Herald Square is now for people first. (Photo via NYC DOT’s Flickr stream)
As Mayor Bloomberg and Janette Sadik-Khan, the head of New York City’s Department of Transportation, have put their stamp along Broadway between Herald and Union Squares, I’ve sat back and admired the work. Despite the fact that pedestrians are the lifeblood of the Big Apple, the auto lobby is strong and often acts as a force to block any sort of reworking of the city’s streets. Although the initial furniture was tacky, the pedestrian plazas have made the streets safer for people who shop, who go work, who walk through our walkable city and less friendly to cars.
Despite the pedestrian-focused success, powerful voices have spoken out against the streets, and many of them originate from the publication that gave Times Square its name. Since the Mayor announced the pedestrian plaza would become a permanent fixture amidst the streetscape of the city, The New York Times has looked skeptically at the plaza. In May 2009, the area seemed to be missing its cars, and in February, The Times focused on traffic reduction instead of pedestrian safety even as businesses were proclaiming it a boon for their economies. For Nicolas Ouroussoff, the architecture critic, the plaza was not gritty enough. I guess he wanted peep shows and prostitutes.
Today, Michael Grynbaum takes a look at the impact the pedestrian areas have had on bus travel. “Times Square Plazas Slow Many Bus Trips,” says the headline. According to Grynbaum, “Riders trying to get downtown through the Times Square area” — who does on that on a bus anyway? — “have experienced longer travel times on four out of five affected bus routes, according to a report from New York City Transit, which operates the city’s bus system.” According to The Times, one bus route takes 10 minutes longer to complete than it used, and traffic speeds throughout midtown haven’t improved as much as the city initially hoped.
The report, available here in full, paints a picture far less bleak. Some bus routes — those along Sixth Ave. — saw travel times diminish while others saw an increase. By and large, though, these travel time increases were due to the fact that bus routes have changed. Some are longer distance-wise than they were before, and from a planning standpoint, the way the buses were rerouted to incorporate more turns was than ideal.
As Sadik-Khan said, though, few commuters will notice the change. “You don’t take the M6 from the beginning of the line to the end,” Sadik-Khan said. “A lot of trips are for just a few blocks.” For what it’s worth, New York City Transit has fielded no complaints about increased travel times, and subway ridership figures in the affected areas were down only 3-4 percent, far less than the systemwide decline of nearly 8 percent from 2008 to 2009.
These speed findings, as Grynbaum notes, reach the heart of the purpose of the pedestrian plaza. The Times concludes:
The pedestrian plazas have received positive reviews for the aesthetic improvements to an area once known for gridlock and crammed sidewalks.
But the project, primarily intended to improve traffic flow, has fallen somewhat short of its anti-gridlock goals: Traffic speeds slowed on Eighth and Ninth Avenues and on many crosstown streets. Over all, vehicular traffic sped up along Seventh and Sixth Avenues, but less than the city had hoped.
Is this project truly about speeding up traffic flow or is it about prioritizing pedestrians over cars in areas with foot traffic that spills beyond the sidewalks? On the one hand, The Times focuses on the cars while, on the other, Streetsblog has focused on the benefits to pedestrians. Although this plaza hasn’t increased travel speed, the number of cars on the roads have been reduced, and people are safer for it.
That still leaves us with the issue of the buses. Considering the roundabout reroutes, bus travel times through Times Square will, of course, be lower in some instances. Any time a bus has to turn or cover more ground, the route time will be longer.
Where the cover seems to conflate the issue is with the role of transit altogether. The pedestrian plazas weren’t designed to speed up bus transit. Rather, the 34th St. and other Select Bus Service corridors are being used to improve bus service. The pedestrian plazas are designed to improve life for pedestrians, and to that end, they are a success.
Without a system of dedicated lanes, pre-board payment options and signal prioritization, bus service won’t see gains in surface speed or efficiency. The improved speed down 6th Ave. is an unintended benefit of the pedestrian plaza project, and I’m not worried about slower speeds in certain areas. If, on the other, the DOT/MTA Select Bus Service corridors can’t solve the problem of painfully slow buses, I’d begin to grow concerned.