Things are getting a lot easier for New Yorkers and visitors who prefer walking or cycling to driving. In addition to the new bike lanes in Manhattan, and the Citibike rental program that began in May, the Bloomberg administration has decided to close parts of the East and West Drives in Central Park for the rest of the summer. Traffic will continue to flow through the park by other routes, but the closures will make it much easier for pedestrians to move around without risking their necks.
Some conservatives, such the Wall Street Journal‘s Dorothy Rabinowitz, have attacked Bloomberg’s preference for non-motorized transportation as elitist. And there’s some justification for this criticism: these programs are most popular with the white Manhattanites who remain the mayor’s main supporters. But they’re reasonably popular with other New Yorkers, too. In fact, the elderly, who are least likely to use them, are the only group of which a plurality opposes parking docks for the rental bikes.
Yet mere popularity is not the best argument in favor of pedestrian-friendly transport policies. It’s that heavy auto traffic is a nuisance and a menace in “legacy” cities like New York.
Trucks, taxis, and other commercial vehicles serve vital economic functions. Emergency vehicles need fast and unobstructed access to roads and buildings. But private cars are in most cases a luxury, and should not be given priority in public space, particularly in dense neighborhoods that are easily reached by public transportation. Although they are unlikely to pass any time soon, demand-based pricing for street parking and a congestion charge for most of Manhattan are obvious next steps in restoring the urban balance.
This logic doesn’t apply with the same force in new-style cities like Houston that have been built around the car. And even New York will never be Amsterdam or Stockholm, where bikes dominate the streets. But Bloomberg deserves credit for restoring more of the city to people moving under their own power. Despite the stifling heat, it’s a good summer to be in New York.