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Posts from the "Op/Ed" Category

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Auto Worship Still a Sign of the Times

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When the Supreme Court held this week that the Environmental Protection Agency does, in fact, possess the latitude to protect the environment, the New York Times called it "a victory for a world whose environment seems increasingly threatened by climate change."

"It is a vindication for states like California that chose not to wait for the federal government and acted to limit emissions that contribute to global warming," read a Tuesday Times editorial. "And it should feed the growing momentum on Capitol Hill for mandatory limits on carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas."

The Times' editorial position on the landmark high court ruling is consistent with the paper's voluminous coverage of global climate change -- which, its reporters tell us, isn't going to happen, but is happening. Barely a day passes when the Times doesn't publish a story detailing a new angle of the crisis.

All of which makes its indulgent coverage of the New York International Auto Show more than a little perplexing. As usual, the Times has deployed an army of contributors to unleash a barrage of articles and special features hyping the New York event -- as it did the Detroit show in January, debuting a special car blog to mark the occasion.

In a story containing barely a passing reference to nuisance issues like heavy traffic and congestion pricing, the celebration kicked off with this paean:

New York motorists must be the nation's most ardent car lovers, considering the hardships they accept -- the scarce and exorbitant parking, the gridlock, the inevitable tickets and some of the nation's highest insurance rates -- for the pleasure of driving a car and the freedom to escape the city on a whim.
Such myopia might be excused in another time, back when serious discussion of global warming was still the province of junk scientists and Chicken Little fringe-dwellers. But now?

Granted, the Times hasn't always been consistent in its reportage (left hand, meet right hand), but the same editorial board that seemed to applaud this week's Supreme Court decision also recently came out in favor of a new DOT Commissioner "who promotes use of public transit, walking and cycling as not just a way to a destination, but as a way of life."

If only our paper of record would set the tone, rather than alternately condemning and glorifying the one consumer product most responsible for the environmental damage accounted in its pages on a daily basis.

Stay tuned for Streetsblog's own first-hand auto show coverage from Sarah Goodyear.
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Going Nowhere Fast

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This weekend's City section of the New York Times featured a mind-blowing essay by children's-book writer Sarah Shey about her habit of taking her one-year-old son out for drives in the city -- drives with no destination or purpose in mind, in which she crossed and recrossed the Brooklyn Bridge endless times.

Shey, who is originally from Iowa, writes that she missed "the pristine geometry of vacant blacktops, where a car can travel at least mile a minute, stair-stepping from field to unclothed field and not meet a patrol car." So she decided to try to recreate her family's bygone post-supper aimless-driving ritual here in the big city. You really have to read the whole thing to believe it, but here are some highlights:

Supper hour didn't work for us in Brooklyn. We had both traffic patterns and my son's schedule to consider. So early Saturday morning it was. My son and I got to escape our cavelike apartment. My husband got to lounge in bed for a few extra hours. And the best part of the deal: I got to concentrate on the road - not, for a change, on my family.

Our nondestination of choice was the Brooklyn Bridge. Back and forth we'd drive - sometimes 10 or 12 times - as if we were on autopilot. I leaned back into the bucket seat of my hatchback, whose posture recalled a dromedary. My hand squeezed the automatic clutch as if it were a stick shift, and for the first time in a week I felt in control.

My destiny was clear: to span the East River. The green light flashed above Tillary Street. I smashed down the accelerator, and with its 130-horsepower engine, my car attacked the 1.5-mile route with exhaust streaking behind us, I imagined, like a contrail.
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Parochial Thinking Amid Ominous Signs

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The Committee to Keep NYC "Congestion Tax Free." Front row, left to right: John Corlett, Automobile Club of New York; Ray Irrera, Queens Chamber of Commerce; Council Member David Weprin; Lobbyist Walter McCaffrey; Joe Conley of Queens Community Board 2.

Ominous warnings relating to energy consumption have come recently from people on both ends of the political spectrum. The free-marketeers at the Council on Foreign Relations have issued a report warning that the United States cannot possibly kick its dependence on foreign energy and recommending drastic actions such as -- ready? -- gasoline rationing. Even more alarming, if also hopefully more far-fetched, a Russian who observed the collapse of the Soviet Union first hand, and still has an occasional kind word for communism sees disturbing parallels between that country before it fell and our country today.

Taken together, these writings describe a nation that needs to cut energy consumption now, which implications for urgently needed action at the national, state, local and individual levels. Amid these increasingly ominous signs, here in New York City, serious consideration of the single action that would offer the greatest reduction in local energy consumption for the least amount of work -- congestion pricing -- is nowhere because parochial local politicians are failing to think three feet beyond the borders of their districts. (I'm looking at you, David Weprin.)

First, via the Oil Drum, we learn that the Council on Foreign Relations has issued a pdf-formatted report that sounds an urgent tone about the security implications of the United States's dependence on energy imported from foreign, often hostile nations.

Council. On. Foreign. Relations. 

