Why NYC Should Get a High Speed Rail (And the Hurdles We’ll Face)

Why NYC Should Get a High Speed Rail (And the Hurdles We’ll Face)

New York City thrives on the cutting edge of innovation. It’s a hotspot for creative engineering; a perpetual testing ground for the technologies that will advance us into a new era of achievement. It maintains an all but permanent place at the forefront of global advancement, racing alongside cities like London, Beijing, Tokyo, and Paris to a brighter, more tech-forward future. It’s a developmental sprint that New York seems well-primed to win — provided, that is, that judges don’t strike points for the city’s lamentably outdated rail network. 

It might not be entirely fair to say that the United States’ transportation infrastructure stacks up like a Shetland pony at the Kentucky Derby, but the comparison isn’t necessarily incorrect, either. Both France’s Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) and China’s national high-speed rail can top speeds of 350 miles per hour; in Germany, rail lines can speed travelers along at over 300 kilometers per hour. The United States’ Acela Express, in contrast, can scrape by at top speeds of just 155 miles per hour. Compared to its peers, America is several decades out of date and, I would argue, missing out on the benefits that urban transit provides. 

The United States is sorely in need of an update — and given its reputation for being a prominent hub for innovation, it makes sense that New York should be at the forefront of transportation development. 

In January 2019, state Assemblyman Ron Kim (D-Queens) submitted a bill that would create a commission to study the potential for high-speed rail transit. The bill is currently scheduled to be reviewed during the 2019-2020 session, so the state legislature has yet to come to any firm conclusions regarding the idea — however, Kim’s commission seems to be a step in the right direction. As Kim himself commented in a recent article for Politico, “We need to rethink our overall economic development vision for the entire state, and that starts with some version of high-speed rail.”

To follow Kim’s point, let’s consider a few reasons why New Yorkers would benefit from a high-speed rail.

Facilitate Regional Travel

High speed rail naturally makes regional travel faster, easier, and less expensive. Consider the experience of Business Insider writer Harrison Jacobs, who recently documented his time traveling across China via train for the publication. According to Jacobs, high-speed rail empowered him to travel the 746 miles between Beijing and Xi’an in about four and a half hours. In comparison, he notes, America’s tracks are painfully slow. “If I wanted to travel a comparable distance in the US by train — at 712 miles, New York to Chicago is the closest — it would take 22 hours with a transfer in Washington, DC,” he writes, “And that’s with traveling on Amtrak’s Acela Express, currently the fastest train in the US.” 

In the States, frequent business or recreational trips between the two hubs would be inconvenient to the point of impossibility. However, if travelers had the option to make the same trip in a quarter of the time, who is to say that they wouldn’t take advantage of it? The ease of transport could improve commercial trade between regional hubs, improve the creative flow of ideas between states, and give people more agency to travel for work and pleasure.

Add Short- and Long-Term Jobs

Faster public transit has the potential to bring more jobs to New York. Shortly after taking office in 2010, then-governor Andrew Cuomo asserted as much in an open letter: “High-speed rail could be transformative for New York — with the potential to revitalize Upstate New York’s economy with construction jobs now and permanent jobs created by the new high-speed rail links to New York City, Toronto, and Montreal in the future.” 

He has a point. A high-speed rail network would create a host of immediate construction and train management jobs, as well as facilitate a significant number of long-term commuter positions. With the high-speed infrastructure in place, conducting inter-state — or even international — travel and commerce would be easier than ever, allowing for greater economic growth, intellectual exchanges, and business development. 

Improve Quality of Life

It’s well-established that high-speed trains can significantly improve life in urban hubs. One study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences recently found that “bullet trains fuel real-estate booms, improve quality of life, reduce air pollution and traffic congestion, and provide a “safety valve” for crowded cities.” 

