The Crossroads of the World Goes Car-Free


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.

29 thoughts on The Crossroads of the World Goes Car-Free

  1. On my third visit (I’m close enough to bike over during the day and again at night) I figured out one remarkable thing. The place was almost QUIET. Or at least, the noise level was conversational, not painful.

    It’s as if removing the traffic jams had removed the excuses for taxis and other drivers to blow their horns, leaving us with a very civilized place.

  2. I always thought that it was tall buildings that made Times Square seem so claustrophobic, but really it was all the other pedestrians in such a tight space. With room to breathe, the place seems as open as a country field!

  3. Woody, I dont live in NY, but I was in the city last Monday.

    What caught my attention was how loud the city was, and I found the source of the noise to be TRUCKS. Id never seen so many trucks inside a city like I did in NY. It was very unpleasant.

    The transformation of times square is one way to reduce the noise, but hopefully in 10 years this country has a fleet of quiet electric trucks.

  4. I was there again today. Amazing!

    And don’t worry about the Post. They’ll always be able to find a handful of drivers who are irate over this. But nothing can shout down the literally thousands of people enjoying this space at any one time.

  5. Can we get a report of how traffic has been impacted outside of the three-month-a-year outdoor plazas? With Seventh Avenue closed for one of those useless street fairs how was traffic on 9th, 5th, 2nd?

    Shouldn’t JSK be required to do an environmental impact study before she drastically reduces street capacity? Isn’t this Broadway Plaza disaster a major change requiring study and analysis before it becomes permanent?

    How much will Manhattan resident suffer from increased traffic, honking horns and the like before someone will have the guts to do the right thing and put tolls on the bridges, reform placard abuse and put permit parking in place to reduce commuting into Manhattan.

  6. Can we get a report of how traffic has been impacted outside of the three-month-a-year outdoor plazas?

    The city is collecting a massive amount of data on this project and not just on traffic, Dave, but on economic and environmental impact too. The Times Square Alliance is also going to be collecting data on this experiment and has a huge stake in making sure that Times Square works for all users.

    Shouldn’t JSK be required to do an environmental impact study before she drastically reduces street capacity?

    No. First off, EIS’s are garbage. They are useless. Second, there’s been no permanent change to the street here. If key Times Square stakeholders deem the car-free program a failure when it comes up for evaluation at the end of the year it will take all of about a week’s worth of work to return Times Square to the traffic sewer that it used to be. And who says capacity has been “reduced?” As best I can tell, more people are using and enjoying Times Square than ever before. It’s a capacity increase both in quantitative and qualitative terms.

    How much will Manhattan resident suffer from increased traffic, honking horns and the like before someone will have the guts to do the right thing and put tolls on the bridges, reform placard abuse and put permit parking in place to reduce commuting into Manhattan.

    Maybe you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last two years, Dave, but JSK and friends have been working pretty hard to make tolling, placard reform and permit parking happen. As for the traffic and honking horns — have you been to Times Square lately? There’s suddenly a whole lot less traffic and honking horns there.

  7. Well, if The Post is against it, it must be good.

    And Dave, before you hyperventilate, realize that these closings are *insignificant* as far as traffic goes. Look at a map. Broadway in that area is essentially an old trail that meanders through the grid and makes traffic *more* complicated than it needs to be. Except for people who can’t be bothered to walk half a block.

  8. people must be daft to still drive in NYC i mean come on, the metro system is not that complicated and with a little bit of geography understanding and knowing your directions can be figured out quickly. are people really still that lazy that they call a cab because they are afraid they will get mugged going 4 blocks on the tube? (rhetorical i know they are that lazy) i did not like NYC because of the noise in the city, its so very loud it hurt, london is quieter, paris, berlin, so much quieter, hell boston, montreal much much quieter. yes there are more people in NYC but its loudness is unparalleled. now albany needs to let the city introduce a cordon charge and get that money into restoring full mass transit asap!

    this is a great first step, one of many i hope and it certainly looks like it.

  9. Broadway in that area is essentially an old trail that meanders through the grid and makes traffic *more* complicated than it needs to be.

    This is a point that The Post doesn’t seem to understand. This isn’t a zero-sum battle for turf between drivers and pedestrians (though I know which side I’d be on if it were). Sometimes throwing down an off-grid street, and having more entry and exit points at an intersection, makes motor vehicle traffic flow worse. More pavement does not lead to fewer traffic jams.

