Internet resources for what you need to know on NYC Land Use/Zoning
Sites for Beginners
(Oct '01) The recent ban on single-occupancy vehicles entering Midtown and lower Manhattan was meant as a temporary measure in response to the September 11 disaster. But it could be permanent, and brings to mind important issues that city planners have grappled with for decades.
Right now the problem is that major thoroughfares and streets in a large section of lower Manhattan are unusable. Clogged streets can hinder emergency vehicles. But under normal conditions how much traffic is too much? How much traffic can and should New York City handle? Is traffic needed for a healthy economy, and if so how much? How does land use planning and zoning affect traffic, and should these regulations be changed? And does traffic contribute to safe streets or make them less safe?
TRAFFIC AND PUBLIC SAFETY
Urban critic Jane Jacobs, in her classic work The Death and Life of Great American Cities showed how "eyes on the street" helped make New York City's streets safe. She was talking about neighborhoods like her own West Village that were buzzing with activity all day and into the night. People used the sidewalks and streets as extensions of their apartments and businesses. There were cars and trucks, but she was careful to note that when the vehicles took over and monopolized the street, it became less safe. People in cars pass by and do not interact with others. People on foot and bikes tend to have business locally. And the most important element in public safety is a community where everyone knows what is going on and the potential sources of crime and violence. It will not get at the root causes of crime or terrorism, nor will any urban planning measure, but it can help deal with them. These neighborhood networks made up of person-to-person contacts accomplish what sophisticated surveillance technology and centralized intelligence systems aspire to. They are what cities are all about, and they are what make cities like New York so attractive to people. To limit access to streets, or take these eyes off the street, is to make cities more dangerous.
HOW MUCH TRAFFIC?
Unfortunately, transportation planning in New York City does not start with the obvious question, how much? The main mission of the city's Department of Transportation appears to be to keep traffic flowing. To do this the maximum amount of street space is dedicated to moving traffic lanes. Traffic signals are timed, pedestrians are kept at bay, and downtown on-street parking is prohibited to make space for more traffic lanes. But this is a sure recipe for more, not less, congestion, because it only attracts more traffic to downtown. It also makes many thoroughfares in the city, like Queens Boulevard and the Grand Concourse, dangerous death traps. We now know that the more you do to facilitate traffic flow the more traffic congestion there will be!
A more logical way to approach the problem would be to ask how much traffic is needed for a healthy economy and environment, and plan only for that amount. The ability to move freely around the city is certainly one of the great attractions to businesses, residents and tourists. The question is: how much of this movement should be handled by the private automobile, taxis and trucks, and how much can be handled by the much more efficient modes of mass transit, pedestrian and bicycle transportation, all of which carry more people, consume less energy, and do less damage to the environment? This is a basic question that is never been addressed by the city's transportation policy makers.
The city's parking regulations are a major contributor to downtown traffic. As expensive as parking may seem, it is still not expensive enough to keep out the pack of commuters who enter Manhattan each day by car. In areas around midtown and Wall Street the city provides free or low-cost on-street parking, a generous subsidy not calculated in the city budget. The city's zoning law requires that new developers provide parking, and often permits private garages and lots.
The city's traffic managers also do little to help the buses run on time. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), a state authority, runs the buses, but the City of New York manages traffic. The city has few bus-only lanes, so few buses can beat the traffic and run on schedule. Cars habitually stop and park at bus stops. In sum, the city lacks a good surface transportation system, in Manhattan and the other boroughs, that matches its underground system in speed and efficiency.
DIFFERENT FROM EUROPE
European cities tend to be more compact. Mass transit, walking and cycling account for a much larger proportion of travel to work and travel for personal trips. Vehicular traffic is severely restricted in many vibrant downtown areas. The orthodoxy there is just the opposite of the U.S.-- slow traffic, do not speed it up. This takes the form of traffic calming, an array of technical methods that make it more difficult for cars to speed. This is especially popular in residential neighborhoods, where safety concerns are often greater. European cities have not banned autos (although a recent referendum in Amsterdam came close), but transportation policy acknowledges the need for some auto use, especially among populations, such as the disabled, that have limited alternatives. And, of course, access is also critical for emergency vehicles.
