How to rescue New Yorkers from transit deserts

Countless New Yorkers are cut off from public transportation. Can the city bring transit to them?

Sunset Park, Brooklyn

Sunset Park, Brooklyn RBLFMR/Shutterstock

Capacity, capacity, capacity is the mantra of urban mass transit – especially for commuters smushed against the walls of an overcrowded subway car.

It is easy to get distracted by the awesome technological wizardry of startups that allow users to unlock mopeds, bicycles and scooters with the tap of a smartphone, or by the eternal promise of autonomous vehicles to solve all of our transportation problems. Since these vehicles only move one or two passengers at a time, though, they cannot substitute for a well-run, expansive rapid transit network that moves 50,000 people per hour along key corridors, like Lexington Avenue and Queens Boulevard.

Despite the breadth of New York City’s subway system, which is by far the nation’s largest, vast swaths of eastern Queens, southeastern Brooklyn, sections of the Bronx like Hunts Point and the entire borough of Staten Island are beyond its reach. Often, these neighborhoods offer more affordable housing than areas with subway access, so creating affordable, reliable and fast public transit to them – as well as zoning and parking reform – is an essential component of any comprehensive citywide strategy for affordable housing.

As elected officials and agency heads in New York look to provide more transportation options to those areas, they should focus on improving existing transit infrastructure and operations – while also thinking boldly about large-scale subway expansion that one day puts all New Yorkers within a 10-minute walk of the subway.

New York already has a lot of transit infrastructure: 472 subway stations, 16,350 bus stops and 248 commuter rail stations. By rethinking existing practices, the city could extract hundreds of thousands of additional transit trips per day from these facilities.

Prioritizing buses over private automobiles could rejuvenate the city’s moribund buses, which are facing a decade of declining ridership. Busways, which limit car access, allow buses to travel faster, stick to their schedules and attract more riders back onto the bus. In early October, New York City created a busway on Manhattan’s 14th Street, and the initial results are promising: Bus travel times have decreased 30% and weekday ridership has grown 20%.

Now, elected officials need to capitalize on this victory and recommend busways along other traffic-clogged corridors, such as Main Street in Flushing, Queens, or Church Avenue in Brooklyn. As the bus becomes more reliable and faster, it is critical that the MTA has the resources to put more buses on these routes as ridership grows.

While making the bus more attractive is a first step, the Metro-North Railroad and Long Island Rail Road lines that go through parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx on their way to the suburbs are invisible to most city residents. Many residents of Queens and Bronx neighborhoods served by those lines and not by the subway opt for longer bus-to-subway commutes because the commuter rail tickets are much more expensive. For instance, it costs $9.75 for a peak Metro-North ride from Fordham in the Bronx to Grand Central Terminal, compared with $2.75 to ride the bus or subway.Integrating commuter rail with the bus and subway, charging one fare within the five boroughs, would extend the transit network to the peripheries of the city. Programs like the Atlantic Ticket and City Ticket, which charge a lower rate for commuter rail trips within the city, are still more expensive than the bus and subway but take a step in the right direction. Ideally, New Yorkers would be able to swipe their MetroCard and gain access to subway, bus and commuter rail service within the city without worrying about additional costs.

Integrating these faster, more direct rail routes into the urban public transit system will reduce the high rates of commuting by car from the deep outer boroughs. When we compare one-way commute times for New Yorkers living in Douglaston, Queens, it becomes clear why 65% of commuters drive and only 25% rely on public transit. According to census data, one-way commutes by car from Douglaston take 30-35 minutes whereas public transit takes 70-75 minutes. If it were cheaper and easier for straphangers to swipe into the Long Island Rail Road at the Douglaston stop, carless commuters could get to Penn Station in 30 minutes.

Number of jobs within a 30-minute transit ride:

Flatlands, Brooklyn: 75,000

Midtown, Manhattan: 3,000,000

Optimizing New York’s existing transit infrastructure is critical to moving more New Yorkers into the transit system and providing greater access to New York’s jobs, schools and amenities to those without a car. When comparing New Yorkers’ access to jobs by neighborhood, it’s impossible not to recognize the enormous disparities facing those living in transit deserts versus those living in transit-rich neighborhoods. For instance, if we compare the number of jobs within a 30-minute transit ride of Flatlands, Brooklyn, versus midtown Manhattan, the differences are staggering: Flatlanders have access to 75,000 jobs while midtowners have access to 3 million jobs.

Existing infrastructure alone cannot solve New York’s transit desert problem. Ultimately, the subway system must be expanded.

This map shows a half-mile radius around every subway, Metro-North and LIRR stop in New York City and its suburbs. If you don’t live inside one of the colored circles, you live in a rail desert - and had better have a bus nearby, own a car or bike, or love walking.

Despite the obvious appeal of subway expansion, New York’s out-of-control construction costs make it harder to achieve. At $2.5 billion per mile of track, the first phase of the Second Avenue subway was one of the most expensive transit projects in the world. At this price, it is impossible to scale subway infrastructure that would bring service to Brooklynites in Marine Park, let alone Staten Islanders, within the next 100 years.

By bringing New York’s costs in line with international counterparts, around $300 million per mile, we could build nearly 10 times more infrastructure for the same price. Rather than resigning ourselves to the dim view that reform is impossible, it is incumbent upon city and state elected officials to keep their attention trained on the MTA and demand that we learn how the Spanish handle procurements, the French build stations and Koreans manage projects. If New York could lower its costs to $300 million per track mile, a big if, it would be reasonable to start planning 50 miles of new track over a 10-year period because the cost would be comparable to the city’s 10-year capital strategy, which calls for $14 billion to be spent fixing roadways and bridges.

If such ambitious subway expansion were possible, the top priorities would be to complete the second phase of the Second Avenue subway, extend service south along Utica and Nostrand avenues in Brooklyn and create the Triboro RX, which would provide much-needed circumferential service by stitching together Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. Circumferential transit service, when matched with strong radial service into New York’s central business district in Manhattan, allows transit to achieve the anywhere to anywhere possibilities of the automobile.

Even though New York’s subway network has the most track mileage and stations in the country, the system has hardly changed since 1940. In the absence of new transit, New York’s built environment has adapted more and more to the automobile. Subway ridership has yet to regain the highs it achieved in the 1940s, despite overall population growth in the intervening 70 years and worsening traffic.

Optimizing the existing transit network and tackling subway expansion are critical to New York’s hopes of a future with sustainable population growth, manageable commutes and affordable housing for all.