Archive for Public Transit Policy
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.
As the R train’s Montague Tube shutdown enters week two, the Bay Ridge ferries from 58th St. in Brooklyn to Lower Manhattan have been three weeks to live. Proposed by politicians and rider advocates as a way to alleviate travel concerns during the tunnel work, the ferry is not what I’d call a necessity. I’ve already expressed my skepticism of the plan, and a piece on its usage and costs in this week’s issue of The Brooklyn Paper does little to convert me.
Will Bredderman did some digging into the ferry and its ridership needs. He found that all of 120 people took the boat on its first day of service earlier this week, and the New York City Economic Development Corporation would not comment on the number of people needed to keep the service afloat. Despite the EDC’s assurances that they were “happy” with the early ridership, based on the cost estimates Bredderman reported, we should be skeptical indeed.
The kicker here is indeed those costs. The fare to ride the ferry is $2, but according to The Brooklyn Paper’s sources, the cost of a trip is around $20 a passenger. In other words, the EDC is subsidizing the ferry to the tune of around $18 a person. That’s a farebox operating ratio of 10 percent, and even if ridership inches up a bit, it won’t increase enough to make these costs more palatable.
Again, then, I’m left questioning the city’s new-found love of ferries. Politicians have embraced them as an alternate means of transportation while flat-out ignoring the fact that many ferry terminals — like the one at 58th St. in Brooklyn — are a mile away from the nearest subway and not located near dense residential areas that would warrant such service. Meanwhile, we don’t discuss costs because the EDC, unlike the MTA, isn’t forthcoming with its budget numbers.
When the MTA cut bus lines in 2010, they did so based, in part, on the cost to operate those buses. Many routes that were bleeding money were eliminated, and in the MTA documents provided at the time, we learned that some of the buses cut cost more per passenger to operate than fares dictated. None of the routes though were as unprofitable as the ferry, and all of the routes serviced orders of magnitude more people than a ferry does. Overall, New York City Transit’s current mid-year farebox operating ratio is projected to be around 58.6% for 2013. Why do we fetishize ferries so much again?
On the way home tonight from Yankee Stadium, I wrapped up my read of Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Great Inversion. Written during the depths of the recent recession and published in mid-2012, Ehrenhalt examines the changing demographics of urban life. It’s not about gentrifiction as Enrenhalt refuses to use the word, but the idea is that urban and suburban demographics have completely flipped. The urban core is where the wealthy, and largely white, upper class while middle and lower class communities, often majority-minority, are moving further away from downtown areas and often into the suburbs.
Over the past 12 years of the Bloomberg Administration, we’ve seen this happen on a citywide scale. Even during the economic doldrums of the 1970s, Manhattan was always the wealthy core, but the surrounding areas were hit hard by bad times following white flight. Only recently have areas like Williamsburg, Long Island City and even Park Slope and points further south become expensive neighborhoods. Even the South Bronx — an area with a history of neighborhood problems but very quick transit access to Midtown — seems to be on the rise.
As part of their assessment of the Bloomberg Era, WNYC has taken to examining the changing demographics of New York City. We know it’s become very expensive to live here, and many members of the middle class are being priced out. But for those that stay, the changing nature of the city means longer commutes. For those that want to or need to stay but find themselves priced out of areas close to the city’s job centers, travel is taking up more and more time.
Jim O’Grady discussed this problem at length in the story I’ve embedded above, and he produced a short written companion piece:
During Mayor Bloomberg’s three terms, it became especially expensive to rent or buy a home in Manhattan and neighborhoods close to it. Over the last 10 years, most of the growth in commuting to well-paying jobs in Manhattan has occurred in Manhattan itself – and in places like Williamsburg and Greenpoint, Downtown and Brownstone Brooklyn.
That development has pushed some New Yorkers of limited means to neighborhoods further from Manhattan, where most of the jobs are located. And increasing numbers of New Yorkers are traveling within or between the outer boroughs to get to work, often using a Manhattan-centric transportation system that is not well suited to getting them where they need to go.
But Bloomberg supporter Mitchell Moss, an NYU professor of urban planning and a former adviser to the mayor, argues that the economic growth that is driving up real estate prices hasn’t displaced that many people. “No one was living in parts of Hunters Point, no one was living in parts of Lower Manhattan, no one was living in DUMBO,” Moss said. “Those areas have become, not gentrified, they’ve become populated.”
Even so, it will be the next mayor’s job to try and lower the number of New Yorkers who commute more than an hour each way to work – a problem Mayor Bloomberg, for all his success at adding transportation options to the city, couldn’t solve.
Along with this piece, WNYC produced a heat map of travel times within the city. We’ve seen similar maps before, but along with their coverage of the socioeconomic changes, it drives home the point that a zone fare system would be inherently unfair to many people who cannot afford to pay more or live closer to their job centers.
So how can the next mayor or city planners fix the problem of, displacement, access to jobs and disparity in housing? The easy answer is to say that we need a massive expansion of the subway system along with a serious network of real bus rapid transit lines that feed both Manhattan and other job centers. Economically, that may not be feasible without a massive realignment of interests in City Hall and Albany and better control of project costs on the part of the MTA.
