Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Times Square

A visit to New York is not complete without a visit to Times Square. Well, that would appear to be what every tourist to the Big Apple thinks. The crowds of people thronging to Times Square was quite amazing to behold, and this was Easter, well before the tourist season even started.
When I visited New York in 1994 I remember Times Square as a massive intersection with some advertising billboards and some rather dodgy looking characters. In 1994 Times Square was at the cusp of a redevelopment. The Times Square Alliance (a not for profit organisation started in 1992 to improve the neighbourhood) was starting the process of cleaning up the area. Stores were boarded up, tourists were few and far between, and traffic was king.
In 2009 it was very different. The redevelopment brought people and raised the tone of the area. The Times Square Alliance has succeeded in creating a very desirable product. They promote local business and economic development, coordinate major events and - most noticeably - provide a 24 hour presence of public safety officers.
Although these men and women ensure criminals are not active, crowd control is probably one of their most important jobs. In 2008 the south-west corner of 7th Ave and 44th Street saw 134,711 people between 8:30 am and midnight on a Wednesday. By 2008 the area was suffering from ped-lock, too many pedestrians competing for too little space. Something had to be done. This article summarises the problems they identified and solutions arrived at.
One of the solutions was the redevelopment of Duffy Square which I saw and was greatly impressed with. All those people need to go somewhere and Duffy Square was a large open area that needed to be used better. Chairs and tables in Duffy Square are great for soaking up the atmosphere (and waiting for your partner to buy Broadway tickets at the TKTS booth).
But what is really impressive is the bank of seating built on top of the TKTS booth. It gives a great view of the lights and creates a sense of place, it also keeps the crowds separated from the cars. This article gives a little bit of the history. The photo is not my own - there were too many people in the way when I was there.
There is not much room for all the pedestrians and some space has been taken from cars by using bollards. The area between the bollards and the kerb was a bit of a no-mans-land. Despite the crowds on the footpath very few people stepped off the kerb. I would be interested to see how it operates in peak season.
On Broadway south of 42nd Street the city has removed a parking lane and wide stopping lane and built a public space similar to the one at the Flatiron building.
The bicycle lane along the kerb looks great and looks far better than being next to traffic just north of 42nd Street.
But I have my doubts as to how usable the cycle lane is. Pedestrians tended to wander along oblivious to the fact that they were walking in a bicycle lane. A preferable solution may have been to put the cycle lane on the inside of the pot plants. Safe from the parked cars' doors but also less likely to run into pedestrians.
What is really incredible is that I saw Times Square just before it was closed to traffic in a major pilot project to improve pedestrian safety and traffic congestion. Broadway from 42nd to 47th streets and from 33rd to 35th streets will be transformed into pedestrian plazas until at least the end of 2009 in the pilot project. Local reaction to the project is mixed. It will be interesting seeing what the results of this brave experiment will be. I predict the people will win. What will be interesting will be to see how cyclists are impacted. This will significantly reduce traffic on broadway through mid-town, but how difficult will it be to navigate through the tourists in the pedestrianised areas? I will be keeping an eye on this one.

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