NEW YORK — A New York City street is not like a street anywhere else in America. It is more frenetic, more teeming, more daunting, more commercial, more electric, more lawless, more infested, more sticky, more musical, more neon.
Everywhere, lines are blurred or disobeyed. Pedestrians creep over the curb into the roadway. Restaurants spill out their doors into patio seating. Shoppers who intend to buy nothing at all gawk from the street through the windows instead. And now a UPS truck is honking at a cab dislodging its passenger mid-intersection, and several strangely insistent men want to press in your hand fliers for half-off sandwiches.
"If you look at a typical street — say, 20 years ago — you had cars and you had an occasional truck," says David King, an assistant professor of urban planning at Columbia University. "And that was it."
The cars and trucks are still there. But now there are tour buses bringing tourists who wouldn't have come to New York 20 years ago. There are food trucks, and cab stands, and bikeshare stations. There's Uber, and commuter buses and bike lanes. There's a guy on a pedicab, taking up the space of a car but moving at the speed of a trike with an entire family in tow.
Then there are the construction sites, because condos are rising everywhere, and as they do, they need to borrow just a little strip of the street, too. So they park industrial-scale dumpsters in the road and barricade the sidewalk with cement roadblocks. "Sidewalk closed. Use other side." Except, on the other side, there's another condo coming, too.
And don't forget the delivery trucks — so many delivery trucks. Because Amazon Prime will send in two days what you used to walk to the store for. And the rate's all the same, so why not order another package — I just need kitty litter! — for what you forgot yesterday?
"We have all this action on the streets," King says. "The problem with this is all of these new uses are essentially competing for the curb."
Every square foot of the public way in New York City, especially Manhattan, is reaching the limit of its carrying capacity. If the city wanted to cram more in — mobile health clinics? more fire trucks? another round of pedestrian plazas? — it would need to open some new spatial dimension.
This is the backdrop against which Uber, an app service that now has nearly 26,000 drivers and 19,000 cars in New York City, became embroiled with City Hall this month in an existential fight over its contributions to "congestion."
City officials warned that Uber's runaway growth was to blame for slowing travel speeds in Manhattan to 8.5 miles an hour (a claim that's near-impossible to prove given everything else occurring on the same streets). Uber countered that it couldn't plausibly play that role in a city with hundreds of thousands of cars on the road (a claim that's equally unlikely, as the service has no doubt contributed something to congestion). Uber took out attack ads. Mayor Bill de Blasio blasted the company while on a visit to the Vatican. Things only grew uglier from there, before an 11th-hour detente on Wednesday.
The conflict, though — and it's not resolved yet — isn't just about technological disruption, or entrenched taxi interests. It's about space — some of the most valuable space in the country's largest city. Its public streets.
"In New York, transportation has superseded schools and housing as the source of the most intense political conflicts," says Mitchell Moss, the director of the Rudin Center for Transportation at NYU. "We no longer have the intense fights about school boards, or even about rezoning — but bicycle paths, taxis, even the regulations on bus drivers have turned out to be the most intense topics for political mobilization."
That's because there's so much more competition now for a finite asset that can't be expanded, and because absolutely everyone interacts with that problem. Every New Yorker has fought for a cab, or tripped over a tourist, or been nearly grazed by a car, or spent far, far too long trying to get where they need to go. Political fights over transportation aren't abstract, like affordable housing, or inequality. They're viscerally, instantly relatable. They're about how you'll get to the dentist tomorrow.
Echoes of this same escalating conflict, though perhaps not as acute, appear in Washington, where drivers begrudge the road space cyclists now want to claim. It's in San Francisco, where private charter buses ferrying tech workers to Silicon Valley have clogged the streets public buses drive. It's in Chicago, where residents have sued to block the arrival of bikeshare stations. It exists anywhere anyone is sincerely railing about a "war on cars."
Amid all this competition, it's entirely reasonable for any city to try to regulate clashing claims to public streets.
"The idea that any private company — it doesn't matter if it’s a taxi company or yoga studio – should be able to operate their business on a public asset without any oversight, without any obligation to the city, is absurd," King says. "We certainly wouldn't let a private concert operator start throwing concerts in Central Park every week. But essentially, that’s what we’re letting happen on our streets."
Even if Bill de Blasio wanted unlimited ice cream trucks and horse-drawn carriages and high-speed buses, they simply would not fit.