High-Tech Midtown Traffic System Will Ignore Pedestrians and Buses

From inside DOT's traffic control center, engineers will now be able to tweak Midtown traffic lights in response to real-time conditions. They'll only be getting information about automobiles, however. Photo: ##http://www.dnainfo.com/20110718/midtown/citys-new-hightech-traffic-system-hopes-break-midtown-gridlock##Jill Colvin/DNAinfo.##

The Department of Transportation is rolling out a response to Midtown traffic congestion that is as high-tech as it is intellectually outdated. Microwave sensors, video cameras, and E-ZPass readers will gather traffic information in real-time and beam the information to the DOT’s Queens command center, where engineers will instantly adjust the traffic lights as needed in an attempt to fine-tune the workings of the traffic grid.

All that technology, however, will only measure the movement of automobiles through Midtown. Moreover, new turn signals and turning lanes are being added to dozens of intersections in the affected area, between Second and Sixth Avenues and 42nd and 57th Streets. That could mean time and space taken away from other modes and given to automobiles, counter to the city’s transportation goals under PlaNYC.

According to a DOT spokesperson, there is no mechanism currently in place to measure pedestrian volumes in the “Midtown in Motion” area, despite the huge number of people on Midtown sidewalks. Neither is there any transit signal priority, a system that grants a few extra seconds of green light to buses, each of which carries far more people than a few automobiles. Both of those features could theoretically be added to the system at a later date, said the DOT spokesperson.

In the meantime, however, DOT’s highly capable engineers will be told to solve a problem based only on information about motor vehicles. If they wanted to balance the needs of drivers against pedestrians or bus riders in real time, much less prioritize the latter two, they wouldn’t have the tools. Bus riders might benefit incidentally from a bump in overall traffic speeds, but couldn’t be given the extra priority they deserve.

More permanent changes also prioritize traffic capacity over all else. At 53 intersections, turning lanes will be added to the cross-town street, replacing on-street parking, loading zones, and no standing areas. In some cases, what’s being replaced might be important for pedestrian safety, whether by protecting pedestrians on the sidewalk or maintaining visibility at intersections, or needed by local businesses. Notably, the media’s same hyped-up fears about any loss of parking for a bicycle or pedestrian project have not appeared when the space remains dedicated for the automobile.

Dedicated turn signals are also being added to 23 intersections. Light timing is zero-sum; a turn phase has to come from somewhere else. Though DOT’s spokesperson emphasized that pedestrian times would remain within accepted minimum standards, he would not say whether adding turn signals would take away time from pedestrian crossings.

While DOT assiduously requests community board support for bike or pedestrian projects to go forward, the “Midtown in Motion” proposal seemingly went through no public review at all. That’s not because these changes are uniformly uncontroversial. In February of this year, for example, Manhattan Community Board 2 unanimously passed a resolution disapproving of the addition of both turn signals and turning bays on Houston Street, believing that the changes would make conditions more hazardous for pedestrians. Officials who express the utmost concern that all transportation projects earn the support of the local community are silent.

In announcing the new traffic management system, Mayor Bloomberg brought back the transportation rhetoric of the bad old days. “Midtown is the heart of New York City’s economy, traffic is its lifeblood, and we’re about to get that blood flowing even more efficiently using communications technology,” said the mayor, according to a report in DNAinfo.

Of course, a 2006 report by the Partnership for New York City found that only a third of all people traveling to Manhattan below 60th Street came in cars, trucks, or taxis. Midtown is an unparalleled business district not because of road access or traffic management, but thanks to its unparalleled transit capacity and dense, walkable development.

Moreover, the city’s Midtown traffic strategy could very well work against itself. Transportation analyst Charles Komanoff said that by his rough estimate (neither he nor Streetsblog has access to the details of the system), if “Midtown in Motion” adds the equivalent of five percent to the area’s traffic capacity, it would only speed up traffic by an average of 0.75 percent across the Central Business District. That slight speed increase would draw around 1,000 additional drivers into the CBD, slowing things down again. In the end, Komanoff guessed that the plan might only increase CBD daytime speeds from their current average of 9.5 miles per hour to 9.54 mph.

That’s a negligible reward for drivers who clog Midtown streets, and one that comes with no apparent benefit to those who are the true life force of Manhattan’s Central Business District.

  • Ty

    Some good points above… but this really is a “proof of concept” trial (regardless of the rhetoric).  If it doesn’t work to improve the flow of cars, it’s seems to follow that a more complex version wouldn’t help the flow of pedestrians and transit vehicles either.

    Also, the “would draw around 1,000 additional drivers into the CBD” is just a pointless statement.  Creating gridlock (purposefully or through neglect) to reduce the number of drivers is bad traffic policy.  The goal should be BOTH free-flowing traffic AND increased alternate modes of transport.  Jeesh.

  • Jeremy

    Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think they’ll ever build a machine that directs turning cars into crowds of pedestrians legally crossing with the green as well as an NYPD traffic cop.

  • NattyB

    Hahahah, this is awesome. 

    Have any of these engineers walked around Midtown during lunch break?

    You get a million peds hanging over the curb waiting for traffic to pass, so the peds can cross the side street and get to Pret a Manger or Hale N Hearty. 

    So we’re going to preference the movements of the handful of cars at each side street light (like, the traffic at 46th, trying to cross 6th ave, for example), and ignore the, no joke, hundreds of peds at each light. 

    Hello!  As soon as you relieve congestion, you create more congestion.

