Archive for Public Transit Policy

We spend a lot of time talking about where New York City’s transit system goes and how it could be better, but we don’t spend too much time talking about where the transit doesn’t go. We know how current service could be improved, and we all have fantasy maps regarding planned service extensions. But we don’t always address the so-called transit deserts where transit riders have few options and commuters face long rides to job centers.

At a time when affordability is a buzzword surrounding the political discourse in the city, these transit deserts stick out like a sore thumb, and last week, Ydanis Rodriguez, head of the City Council’s transportation committee, held a hearing on improving access. From light rail to ferries, the speakers ran the gamut of topics we’ve discussed over the past few years, and those facing questions responded adeptly. For instance, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg spoke about how light rail involves more than just tracks and a line on a map; it involves, she explained, the need to invest in the infrastructure behind light rail and create a sustainable network.

One idea though that has come up time and again over the years involves commuter rail access through New York City. When I was in Berlin and Paris this past summer, I had the opportunity to ride both the S-Bahn and RER trains, and for someone used to New York City’s concept of commuter rail, the European model is eye-opening. These trains enjoy the benefits of through-running through center city areas, and the fare structure is rationalized to encourage both intra-city and city-to-suburb travel. It didn’t cost me more to take the RER a few stops than it would have to make a similar trip on the Metro.

Here, the LIRR and Metro-North do not share a fare structure with each other, let alone with New York City Transit, and those who board commuter rail lines within New York City pay a much higher — and often cost-prohibitive — fare. If our politicians have their ways, this practice would end, and riders would be able to use commuter rail trains within the boroughs for a much lower cost. The city is pushing aggressively to make this happen, and one MTA Board member is embracing the cause.

As officials explained, last week, they want the MTA to reduce fares on intra-city travel and provide a free transfer from the LIRR or Metro-North to New York City Transit’s network. The MTA though is crying poverty. Agency Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast claimed that such a move would cost the agency $70 million per year and that no one has yet identified how to cover the missing revenue. “We just can’t agree to accept that kind of loss especially since we already lose so much money on other services,” spokesman Adam Lisberg said to Gothamist. “This year we will lose $575 million on unreimbursed paratransit service as well as discounted fares for seniors and free rides for schoolchildren. When we start each year more than half a billion dollars in the hole, we don’t want to dig it any deeper.”

Allen Cappelli, the Board member who plans to bring up the issue during today’s committee meetings, doesn’t accept the cries of poverty. “Honestly, it sounds to me like seat-of-the-pants analysis and I think this issue warrants more than somebody’s best guess,” Cappelli said to the Daily News. “Now that money is, while tight, not as dire as it was, we ought to be looking for ways to improve service for people in our region.”

This debate of course gets to the heart of the conflict between the suburban-focused commuter rail and the city-centric subway system. Do suburban riders want city passengers hoping on board their commuter trains for a few stops? Do suburban riders want to see their trains slowed in order to make more stops to better serve inaccessible areas? Can MTA agencies work together on rational fare policies? These are questions that hit at the very essence of the MTA’s regional approach and haven’t been satisfactorily addressed in years.

I expect this conversation to continue, especially as the MTA looks to reactivate certain LIRR stops in Queens and bring Metro-North into Penn Station via the Penn Station Access plan. Eventually, we have to move toward a European model. But can we get there without unnecessary kicking and screaming? We’ll find out soon.

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One Queens politician wants to convert this LIRR ROW into a light rail running from Glendale (shown here) to Long Island City.

Now that the head of the City Council’s Transportation Committee has opened the door to a light rail study, the floodwaters of potential political requests have been let loose. Barely had the pixels burned on Ydanis Rodriguez’s request when another council member — this one from Queens — called for a light rail investment in her borough. This one comes from Elizabeth Crowley, and it may highlight the pitfalls of Shiny New Thing syndrome.

The story comes to us from Gloria Pazmino and Dana Rubinstein writing in Politico New York. The two report:

In order to provide additional public transportation options, Crowley is proposing to use already-existing railroad tracks in her district to build a light rail line between Glendale and Long Island City along the Long Island Rail Road’s Montauk branch. “It’s a railroad that is in excellent condition that has no rail cars on it, so it’s a waste of track. It has no real use and there is potential for park-and-rides and development around the rail,” Crowley told POLITICO New York.

The rail line carried passengers between Long Island City and Jamaica stations in Glendale and Maspeth until the late 1990s, but service was discontinued due to low ridership. Currently, the track is used to transport freight overnight for only a few hours, Crowley said.

Citing the borough’s rapid growth and the increased need for public transportation, Crowley said installing a light rail would be much easier in her district due to the already-existing infrastructure and right of way. “We are very, very close to the city but it’s very difficult to get into Manhattan because it’s a transportation desert,” Crowley said. “More and more people are using their cars because it takes too long to take public transportation.”

