When Bill de Blasio called New York a “tale of two cities,” he had economic inequality in mind. But he could just as well have meant public transportation.
Bus and subway in New York are great — if you’re travelling to or from Manhattan. In the four other boroughs, commuters often have little choice but to take their car. As developers are discovering Queens and tech jobs are moving to Brooklyn, this imbalance is starting to pose a problem — blocking the development of neighborhoods as alternatives to Manhattan.
There are only five subway lines directly connecting Brooklyn and Queens, compared to 18 lines connecting the two boroughs to Manhattan. Buses are abundant, but they are notoriously slow and infrequent.
This Manhattan-centric design of public transportation wouldn’t be a big problem if most Brooklyn and Queens residents commuted to work in Manhattan — but the opposite is the case.
When the Regional Plan Association, an independent urban research and advocacy organization, studied traffic data back in 2000, it found that far more Brooklyn and Queens residents work in the two boroughs than in Manhattan.
Although these figures may be 13 years old, RPA senior fellow Jeff Zupan insists that the general picture hasn’t changed since then.
Moreover, the development of downtown Brooklyn as a business center and the increasing number of young professionals living in Queens make it at least conceivable that there will be more commuters between and within the two boroughs in the future. With a lack of public transportation options, most of these commuters are forced to rely on their cars. According to the RPA data from 2000, 52.5 percent of Brooklyn residents working in Queens commuted by car, and 59.3 percent of Queens residents working in Brooklyn took the car. In contrast, only 19.5 percent of Queens residents and 12.1 percent of Brooklyn residents working in Manhattan commuted by car.
This imbalance clogs streets and pollutes the air, and it poses a real problem for real estate developers. Brooklyn has been attracting more and more tech jobs recently, but their growth is limited by public transportation. Many young professionals want to take the subway or bus to their homes in Astoria, Park Slope, or Long Island City, and shy away from office space they can only reach by car.
Moreover, stagnating real estate prices in the outer parts of Brooklyn have a lot to do with how long it takes to get anywhere by public transportation.
“People often say the three most important things in real estate are location, location, location. A lot of times the strength of a location is based on the strength of transportation,” said Bob Knakal, chairman of Massey Knakal. “Better public transportation between Brooklyn and Queens would significantly increase the value of real estate on both sides.”
Sam Schwartz, CEO of Sam Schwartz Engineering, a transportation engineering and planning firm, agrees.
“(Better public transportation) is absolutely essential as you get close to central business districts, you really can’t squeeze many more cars into Brooklyn and Queens,” he said.
“My son is a real estate developer in Brooklyn, and he asks me all the time to improve transportation between the boroughs.”
There are few comparable cities in the world that have as imbalanced a subway system as New York. For example, Paris, London and Berlin all built ring-shaped subway lines that allow travel to different boroughs without having to go through the city center.
Things weren’t always this bad. Streetcars used to make for comparatively quick and easy travel between Brooklyn and Queens, but they were dismantled in the automobile frenzy of the 1940s and replaced by buses. This freed up more space for cars, but it also made public transportation much slower, since buses get stuck in traffic.
Today, no one is calling for a rebuilding of the old streetcar system, and most agree that new subway lines are too expensive.
But there are three intriguing suggestions that together could help solve the great transportation conundrum. But each one of them comes with considerable difficulties.
The most well-known is a 1996 proposal by the Regional Plan Association to create an “Rx” subway line connecting the outer parts of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.
It would use existing, above-ground freight-rail lines, which would make it comparatively cheap to build. Comptroller-elect Scott Stringer publicly endorsed this proposal in 2012.
But freight-traffic operators are loath to share the rails with passenger trains, and have been lobbying against the proposal.
“We believe that passengers and freight service can co-exist,” said Jeff Zupan, who wrote the original proposal. “It would make it possible to travel among many parts of neighborhoods that are very difficult to travel between now.”
“A number of station locations could create some real development opportunities through their new accessibility,” he added. “In the stretch of the Rx that would go through Brooklyn, there is an industrial corridor that may be ripe for redevelopment because it’s old.”
George Haikalis, president of the research and advocacy group Institute for Rational Urban Mobility, has a different proposal.
He argues that the LIRR’s Atlantic line, which connects Brooklyn and Queens, should essentially be turned into a new subway line – with new stops, shorter waits and a uniform price for both subway and LIRR. Haikalis also proposes to use Amtrak tracks between Queens and the Bronx for regional rail.
“The idea is to take a commuter rail and make it more like Europe where the commuter rail is better integrated into the system. This is not about building new rail lines, but making them more effective,” he said.
But Haikalis acknowledges that for the system to work, the MTA would have to lower LIRR prices to bring them in line with the subway – which could lead to revenue loss.
Alexander Garvin, a professor of Urban Planning at Yale University, recently unveiled a third proposal.
He argues for a light-rail line near the East River along 21st street, connecting Red Hook to Astoria. But since the rail tracks would have to be built from scratch, cost might be a concern – although it would still be much cheaper than a new subway line.
Whether the city should choose one (or all) of these proposals is up for debate, but there is little doubt that public transportation outside of Manhattan needs to improve.
The MTA has already taken a first step with the launch of its Select Bus service. These buses run on express lanes and require travelers to buy tickets beforehand, reducing delays. In Brooklyn, the first Select Bus line connects Sheepshead Bay with Williambsurg.
The real estate community has much to gain from improved transportation, say the experts.
“You won’t see new epicenters of business like downtown Brooklyn, but you will see more business,” said Sam Schwartz. “It always happens: when you create a subway stop, businesses come.” микрокредит
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