Opposing the Move NY Plan Does No Favors for Southeast Queens

sutphin_stop
Waiting for the bus at Sutphin Boulevard and 91st Avenue. Image: Google Maps

Four highways encircle New York’s 27th City Council district, a largely African-American section of southeast Queens: the Grand Central Parkway on the north, the Van Wyck Expressway on the west, the Southern State Parkway on the south, and the Cross Island Parkway on the east.

Highways girdle the transportation perspective of the 27th District’s Council rep, Daneek Miller, as well. At least that’s the impression left by Miller’s dispiriting op-ed in Crain’s last week.

Council Member I. Daneek Miller
Council Member I. Daneek Miller

The headline, “Queens residents are left hanging on transportation,” is true enough. Miller’s district is indeed transit-poorer than most other parts of the city, and, as he notes, the MTA’s current batch of megaprojects will do little to change that. But Miller’s thrust — the Move NY toll plan will make travel costlier and harder for his constituents — turns reality on its head.

The article in Crain’s is riddled with dodgy data, like this: “70% to 90% of residents in Southeast Queens own cars. For them, driving is the easiest way to travel.”

According to Census data, 14,000 of the 49,000 households in Miller’s district don’t own a car. That’s a 28.6 percent car-free share, meaning that 71.4 percent of households in the 27th CD own at least one motor vehicle.

When it comes to daily commutes, car use in southeast Queens is even less prevalent. NYU’s Furman Center just crunched a ton of Census data for its “State of the City” report [PDF]. Among the 251,000 residents of Queens Community Board 12 (which includes Jamaica, Hollis, St. Albans, and Springfield Gardens — all represented by Miller), 58 percent reported “car-free commutes.” In Community Board 13, home to the other 27th District communities of Queens Village and Cambria Heights, 44 percent of 193,000 residents commute without a car. From the looks of it, at least half of Miller’s constituents don’t drive to get to work.

Miller is hardly the only New York City elected official laboring under the windshield perspective fallacy (“I drive everywhere, so everyone else must too”). But that’s no excuse for his insistence that “[i]mposing tolls on free bridges and tunnels puts transit-starved residents in the position of paying a disproportionate amount of these taxes.”

Miller is misrepresenting how many of his constituents’ car trips would be subject to the proposed Move NY tolls on the East River bridges or at 60th Street.

Several years ago I recruited a couple of PhD physicists to crunch through “trip diaries” collected from 19,000 tri-state households, as part of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council’s 2010-2011 Household Interview Survey. Data constraints limited us to the borough/county level, but the figures for Queens are still revealing: out of every 100 transit or auto trips by Queens residents, 30 are by transit; 65 are by auto with no toll or a toll unaffected by the Move NY plan; 1.8 are auto trips that would pay reduced tolls on an MTA bridge; and 3.4 are auto trips that would now pay a CBD toll.

Those figures are for all of Queens. It’s likely that for Miller’s district alone, the share of auto trips that would be charged more due to the Move NY tolls is even less than 3.4 percent, because his district is far from the Manhattan core.

But will Miller’s constituents see benefits from the Move NY plan? Try these:

  • An annual infusion of well over half a billion dollars for transit capital improvements including faster adoption of state-of-the-art signaling (Communication-Based Train Control) allowing for more frequent peak-hour subway service and shorter commute times;
  • Stepped-up funding for Bus Rapid Transit — meaning faster trips for bus riders, provided that opponents like Miller who are more concerned about parking loss don’t stand in the way.
  • Funding for a $4.5 billion Transit Gap Investment Fund to expand transit access for New Yorkers living in “transit deserts” such as southeast Queens.

These are the types of transportation improvements that New York’s middle-class and working-class families need, not the preservation of free bridges that few drive across on a regular basis. That’s even more true for districts like southeast Queens that were devastated by the Great Recession and the foreclosure crisis, and where car ownership has increasingly become a burden families can’t bear.

Correction: An earlier version of this post used data for the 32nd Assembly District to assert that the share of car-free households in Miller’s district was around 37 percent. I’ve revised that to 28.6 percent, based on data from Cap’n Transit with split-district data distributed according to population by Streetsblog reader Michael Freedman-Schnapp.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Of course SE Queens pols killed the E train extension down one of the two redundant branches of the LIRR. I wonder of he even knows that.

  • Elizabeth F

    This is not the right approach. Miller was skeptical that any of the Move NY money would be used to improve transit in SE Queens — and given the list of projects on the table, I concur. It doesn’t matter how many Queens residents have car-free commutes, Move NY won’t help them if all that money is spent on the Second Ave Subway and never finds its way to Queens.

    Moreover, we must remember that many of the people driving into the CBD from Queens probably have to — because they’re driving contractor vans, pickup trucks, push cards, food trucks, etc. Will these workers and small business owners be able to pass the added congestion charge on to their customers? Queens ain’t hip Williamsburg.

    How about this for a better way to sell Move NY in Queens:

    1. Instead of saying “we’ll raise a lot of money,” actually come up with the list of projects you’re going to DO with the money, BEFORE it is raised. If Queens residents see projects on there they like, they’ll be more willing to sign on. Why don’t the pols do this? Because we all know that much of Move NY will go to paying off past projects.

    2. Emphasize that under Move NY, it’s now cheaper to drive to the Bronx. For those Queens residents employed in Bronx, Westchester and Fairfield Counties.

