Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/553 Fri, 15 Dec 2017 00:25:29 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Where Mayor De Blasio Must Take Vision Zero Next http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7285:where-mayor-de-blasio-must-take-vision-zero-next http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7285:where-mayor-de-blasio-must-take-vision-zero-next 33915193543 dc4353da65 z

Mayor de Blasio and Vision Zero (photo via DOT)


Vision Zero is a singularly successful legacy project for Mayor Bill de Blasio. It would be more successful if his safety projects were decoupled from parochial interests.

In 2011, Transportation Alternatives and the Drum Major Institute published Vision Zero: How Safer Streets in New York City Can Save More Than 100 Lives a Year, the first Vision Zero report in the United States. In 2013, thanks to that report and assiduous follow-up advocacy by the victims’ group Families for Safe Streets, candidate de Blasio adopted Vision Zero as a key campaign promise, pledging to eliminate traffic fatalities by 2024. Many saw this as an impossible goal, especially after the impressive safety strides made during Mayor Bloomberg’s three terms in office. How much further could traffic fatalities really decline?

Mayor de Blasio officially launched Vision Zero at PS 54 in Woodside Queens on January 15, 2014, just two weeks into his term. Since then, traffic fatalities in New York City have declined 23%.

Whereas 290 used to die annually in New York City traffic crashes, today that number is about 240. It is difficult to overstate the significance of this success. If the pre-Vision Zero average annual traffic death rate had continued over the past four years, 122 more New Yorkers would be dead today and many thousands more would have been seriously injured. Considering that nationwide traffic deaths are up 17% over this same four-year period, the mayor’s effort is even more impressive. If New York City’s Vision Zero program were a vaccine, it would be heralded as a miracle drug.

What is more remarkable is how little the streets have changed to achieve this massive reduction. While the Mayor has championed transformative redesigns of many notoriously dangerous streets, the vast majority of known dangerous streets have yet to be affected by the DOT’s modern menu of traffic safety fixes such as pedestrian friendly traffic signal timing and protected bike lanes.

Queens Boulevard, the former “Boulevard of Death,” which used to kill a dozen New Yorkers every year, has not seen a single fatality in the past two years since being redesigned. Yet there is a backlog of more than 150 dangerously-designed streets and nearly 300 intersections that still need fixing. This long list of dangerous streets, outlined in the DOT’s own Vision Zero Pedestrian Safety Action Plans, represents an opportunity to save hundreds more lives. If Mayor de Blasio is re-elected, clearing this backlog of known-dangerous streets should be his first priority.  

To help clear this backlog, the mayor recently increased the Department of Transportation’s budget by $1.6 billion. The problem is this: while the agency shows remarkable results at calming traffic and reducing crashes on any given street, it is moving at a snail’s pace to complete those projects. Now that his agency has the money, Mayor de Blasio must empower the DOT to deliver safety projects much more quickly and insist that it happens.

Today it takes a minimum of three years for the DOT to turn a dangerous highway-like city street into one that is designed for safe walking, cycling, and driving. Actually redesigning and repaving a street can happen in as little as a few months. Most of that three years is taken up walking on eggshells; the DOT attempts to anticipate and placate every parochial concern, as though safety infrastructure were a hot-button issue, and not a life-or-death public health concern. We’ve seen simple safety projects take years longer than they should, like the protected bike lane on 5th Avenue in Manhattan, which the community first requested in 2013, or get watered down to be less safe, like with Woodhaven Blvd., or get tied into petty power-brokering, like on 111th Street in Queens.

Before Vision Zero safety projects were proven life-savers, Mayor de Blasio could be forgiven for his timidity. Now, with the data strong and getting stronger (see Manhattan Institute’s recent report Vision Zero and Traffic Safety) it is time for the administration to elevate these projects to the urgent public health imperatives that they are. This means giving DOT freer reign to complete safety projects more quickly and break a few eggs, or rather break the hearts of a few petty power-brokers who care more about parking than people.  

To further reduce preventable death on our streets, the mayor should also reconsider his opposition to congestion pricing.

More than just a way to fund transit and thin traffic so buses can move, congestion pricing is an effective safety tool. With fewer traffic jams,  there can be more space for expanded safe pedestrian space and bike lanes. After congestion pricing was implemented in London, traffic crashes declined by 40%. A similar reduction in the proposed pricing zone in Manhattan would save dozens of lives per year.

And, as Mayor de Blasio doubles down on data-driven traffic-safety policies that work, he should cease those that do not. Every officer tasked with outfitting senior citizens’ canes with reflective tape or writing tickets to cyclists is one less officer assigned to rein in reckless drivers, who kill pedestrians hundreds of times more often than reckless cyclists do. (In fact, a cyclist has not killed a pedestrian since 2014.)

Targeting cyclists and pedestrians in the name of Vision Zero may placate some vocal complainers but it does nothing to make streets safer. In fact, evidence shows the opposite: the more walkers and bikers are harassed the less safe we all are -- bikers bike less, for example. It’s the opposite of the “safety in numbers” effect, well-documented by researchers, showing that the more people there are on the streets, the more motorists habitually exercise caution and care, even if they are a little bit annoyed. The only way to improve bicyclist and pedestrian behavior that has been proven to work is to build better, safer infrastructure.

Vision Zero is not “traffic safety as usual.” Rather, Vision Zero says that protecting human life is more important than preserving parking spaces or speeding drivers. It’s time for Mayor de Blasio to make this principle the rule, not the exception, and empower his agencies to manage traffic and deliver safety projects accordingly.  

If Mayor de Blasio is re-elected, and launches his second term by doing what I’ve laid out here, he will save at least 100 more lives per year. He will be a hero. Nothing else that Mayor de Blasio did in his first term has gained him as much national recognition as Vision Zero, as dozens of cities are following in New York’s footsteps. It’s time for him to show the city, and the nation, the way forward again.   

***
Paul Steely White is executive director of Transportation Alternatives. On Twitter @PSteely & @TransAlt.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

]]>
Where Mayor De Blasio Must Take Vision Zero Next Mon, 30 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Congestion Pricing Won't Solve New York's Transportation Woes http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7175:congestion-pricing-won-t-solve-new-york-s-transportation-woes http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7175:congestion-pricing-won-t-solve-new-york-s-transportation-woes Cuomo MTA bus

Gov. Cuomo and a bus (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent vague interest in congestion pricing as a solution to problems at the MTA may give new life to one of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s key policy goals, but absent transportation improvements officials could be making now, pricing will not save our subways. We cannot let them off the hook in search of the perceived silver bullet of congestion pricing.

The transportation community has been salivating over Cuomo’s statement that “congestion pricing is an idea whose time has come,” hoping that the governor will be able to convince the state to put a cordon toll around Manhattan south of 60th Street. Such a cordon toll, which would charge drivers entering the area on a daily or per trip basis, is reflective of similar policies elsewhere, particularly London, which implemented a congestion charge in the central city district in February 2003. Yet commenters and policy nerds this side of the Atlantic have missed the real substance of London’s improvements, and in doing so, they are giving our elected officials a pass on work they should be doing right now, regardless of the status of the pricing proposal.

What today’s transportation advocates are missing is that the key ingredient to London’s success was not its charge but its buses.

Beginning in 1993, ridership on London’s double-deckers increased annually, and was up 37% by the time the charge was implemented in 2003. In 2004, London’s buses carried more passengers than the New York City subway. While those ridership numbers are impressive on their own, what they signify is an overall shift away from cars to buses, bikes, and walking. London’s congestion charge was envisioned as a specifically anti-car policy, designed to make it easier for buses and taxis to traverse the city center.

When New York City congestion pricing advocates see London’s roads covered in bus lanes, they may imagine that the charge enabled such a shift, freeing up road space to then be taken over by buses and bikes. In fact, nearly all of London’s 180 miles of bus lanes were implemented before the congestion charge, in that era of increasing ridership between 1993 and 2003. The lanes and other improvements insulated London’s buses from congestion enough, even before the charge, to improve rider experience and reduce excess waiting time at stops. Combined with a lower fare on buses compared to the tube, the operational improvements led to increased ridership and declining car use before the charge policy was even developed.

New York’s bus system pales in comparison.

The city currently has just over 50 miles of bus lanes. While buses have priority at most intersections in London, such priority only exists in New York on four Select Bus Service routes. As congestion has risen, bus ridership has fallen as bus speeds have slowed to a level barely faster than walking.

Nowhere is the lack of bus priority more egregious than on the East River bridges, the very place tolls would be implemented. When Mayor Bloomberg signed the initial contract with the USDOT for his congestion pricing proposal, East River bus lanes were the only specific bus improvement named. When the deal fell through, the East River bus lanes plan mostly died.

There are high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, used by both buses and cars with two or more occupants, in the tunnels and in the mornings on the Queensborough and Manhattan Bridges. The tunnel HOV lanes serve the express buses, the second-most heavily subsidized way to travel in the city after the commuter rail. Currently, the Queensborough bridge carries three local routes and 18 express routes. There are no buses that cross the Manhattan Bridge and benefit from the HOV lane.

