High Hopes — And Higher Standards — for Bloomberg 3.0

Our series on the next four years of NYC transportation policy continues with today’s essay from Joan Byron, Director of the Pratt Center for Community Development’s Sustainability and Environmental Justice Initiative. The Rudin Center for Transportation Policy recognized Byron’s work at the Pratt Center with the 2009 Civic Leadership Award. Read previous entries in this series here and here.

In New York political time, four years passes fast. But hey, in Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa was limited to a single three-year term as mayor, during which he built dozens of new schools and libraries, converted a golf course to a public park, laid down 100 miles of bike paths, and of course, built the Transmilenio, the system against which Bus Rapid Transit aspirants worldwide are measured.

bogota_estacion_jimenez.jpgBogotá built out most of the TransMilenio system during Enrique Peñalosa’s single three-year term. Photo of estación Jiménez: Joan Byron.

What can get done under Bloomberg 3.0? The answer depends on lots of things, some of which are now in short supply. Money, for instance. The next several NYC budget years will be hard on everybody, and really hard on the people and neighborhoods who were bypassed by the economic boom, and who’ve since been battered further by the recession depression. In this environment, will City Hall keep shoveling cash into sports stadia and shopping malls? Will it continue to count on the real estate market to throw off a few crumbs of affordable housing? Or will we seize the moment and use zoning and subsidies as tools to shape the city we want, instead of simply facilitating the worst instincts of developers?

Transportation policy under Bloomberg 3.0: Money’s not the problem

The next set of BRT routes needs to fearlessly go where no bus has gone before.

The good news is that some of the most effective transportation investments we can make in the next four years are also the most affordable. Implementing a full-featured and far-reaching Bus Rapid Transit system won’t require either New York City DOT or the MTA to come up with a big new pile of capital dollars. Good BRT, like good pedestrian and bike infrastructure, does cost money, but at a pay-as-you-go level, rather than demanding multi-billion dollar upfront investments that can take decades to deliver results. It costs millions, not billions, and it can be up in running in months, rather than decades.

And real BRT will be transformative. New York City today is home to 758,000 workers who travel over an hour each way to reach their jobs. Two-thirds of these folks are going to jobs where they earn less than $35,000. That’s not a coincidence — look at a map, and you’ll quickly see that the places poor and working-class people can afford to live are those least well-served by the subway system.

JobTypes_JobCenters.jpgClick to view full versions of the Pratt Center’s maps depicting where NYC jobs are clustered, and where workers in different sectors live.

Jobs in health care, retail, construction, and manufacturing are spread across the city and the region, as opposed to the high-wage sectors concentrated in the Manhattan core. Manufacturing and distribution jobs are especially isolated from the transit network. Talk to workers (or employers) and you’ll hear about dollar vans, livery cabs, employer-paid shuttles, and other work-arounds for a transit system that bypasses these vital centers of living-wage, blue-collar employment. The hospital belt in Central Brooklyn — SUNY Downstate, Kings County, Kingsbrook, and Brookdale — employs 18,250 New York City residents. More than 35,000 New Yorkers work at JFK airport, but most of them drive there, because the transit connections are expensive and inefficient.

So here’s the good news. DOT and the MTA are on the right track, and they’re picking up speed. Jay Walder really understands the importance of buses — with good reason, since much of London is built at densities comparable to Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, with subway coverage to match. In London, buses are now a primary mode, prioritized by street space allocation, enforcement, and technology. DOT and the MTA have stated their mutual commitment to making New York’s bus system perform for its 2.3 million daily riders. Last year, DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan announced that the agencies would complete their 5-route "BRT Phase 1" by 2013, and simultaneously develop plans for "BRT Phase 2." These additional 8-10 routes would combine with Phase 1 to create a citywide network connecting underserved residential neighborhoods and employment centers, shortening at least some of the city’s worst commutes. This summer, the agencies launched a workshop series that was a great first step in engaging affected communities in the earliest steps of their planning process for BRT Phase 2.

