You only go to Midtown if you’re a masochist

The NYALSA President’s Dinner was held in NYC this past week and one of the guests of honor was DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.  In the last three years Sadik-Khan has reached cult status here in the city; she is a potent combination of geeky transportation guru, guerilla designer, and hipster chic.  She gives talks with Mitchell Joachim and David Byrne, Transportation Alternatives chief Paul Steely “Don’t call me Steely” White is a big fan, and she initiated the popular Summer Streets program, all while holding court in Albany and ruthlessly expanding bike lines and pedestrian amenities throughout the city.  She’s got a cadre of young upstarts in her department that think bikers and pedestrians have priority over the maniacal cab drivers and trash trucks, and sometimes she even takes their side.

But, I’m not here to list her accomplishments.  I am here to critique the tangible results. 

Being as we’ve had a few weeks of still-pleasant fall weather in the city I took the chance to spend some time on Broadway, the site of the city’s “Green Light for Midtown” project.  The DOT’s website describes the project as “a pilot program… to reduce traffic congestion throughout Midtown Manhattan through targeted improvements on Broadway, focused on Times and Herald Squares”.  They go on to explain that because Broadway is the anomaly in the famous Manhattan grid, it creates traffic snarls at every major intersection.  The press release cleverly frames the entire project as a congestion-easing measure, promising to reduce traffic signal wait time. 

However, a major thrust of the project is the wholesale repurposing of the most contentious areas of Broadway for pedestrian space and bike lanes.  They do this with a simple palette of materials that had been tested in less controversial locations in Manhattan in 2007 and 2008 and which you can find in their Street Design Manual (a straightforward and pragmatic toolbox that every urban designer should have on their server).  These include highway paint, bollards, planters, tables and chairs, some concrete, and an epoxy pavement coating.  That is it. 

The green bike lanes have been implemented throughout the boroughs in areas where there is high bicycle traffic to increase biker visibility.  The pavement markings, bollards, and epoxy coatings had previously been used to create protected pedestrian destinations right in the road bed at other locations on Broadway, notably Madison Square Park in front of the Flat Iron Building.  In addition, a bike lane had been striped along Broadway all the way from Central Park to Union Square, connecting the whole of Midtown. 

The sophistication in this simple strategy is staggering- the materials for converting the road bed from automobile use to pedestrian use were limited to that which the DOT’s own contractors knew how to quickly install which meant there was infinitely less beaurocratic red tape for getting approvals and hiring design consultants.  The materials are not fine, but the recognition that these particular spaces were so crowded with pedestrians and bikers clamoring for their own share of the road was key- the landscape didn’t need to attract people, only accomodate them.  To install the new plaza spaces at Madison Square Park (Broadway and 23rd) the local community board was given a week’s notice.  The change happened overnight.  That was 2008. 

In 2009, planting islands were installed along the east side of broadway and it was striped for parking to create a protected bike lane.  Then the pilot project was begun.  And everyone wrote about it hysterically– it was a polarizing moment, and everyone claimed credit (including the pedantic sychophants over at Project for Public Spaces).  Well, now it’s six months later, and given that two seasons have passed and the hysteria/euphoria has subsided a bit, I thought now would be a good time to take a walk up Broadway and survey the scene.

To walk anywhere in Midtown near Times Square is a horrible, horrible thing.  It was my hope that now it would be a little less worse.

Beginning our walk at 23rd Street at Madison Square Park we can see all of the tables and chairs, the huge chunks of leftover rock, the giant concrete planter pots, and the painted and epoxy coated roadbed.  It is mid-afternoon and most people are talking on cell phones or finishing a late lunch.  Despite the fact that there is no grade separation from the traffic, people are at ease in the space. 

Heading north, the bike lane is used, by bikers, vendors, and pedestrians on the move.  That is one of the paradoxes of bike lanes; if they are unprotected, just a 3′ striped lane next to fast traffic, they are constantly invaded by taxis and other cars,  If they are protected from traffic and so next to the sidewalk they tend to get used by people as sidewalk overflow space.  On Broadway a deliberate effort has been made to mix bikes and pedestrians.  The distinctly painted bike lanes pass between the sidewalk and the amenity zone with plants, chairs, and benches.  This creates a constant crossover between pedestrians looking to have a smoke or talk or read the paper at one of the benches or tables, and the bikers moving down broadway.  Many cyclists (including myself) decry the inconvenience of dodging wayward pedestrians and vendors, but then if you want to go somewhere without being jostled, offended and inconvenienced then you should stay the hell away from Midtown, and NYC in general.  Throughout New York City most of the bike lanes are aligned with the automobile traffic so it is a logical move to differentiate Broadway by changing this relationship and mixing the pedestrians and cyclists.  It becomes more of an avenue for strolling and less of a thoroughfare.

As one gets to Herald Square all of Broadway is shut down and given over to pedestrians.  The flagship stores of retail titans such as Macy’s fully dominate the space with their obscene displays.  The high buildings reflect light from billboards and project the constant car horns and sirens.  Everywhere is capitalist bedlam always.  And in the middle of this, there are some simple moves, and these are the most lovely, most poetic item in all of midtown:  the street is taken over, painted, protected, and tables and chairs are placed in it.  These tables and chairs are always there anytime of the day or night, painted in their little primary colors, and all of the tourists from the midwest and Europe can sit down there and talk about New York.  The presence of these spots where one can sit and relax without buying anything is a poignant counterpoint to the gawdy commercialism all around.  To be fair, midtown is a fantastic spectacle and has many fascinating moments, including the new TKTS booth, which simultaneously makes a voyeur and exhibitionist of everyone.  But this newly public space, where one doesn’t have to buy anything, where a person can sit and make a call or talk to a friend or look around without standing in a line or being jostled on the sidwalk is a real revelation.  And it is all done with the cheap, easily implemented palette established by the earlier projects.
The “Green Light for Broadway” project and its effects are being studied now.  Public feedback and professional observation will be combined with traffic monitoring and further modeling to determine the efficacy of the program and the possibility of expanding it further.  If the project is deemed successful and politically palatable, the changes will be made more permanent, likely with a more elaborate design and construction process.  Within Bloomberg’s next term, it is conceivable that a tree-lined, bike-friendly Broadway could link new plazas from Union Square to Columbus Circle at the edge of Central Park with dedicated bike and bus lanes.  If such a project does come about, the profession of landscape architecture will no doubt literally fall over itself to head the effort and get a couple of it’s prominent practicioners set up in the limelight.  It will be important for them to remember the lessons that can be learned out there on Broadway right now.  The landscape is successful because it accomodates people- its materials are durable and resilient and easy to use and understand, it enables different uses and prescribes none, and it protects them from traffic while giving them a chance to view the bedlam going on around.  Vendors can set up a little easier, bikers can pick their way through the people, and there is ample seating and walking space for all, whether they have money to spend or not.
Of course, with some additional time and money, good designers will discern ways to make certain moments a little more variable and meaningful.  The new pedestrian spaces may need to be raised up to the level of the sidewalks instead of the roadbed, and the location and type of bike lanes will have to be considered.  But mostly, the new landscape design is successful because it stays the hell out of the way.  We would do well to take note.

In the meantime, if you live in NYC or have passed through Broadway this summer, the DOT is looking for feedback.  Feel free to chime in.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s