Many of New York’s best known places fall short as public destinations. People may crowd Times Square’s sidewalks before seeing a show, for instance, but few relish the experience. Imagine the difference if the multitude of attractions in Times Square were connected by a cohesive pedestrian environment. New York is filled with such opportunities–major districts and corridors that could greatly enrich the city for residents and visitors. Improving these crucial places is a critical step towards implementing a public space agenda for the city.
Of all the streets in Manhattan, Broadway has the most inherent potential, especially where it cuts across the grid of Manhattan and forms irregular intersections. From 218th Street to the Battery, opportunities abound to create a series of great destinations. Consider this partial list of important intersections, attractions, institutions and amenities along the way:
- 165th Street and Columbia Presbyterian Hospital
- 125th Street
- 110th Street and Columbia University
- 72nd Street at the IRT express station
- 66th Street and Lincoln Center
- 59th Street/Columbus Circle
- 42nd Street/Times Square
- 34th Street/Herald Square
- 23rd Street/Madison Square
- 14th Street/Union Square
- Below 14th Street, where a new world of opportunity opens up as the street grid becomes more irregular.
All of these places could be made into great public squares, with the re-designed Broadway serving as a pedestrian-oriented link between them. Improved pedestrian connections, special street-level transit service (such as low-floor buses), and beautifully designed bus stops would dramatically change the perception of what should be the greatest street in Manhattan.
Even locations that already have their own identity as public spaces could improve exponentially. Times Square, for instance, is currently the most crowded and pedestrian-hostile destination in North America, which the New York City DOT still views as the exclusive domain of the auto. Meanwhile, London has restricted auto access within an area twice the size of Times Square, turning Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, and Trafalgar Square into the world’s premier entertainment district. Broadway is New York’s single best chance to match or exceed what London and other global cities are doing to improve the public realm.
The corollary to Broadway is Fifth Avenue. Together, Manhattan’s most prominent corridors could simultaneously re-emerge as city-defining streets, connecting nearly every one of Manhattan’s neighborhoods to an island-spanning network of great squares and linear public spaces.
Fifth Avenue could regain its pre-eminence as America’s great shopping street if the emphasis on through-traffic were greatly reduced. From 125th Street, down past the world-class collection of museums alongside Central Park, to 59th Street and Grand Army Plaza, this dismal and over-trafficked stretch could become a great boulevard and walking experience, home to a breathtaking array of destinations. Simply reducing the travel lanes by one and widening the sidewalks on both sides, adding attractive bus stops and amenities interspersed with small kiosks for food and drink, is a logical first step. Going further, the entrances to the park could become large plazas, with two-way bus service (redesigned as a low floor/easily-accessible shuttle with priority over other forms of travel) removing a lane of traffic. These steps would transform this part of Fifth Avenue into a treasured public space commensurate with its great institutions.
From 59th Street to 34th Street, where traffic is currently at its most aggressive, Fifth Avenue should be re-imagined as a shopping boulevard, a pedestrian-oriented zone where vehicles are secondary to the walking experience and retail environment. Two-way traffic should be re-instated to allow buses and taxis to pick people up going both ways, which is how Fifth Avenue operated in its prime. These steps would completely transform New Yorkers’ conception of Fifth Avenue as a public space. Where it is now perceived as a few short, somewhat isolated segments, the new Fifth Avenue would be known as a recognizable whole, a complete street running from Harlem to Washington Square Park with distinct sectors linked by their shared identity as places to be enjoyed on foot.
Although Times Square’s bright billboards and neon lights endow it with a strikingly visual sense of place, visitors on foot quickly realize that all the magnetism lies above the ground floor. Building entrances are compromised by security measures, the quality and mix of retail is poor, and the sidewalks are incredibly congested. Traffic lights are timed for vehicles, forcing pedestrians to crowd uncomfortably at every intersection. Once the initial impact fades away, Times Square lacks a critical quality shared by every successful public space: It doesn’t make you want to go back.
Compare New York’s biggest entertainment district to London’s and you’ll get a sense of what the city is missing out on. Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square, and Covent Gardens form a ring of pedestrian-oriented public space in central London that extends deep into the adjoining streets and alleys. In short, traffic has been tamed to benefit street life. Times Square, in contrast, is all traffic, with heavy auto congestion on every street. Whatever thrill visitors experience at the glittering spectacle of the place is overwhelmed by the anxiety of being squeezed into narrow, constricted sidewalks.
However, as long as rents and occupancies remain high and the streets remain safe, the situation in Times Square will not be perceived as a crisis. Instead, the quality of life in the district will simply continue to deteriorate as pedestrian crowding worsens and ground floor retail and entrances slowly become less inviting. The City must dramatically raise expectations for Times Square and reposition it in the minds of New Yorkers. Traffic counts must be superseded by the pedestrian experience of visitors and office workers. Times Square must cease to be a place you simply pass through and gawk at, and become a true district with a series of destinations valued by tourists and New Yorkers alike.
The first step should be to constrain traffic inside the Times Square boundary.