Mayor Bloomberg Says NYC Traffic Congestion is Good.

Mayor Bloomberg offered a depressing-yet-enlightening dose of complacency about the city’s traffic crunch this morning. Speaking at Museum of the City of New York’s construction kickoff, Bloomberg explained that he’d arrived late because he’d been "huddled with Con Ed" to monitor power usage during the heatwave. After carping a bit about residents turning up their air conditioners at night, he turned to traffic. Normally he blames traffic for his tardiness, he noted, adding:

"Before I was mayor I blamed mayors for traffic. Now I blame Department of Transportation officials and Police Commissioners." After getting the laugh, the mayor gave the shrug: "We like traffic, it means economic activity, it means people coming here." Soon he left in a private car.

For those who are baffled at why New York City remains in the transportation policy dark ages, Bloomberg’s off-the-cuff remark speaks volumes. While world cities like London and Paris are finding that reducing motor vehicle traffic in the urban core is a boon to local business, quality of life and overall competitiveness in the global economy, New York is still stuck in a 1950’s traffic engineering mindset that insists the gridlock, honking, and spewing tailpipes of 1.1 million vehicles cramming into Manhattan each day is prerequisite for a healthy, vibrant urban economy.

Clearly, Hizzoner hasn’t read, Necessity or Choice (PDF), the Bruce Schaller study that found that a mere six percent of Manhattan retail business is done by car, and that the majority of those motorist-shoppers live in places with plenty of mass transit options.

While a thriving economy does tend to bring more traffic into New York City, evidence is piling up that getting drivers out of their cars and into more efficient modes of transportation is even better for a big city’s health and growth.

The bottom line question to the Mayor and those who hold fast to the dying idea that Traffic = Economic Growth is this: If increasing traffic congestion is the sign of vibrant, growing economy, what happens when New York City reaches a traffic saturation point? What happens when we simply can’t squeeze any more cars and trucks into the city’s 19th century street grid? Must economic growth stop?

That question is most clearly being answered in the neighborhoods around Mayor Bloomberg’s favored mega-development projects, most notably Manhattan’s West Side Stadium and Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards. These projects are being fought and killed largely on the grounds that the traffic congestion they will generate is unmanageable and lethal to community life and local business.

So, does New York City have to stop growing because of traffic? Or does New York City need a comprehensive transportation and land use strategy that reduces motor vehicle traffic congestion, encourages more efficient modes of transportation, and allows New York City to continue growing into the 21st century? 

Streetsblog thinks the answer to this one is pretty obvious. We’re just waiting for the Mayor to stop squandering his second term and his legacy and look at the city’s traffic and environmental problems in the rational, business-like manner that is, supposedly, his way.

Reporting by Alec Appelbaum

  • DOT Guy

    Iris Weinshall made a similar statement at the same Museum last fall, saying that the decrease in traffic after 9/11 was “eerie” and that when traffic levels crept back up, it was a sign to her that everything is okay.

    what Iris and Bloomie don’t get is that we can have MORE economic activity and growth by minimizing space-hogging auto traffic and maximizing space-saving foot, transit and bike traffic.

    Bloomberg and Iris look at a traffic jam and see people coming to the city. You and I look at a traffic jam and think about the people who did not, or cannot, come because of all of that friggin traffic.

  • AD

    Well put, DOT Guy.

  • Thanks AD. sometimes it’s hard to drive, type, try to change this agency from the inside and smoke all at the same time, but i am getting better.

  • alan

    Hey,wait until after all the project approvals and they tell you that the Atlantic Yards will have to have security barriers to protect the arena… Think traffic’s bad there now?

  • ddartley

    Mayor Mike:
    Traffic ≠ economic activity
    Traffic = thermal pollution
    Traffic = yet more athsma in Harlem and Bx.
    Are those last two okay with all you policy makers? If so, congratulate yourselves!

    By the way, why do I never hear anyone talk about the second item there? Not only do cars produce greenhouse gases, but as any cyclist who has ridden through standing traffic on a summer day can tell you, they generate a ton of heat, too. That heat energy doesn’t just disappear. We have a million ovens running on our streets each day. I never hear climate scientists (or anyone, for that matter) talking about that.

  • Hannah

    I too heard Iris’s “eerie” speech at MCNY and was so disgusted by it that I banged my head against the wall afterward, or rather I sent her a letter. My letter:

    In your introductory remarks to the traffic relief panel discussion last week at the Museum of the City of New York, you stated that you find a lack of traffic on our city streets to be eerie. I disagree.

    When I awake to the sound of birds rather than honking horns and car alarms, it is peaceful. When I can leave my windows open without my apartment being dirtied by black soot particulates from motor vehicle exhaust, it is a relief. When I walk and shop and eat in car-free districts, it is like a mini-vacation. When I can ride my bicycle in my favorite parks without being menaced by cars, it is invigorating. When events like the ING New York City Marathon and Bike New York take over the streets, it is fun.