For New York’s system to match London’s status before the charge was implemented, we need not only priority for buses on the roads but also more local buses into Manhattan. Based on London’s experience, getting drivers out of their cars requires a double shift.

First, some subway riders shift to buses for shorter trips; then drivers, who generally take longer trips, switch to the newly opened subway space. New York’s bus system largely lacks bus routes to accommodate people switching from the subway to bus. Currently, only a single local bus goes from Brooklyn to Manhattan, the B39, which runs only between the Williamsburg Bridge Terminal and Delancey Street, and comes every half hour. Unsurprisingly, it has the lowest ridership in the bus system. Without more direct bus connections to Manhattan, New York severely limits the bus system’s ability to provide a subway relief valve.

To be clear, there are activists calling for New York to focus on its bus network, but the centrality of the bus network to the functioning of the whole system is not fully depicted. The Bus Turnaround Campaign, comprised of the Riders Alliance, TransitCenter, TriState Transportation Campaign, and the Straphangers Campaign, have called for bus improvements for the sake of riders, but not as a way of improving transportation in the city as a whole, though their recommendations are based in part on London’s improvements, including increased bus priority, less circuitous routing, and improved fare payment.

What is frustrating is that many advocates believe that they have to support the pricing proposal in order to achieve bus system improvements, and that others feel as though they don’t need to advocate as hard for buses because the charging regime will magically improve the buses. The reality is that absent good alternatives to switch to, any charge that is politically feasible (maybe no more than the cost of a subway fare, well short of what is proposed in the most thorough proposal to-date, the Move New York plan) will be ineffective at reducing congestion and thus at improving the buses. London’s temporary drop in congestion following the charge was made possible by the bevy of available bus seats. While New York has available bus seats, they are not yet good alternatives. If they were, we would have seen bus ridership increase during this especially difficult subway summer congestion pricing is supposed to fix, and we didn’t.

If New York wants to seriously improve the transportation system, it needs an all-out campaign on the buses, one with the same level of media attention given to a single Cuomo quote on congestion pricing. Because so much of the bus system is about how we prioritize our roads, this is a goal that a city mayor can actually make a significant dent in without the governor, the kind of transportation improvement our mayor enjoys. So rather than wait for Governor Cuomo to save us via a pricing system that won’t work in our current system, let’s appoint a congestion czar and get serious about a transportation system that provides affordable access for all.

***
Rosalie Ray is a PhD student in Urban Planning at Columbia University. Her research focuses on London's bus improvements in the 1990s and early 2000s.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

]]>
Congestion Pricing Won't Solve New York's Transportation Woes Tue, 05 Sep 2017 04:00:00 +0000
BQX: An Innovative Solution to a Growing Problem http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7101:bqx-an-innovative-solution-to-a-growing-problem http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7101:bqx-an-innovative-solution-to-a-growing-problem bqx corridor rendering

(image: BQX rendering via NYC EDC)


Near daily failures in New York City’s transit system this summer have accomplished the seemingly impossible: they’ve sparked a wide-ranging conversation among New Yorkers of all stripes about overdue investments in our existing transit infrastructure, while also highlighting the limited alternatives to our century old subway system.

So how can we improve both with a limited budget? The proposed Brooklyn Queens Connector (BQX) provides a good example of how we can fix today’s transportation problems while planning for the future. A vibrant, sustainable and equitable city must do both.

The Manhattan-centric pattern of our subways was laid over 100 years ago when economic development was largely concentrated in the city’s core. This hub and spoke system is no longer reflective of how New Yorkers live, work, and play in 2017. The Brooklyn-Queens waterfront is one of the fastest growing corridors in New York City, yet there has been no significant investment in its transportation infrastructure, leaving some neighborhoods behind and limiting access to jobs and opportunity.

The proposed BQX is an emissions-free light rail system that will unify the currently fragmented transportation corridor along 14 miles between Astoria and Sunset Park, connecting to various subway lines, bus routes, ferry landings, and Citi Bike stations. It will be able to serve at least 50,000 riders a day, greatly easing the burden on existing transportation infrastructure in the area. The demand for more transportation options along the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront is clear, evidenced by the large crowds lining up to take the newly launched ferry system.

People living on the waterfront who have long faced limited transportation – including over 40,000 residents of the New York City Housing Authority – will have more employment opportunities and easier access to schools and healthcare facilities with the BQX. Local small businesses in these neighborhoods that are currently isolated from the rest of the city will be more accessible, and a new transit line will help attract even more businesses and employers to the waterfront.

But the direct benefits of the BQX to New Yorkers is just one aspect of this smart infrastructure investment. It also provides a model for how we can both fix today’s problems and plan for the future.  

First, because of an innovative financing tool known as “value capture,” the BQX isn’t in competition with laudable transit initiatives like Fair Fares or Bus Rapid Transit. Value capture works like this: based on the fact that access to transportation typically increases property value, funding for the BQX would be derived from the additional value it generates in properties surrounding the transit line over 30 or 40 years. While details of how this value capture mechanism would work are still being studied by city government, the concept is that the largest commercial and residential landlords who will see the greatest increase in their property value as a result of increased access to mass transit would pay additional property taxes on new value that is attributable to the BQX —  a more progressive form of taxation than a sales tax, which many other cities have used to finance public transit. This expectation of new value could be bonded and sold to investors, similar to how the city funded the extension of the 7 train to Hudson Yards.

This is why calls for BQX funding to be used elsewhere are misguided – money used for this project are not being drawn from already existing dollars in the city’s general fund or its critical annual contribution to the MTA because the money does not yet exist and will never exist unless the BQX is built and operates effectively.

Second, much like recent ferry and bikeshare expansion efforts, the BQX is a city-led, owned and controlled transportation project, providing an alternative to the confounding structure of the MTA that has led to quarrels over who is legally responsible for paying for upgrades and repairs of our transit system. And if the BQX is successful, the model could be expanded to other parts of the city.    

The positive impact this project will have on transportation in New York City – as well as its creative funding mechanism – is why the BQX has received strong support from some of our city’s most experienced transit leaders, along with local business leaders and community groups. MTA Chair Joe Lhota sits on the board of directors of the group that I run, Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector, as does Jay Walder, who has held roles as CEO of the MTA and Managing Director of Finance and Planning at Transport for London.

Leaders of the Resident Associations from five different NYCHA developments that will benefit from the BQX also sit on our board, and our coalition includes the Regional Plan Association, tech advocacy group Tech:NYC, the Transport Workers Union, and a long list of local small businesses and community groups.

When it comes to transit investment in New York City we need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. We can and should find ways to fix our current system while also expanding transit options where they are needed most. The BQX and its proposed funding model does just that.  

***
Ya-Ting Liu is the Executive Director of the advocacy group Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector. On Twitter @yating_liu and @BQXNYC.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

]]>
BQX: An Innovative Solution to a Growing Problem Wed, 02 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Simple, Big Solutions for Penn’s Problems http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7100:simple-big-solutions-for-penn-s-problems http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7100:simple-big-solutions-for-penn-s-problems

The original Penn Station was an architectural masterpiece. The most ironic part about removing it in a “monumental act of vandalism,” though, is that as a transit facility the original Penn Station had serious flaws. In fact, the platforms and tracks haven’t been significantly altered in more than a century.

Unfortunately, those flaws are growing more obvious by the day. Narrow, crowded platforms and grossly inadequate stairs and escalators are a constant source of delays, dangerous overcrowding and frustration for commuters. But most importantly, Penn Station is not actually a station for most passengers – it’s a terminal. The difference is not merely semantic; in a terminal, trains must cross each other as they enter and leave, making it far less efficient than a through-running station. Even when this doesn’t cause delays, it severely limits capacity and ensures every train has to travel more slowly in Penn.

Twenty-five years ago, we could tolerate these inefficiencies, but passenger counts from Long Island and New Jersey have skyrocketed. Any major investment plan for Penn Station must be focused on solving the cause of commuters’ misery. Amtrak’s Gateway Program and the new Moynihan Station, if optimized, could do so.

Phase 1 of Gateway would add two new critically-needed tracks between Newark and Penn Station. Phase 2 of Gateway, though, includes a new terminal station—Penn Station South. This would require the demolition of an entire city block at a price tag of $8 billion to build another inefficient terminal, and do nothing to alleviate conditions in the existing station. Those funds are better spent on improving Penn and regional connectivity.

