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Monday, June 12, 2006
Moving the Sidewalk at 96th Street

As pointed out by Aaron Naparstek and the good people at Curbed, folks from the Upper West Side are upset that the sidewalks are going to be shaved by nine feet for the redesign of the subway station at 96th Street and Broadway. Nine feet of space where people walk would become one lane of traffic in each direction on Broadway. A classic case of taking away space from pedestrians and giving it to cars? Not exactly. As Curbed's commenter No. 8, "Dave the City Planner," retorts:
Yes, the sidewalk on the east and west ends of Broadway are being narrowed, but there is basically a new sidewalk being created in the median. At the end of the day, the same amount of sidewalk space will exist exist [sic] - it'll just be distributed differently. … This is not about cars vs pedestrians.
Dave the City Planner's point is mathematically correct — the amount of roadway devoted to traffic will be the same — but his point assumes the fungibility of walking space, i.e., that sidewalk space can be replaced one-for-one by the same amount of space in a median. That ignores the fact that a sidewalk takes you to stores and apartments and the far end of the block, while the median is the place you stand when you're waiting for the light to change.

The MTA's PDF'ed proposal, which comes to us via Community Board 7, notes that streetscape impacts will include "Reductions to sidewalk widths" and "Removal of 96th St subway entrances in sidewalk." I fail to be bowled over by Dave's appeal to mathematical precision. I am inclined to agree with the people who spoke in Clarence Eckerson's video who are upset about the sidewalk narrowing. But an even more important concern is the related removal of the subway entrance in the sidewalk.

Because elevators take up a sizeable amount of space on the sidewalk, the issue of allocating sidewalk space is going to come up again and again as the MTA continues its federally mandated mission to make renovated subway stations ADA accessible. Subways move a lot more people than roads, and we as a city should make the decision to make avenues that have subways underneath them (like the narrow-sidewalked Lexington Avenue) as pedestrian friendly as possible, even if that means taking space away from cars.

Right now, if you are taking the train to a destination on Amsterdam or Columbus, you get off at 96th Street and walk through an underpass to the eastern exits, walk up the steps, and proceed directly to your destination. But if the only entrance was to be placed in the median — enlarged though it may be — you will have to wait to cross three lanes of traffic before you can proceed. It turns out that this is about cars vs. pedestrians, because subway-riding pedestrians will be endangered so that no lanes of traffic will be sacrificed. Anyone who has ever ridden the West Side IRT knows that it can get insanely packed, and the express stations are especially busy. Think of crowds of people waiting to cross the street, some people running to catch the light, some not making it so quickly. This whole setup magnifies the risk of accidents, all to avoid taking away a lane of traffic.

The MTA and the DOT should look to their own earlier work in evaluating how to make an Upper West Side IRT express station ADA-compliant. Five or six years ago they expanded the 72nd Street station, and in the process took away all three of Broadway's uptown lanes between 72nd and 73rd Streets. The result is a greatly expanded Verdi Square, and a well used public space where there had been parked buses and traffic.

Drivers who want to continue northbound on Broadway have to make a left at 73rd and Amsterdam and then wait for a right-turn arrow. This new obstacle has caused a big reduction in traffic.

There is now so little uptown traffic on Broadway in the 70's that the next logical improvement would be to reduce these three lanes to two by widening the median and creating a series of true walking gardens, or maybe by widening the sidewalks in front of the Beacon Theater to accomodate all the concert goers.

On the Upper West Side, Broadway should be a street for people. It already has the most attractions for pedestrians — dense apartment buildings and popular stores and restaurants. For cars, Broadway is already two-way and so its light timing encourages through drivers to take the Amsterdam and Columbus one-way speedways anyway. Why not take this a step further? Elevators and stairway entrances on the Broadway median at 96th Street are fine, but the sidewalk entrances should not be removed. Doing so would inconvenience and endanger pedestrians.

To round out this post, I asked Futurebird to graphically depict her view of what would happen under the proposed plan. In her "before" view, pedestrians walk easily along wide sidewalks that are adjacent to their destinations. People with stollers and grocery carts don't obstruct the movement of others.

In her "after" view, chaos has set in. Much of the sidewalk has been lost (or rather, "relocated" to the useless median), a slow moving older person is now delaying a group of people rushing to catch their train but who can't get by her, and a crowd of people waits to get off the median.

BONUS! There is a public forum about this plan on Tuesday night at 7 o'clock at the American Bible Society, 1865 Broadway at 61st Street. People who have a say over what happens here are still listening.

- How to Spend the Next 5.5 Minutes of Your Life [Curbed]
- The 96th Street Sidewalk Nibblers [Naparstek]
- The Sidewalk Nibblers [Clarence Eckerson]
- 96th Street Station Rehabilitation Proposal [MTA via CB7 PDF!]
- Traffic Reversal [S&F]
- Retrofitting Bridges for Inefficiency [S&F]
- Posted at 9:23 PM | Permalink | Comments: 11 | Post a Comment |  

Good article. Thanks for the hedzup, for collecting the documents and for presenting the issues clearly. The redesign of the interesection, as proposed by the MTA, would make the neighborhood much less livable.

