A Good Month for Transit

January 2018 proved to be a pretty good month for transportation in New York City if for absolutely nothing else. As I discussed in a previous blog post, Andy Byford started as president of New York City Transit (NYCT). In interviews and press conferences so far, he has demonstrated a fluency with the nuances of transit as well as a high degree of care for the riding public. Elsewhere, the R211 subway car contract was awarded at long last and encouraging details regarding Governor Cuomo’s Manhattan Congestion Pricing plan were made public.

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R211 Mock-Up on display at 34th Street Hudson Yards station.

R211

The R211 Subway Car contract, a project that I worked on at the MTA for two and a half years between 2015 and 2017, was awarded to Kawasaki Rail Car (KRC) at the MTA board on January 24th. If all option orders are exercised, KRC will deliver 1,612 cars to NYCT that will operate in the B Division (lettered lines). The R211 is different from any subway car class currently in operation in the NYC Subway because they will be the first subways in the United States with open gangways. Open gangways will allow passengers to safely pass between cars and distribute themselves better throughout the length of a train. Because of this, passengers will be able to board and alight faster, which in turn decreases train dwell time in stations.

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Mock-Up of R211 Open Gangway on display at 34th Street Hudson Yards station. (Photo Credit: Metro US)

Open gangways are not the only New York City first to be found on the R211 cars. They will also be the first NYC Subway cars to be fully equipped with CCTV in the passenger compartment. Both of these firsts, though exciting, are a reminder of how far behind the times public transportation is in New York and in the United States. Open gangways have been utilized by transportation agencies in Europe and Asia for decades. As for CCTV, it is troubling to learn that subway cars, which carry millions of passengers every year, lack a basic element of security infrastructure that is already used in New York by everyone from bodega employees to dog owners.

Congestion Pricing Follow-Up

The Fix NY panel, assembled by Governor Cuomo, released its initial proposal for congestion pricing in Manhattan’s Central Business District. Rather than placing tolling on every block, as Cuomo suggested could be done in comments made earlier in the month, all entries by cars, trucks and ride-sharing vehicles would be subject to a toll upon entry to Manhattan south of 60th Street. As the New York Times writes:

Drivers who enter a zone that stretches from 60th Street south to the Battery could be charged $11.52 during peak commuting hours, while trucks would have to pay $25.34. Passengers using ride-hailing apps, like Uber and Lyft, which have contributed significantly to the traffic problems, could face a $2 to $5 per-ride surcharge.

This is a proposal similar to the one promoted by former Department of Transportation traffic engineer Sam Schwartz, which could be very effective in reducing traffic in and around Manhattan’s busiest streets. Congestion Pricing is not however without its critics. Politicians from New York’s far flung and transit starved neighborhoods, such as those in eastern Queens, are critical of the impact these tolls could have on constituents that rely on their cars. However, as a study by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign shows, there is not a single district in the city where 10 or more percent of residents drive into Manhattan’s CBD and would therefore be subject to Congestion Pricing tolling. Even in areas where driving forms a significant portion of the commuting mode share total, few of those rides actually end in Manhattan. This study makes for another piece in a convincing argument for why Congestion Pricing should be instituted. Though a small minority of New Yorkers may pay more, as some politicians are crying, an exponentially greater number will benefit from less traffic, better air quality, faster buses and more money for public transportation.

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.