|The role of public transportation in New York City’s effort to reduce emissions 30 percent by 2030 will be crucial. However, increasing the fuel efficiency and decreasing the emissions of existing mass transportation, and of the extensions that are currently planned, will only have a minor impact on the total emissions produced by transportation in New York City. Indeed, if understood in terms of emissions per passenger mile, New York City’s subway system is as efficient a mode of transportation as we can expect to find, given the current state of technology. Because the subway emits a relatively low level of GHGs, programs to reduce subway emissions would yield less substantial results than programs focused on the biggest emitter, private vehicles. In the case of New York’s buses and taxis, a transition to more environmentally-conscious vehicles is planned, and it will make a difference. Yet, again, a 30 percent reduction in the emissions of buses and taxis will only be a moderate contribution to the emissions reduction the city needs. In order for the total emissions produced by transportation in the city to truly be reduced by 30 percent, New Yorkers citywide will need to be coaxed out of their cars and onto public transportation.
Accordingly, this section will focus on increasing mass transit ridership, and decreasing the city’s reliance on cars. Significantly decreasing the use of cars in New York City is our best hope of meeting our goals. This section will outline some plans the city has already made to improve public transportation citywide, and make recommendations for further expansions and upgrades. The congestion charge proposed by Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC will be another area of focus, as it is only through a combination of improved public transport options and active discouragement of private vehicle use that the proposed reduction in emissions may be achieved. Furthermore, in order for New Yorkers to consider a congestion charge viable, public transportation will have to be able to serve a broadened set of needs. These needs will be explored. Finally, as an extension of the congestion charging principle, there will follow a discussion of pricing in general, as it plays out in all aspects of transportation. Understanding congestion charging as a form of “value pricing,” we can clearly see that pricing across transportation in New York—from parking fees to the cost of boarding a bus or a subway—needs to be revised to reflect the new values that this plan promotes.
Overview of Public Transportation Improvements Proposed by PlaNYC
Reduction of carbon dioxide emissions is only one of numerous motivations for the city to improve public transportation. Another major goal is to reduce crowding on the most popular subway routes. This, for example, is the primary reason for building the 2nd Avenue Subway line. For the purposes of this analysis, however, we will focus specifically on those improvements to public transportation that are most likely to significantly increase the number of potential drivers who instead choose public transportation. As will be demonstrated, these improvements must focus on the city’s outer boroughs, where car travel is often the only quick and pleasant means of transportation available. By these criteria, surprisingly few of the city’s initial steps planned to improve transportation citywide qualify as significant car-replacement measures. Those that do show promise in this regard are plans for Bus Rapid Transit corridors in all five boroughs, the expansion of ferry service to exploit the city’s many waterways, and the improvement of pedestrian access to bus stops and train stations
Bus Rapid Transit
Though Manhattan is undeniably the core of New York City, the vast majority of trips made in New York are not in fact to Manhattan. This is even the case if we only consider commuters—1.56 million outer borough residents work outside of Manhattan, nearly twice as many as the 841,000 who commute to the city center. 1 The disparity is even more glaring if we limit the set to drivers: 80 percent of commuters who drive to work live and work in the outer boroughs.2
Without action, the situation is likely to get worse. Outer borough residents are responsible for the greatest percentage of transportation-produced emissions. According to data from the 2000 Census, nearly 90 percent of New York City households owning one or more vehicles are in the outer boroughs.3 As the city grows by another million people by 2030, it is projected that three quarters of these new residents will end up outside Manhattan, and so their impact on emissions is likely to be particularly heavy.4
In acknowledgement of this growing concern, PlaNYC plans to establish Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Corridors in each of the outer boroughs, as well as one in Manhattan, that will run along the planned route of the under-construction 2nd Avenue subway line. The drawbacks of buses are obvious; the very term “bus rapid transit” sounds, certainly to a New Yorker’s ears, like an oxymoron. However, buses are also by far the easiest public transport mode to install quickly, and the most efficient use of limited road space. One bus takes the same amount of road space as two cars, but can carry 70 people. 5
The planned BRT routes will run along existing local bus routes, but with greater frequency and fewer stops. Dedicated bus lanes will be painted red, and their exclusive use strictly enforced. The four outer borough routes are Fordham Road and Pelham Parkway in the Bronx, Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn, Merrick Boulevard in Queens, and Hylan Boulevard in Staten Island. It is expected that travel time on these routes will be reduced by 8 to 22percent. The BRT plan also hopes to incorporate technologies that have been successful in other cities, such as message boards providing real time updates on arrival times, and traffic signals that are timed to give buses an early green so as to get ahead of car traffic.6 Based on the success of the first five BRT routes, the city plans to expand the program by an additional five routes by 2014.
