In her four years atop the city’s Department of Transportation, Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan has masterminded a re-engineering of the city’s streets that not so long ago would have been impossible. Bike lanes proliferate, parking spaces have been transformed into cafes, and Broadway, the most famous road in the world, has been almost entirely closed to cars from Columbus Circle to Union Square. Traffic fatalities are at record lows and by-and-large travel times are down, despite the “shrinking” roadways.
This has not kept a number of New Yorkers from reacting as though their homes had been flattened to make way for an expressway, as was the case under a certain biblical commissioner a few decades ago. It is true that much of Sadik-Khan’s power lies in the realization that, like Robert Moses, her department enjoyed limited oversight and could act unilaterally with its visionary–or is it venal?–plans.
Which is why the news that the most ambitious–or perhaps unreal–plan yet, to close off the middle of 34th Street and send the cars and trucks fleeing out from there in opposite directions, with dedicated bus lanes and another grand pedestrian plaza to boot, has died. Business owners and residents were too worried about the changes it would mean, and in a surprising turn, DOT listened. Arguably, like Moses, the department tends to think it is working for the good of the entire city, even if a few locals may grumble. And its plans have mostly stuck–who complains about the Times Square changes anymore, except when it is on the topic of all the tourists.
Ben Kabak of Second Avenue Sagas worries deeply about the implications of this latest decision:
For the people who ride and the people who walk, this would have been a grand experiment in restoring the streets to the people who make them thrive. But the residents, for selfish reasons, and business owners with some practical concerns that could have been addressed, did not like it. […] From personal safety to faster commute times to cleaner air and a nicer environment for pedestrians, this project matters. From a modeshare perspective, it’s a no-brainer. Cars are vastly outnumbered by pedestrians and buses, and cars, which are trying to escape 34th St., do not contribute to the area’s economy.
Given the backlash to bike lanes in the East Village, Upper West Side, Staten Island and, most notoriously, on Prospect Park West, it makes sense that the DOT would finally do some outreach on all these projects, even if technically it does not have to–not that the City Council is not currently mulling bills that will create more oversight and community outreach for the department.
But what if the plazas were a strawman, a grandiose plan that could never actually happen, but by comparison, the still radical proposal of, say, separated bus lanes, of which there are currently none in the city, could be proposed and look tame by comparison? This may sound like a conspiracy theory, and it kind of is, but consider that developers do this all the time, proposing out-sized projects they know cannot get built, politically speaking, before having them scaled down to what they actually want.
A number of transit folks consulted by The Observer agree that this was not the case on 34th Street, that DOT expended too many resources and too much political capital not to be serious about this plan. Still, when the new one is unveiled on March 14, we bet it remains radical by New York standards. And is also welcomed even by its skeptics.