Take China as a case study for the public benefits of this phenomenon; within a few years of rail construction, new “exoburbs” began to emerge within 400 miles of urban hubs such as Beijing and Shanghai. These rail-adjacent communities enabled those who might not have been able to afford city living a chance to commute from more affordable — and previously impractically distant — towns. The greater urban spread limited the day-to-day drain that a too-high population might otherwise place on a city’s resources and made living within a commutable distance more financially feasible for its workforce. In New York, having a high-speed regional commuter rail could alleviate the pressure of overpopulation, cut down on traffic congestion, and even cut down on the pollution caused by vehicular commuters. 

The benefits of building a network of high-speed rail lines are both clear and pressing. As matters stand, New York’s sorely outdated transportation system holds the city back from being the global innovation leader that it should be. It’s a stumbling block that needs to be remedied — otherwise, we may find ourselves trailing behind even as our international peers race full speed ahead. 

Will Science Fiction Become Reality in a Smart-City NYC?

Will Science Fiction Become Reality in a Smart-City NYC?

Regardless of plot or author, the futuristic cities we see in sci-fi flicks tend to have a few common traits. Sleek skyscrapers soar overhead, manned by polite robots and electric doors. Hologrammed ads blink at pedestrians from building sides while self-driving (hover)cars trundle along the packed urban streets. The term “smart city” brings to mind the utopias — or, depending on whether you prefer Orwell, dystopias — found in old-school science fiction novels. The implied urban landscape is both technologically advanced and utterly removed from the reality of today’s modern cities — at least at first glance.

As it turns out, real-world “smart cities” might be more humble, benign, and present than their sci-fi counterparts would suggest. While no city has wholly incorporated “smart” technology into its infrastructure quite yet, prominent urban hubs like New York are well on their way to the mark.

What Makes a City “Smart”?

The term does have a definition beyond sci-fi. According to the International Data Corporation (IDC), a “smart” city is one that uses innovations like big data analytics, IoT innovations, cloud computing, and other emerging technologies to share data and improve efficiency across municipal platforms. These hubs don’t use technology for technology’s sake — instead, they use “smart” solutions to underpin the city’s infrastructure and ensure that basic utility systems like water, power, and waste pickup function effectively. The practical applications aren’t sci-fi sleek, but they are useful — and, in modern times, necessary.

Today, overpopulation is a significant risk for the world’s most prominent urban hubs. Statistics provided by the U.S. Census indicate that 80.7% of the country’s population lived in urban areas as of 2010, with more likely to do so in the years to come. People are migrating to city hubs; the New York-Newark metro area alone houses 18,351,295 residents. When mass shifts like these occur, they put significant pressure on a city’s infrastructure and capacity. The influx strains housing resources, sanitation systems, healthcare services, and food supplies. Over time, the strain can have real repercussions on a resident’s quality of life and cause problems that include but are not limited to a greater likelihood of organized or violent crime, a higher prevalence of pollution-caused illnesses, increased traffic wait times, and overstrained sanitation systems.

Smart cities use data-driven systems to better understand and solve these problems. For example, some solutions might include sustainable water systems, intelligent traffic systems, or technology that predicts where crimes are most likely to be committed in a given day. All are useful, if not flashy. Cities have certainly seen the appeal; in a recent report, analysts for the IDC estimated that smart city technology spending topped $80 billion globally in 2016 and is likely to reach $135 billion by 2021.

Case Study: New York

New York, aware of its strained resources and growing population, has taken steps to integrate smart technology into its infrastructure.

Over the last few years, the NYC Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation has launched several initiatives to make the city a sustainable, tech-forward urban hub. So far, their efforts have predominantly focused on smart utilities and monitoring; in 2013, they launched the Accelerated Conservation and Efficiency (ACE) program, which dedicated over $350 million to retrofitting lighting systems to be more efficient and reducing emissions. Similarly, the city’s Big Belly garbage collection initiative uses data to more effectively assess when trash needs to be picked up, thereby improving collection efficiency by an estimated 50-80% and cutting back on the emissions that previous garbage trucks might have created. City planners have taken parallel strides with New York’s water and air monitoring systems; research put forth by the New York Engineers’ organization estimates that sulfur dioxide emissions have dropped by over 70% in NYC since 2008.

