For a moment yesterday, it seemed like the big clash between the taxi medallion industry and app-based car services, framed in terms of Uber’s effect on snarled Manhattan traffic, might veer into unexpectedly brilliant territory. There was Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris in the Daily News, telling the MTA that City Hall would consider the Move NY traffic reduction plan to fund transit investment. Finally, a sign that some of the big players are getting serious about a comprehensive fix for the city’s congestion problem.
But the moment didn’t last long, with Governor Cuomo extinguishing the road pricing talk right away. Soon after, Mayor de Blasio beat a sudden retreat from his proposed cap on for-hire vehicle licenses, getting a few concessions from Uber, and now the whole episode will fade from the news cycle, at least for the time being.
The Uber fight was a rare case where transportation issues became front-page news, but the arguments about streets and traffic tended to descend into stupid talking points really fast. Uber NYC General Manager Josh Mohrer was hardly the only person who tried to blame bike lanes and other safety measures for the recent downturn in average Manhattan traffic speeds. Council Member Dan Garodnick, someone who generally gets how streets work and chooses his words carefully, was the first public figure on record to toss around that theory.
When you’re talking about the downsides of congestion, it’s tough to avoid framing the problem like an old-school traffic engineer, placing paramount importance on the movement of cars. Even on Streetsblog, we’ve run plenty of posts talking about the effect of Uber in terms of average traffic speeds. The trouble is that when you focus on how easily people can drive around the city, you create an opening for people to point their finger at anything that might slow down cars — like bike lanes, or a lower speed limit.
You can try to reason with these people and explain the difference between peak speed and average speed, or show the data about bike lane redesigns that had no discernible effect on traffic. And that might win some arguments. But if you want streets where bus riders have swift trips, where people of all ages feel safe walking and biking, you’re going to have to make some changes that — at least for a while, before a new equilibrium sets in — slow down cars.
We need to come at the problem from a different angle. So how about this: Traffic congestion in New York is terrible because it’s an obstacle to designing streets that work best for our city.