New York City Transportation: Heaven or Hell?

Sarah Laskow | January 31st, 2011

Photo by Steven Vance

Is New York City a transport heaven, or a transport hell?

When executing a perfect transfer, when that next subway train pulls up right as you’re ready to step on, when in half-an-hour you’ve crossed half the city, the subway system can seem like a marvel of the modern world.

But when you can’t catch a cab or find a parking space, when you just miss that late-night train and the station is cold and damp, when you calculate just how early you should get to the airport, it seems like it might be better to live anywhere else.

New Yorkers have some of the longest commutes in the country. The region’s three airports have the worst delays. The city’s buses “are not very reliable,” according to the New York state auditor. And the Metropolitan Transit Authority has a looming debt burden that could herald fare increases four times larger than the most recent bump.

Then again, how many other cities, in America, or anywhere, have a subway system that’s open all night? How many other mayors are as committed as Mayor Bloomberg to adding bike lanes and greenways? How many other places are the most logical starting point for high-speed rail investment?

The transportation in and around New York City is at a turning point.  There are two problems to solve — how to get around and how to get away. And the decisions that policymakers are pursuing right now will determine how easy it will be to do both in the years the come.

Getting away has always been a particular problem in a city built on an island. Whatever Robert Moses’ flaws, one of his initial triumphs was smoothing the way for New Yorkers desperate to get themselves out of sweltering city streets and onto Long Island beaches. But the solutions that worked for Moses — bridges and highways — are no longer an option.  As Mayor Bloomberg reported last week at a congressional hearing on high-speed rail, held in Grand Central Station, “The Northeast is approaching a transportation crisis.”

“Our airports are among the most clogged, our highways are among the most congested, and our train corridor is the most heavily used in the country,” he said. “All of that is only going to get worse with the region’s population expected to grow by 40 percent by 2050.”

High-speed rail, he argued, would relieve some of this pressure. Imagine making it from New York to Boston in under two hours, speeding through Connecticut at 220 miles per hour. If that were an option, it’d be so clearly superior to the four-hour car ride or to the hassle of getting to and from the airport, both airports and highways might catch a break. And anyone who wanted to get on a slower, regional train at, say, Providence, would have half a chance of getting a seat for the ride up to Beantown. (Of course, the relative appeal of this trip depends on the price of the ticket — see: Amtrak’s steeply priced Acela trains — a detail that’s not forthcoming at this heady stage of policymaking.)

Another fix, suggested this week by the Regional Plan Association, is expanding the amount of runway space at JFK and Newark airports, which, of all possible solutions to airport congestion, offer “the greatest potential for increasing capacity and reducing delays.”

Getting around New York is another question. The Bloomberg administration has supported bike lanes, but also cracked down on bikers for tiny infractions, like turning into a park on a red light. And while hailing a cab in the outer boroughs — a change the mayor touted in his State of the City — might be a welcome luxury, it’s still not clear how the Metropolitan Transit Authority will keep costs for transit riders down over the next decades, although rumblings of a renewed push in Albany for congestion pricing show one path forward.

In the end, the city needs to work to improve both regional and local transit. It’s all very well to arrive in Manhattan on a heaven-sent high-speed train, but using the subway system shouldn’t mean descending into the bowels of transport hell.