Will the MTA Make Room for a Pedestrian-Friendly 32nd Street?

This expanded sidewalk on 32nd Street only lasted a few months. It could return -- if the MTA is willing to simplify two bus routes. Photo: Stephen Miller
This expanded sidewalk on 32nd Street only lasted a few months. It could return -- if the MTA is willing to simplify two bus routes. Photo: Stephen Miller

For one glorious summer in 2015, the block of 32nd Street between Penn Station and Greeley Square had a wide, generous sidewalk. It was a huge relief for the throngs of people walking to the nation’s busiest rail hub. But it didn’t last.

Now there’s a plan to bring the 32nd Street supersidewalk back, and the final sticking point involves MTA bus stops that will have to be relocated. Advocates are calling on the MTA to let the change move forward by rerouting the M4 and Q32 buses.

On the block of 32nd Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues  pedestrians outnumber vehicles 22 to 1. DOT and real estate giant Vornado implemented the painted sidewalk expansion to give people on foot some breathing room, but the redesign was nixed after a short trial. Vornado attributed the decision to complaints about the loss of commercial loading zones on the block.

It’s hard to keep a good idea down, though, and last year, Vornado proposed bringing the sidewalk expansion back. To make room for commercial deliveries, the Q32 and M4 stops on the block would need to be relocated. While this would increase the distance bus riders have to walk to access Penn, the buses already don’t travel much faster than walking on these crosstown streets.

Because shifting the bus stops stands to improve the reliability of both routes while making pedestrian access to Penn Station better for everyone, the executive directors of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, Transportation Alternatives, the Municipal Art Society, and the Regional Plan Association called the plan a “win-win” for pedestrians and bus riders in a March 2 letter to MTA New York City Transit President Andy Byford [PDF].

“Improving the pedestrian experience on 32nd Street between 6th Avenue and 7th Avenue, starting at the busiest entrance and exit to Penn Station, is an opportunity to both improve mass transit and make our streets safer,” the letter says.

The M4 and Q32 spend significant time stuck in crosstown traffic. Image: Vornado
The M4 and Q32 spend significant time stuck in crosstown traffic. Image: Vornado

The Q32 and M4 both have F ratings from the Bus Turnaround Campaign due to slow speeds and poor on-time performance. That’s led to ridership declines of more than 15 percent between 2010 and 2014.

The amount of time both routes spend stuck in crosstown traffic between Madison and Seventh avenues simply isn’t worth it for commuters. On the M4, fewer than 14 percent of riders travel on the affected segment. On the Q32, that number is less than 3 percent. Those numbers have dropped precipitously — by over 50 percent — in recent years.

MTA reps floated their version of the Vornado proposal to affected community boards, including those served by the route in Queens, but the agency has yet to move forward. In a statement, the MTA was non-committal about shifting the bus stops to improve pedestrian access to Penn:

While NYC Transit fully appreciates the need to improve the safety and viability of pedestrian spaces, it is also important to maintain a multi-modal connection between fully accessible bus routes and Penn Station, a significant regional transportation hub which is served by the Long Island Rail Road, Amtrak and New Jersey Transit. We are continuing to work with NYC DOT on this issue.

  • Danny

    Doesn’t 34th Street have a bus lane they can reroute the Q32 to? There’s been times when I’ve had to wait more than a few minutes for the M34, so there’s ample room to share the street. The only downside is that they might have to rename it to the Q34, but that’s worth it!

  • Andrew

    On the M4, fewer than 14 percent of riders travel on the affected segment. On the Q32, that number is less than 3 percent.

    That’s a pretty meaningless measure, and if anything it makes the case to keep the bus stop where it is. Since the stop on 32nd Street is the first stop on the line, the only people riding on the affected segment are people who board at the very first stop. For a long route that serves numerous markets, the rider share at any single stop isn’t going to be terribly high.

    I’m frankly surprised that as many as 14% of M4 riders board at Penn Station – it’s a much more important stop than I would have imagined.

    To put this in perspective, far fewer than 14% of 1 train riders board at South Ferry (i.e., travel on the segment between South Ferry and Rector Street), but that doesn’t make South Ferry an unimportant stop.

  • snrvlakk

    I’m annoyed. I went back & read the letter to Byford; I then re-read this article 3 times, all in an effort figure out just where everybody wants to move the Q32 busstop nearest Penn Station TO. You’d think that would be a salient piece of info to provide. Are they changing the route or just changing the location of the layover? Or are they running the buses down 5th Ave, left on 32nd St, and then north on Madison? No way of knowing. Thanks.

  • Vooch

    Supersidewalk

    That’s a winning phrase much less scary than pedestrian zone. We should use it more often

  • ohnonononono

    The M4 has been terminating at Penn Station for a long time, since it was a Fifth Avenue Coach Company bus, before the MTA took over all the bus routes in Manhattan, and you have to imagine an era many decades ago when there were no Metrocards or bus-to-subway transfers, and traffic was lighter. I’d imagine its regular riders include a lot of older people who’ve been riding it for decades out of habit, when they’d have some much quicker options today. Of course if it’d require using some shoe leather, I understand why they’d rather sit on a slowly moving bus if they’re not so mobile.

  • WellAdjustedAndroid

    They should close this block to private vehicle traffic entirely (like the 33rd street pedestrian area between 7th and 8th Aves.) People can head south away from Penn to 23rd if they want to go east or turn back north onto 6th.

  • cjstephens

    While I’m all in favor of giving over more street space to pedestrians, and while I love what DOT has done elsewhere in midtown, the pilot program for this in 2015 was horrible. Almost all of the pedestrianized plaza was in darkness all day, and much of it got taken over as a homeless encampment early on. Unless they come up with some brilliant new design, I expect the same will happen again. I would gladly give over this block to help speed up buses and encourage DOT to find a different, sunnier space to give over to pedestrians.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Eyes on the Street: More Room to Walk Near Penn Station

|
Colorful new sidewalk extension along 32nd Street near Penn Station. pic.twitter.com/PLxiiMa0L8 — Tri-State (@Tri_State) July 21, 2015 Temporary sidewalk extensions are in on 32nd Street near Penn Station. As Streetsblog reported in June, this is one element of a larger effort, spearheaded by Vornado Realty Trust in partnership with the city, to make more room […]

Eyes on the Street: 33rd Street Plaza Comes to Life

|
There is now a plaza at Penn Plaza. The finishing touches were added to a temporary pedestrian space occupying the full breadth of 33rd Street just west of Seventh Avenue earlier this week. The plaza stretches a little less than halfway to Eighth Avenue, replacing what used to be westbound traffic lanes with planters, sculptures, a terraced seating area, and a painted […]

33rd Street at Penn Station Will Go Car-Free This Summer

|
Real estate giant Vornado Realty Trust last night unveiled plans to open up space for people on a couple of busy blocks near Penn Station. The proposed car-free zones include a new pedestrian plaza on 33rd Street west of Seventh Avenue. Phase one will consist of a three-month trial this summer and fall, and the changes could be made permanent […]