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

 

Buses, the Other Public Transportation Crisis

The New York City Subway system has been making headlines for over a year because of a deluge of lengthy delays, nearly deadly accidents and a state general decline. The riding public, journalists and politicians have become laser focused on both the daily beat of delays and on the larger structural problems that are behind them. In response, Andrew Cuomo declared that the Subway was in a State of Emergency in the summer of last year. Work has since begun on the Subway Action Plan, which aims to stabilize service for six million passengers that depend on the Subway every day. The Subway is not however the only transportation mode in New York City that is in crisis.

Obscured by recent coverage of the Subways are severe problems that plague New York City’s buses that have been growing for years. Since 2010, Subway ridership has exploded, growing at a rate faster even than the expanding population of New York City. However by 2010, Bus ridership was already two years into a steady decline that has continued unabated. Buses, the often forgotten and derided cousin of the Subway, carry almost two million passengers every weekday on a network that puts over 95% of New York households within a quarter of a mile of a bus stop. Buses are a lifeline for the disabled and for New Yorkers who live outside of the reach of the Subway system; a lifeline that is increasingly failing those who depend on it.

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NYC local bus in Queens

While the Subway crisis is born out of years of deferred maintenance and associated infrastructural decline, the factors contributing to the deterioration in the quality of bus service are not entirely under the MTA’s control. Buses are by nature dependent upon the conditions of the streets they operate on. Though pavement quality and construction can cause breakdowns and delays, I am referring primarily to automobile and truck traffic, which has markedly increased in the last ten years. Increased population and the rise of for hire vehicles driving for Uber and Lyft are two significant contributors to an increase in cars on the road and a decrease in speeds for all vehicles trapped in a citywide stranglehold.

A bus is one of the most efficient means of transport in a dense city like New York. A bus carrying up to 70 passengers uses the same road space as three single occupancy cars. However, if a bus is trapped in traffic, its efficiency is diminished and riders will ditch it for taxis, which further exacerbates the problem. In New York, overall bus speed decreased 6% from 2016 to 2017 to just 7 mph. New York buses are officially the slowest of any city in the United States.

There are numerous ways that bus service can be improved in all five boroughs and at a fraction of the price of Subway upgrades and extensions. Cities around the world can serve as a model and a roadmap for how bus service in New York can be improved using both hi and lo-tech methods, which will each make a huge difference for millions of daily bus riders.

Congestion Pricing

Adopting a congestion pricing plan for Manhattan’s Central Business District would go a long way towards speeding up all traffic in the borough. However, there may be unintended consequences for traffic conditions in other boroughs as cars and trucks drive further to circumvent Manhattan tolling. While all bus service improvements require some degree of political support, Congestion Pricing is perhaps the most contentious, its success reliant on obstinate upstate politicians and New York’s transportation regressive mayor.

Painted Bus Lanes

There are very few miles of “bus only” painted lanes on New York City streets. Those streets that do dedicate space to buses suffer from a lack of enforcement. Delivery trucks and even NYPD police cars are some of the worst offenders, frequently parking in bus only lanes, belying their usefulness. Buses in New York require more dedicated space so that they are not choked by normal traffic. But, this can only be effective if bus lanes are enforced and if official vehicles play by their own rules and stay out of the way.

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Bus only lane in Washington DC

Traffic Signal Priority

Traffic Signal Priority (TSP) is a one of the more technologically advanced methods for improving bus service that can make a large impact. Censors mounted at intersections communicate with buses as they progress along their route. If a bus is close to a light that is about to turn red, TSP will keep it green or yellow long enough for the bus to pass. At a red light, TSP will turn lights that govern bus lanes green before lights for other vehicles so that buses can get a head start and avoid getting cut off by turning cars. Currently, there are only a handful of TSP equipped intersections in New York. Expansion throughout the city will require close coordination between the NYC Department of Transportation, which controls the streets, and the MTA, which runs the buses.

All Door Boarding

Perhaps the most important proposal for improving New York’s bus service is the implementation of all door boarding on all buses. With the exception of Select Bus Service, passengers still must line up on the curb, step on to the bus and dip their Metrocard one by one by one. It is an incredibly cumbersome process that adds significant time to every bus trip. On crowded lines, passengers will often resort to using the bus back door to avoid the crowded front, neglecting to pay their fare in the process.

