Traffic reduction at Great White Way

February 26, 2009 5:46:44 PM PST
The heart of Times Square, one of the most crowded spots on Earth, will become a pedestrian plaza aimed at making the nation's largest city greener, safer and less congested. The changes will be made in May along a swath of the famous Great White Way: Broadway in midtown Manhattan.

"You always say there's nothing you can do about traffic," Bloomberg said. "Well, we're not just going to sit back, we're going to try to do something about it."

"All the computer modeling says this is going to work," the mayor said, speaking in a hotel space with a bird's eye view of a sea of yellow cabs and cars he said often resembles "a parking lot," with pedestrians flooding sidewalks.

Last July, the city designated two Broadway lanes for bikes and a public esplanade - from 42nd Street at Times Square to 35th Street by Macy's.

The concept will now be taken a step further, starting Memorial Day weekend: closing Broadway to vehicles between 42nd and 47th streets in Times Square, and between 33rd and 35th streets in Herald Square. Traffic still will be allowed on the cross streets running through the squares, and Seventh Avenue will be widened to accommodate extra traffic from the closed section of Broadway.

The result, officials believe, will be simplified traffic patterns, longer green lights and reduced travel times.

"By making targeted adjustments at Broadway's two main pinch points (Times and Herald squares), we believe we can ease traffic congestion throughout the midtown grid," said Bloomberg, who was joined by the city's transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan.

The traffic-free zones will provide 2½ extra acres of urban ambiance for outdoorsy types, including cafe tables and benches, along with landscaping by September.

In addition, officials believe there will be fewer pedestrian injuries or deaths because people will be less likely to sidestep overcrowded sidewalks, walking alongside vehicles.

Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group for bicycling, walking and public transit, applauded the plan, saying the stretch of Broadway included in the pilot project witnessed 562 crashes involving pedestrians and vehicles between 1995 and 2005. In 2001, seven people died in Herald Square when a van plowed into the crowded intersection.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer calls it "an accident waiting to happen."

The advocacy group said last year's modification of Broadway between 42nd and 35th streets resulted in a 50 percent reduction in traffic-related injuries, while smoothing traffic congestion.

The $1.5 million plan called "Green Light for Midtown" will be closely tracked through the end of the year to determine if it should continue - by monitoring hourly traffic volumes and clocking travel times. Traffic engineering experts will use video cameras to observe vehicles and the more than 350,000 pedestrians who pass through Times Square each weekday.

Sadik-Kahn said the current pattern creates a "wall of traffic" at spots where Broadway, 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue intersect to form what has been dubbed the Crossroads of the World.

"I doesn't work: It's not easy to get around - it's hard to get a cup of coffee, it's hard to just find a place to sit and enjoy the wonder that is Broadway," the commissioner said, adding that "the traffic jams we see today in Herald Square and Times Square will be a thing of the past."

The city's famously opinionated taxi drivers didn't waste a moment to mouth off.

"I don't think it's going to be good," said cabbie Faig Ahmed, adding with exasperation: "People want to go to Times Square and Broadway, not Seventh Avenue, and there's only so much space here. If you cut the lanes, there'll be more traffic!"