Amazon Scraps Long Island City HQ Plans

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Amazon HQ2 Protesters at a City Council Hearing (Source here)

Amazon announced today that it is pulling out of a deal to build half of its second headquarters in Long Island City, Queens. Barely three months after Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio proudly announced the corporation’s plans to bring 25,000 jobs to the Queens waterfront, the project has been scrapped. This news amounts to victory for prominent and vocal opponents such as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, City Council President Corey Johnson and State Senator Michael Gianaris and at least momentary defeat for the Mayor, Governor and pro-business groups.

Amazon said in a statement:

“While polls show that 70% of New Yorkers support our plans and investment, a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project…”

It was the efforts of politicians like Gianaris in particular that turned Amazon off. His recent appointment to an obscure board, potentially with the power to sink HQ2, was likely the final straw that convinced Amazon to cancel their plans. According to the NY Times, Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo led Amazon executives to believe that news of the company’s arrival in New York City would be met with near universal acceptance and praise. But, unlike the Mayor and Governor who rolled out the red carpet for Amazon and its CEO, the world’s richest man, other politicians and the citizens of the city would not be so easily wooed. Cuomo and de Blasio showered Amazon with $3 billion in taxpayer funded easements and with loopholes to circumvent normal land use processes in the city. It was the those tax breaks and who they were for that opponents used most effectively to fight Amazon’s seemingly unstoppable arrival.

Pro-business groups and other supporters of the deal to bring Amazon to Long Island City immediately decried the work of opposition, concerned that their attitude and behavior amounts to a “Not Welcome” sign for all companies trying to set up in the city. It is undeniable that for New York City to move forward, new infrastructure, new housing and new homes must be built. We cannot accept deterioration of our infrastructure and built environment as the only way to keep housing prices low as NIMBYs suggest. While it is true that the cries of NIMBYs who default to concerns about displacement when any project from a bike lane to a residential building to a massive corporate campus is proposed, Amazon backing out of this deal is not a referendum on them. Instead, it is a referendum on the use of corporate tax breaks to lure companies to cities and states, deals which use millions (and in this case billions) of taxpayer dollars to subsidize rich corporations in return for vague promises of future public benefit.

Amazon said themselves in their statement today:

“There are currently over 5,000 Amazon employees in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Staten Island, and we plan to continue growing these teams.”

This sentence left some asking, what was the point of offering tax breaks in the first place? Amazon will continue hiring hundreds if not thousands of people in New York City, without a dime of public money. As I wrote in a previous post upon announcement of the original HQ2 deal, Amazon was always going to come to New York City because the benefits of the agglomeration economy here are more powerful than just about anywhere else on the planet. But, instead of quietly accruing real estate and building their presence, Amazon executives embarked on a months long charade, pitting state against state, city against city in a bid to see who would bend over furthest. The search for HQ2 amounted to nothing more than a grotesque song and dance, which brought out the worst in public officials, most notably Bill de Blasio and Andrew “Amazon” Cuomo. The hubris with which Amazon executives operated is staggering. They expected a hero’s welcome and instead got what they deserved, full-throated opposition from concerned residents and politicians who would not accept the deal that had been foisted on them behind closed doors.

With that all being said, I hope Amazon continues to build its presence in New York City like any other corporation with no contests and no sideshows. It is important for the city’s technology sector to continue its ascent and maybe someday challenge Silicon Valley for primacy in the field. Google has built up a population of tens of thousands of employees in Chelsea and is planning to double its workforce with a new development on Manhattan’s west side. Though I am sure there are groups in New York City that are unhappy with Google’s growth, opposition has been nowhere near as strong as it was to Amazon. If Amazon had not pitted municipalities against each other for tax breaks and if our highest ranking representatives had not so willing joined the fray, few would have batted an eye about a few thousand employees moving into Hudson Yards every year. But instead, they chose the loudest and most inflammatory route and when New Yorkers stood up to oppose the vision they were selling, Amazon immediately retreated to lick their wounds in Crystal City, Virginia and Nashville, Tennessee.

Amazon Picks Queens for HQ2

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Long Island City

TL;DR – Amazon would have chosen New York City subsidies or not.

