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Posts from the New York Category


The Looming Transit Breakdown That Threatens America’s Economy


Categories of maintenance needs, in billions of dollars, for America’s large transit agencies. Graph: RPA

While federal transit funding stagnates, the nation’s largest rail and bus systems have been delaying critical maintenance projects. Without sustained efforts to fix infrastructure and vehicles, the effects of deteriorating service in big American cities could ripple across the national economy, according to a new report from the Regional Plan Association [PDF].

RPA focuses on ten of the nation’s largest transit agencies — in Boston, San Francisco, Atlanta, Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Between them, these agencies face about $102 billion in deferred maintenance costs. To bring the systems into a state of good repair will require about $13 billion in maintenance spending per year — more than twice the current rate of investment.

These regions house about one-fifth of the country’s population and produce about 27 percent of the nation’s economic output. They also carry about 60 percent of the nation’s total transit ridership, up from 55 percent 20 years ago. That’s a reflection of how transit has become increasingly important in these regions, with passenger trips growing 54 percent over the same period.

That level of ridership growth can’t be sustained if the transit systems aren’t maintained properly. RPA cites a 2012 report from San Francisco’s BART that says if the system is allowed to deteriorate…

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The Key Human Factors That Can Lead Any City to Transform Its Streets


Graphic via TransitCenter

How did Portland get to be a national model for sustainable transportation and walkable development? Yes, Mayor Neil Goldschmidt stopped the Mount Hood Freeway from being built in 1974 and began negotiations that eventually led to the implementation of the urban growth boundary. But Goldschmidt didn’t do it alone.

Grassroots activists from a group called Sensible Transportation Options for People (STOP) — which included Goldschmidt’s chief of staff when he was city commissioner — helped him get elected and formed the ideas and policy proposals he embraced as mayor. Goldschmidt, in turn, appointed reformers to key posts in his administration.

Look at other cities that are moving beyond the 20th Century legacy of cars-first planning, and odds are you’ll come across a similar story of grassroots activism merging with political power. In a new report, “A People’s History of Recent Urban Transportation Innovation,” TransitCenter’s Shin-pei Tsay tells those stories in six cities.

The Portland story is exceptional in that the state of Oregon worked with the city in the 1970s as a close partner on land use and transportation policy, helping to build the region’s light rail system. But even without state cooperation, cities around the country are showing the way toward a more multi-modal, less car-dependent future. And as in Portland, this progress can be traced to the links between advocates and government.

Take a more recent example: New York’s street transformations under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. When people think of changes like the pedestrianization of Times Square and the construction of protected bike lanes, they think of Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan — and for good reason. But these leaders also had the benefit of a deep and increasingly sophisticated advocacy scene, exemplified by Transportation Alternatives, with its roots stretching back to the early 1970s — as well as groups like the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and the Regional Plan Association (and new arrivals like, ahem, Streetsblog).

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Life-Saving Truck Design Fix Sidelined By Federal Inaction

This is the second post in a Streetsblog NYC series about safety features for large vehicles. Part one examined the case for truck side guards and New York City’s attempt to require them for its fleet.


Large trucks operating in New York City are not required to have side guards to protect pedestrians and cyclists. Photo: dos82/Flickr

American cities are beginning to take the lead on requiring side guards on large trucks in municipal fleets. That’s a good first step toward saving lives, but without addressing privately-owned vehicles, city streets will not be safe from trucks that tend to crush people beneath the rear wheels after impact. The federal government continues to drag its feet, and without a national mandate, the prospects for meaningful action from the states look slim.

Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended installing side guards on all large trucks, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which regulates truck design, has yet to pass a rule requiring them. NHTSA says it might begin soliciting input on new trailer guard rules by the middle of next year. Traditionally, the agency has focused on guards for the back end of trucks, which protect car occupants in rear-end collisions. There’s no guarantee that any progress toward new rules next year will include side guards.

In the absence of federal rules requiring side guards for trucks, New York state and local legislators have taken tentative steps toward addressing the problem. Albany’s previous attempts at similar legislation don’t inspire confidence, however. A recently enacted state law mandates “crossover” mirrors to reduce the size of blind spots in front of trucks weighing at least 26,000 pounds that operate on New York City streets. Enforcement of the mirror law is dismal, in part because of a loophole that exempts trucks registered out-of-state. The ultimate fix would be a national crossover mirror mandate, but the federal government has not shown any inclination to take that up.

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Why Aren’t American Bike-Share Systems Living Up to Their Potential?

This chart shows the performance of the world's bike sharing systems. U.S. systems, by en large, are lagging. Image: ?

U.S. bike-share systems, which tend not to have dense networks of stations, also tend to lag behind other bike-share systems on ridership. Graph: Institute for Transportation and Development Policy

As policy director at the New York City Department of Transportation from 2007 to June, 2014, Jon Orcutt shepherded the nation’s largest bike-share system through the earliest stages of planning, a wide-ranging public engagement process, and, last year, the rollout of hundreds of Citi Bike stations.

