Hey Brian Lehrer — Traffic Congestion Is Not a Vision Zero Tactic

This morning on WNYC Brian Lehrer said he didn’t understand why Mayor de Blasio would want to penalize Uber for making traffic congestion worse, since the mayor is “causing congestion purposely” to make streets safer for walking and biking.

The speed limit is not why this is happening. Photo: @BrooklynSpoke
The speed limit is not why this is happening. Photo: @BrooklynSpoke

Here’s an excerpt:

They want to make driving in the city as unpalatable as possible so people switch to mass transit, which is more in the public interest for a host of reasons. And I tend to support that, that’s a good idea. Also the de Blasio administration has made Vision Zero a central policy — something else I support. But again the goal is to make traffic go slower, not to make it easier on cars. They’ve reduced the official speed limit too. And congestion accomplishes the same goal — that is, fewer pedestrian fatalities — by other means. Traffic means less speed, which means more pedestrian safety.

Like a lot of people who weighed in during the Uber debate, Lehrer confuses speed limits and average speeds.

Lowering the maximum speed people are allowed to drive has nothing to do with a grinding crush of cars inching along at a few miles per hour. An easy way to grasp the difference: The citywide speed limit is 25 miles per hour, while last year the average speed in the Manhattan core was 8.51 mph. Congestion is a symptom of too many motorists trying to use scarce street space at the same time, not a tactic to make drivers travel at a safe speed.

Put another way, in the early 1980s motor vehicle traffic was moving at an average speed of 9.8 mph on midtown avenues and 6.4 mph on crosstown streets. Though congestion was about the same as it is now, more than twice as many people were dying in traffic.

Lehrer also said taking cars out of Central Park was de Blasio’s way of creating congestion on the avenues. Instead of propagating tabloid-worthy conspiracy theories, we liked it better when Lehrer was calling for “bike lanes everywhere, separated from traffic.”

  • AlexWithAK

    It’s also worth noting to the people erroneously saying that Vision Zero is about creating more congestion that streets over-packed with cars is NOT in the best interests of pedestrians. Crosswalks get blocked, tempers fume, road rage ensues, and drivers tend to be more aggressive.

    While cycling down to the Hudson Greenway last week, traffic was backed up all the way to the West Side Highway on the 2-way section of 59th St. The light turned green and as I approached that 2-way section, impatient drivers behind a turning vehicle barreled into the oncoming lane which I was in. A cab darted around me and I became trapped on the wrong side of traffic. It was unnerving to say the least, but this is what happens when there is gridlock. The goal is to have steadily moving traffic at a reasonable, safe speed. Lehrer and others need to understand this.

  • Mark Walker

    With friends like this…

  • Longtime listener

    Who does Brian Lehrer think he is? Errol Louis?

  • Joe R.

    If anything, congestion acts as an incubator for dangerous driving behavior like failure to yield, speeding to make lights, lane jockeying, even driving on sidewalks to get around bottlenecks. It’s in NYC’s best interests to ensure traffic moves at free flow speeds all the time. Delivery vehicles will make their rounds much faster, for hire vehicles can service more passengers, emergency vehicles can get to emergencies faster, etc. Moreover, drivers will be less stressed out, hence less likely to make mistakes, or just ignore safety, in order to make any bit of forward progress.

    Of course, given the reality that motor traffic eventually congests any street space allotted to it, except maybe in Nebraska, the answer isn’t giving more space to motor vehicles. Rather, we must charge for the space motor vehicles use. Keep raising the charge until traffic moves at free-flow conditions, even during rush hours. The end result will be many car trips people might want to make but really don’t need to make simply either won’t be made at all, or will be made on other modes. It’s simple economics. If you charge more for a commodity, eventually only those who really need it will be willing to pay the price. Auto travel in much of NYC is largely optional. Therefore, let’s charge enough so those optional trips just don’t get made.

  • Adrian

    You are of course correct about congestion leading to many types of dangerous behavior amongst motorists. I think you missed the elephant in the room though, which is of course the impact of congestion on air quality, and the number of deaths that causes. The congestion charge can’t come soon enough

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/nearly-9500-people-die-early-in-a-single-year-in-london-as-a-result-of-air-pollution-study-finds-10390729.html

  • Joe R.

    Thanks for mentioning that. If you look at my posting history, I have in fact repeatedly said that air pollution from motor vehicles is a major problem. It kills more than ten times as many people as motor vehicles kill directly. In addition, bad air makes people sick (I’m particularly susceptible to auto exhaust due to an aromatic hydrocarbon allergy). It also decreases quality of life, requires a lot cleaning of structures, results in acid rain. The sooner we put congestion pricing in effect the better. And NYC should seriously consider phasing in a ZEV requirement for any vehicles operated within city limits, starting with fleets.

