The Gridlock Grinch

New Yorkers who remember the bad old days of the early 1990’s—or, even worse, the mid-1970’s—can’t help but cheer when they see streets and sidewalks filled to bursting, particularly at this time of year. Some of us remember a time, not so long ago, when the flow of traffic in Manhattan seemed predominately outbound, and one-way.

The city’s remarkable revival, now more than a decade long and showing no signs of slowing down, has been a wonderful thing to behold. But if you’ve tried to navigate a car through midtown recently, you know there’s a downside to the renaissance: Yes, it’s nice that everybody wants to be here. But do they all need to bring their cars with them?

This is the season of gridlock alerts, when suburbanites and tourists converge on midtown for shopping expeditions and sightseeing. Their presence is welcome. Their driving habits, however, require a readjustment. Does the phrase “Don’t block the box” bring back any memories?

Getting through busy midtown intersections, a feat requiring precision, judgment and nerves of steel on most days, has become nearly impossible this holiday season. Blocking the box—a habit one associates with the days when the city was thought to be ungovernable—has become routine.

The most flagrant offenders are trucks, many of whose drivers clearly feel immune from any legal consequences. It’s not just a hassle, and it’s not just dangerous, although that combination surely is enough to test the patience of the mellowest New Yorker. The ensuing congestion and associated unpleasantness is bad for business and even worse for emergency vehicles.

It’s time for Ray Kelly’s Police Department to crack down hard on those who block the box and who double-park. Unlike a wider congestion-pricing plan, ticketing the offenders would punish only those who are actually creating the congestion.

Mayor Bloomberg unveiled a plan for tougher ticketing enforcement last May, but despite the addition of more than 100 traffic agents and a hike in the fine from $90 to $115, Manhattan intersections resemble a track for bumper cars. Let’s supply those additional agents with fresh wads of tickets to be distributed aggressively wherever box-blockers lurk. And let’s raise the fine to $200.

A ticket blitz should take care of the problem over the holidays. But over the longer term, some form of congestion pricing is clearly a necessity if Manhattan is to avoid choking on the fumes of idling cars, cabs and trucks. Mayor Bloomberg’s smart proposal to impose fees on vehicles wishing to enter midtown during prime business hours faces an uncertain fate in the State Legislature. A commission is studying the issue and will deliver a report next month. Congestion pricing is an idea whose time has come, which means, of course, that it may take time to persuade politicians in Albany to approve it. But why wait for Albany to act, when we can start clearing the streets right now by hitting the biggest offenders where it hurts—in their wallets.