This is a bit more of a problematic request than Rodriguez’s desire for a study. Crowley seems to have identified a route by examining a right of way that exists without really delving into why this right of way has no passenger service, and she doesn’t really explore a need here. Her idea seems to be to create a feeder light rail line from Glendale to the 7 in Long Island City via Maspeth. For what it’s worth, the Glendale LIRR station had just two daily riders at the time of its closure in 1998.

Would this help people get to Manhattan faster? What affect would this have on the already-crowded 7 train? Is it worth navigating the issue of shared freight and passenger service? And why would anyone spend the money to convert a heavy rail ROW that shuttered due to low passenger service into a light rail service that may not fair much better? These are questions that demand a rigorous analysis before this idea is anything more than idle musings, and while Crowley said the MTA “seemed receptive” of the idea, it’s not clear if there’s demand for this service or if Crowley is trying to think outside of the box (which in the realm of NYC transportation politics is much appreciated).

Meanwhile, there is some opposition brewing to the idea of light rail. It comes from Joan Byron, the Director of Policy at the Pratt Center for Community Development and a major proponent of bus rapid transit. Without holding her punches, Byron charged that light rail is simply a class-based approach to transit adoption. “Poor people and people of color ride the bus,” she said. “But we want something shiny and new that young white millennials will ride…You have to do something really shiny to get them not to drive.”

What’s particularly strange about Byron’s statement is its invocation of millennials. This generation — and in particular those who live in New York City — aren’t drivers or car owners. They already use transit at rates much higher than older residents of NYC (and cities in general across the country). Byron, who has a stake in beefing up the bus network, also undersells the psychological advantages of system that runs as a fixed-rail one via a dedicated right-of-way. Numerous studies have shown that these two elements alone draw ridership across racial and class lines. Buses simply aren’t the be-all and end-all of urban mobility issues.

Ultimately, light rail could be an answer to the city’s transportation cost and mobility issues, but it’s clear that many issues remain to explore before we understand where light rail would work and how. Both the Bronx and Staten Island are better candidates than one corridor in Queens, especially when you consider network effects, but perhaps light rail could work all over in various permutations as potential solutions. That’s what DOT will need to identify if they take up Ydanis Rodriguez on his request. It’s certainly worth considering.

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Rode the light rail a few times while visiting the Midwest this week.

A photo posted by Second Ave. Sagas (@secondavesagas) on

As New York politicians look around the country (and hopefully the world) for ideas on expanding transit, they often find themselves drawn to light rail. The revival of the old streetcar networks along fixed rail routes has been en vogue in recent years as cities from San Francisco to Los Angeles to St. Louis to Minneapolis to D.C. and beyond have installed new systems. In our city, light rail has lived among the margins of transit advocacy with a the Vision42 initiative and Bob Diamond’s Red Hook trolley idea the only streetcar/light rail plans out there. Now, a few months after developers discussed the “cool idea” of a Brooklyn-Queens waterfront route, City Council member Ydanis Rodriguez wants NYC’s Department of Transportation to explore light rail in New York City.

The ask is a modest one. As Politco New York’s Gloria Pazmino reports, Rodriguez, the chair of the Council’s Transportation Committee, has asked for a feasibility study. Where to begin is the tough part, but Rodriguez is, at least, thinking about means to improve mobility. “This is not a new idea in New York City,” Rodriguez said. “There have been advocate groups and others who have wanted the city to install a light rail corridor around 42nd Street in Manhattan and other areas. This is an effort to begin a discussion about an alternative way to improve transportation in New York City.”

Whether NYC needs to reinvent the wheel or improve the efficiency of the one it already has is up for debate, and Pazmino tackles the challenges an effort to introduce light rail to New York City may face. She writes:

Building a light rail system in the already crowded streets of Manhattan would be no small feat. Rodriguez’s bill would direct DOT to begin a one-time study to build the rail, include recommendations for how to do it, and if it would help to increase mass transit in areas of the city that are currently underserved by other forms of public transportation. “That system would allow pedestrians to use the light rail to transport to other places and in areas that are isolated and not connected with trains, and that can benefit them,” Rodriguez said…

Rodriguez said he’s not committed to idea of the light rail in a specific area. First, he wants to learn what it would cost and how long it could take to build, and what the actual benefit of the project would be for the city’s commuters. “The whole idea is to get DOT to conduct the study. Based on the study, we will have a better idea on the feasibility of bringing in a light rail. I do not want to jump into conclusions about any particular area,” Rodriguez said.

