Archive for Public Transit Policy

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

Honorable Mentions: Expand CitiBike, consider a Red Hook/waterfront light rail system, pay some attention to Vision 42, ponder the 7 line to Secaucus, Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway.

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Oct
25

Once more unto the ferries

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The East River Ferry has proven popular, but can other routes follow suit?

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.

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Oct
23

Send in the clowns

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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