Archive for Public Transit Policy
Whether we recognize it or not, New York City is facing something of a transportation crisis. The problem itself won’t come to a true head for a while, but outside of a few avenues, our current transit options are nearly maxed out. Our roads are continually congested, and without significant expansion, the subway system can’t withstand too many more trains — or passengers — per hour during peak times. Buses and a real bus rapid transit network could pick up some slack, but lately the focus has turned to the city’s myriad waterways.
For much of the 2013 mayoral campaign, we heard candidates from various parties talk endlessly about the opportunities for expanded ferry service. It sounds good, right? These are politicians actually promoting increased transit, and at a time when subway construction is exceedingly expensive and no one at the MTA is willing to try to rein in those costs, sticking some boats on the water seems downright economically responsible. It is but a political smoke screen as well, and I’ll get to that shortly.
Lately, the jockeying for ferries has come from the local level. Ydanis Rodriguez, the new chairman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee, has been agitating for more ferry service for his constituents even though most of them live on a bluff high above the nearest coast. Now, Queens reps are calling for more ferry service too. The Queens Chronicle reports:
The words “commute” and “New York City” usually make one think of squeaky, dirty, crowded subway cars snaking through tunnels and along elevated rails. Or perhaps one conjures up thoughts of passengers packed into buses like sardines or jockeying for room under bus shelters. Some, especially out here in Queens, may think of a commute as idling on a packed highway in a car. One thing that most New Yorkers may not think of — unless maybe you’re from Staten Island — is boats…
The expansion of ferry service to the East River in 2011, connecting Wall Street and East 34th Street with Brooklyn and Long Island City, has also proved successful, as has a route to the Rockaways that was originally meant to be temporary. Now ferry advocates — and elected officials — are looking to expand service to other parts of Queens with waterfront connections.
…Already expansion beyond Long Island City and Rockaway may be imminent. According to one source, expansion of the East River ferry to Astoria is “more than likely,” and former Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. allocated money toward a feasibility study. Vallone’s successor, Councilman Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria), said bringing ferry service farther north to Astoria would be a boon for the Western Queens waterfront, especially if they add a stop on Roosevelt Island, where a tech school is slated to be located. “We can find the money for this worthwhile cause,” said Constantinides, a member of the Council’s Transportation Committee. He pointed to Hallets Cove as a location for a ferry, noting the amount of development taking place there and the need for more public transportation.
Throughout the article, Queens politicians and ferry advocates discuss the success of the Rockaway boats and potential landing spots in College Point, Willets Point, Fort Totten or downtown Flushing. One quote in particular sums up the thinking. “We’re on the right path with expanding bus rapid transit and bike lines and now with ferries,” Constantinides said. “We’re not building any more subways. Better utilizing the city’s waterways is the new frontier.”
I have such major issues with this defeatist attitude toward subway construction. We’re giving up because politicians aren’t strong enough to fight back against rampant cost issues or, in the case of Constantinides’ own district, intense NIMBY opposition to a plan that would have brought the subway to Laguardia Airport. We can’t throw in the towel on future subway construction and expect New York to be able to grow. Ferries won’t cut it.
Meanwhile, the comments and coverage concerning ferries fail to make note of the issues of scale. The Rockaway ferry may be a success, but that’s with ridership of 700 per day. One peak-hour subway carries at least twice, and sometimes three times, that amount from Queens or Brooklyn into Manhattan. Ferries can help out around the edges; they can’t affect transformative change or do much to alleviate the transit capacity problems plaguing New York.
The single biggest issue with any New York City ferry network concerns population patterns. New York of the 20th century built inland and, thanks to Robert Moses, rung its waterways with roads. Not too many people live near potential ferry terminals, and not too many work near them either. So a ferry network also involves getting people to and from the terminals, and with fares not unified, such a setup currently involves a steep added cost per day. Most New Yorkers would rather take a crowded train than add $3-$5 per day to their commuting costs.
Furthermore, nearly every place in New York City that is well suited for ferry service already has it. The East River ferries offer relatively quick commutes to areas where people work. Many of the folks who live in uber-expensive waterfront condos in DUMBO, Williamsburg and Long Island City work near Wall Street. Travel patterns shift as one moves further east in Brooklyn and Queens.
