New York City’s recovery from the depths of COVID-19 has prompted a nagging question: How are people supposed to get around by subway and bus in the age of social distancing?
Mayor Bill de Blasio fielded a couple of queries on that topic during his Thursday press briefing at City Hall. One reporter even asked if the mayor had a response to her potentially buying a car due to concerns about packed trains and buses spreading of the virus.
“My advice to New Yorkers is: ‘Do not buy a car,'” he said. “Cars are the past. The future is going to be mass transit.” The mayor said he personally would “never own a car again.”
De Blasio conceded, “People are concerned about their health and safety, I totally understand that.” But he noted increases of late in subway ridership. (Perhaps some of those strap-hangers read the New York Times article on Sunday’s front page marveling that subways “may be safer than you think.”)
He said the infection rate in the city has fallen to just 1%, with a handful of hospitalizations on a given day, meaning risk in general is lower than ever. He also predicted the end of the crisis in the next few months, likely with the rollout of a vaccine in early 2021. Once the transit system and streets fill back up, adding more cars will not help, he said.
The trend during the De Blasio years and under his predecessor, Mike Bloomberg, has been to create various vehicle-free zones around Manhattan and to ban cars from major east-west arteries like 14th and 34th streets. But critics have said the tweaks don’t go far enough in a city where traffic is perpetually snarled.
A recent report from the Regional Plan Association warns that Manhattan’s central business district could become even more gridlocked unless officials take more dramatic steps. They need to “prioritize road and street space for pedestrians, cyclists, buses and high-occupancy vehicles,” the report argued.
De Blasio rattled off a series of steps his administration has taken, from expanding Citi Bikes, ferries and bike lanes to backing “congestion pricing,” a system imposing tolls on vehicles traveling into Manhattan. Asked why New York lacks some of the infrastructure enhancements of London or Paris, comparably old and dense cities, he insisted that his city has “one of the great mass transit systems in the world.”
More improvements are on the docket, De Blasio said. Improving the crumbling, century-old subway system, whose struggles have only been exacerbated by the plunge in ridership, which supplies 40% of its annual revenue, will be the biggest task.
“There’s a lot to come,” the mayor said. “But my focus is on the steps we need to take now to restart” the economy, like reopening businesses and schools and leading the COVID response.