It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

Broadway, New York, NY. Photo: Clarence Eckerson

Quick thought experiment…

Imagine for a moment that New York City has a toll system where there are no free rides. No reason for drivers to toll shop, clogging up the routes to free bridges. There is, effectively, a uniform fare for every car trip into the incredibly crowded center of town, revenue from which is plowed into the transit system.

Now imagine scrambling the tolls so some crossings are free and others are not, bringing about all this horrible stuff:

  • Massive traffic jams every morning and evening in some of the city’s most densely-populated neighborhoods
  • Heavy trucks barreling through neighborhood streets, killing several people every year, to avoid paying the one-way toll on the Verrazano
  • Severe and immediate slowdowns on dozens of bus lines, with hundreds of thousands of passengers losing time stewing in traffic
  • Transit fares backed by tens of billions of dollars in debt, guaranteeing future fare hikes and constraining the capacity to operate more service
  • Pressure to design streets to handle peak-hour car volumes, to the detriment of safe walking and biking

No governor in his right mind would choose to switch to this completely messed up arrangement.

End of thought experiment, back to reality: It looks like Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature are not going to plug the gap in the MTA capital plan, and by extension, they’re going to condemn New York to at least a few more years of epic traffic dysfunction.

  • JudenChino

    How pissed must Doug Gordon be that that isn’t a picture of Varrick and Canal Street.

  • Joe R.

    When I see pictures like this I have trouble wrapping my head around why NYC even allowed things to get this bad in the first place, and why we continue to tolerate insane levels of motor vehicles when a supermajority doesn’t drive regularly in four of the five boroughs. Seriously, when streets first started to look like that, which may well have been as far back as the 1920s, NYC should have said enough is enough, and banned private automobiles from city limits. From before I was born, there has been talk of doing exactly that, particularly in Manhattan.

    Nobody benefits from the status quo, least of all those who drive for a living. And yet we let a small, entitled minority of drivers dictate city policy. There’s little or no benefit to the city at all allowing private automobiles but so many downsides. In order to do move forward, we need an accounting of exactly how much it really costs NYC in terms of the damage motor vehicles create. We have wasted street space, costs of emergency services, extra street repairs, plus the health effects of air and noise pollution. Then there’s also the less quantifiable but very real effects of creating a stressful environment of multi-ton vehicles moving at high speeds around people not protected from them.

    Current plans like MoveNY are a good first step but ultimately we seriously need to evaluate whether or not large swaths of the city should remain accessible to private automobiles at all. I think the math will point us in the direction of not allowing such access, but nevertheless we need a real study of the matter. Politics shouldn’t enter into it, either, nor should the desires of the 1%. If it turns out to make fiscal sense to totally ban private autos and some other classes of vehicles from much of the city, then it should be done without prejudice or censure. NYC is likely spending a small fortune to accommodate a minority who insist on driving, even when it costs them more and takes longer than the alternatives.

  • Larry Littlefield

    So to think toll shopping and traffic congestion are the extent of this disaster? Hardly.

    This is 20 years of selling off the common future coming home to roost. The MTA Capital plan is mostly about maintenance, and maintenance has been borrowed for since the 1995-1999 plan. Now all the money is going to debts and pensions and there is less and less for actual transportation and investment.

    We’re talking about those who plan on being here in 10 years being left with a collapsing transportation system and economy as Generation Greed heads for Florida.

    In any event, I’ve been rolling out analyses of various state and local government services based on my compilation of 2012 Census of Governments data from the U.S. Census Bureau. I just put up the post on infrastructure finance. It is here.

    Read it and weep. Or better yet, everyone who wasn’t paying attention for 20 years, get really, really angry.

  • Kevin Love

    Perhaps the most serious negative effect of motor vehicle use in New York City is the deaths and injuries due to the lethal poisons in motor vehicle pollution. The best evidence that I’ve been able to find shows that:

    1,421 people in New York City are poisoned and killed by car and truck drivers every year.

    5,491 people in New York City are poisoned every year by car and truck drivers and injured so seriously that they have to be hospitalized.

    Children in New York City experience 3,876 acute bronchitis episodes every year because they are poisoned by car and truck drivers.

    Children in New York City experience 219,640 asthma symptom days every year because they are poisoned by car and truck drivers.

  • Clarence

    I love that photo. One of my all time favorites. Oh, it actually isn’t a photo, it is a still of some video I shot.

