The end of a decade comes around only once every ten years, and despite what some folks on the Internet would have you believe, the 2010s are drawing to a close this week. No one considered 1920 part of any decade other than The Twenties, but I digress. Despite a lot of frustration surrounding the state of transit investment and expansion efforts in NYC as the 2010s end, the past ten years have seen a plethora of transit and transportation happenings and some real progress. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, and city leadership over the past six years has been sorely lacking. But it hasn’t been a quiet decade.
So as 2019 and the Twenty Teens wraps up, I thought I would run down the biggest stories of the decade and a sneak peek at what’s on tap for the early 2020s. Some stories were good; some were bad; and some have yet to draw to a conclusion. So without further ado, it’s the official Second Ave. Sagas non-comprehensive review of transit and transportation in the 2010s.
Most Anticipated Subway Opening: The Second Ave. Subway
On December 31, 2016, Gov. Andrew Cuomo opened the Second Ave. Subway after over 85 years of anticipation. Cuomo stepped in late in the game to push forward on an opening, and his streamrolling the opening showed what an engaged state executive could accomplish. Little did we realize how Cuomo’s MTA involvement would evolve over the subsequent three years, but after decades of stops and starts, New York City had its first three stations along Second Ave. A transit tourist attraction from Day One, it was and remains the most expensive subway construction project in the world. Phase 2, the northern extension connecting to 125th St. and Lexington Ave., is scheduled to open before 2030, but the $6 billion cost remains a key concern. (Fire code excuses, anyone?)
A Decade of Ribbon-Cutting: Fulton Street and the 7 Line Extension
The Second Ave. Subway wasn’t the only high-profile opening of the 2010s. In 2014, the Fulton St. Transit Center, a post-9-/11 recovery project, finally opened, and in 2015, the city-funded 7 line opened with a celebratory ribbon cutting. The city though still yearns for a station at 41st St. and 10th Avenue.
Worst of the Decade: Superstorm Sandy
A 2010 blizzard stranded some A train passengers overnight as snow built up in the subway’s open trenches, but that was nothing compared to the underground devastation wrought by 2012’s Superstorm Sandy. The storm surge flooded eight subway tunnels and destroyed the recently-opened South Ferry station. Billions of dollars and seven years later, repair work is still ongoing (and the L train’s not-a-shutdown shutdown is the latest in recovery work), and it’s not clear if all of the preventative work is sufficient to avoid another catastrophic flood. Water, after all, seeks the lowest ground, and the subways, with thousands of access points in low-lying areas, are New York City’s lowest ground.
Most Effective Use of Gov. Cuomo’s Lapels: The L Train Shutdown That Wasn’t
No one really knows why Governor Cuomo took an interest in the L train shutdown a few weeks before it was scheduled to begin. He has claimed multiple times that someone — he won’t say who — approached him on the street, grabbed him by the lapels, and begged the governor to find a better way. This mysterious lapel-grabbing New Yorker has never been identified nor, as far as we know, has Cuomo dismissed members of his security detail who failed to protect the governor from some guy threatening him with physical harm. But Cuomo took a coterie of academics into the L train tunnel three weeks before a shutdown that was years in the works was set to begin, and he just canceled the dang thing. The MTA’s careful planning and mitigation coordination with NYC DOT were thrown out in the window in a crisis of confidence. Instead, the L train kept running while the scope of work was scaled back and new technologies and approaches to construction attempted.
It’s hard to call this good, and it’s hard to call this bad. We won’t know for decades if encasing a collapsing concrete benchwall in polymers is a better solution than just rebuilding the thing, but the governor forced the MTA to try something new. So far it’s worked, and New York can thank or scorn the apocryphal lapel-grabbing constituent whoever he is.
Worst of the Decade: Mayoral Disengagement
A few other entries on this list focus on Bill de Blasio’s lack of vision on transit, but he has truly been MIA since 2014. He doesn’t ride the subways or buses or understand what they mean for the people of New York City. Thus, despite his Vision Zero rhetoric, progress on limiting private vehicle use on busy city streets has stalled, and measures designed to promote a more livable city for people have stalled. He hasn’t been a forceful advocate for his constituents on matters relating to the MTA and has been played like a fiddle by the governor. His signature transit initiative is a low-capacity ferry system, and he hasn’t used his powers to help speed up buses or improve surface transit. The next mayor will be able to set a different agenda for the 2020s.
Best 1990s Technology Installed In The 2010s: Subway Countdown Clocks
Though the rollout started with a trial along the 6 train in late 2009, countdown clocks were a child of the 2010s as the MTA finally caught up to its peers. The numbered lines of the A Division came first, and it seemed as though the lettered lines would never get their countdown clocks. But after some prodding by the governor, the last of the B Division countdown clocks went online in very early 2018, thus providing real-time train information (or something close to it) across the entire subway system. Sure, the B Division clocks relying on Bluetooth beacons aren’t as accurate as we’d all hope, and some clocks are notoriously blocked by other signs. But gone are the days of peering into dark tunnels hoping for a glimpse of an arriving train, and the app-based offerings mean New Yorkers have access to city-wide train arrival information at the tap of a button, something we could not say ten years ago.
