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Monthly Letters from George

Since January, 2002, our redesigned and rejuvenated Auto-Free NY website has presented a monthly letter from its chairman and founder, George Haikalis. Here's an archive of the twelve letters from 2002, most recent first, for your information and reading pleasure.
George (in white sport coat) at an MTA Lower Manhattan Access public hearing a few years ago
     Above, George (in white sport coat) attends an MTA Lower Manhattan Access public hearing a few years ago.

DECEMBER 2002: One Less Road -- A More Livable City
Bronx residents are struggling to accomplish what was once deemed unthinkable -- the demolishing of one of Robert Moses' monstrous urban expressways. In Moses' version of New York, no waterfront was too tranquil or picturesque to be devastated by an urban concrete ribbon, cutting off access from neighboring communities with a steady stream of noisy and smelly cars and heavily laden and polluting trucks.
     In the late 1960s, Mayor John V. Lindsay stood up to Moses and his highwaymen and called a halt to the "grand plan" for a grid of urban expressways slicing through dense neighborhoods throughout the city. Many of the expressways were left hanging in mid-air, leaving state and city highway engineers heartbroken, but still dreaming of the day when they would be completed.
     The Sheridan Expressway in the South Bronx is a notorious example of one of these truncated highways. It never reached the city line near Co-op City where it would have fed and accelerated the suburban sprawl of nearby Westchester County and Connecticut. This highway segment, a road to nowhere, carries only a tiny fraction of its design capacity. Tearing it down would restore access to the Bronx River for the crowded South Bronx area, a low-income community of color.
     Learn about the struggle to rid the South Bronx of this ugly blight at our next AFNY meeting!

Some observers of NYC's fractious political scene would argue that the best time for a clever politician to take a very unpopular action, like raising transit fares, is right after an election -- hoping that voters will forget about this when the next election comes up. New York's Governor Pataki did just that when he was first elected in 1994. Subway and bus fares immediately went up 25 percent. But two years later, part of this fare increase was given back to the riders when a free transfer between buses and subways was permitted and a multi-ride ten percent discount was instituted.
     Two years after that, in the heat of a reelection campaign, the Governor initiated the unlimited ride pass, a fare innovation long sought by transit advocates and by Auto-Free NY. After winning a second term in 1998, Governor Pataki, to his credit, prevented another fare increase.
     Well, now that the Governor's won a third term, what will happen to the fare?
     Our advice is to keep the fare as it is, and add some additional discounts. Yes, the fare innovations advanced earlier by the Governor did cause some revenue loss at the MTA, but nowhere near what the MTA's budget people had predicted in dire warnings. Instead, ridership soared and the MTA's financial picture actually improved. To be sure, the city's growing economy at that time helped, but this was also stimulated by the fare incentives.
     Fare increases are a surefire way to chase away riders. With NYC's streets already overflowing with cars, the MTA needs to make alternatives to driving as attractive as possible. NYC should be able to put together a coherent transportation pricing policy, with congestion pricing on roadways that lead to the most crowded parts of the city, packaged with a stable or declining transit fare, as the most effective short term strategy for stemming the city's traffic chaos. The Mayor and the Governor need to coordinate their policies so that the reduction in roadway congestion achieved from the proposed East River Bridge tolls is not canceled by higher subway fares.
     For more information about the struggle to save the transit fare, be sure to come to our next AFNY meeting!

Special Guest: Edson Tennyson
New York is a city of superlatives: the largest stock exchange, the largest department store, the largest train station, etc. But missing from the list is the largest street railway network. This once vast system was methodically destroyed in what some consider to be one of the world's worst acts of vandalism of a city's transportation infrastructure.
     There's plenty of blame to go around, of course. In order to make room for the cars it wanted to push, General Motors needed to clear urban streets of trolleys. Mayor John F. Hylan (from 1918-1925) saw the monopolistic privately-owned streetcar companies as the enemies of honest governance (although it was not clear how the private bus companies that replaced them would be any better!). And Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (from 1934-1945), who saw trolley operators and conductors as marginalized immigrants, used all the municipal authority at his disposal to prevent NYC's two largest and most successful streetcar operators from modernizing their very busy systems.
     The result -- four generations' worth of car chaos, and diesel buses' omnipresent fumes and noise -- has long diminished the utililty and enjoyment of the city's most notable feature -- its extraordinary density. Turning back the clock is impossible, but a reintroduction of streetcars on some of NYC's busiest surface transit lines would be a welcome addition. With two million daily riders on the city's 4,500 diesel buses, New Yorkers can consider themselves lucky to have such a huge surface transit system at their disposal, despite its flaws. But now it's time for New York to learn from more sophisticated cities about replacing diesel buses with modern light rail and electric buses.
     So come to our October 22nd meeting to hear Edson Tennyson's take on the demise of our once great streetcar stystem.

