Vacca Watch: Traffic and Parking Über Alles

This double Q & A in City Hall News with Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and City Council Transportation Committee chair James Vacca has a lot of revealing moments.

Image: CBS 2

There’s Vacca’s desire for better cross-Bronx bus service, combined with his assessment that the MTA will have to “do more with less” and his observation that “I don’t sense at this point in time that there is a groundswell of support” for either congestion pricing or bridge tolls. Add it all together, and it paints a bleak picture: The transit system is inadequate, it’s going to have even less funding to work with, and even though we know we can do something about it, political leaders are going to sit on their hands because there’s no “groundswell of support” for the solutions.

Then there’s the question, “Have new bike lanes and pedestrian plazas won over New Yorkers, or are they seen as a temporary fad?” Sadik-Khan reached right for the numbers: 56 percent public approval for bike lanes, 40 percent improvement in pedestrian safety on streets with bike lanes, 50 percent reduction in injuries to all users on streets with protected bike lanes.

Vacca reached for outdated theories about traffic, unsupported assumptions about bike lanes, and an abiding belief that car parking is essential for commerce:

I do think the question people have to ask when they have a pedestrian-plaza proposal, and it’s a fair question: If you omit traffic here, where does traffic go, and what is the impact of the diversion on those surrounding streets? Is there a need for more pedestrian-friendly streets in this city?…On the bike lanes I think you have to look on a case-by-case basis. Perhaps in some communities, bike lanes have had a positive impact, and in other communities, we hear the bike lanes are not used. And why are there bike lanes that are not used omitting lanes of parking that could be available for the small-business community or commercial tenants? I think on bike lanes, neighborhood input becomes very important.

Does anyone who thinks seriously about transportation still believe that traffic flows like a river? That diverting it from one place will cause it to shift someplace else? There are piles of empirical studies showing this is not the case.

In addition to the classic NYC example of the vanishing traffic that followed the collapse of the old Miller Highway, we now have much more recent proof from Times Square. Data from millions of taxi trips shows that travel times improved after the Midtown plazas were implemented. As much as skeptics would like to pretend that data doesn’t exist, it is powerful evidence that traffic is not a force of nature.

And where are these unused bike lanes obliterating rows of parking? Do they exist in the real world? The new bike lanes that are generating big growth in the number of cyclists are protected by rows of parked cars.

I can think of one recent bike project that eliminated a parking lane — the Flushing Avenue bike lane near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The city in fact chose this configuration in response to neighborhood input — the businesses in the Navy Yard said they had no problem with the conversion of parking lanes to bike lanes. I invite Vacca to come on down to Flushing Avenue any morning and join the swarms of cyclists who ride it every day.

  • ddartley

    “Does anyone who thinks seriously about transportation still believe that traffic flows like a river? That diverting it from one place will cause it to shift someplace else?”

    Maybe not, but the vast majority of people in the U.S. who make traffic policy do, and it directly informs their policy decisions.  The vast majority of the news/opinion media thinks the same way.  They all seem to operate under the assumption that if you close off any car traffic space, car traffic will continue unabated to try to go to that same place, and when it can’t get there, will go to the nearest available alternative.  I think it’s going to be a very long time before a large segment of U.S. transpo policy makers come to understand that those things are not true, and often the opposites are true. 

  • Random Commenter

    NYC livable streets advocates need to wrap their minds around this, ASAP:

    Jimmy Vacca is a Buddha who was sent to NYC to show us what transportation policy is going to look like on Jan. 1, 2014. Jimmy Vacca’s views are, very likely, a perfect representation of the transportation policies of the next mayoral administration. In fact, a Mayor De Blasio or Liu would probably consider Jimmy Vacca a leading contender to be NYC’s next DOT commissioner. Commissioner Vacca. How do you like the sound of that?

    We can rip on Vacca and call him a moron. But, really, livable streets advocates need to be finding ways to educate him and the liberal Democratic establishment that is about to retake the mayor’s half of City Hall. We need to help these guys understand that progressive transportation policy is not a Bloomberg thing. It’s a think that all kinds of New Yorkers want, need and enjoy.

    As part of this effort, we need to do a much better job of playing the high-level NYC politics game. Primarily, we need to find ways to build and broaden the livable streets coalition beyond Brownstone Brooklyn and the Upper West Side. The livable streets coalition needs to look like all of NYC. The political establishment needs to know that we represent the entire city. If I were Paul Steely White at Transportation Alternatives — who is a true American hero, btw — I’d have 50% of my staff working on preparing for Jan. 1, 2014 right now. I’d have a giant “January 1, 2014” banner hanging in the office and a countdown clock to the next mayor.

    Of course, I will never have the skills, abilities and Aryan good looks of Paul Steely White. So, the point is moot.

  • Vaccauous

    I think it’s pretty clear by this point that Vacca is an unmitigated disaster as chair of the Council’s Transportation Committee. Can he become chair of the Cars Committee, and let Tish James or Brad Lander or Gale Brewer or somebody else who understands the importance of transit, walking and cycling to a better urban environment take the reins?

  • MFS

    If traffic is not a river, what is it?  Having a good metaphor for induced traffic would be helpful.

  • Well, if he wants a groundswell, then you need to give him one.

