Home Public Transit Policy Musings on the traffic in New York City

Musings on the traffic in New York City

by Benjamin Kabak

A photo I took in March shows just how poorly maintained New York City's roads are. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Every now and then, I’ll volunteer to help some friends move. I grew up driving in New York City and don’t find myself fazed by the traffic and manic drivers as out-of-towners often are. Still, driving around the city is no easy task, and yesterday, I saw first-hand just how bad conditions have become.

My route was a fairly straightforward one yesterday. We started in Park Slope, had to make a pick-up in Midtown Manhattan and then had to travel a few miles into Queens before circling back to Brooklyn. I was tasked with driving the U-Haul van, and while these Ford vehicles don’t have great shocks, we felt every single pothole around. On the BQE and at Tillary St., rutted roads create hazardous conditions; in Manhattan and on the side streets of Brooklyn, potholes are everywhere.

As I drove, I reflected on the state of the roads and how indicative they are of the general transportation policy in the city and state right now. At its most basic level, the purpose of a government is to fund, maintain and repair things we deem to be common goods. Because of free-rider problems, that has always included roads. After all, if my neighbors want to pay for road improvements, why should I contribute anything and not just free-ride onto their efforts?

Right now, though, the government seems to be failing at even simple road maintenance. At a time when municipality spending is tied up in health care and pension costs, the roads — that most basic element of government responsible — are falling apart. In New York City, at least, one might argue that the subways should replace roads because a much higher percentage of the city’s population rely on subways than rely on the road, but the point remains the same. The city and state cannot afford to fund the subways either. After driving around three boroughs today, I’m almost inclined to say that the subways are now in better shape than the roads, and that’s saying a lot.

But beyond the condition of the road, something else jumped out at me: From around 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on a Monday, the roads were absolutely clogged with people. Our full route required three legs, none of them smoother than the other. We had to travel around 9 miles from Brooklyn to Midtown, and that took an hour. We had to go from Midtown into Queens, and that took an hour. We had to go from Queens to Brooklyn, and that took only around 40 minutes. That doesn’t count the time I spent circling blocks in Park Slope looking for a final parking spot.

Everywhere in Manhattan, the roads were crammed with cars. Across the Manhattan Bridge, up to Houston, west to Sixth Ave. and north, traffic was stop-and-go. I’d hate to have to make this ride at Midtown, and it’s no stretch to say that the subway would have been faster. The ride east out of Queens to the Ed Koch Bridge was just as bad. Wall-to-wall delivery vans and trucks, taxis and passenger cars mar the roads.

All of this brings me to a simple conclusion: For the sanity of its drivers, for the sake of its roads, for the quality of its air, for the ability to drive around the city when necessary, New York needs a congestion pricing plan. Had we needed to pay an additional fee to drive through Manhattan yesterday but with the promise of fewer cars on the road, I gladly would have made that trade-off. If I knew, trucks weren’t going to back up on Canal St. from one end of the island to the other, if I knew getting across 59th St. to the bridge would be a faster ride with fewer one-person cars hogging up precious space, I would pay.

Ultimately, maintaining control over the quality of the roads involves significant investments. The city has to keep the roads in good repair, but it also must figure out how to prioritize the use of those roads. Right now, things have run amok in New York City, and the inmates seem to control transportation policy. No one is winning that battle.

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Bolwerk June 7, 2011 - 1:38 am

I agree with this, but tell anyone and you get babble about how it hurts the “poor,” as if they even drive in Manhattan, and “middle class” or how it’s more welfare for Subway users. That attitude infects policy from community boards to Congress, where the gas tax can’t be raised even as roads crumble. Opponents of a financing regime where drivers actually pay a bigger proportion of the costs of driving are about as out of touch with reality on this issue as teabaggers are on fiscal/economic issues, and they react exactly the same way: by blaming the victims of their stupid policies for the trouble in the first place.

