Solve the Problem of Traffic?
From The New Yorker
September 2, 2002
Shannon Sohn, the blue-eyed, freckled young
helicopter reporter for New York's Channel 7 Eyewitness News,
was sitting in the office at the back of the hangar at Linden Airport,
in northern New Jersey, fanning herself with a newspaper and waiting
for the traffic to get bad. The office looked like a place where
people keep odd hours. The couch had body-length indentations in
its cushions, and soft-drink cans and coffee cups were spilling
out of the wastebasket.
It was early in the afternoon on Friday, May
24th, or "getaway day," as Channel 7 called it--the start of the
Memorial Day weekend and the traditional beginning of the summer
traffic season. On days like this, all the drivers who commute in
and out of New York City on a typical weekday are joined by the
drivers who live in the city and use their cars only on weekends,
producing the kind of chaos that traffic reporters in Atlanta or
Los Angeles take for granted but New York reporters don't experience
every day. If there were truly appalling delays, Sohn had a shot
at leading the six-o'clock news. "As a helicopter reporter, that's
what you want," she said. "To be first." Helicopter reporters in
New York don't have the luxury of following high-speed car chases-there
are too many bridges and tunnels in the way. Here a terrible traffic
jam is as good as it gets. But would today's traffic be bad enough?
Since September 11th, as anyone who drives in New York knows, traffic
patterns have changed. Congestion cleared up when Mayor Giuliani
used his special emergency powers to restrict bridge and tunnel
crossings into Manhattan below Sixtieth Street. Not since the Second
World War had traffic in the city flowed as freely. In April, restrictions
were lifted on some crossings, but morning-rush-hour restrictions
on lone drivers entering Manhattan remained in effect below Fourteenth
Street. Although the cleanup operation at Ground Zero has now ended,
Mayor Bloomberg--who, during his campaign, promised to improve the
quality of life in New York by making the city less auto-reliant--says
that he will keep the restrictions in place while the reconstruction
of lower Manhattan continues. Traffic has been getting steadily
worse since April, but it's still less crowded in the city now than
it was a year ago.
Linden Airport is near Elizabeth, New Jersey,
and just south of Newark airport. As we headed northwest across
Newark's sprawling runways, Sohn gathered information from the traffic-news
desk. Around noon, a twelve-year-old boy called Scottie Van Dunk,
of Mahwah, New Jersey, whose class had been let out of school early,
had ridden his bike to a section of the Ramapo River known as "The
Forty Foot," a well-known swimming hole just across the New York
state line. At 2 P.M., the boy's body had been discovered at the
spot where the river runs beside the Thruway. He had drowned, and
police officers had shut down the highway for the recovery operation.
By the time we arrived above the scene, at 2:15
P.M., the traffic on the northbound Thruway was backed up for several
miles beyond the I-287 interchange. Drivers who had been zipping
along the highway minutes before were now trapped and unhappy, and
their previously limitless sense of possibility had shrunk to a
single option: whether to change lanes. The idea that the delay
up ahead might be the result of a disaster far greater than anyone's
personal inconvenience rarely occurs to the driver stuck in traffic.
NewsCopter 7's remote-controlled belly-mounted
camera roved the river's edge, looking for a body or some other
pitiless image of tragedy for the folks at home, but found only
a couple of men from the Stony Point Fire Department, stowing rescue
gear. Van Dunk's body had been taken away just before we arrived.
Sohn directed Anderson to get some pictures of the traffic jam on
I-87 and I-287, but said she doubted that this tie-up would be enough
to make the six-o'clock news: "For that to happen, we need some
really, really bad traffic."
Since 1970, the population of the United
States has grown by forty per cent, while the number of registered
vehicles has increased by nearly a hundred per cent--in other words,
cars have proliferated more than twice as fast as people have. During
this same period, road capacity increased by six per cent. If these
trends continue through 2020, every day will resemble a getaway
day, with its mixture of commuters, truckers, and recreational drivers,
who take to the road without regard for traditional peak travel
times, producing congestion all day long: trucks that can't make
deliveries on time, people who can't get to or from work, air quality
that continues to deteriorate as commerce suffers and our over-all
geopolitical position weakens because we are forced to become ever
more dependent on foreign oil. This is the way the world ends: not
with a bang but a traffic jam.
