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.