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Follow the Data Podcast: Times Square – The World’s Plaza

(L-R) Nick Mosquera, Seth Solomonow, Janette Sadik-Khan and Andy Wiley-Schwartz; the Bloomberg Associates Transportation Team at the 10th Anniversary of the creation of the Times Square Plaza in June, 2019.
(L-R) Nick Mosquera, Seth Solomonow, Janette Sadik-Khan and Andy Wiley-Schwartz; the Bloomberg Associates Transportation Team at the 10th Anniversary of the creation of the Times Square Plaza in June, 2019.

Broadway in Times Square recently celebrated its 10-year transformation from a congested roadway into a bustling, walkable plaza. Cities have committed themselves to developing pedestrian friendly spaces and cultural hubs through the creation of plazas.

For this episode of Follow the Data, Bloomberg Associates’ transportation team describe work on Times Square and talk about the global transformation of pedestrian friendly spaces. This cultural shift is marked by the preference to have streets filled with people over cars and the desire to develop multi-use, dynamic public spaces.

Bloomberg Associates is a philanthropic consultancy that works with cities across the world. Janette Sadik-Khan and Andy Wiley-Schwartz discuss their past work in New York City, and their ongoing projects with international and domestic mayors on transportation and public space.

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KATHERINE OLIVER: Welcome to Follow the Data, I’m your host, Katherine Oliver.

This spring, officials celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the Broadway pedestrian plaza in Times Square. Before 2009, Times Square was mainly reserved for cars — offering little to no pedestrian space. The streets and sidewalks were infamous for being cluttered and congested by traffic.

Today, Broadway through Times Square is a lively pedestrianized plaza, with space for people to walk, sit, eat and soak in the city. Our guests today, Janette Sadik-Khan and Andy Wiley-Schwartz have special insight into the transformation of the iconic street into a plaza.

Formerly the Commissioner of New York City’s Department of Transportation under Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Janette now leads the transportation team at Bloomberg Associates. Andy served as Assistant Commissioner for Public Space in New York, joining the Bloomberg Associates team after leaving city hall. They take their expertise from working in New York to other cities, like Milan, Bogotá, Athens and Detroit.

Their work contributed to a global revolution, inspiring the transformation and development of hundreds of public spaces and plazas across several cities. The data prove the longer people stay in a space, the more they spend: following the pedestrianization of Times Square, it was ranked one of the Top Ten global retail locations in the world.

Janette and Andy join us to discuss the intricacies of re-envisioning public space. Listen to their conversation now – but first — some sounds from today’s Times Square pedestrian space, featuring the famed, “naked cowboy”.


JANETTE SADIK-KHAN:  Hey Andy.  Exciting to be here talking about people and places and plazas.

WILEY-SCHWARTZ:  I’m excited.

SADIK-KHAN: I think it’s really interesting, you know when I talk to other people, that a lot of people don’t really understand how much has changed on the streets of New York City in the last ten years.  Lots of things that are there that they just simply didn’t know weren’t there. And a lot of the ideas that we’re going to talk about today actually stemmed from Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC long range sustainability plan which looked at how we were going to accommodate the million more people that were expected to move to New York City by 2030 and still improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods and business districts.

We launched this plan in 2007. One of the major strategies was how were we going to make it possible for New Yorkers to be within a 10-minute walk of quality open space or a park?  And how would we make it easier for people to get around without having to own a car? These kinds of goals had profound implications for how we looked at, and designed, and maintained our streets.  When you think about it, streets are one of the greatest resources that a city has are city streets are about a quarter of the real estate of cities.  So when you think about it, New York City DOT [Department of Transportation] and I was the commissioner there for almost seven years under Mike Bloomberg, I was really one of the largest real estate developers in New York City.

And we moved really quickly to reimagine that real estate to make it be more than just streets that carried cars from Point A to Point B, and looked at how could we use this resource more efficiently and more effectively to move people around, to create places for them to enjoy, to take the city in.  Over that 7-year period we built over 450 miles of bike lanes, 8 rapid bus lines, 137 corridors and intersections that were redesigned and made safer.  In fact we actually reclaimed 180 acres of road space that had been formerly dedicated to cars and made it available in new ways for people including creating over 60 plazas.

WILEY-SCHWARTZ:  Now that’s like 80 plazas.

SADIK-KHAN:  80 plazas.

