Author Archive: Will Doig

NYC’s Tale of Two Transit Terminals Evolves

In 2016, New York firm Perkins Eastman proposed moving Manhattan’s major bus terminal into the first floor of the Javits Center.

Five finalists were announced in September 2016 in a design competition that asked participants to reimagine New York City’s Port Authority Bus Terminal (PABT). The competitors pulled no punches: The new bus station would have landscaped gardens, vaulted glass ceilings and Calatrava-esque passageways in gleaming iPhone white.

Except that it wouldn’t. While the concepts “may inform the planning process,” the authority quickly clarified, they were merely small parts of “a larger universe of planning options.”

That larger universe has begun to crystalize. In August, the Regional Planning Association (RPA) suggested keeping the current terminal and adding a satellite hub beneath the Javits Center convention hall, which is a few blocks west of PABT. The approach is modeled on the least flashy of the five final designs. Then, two weeks ago, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey made its own announcement. Its feasibility studies had also revealed that a new bus terminal might not be necessary — they could simply stack two more floors on top of the current station instead. “If it turns out to be the most viable alternative, we’ll have no problem getting behind it,” said New Jersey State Senator Loretta Weinberg of the proposal to pile a couple more stories onto the existing eyesore.

Compare this cold-logic talk to the emotionally charged debate about what to do with Penn Station, New York’s other maligned 20th-century transit hub. The Port Authority Bus Terminal and Penn Station are similar beasts in many ways: They’re dingy, disorienting, congested and in dire need of expansion. Rush hour ridership at Penn Station doubled between 1990 and 2010. And the number of buses passing through the Lincoln Tunnel, which connects New Jersey to Manhattan, at peak hour climbed from 700 in 1980 to 1,000 today.

Yet the rhetoric that surrounds the two facilities’ respective expansion plans is very different. Aside from the brief (and disavowed) spectacle of its flashy redesign contest, the Port Authority’s discussion of a re-do has emphasized capacity, siting and integration. The Penn Station debate has been driven by calls to restore an iconic gateway “worthy of New York.” That has left transit advocates dismayed that Penn Station’s brass-tacks needs — first and foremost, more track capacity — are being forgotten amid reveries about train travel grandeur.

No one is demanding that the Port Authority be rebuilt as a monument to bus travel, or as a New York landmark to awe and uplift — and that may be its best asset. The proposal to add an additional two stories (and then renovate the floors below) would add capacity quickly while allowing the terminal to remain operational during construction. This plan would also keep the station where it is, with its dozen subway line connections, and circumvent the costs and litigation that come with seizing properties by eminent domain.

Similarly, a subterranean Javits bus station would free up 63 gates in the PABT, boosting commuter bus capacity by nearly 30 percent. This would allow the current terminal to keep up with demand until 2040, while providing a new transit option to Manhattan’s freshly upzoned far west side. RPA President Tom Wright predicts the Javits Center buildout would cost $3 billion — a huge sum, but far less than the Port Authority’s estimate of up to $10 billion for a whole new terminal to replace PABT. The convention hall’s lower level also happens to be dimensionally appropriate for a bus station, and is sited almost directly over the Lincoln Tunnel to New Jersey.

Penn Station’s expansion is shaping up differently. In June, a plan was approved to turn the Farley Post Office Building across the street into an extension of the current cramped terminal. It will include a massive 255,000-square-foot passenger hall beneath a 92-foot-high glass canopy that evokes the prestige of its predecessor, torn down in 1963. Plus, 700,000 square feet of retail and office space. What the $1.6 billion renovation won’t provide is additional track capacity, a fact passengers were grumbling about as soon as the first phase opened for business. “It’s beautiful, but I wish all this effort would translate into better train service,” one Long Island commuter told The New York Times.

Penn Station is a fraught topic. The original’s demolition galvanized the modern preservation movement. But the residue of its former glory could also be its curse. With up to 50 percent growth in transit ridership projected between 2010 and 2040 during the morning and evening rushes, the fixation on aesthetics is an unaffordable luxury. “There is historic justice in trying to rectify a crime committed a half-century ago,” wrote the Times in 2012 in an op-ed titled “Restore a Gateway to Dignity.” Four years later, the paper commissioned a high-end architecture firm to envision a majestic, “enobling entrance.” The Municipal Arts Society has dangled redesign renderings that resemble cost-prohibitive moon colonies.

