Streetsblog turned its attention to Roosevelt Island for the first time in three years, with a link to a Roosevelt Island 360 post about reactive island managers "storing" bikes that are left overnight at various bike racks around the island. It got me thinking about the place, and how there are - relatively - few cars there.
It turns out I'm not the only one; a group of Columbia urban-planning students under the direction of Floyd Lapp have been studying the island's transportation challenges for the past semester. (There is also a group of Hunter College students doing the same thing, presumably as part of the 2009 ECAC Urban Planning Championship.) The Columbia students have released their report, but I'll be damned if I can find it online. What I did find is an article in the Main Street Wire (PDF), and more interesting in some ways, a webcast of a brown bag talk that Lapp and his students gave to the NY Metropolitan Planning Council in April. You can get a 512K/s RealVideo stream of the talk, or choose a lower-res or Windows Media stream from this page. (It gets more interesting after the first five minutes.)
So far I'm about half an hour into the talk, and it's got all kinds of interesting details. For example, that the planners of Roosevelt Island wanted it to be completely car-free. Unfortunately, there had been cars on the island for many years, first arriving by ferry and then by elevator from the Queensboro Bridge, and finally over the bridge to Queens that was built in 1955. Once the bridge was built, at a cost of $6 million, it was hard to keep the cars out.
This brings up a distant memory I had: I don't know how old I was or how long ago, but someone said to me, "They oughta just build a bunch of parking garages right outside of Manhattan and ban cars from the island." I've heard it repeated a few times since. Apparently it comes from a 1961 article in Dissent by Paul and Percival Goodman. According to Columbia student Audra (whose last name went by on the screen at about ten minutes in, and I'm not going back to look for it just because they can't be bothered to put up a decent public website), the planners of Roosevelt Island were inspired by that article. They designed it with its own "peripheral parking" - the phenomenally ugly Motorgate, which can be yours if you act now (PDF).
Well, if you've ever been to Roosevelt Island you know that the Motorgate doesn't really work. For a place that was planned to be car-free, there are quite a lot of cars, and the areas where you could let a toddler run free are actually pretty small. In J.H. Crawford's terms, the last car has never left Main Street, and it is not a playground for anyone. The island's two long-term care facilities, Coler and Goldwater Hospitals, have large parking lots with many cars. In 2005, the state (i.e. Pataki)-controlled Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation allowed the developers of the Octagon apartment building to build a 148-car underground garage, over the objections of residents. There's on-street parking up and down Main Street, and just, well, cars in all kinds of places.
So what happened to crush - or at least defer - the idealistic dreams of Roosevelt Island's planners? Well, I'd be interested to some day find out more details, but some possible factors come to mind: one, that people who are in their cars don't want to get on a bus. They want to park as close to their destination as possible, whether it's home at the Octagon or work at Goldwater Hospital. People who live across the street from the Motorgate are probably happy to park there, and people who take the subway or the tram are probably happy to transfer to the Red Bus, but drivers do not want to park and then take the bus to get to their buildings.
The second is that driving is a status symbol, and people with status (but who still feel insecure about it) will fight to maintain their symbols. It probably just started with a few people at the hospitals who thought they were too good to take the tram and bus to work - or even to park at the Motorgate and take the bus. But then someone said, "How come he gets to park right next to the hospital?" and then someone else said, "How come she gets to park right next to the hospital?" and pretty soon it's an insult to deny someone a parking permit.
In any case, it's pretty clear that peripheral parking doesn't work. The park-and-ride lots that the Goodmans so admired have turned out not to be the answer in the outer boroughs and suburbs, and the Motorgate is not the answer for Roosevelt Island. The place was better before that eyesore was built, it would be better off if it had never been built, and it will be worse off if they ever build the fabled "fourth quadrant." It would be a tremendous improvement to tear the whole thing down, and turn the Octagon garage into a biology lab or something.
The very least that should be done is the Columbia students' Shoupian suggestion to boost the parking to market rate and turn the top deck into a green roof. And that makes me think: a big factor in this whole thing is that all the parking on the island has been underpriced, subsidized by the RIOC and the taxpayers of the state of New York. That changes parking from a commodity to a treasure, bestowed on the deserving healers of Coler and Goldwater and coveted by the island elite. Make them pay for it and it turns back into a lump of rock - one of the largest concentrations of concrete in the country.