Rich Barone, director of transportation programs at the Regional Plan Association, said the idea is worth studying, but the question will be whether a possibly massive first investment will be worth it in the long run. “A light rail in the city is something that is reasonable and could be explored, but we have to consider the cost, and consider the infrastructure you would have to put in to support the service,” Barone said.

As with any new transit system, the biggest challenge is developing a network from the get-go. We can talk about installing light rail along 42nd St. — certainly a worthwhile project that would improve river-to-river mobility while cutting down on traffic — and we can talk about a waterfront line. But these two divergent systems wouldn’t rely on shared infrastructure, thus raising initial capital costs for shops and rolling stock considerably. (Any new light rail system should also be integrated into the MTA’s fare network so that riders aren’t double-charged, but that’s a different concern.)

That is not to say we should rule out light rail for New York City. It’s shown tremendous potential for urban growth throughout the country, and it could be a way to combat the MTA’s unsustainable capital construction costs while reengineering NYC’s street space. Imagine, for instance, instead of a 2nd Ave. Subway, a 2nd Ave. dedicated to two-way light rail and full-length bike lanes with cars eliminated from that north-south route, all for far less than the cost (but also far less the capacity) of the 2nd Ave. line. Or, more feasibly, imagine a light rail through less dense parts of Queens and Brooklyn that aren’t connected to the subways.

The other question too is whether any NYC light rail is a better option that a bus network. There is a psychological element involved as riders prefer the reliability of a fixed-rail system with dedicated running spaces, but real BRT could address those concerns as well without the capital outlay. Ultimately, it may make more sense to reform MTA spending and examine unused rail ROWs throughout the city, but studying light rail has its place in the NYC transit dialogue. I hope something interesting comes of Ydanis Rodriguez’s request.

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As anyone who’s kept up with my site over the years knows, I’m not a particularly big fan of the recent push to expand the city’s ferry network. If handled properly and if geography and economic forces dictate accordingly, boats can be a complementary part of a comprehensive transit network, but the recent attention — from Washington Heights to Soundview to Bay Ridge to the Rockaways — on expanding the network seems to treat ferries as a comprehensive solution to some of the travel woes affecting the city’s more isolated areas. As a history of failed ferry companies and eliminated routes tell show us, ferries are not the panacea they are promised to be.

The latest round of ferry fetishization comes to us from the Economic Development Corporation. The city agency recently unveiled plans for an extensive ferry network, and at the time, the mayor said, apparently with a straight face, that he expects the new ferry routes to help alleviate subway congestion problems. That’s almost as crazy as the idea that pedestrian plazas should be ripped up because of a handful of aggressive costumed characters and desnudas asking for tips, but I digress.

Now that the ferry service is inching closer to reality, the details are becoming clearer, and the planning seems to be as flawed as I feared it would be. Last week, Brooklyn’s Community Board 6 heard a presentation on the Red Hook plan, and what they heard does not inspire much confidence in the potential popularity of the ferry network. Two reports focused on different, but equally as problematic, aspects of the new service.

The first concerns fare payment and comes courtesy of DNA Info:

The planned Citywide Ferry System will begin service in the spring of 2017 with three routes — South Brooklyn, Astoria and Rockaway — but its $2.75 ticket will not integrate with the MTA’s MetroCard fare system or allow free transfers to subways and buses, city officials said at a community meeting Thursday night.

Without a free transfer, most riders who do not work within walking distance of their docks would effectively see their transportation costs double. But the higher cost would still be in the range of the fare for an express bus, said Lydia Downing, the city Economic Development Corporation’s vice president and deputy director for government and community relations.

“I think it’s a dealbreaker if you can’t get it integrated with the MetroCard,” Bahij Chancey, an architect and Cobble Hill resident, told the EDC at the meeting. Commuters won’t bother with the additional ticket and the extra fare, and the city will find there isn’t enough rider revenue to sustain the operation, he said.

EDC officials claimed that the fare payment system could be integrated with the MTA’s once the agency phases out the MetroCard, but that’s not likely to happen before the initial three-year ferry pilot term expires. For now, the ferries will create a two-fare system, and that’s not a plus in my book. We’ll revisit that in a few paragraphs.

The other problem concerns terminal location. The Brooklyn Paper summarizes:

The city should jetty-son its plan to open a new commuter ferry stop on the southern edge of Red Hook and drop anchor in Atlantic Basin instead, say locals. Officials intend to send ferries to either the privately-owned Van Brunt Street pier or the city-owned parkland Valentino Pier when the city expands its ferry services in 2017. But those sites are out of walking distance for many Red Hookers, not close enough to transit, and lack parking, critics said.