Any attempt to improve the mass transit experience is a positive step, and Penn Station does need bigger, better-designed passenger spaces for purely functional purposes. Transit advocates acknowledge as much. “Now, don’t get me wrong: Penn Station is not a particularly pleasant train station for anyone, and it needs to be nicer,” wrote Benjamin Kabak on his blog, 2nd Ave. Sagas. “But redesigning Penn Station without addressing the trans-Hudson capacity concerns at the same time make me worry that we’re simply repeating the mistakes of the PATH World Trade Center station.”

The Port Authority Bus Terminal may escape this fate through sheer indifference. No one romanticizes bus depots (though believe it or not, the Port Authority was once a pretty stately place). Bus infrastructure is viewed as a mechanism for moving groups of people around (otherwise known as “transit”) not a representation of our highest ideals and a beacon of inspiration. The Port Authority expansion won’t be perfect, but at least it will be free from the burden of fetishization. Unlike the train station, a bus station doesn’t need to be magical, it just needs to work.

MacArthur “Genius” Grant Gives Damon Rich a Chance to Champion the Planning Hearing

Damon Rich (Credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Newark, New Jersey’s color palette is brick red and concrete gray, so it’s hard to miss the Day-Glo orange walkway that hugs the city’s riverfront park. It appeared in 2013, when Damon Rich, as Newark’s director of planning, oversaw the opening of the park’s second phase. (Phase three is now under development.) This week, Rich received one of the MacArthur Foundation’s annual “genius grants” for his work in democratizing and demystifying urban planning and design. And though The New York Times sniffed that the walkway’s color was “not ideal,” its bold design speaks to the playful spirit that earned Rich the coveted award.

“There’s a growing list of stories people have brought to this thing,” he says of the orange path. Some alumni of Princeton University, which graduated its first class in Newark in 1748, saw it as a clever reference to the school’s official colors. Others thought it symbolized Agent Orange, manufactured in Newark (and dumped in the river) during the Vietnam War. One yoga instructor who teaches classes in the park informed Rich that orange is the chakra color for water. “It’s physical form paints a picture of people making the place their own.”

Rich has dedicated his career to creating environments in which city residents can discover a personal connection to the most mundane aspects of urbanism. To this end, he’s engaged artists to create eye-catching posters explaining urban policy issues, and helped high school students build models depicting subterranean urban infrastructure. In all cases, the unifying goal is to bring a little colorful flair to the often monochromatic business of running a metropolitan area.

“For me,” Rich says, “what’s so exciting about the recognition from the MacArthur Foundation is the opportunity to speak up and say, look, you might have been told that planning hearings are where design goes to die, but these are actually amazing systems.”

Selected for their creative pursuits and awarded $625,000 each, several of this year’s 24 MacArthur Fellows do work that intersects with the field of urbanism. Kate Orff, a landscape architect, redesigns public spaces to reveal the ecological systems beneath. Rami Nashashibi fights urban poverty by cultivating links between racial and religious groups. Others create paintings inspired by globalization, study transnational migration patterns and analyze social networks in an attempt to reduce segregation.

Rich endeavors to foster not only an understanding, but an actual appreciation of lumbering public sector bureaucracies. In architecture school, he says, zoning and building codes were treated as necessary evils. “Maybe one semester out of three years, you are asked to consider how your project would exist next to other buildings,” he says. It wasn’t until he was out in the real world, meeting with tenant advocates and community organizers, that he began to see these regulations as milestones on the road to civic progress. “It was a real revelation to me that these things weren’t tyrannical constraints,” he says. Quite the contrary — they were the end result of hard-won battles for social justice.

