photo by Neil deMause
After trial runs in the hinterlands of Brooklyn’s Bedford Avenue and Montague Street, the NYC Summer Streets program landed in Manhattan for the first of three consecutive Saturdays this weekend. The big question: Would taking a contiguous strip of avenues from the Brooklyn Bridge to Central Park and shutting it to cars (driven or parked) draw more than the trickle of folks who attended the earlier experiments?
The answer: Hell yeah. Helped along by a crisp, breezy morning that felt more mid-May than mid-August, Lafayette Street, Fourth Avenue, and Park Avenue were thronged with bicyclists, joggers, more bicyclists, stroller-pushing pedestrians, and still more bicyclists, all taking advantage of the rare opportunity to amble down the middle of Manhattan streets without being surrounded by either sausage trucks or snowdrifts. And even having to stop for auto traffic to pass through on cross streets every few blocks, the pedal-pushers were all smiles: “Go, Mike!” exulted Doug Young, who’d shlepped his “kickbike,” a kind of bicycle-scooter hybrid, in from New Jersey for the event.
“I love biking on the weekends because there’s no traffic,” said Aaron Kreuscher, who’d headed out that morning with the intent to ride his bike in the bus lanes as usual. “But then once I found out about this, it was exciting. I’m never able to bike on Park, so it’s like new territory for me.”
Brian and Lambeth Kaplan, self-described “real New Yorkers—we love walking everywhere,” had started from their home in Tribeca, and were headed north as far as they could get while pushing their three-year-old son Zach in his stroller. “People seem happy and much more at peace,” observed Lambeth. “Like this situation”—pointing to Zach, who had momentarily disembarked his stroller and was assembling a Thomas the Tank Engine train set at curbside “that would never happen.”
Francine Smilen, a local resident on her way to the gym, piped in to ask, “This is open Chambers to where?”
Seventy-second Street, came the answer.
“Get out! I should get a bike.”
photo by Neil deMause
Seasonally shutting down midtown streets to traffic isn’t a new idea. Mayor Bloomberg has cited similar experiments in cities from Paris to Bogota as inspiration, but there’s local precedent as well: Way back in 1971, Mayor John Lindsay closed Madison Avenue between 42nd and 57th to traffic for two hours every afternoon, creating what he called the Madison Avenue Mall. When picnickers and frisbee-players eagerly flocked to the site, Lindsay considered making the mall a permanent feature, but was stymied when local merchants, including Brooks Brothers, sued to block the plan on the grounds it would draw “undesirables” and make it too hard for their customers to arrive by car.
Limiting Summer Streets to Saturday mornings in August—at 1 pm, the streets are again open to car traffic—would seem to be a response to business owners’ fears of disruption. The Department of Transportation has said it will review the program after the summer, specifically stressing it will meet with business groups in the affected neighborhoods to get their take on where it should go from here.
There were a few other hitches: All those bikes zooming past made the car-free streets a bit treacherous to cross, notwithstanding the yellow-shirted marshals that DOT had posted at crosswalks to help mediate between pedestrians and cyclists. And where a permanent mall might change people’s driving habits (no one leaves the house with plans to drive down Fulton Street in downtown Brooklyn), temporary street closings just pushed traffic onto the surrounding streets—even on a Saturday morning, Broadway below 14th Street became as impassable as a weekday rush hour.
Still, none of this took away from the joy of those freed from the usual constraints of sticking to the sidewalks. “It’s such a step in the right direction,” said Smilen. “Anything that returns the streets to the people, I’m all for.”