New York’s pedestrian revolution began as an experiment—what would happen if the city banned cars from the snarled segments of Broadway in Times and Herald Squares? Now, thanks to Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan’s thoroughness and Mayor Bloomberg’s fiat, the change has become permanent. The disposable lawn chairs and scattered café tables can be traded in for a more considered urban design. Why doesn’t government work this way more often?
Our new midtown piazzas might have their drawbacks, of course. Bloomberg’s decision came bundled with a chart-filled research report purporting to prove that the experiment had improved the flow of midtown traffic. It actually showed nothing of the kind. The city’s trafficologists studied GPS data from taxis and found that they moved more quickly in some directions than they had before and slowed down in others, perhaps for reasons that had nothing to do with closing Broadway. Driving west on 34th Street got 32 percent faster at evening rush hour, but it took twice as long to get from Fifth Avenue to Columbus Circle on Central Park South. Go figure.
The goal of lubricating vehicular flow was a blind, anyway; the more dramatic change has come for those traveling on foot. Banning cars has swelled the crowds but alleviated the crowding. Before, the sidewalks routinely burst their banks, and pedestrians spilled suicidally into the road. Now Broadway has become a floodplain of foot traffic, with more people spreading out into more ample space. Injuries to pedestrians have declined by 35 percent, though new bike lanes have brought more bikers, and with them a 9 percent spike in bike-related injuries.
All those statistical tide pools, filled with contradictions and disconnected observations, do add up to one incontrovertible conclusion, which is the basic tenet of Sadik-Khan’s tenure: that enriching the lives of pedestrians doesn’t mean punishing drivers. Activists like to pit one form of locomotion against the other, but the truth is that trucks, pedicabs, strollers, and flip-flops all have to cohabit. Times Square works, not because it’s totally free of cars but because it isn’t. A pristine pedestrian mall would snarl traffic all around and feel like an artificial preserve. But Seventh Avenue and the east-west streets still dice the plaza, so pedestrians need to wait for lights and stay alert. This may be an oasis, but it’s still New York.
Some nostalgists fretted that when the cars left, they would make off with Times Square’s famous honking soul—or what was left of it lurking among glitzy skyscrapers and chain restaurants. But that spirit has had many incarnations: The neighborhood peddled rarefied culture, mass spectacle, sordid titillation, and various other forms of frantic entertainment. Walking around had become a contact sport, narrowing each person’s horizons to a little cone of sidewalk space. The bustle hasn’t vanished; it’s been turned down to a pleasant roar. It took a bureaucrat’s intervention to make the place human again, to clear a little room for leisurely amazement in the lunatic center of this crazed metropolis.