Effort to reclaim our streets is picking up speed


By Paul Steely White and Karla Quintero

“Erosion of cities by automobiles entails so familiar a series of events that these hardly need describing. The erosion proceeds as a kind of nibbling … a street is widened here, another is straightened there, a wide avenue is converted to one-way flow, staggered-signal systems are installed for faster movement… More and more land goes into parking.…”

— Jane Jacobs

In bites big and small, Transportation Alternatives is working to reverse the decades-long process of public-space “nibbling” that has resulted in wide, car-oriented streets that breed needless traffic, carbon emissions and pollution while putting walkers and cyclists at a dangerous disadvantage.

The fact is, most automobile traffic is unnecessary, contributing nothing but crowding and pollution to our neighborhoods and commercial districts. At least 40 percent of motorists on Manhattan streets don’t even have a destination in Manhattan — they are just passing through. And most drivers with a Manhattan destination could be taking other means of travel. Ninety percent of Manhattan-bound drivers have a viable mass transit alternative that they are not taking, and the 22 percent of driving trips citywide that are 1 mile or less in length could be walked or biked.

There are many strategies to curtail this needless driving and traffic congestion. One is to drastically reduce the number of government employees who are allowed to park anywhere they please, and to raise the price of curbside parking. Because curbside parking ranges from free to many times cheaper than private garage rates, drivers are encouraged to bargain hunt at the curb instead of paying market price at a garage. This saturates the curb, leading to the current epidemic of double- and triple-parking that clogs streets and causes veering maneuvers and collisions. Curb saturation also causes a lot of needless traffic. Recent T.A. studies have found that 28 percent to 40 percent of all traffic consists of cars and trucks circling the block for curbside parking.

The solution is to do what has worked in Pasadena, Cal., and other cities: raise curbside parking rates until one or two spaces per block are always vacant. By charging more for metered parking until some spaces open up, and by charging for the permission to park on residential streets, double-parking, excess traffic and traffic crashes will all be significantly reduced. Plus, millions of dollars in revenue will be generated, which can be spent on local streetscape improvements such as trees, doublewide sidewalks and special weekend car-free days.

Another way to reduce excess traffic is for New York City to use modern boothless tolling technology to charge motorists a fee to drive in the most congested parts of the city during the most congested times. “Congestion pricing” is working in London to thin traffic, and it can work even better here where density is higher and fewer people drive to work. Congestion pricing — which improves surface transit by thinning traffic and improves all transit by generating hundreds of millions of dollars per year in revenue — would clearly benefit the 80 percent of Manhattan households that don’t own cars, and the 83 percent of outer borough commuters who already take transit.

On the grassroots level, T.A. has worked with its allies to establish the Citywide Coalition for Traffic Relief, whose 135 members are putting pressure on the mayor and City Council to move forward with congestion pricing and parking reforms to reduce citywide traffic volumes by 15 percent. Members of this growing coalition include the 300 W. 15th St. Block Association, the E. Fourth St. Block Association and the American Planning Association. At the “grass-tops” level, T.A. is working with business improvement districts and the Partnership for New York City to educate city leaders that these and other traffic-relief measures are good for business.

Once parking reforms and congestion pricing are in place, many fewer vehicles will be circulating on our streets. Then it will be much easier to reprogram large swaths of driving and parking space, transforming these into wider sidewalks, public plazas, protected bicycle lanes, bus lanes and linear parks. Another higher use of street space is bike parking, since just one car-parking space can accommodate parking for at least a dozen bicycles. But we needn’t wait for congestion pricing to begin reapportioning our streets and retiming our traffic signals to favor buses, pedestrians and bicyclists: When faced with limited space to drive and park — while given the simultaneous enticement of more comfortable walking, safer cycling and quicker buses — motorists will drive less and use alternatives more.

T.A., in concert with local partners, is working to make this transformation a reality on streets and in neighborhoods throughout New York. Here are a few examples:

Houston St. bike lane: Between 2002 and 2004, 82 cyclists were struck by cars and trucks on Houston St., and in the past year, three cyclists, Brandie Bailey, Andrew Morgan and Derek Lake, were killed by drivers there. These deaths have spurred Community Board 2’s Transportation Committee and local elected officials to ask the city to include protected cycling space in the reconstruction of W. Houston St.

In addition to Houston St., there are other crosstown streets in the vicinity that could serve as vital links between the Williamsburg Bridge bike path, the greenways and waterfront parks on Manhattan’s east and west shores. Transportation Alternatives is currently working with the Department of Transportation, Community Boards 2 and 3, local elected officials, businesses and community groups to build consensus around reapportioning street space to create a safe crosstown bike route.

Safe streets for Chinatown seniors:Chinatown has one of the highest concentrations of elderly residents in all of New York. Unfortunately, walking has become a risky activity for older adults in Chinatown, and there are more senior pedestrians hit by drivers in Chinatown than in any other Manhattan neighborhood. Senior pedestrians represent 20.7 percent of all pedestrian injuries and fatalities in Chinatown, and three of the most dangerous intersections for seniors in Manhattan — Mott and Canal Sts., Bowery and Canal St. and Bowery and Grand St. — are located there.

In addition to the dangerous volumes of traffic, motorists do not often yield to pedestrians when they are turning and many park illegally in front of ramps and crosswalks. The combination of these obstacles limits the ability of slower-walking senior citizens to get across the street safely. (Most seniors walk at a speed of 2.5 feet per second — not 4 feet per second for which lights are timed.)

T.A. is currently working with several local groups to pressure Mayor Bloomberg to make necessary changes to large streets, such as curb extensions with protective bollards (metal posts that stop motorists from driving on sidewalks), longer crossing times, exclusive crossing time free from turning vehicles and adequate A.D.A.-compliant pedestrian ramps.

The future of Manhattan’s streets: To meet the challenges of growth and global warming, and to make our streets more conducive to active transportation and the human interaction that Jane Jacobs rightly recognized as the foundation of a healthy and democratic society, New York City streets must change. If the 20th century was about accommodating the car, the 21st century is about fairly charging motorists for the space they use while reprogramming our streets to accommodate increasing numbers of walkers, bicyclists and bus riders.

White is executive director and Quintero is deputy director, Transportation Alternatives.