Home Public Transit Policy Planning for the future before planning for tomorrow

Planning for the future before planning for tomorrow

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

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Marty Barfowitz July 20, 2010 - 1:35 am

You make some decent points here but you underestimate the powerful role that a citywide long-term plan plays in day-to-day policy-making. PlaNYC 2030 provides a valuable framework for a city government that can be sprawling, bureaucratic and unfocused. City agencies now must do their work within the context of this long-term sustainability plan. They must set targets and meet them (or, at least, play lip service to the overarching goal).

NYC DOT is the best example of this. All of the work that is now taking place to make NYC more bike-friendly, walkable and less car-oriented is being done within the context of the agency’s Sustainable Streets plan, which was a direct off-shoot of PlaNYC 2030. Commissioner Sadik-Khan constantly refers back to PlaNYC in her talks. For advocates, the plan really comes in handy in neighborhood-level fights with local NIMBY’s. It establishes a larger justification for bike, bus and ped projects that our often opposed for parochial reasons.

The long-term plan also gives change-agents in city government a framework for critiquing and tools for improving parts of city government that aren’t living up to the promise. For example, every time NYC EDC builds another big box store with a massive parking lot and no connection to transit, we are now able to ask City Hall how the project fits in to its own long-term sustainability plan. Before PlanNYC, it would have just been a conversation about dollars and cents and “economic development.” We now have the ability to make EDC justify its projects in terms of long-term sustainability or at least show the agency to be the embarrassment that it often is.

And think about this: Thanks to PlaNYC you can sit here on your blog and bitch and moan that 11 of 23 long-term sustainability milestones have not yet been achieved. Without the plan, you wouldn’t even be able to even complain about that. At least we now know that those targets aren’t being hit. That’s a GOOD thing.

Alon Levy July 21, 2010 - 3:22 am

Marty, what you’re is saying that a plan succeeds because it shows us all the milestones it’s failing to achieve.

There are really three distinct concepts here: urban sustainability, PlaNYC, and JSK’s actions. PlaNYC partly bastardizes sustainability by focusing on the sort of managerial and feel-good projects Bloomberg feels he’s good at, and sometimes gets even those wrong. (For example: in middle and high latitudes, planting trees does nothing to reduce the heat island effect, because trees are quite dark. Only low-latitude trees have significantly lower albedo than what replaces them.) Then, JSK partly bastardizes PlaNYC, by making sustainability a hipster issue, and ignoring Upper Manhattan and the Outer Boroughs even when they ask for bike lanes.

More in general, the current crop of urban reformers are not at all concerned with the possibility that they’re just going to export pollution to the suburbs. It’s sad, because this is exactly what happened in Curitiba under Jaime Lerner, and what happened to homelessness in New York under Koch and Giuliani.

The concerns that Bloomberg and similar leaders are turning inner cities into playgrounds of the rich isn’t just NIMBYism; there’s a valid global concern underlying it. If New York City’s emissions go down and its suburbs’ go up, few will blame Bloomberg for moving pollution elsewhere; more likely, the media and other politicians will praise Bloomberg for cutting emissions.

Marty Barfowitz July 20, 2010 - 1:38 am

One more point: PlaNYC wasn’t just a “spending” plan. It was very much oriented around trying to solve the transit “funding crisis of today” via congestion pricing. Overall, it was a wise thing for the City to propose congestion pricing as part of the larger long-term sustainability plan.

Caelestor July 20, 2010 - 2:27 am

Before you reach 2030, you gotta pass through 2020. Let’s hope for everybody’s sake that the SAS actually opens sometime before then.

Skip Skipson July 20, 2010 - 8:40 am

While long term planning is needed, I can’t take Bloomberg that seriously when he has a vision/long term plans for NYC 2030 but will leave office in 2012. How do we know that the next administration will continue to work on Bloombergs NYC 2030 vision?

