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Bus Rapid Transit, Not Ferry Subsidies, Would Help Struggling New Yorkers

Image: EDC [PDF]

Per rider, ferries need significantly higher subsidies than subways or local buses. Image: EDC [PDF]

In today’s State of the City address, Mayor de Blasio returned to his signature campaign issues of affordability and equity. Focusing mainly on housing, the mayor outlined a plan for growth centered around transit-accessible neighborhoods, and he recommitted to building several new Bus Rapid Transit routes.

But de Blasio missed the mark with his big new transit initiative — a subsidized ferry system. Dollar for dollar, ferries are just not an effective way to spend public money to improve transit options for low-income New Yorkers.

“If we are going to have affordable housing, how are we going to help people get around? What’s the role of transportation in making sure that people have access to opportunity and connecting to where the jobs are all over the five boroughs?” the mayor asked. “Well, we thought about that.”

De Blasio said rides on the new ferry system will cost no more than a MetroCard swipe when it launches in 2017. The system will receive $55 million from the city and serve neighborhoods including Astoria and the Rockaways in Queens, Red Hook in Brooklyn, and Soundview in the Bronx, according to DNAinfo.

“Ferries will be affordable to everyday New Yorkers, just like our subways and buses,” de Blasio said, adding that the ferries will help revitalize commercial corridors near their outer-borough landings.

This sounds great, until you look at how much ferries cost and how many people they would serve compared to better buses and trains.

Even with fares at $3.50 per ride, running ferries from Pier 11 to the Rockaways last year required a subsidy of nearly $30 per rider, according to the Economic Development Corporation. In part, that was because its limited schedule failed to attract much ridership. The more centrally-located East River Ferry has more ridership and a better schedule, but still had a slightly higher per-rider subsidy than bus service in 2013, on top of its $4 fare [PDF]. Dropping the fare to match the bus and subway would likely require additional subsidies.

Even the popular Staten Island Ferry, which is free and has frequent service, had a per-rider subsidy in 2011 more than three times higher than local MTA buses, and more than 10 times higher than the subway [PDF].

The role that ferries can play in the transportation system is limited by the accessibility of waterfront sites and the difficulty of connecting to other transit services. The East River Ferry maxed out at a daily average of 4,000 weekday riders and 6,000 weekend riders in 2013. 

There’s also a disconnect between most of the areas the ferries would serve and the transit needs of low-income neighborhoods. A better way to spend those subsidies to help struggling New Yorkers would be to bolster Bus Rapid Transit improvements across the boroughs.

De Blasio did mention Bus Rapid Transit in the speech, recommitting to his campaign promise to bring the city’s BRT network to a total of 20 routes by the end of his first term. The pace of expansion will have to speed up considerably to hit that target. So far, the administration has cut the ribbon on just one new Select Bus Service route, with a handful of additional routes in the planning stages.

A coalition of groups backing expanded BRT, including the Working Families Party, the Pratt Center for Community Development, Tri-State Transportation Campaign, and Riders Alliance, issued statements thanking the mayor for commitment to BRT. City Council Transportation Committee Chair Ydanis Rodriguez also promised to hold a hearing on the future of BRT in New York and the mayor’s plans.

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Streetsblog USA
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Man Walks 21 Miles to Commute Each Day Because of Detroit’s Awful Transit

A piece in the Detroit Free Press about 56-year-old factory worker James Robertson and his 21-mile round-trip walking commute to the Detroit suburbs is going viral this week. It is both an amazing story of individual perseverance and a scathing indictment of a failing transportation system.

Robertson’s total commute is actually a 46-mile round-trip, split between different buses and a marathon walk. He has been taking this route to reach his job in Rochester Hills from his home in Detroit since his Honda Accord died 10 years ago, he told the Detroit Free Press. Baldwin can’t afford a new car on the wages from his $10-an-hour job.

Despite this formidable obstacle, Robertson has never missed a day of work. “I can’t imagine not working,” he told the paper.

