The MTA’s Missed Opportunity

Long Islanders cheered Andrew Cuomo when he intervened in the recent dispute between the MTA and LIRR workers, who had threatened a strike over demands for wage increases. When negotiations stalled between the LIRR, which had demanded a 14% raise over six years, and the MTA, whose offer to spread the same raise over seven years the LIRR refused, Cuomo decided to force the MTA’s hand and mandate a 14% raise over 6.5 years.

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This solution will win Cuomo some election-year gratitude from Long Islanders, and it may seem to be an reasonable compromise. It is not. The LIRR, workers and management alike, has routinely demanded far more than it deserves from the public while delivering subpar service in return. An LIRR strike would have offered the first chance in possibly decades to fix the LIRR, unburden the MTA of supporting a corrupt department, and give Long Island the efficient, inexpensive rail service that it needs. The compromise is a bad deal for the MTA, for Long Island, and for the entire public.

Implicit in the LIRR’s demands about cost-of-living increases was a statement that an LIRR salary was insufficient to support a household. This statement does not withstand scrutiny. LIRR workers are already well compensated even in base salary. A New York Times report from 2010 reported that one train engineer earned $75,000 in base pay alone, already well above the US median.

This does not address the many ways—some of them illegal, some of them merely rent-seeking and unbecoming a public servant—in which LIRR can supplement their paychecks. The MTA is hampered by the LIRR’s archaic and often absurd work rules, of which this is only a sampling:

  • LIRR workers who operate both an electric and a diesel train in the same day – even if only to move it a few hundred feet – are entitled to an extra day’s “penalty pay.”  This produces operational nightmares: for instance, the MTA must often keep redundant engineers idle, often on overtime, just in case an electric train needs to be moved and the only other available crew members have already worked with diesel trains. If this was ever justified on the grounds that diesel and electric trains require different skills, it certainly is justified no more: the LIRR uses a certain GE locomotive in both diesel and dual-mode diesel/electric versions; the dual-mode locomotive counts as electric for this work rule, even though it and the pure diesel version have almost identical controls.
  • Engineers and conductors receive double their usual hourly pay for operating trains other than their regularly assigned one, even on the same line with the same equipment. This means, for example, that if the crew of a delayed inbound train is scheduled to take over an outbound train, LIRR dispatchers face an unappealing choice behind delaying the outbound train as well and paying a different crew double to take the train out on time.
  • Because of inefficiencies in crew scheduling, many LIRR workers are actually scheduled for time-and-a-half overtime every day; this (instead of unpaid overtime resulting from, say, service disruptions) comprises half of the LIRR’s overtime payments.
A DE30AC dual-mode diesel/electric locomotive, built for the LIRR by GE. An LIRR driver who operates one of these locomotives and the DE30MC diesel-only version, which has identical controls, is entitled to an extra day’s pay, a legacy of work rules negotiated decades ago for antiquated equipment. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

And needless to say, there is the recent scandal in which massive numbers of LIRR retirees collected fraudulent disability benefits, about which enough has already been said.

And for paying these premium prices to the LIRR, does the MTA get premium service? Not quite. Commuter rail in the United States is generally much less efficient than European commuter rail systems, which run better trains with fewer employees on board. But even by American standards, the LIRR is strikingly inefficient. The LIRR received an operating budget of $1.8 billion in 2013, compared to Metro-North’s $1.4 billion. Despite this, the LIRR carried slightly fewer passengers than Metro-North, 81.8 million compared to 83.0 million, and charges substantially higher fares—for example, a monthly ticket from Grand Central to Stamford costs $307, while a monthly ticket from Penn Station to Ronkonkoma, a station of similar importance and distance from Manhattan, costs $363.

And this does not even begin to discuss the intransigent and obstreperous management, who are proud of their status as the world’s oldest railroad still operating under its original name, and thus notoriously loath to change their ways and cooperate with anyone. An MTA plan to run more Metro-North trains to Penn Station along a segment of tracks currently monopolized by the LIRR encountered fierce criticism by Long Island residents, and the LIRR’s former president Helena Williams, who insisted that the LIRR “owns” the tracks into Penn Station—never mind that they were paid for and maintained by public money from the whole metropolitan area. The ongoing East Side Access project, building a connection from the LIRR tracks to Grand Central, is estimated at more than $6 billion per mile: twice as expensive as Second Avenue Subway, and ten or more times average construction costs for the first world. Most of the expense in the project comes from the excavation of a new sub-basement terminal underneath Grand Central for the LIRR’s exclusive use. Grand Central has the most tracks of any train station in the world, yet is far from the busiest; certainly there would be space for LIRR trains in the existing station, but this would have required cooperation between Metro-North and the LIRR. The result: a piece of useless infrastructure that costs New Yorkers billions.

Construction of the new Grand Central sub-basement station for LIRR; the amount of deep-level excavation required makes East Side Access the most expensive rail project per mile in the world. With better cooperation between the LIRR and Metro-North, several billion dollars could have been saved by making better use of the existing Grand Central tracks instead. (Image: MTA)

The LIRR needs to be fixed. Its overpriced workers and overbuilt infrastructure have cost the city dearly, and the strike settlement will only worsen this. Some of the money for the LIRR’s raises will come from additional taxes and debt, to be paid by New York’s clerks, electricians, chefs, and workers in thousands of other professions that do not make top-quintile salaries for subpar work and have not defrauded public agencies of millions in disability benefits. Some of it will come from worsening service for people elsewhere—the MTA has already announced cuts to its capital plan, which funds badly needed projects such as the Second Avenue Subway, to pay for the settlement. And some of it will probably come from raising ticket prices even higher, squeezing Long Island commuters and strangling the economy of the whole region.

