Over the weekend, I had to travel from Park Slope to Forest Hills. As the crow flies, the trip is approximately eight miles, but to take the subway requires a three-borough, 60-minute trek through Manhattan. For those making the trip, it is a painfully slow reminder of the historical, economic and geographic forces that has turned out transit network toward Manhattan. Now, though a new study from the Center for an Urban Future calls for a reassessment of this focus at a time when the MTA’s megaprojects are decidedly still Manhattan-centric.
In a 30-page PDF, released this morning, David Giles and the Center call for an increased attention to job growth outside of Manhattan and urge the city and the MTA to push for a comprehensive interborough bus rapid transit system that better connects workers to jobs. “Commuting to Manhattan’s central business districts has been, and still is, a remarkably easy affair for hundreds of thousands of residents, whose travel options include commuter train, subway, ferry and bus,” the report says. “However, the city has changed dramatically since most of these services were introduced, and more and more residents, particularly lower-income workers, are no longer traveling to Manhattan for work.”
If this argument sounds familiar, well, that’s because it is. As I’ve written over the past few years and as the Pratt Center has repeatedly stressed, the DOT/MTA partnership pushing the new Select Bus Service forward suffers from a serious lack of foresight and connectivity. It’s helpful to feed commuters across Fordham Road to the connecting subway routes and the M15 SBS has significantly improved East Side commutes, but the real driver behind a true bus network should be as a complement to subway service.
In that sense, the bus network should deliver New Yorkers to job centers. Those who live in the Bronx should find easier and quicker routes to Queens. Those who live in Brooklyn should have easier routes to job centers at SUNY Downstate or JFK Airport. As Giles notes, hospitals, education centers and airports should be the focal points for a well-developed bus network.
The report itself relies on job numbers to make its convincing argument. Over the last decade, Manhattan lost over 100,000 jobs while Staten Island, Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx all saw their employment numbers increase. Furthermore, non-Manhattan commutes grew as well. For instance, Brooklynites heading to Queens increased by 32 percent over the past 20 years, and today, nearly 160,000 commuters cross the Queens/Brooklyn border for work. The numbers are similar from Staten Island and the Bronx as well, and many of these jobs are in sectors that do not rely on a base or office presence in Manhattan. Those trends are projected to continue for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, despite this job growth, the city’s investment efforts are focused squarely on Manhattan. While East Side Access will improve commutes for Long Islanders, it brings them only to Midtown. The Second Ave. Subway, 7 line extension and Fulton St. hub have only tangential benefits for commuters from Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx and barely any for those from Staten Island.
So what’s the solution? Giles proposes a true bus network. He writes:
Fortunately, relatively inexpensive changes to the city’s underperforming bus system, if done right, can plug many of the holes in the city’s existing transit network and vastly improve the quality of life of many working poor New Yorkers. The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) have taken tentative steps to improving bus service, but to make a real mark the city and state must think bigger. Legislators need to settle on a sustainable funding stream for the MTA and commit to supporting both small and large-scale improvements to the city’s much-maligned bus system, from elevated platforms and time-arrival technology to divided bus lanes and attractive stations. The MTA and the DOT should create a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system for New York that builds off of those emerging in other cities across the U.S. and around the world: a network of buses that look and function more like subways, with routes that travel between boroughs to facilitate nontraditional commutes.
Unfortunately, there are political problems attached to this proposal as well. As we’ve seen along 34th St., extreme NIMBYism makes planning adequate BRT routes difficult, and on a broader scales, buses just aren’t sexy. They don’t have the allure of a new subway line; lower income riders use them; and politicians tend to ignore bus enhancements either by design or by ignorance. Giles’ report should be another part of the bus conversation, and it’s clear that without a better bus network, New York City will not be able to sustain decentralized job growth.
During last night’s panel, Joan Byron from the Pratt Center cited many of the numbers in this report as she nearly got into a shouting match with MTA Capital Construction president Michael Horodniceanu over the MTA’s Manhattan-centric capital approach. Clearly, decentralized transit development is an emotional issue for those who have fought for it for decades, and the city is fast approaching a point where it cannot continue to ignore 80 percent of its landmass while investing heavily in the island in the middle.