By Daniel Millstone, at 6/13/2006 9:57 AM  

Hey, Dave the City Planner here.
I just posted this retort on Curbed, but since it's late in the day, I thought you might miss it so I'm reposting it here. I enjoyed your comments...

I just read Aaron's comments on Starts and Fits and just want to say that I appreciate Aaron's comments: Unlike the typical Curbed responses (which range from Svetlana calling people fat to Larry dissing Brooklyn, to all native New Yorkers telling everyone else to shut up and move back to Idaho), they were constructive and respectful. I always enjoy reading his blog and usually agree with him, but not this time.

As I understand his comments, one of Aaron's main points was that there is a difference between sidewalk space in a median, and sidewalk space in at the edge of the road. Therefore, replaceing 18' of sidewalk space from edge with 18' at the median is not a fair trade. Aaron contends that sidewalk space in the median is used to wait for the light to change while sidewalk space at the edge of the roadway either takes you to stores or allows you to progress further down the block. All this is true, but it misses one of the other important roles sidewalk space plays: it takes you to the entrance of the subway. By moving the subway entrance to the median, you reduce the total amount of traffice on the sidewalk by removing the population of pedestrians who are going to the subway. THose pedestrians are now located on the 18' of median sidewalk. So while you are narrowing the sidewalk you are also taking some portion of those pedestrians off it.

Also, The sidewalk is currently more than 20' wide. So you'll still be left with at least an 11' foot sidewalk which, though it may not be a gran promenade, is more than acceptible. And, as others havepointed out, when there are sidewalk cafes on Broadway (and there are plenty) they reduce the sidewalk width to about 10' and the world doesn't end. The existing subway entrances on Boradway already cew up about 9' from that block of Broadway today, so you're really not talking about a significant decrease in the level of service.

Also, it's kind of been lost in the shuffle, but the median isn't only being widened by narrowing the sidewalk. The plans calls for getting rid of a parking lane too. So in actuallity the amount of space being dedicated to cars IS being reduced as well.

Finally, Aaron contends that moving the subway entrance is anti-pedestrian because you'll have to cross lanes of traffic to reach them. Give me a break. Pedestrians in NYC have to cross lanes of traffic every 400' or so. One more situation in which you have to cross 4 lanes of traffic that is stopped at a stop light is not going to even be noticed by pedestrians. And the 72nd street station, which Aaron lauded in his blog, suffers from the same situation. In order to reach that station you either have to cross 4 lanes of southbound broadway traffic or 4 lanes of Northbound Amsterdam Ave traffic. It's the same exact situation, which is perfectly acceptable to 99% of Manhattan pedestrians.

Bottom line is that this area of the UWS will work better with the new plan than it does now. WOuld it be even better for pedestrians if you took away a lane of traffic? Probably, but that's true all over the City. Whatever problems cars cause in urban areas (and they definitely cause alot) they still are an important part of the transportation network and also need to be accommodated.

Plus the building is cool architecturally.

By Dave, at 6/13/2006 6:35 PM  

Dave (and Daniel), thanks for reading. A pleasure to have you over here.

There are of course a lot of great aspects to this plan that got lost in the sidewalk nibbling angst: most importantly the ADA accessibility and the halving of the number of steps one will need to take to get to the subway platforms. And the new building will be a shelter from the rain, and it looks cool. There's a lot of good things happening here.

But my point is this: Right now the same sidewalk connects you from the subway to many of your destinations with the wonderful convenience of not have to cross one busy intersection (you'll still likely have to cross elsewhere).

Of course, every New Yorker crosses the street countless times per day. As you note, it's acceptable to cross one extra street. But that doesn't mean that it's preferable.

Crossing the street in and of itself is not a big deal. At the level of the individual, it's at most a minor annoyance or time-eater. But at the level of the crowd, it becomes a safety issue. Many people who don't now have to cross that busy intersection will have to in the future. Sometimes they'll end up massing together in a big group when several trains arrive at once. Some people will be in a hurry. Some will exercize greater degrees of caution than others.

When you add up all the people making that crossing day after day, the Law of Large Numbers tells you that eventually, people will get hit by cars. Give the Law enough time to do its work, and eventually some of them will be maimed and crippled at that intersection. For those people, the fact that their station was given a median-mounted wheelchair elevator will be a mixed blessing indeed.

By AD, at 6/14/2006 12:10 AM  

O.K. - I was trying to harness the power of irony to make my point. Not sure if it was effective. But Futurebird, who is sitting on the couch right now and too lazy to come over here and make her own post on this subject, had these to points to make.

1) The sidewalk narrowing will cut down on the revenue for the local businesses.

2) A 10-foot wide sidewalk next to a cafe is qualitatively better than a 10-foot wide sidewalk next to traffic.

