Home Public Transit Policy Some thoughts on city transit policy from an ‘obscure transportation blogger’

Some thoughts on city transit policy from an ‘obscure transportation blogger’

by Benjamin Kabak
The mayor should use the subway for more than just photo ops. (Credit: Rob Bennett for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio)

The mayor should use the subway for more than just photo ops. (Credit: Rob Bennett for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio)

In the run-up to the end of the year, the New York press has engaged in a mid-term review of Mayor Bill de Blasio. The narrative is an obvious one — missteps, victories, fights against Cuomo, a very skeptical public but a good chance of reelection based on the make-up of the electorate and lack of obvious opposition. One common theme that has emerged in the stories has been de Blasio’s attention to those who are skeptical of his policies and approach. A gem in this Wall Street Journal article particularly caught my eye:

The mayor has begun to read obscure transportation blogs as he worries about advocates who criticize him, and he urged aides to schedule more visits to Staten Island, where his approval ratings are especially low. He closely studies polls even as aides publicly dismiss them.

The emphasis, of course, is mine, and I have so many questions. Is the mayor now reading this site — which has been critical of him (though moreso on my Twitter feed). Or is the mayor taking his transportation cues from Streetsblog, the hardly-obscure WNYC project Transportation Nation or from the LTV Squad, Cap’t Transit, Pedestrian Observations, the Invisible Visible Man, Bike Snob or Brooklyn Spoke? Obscurity knows no bounds. And while some of you may question whether this site or many of this listed are actually obscure, the truth is that they’re niche sites that attract people interested in the issues. Those who aren’t interested — those who view transportation policy as incidental (or inconvenient) to city life — don’t visit these sites, and an overwhelmingly large number of New Yorkers simply don’t consider the politics of the MTA or NYC DOT until these politics have an immediate impact on their lives.

So ultimately, I don’t know if the mayor is reading my site or someone else’s when the Wall Street Journal tosses off a reference to “obscure transportation blogs.” I hope he’s getting a broad range of policy exposure on issues of transport, from pedestrian safety, bike proposals and the nuts and bolts of the buses and the subways. Voters may not know that the MTA is a state agency rather than a city one, and de Blasio’s record on transit issues has been mediocre at best. If given the chance to speak with (or to) the mayor on these issues, I’d tell him something along these lines.

Vision Zero: I haven’t talked much about Vision Zero on this site; rather, I’ve saved my disappointment for Twitter. I commend the overall goals of Vision Zero but feel the city’s approach has been too timid and too siloed. A successful effort at driving pedestrian deaths caused by automobiles to zero involves more than just pure numbers. It involves a massive shift in mindset, one that actively encourages New Yorkers to use alternate means of transportation rather than a private car and one that ensures these modes are fast, reliable, frequent and prioritized. It involves support for bikes, a rational allocation of street space for buses and firm buy-in from the cops who are in charge of enforcement. It also involves being out in front on some form of traffic pricing plan, whether that’s Move New York’s comprehensive proposal or another plan that can reduce the prevalence of cars in NYC’s busiest pedestrian areas. Be aggressive; lives are a stake. And if it means upsetting a few motorists — and learning how not to be a self-described motorist in the first place — that’s a price to pay as a politician.

Buses: The mayor promised 20 Select Bus Service routes over five years. At the rate DOT and the MTA are going, we’ll get 20 new ones by the late 2020s. I appreciate the need to involve communities (and, begrudgingly by proxy, Community Boards) in planning changes at the hyperlocal level, but de Blasio’s DOT has been far too willing to kowtow to vocal pressure from a minority of residents on bus lanes, traffic calming and BRT/SBS planning.

Just recently, for the second time in two mayoral administrations, the city agreed to scale back plans for Bus Rapid Transit, this time on Woodhaven Boulevard. We have the street space for BRT; we do not have the political will. The mayor and his Department of Transportation should hold firm on rapid rollout for real BRT while doing a better job of explaining and defending these projects. The mayor and DOT should also consider the downstream impact of bus lane projects. People along Woodhaven aren’t the only ones who would enjoy better bus service. Are down-route communities isolated from transit (and the planning process) given an adequate voice at the table?

Parking: Can we just do away with free on-street parking already? Is there any other major city in the U.S. that gives away valuable street space for free with no real justification for it? This too is part of a proper Vision Zero mindshift.

Transit and the MTA: Finally, we arrive at the big one. In a way, the Mayor was right to fight Albany on MTA capital funding; after all, the MTA is a state agency and a state responsibility. But then, when de Blasio committed to funding some of the MTA capital plan, he showed his hands far too early and opted against exerting much control over the money. It was an embarrassing surprise to the de Blasio Administration when the MTA pushed back plans for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway, and it was a move that a mayor more engaged on transit issues would have headed off at the pass. The mayor should not treat the subways like a mode of transit Other People use. Nor should he rely on it only for photo ops. Ride the subway regularly; talk with riders about their experiences; and pay attention to what’s happening with the MTA. Even if Albany has been frustratingly slow to act on mayoral recommendations to the MTA Board, de Blasio should keep a finger on the pulse of transit goings-on. After all, few things touch the lives of his constituents more frequently than the subway system.

Affordable Housing: Finally, let’s talk affordable housing. The mayor has made affordable housing a centerpiece of his proposal for a more livable New York, but he hasn’t invested in transit upgrades that make or break affordability. Providing apartments for a reasonable/affordable rents in areas far from the subway and without upgrades to bus service or increases in transit capacity does little to combat the affordability crisis. By necessity, better transit access has to be a key component of affordable housing, and the mayor has not shown support for the transit piece of that affordability puzzle.

Maybe you might think it’s presumptuous of me that this admittedly obscure transportation blog I’ve run for nine years can find a sympathetic ear in City Hall, but if the mayor is listening to any of these sites, he would hear similar themes. Hopefully, he is and can mull over these ideas during the holiday season. If he wants to address the skeptics, at least he knows where to start.

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webster December 22, 2015 - 7:35 am

The on-street parking point is extremely prescient.
I almost never hear anyone mention this. It makes no sense to provide so much/any of it in Manhattan.

