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A Futurama of Pollution and Congestion

Samantha Gorelick Jun 9, 2007

BKTrafficBy Samantha Gorelick

When Robert Moses helped bring the 1939 World’s Fair to New York, one of the main attractions was a General Motors–sponsored exhibit called “Futurama,” featuring a gleaming model of a city of the future knit together by fast-moving, multilane highways where pedestrians were a thing of the past.

Moses, who reigned as New York’s public works czar from 1924 to 1968, labored to bring his vision of “Futurama” to life. Moses oversaw the construction of 627 miles of expressways and parkways along with seven major bridges. The car-laden arteries linked the five boroughs of New York City and the surrounding suburbs, but resulted in the bulldozing of vibrant neighborhoods and displacement of half a million people.

These are the same gridlocked roads and bridges that bring about 263,000 commuters in and out of the city each day. If Moses had had his way, there might be hundreds more miles of roadways and bridges, not just around the city, but cutting directly across the lower half of Manhattan.

Current Mayor Michael Bloomberg is proposing to address Moses’ road-building legacy by instituting traffic congestion pricing as part of his clean and green PlaNYC 2030. (At the same time, Bloomberg is evoking the days of Moses with plans to build massive luxury housing, retail and business complexes at the Atlantic Yards and the West Side Rail Yards.)

The mayor is proposing to charge private vehicles $8 a day to enter Manhattan during the busiest time of the workday. The hope is to reduce both congestion and carbon emissions. In a recent tabulation by the mayor’s office of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, it was found that although only 23 percent of emissions come from transportation, a whopping 78 percent of these emissions come from cars and light trucks, most of which are private vehicles.

The mayor’s office says the congestion pricing fees would be “dedicated to transportation investments” under a proposed new transportation planning body. (Whether this would be mass transit or why a new entity beyond the MTA is needed is unclear.) One sorely needed public project is the Second Avenue subway line. Construction began anew on the line this past April, but it has been in the works off and on since 1929.

If Robert Moses had not favored suburban commuters, New York would not be jammed with cars today. Had Moses put half the money into mass transit that he did into roads and bridges, the cityscape would be entirely different. Fewer people would need cars to commute into and around the city because public transportation would be more accessible.

We’ve come a long way since the “Futurama” exhibit of 1939, but we’re still feeling the ramifications of car culture.

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