Ernest Cole / Magnum Photos

Serve the Walkers

Nicole Gelinas

May 01, 2024

When congestion pricing arrives, New York must reclaim street and sidewalk space for pedestrians

When congestion pricing arrives, New York must reclaim street and sidewalk space for pedestrians

Both proponents and opponents of congestion pricing frame the program, provisionally slated to begin in June, as good for transit riders and bad for drivers. One group is left out — and it’s a group that includes almost everyone: pedestrians, whether on foot for their entire journey, or walking to and from a transit stop or parked car. Though the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority is in charge of congestion pricing, the state and city government are in charge of Manhattan streets: The State determines the traffic laws that govern speed and other driver behavior, and the City designs the streets and regulates parking violations. If and when congestion pricing begins, the Hochul and Adams administrations must use the extra room on the road to improve everyday life for walkers — or see disorder and disarray fill the void.

The MTA projects that once it starts levying a $15 fee on car and SUV drivers to enter Manhattan 60th Street or below ($3.75 between 9 p.m. and 5 p.m., and a higher overall rate for trucks), 100,000 of the 700,000 motor vehicles, mostly cars, that enter core Manhattan daily will disappear. The decreased vehicle volume is expected to result in a 7% to 9% decrease in the number of miles clocked daily by motor vehicles within the zone. During congested daytime hours, drivers should see some improvement in travel time from the current 7.1 mph daytime travel speeds.

Higher speeds may be good for drivers, but they’re not good for walkers. Manhattan has historically had a lower pedestrian fatality and serious injury rate than the rest of the city, in large part because drivers can’t go fast enough to kill. It needs to safeguard and even build on that legacy of pedestrian protection.

The City has long requested state legislation to do so, and this budget season, Gov. Hochul and lawmakers reportedly acted, giving the city the power to reduce the city’s default speed limit on most roads to 20 mph from 25 mph. The State should similarly give the City the power to increase the number of red-light and speed cameras, currently limited citywide to 150 intersections and 750 zones within a quarter-mile of a school respectively (yes, Albany interferes far too much in New York City’s management of its streets). Third, within Manhattan, the State should allow speed cameras outside of school zones, to which current law confines them.

The fact that the average daytime speed is lower than the nominal speed limit is not protective enough against excessive speed. Addressing shoulder hours — late-night and early-morning hours during which cars, once congestion pricing is in effect, will have more room to exceed the 25 mph limit — is critical. Once it has secured expanded state authorization for camera enforcement, the City should target two-way streets, such as Canal Street, 23rd Street and 57th Street. Such streets, according to one city report, account for a disproportionate number of injuries and deaths relative to their percentage of the street network.

First, New York City, using the power just awarded to it in the 2025 state budget, should reduce Manhattan’s default speed limit to 20 mph from 25 mph. Second, the State should allow the City to increase the number of red-light and speed cameras.

Next, the City should protect pedestrians from the disorder and danger increasingly posed by motorized two-wheeled vehicles, including e-bikes, which have proliferated on Manhattan streets. Before the City and State legalized e-bikes in 2020, fewer than one pedestrian each year was historically killed by the operator of a two-wheeled vehicle; in the three years between 2021 through 2023, at least 10 walkers have died in such crashes.

And so, the City should take advantage of extra room on north-south avenues to create dedicated space for two-wheeled motorized vehicles and keep them out of lanes for old-fashioned pedal bicyclists. The explosion in fast-moving e-bikes and mopeds, often meeting or exceeding the speed limit, has pushed pedal cyclists out of bike lanes and discouraged novice cyclists; the percentage of women cyclists, in particular, has stagnated in recent years, as women have proven reluctant to take to two wheels in lanes increasingly dominated by fast-moving commercial motorized vehicles.

But creating new lanes on major avenues for two-wheeled vehicles is meaningless without enforcement. So fifth, the City must enact and enforce laws to better govern motorized two-wheeled vehicles. Commercial e-bikes should carry commercial insurance covering injury not just to their drivers, but to pedestrians and other cyclists, as all other motorized vehicles must carry. The responsibility for carrying insurance should fall on the app-based delivery firm or restaurant, not on the delivery worker.

The City should further require delivery workers who rely on motorized two-wheeled vehicles to pass a licensing exam, although the licensing process needn’t be as onerous as the process for obtaining a drivers’ license, and needn’t be governed by the state department of motor vehicles; a full-day course, paid for by the app or restaurant, on the rules of New York’s roads should suffice. (Commercial cyclists are currently required to “review” a short presentation, but neither they nor their employer must provide any evidence that they have done so.)

