STREETFILMS: Manhattan Without Cars Points the Way to a More Livable City

Is that a KID biking in Times Square? Why not? Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.
Is that a KID biking in Times Square? Why not? Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

“We can choose the next ‘after.'”

That’s how street safety activist Doug Gordon succinctly described the future city we will live in once the coronavirus crisis has passed — a poignant declaration of action that is the core sentiment of two new videos from our colleagues at Streetsfilms.

The first film, shot two weeks ago in Times Square features Streetsblog Publisher Mark Gorton showing off how much space is available to be repurposed from cars and given to pedestrians. As the “before” footage shows, Times Square is often filled with far more pedestrians than drivers — yet the pedestrians are crammed onto narrow sidewalks and drivers get most of the space. It reaches crisis levels when Broadway shows are about to start and when the curtain falls.

And after this crisis, the theater industry will return — the show must go on! — so clearly the city needs to make some changes. Here’s that film (featuring children — yes, children! — feeling safe enough to bike in Midtown):

In the second video, filmed last week near Gordon’s (former) office in Tribeca, the contrast between the “before” and “after” shots is no less striking. That part of Tribeca has been surrendered to the automobile and serves as nothing more than a sluice to help drivers get from or slink back to New Jersey. Pedestrians and residents are prisoners to the noise, congestion, pollution and danger.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

As tempting as it is to call for more empty streets, Gordon points out that New Yorkers won’t be clamoring for a city devoid of life — and life will require delivery truck drivers and emergency service workers to be able to do their jobs.

There will be roadways, and there will be some vehicles. But how we chose to apportion the space will make all the difference.

Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.
Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

We could reallocate so much space alongside the curb — currently occupied by private vehicles whose owners get to store their property in the public right of way, often for free — for use as parklets or dining areas or bike corrals (as the photo of W. 13th Street shows, right).

Taken together, the latest films show that New Yorkers are going to become accustomed to the new normal of livable streets: breathable air, less anxiety, almost no noise, and far more safety for pedestrians, cyclists and, yes, drivers.

And, as Gordon says, we get to choose whether to hold onto these benefits, or fritter them away in an effort to “get back to normal.”

Here’s a reminder of what “normal” looks like in Tribeca and Times Square:

Photos: Clarence Eckerson Jr.
Photos: Clarence Eckerson Jr.