Saturday, June 2, 2012

Delivery Trucks, and How New York City Shed a Culture of Anarchy

My work took me to New York City this week, and it gave me a chance to reflect on how much the city has changed in the past 20 years.

The resurgence in tourism is one of the first things you notice when you step out onto the street in New York. The more fundamental change, though, is something you don’t see.

What you don’t see are the delivery trucks. That is a big change, and that is the change that made the city more accessible.

It used to be that the streets in New York were dominated by delivery trucks all day long. It is not that they were such a big part of the traffic, but it takes only one illegally parked truck to reduce the traffic capacity of a block by more than half. And it wasn’t just one. In a commercial district you could expect to come upon two or three delivery trucks per block, parked for ten minutes or an hour at a time in a place designated for driving.

It messed up traffic, to be sure, but it also changed the character of the street. There is an air of safety you can feel on a city street knowing that everyone can be seen from all directions. It wasn’t like that with trucks lined up along the curb blocking the view across the street. The visual obstruction effectively turned a broad avenue into a blind alley. And in the commercial neighborhoods, the most important areas in the city, every block was like this.

New York City had made a point of emphasis of getting delivery trucks to obey parking laws as early as 1980, but no one took it seriously at first. In an anarchic city where double-parking was a way of life, it was hard to imagine a delivery truck towed away. Somehow that changed, and the city eventually towed away enough trucks to get delivery companies and their customers to change their habits.

Obviously, that was one of many things that changed in New York City. Streets that used to be covered with trash have become respectably clean. A transit system that was barely limping along in the 1980s has become almost a model of efficiency, so that fewer people feel the need to drive. The police are a more visible presence on the streets. But as I look at it, the key was the delivery trucks. Having police on the block, after all, means little if you can’t see them and they can’t see you.