United Nations General Assembly is an Argument for a Car-Free City

city out of control

It’s not the street, it’s the stupidity.

The United Nations General Assembly is underway and, predictably, everyone is focusing only on car traffic. Yet no one is complaining about the cars. Or the policies that allow them to cause traffic. Or the decisions that punish everyone else.

Or even this basic question: Why is the NYPD in charge of transportation in this town? And why does the NYPD restrict the movement of cyclists at the very time when the Department of Transportation — which should set transportation policy in this town — is telling people to bike instead of drive this week?

Those are the questions that dawned on thousands of cyclists this morning as they got to First Avenue and 39th Street this #UNGA morning. That’s where a phalanx of NYPD officers was stationed to ensure that no cyclists got any further up First Avenue — even as they waved cars right on by.

Two cops force a cyclist off a protected bike lane near the United Nations, even as cars were allowed to pass. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Two cops force a cyclist off a protected bike lane near the United Nations, even as cars were allowed to pass. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

I was one of the cyclists. So I reminded the polite officer that a bomb-filled car can do significantly more damage than a cyclist with a backpack filled with explosives (full disclosure: I had only a Luna bar and a spare inner tube in my bag).

“I didn’t make sense to me either. But I’m just enforcing what I was told to enforce. I don’t make the rules,” he said in a tone that suggested he wouldn’t change the rules if he’s ever in a position to do so.

His partner told me to go to Second Avenue. I reminded him that Second Avenue goes downtown, which is the opposite direction of uptown. He shrugged.

I headed west from First Avenue — though the next uptown protected bike lane isn’t until Eighth Avenue. (Let’s go over that again: Second, Third, Lexington, Park, Madison, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh — none has an uptown protected bike lane.)

At the corner of Second, however, I ran into two cyclists who said they were going to continue their commute up Third Avenue.

“Third Avenue?” I said. “That’s a suicide mission.”

“I’ve done it before,” said one of the guys. “It’s not so bad.”

It’s not so bad. That’s the calculus cyclists have to ponder when the NYPD makes arbitrary transportation policy. But “it’s not so bad” is not very different from, “I probably won’t get hit and die,” which is not very different from “I could easily get hit and die.” (Neither DOT nor the NYPD said what cyclists are supposed to do when key protected lanes on First and Second avenues are closed. City Hall referred all questions to the NYPD. Let that sink in for a minute.)

I took Third for a while. Here’s what that looked like:

third ave during UNGA united nations

When I swung back downtown on Second Avenue, I found that the bike lane had been commandeered as a diplomat driving lane. For a few blocks, the cops let me ride in it, but at 43rd, signs directed me into the “bike lane”:

During the United Nations General Assembly, the "bike lane" is the road. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

And then below 42nd Street, the bike lane returns to normal (by which I mean a dangerous unprotected hellhole that Mayor de Blasio refuses to fix):

Second Avenue

Meanwhile, reporters covering the “gridlock” gave us the windshield perspective, constantly reminding us that if cars can’t move, something must be wrong.

This is nothing against the men and women in blue. In two hours biking around Midtown, I saw many officers doing a great job of making sure drivers did not selfishly block intersections. They did heroic work as drivers shouted at them, honked at each other, and inched up for every bit of turf.
But it’s decision of the men and women in the white shirts that I’m focused on. A car-centric view of traffic means that bus lanes will be blocked, cyclists will be impeded, pedestrians will be cordoned into pens, and even two ferry lines will be canceled (without prior notice, by the way). If the goal is truly security, all of Midtown should be a bike- and pedestrian-only zone. Poof: There goes all the traffic, there goes all the NYPD overtime, there goes all the worrying about diplomats missing the latest plenary.

Cars are the problem, so why is city policy designed around trying to make things better for them? Why is the DOT capitulating to the NYPD? Why are even ferries being canceled?
And why does everyone accept this as the way it has to be?
“I’ll just go up Third. It’s not so bad” is not the answer you’d see in a Vision Zero public service announcement. But then again, Vision Zero is just a grandiloquent press release in search of a cohesive policy. As long as street safety is administered by the car-dominated culture of the NYPD rather than the traffic experts at the DOT, it’s more Zero Vision than Vision Zero.
Gersh Kuntzman is Editor-in-Chief of Streetsblog. When he gets really angry, he writes the Cycle of Rage column. They’re archived here.

