or a rapid transit bus lane than a lane of private cars. They’re taking wasted asphalt spaces in Madison Square and Grand Army Plaza that just confuse motorists in their layout and returning them to pedestrians and cyclists. They’re looking to toll bridges on the east river just as other bridges are tolled, to end the perverse incentive that drivers have to enter the city center for low-priority trips, or to drive out of their way to a free bridge when a tolled bridge would be more direct. They’re recognizing that the city is leasing large chunks of prime real estate to individuals for the purpose of storing a two ton heaps of metal (i.e. on street car parking) for pennies per hour, a foolish use of the most valuable space in the country.

    What the author of this post misses is that these policies that end the existing incentives for driving personal automobiles in the city are policies that DO make more space for moving goods, garbage and people around more quickly and efficiently. And there is no reason to believe that, if pursued to their full potential, these policies alone wouldn’t get us to the place we want to be– but without tens of billions of dollars worth of pneumatic tubes.

  6. Indeed! I’m delighted that Franzen’s film and my introduction are provoking conversation. And I’m intrigued that the mere mention that there may be other means of addressing our over-reliance on privately owned cars beyond prescriptions such as bike lanes and congestion pricing is interpreted as “Standing up for the auto industry and private ownership of cars.” Automotive transport does not exclusively mean private ownership of cars for personal or frivolous uses. Sometimes it means trucks and busses. Sometimes it provides vital service delivery and sometimes it facilitates necessary commerce. Let it be known: I’m a huge fan of congestion pricing and more functional bicycle lanes. And I share Benjamin’s praise and gratitude for our progressive city DOT and for its visionary commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. My main point is that no single proposal to reduce the congestion and excessive energy consumption of auto traffic is a panacea. And to be as “forward-thinking,” as Mr New Yorker requests, sometimes requires looking back.

    Some interesting ideas emerge from Franzen’s argument that have nothing to do with turning our residential streets into covered marketplaces or building a superstructure of vacuum tubes and conveyor belts that would reindustrialize the waterfront of Brooklyn and Queens. I am certainly not advocating that we embrace the plan. My intention was to suggest a couple things that Franzen’s film got me thinking about:

    1. People’s occasional need for door-to-door service is not going to go away anytime soon, especially for those less able to walk, bike or stand.
    2. Use-on-demand systems might be part of the answer. One of the things that I found most prescient about Franzen’s film was his argument for a pay-as-you-go electric car-share system for individual use. As depressing as it is to think of the killing of the electric car, car-share systems like zipcar inspire me.
    3. We shouldn’t be afraid to think big.

    Let’s keep the conversation going.

  7. Keith Rodan says:

    Electric cars, zipcars are only band-aids. We should be looking at universal transport systems that will relieve us of the dependency on space-hogging private vehicles. For the infirm, there can be exceptions, such as exist now in the form of handicap vans and buses, and as mentioned in my above post, there should always be street lane space for emergency, delivery and service vehicles (preferably electric-powered). But as for fire engines police ESU’s and ambulances, give me the ones that get there fastest. BTW, have you ever seen an ambulance in full wail stuck in traffic? I have, on many occasions…do you want to be the patient inside with an emergency condition?

    I live on 9th Av. in the 40’s, and suffer the swollen river of traffic there year in and year out. The sidewalks are too narrow to accommodate pedestrians, and many of us use the street to get past the slowpokes, people with carts, piles of trash, street tree pits (god bless our trees, though) and other impediments.

    When the light changes in the long daily rush hours, its all to common to have a hulking SUV sitting in the crosswalk – forcing peds to thread their way around it, exposing themselves to danger.

    One open question left in my argument for the eventual elimination private cars is, how to pay for the proposed transit system? Saving a trillion by getting out of Iraq is a start. Slashing our hideous defense budget would also move mountains. Why do we need tens of thousands of nukes, and StarWars military technology? Will that save us from another 9/11? Don’t think so. Anyway, the obsession with security is a diversion. Let’s look at really doing something about our quality of life here.

    And applause to DOT’s Janet Sadik-Kahn for starting to re-civilize some of our major streets.

  8. John R says:

    While I agree with you Keith on more focus needed to be paid to public transportation alternatives, you have to deal with the realities of the now. People love their cars, and it’s just not something that most will give up, as much as some would like.

    Volkswagen Parts

Leave a Reply


6 + = seven