This week, Amazon formally announced that it would split its HQ2 between Crystal City, Virginia and Long Island City (LIC), Queens, confirming a leak reported previously by the Wall Street Journal. After a 14 month long courting process during which hundreds of American and Canadian cities vied for Amazon’s affections, HQ2 landed in two places that had been widely predicted. Amazon, which is headquartered in Seattle, was long expected to establish a presence on the opposite coast. Crystal City, located adjacent to Washington National airport, offers Amazon and Jeff Bezos close proximity to the Federal government and agencies such as the Department of Defense. LIC is of course located at the heart of the most economically powerful city in the world, New York City, with its large and well educated population.

Together, NY City and State proposed four landing spots for Amazon in their bid: Downtown Brooklyn, Hudson Yards, Lower Manhattan and the eventual winner LIC. The Queens neighborhood located at the borough’s southwest corner, which offers a one-stop subway ride to Midtown Manhattan, is the city’s fastest growing neighborhood. More residential units have been built there in recent years that in other development hotspots like Downtown Brooklyn and Williamsburg. However, the neighborhood remains transitional, an amalgam of gleaming high rises, older row houses, warehouses, transportation infrastructure and the largest public housing project in the United States. This housing project, the Queensboro Houses, sits just a half mile from Anable basin, the largest of the proposed sites of Amazon’s HQ2. This proximity highlights one of the main tensions and criticisms of the multi-billion dollar deal to bring the tech giant to New York City.

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Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos

The median income for a household in the 26 buildings that comprise the Queensbridge houses is $15,843. The advertised median income for jobs at Amazon’s new headquarters is $100,000. The New York City Housing Authority or NYCHA, which owns the Queensbridge Houses runs a $77 million deficit every year and is facing a $17 billion repairs backlog. Families all across New York City in NYCHA homes are forced to grapple with leaks, broken elevators, persistent crime, untreated asbestos and spotty heat in the winter. Rather than spend $3 billion of city and state money on taking a chunk out of the maintenance backlog, that money is instead headed to Amazon as part of the sweetheart incentive package agreed on to bring the company to LIC. Though Amazon has pledged to build a new school, a tech incubator, invest in infrastructure and run career training for Queensbridge residents, most of the benefit for New York City will come more from a more trickle down theory.

To be clear, I am in favor of Amazon setting up shop in New York City. 25,000 new jobs with salaries that can support the city’s expensive lifestyle, thousands of other related jobs for service workers and the establishment of New York City as the East Coast’s leading tech hub are all good things. But, even without huge subsidies from the state and city, its presence could be disruptive to the lives of millions. I do not mean to sound like a NIMBY here. Rather, I am supportive of Amazon’s HQ2 in general but with some important caveats. For one, they must provide money to improve transportation and other infrastructure in Queens that will be further taxed by thousands of new workers and residents. Amazon must also take mitigative measures to prevent rent hikes that lead to displacement, which are inevitable when thousands of new high income people move in. Other actions must be taken to blunt the impact of Amazon’s arrival, all of which would have been possible if the Governor, the Mayor and corporate officials had not gone behind local officials’ backs to shake on this deal.

Any demands on Amazon to improve LIC to mitigate any negative impacts of its arrival must adhere to two landmark pieces of legislation, Nollan and Dolan, which assert that there must be nexus and proportionality to any community benefits asked of a developer. If these demands are deemed to be unrelated to or disproportionate in scale to the impact of that development, then it could constitute an exaction. Reaching an agreement on a reasonable package of benefits for a community is possible under New York City’s land use statutes, which were evaded by Amazon.

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Anable Basin, site of Amazon’s HQ2

Under New York State’s General Project Plan (GPP), New York City’s extensive local review process for projects that trigger a rezoning known as the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) are effectively nullified. By design, there was no opportunity for the city council, community boards or for local residents to sound off on this proposal. There is the possibility that these groups would have moved to block Amazon’s arrival subsidies or not. But, it is unfair to New York City residents that their taxpayer dollars will go towards subsidizing the richest man in the world, while the package of goods they receive in return is small and not necessarily what they wanted or needed. Is there nexus and proportionality for New Yorkers whose tax dollars are subsidizing Amazon? Will what Amazon gives back be enough or what Queens residents need? So far there is not and it is not, therefore this action may constitute an exaction.

