thoughts on our urban future

PlaNYC (3) – Planning for urban futures: Transportation

Following on from my previous posts on New York City’s leading policy to actively address their future (PlaNYC (1) and PlaNYC (2)), in this post on PlaNYC I am going to look at what the city is doing to plan for their  future urban transportation needs.

In truth, most cities cannot avoid planning for their transportation needs as they are such an intrinsic element to most urban environments.  Even though NYC may have low personal automobile ownership rates, traffic is still a tremendous problem.  As are the demands on the public transportation network- with the NYC subway being the 5th busiest in the world in annual ridership.  New York City is serviced by the road network, assorted local and national rail networks, the subway, buses, ferries, a tram line, and a number of airports.  Of course there are all the pedestrians as well, and a growing number of cyclists.

PlaNYC states that during the past 50 years, the City has under-invested in its transportation network.  Using the plan, they hope to revitalize the system to be able to meet the city’s needs towards 2030 and beyond.  They have set out 16 initiatives to address a wide variety of issues as follows:

  1. Increase capacity on key congested routes: Seek to fund five projects that eliminate capacity constraints.
  2. Provide new commuter rail access to Manhattan: Seek to expand options for rail commuters.
  3. Expand transit access to under served areas: Seek to provide transit to new neighborhoods.
  4. Improve and expand bus service: Initiate and expand Bus Rapid Transit, provide dedicated bus/high occupancy vehicle lanes on the East River bridges, and explore other improvements to bus service.
  5. Improve local commuter rail service:Seek to make better local use of Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road stations.
  6. Improve access to existing transit:Facilitate access to subways and bus stops citywide.
  7. Address congested areas around the city:Develop congestion management plans for outer-borough growth corridors.
  8. Expand ferry service:Seek to expand service and better integrate it with the city’s existing mass transit system.
  9. Promote cycling:Complete the City’s 1,800-mile bike master plan and facilitate cycling in the city.
  10. Pilot congestion pricing:Seek to use pricing to manage traffic in the Central Business District.
  11. Manage roads more efficiently:Expand the use of Muni meters and create an integrated traffic management system.
  12. Strengthen enforcement of traffic violations:Expand the force of Traffic Enforcement Agents (TEAs), enable all TEAs to issue blocking-the-box tickets, and expand the use of traffic enforcement cameras.
  13. Facilitate freight movements:Improve access to John F. Kennedy International Airport and explore High Occupancy Truck Toll lanes.
  14. Close the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s State of Good Repair gap:Seek a grant from the SMART Authority to cover the MTA’s funding gap.
  15. Close the City’s road and bridge state of good repair gap:Seek a grant from the SMART authority to cover the City Department of Transportation funding gap and invest in bridge and tunnel upgrades.
  16. Establish a new regional transit financing authority:Seek to create a Sustainable Mobility and Regional Transportation (SMART) Financing Authority to advance new projects and achieve a state of good repair.

As in the housing post the city is making their progress on their targets transparent through the use of accessible progress reports.  The transportation one can be found here.  As of April 2010, 4 of the above individual initiative targets were deemed ‘achieved’, 6 were deemed ‘mostly achieved’, 11 were deemed ‘not yet achieved’, and 2 were ‘other’.  Many of the not yet achieved targets are noted as due to  State or Federal inaction which shows how complicated such policy measures actually are.  A city is still tied to it’s region and national obligations and no matter how progressive its policy, in many cases, and in particular for such large and expensive policy, it still needs the support of it’s surrounds in order to act.

One of the initiatives that is listed as completely achieved is number 9 – to promote cycling.  When I grew up in New York City, the main cyclists one saw darting in and out of traffic were the famous (infamous?) bike messengers.  Cycling was something you might do in one of the parks or along the waterfront but was not a valid way to move around the city.  Now there are cycle lanes throughout the city and far more people on bicycles, but this transition has not necessarily been a smooth one.

While the city has been aggressive about making changes to the roadways and installing what could be considered fairly well thought out and progressive protected cycle lanes, in some instances local residents are suing to have the lanes removed, in fact, in the area where I am currently on vacation.  The opposition to the increase in cycling is tangible when talking to local non-cyclists.  “They don’t obey traffic rules.”, “They go the wrong way.”, “They don’t understand they can’t be seen.”, “They don’t stop for pedestrians.”.  These are common complaints in new-cycling cities and complaints I have heard many times in London as well.  Yet cycling is one of the best non polluting methods to get around a compact city available.  Not only is it low on impact, but it improves health as well- win win.  But there is some kernel of truth to these complaints that should also be part of the city’s plan.  When compared to well integrated cycling cities like Copenhagen or Amsterdam, the problems become clearer.

Integrating cycling into a city is not just about providing dedicated and safe lanes, but is as much about the integration of the traffic rules as well.  Although cyclists are obligated to obey traffic rules it is obvious to many that often they don’t.  And often there is some confusion as well- can they not cross with pedestrians as long as they give way to pedestrians?  Not always so clear.  One of the complaints about the lanes under scrutiny is that they don’t allow pedestrians to cross easily as cyclists don’t obey the crossing.  Then why not install cycle lights the same as traffic lights that pedestrians can hit in order to cross?  This is what you have in integrated cities- not just lanes but full infrastructure as well as cycle policing.

What is not in doubt is that New York is on its way to becoming a cycle friendly and integrated city.  From my own perspective over the years the change is tangible and obvious and moving towards that direction.  I just wouldn’t say that it’s all achieved quite yet and that the city has more to do.  On the other hand, if you consider how many of the initiatives above are not yet achieved or only mostly achieved, then it is also clear that cycling can only be a small portion of the city’s focus in order to get their transportation networks under control and working efficiently for now and towards the future.  No small task, but as with most of my impression of PlaNYC, a massive step in a positive direction giving focus and structure to urban development and growth.

In my next and final post in this series, PlaNYC addresses the future of energy use and climate change.


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  1. Cycling in the city |

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