Honorable Mention: BusTime. Though the city’s bus stations do not have real-time arrival displays, the MTA’s in-house app-based BusTime service allows bus riders to glimpse the location of every bus on the road at any time. Taking the mystery out of waiting for the bus removes a huge source of rider frustration.
Best 2010s Technology Installed In, Well, The 2010s (And Beyond): OMNY
After a decade of talking about replacing the MetroCard, the MTA finally committed to an open payments, tap-based system called OMNY or One Metro New York. You can pay with your phone; you can pay with your credit card; you can pay with a proprietary MTA card. The OMNY rollout started in 2019, but it won’t be until the early part of the next decade when we see how and if OMNY unites fare payment across subways and buses and the commuter rails; how all-door bus boarding succeeds in NYC; and if fare-capping and other benefits are introduced. For more on OMNY, check out my podcast interview with Al Putre, the very New York personality pushing forward on OMNY.
Best Sign NYC Can Exist With Less Space For Cars: Times Square Pedestrian Plazas
Though installed in 2009 as well, the Times Square pedestrian plazas were made permanent in the 2010s, and it’s now hard to imagine the crossroads of New York without them. The Times Square sidewalks were always too flooded with people, and the plazas showed that the city wouldn’t grind to a halt if a few lanes of traffic were repurposed for people. The plazas proved spectacularly popular, and though a few more have opened in isolated spots around the borough, a city leader with a true vision for people in NYC should be able to bring a rapid expansion of the program to all five boroughs.
Best New Advocacy Group of the Decade: Riders Alliance
As Gene Russianoff, the godfather of transit activism in NYC, has dealt with increasingly serious health concerns over the past few years, the Riders Alliance has filled the void. Overseen by former Daniel Squadron staffer John Raskin, the group uses grassroots organizing to pressure politicians to support transit and has been instrumental in pushing for the governor’s support for transit, congestion pricing, and Fare Fairs. Raskin is leaving the organization soon, but the Riders Alliance will be a loud voice for better transit throughout the next decade as well. Disclaimer: I am a board member of the organization and have consulted with John Raskin since before the group’s founding.
Best British Import of the Decade: Andy Byford
It’s been nearly two years since Andy Byford arrived in NYC with a mandate to fix the subways after a steep decline, and he remains the best thing brought to the U.S. from Britain this year. His tenure has a rocky one politically as he’s faced meddling by a governor who can’t share the stage (or credit) with anyone, and he did threaten to resign at least once. But under his leadership, the subways are getting better. If Cuomo and Byford can co-exist into the next decade, and if Byford is allowed to see the job through, the hiring of Andy Byford will be viewed as a seminal transit moment of the 2010s.
Best Political Victory The Mayor Barely Acknowledges: Fair Fares
After a decade of constant fare hikes, anti-poverty advocates in NYC secured the passage of Fair Fares, a subsidized subway rate for city residents below the poverty line. The program launched in early 2019, but despite his rhetoric regarding the two New Yorks, the mayor never really embraced the campaign. It’s part of his larger disinterest in transit, but Fair Fares should be treated as an unqualified success for the Community Service Society of New York and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. In early 2020, the program will expand so that a total of approximately 700,000 will be eligible for the discounted rate.
Best Sign That NYC Is In Fact Amsterdam: Citi Bike
More daily users than the ferry gets in a month, and neighborhoods are clamoring for docks. Now if only the e-bikes would return.
The Lawsuits We Won Along The Way: Prospect Park West bike lane; 14th Street Busway
It’s fitting that the decade was book-ended by two of the more impactful lawsuits regarding street space allocation in recent NYC history. In 2011, Prospect Park West bike lane opponents lost in court, and in 2019, Arthur Schwartz and his motley band of obstructionist NIMBYs saw their efforts at stopping the 14th St. busway thrown out. (I wrote about 14th Street and its impact in a piece for Curbed New York this past summer.) While the city still spends too much time and effort placating NIMBYs who will never be placated, these lawsuits paved the way for a reimagining of city streets that prioritizes pedestrians, bus riders, bikers and safety above the demands of private car owners.
Biggest Waste of Taxpayer Money on Water: NYC Ferry
Mayor de Blasio’s boats are one of the bigger stories of the 2010s, but I haven’t been a fan. Despite the mayor’s myriad boat-based press conferences, the low-capacity ferries are not, as I wrote for Curbed New York last year, a true transit option for NYC, and with ridership on par with the 55th busiest bus route in the city but a subsidy of $10 per rider, they’re a heavily-subsidized giveaway to New Yorkers wealthier than average. While the boats have their fans, the city should stop subsidizing the fares so heavily during the next decades.
Biggest Waste of Taxpayer Money on Land: The Santiago Calatrava-designed WTC Transportation Hub
The $4 billion mall with a subway stop in its basement was a lesson in infrastructure failure. Costs ballooned from a starting price tag of $1.4 billion, and a devastatingly brutal New York Magazine deep-dive was just one of many articles highlighting the inept process and poor Port Authority oversight. In fact, when all was said and done, the Port Authority didn’t even bother with an opening ceremony when the PATH station/mall opened in 2016.
