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By Nicole Gelinas

After The Fall: Saving Capitalism From Wall Street--and Washington

City Journal

Nicole Gelinas
Ungridlocked
Mayor Bloomberg’s transportation reforms have unclogged New York’s streets and made them safer.
Spring 2012
The pedestrian-friendly Times Square has eased traffic and boosted business.
ANTHONY BEHAR/SIPA PRESS
The pedestrian-friendly Times Square has eased traffic and boosted business.

Back in February 2009, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that, in three months’ time, New York City would permanently close Broadway to car and truck traffic in Times Square and Herald Square. The plan would “ease traffic congestion throughout the Midtown grid,” the mayor said. Though he called it merely a “targeted adjustment,” everyone understood that the initiative marked a big shift away from a century’s worth of New York transportation policy, which had generally tried to ease traffic by adding ever more space for cars. Many New Yorkers were upset by the proposal. “I’m worried because I don’t know if it will work,” Charlotte St. Martin, the director of the theater industry’s Broadway League, told the New York Times. “I certainly don’t want things to be worse for theatergoers.” A cabdriver, Garba Mahaman, got right to the point: “Now they’re going to make it worse.” City public advocate Bill DeBlasio spoke for many when he later complained, “We cannot make such a fundamental change to Times Square without first giving the community a greater say.”

Three years on, it’s clear that the worriers were wrong and the mayor right. Midtown traffic flows better, not only for cars and trucks but for the majority of people who use the area: pedestrians. A walk down the closed section of Times Square—Broadway between 47th and 42nd Streets—makes it hard to imagine changing things back. Where stuck drivers once fumed, people sit happily in chairs munching on dumplings. More important is that the district’s huge crowds can now walk down the middle of the street instead of overflowing the sidewalk.

Though drivers in New York City are a minority, outdated traffic engineering long allowed them to reign unchallenged, with clogged streets and too many accidents the results. Over the past five years, however, the city, led by transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, has devised ways to reduce that dominance. Through several new initiatives, mostly outside Times Square, New York has been rationally using its limited physical space to get more people moving more quickly—and that means not in automobiles. New York has achieved its improvements on the cheap. Better still, the changes have saved lives.

Closing Broadway was a straightforward solution to a serious problem: frustrated car drivers and even more frustrated pedestrians. Broadway wasn’t like other city avenues. A diagonal thoroughfare, it cut not only across streets, as Manhattan’s other north-south avenues did, but also through other major avenues. Indeed, its intersection with Sixth and Seventh Avenues was what created Herald Square and Times Square, respectively. So three separate sets of drivers, rather than the usual two, had to share those spots. Many were unfamiliar with the area, faced too many choices, and didn’t have enough time or room to make them effectively.

The drivers competed with pedestrians, too—more than a quarter of a million daily in Times Square, ten times the number of drivers there. The number of pedestrians has been swelling yearly since the 1990s, when the seedy district was transformed into a tourist hot spot. Ellen Goldstein of the Times Square Alliance, a group of business and real-estate interests, recalls that Times Square “rehabbed itself so very quickly” that “we went from not much to huge numbers [of pedestrians] in a short time. We spent many years worrying about the lack of pedestrian space.” By the new millennium, Times Square’s walkers were crowding off the sidewalks and into the car-choked avenue. The city government had to give them more room somehow—hence Bloomberg’s solution, closing Broadway to cars.

The change hasn’t, as many drivers have fretted, made traffic worse in Midtown; in fact, it has sped things up by reducing confusion. Back in 2008, drivers averaged only 6.7 miles per hour in Midtown West, where Broadway is. In just one year, the closure improved speeds overall to 7.2 miles per hour, a 7 percent increase. By tracking GPS data from 2 million taxi trips, the city found that northbound cabdrivers between Fifth and Ninth Avenues (the area through which Broadway slices) went 17 percent more quickly in 2009 than in 2008. Southbound drivers did see a 2 percent slowdown—not surprising, since they had lost Broadway, a one-way avenue running south—but it was far exceeded by the substantial northbound gain. As a control measure, the city measured speeds on the unaffected east side of town and found that they increased by about 5 percent (the recession accelerated traffic, since fewer cars entered the city).

