Thursday, July 12, 2007

Last Best Chance

An occasionally lucid, sometimes rambling discourse arguing in favor of traffic congestion pricing for New York City, as well as other (hopefully even more onerous) anti-automobile measures designed to save the city, nation and planet from ourselves... now in the hands of a notoriously dysfunctional governing body known as the New York State Legislature, as Mayor Bloomberg continues stumping for his plan.

AT THIS WATERSHED MOMENT in New York City history, it is my contention that without passage and implementation of Bloomberg's plan (and soon) or one equally ambitious in scope, this is the City we're gonna be stuck with, a city overrun by cars and gridlocked by traffic, where the pedestrian is a second class citizen on his own streets. While other major urban centers around the globe are undertaking programs to improve their traffic problems, New York continues to do nothing to address the situation. Now New York is competing with eight other cities for its share of over $1.1 billion in federal mass transit funding. Only catch is, each city has to present a traffic reduction initiative based on congestion pricing to qualify for the funds. And of course the New York State Assembly can't agree on a plan, specifically Sheldon Silver, the speaker of that august body representing Lower Manhattan who is doing all he can to scuttle Bloomberg's pet project, much as he did just over two years ago. Difference being, we loved him when he blocked that stadium plan, and now ... not so much. Silver is just not a big Bloomie guy, as this quote makes pretty clear:

"The mayor … insists that he is the city, and he wants the authority to impose fees, he wants the authority to set a zone, and he wants the authority to purchase the equipment that’s necessary to implement his plan. He does not want anybody else’s view considered on the entire issue."

Whatever the real reason for Silver's refusal to get on board, it's more than a damn shame, because essentially the very same plan was implemented in London four years ago and, guess what, it's worked: cutting traffic by 15 percent the first year, with at most a negligible impact on retail business centers. But an organized opposition to Mayor Bloomberg traffic congestion tax on drivers entering Manhattan below 86th Street -- $8 for cars, $22 for trucks -- has stopped passage of the measure, which in turn would have immediately triggered some half-a-billion dollars in federal mass transit aid.

MEANWHILE, the city's nightmarish traffic situation has become all but unmanageable, with some or perhaps most residents throwing up their hands in despair and all but giving up. And maybe people believe modern urban traffic is one of those intractable problems that HAS no solution, like immigration and racial tensions. However, other large cities have actually tackled the problem head on with congestion relief and traffic calming initiatives that have gone a long way toward making the areas in question less stressful, where pedestrians and vehicles coexist and interact in more humane, civilized ways.

New York is one of the few major U.S. cities where you can still function without owning a car, one of the only metropolitan areas where the car has not entirely taken over every aspect of life, as is the case in suburb after exurb, with their office parks, malls, shopping centers in place of sidewalks, stores, shops. That's why obesity rates among children have risen steadily since more people now live in suburban areas than in cities nationwide. I'm just saying.

Who would oppose alleviating Manhattan's congested streets, and on what grounds? On the nightly news programs we saw drivers being interviewed, but not walkers; commuters but not residents; we constantly heard the viewpoint of car owners, but not lowly pedestrians. Most respondents were challenged by the facts, and usually resorted to rumors and half-truths to make their case. Others hid more blatantly behind lies, such as the cowardly Richard Brodsky, whose opposition rests on what he describes as an unfair burden the plan would place on lower- and middle-income drivers. What Brodsky and, indeed, most news reports fail to disclose when covering his study is that the Westchester Assemblyman is the recipient of the second highest amount of campaign contributions (of course some would call such donations bribes) from the parking garage industry. Brodsky had the gall to claim he is acting purely (nobly?) on behalf of the greater good, telling the New York Times, "We don't have any competing interests. We're interested only in the public interest, and the first thing the public interest requires is someone to actually look at the mayor's plan, fairly and thoroughly." But the parking industry's biggest beneficiary is (surprise, surprise!) another leading opponent of the Mayor's congestion easing plan: City Councilman David Weprin, who has received more than $40,000 in political contributions from garage and parking lot owners.