What can you do about the traffic? Take the train?
The train may be out of commission; Amtrak, the nation's passenger
rail service, may be out of business before too long. Fly? Airlines
are cutting flights and raising prices to offset heavy losses. Manage
traffic better? There are many schemes for managing traffic, but
not very many practical ways to reduce the number of vehicles on
the roads. Even if people have an alternative to driving, as do
many New Yorkers, over time an ever larger number of commuters choose
to drive. Today, about 3.6 million people make their way into Manhattan's
"hub" (the area below Sixtieth Street) each workday--about the same
number who came on an average day fifty years ago. In 1948, six
hundred and fifty thousand of the commuters drove; fifty years later,
more than 1.3 million of them drove, and most of them drove alone.
It's not enough to build public transportation;
you also have to get people to use it, either by making trains and
buses more convenient or by prohibiting some people from driving
during peak periods. But in the United States restricting people
from using their automobiles whenever they like has always been
politically difficult, and Mayor Bloomberg's efforts to do so are
controversial. The new restrictions have brought joy to many of
the city's residents--New York is the only city in the United States
in which the majority of households don't own an automobile--but
they have been a source of outrage for the parking-garage industry,
restaurant and theatre owners, retailers, labor groups, and some
local politicians. Traffic is bad, but, as some New Yorkers have
discovered, a lack of traffic may be worse. "I think it's destroying
the fabric of New York," Greg Susick, senior vice-president of Central
Parking, told the Times in November. After a Christmas season
in New York in which the traditional Five Days of Gridlock saw only
light congestion, the Metropolitan Parking Association began investigating
possible legal action against the city for maintaining the lone-driver
If New York could do something permanent about
its traffic, maybe other cities around the country could, too. In
Atlanta, the time that the average commuter spends annually in traffic
rose from twenty-five hours in 1992 to seventy hours in 2000. Los
Angeles has the worst traffic in the country, but San Francisco,
Houston, and Seattle are challenging L.A. for this distinction.
These cities may find it necessary to impose restrictions on driving
when traffic becomes even worse--much worse--as it inevitably will.
That is why what happens in New York's experiment in traffic control
is so important. Will New York, which is planning to build a state-of-the-art
transit center in lower Manhattan, be the first city to implement
a state-of-the-art traffic policy? Or will this period in the city's
traffic history--a period in which the automobile is a privileged
guest--end in the coming months, defeated by our insatiable desire
At 12:15 p.m. on getaway Friday, Rudy
Popolizio, the director of systems engineering for New York City's
Department of Transportation, was in the D.O.T.'s Traffic Management
Center watching the city's roads for signs of trouble. The word
"jam" was first used to describe automotive congestion by the Saturday
Evening Post, in 1910, in a reference to New York City. (The
British word "blockage," a holdover from horse-and-carriage days,
was too civil-sounding to convey the awful noise and smell of automobiles
densely packed into a tight space.) Because of the limited space
and the dimensions of its grid, the heart of midtown Manhattan can
accommodate only nine thousand moving vehicles without succumbing
to gridlock: the congested traffic on one of the cross streets blocks
the traffic on an avenue, which in turn clogs the next cross street.
A bad case of gridlock can tie up all the streets in midtown within
minutes, which is why engineers like Popolizio keep close watch
on the city's roads, especially on days like this.
Traffic seemed to be flowing well, Popolizio
reported. He suspected that a lot of people hadn't gone to work.
"We may see an early peak today--around two o'clock," he told me
over the phone. "But so far traffic is O.K. I'm looking at the Fifty-ninth
Street Bridge camera, and traffic is moving well."
The Traffic Management Center is in a large windowless
bunker in a nondescript white brick building just off Queens Plaza,
in Long Island City. I had met Popolizio there when I visited several
months earlier. He and the other engineers work in the glow of thirty-four
large TV monitors, each displaying changing images transmitted from
the hundred and thirty remote-controlled closed-circuit cameras
that the city and state D.O.T.s have installed at troublesome intersections
within the city and at common choke points outside it. Traffic cams
reduce the D.O.T.'s response time to accidents--the cause of fifty
per cent of all traffic jams. In theory, the cams, available online
at www.metrocommute.com, are supposed to provide an advance-warning
system for the public, but, as a practical matter, most drivers
aren't surfing the Web, you hope, while they're behind the wheel.
