Battle for a New Times Square: An Excerpt from Streetfight

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As transportation commissioner for New York City from 2007 to 2013, Janette Sadik-Khan oversaw dramatic changes to the city’s transportation system, including building hundreds of miles of bike lanes, creating public plazas across the city—and closing part of Broadway to cars in Times Square.  In this excerpt from her new book, written with Seth Solomonow, a manager with Bloomberg Associates who was chief media strategist for the transportation department during Sadik-Khan’s tenure, she lays out the details of that historic transformation.

In Times Square today, a wide-angle camera lens captures thousands of pedestrians spread across two-and-a-half-acre [1 ha] ribbons of pedestrian space with a right angle of traffic cutting through. It’s difficult to recall that just a few years ago, this balance was completely reversed and Times Square was a Gordian knot of traffic. When I first walked through Times Square with the eye of a commissioner, 89 percent of the 183,000 square feet [17,000 sq m] of space between buildings from 43rd to 47th streets belonged to cars, even though 82 percent of the people passing through—356,000 a day—did so on foot, spilling off the sidewalk into the street, with traffic whizzing by. Times Square by that point had already outgrown most of its legendary seediness and shed the peepshow theaters that were the backdrop for Midnight Cowboy (and the offices where I worked for David Dinkins’s 1989 mayoral campaign). By 2008 the business profile of the square had changed into a mix of tchotchke shops and modern retailers alongside the established hotels and theaters, and the streets were swarmed day and night and serenaded by an infamous guitar-playing cowboy, clad only in white underwear.

But beneath the showbiz glare of Times Square lay a fundamental transportation problem: 137 percent more pedestrians were struck by cars in Times Square than on adjacent avenues, a tragic product of the masses of people walking in the road. The streets themselves were old and warped, pooling with water after every heavy rain. The existing roadbed was basically composed of layers of street strata, with streetcar rails and other remnants of bygone transportation eras paved over the decades. It was a classic transportation problem hidden in plain sight. And that problem, once again, was Broadway, which meets Seventh Avenue at Times Square and Sixth Avenue at Herald Square, creating wide, irregular intersections. Instead of trying to force Broadway to work with the grid, we looked at how to make the grid work better without Broadway.

In late 2008, we initiated a plan to correct this anachronism and its dangerous consequences, resulting in one of the most transformative and rapid redesigns of a public space in modern urban history. By closing diagonal Broadway to cars at Times and Herald squares, we restored the right angles of the traffic grid. Along Seventh Avenue in Times Square, the street was reconfigured with a fourth driving lane. The traffic signals were retimed to give motorists more “green time”—the length of the green light. Clearer signaling and simplified intersections created safer crosswalks. Pedestrians had fewer lanes to cross and wouldn’t have to guess where the next car was coming from.

Farther downtown at Herald Square, instead of slicing green light time three ways where Broadway, 34th Street, and Sixth Avenue collide, simply taking Broadway out of the grid would leave the two remaining traffic streams with 50 percent more green light time for drivers—or walkers or bikers. On Sixth Avenue the length of the green light increased from thirty-two seconds to fifty-three seconds; on Seventh Avenue the duration of a green light increased from forty-five to fifty-four seconds. In both cases, the simplified timing also meant shorter waits at red lights for everybody. We estimated that travel times would improve by 37 percent through Herald Square and by 17 percent through Times Square.

In the process of fixing the grid for better traffic management, removing vehicles from Broadway created vast tracts of new pedestrian space for the 82 percent of people in Times Square who walked. Pedestrians could safely stop, snap pictures, and take in the city without creating pedlock.

“I remember when she came and told me about it, and I signed on,” [Mayor Michael] Bloomberg later told a reporter about my pitch to close Times Square. “Well, first I thought it was the stupidest idea I’d ever heard. Ten minutes later she had convinced me,” he said.

That didn’t mean Bloomberg had accepted the proposal at face value. It just started the process. The original plan slimmed Broadway by one lane and added plazas at every square from 59th Street all the way down to Union Square at 17th Street. Bloomberg wanted to see if the plan would work before extending it south of 23rd Street, leaving Union Square out of the initial project. This still left the hardest parts, Times Square and Herald Square, where the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade concludes next to its flagship store. Bloomberg was right in that if the project worked at Times and Herald squares, it would be easy to extend it to Union Square. And he also insisted on a dedicated right-turn lane at 45th Street, letting vehicles reach side street theaters.

The mayor was also reassured by the fact that the project would begin as a pilot and then be reassessed after six months to ensure that it did what we said it would do. Experimentation is embedded in Mike Bloomberg’s DNA. Having created his own financial data and information empire, Bloomberg had little patience for people who argued against even trying something new.

