Cutting the Gordian traffic knot

“Not TV or illegal drugs but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities.”
― Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead

As the New York State Senate votes on whether or not to lower NYC’s default speed limit to 25mph (from 30mph), I’ve found myself marveling at how difficult it is to make any significant changes to our traffic problem. Sure, the 5mph reduction is a big deal for the city, and will certainly save lives. But it won’t even touch the real issue – private cars are simply not compatible with dense urban areas.

So what’s the solution? It sounds drastic, but I don’t see another option: eventually we’ll have to ban private vehicles from urban areas, starting with central business districts and spreading out through the dense areas of our cities. Obviously this can’t happen in isolation, and any measures of this sort will need to be accompanied by improvements in public transit (although certainly eliminating traffic congestion will do plenty to improve bus or streetcar efficiency and regularity anyways). Again, it’s a drastic measure, but everything else is only pulling at frayed strings. Our traffic problem needs a sword.

It certainly isn’t a new idea. As I’ve noted before, Julius Caesar banned wheeled traffic from Rome’s streets during the daytime. Cities around the world already have car-free zones in increasing numbers (the Wikipedia article on the subject contains an oddly thorough list). The shining star in that category is certainly Venice, whose residents have never seen fit to “modernize” their city to fit the needs of the automobile. Earlier this year, in an emergency effort to reduce smog, Paris banned half of all traffic from their streets.

That last example contains an important lesson. When forced to abandon cars, Parisans still traveled around the city, via the temporarily free public transit system or their bike-share program. If the alternatives are there, people will use them. Sometimes they just need a push first. In Paris, that was oppressive smog. In NYC, it may very well be the sheer level of traffic.

Even in NYC, it’s not a new idea. It was a key point made in the venerable Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities, where she suggested allowing only buses, taxis, and delivery trucks onto city streets. She also addressed an important issue that critics of car-reduction proposals often bring up. It’s usually expressed simply: where will the cars go? They hold it as self-evident that there are a fixed number of cars, and they need to go somewhere. To counter this, Jacobs cites the case of NYC’s Washington Square Park, which was entirely closed to cars in 1958. Critics predicted that millions of new cars would be shuffled onto side streets, creating unbearable traffic problems. This wasn’t the case: the cars “have not noticeably gone anywhere else instead.” It mirrors the phenomena of traffic generation, in which building roads designed to reduce traffic (like an extra bridge over the East River, for example) actually ends up increasing traffic on both. More roads means more traffic, and fewer roads means less traffic.

The eclectic Paul Goodman (described by Wikipedia as being a “novelist, playwright, poet and psychotherapist… social critic, anarchist philosopher, and public intellectual”) wrote regularly on the subject. In a piece with his brother Percival entitled simply “Banning Cars from Manhattan,” they noted:

Manhattan is a world center of business, buying, style, entertainment, publishing, politics, and light manufacture. It is daily visited in throngs by commuters to work, seekers of pleasure, shoppers, tourists, and visitors on business. We have, and need, a dense population; and the area is small and strictly limited. Manhattan does not sprawl. It can easily be a place as leisurely as Venice, a lovely pedestrian city. But the cars must then go.

While there are pieces of their grand vision for Manhattan I disagree with, the fundamental idea is correct. It’s a radical problem that requires a radical solution.

Of course, I know that no candidate who ran on a platform of completely banning private vehicles would ever actually get elected as mayor in a major U.S. city. So what steps can we take in the interim, with this ban as a long term goal? Speed limit reductions are great. Local road closings are great. Prohibitive congestion charges are great. Ensuring that public transit systems provide a quick, comfortable, and reliable experience is even better. Americans like choices, and they can still choose to drive – but we can make sure it is obviously a worse choice. Once the number of private cars is reduced enough, our radical measures will seem a bit more palatable.

Either that, or congestion and smog will inevitably become so bad we will be left with no other option but the radical one. That day is rapidly approaching, and I hope we can head it off before it arrives.

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