It is unsurprising that the prospect of allowing passengers to board at all doors, without anyone to ensure that a fare is paid, causes the MTA serious consternation. However, cities like San Francisco that have recently switched to all door boarding have actually seen a decrease in fare evasion. Similarly Select Bus Service, with off-board fare collection and all door entry, has demonstrated lower levels of evasion than normal lines. The Transit Workers Union is even in support because disputes over fare evasion are a leading cause of assaults on bus operators. Taking away fare-policing responsibilities from bus operators will surely result in fewer employee injuries.

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All door boarding on the B44 Select Bus Service route in NYC

 

Redrawing the Bus Network

Many bus lines have followed the same street route for decades. Because of changing population and work patterns, buses may not be operating as efficiently as they could be. Further, some bus routes follow circuitous paths with twists and turns that add distance and time to trips that would be better served if they were straightened out.

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B61 bus map, showing its circuitous route

Continue reading “Buses, the Other Public Transportation Crisis”

Two Posts in One Today: Andy Byford and Congestion Pricing

Today I address two topics. The first is the arrival of Andy Byford at New York City Transit. The second is a brief explanation of Congestion Pricing and of a related recent development from Governor Cuomo.

Andy Byford

Today is somewhat of an exciting day for public transportation in New York City. Andy Byford, previously CEO of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), started his first day of work as President of New York City Transit (NYCT) with a “flawless” ride on the 4 train. His impressive resume also includes time in management positions with transport agencies in London and Sydney prior to his mostly successful 5-year stint at the helm of the TTC. Though we cannot underestimate the challenges of running any large transportation agency, Byford likely faces his toughest test in New York where the buses and subways are in disarray.

Andy Byford, the chief executive of the Toronto Transit Commission, rides on a so-called open gangway train in Toronto.
Andy Byford riding the rails in Toronto (Image Credit: Toronto Star)

At the TTC (North America’s third largest transit agency after NYC and Mexico City) Byford oversaw a significant management shakeup, a major subway line extension and an increase in customer satisfaction. He has made it a point in his career to communicate with customers and treat them in an honest and dignified manner, demanding agency staff to do the same. He has already stated that customer satisfaction will be a central tenet of his work in New York as well.

I am excited for him to get started. Negotiating relationships with Governor Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, labor unions, existing upper management and the riding public is no easy task. But, his attitude and experience leads me to be cautiously optimistic that he will find success here in New York.

Congestion Pricing

Congestion Pricing has become a popular topic of late in New York. Though cities around the globe including London and Stockholm already employ versions of Congestion Pricing in their Central Business Districts (CBDs) to great effect, New York is a late arrival to the table. For years, transportation planning guru “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz has shopped around his Move NY plan. But, it was mostly ignored by politicians and never quite made it into mainstream discussion.

The idea behind Congestion Pricing in New York, as detailed in Schwartz’s Move NY Plan, is to put tolls on four East River Crossings that are currently free for drivers and at other entrances to Manhattan’s CBD (south of 60th Street). Charging drivers a fee for entering some of New York’s busiest and most congested areas will first and foremost reduce the number of cars on the road and switch many car trips over to public transportation. New Yorkers can expect myriad improvements to their quality of life from having less cars on the road: cleaner air, fewer traffic accidents and faster moving city buses. Further, it addresses issues of equity that arise from charging no tolls on the Queensboro, Williamsburg, Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. While a relatively wealthy car-owning individual can cross those bridges for free, lower income and car-less individuals and families are forced to pay multiples of $2.75 to make the same trip on public transportation. Money from the Congestion Pricing tolls, estimated at $1.5 billion per year, will be invested directly into public transportation, which ties the whole plan together.

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Manhattan Traffic

To me and to many others in the transportation planning community, Congestion Pricing in New York is an absolute slam dunk. However, the only players blocking the lane right now are a minority of drivers in the City that hold disproportionate sway over the future of this issue. Politicians in New York and throughout the United States are generally loathe to institute any measures that negatively impact drivers. Even self-described progressive Mayor de Blasio called Congestion Pricing “regressive,” instead opting for a “Millionaires Tax” to achieve similar transportation funding goals.

Congestion pricing has surprisingly found a somewhat willing ally in Governor Cuomo. Though his talk so far on the subject his lacked details, I am glad to see that he is at least willing to consider the subject unlike the Mayor. Yesterday however he offered a small glimpse into his thinking, which gives me angst about what form Cuomo’s Congestion Pricing might take. He said, “We have the ability with technology to put tolling anywhere in the city…” not just in the places advocated by the Move NY plan.

