Connecting Transportation Deserts

New York City Council Committee on Transportation Hearing on Int. 964, 965 and Res. 670  Connecting Transportation Deserts

Testimony by Pierina Ana Sanchez, Associate Planner, New York, Regional Plan Association

Good morning, my name is Pierina Ana Sanchez and I am an associate planner for New York at Regional Plan Association, which aims to improve the New York metropolitan region’s economic health, environmental sustainability and quality of life through research, planning and advocacy.

We appreciate the Council’s efforts to address one of New York’s most critical problems—insufficient transportation to underserved neighborhoods. Earlier this year, RPA released a report, Overlooked Boroughs: Where New York City’s Transit Falls Short and How to Fix It, with findings and recommendations that are relevant to the resolutions before the council today. I’d like to highlight a few of these for the committee’s consideration.

Though New York's transit network was designed in the early part of the last century to bring residents to the urban core and out again, today, more outer borough residents commute within and between the boroughs than they do to Manhattan; 1.7 million commuted to jobs within the boroughs in 2010, an increase of 18% from a decade earlier. Fewer New Yorkers -- about one million -- commuted to jobs from the outer boroughs to Manhattan, up 12% from 2010.

Today, three core challenges confront residents of the other boroughs trying to get to work, schools, doctor’s appointments, shopping and other needs: 

  • The subway is of limited use for travel within the boroughs.
  • Bus service in the boroughs is slow and infrequent, and many residents need to take two or more buses to reach their destination.
  • The metropolitan region’s vast commuter rail network could be far better utilized in the boroughs.

Residents of the outer boroughs sometimes need to take circuitous journeys through Manhattan in order to travel to work or school in another borough, adding significant time to their commutes. The transit gap falls especially hard on lower-income households, who are less likely to own cars and rely heavily on mass transit for their daily commutes. Lower-income residents are more likely to work in sectors such as retail and health care, industries with jobs spread throughout the five boroughs. They also are less able to afford taxis, and have fewer service and retail options within walking distance than more affluent neighborhoods. And the higher cost of commuter rail service can be a barrier to residents who might otherwise look for reverse-commute jobs in the suburbs. 

Much of the growth in jobs, homes and travel in the coming decades will take place outside Manhattan, but that growth won’t be sustainable unless we make some very significant changes to our transit system. Good transit access plays an enormous role in expanding opportunity to education and jobs. As New York works to foster a new supply of housing to meet surging demand, we need to think more broadly about how our transit network will accommodate the city’s needs well into the 21st century.

We can address this need through a series of short- and longer-term measures, including the following:

  • Increase the frequency of bus service on dozens of outer-borough routes: There are 56 bus routes in the city where frequency falls short of an acceptable standard of 10 minutes in the peak period, 15 minutes at other  weekday times, and 20 minutes on weekends. We estimate that it would cost $28 million per year, not concluding capital costs for additional buses and depots, to bring all routes up to these standards.
  • Speed bus service by implementing contactless fare payment, better traffic enforcement and other measures. Right now, the average speed of a local bus in New York City is 8 miles per hour. The measures suggested here could improve speeds on all 200 bus routes in the city.
  • Expand Select Bus Service on an additional eight corridors, two in each borough except for Manhattan. The eight SBS routes implemented to date have demonstrated that faster service is possible, The additional routes recommended in our report meet several criteria for successful SBS service.
  • Run a 24-mile over-ground rail line running on an existing rail right-of-way from Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, through Queens, to Co-Op City in the Bronx, to carry passengers directly from one outer borough to another. These lines can successfully handle both freight and passenger service. We estimate that more than 100,000 riders would use the 24-mile, 22-station Triboro line, with stops strategically situated to establish convenient transfers to subway stops and bus route.
  • Extend the Second Avenue subway both north to the Bronx and south to Lower Manhattan. It is critical to restore funding in the MTA’s capital plan to complete the extension of the subway to East Harlem. This could set the stage for future extensions that would serve low-income communities in the Bronx as well.
  • Increase off-peak and reverse commute service on Metro-North in the Bronx and the Long Island Rail Road in Queens. Six stations in the Bronx all fall short of a 20-minute peak (both directions) and 30-minute off peak standard. In Queens, eight stations have inadequate service in the off-peak and during midday hours
  • Reduce weekday commuter rail fares for trips within New York City. Today, the railroads offer a half-price City ticket — but only on weekends. This makes using the railroad a prohibitive burden for many city residents. RPA recommends that expansion of the discount to weekdays. The commuter rail service would become more competitive to the subway, shifting some borough residents from the subway to the railroads, if they were willing to pay a small premium, reducing crowding on subway lines in Queens and the Bronx. The estimated cost to the MTA after accounting for the revenue gained by the shift from subway to commuter rail is $30 million annually.

We would be happy to provide additional information on any of these recommendations as the Council deliberates on the resolutions and actions before it today.