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Streets are for People

This piece was first published on March 11 of this year, shortly after the City announced its proposal to pedestrianize portions of Broadway as of this past weekend. When Washington Square Park was closed to traffic in 1959, prominent residents of Greenwich Village, including Jane Jacobs and Eleanor Roosevelt, celebrated with a ribbon-cutting and by burning a car in effigy. Their ceremony marked the conclusion of a decade-long fight with Robert Moses, who had insisted that the park must be traversed by cars in order to ease the city’s traffic congestion. New Yorkers today are reaping the rewards of Jacobs’ victory. Moses’ predictions of traffic coming to a halt proved false, and Washington Square Park is one of the city’s best-known and best-loved public places. Today, we are on the precipice of a historic moment in reclaiming our streets for people instead of cars. Mayor Bloomberg and the Department of Transportation have announced an ingenious plan to reclaim part of Broadway — at both Times Square and Herald Squares — for pedestrians. Like the closing of Washington Square Park in 1959, their common-sense plan is also one of those rare instances when what is best for the pedestrian is also best for the driver. The pilot program will close Broadway to vehicles from 47th – 42nd Streets and from 35th – 33rd Streets this summer. The areas currently dedicated to vehicles will be transformed into plazas, creating more than 2½ acres of new public space in one of New York City’s densest neighborhoods, Midtown Manhattan. Broadway, which cuts across midtown on a diagonal, was originally an American Indian trail, far predating the 1811 street grid. It may seem counter-intuitive to close a street to cars in order to increase traffic flow, but at Times and Herald Squares, Broadway creates three-way intersections, resulting in traffic chaos. Under the new plan, closing Broadway and extending green-light times along Sixth and Seventh Avenues will improve traffic circulation by an astonishing 37 percent and 17 percent respectively. Those intersections not only greatly slow the flow of cars and buses, but are also dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists. Between 1998 and 2007, some 700 pedestrians were injured and five were killed in Midtown Manhattan along Broadway, making it one of the more hazardous stretches in the city. Jane Jacobs called the unrehearsed choreography of people moving through the city, “the ballet of the sidewalk,” and she argued it created the vitality of city life. A long-time advocate for improved, pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, MAS fully supports the City’s plan to reclaim Broadway. Doing so will give every New Yorker the space to pause and enjoy the performance.