Further, the City should update and enforce an existing local law that already requires delivery workers to display an employer-provided identification number on their vehicle and outerwear. (The apps will protest that workers deliver for several apps on a shift, but they can put their supposedly cutting-edge tech savvy to work to figure out how to comply.) The City should direct much of its enforcement to ensure compliance with these provisions not toward delivery workers, but toward the apps and restaurants that employ them. More effective police enforcement against reckless operation of two-wheeled motorized vehicles is necessary as well, but tickets with escalating fines should go to apps and restaurants, as identified on the vehicle and on the driver’s apparel during any given ride, not toward individual drivers.

The City should pilot a program allowing people to establish standing-violation infractions via phone-camera evidence, under the same rules that govern an existing program for idling trucks.

People who have gotten used to prepared food being delivered from miles away for cheap or for free may complain, but it’s not too great a burden for them to return to the way life was way back in 2019, when motorized two-wheeled vehicles were still illegal. 

Smaller issues matter, as well. Manhattan walkers, whether residents, commuters or visitors, currently navigate a dark labyrinth of endless construction and inspection scaffolding. The City Council should modify the law that requires near-incessant façade inspections. But, sixth, the City should also require buildings or construction sites surrounded by scaffolding to clearly and repeatedly mark, at pedestrian eye level, every few feet, the date that a scaffold went up, the initial date that it is supposed to come down, any extensions to that deadline and a phone-scannable QR-code to make a complaint directly related to that scaffolding. (All this information is available on a searchable map built by the Department of Buildings, but few pedestrians have the understanding or time to hunt down violations.) Developers that commandeer entire sidewalks and street lanes for construction and renovation for months and even years should pay the market rate for that space, as if it were commercial metered parking. Such pricing would encourage them to keep their construction footprint as unobtrusive as possible, and to complete their work quickly.

Another smaller issue, outdoor dining, can improve the pedestrian experience, but only if done right. So seventh, as the City launches its permanent outdoor dining program, it should enforce design standards that require roadbed cafes to remain open to the sidewalk side. Only a short, table-height wall should separate outdoor diners from walkers, instead of a full wall; that is, pedestrians should be walking by an open-sided (if covered) café, not walking by what amounts to a separate, enclosed building erected in the street. Outdoor dining that enables its patrons to face the sidewalk adds a convivial atmosphere to New York’s streets and improves public safety by putting more eyes on the street; outdoor dining that walls diners off from pedestrians has the opposite effect, forcing walkers to traverse a corridor with enclosed structures on either side.

Next, and eighth, use permanent, retractable bollards, not ubiquitous metal gates, to manage traffic on streets that must regularly and predictably close to car and truck traffic for special events. The City well knows that the blocks around the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree must close annually to accommodate seasonal pedestrian traffic, for example, but still continues to manage the process by throwing junky metal gates all over the streets, which clutter pedestrian flow throughout the holiday season. The Department of Transportation (DOT) should launch a capital project to control access to these streets via retractable metal bollards, with commercial and retail deliveries allowed only in early-morning hours before pedestrian crowding. Similarly, Trump Tower will be a security risk, vulnerable to truck bombs, for as long as the former and perhaps future president is with us; the NYPD and DOT should stop triaging this permanent crisis with cement blocks and metal barriers, and construct an infrastructure that protects the tower and allows for clear pedestrian travel.

Finally, ninth, keep the crosswalks clear. Manhattan pedestrians must navigate, among other vehicle obstructions, ice-cream trucks blocking major crosswalks for hours, including on marquee Fifth Avenue. The City should pilot a program allowing people to establish such standing-violation infractions to the City via phone-camera evidence, under the same rules that govern an existing program for idling trucks: a three-minute video should be sufficient evidence of a violation. Similarly, the City should allow civilian camera enforcement for vehicles that park too close to intersections, harming both pedestrian and driver sight lines. 

As New Yorkers have painfully learned over the past few years, a big-picture policy, whether marijuana and e-bike legalization or the plan to close Rikers Island, is only as good as the details that back it. As the State and City make Manhattan a little less welcoming to drivers, let’s use the flexibility this policy creates to make Manhattan a lot more welcoming to walkers.