More than half of the eleven and a half thousand
signals in the five boroughs are connected to computers in the management
center, and the city's traffic engineers can manipulate the timing
of those signals throughout the day. During the morning and evening
rush hours, for example, Sixth Avenue in midtown gets sixty seconds
of the green time while the crosstown streets get thirty seconds,
but during the middle of the day, when there's more crosstown traffic,
the engineers change the signal timing so that both Sixth Avenue
and the crosstown streets get forty-five seconds of green. Every
one of Manhattan's signals is represented by a tiny light on a forty-foot-long
tableau in the management center, and the lights are connected in
real time to the signals on the streets. The model allows you to
watch the sequences of lights sweeping along Broadway, or to study
the subtlety of the signal pattern in Times Square. It represents
the triumph of traffic engineering over traffic: a perfectly designed
system, without drivers to mess it up. "We use very few left-turn
signals in the city," Popolizio pointed out. "It's not like in the
suburbs, where you have people going every which way in the intersections."
The day I had visited the management center,
in March, there wasn't much traffic to manage. With all the rush-hour
restrictions still in effect, the roads in the city and outside
it were quieter than usual; an engineer had tuned one of the monitors
to daytime TV. Finally, at the end of the morning rush hour, a crew
from the city's Department of Environmental Protection stopped its
truck in the middle of the southbound F.D.R. Drive, just south of
Ninety-sixth Street, so that it blocked two lanes. The men got out,
ambled over to the side of the road, and began peering into drains.
Cars behind the truck immediately stopped, and, thanks to the D.O.T.'s
cameras, we got to see the jam forming, travelling backward at eight
miles an hour, a rolling wave of thwarted commuter desire which
soon reached the Triborough Bridge. Meanwhile, a police car pulled
up, its lights flashing, in the left lane of the northbound F.D.R.,
and the cops went over to see what the heck the D.E.P. was up to.
It was a pygmy traffic jam, in the general scheme of things, but
it was the only thing happening that morning, and the D.O.T. engineers
got pretty excited. "What are those D.E.P. guys doing?" one shouted.
"Do they have a work permit?" Fifteen minutes later, the truck moved
on, and the jam slowly cleared.
On getaway day, Popolizio told me, "We're going
to be putting in our outbound timing progressions a little early
this afternoon, maybe at one-thirty to two instead of three-thirty
to four, to give more green time to the outbound lights. All to
help get people out of the city as smoothly as possible."
Unfortunately, in getting people smoothly
out of Manhattan the city's D.O.T. engineers weren't necessarily
making their trips faster, and they may ultimately have been slowing
down the drivers by flooding the highways outside the city with
more cars than they were designed to accommodate. No major new highways
have been built around New York since the nineteen-seventies, partly
because there's no room left, and partly because many people believe
that building highways makes congestion worse, because drivers who
had previously used mass transit to avoid the traffic begin using
the new roads. Even if no new drivers take to the new roads, scientists
have shown that increased road capacity alone can increase congestion,
a phenomenon sometimes referred to as "Braess's paradox," after
a German mathematician named Dietrich Braess. In the twenty-three
American cities that added the most new roads per person during
the nineteen-nineties, traffic congestion rose by more than seventy
But not building highways also causes traffic.
The section of I-95 that runs from the New York state line to New
Haven, for example, was designed to accommodate seventy thousand
vehicles a day; it now carries more than a hundred and fifty thousand
in places. Many parts of the nation's forty-seven-thousand-mile
interstate-highway system, which was created in the nineteen-fifties,
suffer similar overloads. Politically, it's almost impossible to
build major new roads. David Schulz, the director of the Infrastructure
Technology Institute, at Northwestern University, said recently,
"When you talk about building a new road, the number of people who
benefit will be large, but their individual benefit will be quite
small. The number of people who will be harmed will be small, but
their disbenefit will be very large. And it's those people who will
get involved in the public hearings and stop the road." NIMBY ("Not
in my back yard") has given birth to BANANA ("Build almost nothing
anywhere near anyone"), which has spawned NOPE ("Not on planet Earth").
