By Bruce Schaller
The foremost transportation issue is whether transportation
will surface as an issue in the fall campaign.
Voters seem receptive. After education and public safety,
transportation is one of the public's top concerns, according
to an August 2000 public opinion survey conducted for
the City Council. When politicians meet with constituents,
and when New Yorkers gather for focus group researchers,
city residents talk about the stress of crowded commutes,
jammed sidewalks and congested traffic. These problems
are a constant annoyance of daily life.
Rudy Giuliani tended not to focus on transportation issues
during his eight years as mayor. But in two ways, his
legacy creates a more favorable climate for this year's
candidates to raise transportation issues. First, Giuliani
heightened public awareness that attacking the "little"
everyday irritants can make a big difference to quality
of life in the city. Remember the squeegee men?
Second, Giuliani challenged the city to rethink its assumptions.
He shattered conventional wisdom that, for example, protected
able-bodied welfare recipients from having to work.
Thus, the next mayor will be able to give a fresh look
Some of the candidates seem to be ready. Mark Green and
Peter Vallone have both focused on subway overcrowding
recently, Green calling it the "last great quality of
life issue in the city right now."
Only a fraction of transportation is under the mayor's
direct control. Therefore, we divide transportation issues
into two groups: mayoral issues, and those where he must
use the mayor's bully pulpit more than direct orders to
get the job done.
Imagining the city
Big box zoning, housing development,
new sports stadiums, west side development. These major
development issues can be proposed and discussed for a
remarkably long time before elected officials focus on
how folks would actually get to them. Will the candidates
make transportation considerations a key part of their
planning, or leave them as an afterthought? Do they envision
a city built for transit, or for the automobile? Do their
stands on development issues form a coherent whole when
set beside their ambitions for transportation and transit
City funding for transit
Subways and buses are
the backbone of the city's transportation system but the
city's financial contributions were severely reduced over
the past decade. The new mayor will be hard-pressed to
use the mayoral megaphone to ask the state and federal
governments for financial assistance unless the city steps
up to the plate too. Are the candidates willing to commit
increased city funds to the transit system?
Traffic safety and pedestrian improvements
hundred and eighty four New Yorkers died in 1999 in traffic
crashes, including 186 pedestrians and 27 bicyclists.
While Queens Boulevard, one of the city's most dangerous
roads, has attracted keen attention in recent months,
it is not the only dangerous arterial. How do the candidates
feel about tradeoffs between traffic speeds and pedestrian
safety? Are they willing to slow the traffic on arterials,
widen sidewalks in business districts, erect traffic calming
speed bumps and dead-ends on residential streets, to make
the city a friendlier and safer place to walk? Or do they
feel that commuters zooming to work or play is a more
important aspect of quality of life or economic vitality?
Can they propose creative solutions that prevent this
from being an either/or choice? Do they consider Giuliani's
pedestrian fences in Midtown Manhattan a creative solution?
Alternatives on Herald Square and Times Square pedestrian
Los Angeles has successfully implemented
priority lanes on two major thoroughfares. Traffic
signals were adjusted to give priority to buses running
behind schedule, the spacing between bus stops was increased,
and low-floor buses were put on these routes. Bus speeds
increased by 26 percent and ridership zoomed 30 percent.
L.A.'s program can't be transplanted directly to the
crowded grid system of Manhattan. But the existing bus
lanes on the East Side could work vastly better with increased
enforcement, physical separation of traffic and other
steps. These steps cost money and engender local opposition.
Where do the candidates stand?
Value pricing of road capacity
Among the city's
most valuable but overlooked assets are its streets, roads
and bridges. For the most part, anyone can use these resources
either for free or by slipping a few quarters into a meter.
Not surprisingly, the streets are congested, the bridges
backed up and on-street parking is impossible to find.
Citizens and businesses do pay a hefty price -- not to
the city, but in time spent unproductively in traffic
or looking for parking.
The city sensibly has begun to try to allocate its scarce
resources through up-front pricing rather than (barely)
hidden search and delay costs. The Department of Transportation
has set up a special metering program in Midtown for trucks
making deliveries. This is only the beginning of what
could be done for commercial and other vehicles. Do candidates
think it makes sense to give New Yorkers the option to
pay money to save time to use public streets, roads and
bridges? Would the candidates aggressively evaluate and
refine the truck delivery metering program to ensure its
success? Would they apply it elsewhere in the city? Would
they crack down on merchants who hog valuable metered
parking by feeding the meter all day? And the ultimate
tolling issue: do they favor some type of tolls on East
This is another area of tradeoff
between leisurely enjoyment and motorist needs. Pedestrian
groups have long pushed for Central and Prospect Parks
to be car-free, not just on weekends and off-hours, the
way they are now, butthroughout the day. Would the candidates
support this change? Where do they stand with the tradeoffs
among quiet parks, motorist inconvenience and more traffic
on streets just outside the parks?