In 1926, in its first major case about zoning, the Supreme Court found that the town of Euclid, Ohio, could regulate what type of development to allow on private land. Cities had implemented ad hoc statutes curtailing dangerous or bothersome development before, but the Euclid case codified zoning as a standard instrument of city governance. The decision was handed down at a moment when pollution, automobiles and suburban sprawl were beginning to transform the very concept of what cities were, prompting the justices to rule that “under the complex conditions of our day,” cities must be allowed to exert influence over their own growth. “In a changing world,” wrote the majority, “it is impossible that it should be otherwise.”

Nearly a century later, such regulations continue to provide a counterbalance to purely capitalistic real estate interests (Houston and other cities excepted). “People had to educate me to see these [regulatory] legacies as the outcome of a grueling effort to make democracy part of how we make decisions about how we build,” says Rich.

He understands as well as anyone, however, that these rules and processes aren’t always beloved — that’s the very reason he works to engender a sense of gratitude for them. “It’s true, you go to most planning meetings, you might see people who seem like they’re hearing aficionados,” he says. “You might find it to be a stultifying ritual. It’s presented in a packaging as deadening as one could imagine. In whose interest is it for these processes to seem boring, antiquated, out of touch, or only the domain of complaining people?”

To change this, in 1997 he founded the Center for Urban Pedagogy, which became the framework for many of his de-stultifying efforts; its work continues to this day. More recently, Hector, the independent design studio Rich co-founded, led the drafting and implementation of Newark’s zoning revamp, the first such overhaul in 50 years. Emphasizing accessibility, the revision included popular education tools and programs to bring constituencies together and make an often cryptic process more inclusive. He also designed a playful exhibit that uses the Queens Museum’s panorama of New York to decrypt and deconstruct the housing crisis for the general public. Presented in 2009 in the wake of the real estate crash, it leveraged large-scale installations and “Sesame Street graphics” to explain an event that, even as it touched the lives of millions, was caused by obscure systems understood by few. In this way, the exhibit’s use of bright colors and friendly design put it firmly in line with Rich’s philosophy that complexity needn’t be boring.

Though he’s not ready to say how he’ll spend the grant money, it’s safe to say it will reflect what Rich calls “an agenda that faces out from our field of architects, planners and designers.”

“I hope that this recognition from the foundation underlines how, even though we come from a strong tradition of thinking about the role of democracy in design,” he says, “we’re still at an early point of what I believe will be a very long arc.”

New Yorkers Call for More Surveillance Cameras

On May 18, Richard Rojas got behind the wheel of his Honda Accord and mowed down 23 pedestrians on a teeming Times Square sidewalk. The next day, the New York Post had closed-circuit recorded footage of the carnage posted on its website, up close, crystal clear and shot from multiple vantage points.

In this age of urban surveillance, it’s hard to believe that a decade ago the New York Police Department didn’t have a single camera in Times Square — or on any city street, for that matter. It wasn’t until 2006 that the NYPD deployed its first 500 street-level security cameras to the tune of $9 million. They quickly multiplied, and today, the department has about 2,000 cameras scanning the streets, sidewalks, rooftops, parks, bridges and tunnels of New York night and day. There’s 7,000 more in public housing and another 4,000 in the subway. If need be, the NYPD can also tap into 4,000 private security cameras scattered throughout the five boroughs.

But according to the results of the city’s recent annual participatory budgeting cycle, nearly 12,000 New Yorkers think the city needs more electronic eyes on the street. The vote to fund more cameras comes as crime is hitting historic lows. Last year the city had 335 murders, its second fewest in the modern era. The number of shootings fell below 1,000 for the first time since record keeping began, and the number of felonies was the smallest since CompStat crime tracking started 23 years ago.

This epochal improvement in public safety is why it’s tempting to write off New Yorkers’ desire for cameras as a neurotic impulse in line with America’s anxiety disorder. But New York’s safety gains aren’t evenly distributed. There are parts of the city where former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s life-changing magic of tidying up has barely been felt. One of those is District 17, encompassing the Bronx neighborhoods of Hunts Point and Melrose. Though the area has made measurable progress since the bad old days of the 1980s and ‘90s, gang violence continues to churn out body bags, and the NYPD’s 40th Precinct, which presides over part of the district, recorded the city’s largest crime spike in 2015. Against this backdrop, the district’s 340 votes for security cameras seem like a not unreasonable response to an uptick in criminal activity.

