Hello, New Yorkers!
Welcome to the latest edition of this NYC civics-focused newsletter. I’m journalist Felipe De La Hoz, and today we’re discussing Gov. Kathy Hochul’s big push in favor of public transit, and why it’s such a fundamentally new and welcome paradigm.
It’s a bit of a running joke these days to talk about how much urban-planning types love trains (see, for example, the sort of tongue-in-cheek online community known as NUMTOTs). There’s a good amount of solidarity among rail proponents in part because, for quite a long time, they were battling uphill—public officials and policymakers in the United States in general spent much of the mid-to-late 20th century pretty lukewarm on rail transit.
It seemed, for the bulk of last century, that cars were the future, with trains relegated to moving freight. President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously set off the construction of the nation’s interstate highway system in 1956. Cars were seen as not only a method of transportation, but an actual physical manifestation of American industry and way of life, and therefore it was not just practical but in fact practically a patriotic duty to own them, and to design living spaces around their use.
In New York, polarizing planning official Robert Moses spent decades, beginning in the 1930s, drawing up a city landscape in his own image, which largely took the form of highways and parkways and left public transit as an afterthought. In some instances, the vision specifically seemed to prevent such transit, as with the notorious story of parkway bridges intentionally built too low for public buses to pass (an anecdote that originally came from Robert Caro’s seminal profile “The Power Broker,” and which is ultimately a bit more complicated than it seems.) Regardless of the extent to which Moses did or did not employ dirty tricks out of racial animus and disdain for public transit, the fact remains that the planner, whose authority was said to dwarf that of elected mayors and governors, certainly felt that roadways were key to downstate’s development.
Things have changed since then. An affinity for cars is no longer a prerequisite for a successful politician. A newfound interest in public transit stems from a variety of factors. White flight to the suburbs has to some extent reversed, with many young and more affluent professionals choosing to return to urban centers and clamoring for a standard of living that includes functional transit (the pandemic picture complicates this somewhat, but it’s an overarching trend). Concerns have continued to rise over climate change, to which cars are a significant contributor, and it’s better understood now that density is a much more sensible approach than wasteful suburban sprawl. Disinvestment and decay in metropolitan transit systems has highlighted how crucial they are to local economies and supercharged political organization in their favor. Regional air travel is unreliable, stressful, and could largely be supplanted by well-executed commuter rail.
Photo: Nitin Mukul
For these and other reasons, promising to invest in public and rail transit has somewhat unexpectedly become a popular political position across the Democratic Party in particular, with candidates and policymakers running the gamut from left-wing to moderate embracing the idea with gusto. Which brings us to Gov. Kathy Hochul and her proposals. The one that’s generated the most buzz is the idea of creating a so-called interborough express running from Jackson Heights, Queens, to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, connecting with multiple existing subway stations and the Long Island Railroad.
Though there are certainly plenty of subways and buses serving both boroughs, there have long been complaints that there aren’t many options to transit directly from one to the other without having to take a roundabout route through Manhattan. A connecting line has long been a white whale of transit advocates, and Hochul is throwing her full weight behind it, lining up local elected officials and fast-tracking a feasibility study for it. It certainly already seems to have far more backing than the doomed Brooklyn-Queens streetcar project championed by former Mayor Bill de Blasio. While rail construction in New York is infamously complicated and expensive, particularly in comparison to other international cities, the project has the benefit of relying on existing but currently unused rail lines.
Aside from the new mega-projects, the governor has also prioritized bread-and-butter transit improvements and maintenance like the expansion of Penn Station and an overhaul of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, supported by a robust MTA budget. The planning isn’t just about construction of transit itself; her executive budget proposes mass investment in housing development specifically centered around transit hubs in Long Island and New York City. All in all, it’s an agenda unabashedly centered on not only public transit development, but on the notion that this transit should become an ever more central part of both daily life and economic activity in New York. It’s a total reversal from the philosophies of years past.
So what does this ultimately mean for New Yorkers? Much of this remains an abstraction, and will for some time. Don’t expect to take the interborough express this year, or the next, or the next. Yet it’s a vision of a different future, one that is literally more interconnected. We spend a lot of time these days talking about digital interconnectedness, what with Facebook’s big push into the so-called Metaverse and the increasing prevalence of online communities, but the future is also arguably about greater ease of physical connection and transit. Greater shares of the population will coalesce into urban areas, and it will become increasingly important for these people to both get around and to get to other urban areas.
Photo: Nitin Mukul
It’s also about equity. The neighborhoods expected to be served by the IBX are over 70 percent nonwhite. It’s no great secret that a failure to invest in and prioritize public transit projects affects some communities much more than others. The embrace of a car-centric culture focused on the suburbs was also an embrace of a mostly white, wealthy political base. These plans signal not only an infrastructural priority, but a recognition that some people—urban communities of color especially—have been left out of the conversation when making capital investments.