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Decongesting New York

from the magazine

Decongesting New York

How Gotham can get its gridlocked traffic flowing again Winter 2019
New York
Infrastructure and energy

Rampant crime, chronic joblessness, near-bankruptcy: the once-“ungovernable” New York City has, at least for now, tamed its existential urban woes. Save one: traffic. As murders sink to record lows and private-sector jobs, tourism, and population reach record highs, this leftover problem from the bad old days of the final third of the twentieth century remains unsolved; indeed, it’s worse than ever. Nowhere is the congestion more frustrating than in midtown Manhattan—roughly speaking, between 34th Street and 57th Street—where taxis barely move faster than a brisk pedestrian, at 4.7 miles per hour, a record low in modern times, and 28 percent slower than in 2010.

Congestion is a quality-of-life crisis. Across the city, frustrated car and truck drivers block intersections, honk, curse, and impinge on pedestrian and bicycle space. Walkers and cyclists dart riskily between idling vehicles and navigate around new concrete barriers, erected on midtown sidewalks to deter potential terrorist drivers. Congestion is also an economic crisis. “Free” auto and truck use of dense streets costs the region 113.3 million work hours and $20 billion a year, according to the Partnership for New York City.

Thankfully, the crisis has a threefold solution. First, Gotham, with the necessary enabling state legislation, should use ever-improving technology to “price” road space, deterring people who don’t need to drive in the city to find transportation alternatives. Second, the city, which already has authority to do so, should redesign its streets to encourage more bus use and cycling and to make extra room for record numbers of pedestrians. And third, the state and the city must fix mass transit, so that drivers have an attractive alternative.

After more than half a century of toying with the idea, New York is closer than ever to adopting the first part of this formula. The bad news: the city remains way behind on the second and third reforms. Unless that changes, even congestion pricing would leave the traffic crisis unresolved.

Already by the early 1900s, combustion-powered cars began to overwhelm New York’s streetscape, which had been built out for horse carriages and carts, trolleys, and people on foot. Between 1920 and 1950, as increasingly prosperous Americans came home from two global wars, New York saw a 525 percent increase in vehicle registrations, far outpacing its population growth of 40 percent. By 1950, the city was home to nearly 1.4 million registered vehicles, up from 216,000 in 1920. The trend continued, if more slowly, in the 1950s and 1960s, with nearly 1.8 million vehicles registered by 1970. New York’s streets got busier and busier. In 1920, only 376,000 motor vehicles crossed a river each day between Manhattan and an outlying borough or suburb. By 1950, the figure had more than doubled, to 771,000, and it would more than double again, to 1.4 million, by 1970.

Until the sixties, New York had a seemingly straightforward solution to the burgeoning traffic: more—and bigger—roads. The Cross Bronx and Gowanus Expressways, among others, would slash through whole neighborhoods, basically destroying them. These structures, as well as new arteries that enabled people to live in bucolic suburbs, far from their city workplaces and from train lines, funneled ever more traffic into New York, which was unequipped to handle it.

It’s common to blame Robert Moses, the mighty mid-century municipal builder, for the failure of the more-and-bigger approach. The mastermind of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker indeed manipulated local, state, and federal governments to amass financial and land-use resources for large-scale road construction in the New York region. But until the real-world impact of lane after lane of urban concrete was clear, few people—at least, few with political power—objected to Moses’s traffic-alleviation philosophy.

The prevailing wisdom changed in time to save lower Manhattan from “expert opinion” and thus from Moses’s planned new Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMEX). Key voters, personified famously by West Village urbanist and community activist Jane Jacobs, turned against the policy of sacrificing ever more city space to automobile drivers. Reformers pointed out that more road space was just encouraging more driving, further congesting the city’s streets. The new sentiment had hardened by the 1965 mayoral race. Republican John Lindsay, the victor over Democrat Abe Beame and Conservative William F. Buckley, vociferously opposed the construction of LOMEX. Though it would take until the end of his first term for Lindsay to make his official declaration that the expressway was “dead and gone for all time,” the route—and the idea of substantially increasing road capacity in the city—effectively died with his election.