“The two locations you have picked — unless they can take their car, fold it up, and put it in their briefcase — there is no parking,” said Jerry Armer, who is a member of Community Board 6, which encompasses Red Hook. Instead, locals are floating their own plan to open the dock in Atlantic Basin, in the corner closest to Conover Street, which they said has a giant parking lot and is closer to more Hook homes.

The idea of creating a ferry terminal that requires a car to be accessible to the neighborhood it’s supposed to serve is completely anathema to ferries as a solution to the transit problem; the two-fare system simply exacerbates and underscores this flaw.

Red Hook, in particular, is a prime spot for ferry service. It’s surrounded by water, isolated from the subway system, and contains a high amount of lower- and middle-income housing. It’s an area may regard as a transit desert, and yet, the ferries don’t help those citizens who can’t reach transit. By locating terminals too far from the public housing complexes — which aren’t near the water in the first place — and instituting a two-fare system, the ferries are essentially unreachable and unaffordable for those most in need of better access. If ferries can’t work for Red Hook, what chances do the rest of the proposed system have?

Ultimately, these flawed plans leave me with the same question I’ve had from the start: If the city is willing to subsidize expensive ferry service so that the fare for a boat ride is $2.75 but won’t ensure a transfer to a bus or subway, would New Yorkers be better off if the EDC simply invested the money in a better bus network for Red Hook or even a light rail system on a dedicated set of tracks running from Borough Hall to Red Hook to Smith/9th Sts.? If the Red Hook ferry — particularly low-hanging fruit — is being set up to fail, it’s hard to think otherwise.

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The RPA’s latest study features simply fixes for intra-borough mobility.

Thanks to the foresight of our New Yorker ancestors, we have an extensive subway system that allows someone, if they so choose, to travel from the Rockaways to the norther edge of the city limits in the Bronx for one fare. Whether leaders in City Hall and Albany realize it, the subway system powers New York City’s economy, and the city wouldn’t be home to 8 million people without it.

Thanks to that same history, though, the subway system remains unchangeably Manhattan-centric. It was built at a time when the southern tip of Manhattan was overrun with people and was designed to spread out the masses teeming through the tenements to other areas of the city. In that regard, it has been an enduring success that more than attained the goals of its creators. But it remains a relic of the early 20th Century, and with job centers — and people — leaving Manhattan, the subway isn’t quite as useful for borough-to-borough trips that would otherwise connect New Yorkers to jobs. Sure, we have the G train, but try traveling from Brooklyn to the Bronx, Staten Island to Queens or even Queens to Brooklyn.

Earlier this week, in an extensive report, the Regional Plan Association tackled just this issue. Transit planning for the 21st Century, the organization says in a new publication [pdf], must be focused on connecting the so-called Outer Boroughs. For anyone who’s been keeping an eye on the RPA, the report is the culmination of a theme, and it’s one worth exploring. In it, the RPA calls upon the city — and by virtue of its role, the MTA — to do better. Their ideas involve (1) creating a first-rate bus system; (2) improving and extending rail service; (3) and, importantly, making commuter rail work for borough residents. The last part is easy; rationalize the fare and run more trains. The other two require some work.

The foundation for the report is the growing evidence that job opportunities in the Outer Boroughs are increasing at a greater rate than in Manhattan and that people have a tough time getting from home to these jobs. Sure, the subways are focused around Downtown Brooklyn, Long Island City and Jamaica, but trips can be circuitous and time-consuming. It’s great for those who work in Manhattan and less great for everyone else.

“Too many residents of Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island are forced to make long and circuitous commutes every day, often going out of their way to travel relatively short distances,” Jeffrey Zupan, the RPA’s senior fellow for transportation and one of the report’s authors, said. “In the many neighborhoods that are located beyond a comfortable walking distance from a subway or railroad station, residents have to rely on slow and infrequent buses, adding to the time and inconvenience of their commutes.”

With the exception of their plans for the Second Ave. Subway, the solutions aren’t expensive. The RPA wants a better bus network (though I think their BRT proposal is ill-designed), and they want the Triboro RX subway (though omitting a station at Broadway Junction is a mistake and so is the northern extension through the Bronx). They want a commitment to send the Second Ave. Subway into the Bronx and through Lower Manhattan, and they call upon more off-board fare payment options for buses. They propose more frequent Metro-North and LIRR service within the city with lower fares as well.

Nothing in this report is a reach, and any quibbles should be around the edges as mine are. Of course, what these ideas don’t have are funding or a champion, and that’s a real problem. Without either, they won’t see the light of day no matter how easy they are to implement and how important they could be to the city’s mobility.

So the RPA, which has been trumpeting Triboro RX for nearly 20 years, will keep trying. As Tom Wright, the organization’s president, said, “Good transit access plays an enormous role in expanding opportunity to education and jobs. As New York works to foster a new supply of housing to meet surging demand, we need to think more broadly about how our transit network will accommodate the city’s needs well into the 21st century.”

