By Larry Gordon
Perhaps congestion pricing is the answer to all our traffic problems. The New York City traffic control issue is still being talked about, but solutions are far from being implemented. The idea of congestion pricing was introduced to Manhattan by the Bloomberg administration back in 2003. The law to allow congestion pricing as a way to reduce traffic was passed by New York State in 2018. So far it has not been implemented anywhere in New York, though the plan is to apply some type of pricing structure by 2023.
Last Friday, I had the unique opportunity to traverse the main thoroughfares of three distinctly frum communities and to experience unmoving, bumper-to-bumper traffic as the neighborhoods were preparing for the onset of Shabbos.
We started out in Crown Heights, made it to Boro Park, and then returned home to the Five Towns. Just a few words to sum it all up: traffic across the board was unbearable, and it is likely that it will only decline further.
It was about noon on Friday, and the streets were bustling in Crown Heights as we attempted to traverse Kingston Avenue. Crown Heights is my old stomping grounds, but the reality is that I have not been there in probably more than a year.
The avenue that used to look long—from Empire Boulevard to Eastern Parkway—now somehow seemed smaller, though the amount time it takes to get from one point to the next is longer than ever before, especially on a Friday.
The most pressing issue on all the main streets in these areas is not the slow-moving vehicles but rather the repeated episodes of being at a complete standstill for long periods of time.
I was in Crown Heights to pick up my grandson Nison Hirsch’s tefillin from my cousin Rabbi Moshe Klein, who is a popular sofer there. As long as we were making one of these infrequent trips, we figured we’d explore a bit and check out some of the new popular food shops that have popped up in the neighborhood over these last many years.
If you know the old Crown Heights, then you are aware that in the old days, if you walked past Eastern Parkway there was a chance you might not be able to return. The Chabad part of Crown Heights was always considered an island of sorts, surrounded by potential danger.
That is not the case anymore. Crown Heights has expanded and is continuing to grow. With that, along with the increase in population, comes impossible gridlock more often than not.
We also discovered that the rather brief drive from Crown Heights to Boro Park is a thing of the past as well. Traffic was at a crawl all the way between the one-lane streets and roadways that connect the two communities.
Boro Park is a much larger community than Crown Heights. Unlike Crown Heights or even the Five Towns, there are multiple arteries that facilitate the flow of traffic. On Friday, I drove on 13th Avenue, 14th Avenue, and 16th Avenue—three separate traffic headaches.
It was 1 p.m. or so, and just about each and every block had a school bus stopped with flashing red lights. The congested side streets where kids are being transported home from yeshiva is one thing. The tie-ups on the main thoroughfares are not about children or school. It’s about scooting around in the almost-down-to-the-wire erev Shabbos rush. On 13th and 14th Avenues, traffic flows in one direction. All that means in Boro Park is that cars double-park on both sides of the street, leaving one narrow lane for traffic.
On a street like 16th Avenue, where there is two-way traffic, cars are double-parked on both sides of the street as well. Changing the first two avenue blocks into one-direction streets was supposed to help the traffic flow. It might have done that for a week after the change was implemented many years ago. But after that it was business as usual.
Then we headed back to the Five Towns. We are in Boro Park at least once a week—sometimes more—because that is where my mother-in-law resides. For months now, when we head back to the Five Towns, Waze takes us off the Belt Parkway and down Flatbush Avenue and across the Marine Parkway Bridge. And it’s not about the Belt being overcrowded or congested; it’s about the traffic nightmare that Rockaway Turnpike—especially alongside JFK Airport—has become.
Whether it’s Friday or just about any day of the week after about 3 p.m., at the western tip of Rockaway Turnpike you can anticipate traffic alongside the airport slowing to a snail’s pace or even a complete halt at times.
People will tell you that it there a combination of reasons why this roadway has deteriorated into what looks something like a parking area or used-car lot from the vantage point of the cars heading in the Brooklyn-bound direction.
Almost every time we see this, my wife or I will say something along the lines of: “Remind me not to return home that way.” The fact is that Waze does not let you go back to the Five Towns that way unless it is fairly late at night.
And now, as you know, there are rather immense construction projects on the agenda on the south shore of Long Island that many people say will just worsen the traffic situation. Frankly, I’ve questioned whether the situation can decline further; after all, if you are stopped and cannot move in traffic, you cannot be stopped more—you’re already not moving, so what can really be all that worse?
In one way or another, over the next several years the additional building is going to happen. So can traffic or roadway congestion worsen? Probably yes.
That is where congestion pricing may come into the picture. It essentially amounts to assessing a fee to utilize certain roadways as a way of either generating revenue or, better, discouraging use of roadways and thereby reducing the volume of vehicles on the roadways.
In Manhattan, the policy on the drawing board for 2023 is to assess a fee to cars that drive below 60th Street in midtown. The proposal calls for a daily fee of $11.50 to drive in that area during the day and a fee of $5.50 in the evening. Of course, as might be expected, people who have to travel to the area or who reside nearby are enraged at the possible implementation of the plan.
That said, would that work on Rockaway Turnpike between 3 and 7 p.m. daily? How about on Central Avenue on Thursday afternoon and all day on Friday, or at least until Shabbos begins?
On Friday afternoon, while bringing the tefillin that I picked up in Crown Heights for my grandson, I was stuck in one of those immoveable situations on West Broadway in Cedarhurst. There was a fair amount of horn-blowing, which never works, and even a driver who decided to move onto the sidewalk to maneuver around the cars standing stationary, like mine.
While congestion pricing will probably never be implemented in New York City, it might be an idea for Central Avenue and even West Broadway, as well as the avenue blocks in Boro Park on Thursday, Friday, and Sunday.
Traffic jams on our main arteries are getting worse by the month. One of these days we will be experiencing regular weekly gridlock, or, as a friend of mine likes to say, “Yidlock.” It looks like there is an effort under way to add traffic lanes to the Belt Parkway, which will no doubt be helpful. As far as Rockaway Turnpike is concerned, considering that the airport is right there, there is really no space to expand or maneuver. Fewer cars on the road might be the only answer. That, and learning to enjoy the sight of airplanes taking off and landing right above your sunroof as you slowly roll along.
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