"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.

 
 
 
 

How bad is the air pollution on the average subway network?

The New York Subway. Image: Getty.

Four more major Indian cities will soon have their own metro lines, the country’s government has announced. On the other side of the Himalayas, Shanghai is building its 14th subway line, set to open in 2020, adding 38.5 km and 32 stations to the world’s largest subway network. And New Yorkers can finally enjoy their Second Avenue Subway line after waiting for almost 100 years for it to arrive.

In Europe alone, commuters in more than 60 cities use rail subways. Internationally, more than 120m people commute by them every day. We count around 4.8m riders per day in London, 5.3m in Paris, 6.8m in Tokyo, 9.7m in Moscow and 10m in Beijing.

Subways are vital for commuting in crowded cities, something that will become more and more important over time – according to a United Nations 2014 report, half of the world’s population is now urban. They can also play a part in reducing outdoor air pollution in large metropolises by helping to reduce motor-vehicle use.

Large amounts of breathable particles (particulate matter, or PM) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), produced in part by industrial emissions and road traffic, are responsible for shortening the lifespans of city dwellers. Public transportation systems such as subways have thus seemed like a solution to reduce air pollution in the urban environment.

But what is the air like that we breathe underground, on the rail platforms and inside trains?

Mixed air quality

Over the last decade, several pioneering studies have monitored subway air quality across a range of cities in Europe, Asia and the Americas. The database is incomplete, but is growing and is already valuable.

Subway, Tokyo, 2016. Image: Mildiou/Flickr/creative commons.

For example, comparing air quality on subway, bus, tram and walking journeys from the same origin to the same destination in Barcelona, revealed that subway air had higher levels of air pollution than in trams or walking in the street, but slightly lower than those in buses. Similar lower values for subway environments compared to other public transport modes have been demonstrated by studies in Hong Kong, Mexico City, Istanbul and Santiago de Chile.

Of wheels and brakes

Such differences have been attributed to different wheel materials and braking mechanisms, as well as to variations in ventilation and air conditioning systems, but may also relate to differences in measurement campaign protocols and choice of sampling sites.

Second Avenue Subway in the making, New York, 2013. Image: MTA Capital Construction/Rehema Trimiew/Wikimedia Commons.

Key factors influencing subway air pollution will include station depth, date of construction, type of ventilation (natural/air conditioning), types of brakes (electromagnetic or conventional brake pads) and wheels (rubber or steel) used on the trains, train frequency and more recently the presence or absence of platform screen-door systems.

In particular, much subway particulate matter is sourced from moving train parts such as wheels and brake pads, as well as from the steel rails and power-supply materials, making the particles dominantly iron-containing.


To date, there is no clear epidemiological indication of abnormal health effects on underground workers and commuters. New York subway workers have been exposed to such air without significant observed impacts on their health, and no increased risk of lung cancer was found among subway train drivers in the Stockholm subway system.

But a note of caution is struck by the observations of scholars who found that employees working on the platforms of Stockholm underground, where PM concentrations were greatest, tended to have higher levels of risk markers for cardiovascular disease than ticket sellers and train drivers.

The dominantly ferrous particles are mixed with particles from a range of other sources, including rock ballast from the track, biological aerosols (such as bacteria and viruses), and air from the outdoors, and driven through the tunnel system on turbulent air currents generated by the trains themselves and ventilation systems.

Comparing platforms

The most extensive measurement programme on subway platforms to date has been carried out in the Barcelona subway system, where 30 stations with differing designs were studied under the frame of IMPROVE LIFE project with additional support from the AXA Research Fund.

It reveals substantial variations in particle-matter concentrations. The stations with just a single tunnel with one rail track separated from the platform by glass barrier systems showed on average half the concentration of such particles in comparison with conventional stations, which have no barrier between the platform and tracks. The use of air-conditioning has been shown to produce lower particle-matter concentrations inside carriages.

In trains where it is possible to open the windows, such as in Athens, concentrations can be shown generally to increase inside the train when passing through tunnels and more specifically when the train enters the tunnel at high speed.

According to their construction material, you may breath different kind of particles on various platforms worldwide. Image: London Tube/Wikimedia Commons.

Monitoring stations

Although there are no existing legal controls on air quality in the subway environment, research should be moving towards realistic methods of mitigating particle pollution. Our experience in the Barcelona subway system, with its considerable range of different station designs and operating ventilation systems, is that each platform has its own specific atmospheric micro environment.

To design solutions, one will need to take into account local conditions of each station. Only then can researchers assess the influences of pollution generated from moving train parts.

The ConversationSuch research is still growing and will increase as subway operating companies are now more aware about how cleaner air leads directly to better health for city commuters.

Fulvio Amato is a tenured scientist at the Spanish National Research CouncilTeresa Moreno is a tenured scientist at the Institute of Environmental Assessment and Water Research (IDAEA), Spanish Scientific Research Council CSIC.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.