Mayor Bloomberg clearly has a thing for open-air plazas, pedestrian malls and al fresco dining. That’s fine—but the question is whether City Hall’s latest plans to reroute vehicular traffic in Manhattan will only worsen gridlock years from now. Snarled traffic makes for snarling motorists and delivery drivers—and that’s bad for business.
Last week, City Hall unveiled an ambitious proposal to turn a portion of 34th Street from Fifth to Sixth avenues into a car-free zone. Traffic flow would change radically at either end of the mall, with cars routed one way only—toward the East River east of Fifth Avenue, and toward the Hudson River west of Sixth Avenue. Buses would run river to river in special bus lanes.
That’s an ambitious and potentially problematic proposal. City Hall has to demonstrate that traffic somehow will get better, not worse, in an area that already is terribly congested. But wait, there’s more! City Hall also wants to tinker with Union Square Park, which already is pedestrian friendly, especially along the park’s western edge. City Hall wants to block most vehicles from Broadway between 17th and 18th streets, just north of Union Square, and plans to turn 17th Street along the park’s northern edge into a pedestrian mall.
The Department of Transportation will “study” the proposal, as will local community boards, but there’s a sense that the fix is in. City officials say they hope the changes will be made by Labor Day.
That sounds like a rush to judgment. This proposal needs careful, objective scrutiny, not from cheerleaders but from traffic engineers and urban planners who can anticipate problems in both the near and long term. Even City Hall had to concede that the pedestrian mall in Times Square has not improved traffic flow to any significant degree, although that’s what the city promised when it created the mall last year. And the change that converted the Park Avenue tunnel to one-way traffic also hasn’t lived up to expectations.
Any great city needs great public spaces—Manhattan has some of the greatest such spaces in the world. There’s no reason, then, to ram through these proposals without careful thought. Pedestrians who want to enjoy open space have plenty of choices, as any visitor to Bryant Park or to Union Square will attest.
This issue should be studied, not rubber-stamped.