Monday 23 May 2016

A cancelled bike lane, a crowded F Train - and why New York planning has to start muting the noisy

A few times recently, while cycling in Queens I’ve taken routes that carried me across Queens Boulevard – once known as the “Boulevard of Death,” for its dreadful safety record – and seen some of its smart new bike lanes. But I’ve never actually used them, for a simple reason. While Queens Boulevard goes to some useful places, the current, 1.3-mile stretch of bike lane doesn’t link up to anywhere I want to go.
A sign points towards the Queens Boulevard bike lanes -
or, as Community Board 4 would have preferred,
the bike path to practically nowhere.

If Queens’ Community Board 4 had had its way, that arrangement would have continued. In a vote on May 10, members of the board – a strange, officially-sponsored but still only advisory and unelected local planning committee – voted to approve safety improvements for their stretch of the boulevard, the 1.2 miles immediately east of the existing bike lanes. But they voted to remove the bike lanes from the project (cyclists’ safety should be an “afterthought”, one member said). The step prompted bafflement and outrage because it threatened not only the stretch of the road in Community Board 4 but the whole effort to turn the Boulevard of Death into a less forbidding space.

Yet the story of CB 4’s bike lanes stands out in New York City’s transport planning only because of how the story ends. The decision was so obviously contrary to the public interest – and so procedurally flawed - that Bill de Blasio, the mayor, unusually found the courage to overturn the board’s recommendation the next day. He instead ordered the Department of Transportation to continue developing the improvements with the bike lanes intact. Plenty of other changes that would improve the city as a whole get blocked because a noisy handful of people on a community board or  other  group object loudly enough that the greater good doesn’t prevail. Two other bike lane projects have fallen foul of such objections just this month.
"What do you mean the city's transport is poorly planned?
"Oh, I see."
The question is whether it’s a bug or a feature of New York’s democracy – and that of many other places around the world – that relatively small, vocal groups can either bring to life or kill projects in a way that damages the wider society. It’s the kind of argument familiar to anyone who’s spent time in India, where desperately-needed infrastructure projects are often held up by scores of pettifogging obstructions. Officials when challenged on this – and the stark contrast with China’s greater effectiveness at getting things done – tend to hold up their hands in defeat and say, “But we’re a democracy”.

True democracy, I think, should be more sophisticated than the crude system often practised in New York, where the noisy enjoy disproportionate influence over the apparent will of the less vocal majority. The current system unsurprisingly suits many of those who have grown up with it, however. After the mayor’s overturning of the CB4 decisions, Melinda Katz, the Queens borough president, put herself firmly in the democracy-is-the-right-to-block camp.

“Any action to install bike lanes along this stretch at this time, regardless of merit, would… understandably be perceived as an imposition by the administration, running directly counter to and overriding the Community Board’s explicitly-stated wishes,” Ms Katz said in a statement.

The bizarre case of F Train express subway service in Brooklyn highlights how illogical the effects of this kind of democracy can be.
A F Train leaves Smith-9th St after stopping: David Greenfield
dreams of the coming day when it'll zip past, whisking
his constituents home faster

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state organisation that runs the subway, has been pressured into considering reintroduction of an express F subway service in Brooklyn – skipping all but a handful of stations in the inner parts of the borough – by a campaign by David Greenfield, a member of New York City council representing outer parts of the borough such as Bensonhurst and Borough Park. The idea has generally been regarded as a non-starter for practical reasons. Because capacity in Manhattan is restricted, any introduction of express trains would mean fewer local trains. Since the stations that have only local track platforms – including Smith-9th St, by my apartment - are mostly busier than those with express platforms, an express service would delay more people than it helped and increase overcrowding.

The MTA has nevertheless caved to David Greenfield’s campaign. On May 17, the subway operator announced its decision to restart service in 2017 alongside publication of a feasibility study that, to the casual reader, seemed stuffed with evidence that that was a terrible idea. While express service users would on average get a journey 3.4 minutes shorter, the study said, local train riders would be suffer an average 1.3 minute delay standing gazing at the new express service zipping by. Since there are more users of the local train stations and some could suffer serious overcrowding, it is hard to resist the conclusion that the new service is a retrograde step being taken solely for political reasons.
A sign apologises that some F Trains
are passing stations without stopping -
but today's service disruption could be
next year's service "enhancement"
In both the F Express and Queens Boulevard cases, small, geographically distinct groups have advocated for their needs to dictate how the whole of a particular bit of road or subway track is used. The Bensonhurst would-be express train riders will produce negative knock-on effects all along the line. Similarly, community board members who express horror about potential bike lanes’ effects on “their” parking spaces affect road users all along the corridor.

