Framing the New Broadway: “Green Ribbon” or “Narrow Passageway”?

Recession or depression? Estate taxes or death taxes? How events or policies are named, or “framed,” has become crucial to their viability. Indeed, the ascendancy of the right wing in the U.S. in recent decades is attributed in part to the Right’s mastery of political phraseology to demonize leftist and even centrist policies.

Photo: Payton Chung/Flickr
For the majority of people who use Times Square, Broadway is much broader than it was before the city re-purposed space from vehicles to pedestrians. That's not how the Times has framed the project. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/paytonc/4803698566/in/photostream/##Payton Chung/Flickr##

Framing affects the struggle over street space as well. Tabloid headlines about “kamikaze cyclists” and “two-wheeled terrorists” in the 1980s literally framed bike messengers as Public Enemy #1 and emboldened Mayor Ed Koch to try to ban bicycling in midtown. Road widenings are still customarily branded as “improvements” rather than simply identified as expansions. Most news outlets report plane crashes as crashes but call car crashes accidents.

With this in mind, let’s train a verbal lens on the New York Times’ full-page treatment yesterday of the Broadway road diet.

The article, by Times transportation reporter Michael Grynbaum, is exemplary in many respects. It thoughtfully lets transportation guru Jeff Zupan declare that the stepwise transformation of Manhattan’s central thoroughfare is boosting the status of pedestrians throughout town:

“It’s given people a different feeling about walking in the city, that the pedestrian isn’t a second-class citizen who has to always be on the lookout of getting run over.”

On the key issue of traffic flow, Grynbaum notes that Broadway’s “awkward three-way intersections with other avenues created gridlock,” and he has Janette Sadik-Khan explain that “We’re making the [street] network work like it was supposed to.” To back up the DOT Commissioner’s appeal to New Yorkers to embrace Broadway as a “green ribbon,” Grynbaum invokes “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, whom he dubs “the éminence grise of the city’s traffic circles”:

“It sounds counterintuitive that removing a street can make things better. But it was a mistake in 1811 when they left Broadway in as a traffic street.”

Educational indeed… for readers who make it to the tenth paragraph. But earlier, more prominent passages may imprint a less appetizing picture on other, perhaps more typical readers:

[U]nder the Bloomberg administration, Broadway has been transformed, from a grand avenue that ferried automobiles on a scenic route through Midtown to a narrow passageway with barely more room for cars than a sleepy street in Greenwich Village. (second paragraph)

The Great White Way … has been diminished by a bicycle lane and a green-painted, traffic-free section intended for pedestrians …” (caption)

In two years, roughly three and a half miles of the street’s moving lanes have vanished … For the first time in New York’s modern era, Broadway no longer offers a continuous path from the Bronx to the Battery. (third paragraph)

And, in case anyone missed the point, the full-page diagram tracing the street from Columbus Circle to below Madison Square Park is headlined “Not So Broadway.”

The takeaway, then, is mixed. Readers who go the distance are treated to the wisdom of NYC’s leading transportation lights. But those who merely inhale the first few bits learn that Broadway has been “diminished” even though only the motorized lanes have shrunk; and that parts of the once-Great White Way have “vanished” rather than been repurposed. The “grand avenue” renowned as a “scenic route” through the heart of the city is no more — the implication being that New York itself is being made less grand, even, gasp, “pedestrian.”

Perhaps inadvertently, the piece’s heavy reliance on talking heads may serve to reinforce another negative frame: that Sadik-Khan and other city officials are “imposing” alien ideas on New Yorkers, even though the midtown business community — through the Times Square Alliance — generated the initial momentum for the pedestrian reclamation of Times Square, and even though we know public opinion of the transformations is quite favorable.

The article’s true soul may reside in the lone everyman quoted, whom Grynbaum describes as “a daily car commuter from Queens who was parked on Broadway at 33rd Street the other day“:

I know they’re trying to beautify the city, but it’s killing the drivers. It’s frustrating. They don’t want you to drive into the city.

This fellow comes off as reasonable, even sweet. Yet his “daily car commute” costs other New Yorkers — truckers, bus riders, and his fellow drivers — a collective 3-4 hours in lost time valued at $100 or more each day. Framing the city’s ongoing traffic disaster in these terms may be crucial to maintaining Broadway as a permanent “green ribbon,” not to mention winning the rest of the livable streets agenda, from pedestrians’ rights to traffic pricing, that can make New York a city fit for working and living.

  • Bravo, Charles. A great analysis of the Times’ article.

  • Anon

    The language dates to the rhetoric of highway expansion from the first half of the 20th century.

    “a grand avenue that ferried automobiles on a scenic route through Midtown”

    “a continuous path from the Bronx to the Battery”

    It’s like it’s 1930 and he’s shilling for a new scenic byway for the motoring public. Except in this case, he’s trying to keep things as-is.

  • Marty Barfowitz

    I don’t think the takeaway is mixed at all. It seems pretty clear that the NYT and/or Grynbaum despises this project and is framing it as a negative, regardless of what every single expert quoted in their own story says about it.

  • ChrisCo

    What they’ve done is fantastic. I can’t wait to check out Broadway north of Union Square.

  • Nathaniel Polish

    I think that people mostly just want roads that function. Broadway has mostly been a dysfunctional road for many reasons. I’m not sure that the concerns about the diminishment of the road amount to much. It took me a while to use the bike path down the west side. I’m a street cyclist. But, hey, the bike path WORKS. I think that if the changed to Broadway work then people will accept them.

