Merry Gridlock!



Streetsblog editor Aaron Naparstek and StreetFilms’ Nick Whitaker hit the intersection of Atlantic, Flatbush and Fourth Avenues Thursday morning to see what a "Gridlock Alert Day" looks like at one of New York City’s most congested intersections.

After about 25 interviews with drivers it became pretty clear that if City Hall truly wants to reduce traffic congestion during the holiday season, it needs to do a whole lot more than just say, "Hey, everybody it’s a Gridlock Alert!" 

What might the City do instead of issuing futile alerts? Here’s one idea from London that seems to be working pretty well.

  • BicyclesOnly

    What fun to shop the city by bike these past few days. Even in the rain yesterday, I could only smile as I whizzed past the combination of bovine suburbanites, irate New Yorkers, and clueless TEA at every intersection. The only lines I waited on were at cash registers.

  • Terrific film. Really useful to hear how drivers feel. Aaron’s good humor was obviously infectious. Kudos to him for being able to hold his tongue and get people’s unfiltered reactions.

    And I second Comment #1 — I was all over town Sat. and Sun., rain gear and all, and loved it.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    A new features in this year’s plan includes the DOT’s new HOV lane on the
    Manhattan Bridge. Buses, vans and vehicles with two or more passengers can use the
    left lane on the upper Manhattan-bound roadway between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10
    a.m. Monday to Friday.

    From the maps it looks like the only MTA bus that uses the roadway is the B51, which runs every half hour on weekdays. Of course, there are private buses as well. Has anyone taken this bus, or used the HOV lane during the morning rush?

    Other than that, does anyone think that there are people who say, “Gee, it’s a Gridlock Alert day. Guess I’ll take the subway!”?

  • Driving up 4th Ave from Sunset Park? Why not just take the subway? It’ll move much faster than the traffic.

    And for the people who “like the convenience of the car,” how is it convenient to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic for an hour? This car mentality is a bit mind-boggling.

  • mf

    It’s not surprising that these drivers are here, since we basically pay them to go this way. There’s no toll on the East River Bridges, but if they went the more direct way, through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, they’d have to pay.

    You didn’t interview anyone from Staten Island avoiding the tolls (there’s no charge to go to Brooklyn over the Veranzano because of some federal legislation), but I’m sure a few people in those cars chose this route through my neighborhood to save a few dollars.

  • Josh

    I live right by the Brooklyn side of the Manhattan Bridge and take the B51 to work most days. It runs more often than every half hour during rush hour, but even so, most of the buses are private buses (of which there are a lot – Fung Wah and other intercity buses that don’t use Port Authority, CitySights and other tour buses, Foxwoods buses, school buses, Department of Corrections buses, etc.).

    Having the HOV lane helps a bit, as does the fact that they have the Manhattan side of the bridge coned so that traffic coming in on the lower level has to go up Chrystie or East on Canal. But realistically, traffic backs up at the light at the foot of the bridge at Canal and Bowery regardless of the HOV lane.

    The fact that the HOV lane is on the left is kind of poor planning, as many buses need to get to the right off the bridge, whether they’re turning up the Bowery or (in the case of the B51) stopping on Canal right past Bowery.

    Oh, and yeah, they should definitely toll the East River bridges. The area gets insanely crowded on weekday mornings, and I’m sure it’s in no small part because the Battery Tunnel is tolled and the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges aren’t.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Thanks for that info, Josh. With the HOV lane, I wonder if it would make sense for the MTA to run more of its buses – say the B54, B61 and B69 – over the bridge and down Hester to the Canal Street subway station instead of to Downtown Brooklyn.

  • Mark

    I went to Macys and Target before the holidays just to mix with the crowds. The nice thing about riding the subway home was that you could see people with their bags, kids in tow, and get the sense that this wasn’t just another day. You don’t see as much of that when you drive.

  • Josh

    I’m not sure that’d work with the B61 since it goes all the way down into Red Hook (and serves Red Hook from totally different areas than the B77), but it’s an interesting concept for the B54 or the B69.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I’m not sure that’d work with the B61 since it goes all the way down into Red Hook (and serves Red Hook from totally different areas than the B77)

    Ah, silly me. Of course I know the B61; I got confused looking at the map. I meant the B57, which currently terminates in Downtown Brooklyn.

    Incidentally, there’s currently a proposal, suppoorted by Gary Reilly and Michael Cairl who are both part of the greater Streetsblog community, to split the B61 into two lines, as was done with the M10 (the southern half became the M20).

