Opinion: Congestion Pricing is Just One Step Toward Reclaiming City Streets

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A road in Brighton, UK modelled using the Shared Space philosophy. Motor vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians share the same space. Traditional road markings, signs and signals are absent.

New York recently took two big steps forward in its fight to make New York City streets safer, more equitable, and better for city life. On March 31, the State Legislature passed a budget that includes funding to establish a congestion pricing zone for motor vehicles driving below 60th Street in Manhattan. Almost two months earlier, on February 2, the legislature inaugurated a congestion pricing surcharge in the same zone for yellow taxis and ride-hailing car services like Lyft and Uber.

These steps follow more than a decade of debate how to use our New York City streets. The consensus is growing that we want fewer cars, especially in Manhattan, and more places where it’s comfortable to walk and bike.

Many believe that ride-hailing services are good for New York City. Let me explain why I think they’re introducing new problems, in both the short term and the long.

Money Talks, Nobody Walks

Lyft and Uber both had recent initial public stock offerings, Lyft on March 29, and Uber on May 10. The results were not as good as the companies hoped, but that shows how high expectations were. The value of all Lyft stock is currently worth about $15 billion, despite $911 million in losses in 2018 on revenues of $2.2 billion. Uber lost twice as much money in 2018, $1.8 billion, on revenues of $11.3 billion, and its total value when the stock came out was $76 billion.

Judging by value of its stock, Uber is worth more than General Motors and FedEx together. Uber and Lyft remain important companies in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street, with many of the biggest investment banks and venture capital funds owning large positions in both companies.

Lyft, Uber, and their investors have at least as much interest in the future of self-driving cars (Autonomous Vehicles, or AVs) as in today’s ride-hail businesses, which is why General Motors itself put $500 million into Lyft before the IPO. The biggest tech companies like Apple and Alphabet (Google) are heavily invested in developing AVs.

For cities like New York and London with good mass transit and taxi service, the ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft bring lots of immediate problems. They increase traffic congestion and reduce transit use. They use their financial might to subsidize fares, putting taxi drivers and medallion owners out of business. Last year, 139 New York City taxi medallions were auctioned in bankruptcy sales. Three medallion owners and six taxi drivers committed suicide in 2018.

The increased congestion makes traffic in midtown and at congestion points like the entrances to the Holland Tunnel and the East River bridges move more slowly than it ever has. Air quality in the city gets worse, and emergency vehicles are stuck in traffic, uselessly blasting their louder and louder sirens. And despite Vision Zero efforts, more pedestrians and cyclists died in the first month of 2019 than a year before.

The most effective congestion plan would favor yellow cabs over all other cars in lower Manhattan, making ride-hailing services below 60th Street expensive. But Lyft and Uber both ran million-dollar ad campaigns last year and spent many more millions lobbying politicians in New York City and Albany. The result was a $2.50 surcharge for taxis and a $2.75 surcharge for ride-hailing cars. Other car services pay no surcharge, and the number of for-hire vehicles on New York City streets went from 50,000 in 2011, when Uber first arrived here, to 130,000 in 2018.

Autonomous Vehicles & City Streets

The future will be worse. Self-driving cars are bad for cities in many ways, but plans for them are moving ahead because all the “smart money” is behind them.

Think about the experience of commuting to work in a self-driving car. People who now develop road rage in traffic jams will be able to sit and work while playing music, eating, using their computers, and talking on the phone. Even if the commute is slow, the time will be productive. There will be more cars on the roads than ever, with fewer people taking trains or subways.

When the ride is over, the AVs will drive around empty, either going to parking lots outside Manhattan or going back to the suburbs to pick up another fare. City streets will have to make room for all the cars.

AVs will be programmed to stop immediately if a pedestrian steps in front of them to cross the street—and we all know that given the opportunity, New Yorkers will do that all day. That would make Manhattan traffic move even more slowly than it does now.

Companies that have invested billions of dollars in self-driving cars will do their best to stop that. There is already talk of facial-recognition software to identify the pedestrian troublemakers interrupting traffic. Pedestrians and motor vehicles will be even more strictly segregated than they are now. This goes against one of the most popular trends in street use today, which is a movement towards what is known as “shared space.”

Share the Street

On a shared-space street, anyone—pedestrian, cyclist, driver—is allowed to be anywhere on the road at any time. Approximately 85 percent of the streets in Amsterdam are shared-space streets. The roads have no traffic lights, stop signs, crosswalks, or traffic lanes marked with paint. The result is that drivers go under 20 miles per hour, and the streets have almost 70 percent fewer traffic deaths than New York streets.

I’m happy to be working on a proposal by the Financial District Neighborhood Association (FDNA) to make the area around Wall Street into a Slow Zone network of shared-space streets, where cars will stay under 10 mph and pedestrians and cyclists will roam free. Fittingly, this is on the narrow old streets of what was once Nieuw Amsterdam.

If the FDNA plan goes ahead, I believe other New York neighborhoods will want shared-space Slow Zones. But the money behind self-driving cars will probably oppose that, because it interferes with their financial plans.

Organized Motordom 2.0

A hundred years ago, the powers behind a group that called itself Organized Motordom found themselves in a similar position. After the Ford Motor Co. put the Model T into mass production in 1908, conflicts between cars and pedestrians on city streets grew dramatically, and pedestrian deaths rose rapidly. Car companies like Ford and General Motors soon realized their financial future depended on claiming the streets for free-flowing traffic. They joined with other companies that benefited from increased car sales like Standard Oil and the newly formed American Automobile Association to work together as Organized Motordom.

The members of Organized Motordom invented the new profession of traffic planning, funding a school for traffic engineering at UCLA. Organized Motordom’s philosophy was expressed by the first Traffic Commissioner in Los Angeles, when he said in 1924, “The old common law rule that every person, whether on foot or driving, has equal rights in all parts of the roadway must give way before the requirements of modern transportation.”

Organized Motordom flexed its financial and political muscles, and in short order, pedestrians were kicked to the side of the road. New inventions for controlling the street were introduced, including stop signs, stop lights, and crosswalks at intersections. Police started ticketing pedestrians for new offenses like “jaywalking.”

In 2019, we have an informal but powerful coalition of tech companies, “mobility” groups, and venture capitalists making large financial bets on a future of ride-hail companies with driverless cars. Google is the new General Motors, and GM’s involved too.

This year is the 50th anniversary of New York mayoral candidate Norman Mailer’s campaign pledge to ban private cars from Manhattan. It’s also the 50th anniversary of the New York Times’ best-selling book, “Streets for People, A Primer for Americans.”

In 2019, we have a new annual Car Free Day and new pedestrian plazas like Times Square and Madison Square. Mayor de Blasio and the City Council awarded the New York City DOT $500,000 for a Pedestrian Priority Pilot Project this summer in the Financial District. We have to be careful that Smart City plans and Big Money don’t take these away.

John Massengale is an architect and urban designer in New York City, co-author with Victor Dover of “Street Design, The Secret to Great Cities and Towns” and “New York 1900, Metropolitan Architecture and Urbanism 1890-1915,” with Robert A.M. Stern and Gregory Gilmartin.

6 thoughts on “Opinion: Congestion Pricing is Just One Step Toward Reclaiming City Streets

  1. Aren’t yellow cabs trolling for passengers the kind of cars that should be the most discouraged from being in congestion zones?. Does anyone remember how peaceful the City became in the pre-uber days when Cabbies had a one day “‘strike”. Manhattan was quieter and traffic was moving much better. At least with app based pooling car services passengers and their cars are matched efficiently.

    • Quieter?

      Traffic has long been a major problem across NYC and well before Uber congestion pricing was suggested to reduce the number of automobiles in the city core.

      For-hire vehicles are shared so they should have priority over private passenger vehicles (which should be increasingly banned from areas across NYC).

    • YESSSS!!! The taxi trolling is the main cause of congestion. The app based services are brilliantly efficient.

  2. Massengale is talking through his hat and obviously with little experience of NYC cyclists, who as a rule–that is, the great majority of them–are rude and reckless, utterly uncaring of pedestrian safety or civilized behavior in general. They mount sidewalks and have even ridden bikes on subway platforms and into stores. At night they go without lights and hardly any of them have bells. At most the warning you’ll get is them screaming to you to get out of the way. They often come so close to hitting you that your clothing ripples in the breeze of their wake.They almost always go non-stop (never mind the red lights) and at top speed for one reason–bikes are extremely inefficient. Once they stop, it requires great effort to get them going again. If NYC riders were anything remotely like the civil Danes I’ve experienced in Copenhagen, there might be an excuse for them. Until such time, they’re vermin and should be hunted for sport.

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