Manhattan’s looming traffic problem

| 22 Sep 2015 | 11:07

With private and for-hire vehicles, yellow cabs, trucks, buses, bicyclists and pedestrians all vying for room in which to travel, the city’s roads, particularly in Manhattan, have never been more crowded.

Between 2010 and 2014, average travel speeds within Manhattan slowed by 9 percent, according to figures from the borough president’s office.

Some of that slowdown is attributable to the 25,000 for-hire vehicles, many of which operate in Manhattan’s central business district below 59th Street, that have hit the streets since 2011.

Add to that 2,000 new for-hire vehicle registrations received each month by the Taxi and Limousine Commission, and what gets conjured is a permanent, citywide bottleneck.

So far, traffic congestion adds up to $16 billion in lost economic activity each year, according to Manhattan borough President Gale Brewer’s office.

At a meeting last week to address the issue, Brewer warned that the MTA’s seemingly intractable budget gap of at least $11.5 billion would likely result in increased mass transit delays – and even more commuters turning to car services.

Brewer convened eight panels representing various stakeholders in Manhattan’s traffic landscape, from alternative transportation advocates and bus operators to the American Automobile Association and the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission. Also included in the mix was Uber, which recently beat back a proposal by Mayor Bill de Blasio to impose a cap on the number of vehicles it can operate, and is poised to scrap with City Hall again over dueling congestion studies set to be released by the company and the de Blasio administration.

A major theme of the hearing was identifying small ways traffic congestion could be alleviated, ideas that were repeatedly referred to as “low-hanging fruit.” Each group had different - and occasionally opposing — ideas on the causes and remedies of traffic congestion.

For residents, the ubiquity of construction contributes mightily to congestion. Christine Berthet, chair of Community Board 4 in Chelsea, reported that there are 20 stretches of roadway between Eighth Avenue and 11th Avenue that are partially or completely blocked by traffic.

Ryan Russo, a deputy commissioner with the Department of Transportation, said his agency is focused on improving and expanding Select Bus Service, which has produced promising results in areas of Manhattan where it is already implemented. SBS’ current eight routes handle 200,000 riders a day, and Russo said the agency wants to add 12 more routes in the next three years.

Others advocated for increased operations to prevent drivers from blocking the box, a term that describes the familiar scene of vehicles getting trapped in the middle of an intersection when trying to beat the light, thereby blocking oncoming traffic.

Some transportation advocates say that funding the MTA’s capital budget, which would increase public transit ridership and improve service, would be the most practical way to ease congestion. But with the agency’s budget shortfall anywhere from $11.5 to $15 billion, depending who’s counting, no viable strategy has yet emerged for closing the gap. The high-profile feud between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and de Blasio is not helping matters and Albany’s legislative session this year wrapped up without funding for the agency’s capital plan.

Others have suggested compelling private developers to include subway improvements in their development deals as a way to help close the gap. Supporters point to a $200 million investment by SL Green to improve the subway stations at Grand Central Terminal that was part of their deal to construct a new commercial tower at One Vanderbilt Place next to the transportation hub.

Andrew Albert, an MTA board member, said real estate values skyrocket in direct proportion to their proximity to transit projects and improvements.

“I think it’s incumbent on lawmakers to harness these increased real estate values,” said Albert.

Another proposal is the Move NY Fair Plan, whose central premise is to reform the city’s toll system by imposing a more equitable fee on all bridges and tunnels, thereby preventing “bridge shopping” along the East River. The plan also calls for charging drivers $6 to cross 60th Street. Supporters of the plan say it would ease congestion in Manhattan’s busiest neighborhoods, encourage more commuters to take public transit, and funds generated by the plan would go towards improvements to subway infrastructure.

But congestion-pricing plans have stalled in New York before. In 2007, a plan to charge $8 on weekdays to private cars traveling south of 60th Street, which enjoyed support from the city council, died after it failed to pass the NYS Assembly.

Brewer wholeheartedly endorses the plan, as does Schwartz, but said it needs more support and recognition, particularly in the business community, if it is to pass. “Move NY is out there but it hasn’t gotten the amount of attention I think it deserves,” said Brewer in an interview after the hearing. “Move NY would need a private sector push.”

The hearing also set the stage for another bout between Uber and City Hall, after the company accused the city of moving too fast with a four-month study on the impact of for-hire vehicles that was agreed to by both sides after the Uber cap proposal was abandoned. A four-month study, said Uber, could not possibly take into account all the factors necessary to determine the impact of Iber and similar companies.

“A study needs to consider the full range of factors that influence congestion in order to identify their impact,” said Nicole Benincasa, a policy advisor for Uber. “A study that limits itself to only one or a few factors will likely miss other factors that cause congestion.”

Uber has since retained a consulting firm to look at what factors the city’s study should take into account.