Figuring Out Who Governs When Trying to Improve Transportation
2018 marks the 50th Anniversary of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in New York City. While this Golden Anniversary should be cause for celebration, the MTA is spiraling toward institutional collapse as public transportation becomes more tedious and uncertain because of congestion and failing infrastructure. When we think about how to improve transit in New York, we need to answer the age-old question: “Who governs?”
In theory, transit should be a top priority for elected officials in New York City. With nearly eight million trips a day on buses and subways, it is easy to imagine that transit riders are a potent constituency who regularly deliver politicians to office (MTA n.d.). In New York and much of the country, however, this does not happen. Transit operations and planning have been handed over to public authorities who are not directly accountable to voters, leaving little incentive for elected officials to fight for better transit until a crisis emerges.
In New York, this issue of who governs has resulted in a genuine transit crisis that has seen millions of riders flee the system. In Brooklyn alone, the bus network has lost more than 50 million riders in the last 10 years. As dire as this data point is, it is even more alarming when one considers that these trips have not reappeared on subways, taxis, or private vehicles. Furthermore, bus riders’ annual median income is $10,000 less than the citywide median income (New York City Comptroller 2017). This discrepancy means that Brooklyn’s bus riders have less access to the promise of the city today than they did just a decade ago.
In response to this transit crisis, NYU Marron Institute Fellow Alon Levy and I considered how we could help govern. Specifically, we wanted to develop a radically specific plan to overhaul the bus network in Brooklyn and inspire public discourse. We selected Brooklyn because its decline in bus ridership is the largest in absolute terms and, unlike Manhattan, it does not have a ubiquitous subway network to absorb lost bus trips.
Our first task was to design a bus network that would get people back on the bus. After reading the literature on bus network redesign and examining a number of cases, specifically Barcelona’s Nova Xarxa, we decided to focus our proposal around four principles: 1) speed up the bus, 2) improve reliability, 3) add more service, and 4) enhance connectivity between buses within the network. Again, based on the existing evidence, we believe these principles will bring Brooklynites back to the bus. To keep our proposal grounded in reality, we decided to stick to the existing service-hours budget that governs the Brooklyn buses (fig.1).
Our proposal provides more buses by cutting the total number of routes in the existing network and redeploying that service along the new routes. This plan delivers a bus every six minutes (red routes) or sooner (green and blue) every day between 6:00 AM and 10:00 PM. We have also called for new street designs that get right to the question of who governs.
In order to speed up the bus, one key intervention is to free the bus from congestion. In some portions of the Brooklyn bus network, buses travel at a sluggish three and a half miles per hour (NYC DOT 2016). In order to attract people back to the bus, we need to fix this. The best solution—one that other cities around the world have already adopted—is to install center-running-protected bus lanes that keep buses moving freely even if traffic overwhelms adjacent travel lanes (fig.2).
As obvious as this solution is, it requires politicians and high-level decision makers to commit to the bus, even at the cost of road space for cars. Historically, these kinds of fights—the repurposing of travel and parking lanes for buses or bicycles—have been fraught with drama (Sadik-Khan and Solomonow 2016). In August 2018, the Department of Transportation capitulated to disgruntled motorists who objected to a new bus lane to accompany the rollout of Select Bus Service in Brooklyn, which would have taken fewer than 200 parking spaces (Katinas 2018). While it is true those parking spaces would have disappeared, they would have been sacrificed in the service of a bus route that serves more than eight million riders per year.
Our second task was to engage in the political process and disseminate our plan through writing, giving talks, and meeting with elected officials and decision-makers to explain our thinking and justify the changes we have advocated for in our design. We understand that our plan is politically challenging, but how else do we avert this decade-long crisis? If we fail to change the way that elected officials, Brooklynites, and decision-makers think about the bus, we run the risk of putting forth a plan that lives only in cyberspace. Even if our plan is not adopted in its totality, we believe we can help shape the debate and eventual redesign of the Brooklyn bus network to incorporate many of the critical principles for getting Brooklynites back on the bus.
As ridership dwindles and travel speeds slow, the bus has turned into an option of last resort. Until Brooklynites can rely on the bus to get to school, work, shops, and appointments, there is little hope that ridership will stabilize or grow. Before we can get the bus going again, we need to determine who governs and figure out how to convince them that acting in the interest of Brooklyn’s bus riders will leave everyone better off in the long run.
Professor Eric Goldwyn
Eric is a Research Scholar at New York University’s Marron Institute and an affiliated member of the faculty at NYU. He received his PhD in Urban Planning from Columbia University. Hiswriting on cities and transportation technology has been published in academic journals and popular press outlets.