Shared Space: The Street Design NYC’s Financial District Was Made For

Long studied, little implemented: This 1997 Department of City Planning map identified streets ripe for pedestrianization or plazas. Adding shared streets to the mix could open up more possibilities. Image: DCP
Long studied, little implemented: This 1997 Department of City Planning map identified streets ripe for pedestrianization or plazas. Adding shared streets to the mix could open up more possibilities. Image: DCP

For people in cars, the Financial District is a slow-speed maze. For everyone else, it is one of the city’s most transit-rich destinations. Despite this, most of the street space in the area is devoted to cars.

The Financial District is an ideal candidate for pedestrianization, but while it has seen redesigns on a handful of streets, it has yet to see the large-scale creation of car-free space that has been studied and talked about for ages. Could introducing shared space to the mix help transform some of New York’s oldest streets into truly people-first places?

If not for the the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, the Financial District would effectively be a large cul-de-sac — there is no reason for through traffic to use its local streets. The evil twins of West Street and the FDR Drive feed cars to the tunnel and ring off the neighborhood from the waterfront. But within the Financial District itself, most of the streets are narrow and have far more pedestrians than cars.

There are a few places in the Financial District where car-free streets have taken hold over the years. Too often, the goal has been not to create an open, accessible city, but to build a fortress against the threat of truck bombs.

Blocks near the New York Stock Exchange are closed to through traffic, but pedestrians continue to be shunted to the margins, especially along Broad Street. Screening checkpoints have turned deadly, with one driver killing a 70-year-old man on the sidewalk next to a Broad Street security gate two years ago.

At the World Trade Center site, pedestrians are only now allowed to walk right up to the memorial after years of ticketing and security clearances. Neighbors objected that the long-term security plan for the site was too intrusive, but their lawsuit was dismissed. Ultimately, Greenwich Street will be restored and closed to motor vehicle through traffic — cyclists may have to dismount and walk through security stations — but there will still be spaces where pedestrians are prohibited to make room for vehicle access and drop-offs, even though the area is expected to be flooded with people.

Even without security barriers, many of the neighborhood’s streets see very light car traffic, yet push people to the margins. There are exceptions: Stone Street’s picturesque restaurant row serves as a happy hour beer garden and South Street Seaport attracts tourists and shoppers, while a block-long pedestrian plaza was installed last year at Coentis Slip. Painted additions near Bowling Green have created space for pedestrians who had been flowing off the sidewalk, but the fundamental layout of the street remains the same, with car traffic gobbling up the center.

Before 2001, sections of Fulton and Nassau Streets were pedestrian-only during parts of the day. A 1997 Department of City Planning report on pedestrianization in Lower Manhattan [PDF] documented the success of that arrangement. “Pedestrian volumes are high and narrow sidewalks contribute to failing levels-of-service,” the report said. “The pedestrian mall attracts high midday pedestrian volumes.”

Many NYC streets are already variations on shared space, even if it's not yet part of DOT's standard toolbox. From left: Gansevoort Plaza, Greene Street, and Wall Street. Photos, from left: Stefan Klaas, Dan Nguyen, and Ricky Cain via Flickr
Many downtown NYC streets are already variations on shared space. From left: Gansevoort Plaza, Greene Street, and Wall Street. Photos, from left: Stefan Klaas, Dan Nguyen, and Ricky Cain via Flickr

Last year, DOT’s Sustainable Streets report singled out the Financial District as a “strong candidate” for more pedestrian-friendly streets. “The City could consider creating a wider pedestrian precinct on additional smaller streets, with freight delivery access during specific off–peak windows,” the agency said. “Shared streets — pedestrian streets with very slow vehicle access — could complement or be central to such an initiative.”

Pioneered by Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, shared space (known in Dutch as a “woonerf”) is borne of the philosophy that people can navigate public space on their own, rather than relying on markings and signs to divide and mediate the right-of-way between cars, cyclists, and pedestrians.

