Home Public Transit Policy Thoughts on prioritizing urban space and roads

Thoughts on prioritizing urban space and roads

by Benjamin Kabak

Once upon a time, cities reached only as far as people could walk and horses could ride. In the early days of New York City, Washington Square Park was for the rich while Washington Heights was the country, far out of town. Slowly, the arrival of railroads changed that perspective.

At first, in the late 1880s, the elevated lines allowed folks to commute to downtown from 14th Street and beyond. By the dawn of the Twentieth Century, the subways started to open up even more frontiers. The Upper East and West Sides were no longer 90-minute elevated rides away from downtown. Instead, they were 25-minute subway rides away. As the subway expanded, the neighborhoods filled with people sprang up all over town. The jobs were concentrated in certain areas in Manhattan, but one could live a life by walking around the area near subway stops.

Cars, of course, changed the city landscape as well. Now, even the areas with no subway access weren’t that far away, and the suburbs become the idealized American Dream: two cars, a garage and a backyard. Those living in Westchester and Long Island and New Jersey could make it into the city. Slowly, the city had to accomodate cars. Highways tore apart neighborhoods, and sidewalk widths decreased to make room for parking. Urban population decreased.

Today, the pendulum has seemingly swung back the other way. Urban life is more desirable than ever, and more of the U.S. population than ever before resides in cities. Still, the battle goes on between cars and pedestrians. The livable streets crowd say that cars are a drain on urban resources. They take up space and cause pollution and congestion. Our investment priorities should be in mass transit in order to free up road space for vital trips and discourage auto use. Others say the car is a personal choice and one that should not be taken away from Americans. Where I fall on this divide is obvious.

Over the weekend, The Times looked at the new focus on pedestrians in cities except they do so through the lens of Europe. Elisabeth Rosenthal wrote:

While American cities are synchronizing green lights to improve traffic flow and offering apps to help drivers find parking, many European cities are doing the opposite: creating environments openly hostile to cars. The methods vary, but the mission is clear — to make car use expensive and just plain miserable enough to tilt drivers toward more environmentally friendly modes of transportation.

Cities including Vienna to Munich and Copenhagen have closed vast swaths of streets to car traffic. Barcelona and Paris have had car lanes eroded by popular bike-sharing programs. Drivers in London and Stockholm pay hefty congestion charges just for entering the heart of the city. And over the past two years, dozens of German cities have joined a national network of “environmental zones” where only cars with low carbon dioxide emissions may enter…

While some American cities — notably San Francisco, which has “pedestrianized” parts of Market Street — have made similar efforts, they are still the exception in the United States, where it has been difficult to get people to imagine a life where cars are not entrenched, [Stanford’s Lee] Schipper said.

I found this article to be a strange one because of the way it almost fetishizes “pedestrianization.” Those kooky Europeans in Zurich where 90 percent of elected officials ride public transit might be deprioritizing cars, but that’s just a European thing, says the article. In fact, Rosenthal seems to miss a major component of congestion alleviation efforts: It’s all about economics.

As cars sit in traffic, they impact the environment around them. I waste time inching across Canal Street or up 6th Ave., and time, as we know, is money. Meanwhile, my car isn’t operating at optimal speeds, and I have to spend more on gas while my emissions increase. Furthermore, constant overuse leads to disrepair, and the money invested in roads could be better utilized by promoting vibrant urban life. It’s more than just about the crazy ideas.

Ultimately, road development has been driving American transportation policy for six decades, and that likely won’t slow down. We can’t get high-speed rail off the ground, and transit agencies throughout the country struggle for money. Until Americans embrace city life and recognize what that means for our transportation policies, efforts at curtailing car use in dense urban environments not initially designed for cars will be met with skepticism. It’s too European for us.

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Justin June 28, 2011 - 2:10 am

Its not just Americans not embracing city life. In certain countries, public transit authorites can get the majority of their funding, if not all of their funding from the national government. That simply doesn’t happen in the United States. And its almost political taboo to talk about raising taxes in the US, so the government won’t have vast new sources of revenue to dedicate to mass transit. Last, but not least, you have a population of prejudiced people that want nothing to do with cities, as they have large numbers of people of different races and national origins, openly gay people, etc.

Bolwerk June 28, 2011 - 10:28 am

Meh. In many countries, they don’t need to get even a majority of their funding from the government. Even the USA this shouldn’t be strictly necessary.

Martha June 28, 2011 - 10:38 am

You liberals are exasperating. Now wanting to live in the suburbs so you can have a bit more space and better schools for your kids is racist. This is why you’re a joke.

