Alan Greenblatt is a GOVERNING correspondent.E-mail: email@example.com
Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, posted this picture on his blog of Times Square, through which car traffic on Broadway is now blocked.
New York magazine last week ran a long profile of Janette Sadik-Kahn, NYC's transportation commissioner and the lead agent in trying to tame the city's streets.
Between her plans for Broadway and her smaller interventions scattered across the city, Sadik-Khan has unwittingly touched off New York's latest culture war, a street fight of sorts. To her supporters, she is a heroic figure of vision and inspiration--the woman who tamed the automobile and made the city safe for bicyclists. To her opponents, she's the latest in an extensive line of effete, out-of-touch liberals: the hipster bureaucrat. All parties would agree she's an unusual Transportation commissioner, a title that may call to mind a paunchy, mustachioed male with a penchant for dirty jokes. Sadik-Khan is a stylish, young-looking 49-year-old whose skirts don't always pass her knees. ("I am a gay man, but I appreciate a sexy-looking woman!" says her friend the former restaurateur Florent Morellet.)
Sadik-Khan's approach to traffic management is not as extreme as it may first appear. Many transportation experts now recognize that adding more lanes to a traffic-clogged road is a poor long-term solution for gridlock, because over time more lanes just attract more cars. (This, in a nutshell, is why cities with the most highways tend to have the most traffic.) Sadik-Khan's Broadway plan, which reduces lanes and improves streetlight timing, reflects this new evolution of traffic theory. Eliminating the three-way intersection at 34th Street, for example, means that cars on that street and on Sixth Avenue will no longer have to sit through green lights on Broadway; the DOT predicts that this will shorten wait times by nearly a third. Southbound drivers on Seventh Avenue should expect a 17 percent improvement in travel time between 59th Street and 23rd Street. Northbound motorists driving up Sixth Avenue can supposedly look forward to a 37 percent improvement.
But even though the Broadway plan has been pitched as a way to ameliorate traffic, it's apparent when touring Times Square with Sadik-Khan that the planning problem that most animates her is not car congestion but people congestion. "This is a plan to pedestrianize a street, not to mitigate traffic," says someone who has discussed it with DOT officials. "This was a plan about greening New York, outdoor space, and seating. It was almost a happy accident that they found that traffic could be mitigated."
Update: Chris Swope's take on the "The Great White Right of Way"
Written and compiled by staff writers and editors, GOVERNING View is an on-the-ground, and sometimes behind-the-scenes, look at the topics we're covering in print and online. From notes on what's up in statehouses, county courthouses and city halls, to encounters with people, places and things, GOVERNING View is a window into the side of state and local government you don't always see.