(photo: Lime Bike)
Over the last few weeks, the governor’s decision to cancel the L train shutdown dominated New York transportation news. People cheered the decision, thankful that thousands of riders along the route won’t be stranded during the week as they go back-and-forth to work, run errands, and shuttle around their city.
But for a lot of New Yorkers – myself included – the L train news provided no comfort. Actually, it stung a little. Because while the MTA and our leaders are focused on merely keeping our existing mass transportation system from failing, there are millions of us who do not live within easy walking distance of the subway, and who do not have any reliable, affordable transportation options whatsoever.
So one subway line will remain open. Great. What about the rest of us?
The subway lines concentrate in Manhattan, then scatter into the outer-boroughs, missing huge swaths of middle- and lower-income New Yorkers. In other words, those who need reliable public transportation the most tend to have the worst access.
Take where I live, for example. To get to Manhattan from my apartment in the NYCHA Richmond Terrace complex on Staten Island, I have to walk for nearly a half-hour to the ferry. That’s almost an hour of walking, both ways. To his credit, the mayor just announced a new fast ferry plan for Staten Island that will help overall travel time -- but actually getting to the ferry is still a haul.
And my commute is nothing compared to others’ across the city. According to the Pratt Center for Community Development, 750,000 New Yorkers travel more than one hour each way to work. Notably, two-thirds of them earn less than $35,000 a year. Most of those New Yorkers are also black or Latino.
New subway lines and stops are not going to fix that because no one is planning to build any. The MTA is a financial mess and new lines are prohibitively expensive. New bus lines would be welcome, but those would also be costly and vulnerable to budget cuts.
But there are other modes of transportation that require little or no infrastructure that could effectively address the problem now – and the City Council held a hearing on them this week.
On Wednesday, Council members debated legislation to legalize electric scooters in New York, and to expand access to dock-free bikes and scooters citywide. The bills – which now have significant support from Council members – cannot be passed soon enough.
There are companies ready and willing to deliver dock-free bike- and scooter-share service right now. Start-ups like Lime and Jump already provide pedal bikes and e-bikes in pilot zones in the Rockaways, part of the Bronx and on the North Shore of Staten Island. My organization successfully partnered with Lime this summer to serve Richmond Terrace’s alternative transportation needs.
These new, convenient options are operating successfully in other big cities such as Seattle and Paris at citywide scale, carrying thousands of people a day from point A to point B and connecting them to public transportation, significantly shortening their trips.
Dock-free bikes and scooters are also affordable. The standard fee for dock-free bike rides is a third of CitiBike’s price and comparable to a subway or bus fare, allowing people of any income or zip code to move around more easily.
And dock-free bikes and scooters will connect a more diverse population to affordable, reliable transportation. Lime surveyed about 600 riders in its New York City pilot zones and found that about 70 percent of its riders identify as non-white. Sixty-one percent of riders said they were from households that earn $50,000 a year or less.
Governor Cuomo recently endorsed legislation that will authorize cities like New York to allow dock-free electric bikes and scooters. The Legislature should pass those bills as soon as possible, and the city should follow suit.
The city’s transportation equity crisis is real. We must deliver new transportation options to New Yorkers -- especially those who are stranded by mass transit. We deserve at least the right to choose a better commute. Let’s make it happen.
Sarah Blas is the Executive Director of the Richmond Terrace Therapeutic Gardens.