Monday 13 January 2014

A terrifying avenue, a new mayor - and how leaders should be handling traffic problems

It was one Saturday in November that I happened upon one of South Brooklyn’s most thoroughly dysfunctional streets. Seeking to take the Invisible Visible Boy for a trip to Brooklyn’s shorefront greenway, I naively followed the cycle route signs pointing me down Brooklyn’s 3rd Avenue towards the waterfront bike path. But, after a little while, as I rode southward with the boy behind me on his trailer bike, we found ourselves grappling with high-speed traffic heading onto and coming off the highways around us.
The sign that tricked me into cycling down
3rd Avenue. To be fair, it doesn't read
Sunset Park (via traffic dystopia).

Then, as we rode into Sunset Park – a stretch of Brooklyn along New York’s harbour front, looking across to Staten Island - 3rd avenue plunged into the shadow of the Gowanus Expressway. The din of overhead traffic always in our ears, we found ourselves constantly buzzed by high speed vehicles or cut off by cars turning into or out of auto repair shops. The street seemed like as complete an example as one could imagine of a street designed for motor vehicles with no thought for human beings.

Look at this picture, readers. Then remember, with astonishment,
that the man who forced this road down this route died feeling
New York City was insufficiently grateful to him.
So it was a shock when I discovered that, until 1941, 3rd avenue in Sunset Park was the heart of a thriving community. The street was famous for its restaurants and the food shops that supplied the area’s people – who were mainly immigrants from Norway, Sweden and Finland. According to The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s classic biography of Robert Moses, builder of much of modern New York, it was only in 1941 with the opening of the Gowanus Parkway - since substantially widened and turned into an expressway - that it started the decline into traffic-dominated squalor.

Moses insisted, despite pleas from the residents, on building his parkway above 3rd Avenue when it would have done far less damage above 2nd avenue, nearer the already industrialised waterfront. Moses dismissed the poor but proud community in Sunset Park as a slum and consequently not worth saving.

I’ve been pondering the Moses story particularly intensely recently as I've noticed how often powerful individuals shape places’ urban fabric – and particularly people’s ability to get around those places easily and safely. That’s in part because of the end of the term in power of Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York for 12 years until December 31, and the start of the term of Bill de Blasio. Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, pushed strongly for the introduction of new, better bike lanes and pedestrian plazas, chipping away at some of the damage Robert Moses did by making the city so dependent on cars. Bloomberg’s successor has promised to continue making decisive changes on the city’s streets. It was part of his election platform – and critical to winning his endorsement by StreetsPac, the safer streets action group – that he promised to work towards eliminating pedestrian deaths altogether.
The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson:
the world's biggest political plaything?

In London, it’s becoming steadily clearer that the efforts of the mayor, Boris Johnson, to provide both better cycling and walking conditions and faster journeys for motor vehicles are collapsing under the weight of their internal contradictions. In Toronto, it’s one of the emblems of Toronto’s general civic tragedy that its clownish, crack-smoking mayor has ripped out some important cycle lanes. Over the past week, I’ve been watching how political operatives in New Jersey used traffic congestion to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, a small town by the George Washington Bridge, apparently for supporting the wrong candidate in the state’s gubernatorial election.

Taken together, the various cases illuminate some core principles. It’s important that leaders have a clear vision for how they want their cities’ transport systems to work and that they’re prepared to tackle forthrightly the kind of obstructionism that almost any significant change to the urban fabric creates. But it’s also vital that those plans are based in a real, solid understanding of what’s going on at street level, that they’re flexible when there are serious concerns and that the plans are carried out within the rules of the political game. Leaders need to exercise the self-discipline to put long-term policy goals ahead of the need to have concrete successes to show before the next election.

Traffic stuck bumper-to-bumper on the Gowanus Expressway
on a quiet January Sunday: true testament to the success
of Robert Moses' road-building
Moses – who wielded power over aspects of transport and planning in New York State and City in various forms from 1924 to 1968 – provides the most spectacular examples of what can go wrong. In Sunset Park, he pushed the elevated highway down 3rd avenue because, he claimed, the existence there of structures supporting a recently-demolished elevated rail line would make construction along the avenue cheaper. But that probably wasn’t as decisive as his simple conviction that the people of Sunset Park were dispensable. It’s a principle he followed all over New York City and State when he encountered people or environments for which he didn’t care. The more one knows about Moses, the more one spots around the city problems – whether clogged, disruptive freeways, crumbling subway lines or ugly, unsuitable public housing projects – that could have been avoided if Robert Moses had been made to obey the same rules about planning and due process that others followed.
Cyclists pedal on a dedicated lane over Copenhagen's
Dronning Louise Bridge. Key difference between these
lanes and London's Cycle "Superhighways": those in
Copenhagen are good, effective public policy.
On a far smaller scale, Boris Johnson’s initiative in London to build “Cycle Superhighways” along main roads exhibits a Moses-like deafness to criticism. No cyclist shown plans for the “superhighways” – which are mostly simply painted blue strips along frighteningly busy roads – could have avoided concluding that riders using them would be terrifyingly vulnerable to the neighbouring traffic. The desire to have achievements to show in the mayor’s first term and a wish to devise a cycling policy distinctively different from that of Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson’s predecessor, seem to have trumped any urge for mature reflection, however. Livingstone had developed the London Cycle Network of quiet routes along back streets.