The mayor’s plan also improved life considerably for Broadway’s primary constituents. In the first year of the pedestrian plazas, Times Square attracted 11 percent more walkers than it had the previous year, climbing to 22,381 people per hour at peak times, on average. Herald Square attracted 6 percent more people on foot, a peak-time hourly average of 17,311. The new people aren’t all tourists; they include walking commuters, who’ve switched routes because they find Times Square more pleasant, as well as local residents and workers. A Times Square Alliance survey found that two-thirds of workers in the area liked the changes. “I used to not go out at lunchtime,” Goldstein says, because the four-block walk from 46th Street to 42nd would take 20 minutes. It now takes three.

Because few of Times Square’s visitors arrive by car, the city’s reengineering has worked out fine for commerce. Though the 2008 financial meltdown and recession make it “complicated to look at linear results,” Goldstein says, the area’s record retail prices show that the plazas were, at worst, “not detrimental.” Though she doesn’t love the plazas, St. Martin of the Broadway League agrees: “We can’t say it’s cost us business.” In the past few years, retailers Forever 21, Disney, and American Eagle have opened flagship outposts in Times Square, and the area has become one of the world’s top ten retail districts.

Previous mayors had tried and failed to fix the Midtown mess. Nearly two decades ago, Mayor David Dinkins, for whom Sadik-Khan worked, planned to close Broadway in Herald Square after a two-year study. Macy’s killed the plan. In 1982, Mayor Ed Koch’s transportation officials wanted to create a seating area in Times Square, a “two-block mall . . . to improve a disorganized street pattern that they say is the major cause of congestion,” the New York Times reported. But the mayor’s office couldn’t secure approval from the city council, planning and preservation commissions, or Albany. The business community wasn’t on board, either; property owners feared that criminals would take over the new plaza. As legendary theater manager Gerald Schoenfeld warned, Times Square could “become a place for vendors or three-card monte operators.” Three decades ago, New York needed gridlock to crowd out vagrants and miscreants.

By 2009, it had policing instead. But Bloomberg nevertheless decided against obtaining everyone’s permission before proceeding with the plan—a recipe for inaction. The mayor’s office did hold dozens of meetings with special-interest groups after making the Times Square announcement, and it even made some changes to its plan after hearing suggestions, including permission for cars to turn onto 45th from Seventh Avenue, which gives theatergoers better access to Broadway shows. But “we’re not going to talk about something for a dozen years and maybe finally change it after we’ve crossed every t,” says Jon Orcutt, Sadik-Khan’s policy director. “We’re going in with paint and rocks and see what works.”

Not that everything has worked perfectly. For instance, immediately north of the main Times Square pedestrian plaza, one lane of Broadway is also open to pedestrians—but it lacks dense foot traffic, some of which has been sucked away by the increasingly attractive Times Square. Caroline Hirsch of Caroline’s Comedy Club, at 50th and Broadway, says that business has slumped as a result. The city should do something to get people moving north again, perhaps adding tables, chairs, and a food kiosk to the less-frequented blocks.

Restaurants that depend disproportionately on car traffic have suffered, too. For 106 years, Laura Maioglio’s family has run Barbetta, an Italian place on Restaurant Row, slightly west of Times Square. She says that she’s been “disastrously affected” because her customers—90 percent of whom commute by car from the tristate area—find the changes difficult to navigate. These are the same people, of course, who have been hit by higher tolls, higher gas prices, and falling single-family home prices. Maioglio also points out that the tourists and office workers who crowd the new Times Square don’t come to her restaurant. True enough: the packs of young Europeans and Asians who make up much of New York’s tourist growth seem likelier to enjoy six-dollar dumplings in the open-air plazas and then spend the saved cash on clothes. The city should do more with signs and footpaths to draw Times Square visitors west to Restaurant Row. The restaurants themselves should try harder to attract locals, as nearby Ninth Avenue eateries successfully do.

And there remains grumbling from cabbies. Bhairavi Desai, whose New York Taxi Workers Alliance represents cabdrivers, argues that people in taxis usually want to be dropped off at their destination, something that’s no longer possible in Times Square and Herald Square. But the plan doesn’t seem to have inconvenienced taxi drivers much: a year after the changes, taxis and hired “black cars” constituted 65 percent of traffic entering Times Square, up from 57 percent.

A growing New York will need many more reforms at street level. The city as a whole boasts nearly 8.2 million residents, a record. By 2030, it expects to cram 200,000 more residents into Manhattan and 700,000 more into the other boroughs. Gotham also hopes to attract more jobs—meaning even more commuters pouring in from the suburbs. Already, Manhattan’s population of 1.6 million doubles on weekdays.