WILEY-SCHWARTZ:  And what’s a plaza?  When we started with this there really wasn’t even a definition of what that was.  A lot of people think of plazas as this European style public space next to a museum or in front of city hall with fountain, and pigeons, and old ladies feeding them pieces of bread.  But a plaza doesn’t have to be a stately space like that.  I mean those spaces are great, I have no problem with them, but they also take years and years to build and we can do things much quicker if we can manipulate our streets better.  A lot of times we can simplify the traffic and have this new public space where people can actually gather and build their communities.

SADIK-KHAN:  Well now you see why I recruited Andy Wiley-Schwartz to be the assistant commissioner for public space.  Because in this kind of a job I really needed somebody who knew not just the elements of creating public space but the process for actually getting it done and this is in a city where every inch of space is hotly contested.  And the politics run hot. They run hot at the community board level, at every level, and there’s really little margin for error.  I really got a rock star in Andy Wiley-Schwartz and I certainly was into his early stuff even before he got big.

WILEY-SCHWARTZ:  You couldn’t have given me a better opportunity not just with how amazing the New York street grid is and how many, chances we had, and neighborhoods we had who were hungry for this kind of change but also with your support and the mayor’s support and PlaNYC as a mandate we were really able to look at all the opportunities around the city.

New York is full of intersections with extra legs in them, with wide streets that are only wide because a trolley car used to turn around there and they really had no reason to be that wide any longer, or spaces where we had nibbled away the pedestrian realm and gave it to extra parking, extra turn lanes that we really don’t need any longer.

 SADIK-KHAN:  Well you know it’s so interesting, we did a lot of early work building plazas in different neighborhoods across the city.  It’s not like we started with Times Square.  I mean it was really our big fish.  And it was our true test case for fast action.  You practically have to do archeological research to remember what Times Square was like in 2008.  We just celebrated the 10-year anniversary of Times Square, had a big celebration there.

It was one of the busiest locations in the world.  We had 350,000 people walking through Times Square every day.  It was like this army of tourists and office workers and the Broadway Theater — and you had naked cowboys and you had teenagers enthralled with the neon signs in front of the MTV Studios.  Even though the pedestrians were 90% of the traffic in Times Square, they only had 10% of the street space.  It was so imbalanced that people would trade the safety of the sidewalk for the street just to get through.  And it was a huge mass of chaos.

It was very Hunger Games, and this Gordian Knot of traffic was created because there was not enough space for people to walk which created this huge congestion in cars was a man-made problem because basically Manhattan is on a grid except for Broadway, right?  Broadway cuts through that grid on a diagonal.  And it does great things.  It creates these different squares: Herald Square, Madison Square, Union Square.  But what it also does is creates three intersections that have to get through. And so it’s much longer to process the traffic.  And so it created these complex 3-way intersections.

WILEY-SCHWARTZ:  And giant crosswalks that people had to navigate.

SADIK-KHAN:  And it was really dangerous.  It was much more dangerous than the surrounding streets.  It was really bad for business.  It was much more under-performing than any of the surrounding corridors.  It was ugly. So we knew that we needed to try something different.  People had tried to fix this problem for years, changing slip lanes and signalizations and nothing worked.

And so we took this idea to Mike Bloomberg saying “How about if we reconnect the grid and just take Broadway out of this center of Times Square from 42nd to 47th Street?  And we’ll restore that space, give it back to people on foot we think that we can make traffic move better than it had before.”  Well let’s just say there was some skepticism — some people thought that was a crazy idea — particularly since it was in the middle of Mayor Bloomberg’s reelection campaign.

I will never forget going to City Hall and after hearing everybody’s comments. Mayor Bloomberg turned to me and he said; “You know I don’t ask my commissioners to do the right thing according to the political calendar.  I ask my commissioners to do the right thing period.”  And he shook my hand and he said, “let’s do it.”  Now, of course getting support from Mike Bloomberg is one thing.

WILEY-SCHWARTZ:  That was a pretty high hurdle.

SADIK-KHAN:  It was a high hurdle.

WILEY-SCHWARTZ:  But then we had to actually do it.  And pulling that off even in temporary materials without digging anything up was  quite tricky.  It’s a big area and there’s a lot of cars to move around.  And we had paint and we had signs and we had staff out there redirecting traffic right at the very beginning.  And we had these big orange barrels that served as the initial setup for the new design.  But even so we knew one critically important thing about creating these kinds of new public spaces is people have to immediately understand why you did it.

