THE COMMUTE: I’m not talking about congestion pricing for the Manhattan Central Business District, but rather methods such as improved signage, better traffic light synchronization, reducing the number of bottlenecks, additional dual left turn lanes, more two-way streets, additional traffic enforcement agents placed at traffic hot spots, and enforcement of existing regulations prohibiting double parking. These are just some measures that can go a long way.
The problem is that moving traffic is no longer a high priority for DOT. Some may even argue that it is not a priority at all. For example, the Belt Parkway bridges are being rebuilt without the ability to add a fourth traffic lane, which is desperately needed on the portion of the parkway without service roads between Knapp Street and Cross Bay Boulevard. On summer weekends, traffic is bumper-to-bumper due to beach traffic to Coney Island and the Rockaways, and heavy at other times.
Select Bus Service and additional bike lanes replacing moving traffic lanes further reduces road capacity thereby also increasing traffic congestion. If it were possible for most auto drivers to switch to mass transit or bicycle, perhaps reducing road capacity could be justified, but such is not the case.
Whenever I discuss reducing traffic congestion, the anti-car people — mainly from the downtown areas — come out of the woodwork. They scream about the evils of the polluting automobile, which kills people and will end civilization as we know it unless each one of us abandons the car and starts pedaling to work, or switches to mass transit. Then they go on to explain how congestion pricing or tolling the free bridges are the only sensible solutions.
Yes, mass transit must be improved, but we are cutting service, not improving it. Select Bus Service even if it is successful will never be expanded to more than a small percentage of the hundreds of local routes presently operating. These environmentalists, or whatever you call them, believe traffic congestion is a good thing and they have renamed it “traffic calming.” The truth is that traffic congestion benefits no one and, for many, the automobile is their only viable alternative. Solutions must be sought to reduce traffic congestion.
Better Signage and Poor Traffic Light Synchronization
One measure that was supposed to reduce highway congestion and has never really succeeded are those expensive, electronic road signs used to inform drivers of congestion ahead and suggest alternate routes. Instead, half the time they do not work and only display public service announcements such as “Buckle up” or “Hand held cell phones not permitted.” Cheaper old-fashioned metal signs could provide that information.
When these new signs do work, rarely is the information provided useful. For example, I was once on the Belt Parkway just before the last exit to the Sunrise Highway. The sign stated that there was a delay on the “SSP” from Exits 17 to 19. First of all, no non-resident would know what the SSP or CIP means, already limiting its usefulness. Since the delay was only for two exits, the Southern State still seemed quicker than the Sunrise with its traffic lights. However, when I reached Exit 18, another sign shouted delays from Exits 19 to 21. This kept repeating, with delays never showing for more than two to three exits at a time. End of story — the delay was from Exit 19 all the way to Exit 42. Had I known that from the first sign, the Sunrise would have been faster than traveling at 20 MPH for more than 20 exits on the Southern State.
Sometimes the signs provide erroneous information. Recently I was on the Grand Central Parkway when the signed proclaimed delays when traffic was moving well above the posted speed limit of 50 mph. Other times, the signs are just blank or are displaying a test pattern. Once in a while you will be informed that traffic is moving normally or given the time it will take to get to a major interchange, which is always reassuring, but as far as reducing congestion by steering traffic away from congested areas — that has just not happened. At least in New York.
I have seen stationary signs announcing delays due to road work, posted after the last exit to avoid the delay, for example, on the Belt Parkway just after the Knapp Street exit going west when you could have exited and taken the service road to avoid the delay.
Many times, directional signs send you via a longer indirect route than necessary, also increasing congestion. For example, on Sheepshead Bay Road, going south, the sign for the Belt Parkway westbound directs you to the service road requiring you to double back to Voorhies Avenue.
I only take my car into Manhattan about once a year and only when absolutely necessary. About a month ago, around 5 p.m., I dropped off a friend on the Upper East Side because we were transporting an object that could not easily be taken into the subway. The trip uptown went smoothly, but I noticed a long delay on the FDR for the Brooklyn Bridge southbound, so I figured I would be better off with the Williamsburg Bridge on my return trip since I was destined for Canarsie. My instinct told me to exit at Houston Street. Had I done that, I probably would have been on the Willie B in about 10 minutes.
