Doctoroff: Congestion is a Major Problem. Time to Act.

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Situated between Midtown and the West Side Highway with Lincoln Tunnel and Port Authority traffic running through it constantly, Hell’s Kitchen may very well be the New York City neighborhood most antagonized by motor vehicles. It is no surprise that the area has spawned one of the most active and articulate community groups in the city on Livable Streets issues, the Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen Pedestrian Safety Coalition.

In May one of the organization’s leaders, Christine Berthet, sent a letter to Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff urging him to get cracking on the creation of "a comprehensive transportation plan" that puts "pedestrians, mass transit commuters and cyclists first." Well, last week, Berthet got a reply from the Deputy Mayor. While we have known for some time that Doctoroff’s team has been hard at work on a big, secret transportation and land use planning initiative, his letter to Berthet still contains some genuine, heard-it-hear-first information.

The first piece of news is Doctoroff’s acknowledgement that congestion is a "major problem" that "will only get worse unless we act." The Bloomberg Administration has thusfar been slow to acknowledge that New York City has a problem when it comes to traffic congestion. In fact, DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall and Mayor Michael Bloomberg often brush off traffic complaints with the argument that congestion is the sign of a healthy urban economy. Doctoroff’s letter seems to indicate an altogether new line of thinking on traffic and transportation at City Hall.

The second news item is Doctoroff’s announcement that he is "looking carefully" at ways "to shift travel… away from the automobile and onto transit." Put more simply Doctoroff is, essentially, saying: New York City needs to reduce the number of private motor vehicles on city streets. This is virtually a reversal in policy. Under Commissioner Weinshall and Deputy Commissioner Michael Primeggia, DOT has seemingly operated under the assumption that its job is to "keep the traffic moving" and "increase capacity" no matter how many car and truck drivers wish to cram themselves into the city on a given day. A policy of mode-shifting would be a significant change that finally, at long last, puts New York City on the same traffic-reduction track as cities like London and Paris.  

The final nugget of news here is Doctoroff’s announcement of pedestrian improvement projects already underway at specific locations throughout the city — Times Square, Herald Square, Penn Station and Astor Place.

Here is the letter in full:

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  • This is exactly the type of way that citizens can impact traffic congestion and change policy from the bottom up. Congrats to Christine on getting her voice heard and response.

    It also shows the power of writing a real letter instead of just emailing public officials.

  • Alison

    I think one of the things that could be done is to increase accessibility in the subway stations. Far too few stations have escalators or elevators. If I knew that I didn’t have to climb stairs out of a subway station, I’d be much more likely to use mass transit.

  • Eric

    Alison- are you kidding? Stop being so lazy. It’s good exercise. I bet you spend $500 a year on a gym membership, too.

  • Niles

    Eric-

    you may be right, but it’s more likely that Alison is unable to easily climb stairs for physical reasons. Not everyone is a fit 20 year old. New York is an old city so there are many obstacles to those who have difficulty easily climbing stairs. Have a heart.

  • Annon Y. Mouse

    Alsion,

    Do you mean mass transit or the subway? Only asking because buses don’t require going up or down stairs.

    I believe that the MTA is working towards proving a future goal of having 100 stations wheelchair accessible by a certain time. However, I do not know when that will happen.

    Actually, a good friend of mine is only 30 and his knees are so bad, he had to turn down a beautiful apartment because he couldn’t climb the 5 flights of stairs to get to it.

    If the comment by Alision was made just because of lack of elevators and not associated health or physical impediments then, yes, that is a weak arguement.

    But if it is an obstacle because her body is not cooperating, then she has all the right to express that.

  • AD

    Eric, the elevators are there for people who have difficulty negotiating stairs, not for people who don’t feel like using them.

  • Niles, I’m guessing that Eric was just joking…

  • mike

    I am a spry young lad and prefer to walk up and down stairs, but the MTA should definitely strive to make subway 100% accessible. Not only would it benefit the aged and disabled, but if you’ve ever had to go to the airport with luggage, or have taken your bike on the subway, or carried bulky items home from the store……

  • Bugg

    2 ideas-

    1. Refocus and emforce zoning laws to favor low-rise development.
    2. Can Iris Weinshall. After the ferry disaster, it’s become apparent that failing catching her (or Schumer) with a corpse in their living room, she won’t ever be fired. Streets are dug up perpetually without ryme or reason.

    Not holding my breath on either.

  • Ken F

    Hey, you folks in Manhattan have it easy, unlike the rest of the country. You have a mass transit system. All thats left to be done is make all the bridges and tunnels one way off the island (well, a few lanes inbound for trucks and buses), and the problem will solve itself in a very short time.

  • Doctoroff says that there are few easy fixes, because our transit system is congested, like our streets.

    But there is an obvious way to deal with both these problems. Implement congestion pricing, as London and Stockholm have done. Use the revenue from congestion pricing to improve transit service.

