Home Public Transit Policy Searching for a grand plan and its proponent too

Searching for a grand plan and its proponent too

by Benjamin Kabak

It’s been a few years since Mayor Michael Bloomberg put forward his PlaNYC2030 vision, and by now, we’ve had a chance to see what has succeeded, what will move forward and what won’t. As the political fallout from an ambitious and, according to some, heavy-handed attempt to change New York has settled, I’ve been disappointed by the lack of cohesiveness and clarity in the city’s long-term transportation planning. We have only the bare minimum of expansion plans in place with a lackluster attempt to improve the bus network and no steady and dedicated funding scheme in place. Where did we go wrong?

A few days ago, while browsing through The Other Side of the Tracks, I came across a story out of Washington, D.C. The Nation’s Capitol, with less than 1/10 the population of New York City, is hoping to grow by over 40 percent over the next two decades. Mayor Vincent Gray wants to add 250,000 to the district’s headcount, and he has a comprehensive urban plan that would help D.C. usher in this growth.

On the one hand, the plan is an ambitious attempt to re-imagine urban life in a mid-sized East Coast city. He wants to cut waste, eliminate the need for people to use cars and turn the city into a hyper-local, largely self-sustaining ecosystem. On the other hand, city officials are hoping that 75 percent of trips will be by foot, bicycle or public transit, but they seem to be intent on promoting street cars over an expansion of the Metro system. We could debate the wisdom of such a move forever, but the truth remains that without a more comprehensive Metro system within the District of Columbia, the city won’t be able to absorb a 40 percent increase in population.

Still, that’s besides the point. D.C. has a plan, and a mayor willing to put his name behind the plan. Furthermore, the plan has a significant transportation component that aims to reimagine how city streets are used and how city transportation is prioritized. In New York City, we have a once-powerful mayor who fought one battle, lost and then gave up.

Bloomberg’s story focuses around congestion pricing, and it was a one-off battle. He made congestion pricing a centerpiece of PlaNYC 2030, failed to gather political support before unveiling the plan and then lost the fight in Albany. Since then, we’ve had ineffective state executives unwilling to pick this fight anew, a mayor who has recoiled from dealing with the state and a new and very powerful governor who is unwilling to push for congestion pricing. As Streetsblog noted on Wednesday, Cuomo sets the agenda right now; if he believed in a congestion pricing plan, it could become law within a matter of weeks.

Yet, even with congestion pricing, New York City has no plan. Our subway expansion efforts, due to a variety of factors including out-of-control costs, are meager. We’re getting a one-stop extension of the 7 line and a three-stop extension of the Q up Second Ave. The Triboro RX plan is often scorned as impossible, and those who dare to dream about it speak in decades rather than years. Beyond that, we have a Select Bus Service plan that fails to unite boroughs, neighborhoods and job centers, and no unifying goal. New York City has no transit champion.

Partly, the political structure of the MTA is to blame for this deficit. The MTA is a creature of the state, and thus no mayor can do too much to impact the direction of MTA-related transportation growth. We need the state’s approval to move forward and the state’s dollars as well. Anything the city wants to do then will either have to involve the state or have to escape the purview of the organization that runs our buses and subways. It’s quite the conundrum.

So we’re left spinning our wheels. We need that reimagining of our transportation priorities, and we need a plan to move forward and expand. Instead, we have incremental technological improvements, regular fare hikes, a legacy of service cuts and no champion. Who can step up to save and improve the city’s transportation network and its long-term future?

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Bolwerk April 26, 2012 - 2:10 am

Encouraging population growth may be the only viable way out of the debt we’ve accrued over the years.

On the other hand, city officials are hoping that 75 percent of trips will be by foot, bicycle or public transit, but they seem to be intent on promoting street cars over an expansion of the Metro system. We could debate the wisdom of such a move forever, but the truth remains that without a more comprehensive Metro system within the District of Columbia, the city won’t be able to absorb a 40 percent increase in population.

If you ask me, the elephant in the room in both DC and NYC is a pisspoor, clogged surface transit system. I hope these streetcars are actually fairly high-capacity LRT though.

