Giuliani Takes On The Pedestrian
It was the Great Barricade and Jaywalking Controversy of 1998. It seems that Mayor Giuliani spent too much time in his mayoral mini-van and became fixated on pedestrians as the latest nuisance. In a public relations fiasco that is more a bad joke than a serious attempt at governance, the mayor OK'ed the barricading of twenty of the busiest crosswalks in the United States. Suddenly, on the day after Christmas, steel barriers appeared on 49th and 50th Streets in Midtown along with three or four unhappy looking police guards at each intersection.
Not surprisingly, the barricades have been lambasted by the public and press and were the target of T.A. street theater in early January. However, as of mid-February, they remain and the mayor has since called for a crackdown on jaywalkers, and increased the penalty from $2 to $50. The barricade and jaywalking episodes suggest how woefully little the mayor comprehends transportation issues. The fundamental idea behind the barricade plan - to make New York City more attractive to motorists - is phenomenally short-sighted. The seven million cars and truck already traversing the city everyday cause thousands of deaths and injuries, grind away at the city's quality of life and impose an estimated $25 billion a year in societal and economic costs.
If the mayor wants to make the city an attractive place to live and visit, he should consider reducing the number of noisome cars in the city, not imposing on pedestrians. While banning cars from the city is unworkable, so is the mayor's attempt to accommodate more driving. No matter how many pedestrians are barricaded, penned or detoured, the city will never have enough room for those who might want to drive into it. This has been amply demonstrated over the last fifty years as New York City traffic has grown to choking proportions while sidewalks have been narrowed, parks and lanes on bridges opened to traffic and a fabulous trolley system destroyed.
Ironically, as the mayor strives to shoe-horn a few more cars into Midtown, across the Atlantic an extensive British study has found that closing roads in urban areas leads to a decrease in traffic on surrounding streets. After examining 60 instances in cities around the world, researchers found an average decrease in traffic of 20% after road or bridge closings. New York City examples like the closing of 5th Avenue at Washington Square Park in 1958, and the collapse of the West Side Highway in the 1970's support this conclusion. Thus, the corollary of "if you build it they will drive" is "if you take it away they won't drive."
To revisit a failed past of encouraging more driving is folly. We have been there, done that, and it is a mistake to go back. Enough already, Mr. Mayor. Take down the barricades and look to the next four years as an opportunity to leave New York City with a legacy of great public spaces, pedestrian plazas and bicycle greenways.
P.S. T.A. will fight the Midtown crosswalk barricades with all of the means at our disposal until they are taken down. As of late February, T.A. is assisting Sage Realty in a lawsuit opposing them which should be ruled on in March.