But there are political forces at work here that account for the popularity of the boat movement. First, there are no NIMBYs to battle. Some people may object to a nearby ferry terminal and the noise from the boats, but it doesn’t engender the same level of protest that a new subway line or removing a lane of automobile traffic for bus rapid transit would. Second, the costs of starting a ferry line are relatively low and turnaround time is short. Thus, a politician can propose a ferry route, secure funding and attend a ribbon-cutting in a single term while proclaiming to be pro transit. Never mind the fact that, at most, a wildly successful ferry with 4000 daily riders services half of one-tenth of a percent of all New Yorkers. It’s an easy political win.
So we’re stuck in a boat rut. It may make limited sense to examine some ferry routes, but the most they can do is shuffle the deck chairs on the Titanic that is the subway system. Without high-capacity expansion, trains will be more crowded than ever before, and New York City will face growth constraints. It would take real leadership to tackle this problem; the ferries are simply a smokescreen.
Since the end of the ferry-centric mayoral campaign, I’ve tried hard to avoid the issue of tax-payer supported boats. It hasn’t been easy. The NYC Economic Development Corporation released two different studies on ferry service and city subsidies, but I just couldn’t again tackle the issue. Now, though, it’s come back, and I’d like to revisit it.
The latest comes to us from Ydanis Rodriguez, the new chair of the City Council’s transportation committee. Rodriguez is, by most accounts, a great choice for the position. He understands the city’s bus and subway systems, isn’t focused on the primacy of the automobile and has embraced plans to drastically reduce, if not outright eliminate, pedestrian deaths. He has one Achilles’ heel: ferries.
In a wide-ranging interview with Politicker’s Ross Barkan and in a subsequent exchange on Twitter, Rodriguez’s desire to do something with ferries — even for neighborhoods where ferry service isn’t practical — came through. Politicker paraphrased: “Mr. Rodriguez further hopes to boost transportation options for his own Washington Heights and Inwood-based Manhattan district and in the outer boroughs, where options are often scarce. He’s already planning a push to bring ferry service to Upper Manhattan near Dyckman Street that would whisk Inwood residents downtown.”
Now, the biggest problem with Washington Heights is self-evident from, well, the neighborhood’s name. It’s in the heights! That’s not just the name of a Broadway show, folks; that’s an accurate geographic description of the neighborhood. It’s high up there; it’s not near the water. Even the marina at Dyckman St. is further away from the subway for nearly every single resident of the area, and the ferry service itself is impractical. Where does a boat from Dyckman St. go? To 39th St. and the West Side Highway? To the World Financial Center, itself a 13-stop express train ride from Dyckman Street? What’s next — a call for better ferry service for Ditmas Park?
Now, to be fair to Rodriguez, he later told me that he would more than willing to conduct a cost-benefit analysis. I urged him instead to take whatever city money he would want to use for this ferry service and invest it in the bus network or the subway. If he feels transit options from his district aren’t sufficient enough, money for increased service along the high-capacity transit routes that would be a far better use of the same taxpayer dollars. For buses, in particular, a $9 million investment — similar to the city’s contribution to the East River ferries — could go a very long way toward improving reliability and frequency of service.
But let’s indulge in a rough cost-benefit analysis. I’ve touched on this before in examining ferries vs. Citi Bikes, and I cast a similarly leery eye toward ferry subsidies in both August and October. The problem is that the best ferry routes — those areas with high demand, people willing to pay higher prices and easy waterfront access — are tapped out. As Jeff Zupan from the RPA said last year, “Ferry service is a niche, and as a niche there are places where it might work well but they’re few and far between. Most of them that have succeeded are in place.”
The city, through its EDC documents, says that it subsidizes ferries to the tune of over $2.25 a ride. This is far more than the city’s contributions to New York City Transit, and the ferry fares are still steeper. Meanwhile, the successful East River ferries carry a hair over 3000 passengers per weekday. The M15, a very successful Select Bus Servicer out, carries nearly 20 times as many riders. Two peak-hour A trains can carry more riders than the ferries do all day.
