Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/214 Mon, 22 Jul 2019 01:51:12 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Everyone Agrees City Buses are in Crisis. What's Being Done? https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8664-everyone-agrees-city-buses-are-in-crisis-what-s-being-done https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8664-everyone-agrees-city-buses-are-in-crisis-what-s-being-done bx6 select bus inter ave

Mayor de Blasio rides the bus (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


Elected officials, advocates, and especially riders agree: the city’s bus system is broken.

That consensus was reached in recent years as bus speeds slowed to a crawl and the system hemorrhaged ridership. Various advocacy groups and elected officials have put forth studies and plans, and the entities with actual control -- the state-run Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and the New York City Mayor’s Office -- have taken steps toward improving the situation, though many questions around commitment and implementation remain.

Even as the city boasts 2.5 times more bus riders than any of its counterparts across the country, its buses are the slowest in the United States, according to data from the mayor’s office. In the past four years, city bus ridership has decreased by 13 percent; from an annual total ridership of 677,569,432 in 2013 to 602,620,356 in 2017. Buses average a speed of just 8 miles per hour, with speeds at about the pace of a brisk walk in some of the city’s busiest corridors. The slowest city bus route, the M42, runs across Manhattan’s 42nd Street at an average speed of just 3.9 miles per hour, according to data from the city comptroller’s office.

Fixing the buses is a transit issue and a socioeconomic issue; 75 percent of bus riders are people of color, and 50 percent are immigrants, said Danny Pearlstein, policy and communications director for Riders Alliance, an advocacy group.

“Better bus service is really about uplifting the portions of our population that need it the most,” Pearlstein said.

Pearlstein said buses spend 20 percent of their time at bus stops, 20 percent of their time at red lights, and 60 percent in slow traffic.

Both the MTA, which has say over bus routes and personnel, and the office of Mayor Bill de Blasio, which controls the city Department of Transportation and use of the roadways, street designs, and more, have been criticized for doing little to attend to the buses as ridership plummeted. Asleep at the wheel, both have recently reacted to the bus crisis.

To try to fix the bus system and reverse the ridership trend, the MTA and the Mayor’s Office have implemented or announced, at times with partners, a series of plans and laws to improve bus speeds. They’ve recently been aided by legislation passed by the state Legislature to allow for mounted bus cameras that can ticket drivers parked in bus lanes.

According to experts, including advocates and elected and appointed government officials, the keys to speeding up city buses include: improving Select Bus Service, which is a form of express bus; increasing the number of buses with all-door boarding; eliminating inefficient bus stops; implementing transit signal priority (TSP) so buses can move through traffic lights more quickly; creating more bus-only lanes; and enforcing bus lanes. Much of this work has started or been promised, but results are few given that most responses to the crisis are recent.

MTA and the Bus Route Redesigns
This year, the MTA began a bus route redesign effort as part of a plan from Andy Byford, president of MTA New York City Transit, called Fast Forward, which aims to modernize New York City’s subways and buses. While the full go-ahead, including funding, for Fast Forward is still in limbo, moving ahead with bus route redesigns is among the lesser expensive overhauls. New bus routes are essential, Byford and many others agree, to react to changing residential, commuter, and traffic patterns.

The effort saw a complete redesign of the Staten Island bus network in 2018 and is now focusing on the Bronx. Following the redesign, bus speeds on Staten Island increased on average by 8.6 percent and trip reliability improved by 20 percent, according to data from Transit Center, a foundation that seeks to improve public transit. The bus routes in the remaining three boroughs will be redesigned over the next three years, according to Byford’s plans.

Upon completion of the Bronx plan, the MTA will have redesigned 27 of the 60 bus routes in the Bronx, and proposed frequency changes on an additional four routes. The plan will also implement 150 audio-capable “next-bus signs,” improving accessibility. Through expanding the use of queue jumps, which let buses bypass other traffic at intersections, and TSP, which holds green lights longer or turns lights green sooner for buses, the MTA aims to improve speeds significantly.

The MTA also expects to expand Select Bus Service, which allows riders to purchase a fare before boarding the bus to encourage all-door boarding and skips “local” stops in express fashion.

By modernizing fare payment, the MTA has committed to fully switching to all-door bus boarding by 2021, “but that process should be expedited to capitalize on the redesigns before congestion pricing comes into place,” Transit Center spokesperson Ashley Pryce said in a statement to Gotham Gazette, referring to the upcoming 2021 institution of new tolls on driving cars and other private vehicles into Manhattan below 61st Street.

In addition to the MTA’s current plans, some buses could become faster by stopping every four or five blocks instead of every two, Pearlstein said.

Whether it’s redesigning bus routes or eliminating bus stops, the MTA will of course have local battles. The Bronx redesign plan has been met with some opposition from those who believe it will be too disruptive. In Co-op City, the redesign plan will eliminate certain routes and stops that have upset residents. The new system will require many of the neighborhood’s residents to transfer two or three times to get where they are going, said City Council Member Andy King, who represents Co-op City, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. King said that Byford and the MTA proposed a redesign without consulting Co-op City residents.

On June 27, King and Co-op City residents met with the MTA.

“Public feedback is a critical part of our efforts to reimagine the borough’s bus network,” an MTA spokesperson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “We are currently in the process of reviewing the feedback we received before moving forward with any final decisions about the location of stops or changes to routes.”

The MTA declined to comment further on the number of bus routes that the plan would eliminate or the number of transfers it would require for trips in question.

“The transfer problem causes an issue. People in Co-op City would rather have convenience than timing. If I can get around Co-op City and it takes me 25 minutes, I will make sure I have enough time,” King said.

King and other community leaders met with Byford last week to discuss the problems they say the proposed redesign will cause for the neighborhood. Byford was receptive to King and the residents’ suggestions, King said.

“Any proposed bus plan for Co-op City must include conversation with the residents. If they’re not included in the conversation nothing will ever make sense. It might make sense for the MTA, but it won’t make sense for Co-op City,” King said, expressing fairly universal sentiments applicable around the city.

“If ridership in Co-op City has not dwindled that means you are still getting the same kind of fares in Co-op City. If numbers aren’t down, don’t punish them because you have low numbers somewhere else,” King said, taking issue with a “cookie-cutter” approach to redesigns.

However, some view slight inconvenience as necessary for the bus system to be more efficient.

“It may take time for some riders to adjust to new routes and bus stop patterns, but if the MTA and DOT implement their plans well, riders will get faster overall trips and a better experience waiting for the bus,” Pryce said. “While some riders may be asked to walk further to a stop, those remaining stops should be equipped with amenities like shelters and benches that can improve the experience for riders.”

Better Buses Action Plan
In April, Mayor BIll de Blasio and his Department of Transportation (DOT), which has a lot of control over the streets, bus lanes, and related decisions, released the Better Buses Action Plan. The plan aims to see bus speeds increase by 25 percent citywide by the end of 2020 -- a goal de Blasio first announced in his February State of the City speech.

The plan calls for the improvement (through painting lanes, adding all-door boarding, and other measures) of five miles of existing bus lanes each year, the installation of 10-15 miles of new bus lanes per year, and the piloting of physically separated bus lanes by the end of this year. From 2013 through early this year, the DOT has built 111 miles of bus lanes across the city, according to the Better Buses Action Plan. The plan also includes an additional 300 TSP intersections and the implementation of bus camera enforcement.

“Our buses have some of the highest ridership numbers in the country, yet we see that our buses are limited when it comes to their reliability and frequency,” said City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the Council’s transportation committee, in a statement accompanying announcement of the Better Buses Advisory Group, convened by the mayor's office.

Bus lane cameras are currently limited to 16 of the city’s bus routes. They serve to enforce rules against parking in a bus lane, so as to take pressure off the police for finding violators and issuing tickets with fines for cars that park in or otherwise obstruct the bus lane. The program aims to improve bus speeds by making it clear to drivers not to block bus lanes.

At the end of the legislative session in Albany, lawmakers passed legislation to expand the number of automated cameras enforcing bus lanes. Owners of cars that block bus lanes will be fined $50 for the first offense, $100 for the second, $200 for third, and $250 for any additional offense.

