I Want My Fair Share of the Street

So the State Assembly has non-voted down congestion pricing. Although I was in favor for reasons I explained here last year, so be it. My chief concern was that the state legislature would enact congestion pricing, claim that it had done its fair share for transportation, be believed, and thus escape blame for the onrushing consequences of all the debt dumped on the MTA from 1992 (or so) to 2009. I hope, now that CP is off the table, that blame will accrue where it is deserved: the MTA Capital Plan hasn’t been sensibly funded since Richard Ravitch was in charge, and the funding for roads has been no better. But I’ve said my piece on that problem, and will otherwise leave it to the congestion pricing opponents to solve.

Now that it has been established that crossing into the Manhattan Central Business district will be free, driving on the congested streets will be free, and parking there will be free for many, however, I believe it’s time to re-think how that scarce space on the street is allocated. With all the taxes I and other non-drivers pay for that street space, I don’t think we’re getting our fair share, and want more of it. Specifically, I want more street space taken away from motor vehicles and allocated to pedestrians, who live in an area or arrive by transit, and bicyclists. I am both. And, I want more street space allocated to those who use private automobiles on weekends, for pleasure travel and visiting, rather than on weekdays to commute, by ending the practice of paying extra (a lot extra) to avoid road construction during rush hours.

The counter argument has been that since private motor vehicles need so much more space per person than pedestrians, bicyclists, or people riding in buses or trains, if those private motor vehicles don’t get the vast majority of public space, the result is congestion. What we have established by turning down congestion pricing (and residential parking permits), however, is that the only check on congestion and the shortage of parking is going to be congestion and the parking shortage themselves. So we have nothing to lose.

Vastly more people travel to Manhattan south of 60th Street than drive, and it is simply not possible for all of them to get there by private automobile. Absent rationing by price, New York City and State ration driving to Manhattan two ways. The first is parking, with new off-street parking facilities highly restricted in Manhattan and on-street spaces generally handed over to those who get placards. The second is congestion, with the right to drive to Manhattan given to whoever is willing to sit in traffic the longest. Obviously, only the second means of rationing applies to through traffic — those going out of their way to use the free bridges and avoid tolls.

Using congestion to limit the number of people driving in and through Manhattan means that no matter how much or how little space is given to motor vehicles, congestion will be at the same level — the level the marginal person (the one on the fence about driving or not) can barely stand. The only difference will be the quality of life of those who do not drive. That is what should be addressed now.

The Congestion Pricing argument was about the distribution of street space between two groups of motor vehicle drivers — the political class, who have access to placards, and the executive class, who use black cars, taxis, limousines and can afford to pay for private garages. The rest of us were only involved because one of the two groups, the executive class, was willing to kick back some money for the rest of us via transit funding. But it was not to be.

So now it’s time to reallocate the space between the rest of us and both groups of drivers combined, and I call on the Mayor and City Council to do so. Private motor vehicles, who aren’t paying anything extra, are taking up more than their share of the right of way. Take that space away. As congestion pricing opponents pointed out Manhattan streets have been congested for 200 years, so we have nothing to lose.

For starters, I believe Broadway (or perhaps 7th Avenue north of Times Square and Broadway south of it) should be limited to pedestrians, with wider sidewalks, and a full lane for bicycles and other non-motorized transportation in each direction. Deliveries would be limited to the overnight hours, as on Nassau Street in Lower Manhattan. Lafayette Street/4th Avenue should be made two-way from 14th Street to the Centre Street merge, with the Broadway motor vehicle exclusion extended down to City Hall Park. The other streets would remain as congested as ever, but at least pedestrians and bike riders would have a refuge from the noise, fumes and danger. The drivers have the FDR Drive, West Street and the Henry Hudson Parkway. Everyone else also deserves one avenue to themselves.

In Midtown, in addition to Broadway, a few narrow crosstown streets — those with the fewest parking facilities off them and the most retail — should be limited to pedestrians and bicycles during the day as well.

I don’t even think the drivers would miss Broadway much, because it is an extra (and thus unneeded in the street grid) southbound Midtown avenue — Broadway duplicates 7th Avenue and then 5th Avenue from Central Park to 14th Street. The southbound buses — the M11 on 9th Avenue, the M20 on 7th Avenue and the M6/M7 on Broadway could simply slide over one avenue, leaving Broadway free and providing a bus on 11th Avenue. South of 14th Street the east side buses could use a two-way Lafayette/4th Avenue and then Lafayette Street southbound from the Centre Street merge. Some buses could turn in the vicinity of Cooper Square rather than snake around side streets, as they do today. North of Union Square any extra capacity is one-way only, because Park Avenue is a two-way street, so removing Broadway would merely balance motor vehicle capacity north and south of the square.

