Even the Manhattan Institute Says Curb Your Car

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If an early April panel discussion (virtual) of the Manhattan Institute on “Planning the Post-Covid City” was surprisingly progressive, maybe it was because this talk of revolution in the streets was about reallocating little more than parking spaces. Yet that much upheaval is basic, these panelists agreed, to renewal of New York’s pre-pandemic glory.

The reforming urbanists assembled by the conservative policy outfit contrasted their ambitions with attempts to alter New York’s schools, housing or labor force: These changes, they said, merely involve municipal pavement.  Yet the aim is to reassign much of it to just about anything besides cars. And, to be sure, it’s no small skirmish to challenge the prerogatives of private-auto and SUV owners anywhere.

Covid gave this camp a big head start:   New York City set aside 83 miles of “open streets,” which generally meant pedestrian walkways amid outdoor dining, entertainment and commerce. (With normality returning, this total has been shaved by 11.5 miles.) Bicycle and scooter paths now occupy many other miles–1,375 by 2020, even if barely 500 are protected from traffic.  Clearly “alternative” means of street mobility have been in favor since March 2020, although this stems from viral fear of underground transit as much as desire for exercise.

Still, as Cornell Tech fellow Rohit Aggarwala said in the forum, it was with such adjustments that “we went on living without Midtown.” Indeed, many of New York’s residential neighborhoods have long since regained much of their vibrancy, in dramatic distinction from the office-commercial core of Manhattan. And Aggarwala wants to build on that, rather than succumb to a “knee-jerk return to normal” such as mostly followed the post-9/11 closures in lower Manhattan.

Aggarwala singled out community boards, formal advisory bodies to New York city government, as resistant to better urban streetscapes. These “older, whiter” boards, he said, are skewed toward  opposing changes in traditional residential zones,  such as bike lanes that displace street parking.

If that perspective, and those of fellow panelists Henry Grabar of Slate.com and Laura Fox of Citi Bike (Lyft), would surprise some Manhattan Institute backers, they haven’t been following the drift of its urban-transport advocacy.   Nicole Gelinas, a mainstay of the institute’s policy staff, is also a city cycling enthusiast. Yet, older habitues might need trusted reassurance that the April event’s advocacy wasn’t right out of left field.

Grabar recently enthused about a report advocating, among other things, that one quarter of NYC’s streets be reassigned from motor-vehicle use.  Cycling enthusiasts are hopeful that the Biden presidency will help fund up to 400 miles of protected paths around the city, which could also be used for other exertions.

But these urbanists ought to be cautious in their partial triumphs over auto culture in the city. For one thing, it’s hardly clear that motor-vehicle ownership among city residents (which we know from DMV registrations had increased in pre-Covid years) went down in 2020. Many weeks now after I requested them, Albany has not provided 2020 breakdowns. More cars may have spent time at alternative residences–second or family homes–and will be coming back to Gotham for greater stretches of 2021. With fewer places to park, where will they go? Or will there be pushback for space?  And resistance to the full metering of spaces that reformers want at a minimum? NYC motorists have long groused over alternate-side street parking  requirements to move their vehicles for street cleaning.

(Some advocates of change want greater basement parking requirements on new construction in the city; however, this will add to building costs and militate against “affordable” housing. On that score, it is notable that parking lots at New York’s public-housing complexes offer an unusual amount of discount surface parking, but do not attract much progressive notice. Aggarwala didn’t respond to an email on these and other points.)

Also of note—and particularly in regard to cyclist and pedestrian safety—the increased usage of trucks for delivery (and garbage pickup) of packaged deliveries is a life-style aspect just as surely detracting from the “reborn city” as personal auto traffic. Congestion fees on the latter as it enters the central core are a good and overdue idea, but shouldn’t we also be imposing surcharges on the e-commerce influx?  In fact, one legislator from Brooklyn is on that case!  For their part, urbanists at other forums have suggested reserving limited and appropriate curb spots for in-and-out trucks, but this is going to be hard-fought ground.

Creative ideas for streetscapes, including parking or not, surely have a part in reaching better order—ideally what a libertarian would call spontaneous order—in our metropolises.  Many urbanists envision new modes of transport (e.g., shared vehicles and soon autonomous ones) being part of that order, which can be fine, especially if we can relax restrictions on old means like motorized shuttle buggies. This can amount to an  attribute of city life, outweighing added costs in time and money.

But human nature being what it is, we oughtn’t be utopian. As the skeptic of sorts at the Manhattan Institute webcast, Alain Bertaud of NYU’s Marron Institute, offered, the great dream of the “15-minute city” with all of life’s desires an easy jog away is far from most people’s reality. Hey, in the actual New York, when finally a designated lane is created to make speedy bus trips not a contradiction in terms, that specially paved corridor is filled every few blocks with obstructions including NYPD vehicles.

All a progressive planner can do is hope to create room for magic in the glorious chaos. Room at the curb is for starters, it appears.

Published by timwferguson

Longtime writer-editor, focusing on topics of business and policy, global and local.

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