This statement makes me nervous because it circumvents the holistic approach of placing tolls only at entrances to Manhattan’s CBD and takes Congestion Pricing down to a block by block level. At that level, it is easy to see how blocks and neighborhoods in Manhattan and elsewhere could wield their political clout to keep tolls out. Wealthier car-owning individuals and families could clear the way for their automobiles, straddling less well-off blocks and neighborhoods with the tolling burden. If tolls are indeed placed anywhere in the City as Cuomo suggests, New York risks yoking the poor with the negative impacts of a Congestion Pricing plan that was meant to help them and misses out on the benefits that a coordinated tolling effort could bring.

 

Finally, an L Train Shutdown Mitigation Plan

Everyone in New York City likely knows by now that the Canarsie Tube, which carries the L train under the East River between Brooklyn and Manhattan, will be shut down for 15 months starting in 2019 for intensive repairs. These repairs are necessitated by damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy over five years ago. This MTA video does a good job of explaining how the tunnel was damaged, how it needs to be rebuilt and at the time, what the options were for doing this work. Since the 15-month full tunnel shutdown was chosen over a 3 year partial closure, we have been waiting with some impatience for the DOT and the MTA to release their plan to mitigate the impacts of the shutdown. On Wednesday, those plans were finally released to the public.

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An MTA worker inspects flooding in the Canarsie Tube after Sandy

The highlights of the DOT and MTA plan include:

  • A 14th Street busway, which will create dedicated space and new facilities for buses while also expanding sidewalks
  • HOV3 on the Williamsburg Bridge
  • A two-way protected bike lane along 13th street (Manhattan’s first)
  • A new ferry route between North Williamsburg and the terminus of the M14 SBS bus in Manhattan
  • Increased service and capacity on the JMZ lines, which run roughly parallel to the L train in Brooklyn, and on the G line, which connects to the L at Metropolitan-Lorimer
  • Subway Enhancements at stations along the JMZ and G lines such as the reopening of closed entrances and adding of turnstiles

Overall, the plan is relatively comprehensive and checks off many items on transportation planners wish lists (though in some cases they may have to settle for budget versions). Ben Kabak of the blog Second Avenue Sagas described it as “not horrible” but also “not great,” ruing DOT’s fear of banning single-occupancy cars from certain streets. What is perhaps most troubling in my opinion are projections that 70-80% of the displaced 225,000 daily L train riders that would normally pass through the Canarsie Tube every day will continue to use the NYC Subway. This has implications for nearly every subway line in the system; in particular those lines serving Northern Brooklyn and that connect at various points with the L: the A, C, G, J, M and Z trains.

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“Service Snapshot” of MTA/DOT L Train shutdown mitigation service
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Manhattan-specific look at 14th Street Busway and 13th Street bike lane

Closed Station Entrances

It is great to see that the MTA will be reopening a number of station entrances along the G, J, M and Z lines, which will improve passenger ingress and egress. Residents and business owners have complained about closed entrances for years; hopefully once L train service is restored, all of the reopened stairs will stay that way.

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A 3 train as seen from the Livonia Avenue L station in Brooklyn

In-System Transfers

The MTA will offer subway riders free transfers between the Broadway G station and the Hewes/Lorimer stations on the JMZ. As the blogger Vanshnookenraggen has proposed, there is an opportunity to transform this geographically proximate yet out-of-system transfer with one that is completely within the NYC Subway network. The Hewes and Lorimer Stations along Broadway would be closed and replaced with a station at Union Street, directly above the G station. Those two stations would then be connected from below ground to above, which would allow for an in-system transfer and likely for better capacity along both lines. This is however an unfunded and unplanned proposal that would likely cost tens of millions of dollars.

There is another free out-of-system transfer the plan proposes, between the Livonia Ave L station and the Junius St 3 station in Brownsville. I was surprised to see however that no work has been done yet on an in-system transfer between the two stations that literally sit one on top of the other, even though that project was approved as part of the 2015-2019 MTA Capital Plan.

Broadway Junction

Separate from the DOT/MTA’s plans for the L train shutdown is a study, recently started by the NYC Economic Development Corporation, to identify economic growth opportunities around the Broadway Junction transportation hub. East New York, the Brooklyn neighborhood where the Broadway Junction station is located, is one of the centerpieces of Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing, economic development and job growth plan. Though the title of a NY Times article on this topic suggests potential forthcoming work on the train station itself, the surrounding area has so far been the focus. Hopefully the station, which will become an even more key transfer point for Brooklyn commuters during the L train shutdown as it connects the A, C, J and Z lines with the L, is looked at more closely for renovations and improvements in the coming months beyond what the DOT/MTA plan already proposes.

