Since New York’s horse-and-buggy days, confusing and dangerous traffic has jammed every intersection where Broadway crosses an avenue. Blame it on basic geometry: Broadway introduces awkward angles into the otherwise pristine perpendicularity of Manhattan’s street grid from 14th Street (Union Square) to 59th (Columbus Circle).
For decades, the city’s transportation pros have tried every trick in the traffic engineer’s book to get vehicles and pedestrians to move smoothly and safely through these pressure points. But to no avail, as any TKTS patron or cab fare near Macy’s can attest.
So Mayor Bloomberg and his transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, are throwing the book out and trying the obvious - and politically outrageous - solution of erasing Broadway from the map at two especially sensitive places, Herald Square (33rd-35th Streets) and Times/Duffy Squares (42nd-47th Streets).
It may sound crazy to banish cars from Broadway, but in its radical simplicity, it also just may work - when nothing else has. In fact, it’s such a promising idea that, rather than simply monitoring this experiment for the next two months, Bloomberg and Sadik-Khan should start thinking bigger. They should draw up plans to close Broadway to car traffic all the way from Union Square to Columbus Circle. Yes, all 2-1/2 miles.
Over the years, the city’s transportation department has tried every trick imaginable to make Broadway traffic behave rationally. They’ve variously tried widening the roadways to vehicular traffic and narrowing them, allowing turns from and onto selected cross-town streets and not allowing them. The traffic gurus have experimented with dedicated turn lanes, protected turn time, innumerable signal corrections. They have deployed signage, paint, cones and concrete.
A couple of years ago, Commissioner Sadik-Khan’s predecessor made a first step toward simplification with the Times Square Shuffle, requiring traffic on 7th Avenue and Broadway to swap places going through the intersection. With all the incremental adjustments piled on top of each other, it’s a wonder traffic flows at all, as motorists slow down to figure out what they’re supposed to do.
Of course, they may be multitasking their way through the congestion - attempting to decipher the baffling rules while halted by the mass of pedestrians overflowing the sidewalks. As a major shopping and transportation hub - featuring a major subway complex, PATH station, proximity to Penn Station and crossing point for multiple bus lines - Herald Square is desperate for space to accommodate its abundance of foot traffic. Similarly, Times Square needs room for tourists to gawk at the neon and crowd around entertainment venues. And truckers, cabbies and other vehicle operators must be able to move through Midtown.
Strange as it might seem, closing Broadway to automotive traffic helps all these groups. Pedestrians get just about the full width of Broadway added to their sidewalk allocation. (Cyclists get a narrow strip of it. Sadik-Khan’s staff needs to focus more on managing those competing uses.)
Drivers lose some space, but gain time - longer green lights on the avenues and the streets, once Broadway is out of the mix. They also get back a moving lane on 7th Avenue - taken away years ago in one of those many previous traffic tweaks. Except for prohibiting southbound turns onto vehicle-free Broadway, the new plan does not change east-west patterns at all. Simple and elegant as can be.
Except for one thing: The other stretches of Broadway. The new initiative maintains the seating areas, bike lanes and narrowed automotive roadways implemented south of Times Square last year, and proposes similar treatment for the segment from 47th to 59th Streets. For these portions of Broadway, the roadbed’s width is already (or soon would be) painted and textured to serve those who drive, park, bike, walk and ride buses. The city’s new plan would chop up Broadway lengthwise as well, introducing additional confusion as Manhattan’s diagonal switches every few blocks between allowing and banning traffic.
Instead, the Bloomberg administration should follow its innovative thinking to its natural conclusion - and extend its Times Square plan to cover the full swath of the Great Slanting Way, all the way from Union Square to Columbus Circle. Although the pedestrian demand is not as great outside of Times and Herald Squares, the traffic logic is the same. Delete Broadway’s quirky angles and the green-light time they require from the grid. Speed and simplify.
It’s so radical it could work.
This piece originally appeared in New York Daily News