In another vein, Josh Barro at Business Insider proposes a few other fixes focusing around urban policy. Upzoning residential neighborhoods and incentivizing developers to construct taller buildings with more housing stock near the city’s core along with an aggressive push toward eliminating parking minimums could help increase available housing and ideally lower rents through market forces. That’s a controversial plan from the start.
Likely, there isn’t a very good answer. New York City is a hot place to live right now, and time has become a very valuable commodity. It will remain expensive to live close to the areas featuring high-paying jobs, and the price creep — which is extending further and further away — will continue to push those without money toward the fringe and ever-increasing commutes.
For New Yorkers and the MTA, an inconvenient truth is looming ever larger. On August 3, the R train’s Montague Tube will close for 14 months as MTA contractors rebuild the tunnel from the ground up in order to repair damage from Sandy. Meanwhile, in three weeks, the G train tunnel will begin its summer of shutdowns, and that work is set to stretch into next year. We’re only just getting started.
Ultimately, there’s an end in sight for this inconvenience, but it’s years into the future. The L train’s Canarsie Tube has run into problems lately, and other East River crossings are not well off. It’s easy to close the R train as nearby stations and more reliable subway lines provide redundancies, but as we’ll see in a few weeks, nearly every other train line is tougher to replace. The G train, in particular, poses some problems as it is the only subway link between Long Island City and Brooklyn that doesn’t involve a circuitous trip through Manhattan.
As the MTA gears up for the G train shutdowns and extended service changes, the agency is trying to assess alternate service. Greenpointers are resigned to the fate of a shuttle bus, but politicians are already angling for a different solution. As ridership north of Nassau Ave. isn’t overwhelming, the latest craze sweeping the city’s transportation system could help. The solution may lie in bike share.
I haven’t written too much about Citi Bike since the program started a few weeks ago, but last May, I examined how it can solve the first mile/last mile problem. With the successful launch of Citi Bikes, New York’s officials have called upon anyone listening to fund an expansion into areas impacted by Sandy, and the Daily News reports that the MTA may oblige. We could have MTA bikes soon enough.
Pete Donohue has the story:
The first expansion of Citi Bike could be to Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods that are facing extensive subway outages to allow post-Sandy repairs on the G train.
MTA and Bloomberg administration officials are exploring an accelerated Citi Bike expansion to Long Island City, Queens, and Greenpoint, Brooklyn, sources said. The possibility of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority picking up some or all of the cost is one focus of the talks, sources said.
“It’s an active discussion,” a transit source said. “We recognize the G train serves an area without other subway options.”
Details are, of course, scarce at this early stage, but Donohue notes that Greenpoint and Long Island City were originally part of the initial bike share roll out before Sandy destroyed some of the equipment. Still, this is a nearly ideal situation for the area. Since ridership at these G train stations isn’t overwhelming, bike share could make a significant dent in bridging the gap between Court Sq. and Nassau Ave. It is, in fact, that first mile/last mile problem laid bare for all to see.
A MTA-funded portion of bike share would raise a number of questions — including those surrounding its future once the Greenpoint Tube is repaired and branding discussions — but these are problems that can be overcome. Already areas of the city without bike share are clamoring for it, and with numerous transit shutdowns on tap, it’s time to ramp up expansion.
When the subway came to the Upper West Side, it turned the area into a rural frontier to a densely-populated neighborhood of residential high rises. When the Flushing Line began service, it changed Roosevelt Ave. from a concept to an urban area. These metamorphoses happened decades ago, during the years our grandparents or great-grandparents were alive, but now and then, circumstances change and transit’s impact rears its head.
Recently, when the MTA cut service in 2010, a subsequent rerouting led to a transit-related renaissance of sorts. With the elimination of the V train three years ago, the MTA reactivated the Chrystie St. Cut and brought the M train out of the shadows. Instead of operating from Middle Village to Lower Manhattan (with a rush-hour extension to Bay Parkway), the M became an integral part of a core subway line. It offered Queens and Northern Brooklyn residents a one-seat ride to the 6th Ave. corridor, and the riders have loved it.
Although Lower East Side residents occasionally bemoan the loss of the V train at 2nd Ave., the M train’s eastern segments in Brooklyn have seen shocking growth. The Brooklyn Eagle and City Limits recently explored how the subway drives gentrification. Here’s Orlando Lee’s reporting:
Gentrification that has spilled over from industrial East Williamsburg to residential northeast Bushwick is spreading inexorably southward—thanks to a little help from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The MTA’s decision to reroute the M train through the heart of midtown Manhattan in 2010 erased the invisible barrier that Myrtle Avenue—the area hit hardest by arson fires in the late 1970s—posed for years, real estate experts said .
“It’s all based on the transit system,” said Andrew Clemens, director of retail leasing for Massey Knakal, a real estate brokerage firm. “The proximity to Union Square on the L train made Williamsburg attractive. Now proximity to midtown on the M train is driving the south Bushwick market.”