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A Rockaway Parkway bound L departs Broadway Junction

Going Forward

The plan released Wednesday is not the end all for L train shutdown mitigation. There will be more time for the public and for elected officials to opine on this initial proposal. Hopefully further plans include more restrictions on single occupancy vehicles and other provisions that will improve non-subway transportation options that may shrink the percent of commuters that continue to rely on the subway. The J, M and Z lines, which are currently experiencing some of the highest ridership growth in the city, will be under particular strain. Already proposed subway improvements will help, but there is more to be done to avoid inundating Northern Brooklyn subway lines with displaced L train riders.

 

 

Comments on Arcadis’s Global Mobility Index

Arcadis, a global design consultant, recently released their “Sustainable Cities Mobility Index,” which rates 100 cities around the globe on how sustainable their urban mobility is (full report can be found here). In other words, the report grades cities on their transportation systems and its implications for “People” (quality of life), “Planet” (the environment) and “Profit” (economic growth). According to this rating system, Hong Kong has the best urban transport system in the world. New York is the highest rated American city at 23. Without diving too deep into the specific metrics used to develop their mobility index, I wanted to comment on a few of the conclusions they reached.

It is no surprise to the author of this blog that the transportation system in Hong Kong was rated as the best in the world. The Hong Kong subway, with its astonishing farebox recovery rate, was presented in a previous post as a model of financial and operational performance. Arcadis, which takes public transportation, cycling, pedestrians and airports into account, rates Hong Kong highly for its large international airport and its modern, efficient and relatively inexpensive subway system. Hong Kong’s system is rated as best for people, but suffers under “Planet” because of pollution levels.

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Hong Kong International Airport, with city in the background

Coming in at second in the “People” index is, somewhat surprisingly, the combined transport system for New York City. Subway riders in New York these days suffer through myriad delays and infrastructure shut downs as its 113 year old subway system struggles to modernize, expand and improve. New York’s airports are consistently ranked poorly in comparison to their European and Asian peers, especially when it comes to public transportation access. Average bus speeds for New York buses is the slowest of any major city in the United States, according to the Bus Turnaround campaign. Most users of these transportation services would likely not agree with New York’s ranking in this index, especially when compared to Tokyo, Singapore or Paris.

A particularly surprising component of New York’s high “People” ranking is that it is 100% accessible. In many ways, the NYC Subway is a very geographically accessible system, in that there are 472 stations in four boroughs that provide access to hundreds of miles of local and express track. Further, the vast majority of New Yorkers live within a 10 minute walk of a bus stop. However, as the advocates who started the “Access Denied” project, the 10% of New Yorkers with disabilities and the 13% of the population that is over 65 can attest, New York’s transport system is not very accessible for the disabled. While every local NYC Bus is wheelchair accessible, only 110 out of those 472 subway stations (23%) in New York is equipped with an elevator. And, as the Access Denied project points out, because of maintenance and frequent failures, that number is often lower on any given day.

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What the NYC Subway looks like to someone with disabilities. Source and larger map here

Though New York’s transport system is not necessarily worthy of its high ranking on the People index, due to realities about its service today and its real levels of accessibility, it is surely deserving of its rank as best in the United States overall. According to patch.com, rating the NYC Subway as best in the country will shock commuters. But, when matched up against transport systems in cities like Washington DC and San Francisco in spite of New York’s recent and continuing problems, I have to wonder, who is actually shocked?

In San Francisco, the next highest rated American city in the index, the BART system operates rolling stock with by far the highest average age of any system in the country. Next, at 42nd overall is Washington DC, which has no permanent funding source established for its transport system and has suffered severe and sometimes deadly problems in its Metro system, prompting the creation of (among other responses) the twitter account @dcmetrosucks. New York surely has its problems, but no one should be shocked that it is ranked higher than any other American city.

I leave Los Angeles out of this comparison because though it is famously car friendly, it is taking the most significant steps of any American city to expand and improve transportation and to replace car trips with bus or train trips. Seattle is also in that conversation as it works to triple the length of its light rail network and has completely revamped its bus system with a combination of large scale and tactical improvements.

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A light rail train on the Los Angeles Metro Expo Line

Which is all to say that transportation systems of every mode in American cities, whether you agree with Arcadis’s index or not, are falling behind their global peers. This index, if nothing else, should remind urban and transportation planners that all American cities should strive for top-10 or even top-20 rankings in the future to keep them on pace with the likes of Hong Kong (#1), Paris (#3), Seoul (#4) and London (#7).