Opinion: Engineering first; Politics second
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 NY’ers (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, in fact, are directly responsible for letting us stew in endless, paralyzing traffic swamps. What used to take 10 minutes now takes 15 or more and 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:
1) Traffic Lights that are now timed for a 45 second cycle instead of 30 seconds.
2) Successive lights that are mistimed on purpose so that bicyclists and motorists are routinely and needlessly stopped at almost every other light.
3) 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 easily 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 there are a few people 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 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 just adds to the general detrimental effects, especially for city bus drivers and all types of emergency personnel. Bus times and emergency response times have certainly suffered, and when each second counts, this becomes a greater danger to the first line responders and to the public. Recently driving a 10 block stretch, I counted 5 stops caused by signal lights purposely out of sequence with the next one. Extremely inconsiderate for all and especially in affecting pollution levels that are increased by the ubiquitous delivery trucks spewing pollution every time they start off. This is a citywide condition and clearly a daily medical issue for pretty much everyone.
Leading pedestrian intervals: LPI’s are a good well meaning idea in theory, and practice, if used correctly. They have now been corrupted and are timed for so long, 6 to 8 seconds instead of 3, that both pedestrians and motorists are routinely ignoring them; whether out of confusion or willful disregard. When they are 3 seconds long, they make sense and can aid in the safe crossing of streets; giving pedestrians a ‘lead’ or ‘leg up’ on turning traffic. When they become much longer, 4 to 10 seconds, as has been proposed and instituted, they give normally law abiding people reason to disobey them. People, especially NY’ers, do this routinely by crossing 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 real experience and proven methods? Allow the engineers and administrators in the proper agencies to do their jobs without undue political interference. Don’t let the Mayor Bloomberg / 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 and the pandemic has just made clearer the immutable fact that these ‘improvements’ are anything but. To make that point; there’s a much used bumper sticker on the back of many city cars that says” Your choices behind the wheel matter”. True, of course they do, but “ regressive choices made in your ivory tower matter as much or more” should be added to remind our elected officials of their innate and inviolable responsibility to their constituents.
This constant traffic mismanagement has contributed to much higher levels of particulate and diesel pollution, 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, because of 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:
1) Keep Leading Pedestrian Interval’s (LPI’s) at their original level and intent.
2) Time lights so that vehicles flow smoothly and don’t back up needlessly for blocks on end.
3) 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 personnel 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. These emergency personnel, who are the most directly affected by the detrimental 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, are going to get worse 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. What we need is for politicians to back off and to give responsible city workers, administrators, commissioners and engineers the right to work for our safety, free of undue and unnecessary interference.
Astoria Civic Past President /Community Board # 1 & 114th Community Council member