The key ingredient: Vision

Aside from a relatively modest level of investment, what we need now is vision. There’s no shortage of that at either DOT or the MTA. These are the folks who brought us the Bx12, the modestly-named "Select Bus Service" that has chopped 20 minutes off thousands of Bronx commuters’ trips, and done so with little more than ingenuity and duct tape.

DOT, the MTA, and advocates need not only to get boots on the ground, but to get listening ears into neighborhoods. Pay attention.

We need more of that. The next set of BRT routes needs to fearlessly go where no bus has gone before. Its physical design standards have to maximize BRT benefits, not only for riders, but for pedestrians and cyclists. It must extend the blessings of a one-seat ride across boroughs and bridges (notably the Williamsburg Bridge, instead of dumping B44 riders onto the already overcrowded J/M/Z trains on the Brooklyn side). And the next Phase 1 routes — First and Second Avenues in Manhattan, and the B44 corridor in Brooklyn — need to be built with more of the features that mark BRT as a truly new "third mode," incorporating design features that will not only improve bus performance, but make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists by physically taming traffic.

But even the clearest BRT vision will be gridlocked without political support, and the will within the administration to build it. What we also need, and what may be in short supply for Bloomberg 3.0, is more than political capital (this administration is nothing if not savvy about transactional politics). Far-reaching changes to our streets and transit system will require the kind of support you grow from scratch, by getting out there, talking with the people you know you’re trying to help, but who may have competing priorities, different perspectives and past experiences with this administration that have fueled their skepticism.

As we learned in working on congestion pricing, you don’t surmount those barriers by trying to steamroll legislators with artificial deadlines, or by herding "advocates" (yes, Streetsblog readers and contributors, that would be us) around 250 Broadway and the Capitol to deliver a consultant-crafted message. I only know one way to build the kind of support that both BRT and the transformation of our streets will need. It’s basically Organizing 101: You meet people where they are. If legislators don’t have our issues at the top of their list, it may well be that their constituents are more worried about their housing, their jobs, and their kids. Dissing and dismissing electeds who don’t put "our" issues at the top of their agenda is not just unhelpful — it widens the class and racial gap between an "elitist" Livable Streets Movement and everybody else.

New Yorkers have just elected a feisty new class of City Council members — and re-elected incumbents — who are likely to be less pliant than their predecessors. This could be the best thing that ever happened for equity in the causes of transportation and livable streets, if we can re-connect with the social and environmental justice roots of our work, and shed some of our elitist baggage.

DOT, the MTA, and advocates need not only to get boots on the ground, but to get listening ears into neighborhoods. Pay attention. If the arguments of pols demagoguing against good initiatives from the agency gain traction, it’s coming from someplace. Perhaps it’s a response to past failures to deal with pressing neighborhood issues — like truck traffic, hideously bad local air quality, and so on. Get out there, learn about what people are living with, and meet them where they are. Work with local organizations that are credible because they’ve been listening to their communities, and don’t treat community-based organizations as messengers to "help us get the word out," but as partners whose input adds value and whose concerns get addressed.

I don’t know what the internal budget and management constraints might be, but my fondest hope for BRT, as well as for the expansion of safe space for the vast majority who walk, bike, and take transit, is that NYC DOT will find the means to double, triple, or quadruple the number of field and office staff who work in these essential areas, and deploy these folks in the neighborhoods where most New Yorkers live, where people are being run over by cars and trucks, where kids can’t play for fear of asthma attacks, where workers are waiting for packed buses. In short, where people are literally dying for the kind of attention that’s been paid to high-profile areas in Midtown. When organizations from those neighborhoods step forward with both their problems and their ideas for solutions, they shouldn’t be told to wait for their turn, which will be sometime next year.

In short, to NYC DOT under Bloomberg 3.0: Keep doing what you’re doing. But do it faster, cover more ground, and devote acute attention and resources to the most underserved communities in the city. If you do it right, you can be assured that those communities will have your back.

