The Physics of Staten Island — An Editorial
It’s Time to Face the Role the Immutable Laws of Physics Play in the Borough’s Transportation Crisis
Around the time that my parents moved us here from Queens, Wikipedia shows that the population of Staten Island was 295,443 humans. That was in 1970. Ten years later, in 1980 as I was ready to start High School, the population had grown by 17% to 352,029. By comparison a modest increase in population of less than ten percent between the time I started high school and the time I got married, my new wife and I, (she a native of the South Shore of the Island), moved to Seattle, Washington, where we spent our twenties and started our family just prior to returning, to a Staten Island to an astounding human population of 443,728. A 33% jump in population in just about 30 years. 1% growth per year on average if you are fast and loose with math as I tend to be. And here we sit today, at 476,143 (this last number is a 2019 number and not an official Census count, but you get the idea), totaling us out at a 38% increase in the population of humans, since my family’s arrival here in the late 1960’s.
But that’s the math, not the physics. If you are ready for the physics, I am here to lay it on you. The area of Staten Island in 1970 with a population of 295,443 humans was 58.69 square miles. Currently, in the year of 2020 — a full fifty years later, you wouldn’t believe what the area of Staten Island is. Here’s a clue — it’s 58.69 square miles. And that is the physics. The Island is not getting any bigger, yet we continue to stuff the Island with humans, houses, cars, and widened roads. Now, before you dismiss this as a rant against people from anywhere else moving to Staten Island, I can assure you that it isn’t. My Rock is your Rock, and you are certainly welcome where ever you are coming from. I hope we can be good neighbors to each other. Having cleared that issue up let’s focus on what’s really happening with physics.
For every human here on the Rock there is (according to an SI Live article updated on January 3, 2019 — found here — https://www.silive.com/news/2016/11/staten_island_has_more_cars_pe.html#:~:text=Staten%20Island%20has%201.6%20vehicles,households%20from%20the%20U.S.%20Census.) 1.6 cars per household here on Staten Island. That’s a lot of cars.
Consider, if population were to grow at a modest rate, the current number cited in the article of 1.75 cars per citizen in our Borough, of 1% per year (on average), over the next ten years, and the number of cars per person were to grow at a commensurate rate, how many cars would that be? That’s a lot of cars. Let me unpack it a little less scientifically. If 1 out of every 3 kids graduating high school obtains a car upon graduating, each year, how many more cars is that per year. 500? 1000? 3000?
Now consider the physics. With Island population seemingly on a constant growth pace, (even if we are conservative at .5% year over year), we have already begun to run out of spaces to build. Near the house I grew up in there was a house that sold its backyard to make room for — you guessed it, another house. We are dealing with a finite container, and a constant flow of new mass in the form of housing, people, and automobiles onto already crowded roads that can only be widened so much. At the rates stated above, how long can current expansions of the Staten Island Expressway continue to support the increase in traffic that it will see with population and vehicle growth. More importantly in evaluating the City’s North Shore 18 point traffic “plan” (https://www.silive.com/news/2016/11/north_shore_traffic_study_city.html) — the key points struck all have to do with road widening, signal timing, turning prohibitions, and a number of other “control the bleeding” measures that will make a difference for a while, maybe. But in the long run these measures will only serve to temporarily mitigate some of the issues while root cause of the issue will remain. It will not expand the Island’s passable surface area, and it will not reduce the number of cars. It’s that simple.
Staten Island needs transportation alternatives. Period. For full transparency, it should be known that I am an avid cyclist. But I no longer ride on Staten Island, or only ride on Staten Island rarely. Why? Because the physics of Staten Island’s transportation problems and the inherent anger in the driving population, caused by the insurmountable traffic issues make Staten Island way too dangerous for a cyclist of even good bike handling skills. I have ridden in Uruguay, Argentina, Mexico, California, Washington, Oregon, Florida, Delaware, Maryland, climbed Whiteface twice, Canada, France, Italy, Portugal, Germany, Belgium, and — gasp — New Jersey! I have climbed Mont Ventoux three times, participated in a dozen international races, survived the fabled cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, and I am not even close to finished. But I won’t ride on Staten Island anymore. I have traversed more one lane tiny European roads on my beloved bicycle than I have had hot lunches. But I won’t ride on Staten Island anymore.
Even in the once friendly confines of Great Kills Park, near the marina, once a haven for cyclists seeking an opportunity for honest exercise, lap intervals, and no traffic lights, the scene has changed and the traffic and anger of the drivers has become unbearable. I experience the traffic on my way to the park. Up over Manor Road, down on to Rockland, and then waiting sometimes 7–10 minutes for someone to make a left turn at the light up ahead, before slipping down residential streets to get to Tysen’s Lane so I can cut through to Hylan Boulevard. Admittedly, if I had a bus, a garbage truck, or a bike in front of me while I had just sat at that light, I might be a little impatient. And so physics. “Get on the sidewalk!” “Get out of the ****ing road!”, “Go back to France!” (my personal favorite — believe me angry guy who yelled that, if I could I would). And so, physics — the blunt impact of fighting for space that will never exist. While our transportation plan makes plans for more surface transportation, we have an outright refusal to make room for this existential threat to the Staten Island lifestyle that somehow makes people think that because I am on a bike, that I am here to take your SUV away.