  • muffinstumps

    “And then below 42nd Street, the bike lane returns to normal (by which I mean a dangerous unprotected hellhole that Mayor de Blasio refuses to fix)” —– this is so accurate. I also commute on 2nd Ave daily and every year they steal the tiny space we have to allow for the motorcades. Meanwhile there are FIVE car lanes they could pick from for this use! And they can miraculously make sure the bike lanes are clear – WHEN CARS ARE USING THEM but $%^!@ the actual cyclists that need the lane cleared the other 360 days a year. Ass backwards, as usual, this city.

  • Great post.

    A transportation policy and traffic mitigation plan based on “Cyclists can just…” is one that’s meant for only the heartiest and bravest cyclists, and one that’s clearly designed by people who don’t cycle.

  • Great documentation. Though I have used Third Avenue and it really isn’t too terrible until pm rush hour starting around 4pm. But First Avenue is soooooo much safer.

  • Gersh Kuntzman

    You can write “fuck” if you want. I won’t censor you.

  • Jason

    Most times in rush hour, it’s safer to salmon in the 2nd ave bike lane than go up 3rd Ave- aka the Major Deegan Expressway South Spur.

  • Walter I

    Start paying tax for the roads you use then you can complain.

  • Simon Phearson

    Every cyclist pays taxes for the streets they use, to say nothing of the streets they are barred from using and the thousands upon thousands of parking spaces set aside gratis for people with more private property than storage for it.

    Anyway, even if that weren’t true, who do you think pays for all the space that pedestrians take up? Are they similarly obliged to register their feet before they can complain about sidewalks?

  • New Yorker

    Imagine reading a story about New York – where the majority of people don’t own cars and yet pay high taxes for the privilege of living here – and making this idiotic comment.

  • jeremy

    If you think today was bad, just wait for tomorrow when it’s raining

  • ohhleary

    Imagine being so entitled that you don’t even stop to think how the maintenance of surface streets in New York City are paid for before making a snarky comment like this.

  • AnoNYC

    Wait, even the NYC Ferry routes that pass the UN were suspended ?

    Whoever is calling the shots is forgetting that this city needs to still function during these events.

  • Joe R.

    Car owners have an even bigger disconnect from reality than that. Frequently I’ve heard the argument “I’m paying registration and license fees”, as if that actually completely funds streets. Registration/license charges probably barely cover the cost of the bureaucracy at the DMV. They may not even cover that.

    And then you have “But I’m paying insurance and gas and car payments.” Except for a tiny fraction of gas payments, all the other charges are paying for the car itself. The fraction paid in gas taxes actually is spent on highways, but it’s still not enough to cover maintenance of those highways. Nothing a car owner spends on their car goes exclusively to fund local streets. They may pay some sales taxes on repairs but everyone who spends money on anything in NYC, whether they own a car or not, pays sales taxes. A portion of those sales taxes pay for roads. Same with income taxes. Last I checked cyclists don’t get an exemption from paying sales or income taxes. Those two things fund local roads.

    Try to tell any of this to a car owner while expecting a sane response. This isn’t even getting into what is literally square miles of valuable real estate set aside for free private car storage. The city could be making more money putting that land to better uses.

    In the US everyone opposes socialism except when it comes to automobiles.

  • Joe R.

    Figure out how much road wear caused by a bicycle ridden a few thousand miles annually costs. Hint—it’s probably under a dollar. Now figure out how much taxes a cyclist would need to pay to cover that wear and tear. Even if we assume only 1% of taxes goes to fund roads, that means a cyclist only has to pay $100 in local income/sales taxes to pay for themselves. The vast majority of cyclists pay 10 to 100 times that much.

