Thanks to the foresight of our New Yorker ancestors, we have an extensive subway system that allows someone, if they so choose, to travel from the Rockaways to the norther edge of the city limits in the Bronx for one fare. Whether leaders in City Hall and Albany realize it, the subway system powers New York City’s economy, and the city wouldn’t be home to 8 million people without it.
Thanks to that same history, though, the subway system remains unchangeably Manhattan-centric. It was built at a time when the southern tip of Manhattan was overrun with people and was designed to spread out the masses teeming through the tenements to other areas of the city. In that regard, it has been an enduring success that more than attained the goals of its creators. But it remains a relic of the early 20th Century, and with job centers — and people — leaving Manhattan, the subway isn’t quite as useful for borough-to-borough trips that would otherwise connect New Yorkers to jobs. Sure, we have the G train, but try traveling from Brooklyn to the Bronx, Staten Island to Queens or even Queens to Brooklyn.
Earlier this week, in an extensive report, the Regional Plan Association tackled just this issue. Transit planning for the 21st Century, the organization says in a new publication [pdf], must be focused on connecting the so-called Outer Boroughs. For anyone who’s been keeping an eye on the RPA, the report is the culmination of a theme, and it’s one worth exploring. In it, the RPA calls upon the city — and by virtue of its role, the MTA — to do better. Their ideas involve (1) creating a first-rate bus system; (2) improving and extending rail service; (3) and, importantly, making commuter rail work for borough residents. The last part is easy; rationalize the fare and run more trains. The other two require some work.
The foundation for the report is the growing evidence that job opportunities in the Outer Boroughs are increasing at a greater rate than in Manhattan and that people have a tough time getting from home to these jobs. Sure, the subways are focused around Downtown Brooklyn, Long Island City and Jamaica, but trips can be circuitous and time-consuming. It’s great for those who work in Manhattan and less great for everyone else.
“Too many residents of Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island are forced to make long and circuitous commutes every day, often going out of their way to travel relatively short distances,” Jeffrey Zupan, the RPA’s senior fellow for transportation and one of the report’s authors, said. “In the many neighborhoods that are located beyond a comfortable walking distance from a subway or railroad station, residents have to rely on slow and infrequent buses, adding to the time and inconvenience of their commutes.”
With the exception of their plans for the Second Ave. Subway, the solutions aren’t expensive. The RPA wants a better bus network (though I think their BRT proposal is ill-designed), and they want the Triboro RX subway (though omitting a station at Broadway Junction is a mistake and so is the northern extension through the Bronx). They want a commitment to send the Second Ave. Subway into the Bronx and through Lower Manhattan, and they call upon more off-board fare payment options for buses. They propose more frequent Metro-North and LIRR service within the city with lower fares as well.
Nothing in this report is a reach, and any quibbles should be around the edges as mine are. Of course, what these ideas don’t have are funding or a champion, and that’s a real problem. Without either, they won’t see the light of day no matter how easy they are to implement and how important they could be to the city’s mobility.
So the RPA, which has been trumpeting Triboro RX for nearly 20 years, will keep trying. As Tom Wright, the organization’s president, said, “Good transit access plays an enormous role in expanding opportunity to education and jobs. As New York works to foster a new supply of housing to meet surging demand, we need to think more broadly about how our transit network will accommodate the city’s needs well into the 21st century.”