Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Pedestrian Broadway

This last weekend, two stretches of Broadway in midtown were closed to traffic. The situation will be reexamined at a later date, but at this point the goal is for this to be a permanent change. Stop by Father Tony's blog, if you haven't already, for his thoughts and video footage.

This news makes me very happy for a number of reasons. For one thing, you know what this means? Mayor Michael Bloomberg reads my blog! I suggested something along these lines a couple of years ago, and look at that, it happened! I'm just tickled. Okay, maybe the Mayor doesn't read me, but obviously someone on his staff must, and saw to it that my idea got presented to the movers and shakers. I could claim that I deserve some sort of remuneration, some sort of intellectual property fee, but you know what, I'm just so happy to have the policy in place, I don't care about money. Let this just my contribution to the city, a small way I fulfill my duties as a citizen. No, I don't need payment, but maybe a small plaque prominently displayed somewhere, and perhaps a small tax write-off? Doesn't that seem fair?

Okay, kidding aside, I really am thrilled with this new step, in part because it's actually much more ambitious than the idea I floated two years ago. I was sure that the cult of the automobile was far too strong to allow something like a promenade in midtown to be anything but a temporary, holiday arrangement, AND I assumed that if it happened at all, it would be someplace a little less central, like 9th or 10th avenues. It's not just cynicism that led me to that mindset. When I lived in Seattle, a walking street (the Westlake Mall) covering ONE CITY BLOCK was the cause of a great deal of protest, mostly from the businesses affected, who were sure they would lose customers if people could no longer park right outside the store doors. For all I know, the businesses might even have been right. Seattle, at least back then (early to mid '90s), was rather weird on the subject of transportation. All these people who spent their free time hiking, camping, skiing and biking(the place is just crawling with gorgeous calf muscles) nonetheless resisted most things that would get them out of their cars. Light rail proposals continually got voted down, even campaigns to get people to CARPOOL were resisted. For all its (somewhat deserved) stance as a green city, maintaining the right to drive around in one's car was fiercely protected. I don't remember how long Westlake stayed closed to traffic (and did I mention it was ONE BLOCK OF ONE STREET?), but eventually a big chain store made its purchase of a local space contingent on having the block re-opened, and re-opened it was. (I will say that when I visited Seattle back in 2007, for the first time in twelve years, I was pleased to find that a light rail system had been constructed, and was being expanded. Times have changed for all of us, I guess.)

The town I grew up in, Richmond, Indiana, also had a promenade, one with an interesting history I won't go into here, built in 1968. It was the 'downtown' of my childhood (as opposed to 'across town' or 'the east side' where all the strip malls were). A few years back a campaign to re-open this stretch to traffic was finally successful. The argument, as I understand it, was that the economy of the city was tanking, so a way to kick start things again was, yes, to make it possible for people to drive right up to the front doors of the stores down there. What ended up happening is kind of a worst-of-both-worlds, with the walking street not removed, but narrowed, and a two lane road opened to cars. Funnily enough this didn't have the magical effect of rejuvenating the area. The town contined to tank; stores continued to go out of business. The area is mostly a ghost town now, but at least you can drive - very, very slowly - through it.

So, this knowledge, combined with an awareness that previous attempts to tax or limit traffic in midtown had been shot down, led me to assume that something like this could never happen in New York. Obviously it's early days yet. There may be a successful resistance to the idea. But having experienced some beautiful walking streets elsewhere in the world (most notably Copenhagen, Boulder, CO and Ithaca, NY) I am now cautiously hopeful that a majority of folks here will find the change a distinct improvement. Certainly our national attitude towards fuel, transportation, and ecology is undergoing a change. I'm encouraged by the study that suggests traffic in Midtown might be quicker and more efficient as a result of closing Broadway. It makes some sense; Broadway cuts across the grid at an angle, so it's usually turning simple intersections into three-way nightmares. With cars taken off it, there is reason to believe the grid will be more efficient.

Obviously I understand people with physical challenges will need to be accomodated, but I can't imagine the previous situation had been all the convenient for them either. Driving on Broadway has always been problematic. All the cross streets remain open to cars still, so getting dropped off close to one's destination should still be available to those who need it. The pedi-cabs also seem to have multiplied in the area. No idea if that is a good thing or not, just yet. We'll see. Over all though, I'm really pleased by this change, and pleased to have my pessimism refuted for once.


Jeaux said...

This is bold. This could work. I’d love to see it six months from now or more, see how it configures itself and what organic elements assert themselves, grow out of the way people use it, and how the marketplace responds.

Alas, Patrick, a prophet is never recognized in his own town. I, for one, will refer to it as Lacey Square in the future, or coloquially, Loose Ends Midtown.

Greg said...

Oh, I'll jump on board with popularizing either or both of those naming opportunities. We've all read your suggestions and its nice to see them coming into their own.

I've lost track of the Highline Project's timeline, but it sure is nice to hear about my favorite city getting some new well-deserved green walking spaces.

Birdie said...

You know, we could make this go viral. Everyone just needs to refer to "Lacey Square" in conversation and online. The power of the interwebs.

Greg said...

Look, I googled. There's already a "Lacey Square" in Lacey, WA (where they seem a little obsessed with you), but I still think we can make this work in NYC.

Butch said...

Greg: I live next to Lacey, Wa and share the same zip code! Small world.

Patrick: I love it when an area tries to slow down traffic by adding tables out front of a restaurant, or other ideas to force people to slow down and enjoy their journey. Hope it continues.

Jess said...

I'm not sure how practical this is, and only time will tell how it will pan out. With that said, I'd love to see Manhattan morph over time into a city with very few cars (I suppose we'll still need police cars and perhaps taxis, although maybe not even those). Instead, we could have many pedestrian areas, and a thorough system of light rail (or some other elevated conveyance), the subways and/or other mass transit options to get people to any corner of the city quickly and easily.

It may never happen, but it does seem like a way for the city to really have a bright future.

Rev. AJB said...

Hailing from Richmond, I'll admit I miss the promenade of my childhood. Lots of great memories of strolling up and down it before and/or after a movie at the Sidewalk or shopping at Elder-Beermann, Neff and Nusbaum, Esmonds, Knollenberg's, Hood Music, Kessler's, Joy Ann Bakery (yum!), Veaches-okay that list can go on and on! Also lots of memories of hanging out in the small ampitheatre by 9th Street during rehearsals for Whitewater Opera Company productions when I was in the children's chorus.

They have also moved the memorial to the April 1968 Marting Arms explosion that cost 41 lives; and was the impetus for the promenade. It now resides one block further west.

That's progress.....although, frankly, I'm more pissed about Hayes Arboretum selling some land to developers. Those trees were the only buffer between constant strip-mall mania....

Lacey Square gets my vote;-)