Skip to content

Untangling Traffic: Bloomberg’s Promises

On July 11, 2001, Republican mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg issued the following policy paper on traffic and transportation:

Untangling Traffic
July 11, 2001

Traffic is a mess!

In New York City, people get bumped, jostled, pushed, shoved and harassed on the busy sidewalks. On our trains and buses, they sit and stand jammed toe-to-toe, invading each other's personal space. They can never find a taxi when they need one and someone else's livery cab is always blocking their street or taking their parking space. Manhattan, south of 96th Street, Main Street in Flushing, at the Hub in the Bronx, along Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, Hylan Boulevard in Staten Island, no part of the five boroughs is immune to the congestion caused by the tangle of trucks, cars, buses, vans and construction clogging city thoroughfares. And perhaps most important, emergency vehicles are having a hard time getting through.

Productivity is lost. The environment is harmed. Time is wasted. And the twin maladies of sidewalk rage and  road rage are becoming more commonplace.

Our priorities? In order: Police vehicles, fire trucks and ambulances have to be better able to respond in an emergency. Walking must be made safer, easier and faster as it's a part of every single trip, whether you live in the city or commute here. Mass transit has to be made an increasingly attractive alternative to private cars. Commercial deliveries, the lifeblood of our economy, must be made more efficient. And for those who insist on driving, to the extent possible, the traffic must flow.

The incentives to break the grip of gridlock on our streets and sidewalks are driven by safety, by concerns over environment, by aesthetics and by economics. But no matter the motivation, we must get people moving. We must have strong leadership, coordination and accountability to do this.

The problem isn't more people. Rather, it is how they behave. For example, conventional wisdom is that Manhattan's central business district is entered by more people than ever before. Wrong. Below 96th Street accepts the same crowd that it did 50 years ago. In 1948, 3.69 million people entered this central business district. In 1998, the number was nearly the same. The difference is in how they arrived. In 1948, two-thirds used mass transit (today only ½ do) and fewer than a fifth traveled by motor vehicles (657,000 cars daily then versus today's 1,316,000).

A few weeks ago a coalition of former city transportation commissioners, business, civic, labor and environmental groups, coordinated by the Regional Planning Association, issued a thoughtful report, Unclogging New York, with many recommendations that I endorse. They include a full-length Second Avenue subway, the Grand Central-LIRR link and a freight-rail tunnel linking Brooklyn and New Jersey.  

But there are also short-term, inexpensive improvements to be made in how we get to work, to business, to school, to stores and entertainment. 

Franklin Roosevelt said in 1932, "It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." Through a combination of smart, short-term fixes and long-term solutions, we can save New York City from being strangled by traffic. We should be the world leader in intelligent transportation policy. Not a follower. Let's stop talking and start acting. 

TAKING CHARGE & MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Six different agencies have traffic-control centers, five control variable traffic signs and four influence traffic signals. Overall, more than 20 agencies play a role in managing or operating transportation in the city. Only seven of them report to the Mayor.

In the past two decades, the Department of Transportation has lost control of traffic agents (to the NYPD), parking violations (to the Finance Department) and design and construction of the streets and highways (to the Department of Design and Construction). While individually each of these decisions may have been warranted, the consequence is that no one is in overall charge of traffic.

When it comes to general construction and other street events, too often it seems as if the only coordination among agencies involved in road or highway construction is to disrupt all routes to a given location at the same time. This is untenable and cannot continue. Although there is nominal coordination of such activities, the results clearly warrant improvement. One person must be put in charge of the City's traffic and held accountable.  

  • As Mayor, I would give one person "reporting directly to me" the authority to coordinate the city's traffic policies and all other transportation-related issues. We must make one person accountable for all peoples' everyday experience in getting where they want to go.

GETTING OUR FAIR SHARE

New York City is an incredible revenue generator for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. But you wouldn't know it by their focus. The principles underlying the establishment of the multi-state authorities, a wider geographic scope and removal from day-to-day local interference, are sound. But the way resources are allocated is unacceptable.

