Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union



Transportation And Lower Manhattan: Where Do We Go From Here?


A conceptual view of how the MTA is planning for the new Fulton Street Transit Center at the corner of Broadway to look.

Rush hour in New York, 2015: At the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, a commuter gets off the PATH train from Jersey City and walks two blocks to his office in the 1776-foot-tall tower on Fulton Street. At the nearby Fulton Street Transit Center -- airy, brightly lit, and easy to navigate -- a downtown resident takes the #2 subway train uptown to her job in Times Square. At the same time, a family from Japan gets off their flight at John F. Kennedy Airport and boards a train that goes directly to the 9/11 memorial on the former site of the old World Trade Center. And a Wall Street executive from Greenwich arrives on time to work via the Second Avenue subway, using an easy connection at Grand Central Terminal.

Those who currently live and work in lower Manhattan could easily see this scenario as science fiction.

Today, downtown subway stations are archaic and uninviting. The streets seem to be a perpetual construction zone. Added security and barriers, such as at the New York Stock Exchange on Broad Street, create a war zone atmosphere. West Street remains a barrier to the World Financial Center and Battery Park City. Connections among subway lines are confusing or non-existent.

The tragedy in lower Manhattan highlighted the inherent weaknesses in the transportation system serving it, particularly in contrast to Midtown. With no direct commuter rail access from New Jersey, Long Island or Westchester (Midtown has direct access from all three), lower Manhattan has been at a competitive disadvantage to attract businesses for several decades.

Rebuilding lower Manhattan after September 11 has meant not only restoring the transportation that was damaged during the attacks, but improving many parts of the transportation system downtown.

In October 2002, Governor George Pataki submitted a request for funding for lower Manhattan transportation projects to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Transit Administration. Early this year, they agreed to together provide $4.55 billion. The approved projects include a transit hub at the World Trade Center site, with underground connections to a new subway complex called the Fulton Street Transit Center. Pataki’s list also includes the rebuilding of the dysfunctional South Ferry 1/9 subway station and improvements to lower Manhattan streets and public places. In addition, the governor has called for tunneling part of West Street and a further study of how best to connect lower Manhattan to the airports.

World Trade Center Transportation Hub

The World Trade Center Transportation Hub involves the construction of a temporary and then a permanent PATH station, with pedestrian connections to the E train station, the existing N/R station, and entirely reconstructed 1/9 station. An underground walkway under Dey Street will link the hub to the Fulton Transit Center, which will incorporate four subway stations and nine subway lines. It will have another walkway under West Street that connects to Battery Park City. The cost of the project is estimated at between $1.7 and $2 billion, and it will be completed in phases by early 2009.

One controversial element about the hub, which has still not been resolved, is how much retail space will be built underground in the hub’s passageways. While retail developers are anxious to build as many stores underground as possible to attract business from commuters walking through the station each day, building too many stores underground would create a mall that could sap the life from the surrounding streets. To build a vibrant neighborhood in lower Manhattan, as much retail space as possible should be built at street level.

Another issue is the possibility of including a terminal under the World Trade Center site to house tourist buses. The city and local residents say the bus terminal would keep foul-smelling buses from lining up on crowded local streets, but many family members of those lost on 9/11 are offended by the thought of buses stored where their loved ones died. While some bus parking, especially for school buses, may be necessary, it can be kept to a minimum by encouraging tourists who visit the 9/11 memorial to use ferries and subways.

Fulton Street Transit Center

The MTA's design concept for the John Street and Broadway entrance to the Fulton Street Transit Center.

The Fulton Street Transit Center to the east is being planned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The station complex, which includes four stations and nine subway lines, the 2, 3, 4, 5, A, C, J, M, and Z, is a maze that challenges the savviest New Yorker. The MTA plans to open up the Lexington Avenue station entrance by razing some or possibly all of the properties on the east side of Broadway from Fulton to John Streets. The authority also plans to simplify the pathways and make it easier for people to see where to go when transferring from one line to the other. See the MTA websitefor more details. Many preservationists are very worried that historic buildings, most notably the Corbin Building on John Street, will be torn down or damaged to make way for the new station. This 1889 building, with its terra cotta façade, is one of the area’s first skyscrapers. The MTA should preserve the façade of the building and incorporate it into the design of the new station. The cost for the transit center is $750 million, and it is scheduled to be completed by 2007.

New South Ferry Subway Station

The new South Ferry subway station will overcome the many deficiencies of the existing station, such as platforms the length of just half a subway train, delays caused by slow trains forced to negotiate an almost impossibly tight curve, and a single overcrowded exit. The station, which serves as a gateway for tourists destined for Liberty and Ellis islands, is an embarrassment as it is now.

