nyc street intersection via google maps

Should New York City Streets Be Illegal?

Yes, plenty of city streets should be illegal. I know that sounds ridiculous to many, because we’ve all grown up in the Age of the Automobile, and old habits die hard. New York City policies and laws promise us safer streets, but drivers kill more people every year, including themselves. And what doesn’t kill us makes us unhealthy, with asthma, diabetes, heart disease, and maybe missing limbs.

The city gives us the opposite of the safety it promises. Proclamations and ordinances promise decarbonization, so we can stop killing the planet, but how we treat and promote traffic is one of the big reasons why we don’t meet—and won’t meet—our climate change goals. Plus, the average New York City household doesn’t own a car, and yet our government still gives most of the space on our streets to the movement and storage of motor vehicles. And that interferes with the city life most of us want. 

Civil Streets 

A recent action by New York State Attorney General Letitia James suggests one way to get the streets New Yorkers want and need. As reported in Streetsblog, James wrote to a disgruntled developer who built a truck depot in Harlem that the facility may be a “public nuisance.” According to state law, that means it “interfere(s)” with or “cause(s) damage” to a “public place or danger(s) or injure(s) the property, health, safety, or comfort of a considerable number of persons.”

Explaining why she may ban the depot, James declared that, “Trucks are associated with increased traffic delays, noise, and vibrations, and can endanger the safety of pedestrians and cyclists. Trucks also generate local air pollution. Using the same criteria, many streets in New York City are public places that meet the public nuisance definition. Many city streets in Europe were once as dangerous and polluted as New York’s. But all over that continent, cities are making better streets while cutting traffic fatalities to a fraction of ours. Why can’t we?

Traffic Deaths 

Because our streets are so dangerous, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio adopted “Vision Zero” principles for New York in 2014. Vision Zero is a traffic reform movement that began in Sweden, based on the idea that traffic fatalities are a failure of street design rather than “accidents.” It says that if we reduce traffic and slow traffic down with new designs, we can reduce traffic deaths to zero. De Blasio and the New York City Department of Transportation announced they would reduce traffic deaths in the city to zero by 2024. 

At some point, the city quietly moved the goalpost to 2030. Why? As Justin Davidson recently wrote in New York magazine, we’re moving in the wrong direction: “The Department of Transportation boasts of having ‘driven’—its word—‘traffic deaths to historic lows,’ which is true if by ‘history’ you mean since last year.” 

In fact, the previous year was the worst year for pedestrian deaths in New York since Vision Zero began. In each of the last nine years, motor vehicles killed an average of 125 pedestrians on the streets of New York City, or one every three days.

Altogether, 255 people died in New York traffic last year. Since the city officially committed to Vision Zero, the annual total has never gone below 200. Nationwide, we accept more than 40,000 deaths every year, despite all the elaborate and expensive safety devices in our cars—to protect the passengers. The deaths are seen as part of the cost of keeping traffic moving at a “reasonable” speed.

Our streets would be safer if we more closely followed the practices of cities like Helsinki, Oslo, and even Jersey City, New Jersey. These places reduced pedestrian and cycling deaths to zero. But New York continues to emphasize moving cars into, out of, and through the city.

 Pollution & Climate Change 

In America, we drive everywhere for everything. That’s why we’ve been the world’s biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Even in New York—where most of us don’t own a car and we have the best transit in North America—cars and trucks are responsible for nearly 30% of all air pollution in the city. 

In Manhattan, only 25% of households own a car. Statistics from the DOT show that the streets around city highway exits, bridges, and tunnels where drivers enter Manhattan are particularly dangerous—as in my neighborhood on the Upper West Side. Neighborhoods next to highways also have the worst air quality. But when we get an opportunity to fix that, we spend billions of dollars to keep people driving in and out. 

One big opportunity is currently staring us in the face: the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. It’s falling down, yet the only plan under consideration is a multi-billion-dollar rebuilding. No one, it seems, is willing to turn off the fire hydrant that pumps cars and trucks through the city. We will rebuild a highway that divides Brooklyn neighborhoods, kills New Yorkers with pollution, and delivers to Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan drivers who also kill New Yorkers. “Accidentally,” yes, but that doesn’t improve the deaths. How about a better plan? When an earthquake damaged the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco, that city tore the rest of the highway down. The uncovered Embarcadero Wharf is now one of the most popular places in the Bay area. 

Yes, congestion pricing is coming—after seventeen years of debate—but it shows that we choose to take one step forward and one step back instead of seizing the opportunity to create solutions that will reinforce the congestion zone, reduce traffic citywide, and bring innovative 21st century fixes to 20th century problems. When it comes to climate change, we’re staring into the abyss but driving like it’s 1999. We are driving ourselves into a catastrophe.

 City Streets

“The right to access every building in a city by private motorcar in an age when everyone possesses such a vehicle is actually the right to destroy the city,” Lewis Mumford once wrote. New York’s streets are extensions of our apartments. In a city like ours, a lot of public life takes place in public spaces, and most of our public space is in our streets. Urban designers call it “the space between the buildings.” But we give 70% of that space to the movement and storage of machines. 