By AD, at 6/14/2006 12:20 AM  

Aaron - I still am not moved by your street crossing argument. Firstly, the plaza in front of the subway station will provide a much larger space for a large group of people who have just gotten off the train to wait than is currently possible with the existing entrances. Also, if someone is going to aggressively cross the street annd not pay attention to cars at this crossing, he's probably going to do that at a number of crossings, and the chances of him getting hit by a car at this instersection are no greater than his chances of getting hit at anyone of the many intersections he crosses during his aggressive life. I really think that having to cross an additional 4 lanes of traffic is a very small price to pay (almost infitesmal) compared to the benefits of this project. Having said that, I appreciate your attempt at irony.

As for FutureBird's comments. I agree with her second comment. A 10' sidewalk that is next to open air cafe seating will feel less congested than one that is wedged between a building wall and moving traffic. So the quality of the pedestrian experience would be better. But there will actually still be the same amount of space for manuevering so the logistical exercise of navigating around grannies with shopping carts and parents with strollers will be the same.

I disagree with her first comment that a narrower sidewalk will eat into the stores' profits. Have you ever said to yourself,"Gee, the toilet is clogged and I should really go to Grand Metro Hardware to pick up a plunger, but you know, the sidewalk in front of that store is so narrow, so I'll just live with a clogged toilet instead." I'm not aware of any studies that have shown that connection. THe only business that I could see bein affected would be a restaurant that would now not be able to have outdoor seating, but , at least right now, there are now such establishments in that area.


By Dave the CP, at 6/14/2006 12:08 PM  

Dave, we might just have to agree to disagree on this one. Just because the plan is an improvement overall doesn't mean it couldn't be better still. I'd like to see the elevators installed and entrances on the main parts of the blocks. The idea that people will have a nice large area to wait is a bit like having the most beautiful, solid gold handcuffs, no? Even though you've got this beautiful contraption, you're still cuffed! Right now, nobody has to wait in an area at all, so being forced to wait in an area, no matter how large, is a step backward.

By AD, at 6/15/2006 12:03 AM  

Dave the CP and Aaron, you guys are brilliant. What a wonderful exchange of analysis and debate between two people who obviously care a great deal about improving the quality of life here in the city.
That said, AD, I'm with you on this one. A design that avoids crossings would be preferable to one that does not, especially for the elderly and families with little children.

By jlo, at 6/15/2006 4:24 PM  

Dave the CP's arguments are mostly unpersuasive and very short-sighted, especially this one:

"By moving the subway entrance to the median, you reduce the total amount of traffice on the sidewalk by removing the population of pedestrians who are going to the subway."

How do you figure? Every pedestrian who wants to go to the subway will still have to cross the street starting at one of the sidewalks along the sides of Broadway. No pedestrians are removed from these sidewalks. In fact, these now-narrower sidewalks will almost certainly be more congested than they are currently since subway users will be stacking up, waiting at the corners during the Don't Walk phase before crossing over to the new station in the median. Currently, there is no stacking up of pedestrians on their way to the subway. They simply walk down the stairs.

All that being said, the median design is fine and good. It works nicely at 72nd Street now that they have created some public space around it and it could be really nice at 96th. But New York City continues to make a historic mistake by narrowing its sidewalks while maintaining and even increasing roadway capacity for motor vehicles. The future of this city simply does not belong to private motor vehicles.

In this case, the solution seems pretty clear cut: The city should not build the left turn bays on Broadway. That publice space should be given to the thousands of pedestrians each hour who use this area, not the dozens of motor vehicles making left turns onto 96th.

Likewise, we should begin to reenvision Broadway altogether as a series of great public squares connected by surface transit, bikeways, and great pedestrian walkways, rather than continuing to use it as a semi-dysfunctional highway running through the middle of Manhattan.

We need some vision in this town. Carving up the sidewalks at 96th St ain't it.

By Anonymous, at 6/15/2006 10:39 PM  

Thanks jlo. I attended a CB7 Transportation Committee meeting on this topic and I raised these issues. The chairman of the board (I forget his name right now) assumed that there couldn't be an entrance on the sidewalk because it would still require a 65-step descent below the tracks and then up again to the platforms. I am not clear as to why, as long as they're building a mezanine, they couldn't extend an arm of it eastward and westward to the sidwalks. The people from the MTA were just saying that they'd have to move too many utilities to put an entrance on the sidewalk at 96th Street. At least the sidewalk entrances at 94th Street will remain. ...

By AD, at 6/17/2006 9:23 PM  

Anon 10:39,

Thank you! I missed your comment because it didn't show up for a while. But I couldn't agree more re: "we should begin to reenvision Broadway altogether as a series of great public squares connected by surface transit, bikeways, and great pedestrian walkways, rather than continuing to use it as a semi-dysfunctional highway running through the middle of Manhattan."

That's what I was trying to get at with the whole "subways move more people than roadways" argument, but you said it better.

By AD, at 6/18/2006 4:24 PM  

also, this proposal would also make anyone who lives above 95th have to walk an extra 3/4 block to or from the subway. this and the extra street crossing will add up to a lot of extra time. if the aim is to let pedestrian traffic move efficiently and safely, this will fail.

(looks like the 93rd/94th st entrances are staying?, so people below 95th don't have these problems....)

By Anonymous, at 6/27/2006 1:13 PM  

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