  • Maybe we should start calling it “the great walking way.”

  • I love how people talk about driving to midtown as it it were not a choice to them, that they HAVE TO drive.

  • Thoughtful and provocative as usual, Charlie!

    I have a suggestion for additional reframing, or rather re-classifying. Let’s not think in terms of buses versus cars versus cyclists versus pedestrians. We ought to classify according to a criterion that is associated with things we care about. In the case of transportation, it turns out that kinetic energy per passenger mile is an excellent proxy for almost everything that we care about in transportation, from accidents and congestion to pollution and global warming. It also turns out that there is a kinetic energy level — a maximum speed of about 40 kph by a 450-kg object — below which virtually all of the undesirable external impacts of transportation are (or can be) reduced to zero. This suggests that we should have two transportation circulation systems: one for objects that weigh less than 450 kg and cannot exceed 40 kph (that’s about 1000 lbs and 25 mph), and a second for objects exceeding these two thresholds. To really minimize costs and maximize benefits, the motive power should be electricity. To maximize utility, the two systems should be universally accessible, but should intersect only rarely.

    This kind of dual-street system is relatively easy to implement in a new town built from the ground up. In an already-built city, it probably is impossible to have two universally accessible, never-intersecting street systems, but some variation on the plan probably could be built. It probably would involve splitting streets in two, having dead ends, converting alleys, lots of flyovers… An interesting design challenge, but the potential benefits would be well worth it!

    So, rather than thinking in terms of cars versus pedestrians, having one or the other, I propose re-designing street systems to have both.

    Mark Delucchi
    Institute of Transportation Studies
    University of California

  • David F Collins

    Thanks for the fine essay. I see the area every time I go visit my twin granddaughters and their parents (who live car-free). But it is a challenge to go against the Weltanschauung that if you don’t need a car to do it, it ain’t worth doing.

  • MinNY

    The article discusses Broadway as if it was designed as a 5-lane arterial blvd for cars to speed down, and by removing some auto lanes, that it’s being diminished from its original purpose – like converting the Autobahn to a pedestrian mall.

    Then he mentions that city planners tried to get rid of the street’s diagonal back in 1811. Somewhat before the invention of the automobile. (And the bicycle, for that matter). The reclaiming of Broadway as a space for pedestrians is exactly that – a reclaiming.

  • Mike

    It is very weird – and, really, a fallacy – that the article frames it as a “narrowing” of Broadway when the width of the street is not changing.

  • Kevin Love

    Notice how the article uses the word “traffic” to refer only to car traffic, and the word “vehicle” to exclude bicycles as vehicles?

  • fdr

    Letters to the editor, anyone?

  • Good article Charlie. I agree that we have a long way to go on rhetoric. I have recently been thinking about how Marty Markowitz said that he is opposed to the Prospect Park West bike lane because he is in favor of a “balanced” transportation policy. But doesn’t balanced mean providing adequate space for cyclists and pedestrians. It would have been great if the Times writer had said that Broadway used to have most of its space devoted to cars and it now appears that efforts to implement a “balanced” policy are working.

  • Steve Faust

    The article is written with the point of view that Broadway has been narrowed, and traffic capacity cut; i.e. space for car traffic has been reduced.

    But Broadway is still the same old width, building to building, the buildings have not been moved, the street is not narrower.

    Traffic is supposed to be the movement of people and goods, not simply the movement of motor vehicles (usually with only a single occupant.) Are not pedestrians and bicyclists people moving, some also carrying goods? And the new Broadway has no restriction on deliveries reaching buildings via motor or human powered transport.
    On that count, Broadway has been given more room to move more pedestrian and bicycle traffic, and yes, that room has been taken from motor vehicle traffic space.

    A friend commented: “Looks to me like the point of view is from someone who until very recently was able to drive a car through Times Square, with no traffic or any other problems whatsoever, and enjoyed every
    moment of it. Which is to say, this is a work of fiction.”

    But what can we expect from the Times; too many of the editors apparently drive to work.

    My only gripe with the current Broadway pedestrian malls is at Times Square and Herald Square, the bike lane is totally overwhelmed by the pedestrian seating areas. There should be a special counterflow bike lane bypass across 47th St near the TKTS booth to 7th Ave and a dedicated bike lane down 7th Ave until rejoining the usable lane at 45th St. Something similar is needed at Herald Sq.

  • I’ve got a brilliant idea for how the State DOT can help Grynbaum out.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I think the attitude is summed up in the book of maps you get as a AAA member. Those maps highlight the limited access highways, and put other major motor vehicle routes (ie. Queens Bouelard, Flatbush Avenue, Grand Concourse) in the color red.

    I believe the NYC bike maps, as well as showing bike routes, should also show “not recommended” routes with those very same sorts of streets. They aren’t places to bike along without a separated path, and aren’t pleasant places to walk along either.

    Here’s the problem: on the AAA map for Midtown, EVERY North-South Avenue is shown in red as a major route! Every one! There is not one Avenue, according to AAA, that is not a major through route for motor vehicle traffic. Not one.

    That isn’t true elsewhere. Elsewhere, bicycles can ride and pedestrians can stroll on quiet narrow side streets.

    What is being objected to is having one of all the north-south avenues not be a major through route for motor vehicle traffic. Just one. (Well, I’d turn Park Avenue into a bicycle boulvard with limited motor vehicle traffic only, so that would be two).

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