One of the great problems urban planners face today is a lack of foresight and connectivity. City leaders like to plan for two or three decades into the future, but they hate to figure out how best to keep their municipalities running next year, next month or even next week. New York and its public transit system are no exception. With separate capital and operating budgets, the MTA is planning for the long-term future while fare hikes and service cuts are our short-term destiny.
This week, the great Windy City is taking the chance to glimpse three decades into the future. Chicago, as The Times detailed this windy, has issued the preliminary version of its “Go to 2040” plan. The report explores how Chicago is going to grow to become even more of a super-region in the American midwest while facing the challenges — congestion, transportation, environmental — that come with it.
One of the main centerpieces of the plan concerns Chicago’s public transportion ambitious. Much as our MTA suffers from financial neglect, the Chicago Transit Authority has faced its own fiscal challenges, and at a high level, “Go to 2040” urges city leaders to do what you would expect. It calls for more investment in public transportation infrastructure, a push for making Chicago a high-speed rail hub and a clear commitment to maintenance and expansion of the current commuter rail and El systems. These projects, ideally, would be funded through revenue from congestion mitigation plans.
If those broad strokes of a more nuanced plan than what I’m presenting sounds familiar, well, that’s because it is. Three years ago, Mayor Michael Bloomberg put forth his own three-decade plan, and when PlaNYC 2030 came out, most transit advocates rejoiced. Bloomberg had published his own 16-point plan that would make New York a more sustainable city by 2030. Unfortunately, the plan hasn’t gone as its proponents had wished, and the city had no fallback.
In a PDF report card from April, the minds behind PlaNYC 2030 assessed their progress, and the results were dismaying to say the least. Of the 23 milestones to be achieved by the end, 11 fell into the “not yet achieved” category, and only four are fully achieved with a handful of others in progress. Of those initiatives not attained, the big ticket items stick out. The city hasn’t addressed its congestion problems; it has not improved freight movement or capacity; it has not increased capacity on commuter rail or key congested subway routes. While not a total failure, increased bike lane mileage and a few half-hearted bus-rapid transit routes are not the milestones the city had hoped to be celebrating this year.
Meanwhile, on a day-to-day basis, the MTA is struggling to make ends meet. In 2008, then-MTA head Elliot Sander spoke of the authority’s own 40-year plan and the promises of the circumferential subway route. Just over two years later, current authority CEO and Chair Jay Walder has had to engage in a nearly unprecedented slashing of service and will soon announce some very steep fare hikes. The MTA might have the outlines of a plan for 2050, but it does it have one for 2011?
That is the essence of city government right now. It’s far easier to write reports about the city decades from now when my theoretical children are my current age. It’s easy for politicians and bureaucrats in New York and Chicago who will be long gone from their jobs by 2030 and 2040 to look toward a better, more sustainable future. But they also have to look toward next year. They have to establish a fallback plan when congestion pricing proves inanely politically unpalatable. They need to answer the funding crises of today before setting forward the spending plans of tomorrow. It is a lesson though that often goes unlearned.