Archive for Public Transit Policy
In Washington, D.C, in London and in countless international cities, not all subway rides are created — or, more importantly, billed — equal. It costs more for subway riders to travel long distances and, similarly, less for shorter rides. In New York, zone fares are anathema to our very existence. It costs the same to go from the Rockaways to Washington Heights as it does from Times Square to Penn Station. But does that make sense?
As payment systems have become more flexible, zone fares have grown in use, but zone implementations can vary. In London, for instances, fares are based on distance from the central business district (or Zone 1) while in D.C., fares are based purely on distance traveled. But while advocates of such a fare structure fight for it because these longer subway routes cost more than shorter ones, New Yorkers have long resisted zone fares and seemingly with good reason. (And a good reason isn’t the MTA’s excuse that it would be hard or costly to retrofit MetroCard machinery. That technology will be on the way out soon enough, and its replacement should be capable of handling dynamic pricing.)
When I last delved into the issue, I discussed the city’s economic distribution of households. Zone fares work elsewhere because, by and large, the richer riders live farther away from the central business district. Many of the subways that use zone fares travel through inner cities to richer suburbs, but in New York, the richest people live closest to, if not entirely within, the central business district. In fact, many New Yorkers who don’t live close to Manhattan cannot afford to and may also have little say in their housing matters.
In arguing against zone fares two years ago, I explored these issues with a backdrop of an income distribution map:
If you were to overlay a subway map on top of this socioeconomic representation of the city, it becomes tougher to justify a zone fare. Suddenly, the richest folks in the city are the ones who are closest to work and can most afford to pay higher. In Brooklyn, the poorest residents down in the Coney Island area live furthest away, and in Queens, Astoria and its neighbors to the south are richer than those from Flushing who are further away from the city.
Only in the Bronx would a distance-based fare make sense because incomes rise as we head north, but even then, the folks in the South Bronx make around 18 percent of what those who live in the East and West 80s in Manhattan do. If the subway is supposed to be a public good that allows for people of any income bracket to get to their jobs in a cost-efficient way, New York’s socioeconomics seem to make a zone- or distance-based fare highly problematic.
Today, a similar graphical representation of the subway system is making the rounds. In a brief post meant to spur discussion, The New Yorker posted a graphical representation of income by and across individual subway lines. The visuals — intended to show income inequality in New York City — are striking. Subway routes cross the East River and jump by multiple tax brackets.
Let’s take a look at the N train:
Based on recent Census data, the median income around the N’s southern terminus is just $34,000. It doesn’t climb above $48,000 until the Atlantic Ave.-Barclays Center stop at the meeting point of three very well-off Brownstone Brooklyn neighborhoods. The media income around 59th St. of $171,000 is over five times higher than it is around Coney Island. The A train is even more dramatic seesaw as it runs from the Rockaways, where media income dips to as low as $18,000, to Tribeca where income peaks at $205,000 a year.
Now, it’s no secret that lower Manhattan is the land of the rich, and the outer boroughs see incomes decrease as one travels to the outer rings of the city. But these visuals are stark reminders of this reality. If the subway is designed partially as a public good that enables people to traverse the distance between work and home while living within their means, zone fares don’t work here. It doesn’t make sense and it isn’t fair to charge poorer people more to ride the subways and rich people less. Until we can reorganize where people can afford to live, the subway fare should remain a flat one.
After taking a month off from committee meetings in February, the MTA board is back with a vengeance this month. The committees meet later this morning, and this month’s board books are chock full of information. Highlights include some capital projects timelines and an expansion of the “On The Go” kiosk project that I’ll cover later. One number though jumped out at me, and it’s a number that tells us how truly impactful the subways are.
Despite Superstorm Sandy shuttering the subway system for a few days, the MTA is reporting 5.379 million daily weekday subway riders for 2012. That figure represents a 1.8 percent increase over 2011 and is a near-record high. Weekend ridership is up even more with Saturday and Sunday averaging a combined total of 5.662 million riders for an increase over 2011 of three percent. Even local bus service ridership — which had been in free fall for a while — increased by almost one percent. All told, over 8.5 million riders use an MTA bus, subway or commute rail option each weekday.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of that figure. Each day, the equivalent of every resident in New York City takes a trip on some form of public transportation. Most people use the subways, but the bus ridership figures are strong as well. PATH, Metro-North and the LIRR account for over 800,000 combined daily trips. Imagine the city’s economy with no transit system; imagine the area’s congestion without public transportation.
