Single occupancy vehicle ban for commuters ends

By Jessica Mintz

The remnants of the ban on single occupancy vehicles driving during rush hour into Manhattan was lifted on Monday, more than two years after it was imposed as a security measure following the events of Sept. 11.

The ban, which went into effect on Sept 27, 2001, excluded S.O.V.’s from entering the city via bridges and tunnels below 60th St. between 6 a.m. and noon. Over time, the restrictions were eased to include only morning rush hour from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., and last April, according to the city Department of Transportation, the ban was lifted for Midtown crossings. The last restrictions on Manhattan-bound S.O.V.’s using the Williamsburg, Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges and the Holland and Brooklyn Battery tunnels were lifted on Monday.

The security crackdown on vehicles entering the city after 9/11 caused major traffic problems, according to Keith Kalb, a D.O.T. spokesperson, who described standstill conditions.

“We found [the bans] to be very effective, and we found them to be very necessary because of the gridlock that was caused from the World Trade Center tragedy,” said Kalb.

D.O.T. gives several reasons for easing the ban on S.O.V.’s entering Lower Manhattan. For one, said Kalb, “people were skirting around” the ban by driving into the city above 14th St. D.O.T. also saw an increase in traffic on Downtown bridges and tunnels between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m., and between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m.

“Now, we expect to see a leveling off” to the normal, pre-9/11 traffic patterns, said Kalb.

Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group that encourages less automobile use, says it is disappointed that the ban was lifted.

“The S.O.V. restriction was a good thing,” said Neel Scott, a T.A. project coordinator. “It was obviously reducing traffic, and generally just helping to make the streets run a bit saner Downtown. With this gone, we feel that in order for traffic not to hit a boiling point Downtown and throughout the city — whether it’s S.O.V. restrictions or proposed tolling on East River bridges — something of this sort needs to be done.”

CommuterLink, a nonprofit group whose mission has been to assist in the voluntary reduction of single occupancy vehicle use in the New York City area, helped scores more commuters find carpools, vanpools and mass transit routes after the ban began.

“We saw a 1000 percent increase in the first six months of the S.O.V. ban. Obviously, it tapered down since then, but it still was considerably up there,” said John Galgano, a CommuterLink project manager.

“I think the S.O.V. ban did a lot to reduce congestion, and I would like to see other efforts to reduce congestion throughout the region,” said Galgano. “One of those things could be something similar to a ban or limit of S.O.V.’s, at least during certain peak periods.”

While D.O.T. continues to encourage people to carpool and ride mass transit, T.A.’s Scott said these changes are unlikely to stick.

“Traffic in New York was historically increasing over the years, reaching an all-time high [before 9/11]. There was river-to-river gridlock on places like Broome St., Delancey St.,” and other Downtown arteries, said Scott. “I think we’re going to see a significant decrease in the numbers of people carpooling.… We expect to see it return to pre-9/11 levels.”

Another reason for lifting the ban is to invigorate Lower Manhattan’s economy. “Part of the Lower Manhattan recovery is to allow more cars into Lower Manhattan,” said Kalb. “We think Lower Manhattan is able to withstand it, even though there will still be security searches and such at certain places.”

Councilmember Margarita Lopez supports the decision to lift the ban for economic reasons.

“When we had to put this policy in place, it affected the economy of the city,” said Lopez. “It was inevitable for the mayor and D.O.T. to have to remove that prohibition. You pay a price when you move in that direction of prohibiting people from coming in and out in the city.… Would I like to not have car traffic in the city? Absolutely. I also have to look at economy, budget. We have to bring back Lower Manhattan to what it was before.”

The ban drove people away from the city, said Lopez, and combined with the disruption of PATH service to the World Trade Center area, the impact on local businesses was unquestionably negative. When budget season returns, Lopez said she’d rather allow more traffic into the city than have to consider cutting more social programs.

Councilmember Alan Gerson is taking a wait-and-see approach and also waiting for results of the multi-agency Canal Area Transportation Study.

“I am waiting to see if there’s a material increase in congestion,” Gerson said of the end of the S.O.V. rule. “We need to be prepared to go backwards. What is needed overall is to evaluate and come up with the best traffic management plans for making the river crossing. I expect there will be an announcement very soon [on] the CATS study. I’m looking forward to that.”

Sean Sweeny, director of the Soho Alliance, said he’s seen a vast reduction in traffic on Canal, Worth and Chambers Sts. and over by the Holland Tunnel since the ban was imposed, and isn’t enthusiastic about returning to pre-9/11 conditions. Like T.A., Sweeny advocates tolling the East River bridges.

“This is another example of Manhattan being screwed by politicians in the boroughs,” said Sweeny. “It’s really inequitable that a person wealthy enough to afford an S.U.V. can ride in comfort into Manhattan for free, yet a welfare recipient must pay $2 to be crushed like a sardine. Why should mass transit subsidize their luxury?”

Carl Rosenstein, a member of the Soho-based environmental group Trees not Trucks, also said lifting the ban will have negative impacts.

“It’s a disappointing and timid move by the mayor. He’s unable to stand in the face of the automobile lobby,” said Rosenstein.

D.O.T.’s and Lopez’s economic argument doesn’t hold much weight with him.

“That’s the argument that the automobile lobby uses,” Rosenstein said. “The social cost and health cost — high asthma rates in children, high associated medical costs, all of these things have to be factored in.

“Post-9/11 Lower Manhattan was the most livable it’s been in decades in terms of traffic and pollution,” partly because of reduced car traffic, and partly because of bans on commercial traffic leaving the city through the Holland Tunnel,” he said. “You can really taste the difference in the air,” said Rosenstein.