One of the most exciting aspects of the city’s plan to improve transportation in the outer boroughs is the revival of the city’s waterways. Indeed, the rivers and creeks that penetrate the city are the root of its original success as a port city, and still provide the opportunity for rapid, unencumbered travel. The recent redevelopment of waterfront communities in all of the outer boroughs has made boat travel an even more obvious choice, especially as many of the city’s outlying waterfront communities lack access to the subway.
The city’s program for expanding ferry service aims to connect ferry landings in Brooklyn and Queens with those in Midtown and Lower Manhattan. The service will be initiated by the city, but privately operated. In conjunction with this ferry service, the city will work with the MTA to extend existing bus lines to ferry docks from Midtown. It is also acknowledged that in order for the ferry service to become an integrated part of the city’s transportation network as a whole, Metrocards will have to be accepted on ferries as they are on subways and buses.7
Sidewalk, Station, and Bus Stop Improvements
Pedestrian access to bus stops and train stations is a major concern in the outer boroughs. Whereas in Manhattan, the street grid provides an obvious framework for bus stops and train stations, in the outer boroughs subway and bus routes often traverse swaths of lower density development and operate on roads that were not well designed for pedestrians. Though travelers may live relatively near public transportation, they are often deterred from using it by poor pedestrian access. Existing access routes, such as narrow sidewalks running alongside major roads, are frequently unpleasant. Sometimes, these routes also feel dangerous, as in cases where pedestrians are required to cross major roads with few traffic lights to access a bus stop located on a median. Other access routes, such as those running along parkways, might feel safe during the day, but threatening upon nightfall.
PlaNYC includes extensive plans to improve pedestrian access to public transportation, and in fact this may turn out to be the most productive aspect of their plan for the outer boroughs. The plan focuses on widening sidewalks, adding sidewalk extension, and adding raised islands where necessary. There is also provision made for increasing the availability of bicycle racks at train stations, to be placed in well lit, busy areas or in view of a station attendant.8
Beyond the Plan: Further Suggestions for the Improvement of Public Transportation
Though PlaNYC presents a comprehensive approach to improving transportation efficiency and access citywide, and includes the reduction of emissions among its priorities, its elaboration of and focus on the outer boroughs is insufficient if a significant decrease in transportation-produced emissions is to take place. The plan repeatedly concedes that transit access needs to be expanded to underserved areas in the outer boroughs, and yet those sections of the plan that focus on this problem are brief and provide no detail or specific timeframe for action.
The population of the outer boroughs is rising, and with it the number of car trips made by travelers with inadequate access to effective public transportation. Nearly seven times as many New Yorkers drive to jobs outside of Manhattan as to jobs in Manhattan. 9 Cars and light trucks are responsible for 78 percent of transportation CO2 emissions; if only half the total number of drivers in New York were convinced to take public transportation, we would be well past our goal of a 30 percent reduction in transportation-produced emissions.10 Without improvement to public transportation in those areas of the city where driving is most prevalent, however, this will remain an unattainable goal.
A Complex Problem
The prevalence of cars as a mode choice in the outer boroughs is a multifaceted problem. As noted earlier, a large majority of outer borough residents also work outside of Manhattan. Yet, the subway system—which, as it stands, is the city’s only rapid mode of public transportation—is entirely focused on the city center. As a result of the subway’s radial layout, with Manhattan at its core, there is no reliable means of east-west transportation in the Bronx, of north-south transportation in Brooklyn and Queens, or any at all in Staten Island. Travelers going from the Bronx to Queens have to choose between spending an hour and a half on the subway, or twenty minutes in their cars. It is no wonder they often choose to drive.
Commuters in the outer boroughs rely on public transportation to the greatest extent that they can. New York City has the highest bus ridership in the country, despite having the slowest buses. These buses are in fact getting even slower—bus speeds slowed by 4 percent between 2002 and 2006.11 BRT could be a plausible option, but will not work if the city is not up to the challenge of rigorously enforcing bus lane exclusivity. Ultimately, the bus problem becomes a bit of a paradox, as commuters will not choose to take the bus until buses get faster, but buses won’t get faster until commuters choose not to drive.