As these initiatives indicate, urban engineers can use data-driven systems to pinpoint and solve problems caused by overpopulation. New York demonstrates that being a “smart” city isn’t about keeping up with current trends or integrating flashy tech — it’s about making the city’s support systems run more efficiently.

Some, however, worry that the benefits of embracing “smart city” life come at too high a cost.


Barriers to Smart City Adoption: Privacy and Trust

Smart cities run on data collection — there’s no way around it. However, some critics worry that in collecting that data, urban hubs may open the door to those who would abuse data findings and overstep privacy expectations.

Consider the backlash Google’s sister company, Sidewalk Labs, currently faces in Waterfront Toronto. In Spring of 2017, the tech company put forth a proposal to collaborate with the government to build a new community “from the Internet up.” Its pitch was tempting: it offered to create a wholly renewable energy system, environmentally-friendly buildings, driverless public transit, configurable streets, and a digital identity system that would give residents access to both public and private services.

At first listen, the proposal seemed to have few downsides — but soon, critics began questioning the project. The smart tech Sidewalk Labs proposed to monitor traffic patterns and determine identity, they argued, would use round-the-clock sensors in public spaces and even potentially draw data from citizens’ devices. They would have no privacy agreement, and no way to allow a citizen to “opt out.” Moreover, many citizens may not have the technical savvy to understand what they would be opting out of. The project is a privacy disaster waiting to happen, and Sidewalk Labs is still trudging through the PR mire. The impact of the pushback on the project is as yet unknown.

One point is certain; despite the knot that privacy concerns pose to their development, smart city infrastructure is and will continue to provide necessary support to growing urban populations. However, we can’t just rush in thoughtlessly. If the case study in Toronto demonstrates anything, it would be that people don’t want to end up in a — well-intentioned or not — Orwell-esque surveillance state. Urban engineers of the future will need to find ways to address the privacy question and integrate thoughtful, privacy-aware solutions that will not take advantage of the very urban citizens they aim to support. After all, NYC needs smart measures; if it doesn’t, it will surely buckle under the weight of its own inefficiencies.


Why Are So Many Public Pedestrian Plazas Popping Up in NYC?

Why Are So Many Public Pedestrian Plazas Popping Up in NYC?

New York City’s walking paths are primarily utilitarian; they direct us to work, to community hubs, to our weekend plans — and if they don’t stretch as far as we need, they lead us to the public transit stops that can carry us the rest of the way. In recent years, however, walking spaces in New York have begun to shift away from pure function. Public pedestrian plazas are popping up all over the city, encouraging fast-paced New Yorkers to do the unthinkable: slow down, relax, and put off their next trek to enjoy the neighborhood awhile.

Pedestrian plazas transform under-utilized streets into vibrant public spaces. The number of these transformations have skyrocketed over the past decade; according to analysts for the Global Designing Cities Initiative, there were a whopping 71 plazas in various stages of design, construction, or completion as of 2015. Of those, 49 were available for public use. More have appeared since then — however, the space that stands as the foremost example of these pedestrian-centered havens was one of the first to be built.

Now home to an expansive European-style piazza, Times Square at Broadway was once dominated by honking cars and bumper-to-bumper traffic. Before the city closed Broadway to vehicular travel, pedestrians had access to only 10% of the street space despite outnumbering cars by nearly nine to one. In 2009, the city launched the Green Light for Midtown project: an initiative which would block off vehicular traffic and optimize the space to better suit the needs of its overwhelmingly pedestrian user base. It’s fair to say that it worked; today, Times Square stands as an internationally-acclaimed haven for those experiencing the city on foot.

The flurry of plaza expansions is due in large part to the NYC Department of Transportations’ Plaza Program. Launched in early 2008, the initiative works to ensure that all New Yorkers need only walk ten minutes to find an open and welcoming public space. The efforts aren’t purely for aesthetics; as one nonprofit recently reported, “Plazas have been proven to enhance local economic vitality, pedestrian mobility, access to public transit, and safety.”

