Visitors in New York has reached a disaster level.
Between controversial congestion pricing measures, busway lawsuits, bike lane community meeting meltdowns—to not point out an uptick in fatalities this 12 months—New York’s site visitors downside appears worse now than it has ever been.
However site visitors has at all times been an intractable downside in New York. Actually, simply as many autos clogged Fifth Avenue 100 years in the past as immediately. Rising from a 17th-century European village into the nation’s largest metropolis has concerned main adjustments over the previous 4 centuries, however none of these adjustments have made Manhattan any extra viable for vehicles. Actually, the alternative is true: At main junctions within the metropolis’s historical past, planners and politicians have made selections which have rendered personal autos untenable.
Through the years, numerous folks have tried to resolve the town’s site visitors woes—most notably Robert Moses, probably the most car-friendly politician in New York’s historical past—however none have succeeded, partially as a result of they’ve been going about it the flawed means.
We hold asking: “How can we make the town extra accessible to all of its eight.5 million inhabitants?” But the auto is privileged by default, at the same time as the town takes small steps to handle different transit woes.
If we actually need to make change, we have to begin with Manhattan, the place a mere 22 p.c of residents personal vehicles. And as a substitute of small steps, we have to take one large leap: ban vehicles.
Right now, there are about 6,000 miles of street in the New York, however the story of site visitors begins on a a lot smaller scale in decrease Manhattan within the 1600s, on a three-block byway known as Stone Avenue, then one of the crucial vital streets within the metropolis.
Those that are acquainted with Stone Avenue immediately principally know the European-style pedestrian thoroughfare that stretches from Coenties Slip to Hanover Sq.. The block is lined with eating places and bars; on sunny days, the out of doors tables on the street are jam-packed. Nevertheless, what secured Stone Avenue’s place in historical past was not this picturesque block, however the comparatively unremarkable stretch that runs from Broad to Whitehall streets. Within the 17th century, this block was variously generally known as Straat van de Graft (“avenue of the canal”—close by Broad Avenue was then an open waterway) or Brouwer’s Avenue (“brewer’s avenue”). On March 15, 1655, its residents and enterprise homeowners efficiently petitioned to have the thoroughfare paved.
The petition reads:
To the Worshipful Burgomasters and Schepens of the Metropolis Amsterdam in New Netherland….
We ﬁnd by each day expertise that mentioned avenue is turning into an increasing number of unﬁt for public use, in order that we must be properly inclined each for our personal lodging and the general public good, decoration and welfare of this metropolis, to pave the mentioned avenue with spherical stone on the ﬁrst favorable alternative….
[W]e pledge ourselves to furnish the stone, the elevating and reducing mandatory thereto, every to the extent of his home and lot, and additional to observe the final rule relative to paving and bills, with the request that the unwilling be constrained to the identical, in order that if the work be begun, it might be accomplished.
The explanation Brouwer’s Avenue was turning into “an increasing number of unfit for public use” was undoubtedly as a result of it noticed an excessive amount of horse site visitors. Roughly one in each 4 buildings in New Amsterdam served beer, and the horses coming to and from the road’s eponymous brewery stirred up mud and mud. Metropolis magistrates accredited the measure, and whereas it took a couple of years to survey, grade, and pave, Brouwer’s Avenue was quickly coated in cobblestones. Someplace alongside the road, it was nicknamed “Stone Avenue,” and the appellation caught.
In a metropolis of simply 1,500 folks, most site visitors in New Amsterdam was business—not simply the beer deliveries, however farmers coming in from elsewhere in Manhattan and Lengthy Island to promote their wares alongside numerous merchants. Non-public autos had been uncommon and costly. Because of this lack of wheeled autos, Stone Avenue was seemingly one of many city’s solely high-traffic areas. Many of the remainder of New Amsterdam, renamed New York in 1664, remained unpaved not simply by means of the remainder of the Dutch period, however as much as the cusp of the trendy period.
Nonetheless, taking a look at how the residents buttered up the town councilors with their attraction to the “public good, decoration and welfare of this metropolis” (full disclosure: my 10th great-grandfather was one of many councilors who accredited the petition), it’s simple to see the paving of Stone Avenue as a recognition of the significance of site visitors and a bellwether of issues to return.
For a lot of the remainder of the 17th and 18th centuries, the primary quandary the town confronted with its streets wasn’t locomotion however sanitation. For the reason that earliest Dutch days, pigs had run wild all through the town; that downside wasn’t helped by the truth that many residents handled the road as a rubbish can. As Arthur Everett Peterson lamented in his 1917 e book New York as an Eighteenth Century Municipality, even within the 20th century, most New Yorkers felt that “an open window is handier than a garbage can. In congested districts, where there are no vacant lots, it is not uncommon day or night to see old buckets, mattresses or dilapidated furniture fall from a top-story window to street or sidewalk, there to be seized upon by street gamins for complete demolition.”
