A New New York: a 15-minute city

Reimagining how we work in our neighborhoods

New York City is facing an economic crisis of historic proportions, triggered in part by the virus, but made worse by decades of zoning that often serves to separate residential from commercial and manufacturing districts, rather than blend them seamlessly. These zoning choices made sense at the time (who wants to live next to an oil refinery, or reside in a building whose lobby is overrun at rush hour?), but they locked New Yorkers into a mass-movement commuting model that relies too heavily on outdated transportation infrastructure.

In normal times, commuters from the outer boroughs, NJ, and CT flock to the Manhattan core for work via bus, subway, car, and ferry, nearly doubling its population on weekdays. The vast majority of workers from the outer boroughs take the subway to and fro, spending an average of about 50 minutes on public transport each way, often in very close proximity to others.

But these are not normal times, and commuters may never look at crowded trains, ferries, buses or terminals as clean enough or safe enough again. A poll taken by Tech.NYC in late-April revealed that 23% of polled technology workers wouldn’t feel comfortable taking the subway until fall, 2020, while an additional 21% would avoid it until at least 2021. The alternative, cars, may be more hygienic for the people inside them, but are far less safe for everyone else — pedestrians, bikers, scooters, the environment, respiratory health. If even a fraction of former subway commuters start to take cars to work, the City’s already-terrible congestion and pollution will skyrocket and it will lose even more lives to crashes. As ever, those living in lower-income communities farther from the core of Manhattan will need to spend disproportionately more time and money to get to work, further reinforcing patterns of racial and economic segregation. In short, there’s no longer a good option for commuters, and there won’t be for many months to come.

But maybe long commutes weren’t really such a great idea in the first place? Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, is solving the problem — and the ills that accompany it — through a bold vision for a 15-minute city. The goal is to be intentional about neighborhood development to ensure that its citizens can work, shop, socialize, learn, access services, exercise, and be in nature within a fifteen minute walk of their homes. With this in mind, Paris has been working to:

  • free up as much outdoor square footage as possible — removing car parking and some vehicle lanes from the streets, and making room for bikes, pedestrians, scooters, parks and plazas.
  • zone buildings and outdoor spaces for flexibility. Use the same site one way by day (co-working wifi cafe) and another by night (bistro), one way on weekdays (school) another on weekends (synagogue).

With each step, Paris becomes more climate-friendly, family-friendly, time-efficient, safe, green, equal, and generally human-scale.

New York should follow its lead, and quickly, to get remote-friendly workers off major commuting corridors, and free up space for workers for whom commuting for an in-person job is imperative. Relative to most cities in the US, New York is uniquely well-suited for this approach, since it features pre-industrial, urban residential neighborhoods where New Yorkers already live, shop, and socialize. Many already walk and bike from home to local shops and restaurants and schools. Many already live without cars. If New Yorkers can no longer commute to work safely, the city should be bold and intentional about planning its neighborhoods to encourage “hyperlocal” living AND working, where possible.

Which policy recommendations would help to turn New York into a 15-minute city?

  • Make remote work easier. For those whose jobs simply require a laptop and wifi, offer refundable home office tax credits, then make neighborhoods more friendly for out-of-home work. Widen sidewalks for safe passage AND outdoor seating. Prohibit commercial street car parking, close streets to through-traffic, and loosen storefront regulations to let restaurants and cafes flow into that space, with outdoor seating to serve daytime workers. Place ample seating and tables in public parks, and offer safe, high-speed connectivity and public wifi through providers like LinkNYC.
  • Prioritize and invest in the development of these critical amenities in neighborhoods that are underserved. The city should measure the presence of high-quality grocery, health facilities, child care, schools, and other necessary amenities in each neighborhood, then work with real estate and commercial establishments to calibrate the thresholds for development bonuses and tax credits that encourage the creation of whatever’s missing. The city should invest directly and heavily in park space for mental and physical health, and make high-speed, public wifi ubiquitous.
  • Relax zoning to allow for commercial buildings in more neighborhoods. If we can’t move workers to their companies in Manhattan, we should decentralize quickly — moving the companies to their workers in the outer boroughs. In recent years, some of the more innovative enterprises have moved their headquarters out of Manhattan, but they’re currently quite limited in where they can go. Zoning policy should significantly increase the number of central business districts deep in the outer boroughs, ensuring appropriate densities to allow larger workplaces to situate themselves near residential areas. With manufacturing and industrial uses trending away from objectionable nuisance factors and negative externalities, MX-type districts that permit ALL uses could be significantly expanded.
  • Eliminate parking requirements AND free street parking. Outside the Manhattan core and parts of Long Island City, new developments are required to provide off-street parking spaces proportional to their size and intensity of use. These minimum parking requirements do not account for low rates of car ownership, or proximity to public transit, and do not further the goals of a 15-minute city. Eliminate this requirement, encouraging local residents to walk and bike to work, or use public transit. In the same vein, the City should start charging car owners, significantly, to park on its public streets, and use the revenue generated to support new modes of public transit, more efficient and frequent garbage pickup and street cleaning, and public parks and WiFi. “Manhattan real estate costs on average $1,773 per square foot, and yet we are giving away 180 square feet of prime city space…with every free parking space”.
  • Mesh transit lines to distribute economic activity back to the boroughs. For those who have to work outside their homes and who can’t walk or bike to work (hospital workers, teachers + students, police officers, etc.), make it easier for them to get there. Redraw the city’s transit corridors to connect the outer boroughs to each other, without such a singular focus on Manhattan as a destination. Brooklyn and Queens, e.g., have the largest job growth in the city, and remain very poorly linked. Invest in dedicated lanes for low-emissions bus rapid transit, and protected bike and scooter lanes to ensure safe, healthy, speedy commutes.
  • Radically rethink the subway. New Yorkers love their subway, but its age has been showing, and it is becoming more and more expensive to keep up. At 25–50% occupancy for the foreseeable future, the subway will need billions of dollars of bailout just to stay open well under capacity. A better use of funds may be to focus on bus rapid transit in the short term, while taking the time to think radically and creatively with an “all ideas on the table” approach about a new form of underground transit for the 21st century.

The virus may be dwindling today, but it will leave behind a permanently altered city. Regardless of whether it’s eventually safe to ride the subway, many won’t be interested in going back to their long commutes and their old ways of working. We will have grooved new paths to getting things done that work better and more flexibly and more locally for our modern lives, that accommodate dual-earning households, that let us spend more time with our kids and with our communities, that reduce the overhead of getting to work, and that let us breathe easier. With intentional neighborhood development and a focus on hyperlocal living, New York City can emerge from the pandemic an even better place to live than it was before.

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