Traffic has returned to New York City after nearly disappearing during the coronavirus pandemic.
But even as cars have returned, a pandemic that has transformed countless work routines and shopping habits is now upending long-established traffic patterns, shifting the congestion that has paralyzed Manhattan for years to the city’s other boroughs.
Some neighborhoods are being choked with more vehicles than ever before. This is due to a drop in transit use, car pooling, skyrocketing car ownership, and an increase in delivery trucks trying keep up with the e-commerce boom.
The skyrocketing traffic is not just maddening to drivers; it has made the city’s streets deadlier for pedestrians and cyclists — traffic fatalities have risen to their highest level in nearly a decade — and contributed to higher levels of climate-changing emissions.
Having workers and delivery drivers trapped in cars also means a loss in productivity, another obstacle to the city’s recovery.
“Out-of control congestion costs families and businesses billions of dollars in lost time and opportunities,” said Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for Riders Alliance, a transportation advocacy group. “If the streets aren’t moving, the city isn’t moving.’’
Because of the large number of office workers who work remotely, fewer cars are able to enter Manhattan from the suburbs. This has helped reduce traffic in Manhattan. According to INRIX (an analytics company), traffic has slowed to an crawl on Staten Island, Queens, and Brooklyn highways.
The city’s most congested artery has become the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, where since 2019 the average travel speed has dropped during the morning rush by 19 percent to 21.5 miles per hour.
Average traffic speeds have also fallen along the Belt Parkway, Long Island Expressway and Grand Central Parkway, Queens, and Cross Bronx Expressway. There, the average speed barely exceeds 15. m.p.h.
“Never, never, never in my life — not even during Christmastime before — have I ever seen traffic this bad,” said Dharminder Singh, 45, a Long Island construction worker whose round-trip commute time to job sites in Manhattan and the Bronx has doubled to three hours a day.
Traffic jams are not a New York phenomenon. Traffic volumes are not at an all-time low in the United States, but they are rising in urban areas.
But no place is as bad as New York City, which topped a 2021 scorecard of the country’s most congested urban areas, with drivers losing an average of 102 hours annually to congestion, nearly three times the national average, according to INRIX.
New York City transportation officials are urging people to avoid congestion and take public transit.
Many stops along a bus route through Lower Manhattan were temporarily suspended due to congestion caused by buses unable to pass traffic outside the Holland Tunnel. And pedestrian safety managers — a service provided by a local business district that was halted in March 2020 — were brought back to help people navigate a busy street near the tunnel.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s term ends Friday. He encouraged people to not drive during the pandemic. The city has also added a large number of bike and bus lanes. Mr. de Blasio’s successor, Eric Adams, an avid cyclist, has promised to build on those efforts.
Mr. Adams also stated that he would improve traffic management by partnering technology companies to monitor traffic patterns in real-time. He has also called for a rethinking of truck deliveries, including shifting rush-hour deliveries to off-hours.
These efforts will not stop traffic from flooding into the city. At major crossings to New York from New Jersey — including the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels — vehicle traffic has reached 99 percent of prepandemic levels with 10.4 million vehicles in October, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Transportation experts predict that the city’s vehicle population will increase as more tourists and office workers return to the city.
By 2023, 85,000 more cars a day than in 2019 could enter Manhattan’s central business district, according to an analysis by Samuel I. Schwartz, a former city traffic commissioner.
According to Mr. Schwartz truck traffic is already overtaking the roads, with daily volumes exceeding 2019 levels.
“We’re in trouble,” Mr. Schwartz said. “We’re reaching a point where the highway system is overloaded.”
A key tool meant to help alleviate the city’s chronic traffic woes — a congestion pricing plan that would charge drivers entering Manhattan’s busiest sections — has been delayed until at least 2023. Mr. Adams supports congestion charging.
Some neighborhoods are feeling the effects of the increased traffic outside Manhattan. StreetLight Data, an analytics firm, reports that while vehicle trips ending in Manhattan have fallen overall on a weekday, half a dozen neighborhoods saw more vehicle trips in September or October than they did in the same period of 2019.
Vehicle trips rose by 4.8 percent in St. Albans (Queens), followed by North Bushwick, Brooklyn (4.6%) and Bronxdale in Bronx (4.3%).
More people are returning to ride-hailing apps, especially in Manhattan. In September, Uber riders in Manhattan accounted for 70% of September 2019 volume. However, the percentage was higher in other boroughs.
The explosion in traffic has made it difficult for people to get to work on-time and has also trapped public buses at an era when transit officials are trying hard to attract more riders.
“It’s a hassle because you’re sitting on a bus, and it’s not going anywhere,” said John Beuther, 73, a retired plumber in the Bronx, who has been late to doctors’ appointments and meet-ups with his girlfriend.
Businesses and community organizations have also been affected by traffic jams, which has resulted in more headaches and increased expenses. Fresh produce and meats are often delivered late to Aldi grocery in the South Bronx. Customers are kept waiting at Cuida Med pharmacy because they have late deliveries of prescription drugs.
“You spend your time in a parking lot,” said Michael Brady, the executive director of the Third Avenue Business Improvement District in the South Bronx. “Unless you have extra time in your schedule, the traffic can really ruin your day.”
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Encore, a nonprofit that delivers food to seniors, has workers who must carry empty carts and bags on subways because there is so much traffic that delivery trucks are unable to pick them up in northern Manhattan. The subway and overtime costs add up to more than $500 a week, said Judith Castillo, the group’s chief operating officer.
The delivery van for City Beet Kitchens was stuck in traffic, and meals arrived at the Rockaways homeless shelter in Queens more than an hour late.
“The problem is we’re not the only ones going through this,” said Barbara Hughes, the executive director of City Beet.
The pandemic has also turned many New Yorkers into car owners as they have abandoned public transit because they’re afraid of the virus or crime.
“They’re voting with their steering wheels, and they’re opting to drive,” said Tom Grech, the president and chief executive of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, who has spent an hour and a half to drive just seven miles.
According to state records, the total number of passenger vehicle registrations in the city increased from 1.9 million in 2019, to 2.2 million by Dec. 1.
Jonathan Eadie, 32, a parking attendant in Brooklyn, drives to work and elsewhere in the city after buying a Volkswagen sedan in July 2020 “for convenience and safety.”
Even traffic can’t send him back to his subway station.
“I don’t shy away from it, but there are a lot of cars — it’s insane,” Mr. Eadie said.
Jermaine Pope (42), who owns an RV that houses Project Renewal’s mobile health clinic, stated that he sees more people driving solo. “It’s completely changed,” he said. “It’s one person to a car.”
He must get up an hour earlier than usual to avoid gridlock. It has spread from a few hot spots such as the Cross Bronx Expressway, to almost his entire trip to Manhattan & Brooklyn.
“I am definitely seeing massive changes in the traffic,” he said. “Prepandemic, we would avoid the Cross Bronx — that was the most congested. Now what we’re seeing is they’re all the same. It’s heavy, heavy dense traffic.”
Source: NY Times