Beach Chairs in Times Square
How closing Broadway to cars could solve a century of traffic woes.
"The word square," notes James Traub in The Devils' Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square, "does not have the same meaning in Manhattan as in Paris or Rome." For one, New York's squares are often not squares; the imprecise geometry of Herald or Times Square is hewn by the wily, diagonal progression of Broadway, New York City's largest rebuke to the hegemonic grid. For another, these spaces tend to not be, as Traub notes, "punctuations or pauses in the street plan" but, instead, uneasy slivers cast like fractured icebergs amid the urban scrum. As the writer Benjamin de Casseres observed in the early 20th century, Times Square "is a ganglion of streets that fuses into a traffic cop."
As to why Manhattan seems so lacking in public space, so bereft of ornamental "circles, ovals, and stars" in the urban plan, answers are found in the early 19th century report by the Commissioners of Streets and Roads in the City of New York. "A city is to be composed principally of the habitations of men," counseled the report, and "strait-sided, right-angled homes are the most cheap to build, and the most convenient to live in." As for public spaces, the report sniffed: "Certainly, if the city of New York were destined to stand on the side of the small stream, such as the Seine or the Thames, a great number of ample places might be needful." New York attitude, circa 1811: Who's got time to lounge in public plazas? We've got the world to conquer!
In an effort to address both of these issues—the nonconforming quirks of Broadway and the lack of public spaces in the so-called "squares"—the city's Department of Transportation, with the full encouragement of Mayor Bloomberg, has temporarily reconfigured one of the worst manifestations of these two problems—Times Square, the putative "Crossroads of the World." The surface facts are disarmingly simple: The DOT has blocked off Broadway with orange barrels and set out some plastic chairs. If it works, it could be a dramatic reinvention of a long-troublesome place.
For more than a century, Times Square has been bedeviling whatever authority happens to be in charge of moving people through the city's streets with the least amount of congestion and carnage. In 1905, the New York Times trumpeted that the novel "Times Square traffic squad" was bringing order to the place and that "those who had occasion to travel on foot across Times Square manage to do so without being compelled to dodge automobiles and hansoms, as has been the custom in the past." Various new traffic plans were set in motion; traffic coming from downtown, for example, was detoured from Broadway at 38th Street, and sent onto Seventh Avenue. The move was not without incident, the Times reported: "J. Pierpont Morgan's automobile, in which he rode to the Opera House with Mrs. Morgan, was sent around this way after the chauffeur had had a little tilt with a traffic squad policeman at Broadway and Thirty-Eighth Street."
This traffic initiative apparently didn't do the trick, because in the subsequent decades the words Times Square and congestion continued to be synonymous (e.g., in 1920, one finds this Times headline: "Plan to Break Jam in Times Square"). In 1954, a plan was broached to include Broadway into a proposed network of one-way streets ("the original plan," noted the Times, "ignored Broadway because engineers were fearful that its diagonal path through the core of the city would complicate the operation"). Also in 1954, traffic commissioner T.T. Wiley (who also had the quixotic—and averted, thanks to Jane Jacobs and allies—desire to build a four-lane arterial roadway through Washington Square Park to "help unscramble traffic congestion south of Herald Square") promised that new "over-the-road" traffic lights would help make Times Square and 42nd Street among "the safest in the city" (which, alas, did not happen). By 1964, a new weapon was announced. The "construction of landscaped pedestrian islands in Times Square," it was said, "will enable motorists on Seventh Avenue to continue directly down that artery without having to go down Broadway and later turn through a cross-town street to get back on Seventh."
There is a theme here: Times Square has been congested (and contested) for as long as it has existed, and no amount of tinkering with the traffic lights seems sufficient to solve the problem. And, given the dynamic nature of traffic, any plan that did succeed would be faced with what Frederic Jameson once called, in a different context, a quasi-Sartrean " 'winner-loses' logic": It would just bring more traffic. The Brookings Institution's Anthony Downs has called this phenomenon "triple convergence": When a crowded street is expanded, for example, peak-hour traffic conditions may temporarily improve, but the improvements may also simply entice drivers from other hours, other roads, and other modes of travel.
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.
Photograph of beach chairs in Times Square by Seth Wenig/AP Photo.