Thursday, July 26, 2012
By Kate Hinds
Sam Schwartz -- an engineer and former NYC traffic commissioner -- has been shopping a plan he says would make toll pricing more in New York City more rational and equitable. He talks about it on the latest episode of the public television show MetroFocus, starting with a tried and true thought experiment: the alien considering a human custom--in this case, the city's tolling policy--and finding it strange.
"If you were an urban planner from Mars," he said, "and you wanted to go to the center of New York City, you would assume it was Staten Island, because we charge everybody to go into Staten Island. That's crazy."
Instead, Schwartz would raise tolls on approaches to the central business district of Manhattan and lower tolls to geographically peripheral areas like Staten Island and The Rockaways. The plan is generating buzz among urban planners but Schwarz is still seeking a wider audience, knowing such plans in the past have proved a heavy political lift.
The rest of this week's show is devoted to New York City transportation, including the MTA's East Side Access project, bringing real-time bus information to passengers, and a profile of senior citizens in Brooklyn whom are agitating for pedestrian safety.
Bonus: you'll learn the backstory of how Schwartz coined the term 'gridlock,' which he says he can't take sole credit for.
If you're in the New York City area, the episode will air on WNET Thursday night at 8:30. Or watch below!
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY - WNYC) Don't even think of driving to the Barclays Center when it opens on September 28. That was the thrust of a traffic management plan presented by consultant Sam Schwartz at a public hearing in downtown Brooklyn on Tuesday.
"We're going to reduce the number of cars coming to the arena," Schwartz emphasized. "That's our mantra."
The plan would cut parking at the Barclays Center, future home of the Brooklyn Nets, from 1,000 to 541 spots. Ticket-holders will be urged to arrive by Long Island Rail Road or one of eleven subway lines that meet beneath the arena. Schwartz says another way of keeping vehicles out of the heavily congested area will be to encourage drivers to park at a half-priced lot a mile away near the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and take a free shuttle bus.
However, the arena's website makes clear that suite-holders will get priority parking: " You will have a reserved spot within a one to two block radius from the premium entrance. Important to note that our parent company controls parking both on the Arena site and surrounding areas that will enable us to deliver the most convenient parking access possible to our suite customers." Jane Marshall, a spokeswoman for arena developer Forest City Ratner, said 150 of the 541 spots will be reserved for suite and season-ticket holders.
The Schwartz plan also calls for HOV spaces for cars with three or more people. And if drivers want to park near the arena, they'll be encouraged to go online and pay for a reserved spot at a lot or garage before leaving. Schwartz said that should cut down on drivers circling the area while deciding where to park. And the plan offers yet another incentive to leaving the motorized vehicle at home: 400 bicycle parking spots.
Despite such measures, car owners who live near the Barclays Center still worry that people driving in to attend a Nets game or concert will take up all the parking spots in nearby neighborhoods, especially now that the Schwartz plan seeks to slash the number of spots at the arena.
Those residents learned that the city won't be granting their request for residential parking permits any time soon. The New York City Department of Transportation's Christopher Hrones said his agency is still studying the issue.
"We're not in a position, for several reasons, to have a residential parking permit in place when the arena opens on September 28th," he said. He added that even if the city were to approve a parking permit program, it would need permission from the state, and that takes time. Because of the format of the evening -- questions submitted on cards with no possibility of follow-up -- there wasn't an opportunity to get further clarification on residential parking permits.
Around Yankees Stadium in the Bronx, motorists continue to look for on-street parking to the consternation of local residents, as we've reported.
The arena's traffic management plan now enters a 30-day public review period.
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY - WNYC) Rejoicing. Also dread. That's the response from transportation advocates to the latest funding vote from the leadership of New York's transit system.
The board of the NY MTA has approved $13.1 billion to fund the next three years of its capital plan. It will be financed mostly by debt: $7 billion from bonds and $2 billion in low-cost federal loans.
This means the agency is sticking with ambitious projects like the Second Avenue Subway (rejoice!) but a debt crisis looms if the agency doesn't find new sources of revenue soon (dread!).
And that's why money-making transportation ideas will not die, even if they're sure to face serious opposition, like the plan to put tolls on the historically free bridges spanning the East River. Such tolls would produce a dedicated revenue stream for the NY MTA, and that would reduce the political brinkmanship and deficit spending that characterize the funding agreements behind the authority's five-year capital budgets.
