Is “Carmageddon” Coming For NYC?

A new analysis by City & State suggests that New York City might be at risk of “Carmageddon,” a phenomenon in which residents returning to work after the pandemic forsake public transportation for private cars, risking increased congestion, traffic deaths, and poor air quality in the city. According to the report, 80% of commutes into Manhattan were on public transportation, a figure that has fallen approximately 785 since the pandemic began. On the other hand, data show that vehicle ridership on bridges and tunnels has only fallen 18%, and “traffic in Manhattan below 60th Street is down just 15%.” The figures are not quite so rosy for the Long Island Rail, whose ridership is at 23% of its levels one year ago, and the Metro North system, which is at 16% of its levels one year ago. The report states that transit experts fear New Yorkers may suffer massively as a result of these factors.

According to those experts, “a modest change in the number of cars circulating around Manhattan makes a difference” that can ruin the entire transportation system. One metro planning think tank president said that if just 10,000 more vehicles are added to the system, “It’s actually the difference between the system functioning and completely crashing.” This may lead to the demise of New York City’s public transportation—due to budget cuts and decreased ridership—that adversely impacts working-class New York residents who have no other choice but to ride the subways and buses. Experts believe workers might not return to work in their offices in New York City en masse until the summer of 2020, long after there’s a vaccine for the novel coronavirus. This is because office buildings, with their ill-ventilated rooms and crowded elevators, may be a hotspot for COVID-19 outbreaks. In contrast, according to the report, public transportation poses less of a risk, so long as riders follow proper precautions. “ In New York City’s subways, filtered air circulating around a car is replaced with fresh air at least 18 times an hour, The New York Times reported,” the report states, whereas the “recommended rate of replacement” in offices is six to eight times per hour. “I definitely think that there’s the chance that a significant fraction of the workforce will not return until we have a vaccine in place,” one expert told City & State.

The report goes on to describe the risk posed by New Yorkers going back to work in their offices while abandoning public transportation for their own cars. One potential adverse consequence of this is a “death spiral” suffered by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. One expert described it thusly to City & State: “It is the death spiral of transit not having enough money coming in at the farebox to be able to provide operations. And then service gets cut and fares go up. And then more people say, ‘Well, service is unreliable, I’m not going to take transit.’ Or, they say, ‘Well, that got more expensive, it’s just as cheap now to hop in an Uber.” Then there are the environmental concerns. According to a July report in Politico, the return of car travel in New York City “is threatening decades of gains in the city’s air quality.” As public transit ridership decreases and car travel increases, New York is at risk of mass gridlock—”where trucks and cars sit idle and spew emissions, primarily hurting the predominantly Black and Latino communities that surround major highways.” The report goes on to describe the Regional Planning Association’s calculation that if the city “regains two-thirds of the jobs it lost, as many as 25 percent more people will drive to work compared to pre-pandemic levels,” while public transportation ridership remains low. So far, according to the report, public officials have done little to stave off this risk.

The City & State analysis suggests that the federal government could help the city’s public transit system by allowing for congestion pricing, “which could bring in $1 billion in revenue for the MTA annually.” It could also increase traffic law enforcement, according to one expert, by implementing “a more aggressive network of speed and red light cameras that would both save lives and bring in some revenue.” The city could also add more high-occupancy vehicle lanes, though experts say this might not be an option until after a vaccine is available.

For more information about the future of mass and private transit in New York City, read the City & State report here.

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