(Image credits: Seth Taras Bowery
Station Photo, GCT photo, drawings
completed at Sam Schwartz
The phrase ‘Pedestrian Engineering’ initially sounds like the minimization of a field of study. In fact,
pedestrians are far from banal but the most dynamic element of the urban environment. Designing for
the pedestrian is not simply a matter of widening sidewalks or connecting dots with bridges or tunnels.
Considering the future of New York (or any City), Pedestrian Engineering can result in a more fluid, safe
and comprehensible environment.
Other Cities have taken a lead in this realm (Hong Kong, Shanghi, Paris and others) separating grades to
make access safer for pedestrians; enhancing the public realm by separating the multitude of functions
that the ‘traditional main street’ has come to bear in dense urban environments. In this way, New York
can now integrate transit and street life, specify appropriate site specific land use, program, urban
design and deliver on urban revitalization and sustainability.
Quantifying the Pedestrian Experience
For generations traffic engineers have been quantifying and predicting traffic behavior with modeling
techniques and analyses to maximize vehicular throughput and improve safety on our roads and
highways. Pedestrian modeling is a relatively new technique as it is far more complex to predict human
behavior than vehicles.
The implications of Pedestrian Engineering are economic social
and physical in nature allowing for improvements to the urban
environment that facilitate pedestrian flows for day to day,
emergency evacuation or peak event scenarios.
Knowing how pedestrians will behave in a given environment
(indoors or out) saves money on infrastructure investments,
improves Levels of Service and safety as well as give investors
and decision makers a clear sense of how a site/project will
function without making costly investments in the field after the
design and construction process.
Elements of Pedestrian Engineering:
Predicting human behavior from concept through construction.
Staging operations, maintenance and protection of pedestrians, signage and way-finding.
Pedestrian Engineering Results:
Safer, more comfortable, internationally comprehensible and universally accessible public spaces.
Appropriate sidewalk, bridge and tunnel widths, vertical circulation, traffic calming and physical
improvements to stations, hubs, event venues and streetscapes.
From Grade Separation To Grade Integration
New York invented the concept of grade separation to maximize space for urban movement with
tunnels and bridges. First in Prospect and Central Parks, Fredrick Law Olmsted was able to fold the
landscape upon itself allowing two people to occupy virtually the same space, yet exist on separate
Then, again, Louis Risse planned the Grand Concourse upon a natural ridge to avoid intersections at
grade, this was the precursor to our national highway system. Tunnels and bridges were technical
innovations at the turn of last century; today redefining at grade must go beyond such a simple
understanding of grade separation.
Pedestrian bridges and tunnels are often criticized as confining or only successful when they connect
directly to land use. People in pedestrian tunnels disappear and reappear without a sense of direction or
place. Anyone who rides the subway understands this feeling of disorientation when you resurface from
the underground. It is time for these century old techniques to reach their potential with state of the art
technologies and design.
Future densities require evolutionary solutions. From the waterfront, to the existing street network, and
underground rail or vehicular links, we can make seamless connections between existing and future
grades that will move people vertically as well as horizontally. Daylight and convenience can give the
public the feeling that they have never left the street, (plaza, ground, concourse, entry, platform) level.
Designing a framework, system, network or landscape upon which people will travel from where they
are to where they want to be, with minimal effort or confusion might best be described as ‘grade
integration’. Diligence toward this end will define a new urban landscape, as Olmstead did a century
ago, addressing the complexities that have been brought to bear on our City since his time.
The Most Frequently Asked Question: Won’t grade separation detract
from street life activity?
In some cases, yes, but this cannot be an across the board assumption.
Street can often be relegated predominantly to vehicular use (service,
valet, parking, pick up and drop off.) As we see at Grand Central Station,
retail is interior and often below grade adjacent to Metro North and
Subway entrances, N/S vehicular through movements on Park Avenue are
elevated and local street functions remain at grade with entrances,
service and bus access at grade. Several levels of movement are occurring
in the same space and this allows the main atrium at grade and the track
levels below to act as a pedestrian only zone for a complete City block.
In NYC (originally planned as a multi-level City) grade separation is
already without any ‘master plan’. One development at a time,
pedestrians ascend and descend onto elevated on decks, terraces
viaducts tunnels and passageways.
Downtown - WTC, SI Ferry Terminal, the Brooklyn Bridge, 55 Water Street, the FDR Deck.
West Midtown - Rail Yards, Highline, Port Authority.
West Harlem (upper Manhattan) - Riverside Park, Riverside Viaduct, 1/9, the Intrepid Museum.
East Side – FDR Drive Deck, East River Park, the UN, Brooklyn Bridge Esplanade.
Building upon this type of integrated landscape need not be as expensive as it sounds. As needs are
defined by the current and future demands of residents, commuters and tourists, there is an
opportunity to make use of much of our existing infrastructure. Highways and adjacent land uses must
be considered properly, this could generate revenues for maintenance of an enhanced public realm by
opening up valuable real estate.
No More: ‘Pardon Our Appearance’ During Construction
Public and private infrastructure projects require a wide
variety of constituents, significant intellectual and economic
investment up front and enduring commitment over time.
Improving levels of service for commuters, patients, visitors
should start at the beginning of renovations to existing
facilities. If impacts to pedestrians are a focus from ground
breaking through ribbon cutting, not only will levels of service
be maintained or improved during construction but also
staging can be designed to feel invisible (instructive) for daily
and first time users.
On-going strategies to protect an investment and the safety of
it’s users from conception through construction, operations
and maintenance is crucial. Some Public Works include a
Percent of Art Program ensuring that at a fraction of the
budget will tap a creative person for input. This is an excellent
concept although, all too often this input is not seminal to the
function of the system or facility but conceived of by those
executing the projects as decorative or ‘softening’ the rough
perception that comes with infrastructure. Especially projects
devoted to pedestrian movement or public infrastructure
located in people’s back yards.