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2003 Monthly Letters from George

Since January, 2002, our redesigned and rejuvenated Auto-Free NY website has presented a monthly letter from its chairman and founder, George Haikalis. Because many of the topics of these past letters continue to be important, even critically important, we archive them here, most recent first, for your information and reading pleasure.
George (in white sport coat) at an MTA Lower Manhattan Access public hearing a few years ago
     Above, George (in white sport coat) attends an MTA Lower Manhattan Access public hearing a few years ago.

DECEMBER 2003: City Councilman John C. Liu Speaks at AFNY Meeting
Guest Speaker: John Liu, Chair of City Council Transportation Committee
Honorable John C. Liu, New York City Council.When it comes to providing leadership to relieve our auto-clogged city, attention usually focuses on the Mayor, who is seen as having the biggest 'bully pulpit'. But another increasingly important player in the city's political landscape is the City Council, where many key transportation decisions are made. Thanks to term limits, which NYC voters overwhelmingly approved of through two referenda, a new crop of leaders in the 51-member Council promises to make its presence more meaningful to actual residents.
     One of the most energetic new members is also the Chairman of the Council's Transportation Committee, Councilman John C. Liu, who represents northeast Queens, and was voted into office in November 2001. We are greatly honored that Councilman Liu has agreed to speak at our December Auto-Free NY meeting. Why not come to our next meeting and find out where Councilmember Liu would like to go in reducing our crowded city's automotive crush?

NOVEMBER 2003: Who Pays for Motorists' Free Ride into Manhattan?
Guest Speaker: Allan Treffeisen, Senior Budget & Policy Analyst, NYC Independent Budget Office
New York's transit riders got hit hard this year with the fare hike. A single ride went up fifty cents to two dollars, some forty times the price of a token in 1948, and a weekly pass went from $17 to $21, a huge increase. While transit riders pay steeply to cross the river to get into Manhattan, motorists are still driving across the East River Bridges absolutely free! Of course, these bridges aren't free, it's just the rest of us who have to fund their maintenance and repair.
      Why do elected officials place motorists, who pollute our city, make a lot of noise, and grab up every square inch of street space, above transit riders, who do not cause these problems? In the third major study to be published this year about bridge toll issues, yet another well-respected entity, the city's Independent Budget Office (IBO), weighs in. The IBO was created by an enlightened charter revision a few years ago to provide a non-partisan appraisal of financial issues in our city. Find out about the IBO's bridge toll study at our next Auto-Free New York meeting.

OCTOBER 2003: You Can Fight City Hall
Guest Speaker: Joshua David, co-founder of Friends of the Highline
We have much to gain by learning about the success of the Friends of the High Line in gaining support for preserving this priceless industrial artifact -- an elevated, neglected freight railway viaduct in West Midtown Manhattan that hasn't been used in decades. While they still have a way to go, this grass roots organization has scored a remarkable turnaround within city government about the merits of this initiative. While some might argue that our efforts to convert street space into auto-free space must deal with the most powerful lobby in this city -- car huggers, saving the High Line had a comparable adversary - the real estate industry.
     Find out how citizens can make a difference. Also see their remarkable video about the project, with many NYC "luminaries" (including City Council Speaker Gifford Miller) extolling the virtues of an auto-free pedestrianway. Perhaps there is hope for an auto-free light rail boulevard on 42nd Street -- our vision42 plan. Join us on Tuesday, October 28, for the next Auto-Free New York Meeting, where Joshua David, co-founder of Friends of the High Line, will speak on "Reclaiming the High Line - a Citizens' Initiative."

SEPTEMBER 2003: Downtown Terminal Madness
Guest Speaker: John Pettit West, transportation planner
Billions of dollars are about to be spent on 'transportation' improvements in Lower Manhattan. Yet a close look at the plans reveals that the emphasis is on architecture, not access. "Celebrating arrival", as one plan puts it, means that a glitzy faux-Taj Mahal will cover a transit station, but the same disconnected transit lines, cramped passageways and crowded trains remain. No new rail lines have been built to Lower Manhattan since 1932!
     We can and should do better. Please join us at our next Auto-Free NY meeting, when a thoughtful transportation planner, John Pettit West, who has devoted a lifetime to creative thinking about rail transit issues, will share his ideas with us.

