The Extraordinary Privilege of Private Passenger Cars in Metropolitan New York

What makes the transportation system of Metropolitan New York unique in the United States, and perhaps in the developed world?  You might think it is New York’s extensive rail mass transit network, including both heavy rail (subway) and three commuter rail lines. But similar networks exist in other older major U.S. metro areas such as Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, and San Francisco, and many global cities have even larger rail transit systems, compared with their populations.

In fact, what makes transportation in metro New York unique is something that is in some ways the opposite of extensive mass transit.  The large share of its grade-separated, limited-access expressway system that is restricted to passenger cars only, and thus excludes trucks, other commercial and service vehicles, and mass transit vehicles such as buses.   Expressways – hugely expensive to site, build and maintain; hugely destructive when built through developed areas; lacking the property tax benefit provided by adjacent land uses; and destructive to the value and use of adjacent land – represent major commitments of social resources.   Having many of those expressways restricted to a limited class of road users is a unique and extraordinary privilege, one that puts proposals to allocate a greater share of the space on other mixed-traffic roads to bicycles, buses, trucks and other commercial vehicles in perspective.

To show the extent of this privilege, and its consequences, I asked Susan Zwillinger of 4CGeoworks (Pittsburgh) to produce a cartogram map of the Major Roads and Paths of Metro New York.  It is shown below.


Major Roads and Paths of Metro New York

On the map, Metro New York counties are resized according to their daytime populations, and thus the number and significance of the destinations within each.  While no longer accurately representing the miles between places, the map better represents the minutes between places, due to traffic congestion.  

Major roads that are limited to passenger cars are in purple, the color of exclusivity that was denied to the serfs in the middle ages.

With roads that allow all types of vehicles in orange, matching up with the color used on the New York City truck route map.

Expressways, with no direct property access at the edge of the road and very few if any at-grade intersections (stoplights) are shown in the darker color.  Other major roads, in New Jersey often highways divided by “Jersey Barriers” with a significant number of overpasses and underpasses and relatively few at-grade intersections, are in the lighter color.

As the map makes plain, the extent of major roads that are limited to passenger cars in Metro New York is substantial.  Even though the “orange” mixed-traffic roads are shown on top of the “purple” passenger car only roads where they cross, and roads and bridges with both passenger car only lanes and mixed-traffic lanes are shown in orange, thus making the passenger car-only roads appear somewhat less extensive than the actually are. And these roads are concentrated in the most central, densely developed parts of the metro area, where space is most scarce and valuable, and on the New York State side of the Hudson River.

So passenger cars get the roads in purple and other vehicles – trucks, buses, other commercial vehicles – get the roads in orange?  No!  Private passenger cars are allowed to use – and congest – the roads in orange as well.  Only passenger cars may use the “car lanes” of the New Jersey Turnpike, for example, but passenger cars are allowed on the “truck lanes” as well.  They aren’t really “truck lanes” at all.  Only passenger cars are allowed on the lower levels of the George Washington and Verrazano Narrows bridges, the two most important bridges for freight movement in the metro area.  But trucks and buses have to share the upper levels with passenger cars as well.

There are specific lanes on some mixed-traffic streets and expressways that are reserved for buses, or in some cases for buses and passenger cars with more than two occupants.  But those lanes exclude trucks and other commercial traffic.  The only major road that restricts passenger cars but allows buses and commercial traffic is 14thStreet in Manhattan between 3rdAvenue and 9thAvenue, and those restrictions were only implemented in late 2019.

It is shown in red.

(Jay Street in Brooklyn, a shorter and less important stretch, got the same treatment later).

Similarly, pedestrians have sidewalks, and there are an increasing number of bike lanes along regular, mixed-traffic streets.  But those have intersections every block, with lights timed for motor vehicles.  The significant infrastructure reserved for non-motorized travel – contiguous stretches of paths or trail with relatively few intersections over long distances — is expanding, with a major addition just completed.

But it remains small compared with the purple roads, since a 12-foot wide trail – wider than most – is the width of a single traffic lane. And it is concentrated on the less developed fringes of the region, and along New York City’s waterways, where it is more useful for recreation than for everyday transportation.  On the map, paved-long distance multi-use trails are shown in dark green.  Long distance hiking trails are shown in light green. 

(I had planed to include the Long Path, but we could not find it in the database).


