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05.19.2010
Pounding the Pavement
DOT's latest big plans tackle 34th Street

In 1811, the streets of Manhattan were laid down in an efficient grid, dissected by the old Broadway. In the two centuries since, the island has been ringed with bridges, tunnels, and freeways, but the grid remains largely intact, if far more congested than it once was.

Hoping to bring some efficiency back to city streets, Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan continued on page 16 Pounding the Pavement continued from front page has been closing off bits and pieces of the grid to cars and transforming them into plazas for pedestrians, most notably along Broadway between Times and Herald squares.

Coming off the success of that effort, the Department of Transportation announced in late April the initial designs for a major re-jiggering of 34th Street, including closing the entire block at the foot of the Empire State Building. The department also unveiled plans for reorganizing streets around Union Square, as well as reinventing a safer and saner Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn.

“I think when people conjure an image of what a 21st-century street is, they’ll think of 34th Street,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives. “This is what a high-performance arterial can and should look like.”

The so-called 34th Street Transitway goes well beyond adding bus bulbs, where riders prepay, and passenger islands. It is the latest phase in the department’s ambitious bus rapid transit plan, rethinking traffic patterns in the heart of the city. No longer will there be two-way traffic on this crowded causeway, apart from buses. Should the plan take effect after community approval, cars will only be able to drive east from 5th Avenue and west from 6th Avenue.

In the new plan, bus lanes in two directions will hug the curb, while the rest of the street will be given to one-way traffic. On 5th Avenue, buses will travel on the north side of the street, and on 6th Avenue on the south, with a crossover on the block-long stretch between the two avenues. Two plazas will be created on the block where the traffic lanes terminate, and sidewalks widened to improve pedestrian space.

Further south on Broadway, traffic lanes will also be reorganized to better accommodate pedestrians and cyclists. Eastbound lanes will be eliminated from the northern border of Union Square, with traffic down Broadway diverted east at 18th Street. Through traffic will be eliminated on Union Square West, as vehicles on Broadway will be forced to head west at 17th Street.

Still more plazas will be created from the leftover asphalt. Half a block north of 18th Street, the western side of Broadway will be given over to the usual benches and chairs, as will a “ribbon plaza” hugging Broadway and 17th Street to the east and south. Improvements to the corner of Union Square West and 14th Street are also under consideration. Bike lanes will be re-routed, connecting up for the first time with 14th Street and 4th Avenue. The improvements are meant to make it easier to access and enjoy Union Square, particularly when the Greenmarket is in full swing.

A more complex reordering is taking place across the river at Grand Army Plaza, where the community has agitated for improvements to the plaza walled off by traffic. Lanes at the northern and southern end will be simplified and regulated; pedestrian islands and crosswalks added and improved; a new bikeway will ring the plaza; and landscaping will be added throughout.

“For too long, the city and the department prioritized through traffic over community concerns and character,” Steely White said. “Fortunately, those days are over.”

Matt Chaban