For accurate routing, network connectivity is essential. This is the case regardless of one’s mode of travel. A person may start a journey on foot, move to a bicycle, then to subway and finish off her trip again on foot. Nevertheless, all legs (e.g., street, bike lane, subway line) of the journey, regardless of the mode of travel, need to be connected.
In the course of a trip, we may on occasion encounter unusual means of ‘network’ connectivity. For example, we may need to carry our bicycle up a set of stairs to enter onto a bridge. In this post, I will cover what I find to be an unusual means of urban connectivity: step streets – more on the name later. Quite simply, a step street can be considered an outdoor stairway or a series of steps that connect two different elevations.
When I think of ‘step streets’ as access ways in urban environments, older European cities come to mind first. Cities with narrow streets and sometimes steep grades that were laid out well before the advent of the automobile. One of the most famous examples, albeit not of a narrow passageway, is the Spanish Steps in Rome that connects Piazza di Spagna and Piazza Trinità dei Monti.
A more classic example, of a steep narrow passageway comprised of steps, can be found in Lago D’Iseo, Italy. You could probably schlep a bicycle up these steps but not much more.
Image via Martha’s Marvelous Munchies
In older city settings, stairs or paths were probably the only means for getting pedestrians from point A to point B. I do not profess to know the history of steps in urban settings, but I imagine they were built out of necessity. In most cases, one could imagine, due to limited remaining space and a large difference in elevation. And in these parts of a city, cars are often not permitted for obvious reasons.
Stateside, San Francisco comes to mind first due to its hilly terrain and a street layout that works with, not against, the terrain. Although an amazing site with beautiful landscaping and a notable tourist destination, Lombard Street demonstrates the impractical nature, and some might argue, misuse of space, in trying to move automobiles through extremely steep spaces.
Image via Wikipedia
In contrast there are a series of pedestrian-only ‘stairways’ that connect Jones and Taylor Streets in the Russian Hill section of San Francisco. In OpenStreetMap, these ways are tagged highway = steps. For more in San Francisco stariways see here.
Back here in New York City, where the terrain is considerably flatter and the rents slightly lower, there are a series of narrow passageways comprised entirely of steps that are limited to pedestrians and are referred to in the local vernacular as ‘step streets.’
Many step streets are official streets and therefore can be found on the official City Map. For background context, the official City Map is a collection of Alteration maps. Alteration maps record changes to the City Map including public streets, parks and public places – see here for more information. Alteration maps of a corresponding area supersede all previous Alteration Maps from previous dates).
Below is a portion of an Alteration map from 1955 recording the elimination (de-mapping) of West 230th Street in the Bronx. This map shows both West 230th and West 231st Street labeled ‘STEPS.’ This label is most likely how the term step street started: as one might say as a cartographer’s annotation.
Alteration Map courtesy of the Department of City Planning. To see the complete map click on the image.
One of the hilliest areas in NYC is northern Manhattan and the Bronx. And as one might expect that is where the greatest number of step streets are found. This is where you will find the densest clustering of step streets. And these are the ‘classic’ step streets (i.e., connect two streets). The example below connects two sections of Pinehurst Street in Manhattan north of W 181st Street.
Based on the data, the longest step street is West 230th Street between Netherland and Johnson Avenue in the Bronx. A length of approximately 295′ with an elevation difference of 38′ for a grade of 12.9 percent. A relatively modest slope compared to the 26.8 percent grade of W 187 Street between Overlook Terrace and Fort Washington Ave also in the Bronx.
The definition of a step street seems to have been expanded to include steps that connect streets to the boardwalks in the Rockaways. In any case, go ahead and download the data to explore these and other interesting anomalies or check out the map below.