Corey Johnson’s Report on City Control of the Subway

Yesterday, New York City Council speaker and frontrunner in the 2021 mayoral race Corey Johnson released a document outlining his plan to seek city control of the subway and buses. In addition to the governance questions involved in splitting the state-run MTA between a city-owned urban transit agency and state- or suburb-owned commuter rail, it talks about what Johnson intends to do to improve public transit, befitting a mayor in full control of subway and bus operations. There are a lot of excellent ideas there, but also some not so good ones and some that require further work or further analysis to be made good.

Governance

Johnson proposes to spin the urban parts of the MTA into a new agency, called BAT, or Big Apple Transit. The rump-MTA will remain in control of suburban operations and keep MTA Capital Construction (p. 35), and there will be a shared headquarters. Some cooperation will remain, such as contributions toward cheaper in-city commuter rail fares, but there is no call for fully integrated fares and schedules: the recommendation “all trains and buses in the city will cost the same and transfers will be free” does not appear anywhere in the document.

Johnson also proposes that the BAT board will be required to live in the city and use transit regularly. There is a serious problem today with senior managers and board members driving everywhere, and the requirement is intended to end this practice. Cynically, I might suggest that this requirement sounds reasonable in 2019 but would have been unthinkable until the 2000s and remains so in other American cities, even though it would be far more useful there and then; the off-peak frequency-ridership spiral is nowhere nearly as bad in New York as it is in Washington or Boston.

One strong suggestion in this section involves appointing a mobility czar (p. 36), in charge of the NYC Department of Transportation as well as BAT. Given the importance of the subway, this czar would be in effect the new minister of transportation for the city, appointed by the mayor.

Ultimately, this section tends toward the weaker side, because of a problem visible elsewhere in the report: all of the recommendations are based on internal analysis, with little to no knowledge of global best practices. Berlin has city-controlled transit in full fare union with Deutsche Bahn-run mainline rail, but there has been no attempt to learn how this could be implemented in New York. The only person in New York who I’ve seen display any interest in this example is Streetsblog’s David Meyer, who asked me how DB and Berlin’s BVG share revenue under the common umbrella of the Berlin Transport Association (or VBB); I did not know and although I’ve reached out to a local source with questions, I could not get the answer by his filing deadline.

Finance and costs

This is by far the weakest section in the proposal. The MTA funds itself in large part by debt; Johnson highlights the problem of mounting debt service, but his recommendations are weak. He does not tell New Yorkers the hard truth that if they can’t afford service today then they can’t afford it at debt maturity either. He talks about the need to “address debt” but refrains from offering anything that might inconvenience a taxpayer, a rider, or an employee (pp. 42-43), and offers a melange of narrow funding sources that are designed for maximum economic distortion and minimum visible inconvenience.

In fact, he calls transit fares regressive (pp. 59, 61) and complains about century-long fare increases: real fares have risen by a factor of 2.1 since 1913 – but American GDP per capita has risen by a factor of 7.7, and operating costs have mostly risen in line with incomes.

He brings up ways to reduce costs. In operations these involve negotiations with the unions; even though the report mentions that drivers get paid half-time for hours they’re not working between the morning and afternoon peaks (“swing shift,” p. 48), it does not recommend increasing off-peak service in order to provide more mobility at low marginal cost. There is no mention of two-person crews on the subway or of the low train operator efficiency compared with peer cities – New York City Transit train operators average 556 revenue hours per year, Berlin U-Bahn operators average 829.

In capital construction the recommendations are a mixed bag of good and bad, taken from a not-great RPA report from a year ago. Like the RPA, Johnson recommends using more design-build, in flagrant violation of one of the rules set by global cost reduction leader Madrid. However, to his credit, Johnson zooms in on real problems with procurement and conflict resolution, including change orders (pp. 50-51), and mentions the problem of red tape as discussed in Brian Rosenthal’s article from the end of 2017. He suggests requiring that contractors qualify to bid, which is a pretty way of saying that contractors with a history of shoddy work should be blacklisted; I have heard the qualify-to-bid suggestion from some sporadic inside sources for years, alongside complaints that New York’s current bid-to-qualify system encourages either poor work or red tape discouraging good contractors. Unfortunately, there is no talk of awarding bids based on a combination of technical score and cost, rather than just cost.

