Barring divine intervention, next week Bill de Blasio will be re-elected mayor for four more years. This means he will have a mandate to tackle the city’s most systemic issues: (un)affordable housing, law enforcement’s relationship with people of color, and building coastal defenses against rising sea levels and storm surges, to name just a few.
While all those issues are tremendously important, the one problem that affects every single New Yorker on a daily basis is the city’s crumbling transportation infrastructure. Getting around New York has never been easy, but it is historically difficult today. The subway hasn’t been this inefficient since the 1980s and is the most crowded it’s ever been. City bus speeds and ridership are falling across the board thanks to unprecedented gridlock. Without a fully functional subway and bus system, the city and its residents lose money — and our minds.
Of course, the mayor of New York doesn’t control the MTA. The governor does. Unfortunately, de Blasio has used this as an excuse to absolve himself of putting forward any vision of what getting around New York City ought to look like.
But it’s not too late to change. There are real, concrete steps de Blasio can take to minimize car usage while prioritizing public transport — steps that, as the mayors of London, Paris, Stockholm, and numerous other cities around the world have found, can improve travel for all New Yorkers.
During a recent press conference announcing initiatives to reduce traffic in Midtown, de Blasio opened his remarks by saying, “If you’ve driven on our streets lately, you’ve experienced it. If you’ve taken a bus — 2.5 million New Yorkers use the public buses every day — they know from their own experience. … We want to do better, and we’re going to unveil today a plan that will make a real difference.”
But he immediately tempered expectations for his forthcoming initiatives: “I will tell you up front it’s not a panacea. It will not make all the congestion go away overnight.”
He’s right. De Blasio’s “toolbox” — which includes preventing deliveries on certain streets and stepping up blocking-the-box enforcement — will have a minimal effect on city traffic. Writing for Streetsblog, transportation economist Charles Komanoff dismissed de Blasio’s plan as a hodge-podge of tried and tossed plans from previous administrations. “The common denominator is a dependence on education or enforcement,” Komanoff wrote. In other words, the mayor is trying to improve driver behavior without addressing the main cause of congestion: too many cars and trucks on the road at the same time.
But there is a panacea that will make congestion go away practically overnight. It’s congestion pricing, a charge on vehicles entering most of Manhattan. It’s something that has been under discussion since Mayor Michael Bloomberg first proposed it in 2007, and it’s something de Blasio vehemently opposes. Komanoff ran the numbers and calculated that “comprehensive congestion pricing” like Move NY’s plan could save New Yorkers more than 30 times the number of hours lost to travel as de Blasio’s proposed measures.
We already have a fantastic case study for congestion pricing’s potential impact: London, where a similar plan instituted in 2003 has been a resounding success. In the years after London instituted a charge of about $15 on vehicles entering the central city, traffic was reduced by 30 percent. And that has had positive ripple effects across other modes of transportation. For example, by 2011 more Londoners were riding buses than anytime in half a century, with service up 30 percent and wait times up 20 percent from before congestion pricing was implemented.
De Blasio says he opposes congestion pricing because he believes it’s a regressive tax, but isn’t, particularly if proceeds are used to fund improvements to mass transit. Just last week, the Community Service Society released a study that found for every working poor person who will have to pay the congestion price, 42 would benefit from better and more affordable mass transit. London’s congestion charge proved progressive since — surprise, surprise — few low-income workers drive to the city center.
Instead, the mayor supports an income tax surcharge on New Yorkers earning more than $500,000 a year to fund subway improvements — which would do nothing to directly reduce traffic congestion. And there’s nothing stopping a “millionaires’ tax” from being implemented alongside congestion pricing: It’s less a policy disagreement than a pissing match between a mayor and governor who don’t like each other.
Though de Blasio admitting that congestion pricing is the best plan for the city would not be enough to immediately enact it — the state legislature needs to pass a law, something that was tried and failed in 2008 but which has since gained more support, including from Cuomo — getting out of its way and even throwing his support behind it would go a long way toward making it a reality.
Over the last few years, the city has rolled out Select Bus Service (SBS) routes that include dedicated bus-only lanes, all-door boarding, limited stops, and in some cases transit signal priority, which uses GPS to give buses as many green lights as possible. Although SBS operates on only 14 routes right now, it’s been a success. Ridership on those routes have increased 10 percent — they now account for 12 percent of all bus rides taken in the city — as the rest of the city’s bus usage has plummeted. And with speed improvements between 10 and 30 percent over the local routes running on the same streets, SBS is providing the city with a fantastic return on the $300 million it has spent so far. (Similar speed and efficiency improvements for the subway would cost well into the billions.)
First, the good news: De Blasio has pledged to invest $270 million to expand SBS to 30 percent of the city’s bus ridership and announced plans for 21 new SBS routes. The bad news: That will take a full decade to implement.
There are legitimate obstacles to expanding full SBS treatment, says Jon Orcutt of TransitCenter. Converting a bus line to SBS often involves eliminating stops, which affects people’s commutes, “so DOT goes very carefully through the neighborhood process when reconfiguring the street.” In addition, the city is reliant on the MTA buying new accordion-style buses with higher capacity and more doors to accommodate the increased ridership.
