New York City is America’s premier, cultural melting pot and largest city, as well as its transportation hub.  Complimenting the pattern of automobile highways, bridges, tunnels, and streets is the nation’s largest mass transit system, which is itself dominated by an enormous subway network.  Though the subway trains are the signature mode of public transit in New York, the city’s transit mix would be functionally incomplete without its large, clean-air bus fleet, which covers 80% of the urban surface public transit with over 200 local and 30 express routes.  The city also has various other transit modes such as ferries, taxies, dollar vans, and a developing network of bicycle paths and walking tracks.

Walking and Cycling in New York 

While walking has always been more of a feature of everyday life in New York compared to other cities more reliant on cars for everyday activities, in recent years the city has added bike lanes to some city streets, especially some of the north and south-running avenues in Manhattan.  Although the bike lanes lack European curbing and traffic-thinning standards, the efforts in New York have yielded better quality bike lanes than in most American cities.  The modern cycling lanes do not “share the road”, except in cases of turn lanes crossing over the bike lanes, and the bike lanes are mostly sheltered from the moving traffic by a line of parked cars.  The city has a plan to add an additional 1800 miles of cycle lanes by 2030.

Subways and Buses

The legendary subway trains of New York began operating in 1904 in response to the demands of a fast growing metropolis.  Today, the subway is the world’s largest in terms of track distance and number of stations, and is one of only a few cities in the world with 24 hour train service.  The city’s residents are extremely dependent on the service, and when delays and/or shut downs occur, the economy and social life of the city is impacted.  Also, the system is aging and has a route structure heavily favoring trunk lines into and out of Manhattan, issues I wrote about in “New York’s Aging Subway System” on February 5.  By contrast, the buses of the transit system are modern and energy efficient, and represent the nation’s largest public bus fleet, with over 5900 buses serving over two million riders every day.

Ferries, Dollar Vans, and Taxies

With twenty million passengers a year, the Staten Island ferry – a free service – is the busiest ferry in the United States, and runs every half hour between the southern tip of Manhattan and the northern tip of Staten Island.  Staten Island, which is closer to New Jersey and only separated from it by a narrow channel, is the least populated of New York City’s five boroughs with 470,000 residents.  Lesser known ferry services in New York connect points in Brooklyn and Queens with docks in the lower half of Manhattan.  Some of these services were meant to be temporary, in the wake of the damage wrought by hurricane Sandy in late 2012, but proved so popular as to be continued indefinitely.  Other lines were restored in the 1980’s after decades of retired service.  Another of New York’s lesser known transit forms is the dollar van, a pick-up and drop-off service along routes similar the light public buses in Hong Kong, where the fare is paid upon exiting.  This is a feature of large sections of the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn that are out of subway range.  Yet another transit form in the Big Apple, most popular in the prosperous lower half of Manhattan, is the greater than forty thousand, privately-owned yellow taxies.

Transportation and Sustainability in the Future

New York occupies a unique place in the United States as the country’s leading finance center and tourist destination.  It is a leading cultural center with a high visibility to foreign, as well as local and state governments around the country and, as such, has the potential to create urban policies with far-reaching results.  A major success for the new mayor of the city, Mr. Bill de Blasio, would be the implementation of a temporary congestion pricing plan that, if successful, would be more easily made permanent.  Such a plan would be a major feature on a short-list of required policy changes for substantially increasing the quality of life in New York.  By increasing the safety of pedestrians and cyclists in the city and overhauling the aging subway system, New York can become a contender for being a world leader in sustainability in the 21st century.