The program prioritizes projects in areas that currently lack such space — especially those in low-income or high-pedestrian neighborhoods. In creating these plazas, the city’s urban planners hope to create more pedestrian-friendly spaces, optimize neighborhood walkability, boost access to public transit, improve public health, better pedestrian and vehicular safety, and support local community development.

The Plaza Program accomplishes the above goals via partnerships with private entities, nonprofits, and neighborhood groups who apply for involvement. Generally, they employ a philosophy that the green infrastructure nonprofit Deeproot dubs, “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper,” or LQC. These groups use low-cost, low-risk methods to reimagine public spaces; often, the temporary changes they make serve as trial measures for more permanent changes down the line. One spokesman for Deeproot describes the process, writing:

“These street-to-plaza conversions use simple elements like moveable tables, umbrellas and chairs; colorful, patterned surface treatments and plantings; and lively and entertaining programming to create more publicly accessible open space […] Changes can include new amenities, such as planters and public art, new configurations of the street using paint and bollards, and space for events and activities.”

After the transformation takes place, the writer goes on to say, newly-minted pedestrian plazas often host a variety of community-friendly happenings, such as neighborhood movie nights, weekend farmers’ markets, and free concerts.

Pedestrian plazas seem to be all upsides — yet, even they have their critics. Some opponents worry that in closing streets for foot traffic, plaza proponents are curtailing access for emergency vehicles, limiting road connectivity, and overloading streets beyond their capacity. These concerns are valid; however, most urban planners have found that when properly designed and placed, walking plazas can re-route traffic to allow vulnerable walkers and bikers better access to their homes and neighborhood businesses without significantly blocking vehicular access to plaza-adjacent areas.

Critics may even find themselves switching sides on the debate once the plaza is in place. To quote Deeproot on the matter once more, “As more cities take the plunge into these conversions they often find that street-to-plaza conversions support local businesses, foster neighborhood interaction, enhance pedestrian safety, encourage non-motorized transportation, and reimagine the potential of city streets.”

For better or worse (but almost certainly better), pedestrian plazas are on the rise in New York. Like any living, evolving entity, cities experience growing pains. It may take time for urban planners to iron out the small snags in the plaza integration process, but the benefits these community spaces offer New Yorkers now are both real and considerable. So, the next time you join the current of walkers on the sidewalk, keep an eye out for a pedestrian plaza. Who knows; you might find yourself experiencing your old neighborhood in an entirely new way.


NYC’s Most Overlooked Landmarks

NYC’s Most Overlooked Landmarks

Even if you’re new to NYC, you’re probably very familiar with the city’s most iconic landmarks. Around the world, spots like Times Square, the Empire State Building, and Yankee Stadium are well known, but beyond that, New York is home to countless fascinating locales that can escape even homegrown New Yorkers’ purview. Here’s our favorite of the lesser-visited landmarks to be found around the city that never sleeps.

Fraunces Tavern

NYC is positively brimming with historical landmarks, but few are as closely tied to America’s past than this Revolutionary-era saloon in Manhattan’s Financial District. Taverns in those days were about more than just having a drink: they were central to common life, and a place where people mingled and met up with peers and friends in a relaxed setting. Here, visitors can garner a taste of those old days, with regular tours and exhibits centered around New York’s fascinating Revolutionary War history. The oldest standing structure in the city, the Tavern is also a functioning bar/restaurant, where entrants can drink like George Washington and his contemporaries. The site of Washington’s post-war farewell address, there’s no better place to drink in the historic significance of Lower Manhattan.

Brooklyn Academy of Music

New York is home to countless cultural institutions known worldwide. The Theater District, Lincoln Center and concert venues like the Beacon Theatre draw in visitors of every origin, and for good reason. But if you want to take in a show the way locals do, there are few better venues than the Brooklyn Academy of Music, affectionately referred to as BAM. Open since 1908, the 3-building BAM campus in Fort Greene is home to the borough’s premier rotation of cutting edge, multicultural performance and cinematic art. Whether in the 2,000+ capacity Howard Gilman Opera House, the BAM Rose Cinemas, Harvey Theater or the more recently opened BAM Fisher Building around the corner, taking in a show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is one way for residents and tourists alike to participate in the artistic life of NYC’s most creative borough.