  10. Hi there, you lucky new yorkers! Yes, “The world is watching (and Tweeting) the DOT’s experiment.” In Hungary, Budapest there was a brave politician who want to make a similar pilot programme with the local greens after some civil groups saw him Enrique Penalosa example. But the media and most of our political powers said him: “you are lunatic” and “this is only an artical traffic jam”. Or we must built roads and not to block the traffic. The project’s dead before it started. We can’t make our “artifical traffic jam”: only the real still remain. And your fantastic example is remain, as well. Thank you so much: you have done it! You are step on the right way and show the light (and hope) for many other cities. Congrats.

  11. The most amazing thing that happened to me while filming on Monday was when a woman’s boyfriend told her the closure was temporary and only on weekends. I corrected him and pointed out they were doing it until the end of the year. Her response was, “What the heck will the people who work here do? Aren’t they gonna be mad?” Another friend of hers said to her – just about everyone who works here takes the train to work, they’ll be alright.

  12. Andrea Peyser is pissed over at the Post today. Apparently any reductions in auto emissions are offset by an increase in smoking foreigners and smelly homeless people.

    Yeesh, thank you Miss Crabapple.

  13. For those of you commenting who live in NYC, congratulations! I am so excited for you. I can just hear the excitement in your comments… it must be a great experience to be able to walk down the middle of the road and move about as you please… truly and American dream.


  14. The thing that really is kind of absurd about a lot of the hyperventilating about the project is that it actually improves the traffic flow for vehicular traffic as well (by changing the traffic signals from 3 phase to 2 phase). It’s a win-win for most everyone.

  15. I kinda on the fence on this one yes we want streets to be safer but what about people who cant get around by walking (old and disabled) I was in times square a month ago and its hard to get around with a person who maybe in a wheelchair and or a senior citizen.

    For a senior citizen to walk the 5 blocks is hard where as with a car they could be dropped off directly infront of where they want to go.

    Need less to say the subway is shit for disabled and elderly people who may not be able to walk up stairs or many blocks

  16. I did notice a substantial backup of traffic on Park Drive West heading into the 7th Ave. exit during the morning rush hour over yesterday and today. The traffic was bumper-to-bumper starting just south of Tavern on the Green, at about 63rd Street. My guess is this reflects at least some people who might have used Broadway as a downtown route but who swithced to 7th Ave. due to all the media hype surrounding the Broadway pedestrianization. I’ll make an effort to measure where the backup starts on the Loop more precisely, try to measure it at the same time each morning, and we’ll see how long it takes for these people to redistribute themselves across a braoder range of downtown modes and/or routes (including Broadway, which was near empty).

  17. I walked up bway from 42nd to 47th tonight around 830pm. it was really a great experience and, I imagine, tremendous fun for the tourists. however, there were SOOO many people – tourists, local workers and everyday NYers checking out the new layout – that bway was impossible for bicyclists to use in these few blocks. I’m not really sure but I’m wondering if part of the objective of the change was to make these blocks of midtown usable for bicyclists too? If so, it wasn’t happening, those I saw with bikes had given up riding them because the crowds were so thick and just walked them.

  18. Call me jaded will you Streetsblog, but still. . . I’m not saying Times Square was not in need of such a job, but I do think that Broadway between 59th and 34th shouldn’t be the end all. San Francisco copying us is no source of pride either. they were probably going to do the same anyway. Meanwhile, there are plenty of “downtowns” in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx that could use some reorienting any day of the week.

    JSK, you can now stop aiming for the headlines and get to work on bringing something that affects the rest of us. But thanks for the welcome change nevertheless!

  19. John, the DOT is only implementing these projects where there is a local partner willing to bring in supporters. There are some other projects like the one in the Bronx Hub, but many community leaders in those areas are more car-oriented than their communities. What are you doing to help find such partners in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx?

  20. @Que,

    Where would someone have to walk 5 blocks from being dropped off as a result of this? Remember, the cross streets are still open.

  21. I found it to be exciting but frustrating. Just when we finally get a protected bike lane on Bway, it gets all chopped up by these plazas where no bike riding is allowed. I would like to see some kind of separated bike lane and then maybe an overhead bike lane for those who want to move a little faster.
    The only people walking around times square (outside of rush and lunch hours) are tourists. Which is fine they need to spend money. I guess my point is that biking down broadway is so glorious and I don’t want to give it up.

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