There’s something different about New York City streets these days. As the Department of Transportation expands the scope of its Open Streets program (with mixed results), more than 7,500 restaurants have been spilling out onto sidewalks and parking spots across the city. Many New Yorkers continue to spurn the subway, driving a surge in ridership on the city’s bus system, while those avoiding public transit altogether flock to the city’s bicycle shops (and Citi Bike docking stations) in record numbers. The reconfiguration of both streetscapes and transportation habits, for the time being at least, has opened up new possibilities for how people move through the city. Amanda Schachter and Alexander Levi of SLO Architecture are hoping that moment lasts. The guest editors of our City of Cycling series, they have been working to reimagine the landscape of micro-mobility for years. While recent, large-scale proposals such as the Queens Ribbon attempt to galvanize bold visions of a car-free future, SLO argues that the infrastructure for more just and accessible modes of motion already lie beneath our feet.
Alexander Levi (AL): If biking can become as much of a revealed infrastructural choice as the subway, we’re golden. If we can have someone get on a bike in Bushwick or the East Bronx, let’s say Castle Hill or Westchester Square . . . and they can feel like a choice for them in the morning, instead of the crush of the subway, is to get on a bicycle, and they get to their work in a predictable amount of time, without a flat or without getting run over by a truck — it means that we’ve won. If it’s an infrastructure that’s a real choice, and that’s obvious, then hundreds of thousands of people will be on their bikes.
Amanda Schachter (AS): I’m Amanda Schachter, an architect and one half of SLO Architecture.
AL: I’m Alex Levi, and I’m the other half of SLO Architecture.
AS: We basically bike ride everywhere. We try to use a bike wherever we’re going. We’re always trying to get to know the city, and get to know the places where we’re working by using a bicycle. When you go biking, you really get to understand a neighborhood, how the city is built: not just each neighborhood as a compartmentalized entity, but really this continuum of the city. What we’re seeing now in the last few years is a new kind of mobility happening. It’s not just bikes; it’s a lot of people moving on small vehicles through the city, not using cars.
AL: And what that does is it opens up the entire range of motion. It’s not a binary system anymore, where cars win out and everybody else has to stand to the little crumbs to the edge. It's become normal, central, and central to the life of New Yorkers, and about equity, about inclusion, about immigration, about justice, about environment, about health . . . about so many things that people didn’t realize it had to do with. All of these things are wrapped up in having a robust bike network. So it’s not just unto itself. It’s that a robust bike network is a robust, safe street. It’s a robust place for people to walk. It’s nature, it’s health, it’s so many things.
AS: The first thing to say is that when the city offers to close some streets to bikes, we’ll take it. That’s great! Any closure for use for bikes and pedestrians is wonderful, we’re not going to turn it down. But then I think what we need to start to think about is, is do we really need closed streets for play? Is biking really just about play? Or maybe what we really need to be thinking about is commuting. The city thinks about biking as something you might do on Sundays, for fun. But what about using a bike to get to work? One thing that we need to see right now going forward in this city is more direct bike lanes that are used for commuting rather than just having open streets.
AL: There’s this kind of bigger picture of what streets can be. You can see it now in the Stage 2 opening of the restaurants — that they’ve taken over tons of parking spaces and turned them into outdoor seating. And it has enriched the street culture tremendously.
AS: One thing that the transportation advocacy community has done a great job with so far is this idea of the “last mile.” So to get people to ride a bike: you get off the subway, and maybe you live five to ten blocks away, so you’ll pick up a Citi Bike, and you’ll bike those five to ten blocks, and you’ll be home. That idea of the last mile, either by bike or scooter, got people used to the idea of the bicycle — to not be scared of just getting on a bike, and maybe going through some local streets. Our work on the bicycle highway . . . We started to get very interested in it during City of Cycling, and when Transportation Alternatives saw that we were doing that, they were thinking, “OK, we have this last mile, where can we go from here?” We said, “What would it be like to actually have bicycle highways in New York City?”
