These 3 pictures were taken at the intersection of 3rd Avenue and 57th Street on a Saturday at 4pm before the traffic light turned green:
Hard to blame any one driver for this mess. You see every problem here is a compilation of a whole bunch of impatient drivers, too much traffic, and bad street planning for the lack of foresight into the amounts of traffic we'd have in our present time.
The blocks, distances between streets and avenues, are too small align the traffic lights in a pattern that lets traffic flow at even speeds and spaces in all directions. You can bet that this jam up is due to a red light at 57th street and 2nd avenue in an otherwise green light traffic sequence for east bound traffic. All traffic heading to the 59th Street Bridge gets the green light until this point, culminating in a pile up that is too big for one city block to hold. A lot of drivers then make a decision to bang a left on 3rd Avenue. All those cars that make the left force themselves into the 2 right hand lanes to make the next 2 rights to continue in their direction.
Here's the crucial traffic jam moment:
The cars making the left on 3rd avenue ignore the green arrow for their left and also make their turns from the right lane as well, I'd do the same. There isn't enough time permitted to let the necessary traffic turn left. The left turners block on coming traffic and thus block 57th street from flowing in both directions, and as they turn left they cross over to the right most lanes on 3rd avenue, jamming up that as well. 3rd Avenue then, gets backed up for anywhere between 2 and 10 blocks. This jam in turn, can block crosstown traffic in quite a few streets, 56th, 55th, 54th, etc...
You'd think other than this, things could be okay, but that may be just one essential part to midtown congestion in the afternoon. 57th street continuing westward way from this traffic jam will have each traffic light against it, turning red at each block, and perhaps many cars will look to take 57th street to get to the west side, to avoid getting stuck in a smaller street, where any one car or truck more likely will bring traffic to a standstill. Many people might look to get to the Lincoln Tunnel. At times it isn't unreasonable to have a time of more than 30 minutes to get across town, and this distance isn't much more than 1mile long.
In conclusion, one traffic light might be to blame:
Perhaps if the overall light pattern on 57th street were to be switched to an even slower speed in the busy hours, and if the light at 2nd Avenue were more in sync with the rest of 57th street the problem would get a little better. Is there a reason I haven't thought of for why that light at Second Avenue is always off cue? I know when traffic cops are present, they often let the traffic move through the red light at 57th and 2nd Ave when 2nd Avenue empties out. In summary most of this mess seems to be fixable with a longer green light for east bound 57th street when it crosses 2nd avenue in the afternoons.