"Plan for cars, you get traffic": Why de Blasio would be wrong to depedestrianise Times Square

New York City's Times Square at night in 2013. Image: Chensiyuan/Wikimedia Commons.

This is a guest post, written by New York's Project for Public Spaces.

Mayor Bill de Blasio caused quite a stir around New York City on Thursday as he floated the idea of tearing up the pedestrian plaza in Times Square.

This statement was the culmination of several days of debate centered around predatory panhandling and the square’s growing number of “street performers”. Most recently, the debate has focused on a group of topless women, covered in body paint, called desnudas. Reports of aggressive solicitation and the continued harassment of pedestrians and tourists even reached Albany this week, as New York governor Andrew Cuomo chimed in, calling for the womens’ removal.

While the desnudas are certainly the most sensational and therefore tabloid-friendly offenders, Times Square is filled with many other (fully-clothed) people taking advantage of eager tourists – from teenagers pushing their debut albums to shaggy Sesame Street characters eager to pose for a photo and, of course, a price.

These practices are obviously not unique to Times Square. You can’t visit the Duomo in Milan or Montmartre in Paris without being harassed by locals looking to make a quick buck off of tourists. However, the city government of Milan would never suggest allowing cars back into the Piazza del Duomo.  

“Sure, let’s tear up Broadway! We can’t govern, manage or police our public spaces, so we should just tear them up. That’s not a solution. It’s a surrender.”  

Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance

Times Square will continue to be a tourist destination, and forcing pedestrians back onto narrow sidewalks is a recipe for certain danger and disaster. Even the suggestion of eradicating the plaza is a terrible move for de Blasio – and it is clearly in opposition to the Vision Zero road safety goals which he has made a cornerstone of his administration. As Paul Steely White, director of the Transportation Alternatives pressure group, has said: “To suggest that cars and trucks be reintroduced into the most pedestrian-rich intersection in North America is just unbelievable.”


Once known as “Crime Square,” Midtown’s theater district was a hotbed for drugs, prostitution and criminal activity in the 1970s and 80s. By increasing police presence and launching a comprehensive redevelopment plan for this five-block stretch of Broadway, the Giuliani administration is largely credited with the rebranding of Times Square from a seedy urban zone to a thriving tourist hotspot – the “Crossroads of the World,” as it has since been dubbed.

But while Giuliani’s redevelopment plan helped to improve the area’s image and increase perceptions of safety among visitors, it did little to address an underlying problem. Not only do people need to feel safe in a public space, they also have to want to be there. To want to be there, the place needs to have a range of activities, amenities, and users.  

And while Times Square saw significant drops in violence and crime during the 1990s, its aggressive automobile traffic and meagre sidewalk space made it one of the world’s most dangerous and unwelcoming places for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Traffic congestion in Times Square. Image: PPS.

In 2008, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, along with Department of Transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and a group of local businesses and community advocates, joined together to reclaim this historic public space for pedestrian use, and the NYC Plaza Program was born. Broadway officially went car-free in 2009; since then, the city has added 49 pedestrian plazas. 

In addition to our longtime advocacy for streets as places, the idea for closing Times Square to automobile traffic came directly out of PPS’s NYC Streets Renaissance Campaign and our work with the Times Square Alliance.

The plan is clearly not working well in its current state, however. The swirl of issues that have pushed Times Square into recent headlines and culminated in Mayor de Blasio’s and police commissioner Bill Bratton’s abrupt and regressive “solution” is further proof that a design-led approach to any public space issue will not be effective or sustainable in the long term.

Visitors roam freely throughout a newly pedestrianised Times Square. Image: PPS.

In many public spaces busking adds life and diversity, but the unregulated (though certainly not new) prevalence of semi-naked hustlers and pandering superheroes in Times Square is just a symptom of a larger issue. PPS estimates that 90 per cent of the success of a space will be due to its management and programming, and the Times Square pedestrian plaza has not yet had the chance to fully develop these components.

“Eradicating a pedestrian plaza because you don’t like who’s walking there is like blasting away a beach because you object to bikinis or paving a park because you hate squirrels. It represents a profound misunderstanding of public space.”

Justin Davidson, nymag.com

Digging up the pedestrian plaza at Times Square would be a travesty for the city. It’s reminiscent of another ludicrous call, in the 1970s and 80s, to close nearby Bryant Park in a misdirected attempt to combat high crime rates.

Fortunately this call went unheeded, and a classic PPS analysis informed a redesign and strong management presence from the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation transformed the troubled park into the well-loved landmark that is today.


Rather than debating the presence of automobiles, Elmos, and partial nudity in Times Square, let’s focus instead on determining what New Yorkers truly want out of this iconic public space. How should it look? What can it offer? What would bring people to the area – office workers, locals, and tourists alike – and encourage them to stay?

Times Square is a cultural and historic landmark as well as one of the city’s most treasured destinations. It can and should be a source of local pride. And it should continue to reflect the unique identity of the ever-changing city and its residents.

The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) is a nonprofit planning, design and educational organisation based in New York City.

This article was originally published on the PPS’s blog, and appears here with permission.