    When you do something similar for automobiles, you find they’re subsidized at a rate of at least $0.45 per passenger mile:

    https://ggwash.org/view/10891/funding-amtrak-is-more-cost-effective-than-subsidizing-roads

    Those were 2010 figures. It’s likely over half a buck per passenger mile now. Note this is the net subsidy, or what society pays above and beyond what the car user themselves pay.

    The idea that cyclists are somehow subsidized while drivers pay their way is an idiotic myth which just won’t die. The figures above don’t even include the costs of foreign oil wars.

  • Jason
  • Kevin Withers

    Q: “Cars are the problem, so why is city policy designed around trying to make things better for them? ”

    A: To solve the problem. NYC prides itself on being the center of so many things, it’s part & parcel of just that. Be careful what you wish for…?

  • AMH

    Yes! Everyone should be required to pass a walking test, pay a special sidewalk tax, and wear an identifying number so they can be held accountable when they bump into someone. If they don’t like that, then they should just drive.

  • Jatinder

    The roads everywhere, more so in a big metropolis like NY, are becoming more and more car-centric. Quite often bus lanes are blocked, cyclists not permitted to go further beyond certain junctions, and pedestrians, cordoned off, until traffic gives way. The fault for this does not lie with the police regulating the traffic, particularly when the diplomat cars are passing, for which the traffic police have to give priority. But in the process, simple humanistic and non-polluting ways of traveling such as walking and cycling are discouraged. Any addition of road infrastructure is usually carried out for smoother movement of cars and other vehicles. Are we encouraging all cyclists and pedestrians, too, to shift to cars-only as the mode of travel? Apart from being the main source of pollution on roads, the cars also need a lot of parking place in the already congested midtown. Why not, on the contrary, declare large parts of the midtown as bike- and pedestrian-only zones, where everyone moves about tension-free? Or at least refuse entry of all private cars driven personal convenience into such heavy-traffic regions, allowing only police cars, ambulances, delivery vans, and vehicles for some other essential government services. That would release a lot of space on roads, freeing it for constructing dedicated bicycle-only tracks everywhere, and pedestrian-only sidewalks.

    It is fun to suggest by car-owners that pedestrians should also pass a walking test, on the lines of a test to secure a Driving license, and also pay a sidewalk tax for the road-space used by them. But pedestrians came first, aeons ago, then came the cyclists and lastly the gas-guzzling cars. So, all other modes of transport have actually usurped the pedestrian space on the roads.

    City after city in the world is constructing more and more pedestrian plazas to let the pedestrians including the senior citizens walk along safely, and even wheel-chair ridden aged people be moved on them, for which definitely the pedestrian sidewalks have to be exclusively meant only for pedestrians. Let cyclicts also have their separate lanes. For this to happen let the public transport system be improved vastly, so that the temptation of driving to work is brought down. Any urgent travel by individuals can be done by taxis, Uber, etc.

  • Rider

    First Avenue is pretty miserable even when the bike lane isn’t blocked because speeding, turning drivers don’t watch for bikes at the intersections. The wind blowing off the river, the topography, and the volume of construction also make it unpleasant. And Second Avenue is just dangerous because of the lack of protection, especially around the bridge and tunnel entrances.

    I’ve been trying Park Avenue instead when I need to go downtown. I’ve found that it has its charms. Because it’s a two-way street, the traffic lights aren’t synchronized to encourage nonstop driving in one direction, so there’s somewhat less speeding. It’s also generally not lined with stores (and technically commercial traffic is banned on part of it), so there’s less danger from trucks. There’s less wind, and the buildings are nicer to look at. Unfortunately, It’s still unnecessarily uncomfortable because there’s no bike lane at all. It would actually be a wonderful place for a pair of protected bike lanes.

  • Madison Avenue is a good choice for going uptown. Ride on the left to avoid buses. There aren’t many cars turning left.