Yet the de facto moratorium on new road construction came far too late to prevent traffic disaster. What had been an amusing curiosity in the decade after World War I—funny-looking, clunky cars getting in each other’s way at major intersections, as pedestrians threaded around them—had become a full-blown calamity by Lindsay’s arrival in office. In December 1965, the New York Times published a to-do list for the 44-year-old incoming mayor. Traffic was “one of the city’s worst problems,” the paper noted, lamenting the “millions of dollars annually in lost man-hours and other loss imposed by stagnation in the streets.” The editors suggested that “the most dramatic . . . action Lindsay could take” to improve New Yorkers’ lives would be to “strengthen and enforce the traffic laws.” The challenge was far from insurmountable. Traffic could be “miraculously” improved, the paper argued, by enforcing laws against double-parking and other violations, writing tickets more efficiently, “extending” and “improving” mass transit, and reserving lanes for buses.

Fewer cars on city streets would help, too, of course. “The private passenger auto should be taxed and tolled to discourage its use on New York City streets,” the Times contended. And to provide money for better transit at the same time, the paper added, “some have said that the city could charge tolls on its free East River bridges, including the Brooklyn Bridge, but no one seems inclined to push this idea.”

The last prophecy proved correct. With no realistic prospect of implementing congestion pricing back then, New Yorkers became the unwitting subjects of various experiments in an emerging discipline called “traffic science.” Traffic engineers have a good idea of how many vehicles can fit into a particular space, and at what speed they can travel through that space. But in an urban environment, traffic is also a social and political phenomenon.

As applied in New York, this “science” has resulted in an array of measures to improve traffic flow—including enforcing rules on parking and idling, widening or narrowing streets and sidewalks, and timing red lights and walk signals. The physics are indisputable: a Citibiker can get through a given finite space far more efficiently than can, say, an SUV. But the social and political context continuously changes, depending on who is favored at a given time. Taxi passengers, or bus riders? Delivery cyclists, or millennials in Ubers? Twenty truck and car drivers idling at a red light, or 100 pedestrians waiting to cross a packed holiday street near Rockefeller Center?

The results have been less than stellar. In the enforcement field, “meter maids,” who carry out parking rules, didn’t even exist until the early 1960s (when they were, indeed, an all-women force; today, they’re called “traffic-enforcement agents” and include men). Every mayor since then has announced some sort of ticket blitz, in response to traffic complaints. The current iteration, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2017 “clear lanes” ticket campaign in midtown, echoed Mayor Edward Koch’s “clear lanes” announcement nearly 35 years earlier. “We’ll fine them and ticket them and . . . tow them,” Koch vowed. “They will give you a fine,” de Blasio warned. “There will be real consequences.” In between, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in 2007, chimed in: to tackle “one of the major causes of gridlock,” he said, “we’ll . . . increase the number of tickets we issue, which ultimately will discourage more people from breaking the law.” Yet every ticket blitz has had the same negligible long-term impact: a return to crawling traffic.

By the Koch era, New York was taking modest steps to wrest back some of the space given to the automobile for other users. In the early 1980s, Koch fought midtown business interests to install lanes reserved for buses. The lanes exist today, but for-hire car drivers use them, too, picking up or dropping off passengers, often slowing the buses. Koch also installed midtown’s first protected bike lanes in 1981—only to rip them out months later. It would take another two and a half decades for Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, to repeat that exercise more successfully. Protected bike lanes still exist only on midtown’s periphery.

“Carpenters’ vans, electricians’ pickup trucks, caterers’ vans: all park for hours, unattended, at meters.”

The upshot: on any given workday afternoon in midtown, chaos is the norm. “I’ve been driving for 52 years in New York City. I’ve never seen it this bad,” says Sam Schwartz, the Koch-era traffic commissioner and traffic engineer who is now a private transportation consultant. “Congestion has gotten to a horrible point.”

