Contemplating the street: The Private and The Public

A number of themes remain relevant throughout the history of the street, whatever the period. One of these has to do with a variety of private challenges to the public control of the street space and the corresponding public effort to preserve the integrity of the street channel, and keep it free of encroachments.

The key reality is that the street remains the stage of a constant struggle between private and public interests. And the moral is that when public control falters, private abuses become endemic. The public good requires that the street space be kept open, accessible to all, and equipped for its functions. By explicitly defining an outdoor space for general use, the community makes a commitment to this principle. The private urge is to appropriate this space for one’s own purposes.

–       Spiro Kostoff, The City Assembled

What is a street? Why does it exist? What is its purpose and its function? Where does it come from? The street is an invention whose existence should not be taken for granted. Many early human settlements did not have streets in the conventional sense. Life centered on familial courtyards or basic living structures intended for protection from the outside elements . People may have utilized common and convenient paths, but there existed no legal designation of this space as a way for the public use formally checked against private incursion. The word street comes from the Latin strata via sternere, which means “to pave.” What differentiated streets from convenient passageways was just that- paving- public spending to smooth a common way in the interest of access and public commerce.

Since returning to New York City from a three month fellowship studying cycling infrastructure throughout Europe, I have dwelled a great deal on the meaning and purpose of the street. I have asked myself why our streets function the way they do, what they might look like in the future, and what contests and conflicts they stage at this present juncture.

Conflict, in my present study, has been a constant preoccupation.  In the past months, a significant backlash against the bicycle path has accelerated in New York City. The response comes from the perceived “imposition” of bicycle-dedicated ways in various boroughs and communities, and more broadly disputes the city’s ambitious policy to make bicycling a more feasible, integrated, and “green” element of New York City’s transportation future–largely at the expense of car users. The city has caved into complaints over contentious bike lanes in Brooklyn and Staten Island, while recent City Council hearings have shown that a vocal community (including the gregarious borough president of Brooklyn) feels passionately enough against bicycling to question the DOT’s support for this infrastructure period.

In this post, I will put forth several comments on how the bike lane debate might be repositioned and restaged in the public forum in order to better put into perspective what not only cycling, but cycling infrastructure, means to the street. I hope that this discussion will open a more reasonable forum for debate and engage the potential for compromise, innovation, and civic enhancement.

Parking: Private Incursion or Public Service

If we accept Kostoff’s notion that the street is the ultimate stage of contest between the public and the private sphere, then we must begin by defining in this scenario who are the private and the public actors.

In the view of habitual outer borough car drivers, many accustomed to driving for their daily commutes or raised in an era when driving was not stigmatized as unsustainable but celebrated for the marvel of its convenience, their interests align with the public good. Because car users are more prevalent than bicyclists, because parking in New York City is already a nuisance, and because their daily commute matters more to them than the ideological bourgeoisie principles to refashion New York City as a sustainable paradise, provisions imposed on their streets to support bicycle users seem neither logical, legitimate, or an adequate reflection of the public interest. And they are correct.

A small (but growing) minority of the population bicycles regularly, and many that do, only bicycle seasonally. For a car user, taking away parking spaces on an entire side of one street can aggravate a daily routine and appear against the personal and public interest, especially when bike lanes appear underused. Moreover, when few bicyclists use the path, and the few that do are young, well-educated and upwardly mobile, the lane represents not only an encroachment on a community’s public convenience, but also a failure to support one way of life versus another (even a symbolic overture to future gentrifiers).

From the opposite perspective of course, those who defiantly undermine the development of a sophisticated, interconnected bicycling infrastructure in New York City cause an affront not only to the public access and flow of the city street, but incorrectly assume that parking spaces and commodious car streets are a given right, when in reality, each is a service provided and maintained by the city on behalf of the public. A parking space, in an ideal world, would be part of one’s property. If this space is not, and one chooses to own a car, then they are at the mercy of the city in using it. The car, in this view, may represent an antidote to public life, as well as a machine that insulates (and alienates) it users from the street life thriving in the outdoors. If the city decides to boldly and speculatively foster bicycling (as it did with cars, when it invested in a series of bridges and expressways to facilitate widespread car ownership and ease flow in and out of New York in an earlier era), they should not be tyrannized by the interests of a public collectively wedded to their personal interests. This collective abuse of the street space inhibits the potential multi-modal benefits made possible by bicycle usage, and damages New York City’s reputation as a place of vision and change.

In this view, he who drives his car from Brooklyn to Long Island City every morning is not only opposed to the public good, but is also out of step with the long-term sustainable and environmental goals which have been framed and developed for a healthier, happier New York City of the future. They would be also be right.


Our built landscape is a manifestation of our transportation habits. Transportation is the key to providing goods and services. Infrastructure- digital, physical, or otherwise- makes it possible. If we frame this problem as one of infrastructure, rather than vehicles, I believe we may make an appropriate distinction as to where the public ends and the private begins. In the United States, and indeed, in most developed places in the world, there exists a street and a sidewalk. Pedestrians use the sidewalk. Cars use the street. If one cannot afford or chooses not to own a car, as many in New York do, they must take public transportation- a bus, which also uses the street, or a train, which circumvents it to the best of its ability. Because most places in the United States were fully articulated as the car was coming into fashion and widespread use, many places in the United States are designed with its sole accommodation in mind. But in New York, where more people travel by train than by car, where densities between destinations often do not require the usage of a car, and civic life (as opposed to insular home life) thrives, driving a car is a choice.

An infrastructure for bicycles has the potential to open the door to a new series of innovations in the realm of transportation- intermediate vehicles meant for short trips in between the automobile and the pedestrian. And since New York is a place where change must thrive, where innovation should flourish and where the civic should not merely be maintained but celebrated and elaborated, the righter does not drive his car. And for Marty Markowitz, who has seen cycling flourish in Brooklyn and become a feasible, popular form of transportation, I beseech you to be smart, courageous and forward-looking, because the solution to this traffic problem is not elimination but opportunity- An opportunity to foster a new level in the transportation hierarchy. Not merely a space for bicycles versus a space for cars, but a space for innovation between walking and driving on the way to a happier, healthier, more livable city.

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