How Tactical Urbanism Helped Conquer the Streets of Jersey City
Covid has been particularly hard on cities: downtown business districts are still struggling due to the shift to remote work; some cities have seen population declines; and crime has spiked virtually everywhere. In addition, the pandemic pushed more people into cars, setting back the safe streets movement. After years of progress, cities like New York City saw big increases in pedestrian deaths. This is a nationwide problem—with one notable exception: Jersey City recently announced that no one died on its city streets in 2022, meeting its Vision Zero plan for the city. The milestone was the result of years of work by the city and its collaborator, Street Plans, a planning firm founded by Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia. Lydon, a DPZ alum and co-author of the 2015 book Tactical Urbanism (currently being updated), began working with Jersey City on a whole raft of initiatives six years ago. I spoke with Lydon last week and asked him, specifically, how the city and he did it.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
ML: Mike Lydon
Congratulations on Jersey City. I know that city a bit and never found it particularly conducive to walking, so I wanted to talk to you about how this happened.
Like any good tactical urbanism project, it’s been an iterative process. It’s also important to note from a mayoral leadership and staff perspective, there was strong alignment several years ago that led to a series of planning initiatives, policies, and infrastructure investments under the same leadership over successive terms.
Who’s mayor now?
Mayor Steve Fulop. His colleague, Barkha Patel, started as an entry-level planner and rose up quickly to positions of leadership. She now leads a consolidated entity called the Department of Infrastructure, which oversees transportation, architecture, parks, public space, public buildings, etc. Barkha is very focused on equitable and dynamic public spaces, street safety, sustainable transportation, and placemaking. She has the mayor’s trust to push progressive policy forward, quickly. So over the years, the city team has put together critical pieces that have resulted in this promising outcome—the realization of zero traffic fatalities on city-owned streets, which is the vast majority of streets in the city. In terms of the fatalities in the past few years, it’s been up and down. Like everywhere else, 2021 was a bad year in Jersey City. After seeing improvement citywide, fatalities hit 9 on city streets, and 14 total including state and county streets. But to go from those numbers in 2021 to zero in 2022 is either dumb luck or the start of an important long-term trend. In the short-term, it’s a marvelous achievement that validates years of hard work.
Maybe it’s a bit of both. Where do you start with a project like this?
It starts with acknowledging the problem, saying it’s not acceptable for 5, 10, or 20 people to die on city streets, and that these are avoidable fatalities, recognizing that humans will make errors, but those errors should not have to be fatal, if we have the right mix of policy and physical design in place. At the core, Vision Zero has to be a multipronged approach. That said, the largest focus is on redesigning major streets in the city, going from six, five, or four lanes, down to, in some cases, two or three. The reallocation of space to biking and walking has been a steady and significant part of the approach, along with adding hundreds of speed bumps, retiming signals including the addition of leading pedestrian intervals, and a whole number of physical design tools that create a calmer and safer environment.
How do you test these things? Do you start by doing one thing all over the city, or try a number of things in one place to see how that works?
We look at where the biggest cluster of serious crashes and fatalities occur, and where there’s demand for changes. Then we look at those corridors and ask, “What are the needs? What are the possibilities? How do we deliver them in an iterative fashion?” Jersey City is the second largest city in New Jersey, but it’s not New York or Boston, so resources are constrained. For Jersey City, the important thing has been to experiment in a low-cost, temporary, and transparent way. When we test street changes, whether it’s for a day or a year, the materials are flexible enough that you can make changes, double down on the things that work and scale those up, and remove the things that are not working quickly, including elements that may not be well received by residents or other stakeholders.
Was Jersey City open to that?
One hundred percent. We first got engaged with the city to assist with the 2016 pedestrian enhancement plan. Our project team held public walking workshops, where anywhere from 10 to 30 people would show up, and they would walk one of the most dangerous streets in the city. They would then happen upon an intersection on the tour that our team, that very morning, had already transformed with low cost materials. In this case, it was tempera paint, traffic tape, temporary bollards, and plants.
What, specifically, did you do at that intersection?
Jersey City is structured politically by a ward system, so we installed curb extensions at six intersections, one for each of the six corridors, one for each ward. The projects were simple, but we changed the geometry of the intersection to slow down turning cars, shorten the crossing distance, and increase the visibility of pedestrians—a simple and visible change. We did that in bright, colorful paint and patterns. The paint is washable, so then the next time that it rains that paint is gone. But it gave people that experience, while they were in the workshop, and it gave the city an understanding of how quick and effective those changes can be given the feedback of participants and others who offered input while the project was in place.
After that the city reconfigured dozens of intersections, in real traffic paint, bolting in delineators, putting down real thermoplastic striping, and increasing visibility at crosswalks. They’ve now done that at more than 85 intersections around the city over a number of years. Those experiments become the interim treatments that set the stage for curb and concrete, capital construction work that always takes longer to fund and build. We use those demonstration and pilot projects as a valuable form of public engagement, and as a way to bring ideas to the table, for communities to look at transparently and ask: Does this work? Is something else desired? That process helps build trust and gives the city confidence that they can invest in projects that are effective and well received by community groups.
