DOT Compromises, to a Point, on Union Square Plan

Picture_6.pngThough Broadway will remain a through street, NYCDOT is still building bike lanes and pedestrian plazas at Union Square. Image: NYCDOT.

It took a few tries, but the Department of Transportation finally won the support of Manhattan Community Board 5’s Transportation Committee for its Union Square bike-ped plan last night. While a few safety improvements were sacrificed to local objections, the community board rejected calls by a particularly aggressive minority to scrap the centerpieces of the plan, including an extension of Broadway’s protected bike lane, a traffic-calming pedestrian plaza, and the conversion of 17th Street into a one-way with a contraflow bike lane.

Last night’s meeting marked the third go-round with the committee and came with a slew of revisions to DOT’s original plan. Most important, DOT dropped plans to close two blocks of Union Square West for part of each day, choosing instead to auto allow traffic to continue directly from Broadway down to 14th Street, where it would be forced to turn west. Previously, drivers headed south on Broadway would have been required to turn on 18th Street, with cyclists allowed to continue a block further before turning.

Demands by businesses and residents also caused DOT to move the proposed protected bike lane on Broadway between 23rd and 18th Streets from the left side of the street to the right. Cyclists will have to switch from the left to the right of Broadway at Madison Square, but DOT assured the committee that it had a design to make that jump safe and easy.

But these changes, which will reduce pedestrian space and safety compared to the original design, weren’t enough for the crowd gathered at last night’s meeting. Every member of the public who spoke, with just one exception, was opposed to the plan, even though a show of hands revealed that around 40 percent of the audience supported the redesign. The loudest were residents who lived north of 17th Street, where the plan hadn’t been revised by DOT.

Most wanted to toss the whole thing, except for perhaps a signal retiming at the northwest corner of Union Square. They were opposed to bike lanes, dismissive of pedestrian plazas, and livid about the changes to traffic patterns. They simultaneously complained that westbound streets would be impossible to access by car and that eastbound streets would be flooded with displaced traffic; only the precise levels of 2010 traffic, it would seem, are acceptable.

Thankfully, the community board recognized that the opposition didn’t leave much room for further negotiation. It helped that DOT made it clear that continuing to compromise pedestrian safety would be a dealbreaker. "I don’t anticipate that the plan can continue to evolve," said Manhattan DOT Commissioner Margaret Forgione, "I’m not sure from our perspective that the plan would be able to continue to work." 

Seeing that further compromises were unlikely, the committee voted to support the redesign. It wasn’t a ringing endorsement, though; the resolution only supports the redesign as a pilot program and expresses skepticism about the design of the pedestrian plaza. Even so, the committee considered the plan on its merits and refused to be shouted down by a belligerent crowd. "They think it’s all about them," said committee chair Tom Miller after the meeting. "It’s not."

  • Bolwerk

    Even so, the committee considered the plan on its merits and refused to be shouted down by a belligerent crowd. “They think it’s all about them,” said committee chair Tom Miller after the meeting. “It’s not.”

    Such is car culture.

  • J

    I’m curious to see the design of the shift from left to right side of the bike lane. It sounds awkward if you make the light at 14th Street.

    My other thought is that the Broadway bike lane will never be terribly successful for the following reasons:
    1) No uptown counterpart. You can go downtown fairly comfortably, but uptown is still a royal pain in the ass. Maybe one day they’ll make it a 2-way greenway.
    2) Awkward alignment. It starts on the west side and ends on the east side, so unless that’s your exact origin & destination, you’ll likely have to go well out of your way to use the lane. For example. From the QB Bridge to Union Square involves a 4 avenue detour to Columbus Circle. From QB bridge to the high line has an 8 avenue detour to use the lane.
    3) Poor signal progression. Unless you bike at 25-30 mph or aggressively run red lights, you hit a red signal every 1-2 blocks.
    4) Basically there’s no connection through Times Square and a poor connection through Herald Square
    5) No southbound connection past Union Square. Nothing seems to be in the works either.

    Granted, I use the lane fairly frequently, but i must say I’m WAY more excited about the 1st/2nd ave and 8th/9th ave lanes, which have much more potential as serious transportation infrastructure.