This is the illuminati speaking: A powerful group that has enormous influence, for better or for worse, on U.S. international policy. As a task force of 27 influentials frets that the global market on which oil is traded may not function properly in the future, it presents this chilling thesis: 

U.S. energy policy has been plagued by myths, such as the feasibility of achieving "energy independence" through increased drilling or anything else. For the next few decades, the challenge facing the United States is to become better equipped to manage its dependencies rather than pursue the chimera of independence.

Two concurring authors of the report issue a more dire statement in a concurring opinion: Our dependence on oil has:

Enriched and emboldened Iran, enabled President Vladimir Putin to undermine Russia's democracy, entrenched regressive autocrats in Africa, forestalled action against genocide in Sudan, and facilitated Venezuala's campaign against free trade in the Americas. Most gravely, oil consumers are in effect financing both sides of the war on terrorism. Transformation in the use of energy, especially in transportation where oil is unrivaled ... is essential.

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If a 26.2-mile, Half-Day Street Closure Generates $188M…

Why not Close New York City's Streets to Traffic More Often?

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Sunday was New York City's 26.2-mile block party, a once-a-year occasion for residents and visitors alike to actually enjoy the city streets.

A recently announced economic-impact study of the 2005 race calculated that the marathon--complete with participants and spectators from near and far, sponsors, charities, media, prize money, and ancillary events--pours $188M into the city's economy, making it by far the city's most lucrative one-day sporting event. The race has such tremendous cache that nearly 100,000 applicants applied to be among the field of 37,000, and two-thirds of them traveled in from outside the area. And don't forget the other key numbers: two million spectators and 300 million TV viewers around the world. Concentrating on the race's impact in financial terms, however, is to miss its tremendous environmental, public health, and community-building benefits.

What makes the race so special that marathoners want to "run New York" more than anywhere else, and are willing to shell out megabucks to do so? Ask them, and they'll tell you that it's the city itself. In the days leading up to the race, marathoners see New York through rose-colored glasses. Training run in Central Park? Lucky you, we just happen to have more roadways closed due to marathon setup. Ready to pick up your number at Javits Center? Take a special free bus from Midtown! Need something to do on Saturday? How about a closed-street jog from the U.N. across 42nd Street and up to Central Park!

And then on Sunday, the whole city gets in on the action. For this one wonderful day, the same highway-like streets that shoot cars through our neighborhoods at all hours, making sidewalk socializing unpleasant and isolating neighbors from one another, magically transform into public commons. Spectators spill off of the narrow sidewalks into the roads as the sea of humanity passes by.

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Urban Density and a Pocketbook Plea for Congestion Pricing

350px_US_Metro_popultion_graph.pngOf the ten largest cities in the United States, New York has far and away the greatest population density: 26,402.9 people per square mile, more than double the second densest big city, Chicago. The chart at right shows how the largest metropolitan areas stack up in terms of core population, overall population and core population density.  This fact alone should force New York City authorities to think differently than the rest of the country on all sorts of matters of public policy. New York is a quantitatively different animal than the other big American metropolitan regions in terms of percentage of people that live in the core, density and size of the core and size of the metropolitan area.

The movement for congestion pricing needs to start here, would inevitably start here and has started here. Here is a simple submission: People should pay for the privilege of bringing their air-polluting, noise polluting, lethal, two-ton pieces of private property onto the streets of such a dense place. But the reason for the payment shouldn't be for any of those unsavory attributes of the automobile.

Drivers everywhere should be required to pay for the cleanup that will be needed for their pollution, not just here. Many industries with more concentrated negative externalities, to use the economic term, are required to pay into funds that ameliorate the consequences of their pollution. G.E. had to pay to clean up the Hudson River after it contaminated the river with PCBs; motorists should have to pay to clean up their pollution too.

Noise pollution (namely, honking) isn't a problem unless there are people around to have to hear it. Here in New York, heavy fines are threatened on anyone who honks unnecessarily. We are also working toward a ban of audible car alarms.

As for the car's deadliness, its worst attribute, well, the engineers are working on it.

No, the best reason for congestion pricing is that cars get in the way of business.

As Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City says, "The gridlock on New York City's streets has become a brake on the city's economy." She warns, "It is going to be increasingly difficult for New York to market itself as a place where you can get the most done in the least period of time with the best workforce if we're not able to solve the congestion problem."

Traffic congestion slows you down when you're trying to get somewhere. It slows down the delivery of essentially goods throughout the city and slows the movement of people -- the city's most valuable economic input -- by clogging the roads that could be moving them along much more quickly with free flowing buses, cabs and bicycles. Traffic congestion gets in the way of emergency vehicles, no doubt contributing to the finding that heart attacks are more likely to be fatal in New York City than anywhere else in the nation. The fact that congestion pricing would lead to less air and noise pollution while improving the public realm is just a happy coincidence. But it is one that should make every New Yorker support congestion pricing, whether you're in favor of making New York into an efficient platform for commerce or you are concerned about a rise in sea levels or you simply want to live in a more pleasant, breathable city.

Congestion pricing is working in the world city most similar to New York and it would work here. In fact congestion pricing should be applied not just to New York, but to every city in the United States with more than 8 million people living at a density of greater than 25,000 people per square mile.