Special Guest: Alex Marshall
As the old adage goes -- "as you make your bed, so shall you sleep in it."
     The citizens of NYC may have inherited the complete takeover of its streets by motor vehicles, but they have only themselves and their inaction to blame for the ongoing siege. Every corner of this city is overrun by cars. In this densely populated city, anyone who steps out their front door -- anytime, anyplace -- risks being run over or even killed, senselessly, needlessly, by an out-of-control motorist.
     Looking at the way our streets are used and abused here, you would never know that more than half the residents of NYC don't even own cars, that a whopping 85 percent of the workers in the city's core come by public transit and that the city is criss-crossed with the most elaborate rail system in the nation, if not the world.
     But it doesn't have to be this way! Our September guest speaker, Alex Marshall, will explain to us in his forthcoming talk how citizens can make a difference. And read how newly-elected Mayor Betrand Delanoe of Paris, France has begun to tame the auto, converting a riverfront highway that replaced a charming footpath along the Seine into a very popular "beach." (See Life's a Beach for Paris Mayor in our Features section). Visit our Links page to sample other groups' efforts to stem the tide of hit-and-run motorist culture imposed on us by business and mass media interests. And please come to our next Auto-Free NY meeting, to see how citizens can remake our cities into more livable places.

As NYC continues, after September 11, to struggle with the planning process regarding Lower Manhattan, the concept of "security" seems to play an every increasing role. The great open pit at the site of the former World Trade Center is now perhaps the most heavily guarded, surveilled and photographed construction site in the world. But secure streets there and elsewhere don't have to be grim enclaves barricaded by dump trucks and concrete highway barriers, accessible only to CEOs, bureaucrats and politicians sequestered in armored town cars and limos. NYC can and must protect its densest concentrations of residents, workers and visitors not just from car and truck bombers but also from reckless, unskilled or road-raging motorists. By learning from more sophisticated cities both here and abroad, New York can create at the same time secure streets and a civilized, well-designed and visually appealing urban landscape.
     Join us on a walking tour of a potential grid of secure pedestrian streets for Lower Manhattan on Tuesday, August 27, 2002. A briefing on IRUM's plan will begin promptly at 6pm . . . The tour will follow, rain or shine, leaving at 6:45pm.

All politics is local. But we can still learn a lot from other, more sophisticated cities around the world. Berlin is an especially interesting example. A gaping hole in its center -- Potsdamer Platz -- was once the epicenter of commerce and entertainment of this great European capitol city. Flattened during the Second World War and then left fallow as a "no man's land" divided by the famous wall during the Cold War, the City Center is now a forest of construction cranes. The decision to rebuild, and the battleground over choices for transportation to serve this restored hub, is an amazing case study for NYC as it struggles to restore its Financial District.
     Like in New York, transport decisions in Berlin extend far beyond the rebuilding of the core. During its four decades as a divided city, Berlin followed two dramatically different approaches to transportation. In the East, the extensive street railway system was preserved and extended. Car ownership was throttled and car use minimized. In the West, streetcar tracks were paved over and made into private car storage spaces. The re-unification inevitably led to a struggle over transport policies.
     Among those closest to this battle is Michael Cramer, a member of the Berlin Parliament (City Council) representing the Green Party. Michael is the author of an innovative plan to reduce car use in his re-united city and to restore many of the busiest light rail lines that were lost in West Berlin. His plan has many similarities to our Livable City Transport Plan . . .