Do you get pushback from neighbors, business owners, politicians on the city council?
Yes, all of the above. Tactical urbanism is not a silver bullet for overcoming opposition by any means. However, it puts the debate out into the public realm, where it’s not theoretical; it’s something physical everyone can see and debate, and it’s reversible and therefore low risk politically. The debates that follow installation is why data collection is such an important part of the methodology. There’s the qualitative: Do people feel safer? Does the project fit into their neighborhood? Is there a perception it’s working as intended? And then there’s the quantitative data: Is there more traffic congestion? Are vehicles traveling slower? Are more people walking or cycling? Are we seeing fewer crashes? There are ways to measure these things, even in the short term, that allow us to understand impact. And when people in a city can see that it’s safer to cross the street, see more people cycling, or hear that Citi Bike rentals are up 10% since we’ve made this change, for example, it becomes harder to argue against. It’s hard to argue against positive outcomes, like a reduced number of crashes or fatalities.
How do you get involved in this safe streets movement?
Fifteen years ago I was working at an urban design firm and found myself gravitating towards transportation and public space—specifically, the design and function of streets in our communities. I was living in Miami but was enamored by things happening in New York and then seeing other people and places taking active and innovative approaches to addressing the need to make changes to streets and public spaces.
I coined the phrase “tactical urbanism” in 2011. I thought it described a disparate but emerging methodology that could come from citizen activists, city agencies—or, ideally, both. These projects began having tangible outcomes covering a wide slate of different project types, whether sanctioned or unsanctioned, from citizens and cities around the globe. A decade later the methodology has matured, and it’s what’s really at play in Jersey City. That was part of the attraction for Barkha, our client, who hired us to work on that first pedestrian enhancement plan initiative, because she valued the approach and saw it as a way to simultaneously engage residents and quickly deliver on plans and policies. And when you have leadership from someone like Mayor Fulop, who’s now in his third term, you get continuity in staff and initiatives, which build on themselves in ways that you can’t achieve when you have a one-term mayor.
Continuity is a huge issue. Cities are talking about removing highways. It’s hard to do, unless you have a mayor who’s invested, and is going to ride that out for two or three or four terms.
But that political continuity is not a given. We work in different cities, and whenever you have a mayor who’s in a second or third term, that’s when a lot of good things usually start to happen. It’s a very noticeable difference when I’m working in a city that has that continuity. One of my favorite examples is Greenville, S.C., where Mayor Knox White has led the city’s remarkable transformation since 1995.
When you come to a new city, you probably have a relationship with the planning director and the mayor. Do you make alliances on the city council as well?
You try to find the places where there’s an alliance and work there. Then you try to get a proof of concept so that you can say, “Look, this worked, and it could happen in your district or neighborhood.” To help build in a demand for the types of changes we know have positive outcomes for safer streets. You can’t get there by butting heads against somebody who just doesn’t buy into it from the outset. But you can get them there if you have the time to do the work in places where people want it to happen.
A lot of our work is done with volunteers, citizens, nonprofits, and people who have trust and connection to the community. We’re consultants, so we don’t always have that when we work with a new client city, but those people do. In Jersey City there are a couple of groups, Safe Streets JC and Bike JC, that are trusted by the city. They’re good partners. The city knows that they can be relied upon to support projects, to build political support, and bring people to public workshops—all the things that are needed to build buy-in. At the same time, these organizations know that the city, while imperfect, is truly trying to do the right thing and put the right pieces in place. That symbiotic relationship doesn’t exist everywhere. But it’s been critical to the success in Jersey City.
Nationally, progress was made, especially on bikes, but Covid set us back, and we’re seeing bad traffic and pedestrian numbers all over the country.
Unfortunately, true, unless you’re one of the cities that spent years prior to Covid working on this stuff proactively. And even then we’re seeing backsliding. It’s hard to fully account for every reason.
New York’s numbers are bad—and we’re the most pedestrian-friendly city in America.
They’re not great. They were going in the right direction for about five years, and then started to reverse. We’ve learned that we not only need safer street infrastructure, we need a lot less people driving vehicles. That reduction has not happened here.
Why do you think that they reversed?
Part of it is systemic. We’re seeing bigger cars with more horsepower and increased driving. We’re also seeing more delivery trucks on smaller streets. And there are more people in the city—we gained a Boston-worth of people between 2010–2020. You start to throw that mix together and get some bad outcomes. We also don’t have a good system of driver accountability. There are people who can get dozens and dozens of traffic tickets and still be on the road. What you see is probably 2–3% of people who are the bad actors that have led the spike in all this, around the country, but definitely here in New York, where the vast majority of drivers aren’t unsafe, but enough of them are that it impacts the overall safety of the streets. It’s a problem. But all that said, I would just say that in New York, per capita, we’re far safer than almost any other major American city. I’d much rather walk here than anywhere else.
All photos courtesy of Street Plans, unless otherwise noted.