Atlantic Cities

Why a Pedestrian Avenue Makes So Much Sense for Midtown Manhattan

Why a Pedestrian Avenue Makes So Much Sense for Midtown Manhattan
Sarah Goodyear

New Yorkers pride themselves on knowing the secret ins and outs of the city. Anything to get an edge on the competition. One highly prized piece of intel is the route that allows you to cut through Midtown skyscrapers from 51st Street to 57th Street by using midblock arcades. These privately owned public spaces create a shortcut for those who want to avoid the tourist-clogged sidewalks of Sixth and Seventh avenues.

Now the city’s Department of Transportation is proposing that the semi-secret route become a little less secret. The DOT wants to put in raised crosswalks and stop signs at midblock, allowing pedestrians to proceed from one arcade to the next without jaywalking.

The idea came from a group called Friends of Privately Owned Public Spaces, or F-POPS, which dubbed the route “Holly Whyte Way,” after William Hollingsworth "Holly" Whyte, the observer of urban behavior who chronicled his findings about this type of place in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Others are calling it “6 ½ Avenue.” The plan was unanimously approved by the local community board’s transportation committee, and goes to the full board April 12.

Of course, in New York, every inch of real estate is contested ground. Not only that, the pedestrian- and bike-friendly policies of the DOT under commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan seem to inevitably draw skeptical media coverage. This latest move to reclaim public space for something other than cars is no exception.

The local CBS affiliate put it like this:

[W]hile most pedestrians are gung-ho, drivers who will have to stop mid-block at the raised crosswalks aren’t so keen. They want to know whose bright idea this is.

And here’s how The New York Times started its article on the plan:

First came the bike lanes, creeping like overgrown ivy across the city streetscape.

Then there were the open-air pedestrian plazas, sprouting from the concrete in hubs like Times Square and Union Square to make the insufferable clamor of crosstown traffic a little less so.

Now, by summer, New Yorkers may find themselves in the throes of the Bloomberg administration’s latest roadside intervention….

The truth is, pedestrians are overwhelmingly in the majority, both here and in the rest of the city. What they often find themselves "in the throes of" are streets that favor cars. According to the DOT, as many as 1,200 people per hour dodge traffic to get from arcade to arcade at peak times. In contrast, seven to 10 vehicles per minute drive the streets that separate them.

What the new proposal does is legitimize behavior that is already happening. It also will potentially bring greater attention and life to the POPS in Midtown. Like the now infamous Zuccotti Park, these arcades were givebacks to the city from developers who wanted to build their towers higher. They should be more than a token gesture on the part of landlords. Formally connecting them to the street sends a signal that they are legitimately open to the public.

Here’s how Sadik-Khan explained it to the New York Observer:

“We’ve been working very hard on the spaces between buildings and now we’re working very hard on the spaces within buildings,” Ms. Sadik-Khan said. “We’re reprogramming underutilized road space while enhancing pedestrian spaces we already have and encouraging their use.”

POPS serve a real function. Bigger buildings bring more pedestrians. Those people need places to sit, relax, and eat lunch. They also need a safe way to get back to the office or to the subway. If the spaces are truly meant to be public, it makes sense that they connect to public infrastructure in a way that favors the majority of users. Even if it means that 6 ½ Avenue isn’t an insider’s secret any longer.

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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