Once Greenwich Street reopens through the World Trade Center site, in fact, it would be possible to remove motor vehicles from Broadway south of City Hall Park as well. As I suggested to the LMDC a few years ago, a flyover could be built from the south end of Greenwich Street in the vicinity of the Battery Tunnel Garage, to provide express buses on both Trinity/Church/6th Avenue and Greenwich/West Broadway/Varick/7th Avenue with direct access to and from the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel in both directions. With that alternative in place, non-drivers could have a noise, fumes and danger-free stretch of right of way extending from the Battery to Central Park and, perhaps, through the park to Harlem. Those nervous about riding bicycles in fast-moving avenue traffic would no longer have to — they could ride Broadway to the vicinity of their destination, and then a narrow, crosstown street.

In addition to no longer giving motor vehicle traffic top priority in the Manhattan Central Business District, it is also time to stop giving it top priority getting to the Manhattan Central Business District. Specifically, private motor vehicles are taking up more than their share of space on the free bridges. The Brooklyn Bridge is the most popular for both bicyclists and pedestrians, and on many afternoons there is not enough room for both. Sooner or later, if non-motorized traffic continues to grow, bicycles will have to be removed from the elevated walkway. So should they get no space while motor vehicles get six lanes? Instead, jersey barriers and bollards should be used to limit the use of one traffic lane, or perhaps one lane in each direction, to bicycles, roller-skaters, etc. After all, taxes paid by bicycle riders and the rest, as much as drivers, are being used to pay interest on the $billions borrowed to rehabilitate the East River bridges. Through traffic from outside the city, in fact, isn’t paying anything.

If the bridges are going to remain free, moreover, why should Brooklyn streets be made to bend over backwards to make it possible for more motor vehicles to get there? Specifically, who should merchants on Flatbush, Ocean and Atlantic Avenues lose customers to allow an additional lane of through traffic, rather than parking, in the peak direction? Why not install a barrier-separated bus-lane next to the curb on Flatbush, followed by a parking lane, leaving one travel lane in each direction except near intersections where the parking lane would be replaced by a left turn lane?

The time to take all these measures is right now, because CP opponents, having gotten their way, will be under pressure to show they aren’t completely hostile to everyone who doesn’t have a parking placard. The political precedent is that they can now be pushed to approve anything that isn’t congestion pricing. For example, in 1996 the Department of City Planning wanted to reduce restrictions on certain types of large stores on wide streets in manufacturing districts, to make it easier for new supermarkets with lower prices to locate near poor neighborhoods. The City Council, funded by existing supermarket chains, voted it down, but since then it has waived through any large store that wasn’t a low-price supermarket near a poor neighborhood. The state legislature quashed the Olympics and Jets Stadium in Manhattan. But it subsequently approved and funded thre other stadia in other boroughs. There is no need to worry about an EIS, moreover, since state policy post CP rejection is for congestion to continue to exist at the level that keeps additional motor vehicles away. So in any area that is highly congested today, removing street capacity has no impact — the streets remain congested, but with fewer vehicles.

In particular, I’d like to see motor vehicles removed from Broadway by next summer. In fact, I’d like to see Broadway north of 14th Street limited to pedestrians and bicyclists as a “temporary” measure — kind of perpetual street fair — this summer. Why not go ahead and do it? Let the congestion pricing opponents object if they want to. Something tells me they’ll stay quiet.  After all, I warned them last June, and they asked for it.

Congestion pricing was the London solution. What we can get is the Rome solution. In Rome, the traffic and air pollution are horrible, but no attempt is made to discourage people from driving. You want to drive? Go ahead, that’s your problem. Neither, however, is there any attempt to accommodate people who drive. Instead, there is a vast network of streets limited to bicycles and pedestrians, including the city’s main shopping street, and narrow streets that move at the speed of a pedestrian. Walk or ride on those streets, and you are oblivious to the mess elsewhere. I think those who travel to Manhattan on weekdays without driving have the same rights to walk or ride without hassle and danger. After all, we’re paying as much for the use of the streets as the drivers.