State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


A Sustainable City Would Continue to Keep Cars Out of Times Square

One of the signature programs of Mike Bloomberg’s time as New York City’s mayor was an effort to take street space from motor vehicles and give it over to other uses: sitting, biking and walking. Unfortunately, some of those uses in Times Square have come to include aggressive Elmos and painted semi-nude women. Recently, Police Commissioner Bratton suggested that the Square should be re-opened to traffic or, as he said, “just dig the whole damn thing up!” Mayor de Blasio then agreed that bringing cars back might be a good idea, and appointed a city task force to study the issue.

It’s a good idea to figure out a way to make Times Square’s public space a more positive and family-friendly environment. It’s a good idea to look at the design and make it a more attractive space. It’s a bad idea to force pedestrians back into traffic as they were in the bad old days before Times Square banned motor vehicles. Commissioner Bratton is a great police commissioner but a lousy sustainability planner. I can’t figure out what is happening to Mayor de Blasio; his Vision Zero traffic safety program is having a profound and positive impact on New Yorkers’ driving habits and is improving pedestrian safety, but now he has suggested literally throwing pedestrians under the bus, truck and car in Times Square. Let’s remember, the purpose of the Times Square Plaza was to provide pedestrian safety, speed north-south traffic, and create a new and attractive public space.

Times Square is jammed with people. People pour out of hotels, theaters, chain restaurants and retail establishments night and day. The plaza absorbs some of that human traffic and provides space to sit and relax. On the nearby streets that permit motor vehicles, pedestrian traffic is heavy and difficult to navigate. Unless we want to give up on the economic powerhouse that we’ve created in Times Square, we need to cope with and learn to regulate our experiments with new forms of public space — not give up on them.

One of the most important goals in New York City’s sustainability plan is to improve and increase the amount of the city’s parklands. Turning the pedestrian plazas in Times Square into a city park would increase the city’s ability to regulate behavior and make clear that the changes in land use are now permanent. The issue of free speech is far from trivial, but those issues remain if motor vehicles are present or are absent, and continue if the plaza is declared a park or retained as a pedestrian mall.

Like many New Yorkers, I avoid Times Square when I can, but if you go to the theater or have business in midtown, it is hard to avoid. I try to stay away because it is crowded and moving around is difficult. In other parts of town, pedestrians are walking to get somewhere; in Times Square tourists are ambling, talking and gawking. However, it was more difficult to navigate before the plaza then it is today. The sheer volume of pedestrian traffic forced people to walk in the street. Bringing cars back would only increase congestion and increase danger.

One of the goals of the Times Square plaza was to help address traffic gridlock. The issue was the impact of Broadway on the Manhattan street grid. North of 14th street in Manhattan, most of the island’s streets are laid out in a north-south, east-west grid. Broadway, the city’s original north-south thoroughfare, is different; it cuts a diagonal path from southeast to northwest. In Greenwich Village, Broadway is on the East Side; in Morningside Heights it is on the West Side. Each time Broadway crosses a major north-south street, it creates a traffic jam. We see that on the Upper West Side when Broadway crosses Columbus Avenue at 64th and 65th street and when it crosses Amsterdam Avenue at 71st street. By limiting Broadway’s use as a north-south thoroughfare in midtown, the hope was that traffic would be diverted to other north-south streets that could better handle the load. Another hope when the Times Square plaza was created was that more people would use mass transit to get to Times Square.

Even if the Plaza does not speed traffic, we still need beautiful and plentiful public spaces. The trade-off between regulating public behavior and free speech can be difficult, but must be taken on if we are to have public space in sustainable cities. Since we need more of these public spaces rather than fewer spaces, the behavior in Times Square is a challenge of governance that must be taken on by our mayor, city council, courts and police commissioner. The commissioner knows that even though demonstrations can be annoying and expensive to police, it is the job of his department to allow them and to keep them peaceful and safe. Additional and new forms of public space will be invented in the coming decades: parks like the High Line, plazas like Times Square, floating parks on the waterfront, rooftop parks, and who knows what else we might see? We can also expect new forms of mass behavior brought together by the internet. The NYPD has shown the ability to meet new challenges from terrorism to flash mobs. We need an effective strategy and set of rules for Times Square, not a retreat from public space because the people who use them can be obnoxious.

It would be tragic to abandon rather than improve the public amenity that has been created in Times Square. Over the past decade, New York City has been gaining population and it is likely that within the next decade we will be a city of nine million people. That will be a more congested and less pleasant place unless we are able to improve mass transit and build new and more creative public spaces. In the competition for global business and population, a city needs to be safe and orderly, but dynamic and exciting as well. When I was growing up in Brooklyn, my father could drive us to mid-town Manhattan and park on the street. There were fewer people back then and many fewer cars, but that is the city of the past and unless catastrophe strikes, it is not coming back. Let’s not turn back the clock. The Times Square plaza is part of the city of the future.

It is good that Mayor de Blasio has formed a task force to deal with the behavioral, free speech and design issues generated by the Times Square plaza. However, the option of re-opening the plaza to vehicular traffic should be taken off the table. Moreover, the development of additional public spaces should become a higher priority in all five of the city’s boroughs. Aggressive panhandling should be regulated and banned if possible, and performance art should be regulated and managed as well. Public space is a necessity—not a luxury—in the more densely settled sustainable cities of the 21st century. These parks should be safe and pleasant shared spaces that create a positive experience and impression. Many cities in the developing world lack these public spaces and the absence of such spaces places them at a competitive disadvantage. New York City has a large public park system that should be seen as a civic and economic asset worthy of care and greater investment.

One part of that investment is ensuring the fact and perception of safety in New York’s public spaces. New York City’s police department is arguably the most capable police department in the world. It has learned how to police parades, demonstrations and all types of odd people and groups that are attracted to the “city that never sleeps.” The policing rarely requires force, but often requires strategy, information and technology. The NYPD’s success at crowd control is obvious and well known. Moreover, the police force that has learned to deal with the ever-present threat of global terrorism can certainly handle Cookie Monster, the Joker and a little public nudity. We cannot afford to close or surrender public spaces because they are difficult to police.

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