But that doesn’t mean the city can’t move more quickly on bus improvements in general. Orcutt argues that the city should expand the most effective aspects of SBS — dedicated bus lanes and transit signal priority — as quickly as possible, which it can do without waiting on the MTA.
Bus-only lanes — and proper enforcement of them during peak hours — are critical to a functioning bus system. If they are added for regular bus routes, DOT could then use transit signal priority to program traffic lights so that buses spend less time stuck on red. Transit signal priority is already in use on five SBS routes across four boroughs, where, according to the DOT, it has reduced average bus travel times 18 percent, with some routes improving by as much as 30 percent. The DOT does plan on expanding this system to 10 more routes by the end of 2020, but only three of those are likely to have dedicated lanes, which is a huge lost opportunity.
In 2016, the city built 18.5 miles of protected bike lanes, more than in any previous year. But even with a projected 90 miles of protected bike lanes by the end of this year, that’s still a tiny number compared to some 6,000 total miles of roads.
Protected bike lanes — those separated from traffic by a physical barrier — are crucial to making it safer to bike in the city, as conventional bike lanes are constantly invaded by opened car doors, parked cars, and swerving drivers. According to a 2014 DOT analysis, injuries of both pedestrians and cyclists along protected bike lane corridors dropped 20 percent despite huge increases in ridership during that same time. Rather than adding piecemeal sections — half a mile here, a mile there, redoing an intersection there — the mayor could lead an effort to create protected route networks; instead, he’s put the brakes on some new bike lane proposals where there’s been local opposition.
The city has budgeted $325 million over six years to fund ferry service that runs far less frequently than bus and subway service, for which it charges the standard $2.75 bus and subway fare. That’s almost six times as much per year as it has pledged to SBS expansion. Unsurprisingly, not many people use the ferry; about 57,000 people combined ride the Rockaway and East River ferries per week. Meanwhile, just one SBS line, the M15, runs up and down First and Second Avenues and carries more than 35,000 people per day, meaning it eclipses the entire ferry network’s weekly ridership in less than two days. Rather than subsidizing a niche service, a far better use of this money would be to further expand bus improvements and, to a lesser extent, cycling infrastructure.
E-bikes — bicycles that use battery power to make pedaling easier — are energy efficient, easy to use, expand people’s commuting range by bicycle, and allow people who might not be able to pedal their entire commute to get there by bicycle regardless. However, e-bikes currently operate in a legal gray area.
Like the crumbling state of the city’s buses and subways, this isn’t de Blasio’s fault, but he isn’t helping at all. The state has poorly defined e-bikes: In New York City, pedal-assisted e-bikes (meaning you cannot move unless you pedal) are legal, but e-bikes with throttles are not, even though, speaking from experience, the practical difference between the two is minimal. It’s clearly an area in which the law hasn’t caught up with technology.
What is de Blasio’s fault, though, is his effort to crack down on e-bike use despite having no evidence that they’re a danger. This is not a good use of police time and effort, nor is it effective urban policy. E-bikes are a fantastic way to expand commuting options as more and more people have to make longer treks from the outer boroughs. A 10-mile commute on an e-bike can be done by almost anyone, which isn’t the case for a regular bicycle. The city should be finding ways to incorporate e-bikes into the transportation picture, not banning them.
Done right, transit improvements can amount to more than the sum of their parts: For example, if congestion pricing reduces traffic, which allows room for more bus lanes, which in turn increases TSP’s benefits, while the congestion-fee revenues pay for additional improvements. In London, bicycle trips soared after congestion pricing thanks in part to re-investing the congestion charge revenues into such cycling infrastructure as “superhighways” built just for bikes: Before congestion pricing, there were 11 cars for every cyclist in London; by 2014, there were two. It’s for this reason that any solution to New York transit problems needs to be holistic, involving reducing car traffic, increasing bus service, and improving bicycle infrastructure — as Move NY’s congestion-pricing-backed plan would do.
Instead, de Blasio has mostly been reactive, opposing congestion pricing because he’d rather fund transit improvements via a millionaires’ tax, dragging his feet on SBS and bike lanes, and opposing e-bikes because, in his words, “I’ve seen how reckless they can be.” Asked about his vision for e-bikes, the mayor replied, “I personally don’t have a strong vision of what that idea is. I know what I don’t like and I want to address that.” When asked what delivery workers who use e-bikes but can’t physically cycle up to 60 miles a day should do, de Blasio advised them to use a car.
De Blasio seems to want the same number of cars, and also smoother bus service, and also more bike lanes, and also for everybody to be safer. But a real vision for improving the city’s transit involves making choices, as London did, not just pandering to all constituencies at once. In all likelihood, de Blasio will have four more years to change his transportation legacy. If he doesn’t want to be seen as the mayor who squandered the best chance to fix the city’s transit, he’d better start now.