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Opening Up by Closing Streets #2

Which Streets Should We Open to Pedestrians?

As the weather gets warmer and New York slowly reopens, our sidewalks and bike lanes are gradually getting busier with commuting cyclists, sprinting joggers and casual strollers. It is getting hard to ignore the gatherings on sidewalks and stoops on our daily walks in the East Village.

In the previous installment, we analyzed pedestrian flow in the East Village based on travel distance and quality of walk. At a time when only essential businesses were open, we studied which streets should be closed to vehicles in order to increase public space for social distancing purposes. We computed the travel distance for various possible routes from all residential units to essential businesses, to find the most traveled street segments. We then considered street width and street trees to determine which of these street segments would provide a better quality of walk.

In this post we will consider the current and ongoing process of reopening the city while studying the following questions:

1. If vehicular street closures are used, which streets would benefit East Village pedestrians the most as businesses reopen in terms of ease of access and augmentation of public space?

2. Where would traffic go if we close select streets? Which vehicular street closures will have the most major and minor effect on vehicular traffic in terms of load in the East Village?

A note about our methodology: In this study, we used primarily Space Syntax to analyze the street network in and around the East Village. Our segment analysis is based on two parameters: Choice and Integration. Choice calculates the probability of passing through each street segment within the shortest travel distance from one segment to another in the system. Street segments with high Choice value means that this segment is very likely to be passed through. Integration measures how close each street segment is to all other street segments in the system. A well-integrated street segment means that it is faster to get from it to other segments in the road network. The combined measure of both Choice and Integration determines the to and through movement value of each segment which we interpret as centrality. Central street segments are the most integrated ones and those that carry the most traffic in the East Village.

Identifying Local Centralities and The Effects of Street Closures

To understand which street closures would benefit pedestrians the most, we identified local centers in the road network by computing common pedestrian travel distances and measuring them by the combined Choice and Integration parameters. In essence, we wanted to know which areas are the easiest and most intuitive to get to and from in the East Village. We focused on an approximately 15-minute walk travel distance between all origins and destinations. For reference, walking from one end of the East Village to the other takes 20 minutes on average on foot.

As a next step, we eliminated the street segments we found to be central from the road network and ran the same calculation to examine where vehicular and cyclist traffic will divert to when these segments are closed off to them. We then compared the network with the closed streets to the one with all the streets open to vehicles, to identify the streets that will absorb the most traffic load

East Village Most Central Street Segments

Where are the Local Centers in the East Village?

The location of centers in the East Village may change based on the travel distance we compute. Each computed distance represents a different mode of movement. The principle is simple: short travel distances are assumed to be made by foot (20-minute maximum), long distances by car, and medium by bicycle. To understand where the center is for pedestrians, we computed 5–20-minute walk distances and measured them according to the combined Choice and integration parameter. For these distances, we found that the Bowery and 3rd Ave. form a major axis from 1ST to 9th Street. 9th Street Between 4th and 3rd Ave. also appears as a street segment essential to local movement. As we increase the travel distance to a 15 to 20-minute walk, we notice that additional axes emerge along Park Ave South, Broadway, and the blocks west of Washington Square Park. As can be anticipated, the north-south axis is more likely to get passed through than the east-west axis. While all the avenues present high values, Broadway, the Bowery, University Ave., 3rd, and 4th Aves present the highest values.

Most Passed Through Streets

Astor Place as A Non-Central Center

With the exception of the Bowery, and 9th Street between 4th and 3rd Ave., for short travel distances of under 10 minutes, there is no clear hierarchy in terms of pass-through movement in the East Village. In other words, most streets are equally important for traffic flow and pedestrian movement. However, for foot travel of 10 minutes and above, Astor Place and the bounding streets emerge as a local center by all parameters. It is worth noting that the study did not take into account the subway stops at Astor Place and 8th Street (Subway lines 6, N, Q, R, W). In addition, our analysis focused solely on the street network without factoring in popular destinations. However, we can theorize that these departure and destination points will only strengthen our claim of this area’s centrality. While Astor Place isn’t the only area that had high values, it had the most consistent values for short and long travel distances alike. It is the most integrated part of the East Village, which means it is the most likely place to meet other pedestrians from the East Village and the surrounding neighborhoods. Additional potential central street segments in the East Village include the blocks bound by 8th street, and Washington Square East, and Broadway.

