Not Investing in Public Transportation: A Long-Term Cost

On your way to work, you squeeze on the crowded train, in between briefcase-toting businessmen and mothers bringing their children to school. On the weekends, services are delayed or suspended. Late night services run express from your stop, making you transfer trains to get to your favorite bar. These scenarios may be inconvenient, but imagine if the subway weren’t there at all.

If you live in New York City, you undoubtedly have extended experience with the subway system, yet it is often a piece of our urban environment we take for granted. That is, until something goes wrong and our regular routines are interrupted. In my previous piece, I wrote about the pending closure of at least part of the L-train, connecting Lower Manhattan to Brooklyn. For this piece, I spoke with experts and academics about the potential implications of subway changes such as the L-train and construction the 2nd Ave. line. They offered their insight on the importance of infrastructure investments and how we might mitigate changes like these in the future.

Brian McGrath is Dean of the School of Constructed Environments at The New School. He weighed in on the current state of the New York subway.

“[The past four decades] have seen incredible changes in the [subway] system, but much more to do with maintenance, new equipment, the metrocard…,” he said. “They’re insubstantial compared to the investment of building it, which is 100 years old. My sense is that we’re kind of living loosely with minor adjustments to our grandparents hard work and haven’t been contributing our share in a more recent past.”

He explained how this attitude towards improvements has affected ridership.

“What happened with this improvement, with the metro card and the equipment, we’ve been able to cram increasing numbers of riders into a system that hasn’t expanded or improved substantially. And of course, the L-train has become one of the most intensely used lines because it’s following a pattern of gentrification and revitalization of those neighborhoods in Brooklyn, which had more local traffic.”

Renata Benigno is a master’s student of Design and Urban Ecologies who is writing her thesis on the Mass Transit Authority’s handling of the pending L-line closure, particularly regarding transparency and communication with the public. She also mentioned the growth patterns as a factor in the disruptive process.

“There is a lot in that specific place that [makes it] much more political than all the other [decisions]. So I think the MTA was just naive in not anticipating that this problem would be more controversial than the Greenpoint or the R line, for example. No one even noticed, just people in those specific areas. But the L-line? It’s getting the entire NYC to freak out because it’s that big spot right now.”

She went on to explain the impact on local businesses.

“This is not only about the subway. It’s about the lack of the transportation redundancy. Because there are less options there, the businesses will be way more impacted. The biggest concern is that people went to those places because they are gentrifying areas and they were good places to go. And they had a lot of plans for their businesses.”

Clara Irazabal, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University, talked about potential gentrification in East Harlem, where the Northern part of the 2nd Ave. line would reach.

“Gentrification is already happening,” she said. “At the moment, people think it’s nice because it creates racial and ethnic diversity in a neighborhood, but at some point the wealthier individuals may dislocate the local owners that have traditionally been an African American majority and a Latino majority. That’s an enormous problem because they will have little opportunity to find other places.”

So why hasn’t the city made a greater investment in improving public transportation, if it has such a huge impact on quality of life?

“Under Robert Moses, New York was constructing highways, as opposed to public transportation,” explained Prof. Irazabal of Columbia. “Particularly now, with the environmental needs that we have, you can see the impact in events such as Sandy. The way to go is public transportation.”

William Morrish is a Professor of Urban Ecologies at Parsons The New School of Design. He believes the focus has oft been dislocated.

“It’s more of a reflection of not a failure of systems, but [rather] we’ve been focused only on more capital, adding more tech to the system or new car,” he said. “No one has been focused on the glamor of investment, the day-to-day operations.”

“It is just, impossible at this point, it seems, to really make the necessary improvements to our infrastructure,” echoed McGrath. “It was financed in the past and… there’s absolutely no political support, nation-wide, in a political system that’s based on Montana having two senators and New York having two, to support the kind of federal money that it needs, for infrastructure. It’s not going to come from the city.”

And what about future impacts from future storms, assuming climate change only makes things worse? Did people take anything away from Hurricane Sandy?

Morrish expressed his concern with the lack of proactive measures taken by government.

“Are we going to do this all the time in the future? Wait for the storms to collapse? Or could we use this as a way to make rides more intelligent?”

McGrath also seemed skeptical that the city would learn from the lesson of Sandy.

“I think already we’re getting back to normal, even though Sandy was quite a wake-up call,” said McGrath. “A lot of people really became aware of these issues. Certainly the agencies are acting differently and the zoning has changed, the building code has changed. The question is: is it enough? Are we doing enough? I don’t know. I don’t think so.”


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on May 27, 2016.


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