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OPINION: New York Must Stop Subsidizing Car Usage

This is what we get when we subsidize cars, says Ryder Kessler (inset).

Homicides are down 9 percent from the first quarter of last year; traffic fatalities are up 44 percent. In spite of the divergent trend lines, few tabloid front pages or City Hall press conferences are dedicated to stoking legitimate ire at our failure to stop the latter group of needless deaths.

Fifty-nine New Yorkers were killed by cars and other motor vehicles through March of this year, a sharp increase from last year — itself the deadliest of the “Vision Zero” era. The deaths continue, with eight people killed in just four days last month.

Ryder Kessler
Ryder Kessler
Ryder Kessler

Enough is enough. In the face of these deadly trends, amid endless broken promises, New York's legislators must take action to end the carnage.

That starts with taking control of our enforcement. Inexplicably, New York City’s automated traffic enforcement tools — speed cameras and red-light cameras — operate at the pleasure of Albany.

Thankfully, legislators in the state capitol just passed a law, expected to be signed by the governor, to allow cameras to operate 24-7-365, instead of just 6 a.m. til 10 p.m. on weekdays, a long-overdue acknowledgement from our Albany leaders that crashes are more common during the hours when cameras are required to be turned off.

But even though they passed the speed camera hour expansion, Albany lawmakers are not expanding the number of cameras outside of school zones, enacting harsher penalties for repeat violators, or taking broader steps to reduce our city’s car-centricity.

And car-centricity is the underlying problem. America’s sky-high rate of traffic deaths per capita correlates with our uniquely high rate of vehicle miles traveled, and cars getting bigger has increased the deadliness of every mile for pedestrians outside of our multi-ton metal behemoths.

To truly end the carnage in New York, we must get cars off the streets. Fewer cars will mean fewer drivers losing control of cars and plowing into pedestrians, and fewer distracted or drunk drivers cutting around corners or speeding through red lights.

To get cars off the streets, we have to stop subsidizing their usage.

That will be a priority for me if I'm elected to the Assembly from District 66, which includes much of downtown Manhattan. Incumbent Deborah Glick co-sponsored the speed-camera renewal, but over three decades in the Assembly she has not acted to reduce car dominance of our streets. That's left most of our residents unspoken for: In our district, 94 percent of residents don’t commute to work by car, yet our streets are dominated by SUVs — and we offer prime curbside space to drivers in the form of free parking.

Our district reflects citywide asymmetries, where New York’s 19,000 miles of car lanes represent nearly 35 times the distance we dedicate to protected bike lanes. That ratio doesn’t reflect an imbalance in New Yorkers’ preferences: 1.6 million of us bike and 1.4 million households own cars. I will work to mandate drastic increases to protected bike and bus ways, even if it means reallocating car space.

There are also three million on-street parking spaces citywide, equivalent to the size of 12 Central Parks. New York City consecrates prime real estate alongside our sidewalks as a giveaway to car owners, subsidizing car ownership to the detriment of those who could use parking spaces for other forms of transit — or green space, outdoor dining, or trash containerization. I will support ending these giveaways and ending parking minimums mandated in our zoning.

Of course, we don’t just induce driving through our streetscape: We also make all New Yorkers bear driving costs that car owners should face themselves. For example, the state’s gas-tax holiday will provide the biggest upside to households with the most cars — not necessarily the poorest households suffering most from rising gas costs.

The gas-tax holiday isn’t the legislature’s only contribution to car subsidies. The decade-long failure to enact congestion pricing — with even our current Assembly member reluctant to champion a measure that would benefit our district most — is another way we haven’t properly priced the costs of driving in New York.

As cars get bigger, other jurisdictions are beginning to ensure owners of these behemoths bear the costs of bringing them onto city streets, with registration fees that correlate to weight. In the legislature, I will fight for New York to take the same steps to disincentivize needlessly large and deadly vehicles.

We're subsidizing gas, maintaining streets primarily for cars, and giving away parking spaces — while slow-walking congestion pricing and its $15 billion for the MTA , and doing nothing to properly price the costs of swelling SUVs. How can we be surprised to see traffic deaths continue to rise? Full-time speed cameras are welcome, but they are a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.

A common refrain is that these inducements to driving are a matter of economic justice: blue-collar New Yorkers need roads, places to park, and gas for their tanks.

But the reality is that city households that own cars have more than double the median income of households that don’t. The status quo subsidizes those better-off households over their worse-off neighbors who rely on buses, subways, and walking. These communities disproportionately suffer from emissions-related climate change and asthma — and they also bear the brunt of traffic deaths.

We’ve heard of socialism for the rich and capitalism for the rest. For far too long, New York has offered socialism for car owners.

It’s time to end these subsidies and reduce the number of cars on city streets. Our lives depend on it.

Ryder Kessler (@ryderkessler) is a lifelong downtown Manhattanite and community leader running for Assembly on a platform of making New York more vibrant, equitable, and sustainable.

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