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NYC Drives Over Vision Zero

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, who self-identifies as a “motorist,” said today that he is considering tearing up the pedestrian plazas in Times Square that became permanent in 2010 in order to replace them with the loud, smelly, crowded, deadly mess of the past.

Of course, he didn’t say it quite like that.

Not People Enjoying Life in Public Space!

Apparently the Mayor and the belligerent Police Commissioner are vexed that the plazas are attracting street performers. For these men, the idea that people are interacting and performing in a public space is far more egregious than the deadly dance of humans speeding (or trying to speed) and honking in private cars, cabs, and Ubers while everyone else is effectively grounded on the too-small sidewalks.

Have they even spent any time in the new Times Square? It is magnificent. And it wasn’t just put there overnight by an overzealous dreamy-eyed urban planner, it became a permanent plaza only after a trial period during which 74% of those working in the area said they preferred the new plaza, not to mention the widespread support of local business owners.

That anyone could possibly want to go back to the time of brake-slamming traffic jams while thousands and thousands of people were relegated to tiny, overcrowded sidewalks is utterly preposterous. If they want to drive their cars, I suggest they check a map. New York City is a grid filled with thousands of possible streets for their personal transit-mobiles.

“The primary mission of government is to protect the public”

Right now New York City is in the process of implementing a “Vision Zero” plan to eliminate deaths on city streets. A it says on the official page of NYC’s Department of Transportation:

“The primary mission of government is to protect the public. New York’s families deserve and expect safe streets. But today in New York, approximately 4,000 New Yorkers are seriously injured and more than 250 are killed each year in traffic crashes. Being struck by a vehicle is the leading cause of injury-related death for children under 14, and the second leading cause for seniors. On average, vehicles seriously injure or kill a New Yorker every two hours.

This status quo is unacceptable. The City of New York must no longer regard traffic crashes as mere “accidents,” but rather as preventable incidents that can be systematically addressed. No level of fatality on city streets is inevitable or acceptable.”

One arm of the government is working to eliminate deaths on city streets while the Mayor and Police Commissioner are intrigued by the prospect of sending the area back in time to an era where death and maiming by car was to be expected.

So, friends, let’s also hop in that time machine and take a look at the reasons why Broadway became car-free in the first place and why reversing that move would be a tragic mistake. Here is my report from February 12, 2010:

Broadway Now Permanently Car-free

Yesterday Mayor Bloomberg of New York City made an historic announcement that will have wide-reaching implications for street design and public space transformation around the country.

Broadway in Times Square (42nd St. to 47th St) and Herald Square (33rd St. to 35th St) will now be permanently closed to traffic. What initially started as an experiment to improve public safety and traffic flow in May 2009 is being widely touted as an outstanding success.

The result? Traffic speeds are up on diverted routes, pedestrian and motorist injuries have plummeted (down 63%), businesses are benefiting from increased foot traffic, noise pollution is down and the area is dominated by people rather than modes of transportation.

The move to make these stretches of Broadway permanently car-free is supported by 74% of people who work in the area, according to a survey conducted by the Times Square Alliance.

Take a look at the stark difference in the Before and After pictures of Times Square:

Times Square Before, photo by NYC DOT
Times Square After, photo by NYC DOT

The transformation has widespread support from the business community as well and was called “a 21st century idea” by Dan Biederman, director of the 34th Street Partnership (thanks to Streetsblog).

Build Cities for People

Last October I argued that temporary transformation is a more effective and legitimate way to gauge public opinion:

“People are used to roads and streets and public space being devoted to cars. That’s why it is essential to make the changes initially and give people the opportunity to feel and experience the delight of a public plaza and then to vote. New York and San Francisco are making temporary changes to demonstrate the value of returning space to people and have promised to return them to business as usual if that’s what people want.”

I’ll repeat: If you build cities for cars, you get cars. If you build cities for people, you get people.

New York did this and people love it. The rest of the country should begin following suit immediately.

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