Last May, New York City officials closed portions of what is perhaps the most famous street in America, Broadway around Times Square, to traffic to create a pedestrian plaza in the middle of the Great White Way.
The “test project,” now four months old, has been criticized by some as both tacky and ill-suited to the location. While we tend to agree, we are more concerned with serious safety issues created by mixing cross-town traffic and pedestrians, particularly where many of them are vacationing tourists. We also have yet to see the environmental and congestion benefits to justify the experiment’s costs.
The pedestrian plaza concept was the brainchild of city transportation officials intrigued with the idea of importing the pedestrian zones common in Europe to New York City. But so far, the project appears to be an unnatural fit for the heart of America’s biggest city. After all, Times Square is not Rome, Paris or Barcelona, where piazzas and squares lined with cafes and restaurants evolved naturally in the urban landscape.
As a recent New York Times columnist put it, New York is “a city of motion.” New York’s no-nonsense grid–pattern street design is a fundamental part of the urban landscape that has helped make New York a metropolis defined by its energy. New Yorkers talk fast, walk fast and certainly can never be found lingering at intersections. Closing its most well known thoroughfare by installing chairs and planters seems both strange and risky.
Certainly, it seems that eliminating traffic along Broadway has not made the area safer for pedestrians. Serious safety issues have been created where crosstown streets slice through the pedestrian plazas. Perhaps in recognition of these, when we asked a traffic enforcement agent what he thought of the arrangement, he quipped, in typical New York fashion, that “someone’s gonna get killed here.”
Leaving aside the shoehorned nature of the plaza and its potential safety issues, the central goals of the project remain in question. Part of the City’s long term environmental sustainability plan, we have yet to see whether the environmental and mobility benefits promised will actually materialize. As the summer winds down and traffic volumes increase, the project’s impact on traffic and pollution will begin to come into focus quickly. At that point we can all decide whether the cost of reassigning hundreds of traffic enforcement agents and rerouting thousands of cars, taxis and buses is justified. But so far, we see this experiment in urban land use as a Broadway flop. (test)
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