On Sunday, Rockefeller Center’s eight-story Christmas tree came down. The holiday season’s conclusion also marks the end of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s seven-week experiment in closing parts of Midtown Manhattan to cars and trucks and opening it to people on foot. The temporary pedestrianization of Rockefeller Center gave New York something it hasn’t seen in some time: a popular success, with few complainers. The obvious next step: New York City’s Department of Transportation should make the redesign year-round.
Rockefeller Center poses the same problems that Times Square did more than a decade ago, when then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg shut much of it to cars and trucks. Today’s record numbers of tourists and commuters, and a near-record population, means unparalleled foot traffic—an increase of 11 percent in 10 years—and not enough room for the people crowding the streets.
One broad measure illustrates the pressure: in 2018, according to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, nearly 3 million people entered core Manhattan each day by subway, commuter rail, bus, bicycle, or ferry. Fewer than 900,000 arrived by car or truck. By comparison, in 1998, fewer than 2.4 million people took public transportation or bicycles into Manhattan and more than 1.3 million drove. These 600,000 new non-car commuters require more room on sidewalks to make their way from train and bus stations to work, as any rush-hour walk down Eighth Avenue toward the Port Authority shows.
Rockefeller Center has an extra challenge: Christmas season. New York City’s tourism office estimates that 750,000 people walk by the tree every day. At peak times, the Department of Transportation estimates, 20,000 people pass through key corners hourly. And up to 30,000 people see the Radio City Spectacular, featuring the Rockettes, daily.
Add to these crowds the new risk of vehicle terrorism, spurring the NYPD to put down cement blocks and metal cages. Though the restrictions protect some public areas, they also further encroach on already-limited pedestrian thoroughfares. For the past few years, as a consequence, Christmas at Rockefeller Center wasn’t that fun. People bringing kids to the tree, or just trying to walk home, have faced crowded conditions that can border on dangerous. Crossing the street sometimes required waiting in lines.
This year, though, prodded by Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer and area councilman Keith Powers, the de Blasio administration took a different approach: cede the streets to the crowds, rather than the vehicles. After Thanksgiving—starting in the early afternoon on weekdays and all day on weekends—the NYPD plunked down cement barriers at each end of 49th and 50th Streets, the key cross streets between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, to mark space off for walkers. On Fifth and Sixth Avenues, the police also carved off extra lanes of pedestrian space, taking room away from car and bus traffic.
This short-term closure—or, rather, opening—was a smash hit from its first evening, with visitors and residents alike praising the changes. Parents told reporters that they could relax without having to worry if their child would be hit by a car. Residents, meantime, found it easier to bypass people taking pictures of the tree. Rather than squeezing on overcrowded sidewalks, people could take their time and enjoy the sights. The new pedestrian space also gave people more room to take pictures. With the two cross streets closed, people could cross intersections without creating bottlenecks.
Business owners had no complaints. In fact, a predictable schedule of street closures made things easier for company managers. For emergencies, one of the FDNY’s new, smaller ambulances idled on one of the closed cross streets.
The sole critic was the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which grumbled that detoured buses ran on slower schedules. But MTA buses have bypassed Rockefeller Center’s Christmastime crowds for years. Of course, traffic beyond this pedestrian zone remained a nightmare. Prohibiting inefficient cars and trucks on 49th and 50th Streets as they back up every other cross street could hardly have worsened the situation, though official data are forthcoming.
Now Christmas is over—but Powers and Brewer rightly want City Hall to make the closures permanent. The Department of Transportation should start soliciting design and construction contracts to finish this project by summer. Permanent pedestrianization would be an even better experience for the area’s denizens. Small, round, retractable metal bollards to open and close streets and lanes on streets and avenues—common in European historic centers—would allow for easier pedestrian movement than clunky cement blocks. They’d allow more flexibility, too; an approaching bus could automatically direct a bollard to retract into the street and then pop up again once the bus has passed, via a radio chip.
In this manner, permanent pedestrianization could address the MTA’s complaints. Out of the three existing lanes for traffic on the cross streets, the city could reserve one for a busway. The MTA could even run bus service with more frequency during the holiday season to serve the bigger crowds. A bus lane would also let private-sector tour buses take their customers by the tree without stopping.
Overall, more pedestrian space could help area merchants better serve customers year-round. Coffee and food vendors could bid to offer refreshments in new outdoor seating areas. The existing year-round Rockefeller Center plazas, with their careful seasonal plantings and space for people to sit, rest, and drink coffee, have long worked well; it would make sense for the city to copy this private-sector success.
Mayor de Blasio gave New York a gift this past holiday season. Now that the holidays are over, he should let the city keep it.