As murders sink to record lows and private-sector jobs, tourism and population reach record highs, one problem in New York remains unsolved: traffic.
In fact, it’s worse than ever.
“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.”
Nowhere is the congestion more frustrating than in Midtown — 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.
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. But “mostly, it’s disorganized,” he observes. No one, it seems, is on hand to govern the growing mix of construction sites, government vehicles, pedestrian crowds or idling Ubers and Lyfts — responsible for the addition of nearly 50,000 high-use vehicles on the streets over the last three years — and figure out how these various elements can best coexist.
Well before rush hour, the system starts to break down. By 1 p.m., 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.
Thankfully, the crisis has a solution. Gotham should use ever-improving technology to “price” road space, deterring people who don’t need to drive in the city to find alternative modes of transport.
The first thing needed is obvious: congestion pricing.
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 Gov. 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 in an SUV at 4 p.m. 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.
Congestion pricing is hardly a done deal, but it’s closer to reality than ever before. Cuomo says that he backs the idea. In the state Legislature, the obstructionists who killed a similar 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). Mayor 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 2018 that the Cuomo panel’s proposal was an “improvement over previous plans.” In January, though, Cuomo proposed a congestion-pricing plan that doesn’t involve the city’s input — the wrong way to go, as the city must embrace the concept, and the details, for road pricing to succeed.
The city, meanwhile, controls pricing for parked vehicles, and it should charge market rates for parking. In busy Midtown, commercial drivers can park on the street 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. “The square footage is astronomical, and yet they’re giving it away … Why should you give something away?” notes David Gurin, a Koch-era deputy transportation commissioner.
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.
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.)
Meanwhile, a special class of parking violators merits special attention — 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.
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.
If New York’s number of residents, jobs and tourists continues to grow, this crush will only get heavier and will persist year-round.
The growing number of delivery and office workers who use bicycles need better Midtown infrastructure, as well. Citi Bike, 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.
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 that “the subway’s future is not bright.” Just like then, 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.
This piece originally appeared at New York Post
Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty