Pope Francis and the Flexibility of Our Streets


Add Pope Francis’s tour of New York to the long list of carmageddon scares that successfully frightened off would-be motorists. I grabbed these two shots of traffic from Google Maps, and despite all the alarming car detour icons, you can see that traffic was lighter during peak Francis than it normally is on a New York City weekday.

While the pope’s motorcade was wending through a crowd of 80,000 people in Central Park Friday afternoon, typical pre-weekend traffic bottlenecks were eerily quiet. The approach to the Holland Tunnel, usually a non-stop symphonic blast of car horns at that time of day, looked like this:

Meanwhile, if you were on the Upper West Side that afternoon, you could walk anywhere in the road on your way to see the pontiff, or learn to ride a bike on 72nd Street. There was a de facto bikeway down the middle of 57th Street for much of the pope’s visit, space cleared away for emergency access that people on two wheels gravitated to immediately, happy not to mix it up with 30-foot long flat-bed trailers.

A large number of people probably put off car trips to avoid the pope crowds. Did they take transit instead? Figures from the MTA’s commuter railroads are mixed — fewer people than normal took the train during morning commute hours, according to the agency, while passenger counts were higher than normal during the middle of the day. (Numbers for subways and buses are not yet available.)

Regardless, the streets didn’t jam up any more than they normally do, by and large, despite several large disruptions of the grid and the huge turnout for Francis. His visit was a testament to the flexibility of NYC’s transportation network.

This is a good occasion to revisit Bruce Schaller’s 2006 report, “Necessity or Choice” [PDF], which remains an extremely valuable source of information about Manhattan car commuters. According to Schaller, 90 percent of people who drive to work in the Manhattan Central Business District live in areas where transit would be a viable option for that commute. In addition, a large chunk of the car traffic in Manhattan is simply passing through, with no actual destination in the most congested part of town.

The flexibility we can observe when the pope swings by is there all along. We just don’t see it, thanks to the force of habit and the skewed incentives created by free roads and parking. New York could have bigger pedestrian zones and safe bikeways all the time, not just when a global megastar like Francis comes to town.

  • UN General Assembly is making things pretty miserable today, though. More than usual. Just saying…
    I’d probably resample in two weeks to see normal Monday traffic.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    miserable for whom

  • Miserable for bikes, buses, and other forms of sustainable transport that can’t get through bumper-locked car traffic like me today

  • cjstephens

    As much as I enjoy the pictures of car-free streets, I’m still angry at the excessive measures taken to clear them for the pope. While we’re waiting to see what the final numbers were for transit, I’m also waiting to see how much economic damage this visit caused. More than a hurricane? Less than an earthquake? Philadelphia’s Center City was shut down for days, and while it was great for cyclists and pedestrians, it must have been a nightmare for small businesses; imagine running a restaurant with no deliveries for three or four days and with most of your customers warned to stay at home. Fewer vehicles on the street can seem like a great idea, until you realize that too few vehicles can be a sign of something very, very wrong.

    My takeaway from Popenado was that we’ve reached peak paranoia when it comes to securing famous people. When POTUS comes to Manhattan, the entire grid is brought to a halt for hours (especially if he’s running late). The NYPD and the Secret Service get away with it because they can say “National Security!” and no one will stand up to them. It doesn’t have to be this way. In the UK, the Queen and the Prime Minister, both of whom have had bigger terrorist targets on their backs for decades (thanks, IRA!), manage to get around London with minimal impact. Why can’t we do that here?

  • cjstephens

    The little people don’t count when it comes to the NYPD and the Secret Service. Don’t you know how _valuable_ the diplomatic community is to New York? /s

  • Alexander Vucelic

    I rode around UES and UWS it was heavenly today

    sorry to hear about your stretch of Manhattan.

    In general, I prefer when motors are gridlocked ( ie 2nd avenue ) It’s safer

  • Kevin Love

    Actually, it is quite valuable. But that does not mean that it should be allowed to be a nuisance.

    For example, the International Criminal Court at The Hague is also quite valuable to that city. And international judges are expected to ride bicycles.



  • cjstephens

    The Hague has a population of about 500,000, more than Sacramento, but less than Fresno (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_cities_by_population). So, sure, the ICC has an impact there. If the UN left, we could replace their employees with (tax-paying!) replacements in a New York minute. Of course, if we required all of their employees to ride bicycles, they would pack their bags even faster.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    Photo of the Dutch Prime Minister and his massively overbearing entrourage on a typical day

  • cjstephens

    It _can_ be done!

  • qrt145

    Most people can easily choose not to drive on the day of a “Pope-class Carmageddon”, but that only happens once every few years. That doesn’t mean that it is as easy for them to make that choice every day.

    I can easily stop eating ice cream for one day, but ask me not to eat it for a year and I’ll tell you to fuggedaboutit. 🙂

  • Not to belabor the point but, through much of Midtown South, the commute was not very safe. There was no traffic flow at all and the cars were pulling up right next to each other, always trying to squeeze one more driver into a row. It baffled me that we have 11-13 foot lanes but only 2 inches between cars when they’re stopped at a red light. Many of us had a hard time proceeding, and that’s harrowing when you’re next to a truck or bus and the signal goes green.

    This is a commuting corridor for people from many more neighborhoods than mine, so it’s important to maintain it. I do not prefer these conditions, I do think someone’s going to get crushed because of the crowding that happens with heavy congestion. You should support safer conditions, even if your commute in another part of the city made you feel OK.

  • davistrain

    When people talk about excessive security (and some of the procedures developed by the US Secret Service seem to be patterned after the Soviet Union in the days of Stalin), I think about the time the Irish Republican Army set off a bomb that nearly took out Prime Minister Thatcher. An IRA “communique” said in part: “You have to be lucky every time. We just have to be lucky once.”

  • Alexander Vucelic

    absolutely true !

    i worked hard to get protected lanes on 5th & 6th

  • Alexander Vucelic

    those who Exchange security fir liberrty end uo with neither

    Ben Franklin

  • Bernard Finucane

    The real problem is too many cars. They simply aren’t a practical way to move people around a city.

  • J_12

    I never really understood the motivation to provide security for visiting dignitaries and heads of state. For the US president, I sort of get it, although I still think the level of security is far beyond anything reasonable.
    But if the pope wants to come to NYC he should provide his own security, and he should deal with getting around like every other tourist.

  • JoshNY

    “In addition, a large chunk of the car traffic in Manhattan is simply passing through, with no actual destination in the most congested part of town.”

    I commute from Bay Ridge to North Jersey and sometimes drive through Lower Manhattan because it’s like five bucks cheaper than going through Staten Island. If I had enough time to spare to sit in traffic on the Gowanus, I’d do it every day and save myself $100 a month. It’s absurd to drive through a congested area unnecessarily like that, but if that’s the incentive they’re going to set up for me, can you blame me?

  • Alexander Vucelic


    You are acting rationally based on the i( peverse ) ncentives

  • JoshNY

    I agree wholeheartedly. MoveNY is exactly the kind of sane plan that would make the incentives make sense. Of course, then people couldn’t drive into Manhattan for free, and we can’t have that!

  • AndreL

    Naive comparison, the security threat against Dutch dignataries are much less than American ones, and the level of security of American, British, Indian authorities visiting Netherlands is far higher.

    Blame the terrorists and those that want to kill or attack presidents, ministers etc.

  • Alexander Vucelic


    why would people want to kill the US President and NOT the Dutch President


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