AAA Plunges Dagger in the Heart of the New Times Square

In a stinging rebuke to New York City’s street safety methods, the latest issue of Car and Travel, a.k.a. AAA New York magazine, serves up a razor-sharp critique of Broadway’s new pedestrian plazas:

crazy_for_cars.jpgNewly digitized AAA mag: crazy for cars, mad about pedestrian streets.

The “test project,” now four months old, has been criticized by some
as both tacky and ill-suited to the location. While we tend to agree,
we are more concerned with serious safety issues created by mixing
cross-town traffic and pedestrians, particularly where many of them are
vacationing tourists. We also have yet to see the environmental and
congestion benefits to justify the experiment’s costs.

The pedestrian plaza concept was the brainchild of city
transportation officials intrigued with the idea of importing the
pedestrian zones common in Europe to New York City. But so far, the
project appears to be an unnatural fit for the heart of America’s
biggest city. After all, Times Square is not Rome, Paris or Barcelona,
where piazzas and squares lined with cafes and restaurants evolved
naturally in the urban landscape.

Yep, all of a sudden pedestrians are mixing with crosstown traffic. Remember back when that never happened? Me neither.

Have fun picking this apart, Streetsbloggers. I’ll just go out on a limb here and wager that the editorialists at AAA, headquartered out in Nassau, don’t represent the views of real New Yorkers and probably never walked around with all those "vacationing tourists" squeezed into traffic by the sidewalk crunch at the old Times Square.

After the jump, a nice rejoinder from genuine city dwellers, courtesy of City Room, about the pleasures of having places to socialize in public.

On busy evening in Times Square, at the pedestrian mall on Broadway,
E. J. Bonilla and Melissa Oyola found an empty table and two chairs,
content among the seas of calm and waves of chaos surrounding them.

This is date night.

“Ever since they hooked this place up, it’s like a lifesaver,” Mr.
Bonilla, 21, said. “If you’re with somebody, you’re with them because
you like each other. You shouldn’t necessarily need something else to
help you guys along.”

  • J

    Safety issues?? Seriously? That’s a new one. For the first time ever, extra ped space, fewer crossings, and shorter crossing distances are actually making things more dangerous. By this logic, the lack of roads in Central Park has been creating a dangerous situation for 150 years. Oh yeah, and Jane Jacobs was wrong, we should have extended 5th Ave through Washington Square Park… in the name of pedestrian safety. Unbelievable.

  • eLK

    They’re from Nassau, I guess that makes them tourists.

  • David_K

    What a load of crap. AAA is unconvinced that air quality is improved when engines are turned off? And their concern about pedestrians — why are they “particularly” worried “vacationing tourists”? If they are really worried about safety, what does it matter whether the pedestrian is a New Yorker or a tourist? The tourists seem to love the car-free zones anyway.

  • Shemp

    Maybe because traffic is actually working in Midtown their only option is to say the whole thing is unsafe. I wonder if AAA really wants to go back to less green time on 6th Avenue.

  • Omri

    The pedestrian plaza concept was the brainchild of city transportation officials intrigued with the idea of importing the pedestrian zones common in Europe to New York City. But so far, the project appears to be an unnatural fit for the heart of America’s biggest city. After all, Times Square is not Rome, Paris or Barcelona, where piazzas and squares lined with cafes and restaurants evolved naturally in the urban landscape.

    So how did Broadway look in the 1870’s? I don’t believe they had 4 lanes of carriages.

  • Mayor Bloomberg’s third term would be an excellent time to lock in street improvements with bollards.

  • That an automobile-club magazine takes a windshield perspective is hardly surprising.

  • Josh

    “What a load of crap. AAA is unconvinced that air quality is improved when engines are turned off?”

    It’s possible that they’re unconvinced that the new Times Square has actually led to engines being turned off.

  • I \v/ NY

    i guess because cars arent dominant in new york (at least by car ownership rates) they feel this is a threat. elsewhere in the country (as in places where the car is in complete control) they have moved beyond opposing alternate transport and in many case support/encourage amtrak usage, offer bike support assistance and bike parking in front of their offices.

  • rex

    “CRAZY FOR CARS” right on the cover pretty much says it all.

  • Geck

    Your old road is
    Rapidly agin’.
    Please get out of the new one
    If you can’t lend your hand
    For the times they are a-changin’
    -BD

  • Wow, I had a feeling my tip would cause outrage…but how would I respond to someone saying this:
    “In fact, I’m inclined to agree with AAA, especially seeing your knee-jerk reaction. AAA’s point is that eliminating North-South traffic but leaving East-West traffic could still be just as dangerous as leaving all traffic. I think this makes sense. Without constant traffic it’s easier to forget that you still need to look before entering a roadway. I know that I have certainly stepped into an active roadway by accident while walking in Time Square.”
    Would it be something along the lines of your great Central Park comparison?

  • Doug

    “…we are more concerned with serious safety issues created by mixing cross-town traffic and pedestrians, particularly where many of them are vacationing tourists.”

    And how, exactly, would returning to the old Times Square fix this? Weren’t peds already mixing with cross-town, uptown, and downtown traffic?

    The AAA just made an argument for more limits on car traffic, since those “vacationing tourists” almost exclusively tour the city by foot.

  • > AAA’s point is that eliminating North-South traffic but leaving East-West traffic could still be just as dangerous as leaving all traffic. I think this makes sense.

    Sure, and it is the world’s biggest red herring, way to be easily led.

  • MrManhattan

    > AAA’s point is that eliminating North-South traffic but leaving East-West traffic could still be just as dangerous as leaving all traffic. I think this makes sense.

    Leaving a side the obvious lack of knowledge by the writer (There hasn’t been northbound automobile traffic in Times Square since they made Broadway one-way), wouldn’t this be an argument for eliminating all but emergency and essential local delivery traffic from TS?