The bigger problem is not the north–south avenues, but the east–west cross streets. As Bruce Schaller, a planning and policy veteran of the Bloomberg-era transportation department, notes, the streets don’t have a capacity problem. Each of midtown’s one-way cross streets has three lanes reserved for vehicles—no fewer than in the recent past. Over those decades, as the subway system improved, traffic into core Manhattan actually fell, from 800,000 vehicles a day in the early 2000s to 700,000 a day by 2016. But “mostly, it’s disorganized,” he observes. No one, it seems, is on hand to govern the growing mix of construction sites, idling Ubers and Lyfts, government vehicles, and pedestrian crowds—and figure out how these various elements can best coexist or, if not coexist, which should take precedence.

A walk around town bears out the point. On one block, a construction contractor has taken out nearly a lane of traffic with orange cones—yet no work seems to be happening. On another block, police vans and cars used by traffic-enforcement officers are lined up along one lane, themselves congesting traffic—even though ticket-writing and enforcement hardly need to be done by vehicle. UPS and FedEx drivers and helpers unload and organize their wares on the street. Uber and Lyft drivers—responsible for the addition of nearly 50,000 high-use vehicles on the streets over the last three years—double-park, sometimes in painted bike lanes, waiting for fares. Carpenters’ vans, electricians’ pickup trucks, caterers’ vans: all park for hours, unattended, at meters, while their drivers work on their jobs.

On one midtown cross street, a notorious street scourge is apparent: placard corruption. Eleven out of three dozen parked cars and SUVs are the personal vehicles of municipal employees, who’ve slapped informal signs such as “active firefighter” on their windshield to avoid tickets. Elsewhere, in streets and on sidewalks, cement blocks and metal barriers, erected on some key streets after the 2017 Halloween truck attack that killed eight people on the Far West Side, are being stored by the NYPD for later deployment, impeding both drivers and pedestrians.

Cars and trucks often have only one lane to move through—a lane that stops cold whenever a driver stops, say, to discharge a passenger. Well before rush hour, the system starts to break down. By 1 PM, Manhattan has hit “peak accumulation” of motor vehicles, with more than 366,000 either moving, idling, or parked. Car and truck drivers trying to turn from avenues onto streets have zero room; frustrated drivers block intersections, and gridlock sets in.

The de Blasio administration and the city council have acknowledged the traffic crisis only belatedly. More than half a decade after it was becoming clear that Uber and Lyft were helping to jam Manhattan streets, for instance, the city, in mid-2018, finally imposed a temporary cap on the number of such vehicles. But the cap, to last one year, is imprecise. It doesn’t differentiate between, for instance, a Lyft driver ferrying a partygoer from Coney Island to Bay Ridge at midnight from an Uber driver taking a mid-level Wall Streeter from Eighth Avenue to Madison Avenue at 5:30 PM.

Both the state and the city have made small moves to increase the cost of driving. In early 2019, the state imposed a $2.50 to $2.75 fee on Uber, Lyft, and taxi rides in Manhattan below 60th Street. The city, through its regulatory powers, is prodding companies like Uber and Lyft to be more efficient, rather than spend 40 percent of their time on the roads without passengers, as a study by Schaller showed they do. Yet these steps, too, are overly broad. Targeting a Lyft passenger or driver (depending on who will bear the fee) on a 15-minute trip while ignoring an executive who has his private car and driver “ferry” him around midtown all day, or levying a taxi driver over a UPS-dispatched truck that spends several hours in motion, idling, or parked in core midtown, is unfair.

The only reason that midtown traffic isn’t even slower is that below a certain speed, it isn’t worth it to get into a car. In fact, midtown traffic speeds have remained stable—at the just-above-walking speed of 4.7 mph—for two years now. “At some very slow speed, people just decide not to get into traffic,” says Schaller. As Schwartz explains, “seven [miles per hour] was around the speed that we lived with forever,” with improvements above that rate only encouraging more people to drive, thus grinding traffic flow down again. Now, the city can’t meet even that modest goal.

