View all Articles
Commentary By Nicole Gelinas

10 Ways to Fix New York City's Hellish Commutes

Cities, Cities New York City, Infrastructure & Transportation

New York is successful. Yay.

But success is a threat to quality of life just as much as failure is. New Yorkers who spend up to 2¹/₂ hours each day commuting on packed subways, commuter trains, sidewalks and roads don’t need to be told this truth. They are tired of worrying about what should be a routine part of the day: the commute. They know that the city and its suburbs need better transportation, and fast. But what should the state and city do?

City cheerleaders are always ready with the numbers. We have a record number of residents, a record number of jobs and a record number of tourists. Since 1980, a low point, Gotham has added 1.4 million people, bringing us to 8.5 million. New York also has a record number of visitors: 60 million last year, up from 48.8 million just since 2010. And New York’s record 3.8 million private jobs — up 600,000 since 2010 — mean people come from all over to make their money here.

New York’s leaders have been thrilled to build new apartment buildings and office towers — but when it comes to building new transit, not so much. Between 1900 and 1930, New York’s population nearly doubled, from 3.4 million people to 6.9 million. The city built an entire subway system to move them around. The subway could just about handle the growth it saw until 1950, when the city had attracted 7.9 million residents. But back then, many women didn’t commute to work and tourists didn’t fly across the ocean to eat dinner in Harlem.

We didn’t keep building it, but the people come, anyway. In 1980, the subways carried a billion people. Last year, they carried nearly 1.8 billion people. As for people just coming into Manhattan: More than 2.3 million people take the subway each day into our richest borough, up from 1.6 million in 1980. And 328,000 people take commuter rail from Westchester, Connecticut and New Jersey, up from 218,000 in 1980.

No one even thought to ask how many people bicycled into Manhattan 3¹/₂ decades ago, or counted pedestrians reliably, either. But today, nearly 30,000 people do — and tens of thousands of others use bikes within Manhattan. Foot traffic? Nearly 360,000 people walk around the new Times Square plazas every spring day — more people than live in most cities.

It’s true that people don’t drive as much as they used to. But that’s because they have Uber. By late 2016, New Yorkers and visitors were taking 19 million taxi and for-hire trips a month, up from 17 million the previous year, according to Bruce Schaller, a former city transportation official.

New York’s subways, commuter-rail systems and streets were not designed for this volume. And if we don’t start to do something different, people will stop coming, and start leaving. Only 37.5 percent of New Yorkers are happy with the “overall ease of travel within the city,” according to a new Citizens Budget Commission survey, a whopping 12.8 percent decline since 2008.

So, what to do? Here are 10 ways to tackle the problem:

Finish the Second Avenue Subway

It’s great that the MTA opened the Second Avenue Subway’s first three stops last December — and this investment has made a real difference. Car rides from the area fell 4 percent in January compared with the previous year, according to NYU’s Rudin Center, even as they went up elsewhere. That’s hundreds of cars off of Midtown’s roads each day, just for three stops. Build the line through Harlem and downtown, and we’ll get much bigger results.

Invest in express tracks and trains to more outer-borough areas

The MTA can run No. 7 trains express to and from Flushing — but doesn’t do enough of it. Exhausted workers give up and pack onto locals. The MTA should make more long-term track investments, too, so that it can bring people from south Brooklyn along the F line to Manhattan in 40 minutes rather than an hour. These investments are expensive and hard — but building the original subways was expensive and hard, too, and that didn’t stop us. Double-decking tracks, above ground and below, is not the insane idea it might have been 20 years ago.

Run more weekend subway service — and be clearer about construction and delays

Weekend workers and visitors shouldn’t have to wait 10 minutes or more for a train on Sundays. Running more trains each hour costs tens of millions of dollars a year. New York can afford it. If construction keeps whole lines out of service, the MTA should be running bus caravans above ground, with the city clearing lanes of traffic so that people can get around.

