Testimony of Paul Steely White, Executive Director, Transportation Alternatives to the New York City Council Transportation Committee hearing on Introduction 199, the New York City Traffic Information and Relief Bill

January 25, 2007

Hello my name is Paul Steely White and I am the Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives.

New York City's surface transportation network is not working properly. To put it more bluntly, New York City streets are failing. To those who do not think that New York City streets are failing, consider the following facts:

  • According to a comprehensive study release by the Partnership for New York City, our City's leading business group, traffic congestion on our streets costs our economy $13 billion dollars per year in lost jobs and revenue.
  • In a recent study by Schaller Consulting, 1 of 4 cars on a typical Manhattan street 1 out of 4 cars-- were simply circling the block in search of parking.
  • In 2006 alone, 311 New Yorkers were killed and thousands more were seriously injured in motor vehicle crashes, most of them pedestrians.
  • The vast majority of New York Streets are without basic, low-cost safety measures to protect our city's slow-walking senior citizens.
  • The vast majority of New York City Streets are bereft of basic, low cost provisions for buses and bicyclists, the most efficient users of our city's increasingly scarce street space.

There is one problem that underlies all of these failures. The fundamental problem is that our City Department of Transportation still, in the year 2007, is measuring street performance in terms of cars, not in terms of people. Despite the fact that the majority of New York City households, and a whopping 80% of households in Manhattan do not even own a car.

The DOT currently measures street performance with an indicator called "vehicular level of service", also known as "L-O-S". L.O.S. is basically a measure of how well vehicular traffic is moving. Because L.O.S. decreases when street space or traffic signal time is given to pedestrians, bus riders or bicyclists, it is the exception, not the rule, for our city DOT to make bus, bike and walking improvements to city streets.

30 years ago, virtually every DOT in the world measured street performance the same way. But then a few cities, then several cities, and now a multitude of big cities around the world have uncovered a fundamental truth about transportation planning: designing streets to maximize vehicle flow, over time, by making it easier to drive, generates a lot of unnecessary traffic. What's worse, designing streets to maximize vehicle flow makes travel by bus, bike and walking increasingly dangerous and inefficient. In short, this approach to transportation planning yields streets like Queens Boulevard, a street which is commonly known as the Boulevard of Death.

Much has been said about London's congestion pricing and surface transit system because of how successful these and other street improvements have been in thinning traffic and in making London a more desirable place to live, visit and do business. What has received comparatively little attention, however, are the major improvements London has made in how street performance and transportation performance are defined and measured.

These is precisely what Introduction #199 is about: measuring street and transportation performance in a smarter way so that instead of maximizing driving, our City DOT is focused on minimizing driving and maximizing surface transit, walking and bicycling. In the transportation world, they call this the "modal shift" approach: targeting performance to shift driving trips to more spatially efficient and less polluting modes.

And this "modal shift" is precisely what New York City needs as we face the challenges of growth and global warming, for streets designed for buses, bicyclists and pedestrians can accommodate many more travelers, and emit much less greenhouse gas.

Introduction #199 is a good bill that we support, but in addition to its mandated modal shifting targets, the bill should include targets for reducing traffic fatalities and injuries, and targets for increasing curbside vacancy, not just "parking availability" as the bill currently states. Finally, the bill should specifically require the DOT to devise targets for reducing driving and increasing the use of alternative modes in the increasingly congested commercial districts of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island.

This morning the Department of Transportation has shared with us many welcome initiatives that will certainly improve surface transit, walking and bicycling. But without modern performance targets and the annual data collection needed to measure progress towards achieving them, the DOT will not know how these improvements are, year to year, impacting the local and overall share of trips being converted to alternative modes, nor will the DOT know how best to improve and apply these improvements to other streets to achieve maximum traffic relief.

We estimate that the new data collection required to meet the mandates of Introduction #199 will cost the City less than $300,000 per year. This is a small price to pay for having the information and goals that our city needs to bring our surface transportation system into the 21st Century.