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Why can’t we close all of Times Square to cars?

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A horrific crash illustrates the challenges in keeping New York’s streets safe

New York - Times Square Photo by Alexandra Schuler/picture alliance via Getty Images

Hundreds of people watched in horror yesterday as a driver navigated his vehicle onto a sidewalk in Times Square, killing an 18-year-old tourist and injuring 22 others. The car plowed into the heart of a recently completed pedestrian plaza designed to keep walkers safe, eventually ramming into bollards along 45th Street.

The 26-year-old driver was making an illegal U-turn while driving south on Seventh Avenue when he entered the sidewalk near 42nd Street and drove three blocks north. Although he did not test positive for alcohol, and drug tests are still pending, the driver, who was taken into custody at the scene, has a troubled history and two previous DWI arrests.

In recent years, vehicles have been increasingly employed as weapons of terror, with mass murderers intentionally driving trucks into crowds of people in France, Germany, and Sweden. The fact that this driver was “just” potentially under the influence may have offered relief to some New Yorkers, but it shouldn’t be any reassurance. New Yorkers are far more likely to be killed by a drunk driver.

The driver drove on the sidewalk for three blocks before plowing into a series of bollards.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In 2014, the city launched a Vision Zero strategy in an attempt to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries. But even as traffic deaths overall have gone down in the city over the past three years, pedestrian deaths have risen slightly over the same period. Last year 144 pedestrians were killed on New York City streets.

As part of the Department of Transportation’s focus on redesigning a series of intersections known to be particularly dangerous to walkers, several streets were closed in Times Square temporarily starting in 2009 to create a pedestrian-only plaza nicknamed the “Bowtie.” The permanent version, designed by Snøhetta, was finished in December after seven years of construction.

Since 2009, the various street closures and turning restrictions have reduced crashes in Times Square, as well as improved vehicular flow in the surrounding streets. But it’s notable that the car in yesterday’s incident was only stopped by a series of retractable bollards on the sidewalk that were custom-designed for the specific needs of Times Square. (The manufacturers of the bollards were apparently sending out press releases yesterday touting their life-saving product.)

“One of the key challenges of transforming this congested vehicular district into a place for people was making Times Square more comfortable and natural to walk through, while securing it against unpredictable tragedies like the one that took place yesterday,” says Craig Dykers, founding partner of Snøhetta. The bollards offer protection while allowing people to move comfortably and naturally through the space, he says. “Without these considerations, more people would have been affected by this tragedy so we are grateful to everyone on the team for designing these preventative measures.”

Before and after the Snøhetta redesign of Times Square
Before: NYDOT; After: Michael Grimm

Even though the recent redesign of some of New York’s busiest intersections absolutely saved lives, it also showed that the city hasn’t gone quite far enough when it comes to keeping people away from cars.

As David Burney, former commissioner of New York City’s Department of Design and Construction who oversaw many of the changes made to Times Square, told Kriston Capps at CityLab, “Personally, I think what happened today strengthened the argument for further traffic closures for Times Square.”

That does seem like the best solution, doesn’t it? Just close Times Square to cars.

But former New York City traffic commissioner Sam Schwartz, also known as “Gridlock Sam,” says although Times Square has done a great job prioritizing people, it would be more of a challenge to block off cars completely.

Schwartz notes that besides Central Park, the biggest car-free zone in the city is in the Financial District, where cars are restricted due to heightened terrorism concerns. In this part of the city, pedestrians experience a blissful car-free environment, but what we don’t see is the massive network of underground screening systems that allow cars to make drop-offs and deliveries to the financial institutions.

Schwartz doesn’t imagine that kind of infrastructure being built in Times Square. “The only way to prohibit cars in an area like Times Square would be to cut off the the cross streets, and that would have a significant impact on the Theater District,” he says. “It would be a real trade-off to people who rely on those streets.”

Streets are car-free outside Federal Hall near the New York Stock Exchange for security reasons.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Another option would be the superblock strategy employed by Barcelona, where nine-block parcels of urban streets have been redesigned so cars can only travel freely around the perimeter. The inner streets are reserved for walking, biking, and cars traveling 5 mph or less. This idea could work for the streets around Times Square to still allow for drop-offs and deliveries, says Schwartz, but it wouldn’t necessarily eliminate the risk of deadly crashes like yesterday’s.

The better idea, says Schwartz, is to prevent cars from entering the city in the first place. In fact, it was Schwartz who proposed a congestion pricing plan—known as the “Red Zone”—for the city back in 1971 which would have severely restricted vehicles in Midtown Manhattan at certain times of day. The Red Zone idea was briefly revived by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and a version of the plan gained traction with city council in 2015, but Mayor Bill de Blasio isn’t a fan.

Fewer cars in the city is really the only way to reduce the risk of traffic deaths, he says. “If we’re dealing with pedestrian safety, we have to tame the cars.”

So even though Times Square has made great strides in safety over the last decade, it will remain dangerous as long as cars are in close proximity to people. However, that risk could be dramatically reduced by making it harder for cars to drive in the city and offering better infrastructure for walkers and bikers. What better argument, then, for New York to turn the entire length of Broadway into a pedestrian park.