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Over the past few years, I’ve been harsh on politicians who have opted to trumpet proposals for ferry service as a cure-all for the city’s congested transit networks, and Mayor de Blasio’s so-called five-borough ferry service was no exception. He unveiled the idea during his State of the City speech last week, and I tore it apart on Thursday.

Simply put, the mayor’s proposal is an expensive way to subsidize travel for the few people who both live and work along the city’s waterfronts, and most of those people have chosen to live in luxury housing on the water front knowing commutes may take a little longer. With the exception of the Soundview and Red Hook ferries, the New Yorkers who need the most help — the middle and lower classes in transit-poor areas — are left out of the mayor’s idea, and it falls short as a solution.

But if we step back for a few minutes and ignore the way ferries cater to NIMBYs by leaving car lanes, parking spots and lengthy and disruptive heavy construction projects to the side, we may be able to save parts of the ferry proposal. It takes creativity and work, and it would take some rethinking of road space and transit prioritization. It also doesn’t overcome the fact that a ferry service that costs the same as a MetroCard swipe is subsidized to the tune of $15-$30 per rider, but it’s a start.

1. Integrated Fare. No matter how much money the city is willing to sink into the ferry system, they won’t get significant buy-in from residents who have to pay two fares. Those who are willing to use the ferry system to save time won’t be so keen on paying a $2.75 fare for the ferry and another for connecting modes of transit on the other side. This of course involves cooperation between the city and the MTA, and although the MTA has not embraced the ferry proposal or any integrated fare system, a free transfer between boat and bus or boat and subway would do wonders for ridership and mobility.

2. Integrated Surface Transit System. Ferries on their own aren’t that exciting if the way to get them involves walking and hoping that some other transit system serves the ferry terminal. Along with a ferry system, the mayor should have announced an extensive feeder bus system that delivers riders to ferries and then brings them to their destinations on the other end as well as expanded CitiBike access at ferry stations. The 34th St. Transitway and Vision42 remain the pinnacle of hopes dashed for river-to-river access, and both would do wonders for the mayor’s ferry system. Select Bus Service or BRT routes to and from ferry stops would be acceptable. CitiBikes, which admittedly implicate other issues of integrated costs and fare payment systems, should be readily available at ferry terminals as well. Instead, the mayor’s proposal didn’t even acknowledge that getting to a ferry terminal is just as important, if not more so, than the ferry system itself.

3. The Subsidies Are Too Damn High. As I mentioned, despite the attempts at saving the ferry system, someone needs to justify the subsidies. Considering who the likely riders are and where the routes run, the subsidies are even less palatable. Why must they be so high? What can the city do to bring them in line with at least express bus service, already the highest subsidized mode of transit within the five boroughs? Should we even accept high subsidies without further question?

Even trying to save the ferry proposal rings hollow simply because it’s not going to do much to solve the MTA’s capital budget woes, its constant signal problems or overcrowding on numerous lines. It’s not going to get high-speed service to neighborhoods that rely on local buses at best. It’s a nice thing to have for some people, but for most, it’s an afterthought and another proposal from another politician uninterested in tackling the harder questions relating to transit access and funding.

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Another year, another New York City politician jonesin’ for some panacea of citywide ferry service that won’t solve any problems. This time, the honors belong to our Mayor who, in his State of the City speech earlier this week, promised 13 bus rapid transit routes by the end of 2017 and six new ferry routes over the next few years. He later said on NY1, apparently without joking, that he feels the ferry service can alleviate subway crowds.

As far as ferries go, I’ve written about this topic more times than I care to revisit, but here we are. Politicians latch onto it because it’s easy. Adding ferry service doesn’t involve taking away an oh-so-precious lane of parking or — gasp! — driving and it doesn’t involve a multi-billion-dollar layout of cash that leads to disruptive and lengthy construction. It sounds good — because who doesn’t like boats? — and gets people talking because it’s different. Despite de Blasio’s claim, it won’t do one iota of good for subway service and doesn’t solve the intertwined issues of funding, congestion and reliability currently plaguing our aging transit network.

But let’s look at what de Blasio said. During his speech, he announced the idea: “Today, we announce that we’re launching a new citywide ferry service to be open for business in 2017. New ferry rides will be priced the same as a MetroCard fare, so ferries will be as affordable to everyday New Yorkers as our subways and buses. Residents of the Rockaways and Red Hook and Soundview will now be closer to the opportunities they need, and beyond connecting residents to jobs in Manhattan, our new citywide ferry system will spur the development of new commercial corridors throughout the outer boroughs.”