One of the clear factors driving transit usage is employment. As the MTA’s board books have shown, transit ridership trends closely track employment — with some caveats. When employment is up, transit ridership is up as well. When employment is down, transit ridership has been too. “Subway ridership is correlated with employment levels,” the MTA said. “However, subway ridership has performed much better than employment with much faster growth in ridership than jobs, especially from 2003 to 2008.”
Chief among the drivers — especially during lean employment times — of transit ridership is the relative cost. Despite a steady stream of fare hikes over the last few years, it’s still much, much cheaper to use transit than it is to drive, and it likely always will be. Unemployed New Yorkers who have to get around will eschew costly car trips in favor of a subway ride, and thus, outside of truly calamitous economic times, ridership will generally always increase.
Yet, despite these astronomical numbers and despite the ever-increasing ridership figures, it’s a struggle to realize gains for transit riders. The five million New Yorkers who need the subway every day are, in one sense, an untapped political constituency often invisible in the eyes of those who represent us in City Hall and Albany. (That invisibility is, incidentally, what the Riders Alliance is trying to change.)
Maybe it’s because of the historical and social attitudes toward transit ridership that is viewed as not even second class. Maybe it’s because of the perceived and real inept experiences we’ve all had with the MTA. Maybe it’s a combination of both. But somehow, the millions of people who need the subway and the city and state economy that relies on these people can’t get no respect.
Despite a fare hike this year and another planned for 2015, ridership will continue to increase as the city’s population grows and as jobs continue to come back. Will anyone in Albany notice or will we just marvel at the ridership numbers while long-term investment in the system remains an ever-elusive goal?
It’s hard to believe less than a year remains in the reign of King Bloomberg. The Mayor since shortly after 9/11, Bloomberg has left a stamp, for better or worse, on the city, and the greatest impact of that stamp appears to be development related. From Atlantic Yards to Hudson Yards, from Long Island City to Williamsburg, developers have benefitted tremendously from Bloomberg’s three-term tenure. Unfortunately, transit hasn’t enjoyed the same boost.
It hasn’t always been from lack of trying. Bloomberg led an effort to implement a congestion pricing plan that would have generated hundreds of millions of dollars for the MTA’s capital plan that had the support of both City Council and the majority of New Yorkers. It died at the hands of Sheldon Silver in the back rooms of Albany, and Bloomberg hasn’t prioritized MTA-based transit since then.
Still, development has continued apace, and two of the last projects pushed by Bloomberg may yet have transit implications. The first concerns the Midtown East/Grand Central area, and it’s one I’ve already examined in depth. In a nutshell, by upzoning Midtown East, Bloomberg could strain transit offerings well beyond the point of acceptability in the area. The MTA has discussed the need for wider platforms and more entrances and has threatened temporarily closing station entrance points if crowding grows too extreme.
Some of the figures put forth by the Bloomberg Administration are coming into view though, and the money could alleviate the problem. According to The Post, district-improvement bonuses of $250 per square foot would go, by and large, to the MTA, and the agency could see as much as $750 million over the next 20 years. Now, $37.5 million per year isn’t all that much when you realize that the MTA spends $5 billion a year on capital construction projects, but that money can help with the Midtown congestion problem. We should know before Bloomberg leaves office if the rezoning goes through.
But what of another area that has benefited from pro-development and natural gentrification forces? In Williamsburg — an area with few options for transit expansion — Two Trees and SHoP unveiled their plans for the Domino Sugar factory area. It’s an ambitious plan for the Williamsburg waterfront. Nestled between the Williamsburg Bridge to the south and Grand St. to the north, it would bring office space and over 2000 apartment units to the area by 2013.
