Streetfilms Wayback Machine: When Union Square Sucked (Before DOT Fixed It!)

That was then. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.
That was then. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

The Streetfilms archive has some really great footage of just how terrible Manhattan’s Union Square was before it was transformed.

In 2005, when I was really starting to dive in to the work that would become Streetfilms, I taped a big community board  meeting about the results of a year-long study on the feasibility of making then-two-way 17th Street into a one-lane roadway with much more room for pedestrians.

The livable streets crowd really thought this would be a big win, but, alas the city Department of Transportation rejected the plan, saying that 17th Street, 19th Street and other nearby streets would suffer an unacceptable drop in “level of service” — as defined by federal guidelines called the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices or MUTCD.

Of course, “level of service” was defined only by the impact on car drivers. Back then, the MUTCD factored very little for pedestrians and bicyclists and discounted livability. The goal was to move cars along at any cost, a huge complaint of sensible transportation advocates.

Fortunately, New York City changed its approach. DOT Commissioners Janette Sadik-Khan and Polly Trottenberg chipped away at space for vehicles and added two-way protected bike lanes on two sides, pedestrian plazas, a unique ped/bike one-block only section on Union Square West and, yes, extended Union Square northward as was once hoped for all those years ago.

This video look back reveals the danger of relying solely on the MUTCD when evaluating cities and their neighborhood streets. In the end, the real failure of the 2005 DOT decision was the notion that traffic would grow over the following years. In fact, as the city slowly deemphasized Broadway as a through route and removed some parking, it actually became easier to see that predictions of traffic Armageddon were not true.

And even if traffic on some streets did go up a bit, tens of thousands of pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users a much better space today, as the video shows.

  • Reed Rubey

    I had an office on Union Square from 1987-2008. It was an amazing transformation. All to the better. I had lunch there last week with a friend who is still there and we marveled over all the great changes. Thanks Clarence for the film.

  • bushwicken

    The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices literally doesn’t mention level of service a single time. The fact that this minor yet easily-caught factual error is repeated in three of the seven paragraphs here is illuminating in what hopefully will become a focus of streets advocacy going forward. The big battle over ruddering the bureaucracy and politics towards humanist design and operations is largely won, now the real need is to understand the very real *technical* obstacles facing the DOT and help change/solve that.

  • bushwicken

    and appointing an new overpaid czar ain’t the way to get it done neither

  • Philip Neumann

    I went to The New School, right there on 16th St and some classes at 13th St, back in 2009-2011. The level of change during that span of time from 05 to 09 is amazing, because they had already chipped away at the lanes and expanded the park, and cut out the parking in the park, and started having the weekly/bi-weekly farmers markets and the holiday market, which I dont think would be feasible without expanding the pedestrian areas. Now, everytime I’m in that area (which is maybe once or twice a year) the changes are still coming, and highly evident. But the area is busy with pedestrians and tourists/shoppers, which is the point. I’ve seen no more traffic along 14th Street, and from 2016 through 2017 I worked at 16th and Irving Place, and none of the cross streets were jammed either (except coming south on Lexington as it deadends into Gramercy Park, but I feel like that’s always been that way because it’s not a fluid design).

  • Lamarr

    It is amazing so many of the nodes on Broadway feel so much calmer and people-places than a decade ago: Times Square, Herald, Union and Madison.

    Now we just need to spread that everywhere. We have shown it can be done. Let’a accelerate it wherever possible!!! And don’t wait!!

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