That makes Orcutt, formerly of Transportation Alternatives and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a leading U.S. expert on bike-share. In a recent exchange about what some cities are passing off as bike-share, Orcutt told he has some concerns about how bike-share systems are being rolled out in cities around the U.S. Intrigued, I asked him to elaborate in an interview.

Here’s what he had to say about what separates a successful bike-share system from one that’s not meeting its potential:

So you’ve come to some conclusions about how certain bike-shares are functioning?

They’re not my conclusions. There’s a fair amount of research out there now and you can see pretty clearly what some of the variables are. There’s a huge variation across cities, especially in the United States.

Can you summarize the research?

The most useful metric is rides per bike per day. You can compare a system with 600 bikes to 6,000 bikes in different size cities pretty easily. You just see, how many rides is it getting?

I’d say the breaking point internationally is about three-and-a-half or four rides. High performing systems are seeing four rides per day on average or more, and then there’s everybody else. A lot of them in the United States are under two.

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Peak Sprawl? The Fringes of the New York Region Are Shrinking

Image: Rutgers University

While the urban core shrank and the fringes grew between 1950 and 1980, the inverse has been true since 2010, with urban counties growing fastest, and counties on the edge of the region losing population. Image: Rutgers University

A new report out of Rutgers University [PDF] reveals that since 2010, the fringes of the New York region have lost population as the core has grown, a reversal of the sprawling pattern that predominated starting in 1950, when the suburbs grew and the city shrank.

The report compares regional growth between 1950 and 1980 to the three-year trend gleaned from the most recent available data, covering 2010 to 2013. Authors James W. Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, and Joseph J. Seneca, a professor at the school, say recent shifts may signal the beginning of a long-term change toward more compact growth, while acknowledging that it’s too early to conclusively say so.

In 1954, Hans Blumenfeld published “The Tidal Wave of Metropolitan Expansion” in the Journal of the American Institute of Planners, using demographic trends in the Philadelphia area to accurately forecast a surge of growth for suburban counties in the coming decades. The Rutgers report could be an early indication that a new chapter in regional growth is already underway.

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Census Finds DC and NYC Bike Commuting Has Doubled in Four Years

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Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

For the first and second U.S. cities to start building networks of modern protected bike lanes, the payoff seems to have arrived.

In both Washington, DC, and New York City, the rate of bike commuting has doubled since 2009, according to Census figures released Thursday.

Powered by one of the country’s most successful bike-share systems, a solid network of painted lanes, a handful of protected lanes, and the burgeoning bicycle culture that resulted from those changes, Washington’s bike commute mode share vaulted to 4.5 percent in 2013, up from 2.2 percent in 2009. Among major U.S. cities, that estimate would place DC second only to Portland, Oregon, as a bike commuting town.

“DC has been coming up strong for several years,” said Darren Flusche, policy director for the DC-based League of American Bicyclists. “It’s the nation’s capital; I keep waiting for someone to say they’re the nation’s bike capital.”

New York City, meanwhile, has a lower biking rate — just 1.2 percent, up from 0.6 percent in 2009. But that comes out to 46,000 daily bike commuters, about as many as Portland and DC combined. New York added an estimated 10,000 bike commuters in 2013 alone, its fifth straight year of growth.

Flusche credited the Michael Bloomberg administration, led by former Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, for rapidly dedicating space on New York streets for painted or protected bike lanes.

“I think we’re finally seeing the benefits of those decisions made as far back as ’09, ’10, ’11,” Flusche said.

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EPA Rejects New York’s Clean Water Money Grab for Highway Bridge

This morning, the Environmental Protection Agency rejected the $510.9 million federal loan New York state had requested from a clean water program to pay for the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project. Only $29 million worth of TZB work is eligible for clean water money, the EPA’s regional office ruled, averting a dangerous precedent that could have let governors across the country raid environmental funds to pay for highways.

Building a new highway bridge with clean water funds? Forget about it, says the EPA. Photo: D. Robert Wolcheck/Flickr

Using clean water funds to replace this highway bridge? Forget about it, says the EPA. Photo: D. Robert Wolcheck/Flickr

“New York’s request presents a unique circumstance that is unprecedented… no other state has made a request of this type or magnitude,” wrote Joan Leary Matthews, regional director of EPA’s clean water division [PDF]. “There is no evidence… that the [Clean Water State Revolving Fund] was intended to fund mitigation for major construction projects within an estuary. Construction activities arising from transportation projects do not advance water quality, and CWSRF funding should not be used for these purposes.”

The Thruway Authority had planned on using the $510.9 million loan on twelve projects. Today, EPA rejected seven of those projects, totaling $481.8 million, because they are directly tied to building the new bridge. The projects deemed ineligible are: removal of the existing bridge, dredging for construction vessels, armoring the river bottom, installation of an underwater noise attenuation system, construction of a bike-pedestrian path on the new bridge, restoration of oyster beds, and the installation of a falcon nest box.

