Cities in Focus: New York City

Last week, EMBARQ (the producer of this blog) premiered the latest video in its documentary series, “Cities in Focus: New York City,” a five-minute film that showcases New York City’s recent innovations and successes in developing sustainable transportation options for cyclists, pedestrians and transit riders.  EMBARQ’s Ethan Arpi facilitated a discussion with local transport experts from New York City and Washington, D.C. They shared ideas for how New York’s best practices in bicycle infrastructure, pedestrian plazas and bus rapid transit could be applied to other cities, such as Washington, D.C., which has recently established a Circulator bus system, added new bike lanes, and built support for a new streetcar initiative.

Ethan Arpi, Gabe Klein, Jon Orcutt and David Alpert discuss sustainable transportation best practices. Photo by Aaron Minnick.

Ethan Arpi, Gabe Klein, Jon Orcutt and David Alpert discuss sustainable transportation best practices. Photo by Aaron Minnick.

The panel members included:

David Alpert, founder of Greater Greater Washington. His blog focuses on improving the vitality of Washington, D.C. and walkable cities and neighborhoods in the metropolitan area.

Gabe Klein, the director of the District Department of Transportation and a long-time District resident. Klein moved from the private sector to work with former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty. During his tenure, Klein has been focused on “next generation transportation alternatives” like D.C’s Capital Bikeshare system. He is also known for improving the transparency and communications strategy of DDOT.

Jon Orcutt, senior policy adviser for the New York City Department of Transportation. He has been working on transportation policy in New York area for nearly 20 years. He was Executive Director of the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives and Executive Director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

Here are some of the main points and topics from Thursday night’s discussion, held at the World Resources Institute:

What is the role of public policy in transportation planning?

Orcutt said New York City’s focus has generally been on mass transit. The policies that came before PlaNYC, the mayor’s sustainability plan, were not explicit. “Public policy underlies everything,” he said, adding that PlaNYC provides a vision for the city.

Alpert noted that when he lived in New York a few years ago, the pedestrian environment was unpleasant above 48th Street. He said the city has quickly taken action to improve safety and mobility, which is impressive given that New York is one of the biggest cities in the country.

How can everyone participate in the dialogue?

Alpert said bloggers are advocates who inform and energize the public to support government policy.  Government officials, bloggers, advocacy groups and the media can all work together to inform one another. One such an example occurred in D.C. when Greater Greater Washington mobilized its readers to respond to a decision by Council Chairman Vincent Gray (who won the mayoral democratic primaries) to cut funding from the city’s streetcar project.  GGW blogged and tweeted about the issue the next day, along with other bloggers, which, according to Alpert, “set off a firestorm.” The public’s reaction was a culmination of energy and excitement about the streetcar project, brewing for months before the funding cuts were actually made, Alpert said. Funding was eventually restored in response to community support of the project.

How do you build support on a political level?

“The streetcar used to be a four-letter word,” Klein said, giving an example of a project with little political buy-in. To address this problem, DDOT started promoting its two-year vision — or “Action Agenda” — within the agency (staffed by nearly 1,000 people) to articulate its transportation plans, policies and values. Once that vision was formalized and accepted within DDOT, the agency started talking to other government officials, business leaders and advocacy groups about changes they wanted to see.

Orcutt brought the discussion to his experience in NYC, stating that the common ingredient is leadership: “You can create room for people within your administration to bring the good ideas in…There’s a lot of stuff in DOT that was sitting on the shelves and it was just a matter of leadership bringing it to the forefront.”

What is the status of bikeshare programs in New York and Washington?

The panelists discussed D.C’s newly launched Capital Bikeshare program, including 1,100 bikes across 114 stations manufactured by BIXI, the company responsible for bikesharing systems in Montreal and London. Klein said D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty was very supportive of the technology.  Klein stressed that it’s important to do something correctly on a small scale before scaling up. Capital Bikeshare is successful because it is a modular system that can adapt to changing needs, it is linked to Web and mobile technology, and it connects to other transport modes, Klein said. Bikes are available near metro stations, large employers and bus stops. Capital Bikeshare is also cheap, at $50 per year, which speaks to the impact of changing people’s travel behavior through competitive pricing.

Alpert mentioned that it’s important that D.C. is working with Arlington, Va. to expand the bikesharing network to areas beyond city limits, making Capital Bikeshare the first regional program of its kind.

Orcutt says New York is planning a bikeshare project but is not yet sure of the scale of its program. London just started a similar system, and, according to Orcutt, the bikes are not distributing well because of the flow of people. New York is examining this issue closely. (We recently wrote about London’s bikeshare program, as well as efforts to monitor the distribution of bikes at different stations.)

Are there opportunities to develop pedestrian-only zones in D.C., such as New York’s Times Square?

“You don’t necessarily need to pedestrianize a city to make it good for walkers,” Alpert  said, “though in Times Square, that makes sense.” He suggested places that would benefit from pedestrianization in D.C. including 7th Street, where there are a lot of walkers compared to cars, and Dupont Circle, which Alpert said is terrible in terms of usage for bikes, cars and pedestrians. “I don’t know the answer but we should think how to make this work better for everybody,” he said.

Alpert also suggested opportunities to pedestrianize Rock Creek Parkway and Independence Avenue, which run adjacent to land controlled by the National Park Service (NPS), a federal agency that has generally been unresponsive to sustainable design, according to Alpert. For example, NPS has not supported Capital Bikeshare stations on its property.

What about Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)?

Orcutt says New York is working on a BRT project because the lead time for subway construction is long and the expense is huge. “There’s a need  to get something on the street fast and to benefit people,” he said.  New York is, however, working on its subway system with plans for a 1st and 2nd Avenue subway extension.

The city is making improvements in its BRT system by enforcing laws on specific avenues to keep drivers out of bus-only lanes through camera surveillance.  And in the Bronx, on the new express  Bx12 line, riders pay before getting on the bus (shortening boarding speeds and better connecting them to other bus lines and subway stops.) Orcutt did mention that dedicated bus lanes for all of Manhattan would be difficult given its road patterns.

How do you keep momentum going under a new administration?

Orcutt says its about documenting what an agency is doing and stating its goals clearly. At NYCDOT they develop blueprints and standard operating procedures that can be carried through administrations.

Alpert thinks “the more we can build a movement that involves large numbers of people advocating for policies, the more it will matter less who is at the top.”

DDOT has become more transparent and is focusing on social marketing, media and advertising. Klein thinks if the agency works more like a company, more people will be involved in the planning process, which will sustain efforts across different administrations.

What is the role of public involvement in sustainable transport policy?

Klein said that public involvement is important for building support, but at the same time, the public may not know what’s best for the city in all cases and should leave some decisions to the experts. Klein says his agency focuses on pilot projects, such as pay-by-phone parking, because they allow for mistakes and for the government to spend minimal money while gathering input from residents, as opposed to developing a large-scale project from the outset.

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