President’s Letter: June 2024

Monthly observations and insights from MAS President Elizabeth Goldstein

June 28, 2024

Mexico City is one of the world’s greatest cities. Vibrant, rich in culture and art, a fascinating and complex history, as well as green and design-forward. I was thrilled to go back after an almost ten-year absence. I had a magical experience in the city all those years ago. Traveling with the Board of the City Parks Alliance, we were treated to amazing adventures to brand new parks and the world-famous Chapultepec Park. We dined in the Civic Cemetery, several days before Día de Muertos, with a guide to introduce us to the famous and infamous buried there.

And all those things remain true, but this time I also noticed other things. Amongst them were air pollution and congestion. Perhaps it was the time of year or, traveling as a free agent, I was more prone to be exploring and willing to get lost this time. One morning we went to see one of Luis Barragán’s last private commissions in Mexico City, a private home a seeming stone’s throw from Chapultepec Park. Since Chapultepec Park and its extraordinary Anthropology Museum was next on the list that day it seemed an easy walk. Not so much. We ended up navigating narrow sidewalks along major arterials, not unlike New York’s — hot, polluted and definitely NOT pedestrian friendly. (See MAS’s latest work on New York City’s arterials.) Our eyes stung, our breathing was labored, and six-lanes of divided road is not Mexico City’s best look.

The Palacio Postal in Mexico City. Photo: Elizabeth Goldstein. Modifications: photo cropped.

All of this made me appreciate the Federal Clean Air Act. Mexico City is populated by 9.2 million people and the greater metropolitan area is 21 million. They are confronted by not just air pollution, but rapidly diminishing water resources and earthquakes. That is a lot to handle all at once, while managing all the other functions of a lively city.

To be fair, Mexico City has been working for more than a decade to correct the air pollution problem. They are up against a geography that doesn’t help, a basin at 7,000 feet above sea level surrounded by mountains and volcanos that rise to 16,000 feet. And, ironically for a city facing severe drought conditions, this physical setting makes it vulnerable to flooding.

However, the city has been aggressively building mass-transit. They have been restricting car access to the city and encouraging biking, with one of the largest bike-sharing programs in the world outside of China and a system of bike lanes that are separated from the rest of the roadbed and sidewalk.

The shocking news of Governor Hochul’s “pause” on congestion pricing arrived during my stay in Mexico City. I was stunned. We were literally less than a month away from full implementation after decades of advocacy and public decision-making. Major infrastructure has already been installed on the streets of New York at a huge cost. That infrastructure should have been a debit against the income that congestion pricing generated, but now the bill is all ours!

My experience in Mexico City sent me to the internet in search of comparisons between New York City and Mexico City’s progress against 2030 climate goals. The worldwide goal is an increase of 1.5 degrees. New York City is not close to the target but is closer at 2.0 than Mexico City is at 4.2.* To be clear, no city is on target for that except San Francisco now. But the cities where cars are prevalent parts of the culture and reinforced by an enormous footprint – namely, Los Angeles and Mexico City – are further away from the target.

For many the question of air pollution is a question of a life with asthma or not. Those living near our highways are subject to this health hazard every day. Somewhere I read that if you live in Mexico City, it is like smoking 40 cigarettes a day. And it is one thing if you choose to do that but totally another if it is forced on you by your life circumstances.

I wonder what those climate projections for New York City would look like with congestion pricing in place. It would be achieving two important goals at once. One is reducing congestion, which directly improves air quality in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens because it reduces traffic overall. (It is unclear what the impacts would be in the Bronx and Staten Island.) The other is investing in badly needed public transportation improvements in all five boroughs that would encourage people to take mass transit instead of driving. That sounds like it could be a virtuous circle, doesn’t it?

The implications of shutting off the anticipated spigot of congestion pricing revenue are widespread. Those dollars would have supported construction jobs, and the workers that build our train cars and our buses. We will lose Federal money that is pledged to projects like the expansion of the Second Avenue subway that was going to receive $3 billion dollars if there was a match. That match can’t happen now. Investments in more reliable trains, a safer and more efficient Penn Station and handicapped access throughout the system are all on “pause” too.

2030 is five and a half years away. I would like to believe we could get there. Now I am not sure. However, one thing is inescapable, if you put off the response to climate change until later, it doesn’t get easier, it gets harder and more likely to bring catastrophic consequences.

I hope your travels this summer bring you less cause for contemplation and a return to a city more firmly committed to doing what is hard, but right.

Elizabeth Goldstein Signature

Elizabeth Goldstein
President, Municipal Art Society of New York

* According to the Oliver Wyman Forum.

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