  • mattkime

    I wish we weren’t so fatalistic about human behavior in these situations. We don’t have to act like jerks because traffic is stopped….although i do understand it would be difficult to change.

  • krstrois

    Nooooooo. Commentary like this leads to . . . wine.

    I just want to be able to cross the street with my small child. That is the core of Vision Zero. NON DEATH.

  • ahwr

    >. It kills more than ten times as many people as motor vehicles kill directly.

    No. It doesn’t.

  • Daniel

    awhr, I would really like better numbers, but what I found appears to support Joe’s statement:

    http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5111-while-improving-quiet-crisis-air-quality-persists-new-york-city-asthma-air-pollution

    That’s about 2,700 deaths per year in NYC from Asthma. If we assume 10% of lung cancer deaths are attributable to car exhaust that adds another 400 deaths per year, as well. There are other diseases caused by poor air quality, but I’m guessing these are the top two in terms of mortality.

    I have to imagine that an EV requirement for driving into NYC would have a profound effect on the local air quality. Even if you just added a surcharge to the toll for entering the CBD I bet if would influence enough car buying decisions so that in a decade or so you would have significantly cleaner air.

  • Jesse

    Congestion is not a Vision Zero tactic. But all of this congestion is a great real-world illustration of how cars are fundamentally incompatible with cities. And yet, the response here is typical: “congestion isn’t caused by my car; it’s caused by other factors — bus lanes, bike lanes, or in this case, other cars that are the wrong kind of car

  • ahwr

    There’s a difference between air pollution and air pollution from motor vehicles.

    http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/downloads/pdf/environmental/air-quality-report-2013.pdf

    From this report on road sources are responsible for 10% of locally generated PM2.5 and 25% of locally generated NOx emissions. CARB requirements have been cleaning up exhaust from cars for years. (clean air act let California set a stricter standard, other states are permitted to sign on to that if they want, NY and much of the northeast has.)

    Similar initiatives have not existed, or have not been as effective, for every source of air pollution. Getting rid of every car would improve air quality, and if you have clean enough electricity replacing them with EVs would too. But there would be a tremendous political cost to do so. Odds are that focusing limited political capital on other sources would be far more effective at improving air quality. That was the approach taken by Bloomberg and continued by De Blasio. The pollution from passenger cars is decreasing without mayoral involvement as older dirtier cars are retired and cleaner cars are introduced into the auto fleet.

    http://www.nyc.gov/html/gbee/html/codes/heating.shtml

    Just 1 percent of all buildings in the city produce 86 percent of the total soot pollution from buildings-more than all the cars and trucks in New York City combined. They do this by burning the dirtiest grades of heating fuel available, known as residual oil, or #6 and #4 heating oil.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/12/nyregion/new-york-looks-to-cut-emissions-by-private-trash-haulers.html

    The report projects that if private haulers retire their [8,300] older trucks by 2020, particulate matter emissions would be reduced by 796 tons during that time period; it would be the equivalent of removing 341,829 cars from city roads every year between 2014 and 2030, the report said. Nitrogen oxides would also be reduced by 12,054 tons, or the equivalent of removing 862,704 new cars or 143,784 old cars from the roads every year

    http://observer.com/2014/04/de-blasio-announces-sweeping-update-to-citys-air-pollution-control-code/

    For example, commercial char broilers throughout the five boroughs emit an estimated 1,400 tons of particulate matter per year. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene estimates that those emissions contributed to more than 12 percent of PM2.5-attributable premature deaths annually in 2005 to 2007, or 400 deaths per year in that period. If all commercial char broilers had had control technology installed, the reduction in ambient PM2.5 concentrations could have prevented nearly 350 of these premature deaths each year.

  • Daniel

    Thanks for the informative post. What is missing though is what percentage of air pollution in the summer is caused by cars, including what proportion of ozone. The air is worst in summer and those old boilers burning #4 & #6 oil are presumably turned off. Cleaning up the commuter fleet would clean up the air upwind in New Jersey and Pennsylvania too so you can’t just consider the tailpipe emissions in the city.

    There might be easier wins and if so they should be pursued. But there is a super-majority of people who want cleaner air, way beyond those ending up in the emergency room. I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with any New Yorker about traffic lasting more than 5 minutes where I didn’t hear a variation of “why do we allow these in these dirty gas burning cars in city?” Now as transportation geeks we may have a bunch of answers to that question, but as far as politics goes that is your starting point.

  • Joe R.

    I was thinking the same thing about air quality in the summer. It correlates neatly to the times traffic is heaviest. Also, in the summer at worst those old boilers are burning 10% of the fuel they do in winter providing hot water. In many cases they’re completely turned off.

