Beach Chairs in Times Square

How closing Broadway to cars could solve a century of traffic woes.

Lounging in Times Square

“The word square,” notes James Traub in The Devils’ Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square, “does not have the same meaning in Manhattan as in Paris or Rome.” For one, New York’s squares are often not squares; the imprecise geometry of Herald or Times Square is hewn by the wily, diagonal progression of Broadway, New York City’s largest rebuke to the hegemonic grid. For another, these spaces tend to not be, as Traub notes, “punctuations or pauses in the street plan” but, instead, uneasy slivers cast like fractured icebergs amid the urban scrum. As the writer Benjamin de Casseres observed in the early 20th century, Times Square “is a ganglion of streets that fuses into a traffic cop.”

As to why Manhattan seems so lacking in public space, so bereft of ornamental “circles, ovals, and stars” in the urban plan, answers are found in the early 19th century report by the Commissioners of Streets and Roads in the City of New York. “A city is to be composed principally of the habitations of men,” counseled the report, and “strait-sided, right-angled homes are the most cheap to build, and the most convenient to live in.” As for public spaces, the report sniffed: “Certainly, if the city of New York were destined to stand on the side of the small stream, such as the Seine or the Thames, a great number of ample places might be needful.” New York attitude, circa 1811: Who’s got time to lounge in public plazas? We’ve got the world to conquer!

In an effort to address both of these issues—the nonconforming quirks of Broadway and the lack of public spaces in the so-called “squares”—the city’s Department of Transportation, with the full encouragement of Mayor Bloomberg, has temporarily reconfigured one of the worst manifestations of these two problems—Times Square, the putative “Crossroads of the World.” The surface facts are disarmingly simple: The DOT has blocked off Broadway with orange barrels and set out some plastic chairs. If it works, it could be a dramatic reinvention of a long-troublesome place.

For more than a century, Times Square has been bedeviling whatever authority happens to be in charge of moving people through the city’s streets with the least amount of congestion and carnage. In 1905, the New York Times trumpeted that the novel “Times Square traffic squad” was bringing order to the place and that “those who had occasion to travel on foot across Times Square manage to do so without being compelled to dodge automobiles and hansoms, as has been the custom in the past.” Various new traffic plans were set in motion; traffic coming from downtown, for example, was detoured from Broadway at 38th Street, and sent onto Seventh Avenue. The move was not without incident, the Times reported: “J. Pierpont Morgan’s automobile, in which he rode to the Opera House with Mrs. Morgan, was sent around this way after the chauffeur had had a little tilt with a traffic squad policeman at Broadway and Thirty-Eighth Street.”

This traffic initiative apparently didn’t do the trick, because in the subsequent decades the words Times Square and congestion continued to be synonymous (e.g., in 1920, one finds this Times headline: “Plan to Break Jam in Times Square”). In 1954, a plan was broached to include Broadway into a proposed network of one-way streets (“the original plan,” noted the Times, “ignored Broadway because engineers were fearful that its diagonal path through the core of the city would complicate the operation”). Also in 1954, traffic commissioner T.T. Wiley (who also had the quixotic—and averted, thanks to Jane Jacobs and allies—desire to build a four-lane arterial roadway through Washington Square Park to “help unscramble traffic congestion south of Herald Square”) promised that new “over-the-road” traffic lights would help make Times Square and 42nd Street among “the safest in the city” (which, alas, did not happen). By 1964, a new weapon was announced. The “construction of landscaped pedestrian islands in Times Square,” it was said, “will enable motorists on Seventh Avenue to continue directly down that artery without having to go down Broadway and later turn through a cross-town street to get back on Seventh.”

There is a theme here: Times Square has been congested (and contested) for as long as it has existed, and no amount of tinkering with the traffic lights seems sufficient to solve the problem. And, given the dynamic nature of traffic, any plan that did succeed would be faced with what Frederic Jameson once called, in a different context, a quasi-Sartrean ” ‘winner-loses’ logic”: It would just bring more traffic. The Brookings Institution’s Anthony Downs has called this phenomenon “triple convergence”: When a crowded street is expanded, for example, peak-hour traffic conditions may temporarily improve, but the improvements may also simply entice drivers from other hours, other roads, and other modes of travel.