This alternate plan would remove the need for Penn Station South, provide additional economic opportunity for the entire region and the opportunity to invest in projects that create smoother and smarter commutes. Through-running is the key to unlocking the ReThinkNYC vision.   Highlights of that vision include: 

  • First, build new facilities in the Bronx and New Jersey so it is possible to operate Penn Station as a through station. NJ Transit trains could be extended to Queens, the Bronx, and then along existing Long Island Railroad and Metro-North Lines; similarly, Metro-North and LIRR could be extended to New Jersey.
  • Next, widen and lengthen Penn’s existing platforms – and use the 31st Street side of the station for eastbound trains and the 33rd Street side for westbound ones, regardless of final destination. Universal “smart” ticketing between the systems can help erase arbitrary distinctions.
  • This would allow nearly 50% more trains to use the station.        
  • NJ Transit would no longer need to use Sunnyside Yards, making it possible to instead build a major station across the East River that would have access to all of the region’s 26 commuter rail lines, Amtrak, both Penn Station and Grand Central, and seven subway lines. Sunnyside could be the new East Midtown.
  • In Port Morris, the light industrial neighborhood east of the Bruckner Expressway and south of Hunts Point, commuters could catch NJ Transit and Metro-North – and an extended Second Avenue Subway serving the Bronx.
  • An AirTrain under the East River to an expanded LaGuardia Airport would provide a quick, convenient single seat ride for millions.  

New Yorkers once dreamed of, and then built, big projects. Now, in this post-Robert Moses, post-urban renewal era, planners are taught to think “politically” smaller. This approach has prevented us from addressing transportation systemically and holistically. It’s time to think big…again.  

***
Jim Venturi is Principal and Founder of ReThink Studio. On Twitter @jimventuri and @RethinkNYCplan.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

]]>
Simple, Big Solutions for Penn’s Problems Tue, 01 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio’s Progressivism Doesn’t Include Right to Public Transit http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7063:de-blasio-s-progressivism-doesn-t-include-right-to-public-transit http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7063:de-blasio-s-progressivism-doesn-t-include-right-to-public-transit de Blasio subway

Mayor de Blasio & First Lady McCray (photo: Edwin J Torres/Mayor's Office)


In his three-and-a-half years as mayor of the nation’s largest city, Bill de Blasio has focused his administration on bridging gaps between the haves and the have-nots, expanding opportunity for those left behind during the city’s recent boom years. He’s instituting universal pre-kindergarten, funded record levels of affordable housing, provided legal help to immigrants facing deportation and tenants facing eviction.

De Blasio has espoused a progressivism centered on equity and heavy on ensuring equal rights and opportunities to all, no matter one’s socioeconomic status or income. One area that this expansive view of equalizing entitlements doesn’t encompass, however, appears to be transportation. As much of the recent public dialogue around the city’s transit system centers on mounting delays and decrepit infrastructure, many low-income New Yorkers remain unable to access the system at all. Many in de Blasio’s New York can’t afford the freedom that comes with the opportunity to ride the public buses and subways.

A 2016 report by the Community Service Society (CSS), an anti-poverty nonprofit, based in part on a survey of over 1,700 New Yorkers, found that among working-age, low-income individuals, cost was the biggest problem with the city’s subways, putting it ahead of delays, crowding, and lack of service. The report also called for fare subsidization for the poor, a proposal that has seen various iterations known collectively as the “Fair Fares” plan.

Mayor de Blasio, who has hitched his legacy to ending the “tale of two cities” he decried during his 2013 campaign, has repeatedly refused to dedicate city funding to subsidizing low-income New Yorkers’ MetroCards, instead calling on the state to do so. De Blasio’s reticence on transit assistance is bewildering to activists. “We expected this would be something that this mayor in particular would embrace,” said Nancy Rankin, VP of policy, research, and advocacy for CSS, adding that the group was “puzzled because the arguments or excuses he’s put forward really don’t hold water.”

These arguments mainly center around the claim that contributing to low-income constituents’ fares is the responsibility of the state-run Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), which controls the subway and bus systems. Asked about transit aid proposals at a press conference last month, the mayor said that “the State of New York should make that a priority. I think that’s a commendable priority. We can’t afford that right now.”

During recent budget negotiations, the City Council made Fair Fares a priority, but de Blasio refused to budge, even declining to fund a pilot program to test the subsidized waters.

The CSS report mentions several program specifications, and ultimately suggests that the city offer half-off fares to the roughly 800,000 New Yorkers who make 100% or less of the federal poverty rate, currently about $24,000 for a family of four. Factoring in estimates for take-up and the higher rates of ridership for people newly able to afford it, CSS expects the program would cost $115 million the first year and $194 million the second. Earlier this year, the Council requested $50 million for a pilot program, an idea that was axed by the mayor before a budget deal was reached in June.

The trouble with the expense explanation is that the plan is backed by Comptroller Scott Stringer, the city’s top fiscal officer, as well as prominent non-partisan budget watchdog Citizens Budget Commission (CBC). Maria Doulis, vice president at CBC, addressed the cost argument bluntly: “If it was a priority for the mayor, it would be accommodated in the budget,” she said.

The question itself of state versus city funding isn’t relevant to constituents, said Rankin. “As a taxpayer, I pay city taxes and state taxes. So do you take it out of my left pocket or my right pocket?”

In an emailed statement, Stringer said the Fair Fares proposal “isn’t just the right thing to do morally – it makes economic sense,” and lamented that low-income New Yorkers had to “choose putting food on the table and traveling our city.” Access to transportation often provides individuals more opportunity to participate in job interviews and to get to and from work.

A key question for de Blasio and others around the transportation affordability dilemma is whether other planks of the mayor’s progressive agenda, and the New Yorkers that would participate in them, are suffering as a result of inaccessibility.

“Trains and buses are how you connect to your job, how you connect to services in other neighborhoods, it’s how people avail themselves of the benefits of being in the largest city in the United States,” said Doulis. In relation to the city’s poverty-reduction efforts, she said “a natural way to bolster those outcomes is to facilitate access to transportation.”

Being unable to access public services due to the cost of transportation was a reality for Robert Rush, now a member of the transit advocacy group Riders Alliance, as he was growing up in the Bronx. “I went to four different elementary schools in my first five years of education,” he said, in part because his mother couldn’t afford to get to some ofca the schools he attended.

“My mom had to enlist her co-workers, other people to come pick me up because she wasn’t able to. Sometimes I would be like the last person getting picked up at 6 p.m.,” said Rush, who nonetheless managed to do well enough in school to win a scholarship to Phillips Academy and begin studying at Harvard. He also raised the issue of access to city decision-makers, saying that “if you want to go down to city hall, raise some complaint, but you can’t afford the train there because you can’t even afford your bills, what does that say?”

At a time when the mayor has seemed frustrated by his lack of influence over the city’s vast transit system, a transit subsidy is an action the city could take unilaterally and with relative ease. “This is something he can do without Albany, without begging the state for funding, or permission. He was the power to help 800,000 New Yorkers,” said Rebecca Bailin, campaign manager for the Riders Alliance.

In fact, de Blasio has a larger goal of lifting 800,000 New Yorkers out of poverty by 2025, and several programs to accomplish it. Broader transit access could help accelerate those efforts and work in tandem with them. “The success of big, bold investments from the city – be it for job training, legal services, or otherwise – hinges on New Yorkers having the ability to get around,” said Stringer.

Doulis brought up the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (CUNY ASAP) system, which among other things provides participating students with free MetroCards, something she called “one of the key benefits” of the program. “People that enroll in these programs have far higher graduation rates than other community college students,” she said, in large part because they can get around.

Yet the mayor has seemed unwilling to acknowledge the necessities of New Yorkers who need to get around, lashing out at those who jump turnstiles to avoid paying fares they can’t afford. “There’s no way in hell anyone should be evading the fare, that would create chaos,” he said at a recent press conference, adding, “Everyone has to pay their fare.” He has not put forward any comprehensive proposal to address the inaccessibility of public transit.

Asked by Gotham Gazette what he would say to New Yorkers who can’t afford public transit but need to get around, de Blasio pointed to his larger efforts to create opportunity and lift New Yorkers out of poverty. He reiterated that no one should be evading the fare.

In an email, Ben Sarle, a spokesperson for the mayor, said “New Yorkers have a right to a transit system that works, obviously.” In an apparent reference to the recent attention on needed subway repairs, Sarle’s limited response was a reply to several questions from Gotham Gazette, including whether Mayor de Blasio believes in a right to public transportation for all New Yorkers. Sarle also did not respond to questions asking what the administration’s transit affordability plans are and did not elaborate on how the “right” he cited would be guaranteed.

The city already funds various MetroCard subsidy programs, including reduced-fare cards for seniors and people with disabilities and half-fare or free limited-use cards for students based on their distance from school. As part of the mayor’s recent deal to have his control over city schools extended for two years, the city will provide MetroCards to charter school students whose classes begin before school busing starts for the year.

It also wouldn’t be the first large city to develop a program that helps its poorer citizens get on the available public transit. King County in Washington state, which includes Seattle, was one of the first and largest areas to launch a discounted transit program, in early 2015. The ORCA (one regional card for all, the name of the system’s transit card) Lift program provides subsidized fares to residents under 200 percent of the federal poverty level. A survey conducted by the county executive one year into the program’s operations found that 42 percent of users had taken the bus and light rail more frequently since they’d received the cards. Other cities with transit affordability programs include San Francisco and London.

