Is City Traffic Killing Your Love Life?

Ever wonder why, in such a crowded place as New York City, it can be so hard to find a mate?

Here's a novel excuse: traffic.

According to a new study by the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, people who live on highly trafficked streets tend to go out less and have fewer friends and acquaintances than people who live in less congested parts of the city.

Seems car horns and exhaust fumes aren't so conducive to chatting up that new neighbor down the block.

The study surveyed 450 residents in Brooklyn Heights, Astoria, Chinatown, and the High Bridge section of the Bronx in an effort to quantify the decline in quality of life caused by the growing number of motor vehicles jamming up our streets.

The preliminary findings about how traffic affects social relations and children's ability to play will be presented Wednesday night at the Municipal Arts Society (457 Madison Avenue at 51st Street), where a two-month exhibition addressing the Big Apple's love affair with the auto is underway.

"Livable Streets: A New Vision for New York," takes aim at New York's "auto-centric" grid by challenging the city, and in particular, the traffic planners at the Department of Transportation, to rethink how people use the city, and to what end.

Pedestrians outnumber car-commuters in Manhattan by more than seven to one. So how come our streets are largely devoted to motor vehicles?

"Other cities have begun to measure the performance of their streets in terms of walkability or bike-ability," notes Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives. "Here in New York, we're still measuring by how many potholes we've filled or the 'vehicular level of service,'"—i.e., how many cars can cram down a street at any given time.

More than a design show, this exhibit, which runs through March 31, is the opening salvo in the New York City Renaissance Campaign, a new coalition of community and advocacy groups, elected officials, and business leaders who are pushing to restrict automobiles and level the playing field for bikers and pedestrians.

Cities like London, Copenhagen, Bogotá, and Seoul have made dramatic moves to transform themselves into more ecologically sustainable, pedestrian-friendly places. Paris now closes a portion of one of its busiest expressways along the Seine each summer and transforms it into a public beach. Philadelphia and Chicago are both doing more to reorient their streets toward people and away from cars, organizers maintain.

Beyond the pollution, gridlock, and death and injury suffered by pedestrians and cyclists, advocates say the city's approach of treating streets as "car corridors" is strangling New York's economic vitality and choking off the quality of life.

Gauging from the mixed crowd that turned out for the opening "gala" last week, the makings of a diverse movement to reclaim the streets is afoot. Critical Massing bike radicals, graying eco-hippies, and urban visionaries from the 1970s downed drinks and noshed hors d'oeuvres alongside policy wonks from the Regional Planning Association, the president of the Times Square BID, and City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden.

While Burden ducked the mike, Queens Councilmember John Liu voiced his support the campaign. Liu, who chairs the Council's transportation committee, described the city's transit policy as "entangled in this loop, this eternal Groundhog Day," of seeking reform and never getting anywhere.

And freshman councilmember Dan Garodnick, who took over Eva Moskowitz's seat on the East Side of Manhattan, called for making Central Park car-free and implementing "congestion pricing" to ease gridlock in his district.

London now charges the equivalent of $14 a day to drive a car in its crowded central district during peak weekday hours, and the city wants to double the fee by 2007. Since the plan was implemented in 2003, traffic has dropped by a third in Central London and buses move twice as fast.

Any talk of fees to cruise Manhattan is sure to spark a revolt from drivers, who not only got Mayor Bloomberg to back down on bridge tolls but convinced him to make parking free on Sundays. (By contrast, Paris is working to eliminate free street parking.)

Bloomberg says congestion pricing won't work here, and there are plenty of privacy concerns with how authorities might record all those trips in and out of the city. But the influential Partnership for New York City is still keen on the idea and is reportedly releasing another set of "comprehensive" traffic-cutting recommendations in March, underscoring its belief that New York's transit woes are hobbling economic development.

Regardless of how they do it, curbing traffic in New York will require a real revolution in mass transit, and that's hard to fathom in a city that can't figure out how to get the trains to run on time, and where the long-awaited Second Avenue Subway remains stalled in the planning phase.

But part of the charm of "Livable Cities" is how it spotlights small, incremental ways to reclaim busy thoroughfares and restore a sense of neighborhood scale. Click here for a scheme to transform Astor Place into a lively plaza and café setting by incorporating the sidewalk in front of that swanky new Gwathmey Siegel high-rise, and transplanting the infamous Cube to an expanded plaza half a block up, where the northbound 6 train entrance is now.

Or this reimagining of the Lower East Side's Grand Street as a chill hangout zone, achieved by replacing a few parking spaces on one side of the street with benches and café tables.

Copenhagen has been gradually resculpting its streets like this over the last 30 years by eliminating two to three percent of its parking spaces a year and replacing them with plazas and expanded bike and bus lanes. Tourism is up, and gridlock's disappeared.

Surprisingly, this show doesn't feature any pics of that futuristic "Vision42" plan to make the whole of 42nd Street a pedestrian mall serviced by a light-rail system.

Was that too radical a renaissance? Nope, Vision42's designers, Roxanne Warren and George Haikalis, just signed on to the campaign.

You can sign on, too, at any one of the forums planned around this exhibit. Other presentations include "The Auto in Manhattan: Necessity or Choice?"; a screening of a new documentary called Contested Streets; and a discussion of whether New York's long forgotten pastime stickball could make a comeback if neighborhood streets became safe for children to play in again.


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