A new transit mode for New York City
Philipp Rode, NYC October 1999
Institute for Rational Urban Mobility, Inc.
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In 1998, the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility, Inc. released its Livable City Plan - a four-year transportation plan for New York City. Transit improvements throughout the city were specified as a major element of this proposal and were the genesis that gave rise to this student study.
In the last few years, new and old concepts of this kind have been widely discussed, since the city experienced a strong economic boom. While one good news item follows another about new jobs, record visitor rates, and a reduction in crime not to mention the overall success and great popularity of New York City, nothing could be said about opening new transit infrastructure to the public since the 1940’s. This lack of expansion continues although NYC accounts for about 20% of all public transit passenger miles in the US.
However, improvements to the existing transit service have occurred due largely to the $.20 billion invested since the early 1980’s to upgrade the subways and return them to a “state of good repair”. This is truly an outstanding accomplishment. This MTA program included overhauling the tracks and subway cars, renovating its stations, and keeping them free of graffiti as well as improving subway performance.
Together with the successful introduction of MetroCard, an innovative fare policy concept that replaces the famous token, last year’s subway ridership recorded the greatest volume since 1970. With a 20% growth since 1985 and an daily increase of 400,000 riders from 1997 to 1998 alone, New York’s subway system is among the most successful in the world.
Allied with these accomplishments, more and more people are of the opinion that long promised new transit infrastructure has to be built. Two efforts in this direction have taken place already: Funding for Long Island Rail Road Access to Grand Central Terminal seems assured and construction for a new rail access at JFK Airport started this year.
Less successful are transit proposals for the core of New York City, the Island of Manhattan. The place where most transit systems in America were first implemented, and where a revival of urban density in the late 20th century is taking place, today has experienced difficulties to begin a new era of transportation. With unusual high pedestrian traffic and minimal car ownership ratios (20% of the households) even for European Cities, Manhattan cries out for new transport strategies, expressed, amongst other things, by an increasing amount of taxis and limousine services. Despite a huge market, fashionable high-tech transit is missing, ignoring the fact that for many Manhattanites these kind of factors are important for a certain panache and lifestyle. Who likes to get off an MTA bus arriving at the Stock Exchange, the United Nations, the Odeon Restaurant, the Wintergarden Theater or a fashionable store on 5th Avenue?
Furthermore, this city of pedestrians has almost no pedestrian zones and interprets public space differently. Unlike Europe, these spaces are more likely to be thought of as places for drug addicts and one’s unpleasant fellow human beings. Therefore, these locations have time restrictions and green spaces outside major parks are fenced. Some neighbors gladly welcome cars to take over public space.
The Institute for Rational Urban Mobility, Inc. identified these conditions and concluded that Light Rail Transit (LRT) would help to put things right, particularly by providing efficient surface transit. This initiative was encouraged by the great success of the revival of streetcars in the form of Light Rail Transit, not only in the US, but worldwide.
After new initiatives and movements dealing with the inadequacy of public transit on Manhattan’s East Side evolved in the last three years, several Light Rail Transit possibilities were discussed. Unfortunately, most of them were rejected at public hearings so that only one segment in Lower Manhattan and the Lower East Side was considered for further analysis. At least this one segment is included in one of three transit improvement alternatives proposed by New York City Transit in the form of its Manhattan East Side Transit Alternatives (MESA) Study.
This study intends to identify the neglected possibilities for Light Rail Transit on Manhattan’s East Side and examines a comprehensive line that would serve the entire East Side of Manhattan.
The study is divided into two major sections. The first section, Chapter 2, provides general information about LRT including the history in the US in general - and New York City in particular - as well as its revival in the last 20 years. In this context, existing plans for street railways in Manhattan are presented. The last part of this chapter fulfills the urgent need to provide more details about the characteristics of LRT.
The second section, Chapter 3, deals with the actual case for light rail on Manhattan’s East Side. It begins with the description of the Study Area, identifies and examines existing problems, formulates objectives and proposes solutions. The core of this section consists of the description and evaluation of alignment alternatives. Finally the role of an East Side LRT Line in a broader context is discussed.