What If We Close Astor Place and Cooper Square for Vehicles?

Our study found that Astor Place and Cooper Square have a great potential for street closure not only because this area is central in the East Village, but also because of the amount of public space this area has. Closing streets in this area could potentially form a real urban plaza in the heart of the East Village. The streets that will be most affected by the vehicular load, in this case, are Broadway, 1st Ave., and 10th Street. 5th Ave. and 2nd Ave. will be affected as well but to a lesser extent.

Traffic Flow if Streets Around Astor Place and Cooper Square Park are Closed for Vehicles

What If We Close The Area West of Tompkins Square Park?

The area West of Tompkins Square Park emerged as a prime candidate for vehicular closure due to two reasons. The first is that this area presented low values of traffic flow at an urban scale, so the interruption to city-wide vehicular traffic should be minimal. The second is that this area has a large concentration of bars and restaurants, and the closure of these streets will, therefore, have a large positive effect on local businesses. In our study, we tested the closure of the area between Tompkins Square Park (Ave. A) and 3rd Ave. As expected, the already busy streets in the East Village became busier. These were mainly Broadway, but also the Bowery, 3rd Ave., 5th Ave., and a small portion of 10th street.

Traffic Flow if Streets West of Tompkins Square Park are Closed for Vehicles

Balancing Neighborhood Movement and City-Wide Flow

Our study showed that the blocks around Astor Place, the streets where most city-wide vehicular traffic passes through the East Village, are the most central. 8th Street, 10th Street, and the main avenues that cross them are not only crucial movement routes for residents, but also for the general population of drivers in Manhattan. As always, prioritizing one closure option over the other is a question of what we are trying to achieve. If the goal is to create additional public space, closing the streets around Astor Place and Cooper Square Park will have the most benefit, as this will make the already existing public space there even more accessible. However, the closure of these streets will interrupt drivers the most, diverting traffic into the smaller streets of the East Village, creating potentially more road congestions and interruption to residents. Additional disadvantages to the closing of this area is the lack of shade around it, which in the summer months can be highly detrimental to its users. On the other hand, the closure of cross streets west of Tompkins Square Park will have less impact on city-wide travel, and more positive impact on local bars and restaurants. It will allow local stores and eateries to turn inside out and expand onto the sidewalk, while people walk on the roads. This option will create an experience that will resemble a European style, pedestrian-only shopping street, and possibly district. Problems arising from this closure scenario include enhanced noise levels and limited parking availability, which will affect the street’s residents primarily. In addition, the study demonstrates that because these streets aren’t heavily trafficked, residents who don’t live nearby will be less likely to stumble upon this new district if the closure isn’t publicized.

Street closure and expanded outdoor dining, not as a one-off event, but as part of New York City’s permanent urban ritual, will create a new type of space the city does not yet have. If street closures are integrated into the city’s schedule and become something communities, organizations and local business owners can anticipate, the streets will be used in a multitude of ways we cannot fully predict, thereby expanding the vocabulary of our public realm.

Traffic Flow without Street Closure

Food for Thought: What If We Create a Park Network with Street Closures?

In the spirit of experimentation, we decided to check what happens to traffic if we connect the three major East Village Parks to one another by closing off the most beneficial routes for pedestrians, as identified in the study. The results were quite surprising: we can create a continuous walk between all three parks with only three interruptions at the intersection of 8th Street and Broadway, 9th Street and 1st Ave., and 10th Street and 4th Ave. All three interruptions are necessary to maintain adequate vehicular flow. While the walkable route includes a significant increase of closed streets, it has undeniable advantages: it’s intuitive for pedestrians, augments existing public space, and allows local businesses to capture foot traffic. In addition, by stitching these pre-existing, well-established spaces in our neighborhood, this new route can serve as a catalyst for a much larger network across neighborhoods that will allow New Yorkers to move through their city safely and enjoyably, augmenting limited public transport as the city recovers.

Traffic if Streets Connecting the Three major Parks are Closed for Vehicles

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