The original design for the replacement would have torn up part of Battery Park, cutting down dozens of trees on the east side of the park. After the Battery Conservancy and other groups complained, the MTA decided to rethink the design. A new plan has been devised by the MTA, and it is a big improvement. The station would now be located mostly outside and east of the park. Building it will do little damage to the park, and the new plan brings the station closer to others in lower Manhattan to make transferring easier. It will also be closer to the Staten Island ferry terminal than the first plan. The earlier design was to cost $400 million and be completed by 2007, but costs and timing of the new design are not yet available.

West Street

West Street presents a barrier for pedestrians who want to go to and from the World Financial Center and parts of Battery Park City. Prior to 9/11, two pedestrian overpasses helped walkers cross the 200-foot-plus-wide highway. The more heavily used overpass, which went directly into the Winter Garden, was destroyed and will likely be replaced.

Initially, there was much interest in burying West Street in a tunnel from the World Trade Center site all the way to the Battery, but cost estimates were so high that the New York State Department of Transportation is investigating less ambitious plans – either a short tunnel from Vesey to Liberty Streets, which the governor has recently called for, or a deck over West Street into the World Financial Center across the way. This deck or platform would bridge over the existing highway. Depressing the highway in a tunnel would almost certainly be more expensive, but it would improve access to the World Financial Center and the ferry services beyond on the Hudson River and would better protect the memorial site from the noise of traffic. Some downtown residents have opposed a tunnel, saying it isn’t necessary and will require a disruptive construction zone. The New York State Department of Transportation is currently making presentations about the tunneling and decking options, after which the public will be in a better position to judge which plan will work best. Costs have not been determined for either project.

Airport Connections

In the governor’s letter to the federal government, he indicated that local agencies would be working to provide direct access from lower Manhattan to Newark and Kennedy airports. Much of the PATH line to Newark is already in place, and the project’s viability will depend on its cost and whether it can operate without affecting existing PATH services. The Port Authority is examining this.

For Kennedy airport, the options are more varied. New subway connections with Brooklyn could bring trains into lower Manhattan from Jamaica to serve Long Island commuters and also provide for an easy transfer to the Kennedy Airport Airtrain, to open next year. But many worry that the new trains would interfere with existing subway service and do little to cut the travel time for Long Islanders going directly to lower Manhattan. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed creating a new tunnel under the East River, which would provide a one-seat ride to Kennedy Airport and could also provide a connection to the Long Island Rail Road.

The Regional Plan Association, where I am a senior fellow for transportation, strongly supports a new East River tunnel. However, the association’s plan is for the airport connection to be linked to the planned Second Avenue subway, which is designed to allow an extension into Brooklyn. Governor Pataki has asked the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, along with the MTA and the Port Authority, to sort through the alternatives and make a recommendation by next spring. Where the funding for any airport project will come from is not yet clear.

Second Avenue Subway

Incredibly, overlooked in all of the discussions about lower Manhattan transportation is the project that the MTA has already committed to, the Second Avenue subway. It would add two new subway services to lower Manhattan and unclog a third, the notorious Lexington Avenue express. The MTA supports placing the new subway line in lower Manhattan underneath Water Street on the east side. If this line is extended, it could connect with Brooklyn and the Long Island Rail Road as described above. (The portion of the line in Manhattan is the subject of MTA hearings scheduled for May 12 and 13.)

Fixing Downtown Streets

Lower Manhattan’s streets are barricaded for security reasons and overcrowded with pedestrians competing for limited space with many types of vehicles, all with a claim to the same space. Security needs to be provided without creating an “armed camp” atmosphere. A solution for overcrowding should allocate space according to the need to move people and goods, and recognize the important role of streets and sidewalks as part of the public realm. This can be done by creating a plan for lower Manhattan’s “public realm,” including closing some streets to traffic, and building park-like boulevards and small parks. The governor’s recent allocation of funds for streets and parks is a step in the right direction.

The transportation system must be made whole again. Otherwise, the willingness of commuters and others traveling to lower Manhattan on business or to shop, will slowly, but assuredly erode. So will the resolve of the area’s residents. People will be unwilling to stand the inconvenience and lost time, when other options, whether in Midtown, the rest of New York City and suburbs or worse, other areas outside the region, are available. To overcome this potentially mortal blow to the financial district, the transportation system must entice back those who have left, overcoming the system’s weaknesses that existed before 9-11.

Jeffrey M. Zupan is senior fellow for transportation at Regional Plan Association, the not-for-profit research, planning and advocacy organization in the tri-state region.

Bus Bunching


Bus Bunching You are waiting for the M104 bus at Broadway and 116th Street. Minutes go by, and it does not arrive. Then, maybe 20, 30 minutes later, three M104s arrive, all in a clump.

Sound familiar? This problem, called bus bunching, has been deemed a "scourge" by the Straphangers Campaign, a transit riders advocacy group.

