If the Calendar Says ‘Friday,’ It’s Another Day of Hell on Varick Street

Congestion on the Holland Tunnel-bound roadway spills over into a disaster for cyclists and pedestrians — and it's been this way for years!

Streetfilm recently captured the catastrophe of Varick Street on a Friday afternoon. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.
Streetfilm recently captured the catastrophe of Varick Street on a Friday afternoon. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

Thank god it’s Friday — unless you’re a pedestrian, a cyclist or, yes, a driver on Varick Street this afternoon.

Our Streetfilms colleague Clarence Eckerson Jr. tried to bike through the well-known mess last week, and posted the video below. Everyone in the city knows the problems on the stretch of Varick near the Holland Tunnel — too many cars heading towards too small an opening, like pouring pebbles into a funnel — but the video brings the disaster into full living color: pedestrians running in fear, cyclists blocked, and drivers fuming.

It’s must-see TV as far as Streetsblog is concerned:

It’s tempting to indulge in more than a little schadenfreude watching people who drove into the city getting stuck in the very traffic that they cause, but their driving causes danger for everyone else in the short stretch between West Houston and Canal streets, where 155 pedestrians and cyclists have been in injured since 2010.

I get the instinct to focus on the schadenfreude watching people sit in their four-wheeled hell moving one inch every half hour, but unfortunately it has negative effects for everyone, including those of us who’ve opted to build a life that doesn’t include daily driving,” said Doug Gordon, who works in the area and tweets as BrooklynSpoke. “This is a failure of policy and everyone, drivers included ought to be angry at the mayor and governor for not figuring this out.”

Gordon backs up the film’s lasting impression that pedestrians and cyclists are the people who are mostly inconvenienced.

“Crossing the street can be very unpleasant and nearly impossible,” he said. “As far as cycling goes, the bike lane ends where Seventh Ave South becomes Varick Street [at Carmine Street], so people on bikes are left to mix it up with all of those cars. And every intersection is a mess.

“I’ve been in that office building for seven years. It’s absolutely gotten worse,” he concluded.

A spokesperson for the city Department of Transportation said the agency is aware of the problem and that the whole area is “under review as part of the Hudson Square/West Village study, which is seeking opportunities to improve pedestrian and bike safety along Varick Street, as well as other streets throughout these two neighborhoods.” That review, the spokesperson said, will be completed by summer, 2019.

  • Jeff

    How can anyone look at this and call it “transportation” with a straight face? What a joke.

  • Joe R.

    What I don’t understand when I see stuff like this is why people choose to drive in a place where you can walk faster? I would love an answer from these people. What’s the point of driving? It’s certainly not cheaper. It’s definitely not faster. My blood pressure went up just watching that video. I can’t imagine how anyone stuck in that mess must feel.

  • r

    What kind of study is needed? Ridiculous. What’s needed is congestion pricing and other policies that reduce the number of cars in the city.

  • BrandonWC

    What’s going on with that Hudson Sq study? There was supposed to be 3 tech memos, a draft report, AND a final report by Spring 2018. http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/hudson-square-study-apr2017.pdf https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/eec02eb0ab323ab53b970d71fcca7979c785d948946a4fe68a8eabc3237895e6.png

  • Cowboy_X

    This city needs “broken windows” traffic policing. Steep fines and suspended licenses for even the most minor of infractions, zero leniency. Just start grabbing licenses until shitty drivers are off the road, and responsible drivers are left with manageable streets.

  • Cowboy_X

    Here’s a wacky idea, what if cops got to pocket like 25% of every paid traffic fine? “Okay then they’ll just start concocting traffic infractions to pad their wallets” lol why, you can’t swing a subway rat without hitting a double parked car or an illegal truck in NYC.

  • Joe R.

    That could work so long as you require the cops to back up their tickets with video or pictures. While we’re at it, why not an app which lets ordinary citizens take pictures of illegal activity and then share in the fine? Think of it as crowd sourcing traffic enforcement. Ramping up the number of tickets will have a twofold effect. One, it will end a lot of the illegal behavior which causes traffic like this. Two, it will get a significant number of people who drive into congested areas to just give up in disgust. Either they won’t make the trip, or they’ll use other modes.

  • ortcutt

    What’s the latest on putting in two-way tolling on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge?

  • Its just low-income folks driving to their doctors appointment. Can’t do anything about that

  • Simon Phearson

    I don’t bike this neighborhood, so I’m looking at a map and trying to understand why people would take Varick instead of alternatives. My guess is it’s greenway users and others from the west side trying to make their way to either the Manhattan or Brooklyn Bridges – Manhattan by way of Grand Street, Brooklyn by way of the zig-zag of streets/lanes in Tribeca. It doesn’t seem like an attractive option for people heading for the WB Bridge – I’d wonder if it would make sense to cut over just north of Houston, or something like that.

    Is that right? Like I said, I don’t really have a feel for these streets. I’m just trying to understand.

  • Simon Phearson

    I actually somewhat enjoy full-on stopped traffic, as a cyclist, because it means that I can jump queues and make better time around stationary obstacles instead of taking my chances with close passes and drivers merging into my lane.