Mistral June 28, 2011 - 11:29 am


pete June 28, 2011 - 12:24 pm

Thats why we have private schools and “specialized” public high schools in NYC, to keep the darkies (unless they are Indian), out. You dont need to live in the burbs for a harmonious upbringing for your kids.

Bolwerk June 28, 2011 - 4:50 pm

No, what is exasperating is people who don’t read for comprehension. Wanting to live in the suburbs because you want to avoid people with dark skin is racist. And wanting to live in the suburbs because you want to avoid gays is homophobic. And hiding behind your kids to excuse such prejudices is cowardly.* He didn’t say all people in the suburbs are bigots. Most probably aren’t unusually bigoted, but there is definitely a racist element to American suburbanization that people like to sweep under the rug.

* not saying you’re doing that, but some people do

Alon Levy June 28, 2011 - 2:16 am

I stopped reading the article about the first paragraph. “The mission is to make car use expensive and just plain miserable” may describe Paris, but is wrong for nearly every other European city; by and large the mission in those cities is to make the streets more walkable and transit-friendlier.

ferryboi June 28, 2011 - 10:52 am

I didn’t even notice that. Justin, trying to lump everyone who lives in the suburbs (including the increasing number of blacks and hispanics) as “racist” is just silly. By your logic, anyone who lives in a big city is racist because they don’t want to live near white folks. And if NYC is any indication, it’s the black and hispanic population that’s LEAVING the city, and/or moving to Staten Island, which lost 5% of its white population and increased its minority population by double digits in the past 10 years.

Living in the suburbs does not automatically equate with racism. I know a few folks here in NYC, black, white, hispanic and Asian, who are as racist and homophobic as they come.

SEAN June 28, 2011 - 4:41 pm

In psychology what you are describing here is “projection.” The hatred of one group or person by saying they hate me. You saw a lot of this after Obama became president & it does nothing to further the discussion on the importent issues at hand.

Bolwerk June 28, 2011 - 10:59 am

What I want to know is, how the hell do they think that makes driving harder? Many European cities are rather breezy to drive in precisely because they are more expensive to own cars in. When you do need to drive, you actually get where you’re going reliably.

ferryboi June 28, 2011 - 11:10 am

As if owning/driving a car in NYC isn’t expensive and miserable already!

Bolwerk June 28, 2011 - 4:43 pm

There is no way to make it cheap, but it at least it could be made reliable. Of course, we don’t have the advantages of $7/gallon gas. 😐

J B June 28, 2011 - 11:11 am

Nice to know I wasn’t the only one who thought that, but a lot of urbanists/ transit activists/ livable streets activists seem to think it SHOULD be about making driving as difficult as possible for its own sake.

Bolwerk June 28, 2011 - 4:52 pm

It’s reactionary. It’s because a lot of suburban boosters in the mid-20th century to present have concluded that cities are nothing but piggy banks to milk to pay for highways.

OTOH, a lot of people are refusing to acknowledge that keeping traffic down at manageable levels is a positive thing. It’s a positive thing for drivers, even.

Harry Gottlieb June 28, 2011 - 9:08 am

I started a new job in Williamsburg three weeks ago. I take the train every day, but I was tempted to take a car three times. And I got ticketed every time… With twice-a-week alternate side starting in middle of the day and meters everywhere else, I’d say NYC is doing its share to “make car use expensive and just plain miserable enough to tilt drivers toward more environmentally friendly modes of transportation…”

At least for me. Train takes the same amount of time, is more eco-friendly and there’s no traffic and parking to worry about.

ferryboi June 28, 2011 - 9:24 am

The difference between Europe and the US, and NYC in particular, is that you can make it harder for drivers to enter central business district, but the transit options in NYC are way over capacity and many areas of town (NE Queens, eastern Bronx, all of Staten Island) don’t have many public transit options. We all can’t (nor want to) live in Manhattan or Park Slope, where the options are many. European cities, by and large, are hundreds if not thousands of years older than American cities, and are much smaller in area. Transit investment there has been much more than the car-centric USA, and you can’t change that overnight.

I think the general trend will be toward more urban, mass transit friendly environs, but it will take a generation or two to make that happen. Once they build a subway or super-fast ferry to Staten Island, then let them charge $50 to drive over the Verrazano, I won’t give a damn. But not UNTIL the public transit infrastructure meets the demand.