With summer arrived, many of us are beginning to think about vacation plans. Getting away for a weekend, or making a longer trip away from New York to visit family, or just to sightsee, may be in the cards. And what better way to travel for us New Yorkers, the majority of which live in households that are auto-free, according to the Year 2000 Census, than by train! Comfortable, relaxing and relatively speedy.
     Well, think again! Have you checked Amtrak fares lately? And how about frequency of service to cities other than on the Boston-NY-Washington mainline? One train a day, sometimes.
     Amtrak is once again under attack by the air and highway lobbies in Washington. For the past several years Congress has mandated that Amtrak must achieve "self-sufficiency" from the farebox. This means fares so high that only the wealthy can afford the new high-speed Acela Express trains. But fares on the regular trains are through the roof as well. Even with much higher ticket prices, and use far below what it would otherwise be, Amtrak is still losing money.
     The President's Budget proposes so little for Amtrak for the coming year that senior management has suggested posting notices calling for complete disappearance of most train service in the US. But some members of Congress see the need for an expanded and more affordable Amtrak service. The debate may go down to the wire, with Amtrak limping along for yet another year, in a survival mode.
     For thirty years, highway interests in the US bitterly fought operating subsidies for urban public transit. They lost that battle. The general public long ago agreed that the societal benefits were well worth the cost. New York's MTA gets only about half of its operating revenues out of the farebox. And all of the billions of dollars spent for capital investment -- like restored track and stations and new rail cars and buses -- are paid from public sources. The benefits of a good local public transit system are obvious -- reduced car dependence, cleaner air, less congestion and crashes and more economically viable cities.
     The Federal government must come to realize that similar benefits occur to us as a nation, if we provide for an attractive surface transport alternative to flying or to making long auto trips. Since the terror attacks of September 11, air travel has declined remarkably. The extra time, inconvenience and cost of increased security at airports and the increased anxiety about flying have made the general public much more interested in better intercity rail passenger service. Will our elected officials in Washington listen?

Bus Rapid Transit -- is it an innovative concept or an oxymoron? The over two million New Yorkers who board buses each weekday will confirm what we all know -- that buses in our city are anything but "rapid." Even so, bus service is an essential part of NYC's transportation system. They reach residences and workplaces that are beyond walking distance of rail stations. Surface transit is more convenient for persons with walking difficulties and may be the only public transit option for persons in wheelchairs. Visitors greatly enjoy riding on the surface where they can sightsee as well, and many New Yorkers are apprehensive about going underground to travel -- some more so since the terrorist attack of last September.
     New York's 5,000 buses are terribly slow for two key reasons: they get stuck in traffic, and bus design is frankly obsolete. Let's take a quick look at these two stumbling blocks:

Stuck in Traffic
Our city's legendary traffic jams result in lots of wasted time for motorists, truckers and bus riders. By not giving public transit vehicles priority citywide over cars and trucks, the city only encourages more vehicle use and congestion is worsened. Cars and trucks too often occupy bus stops and bus lanes, making it harder for transit service to work as intended. But even when bus stops are clear, buses are expected to pull out of the way of motor vehicles and then re-enter the traffic stream only when a gap becomes available. Where road space is limited, highest-occupancy vehicles should be the priority, not the lowest-occupancy vehicles.