The Cycle Superhighways look embarrassingly inadequate when compared with the bike lane that Janette Sadik-Khan championed around a mile away from the worst of 3rd Avenue, along Prospect Park West in Park Slope. The two-way protected lane illustrates, partly, the value of clear thinking and good planning. The lane wasn’t built by pretending, as Boris Johnson has with the Cycle Superhighways, that bike facilities can be built with no effect on motor cars. It took away a lane of car traffic. Sadik-Khan, who had a strong record of listening to the community boards that provide New York neighbourhoods with a voice on planning issues, defended the decision to build the lane in the face of legal action that has now rumbled on for years but served only to highlight how well worked-out and widely supported the original policy was. Her stance puts Boris Johnson’s insistence on following incompatible goals in his roads policy to shame.
The George Washington Bridge's Fort Lee entrance
(albeit the bike, not car lanes). Taken last summer,
before politicians realised the scene's full potential.
Boris Johnson, however, has at least largely avoided the ultimate transport policy error – of taking steps for purely short-term political reasons. Those seem to have been the motives for the closure for four days starting last September 9 of two of the three access lanes from the town of Fort Lee, New Jersey, onto the busy George Washington Bridge to New York City. An official in the office of Chris Christie, New Jersey’s Republican governor, seems to have ordered the closures to choke Fort Lee with traffic after the town’s Democratic mayor endorsed the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Barbara Buono. The incident – which held up school buses and emergency vehicles, as well as thousands trying to get to work – was one of the most serious moral failings of transport policy practice I’ve ever come across. New Jersey appointees on the board of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the bridge’s operators, seem entirely to have lost sight of the reason for the bridge’s existence and seen it purely as a political tool.

Bill de Blasio fortunately seems unlikely ever to lapse into such downright political cynicism. It was in a supportive spirit that I and some other people concerned about road safety turned up outside his inauguration ceremony on January 1 to remind him of his commitment to cut road deaths. There’s a clear sense of optimism abroad that Mr de Blasio and Bill Bratton, his new police commissioner, might have the courage to start tackling New York City’s appalling road safety record – at the time of writing, the city has already suffered nine traffic fatalities this year. Polly Trottenberg, Sadik-Khan’s successor, even came out ahead of the inauguration to talk to the Vision Zero activists and to hear the heart-rending stories of some of the bereaved parents who were there.
Inwood Hill Park: Robert Moses couldn't really understand
why anyone would think the road hadn't improved
this last patch of primeval forest in Manhattan
But, however optimistic the mood on January 1, I couldn’t help wishing I’d been able to take Mr de Blasio with me on the trip I’d taken the previous day, for a family trip to the New York Botanic Garden. To get to the garden, more than 20 miles from my Brooklyn home, I rode up by Robert Moses’ Hudson River Parkway, taking in how it had cut nearly all western Manhattan off from the city’s stunningly beautiful Hudson River waterfront.

I rode under the George Washington Bridge, glancing up to take in the traffic conditions. Then, towards Manhattan’s northernmost 
Two of the three cars that crashed in northern Manhattan
on Mike Bloomberg's last day as mayor: just another
part of the legacy handed Mayor de Blasio
tip, I encountered one of Moses’ most infamous pieces of civic vandalism – Inwood Hill Park, a stretch of primeval forest that he wrecked by needlessly driving a road right through its middle.

A scene we would have encountered on the way back would have been just as instructive. On Broadway, by the bridge leading from the Bronx – which Moses’ road was meant to free from traffic – I found a long traffic jam. At its head were three cars, crashed into each other.

This, I might have told the soon-to-be-mayor, is the legacy you’ve been handed. It’s a city still reeling from a mad effort to make it almost entirely dependent on the private car - and plagued by regular, serious car crashes as a result.

“Please remember the lessons of all the bad and weak leaders who made it like this,” I’d have begged him. “Please try to make it at least a little better.”


  1. To be fair, riding on 3rd Avenue in the reverse-commute direction -- downtown in the early mornings, uptown in the evenings -- on a fast road bike is remarkably speedy.

    The neighborhood is clearly much worse off for it, though. I certainly have not braved it on my kidback tandem. :-p

    1. Matt,

      I must say I've not tried 3rd Avenue in "reverse commute" direction. I have, however, worked out an effective route that avoids Third Avenue to reach the Shore Greenway (2nd avenue, fifth avenue then back to 2nd avenue when it restarts at 29th street, since you ask). It's not just the traffic volume, to be frank. It's a street whose layout encourages speed, and whose obstructions discourage attentiveness. In short, I don't like it.

      It was particularly disingenuous of Moses to claim there wouldn't be much difference between having an elevated rail line above the avenue and an expressway. I'm currently in Detroit and got the train and bus to LaGuardia en route. Roosevelt Avenue in Queens is under an elevated subway and remains a flourishing community street in a way that 3rd avenue, tragically, will never be again.

