Gotham Gridlock — Then and Now


Streetsblog NYC

Traffic congestion has been driving New Yorkers crazy since forever. Like all the city’s biggest problems, it was quickly handed off to New York’s Finest. In the late 1800’s, well before the automobile, the enfabled Broadway Squad of police officers– six-footers chosen for their brawn and good looks, to appeal to the ladies — was deployed from Bowling Green to 59th Street to escort shoppers and other fearful pedestrians through the mayhem of horse-drawn trucks and carriages and their wild and profane drivers. A Brooklyn counterpart of “Giants” in blue soon followed.

broadway squad

The New York Times, Feb. 15, 1898

By 1903, with the advent of the automobile, the city’s Board of Aldermen promulgated the first traffic regulations and mounted officers were assigned to patrol Fifth Avenue. By 1908 the police commissioner was empowered to control the flow of traffic throughout the newly amalgamated (1898) city. A police traffic school to train specially selected officers came next, and by 1914 the first consolidated accident reports (of which there were many, as we shall see) were being compiled and centrally assembled.

We know all this from a highly informative 1952 Traffic study issued by the Mayor’s Committee on Management Survey, the colossal municipal makeover that dragged the metropolis into the modern era.

The records of the MCOMS fill 23 boxes in the Luther Gulick Papers of the Baruch Archives’s IPA Collection, and a treasure trove they are.



Robert Moses, naturally, dissented. A fellow student of Gulick’s in the Training School for Public Service in the nineteen-teens, the irascible Moses had gone on to a legendary career as bridge and highway mastermind and Parks Commissioner, while also serving on the board of the MCOMS — but that didn’t keep him from publicly excoriating the reorganization effort in 1952.

moses nytimes

He blistered the would be-reformers like Gulick as “white-collar sleuths armed with shiny badges, junior bloodhounds with big bowwow collars, petty expense-account auditors and meter readers…”

moses 2


But the reorganization effort prevailed, thanks in part to exhaustive scholarship like the Traffic study.

traffic report

The report was written by Bruce Smith, the Institute of Public Administration’s criminal justice authority and the nation’s foremost police expert.

With the city’s streets more clogged than ever, it may be useful to look back on that survey and see what’s changed, and what hasn’t, over the 63 years.

The 1950 census rated New York, with a regional population of 13 million, the nation’s densest city, averaging 25,000 people per square mile. By the 2010 census, the metropolitan population had grown to nearly 19 million, with an average density of 31,254 people per square mile.

With the clearing out of overcrowded tenements, Manhattan’s density, though, dropped from 88,000 psm to about 67,000 now, although another spurt is being forecast.

But in the same period, traffic grew exponentially. Smith’s report put the number of registered motor vehicles in the city in 1952 at 1.35 million. Last year, the number topped 2 million. And they all seem to be clogging the streets when you’re crawling crosstown to make a theater curtain or escape town on a summer Friday. (Of course, you’re part of the problem, too, but traffic is always the other guy.)

But for all the increased congestion, the streets have become safer. In 1929, traffic fatalities in the city hit a peak with 1,350 deaths. The toll began steadily falling until, Smith reported, by 1951 it was down to 559. So far this year, 197 people have been killed on the streets, including 109 pedestrians. Mayor Bill de Blasio, pushing his Vision Zero initiative, says his goal is to  eliminate traffic deaths altogether.

Maybe it’s time to bring back the giants of the Broadway Squad — not for their good looks but their authoritative presence at busy crosswalks. Who would dare to block the box?