In 1999, M104 buses arrived bunched together 60 percent of the time, the Straphangers found. And it was not the only bus route where buses arrived all at once — or not at all.

"The Transit Authority should offer free straitjackets to anyone waiting for a crosstown bus," Lenore Skenazy once wrote in the Daily News, describing her trials with bus bunching.

So many Brooklyn commuters complained to State Senator John Sampson of Canarsie last year about the B-42 bus bunching on Rockaway Parkway, that he wrote a letter of complaint to New York City Transit Authority president Lawrence Reuter.

Reuter wrote back, saying that the B-42 line was prone to bunching because its buses are scheduled to run just three-and-a-half minutes apart, and traffic problems can easily cause one bus to catch up with the other. Reuter told Sampson that he would tell bus dispatchers to pay more attention to the B-42 to keep them running at regular intervals.

Since then, the B-42's performance has improved, said Beverly Whitmire in Simpson's office.

But bus bunching continues to plague other part of the city. There are several theories about why.

Some think that bus dispatchers are not doing their job, and ensuring adequate space between bus departures. Others say bus drivers probably gather to chat with each other and then all end the coffee klatch at the same time, causing their buses to arrive in a clump.

Gene Russianoff, the Straphanger's Campaign senior attorney, has said that New York City buses are prone to bunching because there are not enough buses on the street to begin with, and bus stops are too crowded. Like Reuter in his response to Sampson, most New York City Transit Authority officials blame traffic congestion.

The problem is so complex that math teachers around the world have posed intricate story problems that involve bus bunching to their students, and a British web site has created a simulation game that shows why so many bus lines fall into the bus bunch trap. It demonstrates that when a bus is late, it will have more people waiting for it at the next stop. This means that it will take longer than usual for everyone to board, delaying the bus even further. Meanwhile, the bus behind it will have fewer people waiting to get on, and so will easily catch up to bus number one.

During the Giuliani administration, the city hired a company to create a satellite tracking system for New York City buses to ease the bus bunching problem In September 2000, after more than two years of delays and ballooning costs, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority fired the company. In test runs, Manhattan's tall buildings blocked the satellites' connection with buses.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority did not give up on the concept though, and neither did Mayor Michael Bloomberg who, during his 2001 mayoral campaign, promised to solve the bus bunching problem. His plan, makes use of Global Positioning Satellite technology to tell dispatchers how far along the route buses are at all times. This would enable dispatchers to regulate the distance between buses and help drivers respond faster to disruptions in service.

Don't get too excited about this though. Initial parts of the project are slated to be done in 2004, but the system is not scheduled to be in place until 2009.

In the meantime, people with complaints or recommendations about buses can call or write Millard Seay, senior vice president of the Department of Buses at MTA New York City Transit, 370 Jay Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201; phone: (718) 243-4186; fax: (718) 243-4400.

Another person to contact is Christopher R. Lake, director, Bus Customer Relations at 25 Jamaica Avenue, Room 1, Brooklyn, NY 11207; phone: (718) 927-7499; fax: (718) 927-7498.

The Straphangers Campaign recommends sending a copy of any complaint to New York City Transit President Reuter at MTA New York City Transit, 370 Jay Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201; phone: (718) 330-4321; fax: (718) 596-2146.

Frustrated commuters can also call New York City Transit's Bus Customer Relations Center at 1-888-NYCT-BUS, or, like the B-42 commuters, call or write to their local politicians.

(Do the buses bunch in your neighborhood or is there another problem with mass transit? Tell us about it by going to the Community Gazette for your area.)

-- Erica Pearson

Common New York irritations, why they persist and what average citizens can – or cannot – do about them:

• Potholes
• Bus Bunching
• An Intersection in Need of a Stop Sign
• Problems with Traffic Lights
• Speed Bumps and Humps
• Dark Streets

» Fixing Urban Irritants (Overview)


Getting a Stop Sign


Getting A Stop Sign Eleven-year old Christopher Adam Scott rode his bicycle across the pedestrian overpass of the Clearview Expressway in Bayside. As he reached the corner of 46th Avenue and the expressway service road, a car struck him, killing him almost instantly.

Six years before, 12-year-old John Shim was riding a bicycle in the same spot. He too was struck by a car and died of his injuries nine months later.

Local residents believe a stop sign could have helped save the lives of both boys.

About 200 pedestrians are killed by cars in New York City every year. Traffic engineers suggest that stop signs can help remedy the problem by regulating the flow of traffic in a busy neighborhood. The New York City Department of Transportation says that stop signs should be used to alert drivers and pedestrians as to who has the right of way.

But stop signs cannot solve all traffic safety problems, transportation experts say. For example, the U.S. Department of Transportation, which sets standards for stop signs and traffic lights, cautions, "Stop signs should never be installed as a routine, cure-all approach to curtail speeding, prevent collisions at intersections, or discourage traffic from entering a neighborhood."