Seth Solomonow (Dmitry Gudkov)

Seth Solomonow (Dmitry Gudkov)

The decision to redesign Times and Herald squares came just as the 2009 political season was gearing up. Bloomberg and the city council had simultaneously enraged opponents and elated supporters with a controversial and successful effort to reverse term limits, allowing the city’s elected officials to run for a third term, citing the urgency posed by the economic crisis of 2008. It was a heated campaign. At the final meeting on the project, most of Bloomberg’s advisers objected to implementing the Broadway plan within six months of Election Day, which would court political risk and traffic disaster as New Yorkers decided whom to vote for. Bloomberg bristled at aides who recommended that he postpone the project until after the election: “I don’t ask my commissioners to do the right thing according to the political calendar,” he told them. “I ask my commissioners to do the right thing, period.” The remark still gives me goose bumps.

Reviewing the Times Square plan, Mayor Bloomberg’s communications director, Jim Anderson, knew that Times Square would be deeply scrutinized, more intensely than the intervention at Madison Square. He focused on the green time that the plan would give to drivers in Midtown and built a public relations strategy around it: this wasn’t merely a plaza that would give people a nice place to walk; this was a solution to Midtown congestion. This messaging was a masterstroke that would help convince New Yorkers that the plan was at least worth trying. We sat around a table in an alcove at City Hall, brainstorming what to call this project. Anderson’s deputy, Farrell Sklerov, blurted out what would become the project’s name: “Green Light for Midtown.”

As we worked with the neighborhood’s hospitality, entertainment, and commercial industries, led by Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, and with business leaders on Thirty-fourth Street, including Macy’s, the final design took shape. The plan created more green light time for people driving cars, and pedestrians would have an additional two and a half acres [1 ha] of public space. At a project cost of $1.5 million—a tiny fraction of what it would cost to reconstruct a little-used street in Brooklyn for cars—and using only paint, markings, signs, and planters, this was the public space deal of the century. It worked out to less than $14 per square foot of real estate at the Crossroads of the World. This was a bargain that might not have been matched in the city since the Dutch purchase of Manhattan four centuries before, adjusting for inflation.

On a cold morning, February 26, 2009, in a hotel dining room overlooking a Times Square pulsing with high-wattage LED screens, the mayor unveiled the plan for reporters. “This Midtown traffic mess is one of those problems that everyone always talks about, and you always say there’s nothing you can do about traffic,” he said. “Well we’re not going to just sit back, we’re going to try to do something about it.”

This was a bold declaration in front of the New York City media, which, while having lain relatively low over much of the previous two years, now suddenly was paying close attention. The plan was obvious fodder for the tabloids: the mayor and his transportation commissioner think they can close one of the city’s major arteries through the heart of its densest and most chaotic locations—a virtual black hole of traffic. How can closing one of the busiest streets in the world make traffic better? The idea seemed insane to many observers.

In the three months between announcement and implementation, the plan for Times Square became as much a public relations campaign as a transportation engineering or construction challenge. The race was on to present the details to everyday New Yorkers, particularly those who lived and worked in the neighborhood, before they could be preemptively spooked by daily headlines. On one track, we conducted a packed calendar of public meetings, most of them positive and constructive, as we presented the plan to community boards and theater and property owners, holding their hands and explaining how traffic would still be able to find its way to, through, and around Times Square. The project could not have proceeded without their support.

On the other track, media began to predict the End of Times Square. “Dead End Streets” and “The Wrong Crusade” screamed the headlines in just one of the tabloids, where one writer forecast that “the ‘experimental’ scheme will create a broad loitering zone along the Broadway side of the bowtie, where we can avail ourselves of such dubious pleasures as noshing alfresco on benches. Never mind that New York’s climate is suitable for that less than half the year. Never mind that sidewalks are meant for walking, not idling.” New York’s cabbies predicted a gridlock end-of-times with drivers unable to stop for fares or move once they found one. Other papers and editorial boards were skeptical but hedged. In classic New York fashion, they wanted to reserve the right to gloat if the plan went horribly awry or say it was no big deal if it succeeded: let’s give Bloomberg and Sadik-Khan enough rope to hang themselves. “If it all works,” a tabloid editorialized, “Sadik-Khan will be a small hero. If it fails, she’ll be a goat.”

The time had finally come to just do it. At about seven p.m. on Memorial Day eve, surrounded by DOT road crews and curious onlookers, we looked at one another as if to say, “How hard can this be?” We held our collective breath and rolled, dragged, slid, and shifted blaze-orange traffic construction barrels into place. With just a few pieces of these inexpensively produced, factory-fabricated plastic containers, the traffic-choked legend of Broadway was officially closed to cars through Times Square.