Outside of the ridership and economics, there are questions of resources as well. Should the City Council be devoting the same time to ferries as it does to, say, considering the proper way to roll out bus lanes? Should DOT or the MTA? Should NYCEDC? While New York is a city dependent upon and at the mercy of its waterways, most New Yorkers don’t live near the water and don’t work near the water. Furthermore, we have a vibrant subway system that provides a relatively high-speed, high-capacity route through disparate neighborhoods that needs more attention. Ferries ultimately are simply a distraction from real issues. Let’s leave them at that.
As transit agencies look to expand and grow, one of the biggest obstacles is seemingly the environmental review process. Federal and state governments mandate lengthy and costly review processes that are supposed to find no impact. Never mind that the purpose of a project could be, say, a brand new subway line designed to improve environmental conditions; these requirements stand.
Take, for example, the Second Ave. Subway. After what was then 70 years of planning and some aborted construction efforts, the MTA still had to prepare a scoping document, a draft environmental impact statement, a supplemental statement and a final environmental impact statement before the groundbreaking. When the agency proposed shifting some entrances at 72nd and 86th Sts., the agency had to prepare yet another document to show no impact. As these documents are now over a decade old in certain cases, the MTA may have to do some of this all over again for future phases of the subway construction project.
Simple subway extensions aren’t the only projects suffering under the onus of environmental review. In The Times today, while coverage of the snow dominates headlines, Sam Roberts tackles the problem of environmental review in the context of the Bayonne Bridge project. This should be a simple effort to raise a bridge in its existing footprint to allow larger container boats into the New York Harbor, but the review process has been a disaster. Roberts writes of the history of the project after it was proposed in 2009:
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey first spent more than six months importuning various federal offices to serve as the lead agency for an environmental review. The law is vague about which agency is responsible. The Coast Guard finally agreed.
Since then, the Port Authority’s “fast-track” approach to a project that will not alter the bridge’s footprint has generated more than 5,000 pages of federally mandated archaeological, traffic, fish habitat, soil, pollution and economic reports that have cost over $2 million. A historical survey of every building within two miles of each end of the bridge alone cost $600,000 — even though none would be affected by the project.
After four years of work, the environmental assessment was issued in May and took into consideration comments from 307 organizations or individuals. The report invoked 207 acronyms, including M.B.T.A. (Migratory Bird Treaty Act) and N.L.R. (No Longer Regulated). Fifty-five federal, state and local agencies were consulted and 47 permits were required from 19 of them. Fifty Indian tribes from as far away as Oklahoma were invited to weigh in on whether the project impinged on native ground that touches the steel-arch bridge’s foundation.
That’s just the beginning as Roberts airs out a full array of criticism against environmental review laws. “Environmental review has evolved into an academic exercise like a game of who can find the most complications,” Philip K. Howard, a lawyer concerned with onerous government regulations, said. “The Balkanization of authority among different agencies and levels of government creates a dynamic of buck-passing.”
Meanwhile, as the bridge is being raised to increase port capacity and reduce the number of ships needed to bring in the same amount of cargo, New Jersey groups believe that more containers will lead to more trucks carting more goods to their final destinations. Lawsuits are ongoing, but Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye seems fed up with it all. “We’re not proposing to build a nuclear plant on a pristine mountain lake,” he said to The Times. “We’re not building a bridge, we’re not knocking a bridge down, we don’t think there’ll be any increase in vehicular traffic. The environmental impact is more energy-efficient ships. They will emit less schmutz per container and per pair of Nikes.”
So what’s the solution? On the one hand, the review process is important in that it requires agencies to set forth detailed descriptions of their plans, and it forces government entities to involve the community to a certain degree in planning. But it’s an absurd process that needs to be streamlined and overhauled. The Bayonne Bridge and Second Ave. Subway are just two in a long list of voluminous environmental reviews that drive up costs and slow down construction. If enough agency heads sound off, as Foye did, maybe things can begin to change.
