DOT Unveils Union Square Upgrades to Manhattan CB 5

Picture_6.pngNYCDOT’s plans for Union Square would add pedestrian plazas and better bike facilities on Broadway and 17th Street. Image: NYCDOT. For a larger version, click here.

Last night NYCDOT showed plans for a package of safety upgrades and public space improvements for Union Square [PDF] to Manhattan Community Board 5’s transportation committee. Under the plan, the north and west sides of the square would see much less traffic and receive more space for pedestrians and new cycle tracks. Several elements of the project are novel for New York, including a contraflow bike lane proposed for Union Square North and two blocks that would be car-free some of the time.

Reader Mike Epstein tells us that the committee reacted positively to the overall plan but chose to put off a vote until DOT returns with another presentation detailing the impact on 18th Street traffic. 

On Broadway from 23rd Street to 18th Street, the plan calls for a parking-protected bike lane and pedestrian refuge islands while removing one driving lane. DOT told CB 5 that because of changes to Broadway at Times and Herald Squares, this stretch of Broadway now carries only about 250 cars per hour at its peak, or one quarter of the road’s capacity. Without removing a lane, the extra space promotes unsafe speeds.

Cars driving down Broadway would be diverted east onto 18th Street, a move which prompted some outcries from 18th Street residents worried about more traffic in front of their homes. "The amount they’re adding should be one or two cars per minute," said Epstein, who noted that new turning lanes and signal timing should make the impact of that increase negligible. 

Cyclists will be able to continue down Broadway to 17th Street, where they will have the option of turning onto a new contraflow lane along the north side of Union Square. The protected bike lane will then continue along the eastern edge of Union Square until it ends at 15th Street. 

New plazas are slated for Broadway between 17th and 18th and on 17th between Broadway and Park Avenue, and pedestrians would get parts of Union Square West to themselves, at least some of the time. Between 17th and 16th, and 15th and 14th, the street will be closed to traffic part-time. DOT wasn’t ready to announce when those two blocks would be pedestrianized or how they’d be programmed, said Epstein. He hypothesized that the need to get trucks in for the Union Square Greenmarket was a key consideration.

The block between 15th and 16th Streets is remaining open to traffic so that eastbound local traffic on 16th could loop back west onto 15th.

In a straw poll taken after the presentation, most committee members said they approve of the plan. "All but one of them expressed general support for the project, tinged with a little bit of concern about details" like signal timing and turn lanes, said Epstein. The one opponent, however, couldn’t marshal a particularly strong argument: He claimed the project needs federal approval because Broadway is also US Route 9, a designation that doesn’t apply south of the George Washington Bridge.

Picture 4_1.pngPlans for a protected bike lane on Broadway from 23rd Street to 18th Street. Image: NYCDOT.
Picture 5_1.pngMotor vehicle circulation around a redesigned Union Square area. Image: NYC DOT.

  • J

    Awesome! This is a really intelligent way of going about things: incremental change with a grand vision in mind. Take a bit of traffic here, a bit there, and no one notices each time. Pretty soon it becomes mundane and people won’t kick and scream so much. Already the volumes on Broadway are tiny compared to before, so the worry about traffic chaos is just unfounded.

    Now if only they can retime the signals on Broadway to make it actually efficient to use the cycle track without having to run red lights. Right now even at 18mph you hit a light every 2-3 blocks. I guess for now I’ll take what I can get, though.

  • J

    Another thought. Is there any plan to extend the bike lane south? The lane just seems to die at 14th street, just as the 4th ave lane dies heading north. The section of Broadway south of 14th is still pretty nasty, with cars fresh off fighting their way down Park Avenue South.

  • Zmapper

    Looks good. Although one part that I have an issue with is the cycle track at the SE corner of Broadway and 18th. It looks like cyclists have to travel on a crowded sidewalk. Can something be done about it.

  • Good, but page 9 of the PDF strengthens my suspicion that those in charge of the design of bike lanes in these recent major projects really think that cyclists travel a lot slower than they really do. It seems to me that the bike lanes in the past two years’ changes to Broadway are designed with leisurely riding in mind much more than, say, commuting. (I admit page 9 is a very rough drawing and I might be jumping to a conclusion.)

    One thing that might alleviate this complaint of mine is if the signals on these streets were timed to bicycling speed, rather than ~30mph or whatever they’re timed to. That way cyclists would get more green time, and perhaps it would also help tame the cars, which in my experience, speed quite a lot on the short stretch between 23rd and 17th.

  • JW

    hopefully theyll do something to improve union square east, that thing is a traffic sewer.

  • kevin

    those bike lanes really aren’t designed for people who already commute by bike.
    they are designed to make it easy and feel safe for new commuters to get started.

    it doesn’t serve my needs, but it has been very effective at getting lots of new cyclists on the streets – even if they do tend to ride at 6mph the wrong way with their helmets on backwards.

  • Rootboy

    kevin – At least the helmets are facing the right way, right?

  • Overall, I feel this is an excellent design. However, I agree with those that worry the recent bike lane proposals seemed to be designed for people going slower than the typical harden, NYC cyclist. However, if NYC ever wants to really grow its bicycle mode share, those newbie cyclists will probably not be going more that 10 to 12mph, which is the speed of the average Amsterdam or Copenhagen cyclist.

    Even still, I have concerns with some minor aspects of the designs shown hear which seem to not function for cyclists at even those modest speeds. In particular is that section through the pedestrian area at the SE corner of 18th and Broadway. At least paint that area as a green bike lane to keep the pedestrians from loitering there as they wait for the traffic light (the current proposal seems to prioritize pedestrians).

