July/August 1998, p.2

Fantasia

The latest insider gossip as we went to press was that the mayor would soon appoint Wilbur Chapman, a high ranking career police official, to head the City Department of Transportation. The new commissioner will be the fourth in Mayor Giuliani's four and a half years in office. It is no mystery why DOT Commissioners have a short career in this regime. They are trapped between the rock of a public screaming for traffic relief and the hard place of their boss' political unwillingness to get people out of their cars. The mayor has proclaimed his courage and iconoclasm on many occasions. But when it comes to acting boldly on transportation issues, he is well within the the milquetoast tradition of his much reviled predecessors by refusing to consider East River Bridge tolls and higher, more rationally priced parking fees.

The mayor has shown that he can embrace new ideas in transportation. His support of traffic calming legislation and school-based traffic calming are laudable. However, using the power of pricing to sort out the horrendous mismatch between the city's scarce supply of road space and the seemingly unlimited demand to drive has been deemed a fantasy reserved for transportation experts, reformers, and Noble Prize-winning economists. William Vickrey, a Columbia professor and long-time New Yorker, showed as far back as the 1950's that varying toll prices during peak and off-peak times on the East River Bridges was the only way to manage traffic on those bridges. Vickrey wasn't some nut. His ideas are the basis of every electric, phone and airline company's billing system - systems through which tens of billions of dollars flow every day.

So who is really dwelling in a fantasy world? Is it Vickrey's and his numerous adherents, or is it a New York City political establishment that clings to the hoary idea that "transportation" is nothing more than putting more and more cops on the street until motorists and pedestrians behave as a regimented ballet? Something has to give way. Neighborhoods across the city are going bonkers over traffic. Here and there, a partial solution is being devised in the form of traffic calming road designs. But without bridge tolls and a sensible parking pricing plan in which commercial vehicles are given priority, plus an aggressive pro-pedestrian and cycling push, city streets will continue to be a jammed mess.

In this issue, Transportation Alternatives outlines a new vision for how to spend $204 million in transportation funds to vastly improve conditions for cyclists and pedestrians. Much of what we hope for depends on a DOT commissioner with the flexibility of mind to embrace both new and old learning and act upon it. We wish Wilbur Chapman, or whoever is selected DOT chief, luck. We urge the new commissioner to heed the lesson of the past forty years, which is that trying to move traffic does not work. And of the present, which is that working to reduce traffic can and does work in great cities like Singapore, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen to name but a few. More cops directing traffic are not going to do the trick. But maybe one more smart cop at DOT might.

John Kaehny
Executive Director