The state will be able to receive funding for five projects, totaling $29.1 million: the restoration of Gay’s Point and Piermont Marsh, the installation of stormwater management measures, and the creation of a conservation benefit plan, including an Atlantic sturgeon outreach program.

Environmental advocates and good government groups staunchly opposed the loan, saying that allowing clean water funds to be used for highway construction would set a dangerous precedent. “It’s great that the agency in charge of calling balls and strikes has called the state out,” said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York. “But we shouldn’t have gotten here in the first place.”

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The Letter to the Times That Foresaw NYC’s Biking Triumph 10 Years Ago

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Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

With the recent news that Bicycling Magazine has named New York America’s best city for biking, this seems like a particularly good moment to share the very first time protected bike lanes were mentioned in The New York Times.

It happened on October 10, 2004, in a letter to the editor from a man named Kenneth Coughlin. It was a response to a personal narrative the previous week from a young Times reporter who had made the daring decision to start riding her bicycle to work. In that article, then-Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall had made the prediction that New York City could one day be “one of the world’s great bicycling cities.”

It seemed like an obviously ridiculous claim. In a city of 8.2 million, fewer than 20,000 New Yorkers biked to work at the time. There was no Streetsblog, no Summer Streets, certainly no Citi Bike. The Times reporter, Lydia Polgreen (later a decorated Times correspondent in Africa, now the newspaper’s deputy international editor), described an incident in which she spent 20 minutes just looking for a place to lock her bike. Still, Polgreen came away from her first summer of bike commuting convinced that New York (“flat and compact … perfectly suited to biking”) had potential.

You can still find Coughlin’s 151-word reply to Polgreen on the NYT’s website. Here it is:

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Are There Any Affordable Cities Left in America?

When you factor in both housing and transportation costs (H+T) as a percent of income, the car-dependent cities in the right column expensive. But are DC, SF, and NYC that much more affordable, even if you count the benefits of transit? Source: Citizens Budget Commission

When you factor in both housing and transportation costs (H+T) as a percent of income, the car-dependent cities in the right column are especially expensive. But are DC, SF, and NYC that much more affordable, even if you count the benefits of transit? Source: Citizens Budget Commission

Are Washington, San Francisco, and New York the most affordable American cities? A new report from the New York-based Citizen’s Budget Commission [PDF], which made the rounds at the Washington Post and CityLab, argues that if you consider the combined costs of housing and transportation, the answer is yes.

But a closer look at the data casts some doubt on that conclusion. Between the high cost of transportation in sprawling regions and the high demand for housing in compact cities with good transit, very few places in America are looking genuinely affordable these days.

The CBC report uses a better measure of affordability than housing costs alone. Transportation is the second biggest household expense for the average American family, and looking at what people spend on housing plus transportation (H+T) can upend common assumptions about which places are affordable and which are not. Regions with cheap housing but few alternatives to car commuting don’t end up scoring so well.

There are some problems with the CBC’s methodology, however. While abundant transit is absolutely essential to keeping household transportation costs down, and it provides a lifeline to low-income residents of major coastal cities, the report still tends to exaggerate overall affordability in these areas.

According to the report, for example, New York City ranks third in affordability among 22 large cities. A “typical household” in New York City, the CBC finds, spends 32 percent of its income on housing and transportation combined. Part of the reason New York comes out looking good, though, is that CBC used a regional measure of income but looked at typical rents only in the city itself. Because the region’s median income is higher than the median income in the city ($62,063 vs. $51,865, respectively, according to 2008-2012 Census data), NYC appears more affordable than it really is.

Another issue, flagged by Michael Lewyn at his CNU blog, is that by looking at average rents, which in some cities include many rent-stabilized units, the calculation doesn’t necessarily capture what someone searching for shelter is likely to pay. If you’re trying to find an apartment in New York now, getting a place for the average rent would probably be extremely difficult.

What really stands out in the CBC report isn’t that New York, San Francisco, and DC are affordable — it’s that car-dependent areas that may have cheap housing turn out to be so expensive once you factor in transportation.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Poor Door Von Spreckelsen

podcast icon logoIn this week’s podcast, Jeff and I take on the infamous New York City “poor door,” designed to keep tenants of affordable units segregated from the wealthy residents that occupy the rest of the high-rise at 40 Riverside. In the process, we take on the assumptions and methods that cities use to provide housing, and by the time we’re done, we’ve blown a hole in the whole capitalist system.

Then we investigate the reasons behind the assertion that “restaurants really can determine the fate of cities and neighborhoods.” We determine that food is mostly a proxy for other needs people have related to where they live, but we do love a good pupusa.

And finally, we wrestle with the paradox that if we love nature, we should live in cities.

Argue with our take on urbanism, economic justice, and burrito justice in the comments. Subscribe on iTunesStitcher, or our RSS feed.