Bleacher-style seating gives pedestrians a place where they can pause and take in the spectacle of Times Square. (EarthScape ImageGraphy/Shutterstock.com)

Bleacher-style seating gives pedestrians a place where they can pause and take in the spectacle of Times Square. (EarthScape ImageGraphy/Shutterstock.com)

In a moment of panic hours before the closure, we thought about those art students who immediately sat down on the street in Madison Square. [In 2008, just after workers set out the first construction barrels to detour traffic and start work on a pedestrian plaza at Madison Square, further south along Broadway, a group of art students materialized, sat on the blacktop, and started to sketch nearby buildings.] Where are the 356,000 people who walk through Times Square daily going to sit down once we open Broadway for pedestrians? We had café chairs and tables on order, but the wheels of municipal procurement didn’t move as fast as our traffic barrels, and it would be weeks before they arrived. The moment called for creativity and a bit of dumb luck. Tim Tompkins of the Times Square Alliance made feverish phone calls to find cheap seats, locating 376 beach chairs in lollipop colors at $10.74 each from Brooklyn’s Pintchik hardware store. The result was an immediate Broadway sensation. Within minutes of the closure there wasn’t a free beach seat in the house. Families plopped down with their shopping bags, sharing a laugh, reminiscing about seeing a show, and many just gazed up at the lights as if the chairs had always been there. People could do something as simple as stop and take a picture without fear of being run over or mowed down by a taxi or a surly New York driver. Tap dancers strutted and musicians performed as crowds gathered to watch. Hot dog vendors handed out free franks. Some visitors brought baseball gloves and played catch in the suddenly open space.

Faced with the dramatic reinvention, the media debated not the merits of the change, but whether the beach chairs were too kitschy. “I’ve had people say to me both that it’s a stroke of genius and that I’m the king of trailer trash,” Tim Tompkins told The New York Times. “People seem to be jumping right past the issue of whether this should be a pedestrian space to what it should look like.” Late-night television host David ­Letterman, whose studio was on Broadway just uptown from Times Square, was nonplussed. Times Square had become “a petting zoo,” he said, that “encouraged [tourists] to bring coolers and sit in the intersection.”

The fact that beach chairs made headlines and not traffic marked a victory in the global movement for public space. Once completed, there was no longer much argument about whether it was a good idea. The chairs lasted barely a month before they were replaced with more durable bistro chairs and tables. Those that survived the sit-fest were sold on eBay, but I keep one of the original beach chairs by my desk in my office. It’s a simple affirmation, not just in New York but anywhere: in a city without seats, a beach chair can be king.

Alas, occupied beach chairs aren’t themselves metrics for a successful transportation project. We needed data. Bloomberg wanted to know the measurable impact of the project on traffic, safety, and local businesses. Our forecasting model projected that traffic would move better. We had won the public relations campaign as the plazas immediately became as much a part of New York as Central Park or Rockefeller Center. But how did it stack up as the traffic project we had promised?

We produced what was then one of the most sophisticated evaluation reports created by a city transportation department for a single project. It also marked a shift in how we would measure out streets and projects from this moment on. Traffic data are traditionally gathered by transportation professionals driving cars dozens of times through an area before and after a project, measuring how fast they traveled on average—a practice known as the floating car technique. Bloomberg was skeptical of this approach. Traffic can change dramatically from minute to minute. Maybe a driver would hit an unlucky string of red lights or a lucky string of greens, skewing the results. Maybe the driver would deliberately drive slowly before the project and then floor it afterward to prove that traffic moved faster and that the project worked. Knowing that our data had to convince the mayor, we searched for a better traffic yardstick less susceptible to bias. We discovered the best traffic measurement device a transportation commissioner could ask for: the humble yellow taxicab.

GPS units recently installed in each of New York City’s thirteen thousand yellow taxis were already producing troves of taxi data daily. Multitudes of cabbies drive in and around the Times Square area, transmitting data about the distance and duration of every trip, allowing an analysis of average speed—and providing a virtual MRI of real-time traffic. If you had asked any of the cabbies in those taxis, you would have gotten a unanimous, almost violent answer: Times Square traffic got worse! Cabbies told any reporter who would listen that the reworking of Broadway through Times and Herald squares caused traffic jams, slower speeds, and fewer fares. Yet our study reviewed data from 1.1 million of these cabbies’ own taxi trips through Midtown and determined that traffic overall moved 7 percent faster than before Broadway closed. Uptown traffic moved better in west Midtown, centered on Sixth Avenue at 34th Street, which was simplified from three streams of traffic to an orderly two. So traffic was moving better, despite the fact that we had created two and a half acres of pedestrian space.

Traffic was the first hurdle. The most important data point is how much safer it is to walk around Times and Herald squares these days. There are now 80 percent fewer people walking in the street. The redesign changed the street to follow pedestrians’ desire lines [which reflect where people naturally want to walk]. With fewer people walking in driving lanes, the number of pedestrians injured in car crashes dropped 35 percent. The safety effect extended well beyond the plazas as injuries for everyone—including people in cars—plummeted by 63 percent. Simplifying the street makes it safer to walk and also made it a safer place to drive, bike, and take buses.

