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Street Transformations – Union Square (NYC)

Going thru the archives found some really great "vintage" footage to put together yet another episode in the Street Transformations series, this one looking at the positive transformation of the roads that encircle Union Square.

Rewind to 2005 when I was really starting to dive in to the work that would become Streetfilms. I decided to tape a big Community Board meeting to announce the results of a year long traffic study to see the feasibility of extending Manhattan's Union Square north, specifically making two-way 17th Street, one lane, one-way west and adding ample footage for a sidewalk, an extension of Union Square or both.

The "livable streets crowd" really thought this would be a big win but alas - NYC DOT reported other than installing a barnes dance crossing and some small signal timing changes, that 17th street, 19th street and other nearby streets would suffer unacceptable "levels of service" according to the federal guidelines in the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) handbook. In another word "gridlock"!

Of course back then the MUTCD factored very little for pedestrians & bicyclists and discounted livability in favor of moving traffic along at any cost, a huge complaint of sensible transportation advocates.

But as we all know since then, New York City has had a decent renaissance on its streets. Both NYC DOT Commissioners Janette Sadik-Khan and Polly Trottenberg have progressively chipped away at road space for vehicles and added two-way protected bike lanes on two sides, pedestrian plazas, a unique ped/bike one block only section on Union Square West and, yes, extended the park north as was once hoped for all those years ago.

This look back reveals the danger of relying solely on the MUTCD when evaluating cities and their neighborhood streets. NACTO under Sadik-Khan's leadership started a process to broaden the accepted techniques other cities have employed thinking creatively with pilot including paint, bollards, boulders and protected bike lanes.

In the end, what the real failure of the 2005 decision by NYC DOT is the fact that they projected traffic to grow over the ensuing ten years. No one questioned that. But in fact later as NYC slowly deemphasized Broadway as a through route of travel and removed some parking, it actually became easier to see that predictions of traffic Armageddon were not true. And besides: even if traffic on some streets did go up a bit, wouldn't it be worth it to the tens of thousands of pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users to have a much more peaceful journey?

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