The Human Rights Argument For BRT And Pricing

A map produced by the Pratt Center [pdf] shows neighborhoods with a high concentration of low-income commuters with long commutes.

With congestion pricing now before the City Council, the coalition pushing it forward shows signs of strengthening at exactly the right time. One group we’ll be hearing more from is Communities
United for Transportation Equity (COMM.U.T.E!), a recently-formed partnership between the Pratt Center for Community Development and community organizations in low-income neighborhoods around the city. At a press event this morning, COMM.U.T.E! representatives spoke about their strategy to lobby for
congestion pricing and greater funding for BRT in the MTA capital plan. 

Their campaign will call attention to stark inequities in New York City commute times. The Pratt Center has crunched 2000 Census numbers showing that two-thirds of city residents with commutes longer than one hour earn under $35,000 per year [pdf]; and that black New Yorkers face a 30 percent longer commute, on average, than white New Yorkers [pdf]. Disparities were present, if less pronounced, across other racial groups as well. Considered alongside the transit improvements that congestion pricing will make possible, the findings again pierce the argument that pricing is a regressive tax.

The problems revealed by the report are fundamentally about "human rights and dignity, rather than dry economic measures," said Joan Byron, Director of Sustainability and Environmental Justice Initiative at the Pratt Center.

Time lost to long commutes is "corrosive to community life and family life," said Silvett Garcia, Senior Planner at Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice in the Soundview section of the Bronx. "That is time people cannot spend with their families, cannot meet with their children’s teachers, cannot go to community events." She noted that bus commuters in the Bronx have to transfer twice to make a trip across the borough, which takes an hour. The same trip only takes drivers ten minutes.

Byron applauded DOT’s commitment to a BRT pilot program, but noted that the scale of a BRT system would have to exceed current plans to seriously address inequities in transit access. The only way to dramatically improve
transit access in neighborhoods that are currently underserved, she
said, is to implement congestion pricing and significantly boost MTA funding for BRT.

"In the MTA capital plan, resources earmarked for BRT are too small compared to rail projects," she added, distinguishing between rail projects that do improve transit access, such as the Second Avenue Subway, projects that enable real estate development, such as the 7 line extension, and ones that serve a small number of mostly affluent users. "The money for the JFK-Lower Manhattan rail link — $6 billion — could be used to blanket Queens with BRT."

Citing the success of Enrique Peñalosa’s vision for transit
in Bogota
, COMM.U.T.E! hopes to rally elected officials around
congestion pricing and BRT as means to address inequality, analogous to
campaigns for affordable housing.

"Electeds in New York
have a mastery of affordable housing issues," said Byron, "but they’ve
been out of the game on transit." 

COMM.U.T.E!’s two-pronged strategy will involve lobbying elected officials to simultaneously pass congestion pricing and influence the MTA capital plan.

"Electeds have a chance to own this issue," said Byron. "We’re going to be reaching out to folks one by one. We have statistics for every district. Guys like Brodsky have captured headlines with a fake populist stance. The breakthrough that needs to be made is that people see a revolutionary change coming out of this. BRT is that revolution."

We’ll hear more from COMM.U.T.E! on February 18th, when they publicly unveil the roster of elected officials and community groups who’ve signed on to their platform.

  • More like this.

    Exactly the type of data/argument needed to confront the false populism used to demagogue against CP.

  • Straphanger

    This couldn’t be any timelier.

    Good to see hard numbers to support what we all knew.

    (preparing effigy of Brodsky)

  • Zach

    Does this make sense? To me, that looks a *lot* like a poverty map of NYC and correlates with the idea that commutes are generally long. (Note: I agree with CP.)