  • fdr

    “I don’t know what the internal budget and management constraints might be, but my fondest hope for BRT, as well as for the expansion of safe space for the vast majority who walk, bike, and take transit, is that NYC DOT will find the means to double, triple, or quadruple the number of field and office staff who work in these essential areas…”
    Bloomberg just ordered up to 12% budget cuts for almost all city agencies, including DOT, possibly including layoffs. It would be interesting to see how DOT could “find the means” to add more staff.

  • While I prefer streetcars to BRT — for a quality ride — BRT has many of the same advantages and is a great first step. Joan has convinced me that my emails to electeds should focus on BRT. Only when BRT has rolled out to the maximum extent should we aim for streetcars.

  • Ian Turner

    Not to detract from the overall gist of the article, but it’s entirely inaccurate to characterize the J/M/Z trains as unrealistic. These are the least crowded of all subway lines in Manhattan.

  • Ian Turner

    D’oh, that should have read “inaccurate to characterize the J/M/Z trains as ‘overcrowded’“.

  • mfs

    Hey Joan- great article and great maps. Is that 2000 census data?

  • It’s nice that to hear about the underserved neighborhoods and people of this city eventually getting the transportation they require and design features that will not only improve bus performance, but make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists by physically taming traffic but, four years is a long time.

    When I cycle to work in Greenpoint or Newton Creek or Red Hook or Sunset Park or Brooklyn’s Navy Yard there are lots of blue collar workers getting around on bikes and the Kent Avenue bikeway is most encouraging.

    Fortunately, newly appointed New York City Transit president Thomas Prendergast comes from Vancouver’s Translink, a system which oversees conventional transit along with bicycling, an important idea he should aggressively and immediately continue.

  • On-demad mobility would be greatly improved for those workers in underserved transit areas who rely on buses for their commute if those buses included front-loading bicycle racks.

  • Streetcars are so vastly superior a ride than busses, I’m going to have to disagree with Mark Walker again, to the surprise of nobody on this board. Busses are ghetto transit. I’m with Lind.

    Rapid deployment of streetcars in affluent, high-tax-paying areas is (a) appropriate since we’re the ones paying for them, and (b) a great argument for expansion of both BRT /and/ streetcars.

    Busses suck.

    Faster, please.

  • Kaja, my heart is with you, though my head begs to differ.

    My heart would like to point out that every time I spend more than an hour on a bus, I get off feeling like I’ve had a hole shot through my head. I’m not sure if it’s the diesel vibration or the diesel fumes, but whatever it is, it takes makes me feel like hell. I never have this problem with rail.

    I once made the mistake of taking a bus to Washington DC and another bus home the same day. Five hours each way as I recall. I got home feeling like a piece of livestock with a bolt shot through its head. Felt sick for days afterward.

    So my heart tips its hat to you. But my head wants transit to make as much headway as possible in Mikey’s third term — before the dark ages begin again.

  • DOT, the MTA, and advocates need not only to get boots on the ground, but to get listening ears into neighborhoods. Pay attention. If the arguments of pols demagoguing against good initiatives from the agency gain traction, it’s coming from someplace. Perhaps it’s a response to past failures to deal with pressing neighborhood issues — like truck traffic, hideously bad local air quality, and so on. Get out there, learn about what people are living with, and meet them where they are.

    I agree completely, and what passes for communication from DOT staff is maddeningly inconsistent and undependable – and that’s when they like you! So it could definitely use some improvement. Same goes for the MTA: just this week I was waiting for the bus – which turned out to be triple-bunched – and if I and my fellow passengers had a phone number that would get results it would be ringing off the hook. Instead, we just sighed at our own powerlessness.

    But I don’t think the organizers need to be – or should be – from the MTA or the DOT. It would probably not look so good for DOT to be spending money promoting its own policies during a budget crunch. Plus, if in 2014 Mayor Liu and Governor Espada decide to order all the MTA and DOT reps to organize the communities in support of LOMEX and the Prospect Parking Garage, you’ve just lost control of a powerful opposition tool.

