New York City’s population is at an all-time high of 8.55 million, up 375,000 since 2010, according to recent Census estimates. The city’s Manhattan-centric job market is on fire, adding nearly 200,000 jobs in the last two years. Due to zoning limits on residential floor area in Manhattan, however, most of the net population growth has taken place in the outer boroughs. Unfortunately, the choke points on the subways are bottlenecking Manhattan-bound commuters, even as only slow local buses cover substantial chunks of the outer boroughs. Improving our Select Bus Service network would take pressure off the subways and ease land-use restrictions to allow job-housing balance where it’s in demand, thereby allowing growth around transportation constraints in the meantime.
The combined transit network enables a density, diversity and richness of economic and social activity that would choke a car-oriented region. On a superficial geographic level, transit seems slower than highway travel: It’s an hour and a half subway ride along the 30-something miles of the 5 train from 233rd Street in the Bronx, through Manhattan, to Avenue H in Brooklyn. But during that single ride, you pass within walking distance of more people to connect with and more jobs to do – indeed, more life, culture and civilizational fabric than exists in many states and nearly every U.S. city. Now that’s mobility!
Yet this vast old system is filling up quickly. Admittedly, Manhattan could and should allow more residential floor area in Midtown, where more people would live within walking distance of work. Alas, Manhattan’s City Council members have decided through the zoning process to restrict anything more than a slow trickle of luxury towers. Manhattan also still has the vast majority of the office space and office demand. Most outer-borough workers must therefore commute into Manhattan.
It need not be this way for all growth: Demand exists for office space on the North Williamsburg waterfront, as one example. An “enhanced business area” zoning proposal by the Department of City Planning, designed to protect politically untouchable manufacturing space while legalizing offices on top, was recently deferred by the City Planning Commission after a non-binding rejection by the Community Board. It’s a shame, because anyone exiting the L train at Bedford makes room for Manhattan-bound commuters. Furthermore, the off-peak direction L trains have lots of space for reverse commuters from Manhattan. And legalizing job growth in Williamsburg would enable thousands more residents to walk to work, much as those in the Upper East Side and Turtle Bay do.
Indeed, Census data shows some 40 percent of commuters near East Midtown walk or bike to work. In Williamsburg/Greenpoint, only 14 percent did so. Mixed-use neighborhoods will still have many or mostly transit commuters, of course – office demand depends on access to the regional labor market. Nonetheless, by “decriminalizing” mixed-use growth where rents and vacancy rates already portend pent-up demand for additional floor area, the outer boroughs can strive closer to Manhattan-like levels of convenient walking and biking. Why shouldn’t the outer boroughs have the same option of a convenient commute on foot or bike where there’s demand for it?
In addition to land use liberalization, we should accelerate Select Bus Service deployment and aim for gold standard, rail-like levels of service. The watering down of existing SBS is mystifying: True Bus Rapid Transit, with camera-enforced offset lanes and Transit Signal Priority, implemented consistently, delivers the capacity of light rail at lower cost and higher arrival frequency. Imagine if drivers were advocating sharing the train lanes on the Williamsburg Bridge, slowing trains to allow more cars while reducing the combined throughput of the lane; it would be absurd. Continuing to allow car traffic to slow the most heavily used bus routes is just as absurd. Low-occupancy vehicles should not run through scarce public space that could be so much more productive as a proper rapid-transit route.
In sum, residents of the outer boroughs deserve the service frequency and convenience of transit that Manhattanites enjoy, along with opportunities to walk and bike where office demand allows it. Outer-borough job growth should no longer be unlawful, with pent-up demand seeking outlets as deep as the Morgan stop in East Williamsburg. Select Bus Service, which is built by the city’s Department of Transportation instead of the state-controlled MTA, is affordable enough to be realistic borough-wide. We can’t wait decades for projects like the three-station-long 2nd Avenue Subway stub line, delivered at the MTA’s mysterious costs per mile far in excess of peer projects like Crossrail in London and the RER in Paris. On the zoning side, easing restrictions on growth of mixed neighborhoods will be a tax revenue generator, perhaps enabling the finance of affordable SBS improvements.
Together these solutions can accommodate demand for our city comfortably and maintain New York City’s position as a national hub of social, cultural, and economic opportunity.
This piece originally appeared on City & State’s NY Slant