What Keeps New York Livable? Lots of Things, Including Cars

Bike clownsIt may be hard to believe, but a well-organized group of folks think New York City is too friendly to cars. And these folks have brought positive changes in New York over the past couple of years. So it shouldn't be surprising that some of them don't know when to quit.

A new screed against the city government on the influential site StreetsBlog reveals the difference between fighting to green a city and complaining if some things about a city don't fit your shade of green. Noah Kazis cries foul that the New York City government's recent rezoning of several economically sluggish neighborhoods makes ample provision for parking. It would be wiser, he says, to reject "parking minimums that erode the pedestrian environment."

Yep, with double-digit unemployment and service cuts on the subway system, with foreclosures in working-class neighborhoods and broken promises to build new affordable housing, what we need is ... parking reform?
Saying that New York cannot handle more cars ignores the fact that New York's transit system is stretched within an inch of its life. If the city plans for new residents and businesses in the short term but denies them places to park, it would come to a standstill. The city would have made the wrong choice between being "livable" and living.

The city is bravely playing a bad hand when it comes to mass transit. The state government, which is ranked the sickest in the nation, controls the mass transit agency and has just about bankrupted it. The agency is cutting more than 15 percent of its administrative staff and shutting down subway lines.

Into this environment, you want to ban parking from places that don't get enough mass transit now?

Let's think about how to make a high-density city grow. The greenest city we can have is the one that can sustain its economy through good times and bad. But if living in such a city becomes too unpleasant, it will get less high-density and will send people to live in lower-density, more car-dependent places.

Don't take my word for it. Rohit Aggarwala, the transportation historian who guides New York City's environmental agenda as head of the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, sounded this theme at an urban-design conference shortly after the 2008 election.

"I find a more sustainable approach is to talk about healthy cities," said the man in charge of reducing New York City's carbon output by 30 percent in the next 20 years. "Since average New Yorkers are responsible for only 29 percent of the carbon footprint of the average American, it's important that we not screw it up. If we want to support the most carbon-efficient economy in the United States, do we need to focus on design before basic city management?"

Aggarwala warned that day that worldwide emissions would go up and New York's vitality would go down if doctrinaire decisions sent businesses to "New Jersey or, God help us, Texas."

To be fair, StreetsBlog and its sources are only advocating "transit planning" -- land-use regulations that require space for mass transit service in these rezoned neighborhoods. But the zoning code can always change when the screwball transit agency rights itself. Until then, dedicating land and money to a hypothetical train line probably doesn't make much sense when your goal is to populate an underperforming neighborhood.

And StreetsBlog's purity has done a lot of good. I used to write for the site and have looked on with admiration as some of its mentors, like Jon Orcutt and Andy Wiley-Schwartz, have moved to senior jobs at the city's Department of Transportation and produced pedestrian plazas and bike lanes that make the city saner and cleaner for me and my kid. (Their boss, Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, likes to joke about the StreetsBlog influence that "the inmates are running the asylum.") But sometimes I think the ideal of car-free living undermines the practical business of keeping the city running.

What's more, creating space for more people in a rezoned neighborhood like Willets Point, Queens -- which is currently full of environmentally iffy uses like body shops -- means creating space for more protest, more activism, more entrepreneurship and more debate. And without economic growth, I suspect the transit system will get worse before it gets better- and more compact cities, like New Haven or Boston, might steal some of New York's young families and seniors.

And that's not the kind of walking anybody wants to see.
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