By Michael McDowell
Bus-riders, bike-riders, straphangers, pedestrians and drivers all seem to agree on one thing: it’s no picnic getting around the city these days. Those struggles took center stage at a packed transportation town hall hosted by Councilman Mark Levine at the Manhattan School of Music in Morningside Heights on Monday night.
New York City Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, MTA Chief Customer Officer Sarah Meyer, and State Senator Brian Benjamin, who represents much of Upper Manhattan, were joined on stage by transit advocates Stephanie Burgos-Veras of the Riders Alliance; Hayley Richardson of TransitCenter; and Erwin Figueroa of Transportation Alternatives.
The discussion ranged from the airing of individual grievances to wide-ranging ideas about how officials should best use New York’s scarce streets and parking spaces as the city nears nine million residents.
“We’re in the midst of a crisis, folks, a transportation crisis [and] a congestion crisis,” Levine began, and sketched several proposals he argues will support mass transit and alleviate traffic.
“I am a huge proponent of congestion pricing,” Levine said, to applause. “It would generate about a billion dollars a year to shore up our mass transit, it would be a long-term stable source of revenue, and it would reduce congestion.”
Levine also recently introduced a bill that would create residential parking permits in Northern Manhattan (covering all of the borough north of 60th Street), and is a supporter of shared mobility programs like CitiBike, as well as the city’s pilot carshare program with Zipcar and Enterprise.
Another ambitious idea? Extending ferry service up the Hudson.
“We need ferry service. We’re 8 minutes from Edgewater, we have potential ferry landings up and down the Hudson River, from Dyckman Street, Riverdale, other places, and I see ferry service as a way to further reduce congestion on our streets, so that people who right now are taking their cars across the George Washington Bridge would have a green alternative.”
Commissioner Trottenberg also answered a range of questions, saying that the city is aware of the abuse of city-issued parking placards, and is looking at the introduction of residential parking permits—be careful what you wish for—the recent citywide cordoning off of bus shelters, and the addition of dedicated bus lanes to city streets.
Bus advocates in particular made their presence felt. Burgos-Veras of Riders Alliance called bus service “the ignored transit crisis in New York City,” and described a novel technology solution her organization is supporting that is meant to improve bus commute time by safely moving buses through intersections.
“What we have been calling for, on the city side, are enforced bus lanes and Transit Signal Priority [TSP], a technology in streetlights that can communicate with a bus, so as a bus approaches a light turning red, the bus can communicate with the light, which will then hold the light green so that the bus can cross.”
There is an important role for those who support buses to play in the fight to improve bus service, added Richardson, of TransitCenter.
“How do we get more bus lanes? The best thing that anybody here could do is to show up to a community board meeting and say ‘Yes, we want bus lanes!’ Because usually the people who show up don’t want the bus lanes. It may not be the way you want to spend a Tuesday night, but you can play a huge role in getting more bus lanes.”
Select bus service lanes have been implemented in some parts of the city, though their effectiveness has been questioned. Trottenberg does hope, however, that 96th Street will become an SBS route.
Despite the skepticism of some audience members toward bicycles and bicyclists, Trottenberg and Levine both reiterated their support for bike lanes, and in particular a controversial redesign of Amsterdam Avenue from 110th Street to 162nd Street.
Will we see a protected bike lane on Central Park West?
“We’re evaluating it right now,” Trottenberg responded.
“I support it,” Levine added.
Meyer shed some light on the recent renovations of local subway stations—no elevators were installed—as well as the potential reopening of sealed station entrances.
The Upper West Side’s 110th Street-Cathedral Parkway station, which recently reopened after several months of repair and renovation, did not get any accessibility improvements, and still lacks an elevator. One person asked if Meyer could explain the MTA’s plan for accessibility improvements there and throughout the system.
“The 110th Street station was renovated as part of a program called the ESI program, which is a new program, revolutionary by MTA standards, to get in and get out in record time, and ensure that the station was in a state of good repair, that the platform edge was stable, that leaking was taken care of. Elevators were never part of that program,” Meyer explained.
“The good news is, as part of the Fast Forward Plan we are working to ensure that within five years another 100 elevators would be commissioned, so that you would be no more than two stops away from an accessible elevator.”
MTA President Andy Byford’s Fast Forward Plan is a proposed effort to revitalize New York’s mass transit that is expected to cost $30 billion or more. Meyer highlighted its key priorities: transform the subway, re-imagine the bus network, focus on accessibility, and engage and empower MTA employees. It’s not yet clear how it would be funded.
Levine asked Meyer if the MTA plans to reopen previously sealed station entrances, especially at stations like 103rd Street on the B and C line, which has only one entrance for both uptown and downtown trains.
“That is definitely something we’re looking at,” Meyer answered. “The new tap-and-go payment system, which is coming online, will allow us to open more entrances.”
The contactless fare system will enable riders to use a phone app or smart card, and is set to replace MetroCard next spring.
Speaking of construction, Meyer mentioned that the agency is working to add shuttle buses—which replace subway routes during construction—to its transit apps over the next few months.
A few questions veered into existential territory. Like: “Why are sirens so loud?”
Apparently, the noise is associated specifically with ambulances at St. Luke’s, on Amsterdam Ave. and 114th Street. Levine and State Senator Benjamin promised to talk to the hospital about the issue.
Also in attendance was NYPD Captain Lourdes Soto, of Manhattan’s 30th Precinct, who encouraged the audience to add police community council meetings—held on the fourth Thursday of each month at the precinct—to their calendars. “We’re here for you,” she said.
The town went well over time, but the crowd was by no means ready to disperse, and those who had not yet expressed their concerns descended on the stage en masse.
“Traffic has slowed appreciably on the Upper West Side, and it’s very difficult to sit here, and hear, ‘Well, it’s actually moving better,’” one man sighed.