Monday, March 21, 2011

Tripping the Light Fantastic

Ever heard of James Randel Jr?

Probably not. He lived over 200 years ago. But you can file him in the "isn't famous but should be" file. Millions of people literally walk in his handiwork every day.

He created the grid system for Manhattan.

He's the guy responsible for shaping almost all the streets and avenues of the great borough, designing perhaps the logical urban landscape in the world.

At the time this was very controversial. The grid system was considered heretical, strange, weird. The great novelist Henry James called it a "primal topographical curse." Even some people today (like my own mother) will say that the grid system is "unimaginative."

But the results of Randel's vision are clear: the uniform simplicity of the grid system literally created the groundwork for Manhattan buildings and skyscrapers to rise and rise into the air. It made it easier for people to navigate the borough, streamlining pedestrian, and later motor, traffic. Without James Randel, NYC might not be what she is today. 

And this month marks 200 years since Randel, then a 21-year engineer working for the city, unveiled his plan that would forever shape this city's history. We should all tip a beverage of our choice to his memory.

But the debate about how New Yorkers get around town has not ended. Quite the opposite, it's hotter than ever. What's it all about?

Bike lanes!

Some people (namely bike riders) love them. Other people (namely everyone else) hates them. This week New York magazine has a long article about this raging controversy. For bike lane advocates, these new lanes are ideal, just what are needed to relieve congestion from the sidewalks and streets. Not only that but, since bikes don't burn fossil fuels or create exhaust, they're good for the environment (not to mention for the riders' waistlines). 

But the people who hate them, hate them with a blind white passion. They think the bike lines are ugly. And unsafe, since pedestrians walk in the bike lanes and then get run over by riders whizzing  by.  They think the benefits of bike lanes are vastly overstated and that they just don't fit into the NYC urban landscape. And now people are suing the city, hoping to get the law to force the city to rid of these hated routes. Congressman Anthony Wiener has declared that, if he ever becomes Mayor, he will rid NYC of bike lanes in one of his first mayoral acts.

Whew! Who knew that bike lanes would be so controversial? But it's only getting more so. And as this article points, there is a larger issue at stake. It's about what kind of city New York is going to be in the future. Will the car still dominate or will it be marginalized? How will these lane affect out future? 

Like many things, it's an unsettled subject for these unsettling times. And if the bike lanes remain or are removed, it will say a lot about what kind of town NYC will be in the future. 

Grid plans and bike lanes made me think, in an ancillary way, of that song, "The Sidewalks of New York." Particularly the lines:

East Side, West Side, all around the town ...
Boys and girls together ...
Tripped the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York


So even 200 years after the grid system came to NYC, here we are once again debating how we get around NYC. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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