A bit of late-breaking news before 2014 arrives: Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has named Polly Trottenberg as his Department of Transportation commissioner. Trottenberg, a veteran of the Obama administration and a former staffer for Senators Moynihan and Schumer, will succeed Janette Sadik-Khan, and in the eyes of pedestrian safety and transit advocates, will have big shoes to fill. According to a release from de Blasio, Trottenberg will oversee his transportation agenda which will seek to “expand Bus Rapid Transit in the outer boroughs, reduce traffic fatalities, increase bicycling, and boost the efficiency of city streets.”
Streetsblog runs down Trottenberg’s credentials, and both Transportation Alternatives and the Straphangers have voiced their approvals this afternoon. Trottenberg sounded the right tones too in her statement but spoke earlier of making the pedestrian plaza planning process “more collaborative with local communities.” (For what it’s worth, the pedestrian plaza planning process has been far more collaborative than just about anything else DOT has done in decades. Slowing it down with more meetings would be counter-productive.)
Despite that hiccup, I think this is a solid appointment by de Blasio, and I’ll give Trottenberg the last word. “One life lost on our streets is too many. We are committed to the maxim that safety— for everyone who uses the roads, including pedestrians and cyclists —is our top priority,” she said in a statement. “From improving our roads, bridges and waterways to better serve our citizens and businesses, to connecting New Yorkers to jobs and opportunities through improved high-speed bus service, to expanding biking across the five boroughs, we can have a transportation system that is safe, efficient and accessible to all.”
Polly Trottenberg, current Under Secretary for Policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation, will serve as the Transportation Commissioner, executing Mayor-Elect de Blasio’s ambitious agenda to expand Bus Rapid Transit in the outer boroughs, reduce traffic fatalities, increase bicycling, and boost the efficiency of city streets.
As a further sign of some skewed priorities, as we enter 2014, pre-tax mass transit benefits will drop from $245 per month to $130 while parking subsidies will increase to $250 a month. The change comes on the heels of Congressional inaction in Washington, D.C. Andrew Grossman of The Journal runs down why the subsidy is dropping precipitously, and needless to say, no one who relies on mass transit is too happy about this change.
Even if Congress reauthorizes the $245 tax break, it is unlikely that the benefits will apply retroactively as administering such a change would be quite complicated. So while subway riders who need only a monthly MetroCard escape with their full subsidy in tact, anyone who is, say, a monthly commuter from Zones 4 or on beyond on Metro-North won’t have even half the cost of their passes covered by pre-tax deductions.
But fear not; Chuck Schumer is on it. “Mass transit is the lifeblood of the New York area, and this provision helps keep it flowing and affordable. Passing it will be a top priority in the New Year,” the state’s senior senator said. Happy New Year, indeed.
As the Year of the Ferry draws to a close, New Yorkers with ready access to the waterfront are in for a treat. As a parting gift, Mayor Bloomberg announced today that the city will extend its annual subsidy for ferry service for an additional five years through 2019. While weekend fares will go up to $6 per ride, the city will continue its $3 million annual subsidy, and boats will continue to ply the East River.
“The East River Ferry has been a huge success and demonstrates the demand for efficient, affordable transit to points along the City’s waterfront,” Michael Bloomberg said. “We now can promise commuters and visitors access to these waterfront neighborhoods via ferry for the next five years, sustaining an essential part of our Administration’s transportation vision and spurring economic growth across the City.”
According to a release by the mayor’s office, the ferries have been a success with three million passengers since a June 2011. The ridership has far surpassed initial estimates, and critics of the program — including me — have come around a bit. As the city notes, the ferries have “become an integral part of the city’s transportation infrastructure, improving transit connections between emerging waterfront neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, enhancing mobility in New York Harbor for residents and visitors, increasing flexibility for emergency transportation services, and supporting the ongoing reactivation of much of the East River waterfront.”
Now I’m happy to admit that I was wrong on the ferries. I didn’t think the effort was succeed, and I thought the city was wasting taxpayer dollars on something that had tried and failed. But due to the changing demographics of New York, the time is ripe for waterfront ferry service, and people who live in luxury buildings near the DUMBO, Williamsburg and Long Island City waterfronts, as well as though coming from Red Hook, have flocked to the service.