Other analyses and surveys supported the project. In a Times Square Alliance survey, 74 percent of New Yorkers said that Times Square had improved dramatically. When they asked retail and business managers, 68 percent said the plazas should be made permanent, and this pro-business sentiment wasn’t just based on anecdotes. The Real Estate Board of New York found that per-square-foot rental rates for ground-floor properties fronting Times Square doubled in a single year, a figure that would eventually triple. Five major retailers opened new stores in Times Square, and by the fall of 2011, Cushman & Wakefield announced that, for the first time in its rankings, Times Square was one of the top ten retail districts on the planet.

But just as beach chairs became a proxy for negative feelings about the redesigned Times Square, the report’s data became a stand-in for the media debate. The issue was not that traffic didn’t improve—it did, as measured by the more than 1.1 million Midtown GPS-tracked cab trips—but that the project didn’t improve traffic enough. We had forecast a much greater traffic improvement, and, next to the cardinal political sin of hypocrisy, the next most devastating sin is that of unmet expectations. In particular, one metric from the report found that traffic moving southbound near Times Square moved 2 percent slower. Not only was such a slight decrease statistically insignificant, it was offset by traffic moving better in every other direction, making trips faster overall. Had we merely promised that the project would not diminish travel times, we could have been granted a clearer victory. Instead, some reporters immediately concluded that the project was “disappointing” and “fell short” of its goals. There was no such talk from Bloomberg or his deputies. The mayor read the report and asked a hundred questions before deciding unequivocally that Times Square was improved. He announced that the project would be made permanent.

The report was a critical step in this process, challenging the basic premise that changing streets is risky and that plazas and redesigned roads are bad for business. In fact, the plazas saved a Times Square that had already been lagging behind other commercial corridors of the city. What started as a public realm innovation succeeded as a traffic and safety project that helped even those who had criticized it. The long-term economic benefit of the project would have international implications, and it created new ways to talk about changing the street, setting the table for every project that would follow. These changes weren’t just quality-of-life improvements. They opened a city to its people and through that expanded its economic prospects. All this was accomplished not in years but in months, with hundreds of thousands of dollars, not millions.

The critics claimed that the project would create traffic chaos, city-paralyzing traffic. Carmageddon. We were told that no one would want to walk in the plazas or visit Times Square, that the change would strip the area of its character. The gridlock never came, and today the plazas are one of the most visited spots in the city. The mere suggestion of returning the pedestrian spaces to cars is enough to unleash a torrent of criticism greater than the uproar over building them in the first place. This is the new “before.”

Emboldened by the Times Square project and the evidence that it produced, we set in motion more than sixty plazas in the five boroughs, in parts of the city without quality public spaces. We established new public spaces beneath the elevated train tracks on New Lots Avenue in Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood and along Roosevelt Avenue in Corona, Queens, and we connected sidewalks and traffic islands to create space for seating along an underused service road at the Bronx Hub.

Had we tried to convince everyone in New York City that the Times Square project would work before we took the first step—answered every cabbie’s doubt and refuted every newspaper columnist’s armchair analysis—it would have taken five years just to break ground, and even longer for the dozens of other plazas. Instead, on December 23, 2013, at the last press conference that Bloomberg held as mayor and I as commissioner, we cut the ribbon on a new Times Square. After Bloomberg’s 2010 decision to make the project permanent, we set in motion a redesign from the ground up to make the plaza a true pedestrian space, not just painted asphalt. Times Square had already been scheduled for a road reconstruction to replace water mains and sewers and remove the streetcar tracks that had been buried beneath layers of asphalt for more than half a century. As city contractors rebuilt the streets, they could rebuild them as world-class pedestrian plazas. We selected the powerhouse architecture firm Snøhetta to redesign the former road space, eliminating curbs and elevating the street surface to sidewalk level. Instead of asphalt there are now pedestrian pavers lined with embedded shiny metal discs, which glint with the lights of Times Square, reflecting Broadway’s lights, energy, and excitement. Today there are 480,000 pedestrians, up from 356,000 a few years earlier. As work continues on the plazas, there’s room for many, many more.

Times Square became a new touchstone in the annals of city streets, one that is already invoked on every habitable continent. Instead of nibbling around the edges, cities are attempting their own Times Squares—transformative projects not in the periphery but in the heart of their downtown districts, where the politics and competing traffic demands for streets are the most volatile.

A high-profile example like Times Square transcends the crossroads where it is located and represents models for streets big and small, near and far. Cities can never succeed in transforming their streets if they never try. There is no courage, no achievement, and no triumph in avoiding the attempt. As my father taught me, if you are not constantly trying something new, you are not trying hard enough.

From Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution by Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. ©2016 by Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow.

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