• Permalink Several high-volume roadways cut through Central Park. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/Murdo MacleodGallery

    Addicted to cars: why can’t New York City break its bad transit habit?

Addicted to cars: why can’t New York City break its bad transit habit?

October 9th, 2013|

First published in The Guardian, October 7th, 2013

Photo: Several high-volume roadways cut through Central Park. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/Murdo Macleod

Last week, on my way to Newark Airport from Manhattan, I looked across the highway to view the traffic entering New York’s most densely populated borough. The dedicated bus lane was moving steadily and swiftly toward the Lincoln Tunnel. The rest of the inbound highway was a parking lot, mostly filled with cars occupied by one person each. It was 7.45am and these cars would spend the next hour – or more – driving the last five miles into Manhattan. Meanwhile, the buses would get there in 15 minutes max.

Why do these people drive? I dunno.

On buses, trains and ferries, passengers can read, text, talk on the phone, rest, sleep, write, do a puzzle, check email and do anything else that’s not inconsiderate toward their neighbors; they have far more options than when they’re driving. And most modes of public transportation are faster, cheaper and easier than driving and parking in Manhattan.

So it confounds me why people choose to drive when they could take public transportation.

But fuggedaboutem. Let’s talk about the rest of us. This folly doesn’t just affect the drivers, but also hurts everyone else.

When private cars enter Manhattan by the hundreds of thousands every day, they create air pollution that adds huge extra healthcare costs for the city. New studies actually show that air pollution costs more than tobacco. Drivers also create unsafe streets when they ignore crosswalks, traffic signals and cellphone restrictions. And they make ungodly noise, which, for me, is almost unbearable. I am certain that there are huge uncounted costs in cellular stress and overall anxiety caused by the sensory assault of noisy cars.

This is how cars transgress our common senses. They make my city unpleasant, dirty and noisy while also costing many taxpayer dollars.

Private cars in New York City make no sense.

At the end of last month, Manhattan had a Gridlock Alert Day because the UN general assembly was in session. This means you can get stuck (even while walking) for 20 minutes when one of hundreds of global leaders whizzes by in motorcades. It’s a mess.

It was also a beautiful day and I took a walk along the Hudson in lovely Riverside Park. Bazillions of cars, almost all occupied by one person, entered the city on the West Side Highway. And my beautiful walk along the river was accompanied by the noise and pollution of these unwanted cars.

The same happens in Central Park. This great oasis in the city center is open to cars during morning and evening rush hours, heavily disrupting the park’s calming pleasures and speeding past everyone walking, biking, jogging or meandering through. This is crazy.

Don’t get me wrong: I get that occasional car trip is necessary. And taxis are needed to augment mass transit in any city. But the intractable problem is not occasional trips, but a bad habit – daily driving – that costs the rest of us a lot of money.

Would you rather pay for an upgraded, more convenient and frequent transit system or the health, welfare, safety and aesthetic costs of automobile-based travel? As taxpayers, we’re already paying, and we’re paying for the wrong thing.

As a frequent bus, ferry and subway rider, I have plenty of complaints about public transportation, namely that schedules almost never match actual arrival times. Real-time signs that show when the next bus, ferry or subway is really arriving would allow riders to make informed decisions about the best way to travel. We have the technology – it’s GPS – and it’s already ubiquitous and relatively cheap.

In a city that offers at least three routes to get most anywhere, this simple addition to the transit authority’s stations and mobile apps would change transit riders’ entire experience, enabling them to travel with confidence. And for lower-density cities, van pools – tricked out with smart apps and GPS – could provide a huge boon.

Here’s the choice: pay for the consequences of cars or the upgrade of mass transit. This is a macro policy question. But right now, no one really accounts for the true costs of the driving, so we can’t make an informed policy choice.

Those who continue to use cars when mass transit is viable and available should pay through the nose for befouling the city. Imagine what we could accomplish if NYC ticketed every driver who honked a horn for no reason and every driver who texted behind the wheel – and applied all of those funds to public transportation.

We have surrendered too many of our rights to the automobile, allowing it to impact our air, land and water in inacceptable ways. We allow extraordinary vehicle noise throughout the city and have given away the ability to walk in a vibrant urban environment with pleasure – even in our parks.

I don’t want to pay for the harm these drivers are causing. I want my common senses back.

The Carbon Diaries

October 9th, 2013|

First published in the Huffington Post, October 8th, 2013

I just finished reading a fantastic novel, The Carbon Diaries, by Saci Lloyd (2010). It has tons of music and sex, so of course it’s riveting, but its main theme is climate change. It is the imagined diary of a 16-year-old London girl living through the carbon rationing following the Great Storm of 2015. The U.K. is the first to have this rationing as there is finally an understanding that a radical decrease in greenhouse gas emissions is URGENT. The rest of Europe and the world are watching intently as the U.K. goes through its paces and eventually moves to water rationing as well.

I was reading the book during the actual Great Floods of 2013 in Colorado and Mexico. In fact, had I read this book anytime during 2013, I would have had the backdrop of millennia-old glaciers spewing water from beneath their surfaces, droughts followed by floods followed by droughts, all at levels not seen in hundreds of years (or ever). These 2013 weather events will cost hundreds of billions of dollars now and in the future for public agencies, private businesses and individuals. This money increases our debt and limits our financial ability to protect national parks, natural resources, cultural treasures and education. And screws all of today’s kids.

The many cool 16-year-olds that I know are noticeably into two areas — music and farming. These city kids are embracing organic farming with a gusto and rigor that is inspiring. Oddly, many proclaim that their actions are more personal than political, though often as they come of age, politics creeps into the agenda. This new approach to governing and growing one’s own food repudiates the current status quo and is inherently revolutionary. I’m in. Agricultural subsidies like those in March 2013 Farm Bill, including what is commonly called the Monsanto Protection Act, are receiving attention from this new food movement, and the rest of policy is in desperate need of their youthful fervor.

One organization that is dedicated to unleashing the power of youth on the radical recreation of our energy policies is PowerShift. This amazing group of young people campaigns as the hub for the youth climate movement with the aim to create political power. In the United States, where our Congress is actually debating a ransom to release funds for alleviating the debt ceiling problem, political action feels hopeless right now. Even in Congress, though, there is something called the Future Caucus where the youngest representatives (born in the 1980s) are actually committed to working together across the aisle.

But of all places, there is a big window open in the international arena where youthful energy could invigorate a stiff and rusty process. United Nations Framework on Climate Change has a 2015 deadline to enact a global treaty to lower carbon emissions. No joke. The United Nations is important and a global carbon treaty is the only thing that would connect food, water, energy, the environment and economic development. The U.N. saved the world when its 1989 Montreal Protocol banned refrigerant chemicals, CFCs, which were causing a hole in the ozone. It did this while the chemical industry denied the truth about CFC’s dangers and proclaimed that eliminating them would destroy the world’s economy. Obviously, the world’s economic systems are still functioning (mostly) — unfortunately to the great detriment of the world’s ecosystems. And the United Nations has a crucial role to play again. The Montreal Protocol only came to fruition because fervent youth demonstrated around the world, led by organizations such as Greenpeace in concert with some very brave politicians.

Saci Lloyd’s 16-year-old heroine spends some of her carbon rationing on electricity to run her band’s sound system. Good choice! As the book points out so beautifully, only if we make more conscious choices today will we avoid the specter of future rationing. Believe it or not, the United Nations is a vehicle to level the playing field for businesses and to create incentives for saving ourselves from our own greed.

What choices await your 16-year-old?