A National Model for Better Streets Is Suddenly at Risk

In challenging the Times Square pedestrian plaza, New York City leaders are showing a profound misunderstanding about the impact of public space.

Image AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
The Times Square pedestrian plaza, shown here in June 2010, has become a popular place and inspired similar street designs across the U.S. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

“When you push the status quo, the status quo pushes right back.”

Those were the words of Janette Sadik-Khan, the former transportation commissioner of New York City, talking to an audience in Seattle earlier this year. Sadik-Khan, who as part of the Michael Bloomberg administration had pushed hard to carve pedestrian plazas and bike lanes from the city’s auto-clogged streets, was speaking as part of a the Seattle DOT series called “Where Are We Going?”

Sadik-Khan gets invited to talk about that work a lot, because a lot of cities around the U.S. want to do what New York did—despite the resistance of the auto-centric status quo. They want to give street space that has been dominated by cars back to people on foot or on bikes. They want public plazas with tables and chairs where people can eat lunch and chat and live their lives. New York’s efforts have become a national model.

The centerpiece of Sadik-Khan’s vision was Times Square—the congested, grandiose mashup of streets that likes to call itself the crossroads of the world. In 2009, she and her colleagues crafted a plan to reconfigure the area so it became less a conduit for cars than a playground for human beings, where people could see and be seen, eat, rest, shop, and take zillions of selfies.

There was widespread skepticism before the Times Square plaza was implemented as a pilot program: the status quo felt pretty uncomfortable with the idea that the crossroads of the world belonged to people, rather than taxis. But the place turned out to be insanely popular. Crowds of people who had been jammed onto the narrow sidewalks now had room to move, and they happily filled that space. In 2010, the Bloomberg administration announced that the changes would be made permanent.

It made a lot of sense, when you looked at the results. In Times Square, the DOT reported, pedestrian injuries were down by 35 percent, and there were 80 percent fewer people walking in the roadway. Business for merchants in the area was booming, and travel times for cars actually went down in some parts of Midtown, while remaining steady elsewhere. Some 74 percent of New Yorkers surveyed by the Times Square Alliance said the area had “improved dramatically” since the changes were made.

But now, allegedly because of some topless women who get tips by posing for pictures covered only in body paint and some rogue costumed characters, Mayor Bill de Blasio and his police chef, Bill Bratton, are talking about taking the plazas out, or at least re-evaluating them. “You could argue that those plazas have had some very positive impacts. You could also argue they come with a lot of problems,” de Blasio said, according to The New York Times. Bratton told local radio station 1010 WINS, “I’d prefer to just dig the whole damn thing up and put it back the way it was.”

The old status quo, it turns out, was not done pushing back after all.

A Times Square pedestrian plaza shown at night in September 2014. (Steve / Flickr)

The remarks from the mayor and his police chief have met with widespread shock and dismay. Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman called de Blasio’s stance “prudish grandstanding,” and pointed out that removing an innovation that has been proven to reduce traffic injuries would directly contradict de Blasio’s own Vision Zero policy.

New York magazine architecture critic Justin Davidson suggested that returning Times Square to its old configuration would constitute a step backward into a past when New Yorkers, and the tourists who visited, had reason to fear the city’s public spaces rather than enjoy them:

Giving up on a pedestrian Times Square would represent a worrisome failure of leadership, reminiscent of a time when 42nd Street had far more desperate problems than a few women with the Stars and Stripes painted on their chests. Nearly 40 years ago, Bryant Park was so unlivable that the demoralized community chairman suggested that the only way to disinfect it of crime might be to close it completely. Eventually, steadier hands rescued and reinvented the park.

One of the few editorials in favor of ripping out the Times Square plaza came from Denis Hamill of the New York Daily News, who wrote that he’d like to see other public spaces given back to cars as well:

Time to let New York be New York again, instead of some idealized Hipsterburg or Yuppadelphia.

Times Square, as ever, is a kind of screen onto which you can project whatever urban anxiety you like.

De Blasio and Bratton, who have been attacked in a campaign by the New York Post for not policing petty quality-of-life crimes aggressively enough, might see an opportunity here to prove that they can be tough on hucksters. De Blasio never has seemed that fond of the pedestrian plazas, anyway. During the mayoral campaign in 2013, he said during a debate that “the jury’s out” on the Times Square and Herald Square plazas, although it’s not clear what jury he meant. Polls consistently show people like the pedestrian plazas around the city, and only after the changes were implemented did Times Square make the list of top 10 most desirable retail locations in the world for the first time. Another way you can tell people like the place: it’s always packed.

Before the pedestrian plaza redesign, Times Square (shown here in 2005) dedicated very little space to the many people passing through on foot. (David / Flickr)

What’s chilling about de Blasio’s and Bratton’s treatment of the situation in Times Square is that it betrays a profound lack of understanding of just how important public space is for people in a dense urban environment such as New York. Rather than coming up with modern-day strategies for managing these spaces, they seem to be considering a return to the old status quo of just making them inhospitable to human life—although as anyone who knew Times Square in darker times would tell you, having cars racing down 7th Avenue didn’t do much to deter offenses much more serious than walking around without a shirt on and accepting tips.

The “crossroads of the world” has always been a place where people are looking to make a buck however they can, no matter the traffic configuration. Sometimes that needs to be managed, and groups like the Times Square Alliance are up for working to do that. They don’t, however, want to shut the whole thing down. “That’s not a solution, it’s a surrender,” said the organization’s president in a statement.

Here’s the thing, though. New York has come a long way since the days when speeding cabs had the priority in Times Square (take a look here if you want to see how it used to be to try to walk there). People have gotten very accustomed to the plazas. The reaction to de Blasio’s talk of removing them has been swift and almost uniformly negative.

Seems there’s a new status quo in town. And if the mayor decides to push ahead with the idea of going back to a car-dominated Times Square, he will likely find that a lot of people in New York are going to push back. Hard.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.