Bring on a Car Free Manhattan

A CarFree Light Rail Boulevard for 42nd Street © vision42 (

A CarFree Light Rail Boulevard for 42nd Street © vision42 (

My first visit to Manhattan appropriately enough was to attend on September 29th 2009, a memorial service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, for the ecologically minded theologian Father Thomas Berry. The combination of the moving service and the novel but positive shock of experiencing Manhattan, inspired me with a vision of an island based car free community that would help actualize Berry’s concept of the Ecozoic Age. This would be based on an understanding that human beings realize that we all must serve as guardians of creation.

After a long night bus trip from Toronto, my wife Mary Lou and I after a delightful breakfast near where we arrived at Penn Station were positively impressed by Manhattan, , especially the preservation of so much of its historic pre-World War Two architecture. Since it was a Saturday, we did not see the worst of automotive congestion and pollution, contributing to our overall impression of delight. We didn’t have to consult maps how to get around, but simply asked directions, and people were always friendly and displayed great love for their city.

Mary Lou and I were able to easily walk to the Cathedral through much of Central Park. Along the way, across the road from the New York Times, we viewed a compelling exhibit prepared by the Columbia University of the threat of global warming. Its most memorable feature are satellite images of Africa’s Lake Chad disappearing over the last thirty years from the impacts of climate change brought on through irresponsible human actions.

In walking the streets of Manhattan the only negative thought which crossed our minds was that this is a community that suffers from a nature deficit disorder. Except for designated city parks, we could not see one glimpse of green, apart from one solitary tree that was a beacon of the presence of a rare roof garden. Outside of vestiges in parks, all Manhattan’s interior streams were buried underground in storm sewers long ago, so there is not the usual forested ravines that are features of most cities. Plazas lack greenery, streets lack trees. skyscrapers tower up right from the sidewalk, and apart from paved roads, there are no spaces between buildings.

6th Avenue from 49th - (from Wikimedia Commons)

6th Avenue from 49th - (from Wikimedia Commons)

The lack of greenery appears to be the reason that until we entered Central Park, we did not see a single bird. Even in Central Park moreover, it was not till we left the more manicured and monumental southern section, and entered the wilder “Rambles”, in the middle, did we start to see some avian activity. For the first time in our lives it became a big thing to see a modest flock of English Sparrows and Rock Doves, and to hear the call of a singular native species, the Grackle. The only time we wished we had brought our binoculars was when veering over the vista of Belvedere Castle to the Turtle Pond, I wondered if a few Black Ducks might be interspersed with the Mallards.

Central Park, itself cut up by periodic east west roads, some of which appear to have been closed during our visit through environmental activism, is itself illustrative of the warnings of conservation biologists about island ecology. With its legions of polite and dedicated blue volunteers in blue shirts doing necessary tasks such as controlling exotic invasive species like English Ivy, we could understand that the ecology of Central Park was vigilantly protected. Still however, the surrounded sea of cement does not bode well for an island of green, especially one cut up by motor lanes.

While raccoons thrive in Central Park and I saw two enormous ones at night on are way to our hotel from the Cathedral, overall species diversity is declining. New York’s only rabbit, the Eastern cottontail, has vanished from the park altogether. The last held out in the wilder northern section of the park. Another mammal species, the woodchuck, once common, has also vanished. Bad news about species loss in Manhattan seems to be kept back for lack of research. No one has ever done for instance, a bat count of Central Park.

The frustrations felt by the dedicated ecologists who protect Central Park are just another example of how Manhattan more than any other large urban community in the western hemisphere, has been mugged by the car. It is here where the first fatal car accident took part in the western hemisphere on September 13, 1899. The city was victim of a massive terrorist attack financed from the oil rich Middle East on our era’s day of infamy, September 11, 2001. Nowhere else do automobiles make as less rationale sense, in a place of high population densities and land prices, than in Manhattan. Here only twenty-three percent of households own a car.

The only practical way that Manhattan could have solve its peculiar nature deficit disorder, is to ban cars and turn some of the space they gobble up in the form of parking lots and roads into trees, gardens and wildlife habitat. Transitional measures such as light rail transit with dedicated lanes on wide streets, such has been proposed through the 42nd Street Light Rail corridor can greatly help in this transition, the reality is that in Manhattan. The change however, is simply a matter of basic justice. In Manhattan, the car free majority are simply the victims of a motorized minority. Nowhere else in the world could simply banning cars be achieved with less disruption and more sheer happiness.

