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YULE BE PLEASED: City Plans to Help Ease Holiday Congestion in Midtown

2:27 PM EDT on October 30, 2019

Ghost of Christmas past: This was Rockefeller Center before the Adams administration stepped in. Photo: Stunt Queen

They’re giving pedestrians the gift of more space this holiday season! 

The city plans to create more room for the throngs of tourists and other pedestrians who flock to Fifth Avenue for the busy holiday season this year by taking away a travel lane on both sides of the seasonally super-crowded street and giving it to the more populous road users. 

The resulting reallocation will be almost double the amount of pedestrian space on Fifth Avenue near Rockefeller Center, the NYPD and Department of Transportation announced on Monday, dubbing the pilot program, the Holiday Pedestrian Mitigation Plan. The plan is long overdue, given that area is the epicenter of holiday madness in Midtown, as tens of thousands of people every day journey to the area to shop, gaze at holiday displays in retailers' windows and, of course, gander at the massive Christmas tree in front of 30 Rock.

“The additional room creates 40 percent more pedestrian space along these three blocks of Fifth Avenue during the holiday season this year in order to reduce pedestrian congestion and improve both the safety and overall experience of countless New Yorkers and tourists visiting the area at this special time,” said Edward Pincar, DOT’s Manhattan Borough Commissioner told the local community board.

The pilot will kick off shortly after Thanksgiving when NYPD and DOT will install two-foot barriers on both sides of Fifth Avenue between 48th and 51st streets to create temporary sidewalks. The current three travel lanes for autos and trucks will be reduced to two, and the current two bus lanes will be reduced to one (see graphic below). 

The city plans to remove one travel lane and one bus lane to make room for more pedestrians on Fifth Avenue. Source: DOT
The city plans to remove one travel lane and one bus lane to make room for more pedestrians on Fifth Avenue. Source: DOT

The pilot comes after years of failure to prioritize pedestrians in an area filled with them. Last year, both Mayor de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill admitted that they didn’t do enough to ease the dangerous conditions for pedestrians in Midtown and on the Brooklyn Bridge during the holiday season.

Frustrated tourists and locals took to social media to air their frustrations with the city for continuing to cater to cars instead of the thousands of pedestrians trying to take in the merry sites around the city.

It even got so bad around Times Square — where the sidewalks were filled to the brim with pedestrians, spilling out onto the still-active streets — that additional cops were requested to help control the crowds, according to the vigilante app, Citizen.

Others blasted officials for not taking precautions by closing the streets to traffic to make more room for those walking.

“Epic fail by @nycgov prioritizing cars over pedestrians at major tourist sites. Should have shutdown streets around Rockefeller Center to provide more room for people to enjoy the sights,” said one Twitter user.

But in the days following, both O’Neill and Hizzoner misplaced the blame for the overwhelming congestion on the sidewalk vendors, instead of on the real culprit: cars.

“We do have to look at vendors to make sure they’re not clogging the sidewalk. We have to make sure that there’s nothing that’s interfering with pedestrian flow,” O’Neill said.

Still, they vowed to do more — and have finally done so. As part of the pedestrian plan, NYPD and DOT will also continue their standard practice of closing bus stops on Fifth Avenue between the same streets and restricting right turns off of Fifth Avenue during the busy holiday season. 

The new plan is welcome and appreciated, but critics were quick to point out that it's still only marginally better than prior years and, alas, it's as short-lived as a child's glee on Christmas morning. Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute — who has emerged as a leading voice for the proper reallocation of public space — said the city should focus on a total redesign of the avenue by turning all travel lanes into a protected bus lane and pedestrian space so that it can encourage more people to take mass transit to the tourist destination during the holidays.

"The real key is a full-scale permanent redesign with retractable bollards to protect a busway and deliveries only for just one lane of 49th and 50th on this block, and give the rest of the space on that block to pedestrians," said Gelinas. "It doesn't make tremendous sense to close the bus stops on these blocks at Christmas, when a bus would be an excellent way to take surface transportation to the tree during congested times, which is all the time. Hopefully, though, people will appreciate the incremental improvements."

This plan follows a similar push from Manhattan Council Member Keith Powers and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who penned a letter to DOT in July asking the city to consider pedestrianizing the area around Rockefeller Center.

"If we think of Rockefeller Center with a people-first mentality, we can make streets safer and enrich public space," the duo also wrote in an op-ed on Monday.

Streetsblog has reached out to DOT to see if more improvements are coming to other dangerous areas of the city, such as the Hudson River Greenway or the Brooklyn Bridge footpath, and will update this story when we hear back.

Update:  Hours after this story ran, DOT sent out the following statement:

"DOT and NYPD understand the need to address pedestrian volumes in the Rockefeller Center area during the holiday season. While a letter was sent to local officials notifying them of potential remedies, nothing has been finalized. We will keep you updated on forthcoming details of plans, which are still weeks away from implementation," said Scott Gastel. 

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