Overall the talk of cost is better than what I’ve seen from other politicians, who either say nothing or use high costs as an excuse to do nothing. But it has a long way to go before it can become a blueprint for reducing subway construction costs, especially given the other things Johnson proposes elsewhere in the document.

Accessibility

Another mixed part of the document is the chapter about accessibility for people with disabilities. Johnson recounts the lack of elevators at most subway stations and the poor state of the bus network, featuring drivers who are often hostile to people in wheelchairs. However, while his analysis is solid, his recommendations aren’t.

First of all, he says nothing of the cost of installing elevators on the subway. An MTA press release from last year states the cost of making five stations accessible as $200 million, of $40 million per station. This figure contrasts with that of Madrid, where a non-transfer station costs about 5 million to equip with elevators, and a transfer station costs about 5 million per line served (source, PDF-pp. 11-12). In Berlin, which is not a cheap city for subway construction, the figure is even lower: about 2 million per line served, with a single elevator costing just 800,000.

And second, his proposal for finding money for station accessibility involves using the zoning code, forcing developers to pay for such upgrades. While this works in neighborhoods with ample redevelopment, not all city neighborhoods are desirable for developers right now, and there, money will have to come from elsewhere. For a document that stresses the importance of equality in planning, its proposals for how to scrounge funds can be remarkably inequitable.

That said, in a later section, Johnson does call for installing bus shelters (p. 74). A paper referenced in a TransitCenter report he references, by Yingling Fan, Andrew Guthrie, and David Levinson, finds that the presence of shelter, a bench, and real-time arrival information has a large effect on passengers’ perceived wait times: in the absence of all three amenities, passengers perceive wait time as 2-2.5 times as long as it actually is, rising to a factor of almost 3 for 10-minute waits among women in unsafe areas, but in the presence of all three, the factor drops to around 1.3, and only 1.6 for long waits for women in unsafe areas. Unfortunately, as this aspect is discussed in the bus improvement section, there is no discussion of the positive effect shelter has on people with disabilities that do not require the use of a wheelchair, such as chronic pain conditions.

I do appreciate that the speaker highlights the importance of accessibility and driver training – drivers often don’t even know how to operate a wheelchair lift (p. 63). But the solutions need to involve more than trying to find developers with enough of a profit margin to extract for elevators. Bus stops need shelter, benches, and ideally raised curbs, like the median Berlin tramway stations. And subway stations need elevators, and they need them at acceptable cost.

Bus improvements

By far this is the strongest part of the report. Johnson notes that bus ridership is falling, and recommends SBS as a low-cost solution. He does not stop at just making a skeletal light rail-like map of bus routes to be upgraded, unlike the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations: he proposes sweeping citywide improvements. The call for bus shelter appears in this section as well.

But the speaker goes beyond calling for bus shelters. He wants to accelerate the installation of bus lanes to at least 48 km (i.e. 30 miles) every year, with camera enforcement and physically-separated median lanes. The effect of such a program would be substantial. As far as I can tell, with large error bars caused by large ranges of elasticity estimates in the literature, the benefits in Eric Goldwyn’s and my bus redesign break down as 30% stop consolidation (less than its 60% share of bus speedup since it does involve making people walk longer), 30% bus lanes, 30% network redesign, 10% off-board fare collection.

There is no mention of stop consolidation in the paper, but there is mention of route redesign, which Johnson wishes to implement in full by 2025. The MTA is in support of the redesign process, and allowing for integrated planning between NYCDOT and the MTA would improve the mutual support between bus schedules and the physical shape of the city’s major streets.

