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Why New York’s Rail Crisis Exposes the Hollowness of the Livability Movement

The push to make New York City more “livable” is driving out the working class, jeopardizing long-term growth.

The 168th St-bound C train leaving the 86th St. station in New York City, NY. (Image Credit: Wikmedia Commons/Mtattrain)
The 168th St-bound C train leaving the 86th St. station in New York City, NY. (Image Credit: Wikmedia Commons/Mtattrain)

Under the mayorship of Michael Bloomberg, New York City became a laboratory for the new urbanism movement, which advocates the development of “livable cities” by combining density and mixed-use zoning with bike lanes, public transportation, and walkable streets.

In a suburb or exurb, a four-member family residing in a McMansion might have two breadwinners who commute over an hour each way to separate places of work in large vehicles, such as an SUV.

In a “livable” city, that family might reside in a multifamily building from where the breadwinners would bike, walk, or take the subway to a place of work (or coffee shop) twenty minutes away. Cultural venues, grocery stores, and schools would be located within that perimeter as well. A “livable” city clusters younger creatives and technologists, leading to greater innovation and productivity. And it offers an urban ecosystem that’s more environmentally friendly and healthier for the individual.

That is, at least, how it’s envisioned on paper. And to some degree, it has worked. New York has since seen an influx of young working-age adults. There’s been a building boom along with real estate values rising through the roof. Crime has dropped to levels not seen since the 1950s. Subway ridership rose from 2009 to 2015, reaching 1.7 billion—the highest since 1948. And last summer, the city’s bike-sharing service, Citi Bike, regularly had between 60,000 and 70,000 daily users—up from 35,000 to 40,000 during the same period in 2014.

You Say ‘Livability,’ I Say ‘Gentrification

But all is not well in New York. Since 2010, the New York area has actually seen the largest net outward migration out of any metropolitan region in the United States. New York City may be livable, but the price of livability is “too damn high” for many, especially for those who would like to live close to work or the subway.

Rents in New York City surged over a seven-year period into 2017. And according to one study, rental units closer to subway entrances are 6-8 percent higher than the median rent of the borough. To save on rent, many opt to live further away from the subway. But that results in a lengthier commute and takes away time that could be spent on exercise, networking, or reading to one’s own children. It can also be more expensive if one lives in parts of the city where there is no subway and the only public transport options are an express bus or the Long Island Railroad. Indeed, the poor and working-class—especially black Americans and Afro-Caribbeans—have been pushed out into the city’s periphery. Gentrification is in part an externality of this push for livability for the have’s and upwardly mobile.

The subway system is New York’s City’s circulatory and skeletal systems wrapped into one. “Developers build things where the subway works, and we build far fewer things where it doesn’t,” a real estate developer told the New York Times last year. After over a decade of New York’s real estate boom and the deregulation of rent-stabilized apartments, the end result is this: a dearth of affordable housing in areas, especially in areas close to the subway, and a glut of luxury units, often unoccupied investments used for money laundering. Developers and unit owners have also benefitted from extended tax abatements — revenue that the city could have put toward rehabilitating the subway and extending it to poorer areas in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens.

The Subways Are a Mess

The New York City subway system is a marvel of urban planning. And it was also a great social equalizer, enabling the rich and the poor to move across the five boroughs rapidly at a low fare. But for those who rely on the subway, it is increasingly a daily disaster.

Out of the world’s 20 largest public transportation systems, New York City’s system has the lowest on-time performance, according to The New York Times. Hong Kong’s public transport is on-time over 99 percent of the time. In Chicago, it’s a laudable 96 percent. And in New York: a lowly 65 percent. The New York City subway is also heavily congested. Ridership has dropped over the past two years. Some commuters have opted to travel by car — either personally owned or through a third-party service like Uber. That makes for more pollution.

As dependence on the subway has grown, its performance has fallen precipitously.

For decades, officials at the city and state level have cut funding for maintaining and upgrading the guts of the subway network: its signals and tracks. According to the New York Times, “since the mid-1990s, politicians have diverted $1.5 billion in dedicated transit funds to other purposes.” As a result, it may take up to 2067 to upgrade the entire subway signal system, according to the Regional Plan Association.

Most of the blame lies not with the New York City government but with the state. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) ultimately controls the subway. It’s an ostensibly independent body dominated by the state, created in the late 1960s in part to use the suburban bridge and tunnel tolls to subsidize the subways and reduce the need for fare hikes. But suburban politicians starve the MTA for funds. And the authority itself is corrupt replete with overpaid unionized workers and fleeced by shady contractors. As a result, MTA construction projects like the East Side Access project are the world’s most expensive rail projects per mile.

Still, center-right mayors like Bloomberg and his predecessor Rudy Giuliani put little money into rehabilitating the signals and tracks of the over century-old subway system. Instead, Bloomberg put his focus on the Second Avenue subway project, which is important for the city’s long-term growth, but was yet another means of enriching real estate developers who benefit from long-term tax abatement. More million-dollar condos to sell to the foreign ultra-rich parking their money in luxury real estate, which operates more and more like a liquid asset.

A Looming Crisis Extending Beyond the City

Making matters worse, there is a looming crisis extending out of the subway network into the suburban rail lines and throughout the northeast rail corridor.

At the heart of the matter are the East and Hudson River tunnels that connect to Long Island and New Jersey to Manhattan’s Penn Station — the busiest train station in America.

Roughly 650,000 commuters come into the Penn Station each weekday via Amtrak, the Long Island Railroad, and New Jersey Transit via seven tunnels, including four that cross the East River and two that cross the Hudson.

