A former commissioner of traffic several decades ago was asked, “What is the best way to get across town in Manhattan?” He thought for a moment and said, “Be born there.” That statement was made before bus lanes, bicycle lanes, outdoor seating in the middle of Times Square, trains bursting with passengers at all hours of the day, and an MTA that puts most of its money into employee salaries rather than infrastructure maintenance.
New York is now at virtual transportation gridlock. There simply isn’t a way to get from point A to point B in the center of this city. As I see it, the best way to get cross town today is to dream about it.
For physicians, the expression “primum non nocere” [first no harm] is axiomatic. But this expression should apply to government officials as much as doctors. In the last three years, New York City officials have built 200 miles of bike lanes making First and Second Avenues impassable during rush hour. The attempt to convert New York into a bikers’ paradise is bizarre. Only an elitist who doesn’t ride a bus or walk the streets thinks that this metropolitan city can resemble Amsterdam.
Some New York residents actually believe bike lanes are pedestrian walkways making them extremely hazardous to your health. Moreover, since there aren’t regulations for bikers there is the belief that riding against traffic is permitted. DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan contends, “There’s a new street code out there and we need everyone to look out for one another and be safe.” Is she kidding? In New York, the code is move if you can and let the pedestrian be damned.
Of course, this is only half the problem. Mayor Bloomberg got the inspired idea that tourists need an outdoor seating area in the middle of Times Square and Herald Square making two of New York’s busiest areas into a nightmarish congestion. If God forbid, you need an ambulance or fire truck in these locales to save a life, you can count on dying. There is simply no way to pass.
In addition, our government leaders contend the best way to get around this city is by subway trains, that is if you can get on them. The Numbers 4 and 5 on the east side are always jammed; in fact, I usually consider myself lucky if I can get on the train at all. At the 42nd Street station there isn’t enough room to stand with would-be passengers sitting on the steps in the hope they can get on the next train.
Because the east side trains are so crowded, I have opted for the R, running along Broadway. However this train is the slowest in the western world. A trip from the Staten Island Ferry to Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, a trip of roughly six miles took me on hour and twenty minutes last week. I am persuaded I can walk more briskly than that pace.
What this adds up to is a city in transportation gridlock. Roads designed for bikers; avenues designed for tourists and trains designed for sloths. I love New York, but I would like to be able to move in this city before I move out of it. I would like to believe that New York was more than a place for those living in zip code 10021.
You would have to be myopic to design a transportation system as chaotic as ours. The cost of getting around has to be factored into the business equation. The frustration of sitting in traffic has to take a toll on drivers. The congestion of trains must be having an effect on passengers.
But New York goes on blithely as if these conditions are “normal.” Let me assure my fellow New Yorkers that the city is coming to a standstill. You will not be able to move cross town or uptown, traffic will be frozen. At that point, the mayor is likely to say use a helicopter to get from one place to the next. Now there’s a practical answer for the city’s transportation woes.
Herbert London is president of the Hudson Institute and author of the book "Decline and Revival in Higher Education" (Transaction Publishers).
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