An obstacle may be the mayor’s focus on a separate transportation agenda. “The two big transportation proposals from the de Blasio administration have been ferries and BQX, and it’s not clear how much those programs will benefit low-income NYers,” said Doulis, referring to newly opened city ferries and the planned Brooklyn-Queens Connector, a streetcar that would run between Astoria and Sunset Park.

The BQX, which would charge the same amount as an MTA bus or subway fare, is estimated to cost $2.5 billion to develop, or about 13 times what it would cost to run the Fair Fares subsidy program for a year at full take-up. The BQX’s daily ridership by 2035 is projected to be 48,900. While the proponents of that project insist that it’ll pay for itself with increases in area productivity and taxes – an idea critics have disputed – proponents of Fair Fares say the program will also spur the economy.

“I think that the city should be looking at funding at least a part of it, because it directly helps city residents, but then will indirectly help the city's economy by keeping more money in the pockets of riders,” said Brooklyn City Council Member Stephen Levin of Fair Fares.

For low-income New Yorkers like Rush’s family, the advantage is much more clear and immediate. “It’s hard to even go outside, because there’s nowhere to go except around your block. You can’t go anywhere else,” he said.

***
by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
De Blasio’s Progressivism Doesn’t Include Right to Public Transit Sun, 16 Jul 2017 23:39:26 +0000
7 Transit Commitments Advocates Want From Candidates This Year http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7052:seven-transit-commitments-advocates-want-from-candidates http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7052:seven-transit-commitments-advocates-want-from-candidates img 7012

Transit advocates rally near City Hall (photo: Sam Raskin/Gotham Gazette)


Activists from eight transportation advocacy groups gathered near the City Hall R train subway station on Thursday calling on candidates running for elected office in the city to adopt a seven-point plan to improve New York’s crumbling transit infrastructure.

“We’ve put together the steps that New York City can take to make transportation work in New York,” said John Raskin, executive director of Riders Alliance, who led the news conference. The coalition released a four-page document titled, “Transportation and Equity: A 2017 Agenda for Candidates” which included seven proposed solutions -- increasing funding for public transportation, improving bus service, reducing the cost of mass-transit, increasing bicycle usage, reducing traffic fatalities under the Vision Zero campaign, improving how street space is divided, and providing alternatives for the L train riders who will soon see an expected disruption of service.

The advocates believe that the time is ripe to hold politicians’ feet to the fire on transit issues, ahead of the upcoming city elections. “Transportation is now a top-tier issue in our city,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives. “There's never been a better time for our city to make progress on streets and transportation. So if you’re running for office, ignore our issues at your own peril. New Yorkers are hungry for solutions and we have them.”

The coalition of advocates did acknowledge that much of the city’s transportation management is the responsibility of the state. The subway system is managed by the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which is controlled by Governor Andrew Cuomo. The governor recently declared a state of emergency for the MTA to ease procurement rules and speed up improvements to the subway system but critics believe the measure was too little, too late. “We’re not here to let the governor in Albany off the hook,” insisted StreetsPac Executive Director Eric McClure, noting that city dwellers are “unfortunately trapped” in a situation in which city matters are determined by representatives from outside the city. But the activists believe the city can take certain matters into its own hands. “In a world where the governor controls the MTA, we are answering the question: what can the mayor do? What can the city council do? What can other city level elected officials do to help New Yorkers get around town, access jobs and build a fair and sustainable city for the future,” said Raskin.

The organizations coalesced around popular transit fixes such as increasing capital funding to the MTA, adding and improving bike lanes, funding the Fair Fares proposal to provide half-priced MetroCards to low-income New Yorkers, committing to improving safety on the street through the Vision Zero campaign, augmenting the express Select Bus Service and enhancing bus lane enforcement.

“We’re not here promote flying cars or monorails, or new tunneling for autonomous vehicles,” White said. “These are all proven solutions that simply need to be expanded.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio has repeatedly touted expansion of the Select Bus Service, Citi Bike additions, and ferry service expansions as transportation accomplishments under his tenure. These received tepid support from White. “The mayor deserves credit for trying a multitude of solutions that are under his control, ferries included,” White said. “If you look at the subsidies per ride, investments in bus service, improving bus service, investments in walking and biking provide much more bang for your investment buck if you’re the mayor of New York. Ferries are important, but there is more to be had with investments in bus service in particular.”

The coalition, notably, did not take a collective stance on the proposed Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX) streetcar, which would run between Sunset Park and Astoria. Certain activists have expressed doubts about investing in a costly new streetcar as opposed to improving existing transit options. The proposal has few strong supporters among transit advocates and there are doubts about whether it can be adequately funded. There are a variety of business and other organizations supporting BQX.

Along with policies with consensus among activists and electeds, the transit groups also pushed for more ambitious, imaginative proposals such as a Brooklyn-Manhattan Bus Rapid Transit route over the Williamsburg Bridge to deal with the planned 15-month shutdown of the L train beginning in 2019.

Additionally, the advocates called on the administration to further its current use of a portion of real estate value added by upzoning to fund transportation projects. “[T]he city is in a position to make sure that part of that value goes to build and rebuild the infrastructure that the real estate relies on,” Raskin said. “That’s something we’re asking the city to do in a widespread way.” The groups also expressed support for the Move NY Fair Plan, which would reform bridge toll prices to simultaneously raise revenue and reduce traffic congestion.

Confident in the achievability and efficacy of their suggestions, the advocates believe the next step is to spread awareness and apply pressure on current and potential New York lawmakers. “The agenda that this group has put together for New York City is doable,” said Marcia Bystyrn, executive director of New York League of Conservation Voters. “The real challenge for all of us is making it clear to every elected official in New York that we expect them to deliver.”

Note: this article has been adjusted to more carefully characterize support for the BQX.

]]>
7 Transit Commitments Advocates Want From Candidates This Year Thu, 06 Jul 2017 04:00:00 +0000
With Subways in Crisis, It’s Showtime for Mayoral Candidates http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6999:with-subways-in-crisis-it-s-showtime-for-mayoral-candidates http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6999:with-subways-in-crisis-it-s-showtime-for-mayoral-candidates Cuomo subway train

(photo: The Governor's Office)


Standing near a City Hall subway stop, Staten Island Assembly member and GOP mayoral candidate Nicole Malliotakis railed against Mayor Bill de Blasio’s handling of the city’s transit system and its state-controlled operator, the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

At a podium set up just outside a 4 and 5 train entrance -- the same station that the mayor and his family emerged from for his inauguration on January 1, 2014 -- Malliotakis said last Friday that de Blasio has been ineffective and pledged that if she is elected mayor, she’ll provide additional city investment into the ailing system.

“The mayor cannot keep pointing fingers, he needs to take responsibility for the subway system that runs through his city,” she said, as puzzled straphangers emerged from the stairs behind her.

The issue of what to do about the city’s beleaguered public transportation system has quickly become a central question before the September primaries and November mayoral election. With cascading delays and the looming closure of the L train just as the subway’s ridership has ballooned to over 5.6 million commuters on an average weekday, the transit system’s troubles are threatening to devolve into a full-blown crisis, and Malliotakis isn’t the only mayoral candidate pouncing on the issue.

On Monday morning, former City Council member and Democratic candidate Sal Albanese echoed Malliotakis as he stood outside the midtown offices of Governor Andrew Cuomo. He was there to hand-deliver a letter to Cuomo’s staff – the governor was in Albany – in which he pledged to immediately increase the city’s MTA capital funding to $1 billion annually if elected mayor, and to work with the governor. “We can’t take the position that this service is basically a ping-pong ball between the mayor and the governor,” he said, alluding the icy relationship between de Blasio and Cuomo.

Paul Massey, a millionaire real-estate executive and political novice who is seeking the Republican nomination, seems to want to regain his footing after having stumbled somewhat over the transit issue at a mid-May press conference in front of City Hall, where he was critical of the mayor and alluded to “a lot of problems in our mass transit system,” but didn’t give any specific ideas for fixes when asked for details.

A spokesperson for Massey said that the campaign will roll out a “comprehensive plan next week” and outlined some of the plan’s main points: additional funding for the MTA is necessary, but any increase in the city’s contribution would be “conditional on the city taking back control of our transit system, including additional NYC representation on the MTA board.” This would likely entail a change to the MTA’s charter, which would have to be approved by the state legislature.

In addition, Massey’s campaign said it will unveil plans for “immediate system-wide upgrade of subway signals and switches,” “a ground-up overhaul of city traffic management policies,” and “transformative infrastructure investment in all five boroughs.” Massey mentioned some of the looming platform when he campaigned Monday evening outside a subway stop on the Upper East Side.

The idea of conditional increased funding was also put forward by activist and Democratic hopeful Robert Gangi, who said in a phone call that he would “communicate that [the city] is prepared to increase its investment but at the same time get some understandings and some commitments about where the money should go,” including the purchase of “a significant amount of new buses and subway cars.” He did not have a specific number for funding increases, but said he would study the issue.

