In Midnight Cowboy, the classic film on New York’s 1960s demimonde, Dustin Hoffman’s character is nearly hit by a taxi and smacks the hood, shouting angrily: “Hey, I’m walking here, I’m walking here.”
Although the city has cleaned up dramatically in the decades since, the chance of getting run down by a car remained. In recent years, though, non-drivers have notably been in the ascendency here.
The first phase of a permanent pedestrian plaza at Times Square is one of the highest-profile projects begun by three-term mayor Michael Bloomberg, who leaves office on Jan. 1. On Monday, Mr. Bloomberg officially opened a revamped section along Broadway from 42nd Street to 43rd Street that features concrete paving stones and studs set in the ground to reflect the surrounding billboards.
“There’s no sidewalk, it’s one big stage,” Janette Sadik-Khan, the outgoing commissioner of the city’s Department of Transportation, said in an interview last month. The studs in the 30,000-square-feet plaza, she added, would “bring the energy” of the lights to the street. “It’s a thing of beauty. ”
By closing Broadway, which cuts across the grid of Manhattan streets at an angle, Times Square traffic was also redirected to the more logical path of the north-south streets of Sixth Avenue and Seventh Avenue.
The plaza is to be extended north to 47th Street over the next three years in a $40-million (U.S.) project to make the area – the heart of Manhattan’s theatre district – even more pedestrian-friendly. Other changes over the past few years across the city include removing parking spots, closing traffic lanes to create more plazas and a new bike-share program started earlier this year.
“You’d have a very tough time rolling this back,” Mr. Bloomberg said Monday.
Times Square was once a byword for sleaze. But even as it was cleaned up beginning in the mid-1990s, it became heavily congested with traffic and pedestrians. Barring motorists from a stretch of Broadway four years ago was a bold attempt to ease the congestion.
Pedestrian volume went up in Times Square after the street closed, rising 15 per cent to 400,000 daily. Pedestrian injuries dropped 35 per cent, according to Transportation Department data, and traffic flowed more smoothly on parallel north-south streets.
Sam Schwartz, a former New York chief engineer of traffic operations known as Gridlock Sam, said economic woes, gas prices and a broader shift away from car usage by young people also brought vehicle traffic down. But he said the Times Square project has been beneficial, and popular.
“I would say that traffic has gotten better as a result of this,” he said in a telephone interview. “I think the jury is in. I think the majority of the people like it.”
Bill de Blasio, the newly elected mayor, has said he has mixed feelings about restricting Broadway to foot traffic.
But Ms. Sadik-Khan doesn’t expect the trend to create more pedestrian areas to disappear now that residents have grown accustomed to having this additional space. “The idea now of what a pedestrian plaza’s about is very much part of the normal vocabulary of a New Yorker,” she said.
“When people see how it works, see how much better it is for their neighbourhoods, how much better it is for the bottom line of businesses, it all comes together,” she added. “That’s why we have this huge backlog of demand for pedestrian plazas and we have created or are in process of installing 54 all across the city.
“It’s a big sea-change and I think that, you know, the genie doesn’t go back in the bottle now.”