The Fires This Time: There is No Plan to Limit Driving During Health Emergencies Like This One

Paging Albert Camus — time for a sequel.
Paging Albert Camus — time for a sequel.

Updated | City officials admitted on Wednesday that they have no plan to deal with pollution like the city is experiencing today — not even an emergency health protocol to require mandatory carpooling.

Transportation is among the leading causes of pollution and other climate-warming gases, but Mayor Adams and his emergency management team did not roll HOV lanes on city-controlled bridges nor even beseech residents not to drive, as city officials typically do after snowstorms or on “gridlock alert days” (though not, ironically, during heat waves).

“There’s no blueprint or playbook for these type of issues,” Mayor Adams said on Wednesday during a briefing on the crisis. “You want to be as prepared as possible. But there is no planning for an incident like this.”

That admission stunned activists and public officials, who have long demanded that the city develop ways to restrict driving because pollution and congestion are contributing factors to the health crisis the five boroughs are experiencing right now.

“Any administration serious about public health would have started preparing New Yorkers days ago, including a strong message about decreasing car emissions,” said Sara Lind, co-executive director of Open Plans, which shares a parent company with Streetsblog. “We encourage people not to drive when we expect extra congestion on Gridlock Alert Days, why aren’t we doing the same when we’re facing record poor air quality? In the long term, we need a plan to reduce driving and provide less harmful modes of transit to prepare for these air quality events happening more frequently.”

Council Member Lincoln Restler (D-Brooklyn) tweeted a firestorm of criticism of the mayor, but did not call for mandatory HOV lanes.

In an interview with Streetsblog, however, Restler said, “Requiring HOV lanes to reduce polluting vehicles during this air quality emergency would be a prudent measure to help keep New Yorkers safe.” He said the Council is “researching legislative solutions” that could possibly include giving the mayor the power to bar single-occupancy vehicles from the roadways.

Agencies do indeed evoke health protocols during various crises. For example, carriage horses were not allowed to work on Wednesday as a result of the invasion of Canadian wildfire smoke. And on the hottest days, the city creates “cooling centers,” though their distribution is not entirely equitable, according to a report from Comptroller Brad Lander.

Then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg did authorize several days of HOV-only lanes into Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. But such carpooling requirements have not been invoked since (though there was a plan for HOV lanes during the preparation for the L-train repairs that never happened).

Then-Mayor Bill de Blasio’s own “surface transportation” committee recommended frequent HOV restrictions into the central business district of Manhattan during traffic or other crises, but that panel was famously ignored.

But even deep into the crisis on Wednesday, the Adams administration’s public health officials were not urging people to avoid — or, indeed, preventing them from — driving.

Update: In fact, they encouraged more driving by eliminating some open streets and re-opening them to cars and closing them to people on Wednesday afternoon. Roadways such as 34th Avenue in Queens are vital links for school kids to get home when the barricades are left in place. But now they and others have been removed pending the end of the crisis, sources told Streetsblog.

Meanwhile, parks and schools remain open, rendering the return of cars to open streets bizarre, said one resident of 34th Avenue.

”It would be one thing if the schools were closed or there was an emergency order keeping people inside,” said the Jackson Heights resident. “But instead, kids still have to get to school, but now they won’t be safe.”

It’s not as if the city has not been keenly aware that environmental changes linked to climate change have been making the air increasingly toxic on certain days. In instances like thunderstorms or blizzards, where there are clear threats to a driver’s ability to operate a car safely, the mayor asks motorists to stay off the roads. But on hot days with poor air quality, there’s never any suggestion that New Yorkers limit their driving to make life easier (and incrementally cooler) for their neighbors.

But this crisis isn’t just an air condition or closed window away. The smoke is unavoidable, and activists are urging the city to get its act together.

“We must take steps every day to reduce car ownership and car dependency, as well as develop a playbook for days like today,” said Elizabeth Adams, the senior director for Advocacy & Organizing at Transportation Alternatives. “As air quality alert days happen more and more frequently, we need a plan that will both reduce air pollution and protect New Yorkers from unsafe air. This is an opportunity to create a new model for air quality alert days that could discourage driving, require carpooling, and close streets around schools, senior centers, and neighborhoods with high asthma rates.”

City officials did not respond to a myriad of questions from Streetsblog, but City Hall did send over its list of recommendations, which we offer here. It does not make any specific references to driving or carpooling when driving is necessary. It recommends that New Yorkers stay inside.

Update: You can’t say the Adams administration is doing nothing to limit driving, however. Late on Wednesday, the DOT announced that it would suspend alternate-side-of-the-street parking on Thursday:


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