HOW CAN LAND USE PLANNING AND ZONING HELP?
New York City's traffic mess is due to a wrong-headed land use policy that governs the entire metropolitan region, and other regions throughout the country. Low-density suburban sprawl, made possible by the vast interstate highway network, cheap gas and autos, lead to a dependency on auto use. The U.S. is an auto-dependent society, in love with its cars. While New York City is one of the most densely populated cities in the U.S., most of its suburbs are about as sprawled as Los Angeles. That means more people who work in the city drive to work, more people drive in to dinner and a Broadway show, and on weekends more drive in to shop on Fifth Avenue. Every time a lane is added to the New Jersey Turnpike, it feeds more traffic into New York. So one of the few things over which city government has any control is to limit traffic coming into the city, even though this does not get to the real heart of the problem. Thus for decades, city planners have wanted to put tolls on all the bridges into Manhattan. Two problems always get in the way. First, the Port Authority and not the city run some of the bridges and tunnels, and that bi-state agency answers to the governors of two suburban-dominated states and only indirectly to the mayor of New York. Secondly, powerful voices in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx manage to block any effort to put tolls on the city's East River bridges.
Where tolls are already collected, congestion pricing can discourage rush-hour traffic by increasing tolls at times when demand is greatest. EZ Pass now uses congestion pricing, but its impact is limited because it does not affect all bridges and tunnels, and the difference in price is still not great enough to change most people's travel patterns.
It would be in the city's interest to help the suburbs kick the car habit. This would take extraordinary leadership able to challenge suburban officials to work together to find regional solutions to transportation problems.
I am often visited by European planners who are shocked to learn that in this metropolitan region of 18 million people there is no entity that plans or coordinates transportation. The Regional Plan Association is a non-profit organization serving the region, but their studies and recommendations are advisory. There is no body that can decide how much traffic the region can and should sustain. So the decision is made in small steps every time a local government decides to widen a road, add parking, and approve a new mall or housing development that is accessible only by auto.
Regional planning is needed now more than ever. If there were a balanced regional transportation plan there would be many other solutions to the congestion problems in Manhattan besides banning single occupancy vehicles. These solutions would aim to increase access to the city and within the city, not cut it off.
Sites For Beginners:
- How Zoning Works - An overview of zoning: its definition, purpose and implementation in NYS and NYC. This primer also explains who has authority to make which decisions, with accompanying laws and citations. Excellent.
- NYC Department of Planning - The official City site. Not frequently updated, but a good repository for official New York City Land Use documents. Find the complete text of the Zoning Resolution (a hard copy would run you $400+) and downloadable zoning maps. Find out which zone you live in!
- Regional Plan Association - The venerable and still influential pro-planning organization. Particularly good for information on big-item controversies, e.g. Governor's Island. Second Avenue subway, anti-sprawl legislation. Check out their MetroLink proposal and the Gowanus Tunnel Study.
- NY Metro APA - A small site for the local chapter of the national professional organization: American Planning Association.
- Municipal Arts Society - A great place for all things regarding New York planning, architecture and design. Most relevant: the just released Briefing Book of Community-Based Plans available to download, which offers for the first time ever a comprehensive look at the sometimes spotty, sometimes inspired plans for (and from) each neighborhood across the city, complete with maps and community contact information.
- NYU's Urban Planning Links Page - This page is chock full of great land use links which focus both on NYC and the USA.
- Air Rights - An old Gotham Gazette Issue of the Week, still relevant and interesting, though a slightly arcane Land Use topic.
- Tenant Net - A great source for NYC real estate, if slightly biased toward the leassee.
- "The Cultivator by Martin Filler" - A fascinatingly critical article about Fredrick Law Olmsted and what's wrong with Witold Rybczynski's new biography of him. From The New Republic.
- New York Landmarks Preservation - Packed with information on preservation and restoration of landmarked buildings.
- New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission - The Official City site for landmarks preservation.
- Pace Law School Center for Land Use - Excellent introduction to land use issues by a leading academic think tank. Check out the "Land Use for Local Leaders" section.
- Van Alen Institute - An immense amount of information on current and future NYC land use issues. Start with the well organized, user-friendly contents page and then zero in on your prime concern.
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