    It requires a lot of care and caution, to be sure. Good rules to follow are: don’t get yourself stuck trying to squeeze past a bus, truck, or van; watch out for jaywalkers and opening car doors; don’t ride alongside moving traffic (if you can help it). But navigating a jam effectively can feel a little bit like you’re a bike ninja. It’s the #1 reason I hardly ever get on a Citibike (’cause I don’t think I could pull it off on a Citibike, though the guy in the video seems unperturbed).

  • Joe R.

    Those are all good points. I generally follow your set of rules myself the rare times I’m in heavy, stationary traffic. Sure, full-on stopped traffic is better to ride in than a slowly moving traffic jam. I guess my point here was I’d rather avoid both. As you said, it requires a lot of care and caution. My head is on a swivel under conditions like this. It’s really stressful to deal with for more than a few blocks at a time.

    Don’t think I could do it on a Citibike, either. I need the maneuverability of a shorter frame road bike under conditions like this. Closely spaced gears giving you the ability to quickly accelerate into gaps, or out of danger, is a plus as well.

    If anything, the video is a great advertisement for why you should use a bike in the city instead of driving.

  • com63

    I’m pretty sure that requires an act of Congress! no joke

  • com63

    Some people just take short trips and Varick is the shortest path. Washington street a few blocks West has a good downtown lane too.

  • com63

    I sat in that for two hours once back in 2009. Never again.

  • Rex Rocket

    What’s the complaint? I wish it was that easy to ride on all avenues.

  • HamTech87

    This doesn’t work if you’re with an ‘interested but cautious’ cyclists, or a child.

  • HamTech87

    Has anyone interviewed these drivers to ask them why they endure this, how often, and what their alternatives are? Seems like they have plenty of time to answer a survey.

  • Maggie

    I wish I could upvote this more than once. This is the study that Corey Johnson requested, right? Is this whole disastrous thing a joke to CB2 and the city?

  • Simon Phearson

    You’re right. For those kinds of cyclists, we paint door-zone bike lanes that they feel safe using – until they’re smashed by a garbage truck driver.

  • ortcutt

    For a bridge entirely within New York State?

  • com63

    http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/ny-oped-verrazano-toll-to-nowhere-20180702-story.html

    “The one-way toll was passed in 1986 — quite unusually — as an act of Congress. The idea was to eliminate traffic backups in Staten Island. But as the environmental studies predicted at the time, the backup transfered to Lower Manhattan. Today, electronic collection would protect Staten Island from tolling lines.”

  • kevd

    You know they aren’t driving from Houston st to Canal st, right?
    They’re trying to get to New Jersey, a place you can only walk or bike to from Manhattan via the George Washington Bridge.

  • Joe R.

    Well, then honestly this makes these people’s behavior even more illogical. Unlike commuting to work, when the time of day you’re traveling is more or less dictated by your work hours, if you’re going out of the city on a holiday you have the option to leave at times when traffic is lighter.

    Besides that, there are plenty of trains and buses going to places outside NYC. Even if you can’t get all the way there by public transit, you can usually rent a car at the nearest station to reach your final destination.

    I sat in traffic going to NJ on weekends or holidays when I was a kid enough to know no sane person would do this if they had any say about it. I might understand it if it’s a one-day affair, like a family gathering. But if you’re leaving Thursday or Friday afternoon for a weekend, it’s not like you’ll have much time at your destination on the day you drive there. Most likely you’ll check in at a hotel, eat dinner, maybe watch TV for a few hours, then sleep. Might as well have dinner at home, leave after traffic, check in, and go right to sleep.

  • kevd

    it’s a perfect storm of trucks toll-shopping (straight trucks can use the holland), commuters returning home from work and people leaving town for the weekend.
    Everyone in the traffic jam knows what they’re getting into and they’re making perfectly rational decisions based on economics and their own schedules – most people have jobs that require them be places at certain times. So they could sit at their offices doing nothing for hours waiting for the traffic to end, or spend and hour going 4 miles.

    What is insane is not that they their choice but that we so heavily incentivize that form and direction of travel at that time.
    their actions are all completely rational – our street pricing, tolling (and shitty transit) is what is irrational.

  • cjstephens

    Trying to tell if you’re being sarcastic, but this is actually a thing: doctors who have offices in NYC and NJ will pay to have their patients driven over to NJ to have procedures done so that they can get paid at higher rates.

  • cjstephens

    For those that missed the latest at the Holland Tunnel, it was on the local news:

    https://newyork.cbslocal.com/2018/08/09/holland-tunnel-ticket-trap/

    (Tl; dr: drivers complain about getting tickets when they violate a law despite clear signage telling them not to violate that law).

  • opafiets

    Out of my own frustration with this condition, I developed my own plan for solving this. I realized that with some infrastructure improvements and utilization of some currently available technology, congestion could be greatly reduced and the wait made less harmful, for all users as well as the greater environment. I think it could be done for less that $60 million. It is all detailed and illustrated in a booklet I put together. If interested in a copy, email me at troxworld@msn.com. Yes, I should put it on a website. Have been meaning to do that.

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