I like the look and feel of the SHoP plans, and I like the green space and park lands the developers will preserve. I’m concerned though about transit. The plans include a ferry stop, and the East River Ferries have been surprisingly popular. But most people will turn to the subways. The plans are weighted a bit toward the south — which should push subway riders to the J/M/Z stop at Marcy Ave., but those who live and work near Grand St. will be closer to the L at Bedford. The L at Bedford is one stop that can’t really absorb too many more straphangers.
Now, it’s tough to ask more of developers in New York. If we expect them to pay for transit infrastructure — which we should — can we ask them to also pay for affordable housing, community spaces and parkland? How do we begin to prioritize such demands? Yet, we can’t just ignore the need for adequate transit spaces. Adding hundreds of thousands of new square footage to Williamsburg will put more pressure on some of the city’s most taxed transit facilities, and someone has to pay for the upgrades. The folks who stand to benefit the most from developer should help foot that bill as well.
For some reason or another, the concept of transit-oriented development seems to rankle nerves and raise eyebrows. Outside of the city, at least, in suburban areas where “density” is a bad word, issues surrounding class and race often lead to intense debates over TOD. But within New York City, it’s a fact of life. In fact, the city is one giant transit-oriented development, made possible because of the reach and frequency of our transit network.
After so many decades and years of development, it’s easy to lose sight of how transit has spurred development — both residential and commercial — in New York City, but a new spate of projects serves to remind us of New York’s origins and showcases its future growth. As Grand Central Terminal turns 100 this year, a big dig underneath it will soon usher in over 80,000 new commuters per day to the area, and across town at 34th St. and 11th Ave., a new subway stop will deliver New Yorkers to one of Manhattan’s last truly undeveloped frontiers at the Hudson Yards.
In this week’s Crain’s New York, a big story on Grand Central drives home this point. Daniel Geiger looked at the planned and expected growth around Midtown that stems out of Grand Central and its importance to the city. Opening with the story about the owners of 140 E. 45th St. building out a real entrance that leads to Grand Central on East 44th St., Geiger’s piece highlights the up-building that will soon happen throughout Midtown.
Rockwood’s move is just one of many by which countless landlords and tenants alike are demonstrating that even at the ripe old age of 100, the grand dame of New York’s transit hubs is more central and vital than ever. What’s more, with the planned arrival by 2020 of Long Island Rail Road trains in Grand Central’s sub-basement and the expected rezoning of the surrounding neighborhood to spur development of a whole new generation of bigger, smarter office buildings, the terminal is destined to become only more important.
“When the LIRR link opens, it will bring about 80,000 new commuters per day through the terminal,” said an MTA spokeswoman. Those new faces will add to the roughly 800,000 people—including tourists and, increasingly, shoppers—who will pass through the building each day by the end of the decade.
Similarly, the extension of the 7 subway line—which runs beneath the station out to Manhattan’s newest neighborhood, Hudson Yards, just beginning to rise west of Penn Station—will further knit the terminal into the city’s future growth. In a sort of virtuous circle, it is those beefier transportation links that effectively lay the groundwork for the big new towers, which are expected to add 10 million square feet or more of additional space in the coming decades—the equivalent of more than three Empire State Buildings—and their tens of thousands of additional tenants. They could begin arriving as soon as 2020.
In addition to the increase in office space in the area, the New York City Planning Commission with some prodding by the Regional Plan Association and Municipal Art Society will reassess how the space surrounding Grand Central is utilized as well. Parts of Vanderbilt Ave. may be turned into pedestrian plazas, and the city will consider widening sidewalks along Madison and Lexington Avenues. As midtown occupancy numbers increase, wider sidewalks will become a matter of safety for the tens of thousands of new workers in the area.
So Grand Central — the epicenter of Midtown East — continues to deliver transit-oriented development benefits a century after it first opened its doors. I can’t help but to draw comparisons to the way the city and its politicians treat transit today. It is so clearly the economic driver of the city. People clamor to live near subway stops, and rents increase as commute times decrease. Businesses want to be located closer to train stations, and an increase in commuting capacity is driving a push to rezone Midtown and add density to one of the denser areas in the country.