In June, de Blasio announced the creation of the Better Buses Advisory Group, which will help implement the Better Buses Action Plan. The group includes the public advocate, state senators, Assembly members, City Council members, and representatives of advocacy groups.

“We are taking action to get New Yorkers moving and saving them time for the things that matter,” de Blasio said in a press release announcing the formation of the group. “With guidance from riders, our new Better Buses advisory group will come up with innovative solutions to get our bus routes up to speed,” he said.

2017 Stringer Report, De Blasio Announcement
The push to revamp the bus network got a shot in the arm in October 2017, following a report detailing the system’s ineffectiveness by Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Stringer advocated for “major upgrades to our bus system, like better integrated, enforced and designed bus lanes, more bus shelters, all-door boarding, and Transit Signal Priority at traffic lights,” he said in a 2017 press release accompanying the report.

Also in October 2017, de Blasio announced a plan to introduce 21 new Select Bus Service routes across the city. As of that time, according to the city, SBS accounted for 12 percent of the city’s bus ridership, but de Blasio said he expected that number to go up to 30 percent, according to comments during a press conference announcing the plan. Select bus routes average speeds 27 percent higher than local routes.

If the buses are faster, “more and more people will use them. If they are easier to use, more and more people will get out of their cars. But if they’re not moving fast enough, it doesn’t encourage anyone to come and take the bus,” de Blasio said.

From 2013 to 2017, the number of SBS routes increased from six to 13. De Blasio expects increased select buses to improve service to areas that currently do not have regular bus service.

“The bottom line is we have to reach every single neighborhood. No neighborhood should be neglected. No one should have a problem getting around because of the ZIP code they live in. Select Bus Service is a difference maker,” de Blasio said in the announcement.

Car Culture and the Buses
Calls to improve bus service are coming in conjunction with broader efforts to improve pedestrian safety, reduce congestion, and decrease the city’s reliance on and deference to cars. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson recently introduced his “master plan for city streets” legislation, which includes a sweeping set of planks to “break car culture” by adding many more bus and bike lanes, and pedestrian plazas.

“A progressive city must do better for bus drivers and must deliver for bus riders,” Pearlstein said at the June City Council hearing on the bill. “This is powerful legislation to look forward to while we’re still unfortunately stuck on the bus.”

Johnson’s plan goes further than de Blasio’s Better Buses Action Plan, calling for 30 miles of new bus lanes each year along with TSP, compared to 5-10 miles under de Blasio’s plan.

“We need much better bus and commuter rail service,” Nicole Gelinas, a Manhattan Institute fellow, told Gotham Gazette. “We need a better bus network to take pressure off the subway as we decrease reliance on cars.”

Other major global cities have bus networks that are bigger and faster than New York’s. In 2010, London boasted a higher bus ridership than New York’s subway ridership.

If New York does not improve its bus system and regain riders, bus service will have to be cut, Pearlstein said, reflecting MTA Board discussions. “If we allow bus service to further deteriorate ridership will continue to fall and service will be cut. There is no leaving it the same,” Pearlstein said. “If you leave it the same it will get worse.”

“There do need to be faster trips, and more service, and they need to meet those lofty goals,” Pearlstein said of the MTA’s redesign efforts. “Otherwise it looks like a service cut.”

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by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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Everyone Agrees City Buses are in Crisis. What's Being Done? Wed, 10 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Hears Speaker’s Bill Requiring ‘Master Plan for City Streets’ https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8590-city-council-to-hear-speaker-s-bill-requiring-master-plan-for-city-streets https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8590-city-council-to-hear-speaker-s-bill-requiring-master-plan-for-city-streets corey jo public

(photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


[Note: this hearing was indeed held on Wednesday June 12; this article is a preview of the hearing]

On Wednesday, the New York City Council transportation committee will hold a hearing on a bill sponsored by Council Speaker Corey Johnson that would mandate the creation of a five-year “master plan” for city streets with a variety of specifications aimed at making the city more friendly to bikers and pedestrians, and less deferential to cars. If passed and implemented, the legislation would have a major impact on the physical landscape of the city and how New Yorkers, as well as visitors to the city, get around and utilize public space.

The plan, which Johnson first announced during his State of the City speech earlier this year, in which he called for municipal control of subways and buses and for ‘breaking the car culture’ in New York, is widely seen as a response, and complement of sorts, to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero street safety program. It calls for substantial increases in the number of new bike and bus lanes created each year, as well as additional pedestrian plazas, and more.

De Blasio launched Vision Zeroed in his first year as mayor, 2014, with the goal of bringing the number of traffic-related fatalities to zero by 2024. While it has been successful, some, including Johnson, believe de Blasio is not moving quickly enough to make city streets safer and more welcoming to those who get around by bus, bike, and foot.

While the city has seen a significant reduction in traffic-related fatalities since the inception of Vision Zero, there’s been a spike in fatalities so far this year compared to the same period last year. The uptick has prompted intensifying calls for de Blasio to do more for the initiative.

Johnson will preside over Wednesday’s hearing on his bill along with City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the transportation committee. The committee will also hear a bill from Council Member Carlos Menchaca that would allow bicyclists to obey traffic signs and signals as if they were pedestrians instead of cars.

The speaker’s master plan legislation would require the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) to issue and implement a master plan for the use of streets, sidewalks, and pedestrian spaces every five years.

“The way we plan our streets now makes no sense and New Yorkers pay the price every day, stuck on slow buses or risking their own safety cycling without protected bike lanes,” Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “That’s why I said in my State of the City speech that I want to completely revolutionize how we share our street space, and that’s what this bill does. This is a roadmap to breaking the car culture in a thoughtful, comprehensive way.”

Representatives from the DOT are expected to testify at the hearing, along with others from transit advocacy groups and members of the public.

“This last few months have been really tough and we – it’s painful because we have had five years of steady decreases in traffic fatalities,” de Blasio said during a May 10 appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show. In 2013, the year before de Blasio took office, there were 297 traffic fatalities (among those in cars, on bikes, and on foot) in New York City. That number has fallen virtually each year since to 202 in 2018.

Under de Blasio’s approach to Vision Zero, “projects are too often planned on a one-off basis, leaving the fate of their actual implementation up to the inscrutable push and pull of local politics,” Families for Safe Streets co-founder Amy Cohen said in a Transportation Alternatives press release about Vision Zero. “In each case, the final outcome is too often determined by who yells the loudest, and not by what will save the most lives.”

Families for Safe Streets is an advocacy group of victims of traffic violence and families whose loved ones have been killed or severely injured by aggressive or reckless driving.

“We need to think seriously about how we share space on our streets,” Johnson, who does not own a car himself, said in March. “Cars cannot continue to rule the road.”

Ten cyclists have been killed in crashes so far in 2019, matching the total number for all of 2018. Johnson’s legislation champions cyclist and pedestrian safety, prioritizing their safety over the convenience of cars. It includes provisions to improve public transportation, especially buses, to incentivize its use.

“Giving our streets back to people is good for business, good for the environment, and good for all New Yorkers,” Johnson said in March, referencing his call for more pedestrian plazas, which often shut off some ground previously open to cars.

Over the course of de Blasio’s five-plus years in office, Vision Zero has continued to evolve, including several announcements this year. De Blasio and DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg announced a new “Vision Zero action plan” in February to “target the next wave of streets and intersections the City will make safer for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers,” using crash data to target some of the most dangerous streets and intersections for alterations, including different signal timing to give pedestrians a head start before cars are able to move.

“Over the last four years, DOT’s groundbreaking Borough Pedestrian Safety Plans have enabled us to target our resources where they will save the most lives,” Trottenberg said in the February press release. “In these updated plans, we have used the freshest data to identify new crash-prone corridors and intersections most in need of our full menu of safety interventions.”

More recently, thanks in part to new legislation in Albany, the city announced its plans to add hundreds more speed cameras near schools across the five boroughs. And on Monday, de Blasio and Trottenberg announced the formation of the “Better Buses Advisory Group,” which will help the administration plan and execute the “Better Buses Action Plan” “to increase bus speeds by 25% across the five boroughs by the end of 2020.” The action plan includes 300 more “Transit Signal Priority” intersections, automated camera and NYPD enforcement of bus lanes, improvement of five miles of existing bus lanes per year, installation of 10 to 15 miles of new bus lanes per year, piloting “up to two miles of physically separated bus lanes in 2019,” and working with the MTA on bus network redesigns that are underway.

