The Futility of de Blasio’s Meager Traffic Congestion Plan

The mayor's ideas have been tried before, without success. But even if the plan works as intended, the effect would be tiny because it doesn't attempt to reduce traffic volumes.

De Blasio's congestion plan doesn't address the fundamental cause of congestion: too many vehicles crammed into a limited amount of street space.
De Blasio's congestion plan doesn't address the fundamental cause of congestion: too many vehicles crammed into a limited amount of street space.

It’s faster to summarize Mayor de Blasio’s new “clear streets” plan for what’s not there: placard reform, smarter curbside metering, or congestion pricing.

What is there is this “toolbox,” as City Hall puts it:

The new effort will include both new and proven approaches to traffic congestion, including the creation of new moving lanes in Midtown, clearing curbs during rush hours, expanding NYPD enforcement of block-the-box violations, limiting curbside access in crowded corridors, and bringing coordinated attention to recurring traffic spots on local highways.

Almost all of this hodge-podge has been tried by past mayors. The common denominator is a dependence on education or enforcement, along with the lack of any attempt to lessen traffic volumes.

The plan’s headline feature, so-called “clear lanes,” seeks to raise vehicle speeds on 11 Midtown streets by 10 percent. Even if it succeeded which it almost certainly will not, in the absence of measures to regulate the demand for driving — the time-saving benefits would be slight, worth around $75 million a year. That’s just 3 percent of the $2.6 billion a year in time savings and other societal benefits that I project for the Move NY plan built on “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz’s proposed toll swap.

In other words, comprehensive congestion pricing like Move NY could improve the lives of New Yorkers more than 30 times as much as Mayor de Blasio’s proposed suite of measures. (See details on calculations at the end of this post.)

Can the mayor’s plan really be so puny compared to Move NY? Yes, it can. Here are the key reasons:

  • Mayor de Blasio’s plan addresses just 5.7 percent of the street space in the Manhattan Central Business District that carries around 9.3 percent of CBD traffic. Move NY addresses all of it.
  • Because it doesn’t reduce CBD traffic volumes, de Blasio’s plan won’t improve traffic speeds outside the CBD; congestion pricing actually saves more driver time on roads approaching and leaving the CBD than on streets within it.
  • Congestion pricing, by lessening traffic volumes, yields substantial non-travel-time benefits such as cleaner air, fewer crashes, and more people using active transportation; de Blasio’s plan offers no such benefits.

Congestion pricing like Move NY generates substantial and reliable revenue that can be used to upgrade transit and thus attract trips from cars at the same time that congestion pricing prices some car trips off the roads. In contrast, de Blasio’s plan will drain municipal budgets by requiring as many as 200 new full-time traffic and police officers to enforce traffic rules, at an annual cost on the order of $15 million (which, conservatively, I’ve excluded from my comparison of net benefits).

MNY Cost-benefit graph _ 23 Oct 2017
By putting a price on scarce street space, Move NY toll reform will make New Yorkers better off in several ways simultaneously…
BdB Cost-benefit graph _ 23 Oct 2017
…whereas Mayor de Blasio’s plan only addresses traffic speeds — and barely.

It’s true that the 11 streets in the Midtown core that de Blasio is targeting are unusually congested, with average vehicle volumes 64 percent greater than the CBD average. I’ve allowed for that by assuming that traffic speeds on those streets are 43 percent less than the already dismal CBD average of 8.21 mph between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays.

It’s also true that “clear streets” for Midtown is just one of five baskets of measures in the mayor’s announcement yesterday. But it’s the only one with a target lending itself to quantitative analysis. And even if each of the other four were generously accorded the same ambition as the first, the total benefits from all five would only be on the order of $375 million a year. While that’s not chicken feed, it’s still just one-seventh of the $2.6 billion in net societal benefits I project for the Move NY plan.

And even that requires the enormous leap of faith that this mayor can pull off what no one has ever been able to manage: to make lasting dents in New York’s traffic congestion without addressing its root causes — the failure to treat street space as the precious municipal resource it is, by pricing it. 

