As chairs and tables are put out for another day in the streets of Times Square, and buses are readied for innovative ventures along 34th Street in Manhattan, it's important to remember that many of the steps now being taken by New York City to use public spaces for a greater variety of uses were recommended in a Regional Plan Association report, Urban Design Manhattan, published more than 40 years ago as part of the Second Regional Plan.
Both the Times Square project and the Broadway street conversions in Herald and Madison Squares, and now the changes proposed for 34th Street had their origins in this report that showed how public spaces could be transformed to emphasize walking and public amenity. The 1968 report was followed up with another RPA book, Urban Space for Pedestrians, which made the case that pedestrians were being shortchanged with a disproportionate amount of space devoted to motor vehicles, leading to overcrowding and delay on sidewalks and at intersections.
The City deserves credit for bringing to life proposals that languished for years while transportation officials spent time, effort and treasure trying to increase vehicle traffic capacity and speeds in Manhattan.
The current NYCDOT's efforts were given an impetus by a 2007 trip to Copenhagen organized by RPA and sponsored by the J.M. Kaplan Fund, where the landmark work of urban designer Jan Gehl was presented to NYCDOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and New York City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden. The genius of Gehl's approach was the incremental introduction of improvements that dedicated more streetspace to walking, biking and transit. This approach has allowed these modes to grow, even thrive, ultimately capturing the lion's share of travel in the core of Denmark's capital.
The recently announced 34th Street bus and pedestrian proposal will be going through analyses in the coming months to gain a better understanding of its potential impacts, both positive and negative, and to fine-tune it prior to implementation. The project promises to be a boost for what is now "pokey" bus traffic, and for pedestrians crowded along New York City's busiest shopping street. Reserving the Fifth-to-Sixth-Avenue block for buses only is a big step. That said, stretching the bus-only corridor all the way to Seventh Avenue should also be considered. Evidence in both New York and elsewhere suggests that the effect on traffic of squeezing vehicle space — reversing the past approach of squeezing out pedestrians for more vehicle space — is likely to be minimal. Admittedly, closing any street to some classes of vehicles is risky business and the potential downsides for access by trucks and for through-traffic should be carefully examined during the coming months.
Meanwhile, New Yorkers should take a walk this spring and summer along our newfound space, have a seat, and watch the world go by.