Chaos in the Streets: Ten Reasons Our Streets are So Crowded

“It is so crowded no one goes there anymore.” Whether Yogi Berra really said this or not, it’s wrong! Or at least half wrong. It is so crowded, AND they are still coming here. Not just by foot, but in cars, taxis, trains, buses, like in the old days, but now more than ever on bikes, some juiced up to go faster, scooters (also juiced), LUV cars (Lyft/ Uber/Via), more package delivery trucks for Amazon primers, and to add to the mélange more and more pedestrians – not just office workers and other natives, but 60 million tourists each year. All of them fighting for a piece of the pie, also know as streets and sidewalks. The results are jammed streets that threaten our well-being and our joy of being in the most vibrant and exciting city in the world.

Who gets what and how much? Let’s start with ten facts. (You remember what a fact is, don’t you)?

  1. Everyone, even the most devoted motorist is a pedestrian before and after they step out of their car or transit vehicle.
  2. 9 million people entered Manhattan below 60thStreet each weekday in 2016, up by 320,000 or 8.6 % in ten years.
  3. There are more pedestrians-based trips than trips by all the other modes combined. In Manhattan below 60thStreet, for example, there are approximately 15 million trips on foot each weekday.
  4. Different kinds of vehicles operate at different speeds, cars fastest, then bikes and then scooters, all faster than pedestrians and differential speeds cause accidents and threaten safety of the most vulnerable – pedestrians most, then scooterers and bikers, and finally motorists.
  5. Different modes of surface transportation have differential space requirements per person – by far the highest are cars, taxis and LUVs, then bikes and scooters and finally, pedestrians.
  6. Biking into Manhattan has almost tripled between 2006 and 2016 from 12,000 to 32, 000.
  7. The speed of buses in the City have slowed in recent years, partially cause by the growth in LUV and other vehicles.
  8. Driving into Manhattan south of 60thStreet is free for 78 percent of passenger cars / LUVs and taxis.
  9. There is finite space on the street for movement and storage of vehicles and to accommodate pedestrians crossing them.
  10. Existing enforcement of the rules are lax – bus lanes are violated by parking and moving cars, some bikers do not stop at red signals go the wrong way on one-way streets, and some even use sidewalks, (scooterer behavior is not yet known), and walkers jaywalk.

These facts point to ways that we can be doing a much better job of regulating our scarce street space.

First and foremost, pedestrians deserve a break. There are more of them than any other mode and they are the most vulnerable. We have started to restore some balance with pedestrian plazas, traffic calming and other policies, but there is much more that can be done. Sidewalks on Lexington, Madison, and Fifth Avenues and on 42ndStreet should be made wider and Broadway completely closed to traffic from 34thStreet to Columbus Circle. The sidewalks of the avenues and streets near the three major transit facilities in midtown – Penn Station, Grand Central Terminal, the Port Authority Bus Terminal –should be widened. Similarly, the sidewalks around the World Trade Center should be widened and many of the narrow streets with little vehicle traffic in lower Manhattan should converted to pedestrian only precincts.

Second, vehicles that use scarce street space should pay for the privilege. Enacting Governor Cuomo’s and Mayor De Blasio’s proposed congestion charge for passenger cars entering Manhattan south of 60thStreet, as RPA has been pushing for since the 1990s, is essential. Other policies include variable pricing for both driving and parking cars and trucks that adjust prices in periods of peak demand, and charges for LUVs and taxis that are calculated based on the time they spend operating empty in the core of the City. These vehicles carry the fewest people per mile and consume the most street capacity.

Third, allocation of street space should favor transit and high-occupancy vehicles. More exclusive bus lanes are needed, particularly on midtown cross streets where they are the pokiest and most heavily used. Scooters should use the same space as bike lanes, and electronically assisted bikes and scooters should require legislation. Traffic rules for everything from violating bus and bike lanes to jaywalking and double-parking, need to be enforced consistently enough to change behavior and become part of the accepted culture.

These recommendations, while developed with Manhattan in mind, should be considered for other portions of New York City where conditions warrant. The City should also begin to develop a response to autonomous vehicles. It is a matter of time before they arrive in force and careful planning is needed to harness their benefits while insuring the pedestrians, bikers and transit riders have the safe space that they need.

With these recommendations in place the chaos building on our City’s streets can be tamed and the concentration of activities that make New York so vibrant will continue to be a reason for people to keep coming here, rather than an excuse to stay away. Concentration without congestion can be a goal we can all strive for.

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