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Last update:
Jan. 9, 2005.

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.

More Dancing Feet on 42nd Street

One of New York's most well-known thoroughfares -- 42nd Street -- (they even wrote a Broadway show about it!) is also its busiest crosstown pedestrian street. With walkers outnumbering drivers by at least five to one, and at certain times by fifteen to one, and our city buses slowed to a crawl by private cars, our City Dept. of Transportation stubbornly continues to cede some 60% of 42nd Street's space to abusive private cars.

We can and must do better. Our citizen's initiative -- Vision 42 -- to remake 42nd Street into an auto-free light rail boulevard, is now in its fifth year. It builds on innovations now common in more sophisticated cities the world over. Recently an anonymous donor made it possible to hire well regarded consultants to study three key issues related to this project: economic benefits, likely cost, and traffic consequences. Come to our next Auto-Free New York meeting for a preview of the results of these technical studies.

The End of Free Lunch: Who will Pay for Better Transit?

Guest Speaker: Gerry Bogacz, Planning Director, NYMTC
For the past five years MTA has relied on borrowing to fund a large part of its rebuilding program. At the same time state and city contributions to fund the region-sustaining transit system have shrunk. With interest rates dropping, MTA was able to work its magic, well out of the public eye, to refinance this growing debt.

Now those days are numbered, and the MTA has run out of fiscal tricks. To get out of this mess, Governor Pataki and his designated hitters on the MTA's board -- all unelected and therefore insulated from voters -- have chosen to shift this fiscal burden to public transit riders. They are calling for steep fare hikes and service cuts, amounting to yet another regressive tax aimed at the poor and working class. Fare hikes and service cuts would have catastrophic effects on the city's and the region's economy and livability, shifting even more cars to already congested roads and highways.

Find out how we got into this mess and learn what options we have for a more livable city, in this new era of difficult economics made worse by overseas invasions to secure oil, decadent pay-to-play politics on every level and a dysfunctional state capitol in Albany. Our November speaker, Gerry Bogacz, comes from the region's premier, but virtually invisible, transportation planning organization, the NY Metropolitan Transportation Council (NYMTC). Come to our next Auto-Free NY meeting to learn how this key transport planning agency is confronting this problem.

Central Park for People, not Cars!

A little over 15 years ago, Auto-Free New York, at the time a committee of Transportation Alternatives, launched a campaign to rid the Central Park Loop Drives, once and for all, of their noisy, dangerous and polluting auto traffic. Not only would this action make this world-famous park a much more enjoyable place for walking, sitting or biking, it would have a profound impact on reducing car use in the crowded core of the world's most densely developed business district.

At present the drives act as a magnet to attract automobiles into the city's center during rush hours, the exact time when they are least welcome. The feeble excuse for keeping these drives open for the city's car-hugging minority, is that these motorists would otherwise use nearby avenues, adding to the car chaos that the city mistakenly tolerates in the name of economic growth.

This is clearly not the case. The fact that these park roads are open actually increases traffic around the park, as people who would otherwise take public transportation instead turn to their cars or a cab. This phenomenon has long been proven in New York. When Fifth Avenue was closed to traffic as it passed through Washington Square Park, decades ago, traffic simply disappeared. When the portion of the West Side Highway finally collapsed, after years of neglect, under the wheels of a (some say deliberately) overloaded DOT asphalt truck, all but 8 percent of the displaced traffic did not reappear on adjacent streets - it also disappeared.

With "upstream traffic restraint", as we describe this strategy in our Livable City Transport Plan, cars are dis-invited from entering crowded places, where they would do the most damage. Encouraging travelers to use public transit to the core, while restraining car use and improving the walking environment, will make NYC's economy more competitive with that of other global business centers.

The campaign for permanently closing the Central Park Loop Drives to car traffic has gained new momentum in recent years. We've gotten past the requisite 10-year news blackout and 5-year derision/misinformation phase characteristic of New York Times local coverage, perhaps now they will actually do some substantive reporting about this issue. We urge all of you who love this city and would like to make it a better place to come to a very special rally with a series of distinguished urban advocate guests. Don't miss this key rally, jointly sponsored by Transportation Alternatives and Auto-Free New York, which will be held at Central Park West and 76th Street on Tuesday, October 26th . . .

Walk, don't drive to your work out!

Guest Speaker: Professor John Pucher, Rutgers University
Hopping in your SUV and motoring down to the local gym for a work-out seems to be the norm in this late gas-guzzling era in the U.S. Yet a local transport system based on walking, cycling and riding public transit would have a much more positive impact on personal and collective health, than all the personal trainers and gyms in the world.

