State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Mass Transit in the Sustainable City

Anyone moving to a part of New York City that has subway service is advised to be sure they live within walking distance of that subway. The part of Brooklyn I grew up in had none, and back then we were also in a “two-fare zone”; we paid one fare on the bus to get to the subway, and another to board the subway at the Kings Highway stop. Today, people are allowed a free transfer from bus to subway and about 80% of New York’s commuters get to work by mass transit. While many New Yorkers own cars, especially in the boroughs outside of Manhattan, most New Yorkers spend part of their day on mass transit. This makes New York City the most energy efficient place in America, but it also makes our subways ridiculously crowded. Mass transit in New York City requires constant capital investment, and while there was a burst of spending in the 1980s and 1990s, that spending has not kept pace with the needs of the aging system in the growing New York of the 21st century.

Last March, Aaron Holmes of the Gotham Gazette wrote that Governor Andrew Cuomo seemed to have had a change of heart and was embracing transportation spending. According to Holmes:

“Early last month [Governor Cuomo] described the Metropolitan Transit Administration (MTA) as a new “personal priority” and announced an effort to modernize the agency, beginning with the purchase of over 1,000 new subway cars. This, with the accompanying significant funding allocation toward the MTA, is something of a change of course for Cuomo, who has a history of diverting money from the MTA…Cuomo’s commitment came after calls from transit advocates, business people, and lawmakers urging the governor to allocate funding to the MTA’s five-year Capital Program in the state’s budget to meet the staggering needs outlined by the authority. After spending $1 billion in the first year of the Capital Program last year, Cuomo agreed to provide an additional $7.3 billion last fall. New York City will provide $2.5 billion, and the MTA, a state body whose chair is appointed by the Governor, will itself provide $17 billion…”

New York’s mass transit system enables travel to all parts of the city any time of day or night. When coupled with cabs, Ubers, Zipcars, and bikes, it makes car ownership less critical than it would otherwise be. Parking regulations, crowded streets and the price of insurance drive many New Yorkers away from auto ownership. But subways, which used to be less crowded outside of rush hour, are now crowded night and day. An aging signal system makes it difficult to run more frequent trains. One would think in this day of GPS and wireless communication, a less expensive and more effective control system could be developed, but so far the move toward modern signaling is slow, and some estimate it could take decades to complete. So there are not enough trains to meet public demand and the system is often unreliable and uncomfortable. A mass transit system with more frequent and less crowded trains could attract more people and reduce street traffic. But the system we have is getting worse.
Writing last March in the Wall Street Journal, Andrew Tangel observed that:

“If the New York City subway seems more crowded than ever, there is a good reason: The Metropolitan Transportation Authority hasn’t been able to run enough trains to keep up with a growing number of riders. The subway carried 1.76 billion riders last year, a 12% increase since 2009, when the last recession ended, according to the MTA. At the same time, Federal Transit Administration data show subway trains ran 345.4 million miles in passenger service last year, down 2% from 2009.”

During the city’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s, the state took over the region’s mass transit, including the city’s Transit Authority and placed it under the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), an organization controlled by New York’s governor. This allowed the government to reenter capital markets to invest in the region’s mass transit. Under then MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch, New York rebuilt the subway system that had been allowed to crumble during the 1960s. Unfortunately, moving the subway to state control might have helped during the 1980s, but in recent years we have again seen interrupted investment in the system now coupled with confused accountability. Most people blame the crowded subways on the mayor, and while he has some votes on the MTA Board, the governor controls the Authority. It has been the State of New York’s responsibility to improve the subway and it has failed to do that. In fact, during the Bloomberg years the State vetoed the city’s attempt to implement congestion pricing in lower Manhattan; the congestion fee would have reduced traffic and would have provided a new dedicated revenue stream for mass transit.

In addition to disinvestment, fares continue to rise as riders are expected to pay a greater percentage of the costs of capital, operation and maintenance. For most New Yorkers, mass transit is a bargain, but for poor people and for workers making the minimum wage, it is a growing burden. David Jones, President of New York’s Community Service Society wrote an excellent column on this issue recently in the Amsterdam News. Jones proposed half-priced fares for low-income New Yorkers and observed that:

Between 2007 and 2015, bus and subway fares rose by 45 percent, six times faster than average salaries in New York City, according to a recent report by the State Comptroller’s Office. New York’s economy is growing and median household income is inching back up to its pre-recession levels. But not everyone is benefitting. Indeed, one out of five New Yorkers still lives in poverty…According to a 2016 CSS report, The Transit Affordability Crisis; How Reduced MTA Fares Can Help Low-Income New Yorkers Move Ahead, as many as 800,000 New Yorkers would be eligible for reduced fares under this proposal. Financially-strapped New Yorkers, some of whom have been forced to beg for swipes because they lack the $2.75 fare, would save up to $700 a year on transit costs -money they could use for basics like food, rent and other necessities.

Working New Yorkers would be the main beneficiaries of this subsidy, and like the federal earned income tax credit, it would provide dollars to people who can immediately put the money to productive work. There are many ways to administer such a program to ensure that it is not abused, but no one rides the subways for pleasure. And half-price fares are not free, reducing the potential for abuse. This is a subsidy that would largely be used to help low-income New Yorkers be more productive. It would help them when they look for work, commute to work, or get the education that leads to work.

An effective transportation system is to the sustainable city what a well-functioning circulatory system is to a healthy human being. People live in cities in order to interact with other people: for work, for essential services, for education, or for fun. You might as well live in a small town if it is impossible to get from one side of a city to the other. New York City has developed along the path of its subway system. Every station attracts higher density development, and real estate values rise when new stations open. We are already seeing that along the new Second Avenue Subway line and it hasn’t even opened yet. But mass transit is expensive. It requires public investment and public subsidies in order to work. In this era when people feel overtaxed and feel intense financial pressure, politicians run away from any service that can be considered non-essential.

New York’s elected officials have run away from mass transit for a generation. If the city hadn’t increased its numbers it might have gone unnoticed, but New York City’s population increased from 8.2 million in 2010 to nearly 8.6 million today. We had 45.6 million visitors in 2009 and 58.3 million in 2015. But if the data doesn’t convince you, all you need to do to see the impact of transit disinvestment in a more crowded city is head underground and look around. A competitive, sustainable city needs constant investment in its mass transit system—the goal is to attract, not repel, riders.

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