Who Has the Guts to Turn Back Cars

By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, April 15, 1986

Unless we in New York put some restrictions on the worship of the automobile — which would in no way violate the Constitution’s respect for the free exercise of religion — it will only be a matter of a few years before Manhattan begins to freeze into all-day gridlock.

It’s heading inexorably in that direction, despite the best efforts of the city’s traffic engineers, led by Samuel Schwartz. They have been admirably and artfully holding back the tidal wave for a long time — by employing new flow controls, delivery restrictions, parking regulations and rule enforcement. But they are literally running out of street space for the ever-increasing inpouring of cars from the suburbs and outer boroughs, and they freely acknowledge that by sometime in the 1990s their shrewdest state-of-the-art traffic devices will start being overwhelmed.

Fundamental reforms are necessary — the kind of reforms that require courageous political decisions by our elected leadership. Simply put, City Hall is going to have to limit the number of cars coming into Manhattan.

There’s really no other way out of this particular mess. The figures for last year, 1985, show that 860,000 cars were entering Manhattan every day. That was 40,000 more than the year before and more than 100,000 more than the daily influx of 1980. And the numbers keep moving steadily upward with no reason to expect a downturn — given the drop in gas prices, the opening of the convention center, the boom in office buildings and other people magnets.

By the early 1990s, the traffic engineers predict we will have an auto density equal to the critical mass of cars generated during the 1980 transit strike, when people were denied their buses and subways. And that critical mass occurred even though single-occupant cars were barred from entering the city during the emergency.

After the 11-day strike was over, the city’s traffic department tried to make some of the carpool rules permanent. But opponents filed a lawsuit, and the state courts ruled that the power of regulating roadways in this manner belonged to the state, not the city. Efforts to persuade the State Legislature to act have gotten nowhere. And even in the City Council, where Mayor Edward Koch has tried to secure a home-rule message to apply pressure on Albany, the idea is not particularly popular; council members from Queens and Brooklyn argue that forced car-pooling discriminates against their constituents, though the number of Queens and Brooklyn residents coming in by car, as compared with mass transit, is quite small.

The people who brought the lawsuit against the city’s carpool plan were the Automobile Club of New York and the Metropolitan Garage Board of Trade, whose separate love affairs with the automobile may give them ecstasy but are giving the city’s circulatory system a serious case of arteriosclerosis. It is in the natural order of things that private organizations will lobby for their private interests, but a larger interest is at stake here — no more or less than the city’s ability to flow and function effectively.

These people see any attempt to restrict the movement of wheeled internal-combustion machines as interference with a civil right, a legal privilege. They fail to see that this privilege ends where it imposes on the community and its streets. The city has a higher right not to be strangled.

Of the 860,000-plus vehicles pouring into the city daily, 60 percent are driver-only cars. And the bulk of this traffic is concentrated from 60th Street downward to the Battery — this is in the city’s main business district.

A recent changeover to one-way tolls on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge has jammed up lower Manhattan even more severely, while easing traffic on State Island. Like so many efforts at dealing with this expanding mass, the result is akin to pushing water down in a bucket. It has nowhere to go except somewhere else in the bucket.

The East River Drive is slowly falling apart, so sections of it are being repaired. As a result, inevitably, other parts of Manhattan are awash with the spillover. And if this weren’t bad enough, it’s all happening at a time when limousines, radio-call liveries, vans and private bus lines are proliferating like fruit flies. Each of the limos and livery cars — being in motion all the time all day long — has the impact of 50 private cars.

Taken together, these patterns offer us the inevitability of a collision course.

One long-term hope is that the subways will gradually be rehabilitated and will thus recapture those who have abandoned the underground for surface transport — but this would be but a partial solution in any case.

Meanwhile, the emergency is fast coming upon us, and the primary need is to reduce the number of cars entering Manhattan. Samuel Schwartz, the city’s diligent traffic chief, says with regret: “I think it will come to the point where people will start to scream.”

It’s a pity that the obvious decisions cannot be made before a crisis replaces reason as the motive force.

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