Photo: Office of Governor Cuomo

In 1956 Isaac Asimov wrote a little song about the Second Avenue Subway, set to the tune of a classic Christmas carol. Fifteen years later he published it in his Treasury of Humor. I’ll let you follow the link and read it, because I don’t want to spoil the joke.

I totally want to sing this song at the opening ceremonies. Who’s with me?

Today I took a walk along Queens Boulevard in my neighborhood, where the Department of Transportation has been working to transform the medians into walking and cycling paths like those on Eastern and Ocean Parkways in Brooklyn. One of the most interesting changes is the closing of the “slip lanes” which allowed drivers to switch from the express to the local lanes and back. The slip lanes between 54th and 56th Streets are already closed:


Back in January I attended a DOT revisioning workshop for the Boulevard. We packed the cafeteria at my son’s old elementary school, and in a very encouraging contrast to a similar meeting in 2003, everyone seemed to agree that we need to do something. Peter Beadle, a fellow pedestrian advocate who lives down the Boulevard in Rego Park, focused on the slip lanes when reporting his table’s recommendations. After the meeting, he pointed out to me that Ocean and Eastern Parkways in Brooklyn have no slip lanes, which is a major factor in why they feel so much safer than avenues that are otherwise similarly designed, like Queens, Woodhaven and Linden Boulevards and the Grand Concourse. Here is a slip lane on Queens Boulevard that has not been closed, between 58th and 59th Streets:


Reviewing the presentation that the DOT gave to Community Board 2, it looks like they are not planning to close this slip lane. Instead, they will make it safer by putting a stop sign in the middle of it. Knowing how cavalierly drivers treat other stop signs, I’m skeptical about this, but it will be an improvement over the current slip lanes.

Diagram: NYC DOT
Diagram: NYC DOT

More importantly, it will allow for a continuous pedestrian path alongside the bike path on this entire stretch of Queens Boulevard. This afternoon I walked from 51st to 58th Streets on this path, and because there was only one lane of moving vehicles to my right it felt relatively safe. Once this path is continued all the way to 63rd Street (and hopefully beyond, one day), I think it will become a popular stroll, like the paths on Ocean and Eastern Parkways are now. The DOT has already painted crosswalks and put up signals for pedestrians:


(If you zoom in on this picture, you can see that the last car that went through here was doing 38 in a 25 mile an hour zone. We’ve got a lot more work to do.)

Et si on commençait par élargir les trottoirs, Madame Hidalgo?” December 8, 2014. Le Monde. By Olivier Razemon, translated by Angus B. Grieve-Smith. View the original post for full-size images.

Trottoirs-Paris-10-091943Banning diesel vehicles, partially pedestrianizing the four central districts, bike paths, routes dedicated to “environmentally friendly” vehicles… The Mayor of Paris seems to have realized the danger that air pollution poses to people who spend time in the Paris region, whether they live there or not (details here).

These steps, which will be debated at upcoming City Council meetings, will be attacked by various lobbies and may become a political football. Anne Hidalgo knows a thing or two about that. Her Tour Triangle project was defeated last november by an ad hoc coalition in the chamber. The next round of residential parking rate increases, which the administration is quietly promoting, is still being debated by the ruling coalition. City Hall is worried that the Communist city council members will refuse to touch it, perceiving it as an attack on low-income households.

Piétons-sacrifiés-2859Discouraged pedestrians. So to bring down pollution, but also noise and frustration, while easing commutes, what if we started by widening the sidewalks? When you think about the street space available, when we encourage one mode of transportation, in this case walking, we discourage the others. Take a look at the photo above. To cross the intersection you’d be better off on a motorcycle than trying on foot. Pedestrians deserve better: according to a study by Insee, half of all trips in the capital are made on foot.

Potelets-ParisA little strip of asphalt. In small streets, a sliver barely a meter wide is left for pedestrians, whether they’re traveling solo, with others, with a stroller, in a wheelchair, or pulling a suitcase. The lane is wide enough that a speeding car or motorcyle can terrorize passersby, sending them running for their little strip of asphalt.

Trottoirs-Paris10-019King Bollard. Bollards, metal ones in particular, are installed to prevent sidewalk parking, but wind up limiting the movement of pedestrians. But that’s not all: green trash cans, angle-parked motorcycles, café tables and chairs, loose trash, yellow trash cans, and so on. There’s a lot going on on a Parisian sidewalk.

