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Gridlocked, in Fair Weather and Foul

eye on the news

Gridlocked, in Fair Weather and Foul

New Yorkers demand that the mayor clear the roads—but only in snowstorms. November 17, 2018
New York
Politics and law

On Thursday, it snowed a few inches in New York—and chaos ensued. The afternoon commute was a horror for hundreds of thousands of commuters, with cars inching forward on major highways and would-be bus riders waiting in long lines on Fifth Avenue and at the Port Authority for buses that were stuck in slush. Naturally, the thing for New Yorkers to do was to blame the mayor. Bill de Blasio is at fault, sure—but not for this storm. Rather, the storm points up the absurd demands of New York City drivers—and the mayor’s negligence in not caring about the streets unless they are covered in white.

Timing matters, and Thursday’s storm came at the worst time of day. When it snows at night, people know not to come to work or school the following day in the first place. But Thursday, the snow didn’t start until around noon, so everyone was already in place. On a typical day, core Manhattan below 60th street welcomes 3.9 million people: 2.3 million on subways, 900,000 via cars and trucks, 300,000 apiece on buses and commuter rail, and tens of thousands more on ferries, bicycles, and foot.

Getting all these people in and out of town is extraordinary on a good day. When it snows after they’ve all arrived, it’s nearly impossible. Modern-day urban residents expect immunity from nature, and think that the city—under any mayor—can remove snow instantaneously. But the world is still governed by physical and natural restraints. When even a little snow turns into blizzard-like conditions—two inches an hour, as happened Thursday—right before the afternoon rush, the predictable happens. Cars and trucks slip around and crash into each other. Traffic means that the hundreds of snowplows that the city deployed yesterday can’t get through; as de Blasio told NY1 Friday morning, “they can’t levitate above the traffic.” Exacerbating the problem was the time of year: the city’s trees still have their snow-catching leaves on them, and heavy branches fell, blocking lanes. The roads, though, were largely clear by morning, after the plows had taken advantage of emptier streets overnight. 

According to NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan, speaking at a damage-control press conference that the mayor hastily convened Friday afternoon, the city had nearly 2,000 crashes Thursday, 1,200 more than usual. The NYPD would “get one intersection cleared, go a couple of blocks, the next intersection is blocked because of a crash,” Monahan said. Both the George Washington Bridge and Brooklyn’s Belt Parkway and Gowanus Expressway had major crashes; on the GWB, a 20-vehicle pileup closed the bridge with a “ripple effect,” said transportation commissioner Polly Trottenberg, delaying commuter buses for hours.

The solution to such afternoon crises is to stop people from coming to work or school altogether, well before it starts snowing. But as of Wednesday night, forecasters were predicting just an inch or so of snow; the city and state have endured criticism before for disrupting work and school lives for no reason. On the eve of a predicted blizzard nearly four years ago, Governor Cuomo closed the subway; when the storm fizzled, everyone made fun of him. “It’s kind of hard to tell people, don’t go to work,” de Blasio observed Friday afternoon. Private industry, of course, is free to make its own decisions; no large company seems to have told its workers to stay home Thursday, and even after the height of the storm, Broadway chose not to cancel, implicitly preferring to earn revenue rather than to mitigate the mayor’s headache.

The storm amplified pre-existing incompetence. The public-school system, for example, didn’t deliver some children home to their parents until after midnight. But even on a good day, New York City and all its billions and brains cannot figure out how to move children from their homes to their schools on a fixed route. For adult commuters not dependent on incompetent school bureaucrats, an immutable fact remains: snow is wet, slippery, and inconvenient. Yet people persist in driving in it, even when they don’t have to in order to get home. The mayor was one example: Thursday night, he said, he got stuck in a car travelling from Gramercy Park Tavern downtown to Gracie Mansion uptown, crawling along because of the snow. The trip, though, is a half-hour subway ride and walk. Ironically, the subway, which has experienced crises over the past two years, worked reasonably well during and after the storm.

It’s strange that New York drivers demand so much from their city during a storm, when they typically expect so little. In midtown, traffic normally inches along at five miles an hour, with drivers honking at and blocking one another. New Yorkers seem vastly interested in how quickly the mayor can plow parking spaces, but less concerned with his abysmal day-to-day governance of the streets, from double-parking to blocked intersections.

A partial answer to this, in addition to better street-rules enforcement, is congestion pricing: forcing people to pay a fee to enter the city’s most crowded blocks. In an emergency, the city could use a congestion-pricing system as a useful price signal. Hiking the fee, say, from a normal $10 to $50 during a snowstorm would deter people like the mayor, who had no real reason to be sitting in his SUV Thursday night. A crude form of congestion pricing already works. As NY1 host Errol Louis noted, the ride-hail firm Lyft wanted to charge him $143 for what is regularly a $28 ride; he took the subway instead, and “even got a seat.” Yet de Blasio has dallied on supporting congestion pricing —in fair weather and foul.

Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

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