The restrictions on trucks and other commercial vehicles has a number of implications for New York City, Long Island, and the east side of the Hudson Valley.  For one thing, it increases the cost of every good and service consumed in Downstate New York, as truckers and van drivers spend hours stuck in traffic on the limited number of expressways where they are allowed, and pass that on as higher freight rates. This high cost of shipping is added to the high cost of real estate and labor here, and makes almost everything more expense than in other places.  

This would be true even if more freight crossed the Hudson River by rail, since it would still be difficult to move around once it got there.  A study of a rail freight tunnel between New Jersey and Brooklyn advanced until there was a discussion of the location of a large rail yard, where all of Downstate New York’s freight would be transferred to trucks and drive off toward the relatively few highways that permit them.  Then it suddenly faced strong opposition and limited support.  As a transportation planner once said people don’t like trucks, but they like the things that come in trucks.  I guess they somehow expect those things to magically appear. 

Consider the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council (NYMTC)’s “core network” for freight movement.  From the west – most goods consumed in Downstate New York are distributed from New Jersey or eastern Pennsylvania – there are only two ways in.  The “northern crossing” over the George Washington Bridge and the perpetually congested Cross Bronx Expressway.  And the “southern crossing” over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, and either the perpetually congested and partially in need of reconstruction Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, or on congested local arterial streets in Brooklyn and Queens. 

Two of those streets are hardly arterials.  Flatbush Avenue and Church Avenue are truck routes throughout their lengths, and through truck routes for part of them, including the 1600s village of Flatbush, where each street has only one lane in each direction flanked by parked cars and dense retail activity.  These streets also carry two of the most important bus routes in Brooklyn.

The chronic congestion of the BQE and Cross-Bronx, combined with GPS technology that identifies faster alternatives once known only to the most street-savvy, directs through traffic on to local streets across New York City, as this Google Maps example shows.

Further east, JFK Airport was once, for a long period, the number one freight airport in the United States, but it has long since lost that status.

The goings on chronicled in the movie Goodfellas, the shift of international trade from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and the growth of the overnight parcel delivery business explain most of this.  But the only expressway to JFK Airport that permits trucks and buses is the Van Wyck, another chronically congested road (at least approaching and south of the Kew Gardens Interchange) that the street-savvy almost never use. That doesn’t help.  Francis Lewis Boulevard and Springfield Boulevard are New York City through truck routes as an alternative.

Consider this NY traffic map, from the middle (2:10 pm) of a weekday.

You see red on I-278, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, near Lower Manhattan and the free Brooklyn Bridge – even as the tolled Hugh Carey (Battery) Tunnel is empty.   Traveling north/east, after passing over the Gowanus Canal, two packed lanes go toward the BQE viaduct under Brooklyn Heights, and two relatively empty lanes go toward the tunnel.  

There is more red on I-678, the Van Wyck Expressway, near JFK Airport. 

And on I-95, over the George Washington Bridge and across the Cross Bronx Expressway.

For trucks, other commercial vehicles, and buses, the only alternatives to these expressways are local streets.  And if you keep checking, you’ll find the expressways are congested by passenger cars much of the time.  Even during mid-days and early mornings when other expressways have fewer delays.,+NY/@40.6971494,-74.2598655,10z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m5!3m4!1s0x89c24fa5d33f083b:0xc80b8f06e177fe62!8m2!3d40.7127753!4d-74.0059728!5m1!1e1

With regard to buses, the large share of major roads east of the Hudson River in the “purple” category, rather than the “orange” category, explains why commuter buses are a viable and popular transportation option in New Jersey, but not in Downstate New York and Connecticut.  And why New York’s inter-city buses leave from Manhattan’s West Side and travel directly into New Jersey.  Even buses traveling between New York City and Upstate New York travel through the Garden State in between, on Route 17.

Intercity buses traveling to and from portions of Downstate New York further east, and/or heading to New England rather than west of the Hudson River, face circuitous routes and long delays.  Long ago, before all of the region’s roads became obstructed by private passenger cars, buses traveled directly from a bus station in Brooklyn to and from Upstate vacation destinations such as the Irish Alps and Jewish Alps in the Catskills.  Not anymore.  Today, a daily bus to and from Maine leaves from a street corner on Manhattan’s East Side rather than attempt to get across town from the Port Authority Bus Terminal.  

Manhattan’s expressways, running north-south, are for passenger cars only.

Later born New Yorkers and new arrivals may not be aware that there was once a bus terminal on the East Side, near the entrance to the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, as there is on the West Side, near the Lincoln Tunnel.  That bus terminal mostly served buses to and from JFK and LaGuardia airports, and closed in 1985.