Moreover, the report calls for transit signal priority, installed at the rate of at least 1,000 intersections per year. This is very aggressive: even at the average block spacing along avenues, about 80 meters, this is 80 kilometers per year, and at that of streets, it rises to 200+ km. Within a few years, every intersection in the city would get TSP. The effects would be substantial, and the only reason Eric’s and my proposal does not list them is that they are hard to quantify. In fact, this may be the first time an entire grid would be equipped with TSP; some research may be required to decide how to prioritize bus/bus conflicts at major junctions, based on transportation research as well as control theory, since conditional TSP is the only way to truly eliminate bus bunching.

Reinforcing the point about dedicated lanes, the study calls for clawing back the space given to private parking and delivery. It explicitly calls for setting up truck routes and delivery zones in a later section (pp. 86-87); right now, the biggest complaint about bus lanes comes from loss of parking and the establishment of delivery zones in lieu of letting trucks stop anywhere on a block, and it is reassuring to see Johnson commit to prioritizing public transit users.

Livable streets

This is another strong section, proposing pedestrian plazas all over the city, an expansion of bike lanes to the tune of 80 km (50 miles) a year with an eye toward creating a connected citywide bike lane network, and more bike share.

If I have any criticism here, it’s that it isn’t really about city control of the MTA. The bus improvements section has the obvious tie-in to the fact that the buses are run by the MTA, and getting the MTA and NYCDOT on the same page would be useful. With bikes, I don’t quite understand the connection, beyond the fact that both are transportation.

That said, the actual targets seem solid. Disconnected bike lane networks are not really useful. I would never bike on the current network in New York; I do not have a death wish. I wasn’t even willing to bike in Paris. Berlin is looking more enticing, and if I moved to Amsterdam I might well get a bike.

Conclusion

The sections regarding costs require a lot of work. Overall, I get the impression that Johnson based his recommendations on what he’s seen in the local press, so the suggestions are internal to the city or occasionally domestic; the only international comparisons come from the RPA report or from Eric’s and my invocation of Barcelona’s bus redesign. This works for such questions as how to apportion the MTA’s debt service or how to redesign the bus network, but not so much for questions involving subway capital construction.

New York has a large number of fluent Spanish speakers. It should have no problem learning what Spanish engineers know about construction costs, and the same is true for other communities that are well-represented in the cities, such as Korean-, Russian-, Chinese-, Brazilian-, and Polish-New Yorkers. Moreover, in most big cities that don’t send large communities to New York, such as those of Northern Europe, planners speak English. Johnson should not shy from using the expertise of people outside New York, ideally outside the United States, to get subway construction costs under control.

The speaker’s plan is still a very good first step. The proposed surface improvements to buses, bikes, and street allocation are all solid, and should be the city’s consensus for how to move forward. What’s needed is something to tie all of this together with a plan to move forward for what remains the city’s most important transportation network: the subway.

24 comments

  1. Dan

    It seems like that most bus lines in the US have their operating costs subsidized; is this normal in Europe. And is there a way for New York to make there lines profitable? When I have been in New York I have never taken the bus; too slow and way too much traffic. I wish that they made more lines across the city road-separated to increase speed and reliability.

    • The Economist

      There is no way to have a profitable publicly owned bus network in the US. Due to politics, if a network turned profit, the politicians will push for service expansion or fare reductions until the network does not make profit any more. I am not sure if profit by a publicly owned entity is tolerated anywhere in Europe or Asia, but fare reductions and unjustified service expansions are the typical way politicians in the US “buy” votes when it comes to transportation.

    • Oreg

      The purpose of public infrastructure is not to make a profit but to provide a public good, either because its positive externalities cannot be internalized (therefore not profitable) or because it is a natural monopoly (no competition prevents the operator from extracting monopoly rents). Both criteria apply to most public transit.

  2. Benjamin Turon

    Good post. One problem with Spain is its bad mage in America (Estados Unidos de America) — it is often thrown about (and very rarely challenged — but Paul Krugman in the NY Times as done so) in the media and by politicians that Spain is “bankrupt” and very “wasteful” with their infrastructure spending. The primary example is their HSR system but unused airports and lightly traveled highways are other cited examples. I even heard in a CGTV interview Rod Diridon Sr.state that: “When countries like Spain which is going into bankruptcy, and Morocco and Turkey, and so on can afford high-speed rail, we can afford it. It’s a matter of doing it.”