To put it in another perspective, if you waste another hour of someone’s time by having them sit in traffic when they could be working, you’ve probably cost the economy some multiple of that person’s hourly wage. That’s exactly where we are now. If it costs $20/vehicle entering the region to get rid of some congestion, it’s money well spent.

John Rozencracz June 7, 2011 - 4:01 am

You might be interested to see this:


Stephen Smith June 7, 2011 - 5:48 am

Good post, but just one thing I take issue with: the roads are not public goods, and nowadays with cheap cameras and RFID technology, with a relatively small capital investment, the free-rider problem disappears. After all, what congestion pricing essentially is is making the roads no long a public good (what you term “common good”), but rather a heavily subsidized (at least in the sense of opportunity cost) regular good provided by the government.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines June 7, 2011 - 8:59 am

[…] Ben Kabak: Without Congestion Pricing, Driving Will Lose Their Minds in NYC Traffic […]

Eric F. June 7, 2011 - 9:20 am

Why do you think that the other people driving were performing tasks that were less essential than yours? It seems that the trips you made could have easily been moved to overnight hours. I dont’s subscribe to this view, but I thought you did. Unless the “congestion pricing”* charge is used to maintain roads, won’t the roads be ion the same shape even with the charge? Finally, note that the travel conditions are themselves a type of tax, one that many people seem willing to shoulder for the benefits that driving provides them.

It’s not that, it’s a cordon charge around the city, marketed as congestion related.

Eric June 7, 2011 - 9:35 am

What jerk would move apartments in the middle of the night?

Eric F. June 7, 2011 - 9:39 am

One refrain I hear constantly is that stores shoudl take deliveries on some unspecified graveyard shift in order to keep streets clear during the day to support road narrowing. I think that’s nuts, but if it’s good enough for commercial establishments, why not for individuals?

Looks like they are raising the P.A. tolls to $10 to get across the Hudson, so maybe you’ll see less traffic from the west when that goes through.


Eric June 7, 2011 - 10:06 am

I think the difference there is that you’re making a ton of noise in the middle of the night in an apartment building and on a residential street.

Moving deliveries into a street-level retail space isn’t going to cause nearly that amount of noise or disruption.

Eric F. June 7, 2011 - 10:29 am

True enough, now if only the message can get through to the sanitation guys who take the garbage at 5 a.m.!

Bolwerk June 7, 2011 - 11:29 am

It’s not possible to do everything at night. In the case of some moving companies, getting your vehicle back the same day probably saves $.

And I don’t think he was assuming all trips were less essential than his. Some are. Some might be equally or more essential, but less car-dependent, too. Getting rid of the non-essential and least car-dependent trips does a favor to all the other drivers who really don’t have a choice.

oscar June 7, 2011 - 9:36 am

I’m not entirely sure that congestion would decrease significantly. People who want to drive will drive, and factor in the costs. Which is good for raising revenues, but still frustrating for driving around like you did yesterday

Bolwerk June 7, 2011 - 12:31 pm

How much congestion decreases depends entirely on the price charged. And the price that brings the most revenue may not be the same as the price that brings the biggest decrease in congestion – and maybe should be a balance of the two.

Alon Levy June 7, 2011 - 9:16 pm

It’s all on the margins. Congestion dropped in Singapore, it dropped in London, it dropped in Stockholm. Most people kept driving, but enough didn’t that traffic speeds increased.

Clarke June 7, 2011 - 9:43 am

Biking on Houston Street, one is shocked to imagine they are not in a third world country. That street is truly unfortnate.

Larry Littlefield June 7, 2011 - 9:46 am

Don’t oversell it. We’re screwed regardless.

Imagine what people would think of congestion pricing if the state had passed it instead of the payroll tax.

The debts, public and private, would still be there.

The retroactive pension deals which have been suddenly found to not cost nothing would still be there.

The mass impoverishment of younger generations would still have taken place.

And thus the MTA would still be broke and the roads still poorly maintained. And it’s going to get worse for a decade. The redid the decisions of the 1960s and early 1970s in NYC statewide and nationwide.

