As the city prepares for the first phase of reopening on Monday, June 8th, exactly how people will safely get to work remains an open and unresolved question.
Subway service will return to normal starting Monday, though the overnight shutdowns every night from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. will continue.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has admitted that car ridership may increase above pre-pandemic levels.
“You may see people use their cars more in the short term if they have a car, or use for-hire vehicles, for example. But that's a short-term reality,” de Blasio said last week.
The “reality” is: more New Yorkers are buying cars now, and they won’t magically disappear in a few months when the pandemic subsides.
Before COVID-19 shut down the economy for months, dealers were selling more than 17 million vehicles for the fifth straight year in a row in a year nationwide, according to Robert Sinclair, spokesman for AAA. Now dealers are stuck with a ton of inventory and are offering wildly low borrowing rates (0% financing for 7 years) to move it.
Experts told Gothamist/WNYC the entire country is still seeing lower than normal sales but they are picking up, especially here.
“As rapidly as the regular market at large is recovering, it's recovering quicker or there’s more buying activity going on in New York City,” Karl Brauer, the executive publisher at Kelly Blue Book and Autotrader, told Gothamist.
It helped that Governor Andrew Cuomo exempted car dealers from New York Pause, allowing them to open dealerships by appointment and deliver cars to people’s homes during the shutdown. Car dealers in the lower part of New York state, including 12 counties and the city’s five boroughs, usually make about $51 billion a year, according to Mark Schienberg, President of Greater New York Dealers Association. It’s the largest vehicle market in the state, employing 71,000 people, and selling about 1 million used and new vehicles every year.
Listen to reporter Stephen Nessen's radio story for WNYC:
In addition to more new cars on the road, there are signs that commuters may choose cars over mass transit as the city economy re-opens. Just look at the bridge crossings.
According to the Department of Transportation, crossings at the four East River Bridges at the end of March were down 42 percent compared to the previous year at the same time. More recently, in late May, they were just 11 percent below the previous year.
“That’s worrisome. If that continues, New York City can’t function with large numbers abandoning transit and going into driving,” traffic planner Sam Schwartz said.
Traffic in Manhattan’s central business district was crawling at an average of 4.7 miles per hour before the coronavirus. Schwartz said if there’s a 20 percent increase in driving, it would be devastating.
“Just try to imagine filling every inch of the Long Island Expressway to Montauk and that’s what we’d be inviting, that many people in,” he said. ”We don’t have the room in Manhattan.”
While congestion pricing was supposed to go into effect as early as this January, the MTA has blamed federal transportation officials for slowing progress on the plan to charge drivers for entering a good portion of Manhattan during peak hours. Governor Andrew Cuomo said he did not bring it up with President Donald Trump when they met at the White House last week. Ken Lovett, an MTA spokesperson, said there was no movement on the plan.
Schwartz said he’d like to see the city ban private cars with fewer than two people entering parts of the city during the morning rush, as the city imposed after the September 11th attacks and Hurricane Sandy. Four borough presidents recently called for 40 miles of bus lanes to alleviate street traffic.
Mayor de Blasio has not outlined a vision for how he’d like commuters to move around the re-opened city. He said New Yorkers just need to be “honest” and recognize that some people prefer cars.
“For the next few months, people are going to make their own choices,” he said. “Some people are going to be comfortable with mass transit, some are not. We just have to be honest and real about that.”
Asked about those bus lanes at Wednesday’s press conference, de Blasio said he’ll “have more to say on that as we can get through these next days.”
Like the mayor, the city’s Department of Transportation has conceded vehicle traffic likely will return faster than public transit in areas affected by the coronavirus.
“There may be a combination of factors, including which industries recover faster and other policy choices, but it is likely that people have concerns with the levels of crowding often experienced on public transit. Obviously, this is a major concern for New York City, as so much of our travel is reliant on public transportation,” a spokesperson for the DOT wrote in a statement.
The department and the MTA are both looking for ideas and lessons learned from other cities domestic and foreign such as Paris which is installing 400 miles of temporary bike lanes to make it easier and safer for residents to get around.
Many New Yorkers are not waiting for officials to figure it out. At a private yard on President Street in Gowanus, stocked with used cars for sale, a 2006 Subaru Forester with lowish mileage attracted Nick MacDonald, 28 (although he eventually passed on it, he’s still looking).
“It would’ve been awesome to have a car at the beginning of all this,” MacDonald said. “And I think it's highlighted even more so how amazing it would be to have transportation at our fingertips. Not to have to get on a subway or bus. Go to the grocery store or beach.”