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Transit Riders to Albany: Get to Work on a Real MTA Solution

transit_rally.jpgPhoto: Ben Fried.

Yesterday's rally in Union Square drew hundreds of transit riders calling on the State Senate and Albany leaders to enact a long-term solution for the MTA's enormous funding shortfall. Judging by the cheering sections in the audience, most of the crowd was mobilized by the Facebook group "1,000,000 People Against the NYC MTA Fare Hike" and Transportation Alternatives. The Working Families Party, the event sponsor with the most political muscle, sent one representative but no speaker or even a display table for gathering signatures.

With state leaders sending signals that they're ready to accept another stopgap transit plan, the rally was an occasion to remind Malcolm Smith and company that the merits of transportation policy matter. "Albany has been missing in action for almost a decade," Elena Conte of COMMUTE told the crowd, calling out the Senate Majority Leader for making a junket to Puerto Rico in the midst of the MTA crisis. "Show up and do your job so the people of this city can get to theirs."

As Conte and other speakers emphasized, the New Yorkers who have the most to lose from doomsday fare hikes and service cuts are those who can least afford it. "Where I live, we're not talking inconvenience, we're talking survival," said Carl Van Putten, 76, a resident of Hunts Point, where the Bx4 bus line is slated for elimination.

Repeating a theme sounded by Mayor Bloomberg, teachers union head Randi Weingarten, and Kathy Wylde of the Partnership for NYC in a joint letter sent to Albany the same day, TA director Paul Steely White said it's time for the State Senate to buck up. "There is no politically expedient way out of this crisis," he said. "It's time our leaders started making the hard decisions needed to keep 8.5 million straphangers moving."

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Transit Riders to Diaz: Not In Our Name

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Constituents picketed outside the office of Ruben Diaz, Sr. yesterday to urge the Bronx state senator to get behind the MTA rescue plan, which includes new tolls on East and Harlem River bridges. Though some 140,000 people in his district use transit every day, and are facing serious service cuts along with steep fare hikes, Diaz is adamantly opposed to the tolls, which would affect a relative handful of drivers.

City Room reports that protesters were especially concerned about the impact the planned cuts would have on the district's seniors.

Carl VanPutten, 76, a retired taxicab driver from the South Bronx, said that he takes the Bx4 bus, one of the lines threatened by the authority’s fiscal crisis, to get to his health-maintenance organization for check-ups and other medical appointments. He said he could take the subway but there are no elevators, making it difficult for him.

"Climbing the stairs to the subway which is above it is a problem because they don’t have elevators," said Mr. VanPutten. "I take the bus, I get off right in front of it. I can go in and come back out."

Chanting slogans like "Diaz don’t betray our trust, our people ride the bus," protesters pointed out that the currently-proposed $2 toll is the same amount that they pay to take the bus and subway every day.

A staffer interviewed by City Room said that Diaz opposes new tolls because "a sufficient number of people in this community take taxis across the east river bridges," and said Diaz would prefer to reinstate the commuter tax -- nixed by Albany lawmakers in the 1990s -- than impose the tolls. As Mobilizing the Region notes, Diaz has also proposed saving the MTA through prescription drugs from Canada.

Yesterday's action was led by COMMUTE, a coalition of advocacy groups including Nos Quedamos, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, Sustainable South Bronx, and The POINT CDC/ACTION.

"We believe that Senator Diaz — and Senators [Pedro] Espada and [Ruth] Hassell-Thompson — can change their minds," said Anna Vincenty of Nos Quedamos. 

Photo via COMMUTE

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Planners and Green Groups Call for Off-Street Parking Reform

parking_presser.jpg Yesterday, several planning and environmental organizations joined Transportation Alternatives on the steps of City Hall to tout the release of "Suburbanizing the City" [PDF], the new report that critiques New York City's off-street parking policies. The coalition is similar -- but not identical -- to the array of groups that pushed for congestion pricing earlier this year. Their testimony highlighted the range of benefits that off-street parking reform would deliver, from mitigating tailpipe emissions to reducing housing costs.

Planning advocates recommended doing away with parking requirements and "unbundling" the cost of parking from the price of housing. "There's no reason for parking to be paid for by people who don't own cars," said Tri-State Transportation Campaign director Kate Slevin, adding that the construction of parking should be "a choice rather than a necessity."

Minimum parking requirements are especially ill-suited to affordable housing developments, said Elena Conte of the Pratt Center for Community Development (pictured at the mic). "[A parking minimum] really makes no sense at all for communities where less than 20 percent of households own cars, because it drives up the cost of housing and takes up valuable space that otherwise could be used to create additional units or public space."

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COMMUTE’s BRT Plan: A Denser Network and Interborough Lines

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COMMUTE's proposals for BRT routes in the five boroughs, shown next to DOT's current plan. View an enlarged version.

