New York’s Hometown Paper Doesn’t Get How New York City Streets Work

New York: A place where space for cars comes at the expense of space for walking, biking, and transit. Photo: ##http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/transportation/3115-endless-traffic-can-it-end##Gotham Gazette##

I think I’ve figured out why, when it comes to allocating space on New York streets, the Daily News opinion team tends to take a position that’s completely at odds with making the city a better place. The problem is that the Daily News opinion team doesn’t understand how city streets function.

In a piece that ran this weekend, editorial board member Josh Greenman reminds us that people drive motor vehicles to make useful trips, and that New York is already more walkable than Miami. So, now that’s settled.

Greenman sees himself as a sort of mediator between different factions — the bike, the car, and the pedestrian. “New Yorkers can like bikes without having disdain for the automobiles that share the roads,” reads the headline, and after condemning “knee-jerk anti-bicyclism,” he attempts to position himself as the voice of reasonable middle ground by defending driving:

Behind the zero-sum vision of some pro-bicycle advocates is a tacit assertion that in some parts of the city, cars, those corporate tools, have no claim to the road. They must be managed in the way an incurable disease is managed. God forbid anyone in power should try to make life easier for those who dominate the roads.

But framing the discussion around who has a “claim to the road” or how to “make life easier” for any one subset of people on the road isn’t a productive way to analyze streets and transportation policy.

Here’s how Streetsblog evaluates the transportation and planning subjects we write about. (This next part will probably be covering well-worn ground for Streetsblog readers. If it’s too didactic, I apologize. I didn’t know what else to do after reading a column which responds to current transportation policy debates by observing that trucks haul garbage.) The basic question we start from is, “What sort of city do we want to live in?” My answer to that question probably isn’t drastically different than Josh Greenman’s:

  • City streets should be safe from traffic violence, so that people of every age can walk without fear of injury or death.
  • People should have convenient access to jobs, schools, and other destinations in their daily lives.
  • Streets serve a social and economic function as well as a transportation function. We should maximize their potential as public spaces and as generators of economic activity.

Striving to achieve those goals, a few obstacles loom especially large:

  • Major streets have been designed to maximize automobile throughput during times of peak demand (i.e. rush hour). As a result, they are so wide that children and the elderly have difficulty crossing, and when traffic is less intense, the width of the street leads drivers to travel at speeds that endanger pedestrians, cyclists, and other drivers.
  • Traffic clogs streets during the times of day when demand for travel is most intense, delaying surface transit and motorists while discouraging walking, bicycling, and social activity.
  • Parking — much of it subsidized or given away to a special class of government placard holders — induces traffic that chokes streets, and it consumes a huge amount of space, crowding out more economically productive uses.

Greenman bemoans “the zero-sum vision of some pro-bicycle advocates,” behind which, he says, lurks “a tacit assertion that in some parts of the city, cars, those corporate tools, have no claim to the road.” The part about corporate tools having no claim to the road is just a straw man, but the part about a “zero-sum vision” is interesting.

There’s a finite amount of street space in New York City, and if you’re serious about reducing traffic injuries, improving access to jobs, and maximizing the economic potential of our streets — if you want to tackle the obstacles that stand in the way of those goals — then you have to reallocate some of that limited space to walking, biking, and transit. Sidewalks need to be wider and traffic lanes need to be narrower to reduce injuries. Dedicated transit lanes and safe bike lanes need to be in place so people can travel without jamming the streets and delaying other people. In the spatial sense, street design and transportation policy really is a zero-sum game.

Spatial footprint of bikes, cars, and buses: In a city where street space is limited, you need to prioritize the most spatially efficient modes of travel, or else streets don't work well for anyone.

Former Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa puts it like this: “You can have a city that is very friendly to cars, or you can have a city that is very friendly to people. You cannot have both.” To pretend that you can just give something to every mode of transport and say you’ve made everyone’s lives better is to ignore a core truth about how city streets work.

If you’re talking about overall public well-being, though, then a “zero-sum vision” is nonsense. When you reduce subsidies for driving and reallocate space from cars to walking, biking, and transit, then you improve quality of life across the board. Traffic injuries will drop for everyone, including people who drive; more people will be able to get to a greater share of the city in a reasonable amount of time; lifeless streets will become more conducive for housing, retail, and work spaces. In a New York where tolls reflect the demand for driving and curbside parking is priced to maintain one or two open spaces per block, some of the biggest beneficiaries will be people who really do need to make a trip in a motor vehicle, commercial businesses making deliveries, and emergency responders. They will finally be unstuck from traffic.

