Testimony to City Council Transportation Committee: Oversight Hearing on NYC DOT Plaza Program

Testimony of Paul Steely White
Executive Director, Transportation Alternatives

New York City Council Transportation Committee Oversight Hearing: How has DOT's public plaza program impacted traffic, pedestrian safety, and commerce in NYC?


As the Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives, an organization which promoted bicycling, walking and public transit for 38 years, I applaud the Council for examining DOT’s pedestrian plaza program. I am sure you will find that Pedestrian Plazas are good for business, good for pedestrians, and good for New York.

Pedestrian Plazas are good for Business:

Anyone who has spent a moment watching the street life at Times Square, Herald Square, the Flatiron, and Union Square realizes that these plazas are vibrant centers of commerce. But the story doesn’t end in Midtown Manhattan – anywhere in New York where there are high levels of retail activity and high pedestrian volumes can benefit from their own homegrown commercial center – a pedestrian plaza.

This is true for two reasons:

Shoppers are Walkers: T.A. conducted a study with NYU Urban Planning students on two streets with high levels of retail activity and high pedestrian volumes which shows that pedestrians are good for business: 88% of people arrived to these neighborhoods by subway, bus, by walking or by bicycle (“Pedestrians”). The remaining 12% arrive by taxi or privately owned car (“Drivers”).

Walkers are Shoppers: Drivers spend less than non-drivers: Pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit riders spent $154 dollars per week, on average; drivers spent $82 per week. Because there are far more pedestrians and transit-riders than drivers, they visit more frequently, and they spend more money during the course of those visits, they were worth more money to local businesses: The 440 pedestrians, bicyclists and transit-rider respondents were worth approximately $72,000 in revenue, as compared to the 60 drivers and taxi riders, who only contributed approximately $2,700 in revenue.

We can speculate about why this may be the case: perhaps drivers stop at the retail district, go into a store to make a specific purchase and leave, as opposed to pedestrians who stroll and shop at multiple locations. No matter what the rationale, however, the fact remains: drivers don’t provide “the bang for the buck” that pedestrians do.

These results show that catering to New York’s street life is a savvy business strategy. This is confirmed by another study we conducted along Prince Street in 2006. We interviewed 500 drivers and 500 pedestrians, and found that two-thirds of people would come to that crowded pedestrian heavy retail centers more often if there was more space to walk - it’s simply too crowded. When we asked those who thought it was too crowded: do you want that space to come from parking or from street vendors, everyone, drivers included, preferred reducing parking by nearly a 2-1 margin. People love our Street Life so much that they are willing to part with parking to preserve it.

Pedestrian Plazas are good for Pedestrians

T.A.’s research indicates that Plazas keep pedestrians safer. They rationalize unnecessarily confusing intersections, and provide space for pedestrians, which keeps them out of the roadway.

Gansevoort Plaza project in Manhattan
Before DOT reformed the area, this plaza was a vast intersection, without crosswalks or boundaries for traffic. Cars frequently zoomed through the intersection, and pedestrians had to run to cross the wide-open intersection – or walk several blocks out of their path to avoid the area entirely.
In the ten years before the project, there were on average 8.3 crashes each year. In the years since the project, which created pedestrian plazas and rationalized traffic patterns, there have been an average of 4.5 crashes per year.

Simply reconfiguring the intersection has helped usher in an economic revival for the neighborhood. That means, of course, that the number of crashes is down significantly even though the number of pedestrians is way, way up.

Times Square and Herald Square
Times Square and Herald Square, and the stretch in-between, is much safer. The results are clear: Pedestrians have space, so now 80% fewer pedestrians are walking in the roadway on 7th Avenue between 45th and 46th streets. Injuries to motorists and passengers are down 63%. Percentage of people who felt unsafe crossing the street in Times Square dropped 50%. Pedestrian injuries declined by 40% in Times Square. Pedestrian injuries declined by 53% in Herald Square.
Most of this safety, which has saved the city tens of millions of dollars in emergency responder costs, snarled traffic, and other issues, has been achieved with relatively minor measures: simplified intersections, which increases pedestrian compliance; separated pathways; organized and defined traffic lanes; and shortened crosswalks. Small steps, big results, which can be replicated everywhere.

And of course, even the air is safer: The presence of particulate matter in the air has dropped significantly in Times Square after the plaza project. The presence of Nitric Oxide has dropped by 63% and the presence of Nitric Di-Oxide by 41%.

The benefits are not just in terms of safety, however. These plazas provide badly needed public space, and a place for public congregation. (See attachment #2)

These benefits have encouraged other neighborhoods to lobby for their own plazas

All over the city, communities are working with DOT to get their own plazas. The Plaza program has accepted applicants on Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, Bruckner Blvd. in the Bronx, and at the intersection on Myrtle and Cooper Avenue in Queens. New Yorkers in every neighborhood in the City, no matter their age, ethnicity, or income, appreciate having more safe space to walk.
But even more interesting are examples from around the City of smaller, community-driven examples of similar programs that neighborhoods can achieve with less investment from the city.

Play Streets
Play Streets are city blocks that regularly close to traffic--a kind of recurring block party. This is an entirely community driven process- the Community identifies the low-traffic street that will host the Play Street, provides programming, and arranges for outreach to neighbors. The City simply needs to provide the permits needed to keep the street traffic-free.

The Department of Health has recently thrown its support behind these exercise-friendly street closures, and has helped to nearly double the number of Play Streets this summer to 15. Community groups in all five boroughs hosted a Play Street last summer.

Our streets are our backyards and play streets help communities take advantage of public space by better serving the people who live on them.

Finding the best uses for Streets
In Park Slope community members are pushing to limit the use of a dead-end street between a school and a Park on school days to give children more safe space to play (4th Street and 5th avenue). In Jackson Heights the community is doing something similar, increasing the size of a park by repurposing an underutilized street (78th Street and 34th Avenue). The fact is, in New York City, 80% of our public space is in our streets. New York does better when we realize that streets can do more than move traffic, and we promote a vibrant Street Life.

Steps to improve DOT Plaza program:

The Plaza Program has been a success. Of course, however, there are a few ideas worth mentioning to discuss how to further capitalize on that success:

1. DOT must make sure that the Plaza Program works well for local businesses. We’ve already discussed how increased foot traffic helps local businesses, but T.A. encourages DOT to add even more loading zones for businesses to accept deliveries. Loading zones reduce congestion, and business owners save tens of thousands of dollars in double parking fines. DOT should also do more to encourage off-peak deliveries. They recently concluded a pilot study which shows very promising results for this practical idea– our hope is that DOT and the Council will do more to encourage businesses to accept deliveries at times other than the morning or afternoon rush hours, when our central business district streets are bursting past capacity.

2. There is not nearly enough data on the economic impact of pedestrianization. DOT must work with other city agencies to collect before and after data, so that plaza projects can be compared across different neighborhoods.
Specifically, DOT should survey:
• The economic impact: gross revenues, payroll tax collection (new jobs created)
• Health and Safety impacts: crash rates, air quality, (jobs, revenue)
• Quality of life impacts: Street furniture use rates, pedestrian counts, crime rates, user reactions.

3. DOT must find a way to work with a broader array of community partners, such as churches and neighborhood civic groups, so that they too can work to obtain a plaza. BIDs and powerhouse not-for-profits are the only organizations that have managed to obtain approval through the DOT program – how do smaller organizations prove that their local streets are worthy of the same consideration?

Secondary Title
How has DOT's public plaza program impacted traffic, pedestrian safety, and commerce in NYC?