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Plan for 34th St. Puts Buses and Feet First

April 22, 2010

Michael Grynbaum, The New York Times

From the city that has banned cars from broad swaths of Broadway and put picnic tables in Times Square, here comes another great reshaping of New York’s streetscape. The Bloomberg administration is moving ahead with what amounts to a radical, river-to-river reimagining of another major corridor: 34th Street, the Midtown thoroughfare that is home to Macy’s — and some of the city’s most congested traffic.

Automobiles would be banned on the block between Fifth Avenue and Avenue of the Americas, creating a pedestrian plaza bookended by Herald Square and the Empire State Building. The result would be a street effectively split in two. On the west side of the pedestrian plaza, all car traffic would flow west, toward the Hudson River. On the east side, all car traffic would move east, toward the East River. Buses would still operate in both directions, and through the pedestrian plaza as well, but in dedicated lanes separated from passenger cars by a concrete barrier.

A public hearing on the plan was held on Wednesday, and officials from the Transportation Department met with business leaders last week. The intent is to create more space for pedestrians and to speed up bus trips on the street’s crosstown routes, which are among the slowest in the city. The plan was proposed in 2008 by the department, but the drive to put it into effect has recently accelerated. The city completed a study of the proposal in February, and is now preparing the environmental and design reviews.

The final design for the plaza and traffic changes is expected in fall 2011, with the street ready for use by the end of 2012. The redesign is expected to cost a minimum of $30 million, and officials said they would continue to tweak the plan based on public reaction and in-house studies.

“It’s going to improve the mobility along the corridor,” said Janette Sadik-Khan, the city’s transportation commissioner. “We expect the bus travel times to improve by up to 35 percent, which is something that up to 33,000 passengers that currently travel crosstown will appreciate.”

Ms. Sadik-Khan said a city study showed that only one in 10 people travel along 34th Street by car, including taxis; the rest walk or use mass transit. Faster buses would benefit “the majority of the people who are actually using the street,” she said.

With the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, tourist attractions like Macy’s, and major transit hubs (including a ferry terminal and helipad), 34th Street has some of the highest transportation demands in the city — and it does not benefit from cross-town subway lines as 42nd Street does.

Officials have long viewed the street as a prime candidate for an experimental bus lane that would be separated from regular car traffic. Bus lanes would bisect the pedestrian plaza and carry tourist buses and some private lines as well as those operated by New York City Transit. Buses would run in both directions along the entire length of 34th.

Transit buses using the lane would also benefit from other new initiatives: passengers will be able to pay for bus tickets at sidewalk kiosks before boarding, and electronic devices on buses could signal traffic lights to remain green as the buses approach intersections.

Officials decided to make car traffic one-way to make it easier and safer, rather than requiring pedestrians to navigate across both east-west bus lanes and east-west car lanes. It remains unclear how the plan might affect car traffic in the surrounding area.

As well as being a hub for commuters and tourist buses, 34th Street acts as a critical conduit for travelers who use the street to travel between the Lincoln Tunnel and the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. Drivers seeking a route across town might be forced onto nearby cross-streets; 36th Street is a popular eastbound approach to Queens, and 33rd and 35th Streets may be common westbound routes, traffic experts said.

Transit advocates were nearly universal in their praise of the program, saying it would encourage use of mass transit and make 34th more palatable to pedestrians. And they noted that the pedestrian plazas in Times Square had allowed New Yorkers to acclimate to street designs that were once considered alien.

“Maybe three years ago, it was radical, but not today,” said Veronica Vanterpool, associate director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit policy group that supports the plan.

People attending the hearing on Wednesday, however, said they had concerns that they feared would not be addressed by the city.

“It’s a project that seems a fait accompli,” said Iris Steinhardt, a Murray Hill resident who arrived at the public hearing with several residents of her building on East 34th Street. Ms. Steinhardt is worried that the bus lanes, which abut the sidewalk, will destroy the loading zone in front of her building, making it hard to get deliveries. She said a flier about the plan posted in their building lobby was the first she had heard about it.

Dan Biederman, president of the 34th Street Partnership, a Herald Square business group, supports the plan for the most part, save for a few quibbles. But he has told his members to review the plan quickly. “Please complain right now, or within the next few weeks,” Mr. Biederman said he told them. “This is not your father’s D.O.T. This agency says they do something and they do it.”