  • Justin Kray

    Zach, you are right to note that this map strongly resembles a poverty-concentration map for NYC – that’s because the population here represented is households earning less than 35K/year – a good baseline for poverty. What is different is that this map only represents those in poverty who ALSO have a long commute (over an hour), so places like the Lower East Side and Bed-Stuy, although poor, do not exhibit the same degree of commute-impairment as say Inwood or East Elmhurst. (Full disclosure: I work at the Pratt Center and made the map)

  • The Pratt Center is to be commended for taking a lead in advocating for transit users. Long commutes are the donwside of having such a large concentration of jobs in the city’s core. However, the well-designed map shows that most of the low earners with long commutes are clustered near the subways and the commuter rail lines. While better bus service is very much needed, it would seem that reducuing the fare on commuter rail lines serving the Bronx and Queens will save travel time for many low income commuters, who cannot afford high in-city rail fares.

    While long commutes are a problem, the quickest and most efficient way to “close the inequality gap”, is to use congestion pricing revenues to roll back the fare hike, and better yet, to set the tolls high enough to eliminate the fares entirely.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Thanks for all the hard work you put into this, Justin. Do you have (or can you make) a map with all the commuters making under $35K, with different colored dots depending on how long their commutes are? Or a map with all the commuters who travel over an hour, with different colors depending on how much they earn?

    Also, one thing that drives me nuts about “commute length” stories is that there’s more to a commute than the time. In the past few years I’ve had commutes over an hour, but they were all on commuter trains.

    An hour and a half on a reverse-commute commuter train where you can catch up on paperwork, snooze or socialize is better than an hour on the subway where you’re standing part of the way and crowded the rest. And an hour on the subway where you can nap, read the paper or eat a snack (sorry, Standards) is better than 45 minutes in a car all you can do is listen to talk radio or books on tape, and yak to your friends on your cell phone. They really should be distinguished.

    I don’t think any of that takes away from the overall point that lower-income, nonwhite New Yorkers tend to have longer commutes and tend to take transit, and that congestion pricing would reduce this inequity.

  • R. Sullivan

    How do residential parking permits square with matters of economic justice and commutes–i.e., are there studies that look into that? Hospital workers might suffer, for instance, in neighborhoods with residential parking permits, or would they not, or would that depend on how the permits are used. Perhaps this is all very obvious, and I am missing it…

  • Michael Cairl

    Re #7, I suspect a lot of lower-income hospital workers get to work now by public transportation. So better public transportation is needed, and in a lot of cases that will mean more local bus service.

    But the answer to this topic is that a mix of transit improvements is needed, and Pratt’s map offers a way to understand that. Better local and limited-stop bus service feeding into subway and rail stations. More service on rail lines within the City, perhaps at lower fares. BRT to serve existing high-density corridors, connecting to existing transportation hubs like Jamaica Station or on bus-only lanes to the CBD.

  • M. Phillips

    There are a number of concerns I have about the congestion plan. First many small businesses in the “outer boros” make deliveries to the congestion zones. Is the thought that all their deliveries would be made after 6PM or is this just going to add a strain to small businesses that are in the outer boros? I have also concerns about people who currently just pass through the congestion zone. My work takes me to a Riverdale site close to the Hudson river. To get there by car takes about 45 minutes while getting there by public transportation takes in excess of 1 ½ hours. Since I am in downtown Brooklyn getting there requires that I pass through the congestion zone though I do not remain there so it is a choice of more then doubling my commute time or paying the congestion charge. Finally I must regularly go through the Holland tunnel to visit sites in Jersey beyond the reach of public transportation. To get to the Holland tunnel or the Lincoln Tunnel from Bklyn you need to either go through the congestion zone (the tunnel and the bridges up to 60th street) or travel all the way up to the third avenue bridge. That is an enormous waste if gas and time which from an ecology point of view makes that action a net loss. I cannot really understand why the technology cannot be put in place to allow a certain amount of time to cross the congestion zone as is now the case with subway-bus transfers.

  • Jonathan

    M. Phillips, that’s funny that you travel through Manhattan to get to Riverdale; google maps’ direction function suggests that you should take the BQE, Triboro, and Major Deegan. I myself have given up on driving on the FDR from Upper Manhattan to Brooklyn and Queens; the Triboro and BQE is a lot more convenient.

