Auto-Free New York

I had the good fortune to speak at the Eco Metropolis conference in Manhattan in mid-November. Here was a useful focus on greening a city that is already pretty green. For instance, only 44 percent of city households include a car, the lowest rate among major cities in the U.S. (the most auto-dependent country in the world). Portland, Oregon and other big public transportation players can’t come close to that.

© Brian C. Howard

New York had a subway around the turn of the century (around the time it also fielded a fleet of electric taxis), and all its major planning was designed to accommodate pedestrians, not cars. According to the report “Commuting, Non-Work Travel and the Changing City,” only a third of New York’s workers get to work by car. Again, that’s the lowest rate of any major city.

Given these distinctions, it’s somewhat amazing that New York’s city government seems slightly ashamed of its auto-free advantages. In recent years, the city seems to have gone out of its way to favor drivers over the car-free majority of pedestrians and transit-takers. In the late 1990s, then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani made his views abundantly clear by cracking down on jaywalking and erecting crosswalk barriers on five avenues to aid motorists. In the city, pedestrians race for the safety of curbs through a gauntlet of wildly swerving yellow cabs, lead-footed car commuters and hurtling trucks. The fact that the traffic is in gridlock most of the time inflames motorists to heights of advantage-grabbing derring-do.

My panel at Eco Metropolis was on urban transportation, and I shared the dais with Charles Komanoff, a long-time transit and bicycle activist in New York. He “refounded” New York’s bicycle advocacy group Transportation Alternatives (TA) after it had become moribund in the 1980s, then (when TA became too mainstream) he founded the more militant pedestrian rights group Right of Way (which focuses on publicizing the highway death toll).

Here are some of Right of Way’s more disturbing statistics:

"Cars kill 200 pedestrians a year in New York City, including a dozen on sidewalks.

" Buses kill three times as many pedestrians as heavy trucks, per mile driven.

" During 1994-1997, automobiles killed 362 New Yorkers age 65 and over (90 per year), compared with 168 killed in homicides (42 per year).

"The most frequent cause is a turning vehicle in a crosswalk striking a pedestrian. Speeding, and driving through a red light or stop sign, are the next most frequent causes.

"Drunken driving was found to be present in fewer than four percent of pedestrian fatalities.

“The great advantage of New York, something it shares with the older parts of Boston and Philadelphia, is that most of its streetscape predates the car,” Komanoff says. “The density more or less forces people out of cars and into alternatives. The crime of New York City transportation policy is that, like nearly every other city in the country, it bends over backwards to privilege drivers at the expense of people.”

In the most recent example of its anti-biking ideology, New York City has launched a legal battle to try and stop the monthly Critical Mass bicycle ride, a large and friendly gathering that at least temporarily takes back the streets from the all-powerful automobile. According to bicycle activists, if successful the city would have the power to seize bicycles without charging their owners with any crime. In the last days of October, a federal judge denied New York’s attempt to prohibit that month’s ride (unless a permit was obtained). Town hall has since filed a similar lawsuit against the November ride.

Komanoff doesn’t just talk, he backs up his presentations with facts like the Harvard-trained energy economist he is. He makes the case for a Manhattan bicycle backbone that will link all of the borough up to Central Park. The city already has a wonderful new Greenway bicycle path that will extend 32 miles around the island’s waterfront when it is done, but Komanoff’s plan takes advantage of existing bicycle paths in the heart of Manhattan. He quotes Ivan Illich, who said: “Free people must travel the road to productive social relations at the speed of a bicycle.”

Here’s some of the startling information he had to impart: You’ve heard that the U.S. uses 25 to 30 percent of the world’s resources despite being only five percent of the world’s population? Well, did you know that each of us uses 2.8 gallons of gasoline and other petroleum products every day, compared to the rest of the world’s 0.4 gallons per capita?

Bicycling reduces accidents, Komanoff’s statistics show. Each time cycling volume doubles, the rate of bike-car crashes declines by a third, he says. That’s because the expanded cyclist presence on the road literally compels drivers to be more observant of cyclists’ rights.

Komanoff’s stats also show that the richer you are, the more you drive. The wealthiest 20 percent in New York do 36 percent of the driving; the poorest 20 percent only nine percent of the driving.

Putting tolls on New York’s East River bridges would bring in $700 million in annual revenue that the city could apply to transit projects (perhaps offsetting the fare hikes that the city is proposing). Daily bridge commuters would pay $1,510 a year, but Komanoff says they account for only two percent of adult New Yorkers and would gain more free time and a better quality of life. These tolls would reduce New York traffic delays 10 percent overall by discouraging some drivers.

It’s frustrating that incremental gains in places like New York can be hugely offset by global changes elsewhere. While European cities are rapidly reducing auto dependency, increasing transit and encouraging bicycle use, other countries are going in the opposite direction. China, for instance, has 500 million bicycles, and is actively discouraging their use in major cities. Komanoff points out that if just half of those bicycles are exchanged for cars (driving only 10,000 miles a year at a relatively economical 40 miles per gallon), then worldwide petroleum use will increase an incredible four million barrels per day.

Even worse, if China duplicates U.S. per-capita gasoline consumption (the same vehicle miles traveled per capita and the same average fuel economy for its vehicles), the increase in carbon dioxide emissions (CO2, the primary global warming gas) will amount to adding another 25 percent of our current worldwide emissions.

It’s great that there are dedicated people like Charles Komanoff out there reminding us the folly of our worldwide addiction to the automobile. If you want to know more, take a look at such illuminating websites as www.bridgetolls.org, www.times-up.org, www.cars-suck.org and http://policy.rutgers.edu/intertransport. Find out more about the just-concluded Eco Metropolis conference, staged by Manhattan’s invaluable Open Center, at www.opencenter.org/Eco.