Disrupting the grid

Make text smaller Make text larger

The Age of the Bicycle has undermined the orderly patterns of Manhattan’s block system


  • A jumble of pushcarts at odds with the grid, along Hester Street in 1903. The photograph portrays conditions that in the late 1930s led Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to crack down on pushcarts and drive them off the streets. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

  • This map was the centerpiece of the 1811 Commissioners Plan for New York City, which developed the original Manhattan street-grid system between roughly Houston Street on the south and 155th Street on the north. Image via Wikimedia Commons

  • Cyclists heading southbound on Ninth Avenue near West 30th Street. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The genius of Manhattan arises from its signature street-grid system of 1811, which fostered order and discipline, set the parameters for 200 years of development and provided the birth certificate for the modern New York City.

The mesh of poetry and practicality in the island’s traffic flow derives from its “block system” of 1909, in which all vehicles on a block stop, to let traffic on the crossing street go, in a pattern that neatly reverses itself into infinitude.

And the linear motion of our vehicles — bound for the rising or setting sun on the streets, mirroring the flow of the great encircling rivers on the avenues — stems from the introduction of one-way streets in the 1930s and one-way avenues in the 1950s.

All these features define our urban space. Together, they offer predictability for residents, access for businesses, rationality for commuters, wayfinding for tourists and relative security for all who trod corners, crosswalks and sidewalks.

There’s just one problem. After two centuries, the rhythms of the grid have been knocked out of kilter. The block system has been effectively degraded. The spirit of the one-way street has been undermined.

The streetscape is imperiled. And evidence is everywhere: Order devolves into chaos. Rule of law is abrogated. Basic protocols pertain no more. Menace pervades roads and public spaces. Fear of bodily harm awaits vulnerable citizens who venture out of doors.

A post-apocalyptic vision out of a “Mad Max” movie? Take another look. It’s actually a description of the streets of Manhattan in the Age of the Bicycle.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. With the best intentions, the current and former mayors set out to boost bike traffic, and thus, curb carbon emissions, cleanse the air, promote exercise and tame vehicular traffic, all worthy goals.

To accomplish them, City Hall in the space of 15 years grafted a new public transportation system onto the grid — the foundational design for the streets of Manhattan with its flat surfaces, straight lines, right angles, street walls and rectangular lots, all framed by a dozen north-south avenues and 200 numbered east-west streets.

The grid was municipal overreach at its finest.

Here were orthogonal spaces tailor-made for skyscrapers, and soon, a vertical grid rose atop the horizontal. Here were linear byways that could accommodate almost anything, and soon, above or below them, there came the automobile, sidewalk, stoop, traffic light, underground train, sewer main, subterranean utility trench, water tunnel from the Catskills.

It was upon that masterpiece of alignment and perpendicularity that officials superimposed 131 miles of bike lanes, concocted a bike-share program and built hundreds of docking stations stocked with thousands of Citi Bikes. Before long, a narrative had taken hold: The program was a shining success.

Not so fast. There’s another story that must be told.

“This used to be a much more orderly city,” said Dieter Brauer, 79, a German construction engineer who has been coming to Manhattan on business for 42 years. “The streets used to make much more sense,” said his wife Marie, 71, who has joined him on annual trips for 27 years.

The Brauers were standing on the west side of Eighth Avenue near the protected bike lane at 28th Street. The block in Chelsea has an improbable claim to fame, says blogger-and-data-analyst Todd Schneider, who analyzed hundreds of thousands of Citi Bike rides over a three-month period in the autumn of 2015.

“It’s the single road segment most trafficked by Citi Bikes,” he found.

Schneider’s research is based on where rides begin and end, so it doesn’t capture cyclists’ behavior. But it could well be the single road segment in which bikers most frequently blow through red lights, in defiance of the block system, ride the wrong way against the traffic stream, in repudiation of the one-way street, and bump up to sidewalks from which they’re legally banned, in contravention of the discipline of the grid.

I stood with the Brauers during the evening rush last week, and in 15 minutes, we counted 20 red-light runners, three sidewalk riders and a dozen “salmoners” careening southbound down northbound Eighth Avenue or westbound against eastbound 28th Street.

The word refers to the foolhardy practice of riding in the wrong direction that bikers dub “salmoning,” as if it can be likened to the glories of an upstream salmon run to natal spawning grounds.

“All this subtracts from the specialness of the city,” the senior Brauer said. “It does more than that,” his wife corrected. “It adds to the dangers.”

It’s hardly a secret to New Yorkers and visitors that an aggressive and empowered cycling culture has taken root on the island. But just how radically the streetscape of Manhattan has been transformed, its arterial infrastructure re-engineered, the very mission of its roadbeds re-prioritized to make way for, well, a stampede of scofflaws, has been far less commented upon.

Transportation planners have narrowed thoroughfares, shed vehicular lanes and reallocated miles of freed-up asphalt to bikeways. Consider what happens when a protected bike lane is fabricated on the left-hand side of a principal avenue, say, northbound First and southbound Second Avenues on the East Side, or northbound Eighth and southbound Columbus Avenues on the West Side.