The Federal Highway Administration has spent
hundreds of millions of dollars over the past decade to make highways
"intelligent," deploying a wide range of detection devices known
collectively as I.T.S. (intelligent transportation systems), which
are supposed to track, predict, and possibly control traffic. Much
of this technology was developed by the United States military and
used during the Gulf War. (It is now part of our new homeland security
measures.) It includes closed-circuit television cameras, vehicle
sensors buried in the roads, overhead proximity radar, optical-image
sensors, and the E-Z Pass transponder-the small plastic box on your
windshield which communicates with overhead "readers," and which
may be the most significant advance in traffic management since
the traffic signal. Mark Hallenbeck, the director of the Washington
State Transportation Center, at the University of Washington, says
that the idea "is to add capacity with information, the way we used
to add capacity with concrete. In highway agencies, we used to think
of ourselves as being in the construction business. We build a road,
go away, and then come back in twenty years and add a lane. Now
all these agencies are having to learn how to increase capacity
by adding intelligence to the system."
On Friday afternoon, after I had spoken to Popolizio,
I called Transcom, a public interagency traffic-management organization
based in Jersey City, to find out what was happening on the roads
outside the city. Part of Transcom's mission is to coordinate information
about I-95 which is supplied by the states that the road runs through.
Traffic, after all, doesn't respect city or country boundaries.
Today, Transcom's managers told me, they were busy alerting travellers
to problems on the highway that had started hours earlier, at Exit
34, near Milford, Connecticut. At 6:30 A.M., a tractor-trailer on
I-95 northbound, carrying a load of car batteries, had hit a guardrail,
overturned, and caught fire. The state police closed all lanes,
in both directions, while they cut apart the truck and made sure
no battery acid remained on the highway--a process that took eight
hours. By noon, traffic was backed up for thirteen miles. Information
about the delays was posted on electronic message signs mounted
over the region's highways, and alerts were broadcast over highway-advisory
radio. At the moment, Transcom does not provide drivers with alternate
routes, but, according to its executive director, Matthew Edelman,
"Lots of these drivers know the roads, and if you tell them where
the problem is they'll figure out how to get around it." This is
assuming, of course, that drivers do what the system tells them
to do. Dave Zavattero, the I.T.S. program manager for the Illinois
Department of Transportation, says that many drivers deliberately
do the opposite. "We have variable signs on the Kennedy and Dan
Ryan Expressways," in Chicago, he told me. "The signs tell you whether
the local lanes or the express lanes are moving faster. But if I
put a message up there that says the express lanes are five minutes
faster a certain number of drivers will figure that the other drivers
are taking the express lanes, so they're going to take the local
On this getaway day, any drivers heading out
of New York early to avoid the afternoon rush hour who had checked
the traffic cams and bulletins on the Web just before leaving would
have known to take the Hutchinson River Parkway north to the Merritt
Parkway, skirting the jam on I-95. But in fact the Hutch wasn't
much better. Around noon, a truck driver had attempted an illegal
dash along the parkway (which is off limits to commercial traffic)
to avoid the problems on I-95 and got stuck under one of the overpasses.
This meant that by 1 P.M. all the New England-bound travellers that
Popolizio and his colleagues were helping to leave the city were
about to find two of the principal northbound routes blocked, and,
as we saw from the helicopter, by 2:15 P.M. a third--the northbound
New York State Thruway--was a parking lot, too.
Shortly after 4 P.M., the N.Y.P.D. closed
the Manhattan-bound side of the Brooklyn Bridge to investigate a
suspicious package that had been found on the roadway. When those
lanes reopened, at four-thirty, the police shut the Brooklyn-bound
lanes for half an hour. The result was "terrorlock"--the latest
gridlock neologism to enter New York's traffic vocabulary--on both
sides of the bridge. Traffic on the neighboring Manhattan Bridge
came to a standstill; the F.D.R. Drive backed up with people waiting
to get onto the bridges.
