Adam Schwartz- NYC’s Livable Streets Initiative

Adam teaches at the Academy of Urban Planning in Bushwick, Brooklyn. in addition to teaching Global Regents, he co-teaches Urban Geography, an interdisciplinary class (History, Science, Geography) that analyzes the urban environment. A major focus of the class is Geographic Information Systems and other geospatial technology. Adam is in his 3rd year of the NSF funded City as Lab program with Brooklyn College, which assigns PhD students to his class to support inquiry and project learning. If you are interested in getting involed, please get in touch with him at aschwartz@aupnyc.org

Geography can take us to distant places and help us to understand the processes occurring around the world. But geographic awareness has the firmest grounding in our immediate surroundings, especially for students will a limited experience of other places. The way our city is shaped affects our student’s lives intimately on a daily basis, most readily in its streets.

So this Geography Awareness Week, we had the pleasure to work with NYC’s Livable Streets Initiative. Working together with Rebecca Jacobs, director of Street Education, we set out to get our kids active in transport planning.

There are few experiences more real and visceral than almost being hit by a car, an experience our students are very familiar with. In a pre-survey of experiences and attitudes (shown below), 75% report a near miss with a car. One out of every five of our students report bring hit by a car. Almost 90% of them know someone who has–there were many harrowing stories shared in class to back up these statistics. This is clearly an area where students have a great deal of concern, if not a complete understanding. But that is a great place to start a unit!


Have you ever been hit by a car?

schwartz_hitbycar.JPG

Yes- 18%

No- 82%

Has anyone you know ever been hit by a car?

schwartz_knowhitcar.JPG

Yes- 86%

No- 14%

Have you ever had a near miss or other dangerous interaction with a car?

schwartz_nearmiss.JPG

Yes- 75%

No- 25%


Streets vs. Drivers:

As part of the same initial survey, we asked students two very telling questions. The first was about Street design, and the second about presumed culpability in an accident (not knowing circumstances). Their answers seemed contradictory.

Which one do you think the streets are designed for?

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Cars- 84%
Trucks- 5%
Buses- 0%
Bikes- 2%
People- 9%
Other- 0%

If there is an accident, who is most likely to be to blame?

schwartz_blame.JPG

The Driver- 80%
The Pedestrian- 11%
The Designer of the street- 9%

As you can see from these results, while students feel that streets are designed for cars, most would blame a driver for an accident. This gut reaction is totally understandable when they see someone speeding through an intersection, but what is it about the street that allowed them to engage in this behavior?

This essential question was the focus of our week.  On our second day together, we furthered this analysis by utilizing Crashstat.org, Transportation Alternative’s Google Map based website. The grim statistics of pedestrian and bike fatalities (1995-2005) are compiled and located with surprising accuracy, leading to engaging discussions about why some wrecks happened at intersections, while others mid-block. And why some streets, like Brooklyn’s Myrtle Avenue and Manhattan’s Broadway, are so dangerous.
 
Our goal in this was not to depress our students, but to impress upon them that solutions are needed. So the next period together, we went over the more positive subject of alternatives. We designed a matrix for students to review a range of options, to see what they thought would work in Brooklyn. This included Bogota’s Bus Rapid Transit, Paris’s Velib Bike Rental Program, and Manhattan’s own Public Plaza Program. We also discussed less grand, but lifesaving solutions,  such as raised crosswalks, “daylighting”, curb extensions, and improved signage.

Most important for this unit was for students to understand how they could make a difference–not an easy thing in this powerful city. “No one is going to listen to us” is a good summary of their initial attitude, though there were more colorful about it. Only one or two had ever written a letter to a politician, so we wanted this one to be their first.  A model letter was provided for them to start with, but their own letters served as better models, as students helped each other to get it done.
The hardest part for many was isolating one issue, be it a general topic like slow buses,  to something as specific as a dangerous intersection. A few bikers in the class wrote to support my own request to the Dept of Transportation to get bike racks for our school. That is one campaign I am taking upon myself to get done this year!
 
The other things that students asked for–curb extensions, Bus Rapid transit, more speeding tickets and less parking tickets–may be harder to achieve. But I’ll make sure that they mail them in the correct manner to make certain that they get them back.  In these days of email, tasks like addressing a letter are sometimes neglected.
 
This is my third year taking on this topic, and the best yet. Transportation planning is a part of our cities, and so has to be a part of the urban planning curriculum. But like many aspects of government, its working can seem mysterious and disempowering. By taking on a hyper-local topic like the nearest intersection and their own personal safety, we are creating a new and engaging opportunity for civic engagement.

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