Archive for Public Transit Policy
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.
At what point is it no longer practical for New York State and its various transportation-related agencies to resort to fare hikes and toll increases to fund infrastructure projects? Have we reached the breaking point? These are two questions that no one likes to ask, but as the state begins to build a new Tappan Zee Bridge and as the MTA looks toward another $28 billion five-year capital plan, these are questions that deserve our attention.
The topic came up yesterday when Chris Ward, the former head of the Port Authority, spoke about the Tappan Zee Bridge. Dana Rubinstein was on hand for the talk and filed this report:
“The very things that we have taken for granted, which were the foundation for building infrastructure, we have probably lost within this region,” said Ward. “If you look at the great notion of the Port Authority as an independent authority. You look at the M.T.A., you look at even the way the City of New York functions with how it builds infrastructure, that model today, unfortunately, is broken.”
The Port Authority’s LaGuardia Airport, for example, remains “a crap airport,” according to Ward.
“The Port Authority faces probably a $7 billion infrastructure gap on what it would like to do and what it can afford to do,” he continued. “The M.T.A. is probably in a somewhat worse position and we’ve realized and the governor has realized we are not going to be able to fund the capital plan off fares and tolls on the M.T.A.”
Ward didn’t present a catch-all solution, but his point is a good one. We need infrastructure, and infrastructure costs money. We need to be willing to pay for infrastructure, but we also have to willing to invest in maintenance and upkeep. We also need to figure out a way to control costs. There’s no good reason for New York City to have the highest capital costs in the world, but our leaders aren’t willing to take on the cost structure which include work-rule reform and an overhaul of the bidding process.
For the city to remain competitive, it will have to build — and fund — infrastructure expansion projects that do a bit more than Select Bus Service does. That’s going to require a discussion about alternate funding schemes including congestion pricing. No one wants to talk about it, but it’s there. Within ten years, New York City will either have congestion pricing or an infrastructure gap too large to overcome. I’ll take the former. Now let’s start talking about it.
As part of their lead-up to the mayoral primary, The Times yesterday ran one of their faux-debate segments called Room for Debate on either infrastructure or “livable city” issues. The pieces’s permalink hints at the former while the current headline broadcasts the latter. Either way, there’s no debating going on in this room as five experts sound off on five issues the next mayor should confront.
Julia Vitullo-Martin, a senior fellow with the RPA, drew the transportation straw, and her segment is on transit-oriented development. It’s always struck me as funny to talk about TOD in New York City. The entire city is one giant example of transit-oriented development, and TOD in such a dense urban area clearly doesn’t mean the same as TOD surrounding a commuter rail station in the ‘burbs does. In fact, based on the way Vitullo-Martin describes it, her TOD is heavy on the D and lacking in concrete ideas surrounding the T.
Here’s her proposal to, as she puts it, “increase the supply of space, and do it by using the strategy New York virtually invented, transit-oriented development, which encourages the massing of businesses and residences near public transit hubs:”
The Bloomberg administration correctly rezoned large sections of the city, particularly the formerly derelict waterfront. But there’s much more to be done by the next mayor, who should direct the department of city planning to produce a map ranking neighborhoods by concentration of transit and suitability for development, with analyses of which areas can absorb the most new development.
The next mayor would be wise to couple these zoning changes with mandatory payments into an amenity fund to mitigate the effects of development — similar to the district improvement bonus proposed for East Midtown Rezoning. That bonus was criticized for being too generous, but that’s not the point. The point is to create a device to capture part of the profits of development to improve the neighborhood being developed, and to relieve pressure elsewhere, even helping to save historic sections of the city.
Some would say there is another solution to excessive demand: don’t let the newcomers in. But in an age of global innovation and competitiveness, do we really want to do that? Newcomers not only bring more money to the city, they have also — as Dan Doctoroff, the former deputy mayor, noted at a recent Next New York forum — been essential to paying for the “compassionate city we pride ourselves on.” But to pay for the compassion as well as the public services that have helped propel New York back to its position as a global leader, the city needs the tax revenue that only new development brings. Just make sure new development is close to public transportation.