    California high-speed rail project sidelined by economics, politics
    https://america.cgtn.com/2019/03/01/california-high-speed-rail-project-sidelined-by-economics-politics?fbclid=IwAR2hYyDHCiPySqdVo22XH_2h_sMaVClc8z8M4wF-lvD5RPZ6A8YEdC-Gc6M

    Of course just because Americans believe something — doesn’t make it true!

    • Michael James

      Spain had quite healthy public finances until the GFC, which of course was caused by the US meltdown due to the ridiculous mortgage-backed CDO collapse. Spain suffered from a similar thing, ie. too loose mortgage lending by their banks which had borrowed from bigger banks in the EU, mostly German, French & British. To save the Spanish banks, the tripartite cabal of IMF, ECB and Merkel/Schaubel insisted that the Spanish state take the private debt and make it public debt–ie. government bond debt to pay off the private bank debt–which in turn meant the losses by those German etc banks was minimised (the same happened to Greece and Ireland; only the Iceland government told the foreign banks to suffer the consequences of their irresponsible reckless private lending, which forced the Brits to bail out their own banks; as a result Iceland was the first to emerge from the GFC meltdown). Like in Iceland, this should never have been allowed as it was a giant bit of institutional blackmail by the international finance cabal. Thus almost instantly Spain’s public debt went from reasonable 40% to almost 100% of GDP –note, this was essentially the same as the UK and USA, and close to the OECD average. In fact if Trump’s tax cuts and spending increases are left in place the US’s debt will be approaching 110% soon (this year) and ineluctably increasing to Italian levels while Spain’s is trending down (calculated to be 85% by the end of next year).
      Oh, and it wasn’t building HSR that caused their debt problems. The Madrid-Seville HSR was opened in 1992 for the Seville World Expo.

      • Matthew Hutton

        Spain has built a *lot* of high speed lines. Some of the others might be dubious.

          • Michael James

            Wiki:

            It was forecast that the AVE would substantially replace air traffic on the Barcelona – Madrid route (in the same way that the Eurostar has on the London-Paris/London-Brussels routes and France’s TGV has on the Paris-Lyon route). Indeed, by the end of 2017, the line had already taken 63% of the traffic, stealing most of it from aircraft. A few years before the Madrid-Barcelona route was the world’s busiest passenger air route in 2007 with 971 scheduled flights per week (both directions).[5] Similarly more than 80% of travellers between Madrid and Seville use the AVE, with fewer than 20% travelling by air.

  3. Chas S

    If political problems prevent the city from ever re-taking control of the subway, do you think it would be useful for the city to, say, just take over the bus network, even if it meant giving up all state operating subsidies?

    • Alon Levy

      Not really? That said, while the route redesign is the purview of the MTA under today’s governance, the city can still go ahead and build median bus lanes and install shelter at every stop. This kind of NYCDOT-NYCT integration is easier with city control of the subway but city control is not strictly necessary.

  4. Stephen Smith

    There is no mention of two-person crews on the subway…

    It is mentioned, albeit obliquely (and of course some lines already have CBTC, which anyway is not needed for OPTO): “For example, while the need for multiple employees on trains will decrease as signal systems are upgraded, the subway’s customer service experience could be improved by assigning employees to each station to assist passengers…”

    While this works in neighborhoods with ample redevelopment, not all city neighborhoods are desirable for developers right now…

    You’re right on the conclusion, but wrong about the reason. There is basically nowhere in NYC – certainly nowhere near a subway station – where new development doesn’t pencil out if the zoning is there. Rents justify market-rate construction even in the cheapest neighborhoods – outer East New York, Far Rockaway, the north-central Bronx. However, there are many neighborhoods that won’t accept development, even where it is financially viable, thus yielding no money for elevators. And in weak markets, the additional land value generated from upzoning is probably not enough to pay for elevators at current costs.

