In the nine years since he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, filmmaker Jason DaSilva has found it increasingly difficult to traverse his beloved New York City. Using an electric scooter to get around his neighborhood, Mr. DaSilva has run in to many challenges including a lack of access ramps at the entrance of shops and restaurants and a nearby subway station with no elevator. City-provided taxi services for disabled persons have to be scheduled one day ahead of time and are often unreliable. The few public taxis that are wheelchair accessible can make traveling around the city easier, but taxi rides can be cost prohibitive.
In his short film for the New York Times titled “The Long Wait”, Mr. DaSilva demonstrates how arduous navigating the city in a wheelchair can be. As an experiment, Mr. DaSilva decides to time himself and his friend to see how long it takes them both to arrive at his favorite coffee shop (which is frustratingly only one subway stop away from his station nearest to his apartment). His friend Steve rides the train one stop and arrives at the destination in 13 minutes. After reviewing his public transportation options, Mr. DaSilva decides that the quickest route would be to take the East River Ferry from Brooklyn to Manhattan and then transfer to two different buses. He arrives at the coffee shop in one hour and 43 minutes.
After traveling to cities like London, Toronto and San Francisco who have incorporated more accessible design elements like access ramps into buildings and wheelchair accessible trains, Mr. DaSilva says he was surprised that “forward-thinking” New York City lags behind other cities in accommodating their disabled population. “It’s not M.S. that exhausts me,” he says, ” it’s the barriers that prevent me from conducting my daily activities. Public-transportation challenges have turned my playground into a sand pit.”
Mr. DaSilva is working on researching design elements that can contribute to a more accessible city and believes that creating an accessible physical environment for all users is a basic human right. Hoping to contribute awareness of this issue he’s created AXS Map which allows users to provide, rate and explore information on the most accessible places to grab a coffee, get a hair cut, eat sushi, etc in cities throughout the US. “I hope it’s a small contribution to the community I am now a part of,” he says, “and helps make New York a little bit easier for us to live in.”
“Parklets” are small pocket parks built inside of former street-side parking spaces. The idea behind parklets is that you can take a small amount of space (like one, two, or three parking spaces) and turn it in to something that can be a public amenity.
Parklets are intended to be open to the public and are usually situated in front of a restaurant or market. The design of parklets can vary widely and unfortunately, certain design elements can sometimes give the impression that the parklet is private seating specific to that restaurant or market instead of a space open to the general public. For example, crowded parklets full of bistro tables and high, dense walls can look like cafe seating while parklets with varying seating and standing options (the red parklet below has a tall bar where you can place your elbows or food and beverages) and an open design with high visibility can appear to be more welcoming and meant for anyone to relax in and enjoy.
San Francisco has been a leader in the parklets movement and their Pavement to Parks program works with businesses to build parklets in front of their shops/restaurants. When I was home for the holidays, I visited San Francisco and snapped a few photos of some parklets that seemed to be working well as approachable and accessible public spaces- even on a cold and rainy day.
Bicycle advocacy groups exist across the country but what makes Bikemore special is their mission to help contribute to a more livable, healthy, accessible Baltimore by increasing the overall number of residents who ride a bike, advocating for the rights and safety of all communities in Baltimore and commitment to hold public officials accountable for improving the safety of riders across the city.
In my master’s thesis on deterrents to bicycling for women in New York City, I formed criticisms of certain bicycle advocacy organizations who have become self-congratulatory about their role in improving the conditions for bicyclists while, at the same time, failing to be inclusive of more diverse groups in their outreach, planning, organizing and data gathering processes. It made me wonder: do these groups want to improve bicycling conditions for those who are already avid bicyclists or do they want to increase the total number of people using bicycles overall? And if it’s the latter, what strategic steps are they taking to accomplish that goal?