Yet CompStat data also show that several of the neighborhoods that voted for cameras don’t experience notably high levels of violent crime. District 19 in Queens, for instance, is primarily covered by the 109th and 111th precincts, neither of which saw high levels of murders, rapes or assaults last year. Of the eight city districts that voted for cameras, in fact, five of them experienced relatively low levels of violent crime in 2016. (The correlations aren’t perfect because neighborhood-level CompStat data break down by precinct and participatory budgeting occurs by political district.)

Of course, security cameras aren’t solely for preventing violent crime. Their moments of fame may occur when they capture a bombing or a rampaging vehicle, but they may be better at deterring nonviolent burglary and theft. One study in Newark, New Jersey, for instance, found that cameras are particularly effective at stopping people from stealing cars.

And decisions on whether to install more security cameras — especially NYPD cameras — are based on more than just whether they keep criminals at bay. The social implication of the city’s ever-expanding surveillance network has prompted the New York Civil Liberties Union to push back at times. Its 2006 report, written when the city’s camera network was still in its infancy, warned, “We are witnessing in New York the creation of a massive video surveillance infrastructure.” Of particular concern was what happens to footage after it’s recorded — the report cites New York’s rich history of using surveillance to crack down on particular groups, from suspected communists to Vietnam War protesters.

Yet, perhaps counterintuitively, in recent years it’s been the city’s progressive leaders who have often called for more surveillance of New Yorkers. In 2014, Public Advocate Letitia James, a prominent liberal Democrat, called for security cameras on subway cars — a proposal that’s now becoming a reality. Bronx Councilman Ritchie Torres, a political rising star and a member of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus, had advocated for more cameras in public housing facilities. And just last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who ran on a progressive platform, announced with fanfare the installation of cameras at 22 additional public housing developments. New Yorkers themselves, in fact — a politically progressive bunch — overwhelmingly favor surveillance of public spaces, according to a 2013 poll.

These trend lines suggest that New York’s network of cameras will continue to grow. To see their future, New Yorkers might look to London, where 500,000 cameras comprise a surveillance “Ring of Steel.” Like New York, London is a prominent terrorism target (though it suffers a fraction of New York’s gun violence) trying to balance the need for watchful security with politically progressive instincts.

Whether this balance is achievable — or even necessary — is a matter of perspective. If we were living in the cities U.S. President Donald Trump envisions, the answer might be more clear-cut. During the presidential campaign, Trump portrayed America’s urban cores as ultraviolent war zones where dangerous criminals reign. Though the facts don’t support this, and progressive leaders refute it, New York is nevertheless embracing surveillance as if every corner were a tabloid viral video waiting to happen.

New Yorkers Clamor for Countdown Clocks at Bus Stops

(Photo by Marc A. Hermann/MTA New York City Transit)

Before mobile phones, it was impossible to know exactly when most things would arrive: your airport pickup, your pizza delivery, your friend who was running late. So in 1996, when New York announced it would put countdown clocks at bus stops, it seemed like glumly scanning the horizon for the next bus would soon become a thing of the past.

Yet two decades later, it’s still rare to stumble upon a New York bus stop with a display telling you how many minutes will pass until the next bus appears. In the city’s most recent participatory budgeting cycle, New Yorkers voiced their displeasure with this, casting 10,986 votes — over 10 percent of all votes cast — to fund countdown clocks for their bus stops.

The votes came from far and wide, from Hell’s Kitchen to Astoria, reflecting broad support for a technology that’s already a fixture of the city’s subway. In a 2016 report, the Riders Alliance, a transit advocacy group, called the subway countdown clocks “an unmitigated MTA success.” That’s not a phrase commonly heard. So why isn’t this useful, popular, psychologically soothing technology more prevalent above ground, in the city’s unpredictable network of surface transit?

In a sense, it is. In February 2011, New York launched MTA Bus Time, a real-time bus tracking service, as a pilot program on Brooklyn’s B63 route. The following year it expanded the service to Staten Island and the Bronx, and by spring 2014, Bus Time was tracking every bus in all five boroughs.

