Home Health News N.Y.’s Changed Streets: In One Spot, Traffic Speeds Are Up 288% – The New York Times

N.Y.’s Changed Streets: In One Spot, Traffic Speeds Are Up 288% – The New York Times

20 min read


Traffic at New York City’s busiest bridges and tunnels has plunged nearly 60 percent.

Rush-hour speeds have soared 288 percent on one of the city’s most clogged arteries — the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway — to 52 miles per hour from 13 m.p.h.

Even the air is cleaner, with levels of particulate matter, which contribute to health problems including lung cancer and heart attacks, plunging as much as 35 percent across the city.

The coronavirus pandemic that has ravaged New York has essentially erased much of the traffic in the country’s largest city, easing the congestion that has strangled the streets and has made it more perilous for pedestrians and a growing army of bicycle commuters.

And it has happened far more swiftly and drastically than any measure New York’s leaders have taken so far to push cars off the streets, including a congestion pricing plan that starting next year will impose fees to drive into the busiest parts of Manhattan.

Traffic on the city’s 6,000 miles of streets has been curtailed before by blizzards, hurricanes and even religious holidays, but it always managed to rebound within days, if not hours.

Bicyclists on Second Avenue in East Harlem.
Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

This time, streets have been flowing freely since last month and will likely remain that way as long as the stay-at-home orders in New York and surrounding states remain in place.

“You just don’t see traffic like this ever,” said Samuel I. Schwartz, a consultant and former city traffic commissioner known as “Gridlock Sam” for his traffic-curbing efforts. “This is the equivalent of Yom Kippur landing on Christmas Day.”

The extraordinary shift offers a glimpse of what one of the world’s most gridlocked cities could look like without congestion and provides an unexpected case study for transportation officials and experts wrestling with how to manage limited street space for ever more users, including ride-share drivers and delivery trucks hauling Amazon boxes.

“It falls along the lines of ‘never let a crisis go to waste,’” said Sarah Kaufman, associate director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University, which is studying the transportation impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

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There is at least one down side to clearer streets, however: speeding. Despite far fewer vehicles on the road, the city’s automated speed cameras issued 24,765 speeding tickets citywide on March 27, or nearly double the 12,672 tickets issued daily a month earlier, according to city data.

Still, stripping traffic down largely to necessary deliveries and services, Ms. Kaufman said, provide a baseline for gauging who really needs to drive in New York. “This is a way to assess what’s truly essential in the city and reprioritize our spaces and mobility options for what makes the most sense,” she said.

But some drivers countered that the streets were only empty because of an unanticipated public health emergency and that once the outbreak subsided, they would need their cars more than ever to get around and rebuild their lives and businesses.

“I think we’re all looking for life to go back to normal,” said David I. Weprin, a Democratic state assemblyman in Queens, where many residents do not have easy access to subways or public buses. “There’s a large segment of residents and businesses in New York City that relies on cars.”

Yet the wide-open streets have fueled talk of possibilities that seemed unlikely even a month ago: large car-free zones, a network of connected pedestrian-only streets and an explosion of bike lanes that could be used for delivering packages by cargo bikes.

A short-lived experiment by city officials to turn over stretches of four major thoroughfares to pedestrians for social distancing drew criticism for not going far enough.

“The same way we will have to reimagine so many elements in our city, we must do the same with our streets,” said Danny Harris, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group. “We can’t go back to streets that are littered with traffic and parking.”

Polly Trottenberg, the city’s transportation commissioner, said the city had already undertaken ambitious plans to transform its streets, including all but banning cars from a major Manhattan thoroughfare.

But how the current streetscape might influence future decisions is unclear.

New York was dealing with stretched budgets and resources, Ms. Trottenberg said, adding that “right now, we’re facing an immediate crisis and doing our best to manage this difficult moment.”

Across the country, motorists have been told to stay at home to slow the spread of the pandemic, but nowhere has the reduction in traffic been as substantial as in New York.