Andrew June 28, 2011 - 10:17 pm

Most of the transit options in NYC aren’t close to capacity. (Unless by “way over capacity” you mean “more crowded than I prefer” – in which case you should try to persuade your elected officials to increase NYCT funding to the point that loading guidelines can be made more generous.)

If you consciously chose to live in a part of the city that doesn’t have easy subway access, you can hardly blame somebody else for your difficulty in reaching the subway. By all means, push for expansion of the subway system, but you might find it easier to move closer to a subway station – you have 468 to choose from, and you might find one in a neighborhood you find appealing (Manhattan and Park Slope are not your only options).

Douglas John Bowen June 28, 2011 - 9:59 am

Mr. Kabak’s heart is in a good place, but he’s too pessimistic. Not likely to slow down? It’s already slowing down, albeit subtly. Look harder for the signs. At least here in the New York metro area, they are there. And they are numerous.

And be careful lumping high speed rail’s woes with urban transit development. Yes, HSR efforts here in the U.S. are taking a beating. But count the number of rail and light rail project proceeding despite the specter of federal indifference, and with the commitment from local sources, and one finds sweeping pessimism to be woefully misplaced.

Alon Levy June 28, 2011 - 12:54 pm

Not just in New York – driving in the US peaked in 2000 and has been flat ever since (link).

Eric F. June 28, 2011 - 10:01 am

“Ultimately, road development has been driving American transportation policy for six decades, and that likely won’t slow down.”

Um, how exactly does this statement bear any relation to New York in your lifetime?

Ian June 28, 2011 - 11:35 am

I’m a bit surprised that the Times would put out a piece titled “Across Europe, Irking Drivers is Urban Policy”, almost as if to imply that European land use policies and patterns are looked down upon.

SEAN June 28, 2011 - 4:27 pm

In relation to the US.

Bolwerk June 28, 2011 - 5:18 pm

It’s simply a matter of the Times completing its transformation into the less-moronic-than-a-Wall-Street-Journal-op-ed/center-right rag news magazine that its readers demand: anecdotal stories about personal triumph, feel-good moderate “liberal” Krugman economics, the pedantic and neo-con-skeptical conservatism of David Brooks, obnoxiously wishwashy Thomas Friedman market globalism, low resistance to New York City’s local diversity and social permissiveness, indifference to the practical implications of law and order, conservative prescriptions for social change with some flares of liberal tolerance in national policy, and a general unwillingness to pay attention to trends – and some shock and self-congratulation when they actually notice one.

They’re even willing to look at the world and see some of its bigger blemishes – for instance, they see all the environmental problems with using oil and the social implications of buying oil from the Saudis. However, their NIH syndrome and windshield perspective is so ingrained that they can’t connect those problems back to transportation, which sets them up for surprise when democratic countries back away from automobiles, and the idea that those countries are actually using automobiles to their advantage better than we are probably makes their heads spin.

J B June 28, 2011 - 11:02 pm

The NY Times seems less and less worth reading. Don’t know if it’s actually getting worse or if it’s just me.

Bolwerk June 29, 2011 - 3:27 am

I think it has gotten way worse. One really obvious change is how important information gets buried in the article (I guess to encourage you to keep reading?). Articles should dispense information in approximate order of importance.

Andrew June 28, 2011 - 10:24 pm

Windshield perspective.

The presumption is that, in the natural course of events, it’s easy to drive everywhere. If it’s hard to drive places in Europe, it must be those pesky Europeans putting roadblocks in the way of drivers.

In fact, the ability to drive anywhere – let alone the ability to drive everywhere with ease – comes at great cost, and not every society has made it their highest priority.

That may come as a surprise to the typical suburban American. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to the Manhattan-headquartered New York Times.

Corey June 28, 2011 - 7:34 pm

It should be noted that the European nation with the most efficient transportation network in the world – the Netherlands – doesn’t have an anti-car strategy. Instead, the Dutch have achieved sky-high bicycling rates by simply making cycling an extremely competitive and desirable option. The more you coerce, the more resistance you encounter. It’s a misconception that revising transportation infrastructure must be inherently anti-car. There is a proven, successful alternative. In the United States, we can’t seem to grasp the concept.

J B June 28, 2011 - 10:58 pm

Leaving aside the question of whether or not the Netherlands really does have the world’s most efficient transportation system, a lot of things that need to be done to make cycling desirable do in fact effect drivers, e.g. dedicating more space to bike lanes, redesigning roads so they’re safer. I wouldn’t say anything Bloomberg and Sadik-Khan have done so far were done just for the sake of irritating drivers, and yet there’s been a backlash.


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