    So yes, there may be other sources of emissions in NYC but why is the air during the summer the worst despite many of those other sources not being used?

    While passenger cars have been steadily getting cleaner, remember until a few years ago emissions requirements for SUVs and pickup trucks were practically nonexistent. I noticed the air started getting cleaner in the late 1980s as emissions standards kicked in. I also noticed it getting markedly worse starting in the early 1990s when the SUV craze started. Looking just at the numbers for passenger cars then is misleading.

    I’ve little doubt an EV requirement would improve air quality immensely. It would also shift focus to getting rid of other sources of pollution. A great place to start would be gas-powered gardening tools. The use of these has proliferated in the last two decades as more people have hired gardeners. These tools should also be banned as a noise hazard.

    I’ve little doubt airliners are a significant source of local air pollution. Long term if we shifted most domestic air travel to HSR we could mostly get rid of this source. Longer term either battery or solar powered planes may be viable.

  • red_greenlight1

    I was riding down Spring street and horrified by the amount of grid lock. People were honking making illegal turns against the light pulling in front of oncoming traffic and blocking the box. Drivers had decided to take the bike lane and turn it into an extra car lane. Explain to me how this future Vision Zeros and is part of De Blasio’s master plan to inconvenience cars? I think Brian Lehrer’s tin foil hat could use a wash as it starting to smell a bit.

  • Miles Bader

    Banning cars would also work extremely well…

  • ahwr

    This won’t give you a seasonal breakdown, but you might enjoy playing around with the data this can spit out.

    http://www.epa.gov/ttn/chief/net/2011inventory.html

    In Queens County heavy duty diesel vehicles (trucks, like the private trash haulers the city worked out a deal to cleanup, and the municipal trash haulers the city is cleaning up a few years sooner) are responsible for more NOx emissions than all light duty vehicles (passenger cars and almost all SUVs) burning gas and diesel. In NY county light duty vehicles were responsible for less than 10% of NOx emissions.

    The average car is something like 11 years old. The cleanest cars sold today have emissions of 10-20% of the average car sold 11 years ago. There’s already a plan in place to drastically reduce emissions from cars. Mandate cleaner new ones and wait for people to junk their old ones.

  • ahwr

    why is the air during the summer the worst

    The sun?

    http://www.stateoftheair.org/2013/assets/images/ozone.JPG

  • Alexander Vucelic

    Traffic Count this afternoon 45th and Fifth 4:30pm Early Rush hour

    (5) 12′ Motorist Lanes
    Zero Bicycle Lane or Sharrows

    Riders 340 per hour run rate (19%)
    Motor 1,504 per hour run rate (81%)

    Motor Vehicles per lane per hour – 300
    Riders per “lane” per hour – >340

  • Alexander Vucelic

    Traffic Count this afternoon 45th and Fifth 4:30pm Early Rush hour

    (5) 12′ Motorist Lanes
    Zero Bicycle Lane or Sharrows

    Riders 340 per hour run rate (19%)
    Motor 1,504 per hour run rate (81%)

    Motor Vehicles per lane per hour – 300
    Riders per “lane” per hour – >340

  • TYLER 2

    Anyone who’d take seriously anything that Brian Lehrer says is a candidate to buy swamp land in Florida. If he says something with which I agree, I know that I haven’t thought it out sufficiently.

  • Bolwerk

    TV news is basically for lowbrow gossipy stuff anyway.

    Unfortunately, it needs to be taken seriously because it has a wide audience.

  • Angelocuz

    You’re not advocates…you’re bullies who will eat your own allies the second they don’t agree with your opinions 150%

  • BBnet3000

    Calling out a prominent radio host for COMPLETELY mis-characterizing Vision Zero is “eating our own allies”?

  • stairbob

    If there’s no bike lane, isn’t bikes per lane per hour infinite?

  • AlexWithAK

    There’s a very big difference between disagreeing and misrepresenting. If you believe this to be disagreement, you clearly have even less understanding of the issue than Lehrer.

  • AlexWithAK

    Is it really such a difficult concept to grasp that the issue isn’t Lehrer “disagreeing” with the concept of Vision Zero but that he clearly does not understand it?

    Let me state this as plainly as possible:

    The goal is not to have slow-moving traffic by any means necessary. The goal is to have free-flowing traffic moving at a safe and reasonable speed in respect to pedestrians and cyclists. This keeps everyone safe, reduces pollution, and allows business activities that require vehicles to operate efficiently.

  • Bolwerk

    It actually boosts road capacity, all things being equal. Slower cars can move more closely together, so there can be more of them.

    (Not saying that part is a good thing.)

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