  • Dave

    To me there seem to be a few easy fixes to reduce congestion in Manhattan:
    – toll every entry into Manhattan
    – implement permit parking so free curbside parking is no longer available to non-residents who drive in (like every other east coast city)
    – drastically reduce the free permits to city workers; why do they need these anyway?

    All of this is a lot easier than congestion pricing and can be done with EZ Pass technology or the system in place to grant garage tax reduction notices.

  • On the subway elevators :
    Has any of you tried to use the subway with a young infant in a carriage?
    I constatnly see mothers grabbing these carriages with the kid inside and carrying them up and down the stairs .

    Disgraceful.

  • Michael

    Dave,

    Those are three sensible and straightforward ideas. Congestion-relief sounds so easy when you put it like that!

    However, I’m guessing that you have never run any of these policy proposals by an Outer Borough New York City Councilmember. Don’t forget, this is the City Council that prided itself on overturning Bloomberg’s enstatement of Sunday parking meters. They called it “Pay to Pray.” The Pay to Pray fight was the most substantial discussion of transportation policy that took place during the 2005 mayoral election. That’s what we’re dealing with in this town…

  • Dave

    Michael:

    Yes I do understand the difficulty we will have with my seemingly simple ideas, and getting tolls on the river crossings will also require the approval of the governor for some unknown reason. We can only hope Spitzer will have a more favorable attitude than Pataki with his pandering to upstate. Let us not forget Pataki Bruno and Silver and the commuter tax debacle.

    One can only hope for Bloomberg to focus on congestion and take action other than the very complicated congestion pricing plan (London does have permit parking BTW).

    And the next time you walk by a meter on a Sunday (you know the cars from Sat night that will be there till Monday) do a check of how many of the plates are from Jersey. Yeah the city council really messed up on that one, eh?

  • While Bloomberg could have done wonders for congestion relief (and still could) I believe at this point he will not do congestion pricing. I think he really wants to do it, but feels like he will face enormous vocal opposition similar to the Jets Stadium/Olympics. Perhaps he also suffers from a particular image issue of a rich Manhattanite that would be the easiest stereotype of someone who would benefit without any pain.

    I’m starting to think that what we really need is a broad coalition of neighborhood groups from around the city, led by a prominent outerborough leader (Weiner? Liu?) with Mayoral aspirations to tackle the entire transportation and quality of life suite of issues.

  • podsednik

    Yeah, Glenn but most New Yorkers would benefit without any pain, since most New Yorkers do not own a car.

  • Ananda

    Any policy that a few perceive to hurt them significantly, while many perceive to benefit them just a little, will have trouble because those who perceive it to hurt them will be a vocal minority in opposition and those who it benefits will not vocally push for it because it doesn’t benefit them substantially. This is called having “diffuse benefits” and “concentrated costs”. It’s a public policy conundrum.

    But Dave: explain the difference between congestion pricing and “toll[ing] every entry into Manhattan”? Do you just mean that the latter would not fluctuate by time of day? Tolling every entry into Manhattan has been referred to as congestion pricing by many who have studied it in NYC, such as RPA.

  • podsednik – What Ananda said, plus congestion pricing is both a car owner vs. non-owner and a class/race issue. Imagine a coalition of poor/working class, small business owners, minorities in the outerborough areas with poor mass transit, suburban SUV owners. Who could fight them? I bet John Liu, Anthony Weiner, James Molinaro, etc could make a better case to them than Mayor Billionaire.

  • podsednik

    I see where Ananda & Glenn are coming from. But I do think that congestion pricing would be such a huge plus for both drivers and non-drivers, that there must be a politically viable way to explain it to voters. Though it’s certainly isn’t going to happen if the city gives up without even trying to explain why it would work.

    There are 2 interesting studies (aimed at East River bridge tolls, not congestion pricing, but I think the two are similar enough to be relevant) here: http://bridgetolls.org/research/ These take a look at A) who would pay and B) how much time would be saved by drivers overall. A) found that 98% of all New Yorkers would pay less than $50 a year on East River Tolls — so I’m still not sure why this 2% who would have a large increase in costs are such a huge worry to politicians. Even less so, because many of these are people who would benefit by spending less time to get where they are going — possibly saving them more in time savings than they are spending in cash.

    It’s remarkable to note that Mayor Livingstone of London actually ran on the promise of instituting congestion charging — and won!

  • Dave

    Ananda et al:
    I seem to be in a discussion with those who know more than I do; but to me it is easy to hang EZ Pass readers on existing bridge entry points. To install the same readers on every avenue south of 60th or 96th or wherever would be much more complicated and would require community review and approval of new structures.

    What is the concensus on Permit Parking? When I go to every other large city (even LA) and many medium-sized ones and see it I wonder why it is not here. Any explanation? Thanks.

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