And so if we had diverted the vehicular traffic away from Broadway but we hadn’t invited people into use that new street as a public space it would look like we didn’t know what we were doing.  And so we ordered all of these movable tables and chairs and umbrellas which is sort of, you know, best practice here for these kinds of flexible public spaces but of course — weren’t there on time.  We were biting our nails thinking “What are we doing to do here to open this space and make it look really welcoming and inviting and show people what we wanted to do?”

And so we ran around with the Times Square Alliance and Business Improvement District to every hardware store within five miles of Times Square and we gathered up all the beach chairs that we could find, all the folding beach chairs –

 SADIK-KHAN:  All the different colors, all the different sizes —

WILEY-SCHWARTZ:  — different types, we didn’t care what they looked like we just needed seating.  And we wound up with about 450 folding chairs.

SADIK-KHAN:  I still have one in my office.

WILEY-SCHWARTZ:  And put them out in the street and launched this space and of course they filled up immediately.  That was a proof point.  Everyone had said; “Nobody’s going to want to hang out here.  This is a dirty street. There’s cars flying by.  There’s all this foot traffic and vehicular traffic.”  And everybody sat down in the chairs and hung out.  And they were so happy to be there.


WILEY-SCHWARTZ:  So proud — waving to us as we were taking pictures — and so we knew that latent demand that we knew was there, that was the proof.  And you could see people just gravitating towards this space where they could finally sit down.

SADIK-KHAN:  Well it’s true. When you, create spaces like this it’s like you’re a film director, only you have control over all the elements except what happens when you say, “action”.  And we found that in all these other parts of the city when we did those plazas.  Remember Madison Square right by the Flatiron Building on 23rd Street?  We just put out the orange barrels to start the work and, boom, within two hours there was an art class, students sitting there sketching, in the plaza.  It was just — you don’t know, it’s kind of the magic, right —

WILEY-SCHWARTZ:  They were sitting in what used to be literally the middle of the road.  And that was a view of the Flatiron Building that nobody could have before because it was in the middle of the road.

SADIK-KHAN:  One of the things that’s so exciting about our work through Bloomberg Associates going to other cities.  A lot of these lessons are universal, creating spaces for people, inviting them in.  They come.  There’s a huge hunger for public space.  But the implementation is different in different places as these projects are tailored to reflect local need. Think about the work that we just finished in Milan.

WILEY-SCHWARTZ:  Right.  There’s a parking lot that used to be a piazza in the middle of what were small towns that have become now part of the city and now they want to take those back for people.  And what did they decide to put in them?  The ping-pong tables.

SADIK-KHAN:  Huge ping-pong tables.

WILEY-SCHWARTZ:  Huge concrete ping-pong tables which you know typically I would say, “bad idea, single use, dominates the space, telling people what to do instead of allowing them to do whatever they want.”  But those ping-pong tables are one of the most popular things ever.  And they’re always being used.  And people take care of them.


WILEY-SCHWARTZ:  You can’t just leave a paddle out and wait for the next person to come.  They write on the table in Italian, you know, “bring the paddles when you’re done into the bar.”  And then you go back in the bar and you get the paddles and people come back out and there’s no problem with this.  You could never predict.  We could never come in and say you know –“What you guys really need is ping-pong tables.”

SADIK-KHAN:  We didn’t want to have food trucks in the plazas, near the plazas, because —


SADIK-KHAN:  — we thought it was going to be like a whole food fight.  All these different vendors coming in and selling all this different stuff.  We just recently finished up some plaza work in Detroit for Mayor Duggan and it was so interesting because they were insistent on the food trucks.  And we’re like “No.  I don’t think food trucks are a good idea.”  And you know they insisted and it was a big home run.

WILEY-SCHWARTZ:  Right.  They knew that it would be a symbol that they were supporting the local economy that they were giving restauranteurs an opportunity to be entrepreneurs and try out new products that the employees would think that that was really true to Detroit for them.  And that we weren’t just, shipping in McDonald’s or something.  That really, really worked for them.

