Crowded sidewalks are part and parcel of New York City. That crush of humanity surging down the sidewalks of Midtown Manhattan at rush hour adds an anxious and exciting energy to the public realm. But there can be too much of a good thing. As the number of residents, tourists and suburban workers coming into the city has grown, sidewalk crowding has become untenable. People spill into the streets, trading the danger of oncoming traffic for the ability to get where they’re going.
It’s an issue City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez wants to address. He recently introduced a bill that would require NYC DOT to study 10 locations with heavy pedestrian traffic and come up with a plan to alleviate the overcrowding.
“It creates a host of problems when people have to walk in the same tracks as cars,” says Russell Murphy, a spokesman for Rodriguez. “We want to start the conversation about what we can do on our most crowded sidewalks. We tried to do this a little while ago with a hearing, but we want to put a little more impetus behind this with the bill.”
If passed, it will be up to the DOT to determine the worst problem areas for crowding and decide the best method for fixing the issue. Murphy says the bill doesn’t specify solutions, but can imagine sidewalk widening and new pedestrian plazas would be on the table. Midtown, especially on Seventh Avenue near Penn Station, and Main Street in Flushing, Queens, are high on the list of crowded spots.
The sidewalk crowding is perhaps unsurprising. The city’s population officially crossed the 8.5 million mark last year, tourist visits are at an all-time high, and the number of pedestrians at 100 sites monitored by the DOT has increased 18 percent on weekdays and 31 percent on the weekends since 2009.
Still, Murphy says, “Sidewalk crowding isn’t a new thing, we’re just prioritizing it now. … When you’re talking about use of public space in NYC, the car has always taken priority in that discussion. We’re entering a new era.”
Streets advocacy group Transportation Alternatives is supportive of the effort.
“Streets and sidewalks are 80 percent of public space in the city,” says Caroline Samponaro, deputy director for Transportation Alternatives. “This bill really gets at the importance of really making the most equitable, sane use of that public space. Many of our streets and sidewalks haven’t changed in more than 50 years even as travel habits and patterns have changed.”
Of course, safety is the fundamental reason for the bill. Already this year, 85 pedestrians have been killed and nearly 7,000 injured by crashes. Murphy says Rodriguez has supported the city’s Vision Zero goals from the beginning.
But Samponaro sees it as an opportunity to do more than just make the streets safer.
“We need to be able to do more than just stay alive while walking and biking,” she explains. “I think this bill calls that out in a good way. It forces the city to keep doing what they’re doing with pedestrian safety, but also push beyond that and think about what we are doing to make really dynamic public spaces.”
Like Murphy, Samponaro hopes this bill helps the city rethink how much street space it should dedicate to cars.
“When you see people walking in the street, taking a lane of traffic, you’re seeing a very outdated street design that’s not serving people in the way they need,” she says. “If we’re widening sidewalks and building pedestrian plazas for consistently high pedestrian volumes, we’re designing a street to save lives and move people more efficiently.”
The timeline for the bill is still in the air, but Murphy says as chair of the Council Transportation Committee, Rodriguez will be able to get at least get a hearing for it.
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.