New York's "Radical Traffic Experiment" Is Based on a Very Successful Toronto Prototype

CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter/ People instead of parking

What happens when you restrict cars? Transit use, cycling and walking increase dramatically.

Got a car? You won't be able to cruise across New York's 14th Street any more, as if you ever could. It's getting new traffic controls designed to reduce the number of cars so that buses can get through more quickly and on schedule. The New York Times says the cars are "all but banned" and that it is a "war on cars." But they are not banned; drivers can still get onto the street to make deliveries and drop people off. They just can't go more than a block before they have to turn off.

King Street Pilot

Lloyd Alter/ King street pilot/CC BY 2.0The 14th Street plan is modeled on the King Street project in Toronto, Canada, where streetcars on the busiest line in town couldn't move for all the traffic. Those streetcars carry 84,000 people every day. Cycling is up by 440 percent.

Winnie Hu of the Times talks to some local whiners and objectors in New York, but also to Toronto restauranteur Al Carbone, who claims his business is down 10 to 30 percent. “People want convenience,” he said. “They don’t want to park five blocks away.” It is true that a few metered spots in front of his restaurants were lost, but so were all the surface lots in the area, which have all turned into condos. Others will tell you that Carbone has lost business because people objected to his obnoxious and offensive campaign against the King Street project, or that his food is lousy. As for the restaurant association saying 17 restaurants closed, this happens all the time; 17 probably opened too. One sushi joint that Carbone points to as having closed because of the street changes actually had a sign up blaming rent increases.

Other restaurants have thrived; they have a lot more patio seating, and the street is much more attractive. I was not alone in patronizing restaurants that actively supported the project, including La Fenice.

Doug Gordon is right; "war on cars" is a convenient meme, but there are a lot more people who walk, who ride bicycles and who take transit than there are that drive. And in Toronto, King Street was dramatically improved for them. It didn't create any disasters on neighboring streets either; King Street had been so jammed that it may have been full of cars, but they weren't actually getting anywhere.

Streetcars on King

City of Toronto/ Flickr/CC BY 2.0

A critical point for New Yorkers to watch out for is enforcement. There are no physical barriers to just driving straight through, and many drivers just do it. Toronto Police seem to be ignoring this much of the time, and one doesn't need to read a lot of New York Twitter feeds to learn that the New York Police Department is pretty driver-friendly. The only thing that makes it work is if (a) people respect the law and turn off the street and (b) the police enforce it. From everything that I have seen or read about New York drivers and police, they do neither, in which case the whole exercise will just be a waste of paint.