Manhattan Bridge

While it lacks the vaunted silhouette of its neighbor to the southwest, this blue and white steel-trussed span is all New York. A stroll across the Manhattan Bridge’s pedestrian footpath (or bike lanes on the opposite side) amounts to a trip through city history–taking visitors from frozen-in-time Chinatown through a chain-link fenced and graffiti-covered journey recalling the gritty city of the 70s and 80s, into the bustling and perpetually growing Downtown Brooklyn that’s become the most dynamic locale of the 21st century city. Perhaps most remarkable about the span (besides the unforgettable South-facing view of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Lower Manhattan skyline) is the Canal Street entryway, a triumphal arch flanked by 30 stately Roman columns. For those leaving Manhattan to journey to Brooklyn, this bridge offers no finer passage.

Edgar Allan Poe Cottage

If you can believe it, the iconic author and poet moved out to this cottage for the fresh air and natural splendor of the Bronx. Of course, in 1847 the city as a whole was a very different place, but now in 2019, this quaint cottage remains mostly as it was then: a perfect out-of-the-way experience off the beaten path. The poet died just two years later, but the house has entered into eternity, having served as a museum since 1913, now run by the Bronx Historical Society. Poe completists can follow up this trip by heading to Poe’s previous residence on West 3rd Street in Greenwich Village, whose facade has been preserved by the current tenant, New York University.

Can Dockless e-Scooters Work for NYC?

Can Dockless e-Scooters Work for NYC?

In the past year, dockless electric scooters have found a home in cities across the country. Adoption rates have been incredibly fast, with riders heralding them as a cheap and convenient way to navigate their city and curb car usage at the same time. But the scooters are controversial and, while beloved in some cities have been banned in others. In a city like New York, which has a booming public transit system with unfortunate gaps throughout its outer boroughs, scooters could become the solution to accessibility issues while simultaneously addressing congestion. But there are plenty of potential snags.

While dockless e-scooters clearly address a national pain point, they’re hotly contested by some city residents and officials. In many cases, e-scooter companies neglected to apply for permits, prompting San Francisco and other cities to order all scooter operations ceased until the appropriate permissions were granted. Meanwhile, residents are complaining about scooters discarded in the middle of sidewalks, and safety concerns like riders weaving in and out of traffic without helmets, and ignoring stop signs, red lights, and one-way street signs

The e-scooters haven’t yet made an appearance in America’s most populous city, but New York City officials are in discussions with company representatives. While they’ll need to navigate considerable regulatory and infrastructure challenges, a dockless e-scooter invasion is likely imminent. New York City is the third most traffic-congested city in the world and the second worst traffic-jammed city in the country. That congestion costs the city billions of dollars annually, not to mention environmental and quality-of-life concerns. Residents have a lot to gain by welcoming scooters, and in cities that have successfully adopted their use, they’ve proven a great way to connect the gaps in public transportation, zooming commuters from subway stops to their final destinations.

The trick will be in the deployment, something which the city is taking very seriously. As it stands now, most of NYC’s curbsides are dedicated to car parking, placing constraints on scooter parking and increasing the likelihood that they’ll wind up blocking pedestrian foot traffic on the sidewalk. But, if ample space can be allocated for scooter parking and the appropriate safety regulations are addressed, the new technology could be a boon to the city.

As it stands, New York state’s DMV classifies electric scooters as motor vehicles, meaning they must be registered, but since there’s no process in place to register e-scooters, they can’t legally be driven in the state. Electric-assisted bicycles have faced the same problem, but a state bill is changing that and could pave the way for e-scooters to follow suit. For the time being, however, it remains to be seen how e-scooters will be classified, or even whether they would be driven on sidewalks, in bike lanes, or on roads. Whatever the DMV decides will dictate the city’s next move, as it ponders the viability of the scooters and necessary safety requirements.