As part of its "Sustainability Watch" series this week, Gotham Gazette ran a great piece on Bus Rapid Transit by Joan Byron of the Pratt Center for Community Development. Byron is one of the organizers at COMMUTE (Communities United for Transportation Equity), a coalition of community groups that has advocated for congestion pricing and BRT as means to address inequities in transit access. Now that pricing is on hold at best, Byron argues that there's even more reason to allocate funds to a cost-effective BRT network:

With both the one-time shot of federal funding and the projected $500 million per year in net revenues from congestion pricing off the table for the moment, BRT may be more important than ever. The MTA Capital Plan has, in words of Straphangers Campaign spokesman Gene Russianoff, "more hole than plan," with less than $12 billion of a five-year, $29 billion shopping list accounted for. As the rail and subway projects envisioned in that plan recede into the future, BRT makes more sense than ever. It will not prevent us from building light rail or subways in the future, but for now it makes intelligent use of the infrastructure we already have -- our streets.

After applauding the roll-out of Select Bus Service in the Bronx, Byron suggests a few ways BRT plans can be pushed further:

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Sander Makes the Case for MTA Capital Plan and Pricing

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A map presented by Lee Sander shows routes of short-term transit improvements (slide available in this PDF).

MTA chief Elliott "Lee" Sander delivered the first-ever "State of the MTA" address this morning, using the agency's 40th anniversary to urge the enactment of the full $29.5 billion, five-year capital plan unveiled last week. Speaking before a packed house at Cooper Union's Great Hall, Sander argued that the New York metro region needs every tier in the plan to serve a growing population, keep up with global competition, and address the challenge of climate change.

Sander linked the plan to the historical trajectory begun in the early 1980s, when the MTA rolled out successive five-year capital plans, reviving a decrepit system with a $70 billion overhaul. The capital plan now on the table, he said, would "turn the page to the next chapter in New York City's transit history" and create "a world-class, seamless transportation network."

Sander also reinforced the importance of congestion pricing to the MTA's plans, and placed major capital projects within the context of the city's sustainability initiatives. "Inherent in the capital plan and in congestion pricing is the belief that sustainability is critical to the region's future," he said. "Global warming and sea level rise are challenges no enlightened society can afford to ignore."

The presentation depicted three categories of improvements: 1) short-term service enhancements that can be implemented before congestion pricing, 2) major projects in the 2008-13 capital plan, and, looking ahead as far as 2048, 3) long-term system extensions for the five boroughs and surrounding counties that the current proposal would make possible.

The first category will consist of new bus routes in every borough and more frequent subway service on 11 lines. In the second category, big-ticket projects like the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access -- linking the LIRR to Grand Central -- take center stage. The third category, which Sander called a "long-term vision and action plan for the next 25-40 years," includes ideas like using the Second Avenue Subway as a trunk line for service into Brooklyn and the Bronx, and building a "circumferential" subway line connecting Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx using existing rail rights-of-way (an idea first proposed by the Regional Plan Association). A detailed summary is available in the MTA press release, and City Room has posted a great recap.

Transportation advocates were largely positive, though not without reservation, in their assessments of the speech.

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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About BRT

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The Tri-State Transportation Campaign has a new online "clearinghouse" of information on Bus Rapid Transit.

From the Mobilizing the Region blog:

The clearinghouse explains what bus rapid transit (BRT) is, how it compares to other modes, how it can be implemented in suburban and urban contexts, and how it can anchor transit-oriented development. The clearinghouse will continue to be updated.

Earlier this month a new coalition called Communities United for Transportation Equity (COMMUTE!) called for expansion of New York's BRT plans, and for electeds to support BRT through congestion pricing. Their effort was punctuated by a visit from Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, which is home to the TransMilenio system.

Check out the Bogotá StreetFilm to see BRT in action.

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Peñalosa to New York Pols: BRT & Pricing Benefit Working Class


Streetfilms captured highlights of Enrique Penalosa's appearance with COMMUTE.

One of the most entrenched fallacies in the congestion pricing debate has been the assertion that blue-collar New Yorkers get the short end of the stick. The claim never withstood scrutiny, but now it is facing an especially strong counterargument from Communities United for Transportation Equity (COMMUTE), a coalition of organizations from low-income communities of color underserved by transit.

COMMUTE calls for giving poor New Yorkers better access to transit by implementing extensive, inter-borough Bus Rapid Transit corridors, funded from pricing revenues and the MTA capital budget. On Monday, they hosted an appearance by former Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, who described how he addressed what he calls "quality of life inequality" by improving public space for pedestrians and building the TransMilenio BRT system.

COMMUTE presented Peñalosa's story as a challenge to New York pols. "People want to see that pricing is going to benefit them directly," said Joan Byron of the Pratt Center for Community Development, a COMMUTE partner. "He really demolishes the argument of electeds who oppose the plan and have 20 percent car ownership and 5 percent commuting by car in their districts."

The Pratt Center's Elena Conte brought this point home when she addressed the room following Peñalosa's Q & A

The example of Bogotá... reveals that inequities in the mass transit system can be addressed when elected leadership has the will to place the needs of the underserved above the long-established privilege of the tiny minority who drive cars

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The Human Rights Argument For BRT And Pricing

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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.

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