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New York City Takes Space from Cars, Redistributes to Pedestrians and Bicyclists

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Traffic in New York City can be intense. In Manhattan, where the daytime population surges to four million and pedestrians can outnumber cars by an 18-to-1 margin, city officials recently conducted a months-long experiment on a single block along Broadway. Pavement that was used exclusively for cars was redistributed, allotting more space to bicyclists and pedestrians. The speed limit was slashed to 5 mph. Dedicated bike lanes were added. The city’s Department of Transportation deemed the experiment so successful that it has made the changes permanent.

The “shared street,” near the iconic Flatiron Building, occupies a sliver of Broadway where it intersects Fifth Avenue, just west of Madison Square Park. Viewed from above, it looks like a buffer zone between the leafy park and bustling Fifth Avenue, with tables and umbrellas beckoning pedestrians to sit down and take in the open air.

“We’re seeing cities across the U.S. embrace innovative
-street designs, like shared streets.”
-– Alex Engel, National Association of City Transportation Officials

“When we met with the local community to hear their concerns, we weren’t surprised to learn of the changes they wanted to make this area safer for pedestrians and cyclists,” Luis Sanchez, Manhattan borough commissioner for the New York City DOT. “It’s a space where motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists all travel together safely, with cars traveling at a reduced speed and pedestrians having more options to circulate in an area.”

Jennifer Brown, executive director of the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership business-improvement district, said her organization has been working with DOT for several years to improve the area, beginning with reclamation of public space from Broadway. The plaza that brought the café tables to the area was built in 2008.

“The actual shared street—this little part of Broadway—was part of a larger project,” she said. “The plaza program was very successful in our neighborhood, and it was very new at the time. I think it was a good idea then to take it a step further.”

New York is like many other big cities across the globe grappling with congestion and with growing urban populations that are demanding safer streets and new mobility options. In Paris, officials have proposed doubling the number of bike lanes and will limit certain streets to electric vehicles by 2020. In London, mayor Sadiq Khan wants to prohibit the building of new parking spaces, and officials are considering lowering speed limits.

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While speed limits in New York have already been reduced to 25 mph in recent years in an effort to reduce traffic fatalities, the shared-street program further lowers vehicle speed limit to 5 mph. Construction on the shared-street project narrowed pedestrian crossing distances on Fifth Avenue and included protected bicycle lanes.

Brown said one of the big challenges DOT faced in altering traffic patterns was to avoid choking access to several large buildings on Fifth Avenue that rely on truck deliveries to support building operations. “Keeping access open to those buildings was very important, but there was so little traffic there anyway, it doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference,” she said. “It’s still early—we just had the ribbon cutting—but so far, so good.”

Shared-street programs have been tried in other parts of New York City, including Lower Manhattan and Jamaica, Queens. Another in Manhattan is planned in 2018 on 43rd Street between Lexington and Third Avenue. Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, have commercial shared street programs aimed at reducing congestion and creating a lively public realm with pedestrian-first designs.

“We’re seeing cities across the U.S. embrace innovative street designs, like shared streets,” Alex Engel, a spokesman for the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), said in an email. “In part, this is from having a codified resource in tested street designs, which we provide in the NACTO Urban Street Design Guide, which has been endorsed by over 50 jurisdictions in the U.S.”

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