So the best argument is fairness. The problems will not be solved.

John-2 June 7, 2011 - 10:13 am

To be fair, at the start of a fiscal year you put X number of dollars into the General Fund for street maintenance, based in part on X amount of cold weather, ice and snow you expect the city to receive, which is the main contributor to the pothole problem. When you get 2X the snow and ice in a projected normal year, you’re going to get potholes above what you’d have budgeted for, and then either have to to borrow money from some other part of the budget to handle the added cost, or kick the can down the road to the next budget cycle.

That said, can kicking on potholes is really easy to do, in the same way skimping on maintenance of way in the subways between stations, where the passengers/voters don’t notice it, creates less of a hue and cry than letting the key stations or the railcars fall apart. People still remember the 1970s and 80s when the entire subway infrastructure cratered, and most also remember the structural problems with the city’s bridges, so the politicians’ efforts are more focused on making sure those more visible pieces of infrastructure remain in good shape than the less noticed ones, such as potholes (unless the pothole’s deep enough to lose a car or bust a water or sewer line, the attitude is the street’s still going to be there a while longer with or without repairs).

You can do congestion pricing, but as others have said, unless you dedicate those funds exclusively towards street, bridge and overpass maintenance, the pols will find somewhere else to use the funds that more immediately translates into more votes in the next election.

Eric F. June 7, 2011 - 10:42 am

By the way, I disagree with you on a lot of topics, but I wanted to note that I thought your insight here was right on:

“At its most basic level, the purpose of a government is to fund, maintain and repair things we deem to be common goods. . . . Right now, though, the government seems to be failing at even simple road maintenance. At a time when municipality spending is tied up in health care and pension costs, the roads — that most basic element of government responsible — are falling apart.”

I do wonder though whether NYC roads are objectively in worse shape now than in the past. It’d be interesting to see if there is some statistic on the relative state of repair. Seems about normal to me, but in my lifetime things were never in good condition around here.

Douglas John Bowen June 7, 2011 - 10:43 am

For some advocates of transportation alternatives (note lower-case use, please, not initial cap), the situation Mr. Kabak describes is a plus, upbeat, positive. Mr. Littlefield says “we’re screwed regardless” and, while this writer might not phrase it in such a manner, the fact is that the issue is being forced upon us, like it or not — and this time the hard choices include evaluating the infernal combustion engine, not giving it a bye. For some of us, this could be considered good news — and, yes, I’ve driven in Manhattan and Brooklyn recently.

The city itself — certainly Manhattan, if not all the boroughs equally — has benefitted in recent years from lots of necessary infrastructure investment, much of it below ground or otherwise unseen, in terms of water, sewer, and power upgrades. That’s remarkable in itself, since a new (or now, even repaved) road can generate ribbon cuttings and photo ops far superior to any Water Tunnel No. 3. If, as many believe, there simply isn’t enough money for everything, and/or one can’t tax indiscriminately, well, then, I’m not certain the road situation is one I myself will cry over.

It’s a matter of priorities — and this rail advocate believes the Second Avenue Subway (capital dollars), or subway station upgrades (maintenance dollars), are worth a lot of potholes in trade.

That said, this writer doesn’t mean to come off as wholly insensitive; it’s too bad Mr. Kabak had a rather stressful journey, and his observations are taken seriously.

Larry Littlefield June 7, 2011 - 11:04 am

Infrastructure maintenance is one of the first things to have been cut. While replacement level work is sometimes exaggerated by those who get paid to do the replacing, the street repaving rate was cut a decade ago and never restored.

And with regard to public goods, consider this. The City of New York stopped repairing and repaving the sidewalks it owns in the 1970s, and never started again.

BrooklynBus June 7, 2011 - 11:21 am

I didn’t feel like stopping my car last month when I was there, but I think it was Metropolitan and Roebling in Williamsburg where I saw the worst road surface ever, much worse than your picture. There literally was no road surface left. It looked like the surface of the moon. You couldn’t drive faster than 10 mph over intersection.