In fact, fewer than 5 percent of NYC residents drive to work, and lower-income, working class residents of course rely on mass transit to reach their jobs on a daily basis. But why let the facts get in the way when you can hide behind a phony populism? Brodsky represents New York's most prosperous county (Westchester), where per capita income of those who commute into the City by car is $176,000 (overall per capita in Westchester is over $66,000), but a large portion of Westchester residents also commute to the City via Metro North and other forms of mass transit.

The price of off-street Manhattan parking spaces precludes all but the upper middle class and above from being able to afford them on a regular basis. So let's stop this nonsense about the congestion plan being some kind of onerous tax on the poor and working class schmoes; they're not the ones coming into Manhattan to either work or shop at the status label boutiques or dine at 4-star restaurants. Besides, it's not a ban but a restriction; it's still free to come into overpriced, overcrowded Manhattan on weekends. At least for now.

But why do what's best for the actual residents of the City, who face the disastrous effects of traffic on a daily basis, including serious health problems related to automobile pollution and pedestrian deaths directly caused by vehicles. It would take the efforts of a thousand Al-Qaeda's to replicate the carnage & destruction that can rightly be "credited" to the automobile industry on a national basis. The difference is that we bemoan the existence of one while foolishly embracing the other through propagandistic ad campaigns that do their best to celebrate the myth of the open road as uniquely American, with the driver cunningly celebrated in countless cultural messages as master of his own destiny.

A recent study called Traffic's Human Toll conducted by Transportation Alternatives showed how constant auto traffic took a major negative toll on residents in four City neighborhoods, including Astoria, Brooklyn Heights and Chinatown. According to study respondents, New Yorkers "living on streets with high volumes of traffic spend less time outside and are more likely to restrict their children's outdoor play compared to people who live on medium and low traffic streets." The TA Report report also found that "residents on high traffic streets are twice as likely to be disrupted by traffic while they are walking, talking, eating, playing with kids and sleeping."

THE SADDEST THING is how many people have given up. Too many have come to terms with being helpless to change such an important quality of life situation. One Brooklynite offered this resigned perspective: "Compared to where I lived ... in Manattan, here we have nothing to complain about. Sure, the kids can't play ball in the street, but compared to the heart of Manhattan, this is downright pasture land."

Indeed, the days when NYC kids could play anything on a city street without being interrupted by a constant flow of cars is a thing of the long lost past, a distant rumor, a dying murmur. Just another long-dead ghost of New York yesteryear.

I remember growing up how this city was a walker's paradise, where your own two legs could carry you from one interesting neighborhood to another without being subject to wave after wave of cars, trucks, buses, taxis and, most deleterious of all, and modern bane of pedestrians the world over, the Sport Utility Vehicle blocking the way, making navigating the streets a living hell for all concerned.

It's not just that certain busy Manhattan streets and avenues at certain times are clogged, like during rush hour. Rather, it's EVERY street, EVERY day, EVERY time of day, ALL day, with literally no relief or respite. A year ago, the EPA reported that NYC's air quality is among the the worst in the nation; and cars, trucks and buses are responsible for at least 80% of the harmful pollutants we all breath in. Yet there are those who remain on the wrong side of change. In one news story, a small businessman expressed his opposition to Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan. "There are a lot of uncertainties," said Luis Nunez of the Latino Restaurant Association. "I live on 96th Street, and I get claustrophobic in the subway," he said. "If I need to travel ten blocks from where I already pay high taxes, am I expected to pay $8. It's unjust." It's all about Mr. Nunez, the claustrophobic, overtaxed Latino restaurateur, representing a subset if there ever was one. Hey, Luis, take a bus or walk, there's an idea. Okay, big shot, now it's $10 if you wanna come into the city! We'll come up with a special traffic plan just to accomodate Luis Nunez's special needs. Give me a fucking break, Luis!

Now, the Bloomberg plan is far from perfect but it's a good start. I was dead set against Bloomie when he tried to shove his West Side Stadium project down the city's throat. But this is different, this is progressive, it's enlightened, and it proposes the greater good for the most people in the City he was twice elected to represent. Not the parking garage owners who are spending upward of $150,000 in a concerted effort to defeat pricing congestion. Not the pols like Richard Brodsky and David Weprin who are in the cushy pocket of the parking industry.