If this mini-essay does nothing else, it certainly wins the urbanist buzzword bingo game. But what Vitullo-Martin advocates for is half of a solution. We certainly want to encourage building tall and ever upward near key transit hubs (and just about any subway station), and rezoning can be a prime mover in adding to housing stock while alleviating some of the skyrocketing housing costs in New York City. But if we’re going to call for transit-oriented development, it’s imperative to make sure the transit system can sustain development.
One of the obstacles facing the Midtown East rezoning concerns its impact, perceived or real, on the transit system. The Lexington Ave. is from the north is at capacity, and the Second Ave. Subway won’t reach midtown for a decade or two at best. Although East Side Access will bring more people in the Grand Central area and the Lex lines can handle northbound commuters from Brooklyn, politicians and community activists think the transit won’t meet demand, and in many places, that very well might be true.
So as urban policy makers advocate for more development in NYC, they can’t ignore transit. It’s not about improving neighborhoods or saving historic districts, as Vitullo-Martin claims it is. Rather, it’s about making sure the transit network can support the development she wants to see spring up around it. And that, much like Big Ideas, isn’t discussed nearly as much as it should be.
For reasons of history, the New York City subway system is very good at bringing riders and commuters into and out of Midtown and Lower Manhattan. Before the subways were built out, that’s where people lived and worked and played, and after the subways were built, New Yorkers still wanted to get back to those roots. The jobs, entertainment and culture never left.
For other reasons of historical inertia, the New York City subway system doesn’t do a particularly good job at connecting neighboring borders. The quicker and most direct routes between Brooklyn and Queens involve lengthy detours through Manhattan, and forget trying to get from the Bronx to a non-Manhattan destination. A combination of costs, a lack of most of the Second System and poor foresight are to blame. These interconnections, not priorities throughout much of the city, are slowly emerging as some of the more obvious structural problems with our transportation network, and no one wants to acknowledge them, let alone address them.
Earlier this week, the Partnership for New York issued a report on the city’s commuting woes. The business-based organization noted that New Yorkers face an average commute of 48 minutes, tops in the nation. It takes a long time to span this vast city of ours. But that’s the least of it. As the report details, a lot of emerging job centers, such as the Brooklyn Navy Yard, “are poorly served by the public transit system that was designed and built as much as a century ago.”
A posting on the NYC Jobs Blueprint tumblr has more:
Over a million of the workers commuting into Manhattan come from the other boroughs, but job growth in those boroughs has outpaced Manhattan central business districts over the past decade.Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx have added more than 250,000 jobs since 2000.
Many of the two million resident workers who live in Brooklyn and Queens commute daily between the two boroughs. Due to limited public transit options, over half of these commutes are made by car, contributing to road congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. In order to address this problem in the short term, the city should increase its bus service between the two boroughs, potentially expanding bus rapid transit in the area…
New York City’s population is expected to grow by one million people by 2040, presenting an opportunity for the city to create new, geographically diverse jobs centers. To accommodate these opportunities, the city needs to appropriately expand and maintain its transportation options in response to shifts in commuting patterns. It is critical that all of the city’s residents, especially those in neighborhoods underserved by public transit, have public transit access to jobs centers. Linking residents with emerging business hubs will allow for greater economic opportunity and job growth across all boroughs.
Now, there is a matter of scale to consider here. Daily commuters alone account for 1.5 million additional people in Manhattan during the day, and tourists and day-trippers add more. That’s nearly ten times as 150,000 New Yorkers who commute in between Brooklyn and Queens for their jobs, and it’s unlikely that non-Manhattan, interborough commuting will ever approach the numbers of Manhattan-bound commuters. Still, the potential and need for improvements is obvious.
So what is the city doing about it? What are mayoral candidates proposing to enhance transit options? Besides ferries and park-and-ride, not too much. The current Select Bus Service routes don’t bridge job centers in different boroughs, and the initial round of routes all stop at or near borough borders. While a variety of candidates have called vaguely for more Select Bus Service or some form of bus rapid transit, only Christine Quinn has put pen to paper, and her Triboro RX SBS routing is more a disaster than a promise. New Yorkers need faster, more direct ways to get to their jobs, but no one has a bold plan for action.