The Johnson bill would require DOT, which oversees Vision Zero, to achieve specific benchmarks for street redesigns, protected bus lanes, protected bicycle lanes, bicycle parking, pedestrian spaces, commercial loading zones, truck routes, and parking. DOT would be held accountable for the status of the implementation of each benchmark on an annual basis.

“Smart street design saves lives. We need to make our streets safer. We need to break the car culture. When we make our streets safer, we make our streets better. We know this, but we’re moving way too slowly,” Johnson said in March.

Breaking “car culture” does not mean completely stopping people from driving, said Marco Conner, interim executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group in support of the bill. However, “the extent to which our streets are saturated with cars and trucks is not something that we need,” Conner said during an appearance last week on the Max & Murphy podcast. “And so the ideal New York City that I imagine is one where everyone in New York can get around without a car if they have to.”

Mayor de Blasio has not yet expressed approval of Johnson’s plan, instead expressing concerns about some of the bill’s “specifics.” He declined to mention what specifics he found concerning.

“Now we have aggressive plans in our budget to keep changing street designs to make them safer. So I think there’s a lot of agreement on the basics, some of the specifics we have to work through,” de Blasio said on May 10’s Brian Lehrer Show.

“We have a plan out already to aggressively continue to build out bikes lanes, and it’s a very costly plan, but it’s the right thing to do,” de Blasio said during a question and answer session following a press conference on crime statistics. “It also takes time to do these things. So, I think the plan we have now is the right plan.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Transportation declined to provide insights into how the DOT will testify at the hearing, saying the tesimony was still in process.

City Council Member Menchaca’s legislation will also be heard at the hearing. His bill would establish that “bicyclists crossing a roadway at an intersection must follow pedestrian control signals when local law, rule or regulation provides that those signals supersede traffic control signals.” The hearing follows a pilot run by DOT that showed significant reductions in fatalities on some of the city’s most historically dangerous streets.

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by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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City Council Hears Speaker’s Bill Requiring ‘Master Plan for City Streets’ Tue, 11 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Transportation Commissioner on Managing the Streets, Expanding the Subway, & More https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8384-nyc-transportation-commissioner-trottenberg-de-blasio-streets-subway https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8384-nyc-transportation-commissioner-trottenberg-de-blasio-streets-subway Trottenberg de Blasio DOT

Trottenberg, middle, with de Blasio, left (photo: NYC DOT)


New York needs to rapidly build more subway stops, get people out of cars, rethink its approach to parking, and keep working to drive down historically low numbers of deaths due to vehicle crashes on city streets.

So said New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner and MTA Board member Polly Trottenberg, appearing on a recent episode of the What’s the [Data] Point? podcast to share her assessment of city transit successes and challenges and her vision for the future of transportation in New York City. In a wide-ranging discussion, Trottenberg touched on protecting bike-riders, expanding bus lanes, fighting parking placard abuse, and much more.

Trottenberg views the the sluggish pace of subway expansion as the city’s most pressing transportation problem. “Given the growth and economic dynamism of New York City, we should be opening three subway stops every year...if not faster,” she said, noting population growth over the past decades since the subway network was really built out in a signficant way.

“The biggest transportation challenge the city faces right now is we have stopped building out our subway network,” she said. “That gets into a bigger discussion of the MTA, of the governance, of the funding challenges there,” she added, pointing to current debates over governance reform and congestion pricing that are on the table in Albany as state budget negotiations continue.

“Nothing carries people like subways,” Trottenberg said.

The main reasons New York is not, Trottenberg said, are the MTA’s other urgent needs as it digs out from crisis and a lack of political will for building out subway service. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who appointed Trottenberg to her post as transportation at the start of his administration in 2014, commissioned a study to extend Brooklyn’s Utica Avenue subway line in 2015, for example, but Trottenberg said it’s no longer a priority as the MTA needs funding and is dealing with a multitude of other issues related to its existing assets.

“They just don’t have the funds right now to be in the subway line-building game -- and we should get them back in that game” like big cities in other countries, she said.

Trottenberg also mentioned the need to make subway systems accessible moving forward, which is now mandated by law under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Overall, Trottenberg’s primary goals are to make city streets safer and reduce auto usage by providing trustworthy alternatives. “If you want to get people out of their cars, you’ve got to have good subway service, you’ve got to have good bus service, you’ve have to have safe, protected bike lanes so people want to hop on bikes,” she said. She didn’t go as far as to echo City Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s call to ‘break the city’s car culture,’ but she cited a number of the same goals, discussing the work she’s led for more than five years that is continuing to evolve with not only new street redesign plans and an expansion of Citi Bike, but also new transit experiments like car-sharing and dockless bike-sharing.

Accomplishing the goal of reducing car usage requires robust collaboration between the city’s Department of Transportation and the MTA, especially when it comes to buses, Trottenberg said. While the MTA runs and staffs the subways and buses, NYC DOT’s purview includes traffic signals, roads, bridges, tunnels, sidewalks, bikes, ferries and more. As a result, Trottenberg explained, DOT has a lot of say over buses, including its help designing routes, but also aspects related to bus lanes and traffic signals.

Yet, when it comes to enforcing bus lanes so that there are fewer cars parked in them, for example, the city needs permission from state government to mount more cameras on the buses so that enforcement doesn’t just rely on NYPD patrols.

Trottenberg said addressing the buses is a major priority for Mayor de Blasio, President of MTA New York City Transit Authority Andy Byford, and herself. “Buses have been slowing and we’re losing ridership,” she said. “Both agencies [DOT and the MTA] are really working hard to see if we can turn that around.”

Though she said she’s had plenty of experience on the bus and is pushing bus reform, Trottenberg acknowledged it’s not as much a part of her personal transit as other methods. When asked how she gets around the city, she said, “I do every mode every week -- I try to -- subway, driving -- I oversee the roads, so I do drive -- biking when I can, and then taking the ferry when I can, I don’t take the ferry every week, but I try and ride the Staten Island Ferry when I can, too, since it’s part of what we oversee.”

Asked about the bus, which she didn’t list, she said, “I don’t get on the bus that often, I’ll admit, I”m lucky where I live in Brooklyn I’m near the subway.” Trottenberg added that as the city has put up new Select Bus Service (SBS) lines around the city, she’s ridden some of those, and rode the buses along 14th Street in Manhattan with some frequency as the city and MTA as the city and MTA developed mitigation plans for an expected L-train shutdown, “to get a sense of what we need to do there.”

The parties had been preparing to make 14th Street a largely exclusive “busway” during what was expected to be a full 15-month shutdown of the L-train, until Governor Andrew Cuomo, who effectively controls the MTA, swooped in somewhat last minute to upend the plans and push forward an alternative that will see major service changes, but not a full shutdown, as L-train tunnel repairs are done starting in April.

Trottenberg explained that the city and MTA are now holding a new set of community meetings in Manhattan and Brooklyn about “what to do on 14th Street” and other impacted areas. The new plan calls for many months of night and weekend work, with one of the two tubes closed and trains running much less frequently.

Trottenberg said 14th Street is still painted for the busway, and that she prefers to still implement one, but that it is one of two options now being presented to impacted communities, home to hundreds of thousands of L train riders and many others who use the main and surrounding roadways involved, in both boroughs. The busway would include “minimal vehicular access. Basically local pick up and drop off and deliveries, but no through-driving,” Trottenberg explained, a system that is somewhat complicated, she added, by the fact that the route has a lot of housing along it.

The alternative under consideration, she said, is a hybrid plan centered around Select Bus Service (SBS), which would increase bus service and still allowing cars on the road.

[LISTEN: Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg on What's The [Data] Point?]

While Trottenberg spoke to many of the challenges facing the city’s public transit system, she was also eager to highlight successes, namely the Vision Zero street safety program, the design and implementation of which she has been in charge of since 2014 after it was a piece of de Blasio’s 2013 mayoral campaign.