SADIK-KHAN:  I do think that having the flavor of the plaza and the public space reflect the needs of the city and the community is key.  One of the places that I loved working is in Bogotá with Mayor Peñalosa, who’s one of the godfathers of, sustainable transportation and building bike lanes and buses and all the rest throughout Bogotá but we helped him do a plaza program in Bogotá.  To see the work, that they did in Restrepo [Plaza Gustavo Restrepo], in that plaza that we worked with them on, but then using it as a place to train kids to ride bikes.  You know?  It’s so exciting to see people building on this and taking it to another level.

WILEY-SCHWARTZ:  Organically. Right?  You can’t be too prescriptive in these things. Each neighborhood needs to be able to express itself in these spaces. And that’s why you can’t overdesign them.

SADIK-KHAN:  One thing that I’m not sure is recognized enough are the economics of public space.  And you know I think one of the universal elements of a space that really attracts people and that gives them a reason to stay longer than necessary is giving them a place to sit.  Giving them a bench.  When we started a bench program as well, in New York City, and now almost 2,000 benches on the streets of New York.  Right, people used to sit on the fire hydrants which is not great for the fire hydrants, not really great for families with kids —

WILEY-SCHWARTZ:  or your backside

SADIK-KHAN:  — or your backside.  Part of the new math for cities understanding the economics of public space is that — and you don’t have to be a Nobel economist — to understand that the more time you spend in an area, the more money you may spend there on food, on drinks, on shopping, on errands, we’ve certainly seen that in city after city.

WILEY-SCHWARTZ:  Absolutely.  And we just finished some work in Athens helping the mayor revitalize a pedestrian district right in the heart of downtown and the streets had all been designated as pedestrian streets but they weren’t enforced and they hadn’t been for decades.  And so these narrow streets were clogged with cars parked on the sidewalks and there were motorbikes everywhere and the walls were covered with graffiti and the place was a little worn down.  And after we created this pedestrian district which meant a lot of simple public space management tools.

There was some public art and some programming. We put out seating.  The shop owners took over the seating and the tables and they put flower pots on them and they put tablecloths on the tables and they really wanted to make it look welcoming.  And we helped clean the graffiti off all the buildings and promoted that program.  24 new businesses in the last 18 months have sprung up in that neighborhood. Seven hotels, which is a huge marker.  25% increase in ground floor occupancy.  So we’re not just, kicking out the existing merchants replacing them with new ones, but filling in the gaps in the neighborhood and supporting the people who are already there.  We estimate almost €30 million in economic investment just in that neighborhood since we started to do that work and make that neighborhood friendly for pedestrians and for people.

SADIK-KHAN:  Yes, we’ve seen that all over.  I’m still amazed at the return on investment in Times Square.  Since the plaza opened 10 years ago there are 100,000 more people now going through Times Square.  We’ve had new stores open, driving jobs and visitors, retail rents are up.  It became one of the Top 10 global retail locations in the world which is not really surprising when you think about it because cars don’t shop, people shop.  We’re talking about plazas but everything we’ve just talked about is really about looking at your streets and your city differently.  You know plazas are just one way to get there.  There are also bike lanes and bus lanes and public art and car-free streets and each one offers us new ways to use our old infrastructure.

WILEY-SCHWARTZ:  It’s a very flexible mechanism, a street can be a lot of things and it doesn’t only have to be one thing at any given time.  You can open it to people for a Cyclovia, for biking, and then people can understand how quickly they can connect one part of the city to the other on a bike.  Or you can have a street fair or you can have a pedestrian-only day on a Main Street so that people can come out and shop and bring their kids and not worry about having to cross a street–you can reimagine your streets.  They’re still streets.  They still do what we always wanted them to do which is give people access to their public realm, to their commercial world they don’t only have to be places where you drive.

SADIK-KHAN:  I do think that the biggest obstacle to building better cities is ourselves, because it’s clearly not a matter of engineering, it is a question of imagination.


OLIVER: “Oh what a wonderful square…”

A special song adaptation to celebrate the opening of a new piazza in Milan.

We hope you enjoyed this episode of Follow the Data. Thank you to Janette Sadik-Khan and Andy Wiley-Schwartz for telling us more about their fascinating work.

If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to Follow the Data podcast. This episode was produced by Electra Colevas, Ivy Li, Seth Solomonow, Nick Mosquera and Hagir Elzin; music by Mark Piro.

Special thanks to Eric Sheppard and Tim Herro.

I’m Katherine Oliver, thanks for listening.