It wasn’t always like this. Most of our streets were laid out long before cars existed. Think of the scenes of life in lower Manhattan in The Godfather, with streets full of carts that immigrants used to gain a foothold in the new world. Their children invented games they played in the streets, like stickball, stoopball, ringolevio, kick the can, double Dutch, and many more. As recently as the 1950s, parking overnight on New York City streets was illegal. 

We see what we’ve lost, and we want better streets for a better life. Cars take away public space and assault us with noise and pollution. In a double whammy, New York has become the place of wailing, ear-damaging sirens—the sound of emergency workers unable to do their job because they’re stuck in traffic.

Why did we change the city like that? In the 20th century, America created a new national transportation system based on cars. Before the arrival of the motor car, we had a great national network of trains, streetcars, and subways. We replaced that with a system of private vehicles on public streets. Now a significant percentage of the country thinks they have a divine right to drive wherever they want, regardless of the consequences for others. Very few people need to drive into Manhattan, but New Yorkers are kicked to the side of the road so others can drive around our great city.

What To Do 

I’ve written extensively about how to make safer streets that are also less polluting and better for public life. You can find these ideas in the book I wrote with Victor Dover, Street Design, The Secret to Great Cities and Lives. (There’s more at my website, Slow New York.) For a short summary of the safety principles, look to Vision Zero, which says that the way to save lives is to either separate people from the cars (as DOTs do in suburbia) or to slow the cars way down (q.v. kicking pedestrians to the curb). 

New York lowered speed limits, but our mayors and our DOT are not willing to go far enough. How do we know that? Because the cities that have done more to slow cars down have traffic death rates that are a fraction of ours. 

I can’t read the minds of our elected leaders and say why they are so slow to change the status quo in New York. We know they have donors and influencers who support the current system, from rich New Yorkers who move around the city in chauffeur-driven cars to the companies who profit from highways, like car companies, oil companies, and construction unions. 

The state and city departments of traffic are the keepers of the system. Staffed by tens of thousands of traffic engineers, they control enormous federally funded budgets for maintaining the streets. That gives them great power. Think of Robert Moses.

 Bad News, Good News

Fifty years ago, a fully-loaded dump truck plunged through a pothole on the elevated West Side Highway in lower Manhattan. The city tore the highway down. New York proposed what the Daily News called “the grandest, costliest, most ambitious public-works project ever proposed for New York.” Four groups stopped it with a lawsuit. Federal funds allocated for burying a highway next to the Hudson were used for public transit, and a surface boulevard was built. Both a lawsuit and a more urban version of the boulevard that replaced the West Side Highway may be exactly what we need today.

Fifteen years ago, New York City had the most progressive DOT in America. New York was an innovation leader again when it adopted Vision Zero almost 10 years ago. But other cities took greater advantage of the opportunity presented by the pandemic, when many places around the world adopted open streets and streateries. San Francisco created a permanent, citywide network of open streets it called “slow streets.” Three years after Covid started, New York has a small number of scattered, disconnected open streets. They are popular, but their number is shrinking, because the streets rely on volunteers and outside funding.

Last month, a citizen activist group won an Article 78 lawsuit against the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. Article 78 is a provision in New York Civil Practice Law and Rules that establishes a procedure for challenging the determinations of government actions. Another citizen group is using an Article 78 procedure to stop the expensive public-private development of 10 supertall office buildings around a badly renovated Penn Station.

I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me that an Article 78 proceeding or a lawsuit based on civil or environmental grounds should be possible. Jeff Speck, a colleague in the Congress for New Urbanism, is working on similar ideas at the national level. That’s interesting, because recently a good portion of his career consists of working with Mayors and DOTs around the country that want to make their cities more walkable. “Put simply,” Speck wrote in The Hill, “the roadway design standards enshrined by our nation’s professional civil engineers are unnecessarily deadly to the point of criminal negligence. It’s time to place blame and demand change.”

Very Good News

There are two pieces of very good news. The first is that the Biden administration has set aside very large pots of money pots to improve neighborhood streets and remove city highways. America built its national network of highways and modern, auto-centric arterials with federal funding. New York has the opportunity to use federal money to dismantle some of it.

Second, Mayor Eric Adams has created a new position, a director of the public realm, Ya-Ting Liu, who will report directly to two deputy mayors. Functioning as a “traffic czar,” she will coordinate city agencies that work in the public realm, including the departments of transportation, parks, climate, buildings, and environmental protection. 

I wish her all the luck in the world and hope her power quickly expands. Traffic engineers do not lead the design teams that make the beautiful, safe, low-traffic streets for people we see in Europe. Those streets are 21st-century paradigms for moving away from the car-dominated models of the 20th century still plaguing us.

New York should do whatever it takes to change our streets now. We’ve been a model for the nation, and can be again. No place in America is more ready for safe, slow, walkable streets. 

A slightly different version of this essay first appeared in Streetsblog. Featured image via Google Maps.



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