As New York quickly grew—from roughly 15,000 residents on the finish of the American Revolution to 60,000 a mere 15 years later—the town’s streets grew to become more and more congested with folks, rubbish, and hogs. Most residents continued to stay south of Chambers Avenue, and whereas there had been some 18th-century forays in what immediately are the Decrease East Facet and Greenwich Village, the town had no actual plan for development.
To alleviate that crowding, the town appointed a three-person fee in 1807 to chart future enlargement. The ensuing Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, which created the Manhattan avenue grid, was probably the most forward-looking piece of city planning in America’s younger historical past. It was largely the work of surveyor John Randel Jr., who mapped the town’s new cartesian structure from Houston Avenue (successfully “Zero Avenue”) to 155th Avenue.
Constructing on the sooner work of a surveyor named Casimir Goerck, Randel’s north-south avenues had been positioned 920 ft aside, which (as the town’s Widespread Council later remarked) was “too great a distance for public convenience.” However he saved the avenues thus far aside as a result of they had been ancillary. Whereas the town’s inhabitants would sometime develop northward, New York’s axis was nonetheless east-west, and Randel’s 60-foot-wide streets offered the vital hyperlink between the commerce of the town’s rivers. Right now, clogged with autos, these numbered streets appear woefully insufficient for dealing with the town’s site visitors. However in 1811, the first mode for traversing the island was by foot, and Randel’s avenue grid was greater than enough for the town’s inhabitants, which then hovered round 75,000 folks.
Right now, we frequently speak in regards to the grid primarily as a avenue plan, however the commissioners had been far more thinking about what lay between Randel’s rectilinear streets and avenues: hundreds of heaps for properties, every 25 ft vast by 100 ft deep, which might be bought and would permit the town to develop northward. Because the commissioners themselves later famous, “It may be the subject of merriment that [we] have provided space for a greater population than is collected on any spot on this side of China.”
As the town’s inhabitants grew, so did its site visitors. Of their 2007 e book The Horse within the Metropolis, authors Clay McShane and Joel A. Tarr speculate that the town skilled its first traffic jam in 1823. By the late 1860s, with the inhabitants now over 815,000 folks, site visitors had grown worse, however it’s vital to keep in mind that even with even with such explosive development, fewer than 2 p.c of New Yorkers owned a car.
In response to the 1878 e book The World on Wheels, in 1863 New York was house to a complete of:
about 13,562 autos of every kind. Of those, 5,000 had been personal carriages and wagons, 558 omnibuses, 954 hackney-coaches and coupes, 255 express-wagons, 416 wooden and charcoal wagons, 278 junk-carts, 5,374 public carts, and 724 dirt-carts, moreover an uncounted variety of hand-carts and different enterprise contrivances mounted upon wheels.
Even this seemingly small variety of autos was an excessive amount of for the town to deal with. In 1885, paving engineer Francis V. Greene traveled to 10 cities to evaluate the site visitors. In New York, he “counted 7,811 horse-drawn vehicles, many with groups of two or extra horses, passing the busy nook of Broadway and Pine Avenue” on a mean day. Town’s inhabitants was now approaching 1 million and site visitors was getting out of hand.
Sadly, issues had been about to get a lot worse.
The identical 12 months that Greene stood counting horse-drawn autos on Broadway, an engineer in Mannheim, Germany, named Karl Benz was perfecting the horseless carriage. By the 1890s, cars had been commercially accessible in the US, and in 1913, when Henry Ford started assembly-line manufacturing of the Mannequin-T, vehicles had been now not thought-about a fad. In 1916, the nook of Fifth Avenue and 57th Avenue noticed approximately 14,750 cars and carriages go by in a 10-hour interval, a determine on par with what it’s today.
To alleviate the issue, the town launched into two plans to take away site visitors from the streets: an elevated railway, which—regardless of a prolonged loss of life rattle—actually lasted solely about 50 years, and the subway, which opened in 1904 and now carries about 5.4 million riders daily.
However none of that was sufficient to tame the town’s site visitors.
The top of the 19th century noticed quite a few plans to take care of the interlaced problems with site visitors and overcrowding. Some, like James E. Serrell’s 1865 “Remodeled New York,” relied on reclaiming land from the East River and paving over the swampiest areas of Queens. This appeared loopy on the time, although the town has not too long ago launched into a two-year plan to “create a roadmap to expand nearly a mile of the lower Manhattan coastline into the East River.”
Different plans had been extra modest and principally concerned correcting John Randel Jr.’s insufficient grid by ramming by means of new streets. At the least for this there was historic precedent. In 1832, developer Samuel Ruggles petitioned for Lexington Avenue to run north of his Gramercy Park growth. 4 years later, the block between Fourth (now Park) and Fifth avenues was divided by Madison Avenue. Later, planners took these streets as proof that the Randel’s grid was not inviolable.
