If you haven’t noticed, Mayor Bloomberg and the Department of Transportation have been working hard to make New York City more pedestrian and bike friendly. Ever since Bloomberg closed Times Square to cars, more pedestrian plazas have been popping up all over the place. Sure, there are opponents, but a new report shows that we have even more reason to build new car-free spaces — the plazas, specifically those in Times Square, are majorly improving our city’s air quality. A study by the Health Department found a 40 percent decrease in vehicle-caused pollutants since the plazas have been put in place.
The report, officially titled the New York City Community Air Survey, is one of more than a dozen PlaNYC programs designed to improve air quality in New York City. The Health Department, in partnership with Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at Queens College, City University of New York, is continuously collecting air samples at 150 locations throughout the city. They monitor the samples at each location every two weeks, looking for pollutants that correlate with vehicles, buildings, and other land use factors.
The results showed that air quality generally improved throughout Midtown, but the change was really noticeable in Times Square, where nitrogen oxide levels decreased 63 percent. “We created pedestrian plazas right in the heart of our City to straighten out some of the chokepoints in our street grid and to help traffic flow more smoothly and quickly through Midtown,” said Mayor Bloomberg in a prepared statement. “We also expected that by reducing the numbers of vehicles in and around Times Square, we would also improve the area’s air quality, and that’s exactly what the numbers now show.”
The report confirms that major sources of air pollution generated in New York City are vehicle traffic and buildings burning high-sulfur heating oils, which are being phased out. The analysis shows that even moderately poor air quality can cause an abundance of adverse health effects, including asthma, premature deaths, and respiratory conditions. The levels of fine particle matter and ozone, the two most common air pollutants, in NYC are higher than clean air standards allow. Even just a 10 percent decrease in levels could eliminate 350 deaths, 230 hospitalizations, and 660 emergency department visits every year.
When you look at these numbers, it’s amazing that people still oppose pedestrian plazas. The biggest argument against car-free zones is that they cause traffic problems. Maybe this is true, but is zipping through Midtown really more important that saving lives and improving our air?