Gangi’s main transportation plank is less about infrastructure and more about socioeconomics: he backs the “fair fares” plan to provide free access to public transportation, including subways and buses, to low income New Yorkers. He claims he would pay for it in part by cancelling other transportation proposals, such as the Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX) streetcar announced last year by the mayor.

Public transportation is fundamental to the largest city in the country and its elected leaders. But the issue is taking on new urgency just as the city’s political calendar heats up.

“This is a bread-and-butter issue, this is not some esoteric issue. This is what drives the city’s economy,” said Albanese, expressing a sentiment echoed in some way by every candidate Gotham Gazette spoke to (along with Albanese, Gangi, Massey, and Malliotakis, there are a handful of other mayoral candidates).

Similarly, none of those four candidates thought that the equipment powering the 665 mainline miles of subway tracks is adequate, with the system’s archaic ‘block’ signaling system receiving outsize scorn. “Much of the equipment for the subway was installed pre-World War II,” said Malliotakis, who compared the city’s subway unfavorably to that of other cities around the world, including Paris, Copenhagen, San Francisco, Vancouver, and London.

London’s transportation system’s signal improvements were also invoked by Albanese, who argued that they showed a modern metropolis could make necessary upgrades provided a political will. He pledged to take the subway regularly as mayor, saying “I understand that sometimes you have to take the SUV, even a helicopter once in a blue moon, but I will use transit.” In a jab at the current mayor, he added that Mayor Michael “Bloomberg, talk about billionaires, actually got on the train himself on a regular basis.”

Mayor de Blasio is not a frequent subway rider, and, with the system in crisis, he’s dismissed recent calls to take the train more often as a way of both leading by example in using public transportation and a way to understand what his constituents are dealing with. (De Blasio quietly took a subway ride uptown on Wednesday afternoon, his first subway trip since mid-April.)

The subway situation may be a vulnerability for de Blasio in this campaign, especially given that many New Yorkers reflexively blame the Mayor, not knowing that the MTA is much more the Governor’s responsibility. De Blasio’s famously frosty relationship with Cuomo has manifested in finger-pointing and a lack of dialogue on the city’s transit, and de Blasio has taken flak for a workout routine that involves taking two SUVs from his official home on the Upper East Side to a gym in Park Slope, Brooklyn, his longtime neighborhood. The issue would have likely blown over if the mayor didn’t then jab at critics, arguing that using public transit instead would amount to “cheap symbolism” in the fight against climate change.

As the nightmare commutes and bad headlines mount, de Blasio has laid the blame with Cuomo and the MTA, routinely prefacing responses to subway crises with reminders that the MTA is “state-run.” Nonetheless, he has faced increasing attacks from rivals, as well as questions from members of the public and reporters about what he’s doing to address commuter issues and whether he’s being a forceful enough advocate for his constituents.

Currently, New York City has committed to providing $2.5 billion, or 9 percent, of the MTA’s 2015-2019 capital program, which funds improvements to the transportation system. That number was the endpoint of a contentious public fight between the mayor and the governor, who sided with the MTA and the Transport Workers Union Local 100 in accusing the city of neglecting its responsibilities after an original commitment of $657 million. The state has committed $8.3 billion, or 28 percent.

Critics and budget hawks have complained that no funding sources have yet been identified for these commitments, which kick in after the MTA, which has pledged $11.8 billion – collected from fares, loans, and other sources – has used up all other funding.

The governor directly appoints six out of 14 voting MTA board members and names the Chair, effectively controlling the agency; the mayor recommends four board members. Despite that, Malliotakis argued that de Blasio couldn’t pass the buck on transportation, since “aside from keeping us safe, it is the number one issue,” and accused his appointed members of not challenging “the status quo.”

At an unrelated press conference on June 5, the mayor was asked if the city’s congestion could be fixed without the addition of subway lines. “We need to first think about the things we can do right now,” he said, including ferry service, select bus service – “very, very productive” – and light rail, touting his BQX project. He did say that if reelected, he would start looking into the possibility of adding lines, saying “I’m going to be spending real time in the second term trying to figure out our physical reality for the future.”

In an email, a spokesperson for the mayor’s reelection campaign touted the $2.5 billion MTA capital plan contribution “to support new buses, subway cars, signal and station improvements, while introducing a citywide ferry system, and expanding bike lanes and CitiBike. That’s a transit record we are happy to compare with anyone."

***
by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
With Subways in Crisis, It’s Showtime for Mayoral Candidates Wed, 14 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Calls for Small & Large Fixes to City Congestion, Transit Woes http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6975:calls-for-small-large-fixes-to-city-congestion-transit-woes http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6975:calls-for-small-large-fixes-to-city-congestion-transit-woes trottenberg chan mccarten

Cmsr Trottenberg, right (photos: John McCarten/City Council)


The New York City Council Committee on Transportation held a hearing Monday to discuss sources of, and solutions to, traffic congestion in the city.

City Council Member Ydanis Rodríguez, chair of the committee, began the hearing by lamenting New York City’s heavy traffic. “As most New Yorkers can tell you, our streets look like parking lots,” said Rodríguez, a Democrat from upper Manhattan. In addition to economic impediments and general inconvenience, the Council member framed congestion as a safety issue as well. “More cars in our road means more dangerous conditions for cyclists, pedestrians and other street users,” he said -- Rodriguez has been a champion of the city’s Vision Zero street safety program.

Council Member Mark Levine, also an upper Manhattan Democrat, agreed with Rodríguez’s characterization of the situation and highlighted its urgency. “Congestion is at crisis levels in this city,” he said. “This is a threat to our economy, our environment, it is a safety threat and frankly, for drivers, it is driving them crazy to be stuck in traffic.”

The Council members attributed an apparent recent dramatic increase in congestion to the prosperity of various home-delivery and app-based car services alongside longstanding New York City issues such as double parking and placard misuse.

However, a portion of the uptick in clogged New York City streets is a product of some unavoidable, as well as wholly positive, developments, argued new York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, who was the main representative of the de Blasio administration at Monday’s hearing.

In conjunction with population growth, tourism to the city and a booming economy have contributed, Trottenberg said, citing a 68% increase in visitors since 2000 and an addition of 4.3 million jobs in New York City since before the recession. ”While on the one hand, increased congestion is a sign of a thriving economy, we hear loud and clear from community boards, elected officials, businesses, and New Yorkers who drive, are stuck on the bus, or use crowded sidewalks, that they are frustrated by congestion and are asking the city for answers,” Trottenberg said.

Trottenberg discussed the two most impactful ways to address the issue: congestion pricing, which would create a new tolling system to, in part, disincentivize driving in the city, especially into Manhattan, and subway expansion, which would encourage more people to choose a train over a car. The commissioner did not indicate that the de Blasio administration is supportive of a congestion pricing plan -- Mayor de Blasio himself said Monday that it has no hope of passage in Albany, so it is not worth fighting for. The de Blasio administration also has little control over subway expansion, given that the MTA is a state-run authority, but could pursue some additional stops if it chose to make that a priority, which it has not.

With a handful Council members, Trottenberg discussed secondary areas over which the city has direct control, such as car placard abuse, which take up parking spaces or block traffic, large truck deliveries which often block streets, and bus lane enforcement, to prevent slowing MTA buses.

Council Member Margaret Chin, for example, floated the idea of imposing harsher penalties on placard abusers and those that unlawfully veer into bus lanes. NYPD Transportation Chief Thomas M. Chan acknowledged Chin’s concerns, adding that his department is exploring ways to court additional officers to the approximately 3,200 officers tasked with enforcing traffic law. De Blasio recently announced a new crackdown on placard abuse that coincided with his decision to allow tens of thousands of placards to school personnel.

But not all Members were on-board with shifting focus towards small fixes over the meat and potato endeavors to ameliorating New York City’s traffic woes.

Council Member Corey Johnson, a Democrat representing the West Side of Manhattan, said the city’s proposed congestion-fighting efforts to which it has shifted attention amounted to mere “tinkering around the edges.” Council Member Brad Lander, Democrat of Park Slope, Brooklyn, took issue with the less ambitious approach as well, declaring that anything that did not include transportation investment would be “fooling around at the margins.”

Mayor de Blasio, for his part, threw cold water on the city taking action on ambitious as well as extensive and long-term issues, stating that the political climate in Albany is not ripe for passing a congestion pricing program while continually, and accurately, noting that potential MTA augmentations and fixes fall under Governor Andrew Cuomo’s jurisdiction. Instead, on transit the mayor has favored an approach more immediately implementable steps that do not rely on state approval.

When asked at a press conference Monday morning if, absent investment in new subway stations, the city could properly address congestion, de Blasio articulated his approach. “This is going to have to happen in phases over years [in] how we address the problem,” said the mayor. “We need to first think about the things we can do right now…” he said, name-checking expanded ferry service, Select Bus Service, and the BQX lightrail streetcar as the types of New York City mass-transit successes he’s unveiled. “Those are the things that are going to have a big impact for people’s lives right now,” de Blasio said.