Right now, I don’t have an answer. Maybe the Triboro RX could help, but it’s not clear if the proposed routing connects key job centers. Maybe better Select Bus Service routes could do it. Maybe building a time machine and asking city officials in the 1910s to think of the future would help. No matter what though if New Yorkers sit around waiting for better transit, it’s not going to arrive by itself. We need a visionary to push through solutions to these current and obvious structural problems.
When Elon Musk wants something, he often does it something. The PayPal founder wants to send people to space; hence, SpaceX. He wanted to invest in cleaner automobile technology; thus a Series A investment in Tesla. Now, he wants to travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 30 minutes. Enter the Hyperloop.
The Hyperloop is Musk’s current project. It’s an elevated vactrain that would travel at around 600 miles per hour with top speeds closer to 800. It would run frequently between Los Angeles and the Bay Area, and it would be cheap. Musk claims construction would run to only a few billion dollars with fares at $20 for the one-way trip. Is this dreaming or is this delusional?
Since unveiling his paper on it a few days ago [pdf], reaction has ranged from incredulous to giddy. Transportation advocates are stunned by Musk’s claims — often issued with no supporting evidence — and even those with a basic level of mathematical knowledge don’t quite understand how his ideas add up. Meanwhile, lay people are awed by the idea. It’s something we’ve never seen before, and it sounds like it could bridge great gaps in short order. Plus it’s way cheaper than that whole California High Speed Rail boondoggle or so the argument goes.
As much as I like to dream big — IND Second System anyone? — color me skeptical for a variety of reasons, most of which have been expressed elsewhere. James Sinclair issued a massive takedown, and Alon Levy, for instance, calls it a loopy idea. He dispenses with a lot of Musk’s equations, questions the way this structure could withstand earthquakes and generally wants to see evidence:
There is no systematic attempt at figuring out standard practices for cost, or earthquake safety (about which the report is full of FUD about the risks of a “ground-based system”). There are no references for anything; they’re beneath the entrepreneur’s dignity. It’s fine if Musk thinks he can build certain structures for lower cost than is normal, or achieve better safety, but he should at least mention how. Instead, we get “it is expected” and “targeted” language. On Wikipedia, it would get hammered with “citation needed” and “avoid weasel words.”
…Musk’s real sin is not the elementary mistakes; it’s this lack of context. The lack of references comes from the same place, and so does the utter indifference to the unrealistically low costs. This turns it from a wrong idea that still has interesting contributions to make to a hackneyed proposal that should be dismissed and forgotten as soon as possible.
I write this not to help bury Musk; I’m not nearly famous enough to even hit a nail in his coffin. I write this to point out that, in the US, people will treat any crank seriously if he has enough money or enough prowess in another field. A sufficiently rich person is surrounded by sycophants and stenographers who won’t check his numbers against anything.
Levy isn’t the only one casting doubt on it. USA Today interviewed some scientists who raise similar concerns, and Alexis Madrigal questions the details and land acquisition process. The list of problems goes on and on and on.
In other areas, rail advocates are dismayed because Musk is one of California’s highest profile entrepreneurs, and he is essentially throwing high speed rail under the bus (or, in this case, the Hyperloop). He claims he can do a better, and since he’s a Very Important Person, Californians who are still skeptical of HSR listen. Why should we spend billions on a proven but expensive technology when we can just let Musk — who doesn’t want much more to do with the Hyperloop idea anyway — build his futuristic travel pods? Why let something actually transformative come to being when we have nifty renderings?
Dreaming big and dreaming practically in this case are two separate outcomes, but they needn’t be. There is a place for ideas like Musk’s, but there is also a place for improving the current proven modes of transit as well. We can dream up larger networks and more efficient ways to move people through areas. But one should not come at the expense of another, and we should be able to recognize something for the fantasy that it is.
Last week, Eric Jaffe wrote on The Atlantic Cities that we should stop obsessing about the next big thing. We can’t give up dreaming, but we also, Jaffe writes, cannot let it “undermine our ability to address the problems of the present…In other words, we’re far better off with good expectations than great fantasies.” The Hyperloop fantasy is a great one, but so is the world of Back to the Future II where we all have flying cars within the next 26 months. But how do we get more cars off the roads tomorrow?
