The Great White Right of Way

The biggest production on Broadway this summer won't be in a theater. Rather, the show will be out in the street, starring the road itself....
by | May 31, 2009

The biggest production on Broadway this summer won't be in a theater. Rather, the show will be out in the street, starring the road itself. New York City is shutting down two swathes of the Great White Way to automobile traffic, turning the asphalt where it criss-crosses Times Square and Herald Square completely over to pedestrians and bicyclists. It will be one of the most high-profile tests ever of what remains a radical idea in this country: that traffic can move more smoothly by giving cars less road to drive on.

It could work. Broadway slices diagonally across Midtown Manhattan, piercing the city's street grid like a dagger. This creates legendary intersections--Madison Square and Union Square are others. But it also snarls traffic behind stop lights that struggle to mediate the chaos. Shutting down Broadway's two trickiest segments is aimed at loosening the traffic knot by increasing green-light times on other roads. The city predicts that travel time on 7th Avenue, which passes through Times Square, will improve by up to 17 percent. Travel time on 6th Avenue, which bisects Herald Square, is expected to improve by up to 37 percent.

But helping traffic flow is only one part of the city's reasoning. Pedestrians will find the new Broadway safer and more enjoyable. On an average day, some 356,000 pedestrians pass through Times Square alone; "pedlock" forces people to step off the sidewalk and into the street, where they're more than twice as likely to get hit by cars than on nearby avenues. The new plan will give pedestrians acres of breathing room--new public space carved straight from the roadway. And there will be tables, chairs, planters and shade umbrellas for people to sit down and watch the passing carnival. In the past year, New York has created similar living-room spaces out of underused roadway around Madison Square and at other awkward intersections around the city. When the weather is nice, those spaces are typically mobbed with people.

And therein lies an even more revolutionary idea. Of all the land area in New York's five boroughs, one-quarter is given over to streets--or more precisely, to the movement and parking of automobiles (that figure is even higher in other cities, such as Chicago). New York is saying that it doesn't have to be that way--and that car dominance can be reversed quite easily. The Broadway work will cost just $1.5 million and be done by September. As Janette Sadik-Khan, the city transportation commissioner, likes to say, a lot can happen with a can of paint and a paintbrush. "It doesn't have to take decades to get things done," she says. "You can make quick, transformative change that lends reality to the notion of a greener city."