MIDTOWN — Virtually every September — except in 2020 when, ironically, the event was actually virtual — the United Nations General Assembly shuts down about a dozen streets and avenues on the East Side of Manhattan to traffic for a week, creating some of the year’s worst congestion for cars, trucks, and buses.
This year, however, the situation is expected to be even worse than we’ve seen in quite some time, in part due to something that’s often associated with reducing street traffic: higher numbers of people working from home.
Despite an exponential increase in the number of people working from home in the latest nationwide survey, there’s more of what a tow truck driver described from behind the wheel while sitting in traffic on Second Avenue and 42nd St. Monday morning.
“It is insane,” he told PIX11 News.
Another driver, in a silver sedan, echoed the sentiment.
“It’s been terrible driving,” he said. “A lot of traffic.”
Monday was the first New York City Gridlock Alert Day of the season.
To avoid heavy traffic backups, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has made a clear recommendation. Its chairman, Janno Lieber, made a public statement about it at a news conference on the subject late last week.
“Remember,” Lieber said, “if you take mass transit, you can avoid all that crazy gridlock.”
At least one regular city bus rider on Monday said that the MTA chairman probably meant the subway, rather than all forms of mass transit.
“[On] First Avenue, there’s no buses,” said Michael Greco, who usually takes a bus on that line.
Instead, during the UN General Assembly, he said, he’s been forced to walk over to Third Avenue to catch a bus, which has in turn gotten stuck in traffic.
“Screwed up my whole day, and made me miss my pulmonary appointment” on Monday morning, Greco said.
Another car driver, who did not give his name, told PIX11 News that even though “driving has been very, terrible,” he said that he’d rather sit in traffic than to ride the subway.
“Can’t take the train,” he said. “It’s dangerous.”
Subway ridership is still averaging about 66 percent of its pre-pandemic levels, and bus ridership is only slightly higher.
For UNGA Week, however, one other form of transportation is on the rise, as was pointed out by Celine Korouma, a Midtown office worker who was on foot, on Second Avenue Monday afternoon.
“On the street, walking, like me,” she said.
She’d observed a noticeably higher number of pedestrians.
A variety of East Side businesses have said that more pedestrian traffic helps their bottom line. It’s a contrast to the reduced foot traffic in the area since the pandemic began.
New information from the Census Bureau bears that out. Compared to the last year before the pandemic, when less than 6 percent of U.S. employees were working from home, the percentage in 2021, the latest year available, tripled to just under 18 percent. In other words, of every six workers in the U.S. at least one is at home.
However, that does not mean that there’s less traffic, according to Sam Schwartz, the traffic engineer and former New York City transportation commissioner.
In that latter role, Schwartz actually invented the word “gridlock.” He said that there’s more of it for UNGA Week this year than in years past, in part because of so many people WFH.
“There are more trucks on the road,” he said, “because we all want to get these individual deliveries because we don’t want to go out. So the pandemic has led to far more traffic.”
Each truck that’s delivering online orders, groceries, and other goods being requested by people who are staying at home, Schwartz added, takes up more room on the already congested streets than cars and SUVs do.
He also pointed out that the number of world leaders coming to New York for UNGA has increased dramatically from 80 last year to 140 this year, and that the U.S. president usually speaks on the Tuesday of UNGA Week.
Typically, traffic volumes get less busy after Tuesday. This year, however, because President Joe Biden spent Monday in London at the funeral for Queen Elizabeth II, his UN speech will be on Wednesday.
So anyone who thinks that traffic will lighten up before late in the week, said Schwartz, “They’re going to be in for a shock.”