Great Public Spaces for Midtown

times_square_after_before.jpgThe new Times Square versus the old Times Square — worth a few seconds of motorist inconvenience on a few streets. Photos: berk2804 and midweekpost via Flickr

Mayor Bloomberg has seen some of the data from the city’s trial of car-free, pedestrian-priority spaces in Midtown, and it looks like the changes in traffic speeds are not as impressive as hoped for. This, I daresay, is good news.

As the Times’ Michael Grynbaum has reminded us the past two days, Broadway’s new pedestrian spaces were sold with a heavy emphasis on easing Midtown gridlock. Safety and economic activity were important indicators from the beginning, but the name of the project said it all: Green Light for Midtown.

The numbers aren’t out yet, but Bloomberg revealed at a press conference yesterday that, in terms of moving vehicles, "some of the roads are better; some of the roads are worse." It seems like the trial hasn’t quite delivered a win-win-win scenario where pedestrians, merchants, and motorists all received substantial benefits. Instead, we’re probably heading for a result that’s closer to "win-win-tie."

If you care about livable streets, I think this is a welcome development. It means New York City gets to have a more substantial discussion about what our streets are for and the priorities we assign to them. Ambiguous traffic data leads straight to the question, "What matters more — safety and livability, or moving cars?"

Bloomberg is already framing the project in terms of safety. "It’s not just traffic," he said at yesterday’s presser.
"One of the things that has happened is
pedestrian deaths have come down dramatically in this area. And I don’t
know how you equate a few lives with a few more seconds of
inconvenience."

Amen. The Broadway project is worth doing for several reasons that have nothing to do with vehicle speeds. It’s saving lives and improving the public realm for hundreds of thousands of people who used to squeeze onto the sidewalk like poultry in an industrial chicken coop. New Yorkers have noticed, and they approve. Judging from anecdotal merchant reactions and the position of the Times Square Alliance, it’s been good for business too.

The most important graphic from the city’s initial presentation on this project came under the "additional benefits" section, shortly after the slide about "green signal time allocation."

broadway_safety.jpg

I, for one, can’t wait to read the next Steve Cuozzo column ripping apart the life-saving transformation of Midtown.

  • I don’t understand why pedestrian speeds and travel times aren’t part of the traffic calculations. Foot travel is traffic too. If the car-free spaces have peds standing in front of red lights less of the time, surely that can be measured. Since peds passing through the area greatly outnumber motorists passing through the area, both before and after the car-free space was established, the time savings for peds must be significant. Too bad it’s not part of the current discussion.

  • Omri

    It’s a valid and important concern, Mark, but impossible to measure objectively. We all remember what Times Square was like before, and we all know it is faster to walk through now, but how much the crowding slowed you down was a matter of how much you were willing to weave and hustle (and step into the road and risk your life).

  • Car Free Nation

    I think Mark has a really good point. With the city’s emphasis on measurable goals, we should track average pedestrian speeds as well as cycling speeds in certain corridors, where changes are expected. That way, there’d be other measure of success rather than simply vehicle speed vs. casualties.

  • Now maybe this same attitude could be applied to improving the SBS design on the East Side which would be Safer (WIN!), Move more People (WIN!) and maybe have an impact on private (selfish, polluting, dangerous) automobile traffic flows (TIE!)

  • Not to mention bike traffic. Moves much more quickly and safely down Broadway from Columbus Circle to 47th Street. When the errant pedestrian traffic is not so heavy in the cycle track, you can catch a “green wave” all the way down at about 14 MPH with just one stop.

  • Giffen

    Omri,

    Not really. Why not have “professional walkers,” inspectors who choose pairs of points on a map and see how long it takes them to walk between them at a regular pace.

  • Less important than the speeds, I’m wondering how the volumes have changed (cars, bikes, and peds). I imagine that any extra traffic capacity created by the Times Square changes were quickly absorbed by latent demand. That means speeds might be the same, but there could be more cars moving through the area. I expect there are definitely more peds and bikes moving through the area. Any chance counts have been done?

    Another thing to consider is the economic impact to the businesses. How has that changed? I would guess for the better, but who knows?

  • Red

    There are definitely rigorous standards for measuring pedestrian congestion. Like many standards, they have their problems but they exist and can be used.

    See for example http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/transportation/td_ped_level_serv.shtml

    http://www.walksf.org/pedestrianLOS.html

  • jooltman

    It is hard to measure the impact on local businesses since the closing of Broadway to vehicular traffic coincided with the huge economic downturn. However, from a purely anecdotal standpoint, myself and many people I know now actually spend time in Times Square hanging out, relaxing, and buying the occasional item when before it was the last place on earth we would choose to linger.

    Also, isn’t there someway to quantify in $ (the bottom line) how much better the environment in the area is due to decreased traffic? Better health of residents, fewer street maintenance dollars required, less damage to buildings from pollution, etc., etc.