NYC Transportation Commissioner on Shutting Down Broadway

Photo by Christopher Swope Janette Sadik-Khan is the transportation commissioner of New York City, and a leading proponent of idea that streets serve many uses...
by | June 3, 2009

Photo by Christopher Swope

Janette Sadik-Khan is the transportation commissioner of New York City, and a leading proponent of idea that streets serve many uses beyond moving automobiles. Governing Managing Editor Christopher Swope talked with Sadik-Khan in mid-May about "Green Light for Midtown," New York's plan to shut down parts of Broadway to auto traffic and turn the space over to pedestrians and bicyclists.

Christopher Swope: You're shutting down two pieces of one of the most famous roads in the world. Why?

Janette Sadik-Khan: You have to start with New York City, and managing a complex environment. And that leads you to the question: Do you just react to the demands on the system or do you really mange and change course to make the city and the transportation network more sustainable and able to meet the needs of a growing population? We've got 8.2 million people here, so we have to be looking at what transportation investments we can make that will increase the quality of life and mobility for 8.2 million New Yorkers.

And what I think we're seeing nationally and around the globe is that times are changing and we need to approach our streets differently, as well. Lots of things have changed in New York City in the past 50 years, and our streets are not one of them. Yet we're in a worldwide competition for talent. Companies can locate anywhere. So we need to make sure that this city is inviting for the business community, for residents and for visitors who come here. We can really leverage the assets that we have. We have an incredibly dense environment, we have an unbelievably rich and extensive transit system, we have an unbelievable street network and some of the most undervalued public space around. And so we can combine this into the greatest greenest most sustainable city in the world.

So that's what we're looking to do: Improve mobility with our bus, bike, pedestrian and ferry networks; looking at better and more efficient ways of managing traffic and moving goods; and dealing with the hotspots we have in the city. That brings us to "Green Light for Midtown."

"Green Light for Midtown" is a practical solution to a problem that's been hidden in plain sight for 200 years. In 1811, the New York City commissioners developed the street grid for New York City. A grid is the most efficient way to move traffic around a network. And so they put this grid system in place but the one piece that was left out of the grid was Broadway, this pre-colonial route that cut through--

Swope: Wherever the horses went.

Sadik-Khan: Yes, there was probably horse-drawn congestion at the time. But traffic engineers ever since have been trying to fix this problem. So they looked for ways to address this with signal timing changes and with different turn bays, but none of it has really made a big difference. And that's because you've got this grid, which creates these great places like Herald Square, Times Square, Madison Square and Union Square, but it created a series of complicated intersections and pinch points. So what we did is took a big picture view and said what can we do to address this congestion hotspot? Because it's not working for pedestrians, it's not working for motorists, and it's not working for bus riders.

We started last year with "Broadway Boulevard," making some changes between 42nd and 35th Streets, where we narrowed the roadbed, put in a protected bike lane, put out tables and chairs, and lo and behold, the traffic moves just fine. And we've created some inviting public spaces for New Yorkers. So it's a win for the network, which continues to work smoothly there, and we've grabbed some of that pavement and repurposed it to a higher end use. So with that success, we then looked at congestion in Times Square and Herald Square and said what can we do to simplify the grid and make traffic work better and deal with the fact that we have 356,000 pedestrians in Times Square alone? If you go to Times Square now, you'll see people walking in the streets because the sidewalks are too crowded. In fact, some 96 percent of people that work in Times Square say their number one objection to working there is the pedestrian congestion. Clearly, there's a problem there.

If you look at the traffic patterns, traffic is much slower approaching Times Square and Herald Square than it is anywhere else in the network. Traffic averages 5 miles per hour on Broadway. And it's much faster once you get through those squares. So the notion was that if we repair the grid and bring it back to what it really wants to be, we can improve the mobility of pedestrian traffic, vehicular traffic and transit riders. What the models show is a 37 percent improvement in travel time along the 6th Avenue corridor, and once we reconnect 7th Avenue, we're expecting a 17 percent improvement in travel time there. That's on the vehicular side. And on the pedestrian side, we create these great public spaces that are really important for New Yorkers who are suffering from pedlock. And look at what that means from a retail and commercial property perspective. What we've seen across the world is that when you create these attractive spaces, retail activity goes up.

Swope: One criticism that's been voiced about this plan is that it sounds like you're creating a pedestrian mall, and didn't a lot of cities try out pedestrian malls in the 1970s only to see them fail?

Sadik-Khan: Broadway is different. Broadway has the shows, the people, the traffic--there's a lot of people coming to Times Square each and every day. It's a great, iconic place and what we're doing is we're taking the original formula and making it better. We already have the people coming to Times Square. This isn't like Buffalo or something, where there's nobody there and that led to the paucity of results from their experience. You need to have the retail activity there and the programming there to have the kind of places that people want to go to, where you get the kind of results you've seen in places like Denver with the 16th Street Mall. We've learned the lessons over last 30 years about what are the necessary ingredients for success in this kind of approach.

Swope: The thinking with Broadway seems to be that less can be more--that you can take space away from automobiles and it's better for everybody. Is that an idea that would only work in New York City?

Sadik-Khan: I do think less can be more. New York is its own place and I do think we're leading the way with some different approaches and we're kind of in a category all on our own. But that said, flip it around and I'd say if you can do it in New York City, you can do it anywhere. Because there's a complicated choreography associated with the vastness of the system and the number of people we have here. So if we can make it work here, it's something other cities can point to and look at to try and improve the mobility of their cities and improve the attractiveness of their cities.