Readers from around the country who were inspired by Robertson’s story have raised $72,000 for him (at the time we published), more than enough to get a car. But a crowdfunded car can’t help everyone who’s in a similar situation in Detroit.

CeCe Grant, executive director of Americans for Transit, says Robertson’s situation is “partially by cruel design.” Detroit’s suburban bus system, SMART, allows municipalities to “opt-out.” That “has always sported a sharp cultural edge, because it nudges up against the notion that some communities don’t want ‘those people,’ be they Detroiters or blacks or bus riders, coming through their locales,” she said. “Because Rochester Hills doesn’t participate in SMART, Robertson must walk the last seven miles of his journey to work — after taking a SMART bus as far as it can reach into Oakland County.”

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Streetsblog USA
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Help Streetsblog Find the Sorriest Bus Stop in America

Atlanta's Buford Highway, via ATL Urbanist.

Atlanta’s Buford Highway, via ATL Urbanist

It’s contest time again, and competition is going to be stiff for this one. After handing out a Streetsie award for the best street transformation in America at the end of 2014, we’re going to do some good old public shaming this time: Help us find the most neglected, dangerous, and all around sorriest bus stop in the United States.

Most bus stops don’t amount to much more than a stick in the ground. No shelter, no schedule, and nowhere to sit. Better bus stops would mean people could walk to transit without taking their life in their hands, and that transit riders could wait for the bus with dignity. This contest will provide definitive evidence that transit agencies and DOTs have to do a lot better.

The above example comes from Atlanta’s notorious Buford Highway, where pedestrian infrastructure of all types has been completely neglected in favor of wide open asphalt.

It will be hard to top the example below, however. That’s an actual bus stop in Cleveland. The only indication is a very small RTA logo under the highway sign for 71 South (you might have to zoom in to actually spot it). What exactly people are supposed to do when they get off the bus here is unclear, but it’s a sorry statement about how seriously Ohio DOT takes bus riders’ needs.

This is an actual bus stop in Cleveland. We swear. Image: Google Maps via Tim Kovach

An actual bus stop in Cleveland. We swear. Image: Google Maps via Tim Kovach

If there’s an awful bus stop where you live, send us your pictures of it along with a written description of the context, and we’ll put the worst up to a popular vote. You can leave an entry in the comments or email it to angie [at] streetsblog [dot] org.

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Cuomo’s LaGuardia Train Would Be Slower Than Existing Transit

When it comes to travel times, Cuomo’s proposed LaGuardia AirTrain wouldn’t fare well compared to existing bus and subway service. Graph: The Transportation Politic

When it comes to travel times, Cuomo’s proposed LaGuardia AirTrain wouldn’t fare well compared to existing bus and subway service. Graph: The Transport Politic

The centerpiece of Governor Cuomo’s second-term transportation agenda for New York City isn’t closing the $15 billion gap in the MTA capital program or taking serious steps to relieve the city from suffocating traffic. Instead, Cuomo’s big idea is a new rail link to LaGuardia Airport.

The idea captivated the Times and distracted from the meat of Cuomo’s proposals, which mostly involve subsidizing highways and bridges so Thruway tolls don’t go up. But it won’t make it any faster to get to LaGuardia without driving, writes Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic.

As difficult as it can be to get to LaGuardia now, Freemark says Cuomo’s AirTrain proposal — which would run along public rights-of-way between the airport and the 7 train at Willets Point — would have longer travel times than existing transit routes from most parts of the city. “As proposed, the project would do next to nothing to improve access to the airport,” he writes.

Freemark’s analysis, which he summarized in the above chart, finds that the Cuomo AirTrain would offer no improvement over current transit service for travelers heading from the airport to Grand Central, Penn Station (except via the LIRR on Mets game days, when trip times would be slightly faster than today), the World Trade Center, Borough Hall/Jay Street, and Jamaica. Travel times to the South Bronx (Yankee Stadium) would be nearly twice as long as existing options. If you happen to live in the immediate vicinity of the proposed Willets Point AirTrain connection, then you might save some time.