Calculations supporting this post appear in my Balanced Transportation Analyzer, a 5 MB Excel file, under a new tab: BdB’s Plan.

  • Jeff

    Anyone else worried about this bullshit from a cycling safety/pleasantness standpoint? I take E 59th St and E 60th St every morning at rush hour (from the bridge to the park), and the saving grace is that you have a curbside lane that’s not quite a moving lane and not quite a parking lane, so it’s typically clear enough to cycle in, but motorists won’t use it because there is usually one or two parked vehicles per block. These two streets will be that much more awful if motorists have the expectation that all lanes will be free and clear for full-speed romping.

  • Guest

    Many are worried. Putting more moving traffic right by sidewalks & allowing more left turns into crossing pedestrians are huge concerns (for us, the cattle that walks and bikes, not for our limousine liberal mayor).

    On my commute, I have to make it from 1st Ave also to Central Park and usually take 57th to Park Ave, then go up until 60th, and turn there towards 5th Ave / CP. Once I get off Park and am on 60th, it’s still not safe or pleasant, but it was always the block where I felt I could breathe again, because of the parking/traffic situation you described. I’m curious how it will change.

    Overall, with this focus on speeding up traffic, allowing more driving next to sidewalks & more left turns, pedestrian/cyclists are more at risk and will suffer. Between this and the counterproductive, frankly racist e-bike crackdown, I’m incredibly furious at De Blasio.

  • Zero Vision

    Our progressive mayor – who wants to help small businesses, fight climate change, and end traffic deaths – is banning deliveries on certain streets, trying to move more cars and trucks through the city, and placing that traffic next to crowded sidewalks. Do I have that straight?

  • HamTech87

    I would think the explosion of Uber/Lyft would dampen the revenues and impact of MOVE-NY because these cars may not be crossing the CBD cordon as much. Was there a VMT charge on them included in MOVE-NY?

  • Vooch

    BdB’s mobility plan might be inspired by such urbane examples like Columbus or Phoenix

  • Mister Sterling

    Yes, that, and is denying the effectiveness and fairness of congestion pricing.

  • iSkyscraper

    I think it is well established by now that de Blasio is an empty-headed vessel for machine politics and not much else.

    In upper Manhattan, for example, there is a massive illegal nightclub that throws all of Inwood into traffic gridlock on summer weekends, including Sunday nights. It’s located on city parkland so it could be curtailed in a moment if the city wanted, but because the owner is a de Blasio bundler, City Hall has told the police and Parks to back off. Vision Zero, slow zones, and all the other talk take a back seat to de Blasio’s backdoor political dealings.

  • iSkyscraper

    Good point. Those kinds of spaces along midtown side streets are critical for cycling.

    But don’t worry, this unenforceable plan won’t have any impact, so things should remain the same.

  • Russell.FL

    DeBlasio’s plan is worse than doing nothing, especially as it relates to trucks/deliveries. Put simply: people have the option of taking transit, but deliveries do not. Delivery trucks are what enables a dense city like New York to thrive. We shouldn’t be making the movement of deliveries more difficult, we should be making it easier. In most tolling schemes we see, trucks are charged more than passenger cars, and look, I get that trucks create much more wear and tear on the roads than a passenger car. But delivery trucks actually serve an integral economic purpose in the city, whereas passenger cars do not. If someone needs to travel into the CBD, then they should be taking transit. We should be pricing the hell out of passenger cars, especially those that want to enter Manhattan during peak hours, and charge no more than a token fee to trucks performing local deliveries. (Through trucks are obviously still a concern)

    It is clear that this plan is intended to improve driving conditions for passenger cars and for passenger cars only. That’s all that DiBlasio cares about. But the law of induced demand will always prevail. The only way to actually reduce congestion is through congestion pricing.

  • Here’s what I don’t get: let’s assume the Mayors plan works perfectly! Yes, cars are sped up by 10%. What did we spend to get it? Millions for more dedicated NYPD officers to write tickets there. Millions we could spend on better transportation options elsewhere. And at the end of the day IF speeds increase then we are just inviting more people to use cars, the streets will go back to slow again, and then we will have MORE cars in the city polluting, making life miserable, and then we have short-changed making transit, biking and walking better. Not a smart move. Not at all.