All of which explains why the latest Times Square traffic plan—to close Broadway to vehicular traffic for five blocks—while seemingly the most perverse scheme to date, may actually prove to be the most successful.

Whether it succeeds may, in part, depend on reconfiguring the notion of success. For the real Times Square “traffic problem” nowadays is one of pedestrians. More than 356,000 pedestrians travel through Times Square on an average day, according to the New York City Department of Transportation, while the number of cars is closer to 50,000. Despite this mismatch in “mode share”—the fact that people are not drawn to the place for its automobile-oriented delights—only 11 percent of Times Square is devoted to pedestrian use (and these small scraps are fought over between fast-jaywalking locals and meandering, signal-obeying four-abreast groups of tourists). For many New Yorkers, Times Square has become an anti-place, a media abstraction best not actually visited, but for those who must, those who work there, surveys have shown a vast majority dislike it, with “pedestrian overcrowding” being the primary reason.

Many media accounts of the pilot project, particularly those by critics, have labeled it a “pedestrian mall.” In the United States, this term has become a pejorative, evoking early-1970s visions of half-empty buses driving down wind-swept streets filled with panhandlers. Those projects were about luring people back to declining cities, while this one is about managing the crush of people who are already there (and improving their experience). Ironically, a real pedestrian mall—with such anti-urban urban planning relics as enclosed pedestrian overpasses and a John Portman hotel—was proposed for Broadway in the early 1980s (only the hotel, with a revolving restaurant, got built). The Times, in opining against that project, asked: “Do they really want to enlarge the scope for Times Square’s prostitutes, drug salesmen, three-card-monte dealers and derelicts? And do they want to live with the chaos that will result from choking off Broadway traffic for two crucial blocks?”

It’s wrong to call the new Times Square experiment a pedestrian mall, however, for the simple reason that there is still a quite vigorous traffic lane moving through the heart of it, the so-called “bowtie” formed by the crossing of Broadway and Seventh Avenue. (The cheek-by-jowl nature of Seventh and Broadway, which has rendered both routes a bit redundant, also helps explain why Times Square has had such a high pedestrian injury rate: A general rule of thumb in traffic safety is the more lanes a pedestrian has to cross, the higher the chance for injury.)

But all the lounge chairs in Times Square do something else. On the face of it, closing off seven blocks of Broadway is a big loss for car traffic. Broadway was carrying, according to city engineers, around 1,500 vehicles per hour; Seventh Avenue, the same. You might expect the intersection to lose capacity by half, but in the curious world of traffic math, with its Braess Paradoxes and “slower is faster” effects, one plus one does not always equal two. The diagonal nature of Broadway means that Times Square intersections must account for three streets: Seventh, Broadway, and the cross streets. Because each needs to have its signal time and its “clearance phases” (to make sure everyone’s out of the intersection), and because each additional light means an additional queue (with its invariable “start-up time losses,” or the seconds that creep as each person begins moving again), higher capacity is here a case of diminishing returns. In addition, in anticipation of higher demand for Seventh Avenue, the engineers have lengthened green signal time there by four seconds as well as adding an additional travel lane (through restriping).

On the Thursday morning I visited Times Square (with DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan), traffic was moving steadily. It was not FDR Drive (nor should anyone want it to be), but it was hardly a Gordian knot. Workers were busy with “scarification,” or grinding away the existing thermoplastic road markings, while a crowd gathered around a group of sailors getting married in some televised stunt. The persistent rain kept the outdoor chairs largely empty, but there was nonetheless a festival air as people strolled willy-nilly across once-forbidden streets, forming on-the-fly desire lines. One impression the project leaves is how arbitrary urban space can be—a whimsical water feature is apparently not a prerequisite for a vibrant public. “We just rolled out the barrels and people were instantly using the space,” Sadik-Khan told me. There were curious behavioral kinks still being worked out as people navigated through; e.g., the right-turn at 45th Street, put in as a concession to theater owners on that block (as in the days of J.P. Morgan’s coach, people still want to be dropped off in front) seemed to surprise a number of pedestrians, and traffic police had to wave tour buses through. A group of cabs crossing on 46th street got stuck between the lights, in the crosswalk, blocking the flow of pedestrians. Typical New York, if with a new twist. “We’re trying it,” Sadik-Khan said. “Nobody can argue that Times Square wasn’t broken.”