To get hundreds of thousands more people in and out, New York won’t be able to count on its rail system, which is severely strained. Over the past two decades, almost all the extra people entering Manhattan daily, whether from the outer boroughs or from the suburbs, arrived via mass transit. In 2010, nearly a quarter more people than in 1990 crammed themselves into subway cars to get into the core of Manhattan (that is, the part south of 60th Street); nearly a third more took railroads from the suburbs. Overall, more than 2.6 million people got to work in Manhattan’s core by public transportation in 2010, nearly half a million more than two decades ago. As Joe Lhota, chief of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), recently mused, even a line so little-used that it nearly closed three decades ago—the L train—is operating beyond capacity.

Yes, New York should build more transit underground, but that approach will go only so far. The most modest of subway expansions—four stations along Second Avenue to ease overcrowding on the 4, 5, and 6 lines—has already cost $4.5 billion, consumed eight decades, and inconvenienced tens of thousands of residents. Rather, the city must make better use of its aboveground space. That doesn’t mean more cars, which congest the city’s streets and carry only one or two people apiece. It means buses, which can carry 50 passengers or more.

Buses won’t solve the city’s transportation challenges if they’re creeping along at a snail’s pace. But New York has figured out how to speed them up. In 2008, the transportation department worked with the state-run MTA, which operates bus service in the city, to roll out “select bus” service on a Bronx route that connects to major subways. Two years later, it rolled out the select service on Manhattan’s First and Second Avenues, to mollify East Siders as they wait and wait for the Second Avenue subway to be completed. This winter, the city started its first crosstown select line, on 34th Street.

The select bus differs from the regular bus in several ways. Rather than paying as they board—forming a long, slow line—passengers insert their MetroCards into a streetside kiosk before the bus arrives, paying the same price as usual and getting a proof-of-payment receipt. Then they board the bus, which has more than one entrance door to speed the process up. The buses zoom down their own dedicated lane. Cameras, approved by Albany, photograph scofflaw car and truck drivers who move into the restricted lane; those drivers are fined and get tickets in the mail.

In the Bronx, the select bus service is 20 percent faster than the regular service that it replaced, cutting 11 minutes off a one-way trip. On Manhattan’s East Side, speed increased 18 percent at peak times, slicing an 81-minute ride to 69 minutes. People have voted with their feet: ridership on the Bronx line rose 7 percent in its first year and is up more since, while on the East Side, 9 percent more passengers use the select bus than used the old service.

Bus riders who don’t yet have select bus service are getting around faster, too, thanks to the Times Square and Herald Square transformations. In the year after Broadway was closed to traffic, buses traveling north on Sixth Avenue went 13 percent faster than they had previously. Get on the M5 or M7 going uptown, and you’ll zip by Macy’s, a major clog before.

Another way that New York has tried to relieve subway pressure over the last four years is installing more bike lanes. Today, the city has 270 miles of bike lanes, including 20 miles of lanes in which a physical barrier—a curb or a parking lane—protects bikers from drivers. Commuting by bike has risen dramatically, with 24,000 people pedaling into the core of Manhattan in 2010, compared with 15,000 in 2007. This makes good fiscal sense. It has cost New York City about $15 million, including federal funds, to create the new bike lanes. To give subway riders more room by building more subways, the city would have to spend billions.

And New York is about to get a lot more bicyclists. Starting this summer, a city contractor will install 600 “bike share” kiosks with 10,000 rentable bikes on Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn streets. Residents and tourists will be able to pick up a bike, take a short trip with it, and drop it off at the same kiosk or another one. “It’s been on our radar screen” since Paris launched the world’s first such program five years ago, says Orcutt. London, too, has rented its blue “Boris Bikes,” nicknamed after Mayor Boris Johnson, for nearly two years. New Yorkers want the service: 45,000 people have gone online to request a kiosk near them. As people use these bikes, they’ll take more pressure off the subway system.

New York’s transportation policy isn’t just about getting people from Point A to Point B; it’s about keeping them safe from transportation-related injuries. The city is already doing a good job of this, with vehicle-caused deaths in the city plummeting over the last two decades. “The numbers speak for themselves,” says Sam Schwartz, the Koch-era traffic commissioner known to tabloid readers as “Gridlock Sam.” In 1990, accidents on New York City’s streets claimed the lives of 701 people, including 366 pedestrians—more than one per day. Over the next decade, though, the number of people killed in accidents fell 46 percent, and it fell another 38 percent between 2000 and 2011. Last year was the safest ever for New York drivers, passengers, and walkers, with vehicles causing just 2.8 fatalities per 100,000 residents. You’re more than twice as likely to be killed by a vehicle in Los Angeles as in New York; Atlanta is deadlier still.

