Feeney only skimmed over an important issue: that the sidewalks could be widened to accommodate this demand. Dan Biederman "concedes that too-narrow sidewalks ... add to the frustration," and Wally Rubin mentions "the need in certain cases for the sidewalks to be widened." She ends with a quote from Mitchell Moss, but neglects to mention that when she talked to Moss in May, the first thing he told her was that the sidewalks should be widened.
"Fifth Avenue hotels north from 51st Street" and their sidewalk encumbrances. 8x10 inch dry plate glass negative, Detroit Publishing Company.
Sidewalks have been widened right there in Manhattan, in the recent past. The most famous example is Times Square and Herald Square, where some of the parking lanes on Broadway and Sixth and Seventh Avenues were converted to sidewalk space with planters and flexible bollards years before Janette Sadik-Khan reclaimed a larger chunk of space. Under Sadik-Khan, the DOT has widened sidewalks in other parts of the city, including Main Street in Flushing. It can and should do more.
In many cases, widening the sidewalks would actually reverse an earlier narrowing. In a recent disgrace, Sadik-Khan's DOT carried out a sidewalk nibbling planned under her predecessor Iris Weinshall at 96th Street and Broadway, where the median was widened to install a subway headhouse. The DOT refused to take that space from drivers, and took it from pedestrians instead.
It is expensive to move curbs, but it can be done when the will is there. The largest example was in 1908-1909, when the City widened Fifth Avenue, 23rd Street, 34th Street, 42nd Street and a number of side streets. There is a summary of the widenings (with badly scanned photos) from 1912.
The articles all argue that whatever width was taken away from sidewalks was made up by removing "encroachments." This is a phenomenon that we're all familiar with, where business owners and residents will appropriate some of the public sidewalk for their own use. Just this spring, Jackson Heights Councilmember Danny Dromm and the Department of Buildings pressured a supermarket to remove an illegal enclosure. According to the Times back in 1908, many of the stoops, hedges, walls and porches in Manhattan were illegally "encumbering" the sidewalk.
Of course, you'll note that the space freed up from the "encroachments" was originally sidewalk space, not street space, so it was still a reallocation in favor of the street. The Times's 1912 summary makes it clear: "the Board of Estimate has taken the position that the tremendous growth of street traffic requires the freeing of every foot of available space upon the more crowded thoroughfares." The rest of the article makes it clear that they are talking about car traffic, not foot traffic. They needed to maintain the available sidewalk width, because pedestrians were no longer safe to walk in the street.
The world has been dealing with pedestrian crowding for centuries, but sidewalk crowding is a relatively recent problem. What Mitchell Moss said last week is right, in that it is the kind of problem that is much better than its opposite. That's what's often called a first world problem, but in this case the "first world" (mostly the United States) suffers more from the problems associated with empty sidewalks, like obesity, asthma and soccer mom-ism.
I'll write soon about some more shit we can't keep in the street.