New York stopped in its tracks

from the front of the bus, 9th Avenue in the forties, on a Saturday afternoon (these vehicles aren't moving)

We live in Manhattan. We're supposed to be able to get around the city without each of us piloting two or three tons of private metal, but it's getting harder and harder to assume the availability of the public transportation which makes this city possible.

Barry and I had decided early this afternoon that we should have no trouble running up to 57th Street to see two gallery shows which close today and then heading back in time to look into a number of Chelsea locations before their doors were locked at 6 pm. But we hadn't bargained on the virtual disappearance of both subway and bus service, and in the end we were reminded that Manhattan's transportation failings are far greater scale than that represented by a badly-organized and underfunded MTA.

When we discovered (only after descending the stairs into the station) that there were no uptown trains running from our corner, 23rd Street and 8th Avenue, all weekend, we decided to risk a cab and potential Midtown congestion. There were no complications once we settled into our roomy Toyota van, but less than an hour later the transportation mishaps started to pile on top of each other.

We made the mistake of trying to rely on the subway in order to get back to Chelsea. Our train ground to a halt in the staition just one stop south of 59th Street, where we had boarded it. The repeated announcements about a short delay were eventually replaced by one saying that there was a train broken down ahead of us and there was no way of knowing how long we would be held in the station. We abandoned our car and walked a long block to the 9th Avenue bus, thinking that passing only a couple of dozen numbered streets would be a quick hop, since there was so little traffic in sight. Traffic suddenly appeared out of nowhere and we ended up frozen virtually immobile by the SUV's heading back to New Jersey through the Lincoln Tubes (see the picture above).

Well over an hour after leaving 57th Street we finally emerged back on 23rd Street. We had made the trip (a total of about a mile and three quarters) at the dizzying pace of 1.5 miles per hour. I have to remind myself that all this was happening on a quiet Saturday afternoon.

The subway had failed us once again (this is not uncommon); surface transportation was ridiculous (even in the best of circumstances we have to live with primitive bus designs, passengers exiting through the front, or entry, doors, clumsy fare-collection machinery and the total absence of dedicated bus lanes). In addition, every intersection box was blocked by cross traffic, meaning that the bus had to wait through two signal changes even after it reached the stripe at the cross street (there were no traffic police in place anywhere along our route).

I saw one fire truck in the middle of the almost chaotic scene; fortunately those guys were not on an emergency call this time, but had the circumstance been otherwise . . . .

All forms of transportation on at least the west side of Manhattan, with theoretically the most mobile population in the nation, had been rendered impossible. And still our elected and appointed officials persist in believing that the job of municipal transportation oversight is to get more cars to move still faster into and through the streets of a city already suffering from an impossible burden of private car ownership.

Oh yeah, I just reminded myself that all of this traffic was created even without the impact of the insane proposal for a West Side stadium.

This week the MTA announced liklihood of really major cutbacks in service, which will leave room for still more cars. Great planning.

Facing years of spiraling deficits, the MTA is proposing to eliminate 14 percent of its bus lines as part of a severe cost-saving package that would come on top of a fare hike and more than 160 subway token booth closings.

The bus route closures, slated for 2006, would hit all five boroughs and include some lines that follow major arteries in Manhattan.

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Published on October 16, 2004 8:32 PM.

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