Looking even further ahead, any serious planning of new rail transportation needs to consider the needs of the region as a whole. Following best practices in Europe, this should include cutting LIRR fares within the boroughs to subway levels and bringing the LIRR and subway under the same payment system. It is also common outside the US to run commuter trains through downtown stations instead of having them stop and reverse direction. (This is how the NYC subway works, as well: no one would propose splitting the 2 into a line from the Bronx to Penn Station and a separate line from Penn Station to Queens, requiring anyone traveling from one side of 34th Street to the other to transfer.) Through-running improves operational efficiency, lets people take jobs on the opposite side of Midtown from their houses without a transfer, and the most expensive piece of required infrastructure—tunnels through Penn Station from New Jersey to Long Island—already exists and is used by Amtrak every day. Through-running would be possible for the small cost of re-electrifying some of the LIRR lines with the overhead wires used in New Jersey, feasible for $3 million per mile and a year or two of construction work. But it is hard to see how any of this could work without the LIRR changing its current get-off-my-lawn approach to cooperation. Even today, the Penn Station ticket machines cannot vend both NJ Transit and LIRR tickets, even though they could with a small amount of reprogramming.

The strike could have provided an avenue to fix a few of these problems. At minimum, the MTA could have required a complete modernization of the LIRR’s work rules—scrapping co-mingling and the other penalty fees, for example—as the price for LIRR employees to be let back on the job. If they had refused, the MTA could have hired replacements from more competent commuter railroads, used to working under reasonable rules. A strike would certainly have been painful to Long Island, but not for long: with the fares that the LIRR charges, most of its riders are affluent enough to find other forms of transportation for a few weeks. And the end result would be a more efficient and more modern LIRR that consumed less of the city’s resources and delivered better service on top of that.

Unfortunately, Cuomo’s actions stopped any chance of that. This is a victory for the LIRR, who will get a good-sized raise and keep their comfortably archaic work rules; it is a loss for the MTA, for Long Island, and for everyone who lives or works in NYC.

Connor Harris is a Junior at Harvard University studying math and physics. He is also interested in transportation planning, and serves as President of the Transportation and Urban Planning Society. He can be reached at

Newburgh and New ‘Burbs



The Hudson River shines only a five minute walk away, and the mountains and forests surrounding the river are surreal. From the bustling and wide boulevards – some of the widest in the State – farmland can be seen in the distance. Old, colonial buildings dot the landscape, which served as the Headquarters of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Today, of course, these buildings have been electrified, and in fact, the city was one of the first American cities to be electrified, because it was home to an Edison power plant in 1883, the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of Newburgh. It is also known as “Brockton Edison Company-Old Power Station.” This is a power plant which is historic one and it is situated in Massachusetts at Brockton’s 70 School Street. It was constructed by Thomas Edison which became one of the earliest power plants. It first started operating in the year 1883. Following link will tell you when this software started working. Railroads also connect the city with the region, and ferries do as well. Besides being a transportation hub, it is also an industrial center. It is, indeed, a picturesque vision of small town America, and of the utopian, quaint, community-minded, hard-working, family-oriented, and of course, patriotic towns that Washington himself would have dreamed of building. Essentially an instant city built by the ‘starchitects’ of the Gilded Age such as Andrew Jackson Downing and Calvert Vaux, this city shines of Americana.


George Washington’s Headquarters during the American Revolution

Except for one fact: this is none other than Newburgh, New York. Many believe that the only industry remaining is selling drugs, and the only community-minded, hard-working, and family-oriented people that remain consider their gang as their community, their work, and their family. While these people are generalizing and exaggerating, this is nonetheless the most violent city in New York State.

More than 99 percent of communities in New York have a lower crime rate than Newburgh. In fact, thus far into 2014, it has been the 10th most violent city in the United States. Based on crime reports collected by the FBI from 17,000 local law enforcement agencies, only 5 percent of American cities with 25,000 or more people are more violent. In New York City, one’s chance at becoming a victim of a crime is 1 in 246; in Newburgh, this chance is increased to 1 in 54, with the population of each city factored into the results. And if property crime is included with violent crime, then one’s chance of being a victim is only 1 in 17. Indeed, even though Newburgh only has approximately 30,000 people, the number of murder, forcible rape, armed robbery, and aggravated assault per 1,000 citizens are exponentially greater than in New York City, which is less than two hours away by car or commuter rail.



Dilapidated Newburgh

Yet you would be forgiven for forgetting or never knowing Newburgh. It seems as though everyone has left their small-town small-talk for their big-city auditoriums, where Americans have always thought there to be more crime than anything else. Newburgh’s own residents, who could fill up a small neighborhood in the Big Apple, have been doing just that. While inner-city crime has been dropping in the country – and especially in New York, the “safest big city in the country” according to Bloomberg – Newburgh has not joined the bandwagon. The city is shrinking, as everyone who can afford to leave one of the most violent, impoverished, and corrupt cities in the country, is getting the hell out of Dodge. But they had better leave with a car, because Newburgh is also one of the worst cities in America for public transportation in terms of job access, frequency, and coverage.