Trottoirs-Paris-18-161725All it takes is one irritant. In a lot of our streets, particularly at certain times of day, pedestrians have no choice but to walk in the street. This is not always dangerous, because drivers slow down automatically, but it’s inconvenient for everyone. A single car on a quasi-pedestrian street can upset fifty pedestrians, just like a single train passenger yelling into a cell phone at the expense of everyone else’s peace and quiet.

Paris-piéton-3282Like a racetrack. For pedestrians it is impossible to cross certain intersections in one light, thanks to barriers placed by the city. What you see in the photo above sends the message: Streets are sacred, like a racetrack, no trespassing. When we install these protections we forget that people who move with their bodies like to move fast too. If we freed pedestrians from the confines of these sidewalks we would at the same time cut down on the speed of cars, and eventually on unnecessary car use.

Trottoirs-Paris-2001Let’s talk business. On the Grands Boulevards, in many places, there is still a lane across the sidewalk to allow drivers to access the parking areas. Sure they do it slowly, but they push pedestrians aside, behind bollards. And this hurts businesses! Despite what you may hear from developers, and even from some business people, the best customers for local businesses are pedestrians and cyclists. They may buy less per visit, but they shop more often – as long as they feel comfortable on the street.

Trottoir-disparaîtSidewalks erased. Sometimes when people are doing construction they will close the sidewalk, but not the bike lane. You might think they do it on purpose, to set up the kinds of conflicts so beloved by the tabloids. This might be a good place to note that in calmer cities dedicated bicycle infrastructure is no longer necessary: bikes ride in the street, leaving plenty of space on the sidewalk for pedestrians.

Barrière-piétons-4176That pointless barricade. Sometimes we just can’t figure out the rationale behind certain installations. In the above photo, at the exit of the Colonel-Fabien metro station, this little barricade obstructs the flow of people leaving the metro and waiting to cross the street. What is the point of this piece of steel? There must once have been one, but it has been forgotten by everyone, including the transportation department.

On the evening of September 28, 2013, college student Luis Bravo was killed by a hit-and-run driver in my neighborhood while walking down Broadway on the way home from the supermarket. As I wrote a few days later, that part of Broadway is too broad, and has always felt dangerous to me. I asked for the roadway to be narrowed from four lanes to two, and the width given to expanding the sidewalks.
Broadway 076
At the request of our City Council member, Jimmy Van Bramer, and other community leaders, the Department of Transportation studied the road and determined that we do not need four lanes there. Just this week they repainted it, transferring that width to a painted median and extra-wide parking lanes. Compare the above picture that I took today with one that I took last year, from just a block further west:
At 5:30, the height of rush hour, there was no gridlock, no cars backed up for more than half a block, and many gaps in between platoons of cars. The cars were moving steadily, but slower than before. There were also several bike commuters taking advantage of the extra-wide parking lanes, as you can see in the photo below (at the corner where Bravo was killed):
Broadway 062
I haven’t ridden a bike on this section, so I don’t know how safe the parking lanes feel, but I still would rather see wider sidewalks than these painted medians and turn lanes. The real test, as my neighbor Al Volpe wrote to the Woodside Herald, is whether the paint will slow down cars at 11PM. If it does, we may well have saved others from Luis Bravo’s fate.

This past Saturday, a young college student was killed by a hit-and-run driver while walking on Broadway at 58th Street here in Woodside. I know the danger he felt. Just two weeks before I was walking home from a dinner date in Jackson Heights. At 59th Street, a block before the corner where Luis Bravo was killed, I said to my wife, “Let’s turn here. This stretch of Broadway always feels dangerous to me.”
The width of this stretch of Broadway is puzzling. It’s a strange gap: years ago, before I moved to Queens, I walked most of the length of Broadway, from Elmhurst to Astoria, and this area almost made me regret my trip. A few blocks east, at 63rd Street, it’s seventy feet wide. A few blocks west, at 53rd Place, it’s also seventy feet wide. Between those two streets, the road widens to ninety feet, and from two travel lanes to four.