A number of reasons explain the falling numbers. Auto companies have made safer cars. Hospitals have improved trauma response. Thanks to gas prices, fewer people drive massive SUVs, which endanger pedestrians. Almost everyone wears a seat belt. During the mid-1990s, the Giuliani administration discouraged drunk driving and speeding by launching crackdowns on both.

The Bloomberg administration’s signature traffic-safety effort has been its reengineering of the roads. Pedestrian injuries are down 40 percent in Times Square and 53 percent in Herald Square since Broadway was closed there; drivers and passengers in the two areas saw injuries fall 63 percent. And New York’s traffic engineers are bringing their Broadway success to the rest of the city. “It’s all about predictability,” Orcutt says. At notoriously dangerous intersections, transportation officials have added pedestrian islands and WALK signs that count down the remaining time to cross. The signs let elderly people, who die disproportionately in crashes, know whether they have time to make it; if they don’t, they can wait safely on the islands. Around Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, engineers gutted a confusing roundabout, adding traffic lights and marking crosswalks and bike lanes to reduce driver, pedestrian, and biker uncertainty. The number of crashes there has dropped. The city is also creating “slow zones” with 20-mile-per-hour speed limits, rather than the usual 30, often in response to neighborhood requests.

New York’s new bike lanes also enhance safety—not just for bikers but for pedestrians and auto occupants, too. Crashes on city streets that have bike lanes are 40 percent less likely to result in a death or serious injury, in part because the lanes force drivers to go more slowly. Bike lanes also lead drivers to pay more attention to the road. On Ninth Avenue in Chelsea, crashes have fallen 56 percent since the city installed bike lanes.

Bike lanes have brought safety benefits to Park Slope, Brooklyn. Residents had complained “for at least a decade” about cars speeding down Prospect Park West, says Craig Hammerman, head of the local community board (a branch of city government). No traffic lights slowed drivers on the three-lane street, which hugged Prospect Park; bikers, afraid of the roadway, frequently used the sidewalk, endangering pedestrians there. Transportation engineers spent three years figuring out how to make the street safer. In 2010, after years of presentations, feedback, and modifications, the city reduced the roadway to two lanes and installed a two-way bike lane, with a parking lane in the middle to protect bikers from drivers. The changes led to a reduction in speeding, which, in turn, reduced the percentage of crashes that resulted in injuries. Ninety percent of the bikers who had been using the sidewalk took to the bike lane, even as bike ridership doubled.

The Prospect Park bike lane generated even more controversy than the Times Square transformation did. A group of residents sued, claiming that the transportation department had manipulated and hoarded its data and ignored environmental and landmark-preservation laws. It’s true that the ugly plastic-and-paint demarcations between cars and bikes clearly don’t fit on the historic thoroughfare, but next year, Hammerman says, the city will replace them with granite and tinted concrete. Louise Hainline, one of the lawsuit’s organizers, adds that pedestrians worry about how quickly bikers zoom down their lane. It’s hard to look one way for car traffic and two ways for bike traffic when you cross the street, Hainline says; the elderly, in particular, have had a hard time growing accustomed to the change, and there’s a “very clear age stratification” between supporters and opponents. Though the suit didn’t succeed, the city has installed rumble strips and signs to slow the bikers down, and it has also reorganized crosswalks to make them clearer.

Just as with Times Square, you get the feeling that if the mayor had asked everyone in Park Slope to agree to his plan, the neighborhood would still be waiting. A walk along Prospect Park West this February made it hard to see what the fuss was about. Bikers coasted along their lane. Women with baby strollers crossed to enter the park. Traffic was light. Neither drivers nor bikers appeared to be speeding. Polls done by independent groups as well as local councilman Brad Lander indicate that most of the neighborhood supports the change.

Redesigning can make the streets only so safe from traffic carnage. Further safety gains must come from law enforcement, which can discourage reckless road behavior by aggressively prosecuting it.