Back to physics, it should be noted that when an irresistible force meets an immovable object there is a collision that will benefit the object with the largest mass and the greatest momentum. In other words, me going over your windshield, into your opening door, or into the gutter that you just forced me into when you just brushed by me at less than 1 foot between us. Make no mistake, I am not advocating for bike lanes. I am advocating for bicycle recognition, and civility.
Suddenly, this is more important to more Islanders than you know. As Covid hit New York, more and more New Yorkers have been purchasing bikes and getting out there for exercise and transportation. The bike lanes over the Bayonne and the Goethals Bridge’s offer new opportunities for exploration beyond the Island, as well as toll-free commuting to those sections of New Jersey. TOLL FREE! Imagine keeping the toll money, the gas money, and burning the calories to get to and from work each day and the difference that would make in your life. All while skipping the traffic. Perhaps some day we will open the gateway to the rest of the city and allow bikes on the Verrazano more than once per year, but in the meantime, there is still the ability to take your bike on the Staten Island Ferry to access Manhattan. Imagine. Oh the places you’ll go. Maybe. The issue with all of those things, dodging angry and distracted drivers fighting the physics of traffic that will never improve given the associated math, and the associated growth.
We have no other alternatives. This Island must learn something other than the car, whether that be foot, bicycle, ebike, scooter, or what have you. Because the buses and cars will continue to expand, like ten pounds of prosciutto in a five pound bag, and it won’t be pretty when it passes (I say passes because we are there) critical mass.
And so I propose this my fellow Islanders. Civility. I am not here to take your car, your SUV, your Access-a-Ride van (yes, I remember that day my friend, and you will kill someone some day if you do that again), but rather to show that there are alternatives. We can coexist. So perhaps we can pledge to each other.
- The ban on horns and middle fingers — let’s try a wave instead. I will wave at intersections to get your attention and make sure you see me. I am not holding my hand in a “halt” position, I am actually thanking you for noticing me. And let’s face it, the finger just ruins everyone’s day and makes the whole day about that. Same goes for the blaring horns.
- If we don’t want bike lanes — fine, but let’s respect the 5 foot passing rule. In their current form, Staten Island bike lanes are a series of useless placebo road paintings that no one respects. Especially when you have to dodge a dozen parked city owned vehicles blocking said bike lanes, and jut out into traffic to get around it. If you don’t have five feet for a few seconds to pass me, don’t swerve unsafely into the next lane, just chill for a few seconds, it will subside, and I will abide. The truth is, I am very likely already riding as close to the right as I can safely go. I can see the holes, debris, and dangers in the road (especially near the gutters), you will not be able to see those dangers in your car. I am not there to ruin your day, I promise.
- I will not run red lights and stop signs. I may jump a light early if it will ease the tension at the intersection to make sure that I can get safely to the right before you get too close when the light turns green. But I promise I will only do so when it is safe, and I feel that my going makes the whole green light scene safer.
- I am probably going as fast as I can. If you can’t pass safely, please know I am looking for the first, best, safest chance to get out of your way. In Italy, where the roads are much smaller — they respect it, we can learn from that.
- You might be going too fast. If you are passing me and you are 10–15 mph over the speed limit — come on — let’s be honest now — you create a very unsafe situation, and if by chance you lose control of the car for even a split second as you pass me at that speed, you end me. I die. Simple.
- I bike for exercise, I bike for transportation, I bike because I have a passion for it. The one thing I do not bike for, is to ruin your day. I promise. I am mostly just like you, but I am on a bike.
- It was once said by a professional cyclist that “it’s amazing the chances a person will take with someone else’s life, just because they are on a bicycle”. It’s true. What you think might be funny, is not. It can be very distracting and can create a very dangerous situation. Harassment of any kind, in or on any vehicle, is bullying, plain and simple. I cannot count the number of people that are very brave as they pass me and pull a stunt, and won’t even make eye contact when they see me along side them unexpectedly at the next red light. That’s right. I can ride THAT fast. Surprise!
- We agree that riding on the sidewalk in NYC is illegal. It’s also dangerous. Most bike paths in NYC are built for recreational riders, walkers, and runners. Bike commuters and road cyclists prefer the road. They belong in the road. A bicycle is a vehicle after all.
- Can I talk you into trying riding a bike this year? I would be happy to ride with you until you feel comfortable riding on your own. You will enjoy it I promise. Please don’t be intimidated by the kids in the fancy bike kits and flashy bikes. If you are on a bike, being safe, having fun, you are doing it right. No one else can tell you how to ride. Be safe, have fun — that’s it.
- Please notice me. Look for me. If you can look for joggers, motorcyclists, and dog-walkers, you can look for me. I am always looking for you, and because of physics, I often yield without you knowing I was even there.
- Last but not least, we cannot alter our physics, but we can alter how we deal with it. Smarter transportation, civility, and sharing the road will go further for all of us than any 500 meter paint on bike line.