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Safety, comfort: How NYC’s next mayor can lure back commuters who left

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Thanks to COVID, most New Yorkers are no longer captive to a five-day-a-week commute. How does the next mayor lure people back without choking the city on traffic?

The pandemic altered Goth­amites’ transportation habits on a scale not seen since the subway opened in 1904, or since the Triborough Bridge opened in 1936 and the city entered the ­automobile age.

Thirteen months into the disruption, subway ridership is just one-third of “normal”; commuter-rail ridership is down by three-fourths. People want to avoid enclosed transit spaces, but even car-based bridge and tunnel traffic is still down by 15 percent.

The only form of organized transit to return to pre-pandemic levels? Citibike. Last December, ridership was 13 percent above the pre-pandemic December. East River bicycle crossings increased by 21 percent last year.

Less activity didn’t make roads safer. With more room for drivers to speed, New York saw 243 traffic deaths last year, a 10.5 percent increase over 2019. Drivers were more dangerous to themselves, with a 76 percent increase in driver, passenger and motorcycle deaths.

Improving safety, too, will have to be part of the transit-restoration agenda. It won’t happen by encouraging people to drive or hail cars: Before the pandemic, three-fourths of people came into Manhattan via mass transit, not in a car.

So the next mayor has to get people back on the subways, but he or she can’t do it without convincing people that transit is safe. A worldwide survey done by Sam Schwartz Engineering showed no statistical correlation between growing (masked) ridership and COVID-19 cases.

Vaccines, too, make people more confident.

In the meantime, mayoral candidates can lead by example, taking subways and buses all over the five boroughs. It wouldn’t hurt for some mayoral candidate to take a spouse or a friend on commuter rail out to Long Island or Westchester for a dinner out — to remind suburbanites we’re here.

Long-term, the mayoral candidates should impress upon Sen. Chuck Schumer that new, federal funding for transit construction projects shouldn’t go toward Gov. Cuomo’s pet projects, like a new “Empire Station Complex” on the West Side that requires large-scale demolition of a functional neighborhood.

Rather, money should go ­to digitizing subway signals, to provide more frequent, cheaper service. Even when the pandemic has faded, people aren’t going to want to pack onto subway cars when they don’t have to.

The city needs more bus-only ­express routes, like 14th Street, to relieve pressure on the subways. And people who don’t feel safe on the subway shouldn’t feel unsafe cycling: The city should step up its build-out of protected bike lanes.

Pedal-assist e-bikes help older people and people who aren’t in the greatest of shape to get around by bike, but they don’t belong with slower bike traffic. Wider bike lanes can make room for both.

And since New Yorkers enjoy outdoor dining, the restaurants will need more room, too.

All in all, it’s time to rethink the streets — and make them nicer to walk or cycle down, too.

Many drivers don’t think much of the wooden horses the de Blasio administration puts out to denote a “shared street”; the barriers are run over or stolen. The next mayor should devote capital funding to a system of retractable posts to block off streets or lanes to car and truck traffic as needed, without throwing junky barriers all over the place.

Bus drivers and approved truck drivers could even use an electronic signal to temporarily retract the barriers to access a delivery-only lane. Rockefeller Center would be a good place to start.

And what about outer-borough areas choked by traffic? The Biden administration wants to provide funding to undo the highway mistakes of the past — so the city should at least study what it would take to improve the Cross-Bronx ­Expressway for its residential neighbors.

Then, on the opposite side of town, there is the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, still falling down . . . with little interest from the candidates so far.

The streets don’t have to be a disaster area. With some sustained attention, they could be an asset to attract people back.

Nicole Gelinas is a Manhattan Institute senior fellow. This column, the first in a series, was adapted from MI’s “NYC Reborn” initiative.

Twitter: @NicoleGelinas

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