By Arthur Z. Schwartz
From screaming headlines to picketers chanting on West 12th Street, the real issues about the West 14th Street Busway Plan, and the fight against it, are quite simple.
The first is a question of community input into City planning. Despite the vitriolic assertions that the fight against the 14th Street Busway and the ban on 14th Street auto and small truck traffic is the work of a “group of rich West Village landowners” with no concern for those who use bus transit, it is actually one of the broadest community fights I have witnessed in my almost 30 years of community activism.
Our communities, Greenwich Village and Chelsea, are the great places they are because 60 years ago Jane Jacobs led a fight against another DOT Commissioner, Robert Moses, who wanted to run a highway down 5th Avenue. Jane believed in community-based planning. In her classic book about city planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she said: “We shall have something solid to chew on if we think of City neighborhoods as mundane organs of self-government. Our failures with city neighborhoods are, ultimately, failures in localized self-government. And our successes are successes at localized self-government …There exists no inconceivably energetic and all wise “They” to take over and substitute for localized self-management.” Then she addressed the difficulty in standing up to City Hall: “It is not easy for uncredentialed people to stand up to the credentialed, even when the so-called expertise is grounded in ignorance and folly.”
On the afternoon of August 9th, when the Appellate Division granted an 11th hour stay on the 14th Street plan, I received dozens of emails from long-time Village and Chelsea activists saying that they were getting an inkling of how wonderful it must have been when Jane Jacobs beat Robert Moses. People were giddy. We little guys had beaten, for now, big bad City Hall and our current community-unfriendly Commissioner, Polly Trottenberg, and her staunch ally, Mayor de Blasio. It was a statement about how the needs of a local community can sometimes win out against the horrific “planning” at City Hall. That was issue number 1.
Issue number 2 is not about anyone fighting for their right to drive a car up and down 14th Street, or even about parking spaces. It is about City Planning which is not really City Planning. Genuine City Planning should look for ways to solve problems, not for ways to just move problems from one block to another. Back in 1991, when I was part of a group called Bring Back Our Park (BBOP), a group of parents and residents seeking to reclaim Bleecker Playground and Abingdon Square Park from drug dealers and an actual homeless encampment (yes, you newcomers, we had people sleeping with tents and mattresses in the Bleecker Park sitting area), we were challenged, by those who lived north and south of us: don’t just push your problem to our parks at Jackson Square and JJ Walker Park. So we came up with a plan. We raised money and hired social workers, drug counselors, and formerly homeless outreach workers, to spend time among the homeless and the ill and get them off the street. And we worked with the 6th Precinct to ID the drug dealers who sat amongst the homeless to keep them enslaved. In the end, instead of pushing the problem elsewhere we addressed it, in our own local way.
The City’s plan for 14th Street, which is ostensibly to increase the speed of a bus ride from 14th Street and 3rd Avenue to Abingdon Square by 2 minutes (yes, all this fuss is about shaving 2 minutes off the commute) is not a plan to eliminate cars. As I show below, it is a plan to shift congestion from 14th Street to 12th, 13th, 15th, 16th, 17th,18th,19th, and 20th Streets. Poor planning by the City, all of which occurred under de Blasio and Trottenberg, has seen 100,000 For Hire Vehicles licensed to do business in Manhattan below 96th Street, cruising our streets all day long looking for customers. That’s not 100,000 drivers making one trip into the City; it is cars circling for 8-10 hours in the same general area. True urban planning to address slow buses on 14th Street (which the DOT identified as a “next step” problem project back in 2011) would be a plan to sharply reduce the number of For Hire Vehicles on our streets. Congestion pricing may be a step, but more could be done, like barring these vehicles from cruising without a passenger down any street south of 59th Street.
Finally, there are the real numbers. Those who live on 12th and 13th Streets in the Village know that traffic has intensified over the last year or so, since various bottlenecks on 14th Street were addressed (like banning left turns). Every morning one can find large tractor trailers, FedEx Trucks, UPS Trucks, and other large commercial vehicles clogging 12th and 13th Streets, particularly between 7th and 6th Avenues. As a result of the litigation, the Department of Transportation gave us numbers, both in 2018 and in 2019 which we charted to see the impact of closing 14th Street to through traffic.
- In 2018 DOT said that 12th Street had 172 cars from 8am to 9am. In 2019, DOT says that number is 195.
- In 2018 DOT said that 15th Street had 132 cars from 8am to 9am. In 2019, DOT says that number is 178.
- In 2018 DOT said that on 16th Street, from 8am to 9am there were 157 cars; in 2019 they say that the base number is 204.
- The pattern holds true for the post-Busway impact numbers:
- For 12th Street, in 2018, DOT said there would be 294 cars between 8am and 9am post-Busway. In 2019 they say the number post-Busway will be 332.
- For 13th Street, in 2018, DOT said that post-Busway there would be 377 cars between 8am and 9am. In 2019 they say the number post-Busway will be 408.
- For 15th Street, in 2018, DOT said that post-Busway there would be 178 cars between 8am and 9am. In 2019 they say the number post-Busway will be 257.
- For 16th Street, in 2018, DOT said that post-Busway there would be 197 cars between 8am and 9am. In 2019 they say the number post Busway will be 295.If we compare the 2018 “existing” number with the 2019 “post-Busway” number, the increase in traffic on the “side streets” is appalling.
Comparison: 2018 Existing with 2019 Busway Projection
|8am – 9am||2018 Existing||2019 Busway||Increase|
|5pm – 6pm|
These numbers are astounding. On my street, 12th Street, we will see 332 cars per hour roll by. And then there will be small trucks and vans, and large trucks. 12th Street will become a highway. The same will occur on every street north to 20th Street. This traffic is what, in the end, this fight is about! And various commentators who say that another 150 cars per hour is no big deal are true climate change deniers. The consequences of Polly’s Folly on 14th Street is not worth the extra minute cut off the cross 14th Street bus ride.
Arthur Schwartz is the Greenwich Village Male Democratic District Leader, and counsel to the 18 block associations who have sued over the 14th Street Plan.