  • Komanoff
  • JarekFA

    The Placard Abuse is a huge part of the delivery problems. They regularly will take up nearly all the Commercial Loading Zone parking. I see it every morning on Fulton St. in FiDi. Just tons of big trucks loading in the west bound traffic lane causing non-stop honking and frustration. I honestly hate those “public servants” who abuse their parking privileges at the expense of the public. We need more delivery/loading zones and less personal car parking.

  • sam

    Deliveries are important, but they should not be occurring during rush hours, causing otherwise busy streets to be reduced down to minimal traffic flow or blocking parking/bike lanes and crosswalks. Even trying to cross the street to my office near grand central, the entire street has become an unofficial loading zone, no one can see the walk signals, trucks block most of the intersection, and people have to guess as to whether it’s safe to cross the street. Then the cars trying to get through the maze created by these trucks end up stuck in the intersection because there’s not enough room.

    And this is every single morning. I’ve literally called 311 and told them that if they want to raise revenue for the city, they should send some enforcement officers over to just hang out and write tickets all day.

  • Russell.FL

    Not discounting these problems at all, but I think a lot of this could be resolved by cracking down on placard abuse (see JarekFA comment), implementing congestion pricing, and improving street/sidewalk design. Cracking down on placard abuse would open up more curbside spaces for delivery vehicles. Congestion pricing would cut down on the number of passenger vehicles traveling through the CBD, reducing gridlock and instances of pedestrians having to weave through cars during their crossing face. Street improvements could include pedestrian bulb-outs, thereby limiting opportunities for delivery trucks to block crosswalks, as well as protected bike lanes, using bollards to prevent vehicles from blocking them. I am not saying that we should prioritize truck deliveries during rush hour, but we certainly shouldn’t be banning them.

  • Joe R.

    Don’t forget the silly e-bike crackdown. Our mayor seems to think it’s preferable to do deliveries by car instead of e-bike.

  • Joe R.

    It’s also contemptible that nobody will even tell us exactly what privileges having a parking placard will entitle you to. Based on what I’ve seen, plus the lack of police enforcement, it seems to me a placard entitles you to park virtually anywhere, including on sidewalks and in people’s driveways. The best way to end this is to issue placards only for official vehicles, and then only if they’re really needed for that job function. No placards for personal vehicles at all. Any vehicle using a fake placard gets towed away.

    The next thing to do is make all curbside space in Manhattan loading zones, bus lanes, bike lanes, taxi stands, etc. There should be absolutely no curbside parking, paid or not, for private passenger cars. That’s the best way to discourage driving, even better than congestion charges. If people know they’ll have to pay ~$500 a month for a garage, few will choose to drive in.

    The city might also consider only allowing vehicles with three or more people to enter Manhattan. We’ve done this before during emergencies. Just make the policy permanent.

  • Joe R.

    Speeding up traffic would be a good thing only if there were restrictions or heavy charges to radically reduce private automobile use. We want delivery vehicles and buses to make their rounds faster. At the same time, we don’t want the better traffic flow to result in more private cars, which brings us right back to square one. If we can’t or won’t enact a congestion charge then get rid of all curbside parking, only allow vehicles with three or more people to enter Manhattan, perhaps consider banning private autos altogether on certain key streets. We’ve tried for 75 years to shoehorn private autos into a city not really designed for them. It’s time to realize that policy was an epic failure. We need to start reapportioning streets more fairly.