While New York City moves 83% of the state's mass transit riders, it receives only 64% of Albany's transit aid. While NYC subway riders pay 66% of the cost of service, riders of the State's commuter railroads pay less than 50%. While users of the TA's facilities generate the bulk of the MTA's surplus from our bridge and tunnel tolls, that pot of money is only split 50/50 between the TA and the commuter railroads. That must change.

The City is not getting its fair share from the Port Authority for construction and infrastructure projects, and it shows. In 1998, revenues at JFK were $593.4 million and Newark International's, $415 million. But because of inadequate capital spending by the Port Authority, 55.9% of JFK's revenue went to operations and maintenance expenses, whereas Newark airport, having been made more efficient, used 48.3%. According to the Mayor's Officer, the difference costs JFK $45 million per year, $130 per plane movement in lost profits.

While a regional approach to transportation is necessary, fairness dictates that the City get an equitable distribution of money. Mayor Giuliani has done a great service in raising this issue and showing that LaGuardia and JFK have been subsidizing Newark Airport. We should support his demand that the Port Authority ameliorate the service and resource inequities as one condition to extending its airport contract in 2015. If the flow of dollars continues to go across the river, the Mayor must be free to investigate other options. 

What makes the Mayor's task so difficult is that our City's representation on the boards of the MTA and the PA is limited. The Governors of New York and New Jersey each appoint six commissioners to the board of the PA. Our Governor appoints all 20 board members of the MTA. While trying his best to include NYC representatives, the Governor has the rest of the state to include. And in the end, New York City's influence is disproportionately low. Our Mayor should have more say!

As Mayor, I would take an active role in the appointment of city representatives to these boards that have solid credentials. And I would work closely with the Governor to ensure that his appointments are of equal stature and are sensitive to the concerns of New York City. Also, I would:

  • Continue Mayor Giuliani's fight for equitable distribution of services and funding at JFK and LaGuardia.
  • Enlist the help of the Governor to secure higher airport rents and commitments to new investments in PA facilities in New York City.
  • Lobby for our fair share from the State to maintain state roads in New York City.
  • Ensure that New York City spends up to the federal ceiling. Often we don't spend money due to inefficiency and ultimately lose it.
  • Aggressively seek federal discretionary monies. After all, one of our own Congressmen is the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.

TAKING BACK OUR SUBWAYS AND BUSES

If the next administration is to take control and responsibility for traffic and its coordination, and if it is to be held accountable for its performance of that duty, the City must have the goal of regaining command of its buses and subways.

The history of the New York City subways is a lesson in modern-day government failure. Two of the original three subway systems were privately owned and operated.  The Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) was the first to carry passengers in 1904, followed by the Brooklyn Manhattan Transit (BMT). The Independent Subway System (IND) was created as a city entity in 1924. The city bought the other two systems and unified the subways in 1940.

But the city was unable to make the system work. Worse still, politicians did not want to be responsible for its failings, deficits and fare increases. So in 1953, the city created the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA) as a special government district to run the subways. The result was a bureaucratic monster that answered to no one. The city gave up control of the subways and buses because it did not want to be accountable. It should be!

Today, the NYCTA is part of the MTA, which answers to Albany, not City Hall. A perfect example of local needs playing second fiddle to system interests was the MTA's decision to close the Grand Street station in Chinatown to accommodate repairs on the Manhattan Bridge. The rerouting will disrupt service for 27,000 riders daily. The decision was made and announced with no input from the public.

  • As Mayor, I would work with the Governor and the state Legislature to transfer the NYCTA to the City. Recognizing that transportation is a regional issue and the MTA rightly serves Long Island, Connecticut and the five counties north of the city, the new agency would continue to coordinate with the MTA. But when it comes to subways and buses on the streets of New York City, the Mayor should be calling the shots. Period.  

LONG-RANGE CAPITAL COMMITMENTS

It is ironic that many ideas long talked about would, had they been acted upon, now be a reality. Surely, this is true of the 2nd Avenue subway, the development of which I endorse, as have most people since it was first proposed just after World War I. In 1951, the voters approved a $500 million bond issue to replace the Third Avenue El with a Second Avenue subway. It was never built. But the money was spent. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was created to build a harbor tunnel from Brooklyn to New Jersey. To date, nothing. Enough. Let's either do these things or not, and stop the deceit and delay.