    It is not eerie.

    Had you been able to stay for the rest of the panel discussion, you would have heard more viewpoints that differ from your own. Traffic is strangling our city and slowing it down, not the opposite. Please do something about it.

    The responses:

    One letter from her saying she’d forwarded my concerns to the director of traffic planning and thanking me “for raising some important issues.”

    One letter from the director, Naim Rasheed, the heart of which said:

    In managing the City’s transportation system, the Department evaluates many factors including, mobility, access, quality of life and, most importantly, safety. The Department considers these factors in developing policies that maintain and promote economic vitality and growth while improving the quality of life for its citizens. Earlier this month, Mayor Bloomberg announced a six-month pilot program of additional closures of the Drives in Central Park and Prospect Park. This plan provides additional opportunities for recreational use of the park without the presence of motor vehicles.

    The Department has recently created a new pedestrian plaza in Downtown Brooklyn by closing Willoughby Street between Adams and Pearl Streets and the Adams Street Service Road at Willoughby Street. The plaza will enhance safety along the heavily trafficked pedestrian corridor. In developing plans such as these, we review potential traffic impacts to ensure the plans do not increase traffic congestion and/or air pollution.

    – – –
    I guess we should be count ourselves lucky to even have gotten these two (count ’em) car-reducing changes. Somehow I don’t think my letter made a difference.

  • Great letter, Hannah.

    Dartley, the folks up at Columbia’s Earth Institute are doing lots of work on urban heat island effects, though, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen them talk specifically about the one million “ovens” baking our streets.

  • ddartley

    Thanks for the reference to Earth Institute.

  • Eric

    Please, God, can you give us at least one truly progressive candidate for Mayor in 2009? Bill Thompson, Chris Quinn and, especially, Marty Markowitz, need not apply.

  • Yeah, we need to start nailing down candidates now while they are hungry for support. MAS, Transalt and whoever else should hold a transportation forum for prospective candidates to state their positions.

  • BrooklynBiker

    What about Doctoroff for Mayor? If he really steps up some Transportation improvements as has been hinted at and makes the streets safer for peds and cyclists, who cares about anyone else….progressive or not.

    And Marty? He’ll be laughed off the city radar. He has charm over there in Brooklyn but nowhere else.

  • Eric

    Doctoroff? Don’t real-estate developers have enough power in NYC already? No, thanks.

  • Sean

    Can I suggest a slight re-working of the analysis?

    In a passive sense, more traffic does mean more economic activity. And, gridlock has the salutory effect of increasing the perceived benefit of mass transit and other alternatives.

    A decline in traffic that is not a direct function of actively managed traffic is pretty fair indicator of economic inactivity (and, in context of 9/11, a little eerie).

    What’s missing is the recognition that an actively managed transportation plan can create the demand for mass transit and alternatives short of gridlock and can prevent gridlock. (See London, England.)

    The icing on the cake, is that less gridlock and efficient, affordable, and high-functioning mass transit and alternatives creates a more attractive destination for commerce and other beneficial human interactions.

    I know I haven’t written anything that everyone reading and posting her doesn’t already know. But, it is important to recognize that Bloomberg and Weinshall do speak a species of the truth, only a species that fails to consider the counterintuitive wisdom of managed traffic.

  • alex

    I think Gale Brewer would be an excellent progressive to run for mayor. She has been on the forefront of pushing for public WiFi in NYC, and seems pretty riled up by the recently aggressive tactics of the NYPD regarding cyclists. I just got off the phone with her office, and they said she was VERY aware of the NYPD being aggresive, and is not happy with the NYPD’s proposed parade rule changes. Although these are minor issues, I think she is on the good side more often than not.

  • Biking to work

    Last Friday evening I was nearly run down by an NYPD SUV while riding my bike down Fifth Avenue. I was riding alone in a designated bike lane, and while crossing the intersection at 12th Street, the light changed to red. The officers said that I ran a red light and issued a summons with a fine for $200.

    As it turns out, this incident happened to coincide with a monthly event called Critical Mass, which is a celebration of bicycles and other non-polluting means of transportation, exercising their right to the road. Critical Mass is a movement, not an organization; no two riders participate for the same reasons. Since the crack down during the Republican National Convention of 2004, Critical Mass has been the target of ongoing harassment by the NYPD, who insist that riders are breaking the law by ‘parading without a permit’.

    If you believe that cycling should be ENCOURAGED, rather than punished, please let Mayor Mike know:
    http://www.transalt.org/e-bulletin/2006/Aug/0802.html#parades

  • ray Hyde

    OK, so I go to the discount electronics store an I buy a fifty two inch TV. How am I going to get that thing home on the bus? What are the chances I would get it home on the subway?

    Does anybody in this city buy anything bigger than a bagel?

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