AUGUST 2003: Taking A Ride on the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Line
New light rail lines, the updated version of streetcars, have been built in some two dozen North American cities since San Diego re-introduced this rider-friendly form of public transportation over two decades ago. Now light rail transit is literally at the doorsteps of New York City -- just one mile across the Hudson River on New Jersey's waterfront -- virtually pounding on the door and demanding entry into New York. How long can our elected officials ignore this plea?
     Find out what's so great about streetcars when we take a ride on the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Line. See for yourself how our neighboring state is "eating New York's lunch", by attracting new offices and residences to a more pleasant waterfront neighborhood well-served by new light rail transit. You are all cordially invited to join on us this eye-opening tour . . . There is no charge other than regular transit fees. In the meantime, visit our expanded Light Rail in NYC page to get a quick overview of this remarkable form of urban transportation.

JULY 2003: Wrestling for Dollars
Guest Speaker: Tom Schulze, Executive Director, NY Metropolitan Transport Council
The Federal government is an important source of funds to improve New York's regional transportation system. In what might be considered an enlightened approach to spending these dollars, the Federal government requires metropolitan areas to first develop a long range transportation plan. Then, local governments are to reach a consensus on how to allocate Federal dollars to advance this plan. Sounds simple? Well it's not!
     In the New York region, the Mayor of NYC, five County Executives and the Governor must all agree on a spending plan. Theoretically, any one of these seven elected officials can halt the planning process and all transport funds to the region, making it a game of chicken. Other elected officals, like members of the City Council, the County Legislatures or the State Legislature, have much less direct roles. Below them, the city's borough presidents, community boards and suburban municipalities are even more removed.
     Are we getting the kind of transportation system we want? Find out about this arcane process and learn how informed citizens can actually make a difference. Come to our next Auto-Free New York meeting. And in August, journey with us across the Hudson River to sample in real life a more sophisticated experience in auto-free transport -- New Jersey's waterfront Hudson-Bergen light rail line.

JUNE 2003: Brooklyn -- Lots of Transit, But Too Many Cars!
Guest Speaker: Carolyn Konheim, principal, Konheim & Ketcham
Brooklyn is New York City's most populous borough, and not surprisingly, its residents generate the greatest number of transit rides. While transit service is much better in "Kings County" than in any other county in the nation (with the exception of Manhattan) the borough is still overrun with cars and trucks. This motor mayhem is only growing, with no end in sight.
     The essential first step in reversing this car chaos is to make transit service better. And it can be made much better. Our June Auto-Free New York meeting guest is Carolyn Konheim, speaking for Konheim & Ketcham, a group of environmental experts and transportation engineers proposing upgrading transit service in Brooklyn.

MAY 2003: Lower Manhattan to Walkers: "Go Home?"
With the warmer weather finally arriving in NYC, our streets are once again surging with pedestrians. But can the streets and sidewalks be any more unpleasant and unsightly for walkers than in Lower Manhattan? Here, the repair of underground utilities damaged during the attack of 9/11 has resulted in streetscrapes resembling a battlefield. Compounding the problem, in the narrow winding streets of Lower Manhattan, is the gradual return of unfettered car use -- the cancer of "automotive incrementalism" -- and the pre-emption of street space by the security concerns of legions of extremely important and powerful bureaucrats, usually borne by limousine.
     The City - at least judging by its street conditions in Lower Manhattan -- is all but telling its visitors and workers to GO HOME. For residents, of course, this is not an alternative since they are already there.
     Addressing this issue will be our next monthly speaker -- City Councilperson Alan Jay Gerson. Elected by the residents of Lower Manhattan, and championing their cause as well as the need of all New Yorkers for a restored Financial District, Mr. Gerson will talk about this fascinating but beleagured district and his transportation vision for its future . . . .