At first, though, there would be plenty of griping, and I think this is the other sense of “zero-sum” that’s in play in Greenman’s piece. You can’t make changes to the streets without upsetting people. If you start paying for something that used to be free, it feels like a loss. If a motor vehicle lane along your car commute is converted into a bicycle lane or a bus lane, that feels like a loss. Even if fewer people are getting hurt and more people can get where they want to go, it may seem like the angry people cancel out the pleased people. Especially if you read a steady stream of letters to the Daily News editors.

Earlier this year, uber-blogger Matt Yglesias coined a helpful term to describe how Beltway pundits managed to apportion equal blame for the nation’s budget impasse between President Obama and Republicans in Congress: BipartisanThink. The core characteristic of BipartisanThink is that it prizes the appearance of being above the fray, regardless of what one may actually think of the positions being debated. Now, thanks to Greenman — who tweeted over the weekend that “there are lots of roads in New York I think are ugly or unsafe” — we know what BipartisanThink applied to New York City streets and transportation looks like.

Greenman asks, toward the end of his piece, “As we respect and even expand the territories of pedestrians and bicyclists, the question is: Do we do the same for the many who drive?” In New York, with its finite street space, the question is a non-sequitur. It’s an expression with no meaning except to occupy the middle-of-the-road, unintentionally calling for New York to be less like New York and more like Parsippany.

Parsippany: A place organized around the principle of expanding the territory for driving.
  • Joe R.

    I wrote this in response to Greenberg’s article but it bears repeating here:

    “This article totally misses the point. Most cycling and pedestrian advocacy groups recognize that some motor vehicles are indeed essential for New York City. This includes trucks which deliver goods, buses, paratransit, and emergency vehicles. It DOES NOT include trucks just passing through from NJ to LI because of our toll structure. It does not include taxis and livery vehicles which are mostly nonessential when you have as great a subway and bus system as we do. And it certainly does not include the vast majority of private automobiles. The article talks about cars letting people from well beyond the city participate in the life of the city. Well, we have a great commuter rail system. What’s wrong with driving to a park-and-ride in the suburbs, and then taking the train in? It’ll probably be faster than driving, and less expensive. Private automobiles are mainly what we rally against. They not only clog the roads unnecessarily, but parked cars are an aesthetic eyesore and a waste of valuable real estate. Delivery trucks take much longer to make their rounds as a result of congestion, and don’t have enough loading zones because of all the curbside space devoted to parked private automobiles. Moreover, parked vehicles close to intersections interfere with lines of sight, and thus present a safety hazard. So do cars backing into parking spots. If there’s any one thing we should do to make the city more livable, it would be to ban curbside vehicle storage. Curbside parking should only be allowed for commercial vehicles to load or unload, and even then the space within 75 to 100 feet of intersections should remain free of parked vehicle to preserve lines of sight .

    This article is even more disingenuous because of the Daily News waging an ongoing war against bikes. It’s thanks to heavy motor traffic that we create an environment hostile to both bikes and pedestrians. Is it any surprise then that both take liberties with the law for both personal safety and efficiency? The Daily News apparently thinks it’s OK for pedestrians to cross against the light, or at least they’ve never had an articles against it. And that’s an eminently logical stance because crossing against the light, provided you look first, is much safer because you don’t have to deal with turning cars. It’s also more efficient. With traffic lights on nearly block, if pedestrians waited at every red signal, it would easily take them twice as long to get where their going. The situation is no different for cyclists, and yet you chide them for breaking traffic laws and traffic controls which really wouldn’t even need to exist if not for the ridiculous volume of private automobiles.

    Bottom line-fix the problem of an excessive number of private autos in the city, and most of the other problems will go away. It’s no secret that in cities overseas where they made it harder and most costly to travel by private auto, things improved markedly for everyone. Just charging non-essential vehicles a fee of maybe $25 to enter NYC limits during peak hours would do wonders. NYC has the advantage of being one of the few places in the country where traveling by private auto is totally optional. Even if we banned private autos entirely from the five boroughs, people would have myriad other ways to get around.”

  • Charles_Siegel

    Or you could say the same thing in economic terms: If you give away any scarce, valuable resource for free, you will create a shortage of it by encouraging people to use it wastefully.

    We create a shortage of street space by giving it away for free to automobiles, so we create a shortage of street space for everyone – including pedestrians and bicyclists.

  • Nate (SLC)

    This is a very rational presentation of the issue. Which is why it just bounces off the Lizard Brain Calculus of how streets need to be used (as expressed by car huggers and their fellow travelers):

    People who own cars, or who have other people to drive them, are Winners. The world should be set up so that Winners get the rewards of Winning (preference for cars). Streets should be widened, cars should be allowed to go as fast as possible, parking should be overbuilt, etc.

    That is a Fair Result. Winners … winning.

