A New New York: a 15-minute city

Reimagining how we work in our neighborhoods

New York City is facing an economic crisis of historic proportions, triggered in part by the virus, but made worse by decades of zoning that often serves to separate residential from commercial and manufacturing districts, rather than blend them seamlessly. These zoning choices made sense at the time (who wants to live next to an oil refinery, or reside in a building whose lobby is overrun at rush hour?), but they locked New Yorkers into a mass-movement commuting model that relies too heavily on outdated transportation infrastructure.

In normal times, commuters from the outer boroughs, NJ, and CT flock to the Manhattan core for work via bus, subway, car, and ferry, nearly doubling its population on weekdays. The vast majority of workers from the outer boroughs take the subway to and fro, spending an average of about 50 minutes on public transport each way, often in very close proximity to others.

But these are not normal times, and commuters may never look at crowded trains, ferries, buses or terminals as clean enough or safe enough again. A poll taken by Tech.NYC in late-April revealed that 23% of polled technology workers wouldn’t feel comfortable taking the subway until fall, 2020, while an additional 21% would avoid it until at least 2021. The alternative, cars, may be more hygienic for the people inside them, but are far less safe for everyone else — pedestrians, bikers, scooters, the environment, respiratory health. If even a fraction of former subway commuters start to take cars to work, the City’s already-terrible congestion and pollution will skyrocket and it will lose even more lives to crashes. As ever, those living in lower-income communities farther from the core of Manhattan will need to spend disproportionately more time and money to get to work, further reinforcing patterns of racial and economic segregation. In short, there’s no longer a good option for commuters, and there won’t be for many months to come.

But maybe long commutes weren’t really such a great idea in the first place? Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, is solving the problem — and the ills that accompany it — through a bold vision for a 15-minute city. The goal is to be intentional about neighborhood development to ensure that its citizens can work, shop, socialize, learn, access services, exercise, and be in nature within a fifteen minute walk of their homes. With this in mind, Paris has been working to:

With each step, Paris becomes more climate-friendly, family-friendly, time-efficient, safe, green, equal, and generally human-scale.

New York should follow its lead, and quickly, to get remote-friendly workers off major commuting corridors, and free up space for workers for whom commuting for an in-person job is imperative. Relative to most cities in the US, New York is uniquely well-suited for this approach, since it features pre-industrial, urban residential neighborhoods where New Yorkers already live, shop, and socialize. Many already walk and bike from home to local shops and restaurants and schools. Many already live without cars. If New Yorkers can no longer commute to work safely, the city should be bold and intentional about planning its neighborhoods to encourage “hyperlocal” living AND working, where possible.

Which policy recommendations would help to turn New York into a 15-minute city?

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The virus may be dwindling today, but it will leave behind a permanently altered city. Regardless of whether it’s eventually safe to ride the subway, many won’t be interested in going back to their long commutes and their old ways of working. We will have grooved new paths to getting things done that work better and more flexibly and more locally for our modern lives, that accommodate dual-earning households, that let us spend more time with our kids and with our communities, that reduce the overhead of getting to work, and that let us breathe easier. With intentional neighborhood development and a focus on hyperlocal living, New York City can emerge from the pandemic an even better place to live than it was before.

Envelope CEO.

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