David Brown April 26, 2012 - 6:13 am

The reality of the matter is what Gray is proposing is essentially a fantasy (Not the least of which is trying to get and additional 40% more people in 68.3 square miles (This is the actual size of DC)). Even if you get by that, just look at the primaries this month, the Washington Post refused to endorse ANYONE, because they all were bad candidates (Marion Barry in Ward 8 comes to mind (He is so extreme, like his shots at Asian Businesses, he makes Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn) look like a racial healer, and a political and fiscal Conservative)). The reality of the matter, is everyone has a certain agenda, and priorities, so even the most seemingly common sense ideas (Like the selling of 370 Jay St, that does not cost taxpayers billions and (Or) jobs), creates controversy. Does it mean the critics (In this case, the TWU) are right?. No it doesn’t. But it is what it is. Taking this back to transit, the only way a major plan can work, is if it can be shown that the benefits outweigh the costs (See the cost involved with Bleeker St-Broadway Lafayette St as Exhibit A.). Until the MTA, TWU and State & Local politicians can do that, it will not happen.

Jerrold April 26, 2012 - 10:01 am

Marion Barry? When he was the MAYOR of Washington, he got caught smoking crack in a hotel room with a whore. By the way, Ben, Washington is the capital of the U.S. The word Capitol refers to the building that contains the halls of Congress.

Larry Littlefield April 26, 2012 - 8:15 am

We didn’t “go wrong.” Younger generations were robbed by older generations, in NYC for the second time. We’ve had a lot of progress. We have to concentrate of fighting to keep what we have, in the face of decisions by Generation Greed to send us back to the 1970s. The charts in this spreadsheet say it all — we are bankrupt. And the growing demands for services for seniors are on top of this.


We are bankrupt — federal, state, local, business, financial, household. The discussion should be about a vision to allocate the losses.

Douglas John Bowen April 26, 2012 - 10:46 am

When we’re flagellating ourselves for our shortcomings, try to keep in mind that other U.S. cities are so far behind the curve that New York (and other transit cities) win by default, even as (per Mr. Littlefield) we didn’t execute to the max.

I just returned from Indianapolis, trying its hardest to be a “real” city with a “real” downtown. One can even walk on “real” sidewalks now to real restaurants, set amidst a bevy of hotels. But here’s the thing: Street signs are all oriented to autos/drivers–a casual pedestrian (or visitor) literally has to cross the street to see what cross-street one has traversed, very pedestrian unfriendly. That’s before we delve into the prospects of rail transit for the city (real, but distant) in any form.

Beyond transportation issues, moreover, one could argue that some elements of PlaNYC are in fact taking hold (water supply, sewer ops as examples) more aggressively than transport. Perspective matters, even as (again, per Mr. Littlefield, Mr. Kabak, and others) we weigh the very real negatives and obstacles. I’ll take now over 30 years ago in New York City any day, and that certainly includes subway performance.

Jerrold April 26, 2012 - 9:27 pm

You’ll be old someday, too.

Also, remember that the Baby Boom generation is now at the threshold of old age. Therefore, MORE, not less, spending on senior citizens is inevitable in the near future.

Eric F April 26, 2012 - 8:37 am

“He wants to cut waste, eliminate the need for people to use cars and turn the city into a hyper-local, largely self-sustaining ecosystem.”

This is called snowing the yuppie liberals who are now a key voting bloc. And living exclusively in and off of a hyper local area is not progress.

Bolwerk April 26, 2012 - 1:37 pm

He’s saving those yuppie liberalsconservatives (in the true sense of the word) a lot of money if he isn’t forcing everyone to come in or near DC to drive. Traffic down there is such a nightmare that, yes, being able to survive locally is a vast improvement – over having to drive sometimes the distance across DC to have your basic needs met.

Al D April 26, 2012 - 9:12 am

It seems the Gov wants ‘yes’ people. He does not want innovation, just ride the coat tails of Walder’s programs, let Prendergast run the agency day to day and Lhota takes care of the political/financial stuff. Same with Paterson. A position like this was most assuredly part of his deal with the Democratic party not to seek re-election. So the MTA continues as a clearing house for politicians while happening to be a transit agency somewhere along the way.

TP April 26, 2012 - 9:40 am

DC is an extremely transient city, and transients tend to be less NIMBY than people who’ve lived in the same city all their lives and opine for things to be how they’ve always been. If Bloomberg proposed to grow the city by 40% people would have conniptions. Even reducing parking minimums and modest rezonings of abandoned industrial neighborhoods is a fight in New York.