Of course NYC air travelers have for decades paid to get an Airtrain system from Manhattan to LaGuardia and on to JFK, but most of that future money was diverted and spent on lower Port Authority tolls (relative to TBTA tolls) and PATH fares (relative to NYC subway fares) for prior generations more than two decades ago.  The passengers are still paying the Passenger Facility Charge, but most of the money is sucked into the past as interest.


Metro New York’s unique roadway restrictions are a product of history. The first “parkways” were landscaped city boulevards with regular at-grade intersections, but with no commercial activities permitted on adjacent properties, and no freight or mass transit vehicles allowed on the street.  Mostly built before the automobile as wide promenades for horse drawn carriages, these were generally flanked by the homes of the affluent and prominent institutions, and connected with major urban parks.  

Many older cities have “parkways” in the sense that Ocean Parkway and Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn and Pelham Parkway and Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx are parkways, as local streets dating from the City Beautiful era.  Park Avenue in Manhattan was once much more of a park than it is today.

The first grade-separated, limited-access expressways for motor vehicles were in fact “parkways” for passenger cars only, built in metro New York – specifically in Westchester County.  At a time when only the affluent could afford private automobiles, and serious daily (and freight) transportation was on foot, via bicycle, on mass transit, and via railroad and ship/boat, the early “parkways” were rural roads intended for recreation.  They connected with the New York State parks that were being built at about the same time, on land donated by the mega-rich of the Gilded Age.

In Westchester County, New York, four parkways were built between 1913 and 1930. These parkways were considered far ahead of the times and the forerunners of many highways to follow. The parkways were named Bronx River, Hutchinson River, Saw Mill River, and Cross County.

First built was the Bronx River Parkway. The parkway opened in 1922, 9 years after construction began in 1913. This parkway was acclaimed an engineering marvel as well as a beautifully landscaped work of art. It almost predated the automobile, which was becoming the Nation’s primary mode of transportation. Portions of the parkway’s original alignment were designed for horse-and-buggy speeds. The Bronx River Parkway is significant, however, because it was the first acknowledgement of driving for pleasure on a scenic byway.

The other three parkways were patterned after this model. The Hutchinson River Parkway opened to traffic in 1928, Saw Mill River Parkway in 1929, and Cross County Parkway in 1931. The purpose of the parkways was not to provide the faster or most direct route between origin and destination. These parkways were designed for moderate driving speeds to permit the fullest enjoyment of the scenery.

Robert Moses brought the “parkway” idea to then-rural Long Island, where he was building state parks, and hired the designer of the Westchester parkways as a consultant.

Moses ordered his engineers to build the bridges low over the parkway to keep buses from the city away from Jones Beach—buses presumably filled with the poor blacks and Puerto Ricans Moses despised. The story was told to Caro by Sidney M. Shapiro, a close Moses associate and former chief engineer and general manager of the Long Island State Park Commission…

Actually there were relatively few Blacks and Puerto Ricans in Metro New York at the time Jones Beach was built, but Moses didn’t think much of the city’s working class White ethnics either.

Low-slung and clad in ashlar stone, the bridges were essential to parkway stagecraft—part of a suite of details meant to create a sense of romantic rusticity. The parkway was just that—a way through a park. It was designed to both literally and figuratively remove you from the city, a Central Park for the motorist.  Berms and lush plantings screened off-site views disruptive of the reverie, creating an almost cinematic impression of driving through a vast pastoral landscape.

As leisure and recreation infrastructure—park before way—commercial traffic was excluded on all the early American parkways. This meant not only trucks, but buses. Banning big, noisy commercial vehicles was essential to the aesthetics of the parkway, and had nothing to do with racial discrimination. There would have been no need to use the bridges on the Southern State as barricades of a sort; buses were not allowed on this or any other state parkway in the first place.

But Moses was no fool. “Legislation can always be changed,” Shapiro told Caro; “It’s very hard to tear down a bridge once it’s up.”

The “parkway” concept was copied by nearby Connecticut.

The first multi-lane, limited-access roadway in Connecticut, the Merritt Parkway, was also one of the first scenic parkways in the nation. Characterized by its landscape design as well as by ornamental Art Deco and Art Moderne bridges, the 37.5-mile parkway improved access to New York City and influenced the development of Fairfield County. It cost $21 million and was the largest public works project in Connecticut at the time of its opening from 1938-1940.

