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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.

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William H. Whyte in His Own Words: “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces”

When I first got started making NYC bike advocacy and car-free streets videos back in the late-1990s on cable TV, I didn’t know who William “Holly” Whyte was or just how much influence his work and research had on New York City. A few years later I met Fred and Ethan Kent at Project for Public Spaces. I got a copy of Whyte’s 1980 classic, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, which in its marvelously-written, straightforward style is the one book all burgeoning urbanists should start with.

Recently, I read it again. With all the developments in video technology since his day, I wondered: How might Whyte capture information and present his research in a world which is now more attuned to the importance of public space? What would he appreciate? Are his words still valid?

So I excerpted some of my favorite passages from the book and tried to match it up with modern footage I’ve shot from all over the world while making Streetfilms. I hope he would feel honored and that it helps his research find a new audience.

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Talking Headways Podcast: A Butterfly Flaps Its Wings In the Metro

At around 800 people per square mile, places go from voting red to voting blue. Image: ##http://davetroy.com/posts/the-real-republican-adversary-population-density##Dave  Troy##

At around 800 people per square mile, places go from voting red to voting blue. Image: Dave Troy

The metro is coming to Loudon County, Virginia. Eventually.

The Silver Line expansion that opens this summer will only go as far as Reston, but by 2018 it’ll be in Loudon, one of the nation’s fastest-growing — and wealthiest — counties.

As the county’s population continues to grow — especially among communities of color – will its density hit 800 people per square mile, which is the threshold at which places magically turn from Republican to Democrat? And if it does, will it turn Virginia from purple to blue? And with such an important swing state shifting solidly to one camp, does that change the national political balance? And what is it with the number 800 anyway?

We try to figure it all out on this week’s Talking Headways. Plus, Stephen Miller, my colleague from Streetsblog New York, joins us to talk about what is — and what isn’tmoving forward as part of the city’s Vision Zero plan.

And: Detroit is tearing down more than 20 percent of its housing stock to reduce blight and still splurges on roads. Is that the way to revitalize a city? The comments section awaits you.

Don’t miss a minute: Subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher or by signing up for our RSS feed.

And thanks to all who donated during our pledge drive! Your support keeps us going, in more ways than one.

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President Obama’s Hollow Push for Infrastructure Investment

With the Tappan Zee Bridge behind him, President Obama made his case for more infrastructure spending. Photo: ##https://twitter.com/TheObamaDiary/status/466676032834387969/photo/1##TheObamaDiary/Twitter##

With an old highway bridge and the cranes building its replacement behind him, President Obama made his case for more infrastructure spending. Photo: TheObamaDiary/Twitter

This afternoon, President Obama stood by New York’s Tappan Zee Bridge and made a speech pressing Congress to do something about infrastructure investment. It’s part of his Infrastructure Week push for Congress to pass a fully funded transportation reauthorization bill. Many other groups are spending this week sounding the same horn.

“If they don’t act by end of summer, federal funding for transportation projects will run out. The cupboard will be bare,” Obama said today. “Nearly 700,000 jobs will be at risk.”

“So far, at least, the Republicans who run this Congress seem to have a different priority,” he said. “Not only have they prevented, so far, efforts to make sure funding is still in place for what we’ve already got, but their proposal would actually cut job-creating grant programs that funded high-priority transportation projects in all 50 states — they’d cut ‘em by about 80 percent.”

Indeed, Obama has submitted a bill to Congress calling to increase federal transportation investment to $302 billion over the next four years. The problem is, his plan to pay for it — using what he calls “pro-growth” business tax reform and the repatriation of offshore profits — is falling on deaf ears in Congress. Advocates criticize the plan as a one-time gimmick, not a long-term funding source.

The most obvious and simple method of raising more revenue in the long run is to increase the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993 and has lost an estimated 37 percent of its purchasing power. Experts say an increase of 10 to 15 cents per gallon is needed to fill the gap in the nation’s transportation funding.

But the Obama administration has been adamant in its refusal to raise the gas tax. Though former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood came out in favor of a 10 cent hike almost as soon as he left office, he toed the official line while at U.S. DOT, insisting that a hike was a non-starter. At a Commerce Committee hearing last week, LaHood’s successor, Anthony Foxx, disappointed senators by dodging a question about increasing the gas tax, saying only that he would “listen to Congress.”

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Chuck Schumer Proposes Making Bike-Share Memberships Tax Deductible

If you drive to work, the IRS allows you to pay for parking with pre-tax money. Same goes if you take the train or the bus (though transit commuters can’t claim as much tax-free earnings as car commuters). People who ride their own bikes are also eligible to deduct some associated costs. But if you get to work using Citi Bike, Divvy, Nice Ride, or any of the other bike-share systems sprouting up in American cities, you get no such assistance from Uncle Sam.

Those to use bike share to commute to work may soon be eligible for the same tax benefits everyone else receives. Photo: Steven Vance

People who ride bike-share to work may soon be eligible for tax benefits like other commuters. Photo: Steven Vance

New York Senator Chuck Schumer wants to change that by treating bike-share memberships like other commuting costs. Schumer plans to add an amendment to a Senate package of tax benefit extensions that would specifically list bike-share memberships as an eligible expense for transportation fringe benefits.

“Bike share programs are an efficient, healthy, and clean form of mass transportation, and they should be treated the same way under the tax code as we treat car and mass transit commuters,” he said in a statement yesterday.

The amendment would allow commuters to deduct up to $20 per month in bike-share expenses from their taxable income, the same as regular bike commuters. That would make the entire cost of an annual bike-share membership tax-deductible. Chicago’s Divvy, for instance, is prices at $75 per year, NYC’s Citi Bike costs $95, and at the very high end of the spectrum, Deco Bike in Miami Beach costs $150. For commuters, a low-cost transportation option could become an even better bargain.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Knight Rider Rides Again

It was a dark and stormy day in San Francisco and Jeff Wood stayed dry in Woonerf studios, recording the Talking Headways podcast with co-host Tanya Snyder, who was bitter that days after the spring equinox, Washington, DC, was getting hit with another snowstorm.

But more importantly — what does the future hold after a tumultuous news cycle for New York’s Citi Bike? What can Chicago (and, oh, every other American city) do to create more affordable housing in the neighborhoods everyone wants to live in? And is the self-driving car seriously going to become a reality by the end of this decade? And is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Jeff and Tanya take on all that and more. Or really, pretty much just that.

Enjoy our sweet 16th episode of the Talking Headways podcast, subscribe on iTunes, follow the RSS feed, and talk at us in the comments.

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The 5 Cities Where It’s Easiest — and Hardest — to Walk to the Grocery Store

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New York came in at the top of Walk Score’s ranking of cities where people can walk to buy groceries. Image: Walk Score

Walk Score has put together a new ranking of the best and worst American cities for walkable access to food. The above visualization contrasts New York, city with the best access, and Indianapolis, which brought up the rear in Walk Score’s ratings.

Walk Score used its algorithm to cross-reference millions of walking routes with its database of grocery store locations. Then it ranked cities with populations over 500,000 according to the share of residents who can walk to a grocery store in five minutes. Here are the top five:

1 New York 72%
2 San Francisco 59%
3 Philadelphia 57%
4 Boston 45%
5 Washington D.C. 41%

Walk Score also ranked the places where the lowest share of residents can walk to a grocery store in five minutes:

1 Indianapolis 5%
2 Oklahoma City 5%
3 Charlotte 6%
4 Tucson 6%
5 Albuquerque 7%

Cities including San Jose, California, are using tools from Walk Score to examine and address local food access issues. Walk Score says it welcomes inquiries from planners who would like to see the results of their city.