Maybe the people digging the subway needed a ditch that wide because the local and express tracks come together at Northern Boulevard. Maybe the city engineers thought that Broadway needed to be four lanes wide to bring cars from 34th and 35th Avenues to Northern Boulevard. If so, they were wrong. There is never a traffic jam on those blocks, even in the height of rush hour. There’s lots of room for the cars, which encourages drivers to speed.

We have already looked into ways to make this area safer. My City Council Member, Jimmy Van Bramer told Streetsblog that earlier this year, at the request of my neighbor Ed Surmenian, his staff asked the City Department of Transportation to study changing the timing of the traffic signals. The DOT responded that the signals were properly timed.

Stephen Miller of Streetsblog tells us that the DOT has proposed “road diets” for similarly overbuilt streets like Morningside Avenue, to take space away from cars. The Morningside Avenue proposed configuration would certainly be an improvement over what we have, but it would just waste that space on painted medians.

The sidewalks on Broadway should be widened, giving that space to pedestrians. The sidewalks on the south side are relatively comfortable, varying from ten to fifteen feet wide, but the ones on the north side are all under ten feet wide. The sidewalks on both sides should be a minimum of twenty feet wide.

You may say that you don’t see that many people walking on that part of Broadway, so why have twenty foot sidewalks? I say that people don’t walk because they don’t feel safe, just like my wife and I turned off when we got to 59th Street. With wider sidewalks and slower cars, more people will walk. It’s a natural connection between Jackson Heights and Astoria, after all.

Another thing that would bring people to walk in that area would be interesting stores and restaurants, but the zoning doesn’t encourage it. West of 63rd Street the avenue is zoned for residential construction, and west of 57th Street it’s manufacturing, but there’s very little manufacturing on Broadway itself. A C2-5 commercial overlay would allow people to build stores along Broadway in this section that look just like the ones west of 49th Street and east of 72nd Street.

I know that Jimmy Van Bramer and his staff have been working hard to make the district safer to walk in. I know that Borough Commissioner Maura McCarthy wants pedestrians to be safer in Queens. So let’s take away those extra lanes of Broadway and make the sidewalks wider. And let’s bring in the Department of City Planning and make it legal to build stores and restaurants right up to the sidewalk. Let’s make this part of Broadway a place where people can stroll in comfort.

Last month I guessed that when Ari Wallach said that Hastings-on-Hudson is a village “in a Wittgensteinian sense,” he meant that it was part of a family of things that are called “villages,” but don’t all share the same set of criteria. Wallach confirmed on Twitter that this was what he meant.

Wittgenstein’s example came from the area of games, where poker is competitive and contains elements of chance, tic-tac-toe is competitive but involves no element of chance, and solitaire contains elements of chance but is not competitive. Meanwhile, there are things that are not games but are competitive, like war, and things that are not games but involve chance, like weather forecasting.


In my previous post I had four criteria for “games,” but I chose to focus on two of them to make the diagrams easier to read.

Similarly, George Lakoff argued, a typical mother provides genetic material to her child and nurtures the child once it is born. A genetic mother does not necessarily nurture the child and an adoptive mother does not provide genetic material, but they are both considered to be mothers. A father can provide genetic material, and an teacher can nurture, but they are not mothers. Lakoff calls these radial categories.


(Strictly speaking, war contains elements of chance, and fathers can nurture, so the diagrams don’t quite fit the way people think about these categories, but it’s hard to capture everything.)

Back to Hastings-on-Hudson: it is legally incorporated as a village, but it is more suburban than rural, bordering on the city of Yonkers. Greenwich Village and Queens Village were once villages, but are now neighborhoods in New York City, and may not be considered villages by anyone anymore. Meanwhile, Huntington Village on Long Island is more rural, but is not legally a village. A typical village, like New Paltz, is incorporated and rural. Then there are rural areas like Wittenberg (where I spent a good part of my childhood, essentially a crossroads with a general store), and incorporated areas like Buffalo, that are not villages.


These “family resemblances” are everywhere in human categorization, and they are the basis for many of what I call “category fights.” The existence of this kind of polysemy is rarely acknowledged, unfortunately, and many people argue over these categories as though they were Platonic categories with necessary and sufficient conditions, when the actual facts are more complicated.