NewsCopter 7 was on the scene, hovering over
the Brooklyn Bridge, taking pictures of the police activity below.
"Here comes the bomb squad," Anderson said,
zooming in on the truck.
At 4:45 P.M., while the police were searching
the Brooklyn Bridge (they found only a stray knapsack), a car caught
fire inside the Lincoln Tunnel, closing the Manhattan-bound lanes
and creating congestion on the eastern spur of the New Jersey Turnpike.
NewsCopter 7 flew across the river to check out the fire, but there
was nothing much to photograph. "Car fires make great pictures--if
you can get to them in time," Sohn said. "The problem is that the
Fire Department puts out car fires so fast."
Sohn and her pilot had a hunch that the George
Washington Bridge was their best bet for the six-o'clock news, so
we headed up there shortly after 5 P.M., stopping once along the
way to record a few "beauty shots" of the city skyline, which would
be used to lead into the weather report. Sohn was careful to keep
traffic out of the pictures. "Traffic is not what they're looking
for in a beauty shot," she said.
As we came up to the bridge, we saw the jam:
a solid line of traffic stretching from the New Jersey Turnpike
to the bridge's toll plazas, then east all the way across the Cross-Bronx
Expressway and north into Westchester County. The Major Deegan,
the Grand Concourse, the Sheridan, and the Bruckner were also packed
with cars and trucks. Only the traffic on the bridge was moving--the
part you'd expect to be the most congested--offering travellers
a brief respite between jams.
"Look at that," Sohn said admiringly.
She directed Anderson to hover over Ridgefield
Park, New Jersey, where I-95 joins I-80 and swings east for its
approach to "the George"-and where she could get the best shots.
She sent some of these pictures to Channel 7 and waited. It was
almost six. Removing her lollipop, Sohn positioned the onboard "lipstick
camera," mounted on the instrument console, so that it was pointed
at her face, ready to go live at the top of the hour if she was
The jam at the George had begun hours
earlier, at around 1:30 P.M., as a result of a minor accident on
the bridge's lower level--a fender bender involving a truck and
a car which briefly blocked one lane. This tiny mishap was enough
to turn a highway of free-flowing traffic into suet. It was a classic
illustration of what is known among traffic engineers as "the Wile
E. Coyote effect." Just as the curve of maximum "throughput"--moving
as many cars between two points on a road as efficiently as possible--reaches
its peak, it abruptly falls off the cliff and is squashed flat against
the baseline of the graph.
Traffic engineering is the science of maximizing
throughput. What makes traffic jams hard to understand, at least
within traditional traffic-engineering practice, is that they tend
to occur around the time that the road is performing according to
the engineers' peak specification. One important development in
understanding this "nonlinear" phenomenon came in 1992, when Kai
Nagel and Michael Schreckenberg, two physicists at the University
of Cologne, in Germany, began to apply a computational technique
known as "cellular automata" (or C.A.) to traffic. In a C.A. model,
highway capacity is represented as a two-dimensional grid. Each
cell in the grid has one of two "states": empty or occupied by a
particle, which in this case is a car. Unlike traditional mathematical
models used by traffic engineers, where it is assumed that all drivers
are the same, in a C.A. model the particles can be assigned values
intended to represent different types of drivers: fast drivers,
slow drivers, tailgaters, and lane changers can all be represented
in the model. The result is virtual traffic.
Using a variety of computer techniques, engineers
can build virtual roads on computers, add virtual cars to them,
and sit back and watch what happens. K.L.D. Associates, of Huntington
Station, Long Island, sent me a simulation program for lower Manhattan,
and I spent a morning watching virtual traffic flow up and down
the West Side Highway. K.L.D. is also using traffic modeling to
plan evacuation scenarios for possible events like a terrorist attack
on the Indian Point nuclear facility, in Buchanan, New York. "We
work with ten different levels of driver aggressiveness," Mayer
Horn, K.L.D.'s vice-president, told me. "Also, we take into account
that people who drive during the week drive more aggressively than
those who drive only on the weekend--Sunday drivers."
