THE COMMUTE: Have things really changed that much since I went to school? The way it used to be was, you first identified a problem. Then you did a study to gather data, which included soliciting opinions from those affected. You looked at the past, at what was and what was not tried. You developed some alternative theories. Using the data collected and studying the advantages and disadvantages of each through a cost benefit analysis, you eventually identified the best short- and long-term solutions. Then you investigated ways of getting the funding needed to implement those solutions. That made sense to me.
The process today is more like the following: Identify available federal money since you will not get anything from the city or state. Try to grab that funding before another city beats you to it. Quickly decide where you can use that funding even if it makes little or no sense. Announce that the project is proceeding. Hold some meetings to give the illusion of public input, although you already know what your plan is. Implement the program. Collect and make public only data that shows your program is a success. Take the appropriate political credit. Result: Problem not solved.
Last week, I wrote about Vision Zero. One of the first major steps in this crusade is to lower speed limits on Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue — a major arterial and the only truck route in the area — from 30 MPH to 25 MPH. Other arterials (probably Ocean Parkway) will soon follow. Speed has been declared the villain. Let’s look at DOT’s own statistics to see how serious a problem speed really is, as it relates to pedestrian accidents.
As Table 1-4 on Page 25 of DOT’s Technical Supplement of the New York City Pedestrian Safety Study & Action Plan shows: Driver Inattention is the major factor for crashes where pedestrians were killed or severely injured (36 percent); followed by Pedestrian Error/Confusion (21.5 percent); then failure to yield the right of way (20.6 percent) finally followed by Unsafe Speed (8.3 percent). Yet, DOT is targeting excessive speed when nowhere has it been shown that 30 MPH for a major arterial road is too fast or unsafe. (On page 26 of the main report, speed is combined with other factors to hide that the number is only eight percent).
The DOT first made the decision that speeds have to be lowered. Since they cannot lower the city speed limit on their own, they decided to pick the arterial with the greatest number of pedestrian fatalities in Brooklyn, which happened to be Atlantic Avenue, with 10 between 2008 and 2012. That is an average of two deaths per year. Now, tens of thousands have to be inconvenienced, with greatly lengthened trip times, resulting in a negative effect to the economy, because a problem has been identified as major when it only is responsible eight percent of the time. Most likely the several unfortunate fatalities had nothing to do with speed as a factor.
The Federal Funds Problem
This is what happens when we identify solutions independent from the analysis. Trying to get access to as much federal money as possible also leads to poor decisions. A public bathroom in Brighton Beach was demolished two weeks after Superstorm Sandy, before any outsider could assess the damage to determine if in fact the facility was beyond repair. A quick demolition ensured that federal money could be obtained to build a new one, although the repairs needed may have been minor but would have incurred city funds. Poorly thought out federal requirements had to be met, which led to widespread protest and no bathrooms at all, for at least one season and possibly two.
When I was in Florida earlier this winter, I noticed that the shoulder of a major arterial road was doubling as a bicycle lane without any physical barrier. This seemed dangerous, with the vehicular speed limit being 50 MPH. No one was crazy enough to use the bike lane when right alongside was a heavily-used, protected, off-street bicycle roadway. My cousin surmised that there probably was federal money available to designate the shoulder as a bike route. There is no other logic. So this community deprives another more deserving one from federal funds because they were able to write a successful grant application for something they did not need just to get the funds and give the illusion that transportation was improved.
Select Bus Service
Select Bus Service (SBS) is no different. It is all the rage because federal funds are available for it. Cities had to be quick to identify potential corridors and submit their applications. Is it the best way to solve a particular problem? We do not know because no one is looking at alternatives to try to find the best short and long term solutions. SBS was the predetermined solution just like DOT independently made the decision to lower speeds. Extending subways and utilizing existing right-of-ways have automatically been removed from the equation.
In Queens, SBS along Woodhaven Boulevard was decided as the solution to better connect northern and southern Queens by saving bus riders a mere 10 or 15 minutes of what is now a 90-minute or two-hour trip. The possibility of reactivating a parallel right-of-way a half mile to the east for SBS or rail, which could cut trip times in half, was not included as part of the study. SBS is being pushed through by holding public meetings at times that conflict with other transportation meetings to limit attendance. This is no way to plan.
Let’s Look At The Facts
The population is increasing, with more jobs moving away from Manhattan. The transit system, by and large, is remaining stagnant. No rapid transit lines are being built other than three new stations in Manhattan. Bus routes that should have been modified 60 years ago remain unchanged. Crowding is getting worse. No new highways are being built and little attention is being given to removing traffic bottlenecks. Bus service is not becoming more reliable. SBS will only be a slight help for a few, and in some cases an inconvenience more than it will help. No one is looking at the negatives, only the positives.
If speed limits are lowered, SBS will not make buses any faster in some cases, but will only result in more summonses and more traffic congestion. Bus routes will just get more inefficient as land use changes and population shifts between neighborhoods continue if routes remain stagnant. Buses will only become more frequent and reliable if the MTA wants to invest more in operating the system, which, thus far, they have been unwilling to do, implementing new services at 30 minute headways.
We need objective, comprehensive and fair studies comparing the advantages and disadvantages of each option — not piecemeal political solutions that do not address real problems, or draw our conclusions beforehand independent from what the data show, like we are doing now. The only way our transportation system will improve is when our elected officials realize how important an efficient and effective transportation system is to our city’s economic health and future development, and demand proper funding.
The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).
Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.