We also should support:

  • The establishment of a sustained program for infrastructure maintenance. The recent history of the Williamsburg Bridge illustrates the cost of the failure to do regular maintenance. Instead of an estimated annual cost of $2 million in maintenance, we have spent more than $400 million in the past 20 years. An estimated $100 million more is needed. The disruption to the roadway and subways has been tremendous.
  • The completion of the $4.3 billion Grand Central Station-LIRR link, which would save an estimated average of 45 minutes in daily commuting time for some 70,000 commuters. This would also relieve congestion on certain subway lines and pedestrian traffic on the streets.
  • The expenditure of $1.3 billion to extend the No. 7 line to the west side to promote economic development there.

AFFORDABLE THINGS WE CAN DO NOW!

First and foremost, the City must provide information to drivers and transit users as to road and subway conditions. Local television and radio do not give people the specific information they each need, when and where and in a form they can use. More needs to be done to disseminate the data already on the DOT website which features real-time traffic cameras, traffic advisories and resurfacing schedules.

A simple voice-recognition telephone system for cell phones (non-handheld in cars) would aid immeasurably. Without taking his/her eyes off the road, the driver or mass transit user can simply speak the name of the street or the neighborhood and have the computer speak back the traffic and transit conditions ahead. Simple, easy to use, available to all, and with nominal incremental cost to the City and the commuter.

In addition, I would focus on three specific areas:

Pedestrians. New York is a walking city. Therefore, we must do everything possible to move pedestrians through crosswalks more quickly and safely. And we must simultaneously move vehicles more quickly through business district streets and more safely through boulevards and concourses in other parts of the City. 

1. Speed up crossings by instituting a vehicular all-stop at major intersections. Where pedestrians and vehicles are at a critical mass, have a four-way red light and allow pedestrians to cross straight or diagonally. Countdown clocks should notify pedestrians and motorists how much time there is for crossing. Traffic Commissioner Henry Barnes tried this in the 1960s. The 'Barnes Dance,' as it came to be called, is still in use at Madison & 23rd Street and about 50 other intersections in lower traveled areas. We must expand its use to more heavily traveled intersections throughout the city as it reduces walking time and helps cars turning left or right through crosswalks to do so quicker and safer. 

2. Slowdown speeders to protect pedestrians. The publicized speeding, injuries and deaths along Eastern Parkway and Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, Hylan Boulevard in Staten Island, Grand Concourse in The Bronx and Northern and Queens Boulevard in Queens highlight the problem. The Daily News reported that 97 people, mostly pedestrians, have been killed in the last five years. Stricter enforcement of the speed limit is essential, but there are other steps that could be taken.
  • LED lights implanted in the roadway that flash and tell drivers that pedestrians are crossing have been installed with positive results in more than 150 localities. 
  • Flashing 'You are going XX m.p.h.' signs on roads where speeding is common.
  • Cameras (currently awaiting state approval) to catch speeders and save lives.

Mass Transit. We have to make the choice between favoring trains, buses, for-hire vehicles, or private cars. Given our objective of helping people versus hardware, I also would:

1. As Mayor, to encourage the use of mass transit, I pledge to lead by example. During my administration, I will use public transportation at least once every day rather than the City-provided official car.

2. Use technology to increase public transportation's efficiency.

  • Reduce headway on subways. Improve signal systems and platform control to shorten the time between trains. This will increase the capacity of the No. 4 and No. 5 lines that serve The Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan.
  • Arrival countdown clocks on subway platforms and in bus shelters. Riders need to know how long they will have to wait until the next train or bus. It's the uncertainty that's hard to take.
  • Utilize Global Positioning Satellite technology to help bus drivers or their schedulers prevent "bus bunching."
  • More widely publicize efforts by the DOT to provide information on subway conditions.

3. Establish a "Subway on the Surface" on the East Side of Manhattan. Introduce  high-speed limited-stop bus service along an enforced (see next section) semi-dedicated right-of-way on First and Second Avenues. The Lexington Avenue line is pushed to the limit. The 2nd Avenue subway is at least decade away. The East Side needs relief.