At the very least, it shouldn’t exist on the major avenues…

David December 22, 2015 - 10:10 am

I’ve always thought giving away something as valuable as parking was ludicrous. There shouldn’t be any free on-street parking, at least not in most of Manhattan and particularly busy areas of the outer boroughs. When people know there’s free parking, they’re more likely to drive, even if it means circling the block multiple times and adding to local congestion. In fact, I know a number of people who will drive into the city rather than take MNR, NJT, or the LIRR just because they’re confident they can find on-street parking.

One logical solution is to have a mix neighborhood parking permits and metered parking. Put meters on the avenues (and particularly busy streets) and then require a local permit for most streets. The city could require locals to buy a permit or even give them away after proof of address (though probably including enough of a fee to recoup the costs of issuing the permit). If the city charges for the permits it gets some extra funding to spend on transportation, but even if it essentially gives them away, at least it can cut down on congestion.

webster December 22, 2015 - 11:35 am

I concur.

Then again, the whole reasons SBS is a hit-or-miss AFAIC is that the city can’t convince neighborhoods to give up on-street parking.

I think issuing permits that continually escalate in price, over time, is the best way to get rid of the spots, down the line.

Alex December 22, 2015 - 11:37 am

Yes, yes, and yes. If you sell the permits on the premise of making more parking availabe while using the money for local street improvements, you’re likely to gain a decent amount of support, especially if the permit price is modest to begin with. You can always up the rate for new residents going forward. An additional benefit is that it makes it harder for people to bring their out-of-state registered cars. I’m willing to bet a lot of folks would simply opt not to have a car if it means paying the city insurance rates that accompany registering your car locally.

AG December 22, 2015 - 3:53 pm

Giving it away would be a much easier fight to win. If congestion pricing has such a hard time – charging for residential parking permits would face an even bigger fight.

Charles December 22, 2015 - 1:34 pm

Seriously. I don’t think the city can legally set up a residential permit program, but what would stop it from metering all the street space and selling discounted muni-meter passes in bulk? The revenue could be turned over to the participatory budgeting process for each district. Find a sympathetic community board and try it!

AG December 22, 2015 - 3:49 pm

That’s easy… Most of city council will complain of “a regressive tax against the middle”. Even in NYC – there are probably (I’m too lazy to check the exact number of registered vehicles – but that is not accurate since many register out of town to pay lower insurance) millions of people in households with owned vehicles in the 5 boroughs

adirondacker12800 December 22, 2015 - 5:47 pm

Keeping the car in town and registering it out of town is fraud.

AG December 22, 2015 - 8:30 pm

Sure it’s fraud… Who is enforcing it though is the question… Pennsylvania – Florida – Georgia all are very popular. So are the Carolinas. My point being you can’t get an accurate count because of all the fraud.

SEAN December 22, 2015 - 9:05 pm

It could be enforced by checking home addresses vs registrations. If the states don’t match, a fraud notice is issued to the driver as well as the drivers insurance company by witch said company would have the right to void the policy & the state could collect some type of fee if things aren’t corrected within a reasonable amount of time. That doesn’t mean a driver cant by insurance from another state, just that residency needs to match ones registration.

AG December 22, 2015 - 10:11 pm

Of course that is what COULD be done… But it’s not in any serious matter. I’ve heard a couple City Council members bring it up in the past – but it never went anywhere. It’s not like the IRS who spends a huge amount investigating fraud on people’s taxes.

adirondacker12800 December 22, 2015 - 11:26 pm

In most states the car, it’s registration and insurance are tied to where it’s “primarily garaged”. For most people that is where they live because they only have one residence. It’s where the car spends most of it’s time, not where you legally reside.

adirondacker12800 December 22, 2015 - 9:28 pm

New Jersey did, they may still do. The video surveillence van cruises through the neighborhood. License plate recognition software identifies the plates that keep showing up in the same neighborhoods. Not a pleasant experience if you get caught because the state then looks at your income tax returns and starts to ask questions.
Resident parking permits cut down on the problem because the car has to registered to an address a resident would use….

LLQBTT December 23, 2015 - 11:45 am

There are a whole bunch of Pennsylvanians in New York. Far more that from neighboring NJ or CT

Jonathan R December 22, 2015 - 8:26 am

Ben, my transportation blog is much more obscure than yours.

Vision Zero to me is an engineering goal, not a social movement. But marketing is cheaper than engineering, so the city does marketing in lieu of actually rolling out safety improvements. But the marketing is hamstrung by the fact that Vision Zero is not a marketing message.

Example: Vision Zero seeks to reduce conflict between motorists and pedestrians that results in injuries and deaths. So either you build a big wall between motorcars and people (engineering), or you discourage motorists (marketing), or you discourage pedestrians (marketing). As you know, however, active discouragement of pedestrians is the core of the city’s VZ marketing (“She looked; the driver didn’t.” Stay safe, stay home!), as well as its streets policy (Giuliani’s midtown barricades on 5th and 6th Avenues are still there) and its police department (enough said), and authorities continue to tacitly condone motorists’ poor behavior.

But this is entirely predictable as DOT and PD see motorists as their customers. Maybe the engineering piece of VZ will take priority as capital improvements are made, but don’t bet on it.

I would suggest advocates call for a marketing campaign that explicitly intends to discourage motoring, and let the safety benefits flow.

Komanoff December 22, 2015 - 9:23 am

Terrific post, perfectly attuned to the current moment and the oppt’y presented by the WSJ’s hook. Your V Zero points are particularly spot-on, esp’ly that VZ requires/demands a big shift from cars. And I love your “obscurity knows no bounds.” Funny/true.

The lone missing ingredient was/is a mention of the Move NY plan, which would catalyze just about every element in your excellent agenda.

Benjamin Kabak December 22, 2015 - 9:51 am

Ah! Charles, you’re right. That was an oversight. I’m going to update that now.

Komanoff December 22, 2015 - 12:16 pm

Thanks Ben. Nicely done, as befits this really fine post.

A Mann December 22, 2015 - 9:30 am

What about enforcement of traffic laws, especially riding the wrong way on one-way streets, for bicyclists. As a pedestrian, I have had too many close calls because I am looking in the direction cars are coming as I cross the street, and then get blindsided (or worse) when a bicyclist comes from the other direction. Red light enforcement for bicyclists would be nice, too.