Still, when it comes to political priorities, transit takes second fiddle to just about anything else. It is a struggle to move rail projects forward, and future funding is up in the air. We look for tiny incremental improvements rather than transformative initiatives that could easily see the light of day with a political champion and some progressive funding. Let the Grand Central Terminal be a reminder of what transit development in New York City can do and what it still does. It’s a powerful driver indeed.
It garnered little coverage in the press during 2012, but for all of last year, the nation’s transit riders had been left stranded by Congress. A federal provision allowing for $230 a month in tax subsidies for transit riders had expired at the end of 2011, and when Congress failed to act early last year, the eligible amount slipped to $125. It was enough — barely — for New Yorkers to cover their monthly MetroCards, but those using the regional rail networks were left high and dry.
In passing the measure to avoid the fiscal cliff last night, Congress has upped the federal transit subsidy to $240 a month, Greater Greater Washington noted this morning. The measure is, unfortunately, temporary and will expire at the end of 2013 without further action. Still, it’s a welcome move.
“Even if House Republicans just went along somewhat reluctantly with a Senate deal yesterday,” David Alpert wrote at Greater Greater Washington, “in approving this extension, they were now able to give many American workers a tax cut along with helping our cities function more effectively and ending one small example of the many ways government ‘picks winners and losers’ among transportation modes.”
Streetsblog on Friday picked up an interesting tidbit from Mayor Bloomberg. While speaking at the unveiling of this crazy plan to build the world’s tallest Ferris wheel at the Ferry Terminal in St. George, the lame-duck mayor analogized a transit funding plan to the ferry. “If you were going to design the perfect public transportation system,” he said, “you would have it be free and you would charge people to use cars, because you want the incentive to get them to do that.”
This is essentially the Kheel Plan that Charles Komanoff has been working under the heading of the Balanced Transportation Analyzer, and it’s not the first time the mayor has espoused such a theory. Accomplishing such a policy goal would require a sea change in the way New Yorkers and Americans view public transportation and driving, and it would require a massive investment in expanding the reach and frequency of the city’s mass transit network. It’s not impossible, just improbable, and still a very noble goal.
At some point this summer — although when exactly we do not know — New York City will unveil its bike share program. With a payment structure that favors short rides and long-term memberships, the 10,000-bike system run by Alta will change the way many New Yorkers commute. As I explored a few weeks ago, it should, in fact, enhance the city’s transportation network.
Full integration though remains a challenge. Right now, the city’s transportation payment picture looks a bit muddled. The buses and subways run by the MTA take MetroCards while the East Side Ferries, seemingly far more popular than I and may others anticipated, take cash while the bike share system will be membership-based for many and pay-as-you-go for others. Without integrating payment systems, these modes remain more siloed than they need to be.
New York City Transit meanwhile is slowly moving toward a new fare payment system. By around 2015 or so, the MetroCard will be ushered out in favor of a contactless debit or credit card-based solution, and the MTA may be more amenable to cooperating with the city on a unified fare system. Cody Lyon at The Gotham Gazette reported on Monday:
In the near future, subway riders may be able to use their fare cards to check out a bike from hundreds of nearby docking stations. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority said it is open to evaluating ways to integrate fare payment with the city’s bike share program as it moves toward a wireless, smart card-based system by 2015, agency spokesman Aaron Donavan said in a recent interview…
Department of Transportation spokesman Nicholas Mosquera said that in other cities, up to 50 percent of bike share trips are connections to other modes of transit. But he said while he expects to see the same here, the DOT is currently not working on fare payment integration at this time. “We look forward to exploring it in the future,” Mosquera said…
Mosquera said New York City’s bike share program is designed to provide sufficient bike share capacity at transit hubs, allowing riders to transfer quickly from bike other modes or vice versa. He said the bike share stations extend the reach of the transit system, making distant parts of neighborhoods easily accessible from subway stations. “The system will be perfectly suited to any potential fare integration,” Mosquera said.
The idea of integrating fare systems is hardly a ground-breaking one. Yet, at many levels, the MTA has struggled to achieve success. We can’t use the same tickets on Metro-North and the LIRR. MetroCards are useful only with the realm of subways and city buses. Even integration with the PATH system is more limited than it need be, and transportation options that operates outside of the auspicies of the MTA rely on a separate payment system entirely.
