January/February 1997, p.7

Megastore. Megamess.
By Brian Ketcham, P.E.

Read the latest news about this issue.

New York City officials and developers of megastores, whether they be Home Depot, Caldor's, or Wal-Mart, claim megastores are the future of retail and that New York City simply must accommodate them. They claim megastores will add jobs, lower prices for consumers and increase sales tax revenues without hurting nearby small businesses. They also claim megastores will actually reduce traffic. The history of megastores across America is quite the opposite.

I am not enough of a social scientist to quantify the far-reaching effects on vital urban neighborhoods. However, I have been told that the Home Depot at Aqueduct Race Track in Queens killed off more than a dozen nearby mom and pop hardware stores. As an environmental and transportation engineer, however, I can quantify the cost of the traffic that megastores will attract.

New York City is proposing up to ten million square feet in new megastore development, most to be located in manufacturing zones in The Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. Virtually all will be in auto-dependent locations. Ten million square feet (about 185 football fields) of new auto-dependent retail space will attract up to 700,000 new vehicle trips on weekdays. This will add another half billion miles of vehicle travel to New York's already clogged streets-producing about a 10% increase in overall traffic.

The economic, societal, and environmental consequences of another half billion miles of travel (in terms of added congestion, lost productivity, increased traffic accidents and increased pollution) comes to nearly $1 billion a year. These are costs that are generally ignored-swept under the rug by developers, political leaders and government bureaucrats. These hidden costs of car and truck use currently total about $25 billion a year in total citywide, half borne by low income residents who do not own a car.

New Yorkers should understand that adding ten million square feet of megastore retail space in auto-dependent areas will result in another ten people killed each year, another 1,800 people injured in traffic accidents, and another 7,400 autos damaged each year. The cost of these additional crashes alone will total more than $350 million a year in damages not covered by auto insurance. Ten million square feet of megastores will also increase New York's air pollution, darkening our skies with nearly 18,000 additional tons of carbon monoxide, along with 1,000 tons of hydrocarbons and 700 tons of nitrogen oxides. The latter two pollutants combine in sunlight to form ozone. Today, New York falls far short of meeting the standards for ground level ozone set by the EPA. Building megastores with mega parking lots will push New York even further from compliance.

Are the so-called benefits that New York officials and megastore developers claim worth these costs? If host communities really understood this economic reality-that for every dollar in benefits there are $10 in hidden costs imposed on each host community-would they accept, without question, a megastore? Would our city officials?

Unless megastores are built in dense neighborhoods with convenient mass transit access and without significant parking capacity, they will burden their host community with huge numbers of cars which, in turn, will impose huge liabilities. It can be done: Bed, Bath and Beyond on 6th Avenue and 18th Street is an 80,000 square foot success without a single parking space. In accepting megastores. New Yorkers had better recognize this reality and plan for the environmental, economic, and equity consequences. We must not abandon the environmental review process. We cannot continue to ignore the full cost of our actions.

Write to:

Peter Vallone, Speaker
NYC City Council
City Hall
New York, NY  10007
Tel: (718) 599-3658
Fax: (718) 492-6334

Ask him to make sure that megastores aren't put in isolated industrial areas, where they'll lead to unnecessary traffic growth.