Unmarked Bus Stop on a Patch of Grass (You need to signal for the bus to stop)

The Newburgh metropolitan region, including Poughkeepsie and Middletown, is the 6th worst region in the United States for public transportation, and the worst in New York State. The percent of working-age residents near a transit stop is only 46 percent, compared to an average amongst the 100 largest cities in the U.S. of 69 percent. But this is not even close to the true horror of the city: the median wait time, in minutes, for any rush hour transit vehicle is 51 minutes. The average in the U.S. is 10 minutes. And only 8 percent of jobs are reachable within 90 minutes. 8 percent! The average is 30 percent. Finally, out of a combined ranking on coverage and job access, Newburgh is the absolute worst city in the United States. These statistics are from TIME Magazine and the Brookings Institution. They are very real and very present for the people who live in this place, where “gang members with national affiliations outnumber the city’s police by a ratio of three to one, not counting the hundreds of young people in homegrown groups” (NYT). This is not a new story for Newburgh, which began its decline following the deindustrialization, suburbanization, urban renewal efforts, and racial strife of the 1960s.


This is the only intersection that I found with bus shelters, and they are next to vacant lots… but there is artwork on the buildings! 


Inside the Empty Bus… (comes every other hour, so no wonder few people wait around…)

This is also a familiar story for most American cities. But some bounce back, and others, akin to Newburgh, cannot compete with their global city brethren downstream. The first blow to Newburgh came with highways. Thought to improve economic development in inner cities by making it easier to commute, they actually made it easier to leave forever. A bridge built across the Hudson further north eliminated the need for ferry service between Newburgh and Beacon, an affluent town across the river, where the Metro-North Railroad stops. Newburgh became isolated, and suburbs continued to bring affluent, white residents out of the racially charged city. Jobs moved as well, and so did suburban strip malls, where most jobs are located that are not a few hours commute to Gotham. Trucks also took away most of the freight business on the river, making Newburgh irrelevant at the same time as deindustrialization was taking hold and jobs were moving elsewhere.


Suburbs in New Windsor (A nearby town in the Greater Newburgh Region)… Picture taken from a car, of course!

This isolation – this “lack of jobs and activities available to young people” – is a central part of the problem. Indeed, “the city has no supermarkets, one Boys and Girls Club that is closed on weekends and a virtually nonexistent bus system, leaving young people without cars too far from the only steady source of employment, at regional malls well outside of town” (NYT). The trolleys left the city, replaced by buses, which now do not run much at all. In fact, the only buses that come to the city are either for-profit, limited intercity services, or private operators under contract for routes to Wal-Mart and other nearby towns from Newburgh, which run very infrequently. Ulster County Area Transit, for instance, provides service to New Paltz, while Coach USA provides service to southbound towns, and Leprachaun Lines takes residents to their nearby strip malls.

However, there is some good news: ferry service across the river to Beacon and the nearest Metro-North station has resumed since the mid-2000s, under an MTA contract for NY Waterway. Still, in order to travel to New Windsor, a nearby town, the only public transit option listed on Google Maps is to walk for one hour. To walk! Even though buses do, in fact, go to New Windsor infrequently (and they do not reach the MTA Port Jervis Metro-North commuter rail station at Salisbury Mills), the data has not been synced with Google. Perhaps this metaphorically makes sense, because people are undoubtedly afraid of connecting Newburgh with their town, when in Newburgh, according to U.S. Senator Schumer, “there are reports of shootouts in the town streets, strings of robberies and gang assaults with machetes” (NYMag). Newburgh, it seems, is caught in a vicious cycle downward. Why would surrounding suburbs want to better connect themselves with “one of the most dangerous four-mile stretches in the northeastern United States”, if they do not need to do so?


Not much to do in this neighborhood…


Or in this one…


Only cars connect Metro-North’s Port Jervis route at Salisbury Mills Station with New Windsor and, therefore, Greater Newburgh

This is a 20th century problem which needs 21st century solutions. While it is not a mega-city, it is not heavily affected by environmental degradation, and does not have a rapid urbanization problem, it has many familiar problems for Western cities. It lacks a basic sense of security, and it is shrinking, without an inclusive plan for the future. Transportation infrastructure is also an embarrassment. But Newburgh does have some assets: it is diverse, with many Hispanic immigrants arriving (to a city with few opportunities), and it also has historic, colonial architecture and design. Gentrification is occurring in small pockets where artists arrive in order to live cheaply and repair beautiful homes to their gilded glory. These are demographics that could help Newburgh, reversing its abandonment, improving the economy, and providing jobs and services, while maintaining affordable housing. There are pristine natural landscapes, there is history, and it is only a few hours from New York. But this is true for most cities and towns in Upstate New York. How can Newburgh stand apart? How can people actually move there, instead of visiting quickly?


The Dutch Reformed Church, a National Historic Landmark (Decaying by a parking lot)… 


But beyond the cars, there’s a small garden in front of the closed-off church!


Renovated Victorian Home

If Newburgh is to be attractable, crime needs to go down. People need to know that they matter. More police are needed, more “windows on the street” are needed, and blighted and abandoned buildings could be razed and turned into urban farms or public parks. More lighting is needed, streets need to be repaved, and bicycle paths need to be added. This can be a great center for biking, with great adventures in nearby forests to be discovered. And anchor institutions need to return to the city. After-school programs, NGOs, and other grass-roots developments need to be founded. Newburgh needs to be put back on the map.


Newburgh Public Library… a great place to stay out of trouble and get educated!

