No subway? New Yorkers devise Plan B commutes

With a mass-transit strike looming, residents dust off Rollerblades and study ferry schedules.

Getting to work in New York during the best of times can be an adventure: The subways resemble human sardine cans, abusive cabdrivers careen through the streets, and some New Yorkers consider walking a contact sport.

But on Monday, the commute could get really nasty: The nation's largest city may be facing a transit strike that results in millions of residents saddling up their bicycles, slipping into their Rollerblades, or hopping into strangers' cars. The bridges leading into the city will resemble a giant wing-tipped walkathon. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is planning to buy a bicycle, is calling on New Yorkers use their "ingenuity" so almost anything is possible.

That's why Brooklyn resident Lauren Packard is studying the ferry schedule to get to her job as a teacher in Harlem. Public-relations executive Philip Baltz is thinking about driving around the city to pick up his five employees. And Pablo Narvaez, a salesman at retailer Kenneth Cole, is considering just looking for another job closer to his Bronx residence.

Indeed, Mayor Bloomberg warns that a subway strike at this time of year, Christmastime, could be a disaster for the city's economy. Some estimates put the cost at anywhere from $100 million to $350 million a day. He worries that lives will be lost because ambulances or firetrucks won't be able to get through jammed streets.

So no vehicle will be allowed into Manhattan without at least four people in it. "I'm sorry. There are only a certain [number] of roads.... We just don't have the luxury of having cars come in the city without using them to the maximum efficiency that we can," Bloomberg says.

This won't be the first time New Yorkers have met one another as they walk to work. The Transport Workers Union (TWU) struck in the winter of 1966 when a fiery leader by the name of Mike Quill asked the subway motormen and bus drivers to hit the bricks.

"He was very militant in the old style, very confrontational," says Kathleen Hulser, public historian at the New-York Historical Society.

Then, 20 years later, in April 1980, the TWU walked out again, this time for 11 days. Mayor Ed Koch, who devotes 36 pages in his autobiography to what he terms "a victory for all New Yorkers," rallied the masses.

"What we said is that you can save New York by a personal act on your part by walking to work," he recalls. "We do our best when we are attacked."

It also helps to have the law and the courts on your side. Under a New York State statute called the Taylor Law, it's illegal for public employees to go out on strike. In 1966, the courts sent Mr. Quill and other labor leaders to jail. In 1980, Mr. Koch went to court and got fines of two days' pay for every day the workers struck. This week, both sides are busy in court once again, with the city trying to get a preemptive order against a strike.

Because the courts have slapped down the workers in the past, many New Yorkers don't think they will have to improvise for their commute. Brooklyn resident Donna Joseph is not planning to dust off her mountain bike (for a one-hour ride) or line up neighbors to share in a traffic-nightmare into the city. "I don't believe it will happen," she says. Agrees Ms. Packard, "I'm going to wing it. I'll wait until Monday to figure it out."

However, many businesses are already changing gears. Carmel Car & Limousine Service reports that its 300 to 400 cars have been completely booked for local trips all day Monday. At the Michelangelo Hotel in midtown Manhattan, a reservation clerk has received a lot of inquiries. New York Waterway, a privately owned ferry service, will start running Monday at 5 a.m., an hour earlier than normal.

The city also expects to see many entrepreneurs offering to charter their boats for interborough crossings.

While some New Yorkers are plotting and scheming, talks between the union and the Metropolitan Transit Authority continue. So far, the MTA has offered zero wage increase in the first year, and any future increases would be paid for by productivity improvements. The union has lowered its wage demand from 24 percent to 18 percent for three years. Round-the-clock negotiations started Thursday night.

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