The crowded, narrow streets of NYC’s Financial District will get a bit of respite from car congestion Saturday as pedestrians and cyclists rule the road. Sixty square blocks will be cordoned off for a low-traffic “shared streets” area from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The roadway-free-for-all will stretch from the Battery to City Hall, and there will be no clear sense of right-of-way. Drivers who are residents or have business in the area will be allowed into the zone, but will have to pass through NYPD-staffed “vehicular traffic entry points” where they will be asked to drive 5 mph or less.
The minimal car traffic will free up the streets for “cultural programming,” including trivia games on city history, pop-up reading rooms and walking tours of architecture and women’s rights history.
“It’s reclaiming the streets for uses above and beyond just automobiles,” Polly Trottenberg, the city transportation commissioner, told The Wall Street Journal.
Cities such as Paris and Bogotá have already implemented shared street areas for certain zones and days, and several U.S. cities have also attempted to get in on the trend. But the size of NYC’s event makes it a first for a major U.S. city, according to transportation officials.
The event is part of the city’s Vision Zero campaign to increase pedestrian and bike safety and curb car traffic. In 2014, the city dropped the default speed limit down to 25 mph, and in recent years it has expanded its network of bike lanes and pedestrian plazas.
Some advocates say that getting rid of signs, crosswalks, signals and other markings in downtown areas actually increases safety by forcing people to slow down and pay more attention to what they’re doing. A more permanent shared street policy could also be the answer to a growing problem in lower Manhattan: overcrowded sidewalks.
As Josh Cohen reported for Next City in June, city leaders are trying to figure out how to maintain a “healthy pedestrian environment” for everyone from stroller-pushing families and tourists to commuters. A recent study found that removing some sidewalk features, such as benches or trees, could help free up space for pedestrians. But even then, the sidewalks are a finite width.
Paul Steely White, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, told the Journal that because of the narrow sidewalks, many streets in lower Manhattan already operate as shared streets. “It’s a formalization of what is already happening,” he said.
Kelsey E. Thomas is Next City’s associate editor.