Five-year-old Sparrow Arocho held her mom’s hand in the middle of 50th Street, where automobiles usually dominate. The kindergartner, on a mother-daughter trip for Black Friday to midtown Manhattan, smiled at how pedestrians could now walk in the road.
“My daughter was literally like, ‘Can we walk on the street?’” said Sparrow’s mom, Judy Mang, 41, of Park Slope, Brooklyn. “It was nice that we could comfortably walk through, instead of bumper-to-bumper. Like little sardines … When we turned here we were surprised to see the streets were open for us.”
The roads ribboning the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree were crowded Friday with shoppers lugging bags, tourists snapping selfies and families posing with Santa Claus — the first day of a new de Blasio administration policy banning automobiles during busy times on 49th and 50th streets. The curbsides on each side of Fifth Avenue also are closed to traffic, as is part of Sixth Avenue.
The auto ban, which took effect on Black Friday and will continue until just after New Year’s Day, is an attempt to ease pedestrian crowding during the Christmas season that starts just after Thanksgiving. Last year’s hourly holiday season peak was more than 20,000 tourists, office workers, shoppers and sightseers cramming Fifth Avenue, causing dangerous crowding and long standstills.
Department of Transportation spokesman Brian Zumhagen said Friday afternoon that the agency would review how crowded the streets were this year compared to last.
The curbside restrictions hadn’t yet gone into effect on Fifth Avenue, where pedestrian traffic was at a standstill near Saks Fifth Avenue as crowds gawked at and posed next to the department store’s window displays. It was a contrast to the side streets.
Marilyn Paulis-Kneski, 42, a retired NYPD detective, and her son, Mackas, 9, disagreed about whether Mayor Bill de Blasio's traffic plan was a good one. She’s not a fan. Her boy is.
“If you want to take a picture, the people who aren’t trying to take pictures can move that way,” he said, pointing toward the east side of the Fifth Avenue curb.” He likes that there's more room for pedestrians like his family.
But Paulis-Kneski said, “It’s just gonna make it more of a problem for vehicles,” including emergency responders. She said she differed from the consensus of the city government’s transportation planners, who have said that since then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg began pedestrianizing streets a decade ago that response times weren't meaningfully affected.
“I’ve driven through this town,” she said, and the fewer lanes of traffic, the more congested it’ll be.
On Friday, some pedestrians didn’t seem to know that they could use 49th and 50th streets for foot traffic.
Natalie Coulter, 51, of Sydney, Australia, who teaches visual merchandising, said her fellow pedestrians seemed "a little bit unsure that they can walk into the road.”
She suggested that signage be posted to announce the news.
“We weren’t uncertain because were from Australia,” she joked with fellow Australian tourist Elena Mesiti, 23, who had just shopped at Anthropologie. “We just jaywalked.”