New York City’s Times Square is notorious for its fast talkers, street walkers and con-men mingling among artists scrounging tips from tourists who gawk at themselves on jumbo video screens or take selfies with accommodating cops on horses.
Much of the action takes place in pedestrian plazas carved into Broadway, souvenirs of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts in 2009 to make parts of the city more accessible to the public.
It all contributes to a boom in Time Square’s retail business and billboard advertising, plus fewer traffic accidents.
But New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton would rip out the plazas to combat what city officials call aggressive solicitation of tips by topless women coated in body paint and hucksters dressed like cartoon and superhero characters who pose for pictures with tourists.
“I’d prefer to just dig the whole damn thing up and put it back to the way it was, where Broadway was Broadway and not a dead-end street,” Bratton told radio station 1010 WINS on Thursday.
Not everyone agrees.
“He’s out of date and clearly way beyond his shelf-life if he thinks we should go back to the 1980s. He’s confusing Times Square with Boston Common,” said Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban planning and policy at New York University.
“New Yorkers may not like everything that goes on in Times Square, but we are not going back,” said Moss, referring to the old traffic pattern that created even more congestion.
Bratton’s idea will be considered by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s newly created task force that is looking for a way to limit the solicitations without violating freedom of expression and panhandling rights.
“It had not occurred to me that anybody would have possibly seen what’s happening in Times Square as something that needed to be solved by turning it over to cars,” said David King, assistant professor of urban planning at Columbia University.
The Times Square Alliance, which promotes the section of the city known as The Crossroads of the World, contends that businesses in and around Times Square are frustrated by the hustlers and hawkers.
“The solution to dealing with 50 hustlers and petty thieves shouldn’t be to put the 450,000 people who walk through Times Square every day back out into the street,” said Tim Tompkins, the alliance’s president.
Times Square pedestrian volume is up but traffic related injuries are down, said Caroline Samponaro, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, an urban planning and advocacy group. “The number of injuries for all road users is down 40 percent since the plazas were installed,” she said.
Urban planners around the United States began favoring plazas 50 years ago to help increase commerce in declining cities. Back then, Times Square’s legitimate businesses competed for attention with peep shows and prostitutes.
Now, Times Square’s plazas and the buzz around them reflect what proponents tout as the upside of diverting traffic in the name of public space.
Street plazas, however, do not always work to a city’s advantage.
A 2013 study for Fresno, California, showed that U.S. pedestrian malls had an 89 percent failure rate with most either removed or repurposed.
Buffalo, New York is one example where traffic is slowly returning to its main street.
“Back then it was thought a European model of a downtown plaza would help Buffalo revitalize itself,” said Ernest Sternberg, a professor of urban and regional planning at the State University at Buffalo.
“That concept did not work. It is hard to know how much of the decline was caused by the plaza itself or the population and business decline that was happening at the time,” he said.
Time’s Square’s street plazas could be given back to taxis, trucks and buses. But for the time being, while the task force considers options, people pack the space day and night.
“After six years and $40 million spent by the city constructing the plazas, it would be a terrible mistake to eliminate them as the number one complaint from visitors before their construction was the lack of pedestrian space,” said Fred Rosenberg, president of the Times Square Advertising Coalition.
He said it was imperative to find a solution to the “harmful and negative activities” in the area without denying tourists and New Yorkers the “bright lights and excitement of Times Square.”