Later, his office released details on the funding plans. The map you can see above, and while the heavy lines demarcating preexisting service make the plan look more all-encompassing than it is, it’s stretching the boundaries of viable ferry service. de Blasio said the city will provide operating support, though the amount of subsidies aren’t yet clear, and will spend $55 million on capital commitments. The Coney Island-Stapleton-Wall St. route that will, on the leg between Brooklyn and Staten Island, attract approximately no riders wasn’t included in this cost projection.

As long-term readers know, I’m not a fan of this infatuation with ferries, and I’ll get into that in a minute. First, though, let’s stop to acknowledge that ferry service can be useful. It’s a complementary element of a robust transit network that can bridge awkward gaps. The service from Astoria Cove — a new development nearly a mile away from the subway — can bring residents who work at Manhattan’s East Side hospitals to their jobs. The service from Bay Ridge to Wall St. would be more useful with a stop at Industry City, but it too can solve a problem.

That said, no matter how many times politicians leap to embrace ferries, the same problems remain. It is, flat out, not a substitute for subway service and, because of the scale of ridership figures and planned routing, won’t help alleviate subway congestion. If it takes a few cars off the road, so much the better, but the mayor should be looking at high capacity solutions to the city’s mobility problems. Simply put, ferries aren’t the answer, and now, I’ll explain why.

1. Connectivity

A good transit network connects homes and offices. On a good night, I can leave work and be home in 30 minutes, and my ride is a zero- or one-transfer, one-fare journey. The utility of any transit network should be based on that concept, and the ferry system falls flat. It may be a nice way to travel, as many defenders have pointed out, but it doesn’t really connect people’s homes and jobs. At best, it serves those folks who live on the Brooklyn waterfront with their jobs at Wall St. which brings me to….

2. Poorly Placed Subsidies

It’s never cheap to operate a ferry network. In fact, the Rockaway ferry was running the city as much as $30 a passenger in subsidies. With the exception of the Soundview and Rockaway ferry proposals, the mayor’s routes by and large connect to areas of people who can afford waterfront housing and bring them to their high-paying jobs in Wall St. and Midtown. This reeks of a subsidy for people who don’t need subsidies. Is that how to solve concerns about middle class viability in New York City, as the mayor stressed, and mobility?

3. The Fare Structure

In effect, the fare issues are a subset of points 1 and 2. The mayor wants an affordable fare, which is a commendable goal, but he won’t be able to ensure one-fare rides or a transfer between ferries and subways and buses. The MTA hasn’t expressed any willingness to forego revenue for the sake of a city-run ferry network, and I don’t blame them. Thus, anyone trying to get from a ferry stop inland is looking at a two-fare ride, and few New Yorkers want to subject their wallets to a double dip like that.

4. The Rockaways, Again

A crazy part of this specific proposal is the Rockaway ferry route. For some reason, this has become a hot-button political issue in a neighborhood that de Blasio would love to see vote for him in 2017. Amusingly, though, the mayor canceled this very same Rockaway ferry route four months ago because it was too expensive and nobody rode it. What will change between now and 2017? Probably nothing except that the mayor will be up for reelection. Color me skeptical.

5. Ferries Aren’t A Solution

For $55 million in capital funds and, optimistically, $20-$30 million in annual operating costs, the city could do wonders for the bus network. Instead, de Blasio is spending his political capital on a system that likely won’t see daily ridership exceed that of 1 or 2 peak-hour subway trains. These routes — most of which don’t parallel subway lines and aren’t faster that the trains — won’t alleviate congestion as subway ridership continues to climb at steep rates. In fact, the ferry plans take away from a real debate on sustainable funding, political support for transit and high-capacity growth.

So there you have it: one thousand words on ferries at a time when literally no politician wants to tackle issues of cost control, congestion pricing or capital plans. That’s de Blasio’s New York for you.

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Gondolas, now a thing. (Photo via East River Skyway)

Gondolas, now a thing. (Photo via East River Skyway)

Every now and then, an idea comes up regarding transit solutions in New York City that seems so out there in its creativity and so out of the box vis-a-vis the way transit operates here that you have to take a step back and appreciate it. Everyone got the ferry bug a few months ago; then we heard about waterfront light rail; and who could forget when John Catsimatidis threw out the idea for a monorail during his run for mayor? Today, we have gondolas.

Gondolas aren’t a particularly new idea for New York City. The Roosevelt Island Tramway delivers over 2.6 million passengers to one side or the other, and until it couldn’t keep up with maintenance obligations and passengers were stranded in the air for hours, the Bronx Zoo had the Skyfari. Now, thanks to Dan Levy, president of CityRealty, we have the East River Skyway, the latest and greatest in niche transportation for waterfront communities on either side of the East River.