Best Vaporware of the Decade:The BQX
In early 2016, the mayor announced a waterfront streetcar connecting Red Hook to Astoria, and since then, nothing has happened. Sure, we’ve all burned a lot of pixels debating the relative merits of a project that won’t be self-funded as initially proposed and provides dubious transit benefits, but it doesn’t actually exist and likely never will. In its current form, the BQX won’t be ready for passengers until 2028, and the next mayor is likely to pull the plug on a project that remains on life support. Whether the mayor even remembers its part of his city transportation platform is an open question, and as of my writing of this post, BQX.nyc, the website for Friends of the BQX, the only group fighting for the project, was offline*. While the city needs a way to control its transit destiny and a surface light-rail network is long overdue, the BQX’s legacy will be simply as this past decade’s transit vaporware.
*The Friends’ website was available approximately 20 hours after I published this post. A spokesperson told me the site was offline “temporarily…for maintenance.”
(Hopefully) The Best of the 2020s:Congestion pricing, busways, free parking and a streets master plan
A handful of stories began their sagas during the waning years of the 2010s, but we won’t know how these tales play out until well into the 2020s. Chief among these is congestion pricing which finally passed in 2019 but won’t be implemented until early 2021. Advocates are worried about the lack of transparent planning as the clock ticks closer to implementation…The 14th St. Busway has been an unqualified success, and politicians throughout the city are clamoring for more. Hopefully, in ten years, I’ll write about how the 2020s were the decade of busways as the the city finally got serious about combatting declining bus ridership and slow travel speeds. For now, though, the mayor hasn’t committed to more busways…I wrote an ode to Corey Johnson’s Streets Master Plan for Curbed New York this fall. The next mayor, whether Johnson or one of his competitors, should take this plan and run with it, turning NYC into a city that prioritizes people over cars…And finally, will NYC start to eliminate free on-street parking during the 2020s? I sure hope so.
Dishonorable Mention: The fares kept going up and up and up
The fare on January 1, 2010 was $2.25 with a pay-per-ride discount of 15%, and a 30-day card cost $89. New Yorkers could buy a one-day unlimited ride “fun” pass. Today, the one-day card is a relic of history, and the pay-per-ride discount are gone too. The per-swipe fare is $2.75, and a 30-day card costs a whopping $127. The biennial increases from the past decade have helped the MTA close an inflation-based fare gap left over from the mid-1990s, but the hikes throughout the 2010s outpaced inflation.
Dishonorable Mention: Who’s The Boss?
Turnover atop the MTA lead to an unsteady course. Jay Walder, Joe Lhota, Tom Prendergast, Jay Lhota (again) and Pat Foye all served as MTA Chair over the course of the decade, and a hiring freeze has led to a talent drain within the MTA. The constant turnover is a symptom of the tenuous relationship between the MTA Chair and Andrew Cuomo, and the leadership churn creates continuity problems that make true MTA reform nearly impossible.
Dishonorable Mention: The MTA’s construction cost crisis
When The Times ran a big expose on the MTA’s cost problems in late 2017, I had hoped politically-motivated reform would follow. Instead, Albany has largely steered clear of an examination of the MTA’s capital cost crisis, and no one from, say, the state DA or the DOJ has looked into possible corruption. Although the agency claims to be working on reducing costs, the next phase of the Second Ave. Subway will, as I mentioned, cost $6 billion, a figure so far out of line with international standards that it nearly defies belief. Janno Lieber recently pointed to the fire code as one driver of costs, but no one really bought that excuse.
Dishonorable Mention: Where have all the bus riders gone?
In early 2010, around 2.45 million New Yorkers rode local buses on a daily basis. Today, that figure has fallen all the way to around 1.95 million per day. This 25 percent decline in ridership should be spurring on some serious soul-searching, but neither the MTA nor the city appears to be in a rush to stem this tide. With Uber and Lyft flooding the streets with cars, bus speeds are slow and service unreliable, leading to a death spiral of cuts and worsening service. Hopefully, congestion pricing and more busways can return New Yorkers to the bus and the bus to New Yorkers.
Dishonorable Mention: The Churro Lady goes viral
The debate over increased police presence in the subway came to a head when a video of a Churro Lady getting arrested went viral. The arrest spurred a mass protest and increase resentment aimed at the MTA and its attitude toward adding cops in the subway. It wasn’t, as I wrote, only about the Churro Lady, and this is one debate that will not end any time soon.
Dishonorable Mention: The Governor absolutely controls the MTA
Transit activists and commentators had to spend far too much time in the mid-2010s reminding Gov. Andrew Cuomo that he was in charge of the MTA. He still tries to hide this fact behind obfuscations, half-truths and lies, manipulating the political structure of the MTA to suit his whims. But Gov. Cuomo is very much in charge, and as MTA transformation takes off, the agency carries his fingerprints from top to bottom.
I’m sure I forgot a few things along the way, but what a ride it’s been.