And eventually New Jersey.

The Garden State Parkway was hailed as “the road of tomorrow” by politicians, planners, and engineers. It would be the safest, most efficient, and beautiful road of its day, combining the conveniences of the modern superhighway with the scenic beauty of New Jersey…

In 1952, the New Jersey Legislature created the New Jersey Highway Authority (NJHA) to oversee the project and secure its financing. Within weeks of the final approval of the legislation, the Commissioners worked to determine the best alignment, arrange for necessary funding, and begin design of the massive roadway. The effort paid off, with planning and construction of the main stem between Paterson and Cape May completed by early 1955.

Once rural recreational roads, Metro New York’s so-called “parkways” have long since been swallowed by suburban development, and over time repeated road projects have modified them for greater speed for daily commuters. Only the first among them – the Bronx River Parkway – retains much its original character, with a low speed limit and plenty of curves – and only because the Sprain Brook Parkway was built parallel to it as a more modern replacement.  Just try acting like a “Sunday Driver” and cruising along at 40 miles per hour while enjoying the scenery on New York’s “parkways.” You’ll probably be run right off the road by a road rager in an SUV.  

The Sprain Brook Parkway, and the rest, are now just suburban expressways that have the unusual characteristic of being limited to passenger cars only.  And since the administration of New York State Governor Pataki in the 1990s, state road maintenance policies have favored daily commuters over recreational drivers.  Road work was shifted, at the price of inflating costs, to the nights and weekends when those recreational drivers are using the roads. 


How unusual is that unusual characteristic?  Chicago has Lake Shore Drive, which excludes trucks, but it permits buses. Kentucky calls many of its limited-access, grade-separated roads “parkways,” but they allow both trucks and buses.  Los Angeles has the Arroyo-Seco Parkway, an early road connecting downtown with Pasadena.

The 8.2 mile stretch of road cost approximately $6 million dollars to build, and would pave the way for the rest of Los Angeles’ expansive freeway system.  The parkway was designed to advance automobile transportation, while giving drivers access to the stunning views of the Arroyo Seco. It officially opened to traffic on December 30, 1940.

Elsewhere, however, the limited number of additional passenger-car-only expressways have a Metro New York connection.  Robert Moses built one to connect Buffalo to Niagara Falls, a road that was recently removed through the latter city.

The former Robert Moses Parkway along the Niagara River Gorge – called one of the region’s “most misguided mistakes” – is no more…The parkway blocked pedestrian access from Whirlpool Street to the gorge rim only about 150 feet away. 

The disappearance of the 2-mile stretch of what was renamed the Niagara Scenic Parkway in 2016 was a key selling point in the redevelopment of Main Street in Niagara Falls.

As Governor, FDR brought the “parkway” concept to the Taconic State Parkway in his native Hudson Valley, and to the Lake Ontario State Parkway west of Rochester, a deteriorating, little used road that is partially shut down in winter to save on snow removal costs.

When FDR became President during the Great Depression, the National Park Service got funding to build parkways limited to passenger cars within national parks, and to build a few “National Parkways” to connect some of them.

Skyline Drive was the first lengthy parkway every built. When it opened for public use in the 1930s (last section completed in 1939), it signaled the dawn of a new era of “windshield touring” in our national parks. 

A parkway is not a normal road. It is a limited-access scenic highway designed for pleasure driving instead of just getting you from here to there in a hurry. Parkways prohibit commercial traffic, have modest speed limits, and possess leisure-friendly features such as scenic overlooks, picnic areas, trailheads, and related features catering to recreational users. 

Other examples are Going-to-the-Sun Road (Glacier National Park), Trail Ridge Road (Rocky Mountain National Park), the Generals Highway (Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park), the Blue Ridge Parkway, the George Washington Memorial Parkway, the Natchez Trace Parkway, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, the Colonial Parkway, and the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway. 

In most of the country these rural “national parkways” retain their original character and purpose.  But in Metro Washington DC, as in Metro New York, there are some that have been swallowed by expanding suburbs – despite still being administered by the National Park Service.

“Our roads were made to be scenic tourist roadways,” says Lt. Roxanne Brown-Ankney — commander for the traffic safety unit for the U.S. Park Police — of the George Washington, Clara Barton, Rock Creek, Suitland and Baltimore-Washington parkways.  These scenic byways double as commuter routes and tend to attract illegal truck traffic, she says, for a variety of reasons.  All commercial vehicles are banned from using the parkways unless a special permit is obtained in advance.