David Brown April 26, 2012 - 10:51 am

I agree with you that DC is a more transient City. However, there is not the amount of room there is in NYC (Particularly when you add the outer boroughs). Not to mention, most people do not be in certain areas of DC. Here are some numbers: Unemployment Rate for January 2011 (not seasonally adjusted)
Using Census 2000 ratios Using 2005-2009 ACS ratios Percentage point difference
Ward 1 8.8% 7.9% -0.9
Ward 2 5.0% 4.7% -0.3
Ward 3 2.7% 3.6% 0.9
Ward 4 8.3% 8.4% 0.1
Ward 5 13.6% 14.2% 0.7
Ward 6 10.0% 9.4% -0.7
Ward 7 17.2% 20.7% 3.5
Ward 8 25.2% 18.6% -6.7
Source: Office of Labor Market Research and Information, Current Population Survey, American Community Survey. Comparing Ward 3 in DC to Ward 5 (Ward 5 has Nationals Stadium) is sort of like comparing Park Avenue and 79th St to the area near Yankee Stadium (The Bronx has a 14.6% Unemployment Rate). Simply put, most people (If they have an option), would prefer not living in Wards 5,7 & 8 (Like most people prefer Sutton Place or Dumbo to Brownsville). Basically, areas like Ward 8 (Where Marion Barry Serves) and Cypress Hills, (Near where I grew up, in Woodhaven, Queens) will suck, as long as you have so-called leaders, who are content with the status quo.

Dizzy April 26, 2012 - 11:22 pm

Nationals Park is in Ward 6, not 5. Parts of Ward 5 are experiencing gentrification, especially Brookland (where Catholic University is located), Bloomingdale, Edgewood, and Eckington.

Eric April 26, 2012 - 9:45 am

As long as NYC is held hostage to the state, we’re not going to get any visionary improvements. If we had people in power that WANTED Triboro RX, we’d have it by 2020.

Nathanael May 5, 2012 - 12:43 am

I honestly think that for things to change, first the status quo in the state government has to be broken. That requires, as a *first* step, kicking the Republicans out of the State Senate. There are a lot more steps after that….

Douglas John Bowen April 26, 2012 - 10:06 am

Faulty either/or assumption: Though it’s clear D.C. wants to grow its streetcar system, it is not a given that it has abdicated any desire to expand MetroRail as well. This kind of thinking hampers many rail advocates, including those in New York metro. Here’s hoping the assertion made here was inadvertent, and not a flawed decree. New York certainly can use more subway mileage, but a few streetcars wouldn’t hurt, either.

jim April 26, 2012 - 11:08 am

There is long range planning going on for Metrorail expansion within DC. Both the Separated Blue Line (east-west through downtown) in several variants and the Separated Yellow Line (north-south through downtown) in a couple of variants have been studied. But any of these are very expensive and a long way down the road. The streetcar is now.

Ryan April 26, 2012 - 11:42 am

I think that you have too much faith in Mayor Gray, Ben, he has been utterly ineffective in his leadership and all discussion of land uses with him have been terrible with regards to urbanit ideals. I like the ideas advocated for in his “plan” but I am not sure about the sincerity and don’t think under his leadership anything will get done especially with the council that we have right now with reactionaries, and a chairman trying to defy Gray at every turn seemingly for attention. My council member Mary Cheh is alright on these issues but neither progressive or loud enough and to some degree marginalized since she is from Ward 3. The sparks of hope are from the Seperated Blue Line and the fact that there is a dedicated group of people talking about transit improvements and a pretty great planning department at Metro. In the meantime I am hopeful that the streetcars will be a success however several missteps have occurred already in the construction, however I am cautiously optimistic about it still, especially as a way of encouraging development and density in parts of the city

Larry Littlefield April 26, 2012 - 12:41 pm

Getting back to PlanNYC, recall that the initial idea was to use congestion pricing for grand plans, which was quickly changed to use congestion pricing to pay for the MTA debt, and then disappeared.

Things are happening, however, that don’t require much money. More facilities for those using bicycles, for example. There is enormous progress there. Though I long time railfan, I now ride to work three or four days a week, and wish I had been doing it all along. Give it a try!

It completely changes one’s perspective — about rail transit among other things. Because riding a bike is the effort equivalent of walking, but with three times the speed (and thus range). Connecting bicycles to rail transit is the best way to leverage the rail network, even in “suburban” areas of the city and the suburbs.

For example, consider the “bikeshare” plans that will be implemented soon. If you live beyond walking distance of a rail station, it will soon be possible to ride bicycle to a station, lock it there, take the train to Manhattan, and then grab a bikeshare bike for a quick ride to your destination, getting a little exercise and improving your health in the process.

JAzumah April 26, 2012 - 1:13 pm

Transportation is designed to get people to and from where they want to go. How many current transit plans actually take customer origins and destinations into account? That is the problem with central planning. The details matter and they are usually neglected.