An electronic sign announced the delay to the Brooklyn Bridge and another sign directed cars to the Grand Street exit for the Williamsburg Bridge, so I took DOT’s advice. Big mistake. It took three cycles (about five minutes) just to get off the highway at Grand Street. Then Grand Street was not moving so I switched to Madison Street, which was empty. Ten minutes later, I found myself at Essex and Delancey, about to make a left turn onto the Bridge. However, a sign prohibited left turns between 4 to 7 p.m. Two cars ahead of me made the illegal turn without any problem or delaying northbound traffic. Not wanting to risk a summons, I had to travel two blocks further south, one west, one north and another east, losing another five minutes. The trip over the bridge took only about three minutes. However, the entire trip from when I first passed under the bridge until I entered the bridge took 30 minutes.
Avoiding the Brooklyn Bridge as suggested by the electronic sign, and using Grand Street as DOT suggested saved no time at all and probably took 20 minutes longer than if I used the Houston Street exit instead.
The entire trip from the Upper East Side to Canarsie took me almost an hour and a half and traffic congestion was not the major problem. It was poor signage directing me to Grand Street, an unnecessary turning prohibition from Essex Street, and poor traffic light synchronization on Ralph Avenue, where each signal turned red just as the previous one turned green, which caused most of the delays. It took 45 minutes just to get into Brooklyn, and another 40 minutes of travel from Williamsburg to Canarsie.
DOT recently made changes on Emmons Avenue, which residents fear will increase congestion further. They should be making changes to speed traffic, such as adding a dual left turn lane at Ocean Avenue or installing a left turn bay at East 19th Street, both of which they rejected. I recently learned that the successful dual left turn lane at Emmons Avenue and Shore Boulevard was suggested by an MTA dispatcher and it took DOT one year to implement it. Allowing the center lane to legally turn right on Shore Boulevard going north at Emmons Avenue would reduce congestion further at that intersection.
One-way streets improve traffic flow when they enable traffic lights to be synchronized, but many streets that are wide enough for two-way operation, such as East 17th Street between Neck Road and Avenue Y, are only one-way. This causes cars to circle around the block more than necessary to find a parking spot. Many parking spots are unnecessarily prohibited, also increasing the time it takes to find one and causing unnecessary traffic. For example, when DOT recently banned parking spots near intersections on Oriental Boulevard to make it safer for drivers approaching intersections (a practice called “daylighting”), in some cases three spaces were lost instead of one, simply because DOT was too lazy to install additional sign posts and just banned parking from the closest existing sign post.
The Purpose of Traffic Enforcement Agents
It should be to reduce traffic congestion. In New York City, it is to raise revenue. Other than in Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn, where they are used to reduce congestion, in Brooklyn most just give traffic summonses at expired meters. Just a few in Southern Brooklyn are assigned to problem intersections, such as Coney Island Avenue and Avenue Z during the reconstruction of the Guider Avenue Bridge. When they do give summonses for double or illegal parking, no thought is given to whether the illegal parker is impeding traffic or not.
Last month I planned to pick up a friend at the Sheepshead Bay Road train station at 1 p.m. I chose the Voorhies Avenue side because it is the least crowded. I parked illegally because the city makes no provision to allow cars to legally stop and pick up passengers at major transportation hubs. Although I was the only car waiting and not blocking traffic, a traffic enforcement agent told me to move my car, causing me to miss my friend who thought I forgot the appointment. Trucks, however, are allowed to double park for hours without receiving tickets on Brighton Beach Avenue or near the Junction of Flatbush and Nostrand avenues, impeding bus and car traffic. It can take 15 minutes just to go through the Junction.
Last year it took me 40 minutes to travel two short blocks on East 62nd Street after exiting the Queensboro Bridge in Manhattan. Only one lane was moving due to construction and the traffic signal was long enough to allow only three cars during each cycle to go through the intersections of First and York avenues. City permits were required for the construction and the city knew that this street was the primary exit for the bridge, yet no traffic enforcement agents were on duty to extend the length of the signal by permitting cars to go through on the red. This could have easily been done since traffic on both York and First avenues was very light at this time on a Sunday morning. In this case two enforcement agents could have cut the delay from 40 to about only 10 minutes. If only DOT cared about reducing traffic congestion.
The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).