    All other people trying to get from Point A to Point B are Losers. Provision should be made for them, but only on the basis of Pity. Money spent on mass transit and “complete streets” projects is being wasted on an anti-cultural and economically insignificant part of the population.

    Cars are what counts.

    The Lizard Brain Calculus I’ve described here is starting to lift. But it will still be with us for awhile – and it will always resist rational argument, because (of course) it’s not rational.

    — Nate (SLC)

  • Joe R.

    A corollary to the idea of “winners winning” is if you set society up so it’s much more difficult for rich people to use their expensive toys, then there’s less incentive to become excessively wealthy in order to buy the toys in the first place. That in turn bodes well for a society where wealth isn’t mostly in the hands of a few. The way we set up our streets now isn’t rational, especially in Manhattan. Most of the 5% who use private autos there regularly are indeed the wealthy and privileged. This is despite attempts by some City Council members to present congestion pricing as something which would hurt working class slobs (most of whom don’t drive into Manhattan). If we make it difficult or impossible for someone to get around by chauffeured auto, then the incentive to earn enough money to afford the chauffeured auto disappears. Same thing if build affordable housing in currently upper class neighborhoods. The incentive to make enough to afford to live in these neighborhoods, presumably so you don’t have to be among working class people, largely disappears. All this can work far better to ensure more equal distribution of wealth than all the income transfer schemes combined. Make no mistake-a healthy society needs the rich, middle class, and poor. The latter two groups need something to strive for, What society doesn’t need is to have most of the wealth concentrated in the hands of relatively few billionaires. It’s better to have 1000 millionaires than one billionaire.

  • Well done, Ben. The two sets of bullets in the middle are just about the best statement of the goals and challenges of our movement I’ve ever read.

    Sorry for the loss of your weekend! But it was worth it.

  • Mark Walker

    The “straw man” cited by Ben isn’t the only one. The Daily News piece conflates necessary motor vehicle traffic (delivery trucks, garbage trucks, ambulances, and on-demand car services such as taxis) with private cars (which largely duplicate the functions of the subway and bus systems and present obstacles to necessary traffic). Joshua Greenman wants people to believe that if a motorist can’t drive to work, food won’t be delivered to supermarkets, garbage won’t be collected, and old folks can’t get to the doctor. I think it’s a deliberately disingenuous argument, a transparent shell game.

  • J

    One only has to look at a single avenue in NYC to understand the notion that NYC’s transportation system is decidedly not balanced. Citing Miami as a good point of comparison is a farce. Sorry, Mr. Greenman, we strive for higher standards than Miami.

  • ADN

    Wow, this is an outstanding and enlightening piece, Ben.

    I think you’ve touched on the fundamental problem. For decades New York City did not treat transportation as a serious realm of policy. Crime, housing, jobs, education — these were the issues at the top of the civic agenda in NYC. Transportation was basically background noise. Hell, Giuliani proposed getting rid of the entire DOT in the early 1990s. He wanted to just fold it all into DDC.

    For Josh Greenman, his fellow tabloids journalists and many many other New Yorkers, transportation still is not a serious and legitimate realm of policy. Transportation is something that every New Yorker can be an expert in. (“Take the D to Washington Square. Switch to the F…” Or, as per Josh’s op/ed: “We need ambulances and trucks. They are useful!”).

    You — and most of the people who hang out here on Streetsblog — think of transportation and planning as a serious and critical realm of urban policy. We’ve looked at case studies and best practices. We’ve really thought about what streets are for and how NYC might go about making them work best. This kind of thinking is completely foreign to Greenman and his colleagues.

    For guys like Josh, the way to show Seriousness is, as Ben notes, to position oneself as the Centrist, above the fray, fair and balanced. In this essay, Josh seeks to show that he is a bi-streetisan thinker. Josh is unable or unwilling to view NYC streets through a policy lens. And without having any care or understanding for policy, he is left only with a political lens. There are these constituencies — bikers, drivers, walkers, bus riders. And they are fighting over resources. Josh and his ilk are unable to see anything else but this.

  • Jesse

    This is a great analysis of the issue. Livable Streets isn’t about taking something from motorists and handing it over to non-motorists; it’s about maximizing the efficiency of the transportation networks. It’s hard to have a real debate about these issues because the two sides are speaking different languages.

  • JamesR

    “NYC has the advantage of being one of the few places in the country where traveling by private auto is totally optional.”

    For large swaths of the city, yes. But city-wide? No. Getting from my NW Bronx neighborhood to say, Queens in a timely manner by anything but car is a massive pain in the ass. You also forget about reverse commuters. Not saying I like it, but the current built environment and transportation configuration is what it is.

    “Even if we banned private autos entirely from the five boroughs, people would have myriad other ways to get around.”