Though de Blasio said that there is a “real possibility” that New York City would have to build more subways 10 to 15 years down the road, “The things we’ve done right now, are the things we could do right now,” he said. The Select Bus Service “is a real workhorse,” he said while answering a follow-up question.

In a similar vein, in lieu of congestion pricing, de Blasio favors other measures to free-up traffic. “There are people who double-park in an abusive manner that blocks up the street for everyone else. There should be enforcement of that,” he said. He doesn’t want overly-strict, nit-picking tickets, he said, but “ticketing that is about keeping the flow of traffic...I want to ticket those that are blocking traffic on a  prolonged basis…I want to ticket people who block the box.”

Like for much else in New York City politics, the ongoing feud between de Blasio and Cuomo loomed in the background of the transportation hearing and the mayor’s Monday morning press conference. Although the hearing focused on congestion, the MTA’s woes and traffic issues were treated as inextricably linked even without Cuomo being blamed by name for the MTA’s terrible state of disrepair.

While Council Member Donovan Richards, a Democrat from Southeast Queens, noted that it is indubitably Cuomo’s responsibility to manage and adequately fund the MTA, he stated that finger-pointing would not cut it moving forward. Richards said his constituents call his office about transportation and don’t care about whose jurisdiction the MTA is. Thus, it was his position City Hall must take it upon itself to solve the city's transportation crises.

One way would be to push for a congestion pricing plan without state government approval, by citing a 1957 state law that allows cities home to over a million people to implement their own bridge tolls. This proposal, as reported by the Wall Street Journal Sunday, was brought to the forefront by Move NY, an organization that has the most popular current congestion pricing plan, and New York University Law School Professor Roderick Hills. New York City DOT spokesperson Scott Gastel dismissed the proposal, telling the Journal “...legal experts in both the current and previous administrations determined the city does not have this authority.”

When asked about the idea during a press gaggle following the Monday Council hearing, Trottenberg echoed Gastel, saying, “I think the city has determined it’s a losing legal fight...In this case, unfortunately, we just don’t have that legal authority.”

Furthermore, Trottenberg insisted that piecemeal congestion-fighting proposals have begun to flow from the administration and that more are coming; she did not answer directly whether what she had described reflected the mayor’s anti-congestion positions. She also said that the anti-congestion plan the mayor promised in his February State of the City speech are already partly in process and soon to be more clear.

“It’s one of the first elements of it,” Trottenberg said regarding the enforcement pieces she laid out. “I think the congestion plan, it turns out, is going to be kind of a rolling plan, you’ve heard the first pieces of it today, and there will be more to come in the coming weeks.“

]]>
Calls for Small & Large Fixes to City Congestion, Transit Woes Mon, 05 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio’s 'Piecemeal' Transportation Agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6855:de-blasio-s-piecemeal-transportation-agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6855:de-blasio-s-piecemeal-transportation-agenda de blasio subway

Mayor de Blasio on the subway (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor’s Office)


Announcing the next steps of his citywide ferry service initiative at a recent press conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he is pleased with what his administration has done to improve transit options for New Yorkers, but admitted that he hasn’t put forth a coherent, comprehensive transportation agenda.

Though transit experts have praised some of de Blasio’s moves to expand the city’s transportation network, many have also criticized what they call a piecemeal approach.

Asked about that assessment by Gotham Gazette, as well as restrictions he faces in enacting a transportation agenda given that the city is reliant on the MTA, a state authority, de Blasio said that a lot is moving in the right direction. Pointing to a few examples, he claimed “pretty impressive growth in a city that already has a lot of mass transit.” But, de Blasio acknowledged, “What I don’t think we’ve done is sort of put it together in a single statement for people to see how all the pieces connect, and I think that is a commendable idea.”

De Blasio appeared to think for the first time about having and presenting an overall transportation agenda, perhaps indicative of the fact that he has not approached transportation like he has education or affordable housing.

Like virtually all policy areas, transportation is complex, expensive, and challenging in New York City. For many driving New Yorkers, the top concerns are traffic congestion and smoothly paved roads. For others, the focus, and often the ire, are the city’s subway and bus networks, which are largely controlled by the MTA, which includes several board members appointed by the mayor, and is funded through city and state monies. The majority of the power at the MTA resides with the state, which also allocates a larger portion of the MTA budget.

An age-old problem for New York City mayors, though, is that New Yorkers don’t always realize that the MTA is a state authority, and therefore blame the mayor for travel woes. Mayor de Blasio has taken to a common refrain when the MTA comes up during interviews or press conferences: “The MTA subways, buses are run by the State of New York. That is their process to work through. We contribute money to the MTA, but the ultimate decisions are made by the State of New York,” de Blasio said during an interview Tuesday morning on Hot 97 radio.

The city can propose its own funding for subway extensions, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg did with the 7 train to the far west side of Manhattan, and influence Select Bus Service routes, which are essentially express buses. The city, through its mayor and MTA board members and state legislators, also has influence over many other MTA decisions.

While it is important that any mayoral administration work with the MTA -- additionally challenging these days given the ongoing feud between de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo -- the mayor and his Department of Transportation must find other ways to leave a meaningful impact on city transit, especially in terms of expanding options as the city population, tourism to the city, and subway ridership all swell.

On Tuesday morning, de Blasio said that the city must move on transit projects no matter what is happening at the MTA. “[I]t takes a long time for the MTA to do anything that’s big and new,” the mayor said. “We’re able to do these things a lot quicker,” he said, referring to his administration’s efforts on ferries, bike-sharing, and a streetcar project coming to the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront. “We’re starting them up now, and we’re doing a lot of the Select Bus Service in parts of the outer boroughs that were underserved, so those are, you know, faster buses that are very appealing to people because they can cut their commute a lot.”

Additionally, for de Blasio the issue of “transit equity” is part of the discussion in ways it was not for his predecessors, given that the mayor was elected on an equity platform. Where his transportation initiatives reach and what they cost riders are of utmost importance as de Blasio attempts to increase economic mobility and shrink opportunity gaps.

Three-plus years in, the de Blasio administration has basically established that three-pronged approach to expanding mass transportation options in the city: ferries, Citi Bike, and the Brooklyn-Queens Connector (or BQX) streetcar. Most of this agenda has not come online yet, though. Each reaches or is projected to reach some key, underserved communities and offers attractive alternatives or supplements to the subway and bus map. But, as de Blasio himself appeared to acknowledge, the pieces have not necessarily made for a comprehensive city approach.

These proposals are “piecemeal at best,” said Ben Kabak, who writes the popular Second Avenue Sagas blog, which has focused on the Second Avenue Subway extension but deals with city transit more broadly. “It's hard to say that his administration even actually has a comprehensive plan for transit.”

The new ferry service, which will launch this summer, will build out over multiple years; the streetcar is in the planning stages and a few years off; and the ongoing expansion of Citi Bike continues. These marquee measures each fit into the de Blasio equity frame in different ways, though they each also have limitations in that regard.

“We’re creating alternatives for people,” de Blasio told Hot 97. “We’re going to have citywide ferry service starting this year, and including some communities that have really been left out of the equation like Soundview in the Bronx and the Rockaways…We’re [also] talking about a light rail system from Astoria, Queens down to Sunset Park, Brooklyn.”

The mayor is faced with major funding and program decisions: how much to contribute to the MTA; how the BQX will be paid for; where to install ferry landings and when; whether to invest public dollars to speed Citi Bike’s move into new neighborhoods; and whether to fund the “fair fares” proposal that would provide subsidized Metrocards to poor New Yorkers.

De Blasio is also facing questions about costs related to the ferry system and BQX: fares for each will be pegged to the price of a subway ride, according to the mayor, but there will not necessarily be fare integration, which would allow a free transfer from, say, the BQX to a subway near the route.

On “fair fares,” de Blasio has thus far argued the city cannot afford its estimated $212 million annual price tag and said it should be the state’s responsibility anyway. For some, this has detracted from de Blasio’s equity mantel, and a broad coalition of groups and individuals are calling on him to reconsider. Meanwhile, the MTA chair has said it is a city responsibility, calling it a “social program,” not under the MTA’s purview.

In its April 3 response to de Blasio’s fiscal year 2018 preliminary budget, the City Council offered the mayor a $50 million compromise for a pilot fair fares program. Nancy Rankin, vice president of policy, research and advocacy for the Community Service Society and City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the transportation committee, discussed the specifics of that proposal outside a City Hall subway station on Wednesday. They explained a three-year ramp-up proposal to fully fund fair fares: first for the 380,000 New Yorkers living in “deep poverty” (families of three making less than $10,00 per year, or families of four making less than $12,000) and eventually for all 800,000 living in poverty.

“Look, it’s a world of choices,” de Blasio said at a March press conference centered around his Vision Zero street safety program, when asked why he was subsidizing the ferry service but wouldn’t back the fair fares plan.