The current approach virtually ensures the city’s infrastructure works less efficiently, less safely and less fairly than it ideally would do. To become better-functioning, more effective democracies, New York and other big cities need the ability to plan carefully and to push through elements of the plan that will benefit the whole city even if small, vocal groups protest. There is a strong case for introducing a far more comprehensive process of strategic planning for the city to try to cut down on the number of wasteful subway services started and stranded, isolated bike lanes.

Change is particularly urgent because many of the problems facing the city require solutions to problems that affect nearly everyone a little but that a few noisy interest groups oppose. There can be little doubt, for example, that the congestion-charging system proposed under the Move New York plan would be at least as successful as London’s equivalent. But no noisy interest group is as interested in solving the problem as a handful of motorists are in continuing to drive free into Manhattan.

The city’s housing crisis drives up nearly everyone’s rent. But the interests of people who don’t want a new apartment tower next to their brownstone help to ensure it goes unaddressed. It’s no coincidence that road safety – which few people regard as a big problem for them personally – has suffered under the current arrangements. Few people recognise how grave a threat dangerous streets pose to them, while a handful of passionate people are determined to defend their access to free parking from safety improvements.
A CB4 member called cyclists "missiles on wheels".
Here, some refuel.
The lack of a strong planning function reflects deliberate choices, rather than mere happenstance. Robert Moses, the bureaucrat who shaped modern, car-dominated New York, carefully demolished efforts to introduce systematic planning in the years between the first and second world wars. Robert Caro’s The Power Broker details how that gave Moses free rein for decades to build in the city more or less whatever  he chose – and to avoid building things he disliked, like new subway lines.

David Greenfield and other loud-mouthed politicians currently operate in that Moses gap, as do community boards. If the city had a comprehensive planning function that measured the city’s needs as a whole, it would probably provide a strong counterbalance to politicians’ efforts to push plans that sacrifice the city’s needs to those of their constituents. If the city had a strong planning function, it would take into account legitimate concerns from people like CB4. But it would surely not stand for the present approach to building bike lanes, where it’s a battle to build each short stretch and the differences between community boards manifest themselves in bike lanes that are high quality for 20 blocks or so before disappearing for the next 20.
A picture of Clinton Avenue makes it clear just how
damaging it could have been to make it one-way
and install a two-way bike lane.
The effects of the failure to act are everywhere. On Saturday, I hauled my son on his trailer bike from our home to the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria. Our route to the Flushing Avenue bike lanes was less safe than if the city had already built the proposed two-way bike lane on Clinton Avenue in Wallabout that was scrapped last week because of residents’ objections. We saw signs to the Queens Boulevard bike lanes. On Sunday, a fellow parishioner at my church talked in really panicky terms about the effects of rent increases. Because I’m going on a trip this week, I used the F Train to get to work this morning, boarding at Carroll St, one of the stations whose users will suffer if the poorly conceived express plan is carried out.

Yet the system’s attractions for politicians and powerful interest groups are obvious. Even in London – a city that’s generally, I think, better governed than New YorkBoris Johnson on becoming mayor removed the west London extension of the congestion charging zone. There are persistent rumours that Sadiq Khan, who’s just been elected to replace him, will harm well-thought-out plans to develop a network of protected bike lanes by scrapping some future parts of the programme.

Passengers board an already-crowded F Train at Carroll St:
let's hope the right lessons are learnt when this gets
far worse next year.
In New York, the current arrangements sometimes suit even politicians who disapprove of the system’s outcomes. Mayor de Blasio was able to win far easier, more immediate praise from safe streets activists for overturning the Queens Boulevard decision than if he’d had to work to make sure there was a more rational system in place at the start. Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor, may one day heroically intervene to cancel the F Express plans - with even more fanfare than he deployed in the first place to announce them.

There remains, nevertheless, the possibility that, as the poor decisions mount up, the public will start to demand serious reform. While I hope that there are no deaths or injuries on Clinton Avenue, if any occur advocates should point out noisy special interests’ responsibility for them. The people with whom I shared the F Train this morning may also prove a powerful constituency in future. The train at Carroll St was packed this morning, as it is nearly every morning. It was bizarre to reflect that the MTA was contemplating measures that would worsen the position still further. If the express plans proceed, I hope the jammed-in commuters will remember to blame not only David Greenfield but the rotten system that allows him to succeed.


  1. Boris Johnson's decisions can work both ways... the business case for the cycle superhighway schemes was negative based upon predicted time delays for drivers but Boris ignored the business case because he said it was a manifesto commitment and strategically important for London.

    As demonstrated by the F train example, business cases based upon predicted time savings or delays are somewhat dubious anyway. They are based upon an assumption that if someone saves a minute of time, this will have an economic benefit. So multiply this by a large number of people, the maths says there is a large economic benefit. However if it makes no real difference if someone is a minute early or late to work, then the whole case is built on a house of cards.

