Manufacturing traffic jams on Grand Street, Manhattan

Someone has watched my video of Grand Street, in Manhattan, and commented:

John, I watched the Grand Street video (which was kind of fun) but I couldn’t help but notice you are passing a lot of cars, which makes your average speed seem reasonable for the environment.

That average speed, including waits for traffic lights, was 5.5 miles per hour, half my usual. Yes, I do wait for the lights, though many New York bicyclists aren’t so patient.

Please have a look at the video so you can evaluate the rest of this post. Note especially the bus stopped in the street near the start of the video, because that will play in my comments.

Why were my riding companion John Schubert and I passing a lot of cars — and not only parked cars? The others were stopped cars. Even at 5.5 mph, you can pass stopped cars.

Grand Street is one block north of a major arterial, Canal Street, and carries overflow traffic arriving from New Jersey via the Holland Tunnel. In case you want more detail, I’ve posted photo gallery with maps online. I thank John Ciccarelli, John Schubert and Steve Faust, my companions in exploring Grand Street, for the commentary and photos which they contributed.

Here’s one photo, as an example — and you may click on it to see it in the photo gallery. That’s Steve Faust, in the yellow parka.

Trucks blocking the Grand Street bikeway

Trucks blocking the Grand Street bikeway

Grand Street passes through Manhattan’s Chinatown — accounting for the street vendors standing and walking in the bikeway near the end of the video. Grand Street also is where the infamous Chinatown intercity buses pick up and discharge passengers, to avoid paying to use the Port Authority terminal uptown.

Grand Street now has only one travel lane. A second lane was removed to create the bikeway. Whenever a bus stops — or any other vehicle stops in the travel lane — all other traffic stops and waits behind it. Traffic backs up for several blocks.

The bus drivers park the buses diagonally to prevent motorists from sneaking past and colliding with bus passengers, though this does not prevent bicyclists from sneaking past and colliding with bus passengers. You can see one of the buses parked diagonally near the start of my video.

The traffic backups, then, illustrate the law of unintended consequences. The backups result from the redesign that created the bikeway. Possibly, the designers thought that they would calm traffic by reducing Grand Street from two travel lanes to one, in the hope that the traffic from New Jersey would go elsewhere. It didn’t work. To calm traffic, you have to reduce the actual traffic, rather than to try to cram the same traffic onto a street which can’t accommodate it. Instead of calming traffic, the designers created traffic jams, increasing fuel consumption and air pollution.

My observation about traffic flow before the redesign is confirmed by an early, prototypical pre-Streetfilms video. The video stars Mark Gorton, the money man behind Streetfilms, and shows conditions on Grand Street before the redesign. Motor traffic flowed smoothly. Gorton shows vehicles stopped to load and unload, but they don’t block the street, with a second lane available for overtaking.

Gorton’s main concern is with width of the sidewalks, a valid concern in my opinion, though the sidewalks are in fact only narrow in some blocks, and Gorton takes his advocacy to the opposite extreme. He shows a Photoshopped example of how we need to “return control of the street to the communities that live here and the people that live here” by converting part of the roadway into an open-air restaurant — placing restaurant patrons elbow-to-rear-view mirror with moving motor vehicles, where the diners can enjoy a fine mix of food aromas and exhaust stench. This treatment reflects the influence of the “shared space” designs of British architect Benjamin Hamilton-Baillie. These treatments turn the entire street into pedestrian space, and tame motorists, because they can now safely travel only at pedestrian speed without killing pedestrians.

Tellingly, Mr. Gorton never mentions bicycling. Evidently, he had not yet discovered it.

“Return to the people” is code language for “take away space from motorized uses.” That is, to take control away from people who use motor vehicles and give it to “the people,” who all agree perfectly with the point of view expressed in the video. If that sounds vaguely Leninist to you, well, yes, I think so too. Ah, New York, where a wealthy hedge fund manager sounds off with Leninist rhetoric!

Real-world, American-style political pressures came to bear, and we now see the outcome. It’s rather clear that the community, some community — some people — residents, or business people, probably both, and for better or worse — wanted parking for motor vehicles, because there’s still nearly as much as before. On the other hand, Grand Street now has restricted loading zones — and not enough to meet demand. The business community either didn’t understand what would happen, or had too little political clout to demand more space.

Part of the street’s width was, however, “returned to the people” as a bikeway which is, in reality, a sidewalk extension, an outcome so predictable that I would have to laugh if the street hadn’t become such a traffic tangle, and if I weren’t required by law to ride on that sidewalk extension.

Bicyclists didn’t come out very well in this political exercise, and neither did motorists. Pedestrians came out best. They got their wider sidewalk, even if it is supposed to be a bikeway.

OK, now I’ve complained, so it’s my duty to offer a positive alternative.

Are you expecting a screed now on the joys of bicycling in Manhattan traffic on streets without any special treatment for bicyclists? Sorry to disappoint you, I’m not going to claim that Grand Street was a great street to ride on before the bikeway was constructed.

In my opinion, the Grand Street design is not thoroughgoing enough — not radical enough in one sense and not conservative enough in another. To make the street safe and attractive to bicyclists, including younger and less skillful ones, it would be necessary to displace through motor traffic to another street, and to get bicyclists out of the pedestrian zone. A way to accomplish that would be to traffic-calm Grand Street (or maybe another nearby parallel street) using barriers and diverters, more or less like the ones in Berkeley, California — so the street carries only light, local traffic.

In other words, transform the street into a neighborhood street, whose main purpose is local transportation at neighborhood-friendly speeds, like the bicycle boulevards in Berkeley — not a segregated mess, and not a pedestrian playground like upper Broadway in Manhattan. Many crosstown streets in Manhattan look promising for the treatment I propose, and are quite easy to ride now, even without intentional traffic calming.

If the volume of motor traffic were much lower, we might also consider widening the sidewalks where needed.

You may notice my heresy, from the point of view of segregationist bicycling advocates: some motor traffic must remain, as on the Berkeley streets, so the entire street doesn’t become a shared-space ped zone where pedestrians walk with abandon, and bicyclists have to play dodg’em.

John Schubert and I shot another video on Grand Street the same day. At the end of the video, you may view how motorists harassed us on a section without the bikeway, but while on the part with the bikeway, we waited over a minute for a Chinatown bus to unload, had to ride very slowly at one point behind a man with a food vending cart, and had to ride in the travel lane for several blocks where the bikeway was obstructed.

You might also have a look at this video by a unicyclist. It’s a bit shaky, but he comes to the same conclusions I do.

One Response to Manufacturing traffic jams on Grand Street, Manhattan

  1. Pingback: John S. Allen's Bicycle Blog » Review of Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities by Jeff Mapes

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


3 − = zero

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>