Once it gets on its feet, hopefully, the positive cycle upward will be unstoppable. But it needs a kick-start. It has an urban fabric, and it has plenty of cheap land and abandoned space to experiment, a lot of which has great views of the Hudson River. Broadway, the main boulevard, is one of the widest in the State, and it can be shrunk so that it is not an un-walkable, un-livable boulevard for cars to drive through towards the freeway and bridge, or to park in the hundreds of parking spaces. It can become a thriving destination in itself, with more trees and space for sidewalks and bike lanes. But in order to become a destination, there needs to be a diversified amount of opportunities, and not just nice streets. Newburgh needs to be better connected to its surrounding suburbs, which requires better access and mobility, and new suburban policies and plans.


So much space for cars (and trucks), so little space for people… on Broadway (Picture taken from a car, ironically and hypocritically…)


At a major intersection: a court house, a gas station (to the left), and trucks… no people!  (Picture taken from a car, ironically and hypocritically…)


Broadway Bodegas  (Picture taken from a car, ironically and hypocritically…)

This can begin at the Hudson, the birthplace of the city, which has ample land for a transportation hub. Old buildings were destroyed along the river during urban renewal processes, but never replaced due to a lack of funding. This land disconnects the urban fabric from the river and is now ready for development, and a new complex connecting the Beacon-Newburgh Ferry with Newburgh’s Broadway could be a catalyst for positive change. This intermodal transportation hub would have a ferry terminal, a bus terminal, ample bike racks and bike lane connections, as well as a shopping center, offices, a tourist center, a community center with art space, and affordable housing. It will be an environmentally-friendly building, and an icon to visit along the Hudson River; perhaps, the capital of Hudson Valley architecture, and an inclusive place to live, work, and play. Indeed, Newburgh has plenty of 18th, 19th, and 20th century architecture, but to become a 21st century city, it may also need state-of-the-art design for the hub. This would be a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, and secure atmosphere that Newburgh will need to create. But as always, it requires money. The hub will need to operate as a public-private partnership so as to collect its own revenue from real estate.


Vacant Land Along River & Newburgh-Beacon Bridge in Distance; Freight RR Below (Potential site for future hub?)


Placemaking Efforts on Broadway

I walked around the city, and also rode the buses. People were very pleasant, but they need more opportunities. Currently, Newburgh has a relatively new, state-of-the-art SUNY Orange community college campus at the end of Broadway, facing the Hudson. This is a great location in the heart of the city, anchoring the institution to the core. There are many programs that this school offers the community, especially with regard to youth development, such as pre-collegiate “tutoring, counseling, workforce preparation, mentoring, cultural enrichment and parental involvement activities” (SUNY).


SUNY Orange Newburgh Campus @ End of Broadway


(Empty!!!) Bike Racks at SUNY Orange Campus


Rain garden at SUNY Orange… without much of a garden… at all… 

There’s also Habitat for Humanity of Greater Newburgh, which, since 1999, has  “rehabilitated and newly constructed 67 homes in the City of Newburgh and served 76 families”. As a non-profit that relies on volunteers, donations, churches, other NGOs, and government grants, they are struggling with affordability. This is partly because renovated homes usually need lead removed, which is expensive. Local architects also are upset when historical buildings are not renovated with expensive historical items, such as $50K+ windows. Nonetheless, Habitat For Humanity also receives donations from redecorated, remodeled, or downsized homes and they use or sell this excess furniture, appliances, cabinets, and hardware. Moreover, the organization is a great place for youth to work and learn how to use their hands and improve their neighborhoods. This is a great example of current infill revitalization work going on in the city.


Habitat for Humanity Neighborhood!


Habitat for Humanity Construction Site (and urban farming action in foreground)

Newburgh needs to dream big to get back on the map. In the 21st century, hyper-capitalism has created hyper-competitive cities, shrinking space and time into hierarchical geopolitical arenas. Transportation built this city as a relevant hub along the Hudson River for boats and trains. Transportation also decimated the city when suburbanization took hold and highways and bridges brought people outside of the city on cars, representative of the powers, identities, and ideologies of the latter half of the 20th century. And now, transportation can also, once more, can help to develop the city and build communities. Not only physically, but also socially, economically, politically, and environmentally. There are many cheap fixes that can be done now such as biking connections, urban farming, and informal transit incentives. There are also long-term public-private partnerships to explore alongside real estate development for transit agencies.

In the end, transportation is a vehicle (pun intended) through which many, many aims can be accomplished. By bridging the (Hudson River) gap between Newburgh and affluent suburbs physically, transportation won’t just transport people, but transform them — and their communities — socially, economically, and politically. Newburgh will need to capitalize upon its assets and improve its transportation infrastructure in order to become relevant again, and in order to shine so much that Henry Hudson himself would enjoy rediscovering his Valley — but this time, not on a boat, but on a Metro-North train.

You should discover it as well. I strongly suggest visiting, volunteering, and living in Newburgh!


Zoom into the center and notice the Metro-North’s Hudson Line train (5 minutes from Beacon Station & MTA Ferry to Newburgh)… A scenic commute from the Big Apple to Newburgh

Rayn Riel is a student at Tufts University studying international urban development, his self-crafted major. Interested in transportation, he is the founder of Tufts’ only undergraduate urban development student organization and was an intern at the NYC Department of City Planning in Brooklyn in order to work on transportation accessibility and mobility in East New York. A writer on PlanYourCity, he has had planning work and research experience in the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Europe. 