  • Many years ago I calculated the relative wear on the street and roads, in units of fat guy on heavy duty bike with a total GVW of 350 pounds. A Smart car does about 1100 bicycles damage per mile, Escalade does more than 5000 bicycles damage per mile, and a USDOT weight limit semi does 160,000,000 bicycles of damage per mile. So, find the taxes charged for the semi truck and divide by 160,000,000 and if that’s more than $1 it’s not worth the time and paperwork to tax cyclists.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Yeah, one of the great advantages of converting car lanes to bike lanes, or simply narrowing car lanes for bike lanes is that it reduces a city’s long term liabilities. Bikes don’t create potholes.

  • AMH

    It is a racetrack though. Major Deegan Expressway Alt South Spur.

  • cjstephens

    While I agree with pretty much all of the sentiments expressed here, can I take issue with the headline? The traffic chaos argues for many things (priority of people over cars, the stupidity of security theater, the need for better planning), it doesn’t argue for a car-free city. The phrase “car-free city” is hyperbole, of course, but as a rhetorical flourish, it makes the casual observer think we’re crazy. “They want to take away our cars!” Car-free? Not a good idea. Car-lite? A little better, if not as zippy.

  • Noctournis

    I vote, and I understand, the entire point of this blog is that they do want to take away our cars.

    They want a city only for ableist hipster cyclists.

    Elderly people, people with kids, people caring for aging parents not allowed.

  • carl jacobs

    I’ve been reading this weblog since June and have found it informative and entertaining if less than persuasive. And you are correct. The “War on Cars” narrative is the strongest narrative present to any reader not already inside the bubble. If I was to summarize the weblog in one sentence it would be “Destroy private car ownership to enforce high density living so that bicycles can roam free.”

    I like the idea of mass transit. I’ve ridden the bus to work on and off since about 2006. If the bus system in my city didn’t suck I’d ride it every day because I hate putting useless miles on my car. But my total commute time (there and back) by car on a given day is 30 minutes. By bus it’s a little over two hours. The time cost is too high. This still makes me something of a potential ally. But I am not giving up my car. This weblog should learn to reach out to people who drive, because if you make us the enemy you will lose. Cycling is a niche form of transportation after all. And it disappears when the weather gets bad.

  • bikeadman

    A niggle over a single word in this excellent piece: The penultimate paragraph reads: “Cars are the problem, so why is city policy designed around trying to make things better for them?” Better this should read, “…why is city policy designed around trying to make things better for DRIVERS [not cars].” Of course this conflation of cars with drivers is most egregious when it is said someone was hit by a car. No, s/he was hit by a DRIVER. Let’s notexculpate the driver from responsibility even a little bit. Words count; words have meaning.

  • Stephen Simac

    how about a freakishly heavy fat man/woman/non-binary on a trike? Still less than a motorcycle. Most of the costs of roads/parking spaces are paid for by property/income/sales taxes and financed through public debt. This doesn’t even include their medical and environmental costs, policing, or loss of revenue from 20% or more of urban space dedicated to motor vehicles, reduced residential property values from noise/dirt. Yet, motorist continue to believe “we pay for the roads” so get off them. Basically a power/speed entitlement

  • Stephen Simac

    They obviously don’t want to take away your cars, just increase bicycle and pedestrian safety. This would restrict the unfettered freedom to drive/park in urban areas, (not much here about rural/exurban areas), but so does traffic gridlock . I know they don’t want your cars because they have no place to store them unless it’s in those vast parking wastelands documented earlier this year.

  • Noctournis

    Can people with certain disabilities bike?

    Sure.

    But the people doing the erasing here are you. Cars are accessible to far more people than a bike could ever be. No matter how many times you try to gin up the “deaf people are disabled too” nonsense, a deaf person is safer driving a car than riding a bike where the ableist hipsters are partially relying on hearing for safety.

    TransAlt is a movement for ableists without responsibilities.

  • qrt145

    If only the disabled drove cars, we wouldn’t have traffic congestion.

    Not to mention that it is perfectly possible to have responsibilities and ride a bike.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Except that makes you an asshole, and makes things much less safe for people actually riding the right way.

  • Crazytrainmatt2

    PSA: the first and second bike lanes were open again this morning

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