Alternative campaigns for car-free parks
The big rigs present efficiency
gains for business but noise and pollution for residents.
How do candidates feel about this tradeoff between local
and citywide needs?
While the mayor doesn't control
the MTA, he does oversee the seventh-largest local bus
operation in the country, the private bus lines that serve
much of Queens and portions of the Bronx and Brooklyn.
A decade ago the new City Charter set up a process to
re-franchise these services. Enmeshed in a complex Charter
process and even more Byzantine politics, the decades-old
franchises have been repeatedly extended. Meanwhile, service
has deteriorated, beset by old buses with a penchant for
breakdowns and unable to handle surging ridership. Are
the mayoral candidates committed to tackling this difficult
and thorny issue?
Another hot potato stuck in a political
quagmire. Mayor Giuliani wanted to license dozens more
commuter vans, most for outer-borough services. Spurred
by their union supporters, the City Council resisted.
In the tradeoff between supporting public transit and
their unions vs. private enterprise and commuters anxious
for a quicker trip to work, where do the candidates stand?
Do commuter vans enhance the transportation system by
providing additional and speedier travel options, or detract
by draining riders from MTA buses and clogging the streets?
With an influx of new Council members, will the next mayor
focus on bringing movement to this issue?
The number of taxicabs has increased
by a mere 400 since the Great Depression. Black cars and
neighborhood car services fill the transportation needs
left unmet by restrictions on the number of cabs, and
now outnumber taxicabs even in Manhattan. Yet these newer
services operate less efficiently and present a greater
risk to the public for traffic crashes. Would the candidates
rationalize taxi policy by expanding the number of medallion
in taxi service availability
Mayoral Bully Pulpit Issues
State funding of transit and highways
has cut back its funding of the Metropolitan Transportation
Authority's capital program. The city receives only 23
percent of state highway and bridge funding. Would the
candidates allocate a portion of their limited influence
in Albany on behalf of transportation needs?
Transit service configuration
Giuliani showed how
powerful a mayor can be when focused on the daily operations
of nominally independent entities such as the Board of
Education. Will the new mayor use his platform to put
transit changes under the public microscope? When the
MTA dusts off a 10-year-old subway service plan that reduces
G train service, and critics charge that changing neighborhoods
like Williamsburg and Greenpoint will be shortchanged,
where do the candidates stand? Will improved commuter
rail service in Queens and the Bronx be on the next mayor's
Campaign to Save the G
Big MTA projects
Giuliani made sure that the MTA's
next capital program included funding for a rail link
to LaGuardia and pushed plans to extend the 7 line to
the Javits Center. What are the candidates' priorities
for the big MTA capital projects? Where does a Second
Avenue subway rank in relationship to a rail to LaGuardia,
linking the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal
and West Side extensions? How do these priorities support
candidates' land use and economic development positions?
Capital Program; MTA
East Side Access Project; Regional
Plan Association's MetroLink proposals
The Giuliani Administration
commissioned a large study to determine the costs and
feasibility of building a freight tunnel across the New
York harbor and recently hired consultants to compile
impact statement. The cost: $2.3 billion over 6-8
years. A tunnel would relieve ever-growing truck traffic
congestion and reduce diesel emissions. Critics fault
the proposal as a futile and costly attempt to turn the
clock back to railroads, and point to lack of rail freight
infrastructure on the Brooklyn waterfront. Observers believe
that the Port Authority is the logical agency to fund
and build the tunnel. Would the next mayor pursue this
ambitious construction project?
Other Port Authority projects
The other big pot of money is held by the Port Authority.
How do the candidates think the Port should spend its
capital money? Do they think the city is shortchanged
in that process? Do they favor building such long-stalled
projects as the Goethals twin bridge between Staten Island
and New Jersey? What are their views on port development
along the Brooklyn waterfront? Do they see airport investments,
including upgrading of disgracefully inadequate freight
facilities, or a one-seat ride to JFK, as a priority?