In one measure of declining road use, the average number of miles traveled in 24 hours by vehicles in the New York metro region, which includes parts of New Jersey and Connecticut, had plunged 64 percent by April 2, according to INRIX, a transportation analytics company.

It was the largest drop in the nation, followed by Detroit, which fell 62 percent, and San Francisco, 60 percent. Los Angeles, another famously traffic-choked city, dropped 53 percent.

On two of the country’s busiest toll roads, the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway, overall traffic was down about 61 percent during the fourth week in March as the coronavirus spread, according to the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.

At tolled crossings into New York City from New Jersey, auto traffic dropped 58 percent to a weekday average of 121,000 cars in March from 287,000 cars a year ago at the George Washington Bridge, the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, and three other bridges operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Similarly, daily traffic volume sank 59 percent to 350,856 vehicles on March 23 from 857,229 vehicles on March 2 at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s nine city crossings, including the Queens-Midtown Tunnel and the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge.

Buses moved faster with fewer cars in the way. The average weekday bus speed rose 7 percent to 8.7 miles per hour from 8.1 miles per hour before the outbreak, according to the transportation authority.

At the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Midtown Manhattan, 95 percent of New Jersey Transit’s buses were on time in March, up from an average of 89 percent, according to that agency.

Coveted parking spots have opened up across the city. Parking-meter use dropped 75 percent at the end of March to an average of 104,457 times a day from 418,471 times a day before the outbreak, according to city data.

Air quality has improved with fewer vehicles on the road, according to initial readings by state environmental monitors. Levels of particulate matter dropped across the city in March compared with a year ago, down 20 percent in Brooklyn to as much as 35 percent on Staten Island.

During that same period, average daily readings of nitrogen dioxide — which is closely linked to vehicle exhaust — dropped by as much as 30 percent in Queens and 27 percent in the Bronx.

“It proves that changes in public behavior can make a real difference in pollution levels,” said Eric A. Goldstein, a senior lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group. “And that holds real promise for tackling the climate crisis, which is still going to be with us after the coronavirus crisis abates.”

Still, Mr. Goldstein added, the reductions were likely temporary — until traffic returned to normal — and came at a terrible cost of lost lives and economic instability.

For now, the emptier streets seem to have encouraged at least some drivers to disregard traffic rules.

On one of the city’s most dangerous stretches, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, where the speed limit is 45 m.p.h., the average traffic speed at 5 p.m. on a weekday (March 31 and April 1) was 52 miles per hour, according to INRIX.

Still, traffic crashes overall have plummeted. There were 1,042 motor vehicle collisions reported between March 23 and March 28 — a 58 percent drop from a month earlier, and a 72 percent drop from a year ago, according to an analysis of police data by OpenTheBooks.com, a nonprofit watchdog group.

Traffic fatalities are also down this year after a spike in cyclist and pedestrian deaths last year. A total of 46 traffic deaths were reported as of April 5 compared with 50 deaths for the same period last year.

While it is impossible to know the long-lasting effects of the pandemic, some transportation officials and experts say telecommuting could expand in a significant way, with so many people and employers being forced to adopt a work-from-home system.

And even a modest dip in rush-hour traffic could make a difference, said Tom Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit planning group. “A small reduction at a given time can actually lead to a very large improvement in how the system works,” he said.

Bruce Schaller, a former city transportation official, said traffic would likely ramp up in stages, providing an opportunity to reshape streets that were designed decades ago.

“If I really want to organize my desk, first I take everything off and then I decide what to put back,” he said. “We’ll be at a point of deciding what to put back on the streets, which is much easier than deciding what to take out.”

Many New Yorkers said they had grown used to life without congestion and wanted to keep it that way.

Joby Jacob, 45, a biology professor in Queens, said he could hear birds chirping without the cacophony of car horns and engines.

“Now is the time to figure out where things could be reimagined and repurposed,” he said. “If not now, when?”

Annie Correal and Patrick McGeehan contributed reporting.

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