And when they are misplaced, stop signs can make a situation worse. "Studies have found when stop sign are placed at intersections where they are not really needed, motorists become careless about stopping," says an information sheet issued by the Center for Transportation research and Education in Ames, Iowa.

Given all this, there is no guarantee that a request for a new stop sign will be granted. The Department of Transportation suggests that residents who believe their intersection meets the requirements write a letter to Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall at the Department of Transportation, 40 Worth Street, New York, NY 10013. The department provides an online form for this purpose.

The department refers the request to the Traffic Engineering Unit in your borough. That office makes a preliminary study of the street corner in question, including traffic and pedestrian volumes, vehicular speeds, accident history and sign spacing. Eventually the unit will conduct a field investigation to observe traffic on the street corner at various times and on different days of the week, over a period of several weeks.

The inspectors want to determine whether conditions at the intersection meet federal standards for traffic lights and signals set out in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices published by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The investigation takes about six weeks. Then, if the department approves the request, an installation will be scheduled. The sign is usually put in within three or four months.

This sounds efficient and thorough, but is it really?

Not exactly, says Roe Daraio, longtime activist and president of COMET: Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together.

Daraio estimates that 95 percent of her requests for stop signs have been fulfilled. "You just have to be a little creative," she says.

Simply following transportation department's instructions is not enough.

COMET keeps a close watch on corners and records problems, listening to accident reports on a police scanner. "You should always be able to say what dates and times the accidents occur," says Daraio. "The more clearly you express (the problem) to the agency, the more likely they are to respond."

Typically, she writes to the head of the Queens Borough transportation office, Joseph Cannisi, rather than to Commissioner Weinshall, as the city guidelines suggest. Since Weinshall's office receives thousands of requests each year and forwards them to the boroughs, Daraio says, writing directly to the borough office eliminates one step.

Daraio also advises that the letter provide as many details as possible about the street corner, such as how many children live nearby or if there is a school. She strongly suggests enlisting local community organizations in the quest, because they probably have a working relationship with key officials, as COMET does with Commissioner Cannisi.

The borough transportation office works closely with the local police precinct to assess the need for the sign. To get the police on your side, Daraio advises reminding the police of the frequency of accidents on your specific corner.

Sometimes, DOT decides to install a stop sign — even if community residents would prefer another remedy such as a traffic light. That is fine with Daraio.

"I find that when drivers see yellow lights ahead of them, they floor it,' she said. "We know night drivers don't come to a full stop at a stop sign, but at least they slow down a little."

In deciding between a stop sign and a traffic light, transportation officials consider the number of vehicles that go through an intersection as well as how fast they are traveling. Visibility and the presence of other traffic lights nearby can also affect the decision.

But evidence of need does not guarantee that the city will install a sign — or a signal. The intersection in Bayside where the fatal accident occurred still has no stop sign and does not seem likely to get one. Transportation Commissioner Weinshall told the Western Queens Gazette that, while "it's very tragic what happened with this little boy... federal standards were not met" for the installation of a stop sign or a traffic signal

No one has told community residents what precise conditions the intersection fails to meet.

Since the denial of the stop sign, the city transportation department has taken several steps to try to make the intersection safer. It has, for example, installed cone shaped objects to guide oncoming traffic away from the pedestrian bridge and posted a sign on the bridge advising bikers to get off their bikes and walk across the overpass.

Community residents would prefer a stop sign. And at least some of them think they know why their request was rejected. "This is how politics works — red tape," local Democratic Party activist John Bisbano told the Western Queens Gazette. "All they know is numbers."

(Do you need a stop sign in your neighborhood? Tell us about it by going to the Community Gazette for your area.)

-- Nicole Zaray

Common New York irritations, why they persist and what average citizens can – or cannot – do about them:

• Potholes
• Bus Bunching
• An Intersection in Need of a Stop Sign
• Problems with Traffic Lights
• Speed Bumps and Humps
• Dark Streets

» Fixing Urban Irritants (Overview)


Print Friendly and PDF

Editor's Choice

Gotham Gazette: East New York Rezoning, One Year Later East New York Rezoning, One Year Later Gotham Gazette: City Council Members Opt Out of Campaign Finance Program City Council Members Opt Out of Campaign Finance Program Gotham Gazette: Cuomo Contradicts Bharara on Prosecutors & Government Oversight Cuomo Contradicts Bharara on Prosecutors & Government Oversight Gotham Gazette: De Blasio Attempts to Clarify Latest Media Insult De Blasio Attempts to Clarify Latest Media Insult


The comments section is provided as a free service to our readers. Gotham Gazette's editors reserve the right to delete any comments. Some reasons why comments might get deleted: inappropriate or offensive content, off-topic remarks or spam.