A Plan For All Reasons

Last week Mayor Bloomberg and the City's Department of Transportation announced plans to transform Broadway into a new, world-class street, largely by rethinking Times and Herald Squares. Today, Broadway converges with Seventh and Sixth Avenue at these two squares, violating the grid pattern of traffic, and causing traffic chaos. These two areas are the most congested pedestrian spaces in New York City. The Great White Way would be closed to vehicle traffic from 47th to 42nd Streets and from 35th to 33rd Streets, and the space that is now allocated to a relative handful of vehicles would instead now be devoted to pedestrians.

This plan will decongest both areas and the avenues and streets leading into Times Square by simplifying the traffic network; it will be safer and more attractive, increase property values, and elevate the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of residents, workers and visitors.

The very word "Broadway" evokes the bright lights and excitement of New York and the traditions of The Great White Way. But for decades, Broadway's reality as a public thoroughfare has fallen far short of its myths. In truth, much of this fabled avenue has become New York's most congested and one of its least safe and least attractive streets, as dozens of pedestrians and cyclists are killed or injured each year by cars, taxis and trucks.

Over the years, as congestion has grown, the city has repeatedly widened Broadway's roadway and narrowed sidewalks and pedestrian spaces, to the point that pedestrians are literally falling off overcrowded sidewalks into the street. The City's new "Green Light for Midtown" plan for Broadway plan reverses this trend, by widening sidewalks and increasing pedestrian space and rationalizing intersections to bring Broadway's reality in line with its myth. And in the process, some three new acres of public space will be reclaimed and returned to pedestrians in some of Manhattan's densest neighborhoods.

The genius of the city's new Broadway plan derives from the fact that it corrects a two-century-old anomaly in New York's planning history. The simple fact is that Broadway, between 14th and 59th Streets, violates the wisdom of Manhattan's highly efficient grid of streets and avenues meeting at right angle intersections. Manhattan's street plan emerged from the 1811 Commissioner's Plan for the city's future development, which laid out the grid in the largely undeveloped area of Manhattan stretching north from Greenwich Village. The Commissioner's Plan ignored Manhattan's streams, ponds and rock outcroppings. But it incorporated Broadway — the 17th century Dutch route leading north from Lower Manhattan all the way to Albany — as one of the city's proposed new north-south avenues.

South of 14th Street and north of 59th Street, Broadway runs north-south, and fits neatly into the network of avenues. But the stretch of Broadway between 60th and 14th Streets slashes across Manhattan in a great diagonal transecting five avenues from Eighth to Fourth (now Park) Avenues. Each of these intersections defines one of New York's great public spaces — including Columbus Circle and Times, Herald, Madison and Union Squares. For most of the past century, however, these complex diagonal intersections have become some of the biggest impediments to traffic circulation in Manhattan, backing up traffic for dozens of blocks on Manhattan's avenues. And as traffic congestion has increased, each generation of traffic commissioners has widened streets and narrowed sidewalks in a futile effort to improve traffic flows.

Recognizing this problem and having documented the imbalance between space available for pedestrians and for vehicles, RPA in its 1975 book, Urban Space for Pedestrians, recommended the closing of Broadway from Columbus Circle through Herald Square.

The City has now adopted this recommendation in part, eliminating the conflicts at Broadway's intersections at Times and Herald Squares, which will improve traffic circulation on Sixth Avenue by a staggering 37% and on Seventh Avenue by a considerable 17% because of extended green-light times. It widens sidewalks and pedestrian plazas in some of the city's busiest public spaces, including Times and Herald Squares, the heart of the city's foremost entertainment and retail districts. Theater-goers and tourists will gain attractive new public spaces in which to enjoy Times Square's revitalized entertainment district. Shoppers and commuters in Herald Square will enjoy some respite from the crowds in expanded plazas, parks and sidewalks. All of these benefits will be achieved at the same time that traffic flows are improved in some of the city's most congested districts.

The great news is that we won't need to wait years to see this transformation unfold. The City's Department of Transportation is planning on moving forward with the plan in the immediate future, in much the same way that it has already reclaimed space for pedestrians and cyclists on sections of Broadway and in busy streets in all five boroughs, in some cases making these improvements virtually overnight.

This plan is a win-win-win strategy for New York's motorists, its residents, workers, visitors and property owners. All will benefit as the City's Broadway plan is brought quickly to reality.