Computer modeling has made it possible to study
traffic not only as a physical system but as a social system, and
several notable papers have appeared that explore the relationship
between driver behavior and traffic jams. Two researchers, Donald
Redelmeier, of the University of Toronto, and Robert Tibshirani,
of Stanford, used computer modeling to demonstrate that changing
lanes in traffic doesn't help, although it may seem to the lane
changer that he is making progress. In a paper in Nature, the authors
argued that this is because drivers mistakenly judge their progress
relative to other drivers rather than to the over-all time of the
trip, and because drivers make decisions to change lanes based on
short intervals, during which the other lane may move faster, rather
than on longer intervals, in which the slower lane speeds up. The
authors concluded that drivers change lanes for emotional reasons;
namely, that they prefer overtaking to being overtaken. Their theory
was recently contested by Nick Bostrom, a philosophy lecturer at
Yale University, who argues in a short paper entitled "Cars in the
Next Lane Really Do Go Faster" that certain lanes do move more slowly
and the reason is that there are actually more cars in them, and
that only by drivers' changing lanes can the highway as a whole
reach equilibrium and maximum throughput.
After ten years of traffic analysis using C.A.
models, Kai Nagel and his European colleagues have concluded that
traffic jams can occur for almost any reason at all. A slight upgrade
in the roadway, a light rain, or even a single road-rager getting
cut off by a Sunday driver can provide the trigger for a traffic
jam. Someone brakes, forcing the driver behind to brake harder,
and the shock wave is sent backward through the traffic until eventually
someone comes to a standstill. The Germans' gloomy position--that
traffic jams will occur no matter how ingenious traffic managers
are--is not popular with the engineers I have met around New York.
"That stuff may work on the Autobahn," John Tipaldo, of the city's
D.O.T., told me, "but not here. New York's traffic may be crazy,
but it's not that crazy."
From time to time during the course of
my traffic studies, when it seemed that traffic really was fundamentally
chaotic, I'd go see Sam Schwartz. Also known as Gridlock Sam, Schwartz
is the closest thing New York has to a traffic guru. He is unique
in the polarized politics of automobiles in New York: he manages
to be both pro-car and anti-car, sometimes simultaneously. His support
of rush-hour restrictions and East River bridge tolls, in a 1991
News op-ed piece, did not prevent him from conducting a study for
the Metropolitan Parking Association which showed that the post-September
11th restrictions were hurting the city's economy. This apparent
duplicity incensed the anti-car contingent that had considered Schwartz
an important ally. But Gridlock Sam has built his career at the
crossroads of conflicting points of view.
In his "traffic forecast," which appears six
times a week in the News, opposite the weather, Schwartz is the
voice of every traffic-savvy driver who knows to avoid the Gowanus
and the B.Q.E. by cutting through Brooklyn. His followers observe
Sam's traffic calendar, which is an ecumenical mix of the Christian,
Jewish, and Muslim holidays during which alternate-side-of-the-street
parking is suspended. If Gridlock Sam's column was your only source
of news, you'd have a pretty fair idea of what was going on around
the city--the visiting dignitaries, celebrity-studded benefits,
parades, political demonstrations, out-of-state lotto jackpots,
block parties, and sports events in the area. Gridlock Sam has made
traffic his world view.
Schwartz was New York City's traffic commissioner
for most of the nineteen-eighties, and during his storied career
as a public servant he displayed a flair for the dramatic that is
not the rule among traffic engineers. He was responsible for the
"Don't Even Think of Parking Here" signs in midtown, and his anti-gridlock
"Don't Block the Box" initiative created a lasting improvement in
traffic flow. He waged war on "sitters," especially the limos waiting
for fat cats to finish their power breakfasts in midtown hotels.
The drivers didn't care about the thirty-five-dollar tickets they
received for sitting (some of them even said thank you, which spooked
the traffic agents), so Schwartz got the city to make sitting a
moving violation, for which a driver incurs points on his license.
Schwartz ticketed Mayor Koch's car for illegal
parking while they were having lunch together, revoked the parking
spot of the archbishop of New York, which was next to St. Patrick's
Cathedral (it caused backups on Fifth Avenue and East Fiftieth Street),
and had a TV-news van towed while the crew was interviewing him.
