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Sunday, September 27, 2015

Barricading Sidewalks

This week, the Pope came to New York City, and the NYPD worked hard to keep him safe, along with all those who came to see him. They planned ahead for the challenging logistics of moving perhaps the most high-profile person in the world through one of the world's densest cities, along with all the UN dignitaries who gathered to hear him, together with thousands of visitors hoping to catch a glimpse.

When the NYPD puts effort into something, it gets the job done. There is no question of hard work or commitment to results. The question is the priorities that get the NYPD's attention. While Christian love and police dedication were both on prominent display, the Pope's visit also demonstrated some of the important things the NYPD does not focus on enough. In the face of recurring traffic congestion in New York City, the NYPD is surprisingly nimble at closing entire roadways to keep motorcades secure while avoiding extensive delays for other motorists. As they describe it, they have it "down to a science." What they don't do well, despite decades of increasing attention by the engineering profession, is planning for pedestrians. In fact, most of the people who are affected in every corner of the city are really treated as an afterthought by the NYPD.

For the NYPD, when it comes to major events, pedestrians often seem like little more than obstacles to the motorcades. When the NYPD does turn its attention to the people trying to walk around, they seem to be taken into consideration only as crowds to be "controlled," or as "security threats" to be surveilled or excluded. If only a fraction of the attention paid to moving concrete blocks for cars and placing snipers on roofs was applied to maintaining appropriate sidewalk widths, the city would probably be safer. It would certainly be more orderly and comfortable.

Let's consider how NYPD leadership discussed its preparations. Posing for photos in front of a vast lot filled with parked police cars, the Police Commissioner bragged about "1,173 police cars, 818 tons of concrete barriers and 39 miles of metal and wood barricades" that were prepared for the Pope's visit to New York City. The department's twitter account followed up, highlighting the massive amounts of material they stockpiled around town. This neatly summarizes the NYPD's priorities: setting up barriers and moving motor vehicles.

These priorities are further clarified by an interview with the Lieutenant who is responsible for planning street closures for motorcades when high-profile people visit the city. Her colleagues inside the NYPD refer to her as "the Traffic Queen," and she is in charge of the traffic plan. As she explains it, her function is "to have the least impact on traffic for the rest of the city." She reemphasizes, "Our goal is to move traffic." This is a woman who obviously works hard, reporting to work early in the morning to ensure things go well. "I love to show how great a police department we are," she says. By all accounts, the NYPD does a good job keeping traffic flowing. She is doing a great job accomplishing the goals of her department. The problem is that they are not the right goals, and the results come at the expense of pedestrians.

Keeping vehicular traffic flowing is achieved with advance preparations that interfere with sidewalk traffic long before and after a motorcade has rolled by and drivers have quickly resumed their normal routines. For example, on Church Street outside the World Trade Center, barriers were stored on the sidewalk more than a day before the Pope's visit to the Memorial and all day after he left. The piles of wood were left there as if the sidewalk were merely leftover space located near roadways that should be opened and closed quickly. It would be hard to select a worse placement than narrowing an already congested sidewalk right outside a subway station.

This approach of "controlling" pedestrians is both hostile and counterproductive. The barriers used to try confining people on the sidewalks are anxiety inducing, as people feel trapped in crowded spaces. With narrow sidewalk widths, every inch counts, and the barriers located along the curbs consume precious space needed for pedestrian movement. When the crowding becomes excessive, pedestrians are forced outside the barriers, walking in the roadway with traffic. 

Particularly egregious, the barriers along the curb also blocked bus stops, with no apparent coordination with the MTA to relocate or close those stops a day prior to any scheduled event. Bus passengers had to force their way between the barriers as best they could as they got off the buses as they commuted to their jobs in the morning. Obviously, to manage an operation on this scale, some advance setup will always be required. 

This was not the first time the NYPD created unmanaged pedestrian congestion on Church Street in recent weeks. Just prior to the Pope's visit, the September 11th ceremonies had almost the same shut downs. Greenwich Street was closed to pedestrians, diverting the entire flow of people from the PATH station over to Church Street, which only has a sidewalk on the east side because of the ongoing construction on the World Trade Center site. Nothing was done to mitigate the crowding caused by detouring so many people into such a narrow space.
The NYPD did not learn from the mistake the first time around. Instead, it made matters worse when it came back by using the narrow channel everybody was being funneled through as a place to dump its barriers.

Crowding of this type is an unacceptable quality of life problem for people who work and live in the city. Worse still, and something that should be a serious concern for the NYPD, it creates a rich target for any potential terrorists. Packing so many bodies together in an unsecured area would make it easy for anybody planning to do harm to maximize casualties. The proximity would also disrupt the event and maximize media exposure. Managing efficient and comfortable pedestrian movement is not just a quality of life issue, it is also needs to be a security priority.

Of course, there are just recent examples brought up by the Pope's visit. The problem has been ongoing for decades. Parades are among the most chaotic and frustrating experiences in New York. Crosswalks and sidewalks are seemingly closed at random. Officers cannot provide people directions so they can simply get around; officers on one corner routinely direct people to another location to cross, trying to send them back to the place where they were just turned away and directed this way. The public gets frustrated with the run around, the officers get frustrated by the impression people aren't listening and giving them attitude, and then things escalate and people start getting arrested for disorderly conduct. I have no doubt many of those incidents would be avoided if there were actual plans in place for pedestrians to simply get around.

The parades really are inexplicable and demonstrate a complete lack of attention by the NYPD. These are recurring events that follow the same route with a similar schedule year after year. There should be no mystery about how to open and close pedestrian routes, and to provide simple, clear directions.

To actually meet the needs of the city equitably, and to improve the safety and security of everybody in these crowded areas, the NYPD needs to map out its pedestrian routes, understand how its plans will impact capacity and ensure any impacts are sufficiently mitigated. This will require a little more inconvenience for motorists, as pedestrian capacity will sometimes need to take space away from travel lanes. But the situation where drivers are kept happy by jamming up everybody on sidewalks for days is untenable and will only grow worse as the city continues to grow even denser with more residents relying on walking.

I am confident the NYPD can address these issues, and would do it surprisingly quickly, with a change in its priorities. The resources needed to engage the expertise to plan with sidewalk capacities in mind are well within the reach of the NYPD, and are more than warranted to maintain security and order. Sidewalks are not leftover spaces, useful for staging materials to facilitate motorcades. They are the lifeblood of the city. It's time for the NYPD to take them seriously.

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