It fundamentally challenges the typical battle over street real estate. By having road users negotiate each and every interaction with another person, it compels everyone to pay attention and goads drivers to reduce speeds below 20 mph. From a driver’s perspective, shared space is an appealing concept in part because it improves efficiency by eliminating queues at traffic lights.

Ben Hamilton-Baillie is an English urban designer specializing in shared space projects. He gave a presentation on the concept to the Congress for the New Urbanism in Buffalo last month. Asking city streets to perform two functions — one with civic space like sidewalks and plazas, the other a highway-like design with lanes and signage — creates a place that doesn’t perform either task particularly well, he said.

While many might think that streets with lots of pedestrians and little car traffic would be the only suitable place for shared space, Hamilton-Baillie has focused his recent work on streets with a steady flow of cars. He points to a busy intersection he redesigned in Poynton, England, as a success story. While New York might not want to begin right away with shared space treatments on a car sewer like Tenth Avenue, the Financial District’s narrow streets are an obvious place to start. A potential selling point: Shared space allows a street to maintain vehicle access while gaining many of the benefits of pedestrianization.

“Shared space as an idea is something that we all have to get educated about,” said Ethan Kent, senior vice president at Project for Public Spaces. While there are only a few places in New York specifically designed as shared space, Kent said that many of its principles are already in action on the city’s pedestrian-heavy, human-scaled streets, like those in Chinatown and the Meatpacking District. “New York’s most valuable destinations are essentially shared spaces. Look at Rockefeller Center,” he said. “We should study the best streets in New York.”

Last month, Hamilton-Baillie met with Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg and urban design staff from DCP at DOT’s headquarters in the Financial District. Kent was also at the meeting. “It could be an evolution of the public plaza program, but it can also be implemented independently as a better street design, as a better way to slow traffic on a street,” he said. “There are definitely opportunities to apply it.”

  • Larry Littlefield

    I think you are on to something here.

    Downtown lost its primacy to Midtown as the middle class moved to the suburbs, because Midtown has the transit links both the city and the suburbs whereas Downtown is connected to the city alone. For most people in metro New York, Lower Manhattan is a two-mode commute.

    As a result there are many fewer people working in Lower Manhattan than there were 30 years ago, and far more people living there. And occasional insane ideas by the Downtown real estate industry to try to get commuter rail service there as well.

    As an alternative, Downtown could be left to evolve into an entirely different economic ecosystem. For new entreprenurial companies, not large firms, and without all that motor vehicle traffic that makes Midtown unpleasant. They just need to stop trying to bribe big companies to stay there, tell the real estate industry to market the area differently, and go from there.

  • Greg Costikyan

    It’s not entirely true that Downtown is unconnected to the suburbs; PATH gives access to New Jersey (via connecting NJ Transit trains in Hoboken). A little more awkwardly, the LIRR’s Atlantic Avenue railroad spur allows Long Islanders to get to Downtown, via a subway change at Atlantic. It’s true that it’s very hard to get to Downtown from Westchester, however.

  • Larry Littlefield

    It’s still an extra 20 minutes with those transfers,which people don’t like.

    PATH gets you to places like Hoboken, Jersey City, and Newark without one — very much like Brooklyn.

    Right now the corporates are living in the suburbs, if not in Manhattan. If they aren’t on commuter rail, they want a place they can drive.

    But the creatives and entrepreneurs are living in the city. The city is what they like. So they might be attracted to a pedestrianized old town downtown.

    But those sorts of organizations don’t sign 500,000-square-foot leases for top dollar. Which is why the Downtown Alliance might not get it.

  • lop

    How is changing to a NYC subway at Atlantic a connection for LI suburbs, and changing to a PATH subway at Hoboken a connection for NJ suburbs, but changing to a subway at Penn isn’t a connection for LI suburbs, and changing to a subway at GCT isn’t a connection for Westchester and CT suburbs?