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Streetsblog USA
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Transit and Equity Advocate Stephanie Pollack to Lead MassDOT

Stephanie Pollack was one of the first transportation experts who made a serious impression on me. A few weeks after I started working at Streetsblog, at my first Rail~volution conference, she gave a presentation on the complex relationship between transit, gentrification, and car ownership. Her energy, intellectual rigor, and passion for social justice were apparent in her nuanced work exploring the reasons why car ownership rates tend to rise in neighborhoods with new transit services — and how it hurts not just the transportation system and the environment, but the poor.

Stephanie Pollack, a thought leader on how housing and transportation policy impacts minorities and low-income people, will be the new secretary of MassDOT. Photo: ##http://www.northeastern.edu/news/faculty-experts/stephanie-pollack/##Northeastern##

Stephanie Pollack, a thought leader on how housing and transportation policy affects minorities and low-income people, will be the new secretary of MassDOT. Photo: Northeastern

The person who opened a Rail~volution session on transit and equity with, “I spent a couple of decades as a transit and equity advocate before I went into academia,” has just been named the director of a state department of transportation.

By a Republican governor.

When Streetsblog fretted about what a Charlie Baker victory over Democrat Martha Coakley could mean for transportation, naming such a firebrand as his transportation secretary seemed unthinkable. But perhaps Baker will continue the legacy of moderate Republican Massachusetts governors who care about smart growth.

Or perhaps he was simply impressed by Pollack’s résumé, including her leadership at Northeastern University’s Kitty & Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy and her service on numerous teams and panels to help design city- and statewide public transportation and housing policy.

The Boston Globe’s headline yesterday about Pollack’s nomination read, “Baker names gas tax advocate as transit chief,” noting that “Baker has said he does not plan to raise taxes.” But Pollack’s history is much more interesting than her position on the gas tax.

Her research focuses on the intersection between transportation and equity. How can planners bring transit services into a neighborhood without bringing gentrification along with it? Are all communities equally consulted in the lead-up to major transportation changes? Are higher gas taxes “elitist or equitable”? (You can guess by that Globe headline which side she comes down on. Actually, don’t just guess — this short presentation of her conclusions is worth perusing.)

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Streetsblog USA
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Talking Headways Podcast: The Year Ahead in Transit, With Yonah Freemark

Image: Yonah Freemark, ##http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2015/01/05/openings-and-construction-starts-planned-for-2015/##The Transport Politic##

Graphic: Yonah Freemark/The Transport Politic

Think you’re all caught up on the latest transit news? Listening to Yonah Freemark of the Transport Politic and Jeff Wood of the Overhead Wire (my lovely co-host) geek out on the transit construction projects of 2014 and 2015 is a humbling, and surprisingly energizing, experience.

podcast icon logo

You can prep for this episode by reading Yonah’s seventh annual compendium of “Openings and Construction Starts Planned for 2015,” or you can just hit play right now.

You thought the Oakland airport connector was a good idea just because it’s transit? Get schooled. Didn’t know the country was getting its first car-free bridge just for buses/rail/bikes/peds? Learn about it here. Wondering how escalator length affects subway ridership? Yup, you’ll hear it here first, folks.

With that, I present: Yonah and Jeff on the transit starts of 2014 and 2015.

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Bus Lanes Worked Wonders on East 125th. Now What About the West Side?

On the section of 125th Street with new bus lanes, bus trips are now a third faster than before. Image: DOT/MTA [PDF]

On the section of 125th Street with new bus lanes, transit speeds increased by a third. Image: DOT/MTA [PDF]

Since debuting last year, Select Bus Service on 125th Street has dramatically improved transit speeds, especially on the section with dedicated bus lanes east of Lenox Avenue, according to NYC DOT and the MTA. The results strengthen the case for adding bus lanes west of Lenox, which DOT had scuttled in 2013 in response to resistance from local electeds. With more favorable politics prevailing today, the agency could revive bus lanes for West Harlem and greatly extend the impact of 125th Street SBS.