Map by Dolly Holmes

It’s past time for a more comprehensive, long-term approach. The first thing needed is obvious: congestion pricing. “The only good part” of today’s congestion, says Schwartz, is that “when I go around and do my congestion-pricing spiel,” even people who drive now say, “Sam, we have to do something. The traffic is so horrendous.”

For starters, the city and state would impose a cordon toll—an area-specific fee—for vehicles to enter core Manhattan below 60th Street, a concept that Schwartz has been suggesting for much of his career. Last year, a state panel convened by Governor Andrew Cuomo concurred, suggesting a nearly $12 entry fee for cars and a $25 fee for trucks. Over the longer term, as technology improves, Schaller argues, the state and city could calibrate the congestion charge to serve not just as a cordon toll but to “control time [spent] in Manhattan.” GPS-enabled transponders could levy fees on cars and trucks, depending on whether and where they’re in motion, parked, or idling. Fees could vary according to street sensors tracking how fast vehicles are going, and by time of day and year, similar with how Uber and Lyft charge “surge pricing.” The fee to enter midtown Manhattan in an SUV at 4 PM on the weekend before Christmas, for example, might be twice as high as the one to drive to lower Manhattan to crunch spreadsheets for Goldman Sachs at 7 a.m. on a February Saturday.

But a fee would be only as effective as its imperviousness to exemptions. One possible such exemption looms: for public employees’ private cars. Expressed as a percentage, twice as many city workers drive in as all other workers, Schwartz points out. “That’s because they have parking placards.” Levying a fee on such drivers would force them to incur a cost for something that they now do for free.

Congestion pricing is hardly a done deal, but it’s closer to reality than ever before. Cuomo has put forth a congestion-pricing plan in his state budget, to be enacted by early April. Though the plan is flawed in that it cuts the city out of key decisions, including the price, it could be a starting point for negotiations. In the state legislature, the obstructionists who killed an earlier plan more than a decade ago, during the Bloomberg era, are gone. (Several of them—notably, then–Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver—were convicted of corruption.) De Blasio has in the past claimed, wrongly, that congestion pricing would penalize the poor. Because the working poor are much more inclined to use public transportation than incur the expense of driving in the city, a congestion fee would hit, at most, 2 percent of this population, according to the Community Service Society. Yet even the mayor has softened his opposition, saying in early 2019 that he could support the concept. 

Though the state must ultimately enact pricing for moving vehicles, the city controls pricing for parked vehicles, and it should charge market rates for parking. In busy midtown, commercial drivers can park for three hours at just $21; a commercial garage charges more than twice that amount. Construction contractors, too, should pay market rates for the space they reserve around the towers they’re erecting—far above the less than $200 a month they pay for a street-work permit. Of badly used free street space in general, notes David Gurin, a Koch-era deputy transportation commissioner, “the square footage is astronomical, and yet they’re giving it away. . . . Why should you give something away?” Competitively priced parking would leave more space free for short-term deliveries to buildings as well as ride-hail passenger pick-ups and drop-offs.

Street pricing’s staunchest advocates agree that it’s not sufficient. Enforcement of parking and driving violations also matters—but it should be far more predictable and consistent. Universal camera enforcement for red-light runners and for drivers cutting into bus lanes could free up resources for other forms of enforcement. This kind of change, like congestion pricing, would require Albany approval.

With cameras doing the easy traffic-enforcement work, the city could overhaul the tasks remaining. Traffic agents must write the “right tickets,” Schwartz notes, not tout sheer numbers of tickets. Supervisors should rate agents on big-picture goals, such as keeping a crosswalk clear of drivers blocking an intersection or keeping traffic on a particular street flowing by deterring double-parking, and educate them on how to use discretion to achieve those goals. The city should also professionalize its traffic-enforcement force. New York’s civilian traffic agents are among the city’s worst-paid workers, earning less than $31,000 in starting wages. Subject to abuse from angry parked drivers and pedestrians, enforcement agents often leave the job quickly, and are replaced by another crop of inexperienced, quickly demoralized newcomers.