In 2018, the number of traffic-related fatalities on city streets fell to 202, down by 20 from 2017 and down nearly a third, she pointed out, since the 299 deaths in 2013. “In that same period, nationwide fatalities went up around 14, 15 percent,” she said, calling it “a signature initiative of the de Blasio administration” and outlining the key principles of Vision Zero: “engineering, enforcement, and education” that lead to hundreds of street redesigns.

The installation of speed cameras around schools has been a cornerstone of the program’s success. “We see speeding drop by over 60 percent, we see injuries go down by 17 percent,” Trottenberg said, and pointing to the recent success in Albany where Democratic lawmakers in charge of both legislative houses just passed a bill allowing the city to install hundreds more cameras near schools. Saying that she expects Cuomo to sign it, Trottenberg said it will enable the city “to do a lot to protect New Yorkers...all over the city.”

Despite Vision Zero’s overall success, six bicyclists have already been killed on city streets this year, compared to a total of ten in all of 2018 (there were 24 in 2017), renewing calls to expand the city’s bike lane network. “This year, unfortunately, I think that number may go up,” Trottenberg said, explaining that she and other officials are “heartbroken” about the spate of fatalities early this year. “Progress isn’t always going to be linear. We want to see that the long-term trends are going in the right direction,” she said. But around the tragedies, DOT always studies where crashes occur, she said, and city is looking at places to add new "protected infrastructure," particularly in Manhattan cross-streets, where the city has added that infrastructure in several places.

Trottenberg said DOT is exploring plans to install bike lanes on 52nd Street and 55th Street, in addition to many “key connections” across the city, like the one between the Brooklyn Bridge and City Hall. “It’s a really short stretch of roadway, but it’s an incredibly important piece of connecting the bike network.” DOT plans to build better bicycle and pedestrian friendly connections between northern Manhattan and the Bronx, in addition to expanding the bicycle network into neighborhoods where “cycling is growing,” like Jackson Heights, she said.

DOT uses a metric called KSI, or killed and seriously injured, per mile to identify problem areas, the commissioner explained. Trottenberg said the department mapped out KSI on every city corner in all five boroughs and found that seven to eight percent of the city’s roads are responsible for half of the city’s fatalities, enabling DOT to target safety measures in key intersections. This effort has also been advanced with help from the Mayor’s Office of Operations, NYPD, and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, she said.

Interagency data further unveiled a spike in fatalities during seasonal changes, particularly in late October when commuters are adjusting to the start of daylight saving time, and in early spring when warm weather brings out more pedestrians and bikers. “We’ve attempted to look at geography, at seasonality, at time of day, and then at driver behaviors,” she said. “We’re trying to tackle fatalities and crashes at every dimension.”

Trottenberg said that the levels of New York City bureaucracy and community input processes can slow the pace of the growth of bike networks. She said it’s a frequent point of contention, with some New Yorkers calling for DOT to surpass community boards, while others believe that projects should not move forward without community input. “When we can bring people along and buy them in and make them part of our Vision Zero work, I think that’s a better approach,” she said, while affirming that while she’s proud of the administration’s pace she always wants to move faster.

On car usage, Trottenberg said she favors raising the cost of parking, implementing congestion pricing and turning to a computerized system that reads city officials’ license plates to fight placard abuse.

Alternative modes of transportation like dockless bikes and scooters are “in an experimental phase,” she said. DOT is piloting dockless bikes in several places, including on Staten Island, where she said the city is talking to officials and residents about “doing a borough-wide pilot.”

She said it appears dockless bike-share is best suited to geographically confined but less population-dense areas where the bikes can be kept in a defined area and docks don’t make as much sense. Scooters, meanwhile, are not yet legal in New York City, she noted -- another issue awaiting approval in Albany, where signs have pointed to likely advancement -- adding that “there’s a lot of interest in scooters,” but many questions remain. “The jury’s still out,” she said.

Regarding her role at the MTA, where Trottenberg is about to hit roughly five years on the board, she said “we have a great leader in Andy Byford, I think we need to give him the resources and the support he needs to continue what is clearly starting to be a real turnaround in the subway system.” That requires action in Albany and support from the MTA board she said, adding that the board needs to be more transparent and accountable.

“I’d like to see the city’s priorities really considered and be part of what the MTA is focused on,” Trottenberg added. Asked how that happens, she said it relates to how the whole MTA capital plan happens, the role of key stakeholders, and other changes, not just with the board itself. “I’d like to I think see the MTA and the city work together more closely leading up to whatever happens on board day,” when the board meets and often votes on things, she said.

Of the mayor’s four representatives on the board and the importance of the city’s voice there, Trottenberg noted she had a couple of years where she was basically the city’s only representative on the MTA board, but that she was then joined by three other strong members, who have been able to influence the discussions.

[LISTEN: Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg on What's The [Data] Point?]

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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City Transportation Commissioner on Managing the Streets, Expanding the Subway, & More Sun, 24 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
What's The [Data] Point? 202, with City Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8378-what-s-the-data-point-202-with-city-transportation-commissioner-polly-trottenberg https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8378-what-s-the-data-point-202-with-city-transportation-commissioner-polly-trottenberg whats the data point


What's The [Data] Point? Episode 68 -- 202, with City Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

polly trottenberg wtdp march 2019New York City Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg joined the podcast to discuss her tenure and approach to managing city streets and transit, as well as her role on the MTA Board. The conversation touched upon street safety and the city's Vision Zero program, getting the city's buses moving again, bike-sharing, parking placard abuse, L-train repair work mitigation plans, and more.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Maria Doulis of CBC (@MariaDoulis). Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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What's The [Data] Point? 202, with City Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg Thu, 21 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
The Great Select Bus Service Conspiracy: Part II https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7609-the-great-select-bus-service-conspiracy-part-2 https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7609-the-great-select-bus-service-conspiracy-part-2 mayor select bus

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


This is part two of a three-part series

Part one discussed: the promises and the reality, the difference between bus travel time and passenger travel time, who benefits and who is hurt by SBS, how the mayor, MTA and DOT mislead, and the true costs of SBS.

Denigration of Local Bus Service
In many cases, the introduction of SBS has resulted in a denigration of local bus service -- though this does not apply to Manhattan crosstown routes. Most notably this has occurred on the M15 First and Second Avenue routes in Manhattan and on the B44 and B46 routes in Brooklyn. Many riders who prefer the local are now forced to walk further to an SBS stop after waiting a half-hour for a local and seeing three SBS buses bypass their stop.

After implementation of the B44 SBS, complaints of long waits up to 45-minutes for the local forced the MTA to add additional local service, after three months and a new SBS stop at Avenue L. Although the B44 SBS uses the longer buses with a 50 percent greater capacity while the local uses standard length buses, local buses are more crowded since ridership is equally split between SBS and local. Riders complain of near empty SBS buses passing them by.  

Problems with Enforcement
Passengers and cars are sometimes summonsed unfairly and a kangaroo court system exists where innocent people often are found guilty. Just a few examples: convicted for theft of services, a fine of $150, when it is proven at the hearing that there was a valid transfer on the MetroCard; cameras ticketing cars for crossing the bus lane when pulling out of or entering legal parking spaces; being summonsed during hours that a bus lane is not in effect, or a minute after it goes into effect or one minute before it is no longer in effect. Should someone be penalized with a fine exceeding $100 because his watch is a minute early or late? There should be a grace period of five minutes, as with muni-parking meters. And summonses mailed three months later make it difficult to mount a court defense. 

There was at least one instance in 2014, captured on video, of police shoving, harassing and kicking a passenger for five minutes after getting off the bus, although he produces ID and an SBS receipt as requested.  We do not know what interactions preceded the video but it appears from the video that the individual is doing nothing wrong.

There have been instances where bus operators have told passengers to board the bus because all fare machines at a bus stop were broken and to get off at the next stop to obtain a receipt. However, before they could comply, the Eagle Team boarded the bus and summonsed them. This would not leave a favorable opinion about New York City if it happened to a tourist. The MTA has since clarified its fare payment policy when all machines at a bus stop are inoperable.