Seeing both the city and MTA be willing to discuss ways to make this work is a heartening development. The bike share system will complement the rapid transit network and making connections between the two — and the way we pay for those connection — as easy as possible should be a priority as the MTA readies the MetroCard replacement. Forward thinking and cooperation will go a long way toward attaining success and avoiding unnecessary turf wars as resources are grow more and more stretched.
Late last week, the dysfunctional members of Congress managed to come together for a few minutes to pass something resembling a federal transportation bill. The two-year measure is short on reform and couldn’t, for instance, find a way to bring tax breaks for transit riders in line with those for drivers. Steven Higashide offered up a transit advocate’s view on the bill at Mobilizing the Region yesterday, and I don’t have qualms with his analysis or conclusions.
I want to instead focus on an insidious provision buried toward the back of the bill that concerns federal oversight of subway safety. As I’ve mentioned before, a few Washington politicians led by Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski have decided that DC’s problems and everyone’s. When a few high-profile Metro crashes, caused generally by human incompetence and a poorly-designed system, made headlines, Mikulski sprung into action, and for three years, she’s been trying to foist federal safety standards onto subway systems that just do not need them.
Finally — and unfortunately — she succeeded this year, and the new transportation bill contains the National Public Transportation Safety Program. As with many federal mandates, these underfunded requirements will put some burden on local transit agencies. Once President Obama signs the Transportation Bill, the Secretary of Transportation will promulgate interim safety standards and a certification process. State agencies that want federal dollars will have to comply with these regulations or else forfeit the federal investments.
As a carrot, Mikulski has oh-so-generously dangled a whopping $66 million to be split up in whatever ways Ray LaHood deems necessary to help transit agencies to adopt the safety regulations. It’s a laughable contribution, but the Senator from Maryland didn’t seem to care.
“My promises made are promises kept,” she said in a statement. “After the tragic crash in June 2009, I promised two things to the workers at Metro and my constituents that ride Metro. One, I would deliver the $150 million in dedicated funding for Metro’s capital improvements in the annual spending bill which I have done every year. Two, pass legislation giving U.S. Department of Transportation the authority it needs to establish safety standards for metro systems across the country. Today, this legislation delivers on that promise. We always say a faithful nation will never forget. Then we move on and nothing is ever done. Well, not this time and not with this Senator.”
It’s hard to get around such woeful tunnel blindness. Mikulski and her fellow representatives seem to think that Washington’s problem is everyone’s when clearly it is not. So because their local papers featured stories of WMATA’s inept practices, they think everyone needs some help. Now, our MTA will likely be burdened with mandates it can’t fund and rules that limit future rolling stock upgrades. Our subway cars, already too heavy, may need to be heavier, slower and clunkier all because Washington, DC, couldn’t better manage its employees.
It’s telling that all representatives in praise of these standards cite to Washington’s accident record. In New York, we’re far less concerned with such safety issues but we’re going to have to pay anyway. Sometimes, no policy might be better than a bad one.
In a sense, I offered up yesterday’s post on the progress on the Penn Station Access project on its own when, in reality, it came out of the larger context of a City Council hearing on intra-city mobility. Noting that reverse commuting and non-Manhattan-based job centers are growing, the Council’s Transportation Committee wanted to know what exactly the MTA was doing to help improve access throughout the city. After all, while Manhattan is the biggest driver of jobs, other areas are growing rapidly.
“More workers are commuting from Brooklyn to Queens, from the Bronx to Westchester, from Staten Island to New Jersey or Brooklyn than ever before and yet our city’s transit infrastructure has not kept pace,” Transportation Committee Chairman James Vacca said. “If it means that a person is going to take three buses, that person is likely to get into a car.”
In response to Vacca’s question, officials from the MTA took the opportunity to talk up the plans to beef up Metro-North service in the Bronx. Already, the commuter rail line is seeing rampant growth, and while we may have to wait the better part of a decade if we’re lucky, adding more stations will further help New Yorkers get where they need to be. It’s not really enough though, and it’s definitely not a fast enough solution.