This weekend the New York Times Styles section ran one of their periodic stories about kids growing up and moving to the suburbs, and changing both themselves and the suburbs in the process.  A while back the suburb in question (more of an exurb) was Rosendale, and this time it was Hastings-on-Hudson.  This particular article was notable for its sheer number of evocations of the wacky hipster frame, and specifically the description by “futurism consultant” (sorry, I have to put that in quotes) Ari Wallach that Hastings is a village “in a Wittgensteinian sort of way.”

Blogger Kieran Healy responded by posting the “Top Ten Ways that Hastings-on-Hudson might be a Village in a Wittgensteinian Sense.”  And of course he’s right that it is a very funny quote, name-dropping a philosopher that hardly anybody has read in the original, in a “Styles” article about real estate trends.  I would crack up if I ever found myself saying something like that, and I hope Wallach has enough of a sense of humor to do the same.

What’s funnier to me, as I just realized yesterday morning, is that I have an idea what Wallach was saying, and I agree with him.  In fact, on Sunday I was at the Lavender Languages Conference arguing that I am transgender in a Wittgensteinian sort of way.  I didn’t use those words; instead I referenced George Lakoff, who got the idea from Wittgenstein via Eleanor Rosch.

I learned about Ludwig Wittgenstein in Philosophy of Language class 22 years ago, but that class was so rich with theories that I couldn’t keep track of them all.  So now I’m catching up with the help of Wikipedia, which gives us this quote (Philosophical Investigations 66, 1953) about the idea of “family relationships”:

Consider for example the proceedings that we call ‘games’. I mean board games, card games, ball games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? Don’t say, “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games'”–but look and see whether there is anything common to all. For if you look at them you will not see something common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look! Look for example at board games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear. And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.


I made this Euler diagram (which is not a true Venn diagram, according to the Wikipedian who made this page). Some of the games that Wittgenstein mentions, like Olympic track and field games, are amusing (in the sense of not being boring) and involve competition among players, skill and chance.

Other games fit only some of these criteria. There is no element of luck in chess or tic-tac-toe.  There is no competition among players in solitaire or throwing a ball at the wall.  There is no skill involved in ring-around-the-rosie.  Tic-tac-toe is not “amusing.”  Nevertheless, we call these all “games,” and if we tried to say that any of the four were necessary criteria we would exclude some of the games.

Similarly, these cannot be sufficient criteria either.  Surgery involves skill, but it is not a game.  Weather forecasting involves chance.  War involves competition.  Theater is amusing.  That said, they are often compared to games, and described with game metaphors.

This is a good place to stop.  I’ll talk in another blog post about how Hastings might be a village in this way.

I’m going on vacation to England soon, so I was intrigued to hear that Mayor Johnson had inaugurated a cable car across the Thames. “Funny,” I thought, “It’s not that hilly there.” Then I realized that “cable car” meant an aerial car, like what we call a tram.


So I decided to put together this little guide to transatlantic transportation vocabulary differences. It was only after I was halfway done that I realized how much I had cribbed from the “Point of View” ad campaign created for the Hongkong Bank by Craig Davis of J. Walter Thompson (where my dad worked back in the “Mad Men” days). Good ads! Please click through to see the sources for the photos.





If you’re walking up Broadway in Greenwich Village, you’ll get to the block between Waverly Place and Eighth Street:

Notice how there’s a continuous row of shops (except for the garage) that respects the “build to” line, as do the shops on the following block. Above the shops is a setback, and then the 31-story Georgetown Plaza tower, built in 1965.

On the same block, right next to where I took the picture above, the shops continue with the venerable “Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger” diner, a liquor store and the Delion Deli. Above them is the 35-story Hilary Gardens tower, built in 1972.

It’s not classic Greenwich Village urbanism or a quiet residential street, but it’s easy to walk and provides a stimulating visual environment. It fits in so well with the surrounding ground-floor retail that I only recently noticed that the buildings were postwar towers.

Contrast this with the boring vegetation along Washington Square Village, or the pointless lawn of Silver Towers.

If the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation really wanted to “protect the character of our neighborhood,” they would ask NYU to build retail out to meet the sidewalks of Third, Bleecker and especially Houston Street. That’s what the area needs, not more pointless, inaccessible “open space,” and not to be frozen in amber in 1967.

Here is West Tenth Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues:

Whenever I walk here I feel calmer and happier, much more so than on Mercer or LaGuardia, even though those streets have “green space.” Something about the buildings coming up to the lot lines and the subtle diversity of styles.