The New York of 2016 Needs the Wide, Generous Sidewalks of 1906

The Times ran a feature on the pedestrian crush in New York City today, and as good as the photos are, they don’t do the situation justice. To get a sense of just how inadequate the sidewalks are in Midtown, you need to go there — or failing that, watch this Streetfilm from 2009 with narration by Streetsblog publisher Mark Gorton.

Believe it or not, these scenes of people overflowing off the sidewalk were shot during a post-recession ebb in pedestrian traffic, according to DOT counts cited by the Times. Since this video was made, the crowding has actually gotten worse.

New York didn’t always have such meager sidewalks — over the years, the city systematically shrank pedestrian space to make room for motor vehicles. Here’s a look at the sidewalk on Lexington Avenue and 89th Street today, and the much more accommodating dimensions near the turn of the 20th Century, courtesy of architect John Massengale:

Here’s the 1909 plan to shave 15 feet of sidewalk off Fifth Avenue to widen the roadbed for cars:

Image via NYT archive

Mistakes made a hundred years ago reverberate in entirely new ways today.

Because so much street space is allocated to cars and not enough to pedestrians, the bike network the city is trying to build out is compromised. Gothamist posted this video of people walking in the Eighth Avenue bike lane in Midtown just a few hours before the Times ran its crowded sidewalks feature:

Without wider sidewalks, the protected bike lane network will continue to break down in the heart of Midtown.

As terrific as efforts like the Broadway plazas, Sixth-and-a-Half Avenue, and Plaza 33 have been, they’re not enough. (It doesn’t help that the city failed to defend an excellent measure — the wider sidewalk on 32nd Street near Penn Station — because a few property owners complained.)

What New York needs now is to take entire lanes reserved for motor vehicles in Midtown and repurpose them for wider sidewalks.

Enjoy the Independence Day weekend, Streetsblog readers. We’ll be off Monday and back to publishing on Tuesday.

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