Starting Saturday, July 9, the municipal government began to take measure to cut down on pollution and reduce traffic. Drivers whose last digit on their license plates is a 5 or a 6 must stay off the road. Those with other numbers will take turns to be off the city’s streets. Violators will have their cars towed, with heavy fines. Meanwhile, a brand new modern trolley is on display in front of the city government. A 10-mile trolley system will be integrated into the city’s busy transportation network by 2009. Thousands of enthusiastic city residents wait in line to see the futurist Canadian-made yellow-white trolley, which will be free for riders. Before going further, I should clarify that all this happened in Mexico City during my recent visit there. The traffic reduction system, “Hoy no Circula Sabatino,” has showed some significant impact on the city’s deadly traffic and pollution problems.
Mayors of Newark from Joseph Haynes (1885-1896) to Cory Booker always boast of the transportation “advantages” of the city, but neglect the disastrously ill-planned automobile traffic on the city’s economic development. In June 1999, the Regional Plan Association and 12 other organizations (e.g., Ironbound Community Corporation, Newark Community Corporation, and Weequahic Park Association) wrote to Mayor Sharpe James to protest the inadequate and automobile-oriented Economic Development Land Use and Transportation Plan.
Among objections, the letter pointed out, “The plan serves cars, not Newarkers who walk and use (mass) transit.” Despite skewed estimates by generations of planners serving mostly large corporations and institutions, the majority of Newarkers do not drive to work in Newark and need better bus service and friendlier walking conditions, as the letter asserted. Almost 900 people are hit by cars each year in Newark, giving the city the highest pedestrian fatality rate in the state. (Mexico City of 16 million people, with its horrendous traffic, has around 2,000 fatal accidents caused by cars.) The organizations called for an immediate undertaking of city-wide traffic-calming measures: “An improved walking environment is crucial to make Newark more amendable to investment.” The letter also confronted corporations and institutions that obsess with the “need” of automobile parking. In 1999, Newark already had 19,000 parking spaces in the central business district alone — “land which could be put to valuable economic development that would bring to Newark higher and better ratables than surface and structured parking.” In conclusion, the letter predicted that traffic will worsen in the downtown under the proposed plan.
The current administration’s Living Downtown Plan and Broad Street Station Area Development Plan both encourage transit oriented development. However, contrarily, these plans also seem to provide the green light to the same institutional “parking needs” disputed and objected to by the 13 organization cited above. For instance, with its highly disputable and simplistic measures, Rutgers University alone will create at least 3,500 additional parking spaces next to Broad Street Station, the region’s most efficient transit hub. Some in charge of the city’s economic development are slow to understand the detrimental effect of automobile traffic on the city’s life, but treat the issue as a usual “town-and-gown” dispute calling for some magic “balance.”
Mexico City’s traffic grid was first laid out by the Aztecs. Throughout the city’s tumultuous history, many patched-together compromises were made to maintain the fragile mobility lifeline. However, the city’s planners have long been recognized for their heroic effort in progressively improving its transportation system. Why does a city with an average family income that counts only one-tenth of Newark’s dare to confront the issue head-on, but Newark does not? Since our Mayor has claimed to want to develop our city to be the model for other American cities, I hope to get the answer to this question by sending him this piece and the 13 organizations’ 1999 letter tomorrow, by a return-receipt requested certified letter.
(For the insightful 1999 letter, see www.tstc.org/reports/Newark_landuse99/pdf.)