Bus Design
When the MTA's MetroCard appeared, in 1997, bus ridership surged dramatically, to levels not seen in thirty years or more. But more riders meant crowding and long lines at the bus entrances. The TA's newest buses, many with innovations like low-floors and hybrid engine systems, still feature the same old narrow entrance and exit designs. Riders still line up single-file, dipping their MetroCards into the farebox. Further slowing loading is the need to accommodate less-nimble passengers who feel they have to exit through the front door, because of difficulties using the rear door. The rear door on the jumbo-sized articulated buses are way too far back for many riders. The "dwell time" at bus stops is as much a factor in poor overall bus running time as roadway congestion and unfavorable timing of traffic lights.
     The solution may be "bus rapid transit" (BRT). At City Hall, inside sources suggest that Mayor Bloomberg is interested in promoting this concept. There are certainly a number of promising ideas that have been offered in the past. In many cities, school buses and transit buses are given priority when re-entering the traffic stream, almost like ambulances and fire trucks. For years, NYC Transit planners have suggested a "New York Bus Lane" where the sidewalk would be extended into the street, and buses would remain in the traffic stream. Other proposals include video tracking of motorists who block bus stops and bus lanes, and electronically pre-empting traffic signals to favor approaching transit vehicles. But these measures will take enormous political muscle. Our MetroCard Mayor will have to start with his car-loving Commissioners, who refuse to follow his excellent example and use public transit. (How many Commissioners or City Council members make "house-calls" anyway?)
     Low-floor buses with wide doors and twin fareboxes would ease boarding and alighting. Proof-of-purchase fare systems, like the ones used on bus systems in more sophisticated cities in Europe, and locally here on the Hudson-Bergen LRT line in New Jersey, would allow passengers to use rear doors, and reduce dwell times, particularly for articulated buses used on the city's busiest surface transit routes.
     There are some legitimate concerns about BRT as it is now being hyped by some of New York's indefatigable road-building power brokers. Creating and enforcing bus lanes will not be easy. Until recently, this constituency has eyed bus lanes as a "trojan horse" -- a device to shoehorn more lanes onto highways throughout the region. So-called high-occupancy vehicle ('HOV') lanes have turned into 'HOAX' lanes, with cars that had a couple of persons in them anyway shifted out of other highway lanes, thus freeing up room for more single-occupant vehicles (SOVs). The result -- more car chaos and car dependency -- was little different than adding new general use lanes.
     Some worry that BRT advocates are really out to derail LRT (light rail transit) planning. Many recently constructed light rail systems have been extremely costly. But other, very successful LRT systems, have been built at relatively low cost, and these should serve as a guideline for comparison. Also, it is important to remember that subway construction in NYC is likely to cost at least ten times as much per mile as surface light rail. LRT and BRT can co-exist in the same city. The approach should be an open, even handed discussion leading to a better understanding of which technology works best in which situation.

You may have seen it in the news several weeks ago. In Los Angeles, Hollywood Boulevard went "auto-free" for the Academy Awards. Though limousines were let in to carry the stars, this famous artery became a pedestrian precinct -- a major cultural shift -- for a few hours. The new Kodak Theatre is located in a regional "downtown", directly above a subway station. Though the exclusion of motor vehicles was a stringent security measure, it had the spin-off of providing a major civic amenity -- a street without cars. This experience is duplicated in many other locations around the US, most notably on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House and on Wall Street near the Stock Exchange.
     Besides eliminating the possibility of car-bombs, auto-free streets also keep out motorists who become accidental "terrorists" when they lose control of their vehicles. The key to making the centers of our cities secure and at the same time attractive is to combine motor vehicle exclusion with the introduction of well-designed urban amenities like sidewalk cafes and plantings.
     Our vision42 plan for an auto-free light rail boulevard on 42nd Street could become a national model for urban livability. Even Hollywood could consider re-introducing surface light rail transit -- a modern version of the old "Red Cars" that once served this historic entertainment center. By remaking our urban centers, we can reduce the incentive for suburban sprawl, which is driving up the cost of living, creating worse traffic jams, dividing communities, depleting our natural resources and tax monies and poisoning the air we breathe and the water we drink.

MARCH 2002
Car-free? We're STILL in the majority in NYC! US Census data for the Year 2000 shows that 54 percent of the households in NYC do not own cars. While this proportion is down slightly from the 57 percent in 1990 that were carless, it's still a very large constituency.
     So why are non-car owning families marginalized? In part, it is because the richest and most powerful New Yorkers do own cars. Even our elected officials, some of whom may not be among the rich or super-rich, relish their cars and refuse to relinquish their parking permits and other perks. The TV, newspapers and magazines are heavily dependent on advertising from auto manufacturers and oil companies. Can you really expect the media to speak favorably about competing modes like walking and public transit, knowing that their key revenue sources are breathing down their necks? Watching the Winter Olympics on TV, how many times did you see Salt Lake City's brand new and very successful light rail system gliding down its broad streets?
     One important way to get our message of "fewer cars - a more livable city" across is to write a letter to the editor of your favorite newspaper or call your TV station. Correct an error or omission, when it occurs, as soon as it occurs. You'd be surprised, sometimes these letters do get printed.