 
 
 
 

Which pairs of capital cities are the closest together?

Vienna, which is quite close to Bratislava, but not quite close enough. Image: Thomas Ledl

It doesn't take long to get from Paris to Brussels. An hour and a half on a comfortable Thalys train will get you there. 

Which raises an intriguing question, if you like that sort of thing: wich capital cities of neighbouring countries are the closest together? And which are the furthest away? 

There are some that one might think would be quite close, which are actually much further part. 

Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital, sits on one side of the estuary of the Río de la Plata, while Montevideo, Uruguay's capital lies on the other side. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But at 207km apart, they're not really that close at all. 

Similarly, Singapore – capital of, er, Singapore – always sticks in the mind as 'that bit on the end of the Malaysian sticky-out bit'. But it's actually pretty far away from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital. A whole 319km away, in fact:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Thinking of 'countries that cause problems by being close together', you inevitably think of South Korea and North Korea. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And while Pyongyang in the North and Seoul in the South are pretty close together, 181km just isn't going to cut it. 

Time to do some Seoul-searching to find the real answer here.

(Sorry.)

(Okay, not that sorry.)

Another place where countries being close together tends to cause problems is the Middle East. Damascus, the capital of Syria, really isn't that far from Beirut, in Lebanon. Just 76km:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Seeing as Lebanon is currently host to millions of refugees fleeing the horrors of Syria's never-ending civil war and the atrocities of Daesh, or Isis, this is presumably something that authorities in Beirut have given a certain amount of thought to.

Most of the time, finding nearby capitals is a game of searching out which bits of the world have lots of small countries, and then rooting around. So you'd think Central America would be ripe for close-together capital fun. 

And yet the best option is Guatemala and El Salvador – where the imaginatively named Guatemala City is a whole 179km away from the also imaginatively named San Salvador.  

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Another obvious place with lots of small-ish countries is Europe – the site of the pair of capitals that drove me to write this nonsense in the first place. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And in fairness, Vienna and Bratislava do make a pretty good showing of it. Austria's capital sits on the Danube; drift downstream, and you swiftly get to Slovakia's capital. As the crow flies, it's 56km – though as the man swims, it's a little longer. 

There are more surprising entries – particularly if you're willing to bend the rules a little bit. Bahrain and Qatar aren't really adjacent in the traditional sense, as they have no land border, but let's just go with it. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Manama, Bahrain's capital, is 140km away from Doha, the centre of the world's thriving local connecting-flight-industry which moonlights as Qatar's capital. 

Sticking with the maritime theme, Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago is 152km from St George's, Grenada. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Good, but not good enough. 

Castries, the capital of the Carribbean country of St Lucia, is 102km north of Kingstown, the capital of St Vincent and the Grenadines. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Better, but still not good enough. 

Basseterre, the capital of St Kitts and Nevis, inches ahead at 100km away from St John's, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But, enough teasing: it's time to get down to the big beasts.

If you ask Google Maps to tell you the distance between the capital of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it comes up with a rather suspect 20km. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

A short distance, but considering the only thing separating the two is the River Congo, something's up: Google places the centre of Brazzaville a little north of where it should be, and the centre of Kinshasa many many miles south of where it should be, in some sort of suburb.


So, in true CityMetric style, we turn to train stations. 

Though such transport hubs may not always perfectly mark the centre of a city – just ask London Oxford Airport or London Paddington – in this case it seems about right. 

Kinshasa's main train station is helpfully called 'Gare Centrale', and is almost slap-bang in the middle of the area Google marks as 'Centre Ville'. On the other side of the river, 'Gare de Brazzaville' is in the middle of lots of densely-packed buildings, and is right next to a Basilica, which is always a good sign. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And when marking that distance, you get a more realistic 4.8km. If you want to be really keen, the ferry between them travels 3.99km, and the closest point I could find between actual buildings was 1.74km, though admittedly that's in a more suburban area. 

Pretty close, though. 

But! I can hear the inevitable cries clamouring for an end to this. So, time to give the people what they want. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you ask Google Maps to tell you how far away the Holy See, capital of the Vatican, is from Rome, capital of Rome, it says 3.5km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you set the centre of Rome to be the Palatine Hill, the ancient marking point for roads leading out of Rome, that narrows to 2.6km.

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Fiddle a bit and put the centre of the Vatican as, well, the middle bit of the roughly-circular Vatican, that opens up a smidge to 2.75km.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Mark the centre of point of the Vatican as the approximate location of St Peter's Tomb within St Peter's Basilica, which is after all the main reason the Vatican is a thing and not just a quirky suburb of Rome, and 2.67km is your answer. 

Though obviously in practice Rome and the Vatican are as far away as one single step over the railings at the entrance of St Peter's Square, which fairly blatantly makes them the closest capital cities in the world. 

But that would have been a very boring thing to come out and say at the start. 

Oh, and if you hadn't worked it out already, the longest distance between a capital city and the capital of a country it shares a land border with is 6,395km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

I know it's tough for you, Vladimir and Kim. Long-distance relationships are a real struggle sometimes.

I can't make a pun work on either Moscow or Pyongyang here, but readers' submissions more than welcome. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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