Cities face these challenges with every new mode of transportation. Biking was less feasible prior to the widespread designation of bike lanes. Uber and Lyft also upset the status quo. It’s taken years, but NYC is still struggling to properly regulate ride-sharing companies, most recently temporarily suspending them from adding new ride-hail cars until it can research ride-sharing effects on congestion and driver wages.

But if anyone is up to the task of successfully regulating dockless e-scooters, it’s New York City’s Department of Transportation, which is one of the largest and most sophisticated transportation governance bodies in the world. And the Senate has already introduced a bill that would make e-scooters legal throughout the state. Plus, the scooter company Bird recently held a demonstration in Brooklyn, generating community interest and enthusiasm for the new technology.

Much of New York are working together to make e-scooters a reality, making it less a question of if they will surface, but rather when it will happen — and how.

The L Train Shutdown That Wasn’t, or Might Still Be

The L Train Shutdown That Wasn’t, or Might Still Be

April 27, 2019 was to be the day that threw Brooklyn into turmoil. The long-dreaded closing of the 14th Street Tunnel between Williamsburg and Manhattan would disrupt and delay thousands of commuters, changing work and life plans for countless New Yorkers. Until that is, a press conference hastily called on January 3 where Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that, after much deliberation, the shutdown was itself being, well, shut down.

New York’s 5.5 million daily commuters are certainly no strangers to working around delays and changes, but a major East River crossing being shut down for 15+ months is a new beast entirely. The shutdown had been discussed in near-apocalyptic terms, and now it may not be happening at all.

The controversial plan kicked off as a result of flooding from 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. The 14th Street tunnel, connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan along the L train line, suffered major water damage that, left unfixed, threatened the integrity of the entire tunnel. To make the crucial fixes, at least a partial closing of the tunnel, shutting off train traffic, was said to be necessary.

The controversy isn’t in making long-overdue infrastructural fixes to a system in need of many–few New Yorkers will claim that fixing signals, tunnels and tracks is a net negative–it’s the massive disruption that many have been preparing for since the shutdown was first proposed in 2016. The L train is one of many lines in the subway system, but for many neighborhoods, it’s the only link to Manhattan. Williamsburg, a hugely booming Brooklyn nabe for the past decade-plus looked to be cut off completely from their best route into the city.

Many are rejoicing at the news, but the sudden change naturally calls into question all of the consideration city and state officials had on display throughout the entire planning process. Months of town hall meetings and community board gatherings informed the MTA’s 18-month plan. Does this unilateral move by the Governor threaten to undermine these voices? The new plan still must be approved by the MTA Board, who are largely expected to okay the plan lest their public perception drop even further.

The announced fix-up plan, based upon a method used in Europe and Asia but new to the U.S., will eliminate the need for miles of old cable to be removed from damaged tunnel walls. Instead, workers will be mounting new cables on the walls themselves and installing a system to monitor the old walls and spot-fix rather than wholly replace them. This work will be taking place nights and weekends for a planned 15 months, about the same length of time the entire tunnel was expected to be closed. Any big changes to the complex world underneath NYC’s streets demands careful thought and consideration, and many are concerned these construction changes weren’t fully thought through by those in charge.

In any case, the 250,000 daily riders of the 14 Street tunnel, plus countless businesses on both sides of the river are now dealing with an entirely new set of circumstances. This change came as a shock to many, especially Brooklyn residents, businesses, and realtors who made plans for 2019 and beyond on the assumption that the L train would be a non-factor. Daily L train ridership may be slightly reduced in number thanks to the change, but don’t expect empty trains at rush hour. It’s likely that assuming the new plan is approved by the MTA board, the majority of riders will be thankful the potential crisis has been averted.

New York City’s subway has seen a lot in its century-plus history, and a major shutdown being canceled certainly ranks among it’s most surprising happenings. No matter what happens next, planned overhauls of MTA processes and equipment aim to bring the nation’s oldest underground rail system into the 21st century. The subway system may never truly be problem-free, but it’s a future 5+ million New Yorkers will definitely hope for.