Op-Ed: Varick Street Crossing Guards Are Telling a Tale of Congestion Pricing

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.

The New York Times has a feature today about pedestrian crossing guards on Varick Street near the Holland Tunnel — “pedestrian bodyguards,” The Times calls them.

The guards shine as resourceful, unassuming heroes whose brave physical interventions keep encroaching drivers at bay. But hidden in the story is a deeper message, about motor traffic’s human toll that our politicians decry only with words, not deeds.

The story, “Crossing Guards for Grown-Ups? Yes, Traffic Is That Bad,” by Winnie Hu, lets the folks charged with massaging Varick gridlock do the talking. And they explain better than any engineer or spreadsheet just how insane traffic is and how it taxes us physically and psychically.

“The traffic is overwhelming,” says Doris Garcia, 44, a mother of four from Brooklyn who supervises the pedestrian safety managers. “Pedestrians yell at drivers. If drivers don’t listen, sometimes we have to put our whole body in the intersection just to stop the cars.”

The story also reveals, though inadvertently, the disconnected vision of every downtown elected official and other “influencer” who isn’t gearing up to get Albany to enact the most robust version of congestion pricing possible when the legislature convenes next week.

What’s the disconnect? It’s when downtown officials pose as champions of taming traffic in Manhattan south of 14th Street while disdaining congestion pricing. It’s when downtown residents blame downtown gridlock on the one-way Verrazano Bridge toll, but turn a blind eye to the absence of tolls on the East River bridges that incentivizes even more drivers to pour into and through lower Manhattan.

Since 1986, when Congress voided MTA control over Verrazano tolls, thousands of motorists bound from Long Island to New Jersey every day have been detouring through lower Manhattan in order to avoid the double westbound Verrazano toll.

But here’s the thing: Congestion pricing will cut that traffic — the very traffic that the Varick Street crossing guards toil valiantly to control — more than any other proposed policy measure. And unlike the competition, congestion pricing is winnable, now.

In a study last spring for the Hudson Square BID, Sam Schwartz Engineering concluded that the Fix NYC congestion pricing plan would remove 33 percent more traffic from Canal Street than restoring two-way tolling to the Verrazano Bridge. The Move NY version of congestion pricing would outperform two-way tolling by a whopping 80 percent. (Disclosure: I was part of the Sam Schwartz Engineering analysis team for the study.)

For three decades, in downtown’s longest-running kabuki theater, local officials have ritually denounced the Verrazano one-way double toll and demanded it be repealed. Now, with the even more effective antidote of congestion pricing within reach, are these officials elbowing each other out of the way to champion it? Hardly.

Assembly Members Deborah Glick and Yuh-Line Niou are AWOL on congestion pricing.
Assembly Members Deborah Glick and Yuh-Line Niou have been MIA on congestion pricing.

When last heard on the issue, last January, Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou, whose 65th Assembly District includes the traffic-battered Lower East Side and Chinatown, was insisting on a resident exemption — a massive and undeserved carve-out that would detonate a cascade of special pleading across the city and doom congestion pricing.

Assembly Member Deborah Glick (Greenwich Village including Hudson Square), a diehard opponent of congestion pricing since the Bloomberg era, may be signaling a change of heart. In “Thoughts on Congestion Pricing,” a textbox in her most recent constituent newsletter (Neighborhood Update 63, not yet on line), she touches all the bases, calling mass transit “the circulatory system of our city,” acknowledging transit’s “desperate need of major and ongoing funding,” and decrying “the unhealthy congestion in our streets.”

That reads like the start of a major pivot. Glick now needs to finish her 180, championing congestion pricing and bringing Niou and other legislative fence-sitters into the fold.

  • redbike

    Indicative of Assemblymember Deborah Glick’s priorities, and what she perceives to be the priorities of her constituents: she mailed her constituents — at government expense — a 2019 New York City Parking Calendar.

  • sasso

    Just keep in mind that Cuomo’s flawed congestion pricing plan includes a discount for drivers coming in via the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels. Nothing like throwing city residents under the bus for the sake of NJ commuters.

  • sbauman

    According to Hub Reports for 1985, 1987 (the years before and after the VZ toll change) and 2016, here are the inbound and outbound vehicle counts.