VLM December 22, 2015 - 9:54 am

Flippantly, I say close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades, and you won’t die when a cyclist hits you. In reality, cyclist enforcement is rightly anathema to Ben’s conception of vision zero, and enforcing red lights for the overwhelming majority of cyclists is counterproductive. But certain segments of the cycling population could show better manners and much more deference to pedestrians.

MMerchant December 22, 2015 - 10:29 am

I know you’re speaking flippantly, but as a reminder you most certainly can die when a cyclist hits you even if the likelihood is nowhere near that of being killed by a car. And, if you’re an elderly person, a bike collision can easily inflict catastrophic injuries.

Brian Howald December 22, 2015 - 11:37 am

The different probabilities at which these two events occur should be the main factor in how often we hear criticism of them.

The death rate from cars is ~250 times as high as that from bicycles in the past 15 years in New York City, so I expect to hear criticism of reckless driving at ~250 times the rate of reckless cycling.

Oddly, I hear these complaints with relatively equal frequency. Why?

rustonite December 22, 2015 - 11:55 am

true-ish, but it’s a poor use of resources. drivers are responsible for virtually all traffic deaths. diverting the police to badger cyclists is like shifting money from cancer to bubonic plague- yes, the problem is real, but so tiny it’s not worth bothering with.

AG December 22, 2015 - 3:43 pm

I can’t agree. While drivers should bare the greater responsibility since they are piloting something weighing 2 tons – there are plenty of pedestrians who do really stupid things. Just last week I saw an idiot try to cross Bruckner Blvd. on a full green. I’m just glad I didn’t have to witness an impact – but make no mistake – it was close. The idiot almost caused an accident of the cars trying avoid him.

3ddi3 December 23, 2015 - 10:17 am

Speed limit is 25MPH, is that also the case on Bruckner?
If that’s the case, then who’s really at fault here?

AG December 23, 2015 - 5:21 pm

Are you serious??? Getting hit by a box truck (let alone an 18 wheeler) can still splatter you into pieces at 25mph. Getting hit by a car at 25mph can break bones of any healthy person. I have no idea how fast the vehicles were moving because I was fixated on how much of an idiot the guy was (he’s certainly not the first). The law says cars can go through an intersection when they see a green light. A stupid pedestrian is stupid pedestrian.

Bolwerk December 22, 2015 - 10:27 pm

You can die from lightning strikes too.

The thing about cyclists and hitting people that you Sheepshead Bay fuckers miss is that cyclists don’t have a big power imbalance with pedestrians. A pedestrian can have a perfectly operable set of fists, so cyclists have pretty good incentive not to act like assholes the way drivers do.

A Mann December 23, 2015 - 5:46 pm

It’s not about cars vs. bicycles; it’s about safety for pedestrians.

Bolwerk December 22, 2015 - 12:41 pm

How about everyone who keeps making idiot demands to sic police on people on the street give us a holiday gift and take your police state back to the ‘burbs? Feel free to bring some culture with you.

Bronx Resident December 22, 2015 - 8:39 pm

It is true that bicyclists should follow the flow of traffic but you should also always look both ways when crossing any street.

Common sense.

As for red light enforcement of bicyclists, it doesn’t make sense and probably isn’t possible at this time minus a few stings. It makes more sense for bicyclists to yield at intersections and proceed when clear. Those that do not yield should be targeted.

Herb Lehman December 23, 2015 - 10:26 am

I agree that focusing police efforts on red light enforcement for bikes is probably a waste of resources. There are bigger fish to fry, to say the least.

That being said, it would be appreciated if Vision Zero included at least a token bike safety component. I work in a fairly high bike traffic area and it’s rare that I go a full week without almost being hit by a bike who fails to yield or observe signals — and then gives ME attitude for being in THEIR way — and yes, I do always look both ways.

R2 December 22, 2015 - 9:39 am

Once again, you’re spot on. Hope this gets you an audience with the mayor.

Rob December 22, 2015 - 10:01 am

Re “successful effort at driving pedestrian deaths caused by automobiles to zero” and parking: Does that include anything about those caused by city government employees – particularly fire dep’t – routinely parking their personal vehicles on the sidewalks, forcing peds to wade into the street? Which is not a surprise as they generally seem to think they own the streets – and sidewalks.

Bronx Resident December 22, 2015 - 8:43 pm

Gotta love the NYPD placard abusers who have the audacity to park at bus stops along E 161st Street (BX 6). What happens when a bus rider who suffers from limited mobility attempts to board. Inconsiderate pricks.

Nathanael December 26, 2015 - 8:00 am

Those abusers need to be arrested. I spent a while figuring out who other than the NYPD has legal authority to arrest NYPD officers for criminal activity.

Turns out the Mayor and members of the City Council can arrest them personally!

Bolwerk December 26, 2015 - 11:54 am

And then (state) prosecutors can let them go.

Nathanael December 28, 2015 - 1:49 pm

I *don’t* think that would happen if Mayor De Blasio decided to make a point of it. At that point, the DAs would be making powerful political enemies, and they do want to get reelected.

Nathanael December 28, 2015 - 1:50 pm

As for state prosecutors, Schneiderman doesn’t give a damn about the little NYPD mafia; he owes nothing to them.

JEG December 22, 2015 - 1:35 pm

There is no way to reach zero pedestrians deaths unless the police actively crack down on vehicles speeding, failing to obey traffic signals, and failing to yield to pedestrians. While I have noticed that the NYPD is using more traffic officers in Midtown intersections, which may have a traffic calming effect, I still witness vehicles driving through red lights. The NYPD either needs to put officers on motorcycles to ticket such drivers or the state needs to permit the city to install far more traffic cameras.

The NYPD also needs to expand the Collision Investigation Squad, which currently consists of 22 officers, three sergeants, and a lieutenant. Compare that to the 500+ officers tasked with a new anti-terrorism unit.

District Attorneys also need to get serious about bringing charges against reckless drivers, and to the extent that current laws are insufficient, the state needs to address that by giving prosecutors the necessary legal tools to hold drivers accountable.

