Untangling NYC's transit knot

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Experts pitch solutions to city's transportation crisis


  • State Sen. Liz Krueger (left) moderated a panel discussion on potential solutions to the city's transit woes at CUNY Graduate Center on March 1. Photo: Michael Garofalo

  • New York City Transit is scheduled to unveil an action plan for fixing the city’s bus system in April. Photo: Michael Garofalo

“The danger is that without cost reform at the MTA, this revenue will just be consumed by rising operating costs.”

Nicole Gelinas

By Michael Garofalo

The data supports what millions of New Yorkers experience every day: the decline of the city's transportation system is real.

The subway's on-time performance dropped from 88.7 percent in 2010 to 66.8 percent in 2016. Traffic crawled through midtown Manhattan at an average speed of 4.7 miles per hour last year, 27 percent slower than average speeds just five years earlier. Bus ridership in Manhattan is down 16 percent since 2011.

Transportation experts unpacked the situation at a March 1 forum at CUNY Graduate Center hosted by state Senators Liz Krueger and Brad Hoylman. The panelists shared a consensus that arriving at solutions to the city's transit problems will require leaders to negotiate a web of complex and interrelated challenges, from packed streets to slow trains to rising MTA costs, which are among the highest in the world.

Though subway delays have dominated headlines, recent declines in ridership on the New York's bus system have drawn attention the city's surface transportation issues. Average weekday ridership on New York City Transit buses in 2017 was down 5.6 percent over the previous year, marking the fifth successive year in which bus ridership dropped. Average weekday NYCT bus ridership is down over 11 percent citywide since 2012.


Among the primary sources of poor bus service in Manhattan is increased congestion, as the rise of e-commerce has led to more delivery trucks on city streets and the use of Uber and similar for-hire vehicle services has grown faster than any other mode of transportation in recent years. According to one estimate, congestion costs the region $20 billion a year, an annual cost of $1,892 per Manhattan commuter.

Any comprehensive effort to speed up Manhattan buses will need to address traffic. Congestion pricing, a policy explored in past years that would impose a fee on vehicles entering core Manhattan, is a topic of renewed discussion this year in Albany after Fix NYC, a task force convened by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to study the issue, released its report in January.

Along with increased enforcement of traffic laws and improvements to public transportation, the Fix NYC plan calls for an electronically-assessed $11.52 fee on passenger vehicles entering Manhattan below 60th Street as well as a new congestion surcharge on taxi and for-hire vehicle trips.

Cuomo endorsed some aspects of the plan in budget amendments, including authorizing the city to use cameras to enforce block-the-box violations, but has not signaled broader support for the plan's more substantial elements, including congestion fees.

“What we got in the budget in Albany, while it's some pieces of a congestion pricing plan, it's certainly not the plan,” Hoylman said. “So we're going to have to continue to push to get a full-throated plan before the legislature. I'm very pleased that the governor has taken it on, but I also believe that we need to look at other revenue-raisers” including the millionaire's tax advocated by Mayor Bill de Blasio.


Polly Trottenberg, who heads the city's Department of Transportation and sits on the MTA board, was pleased to see the governor support camera enforcement of block-the-box violations in Manhattan and said she would like the city to have the authority to use camera enforcement citywide, including for bus lane enforcement. Currently, Trottenberg said, the city is authorized to use camera enforcement for bus lane violations on just 16 routes, a small portion of the city's dedicated bus lanes.

With or without a congestion pricing plan from Albany, the de Blasio administration has begun taking steps of its own to ease traffic in Manhattan and speed up buses, starting with increased NYPD enforcement of block-the-box and a ban on curbside loading during peak hours in key corridors.

But generating a real change in driving habits will likely require camera enforcement, Trottenberg said at the CUNY forum.”It's not realistic to think you're going to have NYPD at every bus lane and every intersection and every double-parked vehicle.”

New York City Transit is scheduled to present an action plan for fixing the bus system in April.

Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, advocated for swift and widespread implementation of bus improvement measures including transit signal priority, which reduces the amount of time buses spend stopped at red lights, all-door boarding to reduce buses' dwell time at stops, improved dispatching to reduce bunching, and additional bus lanes with stricter enforcement.

Council Member Keith Powers, whose East Side district includes Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, hopes the impending shutdown of the L train to repair damage from Hurricane Sandy on the line's East River tunnel will be used as a trial opportunity for bus improvements. “We're looking at the L train shutdown as a test for ways to expand bus service and move buses quicker throughout central business corridors that could be theoretically expanded to other parts of the city, including the Upper East Side,” Powers said in a telephone interview with Straus News.

The MTA has cut service on a number of Manhattan bus routes in recent years, citing declining ridership as justification and rankling some riders and elected officials. “I don't understand how they expect Manhattanites to deal with congestion pricing if they're taking away transit service,” Helen Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side in the City Council, told Straus News. “The only way it works is if you have sufficient public transportation.”


The Fix NYC plan could generate over $800 million in new annual revenue for the MTA, providing money for improvements to subway and bus service, but some are wary of allocating new funding to the agency unless it demonstrates an ability to rein in costs.

“The danger is that without cost reform at the MTA, this revenue will just be consumed by rising operating costs,” said Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Since 2005, Gelinas said, the MTA's day-to-day spending has doubled, increasing at more than three times the rate of inflation.

Rising health care costs are a major factor in driving up the MTA's expenses, according to Gelinas. “Unless we start to tackle the cost of health care, this shows up in our capital projects,” she said. “We just don't see it.”

Trottenberg agreed that rising construction costs have made it difficult for the MTA to address riders' needs. “We need to get the capital side of the costs situation under control, because if it's going to cost $100 million to put to elevators at Union Street” — the location of a Brooklyn subway station slated for work — “then the sum of money we will need to make the system as accessible as we can, which would mean adding elevators at hundreds more stations is going to be prohibitive, even with congestion pricing, the millionaire's tax and everything else you can think of,” she said.

Alex Matthiessen, the founder and director of the congestion pricing advocacy group Move NY, emphasized that the revenue generated by congestion pricing is sorely needed. “We agree that there has to be concurrent reform of how the MTA spends its money if you are going to provide additional funding,” Matthiessen said. “But make no mistake: that aside, the MTA is desperate for funding and if we don't get new funding we're going to have an even worse subway crisis.”

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