  • Emmily_Litella

    I thought SEQ line (E train to Springfield) was a victim of the capital budget cuts of the mid-70s. In any case, hardly a peep came from the disadvantaged constituents. It was all about getting a car or a second or third one rather than agitating for improved transit. Can’t really blame folks for giving up on a political system that was at least as corrupt then as it is now.

  • Boris

    The current bill in the Assembly does have a list of projects. But it’s true that more can be done to sweeten the deal. In Los Angeles County, for example, transportation ballot measures has a “local return” component – a percentage of the money collected is guaranteed to be returned to each municipality, to be spent how they wish on transit, bicycle, and pedestrian projects.

    Miller is wrong, however, to conflate past corrupt practices with the Move NY initiative. Yes, the focus on megaprojects at the expense of actual transit planning has hurt New York immensely, but he can’t make the claim that people in his district drive because they have no other option while simultaneously saying that their livelihoods depend on easy automobility. If he has been against transit in the past, why should he be offered transit now? If he wants more transit spending for his district, he should ask for it.

  • AnoNYC

    A reduction in congestion for the Manhattan CBD and an increase in revenue for transportation is a boon for the region as a whole.

  • vnm

    It seems like his logic is: 1) Transit in my area sucks; therefore 2) don’t give the MTA money through Move NY; 3) in fact take money *away* from the MTA by forcing the LIRR to drop its fares and give free transfers (for my constituents). Cheaper for some, yes, but how would that help make transit better?

  • sbauman

    First off:
    “Among the 251,000 residents of Queens Community Board 12 (which includes Jamaica, Hollis, St. Albans, and Springfield Gardens — all represented by Miller)”

    Queens Community Board 12 is split into the these 5 council districts: 23; 24; 27; 28 and 31. As per the 2010 census, he population breakdown among the districts is: 8K; 22K; 112K; 75K and 8K, respectively. N.B. Qns CB12’s NYC profile shows a 2010 population of 251K.

    http://www1.nyc.gov/site/planning/community/community-portal-1.page?cd=qn12

    “In Community Board 13, home to the other 27th District communities of Queens Village and Cambria Heights, 44 percent of 193,000 residents commute without a car”

    Scanning the link reveals: only 35.3% of “Car-free commute (% of commuters)”

    Second.

    Here’s where Mr. Miller may be coming from. According to the 2014 LEHD Census data, the average home-to-work travel distance in Mr. Miller’s district is 10.8 miles vs. 8.6 for the City as a whole. More importantly, the home-to-subway travel distance in Mr. Miller’s district is 1.6 miles vs. 0.5 miles for the City as a whole. The subway-work travel distance is less dramatic: 0.4 vs 0.2 miles. N.B. these are straight line distances; actual travel distances along streets and rail lines may be considerably longer.

    The home-to-subway distance is critical because surface public transit at grade is about 33% the speed of grade separated transit. Adding, 2 times the distances to/from subway is one measure of total trip time. That figure is 14.9 miles for Mr. Miller’s district vs. 10.0 for the City as a whole. That’s approximately 50% longer than the average City resident.

    Third.

    What promises does MoveOn give for Eastern Queens residents? Here’s a link to the 1929 plan for the Second Ave Subway:

    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d9/1929_IND_Second_System.jpg

    Here’s one for the 1939 plan for the Second Ave Subway:

    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b3/1939_IND_Second_System.jpg

    Note the subway extensions to Eastern Queens. People built and bought homes, based on the promise of the subway expansion. Where is MoveOn’s plans for subways to Eastern Queens? Until, there is a subway expansion program to Eastern Queens, nobody should expect Eastern Queens residents or their elected officials to support programs that benefit principally those who already enjoy subway service.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Part of the problem is they chose the wrong branch. The branch closer to the Nassau line is more suburban. And Afro-Americans who moved there did so to be in the suburbs, and opposed the line.

    The inner branch goes through some poorer areas with lots of vacant lots that could be used for housing. People there could probably use the subway extension.

  • Larry Littlefield

    You mean by keeping the system from collapse? Because that’s all more money for the MTA buys. If you bond against it, the collapse is only postponed a few years.

    Meanwhile, subway riders pay taxes to maintain streets in areas with more pavement per person, do they not?

  • sbauman

    Not properly maintaining infrastructure isn’t limited to subways. Roads and bridges are not kept in a state of good repair either. Ditto for the electric grid, water/sewer systems etc., etc. It’s an endemic problem that won’t be solved until there are fundamental changes accounting practices are changed to reflect total rather than initial infrastructure costs.

    Does this mean that infrastructure expansion should be suspended until this maintenance problem is solved? Hardly, population is increasing; infrastructure expansion must keep pace with at least population growth to “stand still.”

    Infrastructure is failing before its design life, in many cases. Bad initial design and lack of maintenance are two causes. Equally important is that the infrastructure is operating at levels far in excess of its design limit. This phenomenon is not due to lack of maintenance but rather to lack of expansion.

  • Em

    Honestly, in whatever part of NYC you’re talking about, I don’t care if the reality was that 99% of households owned cars. That still doesn’t mean we have to try to make it easy and cheap to get everywhere by care. It would still be impossible for all those care owners to get around efficiently.

  • Danny Franklin

    Thoughtful article , Just to add my thoughts if people are searching for a CA BOE-58-AH , my kids came across a fillable form here http://goo.gl/dbNJN1

  • I thank you for this post. http://www.hightouchmoving.com/

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