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Hope Cohen, December 2006

New York City has too much traffic.

This problem is so widely accepted that it is nearly always ignored. But this month, traffic has become one of the hottest topics of public discourse in the city.

(©Thomas Vitullo-Martin)

First came a news-making call for traffic relief by a coalition of 125 neighborhood groups, assembled on the steps of City Hall. Then a Tri-State Transportation Campaign poll found public opinion evenly split on the idea of charging a fee for driving into Manhattan's central business district. Now everyone is talking about how to unclog the city's arteries—and what solutions Mayor Bloomberg will offer in the March 2007 follow-up to his December 12 agenda for a "sustainable" city of 2030.

Few would argue that New York's transportation situation is sustainable. A study issued by the Partnership for New York City, the city's business leadership organization, blames "excess" traffic congestion for "at least $5 billion worth of lost time and productivity, $2 billion in wasted fuel and vehicle operating costs, at least $4.6 billion in lost business revenue and increased operating costs, and as many as 50,000 lost jobs" in the region. Reports by environmental and transportation groups highlight the effects of pollution on everything from stress to asthma rates to global warming.

Worse yet, these concerns speak only to New York City today. The mayor is worrying about the New York of 2030, when an additional million people are projected to live here: "Growth is a challenge that can produce great benefits, but only if we prepare for it and guide it—so that our city stays as open and welcoming as ever." If the streets are already choking on traffic, how can they possibly absorb the cars and trucks of the 9-million-person New York of 2030?

Press coverage has focused on one radical remedy: charging a "congestion fee" for the privilege of driving in the central business district (CBD). But this does not address congestion in neighborhoods and highways throughout the five boroughs (and indeed the tri-state region). Luckily, less intrusive solutions are available to these areas. City leaders are right to be considering them.

Battling Traffic: What New Yorkers Think about Road Pricing, a study released this month by the Center for Rethinking Development, found that New Yorkers would accept pricing solutions, including congestion fees—previously the third rail of local transportation politics—but only if the solutions carefully target specific traffic hotspots and are combined with a mix of other remedies.

New York City's central business districts suffer from commuter overload during the rush hours, and the varied crush of city life during the midday peak. These areas need policies to discourage rush-hour-direction automobile commuters, and to untangle the rest of the mess in the middle of the day.

(©Thomas Vitullo-Martin)

In recent years, fruitful efforts in midday Midtown have included establishing "commercial" parking spaces with escalating metered fees to aid turnover and discourage double-parking, and "thru streets" to simplify and speed traffic flow by restricting turns off major cross-town routes. The city should try similar approaches in other clogged business districts.

Then there are the things that New York hasn't done yet: protecting cyclists and motorists by putting bicycle lanes on the curb side of parking lanes (as other cities all over the world do); identifying curb areas (which might include vacant bus stops) for taxi pick-ups and drop-offs; and putting real effort and resources into enforcing existing regulations on double-parking, blocking the box, etc. City Council Member David I. Weprin argues enforcement is the key, citing the taxi problem as well as "the problem with double- and triple- parked cars all over Manhattan. Really, clearly, that is illegal. There's no enforcement. We have to really put more resources into actually cracking down on enforcement of double- and triple- parked cars."

Efforts to alleviate the morning and evening commute will have to target private cars. The availability of free parking at or near the workplace is the single best indicator of whether someone will drive to work in the city. Because they often receive placards that permit unlimited free parking at a wide range of designated areas, government employees drive to work in the Manhattan CBD at just about twice the rate (27% vs. 14%) of private-sector employees. Moreover, a recent Transportation Alternatives study found that 77% of placard holders citywide use their permits illegally.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Cascade effects from this include double-parking, trolling for parking spots, insufficient meter turnover, and lost meter revenue. Placard use is most densely concentrated in civic centers, but Transportation Alternatives estimates that over 150,000 drivers have access to free parking in the form of valid government-issued parking permits (including the more than 30,000 police department "Self-Enforcement Zone" permits and 75,000 teacher permits).

Adding to the problem is this simple fact: All traffic congestion is not created equal. Downtown Brooklyn and Long Island City, for example, become magnets for through-traffic because of irrational pricing policies—free East River crossings that discourage commuters from the tolled Queens-Midtown Tunnel and Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. The Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, and Queensboro bridges, as well as their feeder roads, are clogged day after day, while traffic flows more smoothly to and through the tolled tunnels. Traffic expert and "Gridlock Sam" columnist Sam Schwartz (a former NYC Traffic Commissioner who proposed congestion pricing programs in the 1970s and 1980s) says, "This is an absurd system where you can shop for a bridge. We have sales on our bridges. If you're a trucker, and you have a choice of riding expressways and going out the Verrazano Bridge and paying $40, staying on limited access highways where you should, or we invite you to go through the Queensboro Bridge for free and out the Lincoln Tunnel for free, so you can travel and tour Midtown Manhattan. It's absurd!"