    Finally, what about bike parking at Union Square?!?! This may have been beyond the scope of the project and is probably even beyond NYCDoT’s jurisdiction, however bike parking is a nightmare around the square when the market is in town.

  • Zmapper

    I’d have the bike lane dropped to road level through the pedestrian area to help remind pedestrians that bikes will be using that space.

  • “Plans for a protected bike lane on Broadway from 23rd Street to 18th Street. Image: NYCDOT.”

    Instead of a 23 foot parking/travel lane, why not cut off 4 feet (keep it at the existing 19 feet) and use those 4 feet to make the bike lane 10 feet and thus two way?

  • Jass: seconded. 18-19′ is enough for one parking lane and one driving lane, and 6′ is not enough for a bike lane.

  • Zmapper

    Agreed. However the bike lane should be expanded to 12′ by chopping of 2′ of the door zone. I have never heard of a door that is 5′ wide!

  • kevin

    @ Rootboy: ha!

  • Zmapper: 5′ is standard in the Netherlands. Then again, so is 13′ for a two-way lane.

  • flp

    whoah! did the DOT and the City just demonstrate what prejudiced fools they are with their slide show presentation for the union sq north street plan? just a month ago or so they presented a plan for st nicholas ave to a washington heights cb transp committee that was barely as detailed and graphically captivating as the one presented to cb 5. what gives? does the dot really think that they do not need to spend as much time and effort selling an idea to the black and brown folks in non cbd neighborhoods?? for shame!

    on another note, i am really glad to see that finally there is a pedestrian friendly plan that incorporates a bike lane. its about time, and i hope this signals a move to reconsider the removal of the bike lanes in times and herald squares! dot, don’t you realize that the more you separate bike and pedestrian safety infrastructure initiatives, the more you perpetuate the red herring that bike and pedestrian safety are separate issues? its time you think of the bigger picture and develop each and every plan, regardless of whether its is a completely auto free space or not, to incorporate safety for everyone!

  • Zmapper, yes, a smaller buffer would work as well. I believe buffers are currently so large to allow for full sized snow plows.

    But a 12 foot bidirectional bike area + 3 foot buffer would work just as well.

    Don’t fight salmons by yelling at them, accommodate them where there is space (such as here)

  • Larry Littlefield

    It is clear what is happening here: through motor vehicle traffic is being diverted off Broadway (and 34th Street). I think it’s a good thing.

    The response to rising traffic was to try and turn every street into an arterial. We’ve reached the limits of that, and it’s time to try an alternative.

    Those traveling to this area as a destination lose almost nothing, even if coming by motor vehicle.

  • P


    Whoa! You feel pretty comfortable throwing down casual accusations of racism, don’t you? Having looked at each proposal St Nicholas is twice as long as Union Square and has nearly the exact same layout.

  • Change the signal timings along Broadway to bike speeds!
    If you stay in those bike lanes, you’re getting a red bike signal about every one or two blocks. The bike facilities excessively slow down not only hardened NYC cyclists as Andy B puts it, but even average cyclists. They make you go REALLY slow.

    Of course another factor is the bike lanes’ vulnerability to pedestrians (don’t blame the peds.)–in particular, the spots where bikes and peds are directed to share the very same space. Those spots have become totally overrun by peds, and even street performers:

    I hope they manage to avoid that in Union Square and other areas they improve in the future.

  • Brooklyn

    I work in this area. “Residents of 18th Street” is a bit of a misnomer — this block between Broadway and Park Avenue South is not brownstones or townhouses. The street level and immediately above is commercial and warehouse spaces (such as the back end of Paragon Sports or the freight entrance for my work building) — perfect for a diversion. The handful of residents, as they are, live in double-glazed loft spaces well over the fray.

    Vehicles may only number 250 an hour, but at peak times a good number of those are the X-series commuter buses. I wonder if there will be a rerouting of them — part of the appeal to drivers of this route right now is the ability to race from 23rd to 17th and bull their way through the left turn at U.S. North.

  • Beginner question: Does this require CB approval to go ahead?

  • Yes, the Staten Island commuter buses would be rerouted off Broadway as part of this plan.

  • DDartley: at 3-5 blocks per minute for a bicycle, and 7-10 for a car, there may well be a way to optimize traffic signals for both modes.

  • union square

    Heard about this just 2 days before cb5 meeting. What about pedestrians and what about the fast wait/walk traffic lights on Park Avenue south at 15th,16,17th streets..

    and with bikes whizzing by–
    I hope the bicyclists will obey the lights and street directions. I have been a bike rider and I believe I understand, but I need more information on the timing of the traffic lights, enforcement, and pedestrian safety.

  • Woody

    On the stretch of Broadway from 42nd down to 35th, and from 33rd down to Madison Square, the auto traffic has been dramatically calmed. Now it’s probably safer for a bike, certainly for a fast-moving bike, to ride in the street than in the bike lane.

    Too many pedestrians treat the bike lane as a green extension of the narrow sidewalks, and who can blame them. With the bike lanes directly adjoining the sidewalks, now every ride is fraught with near-collisions with some oblivious pedestrians.

    Maybe the realistic move is to merge the bike lanes with the car lanes on Broadway, all moving at a safe and reasonable speed.

  • bike riding in cyprus

  • 3-5 Blocks per minute on a bike! Not on my bike!


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