In 1898, architect Julius F. Tougher mapped out a collection of spokes that radiated out from Union Sq., writing that it was “actually outstanding” that Randel’s grid “omitted the diagonal system of primary avenues.” Lower than a decade later, Charles Rollinson Lamb created a plan for the Municipal Artwork Society bulletin that additionally contained quite a few diagonal streets (considered one of which, not coincidentally, obliterated a big a part of the overcrowded Decrease East Facet). In 1910, New York’s mayor, William J. Gaynor, proposed a “Fifth-and-One-Half” Avenue within the spirit of Lexington and Madison; the next 12 months, a New York Instances banner headline introduced, “A New Street to Relieve Broadway’s Congestion,” displaying its personal modest new boulevard piercing the center of Manhattan.
In fact, the issue with all these schemes—past the apparent one which great swaths of the town can be have been torn all the way down to make them actuality—was that they ignored the issue of induced demand, which proposes that new roads gained’t minimize down on site visitors. As an alternative, new site visitors will arrive to fill these roads.
When Robert Moses started hacking his means by means of the town with an ax (to paraphrase the highways commissioner himself), his solely concern was the automotive. “Cities are created by and for site visitors,” he as soon as mentioned. “A city without traffic is a ghost town.” Tasks each realized—just like the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, Cross-Bronx Expressway, and BQE—and unrealized, just like the Decrease Manhattan Expressway, had been designed to make each particular person in New York not solely subservient to the auto however depending on it. As cash flowed to roads, bridges, and auto-centric tasks, it wasn’t accessible for subways and different public transit. The system’s current woes are manifold, however think about what issues can be like if all the cash directed to personal transit over the past century had been invested in public transit as a substitute.
Think about what it might be like if a serious thoroughfare, like 14th Avenue, had twin bus lanes; a protected, two-way bike path; and a large pedestrian thoroughfare.
And no vehicles.
We’d not must think about for much longer. On October three, the beforehand stalled 14th Street busway was put in after the state’s appellate division overturned a earlier keep. Strolling down the road on opening day, the blissfully empty hall offered a glimpse of the long run. Whereas nonetheless open to business and emergency autos, in addition to personal vehicles doing drop-offs and pick-ups, the change was instantly optimistic. Buses whisked down the open street so shortly that it appears seemingly the MTA should do a schedule adjustment. However whereas this new public transit effectivity is a step in the precise route, the adjustments do little to encourage pedestrians or biking.
As an alternative, to see a blueprint for a fair higher future, it’s helpful to have a look at the Monetary District Neighborhood Affiliation’s “Make Way for Lower Manhattan” plan, which requires creating extra pedestrian plazas and zones, severely limiting automotive site visitors, and creating areas like these present in some European cities (resembling Amsterdam) the place bikes, vehicles, and pedestrians intermingle at grade. This proposal, mixed with the Downtown Alliance’s earlier ideas to improve Wall Street, may doubtlessly create a downtown district primarily devoid of vehicular site visitors. As Curbed’s structure critic, Alexandra Lange, not too long ago identified in her primer on the historical past of pedestrian malls, “we need to make the pedestrian life easier than the windshield view.”
I’d argue that these downtown proposals—together with ones in Brooklyn just like the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership’s purpose to “create a unified vision for long-term improvements to Downtown Brooklyn’s plazas, streets, and public spaces”—are good, however don’t go far sufficient.
John Randel Jr., deliberate for a metropolis the place pedestrian site visitors simply moved from river to river. Let’s return to that plan. Think about if your complete metropolis was constructed following the edicts of two of New York’s different most well-known designers: Frederick Regulation Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who created Central and Prospect parks. When it opened, Central Park was a marvel not simply of panorama design, however of site visitors administration. Three varieties of site visitors—pedestrian, horseback, and carriage—coexisted on roads that had been designed to never cross. On prime of that, the sunken transverse roads took metropolis site visitors from the east to west sides with out disturbing any of the park’s customers.
We will make Manhattan its personal Central Park. Preserve the avenues and the “extra-wide” streets (14th, 23rd, and so on.) for vehicular site visitors, however flip each different avenue right into a pedestrian thoroughfare. Take the cash that will have been spent on retaining these streets viable for vehicles and make investments it in public transit, devoted bus lanes—even ferries. No avenue would have to be utterly minimize off from vehicular site visitors; emergency providers may get by means of and transport for the disabled, simply as they do in locations like Ghent, Belgium, the place the town middle has been car-free since 2017.
In case you’re downtown, cease by Stone Avenue. First, go to the block east of Broad Avenue. Not one of the unique cobblestones stay, however that is the road—usually clogged with idling vehicles and honking taxicabs—the place New York’s site visitors issues began. Then, for a distinction, stroll one block east to Coenties Slip. This block of Stone Avenue is overly reliant on consuming and ingesting for its liveliness, however it additionally paints an image—extra precisely than the pedestrian mall at Instances Sq. or the occasional “Summer season Streets” closures—of what a thriving car-free New York can appear like.
James Nevius is an city historian and writer of various books about New York, together with Contained in the Apple: A Streetwise Historical past of New York Metropolis and Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of 4 Centuries of New Yorkers. He’s presently researching a e book about American utopianism. Comply with him on Twitter or Facebook.