That’s all well and good, but I still think the spending priorities here a bit skewed. The ferries serve a small subset of New Yorkers and aren’t part of a network that can expand much beyond developed areas the waterfront. On the flip side of this coin is another new “last-mile” transportation system that relies on network effects to expand and could reach every single surface street in New York City for much less than the monthly bulk discounts
offered by the ferry. I am, of course, talking about CitiBike, New York’s bikeshare system.
Currently, CitiBike is supported by a $40 million grant from CitiBank that covers five years of service, and the city hasn’t forked over taxpayer dollars beyond some marginal monies. Why? A $3 million annual investment in CitiBike would allow for an increased reach and capacity by nearly 40 percent, and CitiBike needs that network effect to grow. If New York City has a limited pool of money from which it can support transportation, is this focus on ferries that serve neighborhoods that are generally well-off and well-connected neighborhoods off the mark?
Over the past few days, amidst an MTA crisis, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has again grabbed the mic to be the public face of an agency in trouble. This follows a trend established during Superstorm Sandy and one we’ve seen over the first few years of Cuomo’s tenure. He’ll issue the press releases and be on the air when someone needs to take charge, but he otherwise hasn’t embraced transit at all.
A telling moment came on Monday morning, in fact, when Cuomo was making the rounds on the local TV and cable news morning shows. One anchor asked Cuomo when he last took the train, and Cuomo, who has lived in Westchester for years and worked in an office the city as Attorney General, declined to answer. It was essentially a tacit admission that Cuomo hasn’t take the train in years. He should be ashamed. He’s the governor of the most transit-rich state in the country, and millions of his constituents depend upon subways, the LIRR and Metro-North every day. I don’t expect him to ride the 6 every day as Bloomberg does, but a trip now and then on a train would do him good.
Cuomo’s apathy, if not, as in the case of the Tappan Zee, outright hostility, does not bode well for anywhere else in the country, and following on the governor’s dismissal of a traffic pricing plan, that’s the argue Alex Pareene pursues in a piece at Salon. “The congestion pricing argument,” Pareene writes, “has always taken place, rhetorically, in a bizarre alternate universe where everyone drives, and where every citizen deserves to be able to drive without bearing anything close to the cost of that driving on the city’s infrastructure and atmosphere.”
He extends this discussion to the general approach to transit in the area:
Cuomo isn’t at all unusual. In New York state, as in the country as a whole, more resources continue to be spent on drivers and roads than buses and trains. One transit blogger has calculated that, according to how Albany allocates transportation money, “every driver is worth as much as 4.5 transit riders.” And while Mayor Bloomberg’s administration has a generally very good record on transit, there’s always been a strange tension between Bloomberg’s pedestrian and bicycle-friendly Department of Transportation and his NYPD, which has a bizarrely antagonistic relationship with bicyclists and which rarely — as in almost never — prosecutes reckless driving, speeding, or accidents leading to the death of pedestrians.
This should be the most transit-friendly government in the country. A majority of New York citizens rely on public transit for their livelihoods. The city and state are run by Democrats, many of them among the most liberal in the nation. Our incoming mayor, Bill de Blasio, ran as a left-wing populist. But incoming Mayor Bill de Blasio is a driver. Andrew Cuomo has been a driver, or had drivers, his entire life. There are certain richer Manhattanites, accustomed to walking, for whom anti-car policies improve their quality of life, but for most of the political class, everyone they know and interact with owns a car. Finding a steady and sufficient revenue source for the local transit system, one that can’t be raided for other purposes and that doesn’t rely too heavily on burdening its users with hefty fare increases, should be an urgent priority for local politicians, but most of them simply don’t care.
We already have a political system in this country that, nationally, heavily favors the interests of the rural and the suburban over the urban. Many state legislatures have similar biases. But when, even in New York, politicians ignore transit, because they don’t know or interact with or receive checks from people who rely on it every day, there’s almost no hope for cheap, efficient mass transit options anywhere.
Pareene’s last observation — that New York politicians “don’t know or interact with or receive checks from people” whose lives are dependent on transit — is a stunning one. In a city in which everyone takes and needs transit, those who fight for the system aren’t elected to City Hall or Albany. There are always a few bright spots, those legislators who understand the need, but they are few and far between.
