It is a lovely fairy tale. Someday soon, Gotham will lose not only its soot, grime, and crime, but also its cars. In a post-COVID world, we will take clean buses and walk or bicycle around Manhattan, while the only private vehicles will be those making deliveries. Trees will sprout up to give us shade. Parks will wind along the edges of the island, connecting us all while accommodating rising sea levels. The Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges will become pedestrian and public transportation promenades. The air will continue to be as clear as it has been during the pandemic, and the stones and bricks of our building will shine in that crystalline air. Perhaps office blocks will turn into vast lofts able to accommodate our new work-at-home lives. Beyond the reaches of New York, the rest of the world will rediscover nature, wars will be a thing of a past, and we will live in a techno-boosted version of Eden.
A Biden regime will make this all possible with a plan that will make the New Deal look like amateur hour by investing billions in the environment, health, and education for all. We will rebuild our infrastructure—but this time for trains, human powered transportation, and perhaps electric vehicles. These are the visions that are now floating around the common spaces we have right now: the internet and social media. Such dreams are inspiring and necessary, but there is reason for caution: In countries that have recovered from the pandemic, it appears to be business as usual, with few signs of any structural changes. But, then again, most of those places were already well on their way to building some elements of this more just and sustainable future, while we seem to be moving backward.
The most concrete of the post-COVID proposals in this country is the one Practice for Architecture and Urbanism, working with Buro Happold, produced for the New York Times. Its premise is simple: “[We] propose a singular, sweeping change—to ban all private vehicles in Manhattan other than taxis, buses, emergency and freight vehicles, Access-A-Ride, and ride-share services soon after the pandemic abate—in order to transform not only Manhattan but all of the boroughs who are forced to bear its traffic.” The result, they write, would “usher forward a vastly more equitable, ecological, and enjoyable city that would recover faster from its current economic and inequity crises because as our proposal illustrates, our streets would engender fairer health outcomes, better climate resilience, responsible waste management, and faster, more pleasant commutes for essential workers who today must compete for invaluable space on our clogged regional arterials with those wealthy enough to drive into and within Manhattan.”
The images PAU has produced to illustrate this vision (and those the Van Alen Institute commissioned for reimagining the Brooklyn Bridge) are indeed enticing, and I do think the premise is correct: the simple act of banning private cars could produce these changes. That is because Manhattan is an isolated place by definition, has an average vehicle speed of less than five miles an hour already, and has been making it more difficult for cars to use its streets for years. It is, in other words, not too far away from realizing this fairy tale. If the plan also limited itself to the area below 125th Street, I would not be surprised to see it be implemented in the next few years.
That last caveat, however, also reveals the vision’s shortcoming. It could become reality because Manhattan is a bastion of privilege. The generally wealthy people of this borough have enough public transportation options already (even if some of those subways and buses need massive investment) and live in such a confined area that they can afford a world without cars. For those who can buy or rent the million-dollar studio apartments or the $100 million penthouses, who can pay the high taxes that support all that infrastructure, and who do not need to commute many miles for either work or such essential services as schooling or health care, the PAU plan is doable. What’s more, the “ribbon park” around the island, designed to soak up excess water, is funded and will be built, and I have no doubt cars will, if they are not banned, be exceedingly rare there within a decade.
In the meantime, the other boroughs, not to mention the rest of the metropolitan area and the vast hinterland that Saul Steinberg relegated to obscurity in his famous New Yorker cover, will not benefit from this vision. Those areas will remain dependent on cars, they will have little public infrastructure, they will be face dire consequences from climate change, and they will not have the access to services necessary to be just and open to all.
Downtown areas in the United States are not the problem. They are on the way, however haphazardly, to solving themselves, and not just because of the pandemic, but because the social unrest that followed on its heels will give added incentive. This is where rich people live and work. Designers can make those structural changes look pretty and speed them along with nice renderings to help with fundraising, but their role is in fact minimal.
Where we need PAU and such visionaries is in that nebulous world beyond the Hudson and the East River. It is there that we should be working to realize the fabulous world invoked by Tom Roberts in his by now famous “Probably Tomfoolery” YouTube video, “The Great Realisation,” in which he tells a future child how we indeed came to live in a much better post-COVID world: "The car keys gather dust as people look forward to their runs.” Roberts offers few concrete solutions, saying only to his young listener: “Dream hard enough and some of it will come true.” His images show us snuggling together, making music, enjoying the outdoors (with animals liberated from poisoned environments and human encroachment), and living in harmony.
The vision is so compelling because it is a fairy tale. I would suggest, however, that it is this dream that architects should concentrate on making true, rather than just figuring out how to enable privileged Manhattanites breathe easier.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the full name of the firm PAU. ARCHITECT regrets the error.
Read PAU's response to this piece here.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.