Friday, October 16, 2009

New York's Future

In yesterday's New York Times there is an artist's conception of a possible future for 42nd Street. It shows a light rail system running the full length of this great throughfare, from the Hudson to the East River. It is a vision of a great city without cars, a vision that seems so utterly appealing to me and so very alien to many, many others. I have often thought how much more livable New York would be if traffic were restricted to taxicabs and buses only. So many thousands take the subway or just walk anyway, why not make this leap, or the even more expensive but ultimately more cost-effective leap to light rail. By the way, for those who don't know Manhattan, although the subway is great for going uptown and downtown and although there is a subway shuttle from Grand Central Station to 7th Avenue, it remains a challenge to get across town almost anywhere in Manhattan. The resistance to limiting car use cannot be overestimated, however. It's partly about a fear of change, it partly comes from merchants who fear the loss of a certain class of consumers, but I honestly believe it has more to do with an impoverished vision of what could be. Our default, taken for granted reaction, even in a city like New York, is to get into our car and go, no matter how difficult the traffic or how inconvenient the parking situation. That default response has to be revised.

Perhaps a kind of "nudge" would help. There is a relatively new book by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein called Nudge about the small changes we can make to gently push people's behavior in a new direction. In the case of overreliance on cars, one way to do this is to make a much better and more public case for the virtues of mass transportation. These authors write about a campaign in Texas to limit littering that used the phrase "Don't mess with Texas" to get people to take seriously the need to control littering. It worked. Littering declined dramatically, almost entire attributable to this ad campaign. Maybe New York, if it's really serious about this, needs to promote the idea that, for instance, "You meet the coolest people in the subways," and then build a whole campaign around the stories of all these cool people you will run into when you travel underground. Another thought is to use data people can understand. I will never forget the campaign against smoking in the late 60's that said: "For every minute you smoke you lose a minute of your life." That was incredibly powerful. What would be the equivalent for the dangers of using our automobiles excessively? I honestly don't know, but I cannot imagine there isn't a simple, pithy. perhaps graphic way to convey how much more responsible you are when you use mass transit than when you drive. I look forward to the time when the default behavior for traveling around the city for the vast majority of people is anything BUT using a car.

No comments:

Post a Comment