APRIL 2003: Why Fewer Cars in NYC?
Even a modest reduction in motor vehicular use would make New York City a much more civilized place to live in or to visit. Cars and trucks don't mix well with pedestrians on our surface streets. It is not just the body count of the dead and the maimed that quantifies the agony of motor mania in this town. Nor is it the number of damaged lungs that must be treated in the city's hospitals, caused by the exhaust fumes spewed into our faces and homes from some one million tailpipes of vehicles in the city every day. Nor is it the collateral damage brought on by the relentless noise of car alarms, honking horns, boombox audio or backfiring trucks.
     As important as these negatives are, perhaps the greatest harm is the hostile occupation of the city's most valuable public space, its streets, and the loss of civil order within these streets brought on by the unfettered and undisciplined operation of motor vehicles -- truly a blitzkreig without the bombs.
     While a totally vehicle-free city is a worthy longer-term goal, our more immediate strategy is to reduce car use in the core of NYC, where a comprehensive public transit system is already in place. Making transit better is the first step. This can be backed up and funded with direct pricing measures that diminish the attractiveness of driving to the center. With fewer cars, street space can be redesigned to favor pedestrians, cyclists and urban amenities like trees, plants, fountains and sidewalk cafes.
     Auto-Free NY's Livable City Transport Plan offers a comprehensive and affordable blueprint for reducing car use. Why not join us at our special Earth Day meeting where this plan will be reviewed, and with your suggestions, updated and republished.

MARCH 2003: An Auto-Free Governors' Island
Guest Speaker: Rob Pirani, Regional Plan Association
Last month the Federal government sold Governors Island back to New York for one dollar, after occupying this 172-acre island, just off the southern tip of Manhattan, for nearly 203 years. The island's historic forts protected New York harbor from the British during the War of 1812. The island was later expanded to become a training center for the Coast Guard. Now semi-abandoned, the island is slated for development as a tourist attraction and as a university training and research center. The National Park Service will preserve and restore the two forts -- Castle Williams and Fort Jay -- while the remainder of the island, which includes officers' residences and military barracks, will become the educational facility.
     Governors Island will join Liberty Island and Ellis Island to become an auto-free archipelago, linked to Manhattan, Brooklyn and Jersey City by waterborne transit. As the largest of the three islands, and with a plan for academic use as well as tourism, Governors Island will be a tempting target for automobilization. Ellis Island already has a 'causeway' connecting it to New Jersey, although it is supposedly only for construction access. A similar causeway, advocated by some real estate interests, could link Governors Island to Manhattan. At the very least, faculty and students who insist on driving will demand high capacity car-carrying ferries.
     Governors Island can serve as a brilliant model for 21st-century post-automobile-age development and livability, but only if better transit links to the region are provided. Ideas for better transit-only ferry service, including a "round-robin" connector for island hopping and a multi-stop "Circle Line local" in the harbor, have been proposed. A more ambitious plan, for a Manhattan-to-Brooklyn-to-Staten Island rail line replacing roadway lanes in the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and connecting to Staten Island via the Verrazano Bridge, was described in the July/August 1994 issue of the NY Streetcar News. We hope to get this complex plan posted here soon - in the meantime see our Light Rail in NYC page for an original bird's-eye view map.
     Once Manhattan residents and visitors get a taste of an auto-free Governors Island, they will demand that their island jump on this bandwagon and join this blooming auto-free archipelago. Find out at our next Auto-Free New York meeting about the plan for Governors Island. Rob Pirani, a tireless advocate for more public open space at the Regional Plan Association, will give a comprehensive update.

