A Traffic-Free Future for Harlem

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This is an artist’s rendering of what West 125th Street would look like after Columbia University’s expansion is completed more than a decade from now.  (It is included in an overview of the plans that appears in the print edition of Columbia magazine, which, um, hasn’t updated its web presence in a while.)  Regardless of whether you’re in favor of or against the expansion, it is clear that Columbia is trying hard to persuade skeptics and opponents that the expansion will be a good thing for this part of Harlem.

Toward that end, the image grossly underestimates the amount of traffic on West 125th Street.  You see two taxis in the foreground that seem to be barely moving, and the faint outlines of a car or maybe two in the distance.  Then there’s 46 pedestrians and a dog on the sidewalk, another 10 to 12 people inside a cafe, a bunch of vivid trees and some buildings.

Three or four cars on 125th Street?  125th Street leads to the Henry Hudson Parkway, and is the major river-to-river crosstown link north of Central Park.  There are never that few cars on it during daylight hours.  The street is packed all day long, buses inching along amid the plodding, throbbing or stifling traffic.

I don’t mean to single out Columbia. It is common for architectural renderings to minimize the traffic. And why shouldn’t they? Everybody hates it, even the people who are sitting in it and helping to create it. In the idealized image of a city, there is a lot less traffic. That’s why community board meetings are dominated by complaints that this or that development will increase traffic. The perplexing thing is that community board meetings are also dominated by complaints that ample cheap parking, the greatest cause of heavy traffic, is somehow being threatened.

  • I happen to live a block from 125th, between Broadway and Riverside. I agree that the traffic is constant, but it is rarely bumper to bumper. The majority of traffic is cars going westbound on 125th, turning right on 12th Avenue, to access the northbound Henry Hudson. In my experience, thick traffic doesn’t occur until you go east of St. Nicholas.

    My main complaint about the far west end of 125th Street, is that it is not pedestrian friendly. The crosswalk signal is too short, and cars fairly fly through the intersection of 125th and 12th Avenue.

    The planned Columbia expansion in this area has many people up in arms. My building sits in back of Prentis Hall, and we have fought the school’s now hopefully scuttled plan to raze Prentis entirely, or just to build on top of it, which would deprive many of our residents of light.

  • AD

    You’re absolutely right – the traffic east of St. Nick is a lot heavier than west of it. In either case it is more than what appears in the rendering. I guess I don’t take issue so much with the practice of under-representing traffic in renderings (after all, they’re supposed to show the buildings!). My point is more than in the idealized city of the human mind, there’s a lot less traffic than exists in real life. It must be the part of the brain that creates car commercials that lure you in with traffic-free winding mountain roads to get you to buy a product that allows you to sit bumper-to-bumper in the Lincoln Tunnel.

  • Ed

    You’re reading way too much into this. The drawing also shows blue sky but this doesn’t mean Columbia is claiming it will eliminate clouds.

    Columbia has never said its project will reduce traffic on 125th Street. The drawing shows few cars because its not *about* cars. It’s about the built environment, and showing a lot more cars and people would detract from its ability to present that environment.

  • AD

    I probably am reading way too much into it. But I think it’s still interesting that they show what I’d say is an appropriate amount of pedestrian traffic but fewer than usual cars. If cars somehow detract from the built environment but people do not, then I think that is what is telling from this image.

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  • The rendering also leaves out the trucks that will be clogging 125th Street if DOT’s truck study recommendation is carried out. They want to allow trucks on the Henry Hudson Parkway between 125 and 181st to divert them from the Cross Bronx. When the parkway was built as a beautiful road through parks from 72nd to the city line in Yonkers, Harlem was made the exception. Hence the billboards. Now this.

  • Ed

    Columbia didn’t even prepare this drawing. It was made by the architects to show how their design proposal would look. Trying to divine Columbia’s intentions from someone else’s work isn’t likely to succeed.

    The point of this drawing is to show how the new buildings on the north side of the street will relate to the existing buildings on the south side, as well as to people and cars. Because 125th Street dominates the middle of the view, if the drawing included a more realistic number of vehicles it would become a picture of cars rather than of buildings, and its point would be lost. This is why the drawing looks the way it does.

  • I agree that seeing cars in the picture would detract from the streetscape and buildings on either side. Unfortunately we do have to see the ugly cars on our streets everyday, which detract from our enjoyment of the city.

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