So what’s the answer to this question? Is there one? The Straphangers Campaign has been fighting for 30 years; the Riders Alliance has been around for two. Still, there’s no indication that de Blasio will be better than Cuomo or that either will make the hard choices to fund transit. Even in a crisis three or four years ago, politicians couldn’t step up, and Eliot Spitzer, a big transit champion, self-destructed. So here we are in a city trying to find a way to fund transit in a sustainable way and continuing to face political road blocks. The fight will go on.
It’s going to take some time to get used to the idea of Mayor Bill de Blasio. It’s the first time New York City has had a new chief executive since 2001, and times, for better or worse, sure have changed. In a sense, with Michael Bloomberg on the way out, de Blasio will have a clean slate, but that doesn’t mean he can’t learn from and adopt the good ideas of his predecessor. Particularly in the transit and transportation realms, de Blasio would be wise to take a page from the Bloomberg playbook.
As de Blasio and his family celebrate the night away a few blocks away from my apartment, I’d like to offer up a list of suggestions for New York City’s 109th mayor. These aren’t exhaustive or exclusive ideas, but they are paths de Blasio should take if he wants to improve access for everyone in New York City — a key part of the campaign rhetoric that landed him in Gracie Mansion.
1. Invest in transit; pay attention to the MTA
Over the final years of his reign, Mayor Bloomberg seemed content to punt on the MTA. He got into a name-calling fight with then-MTA Chair Joe Lhota in the aftermath of Sandy and seemed out of the loop when it came to the MTA’s recovery efforts. But he wasn’t a disinterested bystander during the majority of his tenure. He ushered in the 7 line extension, fought hard for congestion pricing and has led, via his DOT appointees, an effort, albeit a slow one, to bring Select Bus Service to the city.
De Blasio should pick up the mayor’s zeal for transit and push forward on it. He shouldn’t necessarily fight for city control of the MTA, but he shouldn’t ignore transit. His board appointees can be strong advocates for the city, and de Blasio himself can fight for transit investments and expansion projects by putting the city’s money on the line. The subway is New York City’s, and its mayor can lead the charge to make sure the subways are better tomorrow than they are today.
2. Keep SBS but bring on real Bus Rapid Transit
New York’s approach to bus rapid transit is this half-hearted thing called Select Bus Service which is a bunch of basic operational upgrades disguised as something better. While other U.S. cities implement dedicated lanes, signal prioritization and various other hallmarks of bus rapid transit, we get pre-boarding fare payments, painted lanes with lax enforcement and no flashing lights because some Staten Islanders threw a fit. De Blasio has the opportunity to reshape the streets, and his Department of Transportation should take a good long look at a real BRT network instead of today’s Select Bus Service.
3. Keep — and expand — the borough taxi program
A few days ago, Dana Rubinstein wrote a comprehensive piece on de Blasio’s close ties to the taxi industry, and it’s one that should raise some eyebrows. In it, our future mayor expresses skepticism over the green borough taxi program, and Rubinstein draws connections to his close association with the upper echelons of the cab industry. In a Jill Colvin piece, de Blasio said, “If we’re going to make any changes to it, we better damn well make sure we don’t disrupt that which works now.”
We could debate for hours whether or not the current taxi system “works,” but the borough cabs should remain and expand. They’ve been quite popular in areas where yellow cabs are scarce or non-existent, and they calm the need to rely on private cars while generating revenue — in the form of medallion sales and metered fees — for the city. It’s a win-win for everyone but medallion owners, and they don’t need the help from Gracie Mansion.
4. Expand bike lanes, safe streets and pedestrian plazas
One of Mayor Bloomberg’s and Janette Sadik-Khan’s signature moves have been the popular pedestrian plazas, an expanded bike lane network and safe streets initiatives. A vocal minority have objected to some of these efforts on spurious grounds, and the truth remains that they make our city’s streets safer while encouraging local business. Times Square’s pedestrian makeover, for instance, has led to record-high rents in the area, and plazas in Jackson Heights and Fort Greene have been popular with residents and business alike. Meanwhile, though, children — and all New Yorkers — continue to suffer injury and death at the hands of reckless drivers.