But his finest hour was his assault on illegally parked cars with
diplomatic plates. Not only did Schwartz ticket these cars; he began
towing them, which caused an uproar in the diplomatic community.
A special session of more than a hundred delegates to the U.N. was
convened to meet with the traffic commissioner. The Russians cited
the Geneva Convention, which they claimed guaranteed the right to
free parking. The French said it was possible that the entire U.N.
might move to Vienna if the diplomats didn't get their parking privileges
back. But Schwartz was unmoved, and kept up his assault until, a
week or so later, the United States State Department informed him
that American diplomats in Norway and Togo had lost their parking
privileges, and that to avert an international crisis Schwartz should
consider refocusing his energies. "What I've learned from experience,"
he told me, "is that in New York people will go a long way to keep
their parking privileges."
One fine afternoon this spring, Schwartz took
me for a drive around Manhattan. We drove in his car, a Volvo, which
he keeps in a lot on Lafayette Street. We headed uptown, looking
for some traffic. "I can't understand it," Schwartz said several
times, shaking his head, as we sailed up Park Avenue South. "You
never see it like this." We cut over to Madison Avenue; it was rush
hour--surely we'd find some traffic there. Instead, we surfed along
on the D.O.T.'s signal progression, and even made the light at Forty-second
Street. Schwartz took no pleasure in these minor miracles. Without
traffic, Gridlock Sam wasn't quite himself.
Finally, on Forty-seventh Street between Fifth
and Sixth--the diamond district--Schwartz perked up. He began pointing
out traffic violators. "Sitter. Sitter. Diplomat. Sitter--he's a
Supreme Court judge, according to the plate." Up in front of us,
traffic was squeezing into one lane to get around a "Mitzvah mobile,"
which is used by the Lubavitcher community in Brooklyn to transport
people to the diamond district, and which had a large picture of
their late spiritual leader Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson painted
on its side. Just as we were taking our place in the queue--bang!--the
Volvo shuddered. The driver of the S.U.V. behind us, locked in a
battle with the driver of the Town Car beside him over who was going
to get around the Mitzvah bus first, had struck Gridlock Sam's rear
bumper. But the S.U.V. driver didn't seem to notice. Or perhaps
he didn't care. At any rate, the event delighted Gridlock Sam: "He
doesn't even know he hit me!"
Since this spring, traffic in the city has grown
steadily worse--or better, depending on your point of view. When
I spoke to Gridlock Sam the other day, he reported that the level
of congestion was about where it had been in the mid-nineties. "It's
not where it was at the height of the economic boom," he said. "But
we're close." He was trying to sound dire about this, but I could
detect a note of joy in his voice.
Most drivers see traffic jams as an impediment
to their own progress; few think that their presence in the jam
is an impediment to everyone else. But the true cost of a traffic
jam is not only the time you are delayed; it's the accumulated time
that your vehicle adds to everyone else's delay, because everyone
else must travel the additional length of your vehicle to get to
the barbecue. As Wolfgang Sachs, a German environmental scientist,
points out in his book "For the Love of the Automobile," "Once a
certain traffic density is surpassed, every driver contributes involuntarily
to the slowing of traffic. The time that the individual driver steals
from all the others by slowing them down is greater many times over
than the time he or she might have hoped to gain by taking the car."
The economic solution to traffic jams is to price
roads the way we price other limited resources. Just as air travelers
pay a premium to fly during peak periods, so car travelers should
pay a premium to drive during times when everyone else wants to
drive, such as the Friday before Labor Day. This form of traffic
management, which is called "congestion pricing" (although its promoters
like to call it "value pricing," because that sounds better), is
a relatively easy system to implement; the technology necessary
for it to work already exists, in the form of the E-Z Pass. Politically,
the idea is a harder sell. (They're not called freeways for nothing.)
But there are signs that congestion pricing is beginning to influence
traffic management, and nowhere in North America is this more evident
than in New York.
