BROOKLYN—New York City’s truck route network is on track to be updated for the first time in decades—which advocates are cheering as a first step to address rising concerns about environmental injustice and traffic safety.
New legislation authored by Councilmember Alexa Avilés and passed in the council last week requires the Department of Transportation (DOT) to overhaul the city’s trucking route maps. The bill—which is expected to be signed by Mayor Eric Adams by the end of the year—also stipulates that the DOT work with local residents, community organizations and other city agencies throughout the redesign process.
“It’s the first time our city has touched the maps in over 50 years,” Avilés said Thursday at a press event on Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. “This is not just a transportation issue—it’s a climate issue, a labor issue, a human rights issue.”
While there have been some localized programs to address transit issues, such as congestion pricing and delivery hub pilot programs, Avilés explained that there’s been no citywide comprehensive assessment of how the city’s rapidly changing trucking landscape should be addressed in an integrated way.
“I have been told that these issues are too large and complex to address,” Avilés said. “We reject that notion, that our communities must suffer the ills of antiquated and racist land-use policies because we are simply unwilling to untangle the bureaucracy we created.”
The Fourth Avenue press event was held on a sidewalk alongside one of the city’s major trucking routes, where 18-wheelers routinely exit the BQE directly into a school zone. Activists and elected officials, including representatives from the NYC Climate Justice Alliance, Eastern Queens Alliance, Transportation Alternatives and State Senator Andrew Gounardes’ office, described a long history of discriminatory transit design and policies in the city. Air pollution levels are high in low-income communities of color, resulting in disproportionately high rates of asthma and other health conditions.
Along with highway proximity, a growing cause of air pollution in residential neighborhoods is the post-COVID-19 e-commerce boom. More than 80 percent of New Yorkers receive a package delivery every week, a 40 percent increase since before the pandemic, according to the DOT. Nearly all of these packages are delivered by truck, bringing a deluge of large, highly pollutant and accident-prone commercial vehicles into residential neighborhoods.
“Trucks are bigger, heavier, more polluting and more dangerous than other vehicles,” said Kathy Park-Price, a Brooklyn parent and organizer with Transportation Alternatives.
“Yesterday, two bikers were [seriously injured] by a truck driver in downtown Brooklyn. A few weeks ago, a 7-year-old was killed by a truck driver in Fort Greene,” Park-Price said. “Cities evolve, and areas that were once completely industrial become thriving neighborhoods and communities with families and children. We need our city planning to catch up.”
The proliferation of last-mile warehouses—centers that facilitate the final stages of online deliveries—has also exacerbated traffic congestion issues and created a new host of health and safety concerns for New Yorkers. Complaints of idling trucks, and of oversized commercial vehicles maneuvering through small, residential streets have increased over the past several years, according to 311 data.
“No child should be afraid of crossing the street because of a truck,” said Carlos Calzadilla-Palaco, the district director for State Senator Andrew Gounardes. “And no child should have years of their lives taken away from them in the future because of the pollution.”
Some fear that much of the trucking issues in the city can’t necessarily be solved by drawing a new map. Gloria Boyce-Charles of the East Queens Alliance says that the city needs to ramp up automatic enforcement, because trucks rarely face consequences for driving in neighborhoods they are not zoned to drive through.
The legislation—which passed 44-1 with zero abstentions— does not have any expected expenditures or revenue. On its own, it does not make any concrete investments in infrastructure or new programming. Rather, it outlines a loose plan for bringing people together to assess and address the transit challenges facing the city.
Advocates hope that through this new legislation, different stakeholders—transportation advocates, community boards, environmental justice activists, and a range of city agencies—will come together to create a shared vision for safer and healthier streets.
“That’s why we need to do the planning, because it happens in silos,” Avilés said. “We are trying to connect those dots.”
Or, as Park-Price added, “Now is when the real work begins.”