Good design can make walking and cycling safer, and more enjoyable. Modern light rail transit can make longer trips less stressful and more fun. Find out how this has been done successfully in European cities and learn how public health improves as a result of environmentally sensitive urban transport.

AUGUST 2004:
Lower Manhattan: Pedestrians Face Permanent "Orange High Alert Day"?

Here in New York, the city administration acted swiftly on the Bush administration's recent terrorism warnings about car and truck bombers. Yet when it comes to halting and reversing the unfettered use of motor vehicles in Lower Manhattan, City Hall seems frozen in the headlights of urban planning history. The security "necessities" triggered by motor vehicles casts a pall over Lower Manhattan, making every day a "High Alert" day for workers, visitors and residents walking in this dense business district. Visitors quickly learn to do their shopping and sightseeing elsewhere, where they won't be made to feel like trespassers in a harsh, heavily militarized bio-desert.

We can and must do better to control car and truck traffic and improve security in Lower Manhattan. Instead of sand-filled dump trucks and New Jersey-style concrete highway barriers blocking our walks, a comprehensive, well-crafted traffic management plan can result in a much more welcoming environment for pedestrians. Essential traffic, screened at critical checkpoints at the edges of the business district, can be allowed entry on only a few distributor streets. The busiest pedestrian streets, like Broadway, and Rector, Wall and Fulton Streets, can be made completely auto-free.

Auto-Free New York developed such a plan, years ago. Why not join us on a walking tour of its highlights on the 24th? The tour will be prefaced by a quick briefing.

JULY 2004:
More Hell for "Hell's Kitchen"?

Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Pataki have unveiled a solution to Hell's Kitchen's chronic problem of chaotic traffic congestion -- just add more cars! Outlined in the city's recently released 8,000-page Hudson Yards planning document is a vision for relentless growth in car and express bus use, coupled with a marginalized role for walking and surface public transit. As far as the city is concerned, only two key elements count -- a new West Side Olympic Stadium, costing $600 million of taxpayer money, and an extension of the #7 line subway to serve it. Everything else is window dressing or gets in its way.

This need not be the case. Organizations like the New York Association for Better Choices, a coalition of progressive groups, City Councilmembers, State Senators, State Assembly members and US Representatives, have banded together to argue for a more rational vision of appropriate development for the area. And Auto-Free New York and its parent organization -- the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility -- have long advocated a surface light rail transit line in an auto-free 42nd Street, coupled with a coherent plan for congestion pricing as critical elements in a plan for Far West Midtown Manhattan development.

Why not join us for our summer walking tour -- a walk on 42nd Street's west side, and see for yourself what could be a cost-effective, and environmentally pleasing alternative to the Mayor's and Governor's plan -- vision42 -- an auto-free light rail boulevard on 42nd Street. [Note: tour was cancelled because of heavy rains and winds]

JUNE 2004:
Brooklyn's Fulton Mall: An Auto-Free Success Story?

Guest Speaker: Allison Dean, Hunter College
How does the Fulton Street Mall in downtown Brooklyn work as a public space? This mall is perhaps NYC's largest contiguous street space with restrictions on motor vehicles. Only buses and emergency vehicles are allowed on the mall. Cars can cut across it in several locations. Four diesel bus lines, more or less following the routes of Brooklyn's once magnificent and far-flung trolley system, run directly through the mall; at least a half-dozen other bus lines cut through it or pass nearby. Subways also provide the kind of access that other cities can only dream about. The two adjacent parking garages and numerous area parking lots are presumably used by Long Islanders commuting to their downtown Brooklyn jobs. Few mall visitors take a car to get to the mall, which in this era of oil wars and global warming, we should all be proud of.

Who are the people who use the Mall, and what kinds of things, from their perspective, could be done to improve it? Based on a recent study of the Fulton Street Mall, Allison Dean of Hunter College/CUNY will discuss the interaction between public, pedestrian space and commercial and social activity, with a focus on how it shapes local attitudes toward the possibility of the Fulton Street Mall as an auto-free zone.

MAY 2004:
Halting Highways!

Guest Speaker: Jon Orcutt, Tri-State Transportation Campaign
As the Tri-State Transportation Campaign begins its second decade of advocacy for transport reform, it is important to reflect on its accomplishments and to consider the challenges that lie ahead. The Campaign, formed by the NY-NJ-CT metro area's leading environmental and transit advocacy organizations, has brought to a halt many of the most outrageous highway expansion plans being advanced by the three states' Departments of "Transportation" (DOT's).