The idea, Levy says, came to him while on a ski trip, and his plan involves three phases that will, he claims, cost around $75 to $125 million each. The gondola system, when completed, would span from south of the Brooklyn Bridge through Dumbo and the Navy Yards and north through Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Long Island City with connections to the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, the United Nations and the South Street Seaport.

In a certain sense, this plan gets to problems with the current transit set-up including overcrowded L trains, a need to serve the southern part of Roosevelt Island, especially with the Cornell development on tap and more capacity across the East River. On the other hand, the alignment is terrible in that it tracks subway lines such as the J/M/Z that are under capacity and mirrors preexisting ferry service. The materials tout a 3.5 minute ride from Williamsburg to Delancey St. at the base of the Williamsburg Bridge, but that’s already something the M train can deliver and with better connections to points north. Even though, as CityRealty site 6sqft noted, “gondola stations can also be sited several avenues in,” that’s only the case because the Roosevelt Tram tracks the 59th St. Bridge. (The site also calls the Lexington Ave. IRT line “less taxed” than the L. Make of that what you will.)

Levy apparently drew his inspiration from international cities as well, something that should be applauded, but his examples leave much to be desired. He cites London’s Emirates Air Line as a comparison, but that’s a 10-minute ride geared toward tourists. Germany’s Koblenz Rheinseilbahn is a temporary structure that serves to move people to a cliff above the Rhein, and Chile’s Telerifico Bicentario remains in the planning stages. Levy’s would be among the most complex in the world and relatively long as well.

As to ridership, he predicts around 5000 per hour — which is the equivalent of about three peak-hour subway trains. It’s a reasonably decent ridership, but it’s also one limited by geographic constraints. As with ferries, these gondolas get people from one coast to another, but not from where they live to where they work. Sure, some people live on the Williamsburg waterfront and work near Wall Street, but many would still need to ride a crowded subway. Thus, the problem for which Levy is trying to solve remains. Furthermore, these are issues that could be solved with dedicated bus lanes across the city’s bridges or better bike infrastructure. That’s the realistic conversation we should be having.

Ultimately, this is a fanciful idea, but one that’s more pie-in-the-sky than anything else. It can move the conversation though about ways to solve transit capacity issues, and if someone wants to build it with private funding, no one other than NIMBYs with waterfront views will raise much of a stink. (The insurance costs for operating these types of systems though make them cost prohibitive and nearly impossible to run at a profit.) For now, it’s the shiny new toy.

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Great moments in ferry advocacy

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As any regular SAS reader well knows by now, I have very little tolerance for the current love affair New York’s politicians have with ferries. To me, it reeks of a fetish that helps these elected officials avoid tough financial decisions and combative NIMBYs without actually solving the region’s mobility problems. The current ferry routes are the best ones available, and everything else suffers from low ridership, diminishing returns and either high fares or higher subsidies.

Yet, ferries continue to be the Next Big Thing, and on Wednesday, officials were so excited to call for more ferry service that they ran aground on one. Dana Rubinstein broke the story:

A Seastreak ferry ran aground in Jamaica Bay this afternoon, forcing the fire department to remove all 29 passengers, none of whom were injured, according to an FDNY spokesman and news reports. The ferry was not part of the regular Rockaways service, but was a private ride organized by a local ferry advocate to explore ways of expanding service, possibly to JFK Airport.

The ferry ride included, among others, representatives from the offices of Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder and Queens borough president Melinda Katz.”There was no big thump,” said Goldfeder, who wasn’t on the boat, but spoke to people who were. He said passengers didn’t even realize they were stuck until they tried moving. Goldfeder said the incident shouldn’t be used to paint ferry service as unreliable or prone to delays. “For every minor ferry incident, you can probably locate 50 subway delays,” Goldfeder said. “It’s just so inconsequential.”

The incident will not impact ferry service to the Rockaways, which carries about 400 people daily, according to Kate Blumm, a spokeswoman for the city’s Economic Development Corporation.

Now, there’s a lot going on here. First, Goldfeder’s right in one sense, but on the other hand, we’re talking about 400 people. For every one person who rides the ferry to and from the Rockaways, 15,000 ride the subway, and the cops don’t send out rescue squads every time a train is delayed due to a signal problem. We’ll come back to that 400 figure in a minute. In the meantime, don’t think too hard about how a ferry to JFK would work, where it would dock that would be at all convenient to suitcase-laden passengers, or why we need boats to the airport in the first place. You’ll only give yourself a headache.

In response to Wednesday’s incident, Queens’ politicians quickly tried to protect their ferry advocacy. “Today’s incident does not take away from the fact that is imperative that ferry service between Manhattan and Rockaways be made permanent,” Borough President Melinda Katz said. “Permanent ferry service would do more to promote economic development in the Rockaways than just about anything else that has been proposed in recent history. It is essential that the Rockaway ferry be made into a permanent mode of transportation.”

