Last Monday, two admitted students were struck by a car crossing Elm Street, causing them both to be hospitalized. And honestly? I’m surprised that we didn’t witness an accident sooner. Since arriving at Yale in August, I have been both intrigued and horrified by the sheer danger that Elm Street presents. We all know the feeling of awkwardly sprinting across three lanes, trying to beat out the tidal wave of cars let loose by a green light just up the block. In its current state, the automotive thoroughfare is located between two of the busiest locations on campus — Yale and New Haven should work together to prioritize pedestrians and create a safer walking experience. But at the end of the day, this incident hints at a larger issue of Yale’s setting within the urban fabric of New Haven.
The City of New Haven has long recognized that jaywalking on Elm Street is a problem. In a 2015 report published by the city government, planning researchers noted how “pedestrians are crossing Elm Street mid-block between High Street and College Streets” and categorized this behavior as a primary issue to be addressed. The report recommends converting Elm from a one-way street to a two-way street, which would slow vehicular traffic and lead to a safer pedestrian experience. Bureaucratic processes take time, however — the aforementioned report describes the Elm Street conversion as a long-term project that will be implemented five or more years after the recommendations were published in 2015. Optimistically, we can assume that the project is still on schedule. But whether this is true or not, we are not precluded from starting a dialogue about livable streets in New Haven and exploring even more radical options for Elm and the rest of the city.
Recent research has elucidated the many benefits of two-way street conversions, but the findings are preliminary and neighborhood dynamics are affected by more variables than what direction cars travel down the road.
I like to daydream, so here are some of my ruminations for Elm (in ascending order of ridiculousness practicality):
1) Reduce the street to two lanes by adding a planted median in the middle and creating another crosswalk halfway between College Street and High Street. This would increase the aesthetic value of the street, reduce the volume of vehicle traffic, reduce the speed of traffic and give pedestrians another crossing point.
2) Create a series of pedestrian bridges along Elm — in addition to looking super cool, nobody would ever need to risk their life trying to get in a 4:59 p.m. Durfee’s swipe.
3) Completely bury Elm Street, creating a semi-subterranean tunnel with an urban park in place of the existing road, similar to the Tunnel Tops project in San Francisco.
4) Just ban all automobiles in New Haven. Easy! You can’t have car accidents without speeding steel boxes careening around, right?
But in all seriousness, and even more important than my fantasies of car abolishment (I grudgingly admit), pedestrian-focused planning can have a positive impact on Yale, New Haven and the interaction between Yalies and New Haven residents. Consider, for instance, the roughly 2.5-mile trip from campus to the Yale Bowl, a frequent route for varsity and club sports athletes, alongside spectators for weekend games. Students, myself included, call Ubers or hop on Yale-chartered buses to head out to the fields, absorbed in conversation or their phones for the duration of the 10-minute drive, the New Haven scenery passing by as a mere blur outside the window. Now imagine a dedicated bike path to the Bowl instead, a piece of infrastructure that fits into a larger bicycle path network that could be built to serve the New Haven community and Yale students alike.
The absence of casual interaction between Yalies and New Havenites can certainly be attributed, at least in part, to a lack of overlapping public space. From what I have noticed, Yale students seldom interact with residents beyond structured volunteering events. While the unification of our two communities over the horrific shooting of Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon III is to be admired, tragedies should not be the only catalyst for New Havenites and Yalies to come together; informal, day-to-day interaction can build community much more effectively than scheduled gatherings.
Elm Street could be a link between the home of hundreds of impressionable first years and the epicenter of New Haven, the Green. Pedestrianizing Elm would ameliorate automobile dangers for hurried Yalies, but more importantly, act as a conduit between New Haven and Yale by providing a shared space that would create casual interaction.
But let’s not wait for the completion of the Elm Street conversion for that to occur. Go walk around New Haven. Notice how urban spaces shape our behavior. Understand that cities aren’t stagnate. And then? Come up with some ideas of your own.
Kapp Singer is a first year in Grace Hopper College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .