StreetsPAC Urges Action to Address Traffic Congestion in New York City

StreetsPAC testified at this past Monday's New York City Council Committee on Transportation oversight hearing on ways that New York City can effectively address traffic congestion. Here's what we had to say:

Traffic congestion is becoming an increasingly vexing problem for New York City. The elephant in the room, of course, is congestion pricing, which would be undoubtedly the most effective means of relieving congestion and discouraging car trips to Manhattan. Whether it’s the worthy Move New York plan or another variation, it’s high time for the State Legislature to pass a congestion-pricing plan for New York City, and for the Governor to sign it into law.  Even better would be legislation authorizing New York City to make its own decisions about road pricing.

Notwithstanding Albany’s inaction, there are a number of measures New York City can enact on its own to deal with congestion.  We’ve borrowed four of these verbatim from an article that David Meyer published on Streetsblog on February 15, entitled “4 Ways the Mayor Can Reduce Congestion Without Congestion Pricing,” since we couldn’t say it any better or more plainly than he did.

1. Charge smarter prices for curbside parking

In neighborhood commercial districts, drivers cruising for open parking spaces account for a large share of traffic. Because on-street parking is so cheap, it’s worth motorists’ time to circle around looking for an open spot instead of paying the premium to park in a garage.

The PARK Smart program, which DOT launched in Greenwich Village in 2008 but has expanded to only a handful of neighborhoods since then, addresses the problem by charging dynamic rates for curbside parking that increase when demand is highest. The program has proven successful at reducing the amount of time drivers occupy a given parking space.

Last January, DOT promised “a more comprehensive management plan for the metered parking environment,” but that plan has yet to materialize. The recent introduction of ParkNYC, the city’s new mobile parking meter app, is a hopeful sign: In announcing the new technology, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said it “opens the door” for smarting parking policy, and that the city is now “technology-enabled to move forward with [dynamic pricing].”

2. Parking placard reform

The city’s 100,000-plus parking placards are a big contributor to congestion, and the unknown number of bogus placards used by people exploiting the system don’t help either. Just walk around public buildings in Lower Manhattan to see how many government employees (and impostors) use their placards to drive and park illegally with impunity. A 2006 study by Bruce Schaller concluded that these parking perks induce tens of thousands of car trips each day into the most transit-rich, congestion-choked parts of the city.

NYPD officials have not shown any interest in placard reform, and any push from City Hall is certain to pit the mayor against the city’s municipal unions, as it did during the Bloomberg administration. Nevertheless, placard reform remains one of the most powerful tools to address congestion at the mayor’s disposal.

3. HOV restrictions on East River bridges

In 2001, after the September 11th attacks, the Giuliani administration banned single-occupancy vehicles from crossing bridges and tunnels into Manhattan south of 63rd Street between 6 a.m. and 11 a.m., which resulted in a 23 percent decrease in traffic during the morning peak. On October 17, the city shortened the restriction by one hour, to 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., which resulted in a 15 percent decrease from before the attacks.

While rush-hour HOV restrictions are a blunt instrument compared to toll reform, the impact could still be significant, reducing the amount of cars coming into Midtown and Lower Manhattan at the times when the street grid needs the most relief.

Typically, the city has only enacted HOV restrictions in the central city during extraordinary situations like a transit strike or the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. But like those events, the looming L train shutdown will create enormous strain on the transportation system, and HOV restrictions will make a lot of sense as part of the plan to keep New Yorkers moving.

4. Prioritize bus service on city streets

A street grid where transit doesn’t take priority over private cars simply can’t handle the city’s growing population. Currently, DOT and the MTA roll out a couple of Select Bus Service routes with dedicated bus lanes each year. But de Blasio doesn’t have to wait for the expansion of SBS to paint more bus lanes and add transit priority at traffic signals.

DOT has identified street segments where buses need priority, and the agency is in the process of generating a citywide plan to speed up buses. It won’t cure congestion, but strong follow through on this initiative from the mayor will help New York City’s car-free majority bypass traffic bottlenecks.

In addition to these four critical areas – and thank you David and Streetsblog for such a cogent outline for tackling congestion – there are at least two more policy areas worth examining.

The first is getting a handle on app-based ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.  One only needs to look at the number of GMC Suburbans with TLC plates plying the streets of Manhattan, often carrying just a single passenger, to know that these vehicles are a major contributor to increased congestion.  But we have more than anecdote. Thanks – again – to Bruce Schaller, who in February released a report on the effect of the growth of app-based ride services on city streets, we have data.

Schaller’s report shows that ride-service trips have boomed since June 2015, and “added 600 million miles of driving to city streets in 2016.”  It’s time for City Hall to revisit a cap on app-based ride services, and if City Hall won’t act, the City Council must take the lead in crafting a solution.

Lastly, better management of truck deliveries on city streets could also help address the congestion problem.  As the growth of deliveries by UPS and FedEx and Fresh Direct and others grows unabated, we need to take a hard look at our freight systems.  We support Council Member Levine’s Intro 1031, which would require DOT to study the effect of truck deliveries on congestion.  It’s a good first step that will likely lead us toward requiring off-hour deliveries in the city’s most congested areas, more dedicated loading zones, and smaller, smarter, more nimble vehicles for the last mile.

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