merging mobility and civility

Extemporaneous Postulation

LooKing into 2016

Remarks for Keynote Panel at Transportation Camp 2015, New York, November 2015.

Thank you for inviting me to speak at this year’s Transportation Camp.  Upon agreeing to speak, I asked my office colleagues for their take on the “future of transportation in NYC”.  Their answers: skateboards, blimps, jetpacks, shared jetpacks (peer2peer), and self-driving cars that feel human emotions (post-singularity, of course).

Having dispensed the requisite humor, let me delve into three topics that I actually know something about: flood insurance, videos, and affordable housing & parking.

I. Flood Insurance

They say that unless you lived through a hurricane, it’s hard to conceptualize the experience. But let me try.

At the height of Sandy, I went down to our basement filling fast with knee-deep water.  Our sump pumps had failed, the water was pouring in from our neighbor’s basement, and it was time to get to higher ground.   But first I needed to cut the power so that when it blew, it would not take all of our electronics with it.  I pulled the main electrical switch and severed the power.

Our house sits about 10 feet above sea level, even though we are a good mile from open water.  We had purchased it 12 years prior, and after #4 renovations had finally gotten it to where we could live without sawdust.  Then Mother Nature reminded us who was boss. I’m just thankful I was not electrocuted.

Currently, we pay about $2500 a year in flood insurance, on top of a regular homeowners’ policy.  The national flood insurance program is about $24B in debt.  Premiums are rising to cover the deficit.  We could see increases of up to 18% per annum, to a maximum for homeowners of $10,000 a year. Commercial properties and second homes will pay more.  

All this is to say that it is going to get increasingly more expensive to live near the water in NYC. The city is an archipelago, so there is a lot of housing “near the water”.  Say what you will about climate change and sea level rise, but the bottom line of flood insurance premiums is going to make people rethink living in Battery Park City, the Rockaways, Bayside, Stuyvesant City, Pelham, Flushing, and the South Shore of Staten Island.

I think that people are going to be increasingly drawn to higher ground.  Where this intersection with transit will be OK.  Places like Broadway Junction, Jamaica, Morningside Heights, and the Grand Concourse should fare well.  La Guardia Airport is going to be underwater (so the Governor’s plans to rebuild it are a bit too near-sighted for me.  Better to invest in high speed rail).  We will close underground subway stations along Canal Street. Ferry service will have to move inland to meet passengers.  Maybe the ferries can operate on the Belt Parkway and FDR Drive, which will be underwater.  Large swaths of Maspeth and the west side of Staten Island will be flooded, which means we will have to bridge or reroute streets. This will precipitate a commensurate decrease in driving through the phenomenon known as traffic evaporation.

Flood insurance, as it becomes more market-driven, will play a larger role in transportation systems, and the planning thereof.  Property owners will lead the way.

II. Videos

Last spring I was riding down Fifth Avenue when I heard squealing tires behind me.  I stopped to gawk and saw a cyclists with a baby seat.  He was followed quickly by the source of the squealing tires, who then cut him off, got out of the car and started yelling.  Before they came to blows, I heard sirens.  A cop appeared, said he saw the whole thing, and told the driver to get back in his vehicle.  He dismissed the cyclist then began writing tickets to the driver.

Luckily for the cyclist there was a police officer.  But had there not been, hopefully someone’s GoPro or surveillance camera would have picked up the driver’s trespass.  We are seeing more and more of these incidents caught on video.  Here are some recent headlines:

  • Woman pushed off bike

  • Cyclist verbally assaulted prior to getting hit by the car

  • This video helped the rider win his lawsuit in West London

  • Cyclist shot with BB gun

  • Cops Beat, Kick and Tase Man for Riding Bike Wrong Way Down One Way Street

I see a confluence between Vision Zero, black boxes, and helmet cams.  Vision Zero, which is being embraced by more and more cities, rests on the moral imperative that loss of life in traffic is simply not acceptable. Sometime in the 20th Century we had convinced ourselves that to be killed by a car was simply the price of progress, or survival of the fittest.  “Accidents happen.”  This is changing, and vehicle event recorders (black boxes) and videos are helping. Drivers cannot simply plead: “oh, the sun was in my eyes”, or “the little girl came out of nowhere (as I was speeding and texting in the school zone)”.  We now use event recorders and video evidence to piece together the real story - and hold drivers accountable.

As drivers are held more accountable, insurers will begin to deny claims.  Drivers will not want the headache and begin to use taxis, Lyft, and driverless cars.  Or ride a bike, bus or train.  Which means they will want to live in transit-oriented communities…you see where this is going.

III. Affordable Housing and Parking

Let’s talk about the relationship between affordable housing and parking.  In the 1980’s and 90’s (post-Bonfire of the Vanities), a number of residential properties in the outer boroughs were rebuilt as single family or duplex houses, typically with driveways and wrought iron fences.  The most famous example was Charlotte Gardens in the Bronx from 1985.  It had vinyl-sided townhomes with driveways where apartment buildings once stood.  It is about a 5-block walk to the #2 & #5 train.  Brownsville in Brooklyn is also home to many of these homes.  

The housing was affordable, yet very auto-oriented.  Many were built in what was then “2-fare zones”, where you have to take a bus to the train and pay two fares.  Bear in mind that all the best jobs in NYC – those on Wall Street and in Midtown – are transit-dependent.  So if you are driving to work, you are generally not driving to the highest-paying jobs.  The driveways and high fences eviscerated whatever street life there was.  It would have been better to build denser and adjacent to transit, than to build townhomes with driveways.  

Fast forward to 2015. It seems that city planners and affordable housing advocates have finally sorted out that minimum parking requirements are a drain on resources, and most assuredly the single biggest cause of traffic. DCP is proposing to eliminate parking requirements for affordable and senior housing near transit. NYCHA is talking of building on parking lots at housing projects, with the usual consternation of depriving residents of an “entitlement”.  Since building parking in NYC is so expensive – upwards to $60,000 per space - maybe this will make affordable housing more palatable to developers.  

In addition, the city’s current plan to re-zone East New York, will disallow parking in front yards. This will eliminate numerous driveways and make the sidewalks safer for children.

It seems the epic failure from 1961 to require parking may have finally run its course.  Parking is expensive, leads to more driving, and is not an entitlement.  If you want an affordable city, don’t require parking.

Michael King