Metro Washington is thus the only other metro area in the United States with a significant network of expressways that are limited to passenger cars – but one that is not even close to the extent of Metro New York.  

Most expressways were built after WWII, a time when truck transportation became more important, and automobile ownership became less exclusive.   No other U.S. metro area has seen fit to put such a restriction on such a costly piece of infrastructure.

Have trucks, buses and service vehicles come to be allowed on any of the nation’s “parkways” after the fact?  Yes, in very few cases.  The Briarcliff-Peekskill Parkway in Westchester now permits trucks, though some strike one low overpass if they don’t stick to the middle lane.  Trucks and buses are also allowed on the Garden State Parkway south of Route 18.  That change was presumably made to make it easier for buses from New York City and Northern New Jersey to travel to casinos in Atlantic City.  In New York City, a small stretch of the Grand Central Parkway, from the RFK/Triborough Bridge to the BQE, was recently rebuilt to allow commercial vehicles.  Those vehicles no longer have to exit onto Astoria Boulevard for a mile and a half.  And buses are allowed on parts of the Wantagh Parkway and Meadowbrook Parkway to Jones Beach, starting south of the last low overpass bridge built by Robert Moses.

On the other hand, a 1990s proposal by the Department of City Planning to allow commercial vans on New York City parkways went nowhere.  If anything the regulatory trend has moved in the other direction, as the SUV craze means the former “parkways” are now full of trucks driven not by professionals, but by amateurs.  While low bridges and overpasses mean height limits remain in place, a 5,500 lb weight limit was removed to accommodate solo drivers in vehicles that are 40 times their weight. Today a small van carrying tools and supplies, driven by a blue-collar service provider, has to go out of its way to avoid the purple roads, while a much larger private passenger truck does not.

There is a tendency, encouraged by the legal system and the media, to consider any existing situation to be a right, and any change to be an imposition on those with existing privileges, even with regard to theoretically shared public space.  But imagine that Metro New York was like other metro areas and any type of vehicle was allowed on all the expressways.  And imagine someone proposed to limit a large share of them to passenger cars only.  What would the reaction be?  If it didn’t already exist, no one would dare to suggest it.

And, by they way, commercial vehicles cannot be parked on any residential New York City Street between 9 pm and 5 am, to ensure street parking is left available exclusively for private passenger cars.  Tractor-trailers may only park on any NYC street when loading or unloading.

And as noted by section 25-41 (411 and 412) of the zoning resolution, small commercial vehicles cannot be parked in off-street parking in residence districts either.  So that blue-collar service provider couldn’t even park in their own driveway.

In the districts indicated, such spaces shall be designed and operated exclusively for the long-term storage of the private passenger motor vehicles used by the occupants of such residences.

While parking restrictions on commercial vehicles are more common elsewhere in the U.S. than expressway restrictions, they nonetheless add to the extraordinary privilege of private passenger cars in New York City.


So would I propose taking the “parkways” out of private passenger car drivers’ cold dead hands?  Not for a generation or two.  As Robert Moses expected, the cost of reconstructing all the overpasses and underpasses for larger vehicles is just too great, and the SUV-driving generations will be leaving us too broke to pay it.  The extraordinary purple road privilege is likely to continue.

Given that, however, it would be ethically, economically and environmentally justified to take more of the shared “orange roads,” or parts thereof, and turn them into “red roads” that are limited to buses, Taxi and Limousine Commission vehicles, trucks, other commercial vehicles, and emergency vehicles.  Roads where traffic would move, because private passenger vehicle drivers would be prohibited from rushing in and using up any available space. 

Start with the six-lane, three-level (the road in each direction and the Brooklyn Heights promenade), triple-viaduct section of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway between Atlantic Avenue and Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn. It is deteriorating, and the highway lobby wants New York to borrow a cazillion dollars to build a temporary six lane expressway in the new Brooklyn Bridge Park, then spend another cazillion to rebuild the triple viaduct exactly as it is –- and then spend even more – maybe — to remove the temporary expressway in the park.  Even as the subway remains in deferred maintenance.  It is madness.