  • Clover

    I was at the meeting last night to support the plan even though I am very upset that the closure of Union Square West is no longer part of this plan. An older man opposed to the plan repeatedly spoke out of turn, shouted continuously, and even swore (more than once) in a church – I’m not exactly a believer, but I do respect both the meeting and the venue. Anyway, I was leaving the meeting when this man tried to argue with me, but I refused to engage him. He then got in a chauffeur-driven huge SUV and left. Says it all right there.

  • Caroline

    It’s interesting how community boards seem to be the focus of anti-bike/pedestrian zealotry. I wonder if it would be worthwhile to try to get more livable streets advocates serving on the boards.

  • Bolwerk

    @Caroline – possibly, but community boards have about one political power: obstruction.

  • Bolwerk

    On second thought, what is truly amazing here is that anyone still is skeptical. The success at Times Square alone should have put to rest any skepticism that street reclamation is harmful to the the economy or undesirable to the public.

  • MinNY

    They’re “skeptical” because it might take them 3 more minutes to be driven home in their “chauffeur-driven huge SUV.” Everyone else be damned. Tragedy of the commoners.

  • Karen

    @Bolwerk,
    Sorry, but you can count me in as a skeptic. I live in the area, on 18th east of Broadway. The success of Times Square is not really *that* relevant to this plan, as the two neighborhoods are vastly different. 18th is narrow and [already] crowded. A taxi can barely stop on 18th east of Park without inciting a near-riot given the narrowness of the street (no one can pass). Add in a lot of extra car volume plus some drunks at Pete’s Tavern, and I’m sure the accident statistics will not change all that much, they will just be diverted a few blocks east.

  • Bolwerk

    @Karen: The two neighborhoods aren’t vastly different in terms of how traffic traditionally behaved. The argument that streets are narrower hints that they were designed more for walking, so that sounds like a really duh problem with a simple solution to me. Why even let taxis stop there if they’re such an imposition? If 18th is crowded (especially with “drunks”), why let cars onto it to begin with? Or if cars really must use it, why not simply get rid of the parking and turn the sidewalk into strict no standing zones?

    I realize it takes more of a macro-level thinking to fix those problems, certainly beyond the power of CB5 or the Transportation Department, but they hardly make traffic calming, especially around unusually pedestrian-heavy Union Square, a bad thing. Even if some of the accidents are simply moved elsewhere, at least really pedestrian-choked Union Square will be safer.

  • David

    @Karen,
    I work right there as well and 18th has never struck me as remotely congested – and it is certainly lower Union Square’s congested norms. Anything that DOT can do to improve the intersection at 17th and Broadway is good for everyone. That has to be one of the most dangerous pedestrian intersections in town, and I’m disappointed that the proposal doesn’t simplify it even more. Shifting vehicular traffic to the east – and away from USQ’s heavy pedestrian volumes and tangle of streets would seem a no brainer. In my view, the walk from Broadway to Park Ave to get a taxi is a better than even trade-off.

  • How can people use the unacceptable behavior that motorists display in congested traffic (the honking, the weaving, etc.) as a justification for doing everything we can do increase the traffic throughput of our streets? If a preschool kid starts crying (or honking a horn, if he happens to have one with him) because he doesn’t feel he has enough toys, do you rectify the situation by giving the kid more toys? Hell no! Then you end up with a classroom (or street) filled with kids crying (or motorists honking) every time they don’t get what they want!

  • JK

    New York City and state government need to be able to try new thing, especially things which can be easily reversed if they don’t work. These street projects arouse passion completely out of proportion to their effects. The city is busy remaking the physical city with parking lots and developments which we will be stuck with for 50 to 100 years. These street scape changes can be changed in 50 days if they do more harm than good.

  • J

    @Karen,

    The need for the plan was derived from speeding on Broadway. It simply has too many lanes for the volume of traffic is processes. The plan narrows the street to one lane, making it very difficult to go faster than the car in front of you. This has all sorts of benefits to pedestrians, cyclists, and yes drivers (less reckless driving = fewer auto accidents).

