If you’re looking for a microcosm of why traffic in American cities keeps getting worse, look no further than Manhattan’s 14th Street. One of the city’s busiest streets and an important crosstown route, the wide boulevard is constantly snarled in gridlock, a state of affairs that has only gotten worse in the last few years.
To remedy this, the city tried to make it a bus-priority road, but a group of local grouches successfully had it blocked by the courts for months. Finally, an appeals court ruled the busway can, in fact, be implemented this week while the lawsuit is litigated. So, barring any last-minute surprises, cars will only be allowed to drive down 14th Street for garage access, pick-ups, and drop-offs.
In other words, all private cars will have to take the first right turn off 14th Street they encounter from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Emergency vehicles and delivery trucks will still have full access to the busy Manhattan route.
This may sound radical, but it is a common-sense solution to a basic problem. There are too many cars in Manhattan, and 14th Street specifically. Nobody is getting where they need to go. It is costing everyone valuable time; not just bus riders, but truck drivers, pedestrians, ridehail riders (or drivers if they’re en route to pick up a fare), and everyone else with somewhere to be. The only solution in very busy corridors like this one is to get as many people into more efficient transportation modes as possible. Many European cities are experimenting with car-free zones in dense areas as well, an idea we’ve supported because driving in a dense city center sucks anyway and it’s good to have options for how to get around.
For 14th Street, this means prioritizing buses so everyone, whether they’re on a bus or not, can get where they’re going faster.
Here are some details from Bloomberg:
A 1.1 mile stretch from 3rd Avenue to 9th Avenue, bordering Greenwich Village and Chelsea, will turn into a “busway” restricting car and truck traffic, creating a corridor of express buses, wide bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly walkways. The crosstown M14 bus, which carries about 27,000 riders a day, now takes more than 10 minutes to travel those six blocks during weekday rush hour.
“New Yorkers who ride the M14 are about to see their bus line transformed from one of the city’s slowest, into one of the fastest, practically overnight,” said Thomas DeVito, director of advocacy for Transportation Alternatives, a group pushing for policies to limit car-use and encourage mass transit and bikes in the city. “This should bring an end to the legal shenanigans that have been holding up these improvements for months on end.”
While the green light for the busway is good news for New Yorkers looking to get places whether they’re in a car or not, the busway’s future still an open question in the dumbest way possible.
Before we get to the lawsuit, it’s worth illustrating precisely how badly 14th Street needs a more efficient way to move traffic. Since 2013, ridership on the M14, the bus line that runs directly across 14th Street, has dropped a whopping 27.4 percent. One can craft a convoluted socioeconomic explanation for why M14 ridership has plummeted, but it’s really not that complicated. It is almost always faster to walk across 14th Street than to take the bus because of the horrendous traffic.
While this is an extreme example, the dynamic at play is far from unique to 14th Street, or indeed to New York City. The proliferation of Uber and Lyft has flooded the downtown zones across America with tens of thousands of additional cars, making traffic in cities go from bad to worse.
The 14th Street busway appeared to be a solution until a neighborhood coalition sued to block the 14th Street Busway, as it has become known, because of the effects they believe it will have on the surrounding streets. Originally slated to launch on July 1, the coalition has successfully blocked its implementation ever since.
Dumb people file dumb lawsuits all the time, but the extraordinary aspect of this one has been its success in delaying the busway rollout for months, inconveniencing the 26,000 bus riders who still use the M14 despite its glacial pace. But it appears the busway can finally go into effect on Thursday after an appeals court ruled to lift the temporary restraining order against the busway while the lawsuit is litigated.
And the lawsuit is indeed a dumb one. In effect, they’re contending the increased traffic on side streets will cause environmental harm to the people who live there by directing traffic to 12th and 13th Streets, a disingenuous argument on its face because far more environmental harm comes from thousands of additional private cars in their neighborhoods every day because people stopped riding buses. They also argue that traffic on side roads will slow emergency responders and potentially endanger their lives, which also doesn’t make sense considering those same side roads are currently clogged with cars, but the busway will allow ambulances and fire trucks to traverse the city much more rapidly (the FDNY recently said response times are up across the city because of worsening traffic).
Plus, it’s not like this is a new or novel solution. Cities all over the world have busways, which increase transit and bike use and, in fact, reduce emissions in the surrounding area. One such city is... New York, which has had a busway in downtown Brooklyn’s Fulton Street Mall area for decades.
The 14th Street Busway is modeled after the King Street project in Toronto, which was launched to speed up the city’s streetcar that runs along the busy thoroughfare (spoiler: it worked). Ironically, in an attempt to placate the very people now suing them, New York City moderated the King Street plan to allow delivery trucks along 14th Street so they don’t use the side streets as often.
Driving a car in Manhattan is often a terrible experience (let’s not even talk about finding parking there), and Manhattan buses have the potential to be much more useful if only they could get out of said traffic. Proven solutions like busways and bus-only lanes with physical barriers separating them from traffic could make Manhattan easier to get around. That’s something everyone should be able to support.