Commentary Magazine


The Return of Bad Ideas

These days, one of the strangest places on earth is Times Square, but not for the reasons one would have expected a mere 15 years ago. Its odd atmosphere is not due to transvestite hookers like the ones who worked on the corner of 46th and Eighth when I lived down the block in the early 1980s, nor the dozens of porn theaters that overtook the neighborhood in the 1970s like swine flu through a middle school. The neighborhood is so improved that faux-boho nostalgists are constantly bemoaning the loss of the delightful local color that wasn’t delightful at all if you had the misfortune to be resident in the midst of it.

No, the new strangeness is due to the fact that Broadway, the Great White Way itself, has been denuded of automobile traffic by order of the mayor, Michael Bloomberg, in June. Under the billboards and the neon, the street itself has been painted a weak ochre with outdoor furniture—chairs and tables and divans—sitting around in place of taxicabs and trucks and cars. Cars still move down Seventh Avenue, which is right next to it, but a wide expanse that is neither park nor street suddenly took Broadway’s place.

The overall effect is bizarre. Pedestrians don’t quite know what to do with the extra space; they mill about confusedly. While the sidewalks of Times Square did suffer at times from grievous overpopulation, especially in the hours before and after the Broadway theaters plied their wares, most of the time they were no more than vibrantly busy. The spillover from the sidewalk to the street occasioned by the removal of automobiles is unnatural and discomfiting.

The stated motivation for the street closure is a peculiar one. Bloomberg’s administration claims that by eliminating several key blocks from the automotive grid and making the passage by car through Manhattan’s midtown more difficult, the end result will be a net improvement in the city’s horrible traffic. This is another species of the absurd but longstanding argument that road improvements worsen congestion—and, by logical extension, that making it more difficult to use roads for traversal will somehow reduce it. It is true that taxi and truck drivers are avoiding Broadway like the plague in the half-mile north of the closure. Which means they are taking Fifth, Seventh, Ninth, and Eleventh Avenues on their way downtown instead, thus oozing the supposed traffic crisis from Times Square throughout the West Side and wreaking havoc elsewhere.

In the meantime, the new plan is a havoc of its own. Steve Cuozzo of the New York Post is appropriately withering on the subject, calling the new street pattern “an unconscionable tampering with the chemistry of the city’s most iconic place, with results already visibly disastrous.”

But surely the oddest thing about the Times Square disaster is that it was entirely predictable, based on hard-won wisdom of the effects of these sorts of measures on cities across the country—including New York City. And it is surely instructive that, in 2009, that hard-won wisdom was simply forgotten or ignored by a resourceful, overconfident, and high-handed politician intent on leaving a dramatic thumbprint on his town no matter what.

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Perhaps the craziest of the great urban-planning crazes from the late 1950s onward was the conversion of troubled center-city areas into pedestrian malls.1 From Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1959, to Sacramento, California, in 1969, to Chicago’s State Street in 1979, Brooklyn’s own Fulton Street in the 1970s, and dozens of others, cities went on a street-closing binge in their downtowns in an attempt to reverse the slide in the fortunes of once vital shopping districts. The results were catastrophic. In nearly every instance, the pedestrian mall only hastened the neighborhood’s decline, and in city after city the streets were eventually restored to their original condition—though in the cases of Kalamazoo, Sacramento, and Chicago, the reversal literally took decades to effect.

By the time the consensus changed and the street patterns were restored, politicians were literally involving themselves in the destruction of the barriers to cars. In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley manned a jackhammer on the morning in 1996 when State Street’s concrete blocks were removed. “As mayor,” he said, “I have found it difficult to find out whose idea this was in the first place.” And indeed, State Street’s restoration was the hinge moment in the revival of Chicago’s Loop, with grimy office buildings retrofitted into luxury condominiums and the creation of a magnificent new park just blocks away, the sort of place that welcomes rather than repels foot traffic.

As Dave Feehan of the International Downtown Association described the malls:

They were designed in some ways after European cities that had pedestrian streets. However, we made several mistakes in doing this in the U.S. We didn’t look at the way European streets work or are designed.

European streets were, of course, “designed” in the centuries that preceded the invention of the automobile, and those areas where cars cannot really tread have an organic feel to them. But this nation’s great cities either anticipated the arrival of the car or were explicitly laid out with the car in mind. An American street can be turned into a semi-park only by political fiat—and a semi-park is all Broadway can be anyway, since Bloomberg’s Broadway mall is interrupted every hundred feet by an intersection with a numbered street to afford through-passage to . . . automobiles.

 Bloomberg can argue that the Broadway -experiment differs from what came before because the change is not an attempt to reverse the decline of Times Square but to manage the consequences of its roaring success. Whatever its purpose, the effect is already negative, as Cuozzo writes:

Two Times Square restaurants told me on a not-for-attribution basis that business has been down since the plazas were set up after Memorial Day—a fact that’s counterintuitive until you realize that a horde of milling, idling tourists can chase away purposeful strollers looking for a place to eat. In fact, leading businesspeople are alarmed over the damage the scheme threatens to do to Times Square’s office buildings, stores, hotels, restaurants and theaters—all industries reeling from the recession.

No matter. Bloomberg has a habit of ignoring the lessons of recent history when they do not comport with his desires. At the same time that he introduced the Broadway closure, Bloomberg initiated an aggressive new system of bike lanes in various parts of Manhattan, despite the fact that exactly the same thing was tried under Mayor Ed Koch in 1981 and abandoned almost immediately when it became apparent they were taking up 10 percent of the avenues but hosting only a few hundred cyclists a day.

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What will happen with Times Square and the bike lanes is anybody’s guess; supposedly the matter is being studied through the end of the year, and no final decision to keep them has been made. But the larger lesson here has to do with the nature of political ideas in a democracy. The pedestrian mall was an idea; the notion of limiting traffic to improve traffic is yet another idea; the replacement of cars by bicycles still another idea. They were and are interesting ideas, innovative ideas, ideas that are fun to discuss and even more entertaining to design. The one complicating factor is that there are ideas that have actually been made flesh.

In practice, they proved to be, and still prove to be, bad ideas. And now these ideas are again in force—just as Barack Obama is in force with a panoply of statist ideas that had seemed to have landed on the ash-heap of history in 1996, when Bill Clinton declared that the “era of big government is over.”

In a democracy, nothing is ever over. Bad ideas come roaring back, and good ones are tossed aside in fits of boredom and an excessive hunger for social and political experimentation. To which one can only invoke the wisdom of Solomon and say, “This too shall pass.” The only question is how much damage is done before it does.


Footnotes

1 I am grateful to Jacob Benson for his research assistance.

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