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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

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”

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.

 

Transportation Thoughts for 2018

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New Jersey entrance to Hudson River Rail Tunnels (Photo Credit: Amtrak)

Gateway Cancelled?

Just before the New Year, the Federal Transportation Administration denied that a funding agreement made between Governors Christie and Cuomo of New Jersey and New York and the Federal government for covering the costs of new train tunnels between the two states ever existed. Though the FTA under the anti-transportation Trump regime alleges that such an agreement is ‘fake news,’ the Obama administration had indeed promised to pay for half of the Gateway project, with NJ and NY making up 25 percent each. Christie and Cuomo had made positive progress in recent weeks towards fulfilling their states’ costs. However, without major contributions from the Federal government, it will be hard to pay for the estimated $25 billion price tag.

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Map of Gateway Program Projects

This denial is par for the course for the Trump administration, which seems to be in a competition with itself to see whether it can make the country implode from the inside or be destroyed from the outside first. The Gateway Project encompasses infrastructure work that is vital not just to the economy of the New York Metropolitan region, but the entire country. Without two new tunnels under the Hudson River , NJ Transit and Amtrak train throughput will be cut from nearly 30 trains into and out of Penn Station per hour to just 8 overall, when one of the existing tunnels is inevitably closed for Sandy-related repairs.

I have little optimism that the current administration will come to whatever senses it has and agree to fund this vital project. Hopefully the existing tunnels (and all of us) survive the remainder of the Trump years.

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The Red Hook houses, Brooklyn’s largest NYCHA campus

Subway to Red Hook?

One of Governor Cuomo’s State of the State Proposals for 2018 is for the MTA to study transportation options for Red Hook Brooklyn, including the possibility of an underwater subway tunnel from Manhattan. For starters, building better transportation for Red Hook, one of the most transit starved neighborhoods in Brooklyn in spite of its relative closeness to job centers, is a great and long overdue idea. However, sending the MTA in the direction of an underwater subway tunnel from Lower Manhattan is silly for many reasons.

First, as a recent NY Times article described in great detail, the MTA pays more per subway track mile than any other transportation agency in the world by far. With Gateway tunnel proposals eclipsing $20 billion, an even longer tube from Manhattan to Brooklyn would be wildly expensive. Second, only 10,000 people live in Red Hook, which for its geographic size and by New York standards is small. The cost of building one subway stop there is just too high. Third, pairing a one stop subway line with massive commercial and residential development would eventually result in higher prices for thousands of public housing residents in the neighborhood and place more people and investments in a place that is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise.

Red Hook undoubtedly deserves better public transportation options. The neighborhood was condemned to isolation when the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel was constructed and not much has been done to right that wrong since. But, a new multi-billion dollar subway tunnel is not the answer. I don’t know exactly what that answer is but it could be along the lines of implementing real Bus Rapid Transit or even following through on the BQX light rail line. Indeed the MTA must focus on rehabilitating the assets it currently has rather than chasing the next gubernatorial pipe dream.

People walk between newly erected concrete barricades outside the 3 Times Square building in Times Square where a speeding vehicle struck pedestrians Thursday in New York City
People walk between newly erected concrete barricades outside the 3 Times Square building in Times Square where a speeding vehicle struck pedestrians Thursday in New York City, U.S., May 19, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Bill de Blasio’s Expensive Bollards

In response to a number of hideous terrorist attacks carried out in Berlin, Nice and New York City, among others, that made use of civilian cars and trucks to kill, Mayor de Blasio proposed a $50 million roll-out of bollards intended to mitigate threats to busy pedestrian areas. Though measures to protect citizens from terrorist acts is an important job for city government, it can come at a great cost. That is literally true in this case. In a city where $2-4 billion only buys 1 mile of underground rail tracks, $50 million apparently will be spent on only 1,500 bollards at a cost of around $33,000 per bollard. As many in the transportation community have noted, this is a ridiculous sum for very simple infrastructural elements. Though they are advertised as bollards of a more decorative variety, under the guise of anything but counter terrorism, this would absolutely be cost prohibitive.

As bloggers like Second Avenue Sagas have noted on Twitter, the Mayor’s office should have taken a more critical look at the costs of this project, especially in the aftermath of the NY Times expose on the high costs of MTA work. Further, bollards are generally placed within the pedestrian space that it is meant to protect. Bollards impinge on pedestrian space but do nothing to slow or control the movement of vehicles that they protect the sidewalks from. When cities install bollards, they are choosing a bullet proof vest over gun control. Though bollards can be useful for protecting sidewalk space (and are certainly better than concrete slabs), for $50 million I would hope that the city would look at ways that car traffic can be managed and calmed for everyone’s safety, rather than resorting to boxing pedestrians in.