A fence dividing a city’s poorest from richest


When driving along Montreal’s Boulevard de l’Acadie, you might at first only notice on one side of the road a line of shrubs with suburban houses in the background. However, upon closer inspection, the existence of a six-foot tall chain-link fence separating Montreal’s poorest neighborhood from one of its richest becomes readily apparent. This fence, separating the Town of Mont-Royal that is abbreviated as TMR and it is unofficially known as Mount Royal. It is a rich residential town that is on-island which is situated in northwest part of the onymous Mount Royal which is north of Downtown Montreal which is on the Island of Montreal and this Island is present in south-western Quebec Canada. This Internet site is for trading. and the neighborhood of Parc-Extension, is representative of the physical segregation that can occur even in a city like Montreal that has a long-standing reputation of tolerance, openness and diversity.

In 1960, residents of the Town of Mont-Royal lobbied for the construction of a fence along its border with Parc-Extension with the reason that it was absolutely necessary for the safety of their children against the traffic of the Boulevard de l’Acadie. However, to many the fence carries an obvious tone of intentional class segregation. It is a physical means to prevent the low-income residents of the neighborhood Parc-Extension from entering the affluent Town of Mont-Royal. In 1966, students from the Université de Montréal tore down parts of the fence in the midst of a riot, declaring it class separation. However, the fence was quickly restored by city officials. While politicians from Parc-Extension have made pledges to tear it down, the former Mayor of Mont-Royal stated that his constituents have a “psychological need” for the fence. During a recent Halloween, the fence’s gates were locked to prevent children from Parc-Extension from trick-or-treating in the Town of Mont-Royal. On a recent visit I made to the fence, the gates still remained locked – an ongoing message that no one, not even children, are welcome – if only because they come from Parc-Ex.

The fence aligning Boulevard de l'Acadie, with the Town of Mont-Royal on the left and Parc-Extension on the right

The fence aligning Boulevard de l’Acadie, with the Town of Mont-Royal on the left and Parc-Extension on the right

Looking across the fence into the Town of Mont-Royal from Parc-Extension

Looking across the fence into the Town of Mont-Royal from Parc-Extension

The reason given for the fence is for the "security" and safety of Mont-Royal's children

The reason given for the fence is for the “security” and safety of Mont-Royal’s children

The stark differences between Parc-Extension and the Town of Mont-Royal cannot be overemphasized. For their close physical proximity, the two neighborhoods are polar opposites. Although surrounded entirely by the city of Montreal, the Town of Mont-Royal has been its own municipality since it de-merged from the city in 2006. Its tree-lined streets, large single-family homes, and freshly mowed lawns are representative of how a privatized urbanity can emerge completely removed from its immediate surroundings. Mont-Royal came into being in 1912 as a planned corporate suburb, designed to be a model upper-class city reflecting the principles of the Garden City and City Beautiful movements. Meanwhile, Parc-Extension developed as a working-class neighborhood and key immigrant hub, welcoming successive waves of Italian, Greek and now predominately South Asian and Latin American immigrants.

The Boulevard de l'Acadie sign from the side of the Town of Mont-Royal

The Boulevard de l’Acadie sign from the side of the Town of Mont-Royal

The sign from the side of Parc-Extension

The same sign from the side of Parc-Extension, revealing the evident material differences between the neighborhoods

A sign protesting the racism evident in Quebec's recent "Charter of Values," ironically located at the beginning of the fence

A sign protesting the racism evident in Quebec’s recent “Charter of Values,” ironically located near the beginning of the fence

Parc-Extension is among one of Canada’s most diverse neighborhoods, with over two-thirds of its population immigrants and visible minorities. In comparison, the population of Mont-Royal is nearly three-fourths white. While in Mont-Royal the average household income is over six-figures, in Parc-Extension the average income is barely over $30,000 – with nearly half of the population qualifying as low-income. In Parc-Extension, 78% of residents speak a mother tongue other than French and English, while in the Town of Mont-Royal only 1% does. Demographic differences, however, only brush the surface of the divide that runs between the two communities after more than five decades of physical separation.

Social interaction is key to overcoming such tensions, prejudices and fear of a visible “other” living next door. However, as long as the chain-link fence stands, opportunities for interaction between the residents of Mont-Royal and Parc-Extension are diminished and the fence will continue to reinforce the idea that the two communities are too irreparably different to ever be connected.

Photos property of the author.

Brooklyn’s 1938 “Redline” Map

During the middle of the 20th-century, America’s urban cores were being gutted through fiscal attrition: tax dollars were being sent, for the first time, out and away from cities to subsidize suburban expansion. At the same time, private financial institutions were pulling their funding away from urban home-buyers, business owners and those wishing to refinance for home maintenance and improvements. This practice of selective geographic financing was known as “redlining“, and it helped decimate specific neighborhoods via disinvestment and blight.

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A few months ago, I found one of the original redlining maps for Brooklyn, New York (UPDATE: For more than 250 digital maps, please refer to the HOLC library, which have amazingly digitized records from the National Archives). While not explicitly a map with any “red lines” it clearly identified the “security” of lending to certain residential blocks (or entire neighborhoods). I went ahead and slightly updated the map to show existing Brooklyn Community Board boundaries, as well as the existing subway lines, to help and provide a better sense of context.


1938 Brooklyn Redline map

1938 Brooklyn Redline map. via National Archives (NARA II RG 195 Entry 39 Folder “Brooklyn (Kings Co.)” Box 58). Edited by ASommer, PlaNYourCity.



You can see on the bottom left corner of the map the legend, where Green is “Grade A” financing, all the way to Red, which was “Grade D” financing. While this map does not specifically say “Do not finance these areas,” it clearly says certain areas are bad investments.



So, if you lived in Brooklyn during 1938, would you have been able to receive any financing for your home? Would you have been able to refinance for that new boiler, facade, or would you have been able to sell your house to a new buyer?