In some cities across the country, bicycling and bicycle infrastructure (bicycle lanes, bicycle racks, etc) have become synonymous with gentrification and I think that’s because the communities where the new infrastructure is being laid down feel imposed upon and as though they were not a part of the planning process. Additionally, bicycling (which is often touted as being a universally inexpensive and convenient form of transportation) is sometimes perceived as a sport for the most privileged amongst us. We must ask ourselves, who are our bicycling ambassadors (sport bicyclists, commuter bicyclists, bicycle messengers, cycle chic riders?) and is there diverse representation?
Bikemore wants to work to reach out to every neighborhood in Baltimore. They want all residents “across diverse cultures, races, income levels, genders, sexual orientations, political affiliations, and backgrounds– [to] feel they can cycle safely and confidently in every part of Baltimore, and that they have an important role in Bikemore.”
Bikemore’s mission statement appears to be rooted in inclusivity and I look forward to following their endeavors and learning more about their strategies for achieving this goal.
One of the reasons a public spaces becomes successful (meaning well-used) is because it is customizable and an important part of being able to customize your space is being able to have many different seating options. Individual, light-weight chairs which are not bolted into the ground, allow you to customize your experience by siting alone, siting in groups, moving in to the shade or moving in to the sun.
Some municipalities and businesses are weary of incorporating these types of chairs in our public spaces because they are understandably afraid these chairs will be stolen. It’s not easy to be secretive about stealing brightly colored chairs in the bustling pedestrian plazas of Manhattan, but for lesser populated areas, stealing street furniture (chairs, tables, umbrellas, trash cans, etc) can be an issue.
Artist Vincent Wittenberg asked the municipality of Bat Yam in Israel if he could research the behavior of individuals who were given the option of paying to sit in a public space and he wondered how many people would pay to customize the space for their own use. Mr. Wittenberg’s work explores the “border points” of public, private and collective spaces and says that he and his researchers “found out that the borders between those spaces are not strict and even flexible. Although ownership of space is important, many residents do cross the border by claiming public or common space for their own private use. This behaviour seems to be peacefully tolerated by the authorities and other residents.”
Mr. Wittenberg proposed that Bat Yam install benches which could also be converted in to individual seats. These seats will only be released once a five Shekel coin has been deposited but once the seat is returned, so is the coin.
Artist Fabian Brunsing tackled similar themes with a piece which criticizes the privatization of our public spaces. His “Pay & Sit” bench installation allows users to pay to sit comfortably on an otherwise spiked bench – but only for a short period of time. Thankfully, a loud warning signal alerts you to the need to get up quickly, before the metal spikes return.
Street furniture being stolen is an important issue but should this issue (and others concerns such as street furniture encouraging negative activity, graffiti, homeless individuals sleeping, etc) deter us from providing furniture at all? Successful public spaces are also those that are comfortable to a diverse audience (with a wide spectrum of physical abilities, those carrying heavy loads, those with children or elderly companions, etc) and therefore they are important to public spaces. These artists explore and exploit our desire for more successful public spaces.
In 2008, Los Angeles County voters approved Measure R, giving our Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) $40 billlion over the next 30 years for transportation upgrades (everything from new light rail to expanded bus service to pothole repair) within the 88 cities that make up Los Angeles County. The $40 billion is funded through a half-cent transportation sales tax increase which will cost each resident around $25 per year for the next 30 years. In 2008, not only did I vote for Measure R (along with 75% of voters) but I did so enthusiastically.
Four years later, the MTA proposed a new measure on our ballots (Measure J) which would extend the tax for an additional 30 years at the cost of $90 billion. Initially, I thought that voting for Measure J would be an obvious choice, that is until I started reading the opposition to the Measure and began to assess the cumulative impacts of Measure J – thinking regionally and locally.
I am a public transportation advocate and a passionate one at that. Some of the improvements proposed in Measure J seem like they would have a positive impact but many seem negative.The problem is that we can’t be guaranteed which projects MTA will choose (or who could suffer in unforeseen ways in the process ) to put our money towards and I’m not sure I’m willing to give Metro $90 billion to carry out initiatives of their choosing.