    Perhaps 18th Street is congested, but that should not stop safety improvements on Broadway. Perhaps parking restrictions on 18th are in order. I would also argue that the presence of a Pete’s Tavern make this project all the more necessary and urgent.

    Crowded street rarely kill people. Streets with fast moving traffic kill people rather often. For comparison, the 30ft wide 18th street had one fatality between 1995 and 2005, and that was in the intersection with 3rd Ave (wide and fast). By comparison, the 55ft wide 14th Street had 10 fatalities. The entire financial district west of Water Street had ZERO fatalities in that period.

    Simply put, wide streets = death.

  • To be fair to the folks who came to the meeting last night, I think the majority of them recognized that the northwest corner of Union Square was dangerous and wanted to do something about it. But there was a sizable contingent of folks who lived on or north of 18th Street who were leery of any changes, and would not accept the opinions of the DoT professionals that this section of Broadway has excess roadway capacity (perhaps only recently, due to the upstream lane reductions and closures on Broadway) and needs to be narrowed to preserve safety.

    Residents also seemed to bristle at comparisons to Times Square used to endorse the proposed Union Square plazas, probably because they believe (correctly) that Union Square is not the tourist Mecca Times Square is, and draws a different and more sophisticated type of tourist. You might get Reverend Billy in Union Square, but you won’t get the Naked Cowboy! The Committee vote last night will allow the local residents to decide how to furnish the pedestrian areas under the plan, which is best.

    It will be very, very important for proponents of the plan who live in CB5 to attend the meeting of CB5 which votes on the Committee’s recommendation!

  • Zmapper

    Ok, I’m confused. How does putting the bike lane on the right side of the street help traffic more than the left side? Seems like the businesses on the left side hate the bike lane and want the right side to (supposedly) suffer. Keep the bike lane on the left side of the street so cyclists don’t have to cross two times at 18th street. There is NO difference for businesses in the long run because of a bike lane.

  • The theory is that most auto traffic on this stretch will turn left at some point (because if they were going to turn right, they could have used 5th Ave instead of Broadway), so having the bike lane on the right would minimize conflicts between bikes and turning cars.

  • vnm

    An open question in reaction to Karen, who wrote:

    The success of Times Square is not really *that* relevant to this plan, as the two neighborhoods are vastly different. 18th is narrow and [already] crowded.

    Which had more traffic, pre-transformation Times Square or East 18th Street?

  • Andrew

    Could someone please explain why Union Square West can’t be pedestrianized?

    I can understand keeping Broadway open to cars between 18th and 17th (although I don’t think closing it to cars would have been all that terrible). But south of there?

  • Karen

    @vnm: I don’t know the answer to your question but would imagine that pre-transformation Times Square had more traffic. However, my comment about the neighborhoods was more in relation to resdential vs. commercial (and the impact of a diversion) and not so much about traffic itself.

    @J, @David, @Bolwerk: My comments also related more to the original proposal, which had all southbound traffic diverted at 18th. My fear was that that diversion would clog 18th – yes, a little NIMBY of me, I’ll admit it. My bedroom window overlooks 18th, and the street today really does get far more traffic than one would guess.

    As a walker, biker, and yes, a driver (my bad), I am really sensitive to all these issues and understand the safety concerns. But then again, as a neighborhood resident for nearly 18 years, I guess I just never noticed the real dangers in the intersections I navigate daily as I’ve gotten through unscathed.

    I do appreciate all your comments helping to shed light on the matter. Thank you.

  • Holly

    @BicyclesOnly, @Clover and @Caroline

    I live on Union Sq West, I am a cyclist, I do not own a car, I strongly support the new plan, and I sure wish I had known about this meeting so that my husband and I could have attended. When are the meetings? Where are the meetings? Is there a calendar somewhere so that we can find out about them?

    My husband and I always have trouble getting to and from home on our bikes because of the bizarro traffic patterns around the square. I was looking forward to my street being closed to cars and I’m upset to hear now that it won’t happen.

  • Tonight’s the night, folks! Livable streets advocates need to turn out so that bullies like the ABC Carpet owner described in this post can’t interrupt and shout down the voices of reason in the community that support this worthwhile project. Be there tonight at 6 pm!

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