Becoming the Cycling Capital of the 21st Century

Last year, we wrote about cycling in Amsterdam, the world’s most bicycle-friendly city according to the Copenhagenize Index of 2013. People who have taken their cars and entered to pass through the middle of Amsterdam city knows how cyclists own the city. They do not bother about the rules following they just rush through on the streets and the population of cyclists is so high that they make people who own cars and motor bikes powerless. Just like this software make traders powerless, here is full review. Whilst we don’t need to repeat how the city’s urban form is very conducive to cycling, or how the city’s high cycling rates are a result of decades of careful planning, it is worth noting that our earlier report also warned of the drawbacks of massive cycling, namely the steep increase in cycling related injuries. Crowded and narrow bicycle paths can reduce the attractiveness of cycling in the city. And the scooters, which strangely enough are allowed to ride on the bike paths, make dangerous situations arise easily given their substantial difference in mass and speed compared to cyclists. We also noted how the Cyclist Union supported widening Amsterdam’s bike lanes.

So where do things in Amsterdam stand today? Recent plans and progressive policies put in place in other European cities suggest that Amsterdam has some work to do, if it doesn’t want to lose its title as the world’s most bicycle-friendly city. Let’s take another look at cycling and cycling policies in the city, from a comparative perspective.

Increased cycling saved the City of Amsterdam € 40 million in 18 years

The City of Amsterdam’s Multi-Year Cycling Plan for 2012-2016 reveals that cycling in this city has increased by 44% between 1990 and 2008, the most recent year for which the data is available. Cycling is especially prevalent in the city center. There are now approximately 490,000 bike trips made to, from and within the city center each day, up from around 340,000 in 1990. The City’s Department of Infrastructure, Traffic and Transportation estimates that the large shift from cars to bikes for trips to, from and within the city center has saved the City €20 million annually on road infrastructure expenses.

As cycling increased, the number of transit riders in the inner city also dropped by 15% over the past 20 years. This has saved the City of Amsterdam a further €20 million on expenses on transit service. The shift from transit to cycling was especially apparent in trips to commuter rail stations, 90% of which were made by transit in 1990, where 60% of them is made by bike now. This shift alone has led to about 26,000 additional bike trips in the central city each day. (Source: City of Amsterdam Mobility Strategy).

And so, Amsterdam has the enviable situation that a total of 150,000 additional daily bike trips since 1990 havesaved the City €40 million in expenses in road infrastructure and transit service. Writing for Dutch daily De Volkskrant, Michael Persson [Add the link to article if available] calculated that, if we assume that these 150,000 trips are made by 75,000 cyclists, each new cyclist has yielded the City €500 in savings, annually. I believe it’s not as simple as a 2:1 ratio; determining how many cyclists have contributed to the new trips is far more complex. Especially since Amsterdam gets many visitors, who also bike. Nonetheless, it shows that each new cyclist leads to the City saving money.

Cycling in the world’s most bicycle-friendly city: Where do things stand today?

Despite these developments, massive cycling sometimes is seen as a problem. Between the congestion near intersections and junctions, the acute shortage in bicycle parking facilities near commuter rail stations and in higher-density neighborhoods, and the overcrowding on the bike lanes, one begins to see why someone might think that way.

Bike parking, a competitive event in central Amsterdam, is perhaps the most easily identifiable problem in this regard. The volume of abandoned and parked bikes near many major destinations mean that quite often it will be impossible to park near your destination. Parking space for an additional 38,000 bikes will be needed by 2020 to match parking supply with demand around the major destinations. (An additional 80,000 are esteemed to be needed in the city’s residential areas after 2020). Another issue is that the many parked bikes clutter the sidewalk, which impedes walkability.


Parked bikes packed together outside of the main bicycle parking facility near Amsterdam’s Central Station. The parking facility is used well beyond its capacity. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Parked bikes packed together outside of the main bicycle parking facility near Amsterdam’s Central Station. The parking facility is used well beyond its capacity. Source: Wikipedia Commons.


Illegally parked tourist bikes in Amsterdam's inner city. Source:

Illegally parked tourist bikes in Amsterdam’s inner city. Source:


The number of serious traffic injuries in Amsterdam is rising too, from 785 in 2006 to 950 in 2009 (Note that the actual number might well be higher as not all accidents are reported). A traffic safety factsheetpublished by the City reveals that cyclists are more often involved in traffic accidents than others, being involved in 56% of all accidents. They are also more often involved in serious accidents than other traffic participants. In 62% of all serious accidents involving cyclists, drivers were the other party. And a third of all accidents that left cyclist seriously injured, occurred on the city’s busiest bike paths, demonstrating an acute need for wider and safer paths. This need is particularly high in the inner city, where a lack of space to accommodate multiple modes of transportation has resulted in busy bike routes consisting of bike lanes on main roads, leaving cyclists biking next to traffic buzzing by at 50 km/hr. Whilst the “safety in numbers” theory which says that greater numbers of cyclists lead to safer cycling conditions almost always turns out to be correct as cities start seeing increased numbers of cyclists, the situation in Amsterdam might make one doubt this theory. A certain saturation point has been reached in Amsterdam, one in which cycling itself is starting to suffer from the large numbers of cyclists.