Despite the zaniness of the mayoral candidates’ transit policies and proposals, I had long assumed Joe Lhota would emerge as the sensible voice on transportation. After all, he’s running for mayor largely because of his brief tenure atop the MTA, and even though he didn’t spend much time running the agency, he seemed to grasp the larger problems facing transit improvements. His campaign has left me wanting more.
So far, we haven’t gotten much in the way of policies from any of the GOP candidates. Lhota, the presumptive frontrunner, has a website but no policy statements. He’s spent a lot of time clamoring for city control over the bridges and tunnels at the expense of the funding scheme established through the Triborough Bridge & Tunnel Authority and the MTA. I explored some of those issues yesterday. Now, in the form of a radio appearance, we have a little bit more from Lhota. It’s not quite what I had expected.
As part of an interview on WOR, Lhota spoke about the possible mechanisms for funding transit, and the conversation turned to congestion pricing. Once upon a time, congestion pricing had a powerful champion in City Hall and the support of a majority of the city’s residents (so long as the money were guaranteed to go transit improvements). It is the only way to ensure that fewer cars are entering congested areas of the Manhattan and part of a larger package to improve travel times and environmental, economic and safety conditions along heavily-trafficked corridors. Somehow, it’s turned into a political hot potato as no one will even discuss it any longer.
So Lhota got around to talking about it yesterday, but in a very roundabout way. Dana Rubinstein turned in and offered up select quotes:
“We’ve got to do everything we can to mitigate the number of cars in the city by doing smart things, common sense things, before we start saying ‘Well, let’s start charging people for coming into midtown, or congestion pricing,’” said Lhota this morning on the John Gambling radio show. “That’s the last step.”
…Today, when WOR radio host John Gambling asked Lhota his thoughts on congestion pricing, he started talking about parking lots instead. “Long before we have a real formal debate on congestion pricing, we’ve got to do everything we can to reduce the number of cars in the city and there are ways to do it,” said Lhota. “One of the things that I proposed when I was at the M.T.A., and I will definitely do while I’m mayor is, if you look at the end of every one of the subway lines, whether in the north along the Westchester County border, or along the border with Queens and Nassau County, at the ends of each of those lines, I want to be able to build parking garages and basically tell the people who are coming in from Nassau County, ‘You know what, don’t drive in. Why don’t you park in one of these nice, pretty garages that we’ll prepare for you and then take the subway in.’”
And to help lure the millenial set: WiFi. “We’ve got to make sure that our subway system is WiFi-ed,” said Lhota. “We’ve got to make sure that our buses have WiFi. The number of people who would would get on buses if they had access to WiFi and be able to use their computers or their smartphones would be extraordinary.”
Talk about overstating your case. If these are the prerequisites to congestion pricing, we’ll never see it happen under Lhota. Let’s work backwards.
WiFi in the subway is a great idea and one I’ve supported for years. But it’s not about to turn subway cars into roving offices. From a practical perspective, try whipping out your laptop on a Manhattan-Q train at 8:30 in the morning, and then let me know how much work you can get done. It’s tough enough to read the newspaper on an iPad, let alone hammer away at a keyboard with a computer on your lap. I question too how many people would eschew cars for subways simply because of the Internet. That’s a luxury of marginal overall utility, not an upgrade in any meaningful way.
Then, we arrive at the park-and-ride idea. As Rubinstein notes in her piece, this is a drum Lhota has banged before, and it’s a terrible one. First, most — if not all — subway terminals are in built-up densely settled urban areas that have no room or need for a deadening parking garage. Second, parking garages serve to encourage driving when we want to eliminate it by making it easier to park, and thus, more convenient to drive. Third, we have an entire network of suburban park-and-rides with easy access to trains. It’s called Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road, and it funnels suburban travelers to their job centers more quickly and more directly the subways from, say, Jamaica or Wakefield would.
So this leaves us with a recognition that we need to do more to mitigate the number of cars entering and traveling through core areas of Manhattan each day, the knowledge that the MTA’s finances could use an infusion of cash, and the belief, left over from the 1950s apparently, that park-and-ride will do the trick. And therein lies your 2013 mayoral campaign in a nutshell.