NAL December 22, 2015 - 2:18 pm

While I am glad to hear that Mayor De Blasio is paying more attention to “obscure transportation bloggers,” I hope he and his team are approach the writing at Pedestrian Observations with a critical eye. Mr. Levy frequently expresses concern about the high costs of U.S. transportation infrastructure. While this is an issue we should all be concerned about, Mr. Levy’s approach to criticism undermines his cause. When complaining about one project or another, Mr. Levy frequently offers counter-proposals that he suggests offer the same transportation benefits but at drastically lower costs. The problem is that these concepts are generally not based on anything resembling reality. Problems sometimes include over-zealous ridership estimates, unreasonable travel time assumptions, and disregard for technical constraints on equipment and infrastructure. In addition, Mr. Levy (and others) complain about the political institutions that drive transportation projects. While these institutions and their governance models may be rightly seen as barriers, they are simultaneously beneficial and, perhaps, necessary tools in our democratic system. (As much as the MTA governance model can slow progress, it is also the very coalition that enables state funding.)

I applaud Mr. Levy’s contributions to the dialogue. In the future, I hope it is met with some critical review and counter-thinking.

Ralfff December 22, 2015 - 10:49 pm

As Larry Littlefield has documented, the state’s barely funded jack since the 80s. Dedicated revenue streams in the MTA counties, federal support, and fare revenues have been the pillars of the MTA for years now. The state has dumped debt on the MTA and actually charged, and may still charge, a percentage on the bonds the MTA issues which goes to the state treasury.

Alon Levy December 23, 2015 - 8:49 am

I agree, actually. I keep telling people that my posts are usually not complete without looking at the comment thread for sanity checks. Sometimes, there really are big costs or time delays that I’m missing. Other times, there aren’t. (For example, the LIRR really does have extreme schedule padding.)

My big disagreement with you is actually what you say about institutions – or, rather, what you say I say about institutions. I think US institutions are bad at producing good transportation, but not because they’re too democratic. On the contrary, I think the problem is that they’re not democratic enough. Funding decisions are made behind closed doors, by state legislators who do not face regular partisan elections thanks to gerrymandering. New York, with its three-men-in-a-room model, is especially bad. Even when funding decisions are made by referendum, as with California HSR, the referendum only provides a small portion of the funding, and the remainder of the budget comes from unspecified state sources.

There are some people who keep comparing the US negatively with China, and either explicitly or implicitly praise China for its quick decision making. I constantly push back against this. Yes, China builds better infrastructure than the US, but only because everyone builds better infrastructure than the US. The recent subway construction costs I have seen in China are about $160 million per km in Hangzhou and, more recently, up to $250 million per km in Beijing. This is the same as the European range. This shouldn’t surprise – China’s workforce isn’t as skilled as that of the developed world, canceling out the lower wages; and China’s authoritarianism allows quick decisions but also contributes to corruption. For low construction costs, I’d look to well-governed states like Switzerland (especially for the use of referendums) and the Scandinavian countries, but also to poorly-governed ones on Europe’s Mediterranean rim, especially Spain.

Tsuyoshi December 22, 2015 - 2:52 pm

I agree with the call for ending free on-street parking. But in answer to your question of whether other US cities do it, yes. Certainly free parking is available in Philadelphia, Seattle, and Chicago, the cities I am most familiar with.

The ideal parking policy, which I hope may someday be copied here, is in Japan. There, no on-street parking exists anywhere, there are no minimum parking requirements, and anyone purchasing a car must show that they have a place to park it. There are parking lots near most train stations, but they are private, and you need to pay for your space.

A big difference here between the US and Japan is that streets in the US are typically wider. What Americans think of as a “narrow” street is still usually two or three car-widths wide — as I understand it, originally to prevent disease, under the mistaken belief that narrow streets in Europe caused disease. So we have a lot of “extra” street space. But that space is still not enough for everyone to be parking whereever and whenever they want.

Benjamin Kabak December 22, 2015 - 4:32 pm

Philadelphia definitely has a residential parking permit program (link). Out of NYC, Boston, Philly and DC, the only one without some sort of permitting parking is NYC. The other four cities have worse transit options than ours, and the sky hasn’t fallen yet.

Benjamin Kabak December 22, 2015 - 4:34 pm

Now that I’ve looked into Chicago and Seattle, they too both have some form of residential parking program.

Bronx Resident December 22, 2015 - 8:48 pm

Even Miami has a residential parking permit system.

Duke December 23, 2015 - 8:33 pm

New York City apparently used to have a similar setup prior to the 1950s – on street parking was limited to three hours in one spot, everywhere, at all times. So you could park on the street when out and about but you needed to store the car on your own property. Pressures from people who wanted to own a car but didn’t have a place on their own property to keep it led to the end of this and the creation of the alternate side parking rules we still have to this day instead.

There is a certain logic to saying that if you are going to consume space by leaving your car parked on the street you should have to pay for the privilege, but, fundamentally, I cannot get behind the idea of a resident parking program because I fundamentally disagree with restricting the use of public space based on one’s residence. It’s undemocratic, unequitable, and flat out discriminatory.

Let’s get something straight here – the purpose behind the existence of resident parking programs is to appease NIMBYs who want to act like their street is private and only people who live on it should be allowed to use it. This sense of entitlement is disgusting and frankly I’m glad NYC has managed to avoid falling prey to it.

If you want to make people buy permits to park on the street, fine. But it should be one permit for the whole city, and city residence should not be required to purchase one. This is consistent with the KISS principle, it avoids most of the headaches resident parking programs inevitably cause, it avoids being discriminatory, and it still achieves the stated goal of discouraging car ownership while raising revenue.

Daniel December 30, 2015 - 12:52 pm

I agree with your desire to KISS and that’s why I think what we need is our current meter system bolstered with enforcement of parking time limits (feeding the meter is technically illegal). This can be enforced the old fashioned way with chalk, a newer way with license plate scanners or something even more new-age (but with lower revenue potential) by disallowing the same credit card to be used at that block’s MuniMeter.

You have a very good point that a residence-based permit for access to a public amenity is undemocratic and discriminatory. Unfortunately, this is the current situation for public indoor pools as well as part of the way IDNYC has been promoted.

Where I disagree is, I think a system of universal parking permits would lead permits holders to believe they are entitled to a space where they want and politicians would likely feel compelled to create new parking to meet the wishes of their “paying customers”. This would be a reversal of the current trend which includes the removal of municipal lots on the LES.

Doug G. December 22, 2015 - 2:53 pm

Fantastic post. You’ve articulated a holistic vision for transportation, safety, and city living in general. I hope the mayor is paying attention.