  • Jeff

    I go with the rat analogy to explain traffic induction.  If you have a problem with rats going through your garbage, do you:

    A)  Put out additional rat food so that the rats will eat that food instead of going through your garbage (i.e. adding additional capacity to lighten the load on existing infrastructure)?  or,

    B)  Keep your garbage covered and generally out of reach of the rats (e.g. road diets, repurposing space, etc.)?

    Option A is just going to get you more rats, whereas option B might actually start to chip away at your rat (or traffic) problem.

  • Ian Turner

    In New York, traffic is like sand in the desert. It covers every part of the realm, and if you try to make more space for it you will just discover more of it. 

  •  It’s a bunch of people travelling. People who adapt to conditions by making different choices, as opposed to water, which does not.

  • vnm

    We could also work on convincing Rahm Emmanuel that becoming Mayor of NYC would be a promotion.

  • vnm

    We could also work on convincing Rahm Emmanuel that becoming Mayor of NYC would be a promotion.

  • Mark Walker

    Forecast for the next mayoral campaign: It won’t be pro vs. con on livable streets. It will be two chimps one-upping each other to see who can be the most negative on livable streets. The only possible favorable outcome would be both of them getting hit by distracted drivers.

  • Station45025

    A gas. (rimshot)

  • Fat Man

    Traffic is a fat man. Buying the fat man a bigger belt isn’t the solution to his weight problem just as creating more roadway space for cars isn’t a solution for traffic congestion.

    The fat man needs to eat less food. The traffic-congested city needs to have less cars in it. To make it possible to have less cars, we need to give New Yorkers other safe, convenient transportation choices. Buses and bikes are the roughage that the fat man needs to keep things moving.

    OK… maybe I took that metaphor too far.

  • J:Lai

    The fact is that transportation is the #1 most important issue in NYC, but because it is complicated people get easily distracted by things like terrorism, tourists, the Yankees, or the caricatures put forward by places like CBS2 News.

    Despite the tragic legacy of Robert Moses, transportation planning can’t be effectively done at the community level.  It takes a top-down vision with the will and the means to implement it, sometimes over the objection of local residents and businesses.

  • Jay

    I wish the advocacy community would stop using statements about traffic “disappearing.”  That’s not really what happens, and most people have a visceral, negative response when advocates use those terms.
    There aren’t problems with congestion because people make other choices and the system adapts.  That’s what the advocates clearly mean, but it comes across much differently.  To say that traffic “disappears” would mean, to a small business owner, that people aren’t coming anymore – a worrisome prospect!  To older transportation planners and traffic engineers, it sounds ignorant or lazy, omitting the serious details about how diversions happen and what other changes in the transportation network might be necessary or desirable (either to mitigate impacts, or leverage the change in behavior).
    To be taken seriously, it is important to put a little more thought into explaining WHERE the “traffic” goes, instead of making silly statements about it “disappearing.”

  • Rob

    Seeing bikes as complementing mass transit (via bike sharing) is a good way to get people like Vacca onboard. The StreetFilm on Hangzhou, with bikesharing kiosks at every metro station, drive this point home.

  • Joe R.

    Agreed 100% about the top down approach.  We’ve had community boards involved in road planning decisions for way too long, and the end result is the mess we currently have.  Transportation planning is a very technical subject with no room for rank amateurs to play a big part in the decision-making process.  I cringe whenever I hear community boards saying stuff like we want a traffic light or stop sign here, or don’t want a bike lane there.   Sorry, but those are things for traffic engineers to decide.  Maybe the administration can set a general overall goal, such as more trips by bike or mass transit, fewer by car, but that’s it.  Let transportation planners have a blank slate to do what needs to be done, even if some local communities object.  Robet Moses had the right idea, but unfortunately embraced the wrong mode for a city like New York.  Had he been a fan of mass transit and/or cycling, today he would be hailed as a hero, and no place in NYC would be more than 10 blocks from a subway station.

    Sure, there will be big losers in a top-down implementation, no arguing that, but on balance the city comes out ahead.  I can’t say the same with community boards who put their parochial interests ahead of the big picture.  The present highly disconnected cycling network is a perfect example.  Had JSK had a blank slate to do what she wanted, we wouldn’t be hearing complaints about “street space wasted on unused bike lanes”.

  • Experimental Biker

    We gave him one at the December hearing on bicycles where livable streets supporters packed the room and overflow rooms, but he gave the microphone to Marty Markowitz so he could do a song parody.

  • Jay

    Joe R. , Robert Moses appears to have been prepared to do more for bicycling, and he was the catalyst for the Kissena greenway.  There’s every reason to believe he would have continued to work with greenways as a natural combination of parks and transportation, but New York just didn’t embrace it.  By and large, Moses mostly did what was favored by the majority of the people (especially those who didn’t live in the way).
    He would have done more for transit, too, but he wasn’t allowed to extend his empire into transit.  He helped with the City’s acquisition of the LIRR branch that now serves the A, and seems to have made a play to set up an authority – that he would have been in charge of – to handle rail.  He was rebuffed.

  • Absolutely love that comment – best description of the effects of induced demand I think I’ve ever seen.

  • Shifty

    OK. I’ll start using the term “mode shift” instead. That’ll win ’em over.

  • I wish that ignorant politicians with no concern for the public good were a temporary fad.


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