AL: We looked at the Rust Belt of Germany, these hundred-kilometer stretches of towns, and began understanding that people could move from town to town, to new jobs as the economy shifted, on bikes instead of stuck in traffic all day. For hundreds of kilometers: on rail trails, going fast on e-bikes — that is a new industry in that part of Germany. By building the e-bikes, they create a new economy. It lowers the traffic; it makes people healthier. It’s a regional phenomenon. It’s hundreds and hundreds of kilometers, through back woods. They get people to their jobs and get them back home to where they live. This isn’t just leisure for the luxury class, this is a new way of living.
AS: We started to think, “What are places that are actually not so far to downtown Manhattan, but in our minds are much further?” Now we’re starting to have other thinking. Now we’re seeing what’s happening with COVID: the cars are off the streets, and you look at things that are happening in Europe, for example, where large thoroughfares that aren’t necessarily highways are being . . . Lanes are being vacated to make room for bicycle lanes. We’re starting to realize, actually, you could have these highways on the streets we already have. We don’t need to wait.
AL: So you can repurpose a lane from a boulevard or a highway or a roadway that goes through the city, like Grand Concourse, and with delineators and striping and some paint, you can get people to ride e-bikes going twenty-five miles an hour, from the Bronx at 149th street to get to Lennox Hill Hospital, if they’re a healthcare worker.
AS: Since April 1st of this year, e-bikes are legal. So that’s really exciting. That means that these vehicles of all kinds can be on the street.
AL: There’s a great segment of the cycling population that’s an immigrant population making a go of it, and during the pandemic, as you can tell, they’ve been moving around by the dozens — by the thousands — across bridges, through neighborhoods. In constant motion, delivering food to people’s homes while they’re in lockdown. There couldn’t be a better way to move around the city on a bike. And since e-bikes are legal and police are not stopping them anymore, we actually have the demand and supply in harmony. The idea here is to be tactical. But not to be shortsighted. There’s a difference between tactical and shortsighted. We’re not saying close a street here and a street there for five-year-olds to ride around on their push-bikes. We’re saying, be tactical, but get the broadest range of ages of people, with different mobilities, to use bikes, e-bikes, all sorts of bikes, to move around the city and feel better about moving around the city. Not fearful, not worried, not anxious, none of that. Fun, it’s supposed to be fun.
Sam Schwartz’s Queens Ribbon isn’t the picture. It’s a very little bit of a much bigger picture. We all know that the most clever thing that everyone is happiest with is making something that exists really work. We should really be critical about how we use the Queensboro Bridge, how we use the Brooklyn Bridge, how we use the Manhattan Bridge. If we went out to the Queensboro Bridge and painted it differently, we could have every form of mobility represented on that bridge — just by painting it differently.
AS: There were a lot of, not only on foot . . . but there were a lot of bike protests. Night after night they went on the Manhattan Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge, and I’m talking about the lower roadways, where the cars go. So all of a sudden you were seeing this thing we were talking about before: the flexible roadway. Night after night, you’re having bikes where bikes were never allowed.
AL: If you push it, and you actually put your body there, people start to see the new way of moving around better than they would on paper. It’s so important there’s an understanding that the actual street itself can be a way to protest. There’s this social psychiatrist, Mindy Fullilove — she has been talking about the mental health of the public sphere for many years now, for decades. And she’s been doing studies to show how mental health is waning or waxing depending on how the city is built, how the city is experienced, how the city is marginalizing people or including people. It’s obvious that there are implications for how you get around. It’s physical, it’s mental, it’s all wrapped up together. This disruption of the virus, of the pandemic, of us weathering contact until we get a vaccine, has disrupted all sorts of habits we had: some good, some bad. It’s a time to change our habits for good. There are so many good things that we could be doing, and why the hell aren’t we doing them already?