AG December 22, 2015 - 3:04 pm

I think the mayor is very inept. The one thing I will definitely applaud him for is “Vision Zero”. Yes it is building off previous work – but it is a good continued step further for reclaiming city streets for pedestrians. That’s why I found it strange Bratton wanted to get rid of some pedestrian plazas. NYC needs more.
As to “affordable housing” and its relation to transit – my take is different. NYC has been riding a 20 year popularity curve. Demand is much higher than supply. There are 1 million units that are not on the free market (stabilization and control) which further – and artificially – constricts the housing supply. So unless there is continued artificial construction – affordable housing and transit don’t go together. Why? NYC is a transit town. The better access to transit means on the free market you will be charged a higher price based in the demand. That’s even true of suburban houses. During the bust – houses closest to Metro North and LIRR stations held their value better.

Bolwerk December 22, 2015 - 5:36 pm

It’s not hard to understand if you understand Bratton. With Bill de Blasio as his patron, Bratton’s power base is contingent on convincing gullible whites that most New Yorkers are turd-colored punks who won’t behave themselves without a uniformed occupation. By eliminating anti-social behavior using environmental design, popular pedestrian plazas severely undermine that mythology. Authoritarians dislike transit and love automobiles for similar reasons.

The relationship between rent regulations and market prices is loose at best. An occupied unit, regulated or not, is not being supplied on the market no matter what its rental rate is. These units basically don’t impact prices, except maybe insofar as they (sometimes) discourage vacancies to come onto the market. According to classical economics, even that is probably a minor effect at most, since landlords have incentive to rent out at a rate that clears a discrete vacancy, which shouldn’t really change because some (other) units happen to be rented below a clearing rate.

AG December 22, 2015 - 8:27 pm

… Except those units are a large percentage of the overall housing stock here… It’s not like we are talking about 5,000… I’ts many times more than that. It absolutely retards turnover. Renting was never meant to be like owning. A rent stabilized/controlled unit is held on to like gold in this town.
When almost 50 percent of your rental stock is some form of regulation (more than 50 percent when you include “public housing” – that is a grossly distorted market.


Bolwerk December 22, 2015 - 10:16 pm

First of all, you’re really exaggerating the implications of rent stabilization. Controlled units are arguably like gold, but good luck even getting one if you don’t get a family assignment or marry into one of the 35k or so left. Stabilized units can go in a lot of different directions. Circumstances can keep a discrete unit below market value, but in many cases the market rent for a vacancy is already well below the price ceiling anyway. The key reform provided by stabilization is it prevents rents from dropping below maintenance costs, which was a problem for rent control.

Regardless, the assertion that occupied regulated units drive up vacancy prices is dubious at best. Demand isn’t going to change because regulation removes, and removing regulation is a prescription for higher rents. Yes, there is a supply problem in NYC, but it is land use regulation, not rent regulation. It’s basically illegal to build enough new housing to meet demand.

Renting was never meant to be like owning.

I don’t even know what that means. In a nutshell, renting and owning are just different kind of leasing arrangements anyway. Stable housing situations are generally good for people, and rent stabilization achieves that for the working and middle classes much better than home ownership. Rent control failed to achieve that.

AG December 22, 2015 - 10:21 pm

47 percent is an exaggeration??? Seriously??? As far as it being “dubious”… Well I’ve done books for many properties – and it’s not dubious. Aside from what you mention about economic theory – unless it is one with a very left leaning political slant – I’ve never seen any that think having so many regulated units is a good thing.

My point about renting/owning was that people hold on to stabilized units as if they had a 30 year mortgage.

Bolwerk December 22, 2015 - 11:18 pm

No, the 47% proportion of regulated rental units is probably spot-on. The impact of the regulation(s) in question is exaggerated. Rent control and rent stabilization are two vastly different policies, and any economist who conflates them is intellectually dishonest. Unless a buyer does something outright irrational, knowingly failing to profit under the NYC stabilization regime seems pretty unlikely, which you know if you’ve done books on buildings with stabilized units. Landlords can even get hardship increases.

And no, nothing I said on the subject is remotely “leftist.” I doubt any economist who isn’t a professional paid hack would have anymore than a quibble with what I said. I’ve even read conservative defenses of rent regulation that were premised on the idea that regulation encourages household economic stability.

I think I know what you’re thinking of though. Economists – almost any economist running the gamut from Friedman to Krugman probably even to to center-left Piketty – almost universally despise the idea of rent control, as it exists/existed in NYC. Control is typically used as an example in an introductory text of how awful price ceilings are. (Minus the usually accompanying histrionics, I agree it doesn’t work.)

Alon Levy December 23, 2015 - 8:58 am

New York calls its rent regulation schemes by different names – rent control and rent stabilization – but in the economics discourse, they’re all lumped together and considered negatively.

Bolwerk December 23, 2015 - 10:22 am

Define the “economics discourse.” If you mean popular discourse, then sure, but the general public is very misinformed on this issue. If you mean doctrinaire neoliberal economic discourse (various species calling identifying as “Austrian,” “Chicago school,” “Randian,” or “Libertarian”), also sure. This group is heterodox at best, and often charlatan. Mainstream economics? Setting aside that economists who don’t specialize in real estate may not think about this very much, the views are rather more nuanced.

For the anti-regulation crowd, note also that the goalposts have shifted. In the ’80s those groups were blaming all of NYC’s social problems on rent regulations (well, that and ethnics). The regulations never really went away and NYC real estate is more popular than ever, but somehow regulation stayed Evil. Now if we just got rid of rent regulation, we’d have cheap housing! It much resembles how this group shifts goalposts with fiscal and monetary policy.

(You can accept what I said and still be against rent regulation on ideological or moral grounds, BTW. But the economic argument that all rent regulation results in all these terrible externalities can be safely regarded as debunked.)

Alon Levy December 24, 2015 - 4:10 am

Lol at Randian.

About 90% of economists think rent controls reduce supply. Yes, that includes Krugman et al. In economics literature, rent controls refer to any rent regulation, including what New York calls rent stabilization but not rent control.

You can discuss whether this consensus of economists is correct or not. But what you can’t seriously do is wave your hand and say that this view is debunked.

