New York City War on Cars Watch—Traffic Engineering First; Politics Second!

From guest writer and NMA Member Antonio Meloni

I wish I could say that that’s the way traffic issues are handled in NYC, but I would be lying.

It used to be that way. The DOT had the most control over all transportation issues and used real data and engineering to achieve workable, common-sense solutions. They weren’t always roundly appreciated, but, as we say in our post COVID world, they ‘followed the science.’

Nowadays, politics reigns and distorts what could be viable remedies into a patchwork of non-solutions and cumulatively worsening effects. Ex-Mayor Bloomberg weaponized this interference, and it has spiraled from there with each successive Mayor and Council using the DOT as a social experiment.

It turns out that one of the biggest problems with allowing politicians to propose remedies to things they know little about, like traffic amelioration, is that we wind up worsening the situation rather than remedying it.

Lately, like many of my fellow NYers (and especially Astorians), I’m stuck in overwhelming traffic next to a diesel spewing delivery truck or school bus and can’t figure out why there’s so much traffic, especially if so many are remotely working at home.

What we all are seeing is “manufactured traffic,” a very real and detrimental issue that is directly attributable to non-engineers pushing traffic ‘calming’ measures that do no such thing but are directly responsible for letting us stew in endless, paralyzing traffic swamps.

It used to take 10 minutes, and now it takes 15 or more. If you multiply those minutes by millions of city dwellers, you realize quickly what a massive disruption this constant but resolvable traffic mis-engineering really is.

The issues, which most people may not realize are affecting them daily are:

  • Traffic lights are now timed for a 45-second cycle instead of 30-seconds.
  • Successive lights are mistimed on purpose so that bicyclists and motorists are routinely and needlessly stopped at almost every other light.
  • LPI’s or ‘leading pedestrian intervals,’ that instead of helping people cross streets safely, are causing confusion and scofflaw behavior.

Let’s examine these traffic issues, which can be quickly and cheaply rectified, more in-depth individually.

Longer Light Cycles

When lights are extraordinarily long in a city like NY, with our millions of drivers and pedestrians, both motorists and people crossing streets have to deal with multi-block backups of vehicles that exist for no reason other than because of these excessively timed lights.

This isn’t a suburb or rural area where a few people are walking. We use our streets every day in every which way. Pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists are everywhere, and this ill-thought-out timing of lights for traffic ‘calming’ purposes is doing just the opposite, especially in weather extremes. In the pouring rain, icy conditions, or blazing hot streets, it can be downright dangerous to children and the elderly. It certainly inconveniences pretty much everyone else using our city streets.

Purposely Mistiming Lights

Mistiming successive lights add to the general detrimental effects, especially for city bus drivers and all types of emergency personnel. Bus times and emergency response times have indeed suffered, and when each second counts, this becomes a greater danger to the first-line responders and the public.

Recently driving a ten-block stretch, I counted five stops caused by signal lights purposely out of sequence with the next one. It is highly inconsiderate to all, especially in affecting pollution levels that are increased by the ubiquitous delivery trucks spewing pollution every time they start. This is a citywide condition and a daily medical issue for pretty much everyone.

Leading Pedestrian Intervals

LPI’s are a well-meaning idea in theory, and practice, if used correctly. They have now been corrupted and are timed for so long, six to eight seconds instead of three, which both pedestrians and motorists are routinely ignoring them, whether out of confusion or willful disregard.

When the LPIs are three seconds long, they make sense and aid in the safe crossing of streets, giving pedestrians a ‘lead’ or ‘leg up’ on turning traffic. When they become much longer, four to ten seconds, as has been proposed and instituted, they usually give law-abiding people reason to disobey them. People, especially NYers, routinely cross against the light, the little ‘red hands’ at the adjacent intersection.

Why are we allowing politicians to meddle in deadly serious transportation concerns?

Why are we allowing decisions to be made that fly in the face of experience and proven methods? 

Allow the engineers and administrators in the appropriate agencies to do their jobs without undue political interference. Don’t let the mayor/city council debacles turn permanent.

Give the duly appointed commissioners the power back to go against ill-planned ‘improvements’ that are clearly not working. We have suffered through and lived with these unnecessary traffic impediments for a couple of years now. The pandemic has just made more apparent the immutable fact that these ‘improvements’ are anything but.

To make this point, there’s a much-used bumper sticker on the back of many city cars that saysYour Choices behind the Wheel Matter.”  True, of course, they do, but “Regressive Choices Made in your Ivory Tower Matter as much or moreshould be added to remind our elected officials of their innate and inviolable responsibility to their constituents.

This constant traffic mismanagement has contributed to too much higher particulate and diesel pollution levels, especially from trucks and buses. “Manufactured” traffic has caused unnecessarily dangerous conditions to the very people we are trying to help; pedestrians, motorists, and cyclists.

Polls and stats clearly show that accidents/crashes, whatever you want to call them, have increased despite the implementation, and we would say that the above “improvements.”

There’s another positive aspect to rescinding them; none of the solutions to these issues would cost any money to the city or agencies involved, and no correcting laws need to be passed.

The solutions are simple:

  • Keep Leading Pedestrian Interval’s (LPI’s) at their original level and intent.
  • Time lights so that vehicles flow smoothly and don’t back up needlessly for blocks on end.
  • Shorten light duration to the previous levels that they were at for decades. All these easily implementable changes would cost no money at all. It would come down to just some overdue rectification of mishandled public safety issues.

Again, I don’t believe you’ll get any argument from the city bus drivers, emergency, fire, and police first responders who have had to unnecessarily contend with much higher emergency response time and a gauntlet of ever-growing multi-block traffic that necessitates them going into the oncoming lane frequently.

The emergency personnel, who are the most directly affected by the destructive policies enumerated above, would love to weigh in on these issues without fear of reprimands or worse from their city bosses. The way things are right now, traffic and its many inherent problems, will worsen if we allow this mismanagement to continue.

Give the DOT and other relevant city agencies the power to make the right decisions and not the politically expedient ones. We need politicians to back off and give responsible city workers, administrators, commissioners, and engineers the right to work for our safety, free of undue and unnecessary interference.

NMA Member Antonio Meloni served as (NYC) Astoria Civic Past President /Community Board # 1 and a 114th Community Council member.

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