The improvement in bus service thanks to camera-enforced transit lanes, off-board fare collection, and other SBS features is impressive [PDF]. From end to end, the M60 bus from 110th Street to LaGuardia Airport now travels 11 to 14 percent faster than it did before. On 125th Street between Second and Lenox Avenues, the only part of 125th to receive dedicated bus lanes, the M60 is now 32 to 34 percent faster, an improvement that MTA bus planner Evan Bialostozky called “shocking, to even me.”

The M60 isn’t the only route to benefit from the new bus lanes: Local bus trips on the M100 and Bx15 are 7 to 20 percent faster between Second and Lenox.

“That’s helping a lot of people,” Bialostozky told the Community Board 9 transportation committee last Thursday. Crosstown buses on 125th Street serve more than more than 32,000 riders every day. Before the dedicated transit lanes debuted last year, these routes had been among the city’s slowest buses, crawling through traffic and around double-parked cars.

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Streetsblog USA
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Will Maryland Gov-Elect Larry Hogan Kill the Red and Purple Lines?

The Purple Line, which Governor-elect Larry Hogan has threatened to kill, is seen as key to Montgomery County’s long-term economic viability.

Seeing shovel-ready transit projects destroyed by petty politics has been all too common the last few years (see: Scott Walker and Wisconsin high-speed rail, or Chris Christie and the ARC tunnel). Even so, this one’s a doozy.

The fate of two of the country's biggest planned transit projects rest in this man's hands: Maryland Governor-Elect Larry Hogan. Photo: Wikipedia

Larry Hogan. Photo: Wikipedia

Maryland Governor-elect Larry Hogan has the power to halt two major urban transit projects that have the planning and funding all lined up and and are all but ready to go: suburban DC’s 16-mile Purple Line as well as Baltimore’s 14-mile Red Line. More than a decade of planning has gone into each of these transit lines, and each has been awarded a competitive federal New Starts grant for $900 million [PDF], accounting for about a third of the total $5.5 billion combined cost.

Early in his gubernatorial campaign, Hogan promised to kill the projects, saying the money would be better spent on roads and that the western, eastern, and southern parts of the state deserved more attention. But closer to the election he moderated his views, saying the lines were “worth considering.”

Since winning the race, he has mostly kept mum about his intentions. When asked recently about the plans, he demurred, according to the Washington Post.

“They should just keep on guessing, because I’m going to be governor January 21, and we will start talking about policy then,” he said.

Although Hogan won’t take office for a few weeks yet, his indecision is already affecting construction timetables. Bids were due this month for the Purple Line project, but were delayed until March, after the swearing-in.

Maryland spent more than $170 million planning and purchasing right-of-way for the Purple Line and another $230+ million on planning for the Red Line. That work will go to waste if the projects are killed. Plus, because the Red Line has already gone out to bid, the state would be responsible for another $8 million in payments to the engineering firms that have prepared detailed, long-term plans to build the line.

Of the most concern to transit advocates is all the federal funding that would likely be lost if the state were to abandon or dramatically alter the plans at this late stage. In addition to the New Starts grant, the Purple Line has received $900 million in federally backed loans. None of the federal money could be used for other projects in the state.

Business groups in both the DC area and Baltimore strongly support the projects and have been urging the governor to continue with the plan.

Klaus Philipsen, a Baltimore architect who served as a consultant and planner on the Red Line, said dirt could start flying this year in Baltimore. The $2.9 billion Red Line was expected to not just attract new passengers, but greatly expand the usefulness of the city’s existing two rail lines by creating a more extensive network. It was also expected to be a boon for struggling west Baltimore, where intensive community planning processes sought to get the most out of the stations for local neighborhoods.