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Other SBS Problems
Fare machines on the first route (Bx12) had to be replaced after three years because no one thought of providing weather protection, wasting millions. There are many SBS problems that the city and MTA have not resolved. These are: worn out pavement markings; poor and confusing signage for motorists; broken countdown time clocks and fare machines sometimes not repaired for months; inadequate exclusive bus lane enforcement; and riders who need an additional bus transfer due to SBS and are therefore required to pay extra fares to utilize SBS. (The governor recently vetoed legislation permitting an extra bus transfer for a single fare.)

The picture of the Nostrand Avenue bus lane in Sheepshead Bay was taken a year after implementation in 2014. It still has not been repainted.

Drivers are supposed to know that right turns must be made from the bus lane even on blocks where a “Buses Only” sign is posted on the prior block, although there is no additional signage to indicate that. Actually, right turns must be made from the bus lane about 50 feet after the “Buses Only” sign (pictured). Where signs do indicate right turns
are allowed (pictured) the words “& Right Turns” are too small to be easily read at speeds over 20 MPH. They should be the same size as the words “Buses Only.”

Machines are not always placed where they are easily seen, making them easy to miss if you are running for a bus and are not aware beforehand that the route is SBS. Occasionally, non-SBS wrapped buses are used in SBS service which accept fares subjecting you to a summons if you board not realizing you are on an SBS bus. The signage at bus stops also could be clearer. The print stating "Get Ticket Here" and in much smaller print "Before You Board Bus" could be interpreted as paying before you board is an option. “Get Ticket Here” should be preceded with "YOU MUST" in large capital letters. To make matters worse, bus operators may not inform confused passengers who they see boarding without a receipt that one is necessary. 

The 60-foot buses used on many SBS routes are more difficult to maneuver, do not work well in snow storms, have higher labor and fuel costs, and are more inefficient than 40-footers when the bus is lightly loaded. Yet the MTA does not substitute them with regular-length buses during times of light usage, such as during evening and overnight hours. 

All SBS problems need to be addressed before the system is expanded further.

Negative Effects on Traffic and Local Businesses
There have also been negative effects on traffic caused by exclusive bus lanes that are being ignored or explained away. The Woodhaven Boulevard SBS has helped increase automobile travel times during peak hours by as much as 45 minutes. This is significant because about 80 percent of motor vehicle traffic is not bus riders and SBS is not attractive enough for people to switch to the bus. Bus lanes on Woodhaven Boulevard do not result in faster buses in the off-peak, but are mostly in effect 24/7 anyway. Curbside bus lanes on Saturdays were not necessary and have hurt businesses. The longer bus stops required for 60-foot buses reduce available parking.

DOT is proposing exclusive bus lanes on the wide portion of Kings Highway for the B82 where buses are already traveling near the 25 MPH speed limit except for three hours a day. This will also negatively affect traffic and will not benefit bus passengers. Merchants and elected officials are opposing bus lanes on the narrow portion of the road.

Public Participation is Inadequate
The “democratic process” used to create SBS routes is an illusion. There is no specific outreach to alert motorists; public meetings are not adequately publicized, and there have been complaints of some of them being held at inconvenient hours; SBS information for proposed routes and SBS progress reports are difficult to find on the internet; no public hearings (different from meetings) are held; many community concerns and negatives, such as reduced parking, are ignored; half-truths are presented with many omissions; DOT and the MTA only respond to questions they want to answer.

Community groups are allowed only one representative at Community Advisory Committee meetings. However, DOT stacked at least one of the 2015 Woodhaven Boulevard meetings with three supporters from Transportation Alternatives.

When actual traffic data was questioned, it was substituted with modeling data not presented at that meeting. The presentation was then revised and backdated to make it appear the modeling data was presented at the meeting rather than the actual traffic data. Modeling assumptions were not revealed.

After initially stating to the communities that there was no relation between SBS and Vision Zero, DOT made SBS and Vision Zero part of the Complete Streets Program in order to use funding earmarked for Vision Zero to expand SBS. Underhanded tactics such as these have been a hallmark of the SBS program. 

The process is dragged out to give the illusion of democracy when many meetings are not even necessary. Combined meetings could be held with more than one merchants’ association at a time in a given corridor cutting years off the SBS implementation process.

Instead, the divide and conquer strategy is used to prevent many negative opinions at the same time. It also affords the agencies the opportunity to provide different and conflicting responses to each group. The same strategy was used at the presentations to the general public. Plans are presented in bits and pieces so that communities do not see the complete plan. The promises and positives of SBS were presented as a sales pitch. The public was then divided into workshops of six people each with the discussions led by DOT employees, ensuring that everyone heard all the positives but not the negatives in coherent form. That resulted in no negative being heard by more than five other individuals instead of 30.

At the initial meetings, at least along Woodhaven Boulevard, problems and suggestions from communities were discussed with SBS presented as one possible solution. At subsequent meetings SBS was proposed as the only solution for all bus problems and community support was requested. At one Woodhaven Residents Block Association meeting where DOT was summoned to attend, an informal vote of SBS support was taken in which 100 opposed the SBS plan and only one was in favor. DOT’s response was that SBS would still be implemented. Since SBS was now a given, curbside bus lanes were proposed by the community, but DOT chose center roadway lanes instead, over community fears of decreased safety.

Any suggestion other than SBS is summarily dismissed. Only massive and organized protests can alter the pre-existing SBS solution. It took a major effort to reverse most of DOT’s 26 additional proposed left turn restrictions on Woodhaven Boulevard; DOT admitted to only 19 on the last page of their FAQ document, implementing a northbound restriction at Rockaway Blvd, while proposing a southbound restriction. Still, there are no signs to alert drivers where the next left turn is allowed, while they are only about once a mile, despite DOT promises of advance signage. That causes unfamiliar drivers to go far out of their way since right turns are also not allowed from the center roadway except for a few slip lanes.

Just recently, DOT agreed to eliminate Saturday bus lanes on Cross Bay Boulevard. Repeated suggestions for a B44 SBS stop at Avenue R were ignored prior to implementation. Residents and elected officials have now been fighting for five years for this needed bus stop.

Community involvement is far from adequate.

This is part two of a three-part series. Read part one here. The final part discusses why SBS is not a cure all, if it can work, and whether it is worth it.

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Allan Rosen is a former director of Bus Planning for MTA New York City Transit. On Twitter @BrooklynBus.

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

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The Great Select Bus Service Conspiracy: Part II Mon, 16 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
The Great Select Bus Service Conspiracy: Part I https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7599-the-great-select-bus-service-conspiracy-part-i https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7599-the-great-select-bus-service-conspiracy-part-i department of transportation

(photo via DOT)


This is part one of a three-part series

Select Bus Service (SBS), New York City's version of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), has been embraced by the media as well as by many organizations. This is in addition to the city Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) -- SBS is a joint project of the two agencies with DOT being the lead agency. Supporters include: Bus Turnaround Coalition, Move NY, NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign, Pratt Center for Community Development, New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, Riders Alliance, Rockefeller Foundation, Streetsblog, Transit Center, Transportation Alternatives, Tristate Transportation Campaign, Mayor de Blasio, Governor Cuomo, and the entire New York City Council.

Could they all possibly be wrong? Yes.

The Promises and The Reality
Supporters consider SBS to be a panacea for many of New York City’s bus problems. Whenever asked how the city is improving bus service, the response most often is that more SBS routes are being created. Yet SBS has not solved the problems that it promised to solve, such as stemming the loss of ridership, making buses more reliable, or significantly shortening passenger trip times.

A report from city Comptroller Scott Stringer, “The Other Transit Crisis: How to Improve the NYC Bus System,” highlights dozens of problems with local buses that SBS does not address or does not significantly reduce. Some of the problems mentioned are: buses are slow, ridership is declining, and service is unreliable. Yet SBS does not significantly improve bus speeds or reliability. Nor has it increased ridership in many cases.

The comptroller states, “Of the nine SBS routes introduced prior to 2016, five have experienced a ridership decline...SBS routes travel at an average speed of 8.7 miles per hour, or just slightly better than the seven miles per hour achieved by local buses...City-wide, SBS routes fail to maintain steady, evenly spaced service 19 percent of the time, while local buses fail 22 percent of the time.”