Most Manhattanites think that the police should target bicyclists as the biggest safety threat. Yet in nearly three years, only one city pedestrian, Stuart Gruskin, has died after being hit by a bike. That death represented 1.6 percent of all pedestrian deaths in Manhattan over the same period, while bikes were about 3 percent of the vehicles coming into Manhattan. In other words, pedestrians are safer from bicycles than they are from cars. Part of the reason for the public misconception is the “startle effect,” says Paul Steely White of Transportation Alternatives, which encourages cycling. Pedestrians have come to expect drivers to speed through red and yellow lights. Some bikers, by contrast—especially delivery bikers—behave not only illegally but unpredictably, scaring pedestrians.

Still, reckless bikers, especially those who ride the wrong way down one-way streets, are certainly a quality-of-life policing issue. Just as the New York City Police Department stopped squeegee men from menacing drivers back in the 1990s, it should stop wrong-way bicyclists from menacing pedestrians today. Stuart’s widow, Nancy Gruskin, asks local restaurants to sign a “5 to Ride” pledge to get their drivers to obey five key rules. But “it would be wonderful, wonderful, if the city could find a way to budget for specialized enforcement,” she says.

Meanwhile, drivers pose a huge danger to bikers. In 2011, 21 bicyclists in the city died after autos or trucks hit them. That number has remained steady even as biking has nearly quadrupled, yet it is still too high. Besides making reckless turns and hitting bikers, drivers park in bike lanes, pushing bicyclists into dangerous traffic. Matthew Arnold, an East Village resident who bikes to work in Chelsea, says that “it’s like an automotive Wild West out there, and riding narrow, deeply rutted Avenue B is too often a near-death experience, even during the day.” Near Midtown, he notes, are “very fast-moving traffic, doors flung open from both sides without warning, cabs darting in and out of the painted bike lane, and no margin of error.” White thinks that the bike-share initiative will help, thanks to safety in numbers: “Based on a recent trip to Paris, I’d expect we’ll see a lot more cyclists on our streets once bike share goes into effect, and that this will have a dramatic and instantaneous calming effect.”

Paris’s experience is instructive in another way. The City of Light hasn’t had a bike-share death since 2009, partly because the bus driver who recklessly caused one high-profile death was tried and convicted and faces a six-month prison sentence and a six-figure fine. In New York, though, it’s tough to charge someone with vehicular manslaughter or assault, even after he’s killed someone. “A lot of people say, ‘I saw him run a red light, he should go to jail,’ ” says John Cassidy, executive officer for the NYPD’s chief of transportation. But unless he’s drunk, a New York driver, to be considered criminally reckless, must have made two “operational” violations in causing a crash. A man who’s driving with a suspended license, runs a red light, and causes an accident probably won’t be charged, since driving with a suspended license isn’t an operational offense. To face criminal charges, the driver would have to be, say, speeding and running a red light. Partly because of that obstacle, the NYPD made criminal arrests in only 52 of the 304 serious-crash investigations that it conducted last year. Shrinking police resources haven’t helped. The NYPD’s accident-investigation squad, which responds only when a victim is dead or “likely to die,” is stretched beyond the limit, with 23 people, down six from a decade ago.

Many bicyclists think that the police are hostile to them and sympathetic to drivers. But the culture of any department is to do what the higher-ups want. If Mayor Bloomberg makes it clear to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly that he wants to reduce bicycle deaths by targeting speeding and aggressive driving, as he should before he rolls out the bike-share program—and if the mayor gives Kelly the resources to do it—he’ll see results.

The biggest risk to Bloomberg’s transportation legacy is that a future administration will backtrack. For instance, bus lanes and bike lanes could go unpainted, worries Schwartz, who has seen similar deterioration in the past. But the city’s approach to its street reforms will make them tougher to reverse. In addition to making a couple of blockbuster changes, transportation officials have threaded small-scale transformation throughout the city. People with experience riding on protected bike lanes will demand more such lanes. Upper East Side councilwoman Jessica Lappin says that her constituents’ complaints about the select buses have involved not the existence of the service but various petty annoyances, such as streetside payment machines that run out of paper for the proof-of-payment receipts. Rip out the new, pedestrian-friendly Times Square? You may as well suggest demolishing the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

And if New York sticks to its guns and maintains the Bloomberg administration’s approach to transportation, the city could develop a reputation for traffic safety to rival its reputation for safety from crime. Back in 1993, the New York Times reported matter-of-factly that “a drama teacher out for a sun-dappled spin in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park was shot and killed during a bicycle theft gone awry”; today, such a murder would shock the city. A few years from now, the death of a pedestrian or bicyclist underneath the wheels of a car could be equally shocking.

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