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Not all a fan of NYC’s car-free zones

More than a year after opening in the middle of Times Square and Herald Square in midtown Manhattan, city officials are pleased with New York City's streets-turned-walkways.
People frequent pedestrian plaza's in Times Square/Herald Square in New York. Frank Franklin II / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

After several hours of shopping, Gordy Lund didn't want to move another step. So she and her daughter Tina sat down, iced coffees in hand — right in the middle of Broadway.

The Oshkosh, Wis., tourist sat at umbrella-covered tables at Herald Square in one of two pedestrian plazas that removed cars a year ago from two of the city's most famous and congested locations. The plazas were inspired by similar streets-turned-walkways that are common in Europe and are becoming more popular in places like California and Texas.

"A few years ago, you had to dodge traffic all the time," said Lund, 74, in town visiting her daughter. "Now, it's a great place to people-watch."

More than a year after opening in the middle of Times Square and Herald Square in midtown Manhattan, Bloomberg administration officials say the plazas have made the city safer, more livable and even sped up traffic. They're soliciting applications to open others around the city and are looking closely at Union Square in downtown Manhattan.

Motorists and taxi drivers say traffic jams blocks away are worse, not better. And some business owners — particularly those around Union Square — say they're worried about the plazas cutting off their access to customers and even a local fire station.

The midtown makeover is part of a long-term effort by Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration to reimagine the street grid in one of the most traffic-dense areas in Manhattan. The goal has primarily been to improve traffic flow, although the first results have been mixed — a study released earlier this year by the city showed that new travel times were not as fast as the goals the city had initially set.

City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said that data was misleading and that later studies have shown taxis and cars are either moving faster or at the same speeds in two main thoroughfares parallel to Broadway.

"It's a win all-around in terms of traffic," she said.

Changing the flow of traffic goes hand-in-hand with Bloomberg's overall environmental agenda, which was developed in 2007 and included a goal of reducing the number of cars on the road. He sought to put a toll on cars entering Manhattan's most traffic-heavy areas, but that plan died in the state Legislature.

The plazas are showing up in places like Long Beach, Calif., Philadelphia, and Austin, Texas. Because of a greater dependence on cars elsewhere, the plazas might work best in Manhattan, said Jeff Speck, principal of Speck and Associates, a Washington, D.C., planning firm.

"In almost all American cities, it's a fool's errand," Speck said. "But if the stores are not dependent on vehicles for business, there is absolutely no down side to this transformation."

For taxi driver Javaid Tariq, the plazas have threatened business, diverting yellow cabs from some of the busiest parts of the city and making customers either walk blocks or go without cabs.

People frequent pedestrian plaza's in Herald Square in New York.Frank Franklin II / AP

Tariq — co-founder of the New York Taxi Workers' Alliance — said because streets are shut down, drivers are unable to get passengers all the way to their destination. People have to walk farther to get to cabs, and finding one in the plaza areas has become harder because taxi drivers try to stay away from their vicinities to avoid traffic.

"Passengers have been getting angrier and more frustrated," Tariq said. "They yell at the driver all the time."

The city said information from taxis' GPS consoles show that traffic has improved.

A Department of Transportation study showed travel speeds improved 17 percent in west Midtown — west of Fifth Avenue — and was 8 percent faster east of the avenue going northbound. In southbound trips, cars drove 2 percent in West Midtown and 3 percent faster in East Midtown, the study found.

The city is considering making two blocks on the west side of Union Square car-free for part of the day and considering expanding traffic limits around Herald Square — blocking 34th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues to all traffic but buses. It is also looking for nonprofit groups to propose smaller plazas in other areas of the city that don't have much public space. The department — which spent $1.5 million creating the Times and Herald Square plazas — would pay to build the smaller plazas and the nonprofits would pay to maintain it. Applications are being accepted through the end of June.

Downtown businesses and leaders are concerned about blocking traffic at busy Union Square, and about a nearby firehouse that would have to send firetrucks along a slightly different route.

"I certainly am apprehensive of what that would do to traffic patterns, what that would do to some of our emergency services like police cars, fire trucks and ambulances when some of our streets are cut off," said Council Member Rosie Mendez, who represents Union Square.

Jon Bloostein, owner of the Heartland Brewery restaurant on Union Square West, said a plaza there would make it harder for delivery drivers going to local stores, and guests would have a more difficult time getting to their destination.

"If people can't get there easily or leave easily, they'll go somewhere else," Bloostein said.

Bloostein and other business owners are currently drafting their own proposal to bring to the transportation department in the next few months.

Though changes to Union Square were originally planned for this summer, Sadik-Khan now says there is no tentative completion date.

"We're still in discussions with the community," she said. "This is going to be tailored to the unique characteristics of Union Square streets."