There are plenty of reasons why state and city leaders would want Amazon to set up shop in New York City. More than the tens of thousands of jobs it will create, it establishes New York City as the East Coast’s leading tech hub and highlights the economic and cultural prowess of America’s largest city. But, it is because of New York’s status as the “Greatest City in the World” that I would argue companies like Amazon should be competing to set up shop there, not the other way around as has occurred. Scholars and writers on the emergence of global superstar cities, which command the flow of capital, such as Saskia Sassen and Richard Florida posit that there are world cities that exist on a separate plane from their domestic and international peers. New York, along with London, Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong are among those cities that attract the lion’s share of the smartest people, the biggest companies and the most renowned cultural institutions. New York will continue to get bigger, richer and smarter, while second tier cities scrum for whatever is left. Amazon, one of the world’s largest companies, run by the world’s richest man was always going to come to New York. The mistake of our elected officials was to believe that there was ever really a contest that could be won in part by forking over billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies.

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One Court Square, where Amazon will rent 1 million square feet

New York City is not lucky to have been chosen by Amazon for its HQ2 location. Amazon should consider itself lucky that it will have them. Corporations should compete for land in New York, New York should not have to compete with corporations. According to Florida, rich and powerful cities like New York become more so, their gravitational pull of educated people and big companies growing stronger with each new addition. Amazon was always going to pick New York because it is New York, one of only a few super star cities, which positions the company at the control desk of global capital flows. Amazon already knew what a headquarters in New York could do for it. But, before New York City signs off on a deal, Amazon must show New York residents and business owners what it can do for them.

 

LaGuardia Airport and the Wrong Way AirTrain

New York City’s three major airports are notoriously difficult to reach by public transportation. While other global cities such as Paris, London and Tokyo all offer one seat rides to their respective airports, two or three seats is the norm for trips to JFK, Newark and LaGuardia Airports. No public transportation trip is more difficult than to LaGuardia in spite of its relative proximity to Midtown Manhattan.

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Rendering of LaGuardia AirTrain station. Source: Office of the Governor

LaGuardia’s inaccessibility owes in large part to a lack of a rail link. Though the AirTrains that provide service to Newark and JFK Airports are not without their own significant problems (Newark’s in particular), people that are airport bound can at least be certain that they will avoid automobile traffic on highways. To reach LaGuardia airport, travelers have a choice of five bus lines. The most viable of these bus lines is the Q70, which provides direct service from the Jackson Heights and Woodside Subway and LIRR stations. Though a fine service, it is still at the mercy of traffic on local roads and on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, which at times has been so bad that departing passengers have ditched their vehicles and walked to the airport.

Enter New York Governor Andrew Cuomo who on June 25th signed legislation authorizing the initiation of a planning study for LaGuardia Airport’s very own AirTrain. According to the Daily News, Cuomo asked “How can you not have a rail train to the city from a New York airport?…It’s just incomprehensible.” The AirTrain is the ribbon on top of an $8 billion renovation of the airport, which Vice President Joe Biden called “third world” in 2016 and has become one of the Governor’s pet projects.

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Map of proposed AirTrain with transit connections. Source: Office of the Governor

In an effort to step on as few toes as possible, to avoid the wrath of NIMBYs and to move the project forward as quickly as possible (as is Cuomo’s style), the Governor and his team have picked a route that avoids any use of eminent domain. To achieve this, the new 1.5 mile long AirTrain will be routed above the Grand Central Parkway away from Manhattan to the Mets-Willets point 7 train and LIRR stations. Manhattan-bound tourists and business people will have to backtrack before eventually making their way west towards Midtown on a crowded 7 train or on a Port Washington line LIRR train, which runs infrequently and costs significantly more than a subway swipe. It is hard to imagine that an AirTrain to the LIRR connection to Penn Station or to Grand Central Terminal (when East Side Access is complete) will take less than 30-minutes as the Governor’s office advertises. Avoiding the LIRR’s $6.25-$8.75 fare means a ride on the at capacity 7 line, which runs local most of the day. A local ride from Mets-Willets Point station to Grand Central takes 30 minutes on its own.

Better alternatives to the wrong-way AirTrain that the Governor is pushing forward have been suggested for decades. In the late 1990’s, planners proposed extending the N train to the airport from its terminus at Ditmars Avenue in Astoria. This is likely the best option to be proposed because it offers what all New York airports lack, a one seat ride to Midtown Manhattan (and for the cost of a subway swipe). But Astoria NIMBYs and then city council representative Peter Vallone managed to sink it. Other rail links have been proposed over the years, as detailed here, but none gained serious traction until Cuomo began to champion the current AirTrain iteration.