  • Every journalist reporting about an automobile accident should call AAA for a comment. Was the driver obeying the laws? Were they a AAA member? Had AAA sent them safety information recently? How many people die on highways and roads everyday? What’s AAA position on red light cameras, enhanced enforcement of traffic laws, etc?

    I’m just saying, ’cause if they want to get involved in safety issues, it seems they could be doing a lot more for safety in other ways through advocacy or lobbying.

  • Meh…an article like this is just a dismissive reaction to all the positive reviews thus far. I would have been shocked and awed if Motorhead Monthly over here was in favor of it instead.

  • mixing pedestrians with cross-town traffic. you mean like at every other intersection in manhattan?

    OH MY GOSH!

    these tards are scared and clutching at straws. they are pissed that for once, they haven’t had their asses catered to and have had to settle for second best.

    get used to it.

  • Alex

    The safety issue doesn’t make sense, as many have noted. In the hole debate about the Times Square plaza, everyone has forgotten that the source of why this is a good idea is because a south-bound Broadway creates an imbalance of uptown and downtown routes, and the awkward intersections lead to congestion. The fix is supposed to be a boon for pedestrians AND drivers, not a drastic theft of space from motorists. That it has become framed as some sort of heavy-handed Europeanization (I made that word up) of Manhattan is like taking some random bureaucratic issue and calling it the main front in the “Culture Wars.”

    Cars aren’t like people. Pedestrians (and businesses oriented to pedestrians) benefit from as many streets and intersections as possible. Cars benefit from as few streets as possible, hence the proliferation of cul-de-sacs and limited access freeways.

    Despite everything I just wrote, I do think this debate should be viewed as a lesson about civics and urban planning. AAA is one of the first groups that accurately identified this as the center of the biggest city in the US. Instead of talking about traffic issues, we should also be considering how we want the heart of our city to look and feel. Many critics are correct: the lawn chairs, while fun, were tacky. I am surprised there has not been some sort of high profile design competition about what the final Times Square needs to be.

  • BicyclesOnly

    Mark, even better for locking in the improvements than bollards are trees. I just noticed trees being planted on the pedestrian refuge areas of the Broadway cycle track. A future DoT Commish will have to justify destroying those trees to undo the cycle track. The cynic in me says that would be. greater protection than the opposition of bicyclists.

  • Hilary

    The best way to permanently protect the pedestrianized space is to designate it as parkland. My two cents.

  • BicyclesOnly and Hilary, great ideas.

    Designating the space as a park would be easier if it were a continuous space. That would mean closing the sidestreets that interrupt it. A project for MB/JSK’s third term?

  • Rob

    This is why I quit AAA and joined Better World Club. BWC serves cars AND bikes, and has an e-newsletter called “Kicking Asphalt.”

  • J

    The concept of designating the road space as parkland is certainly not without precedent. The entire Green Streets program does exactly this. Additionally, the expansion of Petrosino Square involved transferring land from DOT control over to Parks so that an existing park could be expanded into former roadway.

    This type of transfer does, however, create an additional layer of bureaucracy should the space ever need to be altered. In the latest presentation to CB1, DOT explained that they wanted to continue the Kent Ave bike lane further north, but a Green Streets island blocked the way. DOT must now coordinate with Parks before any changes can be made. This type of issue must be taken into account before permanent changes are made.

  • I always miss CB meetings because I’m never out of work before 7.30pm.

    Which island, J? It’s not the one at Calyer and Franklin, is it?

  • Adam

    I love the great ideas on this site, and read it almost every day. But these comment boards often depart from open-minded discussion. Some posters take tones that are arrogant and demeaning. That’s not how coalitions are built with big stakeholder groups like AAA, which is not necessarily an opponent of good planning and compromise.

    Personally, I like the new Times Square, and it is an obviously progressive experiment. As these things generally work, I don’t think Times Square has been perfected yet, and so I think that AAA’s comments have some validity. Indeed, if Broadway has never sprouted Parisian street cafes, that’s something we need to address. Paris was planned in a way that allowed those institutions filling a niche in the culture. What is quintessentially New York that would fit there? Starbucks? (seriously, commerce, convenience, caffeine and haste)

    Also, while I won’t speculate whether AAA would support a complete closure of the area to traffic, their argument does lead to a certain all-or-nothing logic, which I find hard to deny. I also like Alex’s comment above.

  • Rob

    Hey Adam,

    I did not mean to sound arrogant or demeaning, and I’m sorry if that is the how you read my post. It was just my quick encapsulation of my criticism of AAA, which doesn’t seem to support Transit-Oriented Development and Walkable Communities. Also, it reflects the views of a whole generation of traffic planners and engineers that focus more on moving cars on wide roads and less on allowing people to walk safely. This is why I left AAA and joined Better World Club.

    If you have examples of AAA throwing serious resources (and it has a lot of resources) behind creating better places, please post them here. It would signal a refreshing change for AAA. I know AAA has started to include bikes in a limited area of the country, but it seems that with its enormous staff, it could provide for bikes everywhere.

  • Adam

    Hi Rob,

    Thanks for your post. This thread is dying, but just for the record, I was not addressing your comments at all. I’m quite interested in the BWC.

    I too would like to find more examples of getting AAA behind smart planning. Unfortunately, truth be told, they are an Auto owners group and will represent the driving public. Yet many innovative planning strategies make things better for drivers as well, so similar to how one sees giants like AARP standing up for health care reform, I’d love to see the resources of AAA lined up behind TOD and other forms of smart planning.

    And about bikes, you’re right: how about a springtime mailer to members on safe passing distances for vulnerable road users? Time to write a letter…

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