“Your choices matter” happens to be a slogan de Blasio has used, alongside the NYPD, when promoting Vision Zero. De Blasio has encouraged New Yorkers, especially drivers, to be more careful, and has put largely successful efforts in motion to reduce pedestrian, cyclist, and motorist fatalities. While it is not exactly about transit options or equity, per se, Vision Zero has a transportation focus and implicit in its safety goals is the use of bikes and expansion of bike lanes.

De Blasio’s transportation choices have received mixed reviews -- some wonder if the BQX will actually get built, while some question if it should, for example -- and the mayor has promised an imminent plan to battle congestion on city streets, especially in Manhattan.

Paul Steely-White, executive director of advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, told Gotham Gazette in an interview last year that he believes “the city should get more intentional and more systematic in terms of how it's addressing these different options, and how they are going to be greater than the sum of their parts.”

Though he did admit he has not shown that overall vision, the mayor thinks that things are going well. “What the city is doing on its own and what the MTA is doing, I think they’re complementary,” de Blasio told Gotham Gazette at a March press conference. “You look at the routes and how they function, I’m very comfortable with the fact that everything is supporting everything else.”

“I think there is a vision in that we’re grabbing every opportunity to fill gaps and reach places that don’t have enough service and it’s moving very steadily by any measure,” the mayor said. “You look at just over the last few years, the growth of Select Bus Service, the ferry system coming online after 100 years, the light rail...I feel good.” The mayor did not acknowledge that much of what he was citing is not yet functional.

While de Blasio might characterize his approach as “filling gaps” left by the subway system, others see it as disjointed. “It’s not a comprehensive plan,” Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute told Gotham Gazette in a 2016 interview. “It makes for part of a plan, but it shouldn’t be a whole plan.”

Asked what would constitute a comprehensive plan, Gelinas offered the following: “a goal of something like, you can get anywhere in the five boroughs within 45 minutes…and saying, what do we need to do to make that happen.”

Others prefer to point a finger at Gov. Cuomo, arguing that de Blasio is handicapped by the MTA governing structure, the same structure that has Cuomo eyeing a $65 million cut in MTA operations funding, a move being met with significant opposition as state budget talks wind down.

“The mayor does not control the MTA, he does not control the subways, and that's really a problem...so what the mayor's doing with the BQX, with Select Bus Service, the ferries, and Citi Bike, is really focusing on what he can control...that I think is a very smart direction to go in, because we can't count on the state, we can't count on the governor,” said Steely-White.

Kabak, of Second Avenue Sagas, said last year that he believes for de Blasio, “some of it is perspective...I think he just doesn't have a good grasp of what transit means to so many people in New York.”

BQX
The Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX) is a 16-mile streetcar system that, if approved, will stretch from Astoria to Sunset Park. De Blasio announced his vision for the project as a centerpiece of his 2016 State of the City address, explaining that it would be an essential piece of his fight for more equity.

“The BQX has the potential to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers,” he said at the time.

While the espoused intention behind the BQX is to connect residents of Brooklyn and Queens, especially those in several public housing projects, to job-laden areas along the East River or other transportation into Manhattan, the proposal has been met with considerable skepticism from those who argue that it will only raise real estate prices and advance gentrification.

In an interview with Gotham Gazette last year, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg dismissed such claims. “Equity was a huge part of it…I’m not sure we would have been able to convince the mayor if it was only luxury housing, or some of the hipsters moving in. I think what really turned a corner is that there are 44,000 people that live in public housing [along the proposed route]...So I see everything that comes out of the administration through the glasses of, ‘is this good for lower income people?’”

Critics wary of too much government-developer collusion have pointed to the involvement of developers such as Jed Walentas, CEO of Two Trees Management, who sits on the executive committee of Friends of the BQX, a non-profit set up to rally public support for the project. While this partnership might make sense considering increased property values are essential to the financing plan for the BQX, which the city says will largely pay for itself, it nevertheless does not sit well with some.

“This seems to be very driven by Two Trees, who own a lot of property in DUMBO, and are looking at ways to make that area more accessible,” said Kabak. “So it's a transportation proposal that's put forward by a private entity that stands to gain and may not really solve the problem that the city has regarding mobility.”

Some experts, however, are more optimistic. “If anything,” Steely-White of Transportation Alternatives said, “we're recommending that the mayor go even further in this direction, looking at more innovating financing mechanisms for city-led transit expansions…if you look at the innovative, value-capture approach they're taking to the BQX, you know, there's no reason that or other similar approaches could not be used to do more.”

Steely-White was referring to a New York City Economic Development Corporation estimate that the $2.5 billion for the BQX will be recaptured by the city as it takes a percentage of increased property values and development each year.

“It very well might pay for itself,” said Gelinas, when asked about the BQX, “but that doesn't make it our top transit priority…improving capacity along a very crowded [subway] line may not pay for itself directly, but it affects more people.”

De Blasio has not voiced any intentions to pursue subway expansion, though he did celebrate the opening of phase one of the Second Avenue Subway extension. He has not pushed to advance the Utica Avenue extension in Brooklyn that many want to see made a priority by the city and state.

Transit equity advocates have one major concern about the BQX: whether it will allow for free transfers between the streetcar and MTA-operated buses and subways it is projected to connect with. Such a one-swipe ride would take negotiation between the city and the MTA, and some kind of financial plan.

If construction adheres to schedule, work on the BQX will begin in 2019-2020, with the first streetcar expected to be running by 2024, long after de Blasio is out of office, even if he serves two terms.

Ferry Service
In addition to the BQX, the de Blasio administration has also been moving forward on bolstering the city’s ferry service. The only public ferry route currently operating is the Staten Island Ferry, which the administration moved to run every 30 minutes 24-hours per day, as opposed to the hourly schedule it previously offered during off-peak hours.

In an effort to address overcrowding on the subway and provide waterfront commuters with increased transportation access, the city has teamed up with Hornblower, a San Francisco-based boat provider, to build a fleet of city-owned ferries that will eventually provide regular service to all five boroughs.

“If you talk to people in the Rockaways, if you talk to people in South Brooklyn, if you talk to people in Soundview in the Bronx, they will tell you that they didn’t feel like this City’s transportation system was built for them,” de Blasio told reporters at a recent press conference.

The project will receive an initial $55 million capital investment, with an additional $30 million expected to be infused each year over six years. The citywide service is expected to serve 4.5 million passengers annually with stops in Astoria, Far Rockaway, and along the Brooklyn coastline that are projected to be operational by the summer of 2017. Additional stops are scheduled to be added to Manhattan’s Lower East Side and the Bronx in 2018, with further expansion likely to include Staten Island and other stops.

When asked about additional stops, especially to include spots further south on Staten Island, de Blasio was receptive, but non-committal. “I am very open to making additions after we see how the initial runs go…if they continue to be productive, we’ll be open to expansion,” the mayor said.   

However, as with the BQX, there is significant concern among experts that the ferries constitute an ill-advised investment. Arguing that de Blasio is wasting his time with the ferries, Gelinas told Gotham Gazette that “we’re still dealing with the margins…the ferries won’t do in a year what the subway system does in a day.”

Kabak agreed, describing the ferry proposal as “very limited in its scope, in that it really only has an impact on people who live very close to the waterfront.”

Asked about these concerns, Trottenberg argued that the waterfront was actually targeted specifically because “we have a good number of low-income areas along the waterfront,” adding that “the catchment area for the Brooklyn Navy Yard has lots of jobs, meaning the city suddenly takes in Red Hook, suddenly takes in some of the neighborhoods in Brooklyn with lower income.”

De Blasio echoed this notion at a recent press conference about the service and the jobs it is both creating and helping New Yorkers get to: “We’re here at the Navy Yard because we really want to focus on the impact and the connection to jobs with citywide ferry service…We really wanted all of the jobs associated with citywide ferry service to be here, if that was possible to do, that was our goal. And we found with the Brooklyn Navy Yard an extraordinary partner.”

Citi Bike
The Mayor’s Office reported that Citi Bike saw a 40% increase in ridership in 2016, with 4 million more trips taken than in 2015. As the program has expanded further into Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, ridership has increased each year, with almost 14 million trips in 2016.

There are growing calls, though, for Citi Bike to expand into more neighborhoods, especially low-income neighborhoods, even if it means a public subsidy, which Mayor de Blasio has said he has no intention to pursue.

Still, Citi Bike has already been touted by transit equity advocates as a positive development. “The biking and walking improvements that have been made are absolutely benefiting lower-income New Yorkers who are more reliant on transit and therefore more reliant on walking,” said Steely-White.  

Commissioner Trottenberg agreed, saying she supports more investment in walking and biking options and that she “would love to see a bridge across the East River for bicycles and pedestrians.”

Given its success, both advocates and elected officials are now calling for Citi Bike to expand to less-accessible outerborough communities and the upper reaches of Manhattan. In November, the City Council put forth a proposal to expand the program to every neighborhood across the five boroughs by 2020. Trottenberg testified at a recent hearing that a citywide program would require as many as 80,000 bikes. The current fleet is up to 10,000 and is on pace to grow by 2,000 every year, meaning a hefty funding increase would be needed to expand citywide by 2020.

