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Car-Free Streets

I Walked Five Miles in the Middle of the Street, Then I Bought a Dosa

grand_central_turn.jpg
Pedestrians and cyclists appreciate Grand Central Terminal from a new angle during Summer Streets.

This Saturday I took the train into Manhattan with my girlfriend, Jessie, and got out at Broadway-Lafayette. I'm not much of an early riser on weekends, and Jessie had worked late the night before, so we didn't arrive until about 10:30. Summer Streets was already in full swing, but I didn't appreciate right away just how much Lafayette Street had changed from its typical state.

After a minute or two, it struck me. Not only was the middle of the street occupied by a steady stream of people on foot and on bikes, but all those people were making hardly any noise. Simply by subtracting the ambient ruckus of car and truck traffic (let alone the honking and exhaust), the street had become a much more pleasant place.

We ambled toward Spring Street, getting accustomed to having all this space and to watching people on bikes ride past us. We weren't pushed off to the margins, and for once it didn't feel like we were second-class citizens of the road. Were there times when one of the faster bike riders came a little too close for comfort? Yes, but it happened rarely, mostly when we were walking downhill on some of the route's narrower segments. The more time we spent walking around, the more at ease we felt.

The description "people on foot and on bikes" doesn't begin to capture
the full variety of users who turned out. There were people in
wheelchairs and parents pushing strollers. People training for
marathons and people just taking in the scene. People on recumbents,
fixies, and training wheels. Civility prevailed everywhere I looked, even when the street got a little cramped.

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Bike lessons on Spring Street.

After making a detour to Mott Street for coffee, we watched the bike lessons and aerobics classes at the Spring Street rest stop, then turned around and headed north. (We tried to snag free bikes from one of Bike and Roll's "Bike-Share" stations, but we were about an hour too late.) A few more impressions:

Some of the "stub streets" had their own charms, even if no organized activities were going on. Jessie was especially taken by the car-free atmosphere on Union Square North, normally a big pedestrian headache and full of horn blasts, but blissfully calm this day.

The health and fitness rest stop was a big hit. Lots of spectators and exercisers when we stopped by, during the Masala Bhangra class. (Side note: The most surreal moment of the day may have come when a Crunch instructor, serving as emcee of the fitness stage, expressed her gratitude. "Thank you Department of Transportatioooooon!" Times have changed.)

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Masala Bhangra class at 24th Street -- the health and fitness rest stop.

As others have noted, the most dramatic sequence of the route was the walk over the Grand Central viaduct, past the statue of Cornelius Vanderbilt, around the station, under the Helmsley Building and out onto the expansive canyon of Park Avenue.

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The approach to Grand Central, over the viaduct.

The planners, volunteers, police officers and others who helped pull this off should be commended, with perhaps a few exceptions. I walked five miles of car-free streets (not counting the 20 or so cross streets where car traffic passed through), saw thousands of people, and heard nary a peep of complaint the whole time.

When it was all over, Jessie and I headed over to Lexington Avenue for dosas at Tamil Nadu Bhavan. It's a safe bet that were it not for Summer Streets, I never would have spent money on lunch in Manhattan on a Saturday. Can't wait to get up a little earlier and do it again next week.

Thank you Streetsbloggers for sharing your Summer Streets stories and submitting your photos to our Flickr pool. Keep those pics coming -- we'll post a gallery later today.

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