  • Given the source of that quote, the idea is certainly not to embrace gridlock but to point out the lack of any road pricing in a supposedly high-tech and futuristic traffic planning scheme. Without a pricing component, you are always “creating gridlock” through neglect, whether you are physically widening roads with asphalt or virtually widening them with longer signal phases. Demand will always catch up, making these technologies more a gee whiz sideshow than long-term answers to the diverse and severe problems of regulating motor vehicle traffic.

  • Anonymous

     “Light timing is zero-sum; a turn phase has to come from somewhere else.”
    Good point.  These same engineers should also be able to fly by pulling on their shoelaces hard enough. Common sense would dictate, right? 

    I think Komanoff is correct that the results will be noise level at best, but I think he is being too generous in his guess that they’ll be able to increase flow even that much.

  • Joe R.

    I agree here, Ty.  As both a pedestrian and a cyclist, I WANT traffic to be free-flowing for the simple reason stopped cars create a lot more pollution than moving cars.  Also, if delivery trucks get to their destination faster, that means lower delivery costs, and in theory lower prices.  The trick is how to do this.  Just retiming lights isn’t the answer, no matter how sophisticated the system.  If this new system works, eventually word will get out, and enough cars will come in to bring traffic speds down again.  Congestion pricing and/or tolling all bridges seems a better answer, along with completely eliminating curb-side parking from Manhattan, perhaps also much of the outer boroughs.

    Longer term perhaps it makes sense to implement a VMT fee, with the fees being higher when you drive on streets during peak times.  All of these ideas will help maintain free-flowing traffic, while also giving an incentive to use other modes besides personal autos.  The ultimate goal should be to eventually drop traffic levels citiwide to the point that traffic lights aren’t needed at all.  Traffic lights are inherently antipedestiran and anticyclist in that they force both to wait for cars.  If you need a traffic light to allow pedestrians to cross a street because traffic is too heavy and/or too fast, it is only because you have failed in the primary goal of slowing traffic or reducing it to levels which allow gaps to cross.  The majority of heavy traffic should be directed to grade-separated highways as a matter of policy, not to local streets as is currently the case.

  • Streetsman

    I don’t think the signals are what’s causing the traffic in midtown – it’s all the dang cars! They should be using technology like this to control the flow of traffic into the gateways of the most congested areas, not to increase the flow. If the problem is the patient’s blood pressure, the answer is to thin the blood, not to raise the heart rate!

  • Mark

    Gee DOT, Thanks for more of that excellent child killing traffic plague that we all love.

  • Ian Dutton

    You folks have it all wrong. In fact, it is the pedestrians that are slowing down the cars through their annoying habit of wanting to be on the other side of the street. If we can cause walk-gridlock, then maybe we can discourage walking enough so as to protect the safety and quality of life for those city-lifeblood-givers, the auto drivers.

  • Will

    What a ridiculous waste of money and indicative of JSK and Bloomberg’s failure to address the relatively cheap but politically difficult options to reduce traffic congestion in NYC.  Keep the cars out of midtown in the first place through:
    – Eliminate lane reversals.  It is CRAZY that lanes are reversed at the QMT and WBB during the morning rush to allow more traffic into the city, and we pay police to implement this.  huh?  And yet you will pay to implement a system to speed traffic through midtown while you won’t save money by eliminating a misguided system to allow more traffic into Manhattan.  Really?
    –  Bridge tolls.  See other atricles for the $31 billion lost by eliminating tolls on the East/Harlem River bridges.  While that is an unrealistic figure based on VN rates, it is ridiculous that it is cheaper to drive to midtown across a free bridge than to take the subway.
    – RPP.  Residential Permit Parking will take away the free parking on side streets tha gives those who drive into midtown a free place to park (see comment on cheaper to drive than to take mass transit).  Their efforts to increase meter rates without limiting free rsidential parking only increase those trolling for free residential parking.  Side note: by limiting parking on residential streets to those who register and insure their cars in NYC and pay local taxes, local tax revenue would likely increase.  WHY DOES NO ONE DISCUSS THIS?
    – Two-way tolls at all crossings.  Eliminate toll-shopping and keep those who traverse lower Manhattan for a free exit via the Holland tunnel.  Keep traffic on the highways outside of Manhattan instead of the free shortcuts though it.
    And these are the easy ones.  Other ones ae:
    – Taxi stands.  Keep taxis from trolling for fares and increasing traffic.
    – Placard abuse.  Cops do not deserve a free pass to park wherever/whenever.  Man up and face the blatant abuse by those who feel they are above the law.
    – Street fairs. Why do we pay police overtime for fairs that take business away from local retail and only are attended by tourists or by newcomers to the city who don’t realize how detrimental they are to the city.  Are any of the stand operators really city residents?

    JSK is a bike advocate freak more interested in taking away street space for bikers than addressing the real issues of traffic congestion and MTA funding.  Mike do us a favor an can her a get someone in place who gets the bigger picture with the will to take on the placard abusers and the outer-borough nay-sayers (and pathetic Deb Glick) who favor driving into the city across free bridges.

  • As pointed out already by other posters: the only way to lower the traffic congestion is to lower the number of cars. No technological wizardry will help. In particular when the city is known for people blatantly breaking traffic rules and disobeying traffic signals and blocking the grid. This is just a waste of taxpayers money, something NYC really can’t afford.

    Remember the times when HOV was enforced for cars coming to the city? No traffic!

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