  • NYC traffic is the strongest argument against the rational actor theory in existence.

  • Robert Moses effectively abolished New York’s planning system and hijacked resources that could have produced a better system more or less continually between 1924 and 1968: The current system is largely a creation of his obsession with facilitating use of the private car. The system was a disaster right from the start. For example, workers were busy widening the Queens end of the Long Island Expressway to cope with the induced demand even while the outer bits of the expressway in Suffolk and Nassau counties were under construction.

  • Alexander Vucelic


    just skimmed your report – nice work. If we simply stopped expanding mass motoring ( VMT per capita peaked in 1998, VMT overall peaked in 2095 ) ; there would be enough funds for maintence.

    plus expanding capacity of low cost , low impact transport is cheaper than maintaining car capacity. For example, the tiny bike lane on lower Second avenue is effectively 1/2 a car lane width and yet often carries more people faster than an entire traffic lane. Obvious solution to congestion – turn a full 11′ wide car lane into a bike lane and INDUCE bike Demand 🙂

  • Komanoff

    You have it exactly backwards.

    NYC traffic is the rational outcome of a system that charges people mere pennies (if that) for each dollar of congestion costs and other damages that their driving imposes on others.

    What is indeed irrational, if you will, is the inability and/or refusal of our political system to internalize those damage costs via an orderly and proportionate tolling regime. (Though that too can be “explained.”)

  • Joe R.

    One thing I’m finding really puzzling here is why countries like China and India, both of which had the opportunity to completely bypass the private automobile, are still choosing to embrace it. Sure, to its credit China has built plenty of HSR and subways, but why bother building highways at all, particularly in a country where only a minority will ever be able to afford an automobile?

    Another thing worth noting after reading your blog post is that Americans were sold a fake bill of goods. All those utopian visions of being able to go coast-to-coast non-stop at 100 mph on ribbons of concrete conveniently left out at least five important things:

    1) What happens to all those cars when they reach their destinations?

    2) Seriously, no matter if you don’t hit traffic, a car is a decidedly cramped, uncomfortable way to travel long distances compared to a train. Bathroom and meal breaks necessitate average speed killing stops.

    3) How do you power it all? We thought we would have an endless supply of cheap oil. Nothing is infinite, but that fact was again conveniently ignored.

    4) Those depictions of “the city of future” never bothered to show something city dwellers are all too familiar with, namely the exhaust byproducts of all those automobiles.

    5) Driving is only a quick means of travel if very few use it to get around. When large numbers start to drive, progress drops to a snail’s pace.

    The bottom line is they grossly exaggerated the benefits and glossed over all the negatives.

    And of course those elevated walkways, which at least may have helped lessen the carnage caused by cars, were never built, not that it would have made the idea of cars in cities any less preposterous. The bottom line is you can have lots of cars or lots of people. When you have both on the same level, the problems become virtually unsolvable. That’s the legacy Moses left us today.

    On the LIE, they actually wanted to add yet another lane in Queens in the 1990s. This time local opposition stopped it because it would have meant people losing their front yards, all to save Long Island car commuters an estimated 30 seconds. The chickens have finally come home to roost. The only solutions which have a prayer of working are going to involve those getting large numbers of people out of their cars.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The transit system was rebuilt with a generation in charge that grew up with it, saw it decline, and restored it.

    I can’t help but think that the generation in charge now grew up without it, doesn’t care about it (or roads or the future), and is just looking to cash in and move on.

    Meanwhile you see younger, poorer generations flocking to mass transit. They are being cheated out of the lives they want but what Generation Greed is doing.

    Whatever we choose now, the recent past cannot be wished away.

    In any event, download the spreadsheets. You can think about things yourself and draw your own conclusions. People like the pictures, but the spreadsheets are sort of the point. I could have written 100 pages instead of 20. Others can do more

  • Komanoff

    Kevin, what’s your source?

  • Reader

    I can hear that picture honking. That’s another terrible effect of all of this: the health effects of all that noise pollution.

  • AnoNYC

    The problems in NYC irritate me but the situations in China and India scare me.

    I’m really curious about the New Urbanism/livable streets movement in those places?

  • JudenChino
  • ahwr
  • Maggie
  • Komanoff

    Thanks for tip and first link which goes to Toronto study based on 2004 emissions, when cars and trucks were more polluting than currently. Extrapolating to NYC in 2015 is tricky, and doing it mechanically and w/o caveats is disingenuous. Important to “out” garbage numbers. Thanks again for helping.