    The best place for community organizers to be based is the private sector, which is not so bad because that’s also the best place to look for funding. Some of that is being done already with the Pratt Center, T.A., Livable Streets Education and others. But a well-funded network of organizers who can connect with their communities and have time to listen, advocate and get results would really make a difference.

  • #53 Mark Walker, “Another of my adversary’s achievements — the PRT lunatic fringe is back.”

    This is really fun coming from Mark.

    Mark, Here is a good NY Times article about how excercise eliminates stress:

    “Phys Ed: Why Exercise Makes You Less Anxious”

    Hint, hint, hint, . . .

  • Gecko, you posted that in the wrong thread. Hah!

    Also, you missed the double post — I remembered I was the first to bring PRT into the conversation, regretted this immediately, and withdrew the accusation.

    Regarding the link from the NYT … noted.

  • The idea of personal rapid transit (PRT) is not bad. There has never been a really serious development effort. Also, one that was scaled down to the individual level, i.e., single-person vehicles 100 pounds or less. Or, one that would involve low-cost, small, distributed on-demand vehicles that could work on and off the PRT system.

    Ratheon built a PRT prototype. Nixon spent (wasted?) something like $100 million on one in the south. And currently, there is one being finished at Heathrow Airport I believe which is probably quite nice. George Haikalis and George Bliss wrote a paper on people-powered PRT a number of years back.

    Probably the nicest one is Shweeb which is a modern version of commercial cycle-rail systems built in the 1880s. (www.shweeb.com) Shweeb is a human-power only system easily upgradable to accept auxiliary electric power assist. Under human power only riders have gone as fast as 56 mph!

    It is really kind of amazing how goofy some of the stuff is that goes on about transportation with the world’s largest industries that are involved: Insurance, banking and finance, oil, auto, steel, electronics, etc., etc., etc; the stakes are really high; especially, as one of the major causes of the climate change crisis.

  • Gecko, not sure what you mean by a “serious development effort.” The Wiki entry you cited earlier mentions the Aramis project in Paris, which consumed 500 million francs between 1967 and 1987. Despite all that time and money, “The project ultimately failed.” Since the Wiki entry seems to have been written primarily by PRT enthusiasts, this is quite an admission. Whatever else you may say about light and heavy rail, there is no denying that both have a long history of projects successfully built and operated. I live in a neighborhood served by a 105-year-old subway line. And used it today. It exists and it works.

  • #14 Mark Walker, “Aramis project in Paris”

    This is “Aramis project” just a small blip in the large personal rapid transit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_rapid_transit article and there is no reason to believe that the Heathrow Project scheduled to open in 2010 will fail. There are a lot of reasons why projects fail. Regarding the Aramis’ Control issues with software, etc. does not make a lot of sense for failure. Again, the largest industries in the world have a huge stake in transportation: Insurance, banking and finance, oil, auto, steel, electronics, etc., and the personal rapid transit small-vehicle concept is quite simple and quite straight-forward.

    The MTA blasts through something like 9 billion dollars a year. Those trains you love so well are designed to go 100 miles per hour where average transit speeds of about 12 miles per hour are considered quite usual and acceptable. Each subway car weighs about 35 tons carrying a maximum of 188 people and maybe moves 20 tons of people and this stuff is way over-engineered to do what it has to do. With a bicycle-type vehicle weight of 25 pounds, the total vehicle weight to move 188 people is about 4,700 pounds or a little more than two tons.

    Also, living in your little apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan you probably only have to walk a couple of blocks to get to those trains. And, if they fail you can take a bus, a taxi, or in many instances walk; and your train rides are probably mostly one-half hour or less. Most people in the five boroughs do not have the density of services, jobs etc. that Manhattanites have and you are speaking from a rather “elite” position.

    And, you’ve admitted on Streetsblog that you hate buses and that a bus ride of an hour or more on a bus is awful.

    Let us spend 9 billion dollars a year on small vehicle transit and see what happens.

