Hustling, Hawking and Non-Consensual Touching in Times Square

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Inappropriate and aggressive behavior by costumed characters and other commercial actors are creating an unsafe and uncomfortable environment for the millions of employees, residents and visitors that rely on Times Square every day.

The Background

In 2016, at the recommendation of the Times Square Task Force, the City Council passed Local Law 53, allowing the Department of Transportation (DOT) to create rules that regulate pedestrian plazas. The rules, adopted by the DOT in June 2016, relegate commercial activity in the Times Square Pedestrian Plazas to newly created Designated Activity Zones (DAZs). The intent of the legislation was to balance demands for public space and reduce aggressive behavior by limiting commercial activity to the DAZs, creating room for passersby uninterested in these activities to walk through the plazas without being solicited. Unfortunately, this rule was interpreted by the City to mean that only the photo and payment must occur within a DAZ. As a result, aggressive behavior persists throughout the plazas.

Tourists and locals alike are victims of non-consensual touching in Times Square.*

  • 47% of New Yorkers surveyed have had an unpleasant interaction with a costumed character or other solicitor in the past year.

  • 1 in 5 New Yorkers surveyed have been touched without consent.

  • An estimated 120,000 - 160,000 people are touched without consent annually in Times Square.

  • 57% of NYC residents surveyed believe the top way to improve the Times Square experience is better regulation of costumed characters.

  • 79% of locals and 22% of visitors surveyed believe costumed characters are Times Square’s greatest drawback.

Weekly observations by the Times Square Alliance over the past two years confirm the problem has only gotten worse: In 2018, one-fourth of all observed interactions outside the DAZ involved a costumed character touching a pedestrian, but in 2019, nearly one-third of all interactions did. At the current rate, the Alliance estimates 120,000 – 160,000 people will be touched without their consent in Times Square this year.

Behind those numbers lie countless stories of aggressive behavior and harassment:*

  • One survey respondent from Brooklyn said “one of the characters forcefully grabbed at [my younger brother’s] arm to make him take a photo. He said no multiple times but they kept tugging at his shirt and trying to pull him back.”

  • A female theater employee that uses a wheelchair said “a costumed character attemped to sit on my lap.”

  • A mother from the Bronx said a costumed character “forcefully grabbed my child’s hand to take a picture, and then demanded the tip. Another costumed person suddenly appeared and quickly took another picture so I felt forced to give them another tip.”

Commercial activity exacerbates dangerous overcrowding and congestion on West 42nd Street

This unregulated commercial activity has spread to areas beyond the plazas, especially West 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, where there are no DAZs. A confluence of costumed characters alongside vendors, tour bus stops and other commercial activity have created dangerous pedestrian crowding on the block, which hosts several high-capacity entertainment venues and transit entrances. Thousands of people walking in street at peak hours, in part due to commercial activity that takes up as much as 20-30% of available sidewalk space. While the City’s Times Square Task Force recommended in 2015 that the City create new regulations to manage the block, nothing has been done so far.

Legislative action is the only way to fix the problem

“If the [City’s] Law Department feels like the original legislation needs more clarity, then they should create the tools they need, either through rule making or an amendment to the original bill.” - Dan Garodnick, former City Council Member and author of legislation

Times Square is unique in both the density and diversity of the uses that exist within its borders. The result is tremendous demand on Times Square’s public spaces. To ensure public safety and reduce congestion, Times Square should be subject to a rational regulatory scheme that accounts for the area’s unique diversity, density and patterns of use. The City must

  1. Enforce the rule that commercial actors in the business of seeking tips, such as costumed characters, must stand within a DAZ at all times of operation.

  2. Establish Flow Zones on all Broadway and Seventh Avenue block faces and all blocks with three or more theaters with 500+ capacity. DOT may establish at least one DAZ on nearby blocks that are designated as Flow Zones.

*Statistics, anecdotes and estimates come from the Times Square Alliance’s March 2019 Attitude Survey of over 4,000 New Yorkers and 1,850 visitors as well as weekly street observations by Alliance Public Safety Officers.