Positioned curbside for its entire length, the bike path now displaces cars and delivery trucks, shunting them deeper into the roadway, according cyclists a place of honor, while erecting barricades to commerce by walling off retailers from their suppliers. The repositioning creates a domino effect:

The bike lane replaces a parking lane, the parking line replaces a traffic lane, the traffic lane morphs into a de facto delivery lane, and suddenly, a line of trucks, essentially triple-parked, are standing and idling and spewing fumes in the middle of the avenue because the new configurations bar them from getting anywhere near a curb.

That’s an improvement?

Now hold that image of the triple-parked truck in your mind. Go back in time with Morris Vogel, president of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, to the neighborhood at the turn of the 20th century. There’s an analogy here, and it’s not such a reach.

To outsiders, it was a “helter-skelter,” he told me, a chaotic jumble of “pushcarts and flimsy stands jostling each other every which way — bushels, barrels and boxes strewn across streets and sidewalks ... ”

That messiness, defying both grid and street flow, led to the crackdown launched by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia against the street peddlers and their conveyances in the late 1930s. “Pushcarts were lined up helter-skelter, which is one reason LaGuardia wanted them off the streets,” Vogel wrote.

And off the streets they went. Perhaps the next mayor will contemplate a similar crackdown on bike infrastructure.

Bikeways have few greater champions than Sam Schwartz, who coined the word “gridlock” in the 1970s, built the first short-lived bike lane for Mayor Ed Koch in 1980, and, under the nom de guerre “Gridlock Sam,” is the only traffic engineer in city history to become a household name.

Schwartz, the author of “Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars,” is also commonsensical. When I asked if the presence of those triple-parked trucks, engines running, isn’t a textbook case of poor urban planning, he wrote matter-of-factly, “Trucks need access.”

Yes, there could have been better planning, Schwartz said. He would have reserved one side of an avenue for truck-loading zones.

Few New Yorkers better understand the history of the one-way street, or the consequences of defying it. In 1791, he notes, “Drivers of horse carriages going to the theater were to travel east on east-bound streets and west on west-bound streets because of theater gridlock.”

As for wrong-way bike riding, “It’s wrong in any event because of the dangers to pedestrians looking the opposite way, cars not expecting the riders — and physics,” Schwartz says.

“A car going 30 miles per hour that hits a bike going 10 mph in the opposing direction is the equivalent of a 40 mph hit. Survival is low. But a car hitting a bike rider at the same speeds in the same direction is a 20 mph impact crash. Survival is high.”

Schwartz speaks of physics in the language of the traffic engineer. But there’s another principle in physics I’d deploy for the state of our streets in the era of the bicycle — entropy.

This is hugely consequential. And while there was public outcry over the reordering of the public realm, it never reached the intensity, say, of the political debate over horse-drawn carriages in Central Park.

Absent vigorous pushback, ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who developed the initiative, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who expanded it, could utilize executive action and fiat to remake streets — and create bike lanes doubling as glide paths for the pedal community’s uncivil behavior.

And no, the offenders aren’t only the Upper West Side’s Chinese-food messengers, they’re also Wall Street traders and Flatiron District software engineers.

As the very act of navigating streets and intersections turns perilous with the compromised grid, it can be helpful to harken back to 1807, when it all began.

The city’s Common Council, forerunner of today’s City Council, petitioned the state Legislature for assistance in planning and laying out the island’s “streets, roads and public squares.” In turn, Albany passed an act empowering the city to develop its roadways and appointed three commissioners to perform the surveying, mapping and visualizing to create the singular city.

The act of 1807, which led to the 1811 Commissioners Plan for New York, set the table for a Manhattan miracle.

The Common Council, in its wisdom, sent a message to Albany saying it envisioned streets laid out “in such a manner as to unite regularity and order with the public convenience and benefit, and ... to promote the health of the City.”

That’s exactly what happened. For two glorious centuries, it endured.

But who today can make the case that Manhattan’s streetscape unites regularity and order with the public convenience to achieve civic benefit?

Now, tell us what you think. Is the bicycle the scourge of the city or a saving grace? Does it diminish our street life and imperil the grid, or does it green Manhattan and make life more livable? Write Douglas Feiden, at invreporter@strausnews.com.

Make text smaller Make text larger



Nureyev: without precedent or equal
A new documentary captures the extraordinary life and art of the dancer for whom the world truly was a stage
Read more »

CPC passes mechanical voids proposal
Critics pan “stunningly weakened” zoning text amendment, which now heads to City Council for review
Read more »

A reflection of faith and artistry
Parishioners raised millions to restore their beloved church and its stunning stained glass window
Read more »

Mapping placard abuse
City Council data maps 311 complaints about parking permit misuse, most of which result in no action
Read more »


Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Neighborhood Newsletters


Local News
CPC passes mechanical voids proposal
  • Apr 16, 2019
Local News
A reflection of faith and artistry
  • Apr 16, 2019
Local News
Nureyev: without precedent or equal
  • Apr 18, 2019