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Three LaGuardia rail link options. Source: The Transport Politic

The MTA continues to be in a state of emergency as Cuomo declared last summer. Buses are slower than ever and hemorrhaging riders. The Subway is literally crumbling back into the earth that was dug to build it a hundred years ago. These services and their 8 million daily riders could make great use of the $1.5 billion that will be spent on the LaGuardia AirTrain. Improving airport transportation connections is undoubtedly a noble and necessary cause, but is it really a priority right now with the system as a whole in crisis? Unfortunately, in the name of building things as fast and easily as possible the AirTrain along a circuitous route is getting priority. If that money is destined to be spent on the AirTrain, the state should at least connect it to the Jackson Heights Subway station, which is served by five subway lines, two of them express. Most of the route to that station would be over highways, just like the current plan.

Perhaps the simplest and most cost effective option would be improving the humble bus lines that connect LaGuardia airport today. The city and state could work together to provide bus-only lanes and traffic signal priority for the Q70 and M60 Select Bus Lines, which would allow them to speed past passenger cars and trucks that currently block their way. Though improving buses is undoubtedly the least glamorous option, it is the most practical. Hopefully someday LaGuardia would get its rail link, in the form of an N/W trains extension. But, until the transportation system as a whole is saved from imminent collapse, simple bus improvements must suffice.

 

 

 

Mexico City: If it’s cheap enough, I’ll take an Uber

I recently returned from a seven day stay in Mexico City, a busting, sprawling and exciting city with over 20 million inhabitants. Six months ago I extolled the wonders of public transportation in Japan following my return from a trip there. This post will by necessity cover a different range of topics because in Mexico City, ubers not trains and subways were my primary mode of transportation. In fact, I am a little ashamed to admit that I did not take a single subway, bus or train from the time I arrived in Mexico to the time I left. I either walked or took an uber, which were abundant and mind-blowingly cheap compared with New York prices.

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Mexico City

Whenever gas prices in the United States decrease, you can be sure that Americans will be filling up their tanks and driving more. This likely holds true in most countries around the world, even those with much better inter and intra-city transportation than the U.S. I always think to myself, if I had a car I surely would continue riding the subways and buses even if driving was very cheap. However, I found in Mexico City that if an uber was cheap enough, I would take it. Generally they were and I did.

The cost of a yellow cab ride from JFK airport into Manhattan is fixed at around $55. Use a ride hailing service and depending on traffic, the fare is likely to be similar. In Mexico City, the ride from Benito Juarez airport to the Tabacalera neighborhood near Downtown cost around $120 Mexican pesos, which comes out to around $6 US dollars. Split between me and three others I traveled with, an airport trip cost less per person than a single subway ride in New York.

A ride on the Mexico City subway is even cheaper. A single fare is only $5 pesos or about $.25 cents in America. But, in New York, cabs are a luxury good and subways are a normal good. In Mexico City for four tourists with the buying power of American salaries, subways were reduced to an inferior good and were replaced as a normal good by ubers. With this increased buying power, we opted every time for a trip in an uber because though it may be many times more expensive than a trip on the subway, at a relatively low price point, the comfort and convenience was always desirable.

A benefit of taking cars everywhere is that you see parts of a city you would otherwise miss above or below ground in a subway car. An issue however is that traffic in Mexico City can be dangerous, chaotic and choking. Roads were often very slow moving, filled with cabs, ubers, private cars and trucks. The effect of all these vehicles on the road was apparent in the smog and hazy air that blankets the city. Mexico City is also naturally prone to bad air pollution because it is surrounded on all sides by high mountains that trap dirty air above the metropolis.

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Mexico City Metrobus at a station in its dedicated lane

From its sidewalks and from the roads I noticed a lot of things that Mexico City does very well. On major avenues such as Insurgentes, bi-directional bus rapid transit lines hugged the center of the road. These, unlike Select Bus Service in New York City, are real bus rapid transit lines, with dedicated driving lines, traffic lights and high platform boarding on the same level as the bus floor. Bus lines like these have the ability to carry nearly as many passengers as a subway line and at a fraction of the price. I watched dozens of these buses pass while stuck in traffic in an uber.

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Typical Mexico City street, with bicycle lane

Mexico City also has a fair number of protected and painted bike lanes. Cycling however is not for the faint of heart there since drivers have the right of way, not pedestrians or cyclists. Cars routinely speed through crosswalks, make aggressive left and right turns when pedestrians have the right of way and blow through red lights. I walked very carefully throughout the trip and only crossed in front of a car at a stop sign when indication was clearly given that they would yield.