JAR July 20, 2010 - 9:08 am

All these politicians see the State of the Union and Apple introducing new products, and try and get excessively visionary.
It’s a lot easier to write dream reports and make powerpoints – when you’ll be long gone if an objective goes unmet – than to aggressively handle challenges today.

ferryboi July 20, 2010 - 9:55 am

I plan on moving out of NYC within 5 years, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. This city and state are making it harder every year to live here. Raise taxes, waste money, cut subway and bus service as jobs hemmorhage and rents go up. Not exactly a good equation for keeping residents from leaving. It’s happened in NYC before (remember the 60s-70s?) and will happen again.

Kai B July 21, 2010 - 7:54 am

Well, crime and the state of the schools also had a lot to do with the exodus in the 60s and 70s. Yes, NYC is expensive, but some people, like myself, are willing to deal with that for the benefits of city living. New York City has a plethora of employers. This makes it very attractive to the post-college crowd. Not to mention the relative stability of having other companies around. If you lose your job you can find another similar company to apply to. You can’t really do that in a one-company town out in the countryside.

As for the cuts in service: just about every municipality in the country is having to deal with that right now, often much more severely.

SEAN July 20, 2010 - 11:27 am

Take a look at this article from Westchester County Business Journal

A nod to TOD
Bob Rozycki | Jul-16-10

From coast to coast, TOD is the hot acronym in urban design.

Transit-oriented development builds on a foundation consisting of walkability and sustainability. It eschews cars in favor of trains and buses.

It marks a return to a former way of living, before cars became the dominant means of transportation and newly poured cement highways led families out of cities and into suburbs.

Automobiles literally changed the face of the New York City metropolitan region. Today’s TOD is the antithesis of the highways, parkways, bridges and tunnels created at the hand of master planner Robert Moses.

The American Dream of owning a home in the suburbs is seeing a tidal change.

Demographics are changing with more people leaning toward urban living, said John Nolon, a professor at Pace Law School in White Plains and a proponent of transit-oriented development.

“Suburban living is changing. The focus is returning to urban living and providing livable and walkable communities,” Nolon said. “Transit-oriented development is a core of that.”

Boost for the tax base
To help achieve the goal of TOD is where Metro-North Railroad steps in.

Plagued by a daunting $800 million budget deficit, but looking to the future, Metro-North is leveraging its surface parking lots at its stations to attract development via land deals with the appropriate communities.

The railroad, working with the municipal governments, wants to turn the parking lots into viable, money-making and tax-producing entities such as housing and retail.

“The TOD pipeline is chock-full,” said Randall J. Fleischer, senior director of business development, facilities and marketing with Metro-North. Municipalities up and down the Hudson, Harlem and New Haven train lines have expressed interest in TODs.

“Progression (of the projects) is dictated by local leadership, residents and the economy.”

In an attempt to bring cohesion to a fragmented business district, Harrison Mayor/Supervisor Joan Walsh welcomes the proposal set for the 3.5 acres of parking lots owned by the railroad.

Walsh calls the proposed site, “Main Main,” as in prime real estate.

The plan calls for 12,200 square feet of residential space and 45,000 square feet of retail to be built in two phases. Also included is a 596-spot parking garage that would be hidden behind the retail and residential buildings that would front Halstead Avenue.

“It will be a gigantic plus for the tax base,” Walsh said.

Nolon agreed, saying there was a hidden plus.

“More people who are returning to cities don’t have children, so there is no burden on the schools.”

In return for building the garage, which will include municipal parking in addition to commuter, the railroad will deed the land to Harrison, Walsh said.

Long time coming
Costs to draft zoning regulations and design guidelines for the TOD in Harrison as well as to prepare an RFP is being paid in part by $50,000 from a state Environmental Protection Fund Smart Growth grant.

The city of Poughkeepsie received a $40,000 grant to undertake market research and an economic analysis for TOD scenarios for land near its train station.

Mount Vernon received a $35,000 grant to allow it to do a market analysis to “determine the full economic potential of the creation and expansion mixed-use” of a TOD “with a focus on attracting new businesses near existing transit facilities.”

In Harrison, the requests for proposals (RFPs) are expected to go out in November or December. With the test borings already done, Walsh said “We’ve tried to anticipate every eventuality and include it into the RFP.”

Declining to disclose their names, the mayor said there are nine developers interested in the project. Barring any delays, Walsh said, “I would hope to break ground by spring or summer of 2012.”