…For renters, the upheaval is far less welcome. From January to March of this year, Bushwick rental prices have risen almost 23 percent, or $454 dollars, for a two-bedroom apartment, according to internal data from property sales brokerage MNS. Prices are up 17.2 percent compared to the same period in 2012…
The impact of the M-line route change is made evident in ridership figures. Between 2011 and 2012, the first full calendar year of the change, daily ridership at the Central Avenue train station in south Bushwick jumped 18.7 percent, from 2,903 to 3,445 passengers per day, the largest increase in Brooklyn, according to the MTA…
Since the route change in June of 2010, median home prices in Bushwick have more than doubled, from $300,000 in the third quarter of 2010 to $625,000 in the first quarter of 2013, according to MNS. Multifamily buildings are also trading hands at a rapid rate. In 2012, Bushwick captured 28 percent of all multifamily building sales in Brooklyn by Ariel Property Advisors, the highest rate in the borough, according to the investment sales firm.
The numbers portray the economic impact, and the stories Lee uncovered bear witness to it. Bushwick residents are thrilled with their direct connections to SoHo and Midtown. With a direct subway connection to key entertain, shopping and job centers, the areas served by the M train have become that much more desirable as people look for places to live. It’s a testament to the power of public transit.
That said, it’s tough to say if this gentrification is a good thing for the city as a whole. Bushwick and other M train neighborhoods have morphed into other areas where only those with a certain amount of money can afford to live there. Solidly middle and lower middle class residents were willing to suffer the indignities of the transfer at Essex/Delancey if it meant comfortable homes not too far away from Manhattan, but the one-seat ride changes everything.
A few miles north of the Williamsburg Bridge, another subway line is underway, and it too will radically transform an already wealthy neighborhood. When Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway opens in three and a half years (or so), areas of the Upper East Side that were far from the subway won’t be, and real estate prices will head ever upward. A new subway route wil again serve as a driver for economic growth, and another pocket of the city will become less affordable for some current residents. In the Big Apple, that appears to be progress.
In Washington, D.C, in London and in countless international cities, not all subway rides are created — or, more importantly, billed — equal. It costs more for subway riders to travel long distances and, similarly, less for shorter rides. In New York, zone fares are anathema to our very existence. It costs the same to go from the Rockaways to Washington Heights as it does from Times Square to Penn Station. But does that make sense?
As payment systems have become more flexible, zone fares have grown in use, but zone implementations can vary. In London, for instances, fares are based on distance from the central business district (or Zone 1) while in D.C., fares are based purely on distance traveled. But while advocates of such a fare structure fight for it because these longer subway routes cost more than shorter ones, New Yorkers have long resisted zone fares and seemingly with good reason. (And a good reason isn’t the MTA’s excuse that it would be hard or costly to retrofit MetroCard machinery. That technology will be on the way out soon enough, and its replacement should be capable of handling dynamic pricing.)
When I last delved into the issue, I discussed the city’s economic distribution of households. Zone fares work elsewhere because, by and large, the richer riders live farther away from the central business district. Many of the subways that use zone fares travel through inner cities to richer suburbs, but in New York, the richest people live closest to, if not entirely within, the central business district. In fact, many New Yorkers who don’t live close to Manhattan cannot afford to and may also have little say in their housing matters.
In arguing against zone fares two years ago, I explored these issues with a backdrop of an income distribution map:
If you were to overlay a subway map on top of this socioeconomic representation of the city, it becomes tougher to justify a zone fare. Suddenly, the richest folks in the city are the ones who are closest to work and can most afford to pay higher. In Brooklyn, the poorest residents down in the Coney Island area live furthest away, and in Queens, Astoria and its neighbors to the south are richer than those from Flushing who are further away from the city.
Only in the Bronx would a distance-based fare make sense because incomes rise as we head north, but even then, the folks in the South Bronx make around 18 percent of what those who live in the East and West 80s in Manhattan do. If the subway is supposed to be a public good that allows for people of any income bracket to get to their jobs in a cost-efficient way, New York’s socioeconomics seem to make a zone- or distance-based fare highly problematic.
Today, a similar graphical representation of the subway system is making the rounds. In a brief post meant to spur discussion, The New Yorker posted a graphical representation of income by and across individual subway lines. The visuals — intended to show income inequality in New York City — are striking. Subway routes cross the East River and jump by multiple tax brackets.
Let’s take a look at the N train:
Based on recent Census data, the median income around the N’s southern terminus is just $34,000. It doesn’t climb above $48,000 until the Atlantic Ave.-Barclays Center stop at the meeting point of three very well-off Brownstone Brooklyn neighborhoods. The media income around 59th St. of $171,000 is over five times higher than it is around Coney Island. The A train is even more dramatic seesaw as it runs from the Rockaways, where media income dips to as low as $18,000, to Tribeca where income peaks at $205,000 a year.
Now, it’s no secret that lower Manhattan is the land of the rich, and the outer boroughs see incomes decrease as one travels to the outer rings of the city. But these visuals are stark reminders of this reality. If the subway is designed partially as a public good that enables people to traverse the distance between work and home while living within their means, zone fares don’t work here. It doesn’t make sense and it isn’t fair to charge poorer people more to ride the subways and rich people less. Until we can reorganize where people can afford to live, the subway fare should remain a flat one.