A special class of parking violators merits special attention: those placard-bearing city employees—particularly, uniformed employees. The city should revoke the more than 100,000 legal placards it has given out—all of them. Government workers who think that they need a legal placard should have to go through an arduous process to prove it. “Anyone who gets a placard should get a letter,” advises Schwartz. “The IRS is going to be notified that they are receiving an $8,000 [annual taxable] benefit—it’s enormous.”

Traffic-enforcement agents often turn a blind eye, too, to the fake placards on the windshields of government workers’ parked cars. To combat that problem, says Schwartz, “take 100 people, put them under [the Department of Investigation]”—where they would not be reporting directly to the people egregiously violating the parking laws—and put the scofflaws “under some hard-ass.” Just as New York City curbed public fare-beating on the subways during the 1990s, it should put its own workforce on notice: the low-level corruption represented by widespread theft of services on city streets will no longer be tolerated, and violators who persist will face escalating discipline.

In freeing up space from parked, idling, and moving cars and trucks, New York would have more room to redesign its streets for buses, pedestrians, and cyclists. London, for example, created plentiful bus-only lanes on major thoroughfares before it implemented congestion pricing more than a decade ago. “We suddenly got a bus service that people could rely on,” says Christian Wolmar, a longtime transportation analyst, and “it did start to attract more people.”

Pedestrians, too, need more space. Foot traffic in the city has increased by about 14 percent over the past decade, far more so in tourist areas. In 1998, 27 million pedestrians streamed annually into the Herald Square subway stations; by 2016, the figure was 39 million. In Times Square, growth was more impressive, from 41 million to 64.5 million. Already, during the holiday season, the city partially surrenders to the sheer numbers of people on foot, and closes off the crosstown streets that surround Rockefeller Center at peak times.

If New York’s number of residents, jobs, and tourists continues to grow, this crush will only get heavier and will persist year-round. A decade ago, when Sadik-Khan closed Broadway in Times Square, Herald Square, and Madison Square to make more room for walkers, critics derided her as ideologically driven. Today, even with more space, these far greater numbers of pedestrians still must struggle to thread their way through packed sidewalks.

The growing number of delivery and office workers who use bicycles as they go about their daily commerce merit better midtown infrastructure, as well. Citibike, the municipal bike-sharing service, carried nearly 63,000 people daily in September 2018, and is set to triple in size over the next half-decade. Despite an incomplete patchwork of bike lanes, often encroached on by parked vehicles, cycling in the city has soared; nearly 32,000 people biked into Manhattan from another borough on a fall day in 2016, nearly triple the 2006 figure (and tens of thousands more cycle solely within Manhattan).

None of these measures will fully solve the traffic crisis, though, without a radical turnaround of the core element in all New York City transportation: trains. Gotham’s subway system moves 4.5 million people into and out of core Manhattan each day, and its commuter rails move nearly 700,000—dwarfing the 1.8 million people getting around via motorized vehicles. Yet subway ridership, after reaching record postwar levels in 2016, has been declining—by more than 3 percent over the last two years. Riders have fled for many reasons, from the easier and cheaper availability of for-hire cars to less predictable service to the rising presence of aggressive panhandlers and mentally ill vagrants underground. In 1965, the Times noted—the same week that it counseled Lindsay to tackle the traffic problem—that “the subway’s future is not bright.” Just like last time, if the subway’s future is not bright, neither will be New York’s. A city that gives up on the single most efficient way to move its residents, visitors, and workers around is, by definition, giving up on future growth.

Top Photo: One key to ease the city’s ever-growing traffic woes is a more effective use of technology, to “price” road space. (RICHARD PERRY/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX)

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