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.
AARON NAPARSTEK is the founder and former editor-in-chief of Streetsblog. Based in Brooklyn, New York, Naparsteks journalism, advocacy and community organizing work has been instrumental in growing the bicycle network, removing motor vehicles from parks, and developing new public plazas, car-free streets and life-saving traffic-calming measures across all five boroughs. Naparstek is the author of "Honku: The Zen Antidote for Road Rage" (Villard, 2003), a book of humorous haiku poetry inspired by the endless motorist sociopathy observed from his apartment window. Prior to launching Streetsblog, Naparstek worked as an interactive media producer, pioneering some of the Web's first music web sites, online communities, live webcasts and social networking services. Naparstek is currently in Cambridge with his wife and two young sons where he is enjoying a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design. He has a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and a bachelor's degree from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Naparstek is a co-founder of the Park Slope Neighbors community group and the Grand Army Plaza Coalition. You can find more of his work here: http://www.naparstek.com.