When you hear that Bloomberg has shut down Broadway, it sounds like the morality police have muscled in to stamp out illicit pleasures. But never fear, a previous administration already took care of that over a decade ago. If anything, the closure to vehicles of chunks of Broadway, which began two days ago, may help Times Square take tentative steps towards developing a new spirit. It may even (could it be?) turn Times Square into a place that will attract New Yorkers as much as tourists. Just not yet.
As The New York Times notes, New York’s transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn—the dynamo behind the city's new miles of bike lanes and pedestrian plazas—has drawn on Copenhagen’s years of experience turning its city center over to walkers. Sadik-Kahn's Broadway experiment is two days’ old and, for the moment, she has managed to close a series of five “plazas” between 47th and 42nd streets. Yet Times Square itself is still full of traffic along 7th Avenue, which cuts through Broadway just at the midpoint of the closure. And, as in the Times Square subway station, crowds surround street buskers—when I wandered through the blocks, in fact, they felt just like a busier, more crowded version of their normal selves and I wasn’t inclined to enjoy them for long.
So right now, the plazas’ value really is for tourists, but in ways that aren’t trivial. This is a sketch, an idea that visitors can take home to their cities (truly, if you can do it here, you can do it anywhere). Times Square is the central tangle in the city’s traffic congestion, but cities across the country face the same problems in their downtown cores, in particular worsening air pollution as cars and tracks sit in traffic burning untold amounts of gasoline and diesel. And that air pollution leads to increased asthma rates as well as global warming. If tourists take back home the mildly anarchic pleasure of lounging in a lawn chair on traffic arrows in the middle of Broadway, they may well push their city governments to take similar—if not more innovative —measures
One striking effect of the closure hit me as I made my way to the lower end of the plazas. Seven blocks south of 42nd, Herald Square at 35th and Broadway has also been closed to traffic. As a result, almost no cars and trucks bother to take the stretch of Broadway between the two areas. With no lawn chairs and no tourists, the stretch is open for a quiet wander in the heart of New York City.