Last week, the New York City Council passed a bill that requires the NYC Department of Transportation to study and propose solutions to subway deserts — neighborhoods with poor access to a system whose average weekday ridership is more than 5 million.
Sponsored by Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who’s no stranger to pushing this agenda, the legislation is essentially an addendum to the DOT’s newly launched study of the city’s transit systems. The bill requires the department to take special consideration of transit deserts as it works to create a citywide transit plan.
“We know that major portions of the city are not connected to subway service and are left to rely on cars or long walks to get to subways or take unreliable bus service,” says Russell Murphy, Rodriguez’s deputy chief of staff. “We wanted the city to take a look at this and really develop a road map to connect those communities. If not necessarily by new subway construction, at least they’ll develop new strategies to ensure the communities are accounted for.”
Last year, Chris Wong, an urbanist and mapmaker, produced a map illustrating New York’s subway deserts. It shows areas in a 10-minute walk from subway stops, and large swaths of eastern Brooklyn and Queens and parts of the Bronx fall outside that parameter.
Murphy says poor subway access leads to more cars on the road and, in some cases, helps lock low-income communities in the cycle of poverty. He points to a 2015 Harvard study that found good transportation is a critical factor for upward economic mobility.
Though many New York neighborhoods do not have subway access, most of them are served by buses. In a press release announcing the likely passage of his bill, Rodriguez refers to a lack of subway access as a “transit desert.”
Because the outer boroughs have significant bus networks, TransitCenter Policy Director Jon Orcutt questions whether, “we’re really talking about transit deserts.” Still, he supports the bill and the city’s broader transit study. “We really like to see the city come to the table and say what they want to see in their transit network rather than sitting back and saying that’s MTA’s job. That’s a really healthy thing.”
Though the outer boroughs have bus service, it’s not necessarily up to snuff. Bus ridership has declined 16 percent over the last decade, likely in part because terrible traffic often reduces bus speeds to a walking pace.
Given the astronomical cost of new subway lines — phase one of the Second Avenue Subway extension cost about $2 billion per mile — improving bus service will likely be key to solving New York’s transit access problems.
“Absolutely bus rapid transit is part of the conversation,” says Murphy. “The city is building out some more BRT features on the Woodhaven line, which New York has not previously implemented on a full scale. We’re watching the project closely and seeing if that can be a new model.”
He also says they’ve been looking at how better bus service could potentially make traveling between boroughs easier too. The subway system is built on a hub and spoke design with Manhattan as the hub. Traveling from outer borough to outer borough by train often requires a lengthy jog through Manhattan.
Murphy says they’re also thinking about how the expansion of Citi Bike bike-share, while not a cure-all, could help.
Though the city is taking a proactive role in its transit system through its study and forthcoming plan, there’s only so much it can do to reshape and improve service in the city. MTA, the agency that operates New York City’s transit, is a state agency controlled by the state legislature.
Orcutt says one thing the city does control is street design. “They can come to the table with street improvements [such as bus lanes and priority signaling] to help move buses.”
“We hope that this can provide a roadmap,” says Murphy. “New York City has a working relationship with the MTA. Hopefully at the end of this process we’ll have some very strong recommendations for how to bring transit to these transit deserts. They’re things that might need funding in the long run, but at least we’ll be putting ideas in play.”
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.