Issue of the Week

Mapping the Trends

by Bruce Schaller

7 January 02

The city's recovery effort must quickly address its pressing transportation needs. But looking beyond that, to longer range ideas for the city and region, transportation planners and public officials will be guided by a number of trends that evidenced themselves before September 11.

In a perceptive analysis of previous post-disaster experiences, Kirk Johnson noted that catastrophes tend to accelerate existing trends -- not reverse them. The disaster moves up the timeline by forcing people and institutions to make decisions now. As people move past the momentary fog of confusion and uncertainty, the same forces that existed before the tragedy continue to be in effect, and so change is sped up, not redirected.

Thus, the Trade Center attacks could accelerate important changes already affecting New York City's transportation system. Of course, in this time of budget gaps and recession, the city and state could focus on immediate needs and ignore the longer term. But if officials resist that temptation, six trends will play a key role in shaping the future of New York's transportation system.

BUS STARTS

Recognizing the value of transit, especially the bus: In the past two decades, New Yorkers have seen their subway and bus system rebuild, expand service and introduce the MetroCard with its accompanying fare incentives. Decisions about the location of jobs, housing, retail and entertainment increasingly assume that people can and should use transit instead of driving or taking a cab -- quite a change from 15 or 20 years ago. Because public transportation is now seen as viable, restrictions on vehicular traffic have been widely accepted, even by solo commuters.

Perhaps most notable has been renewed affection for bus service, once the stepchild of the transit system. Whole segments of the public have rediscovered the bus in recent years. As a result, with New York's subway system at or near capacity, transportation planners are turning increasingly to buses. If buses will take people where they want to go with reasonable speed, reliability and comfort, the public is ready to jump aboard.

There is now serious talk about adding express bus service and bus-only lanes for commuters coming into Manhattan from other boroughs and for service within Manhattan. The current crisis is likely to speed up certain projects such as expansion of the Port Authority Bus Terminal to increase NJ Transit's capacity for city-bound commuters.

Making what we have work better: Attention will still be paid to large and valuable infrastructure projects such as the Long Island Rail Road connection to Grand Central Terminal and the Second Avenue Subway. But elected officials, transportation professionals and the public will think more about making the system we already have function more efficiently. For example, new technologies can help improve operations. Automated vehicle locators and traffic signal advances, successfully implemented in other cities including Los Angeles, are prime candidates for New York. Smart cards could reduce bus boarding times. These are refillable cards, somewhat similar to the EZ Pass use by motorists, that simply have to be pressed to a touch pad, rather than inserted in a turnstile like a MetroCard.

Another example is bus lanes. Until now, it has been hard to keep what are supposed to be bus lanes free for buses while still allowing for truck deliveries, right turns and taxi drop-offs. But as attitudes change, these obstacles could be overcome, allowing busses to travel more quickly and provide more reliable service.

Better coordination: No single mode of transportation can completely meet the city's needs. So, the operation and use of buses, subways, ferries, taxis, walking and biking must be coordinated if we are to get the best service from New York's tremendous and varied transportation network.

The Trade Center disaster could spur this integration. A renewed sense of urgency could help overcome long entrenched institutional and bureaucratic hurdles that have delayed progress on issues such as fare integration between NYC Transit, PATH, NJ Transit and private ferry operators.

Coordination of commuter rail and ferry service will take on new momentum. Dredging and construction of new ferry terminals in lower Manhattan and Newport, New Jersey, will be accelerated. As a result, ferry trips will be quicker, and people will find it easier to connect by train, bus and foot to ferry services. Better links between the Long Island Rail Road in Long Island City and ferry service, already in the works, will become a model for continued improvements.

The increase in reverse commuting underscores the need for improved integration of transportation services.

Improving downtown access: Downtown business and real estate interests must build confidence that lower Manhattan will come back. Transportation is vital to that. Various proposals to improve access to downtown have long languished in the hopper. These include extending Metro North from Grand Central Terminal to lower Manhattan, extending the Long Island Rail Road from Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue terminal into lower Manhattan, building the Second Avenue subway and adding ferry services. While these proposals will receive renewed attention, their prospects remain murky given the huge demands for scarce construction dollars.

Evaluating the value of density: In the wake of the Trade Center attacks, businesses and individuals are reassessing the value -- and risks -- of employment and residential density. The Trade Center was attacked because of its size and symbolic power as a center of finance and trade. For lack of commercial tenants if not simply aesthetic reasons, it is highly unlikely that new office towers built at the Trade Center site will reach anywhere near 110 stories.

But the reassessment will extend far beyond the Trade Center site. The disaster will accelerate scrutiny of what functions need and don't need to be in a dense, expensive urban business setting. Manhattan has for years been losing so-called back-office jobs to New Jersey and other parts of the country. City programs have attracted some of those jobs to the outer boroughs. This sorting-out process will continue as companies decide where to locate divisions and employees displaced by the attacks.

As business executives consider whether to disperse their operations, they will weigh the benefits of distributing operations among different locations to protect against massive losses in a future disaster versus the costs and inconveniences of multiple locations. They will think about the extent to which technologies, such as video conferencing, can replace face-to-face communication. And they will ponder the logistical and time implications of travel between locations. For executives committed to multiple locations, access to a well-oiled transportation system will be vital.

Restricting cars and trucks: Transportation planners and a few elected officials have long discussed whether government should step in to regulate vehicles. A few important steps have been taken, such as the Gowanus high-occupancy vehicle lanes, a special metering program in midtown for truck deliveries and time-variable tolls for Hudson River crossings. But the biggies have just been talked about. These include instituting tolls on East River bridges, closing certain streets or avenues to traffic, creating truly exclusive bus lanes, adding more lanes reserved for high-occupancy vehicles, and further restricting the Gowanus lanes to buses and to cars with three or more passengers instead of the current two or more passengers.

The success of the restrictions on single-occupant vehicles entering Manhattan gives the appearance at least that the public and elected officials are willing to seriously consider permanent new policies placing limits on cars. These policies might take the form of further bans on single-occupant vehicles. Or they might take the form of dedicating certain streets to higher-occupant use. Another alternative is to use pricing instead of allocation policies, for example placing tolls on bridge crossings (long a political orphan in the case of the East River bridges) and instituting more differential tolls.

The future of transportation in the city and region will depend on the moneys available, the course of the economy, and the skill and vision of political leadership. But it would be far more surprising to look back in a decade or two and see the current experience as a momentary blip on the timeline of New York's transportation system than to look back and see it as a galvanizing experience, similar in scale and importance to the fiscal crisis of the 1970s or financing of the first transit capital program in the early 1980s.

Bruce Schaller is principal of Schaller Consulting, which conducts research on transportation issues.

See "Getting Back On Track" by Jeffrey M. Zupan

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