The Crossroads of the World Goes Car-Free

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I've lived in New York City for just about twenty years now but yesterday was my first trip to Times Square.

Sure, I've been to Times Square before. Plenty of times. But until yesterday Times Square had never ever been a destination for me. Rather, it had always been a place to avoid or, if unavoidable, a place to get in and out of as fast as possible on my way to somewhere else.

The New York City Department of Transportation's "Green Light for Midtown" plan brought me and a lot of other people to Times Square yesterday. And it kept us there. By simply removing motor vehicles from Broadway around Times and Herald Squares and inviting pedestrians in with seating, street performers, good people-watching -- and a naked cowboy -- New York City has created two great new public spaces for tourists, office workers and, yes, even jaded residents.

NakedCowboyTough.jpgStreetfilms' Clarence Eckerson squares off with the Naked Cowboy. Icon Parking Systems, the Cowboy's sponsor, may be one of the few businesses unhappy with the new Times Square. The Cowboy is pleased.

The space is still raw and unfinished and it'll be interesting to see how it works during the weekday, but my two young sons and I had a blast yesterday along with thousands of others. Times Square is suddenly a place worth visiting and staying a while (especially if you're a parent desperate for an easy, low-cost weekend adventure for your kids).

Tsquare_kids_on_bikes.jpgThe Naparstek boys experience Times Square for the first time. ("Can we get a big TV on the front of our house too?")
With much of the traffic gone and the space filled with people and human activity, there's an interesting kind of intimacy and smallness to Times Square now. Nicolai Ouroussoff articulated this really nicely in this morning's New York Times:

A large part of the design’s success stems from the altered relationship between the pedestrian and the structures that frame the square. Walking down the cramped, narrow sidewalks, a visitor could never get a feel for the vastness of the place. Now, standing in the middle of Broadway, you have the sense of being in a big public room, the towering billboards and digital screens pressing in on all sides.

This adds to the intimacy of the plaza itself, which, however undefined, can now function as a genuine social space: people can mill around, ogle one another and gaze up at the city around them without the fear of being caught under the wheels of a cab.

bway_loungechairs.jpgA more personal Times Square: Sunning in the middle of Broadway.

No doubt some aspects of the new Times Square will be found to be successful and others not working all that well. Still, DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and her team already deserve a ton of credit for their willingness to experiment and innovate. During the Iris Weinshall era at DOT, the idea of removing motor vehicles from Broadway was considered a huge long-shot, a Hail Mary pass, a kind of Livable Streets Holy Grail. It was difficult to imagine a version of the New York City Dept. of Transportation that would do it. These guys and their colleagues went ahead and did it...

JSK_and_crew.jpgNYC DOT's Seth Solomonow, Janette Sadik-Khan, Andy Wiley-Schwartz, Ryan Russo and Sean Quinn at Times Square on Monday morning.
We're only talking about a few blocks of Midtown Manhattan, but the symbolic value of this project is huge. New York City has banished motor vehicles from the Crossroads of the World. That's the headline all around the world this morning. There may not be much left of Wall Street, but New York City is still the media capital of the world and Times Square is center stage. The world is watching (and Tweeting) the DOT's experiment. Just as we saw with the spread of Ciclovia and Summer Streets, this is an idea that is likely to hop from city to city as mayors compete to create the greenest, most vibrant new urban public spaces. Planners in San Francisco are referring to their new Pavement-to-Parks projects as "Janettes."

Gorton_Tsquare2.jpgOpen Planning Project executive director Mark Gorton catches some rays.

The changes underway in New York City right now are pretty breathtaking and livable streets advocates deserve some credit too. Yesterday I couldn't help but think back to a January 2005 dinner at Mark Gorton's Upper West Side apartment. Former Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa was the guest of honor. Transportation Alternatives' new executive director Paul Steely White set up the event and Jody Gorton cooked up a delicious meal for Times Square Alliance president Tim Tompkins and about fifteen advocates and civic leaders.

The topic of discussion that evening was Broadway and it's potential to be a truly great, pedestrian-only public space. Peñalosa believed it was possible and he was inspirational in laying out the vision. Project for Public Space president Fred Kent had been thinking about the idea for 30 years and he provided the historic perspective. ITDP director Walter Hook had seen pedestrian streets work all over the world and he talked about international best practices. Tompkins had to live with the daily consequences of whatever happened at Times Square and he reminded everyone of the political realities. At the time it seemed a little far-fetched, this notion that Times Square might someday be a mostly car-free space. But here we are five years later and it's happening along with lots of other good stuff.

It was from meetings like this one that the New York City Streets Renaissance Campaign was born and ideas like physically separated bike lanes, car-free streets and a less automobile-dependent city were popularized and made politically possible in New York and beyond. If you've been a part of New York City's livable streets movement, today's a day to pat yourself on the back. As Danish urban designer Jan Gehl says: "How nice it is to wake up every morning and know that your city is a little better than it was the day before."

Photos: Aaron Naparstek, Brad Aaron and Nick Whitaker.