The giant city of today lives by a miracle: it survives contradictions of policy and endless administrative improvisations. But if its life is miraculous, then its decline, even its terminal illness, is not at all impossible. And in the pathology of cities, circulatory failure ranks high among the list of fatal accidents. The sickness of congestion has become epidemic among our great cities, and New York has not been spared.
Surely most New Yorkers must feel this whenever they travel from one point in the city to another. Miraculous as the completion of the journey may seem, it is almost always a debilitating experience: a compound of exasperation over the difficulties of arrangements, the slowness and the frustrations of delay, fatigue from the crowding and noise, a consciousness of waste, expense, chaos, jostling, soot, stench, and even the possibility of injury or death.
The reminder that a city and its culture can flourish only when millions of persons are so concentrated that communication among them is continuous—this is quite unconsoling. All of us can sense instinctively that while concentration and congestion are similar they are also different conditions.
Yet the desirability of congestion is the central issue in the current controversy over “what to do about New York.” The city’s Commissioner of Traffic, T. T. Wiley, is pressing for the construction of 15 huge parking garages costing $52.5 million in mid-town Manhattan to lure back suburban shoppers. This proposal has been challenged on the grounds that these facilities will surely worsen an already intolerable situation; Wiley’s response has been that cities never die of congestion but only of the lack of it. Austin Tobin, director of New York’s main transportation agency, the huge Port of New York Authority, shares this view. Second only to his consuming passion for maintaining the Port Authority’s high credit standing (so it can market its bonds successfully and perpetuate itself) is Tobin’s drive for ever greater traffic flow. “If 34th Street weren’t congested we’d be in trouble,” says Tobin. In consequence, just under a billion dollars has been invested in Port Authority transport facilities, all designed to produce maximum “traffic flow” in New York. This has achieved a 36 per cent increase in the number of cars entering New York from 1948 to 1956, while the number of persons entering has decreased by 12 per cent.
Officially, there is no opposition to the theory that congestion is desirable. There is, however, an unofficial opposition by assorted intellectuals, an opposition formidable enough to give officialdom pause. Lewis Mumford in his New Yorker series has underscored the folly of the Port Authority’s predilection for automotive facilities at the expense of rapid transit and of a rationally balanced network of all kinds of transport, including walking. He ...
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