New York’s Transportation NIMBYs

Picture New York City bus line X. Bus line X is one of the busiest in the city, carrying 28,000 riders per day. It operates at an average speed of 6.7 mph and arrives late more than 50% of the time. If you think that it operates in Manhattan’s congested Central Business District (CBD) or another commonly gridlocked area like Downtown Brooklyn, you would be wrong. Bus line X is the B82, which operates along Flatlands Avenue and Kings Highway in southeastern Brooklyn far from a CBD. According to MTA statistics, the B82 is the 13th busiest bus line out of hundreds that operate in NYC. It is a vital transit link for neighborhoods like Flatlands and Canarsie, which are not well served by the subway. For all of these reasons, the NYC Department of Transportation and the MTA had decided to make it a Select Bus Service (SBS). That is until NIMBYs got in the way, pushing B82 SBS plans off the table.

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B82 Bus in service

SBS is a largely successful, if halfhearted, program to improve bus line performance in NYC. SBS buses like the M86 and the B44 employ off-board fare collection, some dedicated bus lanes and all-door boarding. Together these strategies have improved speeds on SBS lines by 10-30%. Giving the SBS treatment to the 13th busiest bus line in NYC and its 28,000 daily riders is a no brainer. However, a coordinated attack by elected officials and a small group of residents incensed by the loss of 130 parking spots along the bus’s route was enough to prevent it.

NIMBY residents, elected officials and business owners who say Not In My BackYard to new housing development, infrastructure and other projects are a powerful impediment to change and improvement in cities. They are obstinate and obstructionist even in the face of projects with clear benefits and few downsides. Transforming the B82 bus into an SBS line to improve the commutes of tens of thousands of beleaguered riders at the expense of only 130 parking spots is one of those projects. The benefits so clearly outweigh the costs by orders of magnitude: for every parking spot lost, 215 riders will get to work, home or to the subway faster and more reliably. And yet, State Senators and car-owning residents came out strongly in favor of parking spots, creating enough of a ruckus to force DOT and MTA to back down.

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B82 map with street treatments proposed by DOT (Source: NYC DOT)

“Arguments against better B82 service are not supported by reality,” writes Streetsblog. Drivers who will lose a handful of parking spots are clearly outnumbered by the 75-80 percent of residents along the Kings Highway corridor that do not own a car. Even NYC, where drivers are outnumbered citywide by bus and subway riders, constantly throws up barriers to improving the bus system in the name of parking. Attitudes by many residents and by elected officials like Marty Golden that privilege the rights of cars on our streets over pedestrians, bikers and public transportation are corrosive, regressive and powerful. MTA and DOT had the right idea for the B82. But, without the support of the Mayor who is at the head of the transportation NIMBY table, millions of daily bus riders will continued to be mired in slow and unreliable service.

 

 

America’s Streetcar Renaissance

Since 2007, 10 cities in the United States have opened a new streetcar line or have expanded upon an existing network. There are currently three other cities with streetcar systems in the pipeline. Prior to 2001, a new streetcar had not been built in the U.S. since before World War II. Rather than adding rail transportation infrastructure, most American cities from New York to Los Angeles were tearing up hundreds of miles of track as suburbs proliferated and automobiles dominated. Why then are streetcars, which were nearly rendered extinct 50 years ago, making a comeback in cities like Atlanta, Kansas City and Seattle? What is causing America’s Streetcar Renaissance and what benefits does it hold for city residents and businesses?

Before jumping into a discussion of those questions, I want to be clear about how I am defining a “streetcar,” because the distinctions between different forms of urban rail transport are a little murky. Streetcars are rail-bound vehicles, made up of only a few cars that travel in mixed traffic, sharing road space with cars, trucks and buses. Light rail systems, like the Metro in LA and Sound Transit in Seattle, operate similar rolling stock to streetcars but their right of way is generally separated from street traffic, they carry more passengers and share more similarities to a subway than a bus.

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MBTA Green Line, Boston

In the context of this blog post and in the interest of avoiding semantic arguments about what is and what is not a streetcar, perhaps the most meaningful classifier is not a physical characteristic but what its backers intend a rail line to be. The LA Metro, Boston’s MBTA Green Line and even Toronto’s TTC streetcar are dozens of miles long and were created to and do carry hundreds of thousands of riders everyday and form a important component of citywide public transportation. New generation streetcar lines however are in many cases only two or three miles long, carry only a handful of riders and do not connect to other public transportation modes in a meaningful way.