HOPEFULLY THE NEXT STEP is completely banning automobiles from sections of Manhattan. A plan is already under way to do just that, with Times Square being proposed as the first model project. According to the Daily News, Bloomberg is trying to convince the City DOT to hire Jan Gehl as a consultant, who previously designed similar traffic-free zones for London and Copenhagen, to great success. If by success you mean an urban oasis that takes back the streets from cars and gives top priority to pedestrians, cyclists, walkers, perambulators, skaters, joggers, skateboarders and other natural forms of human-powered motion.

According to the July 10th Daily News,

Gehl spoke about Times Square and his vision for the city last winter when Sadik-Khan interviewed him for the New York Transportation Journal, a think-tank publication affiliated with New York University. Times Square is "beyond the brink" with too many cars and pedestrians cramming into an inadequate amount of space, Gehl said.

"We could take all of the pedestrians out of Times Square or we could take some or most of the traffic out - whatever," Gehl said. "I think that should be the strategy for reducing the vehicular traffic in this dense city." Bloomberg has proposed an $8 fee to enter Manhattan below 86th St. to raise funds to reduce pollution, improve mass transit and prepare for population growth.

"Another thing we can do is to reduce the number of parking spots," Gehl said. "I would raise the price for parking right away." The city also should consider taking parking off some avenues to transform them into tree-lined boulevards with wider sidewalks and outdoor cafes, he said.
"I question whether it is smart to have all this parking on the avenues which could instead be used for trees, benches and cafes," he said.

I really love this guy Gehl already.

Bloomberg's plan has been compared most often and for obvious reasons to the London traffic congestion solution orchestrated by Ken Livingstone, the visionary Mayor of London. Before he could implement his plan, which would make London the largest city to adopt a major congestion easing model, he had to overcome ingrained resistance to the idea that a large urban area could do anything to alleviate a decades if not centuries old problem. Livingstone was also vilified as a communist and socialist by business organizations and their minions in the press, and by various other special interest groups orchestrating opposition to a tax on commuting, as well as to the need for thousands of security cameras needed to help enforce the traffic ban at various strategic locations. And as Bloomberg can relate to, sizable numbers of the citizenry were also quite skeptical of Livingstone's plan, to say nothing of the criticism loudly voiced by the drivers and commuters themselves.

The London traffic congestion tax has had its share of critics, who argue the mass transport system is ill prepared to take on additional capacity; that small business is hurt by the decrease in traffic; that it hits the poor sections of society. But it's done what it was designed to do: significantly reduce car traffic, successfully lowering not only congestion but overall pollution levels (nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide by over 13 percent according to one report).

SPEAKING OF STUDIES, there has been a ton of market focus group research looking into the mindset of consumers who purchase SUVs and Hum-Vees. Despite a track record demonstrating that SUVs made drivers less safe on many quantifiable metrics, SUV buyers consistently relate that they feel safer behind the wheel, and similar gut feelings related to security and safety continue driving the stratospheric sales of 4-wheel drive vehicles more than any other factor -- trumping negatives like rising gas prices every time in consumer surveys.

So what kind of people buy and drive these kinds of vehicles? According to industry data, it's about what you would expect. (We'll leave drivers of Hum-Vees out of the discussion for now, because they wear a whole different brand of asshat, exhibiting a whole other strata of delusional behavior that goes far beyond the parameters of acceptable taste, social interaction, etc.) Extensive market research data shows that there are certain shared specific personality traits behind it all. According to internal industry reports, "SUV's tend to be bought be people who are insecure, vain, self-centered and self-absorbed, who are frequently nervous about their marriages, and who lack confidence in their driving skills."

Another key element contributing to the SUV boom, and why SUVs have become the most profitable vehicles for carmakers, is the perception of safety as opposed to the actual safety statistics and, even more crucially, "passive safety" versus "active safety." As Malcolm Gladwell brilliantly captures it in an article for the New Yorker called "Big and Bad": "Bringing five thousand pounds of rubber and steel to a sudden stop involves lots of lurching, screeching and protesting ... The benefits of being nimble -- of being in an automobile that's capable of staying out of trouble -- are in many cases greater than the benefits of being big."