Investments in cycling infrastructure are lagging behind the growth of cycling

Both the acute parking shortage and the increase in accidents show that the cycling facilities in the city haven’t kept up with the increase in cyclists. To upgrade the infrastructure, the City of Amsterdam plans to invest a total of €120 million until 2020. The investment strategy focuses largely on adding parking capacity at critical locations around the inner city, and on the improvement and expansion of the city’s bicycle network, as necessary. If safety conditions don’t improve, some people could stop cycling altogether. Such sentiments appeared in letters readers submitted to the local Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool after the seven year old daughter of a recent immigrant from Israel unfortunately died after she was struck by a garbage truck whilst cycling.

Despite the patches that will be applied here and there, ambitious improvements to the city’s cycle network are lacking. For the longer term, the main connectors in the network have been identified as the Bicycle Plus Net (Plusnet Fiets in Dutch), a network of the primary cycling connections in the city which are to be prioritized as the city upgrades cycle infrastructure. The Bicycle Plus Net also includes connections that haven’t been realized yet. Within the city center, there are 950 kilometers of cycle routes that are a part of the Bicycle Plus Net, many have not yet been adapted to recent standards for sustainable safety. Of course the entire Bicycle Plus Net will take decades to complete, though the city only plans to upgrade 15 kilometers of cycle routes in the inner city that are part of the Bicycle Plus Net over the next few years. And the Multi-Year Cycling Plan remains unclear on what sort of upgrades are envisioned for the Net.

Becoming (and staying) a bicycle-friendly city requires bold policy decisions

Perhaps Amsterdam might want to look to Copenhagen for some inspiration. Copenhagen’s Bicycle Strategy is the most ambitious bicycle plan in the world. That city also has a network of prioritized cycle routes, simply called Plus Net. The network, consisting of Green Routes, Bicycle Superhighways, and the city’s most congested bicycle routes, will consist of at least three lanes in each direction on 80% of the network by 2025. Where there are bidirectional routes, there will be total of at least four lanes. Amsterdam’s Bicycle Plus Net lacks such quantified objectives. And with that much space, a parent can comfortably bike side-by-side with their kids at a leisurely pace, whilst cyclists in a rush can still pass them safely. This standard already is in place on a large part of the network.



The Plus Net. Purple sections indicate bike routes where only minor adjustments are required, blue sections indicate bike routes where more space is needed, and orange sections indicate bike routes that are targeted for large-scale improvements. Source: Copenhagen Bicycle Strategy 2011-2025.


At some places, space for cars will have to disappear in order to adapt the cycle routes to the new standard. It’s a vision that only becomes possible because some sharp, difficult choices were made to prioritize cycling over other modes. The City of Copenhagen explicitly aims to increase cycling’s modal share to 50%, up from 35% in 2011. Amsterdam is much more conservative in this regard—aspiring instead to keep the city center accessible to all modes of transportation. Its Multi-Year Cycling Plan lacks a clear and quantified ambition to increase the modal share of cycling in the city. In a certain way, the city is even encouraging people to drive—as long as they are driving electric vehicles: a subsidy of up to €5000 is offered for the purchase of electric vehicles. They are also exempt from notorious waiting lists for parking permits for residents. And charging stations are popping up all over the city. Where the city’s planners have worked hard to make the city center more accommodating to cyclists by limiting car access in the past, they are now inviting the car back into the city center through the back door.

At the same time as Copenhagen is planning to grow cycling’s modal share, the German city of Hamburg is planning to realize a region-wide green network that connects 27 square miles of existing and new open spaces. The green network will also contain footpaths and bike routes, creating a citywide network of walking and biking infrastructure that will make Hamburg a car-optional city in twenty years. As a spokesman for the City’s department of urban planning put it:

“Other cities, including London, have green rings, but the green network will be unique in covering an area from the outskirts to the city center. In 15 to 20 years you’ll be able to explore the city exclusively on bike and foot.”

Currently, thirty staff members of the City’s department of urban planning are occupied with developing the network, which will also create ecological corridors that connect the city’s animal habitats, allowing the city’s critters to cross the city without the risk of being run over by cars. Though the network is still in its early stages, it speaks to Hamburg’s embrace of the bicycle as the city’s main mode of transportation. To kick start the network’s realization, Hamburg is planning to cap a 3.5 kilometer (2.2 miles) section of the A7 highway with a green roof, complete with parklands, allotment gardens and pathways for pedestrians and cyclists.


Impression of a section of the planned green roof cap on the A7 highway (left). Source: inhabitat

Impression of a section of the planned green roof cap on the A7 highway (left). Source: inhabitat


The cycling capital of the 21st Century:  the verdict is still out

If Amsterdam wants to keep reaping the rewards from having a cycling population, its infrastructure must catch up to the raised levels of cycling the city has witnessed. Instead of its piecemeal approach of upgrading its cycling infrastructure to accommodate current levels of cycling, it should embrace a bold approach of prioritizing cycling over other modes and aspire to entice even more people to bike by making their cycling infrastructure safer and more inviting. Otherwise, Hamburg or Copenhagen might soon take over Amsterdam’s title as the world’s most bicycle-friendly city.

Is the architect an artist?

San Francisco’s city hall, built with more than function in mind

Is the architect an artist or is he simply the creator of functional buildings? John Ruskin, a famous architectural writer, once remarked, “No person who is not a great sculptor or painter can be an architect. If he is not a sculptor or painter, he can only be a builder.” (1) From great Gothic cathedrals to the architectural masterpieces of the Renaissance and the Art Deco restorations of the 20th century, the architect has long been inseparable with his role as an artist. (2) However, with industrialization at the turn of the 20th century, intense urbanization and increased demand for housing in a limited space architects began to place a higher value upon functionality over aesthetics.

