West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 9 | August 01 - 07, 2007

Talking Point

Manhattan traffic congestion is a historic mistake

By Gerard Koeppel

Manhattan’s traffic congestion problem will never be solved by charging usage fees. As long as there are cars and trucks, gasoline and commerce, people will drive to and from and up and down Manhattan. Drivers (or their employers) will pay $8 for the privilege, just as they pay $1.50 for 60 minutes of metered parking, $3.25 or more for a gallon of gas, $115 for blocking the box and $600 for a month’s worth of garage parking. Congestion fees are like aspirin for the headache caused by a brain tumor. The disease in this case is not the number of vehicles on the streets. It is the number and orientation of the streets. Barring a cataclysm, it is likely an incurable disease.

The disease of Manhattan street crowding has its origins in a city-state decision made two centuries ago. In April 1807, the state Legislature, at the city’s request, named a trio of “Commissioners of Streets and Roads in the City of New York” to “unite regularity and order with the Public convenience and benefit.” That is, to plan for the development of the city expanding north up Manhattan from its southern tip. The leader of the commission was Gouverneur Morris, minor Founding Father, condescending visionary and namesake of the Morrisania section of the Bronx.

Unveiling the Commissioners’ Plan in 1811, Morris wrote that “a city is to be composed principally of the habitations of men, and that straight-sided and right-angled houses are the most cheap to build and the most convenient to live in.” This was the rationale for our relentless, rectilinear street grid. Morris rejected “those supposed improvements by circles, ovals, and stars, which certainly embellish a plan, whatever may be their effect as to convenience and utility.” Hence, a new American city of rational rectangles. Not something European like L’Enfant’s Washington or something colonial like Williamsburg or Philadelphia. New York, the emerging capital of commerce, would sublimate nature (hills were dumped into valleys to level the island to receive its grid), open space (Central Park was not in the plan) and beauty (graceful Broadway also not in the plan) in service to the identical blocks and lots of real estate development.

Though some contemporaries decried the numbing regularity of the Commissioners’ Plan, Manhattan’s grid system of many east-west streets and relatively few north-south avenues actually worked very well for a century. The dimensions and orientation of the grid were well adapted to use by carts and wagons pushed or pulled by men and animals moving goods primarily across the island: to and from the hundreds of river piers that were the primary entry and exit points of Manhattan. By design, the many east-west streets serviced this lateral movement: straight lines were the shortest distance between the commercial riverfronts and the residential interior.

The grid began to work less well during the first half of the past century. The advent of gasoline-powered cars and trucks, and the bridges and tunnels providing mass access to the island, began to change the primary orientation of island traffic from east-west to north-south. The connections between “uptown” and “midtown” and “downtown” — the widely-spaced north-south avenues — began to clog, and the side streets with them. Manhattan’s shrinking commercial waterfront was separated from the island’s interior by highways that attempted to help move traffic north and south but ultimately added congestion to a street grid not built to service longitudinal movement.

Our grid has been a full-blown anachronism since the 1950s, when water-based commerce decamped from Manhattan for good (after 400 years), leaving rusting piers to fall into the rivers at the heads of all those east-west streets. Now, the abandoned commercial waterfront is being transformed for residence and recreation. Yet, the grid lives on, a relic of American-style expansionism, a transportation senior citizen of Biblical longevity.

What to do? A city planner with more power than Moses might split all those long east-west blocks with more north-south avenues (and throw in some midtown back alleys to put deliveries where they belong). But, barring miracle or disaster, it will be impossible to remove buildings and dispense with property rights to place avenues and alleys where real estate earns rent. So, it may be only with wistful reflection on the lost opportunities of youth to consider that Manhattan might have looked very different than it does. Morris’s commission of 1807 was appointed as a direct result of the furious rejection of a startlingly different plan offered four years earlier by one Joseph Francois Mangin.

Mangin, a cultivated Frenchman in exile from revolution, arrived here in 1794. A military engineer, surveyor and architect, he is the designer of our City Hall and the first St. Patrick’s Cathedral (on Mulberry St.), his two surviving Manhattan buildings among many notable works. Mangin was quickly designated a city surveyor, one of a handful of men effectively licensed to do private and public surveys. In 1797, the city contracted with Mangin (and a partner who soon died) to conduct the first comprehensive survey of the city since the Revolution and issue a detailed city plan. Mangin walked the city and its suburban fringes by day and worked his calculations and field notes by night. When another surveyor asked for a look at the progress of his plan, Mangin refused, with the remarkable statement that it was “not the plan of the city the city such as it is, but such as it is to be.”

Finally, in early 1803, Mangin released to the city government his map, 6 feet square. It, indeed, was not the accurate plan of the existing city that it was supposed to be. It was a plan for how the city ought to develop, from the drafting table of a refined European. In the city proper, Mangin idealized crooked Dutch-era streets by straightening and widening them. He widened the city itself with streets that had not yet been created by river landfill. Moving north into the countryside — up to what became 14th St. — he plotted sections of rectilinear grid, set at acute angles to each other. Some grid sections had wide and long streets, others had narrow and short streets: each by its particular dimensions had an individual character, for commercial, residential or mixed use. Mangin linked this network of grids from the south with relatively numerous radiating roads, some being extensions of existing roads, others new. In the triangular and trapezoidal intersections between grids and between grids and radiating roads were almost countless opportunities for parkland, ornament or open space. Mangin’s plan was irregularity made regular, regularity made irregular. It was European urbanity adapted to a narrow island. Had it been accepted and its concept extended up the island, Manhattan would have become a weak magnet for metal cars and trucks.

After a few months’ enchantment, Mangin’s plan was rejected. The reasons are unclear: powerful jealousies over Mangin’s contemporaneous City Hall design competition victory; American Francophilia that had turned to Francophobia; Mangin’s own arrogance (he always wrote in French); the simple fact that Mangin’s fantastic plan was not the real estate map for which he was hired.

But no sooner was Mangin’s plan dismissed than the city fathers realized that having a development plan was actually a pretty good idea. Joseph Browne, the city street commissioner, was asked to report a plan of his own. But Browne, who had been the leading detractor of Mangin’s plan, was soon off to western adventures with his brother-in-law Aaron Burr (who had prematurely assured Benjamin Latrobe that he would win the City Hall competition).

The city next turned to distinguished Swiss geodesist and mathematician Ferdinand Hassler, who had emigrated to Philadelphia in 1805. Perhaps aware of the Mangin trouble, Hassler sidestepped the city’s lucrative offer with a claim of illness. He went on to oversee the first United States Coast Survey. New Yorkers can only speculate what a Swiss scientist might have made out of Manhattan. Meanwhile, we suffer on Morris’s island-spread grid. Twenty years ago, Columbia urban planner Peter Marcuse called it “one of the worst city plans of any major city in the developed countries of the world.” Charging admission won’t make it any better.

Koeppel is an associate editor of the forthcoming second edition of “The Encyclopedia of New York City.”

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