“The hope is that with the Red Line [Baltimore’s rail transit] would start to become a real system and we’d have a quantum leap in connectivity,” Philipsen told Streetsblog.

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Stuck in the Middle: When Transit-Dependent Communities Lack Good Transit

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NYC neighhorhoods with low household incomes and high unemployment lack the excellent transit access to jobs available in the city’s most affluent areas. Chart: NYU Rudin Center

New Yorkers who live close to the center of town are mostly affluent and have great transit options connecting them to a wealth of job opportunities. On the edges of town, people are not quite as well-off, and most can get to work by driving their own cars. In between are the least affluent neighborhoods, where New Yorkers rely on transit but the number of jobs accessible by train or bus is much smaller than in the city core.

A new report from New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation [PDF] identifies this middle band of neighborhoods as the area where transit improvements can do the most to connect more people to more jobs.

The study ranked the city’s 177 zip codes by the number of jobs accessible by a transit trip lasting 60 minutes or less at 9 a.m. on a weekday. Grouping the neighborhoods into three tiers of transit access, the authors then at income and commute data for each tier.

The top third of transit-accessible neighborhoods have high incomes, and 79 percent of commuters travel by foot or transit. Not surprisingly, the highest-ranked neighborhoods are in or near major employment centers in Manhattan. In the top 59 neighborhoods, the unemployment rate is 8.3 percent and average household income is $108,209.

Things look different in the city’s least transit-accessible neighborhoods, where 53 percent of residents drive to work. These areas, mostly beyond the reach of the subway, include neighborhoods as diverse as the low-income southern reaches of East New York and the wealthy south shore of Staten Island. Combining this mix of demographics, the unemployment rate in these neighborhoods averages 9.7 percent and the average household income is $61,381.

Then there’s the middle third of neighborhoods, where people are heavily dependent on transit but access to jobs via train or bus is mediocre. In this band of New York, 67 percent of workers commute by transit, the unemployment rate, at 11.7 percent, is higher than the rest of the city, and average income is lower, at $46,773.

It’s exactly these commuters, who live just beyond the reach of convenient transit but lack the resources to own a private car, who could benefit most from improvements to the city’s transit network.

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More People Get to Fulton Street By Bike Than By Car

Is parking really that important for merchants? Not according to surveys of their customers. Image: FAB Alliance [PDF]

Is car parking really that important for merchants? Not according to surveys of their customers. Image: FAB Alliance and Pratt Area Community Council [PDF]

When shop owners oppose new plazas or protected bike lanes, even in the city’s most walkable neighborhoods, they often say their businesses rely on street parking to attract customers. Removing even a handful of spaces, they claim, would lead to economic ruin. The reality, of course, is that an overwhelming majority of New Yorkers don’t drive to do their shopping, and making streets better for walking and biking tends to pay off for merchants even if some parking spaces are removed. A new survey shows that Fulton Street in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill is another New York City shopping street where the vast majority of people arrive without taking a car [PDF].

The Fulton Area Business Alliance and the Pratt Area Community Council partnered on a survey of 477 neighborhood residents, shoppers, and visitors between June and August this year. People responded to the survey online and in live interviews along Fulton Street between Ashland Place and Classon Street. One of the survey questions asked respondents how they “typically access Fulton Street,” giving the option to choose more than one mode of travel.

Of the 401 people who responded to that question, 75 percent said they typically walk to Fulton Street. About 59 percent said they take transit, about evenly split between the bus and subway, and 16 percent said they bike, either on their own bicycles or with Citi Bike. Just 15 percent said they take an automobile to Fulton Street regularly. The survey did not distinguish between taxis, liveries, and private vehicles, which all fall under the “automobile” category.

More than half of the respondents said they visit Fulton street at least twice a week. Two-thirds of respondents live nearby in Fort Greene or Clinton Hill.