Is Traffic in the Bowery Like the Weather or Like Polio?
The Impact of Congestion on the Bowery and the rest of New York City
In recent months – years, really – traffic-related accidents in the Bowery have received attention. Prompted in 2009 by a high incidence of bicycle accidents at the intersection of Bowery and East Houston Street, the New York City Department of Transportation conducted a study that identified, and proposed ways to reduce the risk of, dangerous crossings in the Bowery and other surrounding neighborhoods.
In addition to bike accidents, the study looked at intersections that posed challenges for pedestrians. For instance, the stoplight at the intersection at East 4th and Bowery only provided approximately seven seconds for pedestrians to traverse Bowery before the lights for cross bound traffic turned green. While the crossing times at that intersection have since been increased to 20 seconds, the anecdote illustrates the tension that exists between allowing people enough time to cross an intersection safely and having the stoplights change with enough frequency to flush through backed-up vehicles.
Other congested intersections where cars and pedestrians compete for primacy include where Bleeker Street terminates at Bowery and where Broadway meets Houston. Cars trying to access the Bowery neighborhood at these and other intersections get backed up waiting for pedestrians to make their way through the crosswalks.
What all of these situations have in common is competition for street space among bicyclists, pedestrians and drivers. The danger, of course, is that where you have traffic congestion, you have frustrated and impatient drivers. And where you have frustrated and impatient drivers you have impulsive, angry behavior and therefore increased risk of accidents involving pedestrians and cyclists.
In addition to the risks of injury or death from such accidents, vehicular traffic on our city streets also leads to increased particulate pollution and thus asthma rates, especially among children – though it is important to note that heightened emissions standards over several decades have led to a dramatic improvement in overall air quality.
It's no secret that traffic also results in enormous delays for automobile and truck drivers and taxi riders leading to a significant loss in productivity for the New York City metro area.
A study conducted in 2006 by the Partnership for New York City put region-wide losses for businesses and consumers due to traffic congestion at more than $13 billion per year. And this year, New York City is projected to bump Los Angeles from atop the list of the most congested U.S. cities in the country.
Despite the deleterious impact traffic has on New York's quality of life, most New Yorkers long ago resigned themselves to the notion that traffic is like the weather – there's nothing you can do about it; it's just an indelible part of living and working in the New York metro area. In truth, traffic is not a fact of life; it is more like polio – a long-standing problem with a cure.
Such a cure must be premised on the idea that traffic has a cost and that cost is born by everyone, including drivers. If you price the cost of driving a little closer to the actual cost a given driver imposes on everyone else – in the form of time delays, lost productivity, health problems caused by air pollution, traffic accidents, etc. – voila, you'll have less people driving and more people taking mass transit, riding their bikes or walking. And if you also price driving according to how much traffic there is and how much each driver is therefore contributing to overall traffic – i.e., higher tolls where there's a lot of traffic and lower tolls where there's less – you'll create a system that not only reduces traffic but is fairer because one pays according to how much traffic one creates or contributes to.
Unfortunately, the common sense and equitable system described above is not what we have in place today. Instead, drivers who bring their vehicles into the most congested part of the city – i.e., the Central Business District (CBD), defined as Lower Manhattan south of 60th Street – are rewarded with free passage if they travel via one of the four toll-less East River bridges or from Upper Manhattan. Yet New York drivers using the crossings in the other boroughs where there is far less congestion – on bridges like the Throgs Neck, Whitestone, Verrazano, Cross Bay or RFK – pay out the nose. It doesn't take a world-class traffic engineer to know that such a system is patently unfair and a poor way to manage a large metropolitan area's traffic.
"Gridlock" Sam Schwartz: the Man with a Plan
Luckily, New York boasts its own world-class engineer who has come up with a cure to New York City's traffic ills. He is Brooklyn-born "Gridlock" Sam Schwartz, a former NYC traffic commissioner and venerated veteran of traffic management who is credited with coining the word "gridlock" in the 1970s.
After forty years of analyzing and engineering transportation networks the world over, Sam has developed a regional traffic plan for New York City that would restore equity, reduce overall traffic and generate $1.5 billion in net revenue each year that would be used to modernize and expand our transit system and improve area roads and bridges – a boon to transit riders and drivers alike, not to mention the region's businesses and workers.
Under Sam's plan, a fee would be charged to drivers crossing into the CBD via the (currently free) East River bridges or from above 60th Street. Existing tolls into the CBD – i.e., the four tunnels crossing the East and Hudson Rivers – would stay the same, while the tolls on the MTA bridges around the outer perimeters of the city would be cut in half. E-Z Pass and camera technology would be used for collecting fares thus avoiding the need for traffic-jamming tollbooths. Moreover, money generated by the new system would be used to eliminate tollbooths where they currently exist thus speeding up travel throughout the region.