  • Kevin Love

    Shared space tends to not work, because car drivers bully people. David Hembrow does an excellent job documenting this at:

  • Kevin Love

    The people who actually have used Poynton’s shared space will testify as to how hostile, intimidating and horrible it is as car drivers systematically bully people. See:


  • Michael Klatsky

    Why is a rail tunnel linking Hoboken with Atlantic Terminal ( with a stop at Fulton) an insane idea?

    It connects many places and puts our two underutilized rail lines to good use

  • Larry Littlefield

    The cost, and how far underground it would have to go. Unless you are considering taking tracks away from the serfs on the subway, which is what was actually proposed.

  • Joe R.

    I thought with TBMs it no longer matters how far underground you go since you don’t have to dig away everything on top first?

    The cost is obviously the showstopper here regardless of feasibility given how large infrastructure projects in NYC cost 25 to 100 times more than they do everywhere else.

  • vnm

    Agreed. This is a GREAT idea.

  • Michael Klatsky

    There are plenty of serfs taking NJT and the LIRR.

    Though I would prefer to see a northern extension of the Second Ave subway to Hudson and Bergen county in urban Jersey.

  • Michael Klatsky

    Downtown is also only really connected to Brooklyn, Staten Island and portions of Jersey within the reach of PATH. Getting from Forest Hills to the financial district in not easy by any measure and unless you take the R, will require a transfer.

    The issue with Lower Manhattan is getting delayed on the subway to midtown, which can cause one to miss an infrequent suburban train and have a 30 + minute delay until next departure.

  • andrelot

    Shares space works well on areas with low overall traffic, like residential streets, or areas with only residual vehicular (car/truck/taxi/whatever) traffic.

    It is not meant for, or appropriate for, a district full of high-rises. There, only pedestrianization will work where applicable.

  • andrelot

    Downtown Manhattan lost a lot of workplaces as labor- and industry-intensive port-related industries moved elsewhere. Both are good riddance, there are no reasons whatsoever for industrial activities to take place in Manhattan in 2014.

  • Daniel

    Yup. Downtown makes a lot of sense for tech and other creative industries. Most of their workers live in Brooklyn with a few scattered in other PATH and subway reachable places. We need to stop with the subsidies to wall street companies and let the market function. I don’t think we’d be unhappy with the results. The commercial rents wouldn’t be quite as high but we would get a much more pleasant neighborhood out of it with higher residential rents.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The cost and the debt. What they charge us, and what they have taken out of our future.

    This is number 30 on the list of things to do. The second phase of the Second Avenue Subway, which would have been done as part of the first phase if Sheldon Silver didn’t stop it, is number one. Let’s see if that one is in the MTA capital plan. Or if there is an MTA capital plan.

  • Clarke

    Also, I believe TBMs are relatively cheap to do basic tunneling…it’s the stations that are the big cash pit. (Although take a look at Fulton or WTC and you can see expensive stations that added no capacity or new tunnels, so it’s really a moot point)

  • lop

    If you can take the PATH then walk to your destination downtown why can’t you take the E from forest hills?

  • Michael Klatsky

    The PATH is less than ten minutes. For most people, the M or the R is their closest stop and the E is overcrowded from bus transfers at the Express stops. So a slow trip standing in the E versus a slower trip on the R.

  • lop

    Well forest hills is an express stop so you wouldn’t need to transfer. Travel time of 40 minutes isn’t unreasonable for the region. Path is more than 20 minutes from Newark. The SI ferry trip is 25 minutes, and people need to get there in the first place, and are dealing with the same frequency problems of the commuter railroads. On LIRR just from Jamaica you won’t get to midtown in 20 minutes, add the time getting that far west on the train and the time at the station and the E from Forest hills doesn’t look that bad.

    Downtown is less connected than midtown, and midtown is closer to forest hills than downtown, but I think it’s a stretch to say that forest hills -> downtown is not easy by any measure.

  • Joe R.

    Downtown is less connected than midtown, and midtown is closer to forest hills than downtown, but I think it’s a stretch to say that forest hills -> downtown is not easy by any measure.

