If there is a ground zero in the war to make New York more pedestrian-friendly, it is Times Square. And if there is a weapon of choice, it is a collection of chairs plunked in the middle of what used to be the city’s most traffic-choked intersection.
David Letterman has scorned them, taxi drivers have cursed them and some of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s critics have called them just plain silly.
“It’s so patently stupid,” City Councilman Tony Avella, who is challenging Bloomberg in the November mayoral election, said of the idea of setting up a pedestrian mall on Broadway.
But planning experts who have advocated on behalf of walkers and bicyclists say such walkable -- and loungeable -- public spaces prove that the elements are in place to make this city more akin to Barcelona, Paris or London rather than . . . well, New York.
There’s the subway-riding mayor and his transport commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, who often commutes on her bicycle; there’s the economic slowdown, which has spurred more people to walk or bike; and there is the steady fall in New York’s crime rate, which has helped change the face of public spaces.
Spots like Times Square -- or Herald Square a few blocks south, the site of another pedestrian mall -- once were magnets for thieves and riffraff. Now they draw tourists and locals looking for places to eat lunch, sun-worship, or just sit and watch the unique show that is New York.
About noon on a recent weekday, with the temperature in the mid-80s and humidity to match, every chair in Times Square was filled. Loungers were treated to the Naked Cowboy, a local fixture who makes a living being photographed wearing only briefs, cowboy boots and a hat; an Elvis impersonator in a white fringed suit strolling about, guitar in hand; and one man clad in too-short shorts for reasons nobody could figure out, just walking among the crowd.
“I think he just got up and decided to put on something that would look really strange, and he succeeded,” said Arismeney Mata, who was slouching comfortably in one of the low-slung beach chairs that showed up on Memorial Day weekend. The skyscrapers on either side offered shade on the stifling day. Behind Mata, giant tickers flashed the latest headlines. Police on horseback and private security guards roamed among the 480 or so chairs, stopping to chat with tourists and those who wanted to pet the animals.
Mata, who lives in New York, said he and a friend had come to Times Square because “it’s a nice spot to relax, and it’s perfect for people-watching.” Part of the fun, he said, was sitting in the formerly chaotic intersection where Broadway slices through midtown Manhattan -- with no fear of being run down.
If the summer of ’69 was the summer of love, the summer of ’09 might be the summer of the pedestrian,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit that for decades has pushed to reduce vehicular dominance in New York City -- where most major avenues at rush hour are cascades of yellow cabs, black limousines and battered delivery vans.
Not to mention the pedestrians and roller-bladers who spill off the narrow sidewalks and the bicyclists who wind through the crowds.
“It’s not just a quality-of-life enhancement,” said White, noting that pedestrian injuries were down 50% along a three-block stretch of Broadway in Times Square where the sidewalk was broadened last year. “It’s really a matter of life or death when you have a densely pedestrian city like New York.”
Even with a goal as benign as preventing people from being flattened onto the asphalt, the pro-pedestrian mission faces huge challenges.
There are about 6,375 miles of paved streets, including the sidewalks, in New York City, whose population is 8.9 million, according to the transportation department. Los Angeles, with a population of 3.8 million and far fewer walkers, has 10,000 miles.
On any given day, about 350,000 people -- roughly the equivalent of the city of Anaheim -- walk into Times Square, according to the Times Square Alliance, a group devoted to promoting the square, which it defines as the expanse encompassing 42nd to 47th streets from Broadway to 7th Avenue. Pedestrian traffic in the area has grown by nearly 58% on Saturdays and 53% midweek in the last decade, according to a survey commissioned by the alliance, which studied activity at 14 locations.
The pedestrian malls at Herald Square, famous for fronting Macy’s, and Times Square are just part of an initiative including New York City’s five boroughs -- the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Manhattan.
In a new 236-page design manual intended to guide future street projects, officials have recommended widening sidewalks, placing speed bumps on some streets to slow traffic and adding bike lanes to make life easier for nondrivers.
“This will change the playbook for how all of New York’s streets are designed,” White said.
Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, said that while “seeing people sitting on lounge chairs in the middle of Times Square is kind of trippy,” the malls so far are a huge success. In fact, he said, the biggest headache has been with the chairs.
The sturdy models that were ordered didn’t arrive in time for the mall’s opening, so the alliance bought plastic folding beach chairs in pink, green and blue.
They quickly started wearing out.
“We literally could not tear the tags off them before people started sitting in these chairs,” Tompkins said.
By August, many of the seats were sagging nearly to the asphalt. Bits of plastic were popping out.
“We Americans are getting more weighty all the time,” mused Jean Golden, who was in Times Square to get some film developed. With an hour to kill, she decided to sit in a chair. “I love the idea of public spaces,” said Golden, who lives near Central Park but says places like this are crucial for New Yorkers.
Last week, the tattered plastic chairs were gone, replaced by metal folding ones, small bistro tables and umbrellas to offer shade and give the mall a more chic and welcoming appearance.
A week after the malls opened, Bloomberg said, midtown traffic was moving faster just by being diverted away from the messy intersections created by Broadway’s diagonal slant through the city and by giving drivers longer green lights on adjacent streets. In December, the city will review how the malls are doing and decide whether to make them permanent.
Beresford Simmons, who has been driving a taxi in New York for 35 years, hopes that doesn’t happen. The cabbie said things may have moved smoothly at first because the city upped the number of traffic police assigned to the area. But once the cops disappeared, congestion was as bad as ever.
Simmons also said the diversion had made it impossible to reach many major midtown hotels without going several blocks out of the way, inconveniencing passengers and wasting gas.
“It hasn’t helped in any way. None whatsoever,” Simmons said of the malls.
Councilman Avella agreed that businesses were suffering because drivers could no longer reach them, and that the new traffic routes were as congested as the old ones.
“Last night I was going to Times Square and they had . . . agents moving traffic through the lights because the traffic is so backed up because of the pedestrian walkways,” Avella said recently. “The merchants hate it. Some pedestrians might like it, but the fact is merchants are being killed.”
Avella said it was unfair to punish drivers by reducing their road space or charging them to bring cars into Manhattan on weekdays, an idea Bloomberg also supports. Avella noted that some parts of the outer boroughs lack the public transport to free people from their cars. They drive, he said, “because they have to.”
New York’s die-hard walkers argue that if they can do without wheels, anybody can. But nobody can say pedestrians are blameless in the battle for street space.
New Yorkers walk while applying makeup, texting, e-mailing, talking on their cellphones, reading, eating, drinking, taking notes or rolling cigarettes. They ignore “don’t walk” signs. And they mutter impatiently at tourists who wait for the light to turn green before stepping off the curb.
They gripe about mothers pushing double-wide strollers down the sidewalks, yet meander down clearly marked bicycle lanes -- which brings up another issue in New York’s street wars. When asked to identify the biggest offender in the battle for space, New Yorker Gene Lieber replied, “Bikes!” without hesitation.
“Anyone who lives in this city knows that you have to look both ways even when crossing a one-way street because of the way bicyclists drive down the wrong side,” Lieber said as he walked up Park Avenue on a recent Saturday after the street had been declared car-free for a few hours.
Without vehicles, the wide avenue was eerily quiet even as thousands of people strolled, jogged and cycle
Traffic signals were ignored.
People walked dogs, skated with parrots perched on their shoulders and drifted across the lanes -- as if to not waste the chance to tramp on every inch of ground that is normally owned by cars.