Is closing Broadway to cars good for Times Square?

How we get from here to there.
June 16 2009 5:40 PM

Beach Chairs in Times Square

How closing Broadway to cars could solve a century of traffic woes.

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All of which explains why the latest Times Square traffic plan—to close Broadway to vehicular traffic for five blocks—while seemingly the most perverse scheme to date, may actually prove to be the most successful.

Whether it succeeds may, in part, depend on reconfiguring the notion of success. For the real Times Square "traffic problem" nowadays is one of pedestrians. More than 356,000 pedestrians travel through Times Square on an average day, according to the New York City Department of Transportation, while the number of cars is closer to 50,000. Despite this mismatch in "mode share"—the fact that people are not drawn to the place for its automobile-oriented delights—only 11 percent of Times Square is devoted to pedestrian use (and these small scraps are fought over between fast-jaywalking locals and meandering, signal-obeying four-abreast groups of tourists). For many New Yorkers, Times Square has become an anti-place, a media abstraction best not actually visited, but for those who must, those who work there, surveys have shown a vast majority dislike it, with "pedestrian overcrowding" being the primary reason.

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Many media accounts of the pilot project, particularly those by critics, have labeled it a "pedestrian mall." In the United States, this term has become a pejorative, evoking early-1970s visions of half-empty buses driving down wind-swept streets filled with panhandlers. Those projects were about luring people back to declining cities, while this one is about managing the crush of people who are already there (and improving their experience). Ironically, a real pedestrian mall—with such anti-urban urban planning relics as enclosed pedestrian overpasses and a John Portman hotel—was proposed for Broadway in the early 1980s (only the hotel, with a revolving restaurant, got built). The Times, in opining against that project, asked: "Do they really want to enlarge the scope for Times Square's prostitutes, drug salesmen, three-card-monte dealers and derelicts? And do they want to live with the chaos that will result from choking off Broadway traffic for two crucial blocks?"

It's wrong to call the new Times Square experiment a pedestrian mall, however, for the simple reason that there is still a quite vigorous traffic lane moving through the heart of it, the so-called "bowtie" formed by the crossing of Broadway and Seventh Avenue. (The cheek-by-jowl nature of Seventh and Broadway, which has rendered both routes a bit redundant, also helps explain why Times Square has had such a high pedestrian injury rate: A general rule of thumb in traffic safety is the more lanes a pedestrian has to cross, the higher the chance for injury.)

But all the lounge chairs in Times Square do something else. On the face of it, closing off seven blocks of Broadway is a big loss for car traffic. Broadway was carrying, according to city engineers, around 1,500 vehicles per hour; Seventh Avenue, the same. You might expect the intersection to lose capacity by half, but in the curious world of traffic math, with its Braess Paradoxes and "slower is faster" effects, one plus one does not always equal two. The diagonal nature of Broadway means that Times Square intersections must account for three streets: Seventh, Broadway, and the cross streets. Because each needs to have its signal time and its "clearance phases" (to make sure everyone's out of the intersection), and because each additional light means an additional queue (with its invariable "start-up time losses," or the seconds that creep as each person begins moving again), higher capacity is here a case of diminishing returns. In addition, in anticipation of higher demand for Seventh Avenue, the engineers have lengthened green signal time there by four seconds as well as adding an additional travel lane (through restriping).

On the Thursday morning I visited Times Square (with DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan), traffic was moving steadily. It was not FDR Drive (nor should anyone want it to be), but it was hardly a Gordian knot. Workers were busy with "scarification," or grinding away the existing thermoplastic road markings, while a crowd gathered around a group of sailors getting married in some televised stunt. The persistent rain kept the outdoor chairs largely empty, but there was nonetheless a festival air as people strolled willy-nilly across once-forbidden streets, forming on-the-fly desire lines. One impression the project leaves is how arbitrary urban space can be—a whimsical water feature is apparently not a prerequisite for a vibrant public. "We just rolled out the barrels and people were instantly using the space," Sadik-Khan told me. There were curious behavioral kinks still being worked out as people navigated through; e.g., the right-turn at 45th Street, put in as a concession to theater owners on that block (as in the days of J.P. Morgan's coach, people still want to be dropped off in front) seemed to surprise a number of pedestrians, and traffic police had to wave tour buses through. A group of cabs crossing on 46th street got stuck between the lights, in the crosswalk, blocking the flow of pedestrians. Typical New York, if with a new twist. "We're trying it," Sadik-Khan said. "Nobody can argue that Times Square wasn't broken."

Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.