Although they are billed as such, new generation streetcars do not function particularly well as transportation modes because their primary goal is not people-moving efficiency. Instead, these streetcars are meant mostly as drivers of neighborhood change and economic development. This is an admirable goal, but not one that should be furthered by tax dollars meant for projects that actually improve transportation projects in a city. I want to point to a few examples of these new streetcar projects in American cities that can cost hundreds of millions but are often slower than walking.

DC Streetcar

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DC Streetcar, Washington DC

The DC Streetcar began revenue service in 2016 along a 2 mile long stretch of H Street three years after it was scheduled to open. The streetcar was immediately panned for slow speeds (5.7 mph) and low ridership (3,000-4,000 per day) along a corridor already well served by buses. It is clear that the streetcar has not been very successful as a mode of public transportation since it opened two years ago. However, according to CityLab:

If economic development rather than moving people around were the only metric for the streetcar’s success, it would be viewed as an unequivocal triumph. Between June of 2010 and January 2018, the median home value in the Near Northeast neighborhood, which encompasses a significant part of the line, jumped from $441,000 to $705,000, according to Zillow, an increase 10 percent greater than the District overall during that period.

Property value numbers like that underscore the appeal of streetcars; millions of taxpayer dollars earmarked for transportation end up boosting profits for developers. While the Washington Metro, the backbone of DC area public transportation, suffers along with its 750,000 daily riders, the DC Streetcar putters along H street carrying only a fraction of that number.

Atlanta Streetcar

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Atlanta Streetcar

According to the same CityLab article, against the low bar set for these projects as transportation modes, the DC streetcar is relative success. The same cannot be said for the Atlanta Streetcar, which shares many characteristics with DC and has a shockingly poor safety record. MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Regional Transportation Authority) has threatened to shut the streetcar down due to a string of accidents and non-compliances with Federal regulations. The 2.7 mile loop operates trains on only a 15 minute headway, carrying a measly 1,200 riders per day. However, according to Curbed Atlanta, improvements may be on coming by way of data analytics and greater coordination with the existing MARTA network. On the economic development front, Curbed writes, “one thing is clear: The neighborhoods along the streetcar line have experienced major investments since the line was first announced, and more projects are planned in coming years.”

Detroit QLine

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QLine, Detroit

The title of this Streetsblog USA post says it all about the shortcomings of the Detroit QLine streetcar: How Detroit’s Streetcar Overlooked Real Transit Needs to Satisfy a Well-Connected Few. There can be no misconceptions about the intentions of this 3.3 mile long rail line in downtown Detroit, as it was originally the brainchild of the billionaire owners of Quicken Loans and Little Caesars pizza, both with real estate interests along the route. Though its backers tout billions of dollars of private investment in the area, the reality is,

“The streetcar does not improve accessibility for transit-dependent populations, who are largely black Detroit residents with needs for connections to regional jobs and opportunities… Not only will it fail to enhance accessibility, it could harm accessibility through displacing some bus service.”

Indeed the same can be said in many ways about the DC and Atlanta streetcars and about other projects in Cincinnati, Salt Lake City and more. Cities that decide to build a streetcar are choosing their perceived economic development benefits over real transportation improvements that could be achieved by utilizing buses, which are cheaper and more flexible. Further, cities are choosing token trophy projects downtown over poor and minority areas that are starved for transit access of any variety. The billions of dollars that have been spent on streetcars in the past 10 years could have bought hundreds of buses and started dozens of new bus lines. Instead, buses and public transportation systems overall are hemorrhaging riders. According to the Washington Post, “Transit ridership fell in 31 of 35 major metropolitan areas in the United States last year, including the seven cities that serve the majority of riders, with losses largely stemming from buses.”  It’s unclear what it will take for cities stop opting to build streetcars and to embrace less glamorous buses and realize their incredible potential, as I discussed in an earlier post. Cities like Curitiba, Brazil have shown for over 40 years how buses, if done right, can operate as efficiently and carry as many passengers as a subway, for a fraction of the cost.