Transit Signal Priority (TSP) for buses, promised a decade ago, extends a green light for buses approaching an intersection or shortens a red light to speed buses. It is a promised feature for SBS, but according to the comptroller it is in effect on only five of the 326 bus routes and at only 260 intersections. (The routes are the B46, BX41, the S79, and the southern portions of the M15 and B44.)

SBS was originally proposed in New York City in 2004 with the first five corridors promised by 2009. However, only one corridor was implemented by then. Instead it took until 2013 for the first five corridors, which were the Bx12, M15, M34/M34A, S79, and Bx41. By 2016, there were 12 SBS corridors, with the addition of the B44, M60, M86, Q44, B46, Q70, and M23. The program was then about five years behind schedule. Last year the M79, Bx6, and Q52/Q53 were also converted to SBS routes, bringing the total number of SBS corridors to 15 (or 17 routes). Mayor de Blasio promised 20 routes by the end of 2017.

The unproven premise by DOT and the MTA is that SBS is a major improvement. The comptroller shows with data that the improvements have been marginal at best.

The Difference Between Bus Travel Time and Passenger Travel Time
SBS supporters confuse bus travel time with passenger travel time. They are different. SBS buses save time primarily because of fewer bus stops and exclusive lanes, if honored. In some cases, it is not because passengers pay their fares before boarding. The 86th Street bus saves only about two minutes, as shown in Figure 2 of the progress report for the entire crosstown trip because of passengers pre-paying their fares. The passenger saves even less time. 

The need to pre-pay your fare increases the likelihood of missing a bus and waiting up to an additional 20 minutes for one. That could double your travel time. Conversion of many SBS routes to the longer 60-foot articulated buses further increases wait times. Typically, four articulated buses replace five standard 40-foot buses. Articulated buses seat 60 passengers each, 50 percent more than standard buses. However, when compared to buses of the 1950s that seated 53 and PCC trolleys that also seated about 60, are they that much of an improvement?

The Eagle Team is in charge of fare enforcement on SBS routes. If the Eagle Team enters the bus to check SBS receipts, the bus is held for five minutes rather than proceeding with the check while the bus is in motion, delaying the bus five minutes. This could easily wipe out the time you saved using SBS. Also, completing your trip on a subway or another bus(es) is a component of passenger travel time but not included in the SBS bus travel time statistic. A savings in passenger travel time, the time it takes to complete your entire journey, is the real indicator of SBS improvement for passengers. No statistics for this are available.

Who Benefits from and Who is Hurt by SBS?
Passengers making bus trips exceeding five miles do save significant time, perhaps up to 20 minutes. However, the average local/limited/SBS trip is only 2.3 miles. Therefore, for the vast majority of bus passengers the three to five minutes they save on the bus is spent walking extra to and from the wider spaced bus stops which could be considered as a service cutback. Is that an improvement, especially during bad weather when someone would prefer to ride than walk?

Additional walking is especially inconvenient for the elderly, handicapped, infirm, and those lugging gear. Separate SBS and local bus stops are also inconvenient. This requires passengers to cross the street if they just want to take the first bus that comes.

Some passengers even have longer trip times due to SBS because some former limited riders have switched to the local rather than walk up to three-quarters of a mile to reach an SBS bus stop. Others would have to pay an extra fare for SBS where it or the local does not cover the entire route if a third bus is required. The B44 and B46 are examples. 

It was the city’s policy for over 50 years that no new service or service cutback should result in additional fares. This policy has not been strictly adhered to since MetroCard was instituted and the MTA eliminated numerous multiple-bus transfers that were instituted as a result of trolley and elevated cutbacks. When additional free transfers are created, they are not publicized anywhere, so you just have to know where they exist.

The MTA benefits with shortened bus trip times, but it still costs more to operate SBS routes because of the enforcement element, and if 60-foot buses are used, labor and fuel costs are higher. The current labor agreement provides premium pay for operators of articulated buses.

The negative effects of SBS on other traffic are ignored, dismissed, or attributed to other factors in the MTA SBS progress reports, which are only released to the public once for each route. Traffic on avenues parallel to Nostrand Avenue were shown to have increased when exclusive lanes were installed there (see pages 32 and 33 of the Progress Report.)

On Woodhaven Boulevard, the traffic increases were most apparent after exclusive bus lanes were introduced. A DOT report showed that traffic increased by 38 percent on one portion of the roadway if one did the arithmetic. The data was removed from DOT’s website after it was made aware of that.

Increased traffic means more congestion, generating greater air pollution with long-term health consequences and costs, slower trips for non-bus users, increases in trucking costs, which are passed on to the consumer, as well as other negative effects, such as impeding emergency services. None of this has been estimated or measured because there have been no environmental impact statements.

A transit improvement means that more benefit from a change than are harmed by it. Proper traffic analyses conducted by licensed professional traffic engineers should be undertaken and the economic impacts on businesses need to be studied. But according to the MTA’s SBS FAQ’s, everyone benefits.

How the Mayor, MTA and DOT Mislead
Let's review the claims made by Mayor de Blasio late last year when he announced 21 new routes over the next ten years. He touted reduced travel time and increased bus reliability with SBS, but confused bus travel time savings with passenger travel time savings. The comptroller’s data showed only marginal improvements to bus travel times and bus speeds, as already explained.

SBS buses, even with exclusive bus lanes, still bunch up to three buses at a time with long waits for the next bus, which the comptroller attributes to inadequate enforcement of exclusive bus lanes.

The mayor stated local buses are notoriously slow and unreliable. True, but examine the average speeds on some of the SBS crosstown routes: M34/34A: 4.6/4.4 MPH; M86: 5.0 MPH. Even the M15 with its exclusive bus lanes has an average speed of only 6.5 MPH, not exactly fast, when you consider bikes average about 9 MPH.

The MTA and DOT are using BRT successes in other cities and countries to justify SBS here, which really isn’t true BRT. They confuse and oversell by using the terms interchangeably. They selectively use data and manipulate statistics to give false and misleading impressions.

They claim SBS has increased ridership by 10 percent. Where ridership rose during the first year of SBS, that statistic is used and future year ridership declines are ignored as they did with the M15. Where ridership declined during the first year of operation, they cite second year increases as they did with the B44. Where SBS ridership rose, but local ridership declined, they cite only the SBS ridership numbers.

A 20 or 30 percent reduction in travel time is claimed but that is bus travel time, not passenger travel time. A bus travel time savings of 15 minutes for a ten-mile long route does not mean passengers save anywhere near that amount of time because, generally, no one rides an entire route. The average bus travel time savings is usually only three or four minutes.

Faulty methodology is used to claim about a 95 percent satisfaction for SBS passengers. Survey results for local riders who are dissatisfied with SBS are hidden. DOT claimed that B44 local passengers were never surveyed after SBS was instituted. A first year B46 SBS Progress Report was not issued although service began in July 2016. Ridership declined on that route by 400,000 annual riders in 2016, the year it was implemented. Statistics for 2017 are not yet available.

In the MTA's world, a rating of six out of ten, or 60 percent, from all passengers would translate into a 100 percent customer satisfaction rating.

DOT and the MTA are also very careful with language using statements such as all buses are equipped for TSP and it will be in effect, omitting it is in effect only at a miniscule percentage of intersections where bus routes operate and has been promised for a decade, as Comptroller Stringer stated.

They use percentages to their advantage rather than actual numbers. For example, they promise “up to a 30 percent travel time savings.” That may translate into an actual savings of only three or four minutes for an average passenger making a typical 45-minute trip.

Potential is stressed over reality in discussing SBS advantages. They state that a bus can carry 80 passengers while a car often carries one, or mention motorists potentially switching from cars to buses. They do not state how many actually did switch or how often the bus is nearly empty.

The True Costs of SBS
SBS is heralded as a low-cost alternative to rail. It is not low-cost, nor does it have similar benefits to rail. It is not "subway on the surface" as advocates claim. It might be if it were true BRT.