    That’s true with two caveats. One, you live close enough to the Forest Hills station to walk there. Two, you’re not traveling at the height of rush hour (7:30AM-8:30AM or 5PM-6PM). It’s true the train ride itself from Forest Hills to downtown isn’t horrible. Typically, you’re in midtown in 16-18 minutes, and downtown is another 17 or 18 minutes. Trains come pretty often most times, so your figure of 40 minutes counting waiting time once you get to the subway is spot on.

    The problem is if you need to connect to Forest Hills via a bus. Where I live that adds at least 20 minutes to the trip counting typical waiting times. Do the trip during the height of rush hour and the bus ride takes 30+ minutes while the train ride could take over an hour. An hour and 30 minutes or more each way really isn’t a tolerable commute for most people. Even going during non-peak times you’re probably looking at 55 minutes each way, more likely an hour. That’s at the borderline of tolerable. It’s the type of commute I might endure if I worked in finance and had a $200K job downtown, but not for a regular job at average pay. Bottom line, if you’re near the train station and traveling during non-rush hours, sure, Forest Hills to downtown is a feasible commute. Under most other conditions it really isn’t.

    On another note, once the Queens Boulevard line gets CBTC, we could be looking at 10 minutes less travel time from Forest Hills to downtown based on the facts that trains will accelerate faster in between stops, and reach higher speeds, particularly during the express portions of their run. For example, if the trains accelerated to 55 mph and stayed there, Forest Hills to Queens Plaza would be about 8 minutes. Right now it’s scheduled for 12 to 14 minutes, depending upon the time of day. That’s at least 4 minutes off the schedule right there, more typically 5 or 6 minutes. You might gain another 15 seconds between stops on the local portion of the run if the trains ran at their maximum acceleration potential (they’re “detuned” now for manual operation). It doesn’t sound like much, but that could gain you perhaps up to another 4 or 5 minutes over the entire run. With traffic signal preemption, you could probably shave 5 minutes off the bus run from my place to Forest Hills. All these measures bring the commute to downtown from ~1 hour to maybe 45 minutes. That’s when it starts to become feasible even for people who have to connect to Forest Hills via bus.

  • Roger87

    Begin with pedestrianizing this area, and gradually push north. It should have started 40 years ago, but it’s never too late to try.

  • Tyler

    Why, exactly, was Forest Hills chosen as some sort of exemplar of commuting? Why not Astoria or East New York or College Point? So much bellyaching about how downtown isn’t super convenient to Forest Hills. Guess What?! Harlem isn’t super convenient for me in central Brooklyn…. is that why Harlem isn’t the “new Midtown”?? People live and move to places consistent with their commute. That’s how it works. “Honey, with the new job, maybe it would be better to move closer to Subway line X or Express Bus Y.”

  • Joe R.

    I have no idea why we’re talking about Forest Hills here. Forest Hills is just fine if you happen to have a job where most people do-namely in midtown, or perhaps LIC, but it’s less than ideal for downtown. You’re totally right-people should choose jobs consistent with where they live. I don’t think people should move to make a commute more convenient given how jobs are not permanent any more, but they should choose their jobs with the commute in mind. I don’t have much sympathy for someone who complains about a two hour each way commute when they didn’t even bother seeing if a similar job was available closer to them. Or those who move to places where any commute is inconvenient. Hey, if someone wants a huge McMansion in the exurbs all power to them, but don’t complain about the 50 mile each way drive.

  • Tyler

    I agree with one variation… With the absurd proportion of crappy landlords in this city, I’m not sure living spaced are that permanent either. I feel like you have to move periodically just to give yourself the illusion that you’re doing something about it. (Luckily, I currently have a really nice landlord, but the apartment is mediocre at best for the gobs of money I pay each month. Unfortunately, I can’t afford the “luxury” apartments… ya know, the ones with luxurious new-ish cabinets and luxurious new-ish tub.) But I guess this isn’t really a transportation issue, just a craptastic NYC issue.