Dizzy April 27, 2012 - 9:37 am

Vince Gray is under investigation by the U.S. Attorney – if he were indicted on 20 federal counts tomorrow, no one would be surprised. He has retained some smart, capable, and progressive folks in the Planning and Transportation departments, but he no longer has the political capital to push through anything that would meet the slightest resistance.

Also, there’s a distinct sense that all of his talk about urbanism, walkability, transit, etc. is just that, talk. He talked his way to victory over an unpopular incumbent by promising to be all things to all people, but the reality has turned out very different.

See also “Doubts emerge about D.C.’s ability to execute transportation projects”

Chris Ward: Next mayor must prioritize transit :: Second Ave. Sagas April 27, 2012 - 12:13 pm

[…] seems that I’m not alone in calling for someone with political might to better prioritize transit in New York City. Chris Ward, the former head of the Port Authority, issued a similar plea on New York 1′s […]

Alon Levy April 28, 2012 - 12:33 am

Anything that’s longer than about two mayoral terms can’t and shouldn’t be done with a grand plan designed by just a single politician. If Bloomberg wanted a lasting vision for the city, he’d make sure PlaNYC used consensus ideas, allowing his successor to steer toward the same goals without being captive to Bloomberg’s own thinking. Needless to say, this is not how Bloomberg operates; to him, other people do not matter.

Nyland8 April 28, 2012 - 4:14 pm

It has long been apparent to anyone who’s been paying close attention that the original subway system – like the MNRR, NJTransit Trains and the LIRR – are Manhattan centric. And to their own detriment, I might add. The fact is, people in the five boroughs, Northern New Jersey, Westchester, Nassau, Suffolk and Greenwich Ct. counties live and work everywhere throughout the region, and use mass-transit to get there. So rather than all mass transit roads leading to Rome, aren’t we long past time to build a beltway?

While I personally would prefer other options to the Triboro Rx solution, it is admittedly the shortest and cheapest solution to starting that process. If, when, the world comes to it’s senses about mass transit, the G Line becomes an inner-most beltway, and another outer-most beltway is built from the Riverdale MetroNorth station sweeping in a big arc all the way around under the Narrows to Richmond, the Triboro Rx will have to suffice.

From Yankee Stadium to Owl’s Head in Brooklyn, perhaps as many as 20% of the traffic that is forced to travel through Manhattan can be diverted – reducing some congestion, and inducing more ridership. It seems, on the face of it, that most mass-transit advocates could get behind the project, and it would cost pennies on the dollar when compared to any other project of it’s scope and magnitude.

So my toss-up question is: What are the reasons to oppose it? And if there aren’t any, or if they’re all feeble, then can’t the Second Ave. Sagas faithful make it their cause, lobby hard for it, and endorse any candidates who advocate in its favor?

This website can become instrumental in forwarding the next big MTA capital project, and keeping the ball rolling on subway expansion. Seems worth a try, no?

What are the downsides?


marvin April 30, 2012 - 8:53 pm

I would modify Triboro Rx by having it turn east after Ridgewood/Middle Village along the Long Island Expressway then north along the Van Wyck, then west paralelling Port Washington LIRR, to and along the Grand Central Parkway through LaGuadia until it rejoings the Hell Gate approach.

Gained is stops/transfer points at: *the Queens Blvd IND (preferably converted to an express stop with Rockaway and or JFK service), Citifield Station (LIRR/#7) with easy access to Flushing), and one or two stations in LaGuadia Airport.

This solves the problem of the current proposal being just our of reach of th the 74th/Jackson Heights 7/IND Station.

The ability to extend part of the service east along the LIE out to Spring Field Blvd (including a stop at Queens College) provides the potential to create a line that while not having direct Manhattan (nor incurring the cost of building such new access) would be provide transfer to most of the other lines to peope currently far out of subway reach.

Nyland8 May 1, 2012 - 8:42 am

Yes … but that involves building a lot of infrastructure that doesn’t currently exist. I think the thing that makes Triboro Rx palatable is that 95% of it uses a viable right-of-way that is already in place. For much less infrastructure than you’re talking about, we could simply extend the existing Astoria/Dimars elevated to LaGuardia.

I’d prefer it if the Port Authority built another AirTrain from Jamaica to LaGuardia along the Van Wyck and Grand Central Parkway, connecting the two NYC airports. There could be a Citifield stop along the way … perhaps a few others.

Nyland8 April 29, 2012 - 4:29 pm



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