Saturday, May 8, 2010

Will a Midtown pedestrian mall kill Midtown?

In a word, no.

The Next American City had a post regarding pedestrian malls which, in some cases, are having cars reintroduced. They were originally a reaction to suburban shopping malls, and an attempt to retain retail in former downtowns. Their success has been decidedly mixed. The pedestrian movement is moving towards complete streets, which makes more sense. Streets were once rather democratic places, but were completely turned over to automobiles (with things like jaywalking statutes). A few were further segregated, with pedestrian malls.

There seem to be two types of pedestrian mall—those where nearly everyone arrives by car, and those where the pedestrian mall is at the center of an already-pedestrian-friendly area. The former are generally small and medium cities, the latter larger cities with decent transit or college towns. Then there's Manhattan.

Manhattan is not trying to boost a lagging retail sector. Times Square, Herald Square and 34th Street is probably the most bustling area in the whole country. And while downtown retail has suffered in nearly every city in the country, New York has a large enough transit-centric population that Midtown has no trouble even with tight, very expensive parking. New York's attempts at pedestrianization are reactions to having given too much space away to cars—five lanes of traffic with narrow, crowded sidewalks. In addition, the diagonal crossing of Broadway caused traffic havoc, and with the box often blocked, gridlock ensued. (Well, it still ensues.) With traffic stalled and thousands of pedestrians, Times and Herald Squares resemble pedestrian malls more often than not—with a bunch of cars blocking the way.

The New York Times asked a bunch of folks (it's a good read) if they thought that the pedestrianization of Midtown was a good idea, and everyone said yes. Well, everyone except the token nay-sayer. (Actually they had a guy from Reason who was able to say that "pedestrian malls could be viable in Manhattan.") They had to find someone to say that the pedestrian improvements were bad for the city, and they found one Randall O'Toole.

Usually Randall expounds on a laughable, oil- and car-lobby-funded blog where he argues time and again that if we all drove everywhere it'd be great. I choose not to spend my time debunking every one of his articles (for instance: New York would do better with buses than subways) and the straw men and red herrings and use of irrelevant data (in the New York case, he argues that buses cost less per passenger mile to operate, which is true in many cities, but not in New York). But this is not a blog, it's the paper of record (or a blog on the PoR's website). In any case, he makes some very interesting assertions regarding the street closings in Midtown. Here are some choice quotes:

Closing Broadway to auto traffic may reduce congestion on cross streets and avenues, but limiting auto access could also turn Broadway itself into a deserted wasteland.

In 1959, Kalamazoo, Mich., tried to help its downtown compete with suburban shopping malls by closing a street to auto traffic and turning it into a pedestrian mall. Over the next 30 years, more than 200 American and Canadian cities created similar malls.

Far from helping retail districts, most of these pedestrian malls killed them. Vacancy rates soared, and any pedestrians using the malls found themselves walking among boarded up shops or former department stores that had been downgraded to thrift shops or other low-rent operations.

That's his opening. He's comparing Midtown Manhattan to Kalamazoo. Uh, Randall, I think there are some minor density differences going on there. And some minor land use and land value differences. Tell me, did Kalamazoo in 1959 have one of the worlds largest subway systems and two of the worlds largest train stations? Was Kalamazoo's pedestrian mall anchored by the largest store in the world (and the flagship of the largest nationwide department store chain) at one end and the largest theater district in the country at the other?

Then, in a study of fallacies, he goes on:

In most situations, automobiles drive retail. Pedestrian malls don’t create pedestrians; they only work on streets that are already dominated by pedestrian traffic.

Where to start. "In most situations" does not, quite specifically, apply to all situations. "Pedestrian malls don't create pedestrians." That's a bit of a straw man, since there's no need to create more pedestrians in Midtown Manhattan, is there? And as for working on streets dominated by pedestrian traffic—anyone who's ever walked in Manhattan would probably agree that that would be a fair description of the streets there.

And if you naïvely think that's all, you'd be wrong:

Broadway might have sufficient pedestrians to maintain retail businesses — but it might not. It may be that many of the pedestrians originally arrived by taxi or in other automobiles. And given the current economy, any change for the worse could put already teetering shops out of business.

Broadway might not have sufficient pedestrians to maintain retail businesses? Seriously? If you took a poll of New Yorkers to see if they thought Broadway didn't have enough pedestrians to support retail business I believe those answering in the affirmative would be pretty darned close to 100 percent. It might be no—from every hundredth person. And are most people arriving by taxi or car? Well, not by car. The few people who do arrive by car are paying enough in parking fees and the time cost of driving in to Midtown that an extra few minutes of gridlock won't make any difference. Those in taxis aren't about to drive to Passaic if the ride was a few minutes longer.

And the teetering shops? Well, I'm pretty sure Macy's isn't going anywhere real soon.

In any case, it's pretty obvious Randall O'Toole hasn't been to Manhattan, or if he did he didn't open his eyes. If he wants to keep a blog where he proffers fabrications, fine. But if he is going to write swill like this, the Times shouldn't give him the time of day.

But perhaps a Times commenter said it best: "Comparing Buffalo to Manhattan is like comparing Randall O'Toole to an actual scholar."

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