Banning Cars On City Streets In Manhattan – Not A New Idea

Fifth Avenue – Sans Cars 1970

The Story Of Mayor John Lindsay’s Pedestrian Malls

Top photo shows 5th Ave. on a typical day. Bottom photo shows 5th Ave. on July 11, 1970

Top photo shows 5th Ave. on a typical day. Bottom shows 5th Ave. on July 11, 1970 as traffic was cleared

While many environmental and safety groups bandy about various schemes for making streets safer for pedestrians by removing or limiting cars from city streets, the idea is older than you might think.

During his tenure as mayor of New York City from 1966-1973, John Lindsay always favored pedestrians.

Lindsay’s initial ban of cars took place in May of 1969. Lindsay and the city closed a small area of Nassau Street in downtown Manhattan as part of a temporary 90 day experiment during lunch hour from 11 A.M. to 2 P.M..

After 90 days Lindsay declared the “experimental” closure permanent.

The next year on April 22, 1970 the city closed some streets for the first Earth Day.

It’s one thing to shut down a narrow street in the financial district or some larger streets for a special occasion like Earth Day, it’s quite another to ban cars in the heart of New York’s shopping district.

Lindsay’s bigger plans came to fruition, also as an experiment, 44 years ago on Saturday, July 11, 1970. Lindsay closed vehicular traffic from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., on a fifteen block stretch on Fifth Avenue from 42nd through 57th Streets.

The day before the experiment Mayor Lindsay said, “New Yorker’s should enjoy the most beautiful and exciting street when it becomes a pedestrian mall.”

This would also be different because the merchants along Fifth Avenue were not enamored with the idea. It was the first concerted effort by city officials to see the impact of a traffic closure on a major New York City street and observe the effects on noise, air quality and more importantly, quality of life.

Seven mini train buses, the type used at the 1964-65 World’s Fair in Queens would be used to shuttle people up and down the avenue, but city buses would be detoured to other avenues.

Sid Davidoff, the mayorial aide in charge of the experiment, thought that some merchants would be opposed to the implementation of the experiment, and would listen to their concerns if there was a drop-off in shopping. But he would also be surveying pedestrians to see what they thought of the idea.

Jerome Kretchmer the city’s Environmental Director said, “if it can be done on Fifth Avenue it can be done anywhere.” If it was successful it would be done again on July 18, 25 and August 1, 1970 and possibly extended to more blocks.”

So what happened? Did the people embrace it or hate it? This photo provides the answer.

5th Ave July 11 1970 after being thrown open to pedestrians and cleared of cars.

5th Ave July 11 1970 after being thrown open to pedestrians and cleared of cars.

On July 11, thousands of people flocked to Fifth Avenue to take advantage of the pedestrian mall. As Mayor Lindsay walked among the pedestrians he was frequently applauded and cheered.

Interviews with police indicated that surrounding traffic was moving smoothly and not disrupted in a substantial way.

The only ones who were skeptical of the benefits were store managers such as Alan R. Johnson, chairman of the board of Saks Fifth Avenue who late in the afternoon said, “It is too early to tell for sure, but so far it has disturbed shopping- and for the worse. We’re getting a few more tourists, but our regular customers – the kind that go beyond the main floor- are much less.”

Merchants complained that Fifth Avenue was not cut out to be a pedestrian mall, but Sid Davidoff said that a vast amount of mail on the subject had been received and there was not one bad letter about the closings.

After the second scheduled closing on July 18, the city made a couple of adjustments for the remaining scheduled street closure dates. One was to allow city buses to run on the avenue after being “strongly urged” by midtown merchants. The other change was to extend the street closure down to 34th Street. One suggested change by merchants which was rejected was to move the street closings to Sunday’s. Their stores were closed on Sunday anyway due to New York’s Blue Laws.

After the final scheduled car ban experiment in August went well, Mayor Lindsay added additional dates and more street closures starting in September.

Lindsay declared, “The Fifth Avenue summer mall experiment has proved to be so successful from every point of view that the general concept of street closings is now firmly established as city policy. The next step will be to conduct experiments on streets across the city on different days, at different hours and different times during the year to determine which schedules will best serve the interests of our citizens and our merchants.”

Many merchants and businessmen along the affected areas of Fifth Avenue were upset by the announcement of future closings. What was happening was that the car ban was bringing in many pedestrians but few shoppers according to the Fifth Avenue Association.

Besides future closings of Fifth Avenue, Lindsay announced the other streets to be added to the car ban trials were Madison Avenue, Lexington Avenue, Eighth Street and Dyckman Street in Manhattan; Central Avenue in Far Rockaway, Queens; Bay Parkway and Brighton Beach Avenue in Brooklyn; and Amboy Road in Staten Island.

In April 1971 Madison Avenue was closed to traffic for a two week trial period. Businessmen in the area mobilized and had studies conducted that proclaimed the experiment a failure. Lindsay was unperturbed and called it a “spectacular success” and moved forward to create a permanent pedestrian mall on Madison Avenue with the use of Federal funds.

Lindsay’s dream of creating permanent malls in areas throughout the city was mostly squashed when it was dealt a severe blow by New York’s Board of Estimate in June of 1973. The Board rejected a three month trial period that would have lead to a permanent closing of a 13 block stretch of Madison Avenue to cars. The Appellate Division of State Supreme Court upheld the Board’s decision that the city’s Transportation Administration did not have the authority to create the mall.

In 1974 Abraham Beame was elected into office and other concerns soon manifested as the city teetered on financial collapse. Lindsay’s mall plans went unfulfilled and the city implemented other programs to combat the vehicular pollution and noise problems, while not really addressing the pedestrian issue.

We have now come full circle with former Mayor Mike Bloomberg and current Mayor Bill de Blasio taking up the cause of limiting cars in the name of pedestrian safety.

What the future holds remains to be seen, but New Yorker’s can look back and say John Lindsay was the man who started us on our pedestrian path.

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