Saturday, 11 December 2010

Letter from America

Well, not quite. I am now back in UK after a trip to New York to speak at the “Stop Speeding Summit” conference hosted by Transportation Alternatives on 19th November. TA are the “not for profit” organisation based in New York who campaign for walking, cycling and public transport options for New Yorkers.

And it is Transportation Alternatives who I really must thank for their invite, funding my visit and also hospitality whilst I was there. This post is therefore dedicated to TA and their on-going efforts to make New York not only a “great city” but also a “great city to be without being dependent upon a motor vehicle”.

Tuesday 16th Nov

I arrived at Newark Airport in New Jersey at about 5:30pm on Tuesday 16th Nov. Getting through immigration was much easier than I had been warned and soon I was on the monorail from the airport to the Train station when I quickly caught the New Jersey Transit line to Penn Station. This was just a few hundred yards from the TA offices on 26th St. West and my hotel which was next door. I met up with Lindsey Ganson who was my TA contact and their Safety Campaign Director.

After a short meeting I checked in at the hotel and then Lindsey and Kim Martineau (TA’s Communications Manager) took me via the subway down to Lower Eastside where Kim had arranged for me to meet a New Yorker journalist the following morning. This gave me an opportunity to experience the traffic on the streets and get some background to TA’s work in New York. We saw some of the bike lanes which had been installed on some of the major streets with the bike lane next to the sidewalk (pavement), a lane for parked cars and finally 2 or 3 lanes for moving traffic.

I then headed back up to mid-town and after having been up for 21 hrs was ready to get back to my hotel and sleep.

Wednesday 17th Nov – Walk around with New Yorker reporter and presentation at Wagner Rudin Center

Next morning I was up early and after breakfast I went out onto 6th Avenue to take in the atmosphere on the streets. What struck me right way was that with wide roads, most one way, the traffic seemed to be very dense and fast. But then suddenly it would all disappear and for about ½ minute or so hardly a moving vehicle was in sight. It seemed that the traffic was running in pulses through the city. At TA I met Paul Steely White who is their Executive Director. Paul gave me some more background to TA and the way that the New York City Dept of Transportation is taking some innovative steps to assist cycling and walking.

Then Lindsey and I went downtown again to meet with Ian Parker of the New Yorker, who was going to do a walkabout with me. I had been given a speed detector by TA and the idea was to use this to check the passing speed of the cars on roads such as Houston St. Ian was originally from England so it was an interesting discussion. His article can be seen at

From there I was presenting at “brown-bag” session at the New York University Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management. The term “brown bag” comes from the notion that students would bring their sandwiches (in a “brown bag”) for a lunchtime session. It gave me a good opportunity to practice my conference presentation to the students studying for their masters degrees in Urban Planning.

Later that evening I had dinner with Paul Steely White and Noah Budnick (Deputy Director) of TA. We discussed the next day’s plans for meeting Jimmy Vacca who is the Council member chairing the city’s transportation committee, and also Senator Eric Adams.

Thursday 18th Nov Meeting with James Vacca and walk around with Senator Adams.

And this is when I got to ride a bike around the city. First it was cycling downtown to the very bottom of Broadway. Noah rode with me and I must admit that with all the one way streets I was not conscious of any problem with cycling “on the right”. In fact many one way streets have the cycle lane on the left. The reasoning is that parked cars that you pass are less likely to have the car driver opening their door on you. But you still have to watch out for passengers.

Jimmy Vacca is a hard-working councilman who took over the chair of the NYC transportation committee early this year. A profile can be seen at :-

I introduced myself as someone who could save NYC millions of dollars in costs of road casualties. I knew I had not more than 15 minutes and wanted to ensure that he remembered me. We talked about the campaign and how it helps everyone, especially the young and old. Then Noah and I cycled across the Brooklyn Bridge and down to the Park Slope area. Noah and I just had time for a coffee on a street corner. To be truthful, the scene outside was similar to one in many UK towns. A line of shops, an evangelical church opposite and surrounded by large terraced housing. We then met up with the Park Slope residents on another street corner and talked about their local campaign for a 20mph speed limit in Park Slope. Senator Adams then arrived and we all walked with him around a few blocks, taking turns to discuss the issues. He was very interested in the UK successes of 20’s Plenty for Us. He even used the phrase “paradigm shift”. Here was someone who understood the issues. It was not just about slowing down, but sharing the roads in a better manner. Clarence Eckerson of StreetFilms made an excellent video which can be seen at or on our website home page.

