Rethinking Traffic

Traffic congestion is a non-linear process. If it were linear, adding ten percent more vehicles to Manhattan’s streets would result in a ten percent increase in crowding, but that’s not what happens. Because the streets are already congested, adding ten percent extra may be the difference between traffic moving and gridlock. This should not be a surprise to anyone who has witnessed the holiday season traffic in midtown.

It’s time to ban cars from Manhattan” by James Nevius takes an extreme position that may be completely right and is at the least a respectable goal. Manhattan has good subway coverage – and could have better if various long-delayed plans are out into effect – and bus service that looks good on paper. The reason that bus service is not good in reality is the same reason that trolleys had to be abandoned: the streets are too clogged with cars to allow surface transit to move faster than the general speed of traffic. As is noted in the article, the temporary closure of 14th Street to car traffic, which is part go a plan to increase bus service during work on the L train, has led to greatly increased speeds for the busses.

Given that the 14th Street experiment is inherently limited, the best hope for improvement we have right now is a recent law that will change the way the city’s Department of Transportation allocates the resource of street space. It will take a while, but it will lead to more protected bus lanes, more protected bicycle lanes, and more pedestrian space. That helps but is not nearly enough: as of 2017, 59 percent of people working in Manhattan were taking public transit on their commute, 20 percent walked, and less than 9 percent drove or carpooled. When we devote more than six times as much money and space to transit as to driving, and when we devote more than twice as much money and space to pedestrians as to driving, then we will be nearing a logical approach to moving people.

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