First, Metro-North isn’t intended to be an intra-city transportation network. It’s designed to bring commuters from the suburbs to the city’s job and entertainment centers. Fares are significantly higher on Metro-North than on the subways, and stations are much further apart. Adding more stations in the Bronx may help the locals, but it be a disservice for the core Metro-North commuters trying to reach Midtown. The MTA may have to consider overhauling the City Ticket system and the entire fare structure if it intends for Metro-North to serve as urban transportation.
Second, promising Metro-North improvements some time after East Side Access is completed in 2019 isn’t fast enough. The city’s job patterns are showing decentralized growth now, today in 2012, and they have been for more than a few years. We can’t wait another seven or 10 or 15 years for Metro-North to amble its way through four or six stations in the Bronx.
The answer, despite my lukewarm embrace of it, is a faster and more creative approach toward Select Bus Service. For reasons unknown, the MTA and New York City’s Department of Transportation have treated borough borders as though they are immutable and uncrossable. Select Bus Service routes currently in service and on the drawing board rather cross from one borough into the next. They serve to deliver isolated commutes to the subway faster, but they don’t bring people to job centers. Where’s the SBS route from the far reaches of Brooklyn to JFK? Where are the radial routes from Jamaica Hospital? Where’s the bus from the Bronx to LaGuardia?
If the City and MTA want to bring more Metro-North stations to the Bronx, by all means, they should do so. It shouldn’t be the only solution to new job patterns and commuter demands. Buses can offer a flexible long-term solution, and it can be an interim one. Those bus routes could one day be replaced with a higher-capacity rail system. For now, though, we’re suffering from a strange borough-based territoriality and a lack of drive, urgency and creativity when it comes to adjusting our public transit system to new commuting patterns.
In a sense, the New York region’s rail transportation has stalled out. New York City Transit and PATH cooperate only in a minimal sense of the word while the LIRR, Metro-North, New Jersey Transit and Amtrak would seemingly rather be caught dead than sharing or fighting together for precious funds and resources. So we’re left with infrastructure that doesn’t expand. We can add a few tunnels and some stations, but truly transformative projects do not happen.
Recently, after years of talking about the ARC Tunnel and now a Gateway Tunnel, the region’s transit leaders have started to take notice of this problem, and MTA head Joe Lhota has begun to speak out against it. At the RPA’s conference earlier this week, he issued a call for unity. “Right now, we’re as Balkanized as you can possibly imagine,” he said. “We need to find a way to coordinate that.”
Transportation Nation’s Jim O’Grady had more:
New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joe Lhota told a conference of transportation professionals that the only hope for moving more people under the Hudson River between Manhattan and New Jersey is for the area’s commuter railroads to set aside their traditional enmity and work better together…
Lhota tossed out three ideas, each aimed at boosting capacity at Penn Station in Manhattan…He said the station’s 21 platforms should all be made to accommodate 10-car trains, which would mean lengthening some of them. He also said that the railroads using the station—Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and Long Island Rail Road—should do a better job of sharing platform and tunnel space…
Lhota’s third suggestion was the most ambitious. He said the three railroads—plus the MTA’s Metro-North line, which connects Manhattan to Connecticut and several downstate New York counties—should use each other’s tracks. In other words, trains should flow throughout the region in a way that sends them beyond their historic territory. For example, a train from Long Island could arrive in Penn Station and, instead of sitting idly until its scheduled return trip, move on to New Jersey. That way, trains would spend less time tying up platforms, boosting the station’s capacity.
For many transit advocates in the area, these are common-sense proposals that have been on the table for years, if not decades. Barring a new tunnel — and that may still be at least a decade away — these ideas may help alleviate some of the rail problems plaguing the area. The other problem, of course, is one of funding, and to that end, Lhota wants some political action as well.
“There’s been an absence of leadership on transportation in this country since the creation of the Port Authority,” he said. “I would imagine you know that both the president and former Governor Romney come to the New York metropolitan area and raise hundreds of millions of dollars. Not once is anybody talking to them while they’re in New York about the critical need for transportation. We’re losing that effort. So we may be losing this entire political campaign. We need to make it a big issue.”
If we want to see needed upgrades, improvements and expansions any time soon, that we do. That we do.