East Side doesn’t roll with car culture, new N.Y.U. survey says

By Kurt Cavanaugh

Our post World War II romance with the automobile, and the related dedication to automobile parking spaces, “works” for suburban sprawl and mall-dedicated culture. But healthy urban life — as the Lower East Side exemplifies — necessitates vibrant foot and bicycle traffic and public mass transit.

Transportation on Manhattan’s East Side has become unsustainable — and the Lower East Side/East Village has been affected at least as negatively as any other neighborhood. Residents and workers, as well as those coming to the neighborhood for entertainment, shopping or dining, have the choice of a long commute on the city’s most overcrowded subway line (the 4/5/6), a trip on one of its slowest buses (the M15) or a walk or bike ride on some of the city’s most dangerous avenues. 

While East Siders have watched as bike lanes, a sleek waterfront promenade and major pedestrian safety measures have been constructed farther west, First and Second Aves. have been neglected in the status quo. Until now. 

This fall, the city’s Department of Transportation and the M.T.A. are partnering on one of the largest transportation overhauls in memory. Nearly 200 blocks of First and Second Aves. are slated for physically protected bicycle lanes, pedestrian refuges and dedicated bus lanes. The specifics of the block-by-block redesigns are being coordinated by community boards and a Community Advisory Committee made up of residents from all along the East Side. This much is certain: By this October, 60,000 daily riders on the M15 bus route will be speeding along in dedicated bus lanes and paying fares at special machines at the curb to enhance rapid boarding. Cyclists, whose numbers are constantly growing, will have new lanes along most of that corridor, protecting them from car doors and unaware traffic. Pedestrians — especially the disabled and elderly — will have more manageable crossing distances at the avenues, helping them navigate streets much more safely. 

There’s a lot to like in this plan. Fewer road injuries and fatalities, to be sure. Faster travel times for bus riders. 

A big question mark thus far has been what the plan will mean to the thousands of business owners along First and Second Aves. These are, after all, very tough times and many businesses are struggling just to break even. Change can be unwelcome in the best of times, and in a deep recession, there is a very reasonable fear that things could get worse.

New York University researchers have recently interviewed hundreds of shoppers along the East Village segment of the Select Bus Service corridor. They have focused on: preferred modes of transportation; pedestrian compared to automobile driver spending; and how shopping habits might change if parking were reduced and/or bus access improved. 

The results are striking. Among the 500 customers surveyed, 7 percent came to the area by car, 45 percent arrived by public transportation and 43 percent arrived by biking or walking. Spending habits were even more lopsided. Automobile drivers constituted less than 4 percent of the total weekly spending. Those using sustainable modes of transportation — biking, walking and public transit — represented 96 percent of weekly spending. 

When asked how they would respond to proposed street changes, 36 percent of customers said they would come to the area more often if bus service were improved, while only 10 percent would come less often if there were less on-street parking. An even higher proportion, 12 percent, said they would come [ital] more [unital] often if there were [ital] less [unital] parking. 

These findings indicate the possibility of increased spending in shops throughout our neighborhood. In short, our locally owned shops — featured annually in the East Village Community Coalition’s “Get Local! Guide to East Village Shops” — would have a greater chance of surviving against chains and franchises that threaten to erase the historic streetscape and unique culture of the East Village and Lower East Side. 

The results of the N.Y.U. survey should assure businesses struggling in this difficult economy, as well as the rest of us.

Cavanaugh is managing director, East Village Community Coalition.