Broadway Opening is a Leap Towards Better American Cities

Ian Sacs's picture
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This month's Broadway "opening" proposal is as much a clarion to the new thinking of public street space in America as it is a gift to the people of New York City.

Public officials in New York City deserve a lot of credit, and support, for their March 3, 2009 announcement to close portions of New York City's famed Broadway to auto traffic and expand pedestrian/bicycle space along other segments of the street.  For decades New Yorkers have grappled with a quixotic disparity at NYCDOT, simultaneously servicing millions of pedestrians while favoring cars on city street space.  Plans revealed earlier this month for Broadway - cars prohibited from 47th Street to 42nd Street, and 35th Street to 33rd Street, and expanded pedestrian, bicycle, and sitting spaces along other segments between Columbus Circle and Madison Square Park - demonstrate that the City has caught on, big time, to the idea that a city's streets are public space and should be shared equally amongst all users.

From a traffic engineer's perspective, both sides of the closure debate are clearly understood.  On one hand, eliminating the continuity of the north-south artery will force traffic to other avenues that are already pressed for capacity during peak times.  Moreover, Broadway is seen as a convenient way to travel cross-town and downtown simultaneously.  On the other hand, the odd angles and complicated signal timings caused by Broadway at otherwise normal intersections result in reduced "green time" for cross streets and contribute to safety concerns for pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers.  The new Broadway will undoubtedly result in very different traffic patterns, even where the street remains open to autos.  However, studying the full impacts of these changes simply cannot be done with today's methodologies.

Many current ideas born from the transportation planning community must be based on precedent, or trial-and -error, rather than the traditional, rigid analytical methodologies that stifle creativity in the transportation profession.  Old school traffic engineers, long focused on cars, have gradually modified the capacity analysis methodology based on "Level of Service" (LOS) to study multi-modal streets.  This has unfortunately resulted in pedestrians, bicyclists, and buses being considered impediments to the efficient flow of vehicular traffic.  It has become increasingly evident that the emphasis on vehicle trips (as opposed to person trips) contradicts the comprehensive design approach now strongly advocated by the transportation planning community, more regularly referred to as "complete streets".

Technical traffic arguments aside, the Broadway plan also spurs access concerns such as deliveries, curbside drop-off/pick-up, and relocated bus routes.  Add these to the age-old host of socio-economic arguments, such as stifling business, lost revenue, and effects on real estate values, and it's clear that a plan like this involves some major political risks. Coincidentally, the same arguments are being debated on the west coast where The San Francisco Chronicle reports that city is looking into a similar proposal for its own Market Street.

Broadway as a Complete Street

While all these concerns need to be addressed, perhaps a somewhat more enlightening aspect of the plan deserves attention.  Over the past months, I have observed reserved excitement, even giddiness amongst transportation officials and professionals who are involved with the Broadway project.  Despite the city's historic tendency towards auto-centricity, it appears that those entrenched in the transportation bureaucracy possess a latent desire to embrace the fresh wave of thinking about how to best use public street space.  NYCDOT's relatively new Commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, is surely more than a catalyst for these emotions; she has endured the burden of being a progressive thinker in a traditionally conservative post while simultaneously managing expectations to do something radical without inducing an administrative fiasco.  But the crew who put her inspirations into action is clearly also caught up in the excitement of changing the face of New York City and, perhaps indirectly, urbanity in America.

Changing Broadway is a big deal, but changing the momentum of the City's Department of Transportation is something much more newsworthy to our professional community.  This is because the message sent across America with this proposal is one of forward-looking, community-based thinking that decries the importance of balanced streets, even on one of the most commercially intense roadways in the country.  Current analysis techniques were certainly employed to get a handle on how various aspects of the plan would function; however, since no software or analysis manual exists to quantify the full impacts of such comprehensive changes, New York City's effort is proposed as a "pilot" that will be observed and evaluated through the end of 2009.  The physical parts that make up the plan are modular and can be removed if things go awry.  This is arguably just as innovative as the ideas themselves.

A new, as yet undetermined, method of calculating the ideal balance of street space for all users is needed.  While the intricacies of this new methodology are debated, brave city officials must be willing to experiment with the logical aspects of complete street design in ways that allow for progress, and metrics for success, to be defined.   New York City has truly taken a bold step to structure a grand, experimental plan that communicates a new way of considering both the way our city's streets are used, and the way their utility is studied.  We also get a really cool place to walk and ride our bikes!

Ian Sacs, P.E. is a worldwide transportation solutions consultant based in Finland.

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