As cultural anthropologist G.C. Rapaille puts it: "People who buy these SUV's know at the cortex level that if you are higher there is more chance of a rollover. But at the reptilian level they think that if I am bigger and taller I'm safer. That you can look down is psychologically a very powerful notion." According to Gladwell, another thing Rapaille discovered while conducting research paid for by the auto industry is that "car buyers feel unsafe when they thought an outsider could easily see inside their vehicles. So Chrysler made the back window of the PT Cruiser smaller. Of course, making windows smaller -- and thereby reducing visibility -- makes driving more dangerous, not less so. But that's the puzzle of what has happened to the automobile world: feeling safe has become more important than actually being safe."

I know most people don't think of themselves as selfish nuisances; they don't climb into their oversize vehicles and think of how annoying and harmful they're being, instead we all see ourselves as just going about our daily business and just trying to make a living. But you know what? That's no excuse. And since SUV owners purchase these vehicles based on non-rational, or Reptilian, impulses, appealing to them based on reason or logic in an attempt to discourage their injudicious purchasing decisions is bound to fail. Instead, I suggest mounting an anti-SUV campaign based on unrelenting derision. So all you SUV owners, whose ranks include members of my immediate family tree as well as close friends and even confidantes, consider yourself appropriately derided. Sternly so, you self-centered reptiles you.

100, 150 years ago, I'm sure there were critics decrying the amount of horse-drawn carriages running rampant on the same NYC streets or lamenting the number of people maimed or killed by runaway horses. Well, driving an unnecessarily large (5,000 pounds of mostly metal) and powerful (the engine provides thrust to all four wheels) sport utility vehicle on city streets in 2007 is like riding an elephant into town in 1897: it's stupid, senseless, selfish, and should be discouraged by any and all means necessary -- including the government providing financial disincentives to do so.

This issue speaks loudly to the necessity of New York City controlling more of its own destiny politically versus being controlled by forces hundreds of miles away in Albany. The blocking of the statewide minimum wage increase on the specious grounds that it will be harmful to the state's farm owners is another striking example of incompatibility between what's best for the City and what's good for the state overall. We are left with the unseemly spectacle of politicians representing areas well outside the city limits having an undue, even unfair influence on the lives of NYC residents. If government not only stops serving the greater good of its citizens, and in some cases works to their disadvantage, the whole system needs to be reexamined. But until and unless the outcry builds to an angry crescendo on this issue, it looks like the unacceptable status quo will prevail and what once was a city the whole world looked to for enlightenment will remain stuck in its own dark age to the detriment of its more civilized instincts.

A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO I saw a prone man bleeding profusely near the 59th Street & 5th Avenue entrance to Central Park. He was lying on the street, motionless, obviously the very recent victim of a vehicle that had struck him at what had to be a high speed. His black shoe, knocked off by the force of the impact, lay balefully on its side a few feet away. This seriously injured man -- mid-50s or so, heavy set, standard business attire -- didn't wake up that morning thinking he'd become a statistic, but it looked like he was all too close to being yet another New York City traffic fatality.

All around the unfortunate soul, cars continued speeding by, the angry faces of drivers contorted in grim masks of determination, all the while seemingly oblivious to their surroundings, pounding on their car horns when all else fails, progress marked solely by making the next light. If these drivers had to inconvenience or intimidate everything in their path, well, that's just the way it is.

The sight of the bleeding man really shook me up that day, and I had trouble getting the image out of my mind as I walked to work. It was a perfect yet sobering metaphor for a city that is fast becoming an irreversible bastion of alternating rage and sorrow for its inhabitants.
The great H.G. Wells once said, "When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race." I'm afraid I feel the polar opposite when I see a young dumb-looking fat-ass driving a 2 1/2-ton hunk of metal while chatting mindlessly away on a cellphone.

Maybe I was just born a couple hundred years too late. It happens, you know.


jimithegreek said...

damn good!!!!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jim. Remember the days when your orange Volks got us everywhere we needed to go, even when we needed to get to work at H&M Warehouse in beautiful downtown Secaucus, New Jersey! Now every other car is an SUV. Bring back the Bug!

Anonymous said...

Il semble que vous soyez un expert dans ce domaine, vos remarques sont tres interessantes, merci.

- Daniel