As I noted here:

The right solution is to leave the promenade as it is, and rebuild the road quickly and cheaply as a four-lane expressway (two lanes in each direction) on one (lower) level, limited to trucks, buses, TLC vehicles, and emergency vehicles, with no height restrictions.  South of the viaduct at Hamilton Avenue, and north of the viaduct at Tillary Street, the road narrows to two lanes each way as it is, and is generally backed up at that point.   But if the viaduct stretch excluded private passenger cars, and they went elsewhere as a result, the amount of passenger car traffic obstructing other vehicles might be reduced on the entire corridor.

Those driving passenger cars to Manhattan, who currently use the viaduct to get to the free Brooklyn Bridge instead of using the tolled Hugh Carey Tunnel, could use the tunnel instead.  Those traveling to Downtown Brooklyn could exit at Atlantic Avenue from the south or Tillary Street from the north. 

Also in Brooklyn, along Route 27, today both Church Avenue and the parallel Caton Avenue, two streets with just one lane in each direction flanked by parked cars, are truck routes, although only commercial Church Avenue is a through truck route.  Instead all trucks could be directed to Church, with all passenger cars redirected to Caton or any of the other east-west streets.   And Church Avenue could be restricted to trucks, other commercial vehicles, buses, TLC vehicles and emergency vehicles, except on weekends, like 14thStreet in Manhattan.

Similarly, the most congested part of Flatbush Avenue, from Empire Boulevard south to Farragut Road, could be commercial, bus, TLC and emergency only.   Private passenger cars could use Empire to get to any of the other north-south avenues, or take Ocean Avenue.  

Governor Cuomo and the Port Authority want to add a lane in each direction to the Van Wyck Expressway, for high occupancy vehicles, increasing the total to eight lanes (four each way) from six lanes (three each way).  This would do absolutely nothing to help freight, including the air freight business at the airport.  While buses would be allowed, the primary purpose is apparently to make it faster for travelers to get to the airport without using the mass transit Airtrain.  

The Airtrain is exorbitantly priced (except for those traveling to and from parking lots) and has had its service slashed.  Much of the Airtrain system as promised (and paid for in an airport ticket tax) was never built, and it connects to a subway system that is undergoing planned disinvestment, to the point where in a decade no one who is affluent enough to afford an airplane ticket is likely to want to use it.

If they really want to move people and goods, they should exclude private passenger cars from four of the proposed eight lanes (two each way), restricting those lanes to trucks, other commercial vehicles, buses, TLC vehicles and emergency vehicles only.  Private passenger cars could use the other four lanes, which could connect to Queens Boulevard and the Grand Central Parkway.   Passenger cars already have the option of using the Belt Parkway, with access to the Belt from the north on Cross Island Parkway. Trucks and buses do not.

In the Bronx, the perpetually congested Cross Bronx Expressway is the most vital truck route in the metro area.  It is another road that most non-truckers do all they can to avoid as it is, but it would work better and spew fewer fumes into the neighborhood if it were limited to trucks, other commercial vehicles, buses, TLC vehicles, and emergency vehicles, between the Major Deegan Expressway and I-678.

Private passenger cars traveling between Long Island and New Jersey could take the Grand Central Parkway to the RFK/Triborough Bridge, and then travel up the Harlem River Drive to the GW Bridge.  Those traveling between Long Island and Upstate NY could take the Hutchinson River Parkway to the Cross County Parkway, or the Bruckner Expressway to the Bronx River Parkway.  Commercial vehicles don’t have those options.

There is one Streetsblog commenter who believes the city and state should invest in elevated, grade-separated expressways for bicycles, allowing them to glide over the streets for miles without hitting a cross-street intersection.  And there have been some pie in the sky proposals to build additional bridges across the East River for bicycles and pedestrians alone.  These proposals fail to account for just how much of later-born generation’s future income, and future federal, state and local government revenue, has already been spent to benefit the past.  If money were available for such things the current aging crop of politicians, and the interests that back them, would immediately bond against it and spend it on themselves.  In reality they already have.  So for the foreseeable future, dedicated bike lanes on mixed-traffic streets is the best we are going to do.

These, however, could be made better.  Most of Park Avenue in Manhattan already prohibits trucks and buses.  Even so, in 1927 its “park like” character was diminished to add a third lane of traffic in each direction just for automobiles, foreshadowing the future evolution of the rural recreational “parkways” into passenger-car-only expressways.