  • JarekFA

    Here’s my favorite placard abuse hot spot in the mornings. Fulton St in FiDi. I don’t see a single obvious “commercial” vehicle parked in any of the spots. A couple city vehicles and a bunch of placards in, what are supposed to be 7am – 7pm 3 hour commercial vehicle parking only. This morning wasn’t even too bad. You should follow placard abuse on twitter. They list out all the rules on what’s legal but it doesn’t matter. They effectively park where ever they want. What’s most striking to me, is the sheer braziness of it all. Did you see that lime green 5.0 Mustang? It was parked there last Friday too. These assholes just view these as “their special” spots.
    I mean, I’d give them more credit if they at least looked like a city vehicle, like a small prius.
    But, one thing you notice about plcard corruption, is that, it’s frequently really nice (i.e. expensive cars) that these crooks have.
    It’s not like they can’t afford it.
    And once you see Placard Abuse.
    It’s hard to miss the ubiquity of it.
    I’d say about 1/3-1/2 of all spots in FiDi are placard abuse.

    And what’s so dumb about the legal/official curbside parking in FiDi for certain agencies — is that, their spot will be frequently taken up by placardabuse, so they’ll just go and park with their placard in a spot that isn’t authorized for their placard.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/9b4962ef05b1d2375f089103bab049763075fd7cccfc672d36c6031e37065984.jpg
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/a192a700a342765a2603a6ad463bb18f67d03fd869969ef2642d67cf9d75f992.jpg
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/838622b6d3deaca931114420e8a5fad1393eabd850fa5023f40e68603f2ec227.jpg

  • Joe R.

    It’s really frustrating we’re not doing a thing to fix this problem. Placard abuse basically renders anything DOT does for street safety null and void. I’ll bet good money that lime green Mustang doesn’t even have a legitimate placard. The problem would be bad enough given how many legitimate placards are issued (well over 100,000 last I checked) but the fake ones just make it intractable.

    Do other cities have this problem? Or is it a a unique NYC thing? How many of those 100,000+ with placards might not drive if they had to find parking like anyone else? My guess is well over half. 50,000 fewer cars on the roads would make a huge difference.

  • JarekFA

    For me personally, I don’t even drive a car, but the placard abuse and the harm it causes, is honestly one of my biggest quality of life pet peeves. Honestly, walking around FiDi, what should honestly be, completely pedestrianized except for deliveries, is one of the worst pedestrian experiences in the city.

    But, instead of “broken windows” for this quality of life infraction, we’re gonna get “broken windows” for the poor delivery men riding e-bikes trying to make the best out of this mess. The e-bikes are a solution for the last mile in delivery service. But instead of FedEx/UPS operating a hub/spoke model with pushcarts or e-bikes (which they gladly use in other jurisdictions). They just park with impunity all over the sidewalks and in no standing zones. You can go to Google Street View and see it all over.

    Like, parking in “no standing zones” isn’t a harmless foul. It impedes my view when I try crossing the street. It forces the cars that are actually driving through to get jammed up and act aggressive. It sucks.

  • Gowanus Kings

    I want to vote against BdB next month to register my objection to this and other wrong-headed mobility efforts. Who is the progressive candidate on transportation?

  • Joe R.

    Good example of what you’re talking about here in my neighborhood:

    https://www.google.com/maps/@40.730327,-73.8108416,3a,75y,344.61h,64.38t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sMn5hc1Cth9lJemv8qPXh2Q!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

    Recently DOT put yellow stripes right where the black car and police parked near the median are. This is presumably for daylighting. Unfortunately, there’s always a big ass police truck parked right in the spot where the black car is.

    And of course you have the usual at the police station on the opposite corner:

    https://www.google.com/maps/@40.730327,-73.8108416,3a,75y,143.15h,63.45t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sMn5hc1Cth9lJemv8qPXh2Q!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

    Police vehicles regularly block most of the sidewalk, even though they have a very nice parking lot:

    https://www.google.com/maps/@40.7303264,-73.8101191,3a,75y,188.26h,66.7t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1shyZ1J9Xs2txF2YehVtHtBg!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

    When you bring up stuff like this, lots of people dismiss it by saying “There’s a pedestrian signal there, so it doesn’t matter if your view is blocked. Just wait for the walk signal.” In fact, I think this is the city’s official position on why they allow parking right up to the crosswalk. In their mind you don’t need to see oncoming traffic because the traffic signal makes it safe to cross blind. I guess they never heard that cars often run red lights. I refuse to cross a street where I can’t see what’s coming. That usually means I’ll cross midblock in places where my view is blocked.

