In a dramatic reappropriation of urban space for public use, Times Square was closed off to cars earlier this summer. Less well known is that Summer Streets are already in place all over the five-boroughs this summer, thanks to the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) and that a section of 34th street will have a pedestrian-only zone when the next bus rapid transit (BRT) phase is installed. Interestingly, there have been many studies showing that traffic does not deteriorate when public space is added – even a mathematical theorem called the Braess Paradox to explain the phenomenon. This Saturday, Williamsburg Walks converts Bedford Avenue into a pedestrian-only zone, brought to you by L Magazine and the Neighbors Allied for Good Growth (NAG). The event tagline: “rethink your public space.”
It has been argued that bureaucracy makes it difficult to engender change in New York. But many public initiatives carry the fingerprints of particular officials and their personal interests. Iris Weinshall, former NYC DOT commissioner, pitched and implemented the concept of “Thru Streets,” which improved cross-town travel time up to 25% by prohibiting turns except on Park Avenue and a few other exceptions. Similarly, although Janette Sadik-Khan, NYC DOT commissioner, has been making waves recently for her research travel to far-flung places such as Bogota and Beijing, we can credit the successful implementation of the 200-mile New York City bike network to her avid interest in cycling.
The automobile and road culture of the United States can be attributed to cold war defense programs such as the Eisenhower Interstate System, infrastructure stimulus packages throughout the last century, urban planning theories that glorified technology and the automobile, and most simply — that Henry Ford was an American. Regardless, it is important to realize that public space is at a premium whether in dense urban areas such as New York City or in areas of great suburban sprawl. Car-free zones in urban areas, with a mix of recreational and entertainment activities, address important issues on how public space should be created, allocated and utilized.