By tolling the East River bridges, drivers would no longer "toll shop" (because all crossings would cost the same) thus distributing traffic evenly among the various bridges and tunnels leading into the CBD. The CBD entry tolls would reduce traffic into lower Manhattan by as much as 25%, translating into a significant reduction of cars and trucks traveling through the Bowery and the rest of Lower Manhattan as well as outside the CBD in parts of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. That means safer streets and less air and noise pollution for the Bowery and dozens of other communities both inside and outside the CBD cordon area.
About a quarter of the $1.5 billion in net revenues (approximately $375 million a year) would be dedicated to improving area roads and bridges – in particular highways like the Belt Parkway, Van Wyck and Staten Island Expressways. The combination of rational tolling and improved roads will incentivize noisy and polluting trucks to get off city streets – where they are a menace to neighborhood safety and quality of life – and onto the highways that were originally built for them. The rest of the money – roughly $1.125 billion – will be invested in our transit system, each and every year! The result? Faster, cleaner, safer, more efficient, more widespread and more frequent bus, subway and commuter rail service to help move New Yorkers around the region.
Sam's plan also includes an element that will transform the city landscape: three new bicycle and pedestrian bridges into the CBD – the first bridges of any kind built since 1909 – that will further connect the boroughs of New York City. The three new "ribbon" bridges – each about 20 feet wide connecting Red Hook, Governor's Island and the Financial District; Greenpoint, Hunter's Point, and Midtown Manhattan; and Hoboken and Manhattan's West Side – will be built and maintained using nominal fees charged to cyclists and pedestrians crossing over them.
Unlike past plans, Sam's plan will ensure that Manhattanites pay their fair share. He achieves this by adding a surcharge onto yellow taxis, which occupy a lot of road space and are used predominantly by Manhattanites. Ditto for hired town cars that are mostly used by millionaires. He also removes the long-obsolete parking garage tax rebate in Manhattan, a perk that residents of the wealthiest borough no longer need. And he raises on-street parking rates to help further curb unnecessary trips, free up parking spaces, and bring the price of parking a car on the street closer to market rates.
Finally, you can't invest $1.5 billion per year in New York's transportation system without generating big benefits for the region's economy. Rough estimates predict 35,000 new permanent jobs in the New York metro area and about a $1 billion a year in new economic activity spurred by big construction projects and upgraded and expanded transit service.
Public Opinion & The Question of Regressivity
Despite the clear and substantial benefits for all transit riders, most drivers and the region as a whole, Sam's regional transportation plan has not yet been fully tested in the court of public opinion.
When Mayor Bloomberg proposed his congestion pricing plan in 2007, the public and the New York State Legislature was initially enthusiastic until a number of legislators made it their mission to defeat the Mayor on the issue. Like Sam's plan, Bloomberg's version of traffic pricing similarly would have created a "cordon toll" around the CBD with the aim of reducing traffic congestion and raising revenues for mass transit improvements.
But Bloomberg's version of congestion pricing was very Manhattan-centric in that Lower Manhattanites would have received the biggest benefit, in the form of reduced traffic in the CBD, but paid the least amount of money into the 'kitty' because, unlike folks living outside the CBD, Lower Manhattanites don't generally travel into and out of the CBD every day and thus would not be subjected to the new tolls as often. Unlike Sam's plan, the Bloomberg plan did not balance the benefits to Lower Manhattan by slashing tolls in the "outer" boroughs where congestion is less of an issue. Nor did Mayor Bloomberg set aside money for road improvements, thus leaving suburban and borough drivers feeling as though they were being fleeced to subsidize transit riders.
Once politicians like New York State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky and others started to demagogue Bloomberg's proposal as a nod to the rich and a regressive tax on the poor, public opinion followed suit. Thus, the issue of regressivity – for moral and political reasons – is an important one to sort out. Is it unfair to charge more to drive into the CBD if it means pricing certain people – those who arguably can't afford the extra expense – out of that option? And is a proposal that includes such a feature regressive as a consequence?
Let's deconstruct what regressive means in this context and whether it can aptly be applied to Sam's plan or any congestion pricing plan. The term 'regressive' is generally considered shorthand for a regressive tax – a tax that has a disproportionately negative impact on lower income people because the tax represents a larger share of their overall income or assets as compared with higher income people. Setting aside the fact that many policy experts view tolls as a user fee rather than a tax, Sam Schwartz's proposed regional transportation plan is not, in my view, regressive.
In looking at regressivity, it seems to me there are two central questions. First, is the act of charging all drivers a toll to come into a certain part of a city regressive by definition – i.e., because you are charging the same fee to everyone regardless of income? Second, assuming that the new tolls do have a regressive aspect vis-à-vis those lower income drivers for whom the net benefit (of higher tolls vs. the value of time saved) is negative, is the plan as a whole still regressive even if the new fee only negatively impacts a small minority of lower income people overall?
