For Thanksgiving, Mayor de Blasio has given New York its holiday present: saner streets until New Year’s.
After initially backtracking a few weeks ago, Hizzoner has announced that he will open the streets around Rockefeller Center starting Black Friday to the hundreds of thousands of people who descend upon Midtown to see the tree daily.
Pedestrianizing Rockefeller Center is good for workers, good for stores, good for safety and good for the image New York presents to the world — but has to be done right.
The good news is things can’t get worse. In recent years, New York has “solved” the problem of record crowds — up to 20,000 pedestrians an hour walking Fifth Avenue — by punishing the people. Cement barriers closed off crosswalks and commuters clashed with spectators on too-narrow sidewalks.
Now, the majority will have more room. Weekday afternoons and almost all day on weekends, the city will take two of Fifth Avenue’s five lanes away from traffic, one on each side of the avenue, and block it off for wider sidewalks. Forty-ninth and 50th streets will be “open to pedestrians alone” during these busy times, with more space on Sixth Avenue, too.
A predictable schedule is good for drivers, as well as for buildings expecting deliveries. Right now, the New York Police Department randomly closes blocks when crowds grow dangerous — which usually happens after they have grown unpleasant to be in. Building managers in the area will now know when they can and can’t accept deliveries.
Though things will be better, they won’t be optimal. The city will achieve these closures with temporary “movable barriers” — the best it can do on short notice, although Christmas is hardly a surprise. The barriers — since they have to protect people from potential terrorists — will likely be bulky and ugly.
For next year, the city should plan now for a permanent redesign, including round metal posts that go up and down into the curb to close a street to traffic whenever needed.
Long-term, it makes sense to use such posts to narrow the roadway and widen sidewalks on Fifth Avenue, and 49th and 50th streets, expanding the existing Rockefeller Center plazas.
On side streets, rather than all or nothing, the city could use retractable metal posts to preserve one or two narrow lanes for buses and deliveries.
A thoughtful redesign would allow Metropolitan Transportation Authority buses to pick up and drop off people. For years, the MTA has bypassed area stops during the holidays — when the city should be encouraging people to take a bus that comes every minute in its own lane. Plus, tour buses could drive by.
Then, too, permanence allows for figuring out what to do with extra space. People need room to walk, but they also need room to sit down. The outdoor coffee bar in Rockefeller Plaza is always crowded, as is the wine bar on the north side.
The city could allow restaurants and retailers within a defined area to bid to set up outdoor kiosks, something less cluttered than a street fair but more interesting than just a street. (It’s cold? Heat lamps.)
For now, NYPD officers on the ground must resist the urge to “pen” people within the new space, using the barriers as funnels to bypass crosswalks. Rockefeller Center isn’t a parade. People should be able to move freely.
Finally, there is the issue of where diverted cars, buses and trucks will go. Even with 49th and 50th open to traffic, crosstown congestion starts well back on Second and 10th avenues on gridlock days. The city needs more busway and delivery-only thoroughfares, like 14th Street, to discourage car traffic before it reaches a chokepoint.
This year, though, New Yorkers have a lot to be thankful for. As they enjoy more elbow room, they can spare a kind New Year’s wish for the mayor who has shown himself to be a true Grinch: He almost stole Christmas, but had a last-minute change of heart.
This piece originally appeared at the New York Post
Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images