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Bus Rapid Transit in Curitiba, Brazil

 

Tragedy in Park Slope, Death of Gateway and MTA Geniuses

Park Slope Tragedy

Last Monday in Park Slope at the intersection of 5th Avenue and 9th Street, a woman with a long dangerous driving record ran a red light and plowed into two families crossing the street. The driver attempted to speed away, but crashed into parked cars further down the street. Her dangerous and callous actions left two children, ages 1 and 4, dead and a pregnant woman with life-threatening injuries. The horrific scene occurred just steps from the Park Slope YMCA, where each day Mayor de Blasio arrives in a motorcade to briefly ride a stationary bicycle. This was not lost on concerned citizens and safe street advocates who rallied outside of the gym when the Mayor arrived the next day.

The deaths of two children in a crosswalk at the hands of a reckless driver reveals numerous shortcomings and inadequacies with our local government and with the way our society speaks and thinks about driving:

  • At an intersection in a densely populated neighborhood with a large number of children, street markings were worn, the pavement was in poor condition and no traffic calming measures had been taken.
  • The driver of the white Volvo had been cited 12 times in two years for speeding in a school zone, among other infractions, and yet had not had her license suspended.
  • The driver’s license has since been suspended, but Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez has stated that criminal charges will not be pressed. It is hard to think of another situation in which the deaths of two children would not lead to an arrest.

Further, the Mayor has proven that when it comes to reducing traffic fatalities, he is more of a hindrance than a catalyst of change. His daily 25 mile driving round trip on to the gym belies the City’s Vision Zero policy and weakens any message from his administration about making streets safer and less congested. It reveals that even in the most public transportation and pedestrian friendly city in the United States, cars are still given priority in planning issues and drivers will not be punished for threatening or taking a life from behind the wheel.

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9th Street in Park Slope

Death of Gateway

In between firing the Secretary of State, announcing likely harmful tariffs on steel and aluminum and downplaying Russia’s role in the poisoning of a double agent in London, President Trump took some time to pound a few more nails into the coffin for the Gateway Tunnel Project. Gateway, which was rated by the Obama administration as the most important infrastructure project in the country, was singled out by Trump, who said he would veto any infrastructure bill that includes Federal money for it. This follows on the heels of a statement by an amnesic FTA administrator, which I discussed earlier this year.

Unsurprisingly, Trump’s aversion to the Gateway project is motivated not by sound reasoning of cost or necessity, but by scorn for Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. According to the New York Times:

Mr. Trump has told Republicans that it makes no sense to give Mr. Schumer something that he covets — funding for the tunnels — at a time that Mr. Schumer is routinely blocking Mr. Trump’s nominees and other parts of his agenda, the person said.

The importance of the Gateway Project, which keeps people moving through the most economically productive area in the United States, is clearly outweighed by the pettiness of the “Infrastructure President.” As a result, New York and New Jersey continue to move dangerously close to a necessary shutdown of one of two current tunnels with no back up or long term plan.

MTA Genius Competition

With newsworthy delays piling up and New Yorkers abandoning the New York City Subway for Lyfts and Ubers, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the start of a “Genius Challenge” to develop ideas for how the system could be fixed. Anyone with a good idea from students to transportation wonks was invited to submit their proposals for improving signaling, subway cars and system-wide communication. From thousands of proposals submitted, eight ideas were recently chosen. Seven came from multinational corporations such as China’s CRRC MA, an affiliate of the world’s largest subway car manufacturer. The eighth however came from full time lawyer and part time transit buff Craig Avedisian.

Avedisian’s winning idea is to significantly extend the length of subway trains so that more people would fit on a single train, but not every car would be able to platform at each station. Subway lines would operate on an A/B system: stations would alternate between those two letters and subway trains would alternate between A and B sections of the train to platform at their corresponding location. In practice, at an A station, only those in A cars could alight, while B car passengers would still find themselves in the tunnel dark. If this proposals sounds like it would complicate an already complex system with its express and local trains, frequent reroutes and inadequate signage at times, you are probably right.

This proposal is on its face so unwieldy, unwise and impractical that it warrants little discussion of its operational and technical implications. But, to indulge briefly, imagine first a mad dash of B car riders through the length of the train to reach the exits at an A station, who did not position themselves correctly. Further, consider how longer trains would necessitate the reconfiguration of the subway’s 100 year old signaling system to extend the buffers between trains, which would reduce throughput and increase wait times. We will certainly be lucky if Avedisian collects his large cash prize and nothing more is made of his idea.