While the number of employed New Yorkers has recovered from the lows of the recession, motor vehicle traffic in the city remained flat last year, with increased demand for travel being met by the city’s increasingly stretched subways, according to NYC DOT’s annual Sustainable Streets Index update.
The report, released Monday, collects data from a wide variety of sources to assess the state of the city’s transportation network. The update is part of the city’s PlaNYC 2030 sustainability initiative and builds on previous releases from 2008, 2009 and 2010.
DOT’s preliminary data shows that citywide motor vehicle traffic, measured by counting “daily weekday traffic volumes at Borough and City boundaries,” flattened out in 2011 after rising 1.1 percent in 2010. Even with 2010’s increase, in 2011 traffic remained 0.8 percent below pre-recession 2007 levels. Meanwhile, weekday subway ridership is up 2.5 percent in 2011 over 2010.
Traffic remains flat even as job numbers are picking up steam. After a weak 2010, the number of employed New Yorkers increased 2.0 percent in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, regaining the pre-recession level. Along with record subway ridership, bike traffic crossing the boundaries of the Manhattan CBD rose 7 percent in 2011 over 2010, bringing the total increase since 2000 to 250 percent.
Buses, meanwhile, continue to hemorrhage riders following the service cuts that took effect in the middle of 2010. Weekday bus ridership declined 4.3 percent in 2011 from the previous year. Bus ridership has declined each year since 2008, a total drop of 9.4 percent. This stands in contrast to the gains in ridership on Select Bus Service routes. On the M15 Select Bus Service along First and Second Avenues, for example, travel times improved 15-18 percent while ridership rose 12 percent.
A day-by-day analysis of taxi GPS data provides a glimpse into vehicular traffic patterns as well. The fall and winter have more heavily congested days than the rest of the year, with the traffic crunch peaking on November and December weekdays, as well as during the United Nations General Assembly in September. The days with the lightest traffic are major holidays or Sundays in January or July.
After gains from 2008-2010, average daytime taxi speeds (8 a.m. – 6 p.m.) below 60th Street in Manhattan decreased slightly, with the average non-airport taxi trip taking seven minutes. Unsurprisingly, traveling on Manhattan avenues is faster than on crosstown streets, while nighttime trips (7 p.m. – 7 a.m.) are faster and cover more distance than daytime trips.
The Sustainable Streets Index also includes before-and-after analysis of major roadway changes (this is required by a city law enacted in 2008.) In 2011, the agency implemented 11 of these projects, many of which Streetsblog has covered before — including First and Second Avenues in Manhattan, the on-street approaches to the RFK (Triborough) Bridge in Queens, Crames Square in the Bronx and Broadway near Union Square in Manhattan.
Some of the more interesting projects DOT reported on include:
- East 180th Street in the Bronx: Despite its low traffic volumes, this 1.2-mile stretch of roadway in the Tremont neighborhood ranked fifth in the Bronx for crashes per mile. Following approval from Community Board 6, traffic lanes from Webster Avenue to Boston Road were narrowed from 17 feet to 11 feet after a painted center median was installed that included left turn lanes and pedestrian islands. With these improvements, the percentage of westbound drivers who speed is down from 40 percent to 8 percent. Eastbound speeding is also down dramatically, from 30 percent of all drivers to 1 percent. As a result, pedestrian crashes resulting in injury are down 67 percent, lower than in any of the ten years before the street changes were made.
- Livingston Street transit priority: Five major bus routes run along Livingston Street in downtown Brooklyn. Responding to a request from the MTA, DOT extended the exclusive bus lane hours to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays, instead of just the peak direction during peak hours. The agency also painted the lanes red, changed signal timing and installed a head start signal phase for buses at the intersection of Flatbush Avenue. As a result, bus travel times improved 12 percent westbound and 14 percent eastbound, with bus lane infractions down by more than 50 percent.
- Weekend Walks evaluation: The Montague Street Business Improvement District worked with DOT to bring Weekend Walks to two blocks of this Brooklyn Heights retail corridor. For three Sundays in September 2010 and 2011, the area was closed to vehicular traffic from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and hosted noncommercial music, youth programming and other activities. The response from merchants was overwhelmingly positive. In 2011, 76 percent reported an increase in foot traffic over a regular weekend, and 86 percent reported an increase in sales. Both of these numbers are up compared to merchant surveys after the 2010 event.
- DOT internal carsharing pilot: Following the lead of city governments in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, DOT became the first New York City agency to replace city-owned fleet vehicles with employee access to Zipcar when it launched its pilot carsharing program in 2010. With the goal of reducing the agency’s fleet size and parking impact around its Financial District headquarters while making it easier for employees to book a car when needed for official business, DOT removed 50 vehicles from its Lower Manhattan fleet and selected 350 of its Lower Manhattan employees to participate in the pilot. Evaluations found that DOT vehicles occupied downtown on-street parking spaces for 14 percent less time on weekdays and 68 percent less time on weekends. It also reduced driving mileage by DOT employees by 11 percent. Continued use of the program was projected to create a cost savings for DOT, leading to a renewal of the contract with Zipcar for an additional year.
In addition to the effectiveness of DOT’s street safety and bike projects, perhaps the most important takeaway from these numbers is the need for a major expansion of Select Bus Service. Transit riders are voting with their feet, and Select Bus Service routes are gaining in popularity while the rest of the city’s bus network loses riders. The demand for safer streets, more bicycle infrastructure and faster buses is apparent in the data, and it’s something prospective mayoral candidates can’t ignore if they’re serious about improving New Yorkers’ quality of life.