Carfree Mahattan © vision42

Carfree Mahattan © vision42

If the wealthy who don’t like rubbing shoulders with others in public transit dislike this approach, perhaps they can follow the examples of the Robber Barons of the late 19th century and return to carriages. Rather than the “revolution” of tired ideologues, the real festival of the oppressed would be a parties in the streets when all of Manhattan is a car free zone.

Foes of automobiles love photographs and old post cards of cities before mass motorization became the norm in the 1920s. Nowhere else is this basic reality as vivid as in New York City, where for instance, the Easter Parade became a wildly popular tune about the wonders of walking along Fifth Avenue. Whatever complaints can be made about the muck of horse manure, this seemed to have less impact on the showy Easter Bonnets of the 1890s than car exhaust and street spray today. The city’s subway system, opened in 1904 at a time when transportation planning still did not envisage mass motoring, shows that alternatives were being developed rapidly for alternatives to the horse power that oil executives use now to justify their plunder of the planet.

The whole basis of he notoriety of Robert Moses, “the Power Broker” of the biography of Robert Caro, is his determination to make Manhattan accessible to motorists. For this obsession, Moses, in his words was prepared to break more than a “few eggs” to an omelette. Before he embarked on a crusade to make Manhattan safe for automobiles, Moses was no different than the other reformers of the Progressive era, who believed in more parks and subsidized housing.

Caro reveals how New York newspapers in the late 1940s were deluged with proposals calling for Manhattan to be designated as a car free zone. While today proposals for extensive areas of car free streets are denounced as un-American, a prominent New Yorker, Lewis Mumford, denounced by Moses as the epitome of the “long haired planner”, was urging such actions in the 1950s, long before they became widespread in Europe.

While Mumford and even his critics such as Jane Jacobs were unable to create a single car free zone, success in bringing rationality to Manhattan has come from the twenty years of patient work by Auto-Free New York. One of is leading lights is George Haikalis, President of the appropriately named, Institute for Rational Urban Mobility. Its biggest success was to persuade New York City this year, to take its first baby steps in rationality, through the pedestrianization of parts of Broadway Avenue in Times and Herald Square.

New York’s first car free initiatives were products of the vision of the New York’s Transportation Commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, working in co-operation with Danish architect Jan Gehl, who helped developed the vast car free havens of central Copenhagen. Their first step is to be followed up in three days of August 2010 with the closure of Park Avenue. This was taken largely in response to the refusal of the New York State legislature to approve the New York City’s council’s plea for congestion pricing to reduce the impacts of automotive commuting on the city. That such steps were so long in coming epitomizes the grid lock of automotive totalitarianism that until recently dominated New York’s approach to transportation policy.

Banning cars in Manhattan would do more to reverse the threat of global warming that all the minutiae of international agreements such as the Kyoto Accords, whose provisions would likely not be enforceable in countries that are dictatorships. One of the benefits would be the message it would send to United Nations representatives in the city, that the biggest city in the world’s wealthiest nation, had freed itself from the illusion that automobiles are the basis for the pursuit of happiness.

"A systematic strategy to green the island" © vision42

"A systematic strategy to green the island" © vision42

Banning cars in Manhattan, more than complicated transportation alternatives however meritorious, needs to be combined with a systematic strategy to green the island. This is why Thomas Berry felt the notion of “sustainable” was inadequate, that our vision should be to be “regenerative”. Such an approach to greening would be powerful and realize the slogan of the popular song, “New York, New York,”, which promises if you can do in here, you “can do it anywhere.” It would have steps like roof gardens on every flat roof, living walls of green for skyscrapers and turning parking lots into gardens and wildlife habitat. Some of the reclaimed streets can be lined with constructed wetlands to purify water.

One of the most moving elements of Berry’s memorial service was the use of magnificent symbols of salmon, instead of the conventional images used on church banners. The flashing of the salmon through the vastness of the great Gothic Cathedral, brought alive Berry’s version of regeneration and successful ecological atonement for past human abuse of the planet. In her remarks Kenya’s Environment Minister, Wangari Maathai, said that it showed that “Even the fish praise him.” What more vivid regeneration of Berry’s vision could there be, than some stretch of Manhattan’s concrete jungle, such as the Henry Hudson Parkway, being dismantled, to serve as a new breeding ground for the restoration of the endangered Atlantic Salmon?

By Dr. John Bacher (PhD)- John Bacher is the author of Petrotyranny. It is book published by Dundurn Press and Science for Peace in 2001, which details the negative relationship between oil, war and dictatorship, and the positive synergies between peace, human rights and the protection of the environment.

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