With regard to the first question, I would say that adding a fee to currently free crossings in a city where just about every other crossing has a toll is not regressive. Indeed, as my colleague Charles Komanoff put it, adding a new toll on the East River Bridges and across 60th Street is no different, in terms of regressivity, than "tolls on every [existing] MTA and Port Authority crossing, subway and bus fares, and, in fact, Yankees tickets, iTunes downloads, gasoline, and the proverbial quart of milk."
With regard to the second question, the people who benefit from Sam's plan dwarf the relatively small number of people who are harmed. This is also true if you look only at the effect of Sam's plan on lower income people as a whole, the vast majority of whom use mass transit and will benefit significantly from an upgraded and expanded transit system.
So how many people will benefit under Sam's plan? It is impossible to predict with specificity but a reasonable starting point would be the more than 12 million people who live or work in the New York City metropolitan area and use MTA transit services or area roads, bridges and tunnels. And how will they benefit, exactly?
If you take public transit, which most of us do, you will enjoy a much-improved system for decades to come. If you ride your bike or walk, you'll appreciate less vehicular traffic, safer streets and cleaner air and you'll be able to travel between boroughs and between New Jersey and Manhattan via three new scenic bridges. If you're a driver who regularly drives into the CBD, you'll get there more quickly – and for most drivers, the time saved is more valuable than the toll paid. If you're a small business that delivers to the CBD or a tradesperson who has to drive into and around the CBD making multiple stops, you'll benefit from a nearly 20% reduction in traffic. Ditto for taxi riders trying to get to a meeting or the theater on time.
If you're a local retailer, studies show that you'll get more business by increasing the number of people who travel to your neighborhood by mass transit, bike or foot as opposed to by car. (Note that, as a result of Sam's plan, a net gain of 115,000 people is expected to travel into the CBD, by whatever means, thus increasing the number of potential retail customers.) If you're a business in the CBD, you'll see an increase in productivity and attendance rates because both your transit and auto-loving employees will travel to work faster. If you're a member of one of the dozens of local unions in the NYC area, or someone looking for work, your chances of keeping or finding a job will improve as a consequence of annual investments in infrastructure and a more mobile and productive work force. The list goes on and on but I think it is safe to say that the vast majority of New Yorkers living in the metro area will benefit from Sam's plan.
Those that may experience a net loss from the plan include those drivers for whom the incremental cost of driving into the CBD will cause them to seek other transportation options or to drive into Lower Manhattan less frequently.
So how many "displaced" drivers are we talking about?
Of the approximately 3,500,000 people that travel by any means into the CBD each day, just 16%, or about 560,000 people, do so by vehicle (car or truck) and thus would be subject to the new CBD entry toll (this figure does not include people driving through the CBD but not stopping – e.g., the guy driving from NJ to Long Island via Manhattan); the other 84% commute by mass transit, bicycle or foot. And of those 560,000 drivers, we estimate that on account of the new tolls roughly 12% or 65,000 people will, on a given day, decide not to travel into the CBD by motor vehicle.
To put these numbers in perspective, that means that, on an average day, about 12% of CBD-bound drivers, less than 5% of total NYC area drivers, and something like 0.5% of the region's mobile population, will be adversely affected by Sam's plan.
While hardly a trivial number, 65,000 displaced drivers is fairly small when compared to the rest of region's approximately 12 million people who will benefit from a new fair and rational tolling system and massive investments in the region's transportation infrastructure. (And, of course, even displaced drivers will benefit from those same investments when they travel in and around New York City, whether by car, public transit or bike, as well as the discounted "outer" borough bridge tolls.)
No one wants to see a single person negatively affected by a given policy or new system. But from a policy-making standpoint, one has to make tough choices so as to improve the lives and economic opportunities for the majority of its citizens while achieving other goals important to society – in this case, reducing traffic, productivity and potential job losses, various forms of pollution, climate impacts, car accidents, etc. –all while modernizing an aging transit system that threatens to undermine New York's status as an international business capital and engine of economic growth.
Sam's plan is bold and visionary and will help transform life in New York for generations of New Yorkers. The Bowery, like every other community in and around the city, will benefit enormously. It is my hope that RIPP readers will join the campaign to help bring Sam's plan to life and help ensure New York remains one of the most livable and prosperous cities on earth.
Alex Matthiessen, the former Hudson Riverkeeper (2000-2010) and a special assistant at the U.S. Department of the Interior (1997-2000), is the founder and president of Matthiessen Strategies, an eco-political consultancy based in New York City. Alex is also the director of Move NY, a campaign to bring a rational transportation improvement and financing system to New York City.
To learn more about and get involved with the Move NY campaign, please visit