  5. Ross Bleakney

    Good point about looking at other places of the world. That seems like just the thing that a good New York politician could leverage. New York City is the least provincial city in the U. S. Not only is it good policy to get people from around the world to help you improve things, it should be good politics.

    I also think that focusing on the bus system allows you to get some wins. Let’s face it, the subway system is a mess, and will require huge amounts of money to fix. Any big change will likely involve lots of federal spending (as well it should — as long as the money isn’t wasted). But the bus system can be improved very quickly, and make a big difference in the lives of millions. It could also change the way that many in the city view transit. I’ve met plenty of New Yorkers who focus only on the subway — if you can’t get there via the train, then you might as well call a cab. But if the buses are faster, have better routing, and run frequently, that could easily change the way people view buses.

      • Sandeep Kolmatar

        On the contrary, wenches and blokes. NYC is the MOST provinvial place in the USA. NYC is the last to allow jsut about everything, from Discover Cards to AirBnB and Uber. EVerything is backwards and doesn’t work. That is why they have hundred year old subway relays.

  6. Herbert

    Have you had time yet to look into Berlin public transit issues in any detail?

    Bus bunching is a problem so common the Facebook site of the BVG makes frequent jokes about it. There’s also a shortage of rolling stock caused by earlier austerity. And recently the city government published a new mid term plan for public transit.

    Oh and I know you’re skeptical of trains to the airport, but what is your opinion on U7 to BER?

  7. Oreg

    The German term for revenue share appears to be “Einnahmeaufteilung”: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Einnahmeaufteilung
    Here’s a German news article with a summary of the Berlin situation in 2010: https://www.bayerische-staatszeitung.de/staatszeitung/kommunales/detailansicht-kommunales/artikel/zoff-um-die-einnahmen.html
    “The distribution is based on passenger counts, measured every three years, and passenger-kilometers traveled. The extrapolated passenger volume and passenger-kilometers are weighted differently for different ticket pools. In Berlin proper the passenger-kilometers account for 55%. In the commuter belt their share is 90%, the passengers count for only 10%.”

  8. Herbert

    Do you perceive effects of the new “mobility law” in Berlin already? It was introduced by a pressure group as a ballot measure for a “bike law” but has grown in scope since..

    • Alon Levy

      It’s hard for me to notice this. I don’t cycle, so I can only see what’s being done on the street, and so far the only notable thing is tramway reconstruction on Bernauerstrasse. The law passed days after I moved here, so it’s not like I have a baseline for pre-Mobility Act Berlin.

  9. Pingback: How Ambitious is Mayor de Blasio’s Bus Plan? | Pedestrian Observations
  10. Edzo

    Most of these comments seem to avoid the obvious true nature of Mr. Johnson’s ploy: a real-estate land grab.
    Think about it: what is the largest “land” deal in NYC’s history? Hudson Yards. Not a “land” grab at all, but rather an “air” grab of the air rights above a train yard. What does the MTA control? Train yards. Dozens of them, totalling thousands of acres.
    Mr. Johnson isn’t interested in improving the plight of working New Yorkers, he’s interested in brokering the largest real estate development deal in New York City’s history.

    • Alon Levy

      Air rights over (say) Inwood or Corona are basically worthless. The only remaining railyard in New York that may have real estate value is Sunnyside, and that’s owned by Amtrak.

      • adirondacker12800

        If you want to send 30 trains an hour in each direction along Northern Blvd the Corona Yards have value as more train yard. Sunnyside doesn’t begin to look good until all the parking lots lining Northern Blvd. have been redeveloped which means “never” or “very unlikely”. And they don’t look very good until there are 20 or 30 trains an hour on Northern Blvd because there is no capacity on the existing trains.

        • Alon Levy

          In theory you can develop even above expanded yards. In practice, the construction cost of buildings on top of railyards is like twice what it is over firma, and nobody wants to spend that kind of money in Corona.

          And the local trains on QB have tons of capacity. The express trains don’t, but they serve Jackson Heights, Forest Hills, and points east, not Sunnyside.

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