FEBRUARY 2003: For Whom the East River Bridge Tolls?
Guest Speaker: Charles Komanoff, energy economist
We can all agree that fewer cars in NYC will make the city much more livable. We should start reducing car use in the most congested part of the city -- the Manhattan Business District -- which also happens to be the area best served by public transit. The most efficient way to do this is through some form of road pricing. This has been a key element of Auto-Free New York's Livable City Transport Plan since it was first drafted some thirteen years ago.
It's well proven that motorists respond in a very logical way to price signals. These days, Manhattan's parking garages charge "all the traffic will bear," with spaces in the most attractive (or convenient) parts of the core priced accordingly. Many would-be motorists know that they will pay through the nose if they drive, and consequently do the right thing -- use buses or trains.
     If we want fewer cars we can turn the dial up on road pricing. And the best place to start is on the "free" East River Bridges. These bridges are very costly to operate and rebuild, yet motorists using them contribute the tiniest of fractions of the cost through gasoline taxes. The bridge operating costs and the gas taxes are paid by everyone just so that these bridge users -- mostly single-occupant motorists in upper income brackets -- can get a free ride. In other words, freeloaders! How the non-auto-owning majority of households in this city (some 54 percent in the year 2000 census) puts up with such an unfair system is incredible.
     Our MetroCard-wielding Mayor sees himself as a problem-solver, not like his predecessor who seemed to prefer to argue just because he thinks he's always right. Mayor Bloomberg is now at the forefront of an effort to put into place an equitable system of road pricing. His budget people are considering a license plate reading system similar to one we have recommended for years, that does away with all toll booths in the metropolitan area. (Perhaps one of these booths could be saved for the Smithsonian or for some Museum of Global Warming!). We wish him well in this endeavor.
     Transit riders, of course, also respond to price signals. The MTA's controversial plan to raise transit fares by as much as 33 percent will surely send many transit riders scurrying to auto dealerships. We need a coherent policy now for pricing transportation services that result in a more livable and prosperous city. Find out more at our upcoming February meeting, from an expert -- Charlie Komanoff -- an energy economist with a long standing concern for transportation policy.

JANUARY 2003: GREENWAYS -- more than just landscaping for speedways?
New York City introduced a network of green ribbons of parkland at the end of the nineteenth century to encourage new residential development for the city's rapidly growing population, that would provide relief from the terrible overcrowding in Manhattan tenement districts. Broad, tree-lined boulevards, like Ocean Parkway and Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, and the Grand Concourse and Pelham Parkway in the Bronx, provided much needed open space. These routes also served as conduits for slow-paced rides in horse-drawn carriages, or on bridle paths and on foot. The invention of the bicycle soon led to new demands for smoothly-paved paths on these boulevards. Electric trolleys, subways and then the automobile soon followed -- and the rest is history.
     Today, although the quality of life along these boulevards is dramatically lowered by the noise, fumes and hazards of motor vehicular traffic, these "Greenways" remain key travel routes for cyclists and pedestrians. Restoring and connecting these routes has become a crusade in recent years, with bicycle and pedestrian advocates enjoying considerable success -- most particularly in locations where the hegemony of the auto is not disturbed in any way. Federal transport funds that might have been squandered on widening highways have instead been tapped to beef up non-motorized transport routes.
Much remains to be accomplished, though. One key player in this effort will be our featured speaker, Dave Lutz, at our January Auto-Free New York meeting. Why not drop by and learn how you can become part of this movement?

Summary Index:

A look at getting rid of the hated Sheridan Expressway in the Bronx.
The fare hike - can it really be all about a few politicians' personal ambitions rather than the needs and concerns of millions of transit users?
How New York lost its huge streetcar network, thanks to Mayor LaGuardia, General Motors and others.
As the old adage goes -- "as you make your bed, so shall you sleep in it." More than half the residents of NYC don't own cars. A whopping 85 percent of the workers in the city's core come by public transit. Yet cars are on the rampage on our streets! Our September guest speaker, Alex Marshall, explains to us how citizens can make a difference.
Walking tour of lower Manhattan.
We can learn a lot from other, more sophisticated cities around the world, like Berlin.
In the summer of 2002 the Bush Administration's new budget proposed so little for Amtrak for the coming year that senior management suggested posting notices calling for complete disappearance of most train service in the U.S. Here's a closer look.
Bus Rapid Transit -- is it an innovative concept or an oxymoron?
MARCH 2002
FEB 2002
The new Mayor, Metrocard Mike Bloomberg continues to use the subway almost everyday and apparently has now taken more subway rides in one month than his last three predecessors combined did in 24 years!
Also: Remembering Steve Dobrow, and Port Authority Should Move Faster on Downtown PATH Restoration


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