“When Citi Bike was created, it was created mostly thinking about the financial center,” Council Member Rodriguez, the transportation committee chair, told Gotham Gazette at a January press conference. “Now there’s a lot of transportation deserts that we have in the South Bronx, that we have in Brooklyn, that we have in Queens, that [Citi Bike] can be benefitting to,” he said.

While it is unclear where the capital for such an expansion would come from, a City Council majority, led by Rodriguez, has called on de Blasio to incorporate the necessary funds into the 2018 budget. Rejecting this possibility, de Blasio told Gotham Gazette in January, “we have no plans for public financing of Citi Bike.”

In its April response to the mayor’s preliminary budget proposal for fiscal year 2018, the Council stood fast on its position, officially proposing that de Blasio add $12 million of baseline funding to the DOT’s allotment for Citi Bike expansion.

Whether it is Citi Bike reach or other options, the de Blasio administration believes his transportation efforts are addressing equity. “The Mayor…has made strides in creating a more equitable transportation system by offering multiple solutions that are tailored to the needs of specific communities,” wrote Raul Contreras, a deputy press secretary for de Blasio, in an email to Gotham Gazette. “[T]he development of brand new transportation options, such as Citibike, ferries and the BQX, impacts the lives of all New Yorkers, no matter what their socioeconomic status may be,” Contreras argued.

Vision Zero
Connected to transportation is de Blasio’s street safety program, Vision Zero, which ambitiously aims to eliminate traffic fatalities by 2024. The de Blasio administration, along with the City Council, took aggressive measures to begin implementation of Vision Zero in 2014 and quickly saw impressive results in reducing pedestrian, bicyclist, and motorist deaths.

There were 223 total traffic deaths in New York City in 2016; down from 233 in 2015; and 258 in 2014, which was the mayor’s first year in office. Though there was strong initial progress, the rate of decline must advance quickly to meet the goals set forth -- advocates and local officials are calling for additional street redesigns, changes to traffic signals, more protected bike lanes, and other adjustments.

De Blasio has succeeded in lowering the city’s default speed limit to 25 mph, installing more speed cameras around schools, instituting the “Dusk and Darkness” initiative, and redesigning Queens Boulevard, aka “the Boulevard of Death,” among other advancements under Vision Zero.

Last year, Steely-White said he saw a lack of full investment from de Blasio. “We're really looking for a much greater contribution in the city budget to the DOT, to undertake specifically those street safety fixes,” Steely-White said, “signal timing, street design, that don't really entail massive digging up of the street and all of that very involved capital work…so really now the ball is in the mayor's court. Will he fully fund Vision Zero or not?”

At the Vision Zero press conference this January, de Blasio did announce an additional $370 million in funding for a variety of street redesigns. Admitting that “there’s a lot more to do,” de Blasio stressed that “a lot of the impact of Vision Zero has not been felt fully yet because it keeps building each year.”

“We are celebrating the good news today that with $370 million in additional capital funding over the next five years, more intersections will see the fully constructed upgrades that they need to keep the number of deaths and injuries on our streets falling,” Council Member Rodriguez said in a January statement.

Reality
Many want the city to have more control of the subway and bus systems. “If you look at what New York contributes as a whole in terms of all the taxes that fund the MTA, it's really largely New York City resources that are funding the system, and yet we still have very little control,” Steely-White said, before suggesting to start “thinking more holistically about our transportation system and maybe even starting to make a case for the city taking over some functions that the MTA currently performs.”

On the city-state dynamic, de Blasio indicated some progress. “In terms of Select Bus Service, which again in ridership terms is hugely important, that is a partnership between the city and the MTA that is functioning very well and is based on systematically determining where there are gaps we need to fill,” the mayor said.

Commissioner Trottenberg, who sits on the MTA board, discussed the imperfect system. “Look, it's a challenge in New York...the transportation system here is broken up among several agencies -- you have city DOT, you have the MTA, you have the Port Authority, you have state DOT -- but I think all of us who run those agencies recognize that it's part of our responsibility to work together to create a seamless transportation system,” Trottenberg said. “If you're the customer, if you're a New Yorker trying to travel around the city, you don't care what agency it is, you just want to get where you're going.”

***
by Luke Foley, Gotham Gazette

]]>
De Blasio’s 'Piecemeal' Transportation Agenda Wed, 05 Apr 2017 04:00:00 +0000
When A Subway Swipe is Out of Reach http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6733:what-happens-when-a-subway-swipe-is-out-of-reach http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6733:what-happens-when-a-subway-swipe-is-out-of-reach riders alliance rally

(photo: Riders Alliance)


Not long ago, as I entered the 149th  Street and Grand Concourse station in the Bronx where I live, I saw a group of undercover police officers surrounding a young man under arrest for jumping the turnstile. As I stared, I remembered my own run-in with the cops for fare evasion. Seeing this kid get arrested, my mind returned to that moment: the cold metal of the grate against the back of my head, the suffocation of the officer's forearm deep in my chest, and my fear that my attempt to spare my mother’s health—however well-intentioned—might put my own well-being at risk.

Let me explain.

When I was in 7th grade I was accepted into Prep for Prep, a summer program that provides academic and leadership development opportunities for low-income kids of color. At 14 years old, I wanted nothing more than to sit around and hang out with my friends. But my mother understood the importance of this opportunity for a low-income black kid from the Bronx and insisted that I not let this pass me by. At her urging, I attended classes on weeknights and weekends in Midtown.

The program provided two-trip MetroCards, but because of bus transfers, they weren’t enough to get me there. To help out, my mother, who has multiple medical conditions that require her to take life-saving pills every day, would use savings dedicated to her medical bills to buy me a MetroCard.

It hurt me to see my mother make that sacrifice. No parent should ever have to choose between their health and a MetroCard for themselves or their family. But a lot of people make exactly these kinds of near-impossible choices every day to pay for their travel. In fact, a study by the Community Service Society of New York (CSS) found that one in four low-income New Yorkers reported being unable to travel to doctor appointments, jobs, and other necessities because of the cost of a MetroCard. The same report found that the cost of a 30-day unlimited MetroCard often makes up over 10 percent of a family's budget, forcing individuals to make painful sacrifices, including on essentials like rent, food, and other bills.  

I saw my mother struggle with that decision every day—until the day when I decided I couldn’t stand to be the reason anymore. I lied and told my mother that I already had the fare to get to the program—and jumped the turnstile. I wanted to give my mom a break. I wanted to help her out for once after all that she had done for me.

Of course I was stopped by the cops. After a terrifying encounter, they let me off with a warning—but we all know that I was an exception to the rule.  

James Baldwin once wrote in an article for Esquire Magazine, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”  This is certainly true in New York City, where, as CSS found, 58% of low-income riders rely on the transit system—but are all too often unable to afford to use it. This is the inescapable trap of poverty: the poor pay more for everything.

This is true of transit as well: we pay more for a single-ride MetroCard because the fare structure incentivizes buying unlimited monthly MetroCards. Those who can’t afford to shell out a lump sum of $116 (and rising) are paying more than the wealthier for their trip. We pay more because we don’t make enough to take advantage of the pre-tax transit benefits program middle-income and wealthy New Yorkers enjoy. And we pay more when we get caught begging for a swipe or jumping the turnstile -- we get fined hundreds of dollars, get carted off to jail, or worse.

Like my neighbors, I know all too well how poverty forces people to make tough, sometimes illegal, choices simply to get around. Unlike my neighbors, every fall I have a temporary escape from poverty. In no small part because of the opportunities that Prep for Prep provided, I’m a junior at Harvard University. College isn’t just a place to earn a better life for myself in the future; it’s also a reprieve from the chronic trauma of poverty and the exhaustion that comes from having to calculate the cost of every action.  

That’s why I’m joining CSS and the Riders Alliance in the call for #FairFares and asking Mayor de Blasio and our City Council to fund half-priced MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers.

Public transit should connect every New Yorker to good jobs, affordable housing, and the rich cultural opportunities that this city allows young and eager minds like me. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are left out of those opportunities—but we can change that if we make public transit truly accessible to every member of the public, including the poor.

If my mom hadn’t sacrificed for me, I wouldn’t be where I am today—but the point is that no one should have to make the kinds of sacrifices my mom made to help their kids succeed. With Fair Fares, 800,000 more New Yorkers could be eligible for half-priced MetroCards that could save them up to $700 a year. Imagine how many parents could help their kids thrive with these savings if the Mayor would stand up for every New Yorker’s right to access public transit?

***
Robert Rush is a junior at Harvard University. He grew up in the Bronx and is a member of the Riders Alliance, a grassroots non-profit that fights for better, more affordable public transportation in New York City.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

]]>
When A Subway Swipe is Out of Reach Thu, 26 Jan 2017 05:00:00 +0000