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DOT Compromises, to a Point, on Union Square Plan

11:30 AM EDT on June 22, 2010

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."

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