  • Nemo

    Charlie, I’d love to hear you explain your last point. I am continually baffled by the failure of our political system to implement the solutions that everyone seems to agree are correct.

  • stairbob

    But aren’t videos just a rapid succession of still photos?

  • A “uniform” fee in a country with an insane variation in lowest and highest salaries is unimaginable.

    The system that creates most car and truck journeys such as you mention would have been better to not have been imagined in the first place – let alone created – but how ’bout we focus on tools such as a financial transaction tax and other methods to create sustainable and democratic access to our beloved Manhattan and environs?

  • “A “uniform” fee in a country with an insane variation in lowest and highest salaries is unimaginable.”

    And yet, we all pay the same fee to ride the subway or the bus.

  • No, we don’t. A uniform fee for public transport would be the result of a perfect sliding scale.

    That would be a big jump in our society, for sure, and by the way I already agreed that the unnecessary trips should not happen in the first place, or otherwise diverted to highways, freeways, etc… so my main point is that it’s not a good idea to create more mobility apartheid in one system while trying to create less in another. (And ask anyone — I’m not a SUV owner in Westchester County – LOL – or their employee.)

    If there was been a transaction tax for better transit (and cycling) article in Streetsblog, I would love to see it…

  • Bolwerk

    Actually, wealthier people might pay a little less, since they get bonuses and unlimited passes.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Don’t forget the half fare for seniors. I’d bet lots of Generation Greed members would want that for tolls. Along with free tolls for retired public employee, like the zero city and state income taxes.

    I know a way to cut a toll by 75 percent. Carpool with three other people. Heck, that could cut the toll by more than 100 percent, since they might be asked to pay enough to cover the tolls, gas, insurance, etc.

  • Larry Littlefield

    This city desperately needs a financial transaction tax.

    Even though the result will be the elimination of financial transactions in NYC.

    Because until that happens, selfish people seeking rationalizations will continue to use it as a rationalization for their something for nothing mentality.

    And, in any event, thanks to automation there are very few jobs left at stake, and most of those are held by suburbanites.

    Ideally, we’d require all these jerks, inside and outside of politics, to sign something demanding the tax before it was enacted. So they couldn’t avoid personal blame for the consequences.

  • Ian Turner

    A financial transaction tax would cause the financial industry to move across the river to New Jersey. Would that be good for NYC? I doubt it.

  • Kevin Love

    As I wrote, this is the best information that I have been
    able to find. If anyone has a better source, please be so kind as to share it. And if anyone believes that there has been any sort of significant improvement over the last 11 years, then I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

    It seems quite reasonable to believe in, write about and act upon the best information available, so I will continue to do so.

  • BBnet3000

    In China cars are a status symbol for the entire country the way they are for individuals. Expanding driving in the US used to be considered a sign of prosperity as well.

    In India there’s often just not good transit or any other way to get around. The roads are already so car dominated by a relative few drivers that cycling and walking don’t seem like a viable alternative, and the few buses sit in that congestion.

  • BBnet3000

    So you only oppose a congestion charge until we are able to scale it to income, along with all other car tolls and transit fares?

    That’s gonna be a while.

  • Komanoff

    Nemo, thanks for your interest. Though my opinions here — on the political side — are less original than my “economic” findings. Here goes anyway:

    The key obstacles to enacting a program like Move NY to rationalize tolls, diminish congestion, and finance transit and other infrastructure appear to me to be (1) car ideology that de-prioritizes non-car transport investment, (2) “aspirational” thinking by which millions project themselves into “driver status” and “identify out of” their reality as transit users, (3) systemic inequality that accentuates #2 and impedes broad civic participation via which the public might engage novel ideas, (4) endemic cynicism about the capacity of MTA and other public/government agencies to provide public services, and (5) “transactional” political culture in which palms must be greased for Albany to act.

  • lunartree

    The roads in NYC are for cabs, delivery, and the rich. Regular people don’t drive their personal cars into Manhattan. The drivers can afford the cost.

  • Komanoff

    I’ve been studying and quantifying air pollution since 1971, Kevin, including in books published by M.I.T. Press and Van Nostrand Reinhold. I’m not perfectly au courant on tailpipe emissions, but I think it’s a safe approximation that on-road vehicles today pollute around 1/4 less per mile than on-road vehicles in 2004. (The overall reduction from circa 1970 to today is 90-95%, and the decline has been pretty continuous rather than lumpy.)