In the outer boroughs, local business districts are thriving, increasing demand for public transportation, as well as the number of cars on the roads. In particular, the neighborhoods of Jamaica, Long Island City, and Flushing, in Queens; The Bronx Hub; and Downtown Brooklyn have become Central Business Districts (CBDs) in their own right. Even as these CBDs have grown, however, public transportation between them and other neighborhoods in the outer boroughs has not improved at pace.
Commuters to the outer borough CBDs are far more likely to drive to work than commuters to Manhattan, even if they live within walking distance of their workplace. Nearly half of all commuters to Jamaica, Queens drive alone or carpool. Over 1,200 of these commuters who travel by car live within half a mile of downtown Jamaica, making up 12 percent of all those who commute to the district by driving. Even Downtown Brooklyn, the CBD best served by public transportation, has too many drivers—a quarter of commuters to the district travel by car.
Compounding these problems is the high availability of parking throughout much greater New York City. In Jamaica, Queens, the CBD with the highest proportion of drivers, seven garages and parking lots operate downtown, providing a total of 3,100 parking spaces. During the peak midday period, these lots operate at only 83 percent of licensed capacity.12 Even so, the Department of City Planning identifies a shortage of parking spaces in Jamaica, and the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation (GJDC) has plans to build two additional 500 space lots. The new lots are meant to handle a projected increase in retail traffic as the neighborhood is turned into an airport village serving nearby JFK Airport.13
Given the diverse factors at play, any solution to the problem of cars in the outer boroughs will consist of many elements, and require great synchronization of efforts. Initial steps could include capping or decreasing available parking in commercial zones, while increasing its price, and simultaneously improving local bus service. The option of water travel touched on in PlaNYC could be greatly expanded, with ferries traveling the length of the city’s north-south axis, from Whitestone in the Northeast Bronx all the way to Brooklyn and Staten Island.
The ultimate step that New York City could take towards integrating much of the outer borough area, however, would be to establish a train line connecting the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. Despite geographical adjacency, it is prohibitively difficult to travel between most neighborhoods in any two of these boroughs by public transportation.
Precedents for such a train line can be found in the many overland trains that link the outer reaches of London. Intersecting the London Underground at critical hubs such as London Bridge, Victoria, and Farringdon, these trains vastly increase the ability of London Transport to reach all potential passengers. Furthermore, fares on London’s overland trains can be paid using the same Oyster Card system used by all other public transport modes in the city.
The idea of establishing an overland train route linking the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn is not new, and has been researched extensively by non-profit planning organizations. The Regional Plan Association, an influential independent group focused on the NY-NJ-CT Tri-State area, describes such a train line in its 1996 Third Regional Plan. The proposed TriboroRX (TRX) is an overland rapid transit system connecting the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn that could be almost entirely built on existing rail rights of way. TRX would intersect 23 subway lines at least once, and the authors of the study estimate that at least 76,000 New Yorkers would use the line for their everyday commutes. 32,000 of these would be new rapid transit riders, converted from other modes of travel.14 Based on these numbers—which were conservative estimates even when the study was published in the mid-nineties—we can extrapolate that the TRX could potentially result in an emissions reduction of at least 130,000 metric tons annually.
Most of the right-of-way for TRX is already available. The proposed line comprises the LIRR Bay Ridge freight line in Brooklyn, the New York Connecting Railroad in Queens, the Hell Gate Bridge between Queens and the Bronx, and the St. Mary's Park Tunnel in the Bronx, which would allow Triboro trains to reach across 161st Street to Yankee Stadium. The resulting 21.8 miles of transit line would run from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn through myriad New York neighborhoods, including Sunset Park, Borough Park, Flatbush, East New York, Brownsville, Cypress Hills, Middle Village, Jackson Heights, Astoria, and Mott Haven. The proposed line would stop at 38 stations with 16 transfer opportunities to between one and five other lines.