Harrison has been trying to get someone to develop the property for 35 years. Past proposals have included a hotel as well as apartment buildings.

Donald Cecil agreed it has been a long time coming.

“I think it’s very positive. It will upgrade the quality of the area,” said Cecil, who is a board member with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and chairman of the Westchester County Board of Transportation.

Metropolitan American
Another positive aspect of TODs, Nolon said, is reducing pollution.

“The global perspective has to be taken into consideration. Do we want to reduce dependence on foreign oil? Worry about mitigating climate change? Then you need to get people out of cars,” he said.

“We need to watch Albany and Washington for climate action plans. No longer can we afford being dependent on a fossil-fuel society.”

In May, Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution released a report called The State of Metropolitan American. In part, it faulted lawmakers for flaws in federal policies that have “enabled the sort of energy-intensive, distended growth patterns familiar to most metropolitan areas.”

The report stated: “Reauthorization of the federal transportation law should reward and direct greater alignment between housing and transportation planning at the state and local levels; condition federal affordable housing and transit funds on the coordinated use of both.”

While Westchester County and the eastern side of the Hudson River may be rail-centric, Nolon points out buses are also an important aspect of transit-oriented development.

Albany and Schenectady are connected via a rail line that carries Amtrak trains and does not afford true commuter stops. But, Nolon said, “It has a strong bus rapid transit (BRT) system that connects the tri-cities of Albany, Troy and Schenectady.”

Buses could be an integral part of the proposed Tappan Zee Bridge/I-287 Corridor Project and they in turn would be supplemented by trains, according to Metro-North’s Fleischer.

For example, someone in Ossining could take the train to Tarrytown and then board a bus to cross the Tappan Zee and go to the Palisades Center mall in Rockland.

While there has been some initial opposition to the TODs, Nolon points out that there has always been opposition to change in the status quo.

“The two things Americans hate are density and sprawl. Change is an absolute necessity. It all has to be mediated by common sense.”

Eric F. July 20, 2010 - 11:59 am

Great article. I liked this part:

“More people who are returning to cities don’t have children, so there is no burden on the schools.”

Excellent, a planning ethos that creates a self-contained world unfriendly to families with kids.

Alon Levy July 21, 2010 - 3:07 am

Thanks to Eric F for pointing out one really stupid error in the article. Manhattan has in fact undergone a baby boom in the last ten years, as more people find it family-friendly.

More errors: the last quote by Nolon is completely content-free. Westchester is auto-centric rather than rail-centric, except among people who commute to Manhattan. Albany’s bus system gets trivial ridership.

Eric F. July 21, 2010 - 9:28 am

There’s also this gem:

“For example, someone in Ossining could take the train to Tarrytown and then board a bus to cross the Tappan Zee and go to the Palisades Center mall in Rockland.”

No one is going to do this. If you really need an explanation as to why that is, let me know.

Alon Levy July 22, 2010 - 11:50 am

I don’t need an explanation. I know it already: Metro-North wouldn’t even think about timing the transfer or having the bus stop at such a place as to involve minimal walking from the platforms. Where both are standard operating procedure, for example Zurich, people transfer all the time. Where neither is, for example New York, they don’t.

Caelestor July 20, 2010 - 2:11 pm

“The two things Americans hate are density and sprawl.”

What do they like then?

SEAN July 20, 2010 - 2:56 pm

Actually they don’t mind sprawl. What they don’t like is 1. any other drivers on the road beside themselves, 2. the consequences of sed sprawl & 3. having government paying for such items as public transit.

Hay those are my tax dollars! I don’t want my taxes waisted on services I’ll NEVER use!

Alon Levy July 21, 2010 - 2:58 am

Americans like density and sprawl, in areas other than where they live.

Kai B July 21, 2010 - 7:46 am

I’d say some like density (those happily living in NYC) , some like sprawl (those happily living in the suburbs).

Andrew July 20, 2010 - 10:48 pm

Long-term planning and short-term planning are both very important.

But long-term plans need to be distinguished from dreams. Plans have to be realistic, and the longer term they are, the more uncertainty has to be included.


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