Bus Time allows anyone with a mobile phone to find out when their bus will arrive, either by looking at an interactive map or by texting their location to the MTA, which then sends a response telling them how many stops away the next bus is. When it launched, the head of MTA buses called it “a virtual countdown clock for the bus in your pocket.”

But as it turns out, many straphangers still want a non-virtual option: a brightly lit digital board at the bus stop displaying minutes ticking backward toward zero. There are legitimate reasons for this. For those with an old-school phone, the Bus Time texting function is clunky. Advocates for senior citizens argue that older riders are less likely to use it. And then there’s those New York winters: Who wants to take their hands out of their gloves to open an app? Bus Time is sleek and accurate, but for some it’s a bridge too far.

Hence the 10,986 participatory budget voters clamoring for countdown clocks, which currently exist at only a few heavily trafficked bus stops. There are two main reasons why countdown clocks continue to elude the city’s bus system. One is Bus Time itself, which was intended to make countdown clocks a moot point. The MTA prefers Bus Time to countdown clocks because it’s “less costly to install and maintain,” a spokesman told the New York Daily News in 2012. The paper cited a 2005 study that estimated putting a countdown clock at every bus stop in the city would cost $100 million; Bus Time cost a fraction of that.

The second reason is the troubled history of countdown clocks in New York, which for two decades have been the victim of a series of gone-nowhere initiatives. In 1996, the MTA’s transit division contracted with Orbital Sciences Corp. to design and implement a bus tracking system. Four years later, the plan was abandoned. The satellite tracking signals were no match for Manhattan’s concrete canyons. “It’s not just the urban canyons, but the schedules, the tight schedules, the headways, the traffic,” one of the project managers told NY1. “The operating environment I think is the most challenging of any city’s.”

A decade later, in 2005, Siemens was awarded the contract for a $13 million pilot program to put countdown clocks on six bus routes. This initiative, too, was scrapped. In 2007, yet another system was installed on Manhattan’s 1st and 2nd avenues, but technical malfunctions darkened the clocks four months later. Then, in 2010, a Long Island company strung countdown clocks along 34th Street, the busy crosstown thoroughfare that pioneered some of the city’s first dedicated bus lanes. It was the same firm that designed the Chicago Transit Authority’s bus tracking program, which remains in use to this day, and optimism for the project ran high. The New York Times heralded the clocks as the “Miracle on 34th Street,” but two years later, just like the others, they were dismantled. The MTA explained that “the conclusion of the pilot led us in another direction.”

Today, countdown clocks for buses are back on the agenda. Early last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the installation of new clocks at some 350 bus stops. It’s part of a package of upgrades intended to staunch the bus system’s slipping ridership numbers, including using traffic signal technology to speed up New York’s buses, which are among the slowest in the U.S.

The enduring desire for countdown clocks is a window into urban psychology. Mathematician Alon Levy has written that countdown clocks can reduce what’s known as the “waiting penalty,” which expresses the notion that riders perceive the time they spend waiting for a bus to be more onerous than the time they spend actually riding the bus.

Transit authorities quantify this penalty and take it into account when planning their systems. In New York, the MTA believes that the waiting penalty is 1.75 minutes. In other words, a minute of waiting feels like one minute and 45 seconds of riding, which is why a would-be bus rider might easily give up on waiting for the bus and hail a cab instead.

This is how countdown clocks can potentially elevate ridership. “I believe countdown clocks reduce the waiting penalty,” writes Levy on his blog, Pedestrian Observations. Interestingly, Boston’s transit authority, the MBTA, thinks the ratio is higher — it says one minute of waiting feels like a full 2.25 minutes of riding. This could be because Boston’s transit system is simpler than New York’s, which makes Bostonians less accustomed to transferring. Or perhaps the MBTA thinks Bostonians are simply less patient than New Yorkers.

Either way, if the waiting penalty theory holds, it means countdown clocks have a utility that goes beyond simply calming nerves. Should New York successfully roll them out, they might actually put more passengers on the bus.