This is not the only place where how the government calls its social programs is not how the people studying them call them. A better example is welfare: in US federal government usage, welfare refers to just one program (TANF), but when economists and sociologists study welfare spending, they include all anti-poverty social programs, even ones that the federal government calls by different names (“food stamps,” “public housing,” “Medicaid,” “Pell grants”).

Bolwerk December 24, 2015 - 12:13 pm

Rent control really is a specific prescription with a specific meaning, a set price ceiling for a unit, and most of the kvetching about rent control refers to…rent control. When rent control was studied for its negative externalities, it was the NYC rent control program that was studied. Yes, it drives economists into frothing rages. Maybe rightfully so.

About 90% of economists think rent controls reduce supply.

OK, I have no idea about that number, but I’d still guess most economists who hear the phrase “rent controls” are thinking about fixed price ceilings, don’t necessarily think those reductions are severe, or not thinking about it much at all. If they are thinking about price ceilings, I absolutely agree. If they are not thinking about it much at all, why take it so seriously?

That said, I think you are confusing the issue here. Using the phrase “rent controls” in that sentence to mean “rent regulations,” I probably would still agree with the premise. ‘Cause, really, virtually all regulations involve trade-offs in terms of costs/prices or supply reductions. This is a platitude of economics and can be counteracted by other policy initiatives. It’s just not a huge problem.

This is what I was getting at. What really has been debunked by actual research and evidence are causal chains like:

rent stabilization -> rent prices too low -> landlord can’t pay bills -> urban decay


rent stabilization -> supply reduction because landlords refuse to rent out -> remaining rents to high -> everything in the city is too expensive

or several others.

I can probably poke holes in that shit all day if you want. The second one involves a particularly oafish premise because it is illogical for a landlord to take a bigger loss (|$0 – apartment costs|) instead of a smaller loss (|unprofitable rent – apartment costs|).

And I would submit the groups that do make those kinds of arguments probably don’t understand real estate economics themselves or are relying on readers’ pig ignorance of the topic to propagandize. Or, they rely on the fact that they can drop a weasel word phrase (“rent controls!!1!!!1!”), wave an American flag, and say something about socialism while debunking their claims requires paragraphs upon paragraphs of exposition either untangling their premises or about rather arcane economic theory? 😀

Alon Levy December 25, 2015 - 6:50 pm

New York rent stabilization involves fixed price ceilings, too. They’re just higher than under New York rent control.

Bolwerk December 25, 2015 - 10:33 pm

You call this fixed?

In a nutshell, stabilization works by permitting board-set increases for existing tenants each year. When an apartment is vacated, usually a much larger increase is allowed for the incoming tenant, a so-called “vacancy lease.” Generally controlled units become stabilized when vacated. The stabilization is attached to the unit, not the building, so different units within a building might have reached legal rents that have evolved in different ways. Often, a unit is rented out at below the legal rate (because legal rate > market rate); this is called a “preferential rent.”

Through the natural succession of tenancies and increases, apartments eventually reach a statuatory deregulation threshold (currently ~$2500, I think). At this point, the apartment may be deregulated at the next “vacancy lease.”

AG December 27, 2015 - 8:55 am

“Through the natural succession of tenancies and increases”

Except that is the point. 50 PERCENT of the rental market in NYC does NOT have “natural succession of tenancies and increases”.

adirondacker12800 December 24, 2015 - 7:29 pm

In New York the landlord can show the books to the regulators and get an increase if the rent isn’t covering costs and a reasonable profit. They hate it because they can’t charge whatever they want. Especially the ones who have held the property for a while.

AG December 25, 2015 - 3:47 pm

The rent guidelines board sets the increases… The whole idea is pretty stupid that the government sets the housing costs for over half of the rental market at any given time. Rent guidelines were only supposed to be for a short amount of time in the city’s history. Like many government things – it has taken a life of it’s own in NYC and is entrenched.

Plus the reality is that you can’t “charge whatever you want”. Well you can – but if there is ample supply in a natural market it will even itself out. People will stretch and pay for the units in question because it’s hard to find units that are just on the open market. It’s very competitive.
Also the view that all landlords are rich and swimming in money is just laughable. Most are not Extell or Durst or Trump or whoever. For many – it’s their retirement fund.

adirondacker12800 December 25, 2015 - 6:47 pm

if you are renting a deregulated apartment you can ask for anything you little heart desires. you may not get it but you can.

Bolwerk December 25, 2015 - 11:06 pm

So a landlord’s interest in having a retirement fund outweighs the need to survive in a warm shelter month-to-month for the many people who live in the building? People who have rent-stabilized buildings knew what they were getting and have much better prospects of profitability than the owners of many financial instruments.

The solution here, once again, is to increase supply of units by allowing more to be built, not go into conniptions about policies that protect tenants from predatory behavior. If the so-called defenders of free enterprise were actually for free enterprise, they’d agree.

AG December 27, 2015 - 8:42 am

If a landlord has no right to be gain from their investment – then buy them all out and make it all public housing… But we see that hasn’t worked either. NY is about the only city in this country that is NOT getting rid of it’s unworkable public housing.
And you are again missing the point. De Blasio and his team are crying “we need to build we need to build”. Now his very own allies have rejected his rezoning plans – in EVERY SINGLE BOROUGH. What does tell you? Again -theory and actual practice are two very different things. Everyone says “sure I’m for affordable housing”… But then you have those who complain it will make their neighborhood too dense – and on the other end people complaining that the income requirements are too high. Both of these groups WERE the mayor’s allies on affordable housing. The funny thing is is plan is actually pretty decent in THEORY. But it was never going to be practically implemented. Oh and btw – yeah his team realizes that without increasing the income thresholds you can’t have a sustainable building. I’m sorry – I guess it all goes by your experience. I was raised that you live where you can afford.
In any event – my whole point is NOT that people don’t deserve shelter. That is abolutely ridiculous knee-jerk comment. My point is that the market is greatly distorted. That is the reason people who work for the post office or the MTA or an entry level accountant who are above the current “affordable housing” thresholds can’t find places as they could before. They don’t qualify for the lotteries and they can’t afford the open market rents because the artificial constriction jacks up the price of the units on the open market. No one has a right to live in any neighborhood unless you own where you live. The idea that if you remove those 1 million units from rent regulation will cause all the rents to go up to $3,000 per month is ridiculous. There are not enough people to fill all those 1 million units at that price. Owners who still have to pay taxes (and maybe a mortgage) will charge what the most people at any given time can afford. That’s how life works under most circumstances. Are persons who own a two family house in Cambria Heights or Canarsie or Bedford Park able to get $3,000 per month for a one bedroom???? NO! They charge what people are willing to pay in their neighborhood. That’s exactly how the large buildings should work too.