The latest version of the tolling plan, promoted by former NYC traffic commissioner Sam Schwartz, would bring in an estimated $1.2 billion a year, two-thirds of which would go to the NY MTA. (Go here for details on how that money would be raised, and here for a PowerPoint version of the plan itself.)
After today's NY MTA board meeting, chairman Joe Lhota was asked whether he'd discussed the plan with elected officials. "I have not talked to anyone other than Sam Schwartz directly on the plan," he said. "So I don't know where it's going."
Then Lhota gently nudged the idea into the debate over long-term transportation funding. "I do believe that people are focused on this," he said. "It'll probably be a very big item during the mayoral race next year."
It's hard to know whether his prediction will come true but it's easy to see why he would want it to be so. The Schwartz plan envisions $8 billion a year in transit capital and $400 million for maintenance projects to keep the system in a "state of good repair." Being able to count on that money would make the planning side of Lhota's job a lot easier. And after all, smoothly functioning subways, buses and commuter trains are essential to the New York City economy. Why shouldn't mayoral candidates be discussing a plan that could stabilize their financing?
But the fate of any tolling scheme ultimately rests with the state. "I have not had any conversations with the governor... regarding Sam Schwartz's plan on congestion pricing," Lhota said later in the day. A spokesman added that, officially, Lhota “has taken no position on the plan."
Of course that doesn't mean he's not rooting for it, at least a little. Governor Andrew Cuomo's office did not immediately respond with a comment on the issue.
Monday, March 05, 2012
By Kate Hinds
New York Times columnist Bill Keller (and former editor-in-chief) put congestion pricing squarely back in the public eye today, with his column backing a plan by noted transportation expert Sam Schwartz.
Schwartz -- known to the masses as "Gridlock Sam"-- is a former New York City traffic commissioner who has long advocated congestion pricing.
Schwartz's plan -- which he's been showing around the city to private groups -- would reduce the costs of some tolls and raise others. That would make driving outside of Manhattan easier and driving into Manhattan south of 60th Street much more costly.
The East River Bridges -- Brooklyn, Ed Koch/Queensboro, Manhattan, and Williamsburg, would have a $7 cash toll, and an $5 EZPass toll. Other bridges -- like the Verrazano, the RFK, and the Bronx Whitestone Bridge would be cheaper.
These tolls and other fees (like ending a parking tax rebate for Manhattanites and adding a taxi surcharge on cab rides south of 86th Street) could raise as much as $1.2 billion annually, Schwartz argues -- money that would then be spent on improving transit and roads.
Schwartz would then target that money to reduce transit fares and to launch new transit lines -- particularly bus rapid transit -- in the outer boroughs where transit service is poor.
Schwartz would also like to see three new pedestrian/bicycle bridges built. One would go from downtown Brooklyn, go through Governors Island and lead to the financial district; another would connect Greenpoint/Long Island City to Manhattan's East Side, and a third would go from Hoboken/Jersey City to Manhattan's West Side.
It's not clear how much political support a plan like this could garner. City Council member Peter Vallone Jr., who represents Astoria, is blunt: "I don't support tolling the East River Bridges," he says. "There are ways to influence congestion without increasing costs to motorists." He'd like to see tolls increase during peak times, but decrease off-hours.
But Kathryn Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York City says congestion pricing is "something that New York City is going to have to turn to." She adds: "I think that Sam has put forward a very practical approach to mobilizing political support" for it. She says part of the stumbling block in the past has been "you didn’t have any obvious concurrent benefits...that you could point to." This version of the plan -- with its attendant toll reductions and outer borough transit improvements -- "give people a reason to be for it, not simply to be against it."
It's a parity issue, adds Transportation Alternatives head Paul Steely White, who's endorsing the plan. "What you have is a situation where some drivers are paying as much as $11 to take a round trip in their own neighborhoods," he says, "whereas other drivers aren't paying a cent."
The fallout from that is evident in places like downtown Brooklyn, which is inundated with drivers seeking to avoid the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and its $6.50 toll (or $4.80 for EZPass users) in favor of the free Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. Tolling those bridges, White says, would make the system "more rational so drivers aren't toll shopping and driving out of their way for a free bridge or tunnel."
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg pushed for congestion pricing in 2007. Although it passed City Council, it died in Albany.
City Hall may like this plan, too. New York City deputy press secretary Marc LaVorgna says of the Schwartz proposal: “The Mayor put forward a comprehensive and bold transportation vision that would have provided billions to create the mass transit system our city needs. But Albany said no, and the MTA continues to struggle.”
But the biggest kick for the plan comes from today's Times Op-Ed page, one of the loudest megaphones you can have.
