Traffic in New York has reached a crisis point.
Between controversial congestion pricing measures, busway lawsuits, bike lane community meeting meltdowns—not to mention an uptick in fatalities this year—New York’s traffic problem seems worse now than it has ever been.
But traffic has always been an intractable problem in New York. In fact, just as many vehicles clogged Fifth Avenue 100 years ago as today. Growing from a 17th-century European village into the country’s largest city has involved major changes over the past four centuries, but none of those changes have made Manhattan any more viable for cars. In fact, the opposite is true: At major junctions in the city’s history, planners and politicians have made decisions that have rendered private vehicles untenable.
Over the years, countless people have tried to solve the city’s traffic woes—most notably Robert Moses, the most car-friendly politician in New York’s history—but none have succeeded, in part because they’ve been going about it the wrong way.
We keep asking: “How can we make the city more accessible to all of its 8.5 million inhabitants?” Yet the automobile is privileged by default, even as the city takes small steps to address other transit woes.
If we really want to make change, we need to start with Manhattan, where a mere 22 percent of residents own cars. And instead of small steps, we need to take one big leap: ban cars.
Today, there are about 6,000 miles of street in the New York, but the story of traffic begins on a much smaller scale in lower Manhattan in the 1600s, on a three-block byway called Stone Street, then one of the most important streets in the city.
Those who are familiar with Stone Street today mostly know the European-style pedestrian thoroughfare that stretches from Coenties Slip to Hanover Square. The block is lined with restaurants and bars; on sunny days, the outdoor tables in the street are jam-packed. However, what secured Stone Street’s place in history was not this picturesque block, but the relatively unremarkable stretch that runs from Broad to Whitehall streets. In the 17th century, this block was variously known as Straat van de Graft (“street of the canal”—nearby Broad Street was then an open waterway) or Brouwer’s Street (“brewer’s street”). On March 15, 1655, its residents and business owners successfully petitioned to have the thoroughfare paved.
The petition reads:
To the Worshipful Burgomasters and Schepens of the City Amsterdam in New Netherland….
We ﬁnd by daily experience that said street is becoming more and more unﬁt for public use, so that we should be well inclined both for our own accommodation and the public good, ornament and welfare of this city, to pave the said street with round stone on the ﬁrst favorable opportunity….
[W]e pledge ourselves to furnish the stone, the raising and lowering necessary thereto, each to the extent of his house and lot, and further to follow the general rule relative to paving and expenses, with the request that the unwilling be constrained to the same, so that if the work be begun, it may be completed.
The reason Brouwer’s Street was becoming “more and more unfit for public use” was undoubtedly because it saw too much horse traffic. Approximately one in every four buildings in New Amsterdam served beer, and the horses coming to and from the street’s eponymous brewery stirred up mud and dust. City magistrates approved the measure, and while it took a few years to survey, grade, and pave, Brouwer’s Street was soon covered in cobblestones. Somewhere along the line, it was nicknamed “Stone Street,” and the appellation stuck.
In a city of just 1,500 people, most traffic in New Amsterdam was commercial—not just the beer deliveries, but farmers coming in from elsewhere in Manhattan and Long Island to sell their wares alongside various traders. Private vehicles were rare and expensive. As a result of this lack of wheeled vehicles, Stone Street was likely one of the town’s only high-traffic areas. Most of the rest of New Amsterdam, renamed New York in 1664, remained unpaved not just through the rest of the Dutch era, but up to the cusp of the modern era.
Still, looking at how the residents buttered up the city councilors with their appeal to the “public good, ornament and welfare of this city” (full disclosure: my 10th great-grandfather was one of the councilors who approved the petition), it’s easy to see the paving of Stone Street as a recognition of the importance of traffic and a bellwether of things to come.
For much of the rest of the 17th and 18th centuries, the main quandary the city confronted with its streets wasn’t locomotion but sanitation. Since the earliest Dutch days, pigs had run wild throughout the city; that problem wasn’t helped by the fact that many residents treated the street as a garbage can. As Arthur Everett Peterson lamented in his 1917 book New York as an Eighteenth Century Municipality, even in the 20th century, most New Yorkers felt that “an open window is handier than a garbage can. In congested districts, where there are no vacant lots, it is not uncommon day or night to see old buckets, mattresses or dilapidated furniture fall from a top-story window to street or sidewalk, there to be seized upon by street gamins for complete demolition.”
As New York rapidly grew—from approximately 15,000 residents at the end of the American Revolution to 60,000 a mere 15 years later—the city’s streets became increasingly congested with people, garbage, and hogs. Most residents continued to live south of Chambers Street, and while there had been some 18th-century forays in what today are the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village, the city had no real plan for growth.
To alleviate that crowding, the city appointed a three-person commission in 1807 to chart future expansion. The resulting Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, which created the Manhattan street grid, was the most forward-looking piece of urban planning in America’s young history. It was largely the work of surveyor John Randel Jr., who mapped the city’s new cartesian layout from Houston Street (effectively “Zero Street”) to 155th Street.
Building on the earlier work of a surveyor named Casimir Goerck, Randel’s north-south avenues were placed 920 feet apart, which (as the city’s Common Council later remarked) was “too great a distance for public convenience.” But he kept the avenues so far apart because they were ancillary. While the city’s population would someday grow northward, New York’s axis was still east-west, and Randel’s 60-foot-wide streets provided the important link between the commerce of the city’s rivers. Today, clogged with vehicles, these numbered streets seem woefully inadequate for handling the city’s traffic. But in 1811, the primary mode for traversing the island was by foot, and Randel’s street grid was more than adequate for the city’s population, which then hovered around 75,000 people.
Today, we often talk about the grid primarily as a street plan, but the commissioners were much more interested in what lay between Randel’s rectilinear streets and avenues: thousands of lots for homes, each 25 feet wide by 100 feet deep, which could be sold and would allow the city to expand northward. As the commissioners themselves later noted, “It may be the subject of merriment that [we] have provided space for a greater population than is collected on any spot on this side of China.”
As the city’s population grew, so did its traffic. In their 2007 book The Horse in the City, authors Clay McShane and Joel A. Tarr speculate that the city experienced its first traffic jam in 1823. By the late 1860s, with the population now over 815,000 people, traffic had grown worse, but it’s important to remember that even with even with such explosive growth, fewer than 2 percent of New Yorkers owned a vehicle.
According to the 1878 book The World on Wheels, in 1863 New York was home to a total of:
about 13,562 vehicles of all kinds. Of these, 5,000 were private carriages and wagons, 558 omnibuses, 954 hackney-coaches and coupes, 255 express-wagons, 416 wood and charcoal wagons, 278 junk-carts, 5,374 public carts, and 724 dirt-carts, besides an uncounted number of hand-carts and other business contrivances mounted upon wheels.
Even this seemingly small number of vehicles was too much for the city to handle. In 1885, paving engineer Francis V. Greene traveled to 10 cities to assess the traffic. In New York, he “counted 7,811 horse-drawn vehicles, many with teams of two or more horses, passing the busy corner of Broadway and Pine Street” on an average day. The city’s population was now approaching 1 million and traffic was getting out of hand.
Unfortunately, things were about to get much worse.
The same year that Greene stood counting horse-drawn vehicles on Broadway, an engineer in Mannheim, Germany, named Karl Benz was perfecting the horseless carriage. By the 1890s, automobiles were commercially available in the United States, and in 1913, when Henry Ford began assembly-line production of the Model-T, cars were no longer considered a fad. In 1916, the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street saw approximately 14,750 cars and carriages pass by in a 10-hour period, a figure on par with what it is today.
To alleviate the problem, the city embarked on two plans to remove traffic from the streets: an elevated railway, which—despite a lengthy death rattle—really lasted only about 50 years, and the subway, which opened in 1904 and now carries about 5.4 million riders daily.
But none of that was enough to tame the city’s traffic.
The end of the 19th century saw numerous plans to deal with the interlaced issues of traffic and overcrowding. Some, like James E. Serrell’s 1865 “Remodeled New York,” relied on reclaiming land from the East River and paving over the swampiest areas of Queens. This seemed crazy at the time, though the city has recently embarked on a two-year plan to “create a roadmap to expand nearly a mile of the lower Manhattan coastline into the East River.”
Other plans were more modest and mostly involved correcting John Randel Jr.’s inadequate grid by ramming through new streets. At least for this there was historical precedent. In 1832, developer Samuel Ruggles petitioned for Lexington Avenue to run north of his Gramercy Park development. Four years later, the block between Fourth (now Park) and Fifth avenues was divided by Madison Avenue. Later, planners took these streets as evidence that the Randel’s grid was not inviolable.
