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In the Spring of 1904, the world’s first electrified advertisement appeared on a bank in New York at the corner of Broadway and 46th Street, in what was soon to be called Times Square. In many ways, this event anticipated the beginnings of the modern hyper-commercialized city. Roughly one hundred years later, the pedestrianization of Broadway in Herald and Times Square could be another preview of a new kind of city.
Prior to the banning of cars last summer, Times Square’s reputation as the “crossroads of the world” was ringing increasingly hollow. What was unique about the intersection of the car-traffic streams of 7th Avenue and Broadway? For that matter, what was compelling or enticing about a Times Square defined by crowded and confined sidewalks, congested roadways, and barely breathable air?
As a result of Broadway’s pedestrian transformation, Times Square is now truly fulfilling its destiny as a global crossroads. Teeming with tourists and New Yorkers alike, it is now one of the world’s great public spaces. More so than in many years, the Square has an electric energy, a festive atmosphere of neon and possibility. Oddly, the ambience is simultaneously both relaxing and exhilarating. Sitting in the middle of Broadway feels almost subversive. And it offers a front row seat to the best show on or off Broadway, the do-it-yourself theatre of New York’s vibrant street life.
The new Times Square is a uniquely democratic experience. There is no screening process, no admission fee, and no reservations are required. On a recent trip there, I observed hundreds of people using each of the pedestrianized Broadway blocks. Previous to the ban on autos, no more than 20 moving vehicles could fit on each of those same blocks. And rather than those relatively few motorists who merely passed through the space without fully appreciating it, we now accommodate many more people who choose it as a destination. It now functions as a linear park, a civilized place for walking, meeting, conversing, relaxing, observing. If one chooses to, you can even hear yourself think. And it’s all free.
People have voted with their feet. Despite the economic downturn and a citywide decrease in tourism of 5 percent in 2009, the Times Square Alliance reports that more people than ever visited the Square last year. According to the Alliance, roughly 500,000 people now visit Times Square in an average day. The much celebrated High Line, New York’s other major new public space, also debuted in the summer of 2009. The High Line reports about 25,000 visitors on its busiest weekend days. Times Square attracts more visitors in a day than the High Line does in an average month, with conversion and maintenance costs a fraction of the High Line’s.
There is a growing appreciation of the fact that in the future, the competitive advantages of cities will not be what they once were: access to shipping, raw materials, or even local market opportunities. The real competitive advantages of cities are increasingly centered on quality of life issues. Features like animated public spaces, improved air quality, public safety, and even the potential for fun, have become determinative for increasingly mobile people and business.
With the pedestrianization of Broadway, New York instantly became one of the leaders in a burgeoning movement toward livable urban streets. Times Square serves as a powerful example to every visitor, whether from Peoria, Mumbai, or around the corner, that our cities can be whatever we imagine them to be. It is also a template for exploring even bolder steps to reverse nearly a century of the city accommodating itself to the needs of the automobile.
Broadway has now come full circle. What started out as a trail for the Lenape Indians, which became known as Bloomingdale Road, and was later renamed Broadway, has now begun its return to a place of human-scale exchange. Through the course of centuries, our ancestors’ footpath has finally become the world’s walkway.
—- Jeff Prant is a photographer, writer, urbanist, and 23 year resident of Brooklyn. He also serves on the board of Transportation Alternatives, New York City’s advocates for walking, bicycling, and public transit.