Free Roads and the Symphony of Destruction on Varick Street

A typical scene on Varick Street. You can tell it's a still because there's no honking.
A typical scene on Varick Street. You can tell it's a still because there's no honking.

“If you’re looking for the place that shows the failure of New York City to have any sort of traffic management policy, this is the spot.”

That’s Doug Gordon, a.k.a. Brooklyn Spoke, who recently joined Streetfilms’ Clarence Eckerson Jr. in Lower Manhattan to document the lunacy at the intersection of Varick, Carmine, and Clarkson streets, where drivers converge to inch and honk their way toward the Holland Tunnel.

There’s a toll on the inbound Holland Tunnel, but driving outbound is free. The main distortion stems from the free rides across all the East River bridges, along the length of Manhattan, and the east-bound Verrazano Bridge.

Put it all together, and New York’s network of free roads and one-way tolls turns this neighborhood into a perpetual funnel for drivers who pay nothing to travel through the congested heart of the region. There are neighborhoods like it everywhere streets feed into free crossings into or out of the Manhattan core.

Says Doug: “This is what happens when you don’t charge people anything to drive through Manhattan.”

By putting a price on driving in the most crowded parts of the region, congestion pricing would thin out these car trips and divert a lot of this traffic to highways, where it belongs.

But after establishing his own panel to come up with a congestion pricing plan, Governor Cuomo chose not to put any muscle behind its recommendations this year. Assembly members like Lower Manhattan’s Deborah Glick, who represents this area, continued to sit on the fence as their constituents suffer from crushing gridlock.

Thanks to do-nothing state electeds, New Yorkers who drive and the car-free majority both continue to be subjected to chaotic, dangerous, stressful conditions like the clusterfuck on Varick Street.

  • opafiets

    You’d think that the absolute HELL of using it would be enough of a disincentive, but no. It was a relief for me to not have to take that route any longer. I was so inspired by how much grief it caused me that I developed my own plan for how it could be made less awful. Congestion pricing would help, but I don’t think it goes far enough. Where there is punishment, there should also be rewards for “good” behavior in the form of using other modes and car or van pooling.

  • Andrew

    Obviously, they’re all going to doctor’s appointments.

  • William Lawson

    I’m at this location at rush hour every couple of weeks or so and I’m always stunned that the city has allowed the situation to carry on for so long. It’s been that bad for as long as I can remember. The NYPD, who should be stationed there during the busy periods every day coordinating and controlling things, are as usual completely useless and a total no-show. I see mothers with strollers picking gingerly between cement trucks and SUV’s, being intimidated and honked at by psycho drivers who lunge and ram their way through the intersection with brute force. That there is no official attempt to rectify the problem should tell you everything you need to know about how crap NYC’s government is.

  • Andrew

    You’d think that the absolute HELL of using it would be enough of a disincentive, but no.

    It is a disincentive, but it’s still not enough of a disincentive for those people.

    More generally, this is why pricing is necessary. If it were even possible to add new roadway capacity, the impact on congestion would be minimal – the new capacity would quickly fill up with more drivers who are willing to accept this degree of congestion.

    Which wouldn’t be a problem if not for pedestrians, cyclists, bus riders, and even other motorists who may be more time-sensitive, all of whom are hurt by the status quo.

  • William Lawson

    Motorists are basically insane, as per the classic “doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results” definition. I think they believe that one of these days, the stars will align in their favor and a shower of fairy dust from the heavens will magically clear all of the traffic in front of them and they’ll make it home in record time.

  • Is there some kind of police force that is paid to deal with all that law-breaking?

  • r

    The problem is that if lots of people decided it was hell and stopped driving this way, conditions would improve just long enough for people to start thinking driving was a good idea and for things to become hell again. The decision to drive or not has to come before someone gets behind the wheel. Pricing is the only way out of this, since the disincentive has to be permanent and consistent.

  • Cant Drive Like This

    I would die. I mean seriously die if I had to do this every day of my commute. No, let me change that, I would die if I had to do this even more than a few times per month. People are crazy. Sometimes I wonder what we are up against, these people I would bet are STILL against any kind of plan like the smart MoveNY plan.

  • I kind of agree with what many have said or referenced. It is kind of like drivers who keep driving in situations are addicts. And the city needs to stage an intervention because they are beyond helping themselves. The cure is a real congestion pricing plan.

  • opafiets

    I got a “blocking the box” ticket some years ago when I was first learning how to handle this. It looked like I would have enough space to get all the way across, but it didn’t work out that way. There are traffic cops at the busier intersections, and they are subject to all kinds of verbal abuse.

  • opafiets

    My plan would allow multiple occupant vehicles to get through faster, bypassing the wait. The way HOV lanes are SUPPOSED to work, only in this case, it would be much easier to police the lanes. It would also relocate the stacking space so that it isn’t ending up on the streets and creating such awful conditions for pedestrians.