To bring this comment back to my original comment. Land in NYC is scarce – supply outstrips demand. This is a city that runs on the subway system and transit as a whole. No matter how we expand transit – the units with the best access will be the most valuable and/or the most expensive. Even in the outer reaches – such as the low rise residential neighborhoods I named. That apartment in the 2 family house – the owner can charge more the close they are to transit. That will be the case no matter what the government does….Short of just turning everything into public housing.

adirondacker12800 December 27, 2015 - 1:42 pm

If the landlord isn’t making money he needs a different bookkeeper. Or is lying to you.

Bolwerk December 30, 2015 - 12:30 pm

Nobody says landlords have no right to gain from their investments. They generally do gain. Rent stabilization is designed to protect profitability. They may, sometimes, not make as much as they would without the regulation, but you’re exaggerating the impact that has on supply.

You’re also shifting goalposts again. Public housing is not rent stabilization. I agree it should be supplanted with both better stock and better administrative arrangements (fee simple or otherwise).

As for de Blasio, well, he was known to be a wishy-washy RWA before he was elected. The so-called progressives who were blind-sided by him have no one but themselves to blame for being suckered. (Some, like Streetsblog, were suckered hilariously.) He didn’t even keep his real estate industry ties a secret. He thinks the way to fix inequality is to turn everyone into a suburbanite. He oveall defends the status quo everywhere he goes. He’s one of the very few examples in America of a real conservative!

My point is that the market is greatly distorted.

Distorted in favor of landlords and developers. Oversimplified, Y households are competing for X housing units, and Y is increasing at a lower rate than X. This overall favors owners at the expense of tenants and aspiring owners.

The idea that if you remove those 1 million units from rent regulation will cause all the rents to go up to $3,000 per month is ridiculous.

But the idea that deregulation will adversely impact a lot of tenants on low or fixed income is probably beyond dispute even for you.

Of course, there are many cases where rent stabilization limits are much higher than market rates, so any market impact of de-regulation is probably modest at best.

That will be the case no matter what the government does….Short of just turning everything into public housing.

All the government needs to do is loosen up the rules to allow for more units and taller buildings near transit. Modest infill on single-family lots would be smart too. Preferably rent stabilize new units built under these conditions!

The question is how much. Eventually you create a situation where too much added supply impacts market prices. People who already purchased would then be screwed because they’d have high mortgages and rents that cannot cover them. (This is, of course, the real reason why development in NYC is so limited statutorily.)

adirondacker12800 December 22, 2015 - 11:31 pm

Unless the owner is pushing 100 the books looked like they do when he or she bought it.

AG December 23, 2015 - 5:31 pm

No – point being that rent rolls often don’t cover enough for them to get a loan to make improvements to the building. So over time the building degrades and people complain. I’m not talking about buildings in Chelsea. I’m talking about buildings on Mother Gaston Blvd. in Brooklyn or one E. 169th in the Bronx. or Adam Clayton Powell in Harlem. Nor am I talking about some rich institutional owners. The ones I’m talking about are owned by immigrants who bought them when NY was on the decline in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s. In some cases I’m talking about HPD properties that were even converted to co-ops. They can’t even pay their taxes sometimes….
So what happens is that once any unit does go market rate those new tenants end up paying much more just because the landlord feels they can get breathing room (I’m sure in more expensive areas the situation is more magnified). If you have a more natural movement of tenants moving in and out – rents become more rational. Alas – no NY politician is brave enough to let things level out on their own. The population has gotten too used to it.

adirondacker12800 December 23, 2015 - 6:08 pm

Why hasn’t the landlord asked for a rent increase?
Why would someone who can pay market rent move into a run down building?

Bolwerk December 23, 2015 - 10:45 pm

No need to ask. A landlord owning a stabilized unit can just increase according to board guidelines. If a long-time resident rented at a legal rate of $300 in 1980, s/he’d pay around $1165 today if the landlord increased at the legal rate.

Bolwerk December 23, 2015 - 10:46 pm

(And with stabilization, a landlord can increase to the legal limit ANY TIME s/he wants.)

adirondacker12800 December 24, 2015 - 12:26 am

The roof leaks and rots the rafters, the landlord can ask for an increase above the legal limit. The stove gets replaced they can charge you 1/40th of it’s cost. Forever.

…Perhaps not at this moment or in every neighborhood but market rents are sometimes below the stabilized rent.

Bolwerk December 24, 2015 - 12:20 pm

Yeah, true, MCI (major capital improvement).

AG seemed to be implying that landlords haven’t been able to raise rents at all in years or decades, which is absurd under stabilization.

AG December 25, 2015 - 3:54 pm

Nope – not what I implied at all. What is absurd is thinking that all of the world sets their expenses according to the rent guidelines board. No – they don’t. If oil shoots up next year – you can’t tell them “oh well I couldn’t build up enough cash reserves because I was only able to raise the rent 1.5% which barely covers any of my other costs. That’s not how the real world works.

AG December 25, 2015 - 3:59 pm

LOl. You guys don’t live in the real world of NYC politics. Try that very thing too often and the news vans and newspapers will be outside your building tell the world you are harassing the tenants to get them out because you only want to bring in rich people from out of town and “push the real New Yorkers out”. It’s only in the papers and on the news at least once or twice per week.

Well you wanted to give advice on what to do… Well you and your friends are free to form and LLC and buy a building in NYC. Come back in 3 years and tell me what it’s like. Better yet – go sit at housing court for one week. Do one day in each borough. You might not even be able to make it through the week without quitting. Theory and real life are two different things. It’s the same with real estate as it is with the transit network.

Bolwerk December 25, 2015 - 10:53 pm

Good thing stabilization increases typically take into account energy prices. And increases have typically been in excess of inflation. Until 2015, I don’t believe there was an increase lower than 2%.

