“Vision Zero,” or Zero Vision? De Blasio Says “Jury’s Out” on Midtown Plazas

Bill de Blasio, who adopted an aggressive street safety platform during the Democratic mayoral primary, reverted back to a livable streets skeptic at last night’s mayoral debate. The mayoral frontrunner claimed “the jury’s out” on the city’s popular Midtown pedestrian plazas, which among other benefits have led to dramatic reductions in pedestrian injuries. Republican candidate Joe Lhota was non-committal too, but given the de Blasio campaign’s stated commitment to eliminating traffic deaths, his response was especially jarring.

At the 51-minute mark, moderator Maurice Dubois asked the candidates a question dripping with windshield perspective: ”Would you take out the tables and chairs from Times Square and Herald Square and reopen Broadway?” De Blasio responded:

I have profoundly mixed feelings on this issue. I’m a motorist myself, and I was often frustrated. And then I’ve also seen on the other hand that it does seem to have a positive impact on the tourist industry. So for me, the jury’s out on that particular question. I think it’s worth assessing what the impact has been on traffic, what the impact has been on surrounding businesses. I would keep an open mind.

“He may be the judge but the jury has spoken,” Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White told Streetsblog this morning. Since the plazas were installed in 2009, they’ve been the subject of numerous polls, traffic studies, and business reports from the city, independent pollsters, and business groups. Given the evidence, de Blasio’s assertion that there needs to be even more review defies credulity.

“The position de Blasio articulated last night is completely inconsistent with Vision Zero,” White added, referring to the candidate’s campaign plank to eliminate traffic deaths within 10 years. “Putting pedestrians first is clearly saving lives and boosting business, and nowhere is that more apparent than in Times Square.”

Two months after the Times Square plazas were first installed, a Quinnipiac poll showed that 58 percent of New Yorkers supported them, with only 35 percent opposed. A Times poll this year showed that 72 percent of New Yorkers, including strong majorities in every demographic, support the citywide plaza program.

Before the plazas were made permanent in 2010, surveys from the Times Square Alliance business improvement district found that the majority of property owners and retail managers supported the program. In 2009, 70 percent of Times Square residents and workers supported the plazas; in 2012, the percentage jumped to 80 percent, the Alliance said. After pedestrianization, Times Square has consistently ranked as one of the most desirable retail destinations on earth.

Citing the plaza’s popularity and safety gains, including dramatic reductions in the number of pedestrians walking in the roadbed and a 35 percent drop in injuries, the Alliance said there’s no reason why the city should halt construction on a permanent plaza. “The current capital project to build a world-class plaza in Times Square — already well underway — makes sense to continue,” the group said in a statement.

The sentiment is similar on 34th Street, where the local BID is looking to come to an agreement with the city that would give it more control over maintaining and programming the plazas. “The pedestrian plazas are a huge success, and must stay,” Dan Biederman, head of the 34th Street Partnership, said in a statement. “They have created great new urban life, raised real estate values, and cut pedestrian injuries.”

As for car traffic, cab drivers in Manhattan below 60th Street have seen average speeds go up 6.7 percent since 2008. After the implementation of the Times Square plaza, average taxi speeds in West Midtown increased 7 percent.

De Blasio identified as a motorist in his response, but never talked about what it’s like to walk through Times Square. White encouraged de Blasio to walk, bike, and ride the bus more, to “really understand how the majority of New Yorkers get around.” He added that TA is closely watching who de Blasio might pick to head DOT. “I don’t think there’s a lot of tolerance for waffling,” White said. “De Blasio needs to decide what kind of mayor he’s going to be.”

When Streetsblog asked the de Blasio campaign how last night’s plaza position squares with Vision Zero, spokesperson Dan Levitan replied: “He didn’t say he would tear out them out.” De Blasio didn’t say he would keep them, either.

StreetsPAC, which endorsed de Blasio in the primary, released a statement in response to his debate performance:

New Yorkers have rendered a verdict on Times Square and the more than 50 pedestrian plazas created during the past five years, and that verdict is that they’re overwhelmingly popular. These plazas comprise 20-plus acres of new public space, and they’re enjoyed not only by tourists in Midtown, but by everyday New Yorkers in outer-borough neighborhoods like Corona and New Lots. The evidence is irrefutable that traffic flows more efficiently through Times Square today, and if business were as good in the rest of New York City as it is in Times Square, City Hall would be struggling to figure out how to spend the entirety of the budget surplus. Bill de Blasio was clear in his responses to StreetsPAC’s mayoral questionnaire about his support for the plaza program and the further pedestrianization of street space in New York City, so it appears to us that he misspoke in the heat of a debate in response to a loaded question. We’re confident that a de Blasio administration will not only complete the permanent buildout of the Times Square pedestrian plaza, but will continue to make New York City’s streets safer for, and more accommodating to, pedestrians in keeping with his stated policy initiatives.

Anyone hoping for a better answer from Joe Lhota, who was asked a nearly-identical question in an August primary debate also hosted by WCBS, was left wanting. “I too am of a split mind,” he said last night, suggesting that the plazas be opened to car traffic during rush hours. (Rush hours, incidentally, are when pedestrian volumes are highest.) Claiming that tables and chairs in the plazas “are being used mostly by tourists,” Lhota said that “we need to get traffic moving around this island.”

“Most of the pedestrians in Times Square,” White rebutted, “are New York City commuters going from A to B.”

The candidates were in agreement more often than not on a range of other transportation-related issues last night:

  • The debate began with a question about the recent motorcycle-SUV assault case. Neither Lhota nor de Blasio used the opportunity to talk about traffic violence more broadly, instead saying NYPD must crack down on motorcycle gangs. “They think they can break the law and they can slow down traffic and in fact cause potential real danger to motorists and others,” de Blasio said. Lhota said that legislation in the State Senate restricting gatherings of motorcyclists to no more than six at a time could be “a possible answer.”
  • Lhota, saying tolls are too high, repeated his desire for city control of the MTA’s bridges and tunnels. Currently, MTA bridge and tunnel toll revenue helps subsidize the authority’s subway and bus service; Lhota said Albany should pick up the slack for the revenue that would be lost. De Blasio expressed skepticism about the city taking on the financial responsibility of maintaining the crossings.
  • Lhota said Boro Taxis make sense for upper Manhattan but not the outer boroughs, where livery street hails should be legalized. De Blasio, who has raised $250,000 from the taxi industry, promised to “start over” on the Boro Taxi plan. De Blasio said there should be more street hails, but didn’t explain how he would facilitate them. Both candidates said TLC hasn’t worked closely enough with the taxi industry.
  • Both Lhota and de Blasio spoke positively of Mayor Bloomberg’s “Seaport City” concept for real estate development on newly-created land in the East River near the South Street Seaport. The massive real estate project, a mirror image of Battery Park City on the west side, is one of the mayor’s storm resiliency proposals.
  • The candidates also agreed on removing horse carriages from Central Park. “Horses don’t belong in the middle of the busiest city in the world,” de Blasio said. Lhota said the carriages could be motor-powered, and de Blasio suggested electric antique replica automobiles. So much for a car-free Central Park?

There is one more debate, scheduled for Tuesday, before the election a week later.