In the first half of the 20th century, New York City developed around its transit (read: subway and elevated rail) network. But New York stopped laying new track 60 years ago, and the city continued to spread. Now significant areas of eastern Brooklyn and Queens, as well as great swathes of the Bronx and Staten Island, lack adequate public transportation.

(©Thomas Vitullo-Martin)

Residents of these areas argue that they must drive to their jobs, and that congestion charges would be an unfair tax. In a panel discussion following the mayor's NYC2030 address, Edward Ott, Executive Director of the New York City Central Labor Council AFL-CIO, cautioned: "Because of our housing problems we have been driving people to the periphery of this city. People commute from as far away as Pennsylvania to come here to work." Congestion pricing, he argues "cannot become just a burden for the working middle class to come in and out of this city and move around in this city or it's just another form of regressive taxation." Noting that the global economy has created a 24-hour world, he said, "We could actually use the city's delivery system 24 hours a day, and we can reduce congestion in the middle of the day. We've lost sight of our potential as a 24-hour city. We have to recapture that."

Laying track to transit-poor areas would take too much time, money, and disruption. The focus needs to be on more flexible transit modes: express bus routes and bus rapid transit (BRT), a combination of operational and technological tools that includes dedicated bus lanes, the ability of buses to get themselves green lights, and pre-boarding fare-paying to speed the loading process.

Light rail or ferry service may work for some of the waterfront neighborhoods now being developed. But for any of these modes to have an impact, service needs to be fast, frequent, and reliable enough that motorists are willing to leave their cars behind—most likely at park-and-ride facilities, which the city also needs.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

The tri-state suburbs have many of the same issues as the outer reaches of the five boroughs, including the need for park-and-ride facilities throughout the region. But with high commuter-rail fares and park-and-ride fees (when parking is even available), many suburbanites find public transit more expensive than driving, violating one of the key points of agreement among all the focus groups assembled for Battling Traffic: It is essential that public transportation be less expensive than the equivalent trip by automobile.

The Partnership for New York City has called for the city to apply by April 2007 for an Urban Partnership Agreement with the U.S. Department of Transportation to study congestion-relief options. Urban Partners—selected study cities, favored for federal transportation grants—will be named by August 2007.

Mayor Bloomberg's NYC2030 public outreach campaign is collecting and analyzing possible solutions (including financing mechanisms and legislative proposals); in March 2007, the mayor will announce those the city will pursue.

Longer term, New York must really become the "city that never sleeps," distributing its commerce—deliveries, traffic, movement in general—throughout the full 24-hour day of the global economy.


December 2006
Congestion Pricing and the Future of NYC: Addressing the Objections
Congestion Pricing: An Incomplete Solution
The Road Not Taken
New York faces all-day rush hour by 2030
Lusting for Less Congested Streets
Transportation Alternatives
Tri-State Transportation Campaign
Regional Plan Association
Environmental Defense
Partnership for New York City
Citywide Coalition for Traffic Relief
Queens Chamber of Commerce
Bridge Tolls Advocacy Project
Center for the Study of Brooklyn
NYC Department of Transportation
NYS Department of Transportation
New York Metropolitan Transportation Council
Metropolitan Transportation Authority
Port Authority of New York & New Jersey
New Jersey Transit
Battling Traffic: What New Yorkers Think About Road Pricing
Growth or Gridlock
New York City Population Projections
Necessity or Choice? Why People Drive in Manhattan
Thinking Outside the Box
Above the Law
Curbing Cars: Shopping, Parking and Pedestrian Space in SoHo
How Property Tax Burdens Have Shifted in New York City
Traffic's Human Toll
The New York State cost gap
Tax Breaks for Affordable Housing
About 421-a: Extreme Changes Will Slow Building, Progress
About 421-a: Needs Reform to Maintain City's Livability
Sour Ending for Brooklyn Sweet Spot
City Does About-Face On The Piers
Ratner Faces Fewer Tax Breaks
Ratner's profit likely would exceed IRR, but the public's still in the dark
“Anybody that tells you it's not working in London is not paying attention. Average 17% reduction in total traffic. Bus ridership up 37%.”
Kathryn S. Wylde,
President & CEO
Partnership for New York City
“The question isn't IF there are solutions, but which to pursue... Every good idea will be on the table, and every reasonable proposal will get a fair hearing. To help us generate those ideas, we're now going to go to the real experts—you. New Yorkers in all five boroughs.”
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg
NYC2030 kickoff speech
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