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Carmaggeddon Averted as Broadway Comes to Life

When New York City opened up new pedestrian zones in the heart of Midtown this summer, naysayers predicted a traffic nightmare. Nearly two months later, we're still waiting for the much-feared Carmaggedon.

In this video, Streetfilms funder Mark Gorton takes us on a tour of Broadway's car-free squares and boulevard-style blocks, where conditions have improved dramatically for pedestrians, cyclists, and, yes, delivery truck drivers. As Mark says, the counterintuitive truth is that taking away space for cars can improve traffic while making the city safer and more enjoyable for everyone on foot. There are sound theories that help explain why this happens -- concepts like traffic shrinkage and Braess's paradox which are getting more and more attention thanks to projects like this one. While traffic statistics are still being collected by NYCDOT, there's already a convincing argument that Midtown streets are functioning better than before: To understand it, just take a walk down Broadway.

Mark Gorton: [0:00] I am standing on Broadway, between 35th and 36th, right north of Herald Square where the DOT just put in a beautiful new pedestrian plaza with tables, and chairs, and benches, and planters. [0:15] It is a place that is just alive and wonderful and excellent to be. It is an awesome place, and it was made for so little money out of asphalt, out of space that used to belong to cars.

[0:27] When they proposed doing it, what a lot of people said was, "You can't do that. It will cause a traffic nightmare." But, those people were wrong. They were wrong because they don't understand traffic cause traffic is as little counter-intuitive. When you close roads, cars go away. Traffic gets better, it doesn't get worse.

[0:50] The basic rule of the system is whatever space you have for cars will fill up with cars. The more roads you have, the more parking you have, the more cars you're going to have. If you want to get rid of cars, you've got to get rid of parking. You've got to get rid of roads, and the cars will go away.

[1:08] The traffic on Broadway isn't worse, it's so much better. If you are a guy who's got to drive here, you've got to drive that delivery truck here, it's easy to get here now. It's never been this easy to get a delivery on this street.

[1:21] Like FedEx. FedEx has to get to these buildings. There are offices. There are important documents that have to get here. All of a sudden, FedEx has no problem parking, no problem driving down this street. The vehicles that have to get here can get here, and at the same time, people can hang out and enjoy the space.

[1:36] Where I'm standing right now, you could not stand a couple months ago because you would have been endangered. There used to be four lanes of traffic. Now, it's just two lanes of traffic, and it works a lot better for the cars, and it works a lot better for everybody else.

[1:49] Here we are in the Herald Square Pedestrian Plaza, which is just an amazing public space. You've got the people playing chess. You've got just the people hanging out enjoying life. Under the umbrellas, hanging out in chairs, drinking coffee, living. People are living in this space that before was dead.

[2:08] If you look at what DOT did here, it's very simple. They closed the street using a few barrels and planters. They painted the ground. You put in a few chairs and planters, and bam you're done. We can transform our city in a very short period of time. Beating back the world of cars is not something that is going to have to take that long. It is a policy choice that can be implemented much faster than almost anyone realizes.



Clarence Eckerson, Jr. has been making fantastical transportation media in NYC since the late 1990s. He's never had a driver's license and never will.

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  • Andrew

    Hells yeah. How can we get more?

  • Let the Sunshine In

    If you build it they will come. If you take it away they will go away.

    We just need more people who understand this. Hopefully people will begin to understand and leave the car at home, or not buy one in the first place.

    Fighting Carmaggeddon is karma-getting. NYC is on the right path.

  • tps12

    Has there been any attempt by, e.g., the NY Post to walk back any of their hysterical demagoguery leading up to the changes?

  • http://www.tart2000.com Tart2000

    Sweeeetness! When is that happening in London?

  • http://sworddance.com/blog Pat

    Not quite certain how the delivery trucks interact. I thought Broadway was entirely closed. If the trucks can use the space how is it still safe for pedestrians? Seems like you are one truck driver-plowing-through-the-ped-area away from going back to allowing cars back on Broadway.

    Hope to hell this experiment works though. Would love to see my own city permanently close a few blocks of its downtown - not just for art fairs.

  • BishopQ

    I get your point, but really you've just shifted whatever congestion was previously on Broadway to another point in the street grid system. Could be all the way down by Union Sq. or Canal St. The problem still exists it's just not right in front of Macy's anymore.

  • Shrinkage

    B-Q:

    Obviously you didn't read the articles attached in the video write up. Read them. When it becomes more difficult to drive - people switch modes, they change the time they drive, they plan another route, they carpool, etc so the traffic can just go away.

    I want traffic shrinkage in L.A. NOW!!!

  • http://bikefriendlytowns.blogspot.com Sam Goater

    wooohooo its happening. vive la revolution. This works in smaller towns too people. How long until Connecticut towns follow suit?

  • http://mama-urbana.blogspot.com/ esme

    I think Market St. in San Francisco is a prime example of a street that should be permanently cut off to cars. There is no parking on it!!!! and if there is, it is quite limited in proportion to the cars that pass through there. so, what's the point! make it a wide boulevard with only the rail, (maybe buses) and pedestrians/cyclists instead. It would be so much more enjoyable!

    It is true, the naysayer argument that says that traffic is diverted somewhere else is losing credence, but i think only when there are viable options around. we are by nature adaptable creatures. People are more apt to make a change when they HAVE TO. Pouting and armcrossing will only make you late!

  • http://msftandthefuture.spaces.live.com/ Quikboy

    It may sound nice, but this won't work everywhere.

    In Houston, you'll still have stubborn motorists that will never give up their cars. There's bikes lanes, the Metro (even a light rail!), and some sidewalks, but people choose not to use them, and people consistently choose not to fund them.

  • http://www.workbike.wordpress.com Andy in Germany

    "It won't work here" is a great way to kill an idea without trying: Who'd have thought it'd work in NYC?
    Everywhere it's been tried, removing roads seems to reduce congestion. Maybe we're seeing the tide turning.

    I'd be interested to hear of examples in smaller towns: I think this has potential for our area but I'd need to convince people to try it.

  • Paulo, Portugal

    Great! In Lisbon, Portugal, the mayor has proposed partially closing one of the city's main squares (and one of the most beautiful in Europe, Terreiro do Paço) to car traffic. The place is easily accessed by underground, buses and trams. What is still lacking are good ideas on what to do with the space, so that people will use it. The naysayers here are the president of ACP (Portugal's equivalent to the States AAA) and, believe it or not, shop owners who are affraid that diverting traffic will chase shoppers away, even when the main street in the shopping district has been closed to traffic for years and is doing very well...

  • Cindy, Ohio

    As a visitor to San Francisco from a place where there is no public transit, I naturally rented a car to get around. What a nightmare! Too hard to park. Next time I went, no rental car. My whole family used public transportation and saw more of the City than before. Because getting around in a car was a hassel, we chose public transit because it was available.

  • Linda

    Less cars is better. Bring back the trolleys.

  • http://www.carfreebaltimore.com Mark

    I'm curious to see the traffic models of a simulated Broadway lane closure and if catastrophic gridlock would be projected. I sense a lot of traffic models are rubbish and used to justify designing for worst case, once-in-a-100-years traffic scenarios.

    Fewer traffic lanes, more people on the street!