You’re kinda shifting the goalposts there. I never said owning a building in NYC is a pleasure, but what it certainly is not is unprofitable to those who do their homework and make a prudent purchase. This is in contrast to single-family ownership, which is virtually always unprofitable until/unless a capital gain is realized.

If Tronald Dump is not elected president, I might consider taking the plunge actually. Otherwise I think I’ll just move to Berlin or something.

AG December 27, 2015 - 11:10 am

To the first question – it’s simply not that easy. To the second – well that’s how/why there has been gentrification in NYC and other major cities in this country (actually per capita NYC hasn’t even been as gentrified as places like DC and Portland). Because the most desirable places became super-heated the people who were priced out of them were willing to move into run down neighborhoods and buildings. It’s no coincidence the Bronx remains the lowest income borough. It has the highest share of rent regulated units and the highest share of public housing of any of the 5 boroughs. The market in the Bronx is the most artificially constricted. That doesn’t help the tenants. Only Brooklynites pay a higher share of their income in rent of the 5 boroughs. What does do is keep an artificial ceiling and detrimental lack of mix of incomes in quite a few neighborhoods.

Bolwerk December 23, 2015 - 11:15 pm

None of that adds up. Just to begin, a building sold before 1986 would be very unlikely to have an original mortgage today and any mortgage other than a relatively recent one would have to have shrunk in proportion to the legal rent rates by now.

Most likely, these landlords don’t know their rights if they think they can’t legally increase rents. If you’re talking about stabilized units, order a rent history, make sure it is accurate, and calculate the legal rent your client can pay today. Play your cards right and you’ll get a nice bonus in your bookkeeping business, and you can send the thank you bitcoins to bolwerk at gmail dot com.

You can calculate legal increases using this chart: http://www.nycrgb.org/download.....rs2014.pdf

Nathanael December 26, 2015 - 8:03 am

What I don’t understand is why de Blasio hasn’t had Bratton arrested. De Blasio gets nothing from his relationship with Bratton. Bratton is abusing his position to encourage cops to break the law.

Bolwerk December 26, 2015 - 11:52 am

Why assume he disagrees with Rudy Giuliani’s methods or ever did? He was never scrutinized on that issue at all before he was elected.

His stupider right-wing critics may like to scream about how incompetent he is (spoiler alert: they’re the most incompetent of all), but he does seem to have a measure of low cunning.

Nathanael December 28, 2015 - 1:52 pm

What does agreeing with Rudy Giuliani’s (totally ineffective) methods GET him? I’m just talking raw politics here.

What is the benefit from pursuing policies which alienate your supporters, don’t gain votes from your opponents, make the city worse, don’t do any good, and give power to a criminal mafia? I mean, if he were getting kickbacks it would make sense, but he’s not.

Nathanael December 28, 2015 - 1:53 pm

(Rudy was basically getting kickbacks: look at his “career” after leaving office, all paid for by various warmongers and sellers of oppress-the-people type weaponry.)

Bolwerk December 30, 2015 - 12:43 pm

I really don’t know. My first inclination was to assume that it was meant to quiet tabloids, but then he was just quiet and vague on the subject before he won the election. When he was running it was obvious people were already tiring of over-policing, so he dropped hints that he’d make big changes by taking…really narrow stands. Specifically, he agreed stop ‘n frisk should be scaled back, a possibly self-serving position because his son is a very probable potential victim of an illegal police stop. His major opponent, Christine Quinn, thought the only thing that should happen was the city should keep deferring to Ray Kelly on just about everything law enforcement-related.

So, my guess now, is he was just suckering his own supporters the way the Clintons do. Only after he was elected did he drag Bratton out of the mothballs. Bratton wanted the job really badly and was very willing to go along with scaling back stop ‘n frisk, which of course was relatively easy because the policy was expensive, didn’t really do anything useful, and had a court order against it.

Bolwerk December 22, 2015 - 5:52 pm

Re transit, city council transpo chair Ydanis Rodriguez is actually showing willingness to at least consider surface rail again. It’s actually a historic opportunity, if there is real political support in the council, so maybe the mayor could show some interest?

Billy G December 23, 2015 - 4:30 am

Why do you hate freedom?

Seriously, is personal liberty so scary to you that you can justify stomping it out like a redcoat?

Did freedom kill your dog or something?

Cars represent individual freedom, a freedom for someone to make their own decisions and have the personal power to execute those decisions. A bicycle has much less power. A train takes the decisions and power away. There’s little worse than being stuck on a train that is not going where you want to go when you want to go, even though it claimed to be when you entered it.

eo December 23, 2015 - 10:17 am

Car is freedom in Nebraska. In New York car means being stuck in traffic for hours. With traffic you are not going anywhere even with your car — you cannot take a side street because there are thousands of people trying to do the same here in NYC. There are contexts and places where cars are the right solution (and trains and bicycles are not) and there are contexts and places where they are the wrong solution (and trains and bicycles are). NYC happens to be in the latter category. Nebraska and many other less dense regions are in the former.

Bolwerk December 23, 2015 - 10:27 am

(I’m pointing to Poe’s Law a lot lately, but I think Billy was kidding.)

AG December 23, 2015 - 5:16 pm

Good points. I would also add that we in NY are often subsidizing Nebraska and other regions “freedoms” based on our tax payment imbalance to DC.

eo December 23, 2015 - 10:11 am

It amazes me that DOT and NYC government pay so much attention to cars. For example, why can’t they close 5th Avenue around Rockefeller Center this time of year? The crowds to see the tree and the Sack’s light show are enormous. Why are we corralling thousands of people with barriers and police, so that a few can drive through 5th Avenue?

Close 5th Avenue for 6-7 blocks and let only the MTA buses and emergency vehicles through. The closure could last from 12 noon to 10pm which is the worst crowding time allowing the businesses to get deliveries during the other 14 hours of the day. The closure will be only for 2-3 weeks — from the tree lightning till Christmas.

Of course DOT does not do that, they prefer to provide “service” to the few thousand drivers who pass through that section of 5th Ave instead to the many more pedestrians who walk the sidewalks around there at this time of the year.

3ddi3 December 23, 2015 - 10:25 am

The worst is the side streets, basically a bunch of fat, lazy suburbanites just wanna see the tree, basically driving through 51st, or 50th or down 5th Ave so they can take out their cell phone and take a quick picture.


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