34th Street: The life and death of a Great IdeaBy
Once upon a time, the Department of Transportation had a Great Idea for 34th St. The Department recognized that this oft-choked road could go for some reengineering in order to deliver cars to where they want to go and better service the tens of thousands of commuters who use 34th Street-bound buses while allowing the pedestrians that drive the businesses to flourish. Thus, a Transitway was born.
Conceptually, the ideas seemed simple enough. Most traffic west of 5th Ave. is heading to the Lincoln Tunnel and most traffic east of 5th Ave. is bound for the Midtown Tunnel. The street, therefore, would go one way in its respectively direction while 34th St. from 5th to 6th — an area bound by Macy’s, the Manhattan Mall and the Empire State Building — would be closed to most traffic. A two-way, two-lane bus-only lane would span the length of the island.
For the people who ride and the people who walk, this would have been a grand experiment in restoring the streets to the people who make them thrive. But the residents, for selfish reasons, and business owners with some practical concerns that could have been addressed, did not like it. Coop and community boards played the senior citizen card. How could old ladies to get to their door steps behind bus lanes if taxis couldn’t reach them? What happens with deliveries? Won’t a wall of buses lead to constant blight?
I’ve sparred with these claims in the past. Basically, they amount to glorified NIMBYism. New Yorkers hate change, and they particularly hate being told that the streets belong primarily to people and to modes of transportation that carry more people and not to cars. The battle has grown fierce over the last few weeks as Steve Cuozzo issued an insanely wrong critique of the Transitway that Streetsblog quickly dispatched. But the opponents had the Post on their side, and as Janette Sadik-Khan and DOT took heat over the Prospect Park bike lanes, the Transitway came under fire.
Today, we learn dismayingly that DOT is starting to cave. As Michael Grynbaum reported, the Department has eliminated the pedestrian-only space between 5th and 6th Avenues, and it is reassessing the plan to usher in the city’s first physically separated bus lanes. “The design has evolved as we continue to work with the community,” Sadik-Khan said to The Times. “We want the public process to play itself out.”
For now, the city is mum on the fate of the Transitway. They will present revised design of the Transitway at a March 14th forum, and the plans will be finalized by the end of the year, four years after DOT first announced the 34th St. concept. Progress is slow in New York, and it’s hard to call it forward-looking by now.
Beneath the name-calling and the bitter debate, I wonder what’s really going on here. This project has been met with an obscene of community resistance from what many contend is the wrong or incomplete community, and the minority — a vocal and well-connected minority at that — is asserted its voice over the greater good of the city.
First, DOT does deserve a tip of the cap, in a sense, for listening to the concerns of those whose opinions it solicited. It hasn’t been a very movable participant in the redesign of New York’s streets lately, and to heed the public will lead to better cooperation.
That said, they’re not asking everyone they should. As Cap’n Transit has been pointing out for six weeks now, DOT has failed to consider how Queens and Staten Island commuters should have a say in this project. Over 33,000 people a day from Staten Island and Queens take buses that lead to 34th St. in order to get to work, and the opinions of those folks who would benefit most from improved transit aren’t actively courted by DOT.
As the Cap’n wrote, “Why did they limit the “community” to people living right near 34th Street? Why concede the frame that the only “community” that matters is the tiny group of people who really care about curbside car access? And once they did, why did they then let [Corey] Bearak in? They wound up with a bunch of entitled NIMBYs screaming about not being able to get bottled water delivered by truck, and a guy who seems to be paid to attack the Bloomberg Administration – and no express bus riders to balance them out!”
Meanwhile, if any project demands a hard line from DOT, it’s this one. As the Cap’n noted last week, 34th Street could be a bellwether for the city. From personal safety to faster commute times to cleaner air and a nicer environment for pedestrians, this project matters. From a modeshare perspective, it’s a no-brainer. Cars are vastly outnumbered by pedestrians and buses, and cars, which are trying to escape 34th St., do not contribute to the area’s economy.
Right now, this project sits in the balance. If DOT unveils a new version without physically separated bus lanes, the city might as well throw in the towel on Select Bus Service. A loss here simply means the people who cry the most and scream the loudest win even when their arguments shouldn’t carry the day, and it means that buses — used by over two million New Yorkers daily — won’t get the upgrades they need to become more viable. The long-term ramifications of that decision will echo well beyond the hallowed curbs of 34th Street.