Newly elected Mayor Michael Bloomberg continues to use the subway almost everyday and apparently has now taken more subway rides in one month than his last three predecessors combined did in 24 years! In addition, he has asked NYC Dept. of Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall to cut parking permits for city agency employees by 30% and police department permits by 20%. When city officials and police officers are given free parking, they too often favor policies in their own interests and those of their fellow motorists, and neglect the needs of transit users and pedestrians. In our Livable City Transport Plan, Strategy B2 calls for eliminating ALL free "privileged" parking for government employees. Three cheers to Mayor Bloomberg for taking these important first steps!

Remembering Steve Dobrow
Dr. Steve Dobrow, co-founder and President of the Committee for Better Transit, passed away suddenly on January 13, 2002. Only 58, Steve was one of the strongest voices in transit advocacy in the New York region. He was a professor of Electrical Engineering and department head at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. He devoted almost all of his spare time to pressing the MTA, elected officials and the media to advance well thought out improvements to the public transit system.
     I had the great pleasure of collaborating with Steve on a number of projects -- including advancing a cost-effective, but world class, rail transit access system for Kennedy Airport. More recently Steve devoted a great deal of effort to establishing a working group of transit activists to develop a plan for "through-running" LIRR-NJ Transit trains at Penn Station. For those interested in this effort, perhaps the best way to honor Steve is to come to the next meeting of this group (contact George Haikalis for meeting information)
     We will greatly miss Steve Dobrow.

Port Authority Should Move Faster on Downtown PATH Restoration
With clearing of the World Trade Center site moving ahead much more quickly than expected, the 1/9 subway line is to be put back into service this November. Yet the Port Authority's restoration of downtown PATH service is not expected until December, 2003. The Governors of NY and NJ should demand that the Port Authority speed up this reconstruction. An interim terminal using existing track beds and temporary access stairs and ramps can be restored in six to eight months. Keep in mind that the entire PATH system, including the Uptown and Downtown "Hudson Tubes", two massive office buildings in Lower Manhattan and the complex junctions in Jersey City were completed in less than six years. Every additional day that the Port Authority takes to complete its restoration increases the risk that even more Lower Manhattan financial institutions will relocate to more auto-oriented sprawl developments, elsewhere in this region or in the sunbelt.

We would like to wish our new Mayor Mike Bloomberg our heartfelt congratulations and best wishes as he begins his term of office in these difficult yet extraordinary times in NYC. We are certainly impressed that he has started off on the right foot by taking the #6 subway train to City Hall for his inaugural. We hope that his admonition to other elected officials to cut staff by 20 percent, made during his inaugural address, includes a strong recommendation that they also scrap their official cars and ride public transit, walk or bike to work instead. Too often our leaders see the world through their windshields, and ignore the needs of those of their constituents who cannot afford to bring their cars to City Hall.
     Our Livable City Transport Plan suggests 15 practical, affordable strategies that the Mayor can advance to reduce car use in the crowded center of our city. Improving public transit can be accomplished in just one mayoral term by increasing service and instituting affordable fares. Although these measures will cost money, they can be financed by placing tolls on all the entrances to the Manhattan business district, using the very successful E-Z Pass technology. Instead of restricting access of single-occupant vehicles as is done at present in the morning peak period, a pricing strategy can produce the same traffic reduction impacts, while generating a critical revenue stream for our deficit-plagued city. To gain acceptance of road pricing measures (ie, the "stick"), it is important that a significant portion of these revenues go to making public transit more attractive (ie, the "carrot") in the near term.
     One fast and low cost step towards restricting car use in Manhattan the Mayor could do practically overnight would be to permanently close the Central Park Loop Drives to autos, simply by deploying a few police department sawhorses! Perhaps Mayor Bloomberg can uproot the anti-pedestrian barricades the previous Mayor erected in midtown and instead place them to keep cars out of Central Park.

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