  • How about a ped/bike bridge to lower Manhattan. Right now, if the rail tunnels go out (which happens with alarming frequency), peds are forced to take a ferry or hike up to Midtown. If all goes out (e.g. Sandy, blackout) peds are left walking to GWB.

  • Both my wife and I have rare jobs without “similar jobs” available closer to us. For us, it was easiest to move to the least mutually inconvenient location, which happened to be in Manhattan. If transit links were better, perhaps we could live some place cheaper. I pass through Downtown every day on my way to a job in Jersey City. Crossing the Hudson sucks, any way you look at it. PATH, NJTransit rail, buses, they all suck.

  • I agree with some earlier comments that shared space is not a great model for FiDi. The heavy pedestrian traffic warrants a complete pedestrianization of many if not most of the streets (perhaps exempting bikes), with expanded sidewalks and reduced car lanes on the main car thoroughfares.

  • carma

    i highly doubt once QB goes CBTC we will get to see trains go up to 55MPH on the express line. consider today’s commute on the E, i crawled from JH to QP and it took 9 minutes. frequently the local beats the express on this stretch.

    before the additional timers were added in the 90’s, the trains did go a bit faster. with the recent derailing and constant track problems. signal problems. CBTC will shave a bit off, but i doubt we are talking 5 minutes here.
    2-3 minutes if lucky i say.

  • Joe R.

    It’s mostly highly educated professionals with very specialized types of jobs who can’t find similar jobs closer. That’s a very small percentage of the population. A lot of people do ubiquitous types of jobs which exist pretty much anywhere there’s people. What we really need is some kind of master job bank which could match the nearest appropriate job.

  • Joe R.

    All I know is that the trains are physically capable of doing Forest Hills to Queens Plaza in about 8 minutes, including 30 to 45 seconds of dwell time at Roosevelt Avenue. Hopefully the tracks will be maintained is such condition that the trains can run to their capabilities. Don’t forget that faster trains save the MTA a ton of money as you need fewer trains for any given frequency of service.

    A lot of the delays on the QB line are because of loading issues due to overcrowded trains. Again, CBTC should ease that by allowing greater frequency of service.

    I’m optimistic we’ll get at least 3 minutes shaved off the FH-QP running times. I really think 8 minutes running time is within the realm of possibility, and that would be really nice because that would result in commuter rail type average speeds (~42 mph).

  • Joe R.

    It all depends upon your living situation. If you live in an apartment, it’s probably desirable to move occasionally for the reasons you say. On the other hand, once you own either a private home or a condo, it’s more difficult to move. We’ve been here for 36 years. As far as I’m concerned, unless the neighborhood changes for the worse, they can carry me out. That’s how strongly I feel about moving at this point. Of course, it helps that I work at home.

  • Nathanael

    Woonerfs work OK if the only traffic is a few daily delivery trucks. Doesn’t work if you have “normal” traffic.

  • Nathanael

    TBMs are great, but they don’t build stations.

    So, a rail tunnel from Hoboken to Atlantic Terminal — straightfoward; a station under Manhattan along the way — really really expensive.

  • lop

    How much would a bridge like that cost? Half a billion? More?

  • Joe R.

    True but we don’t need grandiose, gold-plated stations. Just something basic and utilitarian will do. Being that transit dollars are in short supply, I would rather the bulk of the money be spent on adding route miles, not super fancy stations.

  • Ian Turner

    Iowa and Nebraska built a comparable bridge in 2008 and it cost $22 million.

  • BBnet3000

    This also implies that it only works on local streets that either by layout (theres plenty of natural non-through streets in FiDi) or design (barriers that force people to turn off the street) do not really go anywhere except to the buildings that are on them.

  • ohnonononono

    Brooklyn is the fastest growing county in the region.

    The money is still in Westchester and Greenwich and Short Hills, but the numbers are shifting. The ‘burbs aren’t growing.