How to Break the Car Culture

By New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson

[Photo by William Alatriste]

Transportation isn’t just the way we get around, it’s the way we live. Almost every part of daily life — from going to a doctor’s appointment to visiting friends and family — means being on the move. Transportation impacts all Americans, and when we get transportation policy right, we can take steps toward Vision Zero while significantly improving economic and climate outcomes, no matter the size of the city. That’s why I spend so much time talking about transportation. I devoted my first State of the City address as Speaker of the New York City Council to this issue because I believe if we fix our transportation crisis, in New York City and across the country, many other issues we face will get a whole lot easier. The problems are plentiful: unreliable public transit systems; crippling traffic; and, the most painful, rising pedestrian and cyclist deaths. But if we build transportation infrastructure that makes it easier to get around by public transit, on foot, or on a bike, we can reduce the dependence so many people have on cars. This is a dramatic departure from the past that can only be achieved with bold leadership

Other cities have done this, from Portland to London. All have different challenges, but they have pushed forward with bold plans. New York City, in some respects, has lagged in redeveloping its infrastructure. But I’m convinced that it can, and will be, the leader in transportation policy going forward, and that our plan will be a model for other cities to follow.

Too many elected officials throw up their hands, thinking it’s too hard to rebuild streets designed for cars. But imagine a future with more cars on the road and fewer alternatives. That’s where we are headed if nothing changes.

In New York City, we haven’t put forth a long-term vision. As a result, we’ve made slow and piecemeal progress toward building out a safe, equitable, and sustainable transportation network that serves all our residents. This has left cyclists, drivers, bus riders, pedestrians, and disabled residents pitted against one another in a battle over the City’s finite street grid. It also hurts our economy, our environment, and ultimately the quality of life of all New Yorkers.

Our crowded, congested, and dangerous streets cost the City’s economy roughly $20 billion a year in lost economic activity from time spent in traffic, wasted fuel, and carbon emissions damage. Our buses, which serve over two million riders, the vast majority of whom are low-income and people of color, are the slowest and most unreliable in the country. There are huge gaps in accessibility for seniors and people with disabilities on our streets and across all forms of transit. Many neighborhoods are underserved by live-saving upgrades like bike lanes, sidewalks, and pedestrian plazas. And there has been a complete lack of progress toward reducing transportation emissions, which account for nearly a third of the City’s greenhouse gases.

This not just a big city issue. New York City, like cities large and small across the nation, is a diverse place, and each of its communities has specific transportation challenges. In Staten Island, traffic makes a simple trip to the grocery store an odyssey, yet life without a car seems impossible. In Queens and the Bronx, commuters who rely on mass transportation can spend four hours a day getting to and from work in Manhattan. On the Brooklyn Bridge, pedestrians and cyclists fight for space, making a once-enjoyable trip across the storied bridge an exercise in patience and fear.

Too often, the measures that will improve connectivity, safety, and performance to transit in these communities face significant opposition from elected officials. Few projects are as controversial as bike lanes, and politicians don’t score points with constituents for removing parking spaces, or funding real-time bus arrival clocks, or other unsexy — but vital — infrastructure needs for our transit system.

The opposition is natural, but also rooted in the lack of comprehensive vision for the system. As with any piecemeal approach, communities feel unfairly targeted by interventions that remove street parking and change the way traffic flows through their neighborhoods. As a result, New York City has historically taken a path-of-least resistance approach to street improvements, serving the neighborhoods that pose the least opposition rather than the neighborhoods that need improvements most. Sound familiar? I suspect you live in a city or county with similar challenges.

New York City needs a new vision for our streets, one that sets bold and measurable targets to which our elected officers and government agencies can be held accountable. That’s why I introduced legislation requiring a master plan for our streets once every five years. Establishing a five-year plan for bus, vehicle, pedestrian, and bicycle infrastructure, with annual benchmarks so we can hold the City accountable, would bring cohesion to what is now a patchwork system of upgrades.

I know this will be hard, but real change requires leadership. Our neighborhoods have vastly different challenges and needs. We are a microcosm of the country. Parts of New York City without subway stops need better bus service, while some highly congested neighborhoods can stand to lose a few parking spaces to make room for buses, bikes, or pedestrians. The solutions to our transportation crisis should fit the needs of each and every neighborhood while still moving us in the right direction.

As we’re pushing for change, we also must remember that New York City’s streets, like most American cities, were designed for cars, not buses, bikes, or pedestrians. Breaking car culture doesn’t mean that everyone should give up their car. And it’s not an attack on people who live in neighborhoods that are grossly underserved by public transit and rely on cars to get around. It’s about giving everyone better options so fewer people need to drive.

We’re not doomed to have cities that are dominated by constant honking, pollution, and near misses with cars. We can reach Vision Zero. One of the most powerful tools we have in local government is control over streets. Smart transportation policies save lives, build up communities, and fight climate change. Change is difficult. If we work to ask for bold leadership from our elected officials, educate our friends and neighbors on the benefits of improving transportation, and require long-term planning, we can start transforming streets across the country, one city at a time.

[This article first appeared in Transportation Alternatives’ Vision Zero Cities Journal in 2019.]

New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has represented Council District 3 since 2014 and has served as Speaker since 2018. As Speaker, he led the Council in passing transportation safety legislation, including the Vision Zero Street Design Standard, which created a checklist of Vision Zero design elements that must be considered when redesigning roadways, and a law requiring contractors to create and maintain temporary bike lanes when a protected lane is displaced by on-street construction. After gridlock in the State Legislature threatened New York City’s lifesaving speed camera program, Speaker Johnson passed legislation to reinstate and dramatically expand the project.

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Transportation Alternatives

Transportation Alternatives

Transportation Alternatives is your advocate for walking, bicycling, and public transit in New York City. We stand up for #VisionZero & #BikeNYC.