These agencies revealed their true colors after the passage a dozen years ago of innovative new Federal transport funding legislation, which benignly allowed states and metropolitan areas to shift highway funding to pay for much-needed rail projects. Dismissing rail, the DOT's instead proposed massive highway expansion programs, many disguised as "high occupancy vehicle" (HOV) lanes to be added to already crowded roadways. The Campaign, along with Auto-Free New York, and other advocates for better transit, revealed these HOV lanes for what they really were -- HOAX lanes designed to encourage even more people to avoid public transportation and get in their cars, thereby smothering our already car-choked region with even more traffic.

APRIL 2004:
Son of Westway!

Guest Speaker: John Dellaportas, Chair, Coalition to Save West Street
Some bad ideas just never seem to die! Governor Nelson Rockefeller's late-1960s plan to fill in the Hudson River by building a waterfront highway along Manhattan's western shore would have cost billions and billions (Rockefeller resigned in December 1973 in part to pursue Ruler of the World ambitions; the state's finances were left in a shambles). Later candidates for governors and mayors all promised the public to cancel this boondoggle and then promptly reversed themselves after gaining office. By 1985, with the city's subway system virtually in a state of collapse, public officials were forced to "trade in" the highway for mass transit funding. The result was a transformed subway system, that led to the renewal of NYC.

Now, Governor Pataki has resurrected his predecessors' bad idea for a short tunnel segment near ground zero. His plan would cost $900 million (or more) and would bury two of the four lanes in each direction for a short stretch. Traffic would still remain at grade, so it's hard to understand what is being accomplished, besides employing lots of out-of-town construction workers. Funds for this project could be used for other important transit projects in Lower Manhattan, like creating a surface light rail "Liberty Loop" and a grid of pedestrian streets.

Find out what's right and what's wrong with this project - hear John Dellaportas, chair of the Coalition to Save West Street, speak at our next Auto-Free New York meeting, Tuesday, April 27th.

MARCH 2004:
"Automobile in America . . . Everything free in America"

These jaunty lines from Leonard Bernstein's legendary musical West Side Story clearly overlook the costly negatives that come from subsidizing automobiles in America, and in particular, in Manhattan. (In fact, the Academy Award-winning 1961 film adaptation was shot on the semi-abandoned streets of a brownstone residential neighborhood that was bulldozed in order to make room for Manhattan's most titanic parking garage and the Lincoln Center cultural complex which was plopped on top of it.)

Our comprehensive Livable City Plan has long called for road pricing measures to reduce car use in NYC's densest neighborhoods, using these funds to vastly upgrade the region's transit system. One of our staunchest allies in this cause has been the Regional Plan Association. Recently, Jeff Zupan and Alexis Perotta of RPA completed a study of the impacts of a Manhattan Central Business District road pricing plan, modeled after the scheme that has been so successful in Central London. Don't miss the chance to learn about this proposal at our next Auto-Free New York meeting!

15th Anniversary of Auto-Free New York!
The Long Slog for Auto-Free Streets

Just 15 years ago we began a campaign to create a grid of auto-free streets in the core of our great city. What seemed like a low-cost and easily achievable concept using techniques proven in more sophisticated cities the world over, turns out to be a block-by-block street fight. Even though they are in the minority (less than half of NYC's households have cars, and less than a quarter in Manhattan), car-huggers will not yield an inch of their territory to the mass of humanity packed on the sidewalks of New York.

Find out about this struggle and about our visionary plan to make our city more livable. Plan to attend our next Auto-Free New York Meeting.

Olympics in NYC, 2012: Auto-Free?

Guest Speaker: Nick Peterson, Transportation Planner
One of the 'sports' not included in the Olympic Summer Games every four years is car racing. So, in that sense, the Olympics are already "auto-free." Thank goodness for that! But with all the car chaos on our city's mis-managed streets (and tragically, sometimes the sidewalks), it is not surprising that transportation plans for the NYC2012 bid emphasize public transit access for all key events. In fact, it's being billed as the 'first mass transit Olympics.' Wouldn't it be great if all major events planned for NYC had a similar emphasis?

The organization has laid out a huge 'X' plan focused on an 'Olympic Village' on the Queens waterfront: a north-south high-speed ferry route and and an east-west rail line from the New Jersey Meadowlands to Flushing Meadows Park in eastern Queens. Find out how NYC2012 plans to build an ambitious new rail line, across state lines, in a region of jealously guarded transit fiefdoms, where local political forces are deadset against any new rail. Don't miss our next Auto-Free New York meeting!

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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