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In Times Square? Pull up a chair

Planning experts and advocates for walkers say a pedestrian mall set up in New York's chaotic core proves the city doesn't have to be so car-centric. Taxi drivers have other words for the idea.

August 26, 2009|Tina Susman

NEW YORK — If there is a ground zero in the war to make New York more pedestrian-friendly, it is Times Square. And if there is a weapon of choice, it is a collection of chairs plunked in the middle of what used to be the city's most traffic-choked intersection.

David Letterman has scorned them, taxi drivers have cursed them and some of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's critics have called them just plain silly.

"It's so patently stupid," City Councilman Tony Avella, who is challenging Bloomberg in the November mayoral election, said of the idea of setting up a pedestrian mall on Broadway.

But planning experts who have advocated on behalf of walkers and bicyclists say such walkable -- and loungeable -- public spaces prove that the elements are in place to make this city more akin to Barcelona, Paris or London rather than . . . well, New York.

There's the subway-riding mayor and his transport commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, who often commutes on her bicycle; there's the economic slowdown, which has spurred more people to walk or bike; and there is the steady fall in New York's crime rate, which has helped change the face of public spaces.

Spots like Times Square -- or Herald Square a few blocks south, the site of another pedestrian mall -- once were magnets for thieves and riffraff. Now they draw tourists and locals looking for places to eat lunch, sun-worship, or just sit and watch the unique show that is New York.

About noon on a recent weekday, with the temperature in the mid-80s and humidity to match, every chair in Times Square was filled. Loungers were treated to the Naked Cowboy, a local fixture who makes a living being photographed wearing only briefs, cowboy boots and a hat; an Elvis impersonator in a white fringed suit strolling about, guitar in hand; and one man clad in too-short shorts for reasons nobody could figure out, just walking among the crowd.

"I think he just got up and decided to put on something that would look really strange, and he succeeded," said Arismeney Mata, who was slouching comfortably in one of the low-slung beach chairs that showed up on Memorial Day weekend. The skyscrapers on either side offered shade on the stifling day. Behind Mata, giant tickers flashed the latest headlines. Police on horseback and private security guards roamed among the 480 or so chairs, stopping to chat with tourists and those who wanted to pet the animals.

Mata, who lives in New York, said he and a friend had come to Times Square because "it's a nice spot to relax, and it's perfect for people-watching." Part of the fun, he said, was sitting in the formerly chaotic intersection where Broadway slices through midtown Manhattan -- with no fear of being run down.

If the summer of '69 was the summer of love, the summer of '09 might be the summer of the pedestrian," said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit that for decades has pushed to reduce vehicular dominance in New York City -- where most major avenues at rush hour are cascades of yellow cabs, black limousines and battered delivery vans.

Not to mention the pedestrians and roller-bladers who spill off the narrow sidewalks and the bicyclists who wind through the crowds.

"It's not just a quality-of-life enhancement," said White, noting that pedestrian injuries were down 50% along a three-block stretch of Broadway in Times Square where the sidewalk was broadened last year. "It's really a matter of life or death when you have a densely pedestrian city like New York."

Even with a goal as benign as preventing people from being flattened onto the asphalt, the pro-pedestrian mission faces huge challenges.

There are about 6,375 miles of paved streets, including the sidewalks, in New York City, whose population is 8.9 million, according to the transportation department. Los Angeles, with a population of 3.8 million and far fewer walkers, has 10,000 miles.

On any given day, about 350,000 people -- roughly the equivalent of the city of Anaheim -- walk into Times Square, according to the Times Square Alliance, a group devoted to promoting the square, which it defines as the expanse encompassing 42nd to 47th streets from Broadway to 7th Avenue. Pedestrian traffic in the area has grown by nearly 58% on Saturdays and 53% midweek in the last decade, according to a survey commissioned by the alliance, which studied activity at 14 locations.

The pedestrian malls at Herald Square, famous for fronting Macy's, and Times Square are just part of an initiative including New York City's five boroughs -- the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Manhattan.

In a new 236-page design manual intended to guide future street projects, officials have recommended widening sidewalks, placing speed bumps on some streets to slow traffic and adding bike lanes to make life easier for nondrivers.

"This will change the playbook for how all of New York's streets are designed," White said.

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