    As far as the Holland Tunnel commute goes, it’s less than six miles to Jersey City from downtown Brooklyn via the Brooklyn Bridge and Canal Street, and an extra two miles going along the FDR or taking the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. The tunnel’s $8.30 round trip (starting next month) is probably the most convenient way to go and by avoiding all the stop-and-go traffic on Canal Street, you’re probably improving the environment.

    You could also take the PATH train to Jersey City and rent a car there; there’s a lot for a hourly-rental service about two blocks from the Exchange Place PATH station.

    But the subtext that I get from reading your post is that you don’t feel comfortable using the TBTA facilities and would prefer to navigate on NYC DOT bridges and highways. Maybe you’re one of the people who really don’t like Robert Moses, who built the TBTA, but face it, he’s dead, and you’re not. Take advantage!

    Personally, my philosophy is, if it’s worth driving there, it’s worth paying $4 in tolls for the convenience. Bonne route!

  • Tagus

    The long commutes in a lot of these places aren’t about the CBD & issues of subway & commuter rail access – it’s almost certainly the brutal nature of borough-borough commuting by multiple buses.

  • Corey Bearak

    Interesting how BRT gets pushed when the pilot in Queens has engendered much opposition in Community Boards 12 and 13. MTA CEO Sander heard as much from CB13Q’s chair at the Queens Civic Congress forum Feb.4. I support BRT but throughout the communities it might target in addition to the CBs12/13 Merrick Blvd. route, there seems no enthusiasm. I sat through the CB13 hearing where NYCDOT presented the plan and the impacts on neighbor shopping along the route looked very real. Sometimes the concept does not translate into reality, despite the modeling. My board chair has not mentioned any outreach from Pratt which does not have a good record in my borough after what occurred with the rezoning in downtown Jamaica (an issue for another blog or two) — and has anyone notice its current director filed to run for City Council?

  • Mets Fan

    Motorists in Queens want to maintain the status quo of free, unfettered motoring. Dedicating lanes to buses takes space away from motorists. This you call interesting?

    In Paris the local business men burned Mayor Delanoe in effigy when he took away curbside parking to bring in the BRT. Now some of those same cafe owners and merchants are among the biggest BRT fans in the city.

    Those business men discovered that it’s generally a lot more pleasant to sit outside at a sidewalk cafe when there’s less traffic on the street. And employees and patrons can get to your store more easily when they have access to fast-moving, reliable buses rather than spending time stuck in traffic and searching for parking space.

    It turns out that BRT makes a heck of a lot more sense in a dense urban environment than single-passenger motor vehicles regardless of how cranky some Community Board members in Queens might happen to be.

  • JF

    Unfortunately, the MTA seems to have taken down their BRT page and all the documents, so I don’t have the details, but I remember from a previous reading that the Merrick Boulevard “BRT” wasn’t actually expected to be all that rapid. I think if you can’t get a bunch of bus riders to show up at a community board meeting and say, “Look, this’ll shorten our commute by ten minutes (or whatever) each way,” then of course the parking concerns will sway the board.

  • Apparently there is correlation between long commutes and low income. In a nut shell it means that the closer you are to mass transportation the more expensive housing is. If the congestion pricing plan goes into effect and that in turn produces revenue to continue to improve the mass transit system it become beneficial to both the rich/poor and the current drivers and public transport commuters. I being both a driver and a user of public transportation often, this plan makes sense.( not that I drive into the city, nor plan on it for the future).

  • You all are lucky that you’re debating real BRT (an exclusive right of way for buses) in NYC. In Minneapolis, our state DOT loves to push “BRT” that shares space with HOV’s and toll paying motorists and at some points requires the buses to weave through multiple lanes of general traffic to get to the station. That’s not very rapid.


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