Nearly two weeks ago, de Blasio raised a few eyebrows when he apparently waffled on street safety, but this is an issue that requires strong leadership. The new mayor should come out in favor of continuing measures that save lives while making the city more pleasant for pedestrians, those who drive the economy and make New York the vibrant urban area it is. From Day One, he can set the tone with his DOT Commissioner, and all eyes will be on him to keep making progress.
5. Solve the Penn Station Problem
I’ve written extensively on Penn Station lately but still have no answers. Madison Square Garden remains an obstacle; inter-agency cooperation remains an obstacles; costs remain an obstacle. Mayor de Blasio is uniquely positioned to lead an effort to come up with a master plan for Penn Station while encouraging the various interests to work together. It could be his lasting contribution to New York City but will take a considerable about of work, effort and leadership to see through.
It’s become exceedingly challenging to avoid talking about ferries over the last few months. Since the relative success of the East River Ferries, politicians have been drawn to the idea of an expanded ferry network like moths to a flame. Unlike, say, bus or bikes lanes or subway construction, hardly anyone gets upset when new boats are put on the water, and it’s an easier fix. Build out a pier, award a contract, and voilà, ferries. But do the ends justify this new obsession?
Nearly every mayoral candidate this year has focused on ferries as a way to expand the city’s transit network, and in a certain sense, they’re not wrong. For a city that grew up around its waterways, New York has, for decades, ignored that fact. Robert Moses built roads as close to the shoreline as possible, and ferries were an afterthought rather than a centerpiece. Lately, though, boats have come back into fashion. Blame The Lonely Island or blame the cost of subway construction, but one way or another, we can’t — and, to a point, shouldn’t — escape the lure of open seas.
Earlier this week, ferry expansion was the topic of conversation during a New York Metropolitan Transportation Council lunch with Roland Lewis, the President and CEO of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. The meeting was billed thusly: “Once upon a time, an extensive, interconnected network of ferryboats populated New York Harbor, transporting millions of passengers throughout the burgeoning region’s islands and peninsulas. Today, after generations of disuse, renewed interest in the City’s waterfront has given rise to the highly successful East River Ferry, which has proven that fast, comfortable, convenient, and affordable ferry service can succeed in modern-day New York.”
In the intervening years since ferryboats populated the harbor, we’ve seen the rise of this thing called the subway, the omnibus, the taxicab and the personal automobile. So it’s quite reasonable why ferries may have fallen out of favor, but here we are. Dan Rivoli of amNew York was on hand to report:
Metropolitan Waterway Alliance’s Roland Lewis, in a meeting with the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, touted the city’s “God-given waterway” as a travel alternative in transit-starved neighborhoods and during an emergency on the scale of Superstorm Sandy. “We have an overburdened, congested transit system,” Lewis said. “You have to build a dock, but the transit system is there for us to use on our rivers and through the harbor.”
The Bloomberg administration and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn in 2008 unveiled a plan that envisioned ferry service to all five boroughs. In addition to the Staten Island Ferry, there are city-subsidized ferries servicing the East River and residents of the Rockaways and Sunset Park. The other commuter ferries that go to Manhattan serve New Jersey riders. “I’m just hoping that the city will continue to try pilot projects,” Lewis said. “Try it with the ingredients for success in a robust way and see what kind of market develops in these areas.”
…With waterfront development growing, the Metropolitan Waterway Alliance identified 43 sites where commuter ferry service can operate, like Soundview and the South Shore of Staten Island. “It’s a good bargain,” Lewis said.
It’s a good bargain. That’s a claim we need to explore and challenge and question for it is the key to determining if ferry service should be expanded. As Rivoli reports, the city’s Economic Development Corporation has subsidized the East River Ferry — so far the most popular paid intra-city boat — to the tune of $2.25 per ride. That’s about double what the subsidy is for the city’s subway riders, and the ferries have a higher base fare without the option of a free transfer.
Meanwhile, most transit experts believe that it’s all downhill from the East River. “Ferry service is a niche. And as a niche there are places where it might work well but they’re few and far between,” Jeff Zupan, a fellow with the RPA, said to amNew York. “And most of them that have succeeded are in place.”