Not a fan of the Islanders, or their return to Long Island

The 2017-2018 NHL season will be the New York Islanders’ third and last season spent in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center arena. The team and the fans that give it its name (Long Islanders of course) never really felt at home in the red spaceship that Jay-Z built in the heart of Brownstone Brooklyn. This week the team announced that it had won a bid to build a brand new stadium in Belmont, Long Island adjacent to the race track that hosts the third race of the triple crown. The Islanders beat out MLS club NYCFC among others to claim the development rights. Andrew Cuomo was naturally on hand to celebrate the team’s “return home.”

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Rendering of new Islanders Stadium in Belmont, Long Island (Photo Credit: Sterling Project Development / Sterling Project Development via Newsday)

Disclaimer: This is not a post celebrating the Islanders and their 10-mile journey just over the Queens/Nassau border. I could care less about the NHL, the Islanders or the joy their fans feel. Instead, I’d like to talk briefly about the negative impacts of building a new stadium in Long Island for transportation and the environment.

The Barclays Center, controversial in its own right, is perhaps the single most most transit accessible stadium in the country save for Madison Square Garden. The stadium rests on top of the Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center subway station, which serves 9 subway lines and is adjacent to the Atlantic Terminal LIRR station. Although the stadium finds itself somewhat out of place at the confluence of some dense residential neighborhoods of three and four story buildings, its transit connections certainly make it a logical place for a venue that attracts thousands of people a night. Unlike stadiums plopped in low-density areas such as Citi Field and MetLife Stadium, surrounded by a sea of parking lots, which attract thousands of drivers, mass transit is the only option for accessing the Barclays Center.

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Barclays Center, Brooklyn

It makes me happy to think about all of the Long Islanders that used to drive to hockey games at the Nassau Coliseum that must take the LIRR to and from the Barclays Center instead. Thousands of cars per game are likely taken off the road, which reduces carbon emissions, congestion around the former stadium and likely decreases instances of drunk driving. Forgive me if I have little sympathy for Long Islanders who were forced out of their cars and onto the train, where you can pregame legally on a commuter rail line that takes you from anywhere in Long Island directly to a brand new stadium in Brooklyn.

The New York Islanders’ new stadium will be at the heart of a mixed use commercial development in Western Long Island, (feet from the Queens border) which will include a mall and a hotel. Though the justification for this development may be described in terms of “economic development” or “identity,” to me it boils down to a rejection of mass transit and desire to continue embracing driving, a defining feature of the Long Island suburban experience. Transit accessibility in Belmont comes in the form of a single terminal stop, which spurs off of the LIRR mainline and has proved woefully inadequate in the past for crowds at the Belmont Stakes. As renderings of the new development show, there will be ample parking for the majority of people who will be driving to Islanders games now, rather than taking the train.

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Site plan for Belmont commercial redevelopment (Photo Credit: Sterling Project Development / Sterling Project Development via Newsday)

As Aaron Gordon of the Village Voice writes:

Currently, the LIRR is Belmont’s only rail connection. A one-stop spur off the Hempstead branch, the service only operates during Belmont meet dates and can only be reached via connection from points west: Jamaica, Atlantic Terminal, and Penn Station. So anyone coming to Belmont via Long Island — as one would expect most Islander fans would — has to go to Jamaica and switch to another train that will run express to Belmont. Not the least convenient experience in the world, but just enough to entice one to drive instead.   

Indeed the Belmont LIRR station is not exactly adequate for dozens of hockey games and other events that attract thousands of visitors throughout the year. Further, as Gordon suggests, the public will likely be picking up the tab for increased LIRR service to the station. Even though this development claims to be privately financed, it is unlikely that the public will be completely off the hook as with other projects of this nature. Gordon continues:

…when the transit authority is turning to its budget reserves to fund subway crisis repairs and spends 17 percent of its budget to pay down debt, it’s worrisome to be handing three local sports ownership groups a blank check for full-time rail service to their door.

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Geographic relation of the Islanders’ new Belmont home to the Barclays Center

Governor Cuomo and Long Islanders alike are thrilled that the Islanders are returning home (though again I would argue they never really left). Brooklyn, which never  embraced the team en masse, will shrug. Team and fan identity aside, this move represents a regression. A regression to car dependence, seas of parking lots and packed roads, which inevitably means more carbon emissions and less money for public transit.