The mayor spoke only about DOT's annual SBS budget of $9.4 million. He conveniently neglected to mention the MTA and federal contributions. Each SBS route costs the MTA between $2 million and $5 million per year extra to operate according to MTA Staff Summary requests. That's $40 million per year the mayor is omitting.

Fifty million dollars per year over ten years is $500 million. Twenty-one promised new routes add another $500 million for the MTA and $130 million for DOT. That's $1.13 billion over ten years just for increased operating costs, if all routes were operating on day one. Then there are the initial construction costs where the numbers conflict. Sometimes the cost of acquiring new buses is included and other times it is not or the federal portion is omitted. Costs for a short crosstown route are cited for as little as $6 million, with longer routes costing as much as $40 million. If we assume an average construction cost of only $25 million, 36 corridors would cost $920 million.  

DOT estimated that the construction cost alone for the BRT full treatment for Woodhaven Boulevard would cost between $200 and $300 million. If $40 million was already spent, what could possibly be accomplished by spending more than an additional $200 million? That was never explained.

Constructing and operating 36 SBS bus corridors over a ten-year period would cost over $2 billion, without accounting for inflation. That is not “low cost.”

This is part one of a three-part series. Part two discusses the denigration of local bus service, problems with enforcement, other SBS problems, negative effects on traffic and local businesses, inadequate public participation, and why SBS is not a cure all.

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Allan Rosen is a former director of Bus Planning for MTA New York City Transit. On Twitter @BrooklynBus.

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

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The Great Select Bus Service Conspiracy: Part I Thu, 12 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio’s 'Piecemeal' Transportation Agenda https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6855-de-blasio-s-piecemeal-transportation-agenda https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/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.”

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by Luke Foley, Gotham Gazette

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De Blasio’s 'Piecemeal' Transportation Agenda Wed, 05 Apr 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Steps for A Safer Corona, A Safer Queens, and A Safer City https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/6583-steps-for-a-safer-corona-a-safer-queens-and-a-safer-city https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/6583-steps-for-a-safer-corona-a-safer-queens-and-a-safer-city ferreras 111 street

A rally for change on 111th Street (photo: @JulissaFerreras)


A few weeks ago, I joined over 100 parents and their children on the steps of City Hall to ask Mayor de Blasio to finally make 111th Street safer. After more than a year of waiting, and multiple rounds of community engagement, the Department of Transportation announced a new agreement Wednesday, and will move forward with the process to make these changes a reality.

For the tens of thousands of community members in Corona and the surrounding areas, safer days are finally in sight. And, this advocacy and progress are both a model for communities around the city where safety must be paramount.

For families in our neighborhoods, crossing 111th Street is too dangerous. Nearby 111th St are two elementary schools, an assisted living facility for seniors, and a playground for children with special needs. And, 111th Street will soon be the site of a large pre-K center near the Hall of Science. In addition, baseball and soccer leagues and other activities happen inside Flushing Meadows Corona Park every day.

In order to cross 111th, families must traverse 94 feet without a place to stop should they need to. They must cross five lanes, where cars routinely speed due to the wide road and general lack of traffic. This is unacceptable, especially given how important Flushing Meadows Corona Park is to our community. Tens of thousands of people use the park every week, and 111th Street has been a barrier to entry for too long. DOT has rightly designated the corridor as a Vision Zero priority.

Improving 111th Street has been a priority for this community for a long time as well, with proposals to change the street dating back decades. This issue comes as no surprise considering the street’s history. Built during the first World’s Fair by Robert Moses, the street was designed to be a grand entrance to the lavish festival, conceived with only cars in mind. Needless to say, the 111th Street of Robert Moses’ time is long behind us and it is currently an obstacle to safely enjoying one of the city’s largest green spaces. In the decades since the fair, it has served to draw a clear line between a community and its park. Today, people walk, push strollers, bike, and drive across and down 111th Street. The agreement will update it to the changes over times and create a safer future.

Specifically, DOT’s recently released agreement will reduce pedestrian crossing distance by 50%. It will add 14 median extensions to give pedestrians a place to stand while crossing. It will create a parking protected bike lane. It will reduce traffic by one lane on each side. And, contrary to many other proposals of its type, it will add 20 parking spaces. These are substantial improvements that I have demanded alongside parents and residents of Corona and I hope will soon be in place. But they are not complete, and I will continue to work with the DOT to make 111th Street even safer, particularly by installing more crosswalks.

I call this an agreement because it is supported by a wide cross section of the community, including Congressman Crowley, Queens Borough President Katz, and Assemblyman Moya. We have done substantial community engagement to get input and DOT has updated the plan to reflect that feedback. There will be additional opportunities for engagement to learn why these changes are critical. But we should not wait to make them a reality. Families have waited too long.

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City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland represents the 21st Council District in Queens, serving the neighborhoods of Corona, Elmhurst, East Elmhurst, LeFrak City and parts of Jackson Heights. On Twitter @JulissaFerreras.

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

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Steps for A Safer Corona, A Safer Queens, and A Safer City Thu, 20 Oct 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Bill Would Prioritize Repairs at NYCHA Senior Developments https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6551-bill-would-prioritize-repairs-at-nycha-senior-developments https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6551-bill-would-prioritize-repairs-at-nycha-senior-developments torres nycha tour

Council Member Torres, right (photo via NYCHA on Flickr)


A new report by City Council Member Ritchie Torres’ office found a vast backlog in necessary repairs of sidewalks outside New York City public housing, particularly developments for senior citizens. Torres, a Bronx Democrat who chairs the Council’s Committee on Public Housing, believes this is a serious issue of public safety and will introduce a bill on Wednesday that would require the Department of Transportation to prioritize sidewalk reconstruction at senior-only developments within the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).

At the end of the fiscal year, NYCHA provides DOT with a list of sidewalks to be repaired outside housing developments. DOT has access to limited capital funds for these repairs, which leaves many sidewalks broken for years. Last year, in an effort to expand repairs, the DOT increased its annual commitment to NYCHA sidewalks from $1 million to $3 million. Torres’ report, which was previewed by Gotham Gazette, points out that senior-only developments tend to be low on the priority list provided by NYCHA.

“The city’s policy to senior citizens, concerning sidewalks, is essentially, ‘break a leg,’” Torres said in a phone interview. He stressed that seniors are particularly susceptible to trip-and-fall hazards, and at greater risk from the resulting injuries, and that NYCHA needs to give special consideration to senior housing developments when determining which sidewalks should be repaired.

Currently, there are more than 61,500 New Yorkers, age 65 and older, living in NYCHA developments. Of the city’s 328 total public housing properties, 41 are senior housing developments and 15 are senior-only buildings within mixed population developments. “Common sense would dictate you give special consideration to senior citizens who have special needs,” Torres said. “The city’s policy is basically a rejection of common sense.”

sidewalkThe report notes recent increases in DOT’s budget for NYCHA property reconstructions that should first go to senior developments. It is estimated that roughly $327.2 million of DOT’s $8.9 billion ten-year capital budget is meant to be allocated towards sidewalk and ramp repair for approximately 28.6 million square feet of citywide. The eight-page document from Torres’ office also includes pictures (left) of sidewalks from senior developments across the five boroughs and estimated costs for repair, with some of them relatively easy fixes. Only one senior development, Cassidy-Lafayette Houses on Staten Island, was ranked at the top of DOT’s priority list for repairs.

So far this year, the DOT has repaired sidewalks outside 11 NYCHA developments, nine of which have on-site senior centers, according to a NYCHA spokesperson. These nine include Melrose Houses in the Bronx, Reid Apartments in Brooklyn, Vladeck Houses in Manhattan and South Jamaica Houses in Queens. The spokesperson also said the DOT was aiming to complete repairs at three more sites with senior centers before the end of the construction season.

“NYCHA and DOT maintain a strong partnership – and we are committed to working together with the Council Member to address these issues, ensuring improved quality of life and safe sidewalks for all of our residents,” read a joint statement emailed to Gotham Gazette. “We look forward to reviewing the legislation.”

Torres will introduce his bill at Wednesday’s City Council meeting, it may then be heard in committee.