"You do not have to be an engineer to appreciate the logic," Keller wrote. "The scheme puts the heaviest onus on the solo driver who has ready access to a train, and lowers the cost for drivers who have no alternative. Unlike earlier plans that amounted to a punishing tax on commuters from outlying communities, the Schwartz plan has more affluent neighborhoods (like the plusher parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens) pay a fair share."
Thursday, August 11, 2011
By Kate Hinds
In the neighborhood around the Holland Tunnel, just west of SoHo, a recent study found pedestrian cross-walks blocked one hundred percent of the time, and horns honking at a rate of 500 times an hour. (Keep reading for more on this study.)
The Hudson Square neighborhood, which stretches roughly from Houston down to Canal Street, from Sixth Avenue to the Hudson River, was once, like neighboring SoHo, largely industrial. It was the center of the city's printing district, and most people knew it only as they drove through it on their way to the Holland Tunnel.
The neighborhood was rezoned in 2003 , and real estate developers aggressively courted media companies (including New York Magazine and WNYC, which relocated here in 2008). Trump built a condo/hotel in the neighborhood, and gourmet food trucks now ply Varick Street.
Crossing the six lanes of Varick Street has become a daily challenge for the 30,000 people who now work in the neighborhood.
Now the local business improvement district has added a function that might, in flusher days, have been taken on by the NYPD -- private "Pedestrian Traffic Managers."
Hudson Square Connection, the local BID, has hired the yellow-vested guardians of the crosswalks at a cost of $90,000 for a the six-month trial project. (Disclosure: WNYC's president, Laura Walker, chairs the BID Board.)
"Although we recognize the need to balance the needs of the regional transportation facility," said Ellen Baer, president of the Hudson Square Connection, "and of the Jersey-bound motorists with the needs of the local community...our concern is really for the people in this neighborhood, so it is the pedestrians [we're] trying to accommodate."
The BID hired Sam Schwartz Engineering to manage the program. Prior to the start of the pilot, which began this week and runs through January, Schwartz's firm measured three variables on Varick Street: the number of times cars blocked the pedestrian crosswalks; the number of times cars blocked the intersection, preventing east/west traffic; and the number of times drivers honked their horns. They found that during the worst of the evening rush hour, intersections were blocked nearly 100% of the time, and horns honked at the rate of 500 times an hour.
Sam Schwartz said his firm has been providing Pedestrian Traffic Management in high-volume areas for about two years, in locations like Queens Center Mall, the World Trade Center, and Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards. "We've crossed an estimated 70 million people already," he said. Schwartz said all the PTMs he hires are retired law enforcement personnel, and they receive two days of training. Because they're not police, however, they have no enforcement ability, and can't hand out tickets. "Traffic management is a police department function," said Schwartz. He says the job of the PTM is to be the first one in the crosswalk and the last one out -- sort of a cross between a traffic cop and a school crossing guard.
After six months, the Hudson Square BID will evaluate the program. Right now, the Pedestrian Traffic Managers are out on Varick Street from Wednesday through Friday, 3pm to 7pm. You can read more about the program here.
Thursday, April 14, 2011
By Kate Hinds
(Kate Hinds and Nancy Solomon, Transportation Nation) Since 2006, New York City has added 250 miles of bike lanes in an effort, Mayor Bloomberg says, to improve traffic, air quality, and ultimately, public health. But while polls show support for bike lanes, opposition has been loud -- and vehement -- around the city. So WNYC's Transportation Nation team got to wondering: do Europeans just like biking more than New Yorkers?
We spoke to Danes and New Yorkers to see if we could figure this out.
On a recent trip to Aarhus -- Denmark’s second largest city -- all of the guests at a dinner party have kids, cycle to work and do most errands by bike, even though each family owns a car. Lars Villemoes said he prefers to bike even when it's raining.
“It’s a really good feeling, I love it in the morning, I go faster every morning and I love it when I see the line of cars and I just go past them, that’s such a good feeling,” he said.
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“The safety has to be considered because in order to take your children you have to be absolutely safe about this,” said his friend Lone Maribo. She added: “And I think taking your children is the first step to changing the culture, isn't it?"
The culture she is referring to is not just a small subculture. Eighteen percent of Danish commuters bike to work. Busy thoroughfares have bike lanes separated by a curb and traffic lights just for bikes. The lanes get a steady flow of cyclists -- young, old, women, white collar workers in suits -- and the story is the same in Holland and Germany.