    Here’s another great example of the same thing in my area:

    https://www.google.com/maps/@40.7304494,-73.8052291,3a,75y,356.66h,58.22t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sZRFcJFxm959de1C-7fBA6A!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

    It’s not there in this picture, but usually there’s a school bus parked right next to the crosswalk As a result, not only can’t I see if I’m crossing 164th Street, but if I’m crossing 71st Avenue turning cars can’t see me until they’re well into the turn.

    We need to do like nearly everywhere else. Ban parking within 15 or 20 feet of crossings. If necessary enforce it with bollards (probably the only thing which will work given the rampant placard abuse).

  • walks bikes drives

    We can’t have bollards blocking bike lanes, as much as I’d like them, because DSNY needs access for their garbage trucks (do they really need to be granted an exception for this?) and their plows to eventually clear the path.

    It is also really important that NYPD or FDNY can use the bike lanes as a traffic bypass. But you never see them doing this because the bike lanes are always blocked!

  • walks bikes drives

    In the mayor’s bus plan, he shows how Lexington Ave is really slow. Oddly, Lexington Avenue has a bus lane. Oh wait, every time I pass Lenox Hill Hospital during rush hour, there are cars filling the bus lane with MD plates. Every day.

  • Ian Turner

    It is a pretty disappointing slate overall but I would say the best transportation candidate on the ballot is Albanese.

  • Guest

    Meanwhile, on another planet:

    “Singapore, one of the world’s most expensive places to own a vehicle, will not allow any growth in its car population from February, citing the small city state’s land scarcity and billions of dollars in planned public transport investments.

    “The Land Transport Authority (LTA) said it was cutting the permissible vehicle growth rate in the city state to 0 per cent from the current 0.25 per cent per annum for cars and motorcycles. The rate will be reviewed in 2020.”

    http://www.scmp.com/news/asia/southeast-asia/article/2116644/singapore-stop-adding-cars-roads-february-2018

  • Quinn Raymond

    Removing parking lanes for more traffic eliminates pedestrians’ only protection from cars and trucks that jump the curb.

    Not that THAT ever happens in midtown…

  • John Buck

    That stock gridlock photo, and the example of cities across the world, show there are far MORE practical steps that could be taken – measures that would ease congestion far better than DeB’s plan and this regressive cash grab known as congestion pricing. Anyone who’s ever been on a street in any of the 5 boroughs can see the problems:

    1) Crosswalks:
    Turning vehicles can not proceed through crosswalks when pedestrians are using them, causing gridlock. If crosswalks were moved back one van length from the intersecting street, vehicles could queue up on the street they were turning onto instead of clogging the street they were turning off of. In addition, more walk / don’t walk signals should be calibrated to allow turns before or after foot traffic.

    2) Double parking:
    Every double parker on any avenue or two lane street is essentially stealing one lane of traffic. Why this selfish practice is not outlawed in every borough across the city is beyond baffling.

    3) Taxis:
    Much like double parkers, hailing pedestrians and cabbies seem to think they own the right lane of all streets, clogging them needlessly. New York City already has two or more cab stands on every block in the city: The 30 feet of curbside space in front of fire hydrants. If regulations were tweaked, cab customers reeducated, and hacks prohibited from picking up fares in traffic lanes, you’d free up an awful of of road space.

    4) Unnecessary vehicles:
    There are many areas to explore, but let’s take just one: Garbage. Even with recycling programs, NYC creates 33,000,000 tons of waste a year, transporting most of it on trailers and barges down south. We’re not only clogging our own roads, those 1 million plus diesel powered garbage trailers spew tons of CO2 annually

  • JarekFA

    The contempt this city has for our bus riders is incredible as it is cruel.

  • stairbob

    I’ll be writing in Janette Sadik-Khan (again). It’s the clearest way I can think of to withhold my vote from deBlasio while sending the message of why.

  • Knut Torkelson

    Congestion pricing is far from a cash grab, it’s a proven policy used in major cities around the world. Your crosswalk idea sounds like a death trap for pedestrians who are already at risk in crosswalks.

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