Swope: I have to ask you about the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, which traditionally runs down Broadway. There have been media reports that the changes you're making to Broadway may force the parade to move.

Sadik-Khan: The Macy's parade is an iconic part of New York City history, but it's moved six times since it started. It's moved in different sections at different times; this is the latest iteration. Again, we're trying to make the Macy's parade better. We think we'll have more people who can be able to enjoy it, and more public space will be available for people to enjoy it and see it and watch the fabulous parade as it goes by. We're excited about it. Macy's is excited about it.

It's important to understand that the business community has been behind this, because they get the economics of this investment. They understand that they'll see more retail activity because they will have more people going by their stores. They understand that property values will increase when you create attractive, inviting public spaces. We've seen that in New York City. We've seen it with property values associated with investments on the Hudson River Greenway, and even earlier around Bryant Park--that used to be a drug den and after the great makeover, property values around Bryant Park are up 225 percent. So we're looking at the economics of what we can do to improve the business climate here. When you take a look at Broadway, it's a very underperforming corridor. If you look on a per square-foot basis, the property in the area yields much less return than what you see around Rockefeller Center.

Swope: So just to clarify, the parade is moving?

Sadik-Khan: It'll be on 7th Avenue.

It's a complicated choreography on New York City streets. It's a big balancing act. We've got pedestrians and bus riders and taxicabs and parades. So it's a great mix but we work very hard with the affected communities to talk to them about it, to make changes to the original program to accommodate their concerns.

We'll have this done in a very short order. We'll be closing Broadway from 42nd to 47th Streets and 33rd to 35th Streets beginning the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, and we'll have this work completed and done and open to the public in mid-August. So it's a pretty quick turnaround. And that's another piece that's interesting for cities to look at is that you can make quick transformative change that lends reality to the notion of a greener city. It doesn't have to take decades to get things done.

With the improvements we've made in public spaces and bike lanes, we've basically converted the equivalent of 49 acres of street space into these new public spaces. That's the equivalent of four Great Lawns in Central Park. You can get a lot done in a short period of time.

Swope: You seem to be viewing the streets as real estate.

Sadik-Khan: I've given talks where I say, with all due respect to Donald Trump, I consider DOT to be the largest real estate developer in the city. Sidewalks and street surfaces make up 26.6 percent of the land area in New York City. We need to approach our streets differently than we have in the past. It's no longer enough to say we're going to lay out a 1950s road design and that's the way it's going to be. We need to design our streets differently. We need to build in mobility, we need to build in sustainability and we need to build in a 21st century approach to what we're doing. It will pay great dividends when we do it that way.

Swope: Some of the same thinking DOT is applying to Broadway has gone into another program that is turning pieces of roadway in the five boroughs into public plazas. What is that about?

Sadik-Khan: This is largely a city without seats. And so we need to look at what we're doing to accommodate the needs of all users of our system--not just cars. We need to look at pedestrians and design places that work for them. And if we really want people to be walking around more and biking around more, we need to create the environment that allows them to do that. That's why you see the new bike lanes out there. And the goal of our bike network is to create a completely connected backbone so people don't have to leave the system when riding from point A to point B.

But similarly, we have to reengineer our streets a little differently. And we can reclaim areas that have been essentially overpaved and use that space for another purpose. The plaza at 14th Street and 9th Avenue in Manhattan is a perfect example. That had a disused reverse bus lane that was coming northbound, and this cacophony of traffic that spread out by 14th Street. So we rationalized the traffic movement and used the reclaimed space to create this plaza area. And it's been a wild success. We're working closely with our business improvement districts, who will be maintaining the spaces so that they will continue to look good over the coming years. It's a big priority of Mayor Bloomberg's to make sure as we're laying out these new open spaces that they'll be maintained and not become littered or deteriorate over time. We're looking at paying down a long-term investment for a greener city. So the participation and leadership of the business community is key to our success in many of these plazas.

Like many of our projects, we work with local communities. So a lot of these projects come from the ground up. New Yorkers have very specific ideas of what they want to see done on their streets--we're not a shy lot here. I sometimes think there are 8.2 million traffic engineers in the city of New York. What we've done is put out an RFP, an invitation to say we're looking at this plaza program and people can apply. We got 20 applications and we selected them down to nine we've got going now. We're moving through the development process right now.

Swope: And you select them based on what?

Sadik-Khan: The community support for it, the business community support for it, the mobility improvement and the need for it. Is this an area that has green space available? The mayor has made a big part of PlaNYC to ensure that every New Yorker is within a 10-minute walk of a park or green space. So this is very much a down payment on that vision.

Swope: Is there a hope that these spaces can be made to feel more permanent, like a park? Sometimes the plazas feel like exactly what they are--raw spaces carved out from traffic.

Sadik-Khan: Eventually, the capital program will catch up. But right now, people are so hungry for the spaces that they actually use these public spaces even before we have them done. When we just put up the orange cones, these spaces become mobbed. So New Yorkers are really voting with their feet instantly as soon as they've got this space for them to relax and play, shoot an e-mail or have coffee with a friend. We'll get to that more permanent piece of it. But right now, we're moving quickly to show what this city could be like.