It was really good to see politicians with conviction and vision looking to make their town a better place for their people. Noah and I then cycled back across the Manhattan Bridge, through Chinatown and back to TA. The cycleway across the bridge now has a 20’s Plenty for Us sticker half way across.

Thursday night was spent preparing for the next day’s presentation at the “Stop Speeding Summit” conference. Last minute changes to slides were made including the header slide so that 20’s Plenty for Us morphed into 20’s Plenty for USA.

The presentation was a tricky one. I guess that some of you know that I don’t usually pull punches and here I was a guest in a foreign country charged with asking them to change their driving habits.

Friday 19th Nov – “Stop Speeding Summit” Conference Day

On the morning I walked the couple of miles downtown to the conference. Paul Steely White of TA opened the conference and introduced me as the first presenter.

9:00 – 10:30 Area-wide 20mph zones.

I gave my standard presentation with a few slides taken out to make it a little more compact. To my delight, and relief, the presentation was very well received and the audience had some excellent questions. A report of my presentation can be seen at

Next, Ian Sacs of the City of Hoboken gave a presentation on how they had started to implement their “20’s Plenty for Hoboken” policy. This asks residents in the New Jersey town of Hoboken to voluntarily keep to 20mph on Hoboken streets.

You can see their campaign at

10:30 – 11:30 Panel Discussion: Slower Speeds = Healthier New Yorkers

Several health professional gave presentations on programs they were leading to promote active travel. All saw the speed of traffic as a major impediment to modal shift.

11:45 – 1:15 Remarks from James Vacca, presentation by Dr. Thomas Farley, and the rap.

I was pleased to see that Council Member James Vacca (whom I had met the day before) gave a speech after lunch and pronounced his favour of a 20mph speed limit and the need to make New Yorks streets more attractive and safer for pedestrians. I particularly liked his statement that “the pedestrian is always in the right, even when the pedestrian is in the wrong”.

Dr. Thomas Farley is the Commissioner for NYC Dept of Health and Mental Hygiene. He presented with a focus on the effects of physical inactivity, especially the fact that 1 in 8 (800,000) adults in NYC are diabetic. The lack of active travel is clearly a problem and health professionals are seeing the consequences of inactive travel as an epidemic. For a New York Times report see In the UK health professionals tend to go further than pointing out the problems associated with high speed roads, and predominantly come out in favour of 20mph limits.

I was then asked to give to recite our 20’s Plenty for Us poem which Anna Semlyen (our Campaign Manager) had written for us. I suspect that this was really an opportunity to contrast the “old world” style with the presentation which followed from Dr. John C. Clarke who introduced his “Drive Safe, New York” rap. We have uploaded this excellent sound track to our website at

1:15 – 2:30 Panel Discussion: Automated Speed Enforcement.

The panel discussion on Automated Speed Enforcement was interesting because New York does not have any automatic speed cameras. Various presenters noted how effective they were in other states. Indeed in the UK they are deemed to be effective. However, what is found to work best is a mix of both fixed and randomly placed cameras. The former can reduce speeds on know problem streets, whilst the randomly placed and manned cameras initiate better compliance elsewhere.

For a recent review of the effectiveness of Speed Camera Enforcement in the UK see

2:30 – 3:15 Panel Discussion: Strategic Use of Crash Data

There was a discussion of data led interventions by Baltimore Police Department and the NYC Dept. of Transportation. It was very much about identifying accident spots and what interventions could be done. Like most data-led interventions it tends to ignore the substantial number of un-clustered collisions which can only be addressed with a wide scale intervention. Of course unclustered minor injuries and “near-misses” also play a fundamental role in conditioning vulnerable road users on the dangers that exist in the streets. Focussing on collision hot spots may well make some reduction in casualties but on their own will not change the perceived danger on the roads.

3:30 – 4:15 The Economic Cost of Crashes

Eric Tang of Cambridge Systematics Inc. gave a presentation on this subject and compared the “cost of congestion” to the “cost of crashes”. He quoted that the cost of crashes is higher than the cost of congestion in every US urban area. In New York the figures are Cost of Crashes - $29Bn, Cost of Congestion - $8Bn.

The closing remarks were made by Paul Steely White of TA. I think that the outcome was that attendees were very pleased with the conference and the recognition it gave to the need to address the speed of motor vehicles in New York City.

In the evening Paul Steely White took me to meet some of the USA Cycling team. I was offered a ride out on the Saturday morning but whilst very interested decided that after several very busy days, I would perhaps not be in good enough shape to keep up. Besides, I had specific instructions from my grandson to get a picture of the Statue of Liberty.

