Three weeks ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio called a plan to pedestrianize the streets around Rockefeller Center as "premature," and suggested that some nefarious bureaucrat "was trying to further their own agenda" by releasing it. But like a stubborn avocado that just needs time before it's transformed into delicious, safe streets guacamole, it appears Midtown is getting some relief after all just in time for the holiday crush.
"There's a congestion problem so we're acting on it," the mayor told WNYC's Brian Lehrer this morning, announcing the initiative.
According to a press release written in a much jauntier cadence than the mayor's radio appearance ("WALKIN' AROUND THE CHRISTMAS TREE"), starting on Friday, November 29th, 49th and 50th Streets will be closed between 2 p.m. and midnight from Mondays to Thursdays, 1 p.m. and midnight on Fridays, and 10 a.m. and midnight on Saturdays and Sundays.
The NYPD will also block off a lane of traffic on both sides of 5th Avenue with movable barriers, and one lane of traffic on the east side of 6th Avenue. Drivers will not be able to turn on 47th, 49th, or 51st Streets, and MTA buses will bypass 48th to 52nd Streets. The changes will begin the Friday after Thanksgiving and will be adjusted as necessary through the holiday season.
The need for more space in Midtown (glorious, enchanting Midtown) can be illustrated with one horrifying statistic: Around 125 million people visit Rockefeller Center during the holidays.
"We created a plan that is flexible so that when there's a lot of pedestrian activity, we can have these zones closed off. When there isn't much pedestrian activity, the NYPD will have the option if they want, to open up some more lanes to let more traffic flow," the mayor said.
The initiative was first proposed by Councilmember Keith Powers and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. Both say they want to make the pedestrianization permanent, as does Council Speaker Corey Johnson.
"This pilot will give us a sense of how full pedestrianization can be achieved all year round, and demonstrates the value of thinking differently about how we use our streets," Powers said in the release.
While he may have eventually warmed to the concept of closing a handful of streets to vehicular traffic while literally millions of pedestrians throng a dead tree in the center of the most densely populated spot in the country, the mayor dismissed the discussion to eliminate free parking in New York City earlier this week.
"No, on first blush if you said we’re going to tell people they can’t park on their street, no, that does not ring true to me," the mayor told reporters on Tuesday. "I think we need to keep finding every solution to reduce the use of motor vehicles in New York City and I’ll look at a whole range of things but if you said on first blush [inaudible] go so far as telling people they can’t park on their street, no I’m not there."
Update: Andy Byford, the head of the New York City Transit Authority, is not pleased.
“While the MTA fully supports safe pedestrian access for New Yorkers and visitors during this busy holiday time, we are disappointed that the plan put forward by the Mayor gives no priority to MTA buses and ignores the needs of bus customers," Byford said in a statement. "This unilateral decision flies in the face of the work that the MTA has done with NYC DOT to speed up bus times, decrease dwell times and increase ridership across our system."
Byford notes that the plan "lumps MTA buses in with cars and trucks – the exact opposite of our collaborative efforts with the City on the success of the 14th Street busway, the innovative bus lane camera enforcement (ABLE) program and transit priority citywide."
"Thousands of buses travel these lanes every day getting riders where they need to go for the holidays to see family and friends, and the plan as put forward will only serve to increase congestion and result in slower speeds for our passengers.”