  • Eli

    I work in the same building as Doug, and have to cross this street every day.

    The Varick/Clarkson interaction is actually worse outside of rush hour, because cars are speeding dangerously fast (right past a school zone) when making the turn onto Varick — I literally do not ever cross at that intersection.

    Not surprisingly, the last stats I could find show this intersection as one of the deadliest in Manhattan.

  • kevd

    they don’t seem to give those out anymore…

  • kevd

    I have a simpler plan.
    Make the tunnel toll 2 ways.

  • AnoNYC

    Speaking on this area, I wish the city would better square off Canal St and 6th Ave. The north side of the intersection sucks to cross.

  • vnm

    Anyone who honks in this situation accomplishes virtually nothing and just raises everyone’s blood pressure. Their own, other motorists’, people sitting in their apartments nearby, pedestrians. EVERYONE.

    Serious question: Would it help if the Port Authority instituted two-way tolling? Is there any sort of Congressional edict against that one too? Now that the world is moving away from the old toll booths, big wide plaza method of tolling, that seems like an easier lift now.

  • Hudson Square BID

    The presence of the Holland Tunnel has made pedestrian safety one of the Hudson Square BID’s top priorities. The BID commissioned Sam Schwartz Engineering to quantify the impacts of “toll shopping” in Lower Manhattan and around the Holland Tunnel. The study found that two-way tolls on the VNB would remove as many as 132 vehicles per peak hour from just three streets, Canal, Watts and Houston. The number jumps to 327 with the MoveNY congestion pricing plan. The full study can found here.

  • opafiets

    My plan assumes two-way tolling for the tunnel and congestion pricing. A lot of the arguments against congestion pricing are that it would hurt low-income people the most. So you need to make it easier to have alternatives, and make it rewarding rather than just punitive measures.

  • BTW I love the title of this post Brad.

  • Maggie

    No worries. Once Disney breaks ground on its 4 Hudson Square site and then moves its New York HQ here from the UWS, I’m sure this will all clear right up on its own. No need for any congestion pricing.

  • kevd

    “A lot of the arguments against congestion pricing are that it would hurt low-income people the most.”
    Those arguments are dumb and wrong so no you don’t.

  • Joe R.

    I totally agree. I would rather be stuck in a stalled subway train than have to deal with nonsense like that every single day. The fumes alone are a killer. This just shows how illogical drivers in that they don’t value their time or their health.

    A secondary problem is this kind of congestion isn’t just bad for drivers. It makes walking or cycling hell. I wouldn’t want to be on that street at all, regardless of what mode I’m using. A bike can largely bypass the congestion, but the rider is still breathing in poisonous fumes.

  • vnm

    Sadly enough the City Council (or some legislative body, or maybe it was an administrative decision) actually got rid of the $350 unnecessary honking tickets. There was some news coverage of this a while back. The signs are down but maybe the law is still on the books, albeit totally invisible and unenforced.

  • dudestir127

    The scene is pretty much the same further uptown by the Lincoln Tunnel. The worst seems to be traffic trying to get to the ramp off 9th ave b/w 36th and 37th, and the side streets from 37th to about 43rd or 44th feeding into 9th ave. Makes it tough to cross the street if you’re trying to walk to the Times Square subway station.

    How does congestion pricing unfairly target lower income people? Especially in the NYC area, I would have thought if you’re lower income then you’re more likely not to have a car at all, since it would be harder to afford one, and you’re more likely to get in and out of Manhattan on a train (commuter rail or subway depending on where you are).

  • kevd

    jesus, its nothing but one backward step after another.

  • opafiets

    It now averages 2,600 vehicles per hour at rush hour, from the PA’s own statistics. But a 12.6% reduction is something. Count your blessings, right? Provided you can get them.

  • opafiets

    I know they’re dumb and wrong, but calling people that got Trump elected. The message isn’t getting communicated.

  • kevd

    the argument that low income people are those driving into the Manhattan core is laughable and easily disproven.
    people continue to argue it because its easier for them than saying “I, who am very well off – do not want to pay” so like with trump there is a faux populism in those arguments.
    I think two way tolls are step one (including on the tunnel)
    Step two is congestion pricing – which has more support by the day (so our arguments do seem to be working).
    Step three, whatever HOV lane away you were advocating.
    I just think 1 and 2 will mostly solve the problem.

  • dfiler

    It isn’t that the fees “target” poor people, but rather that they are a disproportionate burden on the poor. Wealthy people barely even notice typical road fees. But to poor people those fees represent a significant percentage of their income. The end result is roads only being for rich people.

    One possible solution is sliding scale fees based upon income or wealth. Some countries even do this for legal fines. The wealthy pay a higher dollar amount but still a lower percentage of their income.


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