    While the livable streets movement is a real and good thing, this proposal is pie in the sky. Ban them from Manhattan? Sure. Folks in Eastern Queens and Staten Island (places that in all honesty should probably be suburban municipalities rather than city neighborhoods) will never go for it.

  • Anonymous

    This should go under the “About” menu for Streetsblog.

    It’s really great to have this articulated so clearly and, given the scope of the subject, concisely.

  • This is one of the best pieces to ever appear on Streetsblog. Bravo.

  • ADN

    I agree.

  • moocow

    I can’t tell you how many times this argument has made me nearly flip my lid, and have never been able to put it this well, thanks Mark.

  • Thanks for the thumbs up everyone. I was a little worried this would come across as a rehash of ideas that Streetsblog had already gone over, but it’s been a really long time since we’ve done a back-to-basics post about core principles. Maybe we should do stuff like this more often.

  • Joe R.

    What I said still applies in large swaths of the city. If you were to ban personal autos from the city, you wouldn’t ban them from the entire city at once. You might start with the Manhattan CBD, then work your way north and south until they were banned from the entire island a few years later. And then in the outer boroughs you first ban autos from the most congested parts, and work your way outward from those. At the same time, you expand public transit and bike share so everyone is within a mile of a subway station as originally proposed by the second subway plans in the 1930s. I know full well that right now there are some trips which are highly inconvenient except by personal auto. With a plan in place to fix that, you could eventually ban cars citiwide over a period of maybe 10 or 15 years. In the meantime, we could give serious disincentives to auto use where other options exist, such as commuting from the suburbs into Manhattan. I’ve heard upwards of 50% of the traffic in the outer boroughs is suburban car commuters going into Manhattan. That could easily be addressed right now with a congestion charge and a ban in Manhattan on curbside parking.

  • Joe R.

    I’ll also add the second picture from the bottom vividly illustrates the concept of designing streets to move as many people as possible, as opposed to as many cars as possible. Urban streets in dense areas need to be designed to move as many people as possible. In nearly all cases this indicates we need to allocate more space away from motor vehicles and towards pedestrians and cyclists.

  • It’s too bad that photo is deceiving because the field of view is different in each of the three photos. Maybe it’s time for someone to recreate it in a more accurate manner.

  • Mark Walker

    Thank you. I hope it makes up for me being a doofus the rest of the time.

  • Ian Turner
  • Anonymous

    great post, ben! i’ll post a better link to this nyc version tomorrow (scroll down)
    http://www.msaudcolumbia.org/summer/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/TRANSALT.jpg

  • ? Referring to cars (not motorists) as “those who dominate the roads” is a revealing turn of phrase, especially for a city where most of the population doesn’t drive. I’ve found that the dashboard perspective is rampant amongst NYC’s tabloid and teevee media, who are clearly out of touch with how regular folks live (even as they market themselves as hometown newspapers).

    There’s nothing reflexive about being anti-car. We live in a culture where automobiles are so relentlessly promoted that it takes a good deal of consideration and fortitude to take a stand against them. This is why Greenman has to concoct the oxymoronic phrase “tacit assertion” (on behalf of “some” bicycle advocates) to characterize his chimeric anti-car movement.

  • david

    The idea that the car is a rich mans toy is silly. This is the USA we invented the car. I have a car and 4 bikes. I might drive to ikea or a house out of the city. I’m not evil. I support improved streets.

  • Joe R.

    When I say expensive toys, I mean it in the literal sense. You may drive to ikea, but unlike some wealthy people with expensive cars you probably don’t expect to be able to travel at highway speeds on streets full of pedestrians and cyclists, and to have a parking spot right in front of wherever you’re going. Your car is transportation, their car is a toy. I’m fine with rich people having their toys, but not with the expectation that the masses should suffer so they can use their toys as they see fit. In a true democracy we probably would have already banned or severely restricted personal automobiles in a place like Manhattan because their benefits to the 5% who use them are greatly outweighed by the problems they cause everyone else. That includes people traveling on buses, delivery trucks making their rounds, and emergency vehicles responding to calls for help. All of these operate far less efficiently than they could because a minority of people who feel they matter more than everyone else think they should be able to drive and park wherever they want. Those people are the problem, not people like you.

    Just because I strongly support transit, biking, and walking doesn’t mean I’m necessarily anti-car. Cars have their places, but in the urban core is most definitely not one of them. To me that makes no more sense than having a subway in rural Nebraska.

  • R

    Poor Parsippany, my hometown 🙂 It’s not all that bad, some areas are denser and grid-ier (http://goo.gl/maps/x8rfU), I was even able to walk to the convenience store alone when I was 6.

    As a New Yorker and a biker, though, I heartily agree with the article.

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