New York City: If you can make it work there, you can make it work anywhere

New York City have seen traffic fatalities decrease by 37%, traffic volumes fall by 1.5% and car registrations reduce by 5%. They’re also celebrating a 289% increase in bicycle commuting, a 10% increase in bus ridership (in suburbs with new surface BRT services and no subway) and 60 new ‘play streets’.

This week Dr Karen Lee is in Australia presenting a seminar series on how the way places are designed impacts upon health and wellbeing. She is an Adjunct Professor at the Schools of Public Health at the University of Alberta and Toronto and also heads the Built Environment and Healthy Housing Program at the New York City (NYC) Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Dr. Lee is the lead for the NYC Health Department in its work with the NYC Departments of Design and Construction, Transportation and City Planning in the development of their Active Design Guidelines published in January 2010.

According to Lee:

  • If obesity trends continue total attributed health care costs will equal US$956 billion per year (medical costs alone and not including lost productivity costs)
  • In walkable neighbourhoods transport costs are 9% of average monthly household income. These costs increase to 19% in an average household but dramatically increases to 25% in car dependent neighbourhoods. So basically a quarter of total monthly household income is spent on travel and transport in sprawling suburbs
  • 12 car share cars can eliminate the need for 154 car parking spaces
  • Each Saturday in August New York City closes 6.9 miles of streets to create a ‘car free route’ called “Summer Streets”. 87% of participants arrive at the event by active modes (walking and cycling) and 24% of participants would normally be inactive
  • Prior to reprioritising Times Square 89% of space was for cars and 11% of space was for people. Now, as a result of the pedestrianisation scheme, traffic flows better, there has been a 49% decrease in vacant retail spaces, retail trade has increased and pedestrian volumes have increased by 11%

 How has all of this been achieved?

  • Identifying projects which have good outcomes and minimal costs but increase profit and promote active living (little things like painting stairwells!)
  • Training public sector staff
  • Developing and using a checklist for development approvals
  • Changing design standards
  • Identifying how to achieve multiple outcomes e.g. health benefits as a result of a transport project
  • Taking projects to neighbourhoods rather than only in central locations

What are we waiting for?

If you can make it work there, you can make it work anywhere.

What changes would you make in Australian cities?


Thanks to the Department of Health and VicHealth with the support of the McCaughey Centre and Heart Foundation. The Municipal Association of Victoria, the Australian Faculty of Public Health Medicine, and the Office of the Victorian Government Architect for supporting specific sessions

… and to the Heart Foundation and AECOM in Brisbane for hosting the Queensland webinar