“What’s the easiest way to get across town?” a New York City traffic commissioner was asked in the 1950s. “Be born there,” he replied. That flippant retort has even more relevance today. In fact, not only is it difficult to travel across town in Manhattan; it is also virtually impossible to travel north-south without having to change your route to avoid obstacles. Seeking to improve traffic congestion in the city, the Bloomberg administration has declared war on the automobile.
Mayor Bloomberg’s first step in this effort was his attempt to impose congestion pricing on Manhattan drivers. Fascinated by what he considered London’s success with congestion pricing, Bloomberg felt the system could work in New York as well. But the policy’s results in London have been mixed. While air quality has improved a bit, London retailers hate the system; commuters have learned to live with it, but grudgingly. In any case, the New York State Assembly made the question of congestion pricing in the city academic when it rejected Bloomberg’s plan in 2008. One legislator summarized the opposition to the idea by contending that it would represent yet another tax on a middle-class population that often commutes from the outer boroughs into Manhattan. Of course, from Bloomberg’s perspective, this was precisely the point: the tax would discourage commuting by auto.
Undeterred, the mayor sought alternative methods to curtail traffic—in particular, pedestrian plazas and bike paths. The bike paths, or so the thinking went, would encourage more people to ride bicycles to work, thus lessening traffic. The pedestrian plazas would be put in place in the most densely populated areas of Manhattan—along Broadway between 42nd and 47th Streets and Broadway between 32nd and 35th Streets, both of which would be closed to vehicular traffic. The mayor’s reasoning was that Broadway traffic was disruptive along these blocks, especially as it intersected with other avenues; closing Broadway traffic along these blocks would actually improve overall traffic flow. As part of the plan, Seventh Avenue would be widened at 45th Street from three lanes to four.
Neither idea has produced the desired results. Car congestion is intense wherever bike lanes or pedestrian plazas exist. In reducing space for cars, the bicycle lanes have caused even worse traffic delays than before. This is a problem with more ramifications than just commuter inconvenience. Any EMT driver will tell you that if you have a heart attack at, say, 47th Street and Broadway, an ambulance or fire truck can’t get to you readily. With increased lane closures and the encumbrance of the bicycle lanes, vehicles in the area are often stuck in gridlock. As for the pedestrian plazas, while they’re sometimes crowded with tourists seeking a respite from walking around the city, more often their chairs stand empty, and for good reason. At Broadway and 40th Street, the car fumes are so intense that al fresco dining and even simple conversation are impossible.
During his unsuccessful campaign for mayor in 1965, William F. Buckley argued that all New Yorkers should commute via bicycle. This proposal didn’t fly then, and it’s not flying now. Most bicyclists in Manhattan are delivery carriers, and most New Yorkers resent the usurpation of road space. But that reality didn’t stop the mayor from creating bike lanes across the city. You may not be able to drive seamlessly in Manhattan, but you can certainly bike the island.
Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, continues to argue that the bike lanes are popular, but the claim doesn’t seem to square with observation. To test my suspicion that these lanes are barely used, I stood at two busy locations— 30th Street and First Avenue and the intersection at Houston and Allen Streets. In the second case, I arrived at 5 PM on a weekday, the beginning of rush hour. For the next half-hour, I didn’t see a single bicycle in use, despite bumper-to-bumper traffic on Houston Street. Similarly, at First Avenue, where both sides of the street have bicycle lanes, I stood near the entrance to New York University Medical Center counting bicycles at 9:30 AM, near the end of the morning rush. In one hour, I counted just two bicycles, only one of which used the bike lane.
No doubt the mayor is reluctant to admit that his efforts to control traffic in Manhattan have failed—and have only increased congestion. Given the investment of millions in creating the pedestrian plazas and bike lanes, undoing these reforms is unlikely, at least in the near term. If the mayor could only hear the cursing every weekday morning from drivers at, say, 34th street and First Avenue, he might develop a different view.