      All the best,


  2. Thanks for the good read. We seem to have this mentality that if we don't plan for more cars, somehow civilization will grind to a halt. We need to look at a flip side--if we stop building for more cars, something else, perhaps less toxic, will take their place.

    Rochester, NY is apparently going to finally demolish the "Inner Loop", a travesty planned and executed in the mid-20th Century for a scenerio that never played out. Meanwhile, its been a ruinous moat around the Flower City's urban core. The only thing the Inner Loop ever did for me was cause confusion as I tried to get from the U of R campus to my uncle's house near the Rochester Zoo. Thankfully, its days are numbered, if not over already.

    1. Here is a link.

    2. Khal,

      Thanks for the kind words. One of the striking things about reading The Power Broker (which I heartily recommend) is that, even when Moses was building his roads, people were telling him they'd get jammed up if he didn't build a subway or other rail line at the same time. He didn't - and it's pretty much impossible now to rectify the damage.

      All the best,


    3. Invis, I'm not sure that building a rail line along a highway will fix the problem. The R subway line parallels the BQE, and yet the BQE still gets jammed up. The best explanation for this that I've seen comes from Cap'n Transit's discussion of "Transportation Myopia." Curious what you think.

    4. Anonymous,

      You're quite correct. The 3rd Avenue El (the subway on whose pillars Moses claimed to be building the BQE) was demolished because the R train had been built a block away.

      Caro's argument - which I think is correct - is that, if a rail line goes in when an area's development starts, it develops differently, in a denser fashion. The problem throughout outlying bits of New York is that Moses insisted on building so many roads where there were no alternatives. Those areas developed on the basis that people would need cars to live there. The areas continue to generate large amounts of traffic.

      There's some evidence in places like Dubai and some US cities that, once rail lines come into car-dominated areas, patterns of development slowly change. The issue in Sunset Park, however, is that Staten Island and some outlying bits of Brooklyn are car-dependent and generate vast quantities of traffic on the BQE.

      All the best,


  3. Dear Invisible,

    A cycling friend from out here in flyover country had this comment on your post: "NYC is one of the safest places in the US in terms of motor vehicles. According to Jeff Speck's Walkable City, the US had 14.5 traffic deaths per 100,000 in 2004, while New York City had 3.2 — a rate one quarter of the US average."

    John H.

    1. Cars have been made remarkably safe for their occupants. When traffic prevents you from accelerating to excessive speeds, you have a very good chance of surviving if you're in a car. 40 mph is generally survivable in a car. Not for pedestrians or cyclists.

      Nationwide something under 20% of car crash fatalities are non-occupants. In NYC, it's closer to 60%.

    2. John,

      It's a reasonable point. New York does have some advantages over other cities in safety. But I wonder what the fatality rate in New York is per million miles driven. Despite Moses' efforts, in large swathes of New York City most trips are made by subway or walking. Given that rail is a very safe means of travel, New York ought to have a better safety record than, say, Sacramento, CA, where nearly every trip is by car.

      Also, you should bear in mind that my point of comparison isn't the rest of the US (although I'm currently in Detroit, which might class as "flyover country"). London has around the same population as New York and pretty similar traffic patterns - a public transport-dependent core and car-dependent outer suburbs. It has half the annual road deaths of New York.

      All the best,


  4. Some error corrections: The 3rd Avenue portion of the El train(38th Street south) was replaced by the Gowanus PARKWAY(a four-lane tree-less, grass-less green-less PARKWAY). Second change to 3rd Avenue: Because it was cars-only on a parkway, to accommodate the heavy truck traffic to/from the new Brooklyn Battery Tunnel Robert Moses widened the surface roadway to ten lanes. Third, the Parkway was widened to six lanes(with center shoulder) to access the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. This was designated I-278 or the Gowanus Expressway. More recently and not yet complete: the Expressway was widened to seven or eight or nine travel lanes(with one flyover lane) depending on where exactly you are on the viaduct. It is the longest bridge in New York State.
    Because the roadway did not allow light to penetrate to the street below each wider edition of the roadway created a canopy and shadow over the streetscape. At points this canopy is 100 feet or more wide.

    1. Tom,

      Thanks. I was aware of the complexities. But, given that the post came out at a good 1,500 words, I thought I'd spare readers the complexities of how it started out as a parkway then became an expressway. Sorry if that offended your sense of accuracy. The bottom line is the parkway ruined 3rd Avenue and the conversion to an expressway only made things worse.

      All the best,


    2. Tom,

      This is a blog that listens to its readers. So I've changed the expressway/parkway wording a little in the name of accuracy.

      I hope you like it better now,


    3. You are kind. I don't like to see someone making a good point lose credibility from the trivia.


  5. Not connected to this article but I thought you might like to be made aware of the work the Welsh Government is doing to promote, encourage and support safe walking and cycling through its recent, and very welcome piece of forward-looking legislation, the Active Travel Bill. Devolution at work! All the best from sunny Wales.


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