As the city readies to unveil a drastically reduced plan for 34th St., the once and former Transitway will go down in history as another great idea for the transportation landscape in the City of New York that fell victim to the complaints of its neighbors. Instead of physically separated bus lanes and a pedestrian plaza that would promote economic activity along a busy and tourist-heavy corridor of Manhattan, cars and curbside access have seemingly won the day after months of bitter debate.
Still, despite my eulogy, the proposal isn’t all bad. Car traffic will be restricted, and buses will earn their dedicated — but not physically separated — lanes in the new proposal set to be revealed later today. Michael Grynbaum has the nitty gritty:
Cars and trucks on 34th Street in Manhattan would be squeezed into two lanes — one moving east, the other west — with a bus-only lane on either side, under a revised plan for the thoroughfare to be unveiled by the Bloomberg administration on Monday. The plan would eliminate an earlier proposal for concrete barriers that would have separated bus lanes on the street from other vehicular traffic, according to four people briefed on the city’s plans who did not want to be identified over concerns that city officials might be angry at them for releasing the information early.
The reconstituted streetscape is a stripped-down version of an earlier design, first proposed by the city in 2008, that drew ire from some residents and tabloid columnists. Other controversial elements of that plan have now also been scrapped, including a pedestrian plaza that would have banned cars and trucks between Herald Square and the Empire State Building.
The new proposal calls for buses to travel in exclusive terra cotta-hued lanes, similar to a street design recently installed along First and Second Avenues that has speeded up trips along Manhattan’s East Side. But a parking and loading lane would be installed in some places between the bus lanes and the curbside, a concession to residents and business owners concerned that the plan would block automobile access to the front of their buildings. A spokesman for the city’s Department of Transportation declined to comment on Friday.
Those involved in this months-long soap opera praised the Department of Transportation and, begrudgingly, Janette Sadik-Khan for their willingness to listen to what I will politely call community input. “In the midst of all this hubbub, there has been careful analysis going on behind the scenes,” Dan Biederman, head of the 34th Street Partnership said to The Times. “They have come to a scheme that they believe in, rather than one that’s only the product of political compromise.”
Daniel Garodnick, the City Council member who represents may residents along 34th Street, inadvertently exposed the true concerns: curbside space for cars. “Curb access is already the source of much frustration, and this plan may actually bring some relief,” he said. The Post meanwhile sees conspiracy theories everywhere and says the process cannot be trusted.
Even Gene Russianoff, a long-time transportation advocate, seemed ready to throw in the tunnel for the once-heralded Transitway. “This is New York. Every inch of public space has a constituency and a set of demands. It’s just realistic to pay attention to what those are and the parameters of what’s possible,” he said.
Yet, what happened here is a blow to improved transportation and pedestrian access. As Grynbaum writes in his piece, the new proposal is “also expected to create more space for parking, loading and deliveries than is found in the street’s current configuration,” and that’s just the opposite of what New York’s planners should be encouraging in mid-2011. To build a sustainable city, to cut emissions and congestion, the streets must be made safer and more friendly for pedestrians. Particularly around Midtown, in which people and not cars are the shoppers and browsers, unnecessary driving should be discouraged while activity that contributes to the economy should be encouraged.
What has happened instead is a tyranny of the minority. The people who would stand to see their personal auto access eliminated have risen a stink, and in a city in which curbside access is all but non-existent in most places, they have turned it into a rallying cry. The city itself failed to adequately consider input from commuters and allowed the opponents to grab the press. Who knows The Post has made it its mission to destroy any transit improvements that take street space away from cars? Maybe it’s advertiser-driver, but maybe it’s just ignorance and fear of positive change.
Ultimately, the city should offer this Transitway to a neighborhood that wants it. Flatbush Ave. in Brooklyn needs some serious traffic calming and reengineering. Queens Boulevard is ripe for a Transitway as well. If 34th Street does not want to serve as a model for a better city, let another borough take a crack at it. This might be a setback, but it shouldn’t be an ultimate loss.