Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Future of New York City Transportation: Goodbye Cars, Hello Rails

By any measure, young city dwellers are less and less likely to own a car. And New York City officials have spent millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours ensuring that trend works for the recent grads and young professionals that flock to it constantly. NYC bus, rail, and ferry systems are keeping up with a growing population; the roads, well, that’s a different story altogether.

Transportation engineer Samuel Schwartz — better known as “Gridlock Sam” to his readers in the Daily News — has studied transportation in New York City for almost all his life, beginning as a taxi driver in the 1960s, and eventually serving as the Department of Transportation’s Chief Engineer. Today, his eponymous consulting firm helps the city consider what efficiency could look like and his new book, Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars, is on the display rack. The semi-autobiographical book follows New York City’s evolution into a public transit powerhouse and kicks dirt onto the grave of urban drivers.

In the book, Schwartz makes an excellent case for why the future of most big metropolitan areas is in optimized public transit systems. He gave Inverse a preview of what’s coming down the tracks for New Yorkers.

What is the current status of transportation infrastructure in New York City?

It’s a mixed bag. The good news is that loads of people are using our ubiquitous subway systems. We have such an extensive network, but it’s a network that’s being stressed with some more frequent delays and breakdowns in the systems. I doubt if anybody would rate it an “A,” but one treasure is that it’s attracted 100 million more visitors in just one year. We’re beginning to see traffic volumes of people we haven’t seen on our subways since the late 1940s. That’s before the big surge in car traffic.

I saw that they were ranked fourth-worst in terms of car congestion, and that’s not a surprise to me, but then again all the cities that made the hit list — San Francisco and Washington D.C., Los Angeles — have also been doing very well as of late, so it’s not such a bad list to be on. And, as I pointed out in my book, congestion isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, at times it makes sense to introduce some congestion measures to slow the traffic down; it actually helps business.

What are the changing conditions that will affect New York City transportation in the next 25 to 50 years?

We’re already seeing more rapid changes than we’ve seen in a very, very long time. One is just land issues — the amount of development within three miles of the central business district. Within the central business district itself, growth has been extraordinary. It’s largely been driven by millennials, who are living in all the communities that have covered the East River — from Williamsburg, to Red Hook, to Long Island City, to Hunters Point, to Astoria. That’s created a whole change in demand. These are people that are looking for active transportation.

Bike and pedestrian paths will reach their limits. Before the East River bridges opened the only way that you could get directly from Queens or Brooklyn into Manhattan were bike or pedestrian paths. Even more rapidly changing have been transportation network companies, like Uber, Lyft, Via, and about 30 others that are all going around the United States and the world, and are looking to get into the New York market. So we’re seeing many many more vehicles on city streets, a lot of people that just use Uber, driving part-time, and that’s adding to congestion. Travel speeds have been going down.

The third big factor is that autonomous vehicles are coming. We probably will have them by 2030; they’ll be fairly common. Before 2030, I believe there will be lanes on highways that will be autonomous vehicle lanes where you take your hand off the steering wheel. You already have devices in cars that can allow you to accelerate and decelerate and cruise in lanes, so we’re not that many years away. Maybe in 2020 or so we might start seeing the first of those lanes!

But what autonomous vehicles will do is both good and bad. For those people who are going to be driving anyhow, it does make it safer. But it also will only contribute to a lifestyle that’s more sedentary and ever-increasing, which I discuss in my book parallels the growth of obesity and cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, stroke and others problems. I worry about a future in which people don’t walk. Their Uber car takes them right to the portal of wherever they’re going, and their office chair comes right out and greets them. Or it’s their home and their recliner comes and greets them. We won’t need legs anymore, like in Wall-E.

Your new book discusses how cars are falling out of favor in cities all around the U.S., including NYC. When did you first start noticing that cars in urban communities were on the decline? Was this all of a sudden, or gradual?

What we thought was lousy transportation in the 1950s is no longer seen that way. The younger people want to be able to get places. It’s not about the status symbol of your big car with the huge rims, which was my generation. I had a big Chevy Impala with huge rims on it and I loved that car and that was a sign of freedom for me. Now a sign of freedom is having a smart phone and having the apps or Uber, Lyft, Zipcar, or Via. Suddenly you’re more free. You don’t have to lug around several thousand pounds of steel and figure out a place to park it and worry if you’re going to have a couple drinks and fight the traffic on the way home.

by Neel V. Patel, Inverse |  Read more:
Image: Jon Harald Søby