4. Expand the bus fleet. More than 6,000 buses carry nearly 3 million passengers daily. NYCTA has command of 4,500 of them that carry 2.39 million people daily. While ridership has increased 17% in the past three years, service capacity has increased only 13%. Either the NYCTA expands the fleet or the City should offer franchises to foster competition and augment service. Only fuel efficient, nonpolluting, alternative fuel buses should be permitted on our roads.

5. Create additional bus lanes. Consideration should be given to establishing bus priority lanes on Fordham Road, Tremont, Third, and Webster Avenues, and the Grand Concourse in The Bronx; Northern and Merrick Boulevards in Queens; and Capodanno Boulevard on Staten Island.

6. Franchise transportation in underserved neighborhoods. Where service by the NYCTA and/or yellow cabs is not adequate or non-existent, issue an RFP for the provision of service. Everyone from the NYCTA to dollar vans would be invited to bid. A successful bidder would be required to provide a safe and reliable system of transportation.  

Traffic enforcement. There should be zero-tolerance for flouting traffic laws. Parking and moving violations should be vigorously enforced. Enforcement should focus on safety and clearing traffic, not the number of tickets written.

1. Use technology to boost compliance with traffic laws.

  • Employ existing red-light cameras to keep bus lanes flowing. Currently, there are bus lanes on Madison Avenue, as well as First, Second, Third, Lexington, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Avenues. Cabs, livery cars, passenger cars and trucks should not be in these lanes unless making a turn at the next intersection. Cameras can catch those going through intersections in the bus lanes just as they can catch those turning through intersections on red lights. A snapshot of the offender's license plate along with a notice of a fine or court date would be sent to the offender's address on file with the Division of Motor Vehicles. These cameras could even be mounted on the buses themselves as is done in London to make the process more efficient.
  • Give traffic agents hand-held summons devices or digital cameras to record parking violations. Instead of writing out a ticket, a snapshot of the parking violator's license plate and the street sign posting the parking rules will be sent to the address on file with the Division of Motor Vehicles. This would be especially helpful in cracking down on double parkers and would dramatically increase the accuracy and collection of fines. Red-light violators getting their picture in the mail, almost always pay their fines.

2. Simplify street signage as to permitted and prohibited activities and increase the fines for parking violations in key locations. The appropriate level for fines is where it stops violations. Fines are there to stop lawbreakers not to raise revenues.

3. Use EZ Pass with Congestion Pricing policies to encourage truck delivery at off-peak hours. The initial success of the experiment in midtown needs to be expanded. Bigger price differentials will lead to greater effects.

4. Introduce Congestion Pricing for parking meters. The Giuliani administration has been experimenting with this in Times Square and it should be expanded. Drop-offs and deliveries should be free for the first 15 minutes to encourage patronizing local merchants. The price should then increase substantially the longer a vehicle stays at the meter.

5. Crackdown on double-parking by enforcing the laws on the books. Curbside parking rules would be vigorously enforced and moving violations would be issued to vehicles blocking a moving lane. Digital cameras issued to police would make ticketing more efficient and accurate, and let the police and traffic agents use their skills on law enforcement rather than on clerical tasks.

6. Alternate side truck deliveries. To decrease the mess of double-parked trucks institute alternate side deliveries. For instance, on even days allow trucks to park on the north or east side only. On odd days, south and west.

7. Use crosswalk markings to stop parking where pedestrians are blocked and drivers' vision of approaching cars is impaired.

8. Curb Privileged Parking. Curb space is a valuable public resource. There may be as many as 100,000 on-street parking permits issued to city, state and federal employees, judges, diplomats, the press, etc. The fact that no one knows the exact number points to an aspect of this problem. Privileges should be rescinded unless there is a demonstrable need for on-street parking. If the average person doesn't have special parking privileges, why should those who work for us or write about the traffic mess have them?

  • If the courts uphold the Mayor's current efforts, diplomats who thumb their noses at traffic laws would have their cars towed to the farthest tow pound in the city. We might not be able to collect fines and other levies, but we could make them think twice about violating the law.