Breaking car culture ‘isn’t going to happen,’ say reps of areas with high car ownership
A small number of neighborhoods in New York City are responsible for the vast majority of cars, and their elected officials are wary of calls to “break car culture.”
According to recent census data, New Yorkers collectively own just over 1.4 million cars — but just under a third of all those cars are located in only 10 neighborhoods.
The overwhelming majority of these vehicles are found in areas far from the city’s center with limited public transportation options in Staten Island and Eastern Queens.
“When you talk about breaking the car culture, that isn’t going to happen,” Staten Island Councilmember Steven Matteo told the Brooklyn Eagle. “It’s just not realistic for people here to rely on mass transit when there isn’t enough and what we do have often gets cut.”
In Matteo’s district, 85 percent of households own a car.
Only one Brooklyn neighborhood — Community District 18, which contains Canarsie and Flatlands — was featured in the top 10 car-owning neighborhoods.
More than 70 percent of households in Canarsie and Flatlands own a car, making the area the most densely car-populated part of Brooklyn. In only three other South Brooklyn community districts — Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst and Sheepshead Bay — do more than half of households own a car.
Queens Councilmember Donovan Richards, who represents the southeastern Queens neighborhoods of Far Rockaway, Laurelton and Edgemere, also stressed that reducing the number of cars was unrealistic without investment in alternatives.
“Breaking car culture should be the ultimate goal that we’re striving for, but in order to get there, areas like southeast Queens need to receive consistent, reliable mass transit options that simply don’t exist currently,” Richards said. “We have to make all corners of the borough of Queens more accessible for New Yorkers who don’t have the luxury or the ability to operate and own their own private vehicle before we can ever expect those who do have that privilege to choose mass transit options over their own car.”
The lowest rate of car ownership can be found in the lower Manhattan neighborhoods of Chelsea, Greenwich Village and Hell’s Kitchen. The neighborhoods are represented by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who has recently called for the city to “break the car culture.”
“I can see why those who represent districts with an abundance of mass transit options are eager to break our so-called car culture,” said Councilmember Rory Lancman, who represents a district in eastern Queens where more than 60 percent of households own cars. “But for those of us living in neighborhoods that lack meaningful transit choices, and for the vast majority of us who realistically can’t bike to work, cars are an essential means of getting to where we need to go.”
Johnson believes that honing in on what he calls the “transit crisis” will open the door to fixing other citywide issues. “If we build transit infrastructure that makes it easier to get around by subway or bus, by foot or on a bike, we can reduce the dependence so many New Yorkers have for cars right now,” he told the Eagle. “That’s what I mean when I talk about breaking car culture. It doesn’t mean I think every New Yorker should give up their car. And it’s not an attack on people who live in neighborhoods that are grossly underserved by the subway and need cars to get around. It’s about giving everyone better options so fewer New Yorkers need to drive.”
Minimizing New York City’s reliance on cars will require going through the key neighborhoods where most cars are located, but politicians have lamented the role community boards have played in impeding this effort, especially in the case of building out bike infrastructure.
Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg told Streetsblog earlier this year that “the piece that’s sort of the biggest challenge to building out the bike network” is “going to community boards” for each proposed lane.
Brooklyn City Councilmember Antonio Reynoso, whose district has a rate of car ownership well below the city average, has echoed this sentiment.
“We’re saying, ‘We have the money, we have the infrastructure, we can do it all,’” Reynoso told the Eagle. “That’s not the problem we have, the politics is the problem we have.”
The push to circumvent community boards and local politics will likely continue to stall advocates for alternatives to cars, so long as the majority of car owners remain in communities without political movements against car-centered infrastructure.
Update (Aug. 7 at 1:40 p.m.): This story has been updated with a statement from Corey Johnson.
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