    MB 1985: 52k in; 49k out
    MB 1987: 57k in; 57k out
    MB 2016: 45K in; 40k out

    HT 1985: 34k in; 41k out
    HT 1987: 57k in; 45k out
    HT 2016: 42k in; 46k out

    WB 1985: 54k in; 54k out
    WB 1987: 89k in; 71k out
    WB 2016: 51k in; 55k out

    The 1985 to 1987 comparison show corresponding increases in inbound Williamsburg Bridge/Manhattan Bridge/outbound Holland Tunnel traffic. The inbound increases for the MB and WB have dissipated by 2016 and are below levels from 30+ years ago. This should suggest that a strategy for reducing vehicle traffic around the Holland Tunnel should not be directed towards reducing incoming traffic on the MB and WB.

    One thing that has changed is that the area is now residential. The current need for adult crossing guards is probably due to the increase in pedestrian not vehicle traffic.

  • Rex Rocket

    Don’t forget–NJ commuters vote in Presidential elections.

  • motorock

    Yup. Anyone from NJ should have to pay more, be it tolls or even using the cheaper bus transit that clog up the tunnels and bridges and our streets…all the while enjoying lower taxes and esp escaping paying the NYC tax. There are people from Jersey who support this plan mostly because it won’t effect them. And there are many many of these people who still work in Manhattan and use the subway and the streets. They need to pay their share.
    I believe that the most fair way to implement congestion pricing is when tolls are higher on bigger vehicles esp single occupancy ones. At the same time, they should encourage and exempt those vehicles that reduce congestion as is done in European countries which have congestion pricing-like motorcycles, scooters, ebikes. That will at least help people who can use them and not create any congestion-maybe it might make more people adopt them And that would take zero dollars, just some legislative action-esp compared to making bike lanes or even installing congestion pricing infrastructure

  • Gersh Kuntzman

    Oh. My. God.

  • sasso

    Yes! This! It’s a joke that motorcycles get a whole dollar discount on the toll. We don’t do enough to promote motorcycling in this city (proud rider for 8 months). I’m petrified that we’ll see congestion pricing with a similar disregard for a mode of transportation that reduces congestion.

  • motorock

    You would probably not be surprised to know that they forgot about motorcycles-literally what they said. Even environmental groups supporting this plan. All this, while all of them are looking at European plans that actually exempt motorcycles! Shows their priorities and where their head is.
    Call your rep in office and look out for activism around this-it works.

  • AnoNYC

    Drivers from NJ using the tunnels already pay tolls to enter NYC. It should just be risen to the same cost as the cordon charge for people coming from other directions.

    Definitely should not be any discount, but they also should not be charged twice.

  • Sasso

    Why not? A) You’re adding to OUR congestion B) If you pay $12.50 now, and then $12.50 after congestion pricing goes into effect, that doesn’t seem like an effective way to raise money or convince NJ drivers to take mass transit.

  • Sanjeev Ram

    Downtown merchants support two-way Verazzano Bridge tolls to reduce congestion from cut-through traffic heading to New Jersey. But, they don’t favor tolls on the East River Bridges to avoid discouraging Outer Borough residents from traveling to visit their shops.

  • AnoNYC

    Everyone driving into the proposed cordon adds to congestion. Why would you make drivers from NJ pay more than everyone else?

    NJ drivers are already a minority of drivers in the city core. Especially when considering the population of the NYC metropolitan area in NJ. The current tolls are already discouraging people from driving into NYC from NJ.

    And doing what you propose is not politically feasible anyway.

  • Sasso

    Luckily, we don’t need to worry about what is politically viable to NJ residents. Also, if the number of cars commuting from NJ is so small, then why is the time like this every…. working….day. True congestion pricing with no discount for NJ will surely reduce this congestion.

  • Sasso

    Tunnel*… Not time

  • disqus_wGa1thzlmY easy

  • R3dB1ke wrote

  • AnoNYC

    There are at least three groups that would make that a non-starter.

    -Driver voting blocks like the AAA.
    -The Port Authority
    -Businesses that depend on automotive transportation between the two sides of the Hudson.


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