A year ago, the Port Authority began using congestion
pricing in the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, on the George Washington
Bridge, and on the three New Jersey-Staten Island bridges; drivers
crossing the Hudson, eastbound, at peak hours pay five dollars,
while drivers at other times pay four. (Drivers without E-Z Pass
always pay six.) The New Jersey Turnpike also uses congestion pricing.
A form of congestion pricing is already in effect for parking, thanks
to the new European-style Muni-Meters (the blue boxes that print
tickets for display on your dashboard, which are replacing parking
meters around the city).
Four East River crossings, however, remain free.
This may be the single most irrational traffic-management practice
in New York City: there is actually an economic incentive for a
Long Island driver traveling to New Jersey to go through Manhattan,
one of the most congested places on earth, rather than through Brooklyn
and Staten Island, because the former trip costs nothing while the
latter costs seven dollars--the price of the toll on the southbound
Verrazano Narrows Bridge. City planners have long argued for tolls,
and Mayors Lindsay, Koch, and Dinkins all wanted them but could
not build the coalition of city and state politicians necessary
to implement them. Bloomberg floated the idea of East River tolls
last spring, in his budget proposal, and he has been meeting privately
with politicians and business leaders to gather support for the
idea, and many observers think he will endorse the tolls publicly
after the gubernatorial election this fall. Bloomberg also has the
economic imperative of a budget deficit of five billion dollars.
If New Yorkers are faced with the choice between losing city services
(closing libraries, cutting back the number of police officers,
adding more children to already overcrowded classrooms) and paying
tolls on the East River bridges, many might choose the second option.
Instituting tolls on the East River and Harlem
River bridges with E-Z Pass would, in effect, create what's known
as a "cordon"--an electronic necklace of sensors surrounding the
hub below Sixtieth Street. Singapore and Oslo have built cordons,
and they are planned for other European cities, including London.
If Mayor Ken Livingstone has his way, beginning on February 17,
2003, any nonresident entering central London between 7 A.M. and
6:30 P.M., Monday to Friday, will have to pay a toll of five pounds
per vehicle. Once a cordon is in place, it can be used to restrict
or regulate entry to a city--or to any neighborhood, for that matter--in
many ways. Vehicles could be charged according to how much time
they spend inside the city; residents could be charged differently
from out-of-towners; those driving a single-occupancy vehicle could
be charged more than carpoolers; and if the S.O.V. is an S.U.V.
the driver could be charged more than someone in a compact.
At 5:59 P.M., the crew of NewsCopter 7
heard from the studio: their report would be leading the six-o'clock
"All right!" Sohn said.
"O.K., Shannon, to you in thirty seconds,"
a voice in the headphones said.
"I'm getting skid in the shot," Sohn said
to Anderson, indicating the landing gear, and he angled the chopper
downward so that the viewers at home would have an unobstructed
view of the full horror of I-95.
Just before the news began, Channel 7 ran a car
commercial. It showed a Jeep Grand Cherokee cruising along an empty
road somewhere in the dreamscape of automotive fantasy. Then the
clarions sounded, announcing the start of "Eyewitness News."
"Shannon, what's it like out there?" one
of the anchors asked.
Sohn reported that it was very bad indeed--"an
unbelievable bumper-to-bumper jam leading from the George all the
way up to the toll plaza at the New Jersey Turnpike--a solid hour-and-a-half
delay," she said. She gave a rundown of the other traffic nightmares
the city had suffered, and concluded, "This may be the worst holiday
traffic I've ever seen."
"Thanks, Shannon," the anchor said when
the spot ended. It was comforting to know that New York was getting
back to normal.
At 6:15 P.M., NewsCopter 7 was whirring back
to Linden Airport. The sun was sinking toward Kittatinny Mountain,
in northwestern New Jersey, and the hazy summer light was smudging
the edges of Manhattan's skyline. It had been a terrible day for
traffic, but a good day--"a five-lollipop day"--for Shannon Sohn.
"What's the next worst traffic you've seen?"
I asked Sohn as we were once again flying over Newark.
"Yesterday," she said. "Yesterday was horrible."
How was she going to get away this weekend?
"I'm going to ride my horse," she said.
Copyright (c) John Seabrook 2003. All rights
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