Saturday 20th Nov

My day was spent as a tourist, catching the Staten Island ferry, walking around the town and getting a few souvenirs for the family back home. In the evening, I was delighted to be asked to dinner at the home of one of the TA board of directors and met several of the board and advisory council. In particular, I was able to thank the sponsor who had paid the expenses for me coming to New York.

I was told that our campaign had been watched for several years and that it was noticeable how UK was successfully transforming its towns and cities. It was particularly noted how London has used lower speeds to create a better environment for walkers and cyclists.

Sunday 21st Nov

This was my last day, and so I had arranged to have lunch with Lindsey Ganson. Lindsey had not only been organising the whole conference, but had also ensured that my time was filled with the various interviews. It was also Lindsey who I had first spoken to in the summer when she inquired about our campaign in the UK.

We talked about the success of the conference and how it really was seen as a milestone in initiating the debate on lower speeds and their beneficial effect.

After lunch it was time to head back to the airport and travel back to UK, arriving at 7:30 in Manchester on the Monday morning.

Some reflections

On Transportation Alternatives

TA are great advocates for cycling, walking and public transit. Their mission statement is :-

“to reclaim New York City's streets from the automobile, and to advocate for bicycling, walking and public transit as the best transportation alternatives.”

With a staff of 15 and located in the central area of Manhattan, they are really making a difference changing the way in which transport in viewed in the city. With a receptive Dept. of Transportation they are really making headway in changing attitudes. And from my own experience in the city, walking, cycling and public transport are far faster and cheaper than going by car.

They have a young team of very dedicated staff who are all enthusiastic about making change happen. See some of their campaigns at

I therefore thank them for their hospitality and for bringing me across from UK to help in their campaign. The experience has not only gained 20’s Plenty for Us new friends but also enabled us to link with many other advocates of lower speeds in the US. It reminds me that behavioural change in the way roads are shared is actually a universal objective and that whilst our legislation, size of roads, style of driving and even the side of the road we use may differ, the challenges are still the same. And because we all campaign as people rather than cyclists or pedestrians, or English or American, we debate the same values which we attach to the quality of our lives and the freedom to choose our way of moving around our towns and cities.

My thanks go to all the staff, directors and funders of Transportation Alternatives.

On New York drivers!

Before I left, my daughter gave me a book on New York’s history. I leafed through it and found that it was not till page 776 that a motor car was mentioned. Clearly, New York became a great city long before the motor car came about, and I suspect will remain a great city even when the motor car is seen only as a passing phase that was confined to a short period in history.

But the motor car seems to be here for the foreseeable future and in Manhattan it certainly dominates the streets. I reckon that about 75% of cars were actually taxis, and all of them seeking to get as many rides in as short a time as possible. Taxis seem to accelerate up to 35-40mph and above as quickly as possible once the lights change. To them time is money and going fast is seen as the “New York way”. But on the other hand, I heard that within the central business area of Manhattan then the average speed of cabs from 8am till 8pm is never more than 10mph. So for all their pace and speed they must be stopped for the majority of the time.

To me, if you want to reduce speeds in New York then you have to “Tame the Taxi”. Do that and other traffic is bound to be slowed down as well. On the face of it this would seem difficult, yet taxis are highly regulated. Currently taxi fares are relatively cheap. Fitting tracking devices to measure their speed is neither difficult or expensive and fares could be increased slightly to offset any slight increase in journey times. At the same time, slower maximum speeds increase the capacity of roads and also decrease the fuel used and emissions produced.

“Taming the Taxi” would therefore be my approach to reducing prevailing speeds on NYC roads. That, together with lower and enforced speed limits could transform New York and make it an even better place to be. It would also really encourage cycling and walking.

On New York and 20’s Plenty for Us

Well 20’s Plenty for Us has had great success in the UK. We are changing the way our streets are shared and making a real difference in so many towns throughout the country. From what I have seen in New York then its possible there as well. Already the Dept. of Transportation is planning to introduce 20mph limits to a pilot area in the Bronx. We know from our own experience that pilots simply increase the aspiration and demand for the same treatment in other communities. And we know of no communities that once given a 20mph speed limit want it to revert back to a higher one.

The key factors in change are strong advocacy, sympathetic professionals and visionary politicians. Whilst I was in New York I saw all of these. I suspect it’s not a case of whether 20’s Plenty for New York but simply when 20 will be Plenty for New York.

And of course if they can do it there then they can do it anywhere!

My best regards to everyone I met in New York. and special thanks to Transportation Alternatives.