The emphasis is mine, and I’d like you to mull on her statement for a bit. The Borough President of Queens believes that a ferry with 400 daily passengers is the biggest thing to hit Queens since sliced bread (or, perhaps, the 63rd Street Connector). As a point of comparison, on a typical weekday, an average of 400 passengers per hour use the BMT Brighton line station at 7th Ave. near Prospect Heights and Park Slope. It’s certainly not promoting economic development in the way Katz’s talks.

Meanwhile, there is something that reaches toward the Rockaways that could create more economic development not just for the Rockaways but for much of Queens, and that is of course the Rockaway Beach Branch, a dedicated rail right of way with a connection through Queens to the IND Queensboro line. That would be worthy of a concerted political effort. But here we are, trumpeting a ferry that carries 400 of the Rockaways 130,000 people as a success. How our standards have fallen.

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Subsidizing individual cab rides would be cheaper than funding a Soundview ferry.

A few years ago, as part of a sponsorship/gimmick, baseball fans could take a ferry from Wall St. to Yankee Stadium. I happened to be working at the federal courthouse that summer, and one warm evening, my sister and I made the journey. It was fun and silly, albeit a little slow. The ferry dropped us off in the Bronx on the other side of the Metro-North station and the Major Deegan, a good 10-minute walk away from the stadium. We liked the boat ride but opted to take the 4 train from then on that year.

This story highlights a particular problem with ferry service to and from just about anywhere in the city. Because of choices our New York predecessors made in the mid-20th century, most destinations — housing, jobs, attractions — aren’t near the waterfront, and ferry service has to offer a far superior ride with added amenities to be better than the alternatives. This inconvenience of reality has not stopped our politicians from trumpeting ferries as some sort of amazing solution to our transit woes, and on Monday, the call came from the Bronx.

In March, just a few weeks before the East River Ferry operators had to raise their single-ride weekend fares to $6, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. penned a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio requesting a three-year trial for a ferry from Soundview in the Bronx with two stops on the Upper East Side and an ultimate Wall St. destination. Crain’s New York broke the story on Monday, and in Thornton McEnery’s reporting, we see more of the same old from our elected.

In a March 10 letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio, a copy of which has been obtained by Crain’s, Mr. Diaz requests ferry service between the Soundview area of the Bronx and Manhattan’s East Side. Citing the success of ferries from Brooklyn and Queens to Manhattan, and the geography of a coastline neighborhood that is not well served by public transit, Mr. Diaz’s letter requests that Mr. de Blasio endorse a three-year pilot program to test out the long-term viability of a new, permanent ferry route.

Mr. Diaz asks the mayor in the letter to acknowledge “the significant benefits ferry service between the Bronx and Manhattan would yield not just for my borough, but our entire city’s economy and our shared environment.”

The idea of a ferry between the southeast Bronx and midtown was not conjured up out of nowhere. The city saw a considerable expansion of ferry services during the Bloomberg administration, which also commissioned a study of the feasibility of ways to utilize the city’s waterways. The preliminary findings of that study were released late in 2013 and highlight Soundview as a promising origination point for a new ferry route. “It is felt that creating wider accessibility to the Bronx waterfront is an important policy consideration,” wrote the authors of the Citywide Ferry Study. “Additionally, there is opportunity for connecting Bronx residents to hospital and other job centers on the Upper East Side.”

I’ve touched upon the EDC report in the past, and it’s worth revisiting it to see if economic estimates from a group that loves to subsidize everything lines up with Diaz’s claim that ferry service would yield “significant benefits” for “our entire city’s economy.” Based on the EDC assessments of the Soundview ferry routes, it would cost at least $20 million to build ample ferry landings to support the service, and annual subsidies would run to approximately $6 million a year. The upper bounds of ridership by 2018 is approximately 1500 people per day — or the same number that can fit one one peak-hour subway train — and the subsidy per passenger could range from around $10-$24 depending upon the fare.

If anything, that’s a drag on New York’s economy, and not some panacea for for “our entire city’s economy and our shared environment.” Any bus route, for instance, that cost $10 per passenger to operate — let alone $24 — would have been eliminated years ago, and no one would have noticed. This is the fundamental problem with ferry service: It doesn’t solve any real problems for any real amount of people.

If we’re going to consider spending $20 million on upfront capital costs and $6 million on annual subsidies to improve transit, let’s figure out a way to spend it that will attract tens or hundreds of thousands of people a day rather than ones of thousands. Let’s figure out a way to talk this ferry energy and devote to real change. The fact that a politician is making this request and that it’s a serious one tells us all we need to know about the potential for transit growth in New York City today.

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