    In London politicians also sometimes confuse noise with numbers but there are also public consultations on many transport schemes. A consultation isn't a vote but they often show that while objectors may be noisy, they can be far from being a majority. There have been noisy objections to the cycle superhighway schemes but public consultations have been 60% to 70% in favour. At least that gives a politician comfort that there are lots of people in favour of a decision rather than the politician is being "brave".

    1. Michael,

      Thank you for your comment. On the time delay point, people's time clearly has a value - people are willing to pay money to avoid wasting time. So there is value in calculating who will win or lose more from a change to a train service. It's also worth looking at what will happen to overcrowding. On the superhighways, meanwhile, I was precisely bearing in mind the fuss in London when I wrote this. In London, there has been a fuss but there's been a decision that the wider good demands they be built. In New York, one Community Board can make a fuss and a whole project can be endangered.

      All the best,


    2. Check out Cycling Works. There was a large business support for the London tracks.

    3. mi z,

      Thanks for the comment. I'm aware of Cycling Works and I wrote about them. There were also, however, groups (and prominent individuals) who talked as if London's Superhighways would bring the end of the world. I'm glad they didn't get the kind of hearing that I sense they would have got in New York.

      All the best,


  2. In the course of one week, our Borough President said, 'let's not stripe any bike lane until we have a borough wide plan'... and then regarding LaGuardia Airport redesign, a $4 billion dollar project, 'how can we plan a new airport for 50 years from now when we have no idea what the future will bring? ' Somehow $4 Billion got approved and has lacked any public comment phase whatsoever... The sooner a connection between widespread, unmitigated development and failing transit infrastructure is made, the better. All over town, officials approve rampant development with nary a comment on how to move people.

    1. Unknown,

      Thanks for your comment. You're exactly right that the development priorities are strange and skewed. LaGuardia clearly needs some kind of work, but it's odd how much more easily approved that work has been than some far smaller projects. And, of course, there's the madness of the LaGuardia AirTrain, which will actually take longer and be more expensive than the Q70 bus, which I currently use when going to LaGuardia and which I heartily recommend.

      All the best,


  3. I disagree with your reading of the F service report. Yes, the proposal will delay more people than it helps, but it won't delay them as much as it will help the people that it helps. The "average user" will save time, because the savings on the express train outweigh the time lost on the local. The report also says that the local trains will be less crowded. A concern is the "exit surge" at some stations, however.

    Personally I wouldn't care about 1 or 3 minutes anyway, but maybe I have too much spare time. :-) I live near a station with both local and express service for the B and D, and I prefer to take the local. To me, the fact that the local is dramatically less crowded is more important than the 7 minutes I could save by taking the always-packed express. I almost always get a seat on the local and can read a book. I don't expect that the choice will be as stark when it comes to the F, but I'm just saying that time is not the only metric.

    I don't have a personal interest in this fight because I have never used those parts of the F anyway, but if you asked me I might be opposed to the plan for an entirely different reason: I don't think the tiny average benefits justify the added complexity. The NYC subway system is already confusing enough as is. One thing I hate about the B/D pair for instance are the confusing signs saying things like "the B stops on this track... except at night when it stops on the other track... except during peak hours... except during holidays..." with no clear indication of what is meant by "night" or "peak". And don't get me started on weekends!

    1. Anonymous,

      Thanks for the comment. I said the average user suffered, rather than benefitting, because there are more people suffering than benefitting. It doesn't, I think, make a difference that the people who benefit will get a bigger benefit than the people who suffer get a disbenefit. The two things don't really balance out like that. It's also unsurprising that people with longer journeys get a bigger effect from a change in the journey times. They're starting much further out. As someone who uses the F local stations when not cycling, I can testify that these stations are already extremely crowded in the morning peak and it's impossible to believe that a halving of the number of F trains serving them won't significantly worsen that situation.

      There are real solutions to these issues. A better signalling system, for example, could increase the capacity on the IND 6th Avenue and Queens Boulevard lines, allowing the operation of extra trains. The MTA could spend the money to bring the express platforms at Bergen St back into operation. But I remain convinced that this hastily cobbled-together plan is going to make service worse.

      All the best,


    2. Imagine that 60% of users suffered a 1-second delay while 40% of users benefit from 30-minute time savings. Would you say then that that would justify the intervention? Or do you fundamentally believe that the only thing that matters is the number of users who benefit vs those who suffer? If so, is express service justifiable anywhere?

    3. Obviously, the 1-second versus 30-minute trade-off is entirely different from this case, where most users of the Brooklyn section of the line will get worse service - including significantly increased overcrowding - to provide marginally better service for a minority. Express service is a great idea where it allows the subway to serve riders more efficiently - when it won't condemn most users of a particular section of line to worse service, for example, when it can relieve pressure on the busiest stations or when it can be additional to reasonable local service. That's the opposite of the proposal for the F Train.
      My wider point, meanwhile, is that these things are dreadfully planned in New York City and the very fact that the planning document on this change is so open to different interpretations is a fine example of this failing.

      All the best,



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