Pedestrians, bicyclists spar for space in NYC's new no-car zones

Fourth story in an occasional series on the greening of New York City. Click here to view the series.

NEW YORK -- Against all odds, this notoriously congested city is getting motor vehicles off the street.

Two years ago, lawmakers in Albany thwarted New York City's attempt to bring London-style congestion pricing into its central business district. Now officials here are taking a different approach: They are banning cars from certain parts of the city.

Since the defeat of the congestion-toll plan, the city has replaced a large number of on-street parking spots with hundreds of miles of bicycle lanes while rerouting traffic across town. It has created two pedestrian-only zones on its most famous thoroughfare, Broadway, in Times Square and Herald Square, further restricting traffic in the center of the city. And it has started converting an abandoned elevated rail line into a pedestrian-only trail across much of west Manhattan.

So Manhattan streets have begun to feel less mean for pedestrians and bicyclists. "It's definitely more biker friendly," said Cornelius Bethea, a veteran bicycle messenger who has been delivering packages up and down Manhattan for 20 years. "By far Greenwich, Washington, those streets are the best. Hardly no traffic."

Though the New York Department of Transportation won't confirm whether fewer cars are entering the heart of the city, DOT spokesman Montgomery Dean said data show traffic is moving more freely during the day. Bicycling to work is also booming, with the number of bicycle commuters rising a whopping 26 percent from 2008 to 2009. Meanwhile U.S. EPA says Manhattan's air quality has even improved, another indication of fewer idling cars and trucks.

Testament to the effort's success: Pedestrians have replaced drivers as the most-hated enemies of bicycle messengers, who each ride 40 to 50 miles a day and know the borough as well as anyone.

For one, Bethea has given up using a bike lane running between the new Broadway pedestrian zones because of emboldened foot travelers. "The very first time I used this thing I almost collided with a pedestrian because she crossed right in the middle, and I had to swerve around her," he said. "It's not appropriate to close off Times Square."

Other longtime bike messengers concur. Though they all agree the city in general is more navigable, their biggest worry today is a collision with pedestrians, or the new commuter bicyclists.

Veteran messenger Zo Coober is grumbling about a plan to create another car-free zone on 34th Street. "Worst idea ever," he said. "It's not Disney World here. This is a real working city."

But the office of Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), who is pushing cars off some streets, says clearing some streets of cars is helping make the city more liveable. There is no alternative, city officials say.


The car-free zones were developed after state lawmakers killed the congestion pricing plan, insisting they had a better idea -- one that has yet to materialize. The city's plan called for charging drivers entering Manhattan's most heavily traveled business district an $8 toll for cars and a $21 toll for trucks, using the proceeds for transportation projects.

But Bloomberg is now taking a different approach. His ambitious "PlaNYC" agenda has led to the installation of more than 200 miles of new bicycle lanes to city streets, much of them created by eliminating parking. Traffic has been rerouted in some areas and an ad campaign is under way to encourage commuters to leave their cars at home, especially if traveling to Manhattan for work.

And a little over a year ago the city closed Broadway to vehicle traffic in Times Square and Herald Square, transforming New York's two busiest shopping and entertainment plazas into pedestrian malls.

"We brought forward the plan on Broadway to eliminate the two biggest bottlenecks that exist in the midtown grid," Bloomberg spokesman Marc La Vorgna said. "That's been effective in helping to improve traffic flow at the same time having the added bonus of creating some open space that people in the city use and have overwhelming support for."

Travel times improve

DOT recently decided to make the Broadway change permanent while announcing a new proposal to do something similar to 34th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. The idea on 34th Street is to only allow buses to run in the center of the busy throughway while letting foot traffic spill onto the rest of the street, pushing cars and trucks to the side streets and speeding up the time it takes buses to cross Manhattan.

Though DOT says it cannot confirm whether fewer cars are entering the city's heart daily, spokesman Montgomery Dean said data show traffic is moving more freely. The development of the bike lanes, he said, is a key part of the initiative.

"Usually what we try to do is try to see how any of our projects fit into the network, basically creating something that makes it easier for people to get from different parts of the city," he said. "We do have routes that we're looking at for the future that would help complete the network."

Through analyzing data garnered from the GPS systems of this city's taxi cab fleet, DOT knows that the average travel time in the heart of Manhattan during daylight hours has improved by 13 percent from 2007.

The steep economic recession probably had something to do with that, but the same data show that congestion in the central business district has dropped by around 7 percent since 2003, even as the city grew and despite cuts in service by New York's financially strapped subway operator, the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

And New Yorkers now have another way to escape Manhattan's traffic-clogged thoroughfares.

The first section of High Line Park, a pedestrian-only greenway built on an abandoned elevated rail line, opened last year and has quickly gained a following.

Phase two, under construction now, should be open by next year. When completed, the park will let pedestrians cover Gansevoort Street in the West Village all the way to 34th Street -- about 25 blocks -- high above the traffic below.

More bicyclists

Meanwhile, commuter cycling has more than doubled since 2005, with DOT reporting a 26 percent increase between 2008 to 2009. The city's Department of Health estimates that well over half a million New Yorkers now take their bikes to work, weather permitting.

A new push has the city re-engineering roadways so that bikes and vehicle traffic are physically removed from one another by a section of on-street parking.

About 5 miles of these new "parking protected" bikes lanes are in operation so far, much of them on 9th Avenue on Manhattan's west side. And just last week the city got the final green light to build more along 20 blocks of Columbus Avenue farther north. This summer should also see many more miles of new bike lanes added to the grid.

DOT aims to double bicycle commuting again over 2007 levels by 2012, and triple it by 2017.

There are other, less-obvious signs of the city's eagerness to limit the number of cars entering Manhattan at rush hours.

An estimated 3,100 new bike racks have been put up since 2007, some of them within 20 new "sheltered bike parking structures." Building owners and managers are coming under pressure to allow commuters to bring their bikes into their offices with them, or to add bike racks to lobbies to guard against theft.

Commuters also seem to want more pedestrian malls.

A recent survey of residents by the Times Square Alliance showed 74 percent of respondents agree that Times Square has "improved dramatically" within the past year. The city estimates that foot traffic in Times and Herald squares is up by around 11 percent and 6 percent, respectively.

Aside from the obvious "green" benefits, the city is touting improved safety as a major reason to continue the drive. Pedestrian fatalities from collisions with cars are down 19 percent from 2001. Bicycle fatalities are down 54 percent, despite a tripling of the number of bikes on the road since that year.

'It's like a park'

Despite the dramatic enhancements in just a few years' time, New York's bike messenger fleet still wants to see congestion pricing become a reality. But ironically the messengers also are eager to see the new influx of no-car zones come to an end, lest they allow freewheeling pedestrians to take over the open space entirely.

"It's like a park," bike messenger Coober complains. "They're just wandering around freely in the street. Nobody looks when they cross Broadway anymore."

Meanwhile, DOT's Dean said the bicyclist-pedestrian conflicts are likely just growing pains as both sides take time to adjust to the new changes. He said the agency is working to address concerns and raise awareness, but overall they are confident that things are on the right track.

Bethea, for his part, is happy with the new pro-bike atmosphere but does not think it has gone far enough. "There's still a lot more improvement that needs to be done," he said.

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