The problem with ferry service, as I’ve noted before, is that many New Yorkers simply do not live or work near the waterfront, and without integrated ferries into the city’s transit network, it serves no other purpose. People will not take a subway ride to get close enough to walk to a ferry terminal so that they can take the ferry to another place that’s not too near job centers. It’s perfect for the high-end developments that have sprung up in Long Island City, Greenpoint, Williamsburg and DUMBO. It’s not at all useful for the millions of landlocked New Yorkers.
So what’s the future of ferry service? And more importantly, what problem is it solving? It can be a complementary part of the transit network, but it’s not going to reach enough New Yorkers to be truly transformative. Hopefully, our next mayor realizes that.
I haven’t had much to say of late about the illustrious 2013 mayoral race because there hasn’t been very much to say. By all accounts, Bill de Blasio is going to moonwalk into Gracie Mansion in two weeks, and it’s not even going to be close. He’s currently polling between 45-50 points above Joe Lhota, and city Republicans are willing to go on the record to criticize Lhota’s campaign. What fun is a race that isn’t one?
On Tuesday night, though, words from the two candidates both intrigued and irked me. It was the second-to-last debate before the election, and as Joe Lhota attacked, the two candidates parried. The debate isn’t going to change many voters’ minds at this point, and absent an utterly shocking October Surprise, de Blasio will move up while Lhota will move on. But last night, transit came to the forefront, and it was dismaying.
First, Lhota, the former MTA head who made headlines by improving operations at the agency and leading it through the post-Sandy recovery phase, spoke once more of his plan to decouple bridge and tunnel toll revenue from the MTA. Ignoring history, Lhota believes that the city should set toll policy (but not fare policy for the subways apparently) and that the city should determine what to do with bridge and tunnel revenue. This is, by the way, in marked contrast to congestion pricing which would funnel more money to transit.
So what would the impact of such a move be? Off the bat, the MTA would lose 12 percent of its expected revenue for 2014. To recoup that in other transit fares would require a hike of nearly 25 percent or direct contributions topping $1.6 billion. Lhota hasn’t proposed another revenue stream to make it up for the lost money, and as a former agency head, he should know better. Of course, it’s pandering pure and simple, and it’s something the state would never authorize. But this is what passes for transit discourse during a city-wide campaign.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the stage, Bill de Blasio decided to go after safe streets. Both mayoral candidates agreed on this point, but de Blasio put it to words. When asked about his views on pedestrian plazas, he said, “I have profoundly mixed feelings on this issue…The jury’s out.” To me, this does not show a politician willing to lead and guide the city through early 21st century growth and progress. This shows a politician willing to kowtow to special interests that barely exist.
Is the jury still out? Four years ago, a poll found that 58 percent of New Yorkers supported the creation of a pedestrian plaza between Times and Herald Squares with just 34 percent opposing. Those numbers have only increased over the past few years. Meanwhile, a 2010 DOT survey found drastic results. Travel times and congestion were down while pedestrian safety was markedly improved. Injuries were down by 35 percent, and nearly three quarters of New Yorkers though the area had “improved dramatically.” Today, businesses love the pedestrian plazas as they are crowded at all hours of the day, and retail rents in Times Square are now the highest in the city.
The jury isn’t out, but still, politicians insist it is. Meanwhile, I’ve passed a memorial to a 12-year-old killed by a car that rips out of my heart every day I walk or run by. We hear constant stories of accidents involving young and old pedestrians while police file no charges. We ask for improvements to the city-scape that lead to more community engagement and safer streets, and yet politicians do not lead. They do not understand what makes a city a city and what makes vibrant urban life possible. It isn’t making sure we limit pedestrians to five-foot-wide strips of concrete.
Maybe when de Blasio is mayor, this rhetoric will be just that, and he’ll continue the Bloomberg Administration’s safer streets plans. But it’s dismaying and disillusioning to hear two men trying to lead the city come up empty on such important topics. It may not have the cachet of education, crime, housing or jobs, but transit, transportation and street life are integral parts of New York City. What we saw last night wasn’t anything close to leadership.