By Barry Benepe
When I was but six years old, I accompanied my father on Saturday morning walks from Gramercy Park to Madison Square Park; his office was on the 12th floor of the Victoria Building at 230 5th Avenue. One warm spring morning, as we crossed Madison Avenue, we heard the screeching of brakes. A yellow cab had struck a pedestrian who lay lifeless on the pavement. As he was lifted to an ambulance, his head glowed like a red billiard ball. I was struck by the enormity of this sudden awful blow, one which started me on a life-long quest as an urban planner—to make our cities safe for walking.
The horrific crash that took place in Times Square on Thursday, May 18th at around noon, left a string of damaged bodies like a nightmare necklace along three blocks of 7th Avenue, from 42nd to 45th Streets. The automobile is a deadly weapon in which the pedestrian is always the victim and the driver the perp. This butchery took place alongside a pleasant protected pedestrian refuge created by the conversion of four blocks of heavily trafficked streets into landscaped promenades.
Only last year did Mayor de Blasio and his Police Commissioner recommend that this oasis be destroyed and returned to vehicular pandemonium. This was motivated by the Mayor’s objection to the virtually nude, tall, statuesque women and costumed cartoon characters who strolled the plaza for opportunistic photos with admirers. Their somewhat overpowering elegance recalled the feminine power of statues by Aristide Maillol or Gaston Lachaise. Fortunately, that space and its contented habituées remain protected, but much of our City does not. Pedestrians are regularly mowed down by motorists who often don’t even get a ticket. It happened to me on a bicycle in 1987, at the intersection of Greenwich and 6th Avenues, after a truck ran a red light, fractured my collarbone, and broke open my scalp, which required a hundred stitches.
Despite the dangers, walking in the City can be a great, wholesome pleasure. The rhythm of walking restores a sense of well-being and brings us a constantly changing and evolving experience of urban delights—other people, store windows, relaxing outdoor cafes, glorious trees framing rich historic architecture, and a filigree of white clouds dancing against deep blue skies. One really feels the topography of an ever-changing city on foot. As I tramp the great granite slabs around Union Square, I share the millions of foot falls which those slabs have sustained and wonder about the heroic labors of workers who laid them over 150 years ago.
I also wonder why the City allows over a million free parking spaces, which could generate between $100 and $200 million dollars per year. Such an investment could help make streets safer, more beautiful, and more efficient and also improve transit service, deliveries, unloading, and emergency response times. That space could provide more room for pop-up parks and cafes as well as places to sit and to ride bicycles in a more tranquil environment. Major steps were taken in this direction under the Lindsay, Koch, and Bloomberg administrations and are being continued by NYC Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg. We should cheer their accomplishments