The congestion charging plan proposed by PlaNYC is modeled on successful programs such as those in London, Stockholm, and Singapore. The basic premise of congestion charging is that drivers should be charged a fee in order to enter the central business district of a given city during business hours. In the case of New York, the congestion charging zone will include all of Manhattan below 86th Street, excluding the FDR Drive, the West Side Highway, and West Street. The proposed charge is $8 per day for cars and $21 per day for trucks entering the zone on weekdays between the hours of 6am and 6pm. All vehicles entering the zone would be subject to the charge, with the exception of emergency vehicles, vehicles with handicapped license plates, and taxis.15
Tellingly, congestion pricing is supported by most Manhattan residents, and opposed in almost equal measure by residents of each of the outer boroughs. According to a 2007 survey, 90 percent of New Yorkers agree that traffic is a serious problem, but this consensus has not been enough to convince most outer borough residents. Overall, 56 percent of New Yorkers are opposed to the congestion charge.16
In terms of emissions reduction, congestion charging has the potential to help both by reducing the small but significant number of commuters who drive to Manhattan each day, and by speeding up traffic flow, thus improving the fuel efficiency of those vehicles that do enter the congestion charging zone. The reduction in commuters to Manhattan promises to relieve congestion not only in the central zone itself, but also on those highways and local streets in Upper Manhattan and the outer boroughs by which commuters access the city center. Speeding up traffic flow on major through-routes such as the Cross Bronx and Brooklyn-Queens Expressways will play a particularly important part in reducing emissions levels, by increasing the fuel efficiency of the many trucks that now idle on those roads for much of the day. Though trucks represent only a small fraction of vehicles on New York City’s roads, their impact on pollution is large. Heavy trucks emit three times as much CO2 per mile than cars and light trucks, and spend more time on the road.17 It is projected that truck traffic in New York City will increase by 64 percent by 2030, even more reason to ensure those vehicles a quick journey through and out of the city.18
Congestion charging is a logical step in New York’s plan to improve the city’s infrastructure while reducing emissions levels. However, in order for the plan to be effective, care must be taken not to disregard the needs of those commuters affected by the charge. It is projected that the congestion charge will earn the city at least $500,000 in revenues in its first year alone, and it is imperative that this money be put directly back into the public transportation system. If outer-borough residents continue to perceive the congestion charge as an unfair tax, it will not survive. While instituting the congestion charge, the city must give back to the outer boroughs in the form of improved and farther-reaching transportation infrastructure.
The proposed congestion charge is only one element of an overall system of value pricing which would revise the price of transportation mode use to reflect the cost of that use to the urban environment. Given the negative impact of cars throughout the city, parking should be charged at higher rates in the outer boroughs as well as in Manhattan, and construction of new lots should be discouraged.
Ridership of public transport would be further augmented by a revision in the fare structure of buses and subways, reducing fares across the board. The constant fare for all modes of public transportation in New York and all distances traveled has long been considered a boon. However, the level of service on the average local bus is dramatically worse than that on most subway lines, leading to the perception that the bus is not a good value. A reduction of local bus fares in the outer boroughs to half the fare of the subway would be likely to have a dramatic impact on bus ridership, and by extension, on automobile use.
The congestion charge also provides the city with an opportunity to encourage New Yorkers to switch to driving hybrid vehicles. In London, drivers of hybrid or alternative fuel vehicles receive a 100 percent exemption from the congestion charge. For those New Yorkers who plan to continue driving into Manhattan, and for those already considering switching to a hybrid vehicle, this is a powerful incentive.
Though medallion taxis will not be subject to the congestion charge, this does not mean that they have no place in the value pricing system. If taxi rates were changed from primarily a mileage basis to primarily a time basis, users would be discouraged from taking taxis at the most congested times of the day, when vehicle emissions are highest. An increased tax on medallion taxi rides would emphasize the cost of those rides to the city, in both emissions and street space. Revenues could then be turned towards improvement of lower-impact transportation options. 19
1 PlaNYC Transportation 85
4 City of New York, Dep’t of City Planning. New York City Population Projections by Age/Sex, & Borough
52000-2030. New York, 2006.
PlaNYC Transportation 82.
6 PlaNYC Transportation 83.
7 PlaNYC Transportation, 87.
8 PlaNYC Transportation 84.
9 PlaNYC Transportation 76.
10 PlaNYC Mobility Need Assessment, 27
11 PlaNYC Transportation 82.
12 The Jamaica Plan: Final Environmental Impact Statement Ch 16 Traffic and parking 16-10.
15 PlaNYC Transportation, 89.
17 PlaNYC Mobility Need Assessment, 22.
18 PlaNYC Mobility Need Assessment, 9