'Pedestrian Priority' Streets for Lower Manhattan? City Will Look Into It

During the city-sponsored day of "shared streets" in Lower Manhattan in August 2016, pedestrians walked freely along Nassau Street as cars were limited to five miles an hour. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

May. 11, 2019

On a sweltering Saturday morning in August 2016, Polly Trottenberg, commissioner of the city’s Department of Transportation, stood in front of Fraunces Tavern Museum to launch a six-hour experiment. Along 60 blocks of the Financial District, pedestrians would share the streets with cars: speed limit 5 miles an hour.

“If you don’t need to drive in this district today, leave your car at home,” Trottenberg said at a press briefing. “Come ride a bike, come walk around. That’s the goal here.”

That day of trying “shared streets” Downtown had another goal, too. The city was studying—albeit inconclusively—a possible solution to the obstacles that growing numbers of residents, workers and tourists face as they navigate the narrow sidewalks of the Financial District.

Three years later, the city is returning to the challenge.

Last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the DOT would study options for creating “new pedestrian priority streets” in Lower Manhattan as one of several traffic improvement initiatives by the city. Councilwoman Margaret Chin had secured $500,000 for the study more than two years ago.

The decision by the city to look for ways to improve pedestrian and vehicular traffic flow in Lower Manhattan (the boundaries of the study are yet to be defined) comes on the heels of a report, “Make Way for Lower Manhattan,” issued by the Financial District Neighborhood Association, a volunteer community group.

The report calls for measures such as freeing up curb space for deliveries and garbage pickup by re-assigning spots for placard parking. It also advocates for a “slow street” plan for curbless, widened sidewalks and narrowed, separately marked travel lanes. (The Downtown Alliance has separately called for some similar measures around the New York Stock Exchange.)

Another suggestion in the report, closing some streets to allow for the creation of pedestrian plazas near the Brooklyn Bridge and Bowling Green, has met strong resistance by some members of Community Board 1.

On a recent tour of Financial District streets, Patrick Kennell, president of the Financial District Neighborhood Assn., pointed out some of the typical pedestrian obstacles: delivery trucks parked on a Beekman Street sidewalk, west of William; a stop sign laying on its side at Platt and Pearl; construction debris left at Platt and William.

And then there was the worst offender: garbage. “See the guy with the golf cart?” Kennell said, pointing to workers from a Cedar Street building unloading bags of refuse onto the street near the curb at Maiden Lane and Pearl Street. “Just after 4 p.m. they start trucking it out. He’s going to spend the next hour or two building that pile up.”

“It will grow in height and it will also grow this way,” he added, motioning to the sidewalk that would become partially blocked. “This sidewalk is normally two or three people wide, cut short by the scaffolding in the first place. It will be narrowed to one or two. Imagine if you have a stroller, or you’re in a wheelchair.”

Jennifer Leung, a DOT project manager, told Community Board 1’s Transportation Committee this month that a technical advisory committee of city agencies, including the Sanitation Department, is expected to participate in her agencys upcoming study. “It’s definitely a conversation we need to have with them,” she said.

The DOT still needs to determine the scope of the study before it begins in August. And so far, it appears, there is no clear idea when steps will be taken to actually implement changes to the streetscape, or begin pilot projects to test them out. “Once the data is gathered we’ll do some analysis and from that analysis we could determine in the coming years what we would be able to do,” she said.  

Leung said that before the study begins in August, its proposed scope will be presented to stakeholders for feedback.

“This is an ongoing project of ours,” said Reggie Thomas, the Transportation Committee chair, “and we want to hold the city accountable.”

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The WTC traffic grid idea, thankfully never realized

Just to note, I did battle with the Lower Manhattan Development Corp over the rebuilding of the WTC site as they wanted to “restore the traffic grid.” Which never made any sense to me. 

LMDC President Kevin Rampe and his sidekick Matt Higgins wanted to extend Fulton and Dey Streets, with traffic, through the rebuilt WTC site. And they were considering doing the same with Cortlandt. 

Greenwich Street was re-extended through the site and then closed off when, shockingly, the NYPD advised that they were not about to allow traffic to run through what was considered the No. 1 terrorist target site in the USA.Which ended the ill begotten idea of extending Fulton, Dey and Cortlandt Streets and “restoring the traffic grid.”

Imagine the insanity in downtown today if the LMDC’s myopic plan had been realized.

So little vision was applied to rebuilding “Ground Zero,” costing us all who knows how much. Its greatest use now is as a case study for how not to do things. — MICHAEL BURKE