The two Hudson River tunnels (known as the North River tunnels) are over a hundred years old and were heavily damaged in the 2012 Hurricane Sandy. Before the storm, there were plans to build a new tunnel, allowing for the older ones to be repaired. The first plan, known as Access to the Region’s Core was estimated to cost $8.7 billion. After construction began in 2009 and $600 million had already been spent, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie canceled his state’s participation in the project, bringing it to an end. Ultimately, Christie’s move amounted to political grandstanding as he sought reelection and was positioning himself for a presidential run.

Then in 2011, a similar project known as the Gateway Program, which includes the new Hudson tunnels and eight other projects, was proposed at a cost of $13.5 billion. It was revised upward to $14.5 billion and has now ballooned to $30 billion. Conditions in the North River tunnel continue to deteriorate. Amtrak officials tell New York’s WABC 7 that the tunnels will only last 10 years before they needed to be shut down for repairs. If a new tunnel is not built in time, at least one tunnel will have to be shut down before they both are unusable. Shutting down one tunnel would result in a 75 percent drop in traffic volume, forcing commuters onto buses, cars, and ferries.

In 2011, President Barack Obama negotiated a cost-sharing agreement between the federal government and the states of New Jersey and New York. The federal government would pay for half of the cost, while the states would pick up the rest of the tab. President Donald Trump, a native New Yorker, indicated last fall that he would support the deal, but changed his tune in December when his administration called the deal “nonexistent.”

Trump frequently complained about America’s crumbling infrastructure during the 2016 election campaign. And he has proposed a $1.5 trillion infrastructure program. But his about-face on the Gateway Program stems from a desire to spite one of the program’s leading advocates, New York Senator Chuck Schumer, whom Trump complains is blocking the confirmation of federal political appointees. Construction for the tunnels would take seven years, according to New Jersey Transit’s chief planner, but given the likelihood of time overruns, construction ought to begin by next year to avoid a worst-case scenario in which there are either one or no Hudson River tunnels heading into Penn Station.

To be fair, Trump also has legitimate concerns about cost overruns. It’s possible to make the trim the cost of the Gateway Program by building one tunnel instead of two, according to one expert.

But this gets back to the livability issue. Middle class and working-class New Yorkers, as well as the poor, are being pushed into the city’s periphery and suburbs, where job growth was a mere 0.3 percent in 2017. For much of the past decade, conservationists have advocated the reconstruction of Penn Station in its original neoclassical design. But the obsession with form over function reflects the myopic view of many new urbanists.

The Long Island Railroad is the nation’s largest commuter rail system by traffic volume. Its main areas of service, Nassau and Suffolk counties, have a combined population of nearly 3 million people. In 2017, the LIRR experienced its worst on-time performance in eighteen years. It’s an expensive service that charges on the basis of distance, with monthly passes ranging from around $200 to $500 (the subway’s unlimited 30-day MetroCard is $121).

The LIRR needs a third rail line along the Floral Park-Hicksville stretch of its Main Line to improve service reliability and speed, and increase traffic volume, but local officials and older residents who don’t commute by train oppose the development in their backyard. The NIMBYism of a car-dependent out-of-workforce population is deterring the influx of young, taxpaying working-age adults who are critical for a thriving economy. Millennials, who prefer shorter commutes, are stuck sharing overpriced apartments closer to work.

Making Rail Great Again

The crisis of New York City’s rail networks is also about lost opportunities along the broader northeast corridor, serviced by Amtrak. As China continues to add onto its network of high-speed rail—the world’s largest—the Acela train service that runs from Washington to New York and Boston can’t even run at close to full speed for most of the journey. It still takes around 3.5 hours to get from New York to Washington, DC by Acela. Meanwhile, by 2020, 80% of China’s largest cities will be covered by high-speed rail, according to an official with the state-owned China Railway Corporation.

The northeast corridor from Washington to Boston is America’s most population, prosperous, and diverse. It’s home to 17 percent of the U.S. population and produces 20 percent of the country’s GDP—all on 2 percent of America’s land. And, still, with a lot of open space and a heavy concentration of top universities, there’s plenty of room to grow and people to fill it with.

Livability should be seen as a right and a necessity extending to beyond those who live in Park Slope and Williamsburg. Public transport and affordability are integral to long-term economic growth, livability, and sustainability. And that’s why livability is not just about building bike lanes and fancy new combination subway stations and malls that enrich condo developers. Livability is also not just about cities, but it’s also about suburban areas that have a symbiotic relationship to those cities as part of unified metropolitan areas.

That’s why the discussion about the future of New York must go beyond the crisis of the L train or developing a streetcar network in the hipster enclaves along the East River. It has to be a holistic discussion that involves fusing high-speed rail along the northeast corridor with upgrades to the signals and tracks of the subway and metropolitan commuter rail networks like the LIRR and New Jersey Transit. They’re all part of a broader system.

There’s a real opportunity, if not a need, to build an even more interconnected northeast corridor, enabling not just density in the cities, but also strengthening linkages with suburban and exurban residential and commercial spaces, enabling people and jobs to move further out. Imagine a northeast corridor in which one could travel from New York to Washington by rail in less than two hours or a resident of central New Jersey or Suffolk County could reach Manhattan within half an hour. Imagine the impact on towns and mid-sized cities along the corridor that could be linked to the system by interconnecting railroad and bus networks to high-speed rail hubs. That would fuel America’s next generation of growth and extend the right of “livability” to beyond the have’s.

The BYD Qin on display at the Auto Shanghai show on April 21, 2013. (Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/El monty) The BYD Qin on display at the Auto Shanghai show on April 21, 2013. (Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/El monty)

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