Make room for more bicycles and ferries

You may not ride a bike. How do you think the deliveryman who brings your dinner gets to your apartment, though — in a horse-drawn chariot? And if you’re sitting in a crosstown cab watching Citi Bikers glide by, remember that 9 percent of Citi Bike’s 60,000 daily riders say they would otherwise take a cab — and 50 percent would have taken the subway. These are people who aren’t sitting in the black car in front of you on 45th Street or cramming next to you on the 5 train — and at no taxpayer cost. Similarly, Mayor de Blasio’s new five-borough ferry service is transporting 7,000 people a day, even with only two of six routes up and running. That’s the equivalent of just five subway trains, but it’s five subway trains we don’t have.

Stop letting public-sector workers park for free

Earlier this month, the mayor said that he was giving out 50,000 free-parking placards to teachers, increasing the current supply for public-sector workers by half. This parking benefit is worth real money: $1,800 to $6,000 a year, depending on where you work (does your employer pay for you to park in a Manhattan garage?). But even without the new giveaway, public employees routinely use fake placards, or misuse real ones, to park wherever they want. City workers should have to scan a code on a GPS-equipped placard wherever and whenever they park on city business. Parking without a solid official reason is theft of government property, as well as public corruption, and should be treated as such.

Cut costs

As the Empire Center think tank recently found, state laws requiring contractors to pay construction workers above-market wages inflate construction costs by 25 percent. Construction workers should be paid well for a productive day. But out-of-control pension and health-care costs both for construction workers and for city transportation workers, as well, are eating into the money we have for subway and street investments. The $3.2 billion the MTA spends on pension and health is money it doesn’t have for subway signals. Many of the city’s recent and planned transit improvements — the Citi Bikes, the ferries, and the planned Brooklyn-Queens streetcar — are run by private-sector companies who pay a good wage but not one that bankrupts us all. The city and state should expand this model.

Upgrade our subways

Bikes, ferries, feet and buses are all important — and cars are fine for people who have the money to take them regularly. But there is no way to move New York without making sure that subways keep up with the city’s population. The subways need some immediate fixes. Last week, Gov. Cuomo said that the MTA would start putting EMTs in five busy stations so that they can help sick passengers faster, and thus get some stalled trains moving quicker. The MTA also will deploy more rapid-response crews to fix signal and track problems more quickly. And the MTA will inspect tracks more often — using ultrasound on them twice a month instead of once to detect cracks — to avoid problems in the first place. Plus, agents will direct passengers to get off and on trains more quickly (although people are sort of trying to do that already).

But these are emergency measures. New York’s subway lines need 21st century signaling systems like London has, so that the state-run MTA can offer more trains each hour, packing tens of thousands more people into each rush-hour commute. Modern signals also cut down on unpredictable delays, as officials can better monitor, say, if one train is stuck before sending another one out. The MTA has budgeted $2.8 billion for such improvements over a five-year period, but it does the work too slowly, finishing only the L line, and soon the 7 line, in the past decade. We cannot wait more decades. In addition, the MTA should speed up turnstile entrance, by making it easier for people to pay by letting them tap a fare card, or even a credit card or phone, against a sensor, instead of forcing them to swipe.

Bolster our buses

New York bus ridership has fallen in recent years, because 50 people on a bus must wait behind an Uber driver idling for one passenger. New York’s main arteries, from Fifth Avenue to Ocean Parkway, need consistent, fast bus service. Instead of paying near the driver when they board, riders should be able to pay at four or five different little sensors along the poles after they’ve gotten on and moved in. A well-designed avenue should have a bus lane, a bike lane, a delivery lane and two lanes for moving traffic. New York’s thoroughfares are big enough.

Address the New Jersey commuting crisis

Amtrak’s Penn Station cannot handle double the number of daily passengers it was designed for without huge problems, as recent derailments reminded us. But the Port Authority’s West Side bus terminal, too, is falling apart. The PA is still pretending it can build a bigger terminal. It can’t — people live there (and if they don’t, that’s more people who will have to commute from somewhere else). The PA and MTA should think seriously about bringing the 7 train to New Jersey and building a new bus terminal there, even as they rehab the current West Side terminal.

Respect drivers

Most people don’t drive into the city, but some people have good reason to: They can’t walk around well because of age or disability, or they’re transporting priceless paintings, or what have you. Drivers should not expect to drive quickly inside of a major city; fast driving is for highways. They should, however, expect roads free from giant holes.

This piece originally appeared in the New York Post


Nicole Gelinas is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal. Follow her on Twitter here.

This piece originally appeared in New York Post