    That aside, broadcasting “facts” and “figures” without divulging their source and basis (and letting on how far you’ve extrapolated) is poor form. It gets in the way of more solid analysis and contributes to a generalized cynicism about quantification, which isn’t helpful.

  • Bookmark2015

    And major roadways which Robert Mosses left for us are now old and reaching the end of their life. The span of 278 running though Brooklyn Heights and Red Hook is one such road that will soon need to be taken out of use to rebuild. There are no plans for how that will work. The residential streets of the area will have to absorb that traffic–trucks and all.
    There is no government leadership on any of this. No elected wants halt developers, all salivating over putting up 45 story”affordable” housing in the impact area.
    The subway system is the only thing preventing the city from becoming like New Deli. If it doesn’t improve and expand, then neither should housing developments.

  • Not sure what you define as “rich” but do you have some statistics? (Sure, I don’t…)

  • No, I mean it should not be THE measure, or the the main one.

  • More carpools would be good, irrespective of salary.

  • Any tax? How much? The financial industry would dessert as soon as 50 new skyscrapers are built in Newark?

  • JamesR

    “The subway system is the only thing preventing the city from becoming
    like New Deli. If it doesn’t improve and expand, then neither should
    housing developments.”

    I like that you said this. The powers that be have forgotten that this city’s growth has always been most effective when housing and transit capacity have increased hand in hand. Look at all of those old images of the 7 train stations sitting in the middle of farmland. That’s how you do it correctly. We may not have any more greenfields, but we absolutely do need cross-agency analysis and collaboration on how growth should work. Right now, it’s just chaos.

    I’ve beaten this drum too many times, but this city needs a real comprehensive plan. PlaNYC or whatever it’s called now is not it.

  • Bolwerk

    Well, half fares goes either way. Kind of understandable for poorer seniors on fixed incomes, but maybe it’s also good social policy because it (hopefully?) de-incentivizes driving for a group that really shouldn’t drive.

  • Bolwerk

    Tailpipe emissions in transportation mostly seem like a distraction now, from an epidemiological standpoint anyway, but diesel emissions still seem to cause significant health problems.

  • Jesse

    The relationship between (1) and (2) creates a positive feedback loop too. Disinvestment in transit makes transit worse (crowded, dirty, unreliable, etc…) which can make for a pretty degrading experience so it gets the reputation as being the second best option for second best people which, in turn, leads people to aspire more to cars and less likely to invest in transit.

  • Komanoff

    Too true!

  • stairbob

    So let’s see if I have this right: in order to drive into Manhattan each day, we’ll require each driver to perform a financial transaction and pay the corresponding transaction tax? Where will we put the financial transaction booths?

  • Kevin Love

    I have repeatedly provided the source of this information. On the other hand, a quick use of the Streetsblog search function failed to turn up anywhere where you have provided the source of your belief that on-road vehicles today pollute around 1/4 less per mile than on-road vehicles in 2004.

    Where did you get this from?

    It is mildly amusing that in the very next paragraph after you published this unsourced information you assert that broadcasting facts and figures without divulging their source is poor form.

  • ahwr

    CARB (and weaker federal) standards for vehicles have improved a lot over the years.

    If you don’t feel like reading, on page 10 there is a chart showing significant tightening of NOx and HC standards beginning in 1994. The cleaner air benefits are only realized as old vehicles are retired so a tighter standard in 2000 over 20

    The air quality improvements are only realized as old vehicles are retired, so there is a lag effect.

    Take a look at the highway line in the ‘1970 – 2014 Average annual emissions, all criteria pollutants in MS Excel’ file. Pollution is down significantly in every major category.

    (pdf) It has some information on air pollution by model year, might be worth a read.

    Neither is NYC specific though.

    This shows progress in improving air quality in NYC, much of which was from retrofitting old oil furnaces to burn cleaner, or replace them with natural gas.

    Bloomberg didn’t ignore diesel emissions though.

    Private haulers aren’t required to meet the same standards until 2020.

    The MTA fleet is much cleaner than it used to be too.

    The bottom line: From 1995 to 2006, diesel particle emissions dropped
    97% and nitrogen oxide emissions dropped 58% on a per-bus basis.


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