But even worse, this problem isn’t only in the City. I came back from Binghampton yesterday on Route 17, and with the exception of around 20 miles, the entire road needed resurfacing. Luckily I took the bus, so I didn’t feel the bumps that bad. If I would have driven, I don’t know how I would have felt after driving four solid hours over a rough road. I’ve been on Route 17 since it was built sixty years ago and it always has been in excellent condition. I’ve never seen anything like it. I used to say to myself, although they don’t have good mass transit upstate, at least they have good roads and we have decent mass transit. Now it looks like upstaters have neither.

Eric F. June 7, 2011 - 12:35 pm

I remember taking 17 upstate in the late 80s and it was horrid shape. That road sees a lot of traffic and some awful weather. Some parts are being upgraded to interstate standard as part of an overly drawn out multi-decade project. The project was a Pataki initiative that will wind up taking something like 30 years, which is absolutely outrageous. If you take the road west towards Corning you’ll see that some prts are already signed as Interstate 86, which I think is the designation it carries to the PA border.

BrooklynBus June 7, 2011 - 2:19 pm

I thought that most of it meets interstate standards anyway and never understood why parts of it never had an interstate designation. I wonder how often it gets resurfaced.

Eric F. June 7, 2011 - 2:35 pm

There are grade crossings in some areas. There used to be a couple of yellow caution lights flashing in one spot, where I once got ticketed for going waaaaay over the limit. The curves are sharp, there aren’t enough truck climbing lanes, some places have driveways and the shoulders and ramps are substandard.

There are really places where the road should be widened. This thing gets a ton of weekend traffic. Lots of minivans coming out of Brooklyn.

John-2 June 7, 2011 - 2:38 pm

It’s the cross-traffic sections between Binghamton and Liberty that keep that section from being re-branded as I-86. The current construction of the Exit 98 bypass (the infamous Parksville traffic light) will eliminate the biggest obstacle, but the state will still have to close all the other four-way crossings or ask the federal government for exemptions in order to officially join the Interstate Highway System (the feds will Ok exemptions for grade crossings of Interstates in rare cases, usually in desert areas where there is flat land, no service roads and lower traffic volumes. Highway 17 in the Catskills flunks on at least two of those three criteria).

Upstate does do a pretty decent job of maintaining their roads normally, but that’s because the winter weather would kill them in just a few years if they didn’t. But that also means tons of roadwork in the June-September period, which if there were any upgrades scheduled for NY-17 would probably be when this year’s work would happen (repave a road when temperatures drop below 40 at night, and you’ll enjoy the fun of seeing truck-trailers pulling up chunks of road and throwing them at the windshield of the vehicles behind them. Good for tort lawyers, but not anyone else).

BrooklynBus June 8, 2011 - 10:16 am

Thanks for the info. I agree that all the other roads seemed decent except for 17.

Vin June 8, 2011 - 3:08 pm

That section of Metropolitan, between about Bedford and the BQE, is just an abomination. You’ll literally blow out a tire if you go more than 10-15 mph. It’s really embarrassing to me that a stretch of road like that exists in a rich city in a rich country. It’s unbelievable. Flatbush from Fulton to Tillary is scarcely better.

I think the roads have gotten worse in the past year or so, BTW. I’ve noticed a difference. I assume it’s the combination of an unusually harsh winter and a nearly broke city government. It’s pretty scary to think about what the future will be like.

Honestly, even if congestion pricing doesn’t do much to reduce congestion, I say it’s worth it. We need new sources of revenue and that seems as good an idea as any. It seems entirely reasonable to me to ask drivers to pay 10 or 12 bucks entering Manhattan so that we can improve our deteriorating mass transit and fix our pockmarked roads.

ant6n June 7, 2011 - 10:14 pm

I find it ironic how the place that basically has the most money concentrated in it – Manhattan – also has some of the poorest road conditions.

Or maybe that is not ironic at all.


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