    Here is another excerpt from that wikipedia article on personal rapid transit which indicates the effect of special interest groups on global transportation:

    “On March 23, 1973, U.S. Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA) administrator Frank Herringer testified before Congress: “A DOT program leading to the development of a short, one-half to one-second headway, high-capacity PRT (HCPRT) system will be initiated in fiscal year 1974.”[27] However, this HCPRT program was diverted into a modest technology program.[citation needed] According to PRT supporter J. Edward Anderson, this was “because of heavy lobbying from interests fearful of becoming irrelevant if a genuine PRT program became visible”. From that time forward people interested in HCPRT were unable to obtain UMTA research funding.[28]”

    Again, let us spend 9 billion dollars a year on small vehicle transit and see what happens.

  • “…there is no reason to believe that the Heathrow Project scheduled to open in 2010 will fail.” Based on the history of PRT so far, there is no reason to believe it will succeed. But if it does succeed, so much the better.

    Saying the transit system “blasts through 9 billion dollars a year” is typical of the scare tactics surrounding transit (and by that I mean real transit) funding. How much does it cost for asphant to keep all the cars and bikes rolling?

  • Mark, spreading $9 billion of asphalt evenly across New York’s 6,000 miles of streets would work out to 1.5 million dollars a mile.

    I think Gecko has a point; continuing to spend money on heavier and heavier vehicles to transport the same basic loads is fruitless and wasteful.

  • Jonathan, if asphalt is that expensive, wouldn’t it make more sense to invest in rails? This is the point I was moving toward.

    As for “heavier and heavier vehicles” — has the subway gained weight lately? I wasn’t aware that the trains gotten heavier.

    As for “fruitless and wasteful,” stop the subways and buses and you’ll get a terrifying definition of fruitless. Without them, the city’s economy does not work.

  • Mark, the city is ready to spend $2.16 billion on roads and bridges in FY 2010. Link here. $9 billion is your transit figure.

    There have been discussions on Streetsblog about the heavy weight of US passenger rail cars vis-a-vis lighter and more efficient Japanese models.

  • Mike C


    I support PRT development but I would never suggest “stop[ping] the subways and buses”. That would be absurd and counter-productive.

    In fact, I’m a big supporter of heavy rail systems like the NYC subways, because the population density and transit culture creates enough demand to make it feasible to operate 24 hours a day at high frequency.

    But I don’t support ill-conceived rail projects in low-density car-centric cities, where investment in big vehicle transit is a waste of energy and capital.

    Did you know, for example, that the average energy usage of US light rail is over 7000 BTU/passenger-mile, and that Galveston’s light rail consumes more than 30,000 BTU/pax-mi? For reference, a Hummer with a single passenger is less than 7000. (source: Dept of Energy Transportation Energy Data Book – Fig. 2.2)

    The best initial application for PRT is a city like Galveston, not New York. And there are many more Galvestons than New Yorks in this car-dominated country.

    For New York, PRT might have a role in less dense outer boroughs, where it could provide circulation support for the existing subway lines, extending the reach of the transit network to areas that are not dense enough for heavy rail lines. This strategy is not about “shutting down” the rail lines, but rather, extending their reach.

  • Mike C, thanks for your thoughtful response. My chief hope is that every American have access to some form of transit that works — whatever form it takes.

  • MAA

    @ Ian, Joan didn’t say the J/M/Z was crowded in Manhattan, she said on the Brooklyn side, and as someone who is on one of those three lines every weekday morning (I board the M in Queens and often transfer to the J/Z), I would say that during the morning rush hour those who are boarding a J or Z at Marcy Ave(which is where people riding the Nostrand Ave BRT would be boarding) are getting on a very crowded train. It might not be as bad as the L at Bedford or the E at 23rd St Ely, but it’s pretty darn tight and I’ve on more than one occassion seen people not even try and decide to wait for the next train. M trains are usually less crowded because a lot of people get off at Flushing for Woodhull Hospital, so I might agree with you there, but the J/Z on Brooklyn, as Joan wrote, are overcrowded. To furhter support her proposal for bringing that bus over the bridge, many of the people who crammed on at Marcy get off at the first stop Essex or Canal two stops later.


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