Given the ongoing growth of bicycle transportation, and the shortage of infrastructure to accommodate it on Manhattan’s densely populated East Side, the city ought to take back that one lane in each direction – the middle lane – use it for a bike lane, and convert Park Avenue into a so-called “bicycle boulevard.”  That is, a street where motor vehicles are allowed as local traffic, to access adjacent properties, but they can’t travel for a distance, because the street is interrupted by bollards every few blocks.  Bicycles would pass through the bollards, while motor vehicles would not.  The motor vehicles also would not be allowed to make left turns.  They would have to turn right and go around the block to go left.  

Bicycles would still have to stop at stoplights, but at least they would not have to worry as much about being slammed by turning vehicles. 

And who knows?  Perhaps these restrictions would cause enough traffic would shift to other avenues to allow two more lanes – this time near the curb – to be repurposed for additional “park” space.

Finally, with bicycle transportation booming as some shun the subway for pandemic reasons, joining others who have chosen bicycle transportation for health reasons, and still others who abandoned the subway as its service collapsed to a “state of emergency,” there is no excuse not to repurpose the south outer roadway of the Queensboro Bridge for bicycles rather than motor vehicles.  

That would leave Queens motor vehicles with eight lanes on the Queensboro Bridge, eight lanes on the RFK-Triboro Bridge, and four lanes in the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, for a total of 20 lanes.  Compared with one lane each for pedestrians and bicyclists on the Queensboro Bridge, and one narrow lane shared by both on the RFK/Triborough Bridge.

Does all this sound radical?  Infeasible?  Revolutionary?  Take another look at that map, and see all that purple!  And then remember that in Metro New York, private passenger cars have an extraordinary level of privilege that does not exist anywhere else in the United States, and perhaps the developed world.


About the map.

I’ve wanted a map like this for more than twenty years:  a cartogram with counties resized based on population, employment, or (in this case) daytime population (as provided by ARC-GIS) used not to show that data per se, but rather to serve as a base to show other things.

The cartogram solves the problem shown by this data.

Within an extended version of Metropolitan New York (as far out as the commuter rail lines go), New York City accounted for 38.5% of the 2019 population and 41.6% of that year’s employment, and presumably accounts for about 40 percent of the things one might want to see on a map.  But it only accounts for 3.7% of the total land area, or about the same share as Somerset County in New Jersey, which has just 1.5% of the population and 1.8% of the employment.   So there is no way, using the actual physical geography of the region, to see everything at a glance. The central parts of the region, and the region as a whole, either have to be displayed on separate pages in different scales, or one has to zoom in and out, to look at the two separately.

Here is what the map that is the basis of this post looks like in actual space.

Major Roads and Paths of Metro New York

And here, once again, is the map as modified by using the cartogram as the base, this time as a thin line variation.

The latter provides a more telling picture by, in effect, weighting the lengths of road by the population they serve.  Similarly, a rail transportation map of metro New York based on a cartogram could do what the MTA has been unable to do – show all the subway andcommuter rail lines of the region, and all the stations, in one view.

But it isn’t just transportation.  Imagine a map showing all the elementary and secondary schools in this metro area, or any metro area, color coded by public and private and by elementary, middle and high, sized by enrollment.  Imagine all the health facilities.  The major shopping centers and retail streets.  The major office buildings, complexes and parks.  The major industrial facilities, districts and parks.  

All of these are likely to be concentrated in densely developed areas, where they would be so small as to be invisible on an actual geographic map, while being widely scattered on the exurban fringe.

A geographically correct map is just that — a map.  Data and locations shown color-coded on a cartogram base are like a geographic chart, showing distribution and patterns relative to population and employment.

Consider this Bureau of Economic Analysis map of the change in per capita income over a year, which is typical of what you usually see.

Given that the population of the five counties of New York City, which you can’t even see, is nearly as much as the population of the states of Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska combined, does a glace at the colors of the map really tell you what is happening in different parts of the country relative to each other, or to the country as a whole?

In a cartogram there is a tradeoff between sizing each area to your base data item (population, employment), and maintaining the shape and position of each area so the viewer could recognize what it was.  The Census Bureau’s population by state cartogram sacrifices position.

Most computer-generated contiguous cartograms I have seen, on the other hand, smush the generally straight lines of jurisdictions such as states and counties into curved areas, to the point where one can’t really tell which they are.  Under the circumstances, the Metro New York ARC-GIS cartogram base came out really well.  Thank you again to Susan Zwillinger of 4CGeoworks for producing it. And thanks to Mike Pilgrim of the NYC Department of City Planning for assisting with a prior attempt to create a base map like it, back in the 1990s.