Like New Year’s Eve every day

I’m not sure whether this made the news outside of New York City, but it’s a pretty fascinating case study in pedestrian-oriented urbanism: recently the city government closed large stretches of Broadway to cars, including the bit that passes through Times Square. The results has been a somewhat surreal, giddy and altogether fantastic pedestrian circus in what was once one of the most traffic-choked and collision-prone intersections in New York.

Part of what makes the experiment so interesting is that it’s being billed as a gift to drivers. Because Broadway cuts diagonally across the otherwise regular Manhattan street grid, it creates snarls and lengthy delays at the five-way intersections with the avenues. Closing down the street will supposedly increase traffic flow through the major arteries even as it creates a massive new pedestrian mall.

The other thing that makes the experiment so interesting is the accidental genius of the lawn chairs:

> The scene-stealing star of the city’s newly opened, $1.5 million pedestrian plaza project may be its fleet of folding lawn chairs, humble refugees from the Ace Hardware catalog that have colonized the Broadway pavement.

> In candy-stripe shades of pink, blue and green, the 376 rubber folding chairs and loungers are an unlikely import from the sphere of suburban swimming pools and budget trips to the beach. Average purchase price: about $15 apiece, or 0.001 percent of the project’s total budget.

I visited last weekend. Make no mistake — Times Square is still a bit of a hellhole. But it’s now a much more pedestrian-friendly hellhole, and there is something undeniably appealing about the tacky charm of the furniture. Soon the lawn chairs will be replaced by sturdier and more permanent fixtures, which is for the best. But this brief, chaotic interlude will be remembered fondly. (Perhaps most remarkably, I discovered that it’s now possible to ride all the way from Times Square to Brooklyn along quite safe and lovely bike lanes.)

bixi.jpg

Meanwhile, Montreal has launched its Bixi bicycle-sharing program. Billed as the most ambitious bike-sharing program in North America, Bixi is small by Parisian standards, but designed to grow quickly. The technological innovation at the center of the program is the bike racks themselves. Solar-powered and WiFi-enabled, the racks don’t require any grid connections, so new bike-sharing points can be dropped wherever they’re needed with little fuss.

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