In 1898, architect Julius F. Harder mapped out a series of spokes that radiated out from Union Square, writing that it was “truly remarkable” that Randel’s grid “omitted the diagonal system of primary avenues.” Less than a decade later, Charles Rollinson Lamb created a plan for the Municipal Art Society bulletin that also contained numerous diagonal streets (one of which, not coincidentally, obliterated a large part of the overcrowded Lower East Side). In 1910, New York’s mayor, William J. Gaynor, proposed a “Fifth-and-One-Half” Avenue in the spirit of Lexington and Madison; the following year, a New York Times banner headline announced, “A New Street to Relieve Broadway’s Congestion,” showing its own modest new boulevard piercing the heart of Manhattan.
Of course, the problem with all these schemes—beyond the obvious one that tremendous swaths of the city would be have been torn down to make them reality—was that they ignored the problem of induced demand, which proposes that new roads won’t cut down on traffic. Instead, new traffic will arrive to fill those roads.
When Robert Moses began hacking his way through the city with an ax (to paraphrase the highways commissioner himself), his only concern was the car. “Cities are created by and for traffic,” he once said. “A city without traffic is a ghost town.” Projects both realized—like the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, Cross-Bronx Expressway, and BQE—and unrealized, like the Lower Manhattan Expressway, were designed to make every person in New York not only subservient to the automobile but dependent on it. As money flowed to roads, bridges, and auto-centric projects, it wasn’t available for subways and other public transit. The system’s current woes are manifold, but imagine what things would be like if all the money directed to private transit over the last century had been invested in public transit instead.
Imagine what it would be like if a major thoroughfare, like 14th Street, had dual bus lanes; a protected, two-way bike path; and a wide pedestrian thoroughfare.
And no cars.
We might not have to imagine much longer. On October 3, the previously stalled 14th Street busway was installed after the state’s appellate division overturned a previous stay. Walking down the street on opening day, the blissfully empty corridor provided a glimpse of the future. While still open to commercial and emergency vehicles, as well as private cars doing drop-offs and pick-ups, the change was immediately positive. Buses whisked down the open road so quickly that it seems likely the MTA will have to do a schedule adjustment. But while this new public transit efficiency is a step in the right direction, the changes do little to encourage pedestrians or biking.
Instead, to see a blueprint for an even better future, it’s useful to look at the Financial District Neighborhood Association’s “Make Way for Lower Manhattan” plan, which calls for creating more pedestrian plazas and zones, severely limiting car traffic, and creating spaces like those found in some European cities (such as Amsterdam) where bikes, cars, and pedestrians intermingle at grade. This proposal, combined with the Downtown Alliance’s earlier suggestions to improve Wall Street, could potentially create a downtown district mainly devoid of vehicular traffic. As Curbed’s architecture critic, Alexandra Lange, recently pointed out in her primer on the history of pedestrian malls, “we need to make the pedestrian life easier than the windshield view.”
I’d argue that these downtown proposals—along with ones in Brooklyn like the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership’s goal to “create a unified vision for long-term improvements to Downtown Brooklyn’s plazas, streets, and public spaces”—are good, but don’t go far enough.
John Randel Jr., planned for a city where pedestrian traffic easily moved from river to river. Let’s return to that plan. Imagine if the entire city was built following the edicts of two of New York’s other most famous designers: Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who created Central and Prospect parks. When it opened, Central Park was a marvel not just of landscape design, but of traffic management. Three types of traffic—pedestrian, horseback, and carriage—coexisted on roads that were designed to never cross. On top of that, the sunken transverse roads took city traffic from the east to west sides without disturbing any of the park’s users.
We can make Manhattan its own Central Park. Keep the avenues and the “extra-wide” streets (14th, 23rd, etc.) for vehicular traffic, but turn every other street into a pedestrian thoroughfare. Take the money that would have been spent on keeping those streets viable for cars and invest it in public transit, dedicated bus lanes—even ferries. No street would need to be completely cut off from vehicular traffic; emergency services could get through and transport for the disabled, just as they do in places like Ghent, Belgium, where the city center has been car-free since 2017.
If you’re downtown, stop by Stone Street. First, visit the block east of Broad Street. None of the original cobblestones remain, but this is the street—often clogged with idling trucks and honking taxicabs—where New York’s traffic problems started. Then, for a contrast, walk one block east to Coenties Slip. This block of Stone Street is overly reliant on eating and drinking for its liveliness, but it also paints a picture—more accurately than the pedestrian mall at Times Square or the occasional “Summer Streets” closures—of what a thriving car-free New York can look like.
James Nevius is an urban historian and author of a number of books about New York, including Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City and Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers. He is currently researching a book about American utopianism. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.