Could bad traffic in Manhattan lead to fewer cars on the road?

One way to reduce traffic might be to make it so unpleasant that people stop driving so much:

City officials have intentionally ground Midtown to a halt with the hidden purpose of making drivers so miserable that they leave their cars at home and turn to mass transit or bicycles, high-level sources told The Post.

Today’s gridlock is the result of an effort by the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations over more than a decade of redesigning streets and ramping up police efforts, the sources said…

The goal of the jammed traffic is to shift as many drivers as possible to public transit or bicycles.

An added benefit was supposed to be safer streets, but city officials have said that while 45,000 fewer cars and trucks now come into Midtown daily than in 2010, pedestrian deaths are on the uptick this year.

The city denies such efforts with the mayor’s spokesperson saying, “The notion that we want or are somehow ‘engineering’ traffic congestion is absurd.” But, there is little argument that the city has tried now for over a decade to introduce additional transit options beyond people driving cars.

The real question we should ask is whether such efforts can reduce congestion. Even though the public may not like it or believe it, there is some evidence from road diets and closing highways (in places like San Francisco or Seoul) that traffic is not static: limiting roads can affect the choices people make regarding how to get around. In other words, build more highway lanes and more people will drive.

Perhaps Manhattan itself is simply too crowded for the transportation options Americans currently have. Even the sidewalks are supposedly overrun. Could this be remedied with a new, innovative regional transit plan that would work on ways to get people in and out of Manhattan more efficiently? Would affordable housing help so fewer people have to make long commutes to Manhattan?

Four options for road diets

Watch planner Jeff Speck explain how four different road diet strategies might work. Here is an example of one approach:

40-footer lane insertion

(Jeff Speck / Spencer Boomhower)

This time we focus on a 40-foot street with two 12-foot lanes of opposing traffic and two parking lanes at the curb. Many cities have adopted 12-foot lanes with the assumption that they move more traffic; in fact, as Speck has argued at CityLab before, they present a major safety hazard for cities by encouraging faster driving. He recommends slimming them down to 10 feet—a design configuration that leaves room for a bike lane and makes the street safer, even as it more or less preserves traffic flows.

This is a reminder of some of the paradoxes of road design. Provide bigger lanes and more lanes and cars tend to drive faster and traffic increases. Narrow the lanes and drivers have to slow down and pay more attention, leading to improved safety. And all of this might actually free up space for other uses – like bike lanes or more pedestrian space.

If you want more on such techniques, read Speck’s Walkable City.