The de Blasio administration has not weighed in on the proposal yet. “We’ll review the bill upon introduction,” said Aja Worthy-Davis, deputy press secretary in the mayor’s press office.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated. 

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Bill Would Prioritize Repairs at NYCHA Senior Developments Tue, 27 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Increasingly Popular, Design-Build for City Relies on Albany https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6393-increasingly-popular-design-build-for-city-relies-on-albany https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6393-increasingly-popular-design-build-for-city-relies-on-albany Tappan Zee Const 2 1

New NY Bridge Construction (photo: New York State Transit Authority)


Every day, approximately 140,000 vehicles travel an elevated stretch of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway that runs through Brooklyn Heights between Atlantic Avenue and Sands Street. In addition to being one of New York’s busiest roads, one Brooklyn stretch of the BQE is a feat of engineering—it consists of 21 different overpasses and, for about half a mile, takes on the form of a triple-cantilever structure with two-way traffic and a walkway stacked vertically on three concrete levels.

But in the past decade, the BQE has fallen into disrepair. Deteriorating joints, narrow lanes, and potholes have led to chronic delays and safety issues, according to a briefing released by the New York City Department of Transportation in April. DOT has forecast $1.7 billion in upgrades and repairs to the BQE, which could take until 2026 to complete.

Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, however, has identified a way to save $98 million and shave up to a year off the project. Known as “design-build,” the project delivery method would allow DOT to hire a contractor who is responsible for both design and construction of the project. According to Trottenberg, this would cut time and cost over the traditional “design-bid-build” method in which agencies must sign separate contracts with an architect and contractor, thereby lengthening the process and assuming any unforeseen costs that arise between a project’s design and execution.

“It can shave years off our major projects, it can shave millions of dollars and also greatly cut down on potential disputes, change orders, and litigation,” Trottenberg said in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “If [the architecture firm] and [the construction firm] got together in the beginning, then they would have a design that by nature would probably be more flexible and more buildable.”

Under New York State procurement law, however, the design-build method is off-limits to most public entities including city agencies like DOT. Governor Andrew Cuomo expanded design-build authority as a “pilot” program to a few state agencies in 2011: the Thruway Authority, Department of Transportation, Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Department of Environmental Conservation, and Bridge Authority. The pilot program expired in 2014 and was renewed the following year, but Albany failed to pass a 2015 bill that would have expanded design-build authority to all public entities including in New York City.

A somewhat more modest design-build bill, the New York City Public Works Investment Act, was introduced to the state Assembly and Senate last May by sponsors Michael Benedetto, a Democrat representing the East Bronx, and Andrew Lanza, a Republican representing lower Staten Island, respectively. In its current state, the bill would extend design-build authority only to New York City and certain agencies therein: the Department of Design and Construction, DOT, Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Parks and Recreation, School Construction Authority, and New York City Health + Hospitals.

The bill must pass through committee and each house to reach Gov. Cuomo’s desk. With just a few days left in the current legislative session in Albany, design-build could be among the slew of legislation traditionally passed in the final hours of the session. Cuomo has been an outspoken proponent of design-build, citing it as an example of how he has led the state in what he says are cost-effective major infrastructure projects.

The Assembly’s design-build bill has remained in its cities committee since introduction, but the Senate version has passed through committee and advanced to third reading on the Senate floor. Benedetto, who is also Assembly cities committee chair, said support for design-build continues to grow, though he did say he is continuing to tweak the bill to gain final approval.

Labor unions were initially wary of lower labor costs that design-build might bring about, but a recent effort by city officials to convince unions that the bill would not threaten labor has united advocacy groups, unions, and the public sector, according to Benedetto.

“I told the representatives from the city that you're going to have to be able to convince the members of my chamber that this is not going to have a negative effect on labor,” Benedetto told Gotham Gazette. “Show me the paper. And finally within the last two weeks the papers have been produced and I sent out a packet to my colleagues at the state Assembly...and I attached letters and memos from various leaders in the labor movement.”

One clause of the legislation—meant in part to assuage labor and public employee unions—would make design-build contracts contingent on project labor agreements, which provide bargaining rights to unions before labor can be hired for a project. While opposition to project labor agreements from lawmakers upstate (where unions are less prominent) doomed past efforts to allow design-build statewide, the inclusion of PLAs are less likely to weigh down the New York City-specific bills.

“The construction market has not been that strong [upstate]. It's been very strong down here, and that's why the city is comfortable with PLAs because there's so much work to go around,” New York Building Congress President Richard T. Anderson told Gotham Gazette. “[City contractors] want to make sure they get the best people and they're willing to pay a little more to get that.”

In addition to the Building Congress, varied business and labor interest groups including the Partnership for New York City, the Real Estate Board, the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, the NYC Central Labor Council, DC 37, and the General Contractors Association have expressed support for the city-specific design-build legislation.

City officials have urged Albany to grant design-build authority, including Trottenberg, DEP Deputy Commissioner Vincent Sapienza, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and city Budget Director Dean Fuleihan. In a statement to Gotham Gazette, a mayoral spokesperson said design-build “increases the accountability of contractors, saves time and money, and streamlines the construction process overall” and that the administration would support proposals “that reduce project delays and enhance delivery methods.”

Largely permitted in 41 states, design-build has also been endorsed by members of the Center for Urban Future, the New York University Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, the Bipartisan Policy Center, and Citizens Budget Commission.

In a report published in March 2015, CBC Vice President Maria Doulis weighed the use of design-build by state agencies against the need for savings displayed by city agencies. While Doulis warned that PLAs tied to design-build could reduce agencies’ ability to hire the most cost-effective labor, she concluded that “New York’s experience demonstrates design-build’s effectiveness in delivering public construction projects on time and on budget.”

But the design-build movement does have some vocal opponents. The New York State Society of Professional Engineers published a statement last June opposing Benedetto’s bill on the grounds that design-build puts engineers in a legal bind. Engineers have less autonomy in design-build contracts, the argument goes, but could still be held legally responsible for subpar designs enacted by the contractors who retain them. Such opponents point to the New York State Education Law, which heavily regulates design standards for projects.

“Design-build puts the engineer in a compromised position where businessmen are making decisions that should be made by a professional,” NYSSPE President Lawrence J. O’Connor told Gotham Gazette. “Where does quality come from in the construction? It comes from a lot of people, but it starts with the design.”

It may be too soon to evaluate long-term architectural quality of design-build projects in New York, but proponents have repeatedly touted their cost-efficiency. Most notably, the New NY Bridge (Tappan Zee), being constructed through the State Thruway Authority with a design-build contract, is projected to cost $1.7 billion less than originally planned and set to be completed 18 months ahead of schedule.

Lowered costs have made design-build contracts especially appealing to city agencies. In a 2014 report, the Center for an Urban Future estimated that the city needed to divert $6.2 billion in funding to repair crumbling infrastructure by 2017, $3.2 billion of which was encompassed by the DOT. Trottenberg said that while design-build would not be used for maintenance like road resurfacing, it could save on engineering-heavy projects such as bridge repairs. A report sent by the DOT to Gotham Gazette highlights nine current bridge projects, including the BQE Triple Cantilever, that will cost $4.63 billion but could be reduced to $4.37 billion using design-build.

Similarly, the city Department of Environmental Protection has estimated that it would save $8 million of an approximate $200 million annual construction budget by using design-build. In a February testimony, Sapienza said such savings would be crucial for DEP in “hardening its wastewater infrastructure to increase resiliency against flood damage.”

As momentum builds and historic resistance from unions fades, Assembly Member Benedetto is confident that his bill will move through the state Legislature. But first, Benedetto said he is in the process of tweaking the bill and considering narrowing the scope of agencies it covers to make it more passable.

“We're adjusting as we go and hopefully this will satisfy people,” Benedetto said. “We have high hopes that this is going to produce projects out there that are going to be done quicker and cheaper, save the taxpayers money and aggravation, and we're keeping our fingers crossed that everybody involved with this is going to be happy.”

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by Aaron Holmes, Gotham Gazette

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Increasingly Popular, Design-Build for City Relies on Albany Mon, 13 Jun 2016 00:00:00 +0000