Two legs finally good for getting about Manhattan

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's mission to make New York walkable is beginning to take shape

The bag lady with the woolly hat and plastic sandals would normally be facing certain death as she pedals her raggedy bicycle the wrong way up the centre of Broadway in the morning rush-hour. Likewise the doorman from the Radisson Hotel, jiving to the rhythm of his own whistle in the middle of the avenue as he tries to flag down a cab.

But these people are not as crazy as they appear: they have noticed that Broadway is a lot different from how it used to be. Thanks to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's decision to give foot traffic primacy over car traffic in the heart of Manhattan, it is no longer the five-lane torrent of taxis, trucks and double-decker tour buses it once was.

They call it America's most walkable city, but in truth New York has for ever been choked by the internal combustion engine, the oasis of Central Park notwithstanding. But several happy developments in the past few weeks strongly suggest that the ambulatory age is making a comeback in Gotham.

If whiling away the afternoon in a deckchair with a book on the asphalt of Broadway seems an unlikely proposition – but yes, it is doable now – then so does sunbathing among the flowers on an abandoned elevated railway track. Welcome to New York's other new option for urban idling: the High Line Park.

It is hard to say which of these two changes in the city is more miraculous. The opening last week of the first phase of the High Line in the meat-packing district – a ribbon of green with wild flowers, cement paving and groovy wooden seats and lounges facing the rippling Hudson River atop the rusting legs of a long defunct elevated freight railway – was the culmination of 10 years of campaigning and fund-raising by far-sighted volunteers.

The transformation of parts of Broadway happened far more quickly but is somehow equally exhilarating. It was only in February that Mr Bloomberg, who is looking to be elected for a third term this autumn, unveiled his plan to close much of the legendary street to traffic. Where it remains accessible to cars, they must share it with a bicycle path and a narrow pedestrian promenade decorated with planters, chairs and tables with bright umbrellas.

As with the High Line, which for now is open from Gansevoort Street up to 20th Street and 10th Avenue, the Broadway project is still unfolding. Even yesterday, grit-spitting machines were erasing old white-line markings to make way for new ones south of Times Square, and forests of orange and white plastic bollards were at every junction to tell baffled drivers where they should and should not be going.

There has been debate, of course. "Turning the ... vibrant, frenetic, centre of the universe into a butt-littered suburban parking lot" is "ferociously dumb", writes Andrea Peyser, a gruff columnist at The New York Post. Taxi drivers and couriers are disgusted, but the grouches are outnumbered by locals who see Ella Fitzgerald's promise – "we'll turn Manhattan into an isle of joy" – coming true before their eyes.