    Following the M10 model, the thing to do would be to have them overlap in Fort Greene and South Williamsburg, with the northern half terminating in Downtown Brooklyn and the southern half at Williamsburg Bridge Plaza, but it might make sense to send one over the Manhattan Bridge instead. It would depend on how many people from Red Hook, Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens actually take the B61 to points north and east of Downtown Brooklyn.

  • Josh

    Hmm. I don’t live in any of those areas, but from Downtown Brooklyn, the B61 is the best way to get to Williamsburg or Greenpoint. I’d assume that’s especially the case for Red Hook as well, since it’s a hike over to the subway if you live near the water. Less so from Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens because of proximity to the G train (though all standard caveats about the G train sucking do apply).

  • paulb

    I think any American who sets their goal as compelling other Americans to leave their cars parked and use public transportation should watch this film and think very very carefully about how they go about it.

    To my way of thinking, the American determination to drive everywhere is the main thing that’s pauperizing people–ok, maybe that’s kind of a strong word, but we keep hearing about America’s low rates of savings, high rates of personal debt, etc., and I’ve never heard anyone mention, in the same thought, hmmm, in many households every single person age 17 or over owns their own car, could the phenomenons be connected?

    And yet, watching the drivers interviewed in the film, you can see it, it’s obvious, the pride and pleasure they take in the ownership and use of their personal cars. They (me too) reluctantly agree to the enormous taxes on booze and tobacco, I don’t know that they’ll be so accommodating if what amounts to a “sin tax” is applied to auto use and car ownership is treated as a highly taxable social evil.

  • I think any American who sets their goal as compelling other Americans to leave their cars parked and use public transportation should watch this film and think very very carefully about how they go about it.

    And yet, watching the drivers interviewed in the film, you can see it, it’s obvious, the pride and pleasure they take in the ownership and use of their personal cars.

    You’re right. My response to your question got so long I made it into a blog post:

    http://capntransit.blogspot.com/2007/12/what-will-it-take-to-get-people-out-of.html

  • Let me restate Steely’s question this way: what would allow these people who were sitting in their cars on Fourth Avenue last week to take the subway or bus and not feel any less successful, powerful and free? What can you give to replace the glamour of the SUV?

    Allow smoking on subways and buses and inside office buildings?

    Of course, I don’t really want that but here’s a funny thing Nick and I noticed as I was interviewing all of these drivers stuck in traffic: At least a quarter of the drivers we talked to were smoking cigarettes.

    Perhaps the automobile is the last warm, comfy, indoor spot where New Yorkers can smoke. So they drive.

  • Hilary

    Thinking back to life in Tokyo, I recalled how easy and cheap it was to have ANYTHING delivered ANYWHERE. Buy a big floppy fish and it could beat you home. My mother in law would have the leftovers sent to my home so I wouldn’t have to carry them on the subway. Everyone has their luggage picked up at home and takes the train to the airport. Great delivery service can make anyone feel very spoiled taking transit.

  • Aaron’s right about the car as one of the few remaining refusges of smokers. Plus smoking and driving are self-reinforcing: if you smoke, you’re likely to feel comfortable walking to a bus stop or train station, climbing the stairs in the subway, etc.

    The other “virtues” unique to driving that keep people in cars are the ability to protect their privacy and personal space and the ability to stop spontaneously and pick up cargo and transport it around.

    There’s no apparent way to supply the privacy or protected personal space available to a motorist in a mass transit or other alternative mode. That is the whole point of mass transit–moving people efficiently. MTA rules prohibit riders from occupying more than one seat. In contrast, motorists generally are permitted to occupy an unlimited amount of cubic feet of road space.

    As for the ability to stop and transport cargo spontaneously, this is a largely theoretical advantage of motoring, because of the absence of affordable parking. You can carry a significant amount of cargo using the subways, if you are strong enough to carry it up and down the steps. I recall when I lived in Long Island City in the 1990s I would buy most of my groceries and even things like a Christmas tree in Manhattan where I worked, and bring them home by subway, because they generally were not available in LIC. And, of course, bikes can carry/tow a great deal of cargo.

  • MB

    Comparing Oxford, Bond and Regents Streets in London to Atlantic and Flatbush in NYC is a bit off the mark.

    Sure, some people could have taken mass transit, as is always the case, but some people do need to drive. If city hall wants to reduce congestion, it should put more traffic cops out on the streets to direct traffic and enforce the law.

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