The word “architect” is derived from the Ancient Greek word arkhitekton, meaning “chief craftsman.” (3) To the Greeks, the architect was seen as a master of his craft. Architecture appeared as a concept for the first time in the first century BCE in the works of Vitruvius where he writes that architecture is composed of three key elements: 1) firmitas – structural soundness, 2) utilitas – function, and 3) venustas – beauty. (4) Throughout the ages, the conception of the role of the architect has shifted back and forth between a concentration on the principle of utilitas and a focus on venustas.

Montreal’s skyline, a result of modernist style skyscrapers built in the 1960s and after

Le Corbusier, the founder of modernist architecture, emphasized simplicity and efficiency with the use of rectangular forms, stating: “A house is a machine for living in.” (5) American architect Louis Sullivan, credited with creating the skyscraper once famously remarked: “form ever follows function, ornament is a crime.”

who was known as “father of skyscrapers” and “father of modernism.” Many know him mostly as the person who created the skyscraper which was very modern. He was a critic at Chicago School as well as an architect who was very influential. Frank Lloyd Wright’s mentor was Louis Sullivan. There was a group of architects in Chicago who were inspired by him. SnapCash Binary also inspires many as well.

(6) Yet, art plays a tremendously important role even in the designs of Le Corbusier who completely denied aesthetic importance. His diverse artistic background in painting and sculpture served as a source of inspiration for his innovative ideas and work, remarking “I have never stopped drawing and painting, looking wherever I could for the secrets of form.” (7)

Frank Gehry’s deconstructivist designs and his negation of pure architectural forms epitomize the role of the architect as an artist, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and the Disney Hall in Los Angeles being demonstrative of the domination of form over function. (8) Renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright insisted that an architect should work in harmony with the natural setting, emphasizing the unity of a building and its environment. (9) Lloyd called architecture “the mother art,” arguing that “without architecture of our own we have no soul of our own civilization.” (10) Wright believed that the architect has a duty to be a “great original interpreter of his time, his day, his age.”(11)

Whether intentional or not, the architect will always have an artistic orientation. What renders the architect unique in his role from other professional occupations such as the engineer is the dual role he must serve in considering the functional aspect of a space alongside the human experience his work will ultimately produce. One could thus consider the architect a functional artist, designing within certain constraints in order for a building to serve its purpose while keeping an eye on the aesthetic to create a physical and emotional experience for the user.

1. John Ruskin as quoted by Peter Collins in Changing Ideals in Modern Architecture. pg. 271

2. Craven, Jackie. “Architecture Timeline.”

3. Random House Dictionary, Inc. 2013

4. Gatto, Jessica. “Architecture.” The University of Chicago. 2002.

5. Gallagher, Dominic. “Le Corbusier.” 26 November 2001.

6. Jirousek, Charlotte. Art, Design, and Visual Thinking. Cornell University. 1995.

7. “Le Corbusier: Art and Architecture – A Life of Creativity.” Mori Art Museum. 20 August 2007.

8. Willette, Dr. Jeanne S.M. “Postmodern Architects.” Art History Unstuffed. 21 September 2012.

9. Jirousek, Charlotte. “Art, Design, and Visual Thinking.” Cornell University. 1995.

10. “10 Great Architectural Lessons from Frank Lloyd Wright.” Freshome Design & Architecture.

11. Ibid.

Using mapping tools to make the development permitting process more transparent

It’s occurred to me that, in the era of open governments and publicly available data of all kinds, the development and permitting process should seek to connect to this emerging practice and  become more transparent. We live in a time in which governments are increasingly making their data available to the public, only to hope that private parties will use it and develop new tools to better communicate all sorts of open access data.

Down under in Adelaide, South Australia, Daniel Kinnoch has developed a tool that potentially can democratize the oft-hidden information surrounding development permits (such as their status, the lots and parcels they pertain to, the kind of development being proposed, etc.). Using open access

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data on development applications that were logged with the City of Adelaide, he created a visual resource that displays where exactly new development has been proposed or approved. The tool  comes as a first in this regard, leaving planners and community advocates wondering if this tool could benefit their cities’, too.

What is more, he plans to expand the tool to include not just information on which development applications have been logged with the city, but other information as well, including where applications are on public notice, which streets are being resurfaced, and which areas are being rezoned.

new development applications

The mapping tool developed in Adelaide, Australia.


The mapping tool meets a real need for information among city dwellers and others. New developments in already built-out neighborhoods are often closely followed by local advocacy groups and residents alike. Larger cities have always been dynamic; a changing urban fabric is part of every city. Yet new development can both fuel a renewed sense of opportunity in neighborhoods, as well as a pessimistic view of the future. Most of all, the process of urban (re)development can lead to uncertainty to those who are invested in existing neighborhoods. This is where tools like this come in.

Mapping tools like the one that is now being used in Adelaide, also serve to connect urban planning to a broader trend of governments and public agencies releasing data on one hand, and people and organizations (call them ‘the market’) developing programs, tools and applications for them. As open-access data have gained in popularity, all kinds of data are being made open to the public these days. For instance, even the World Bank has provided open access to their vast repository of data and content in international (economic) development as of last year. Returning to urban planning and to the neighborhood-scale, the use of neighborhood-level information systems in community building and policymaking has long been acknowledged as a major technical and institutional breakthrough.

In 1995, the Urban Land Institute partnered with local organizations to setup the National Neighborhood Indicator Partnership (NNIP). Committed to democratizing information, NNIP partners focus on facilitating the “direct practical use of data by city and community leaders, rather than preparing independent research reports on their own”. The Urban Land Institute has also created a guide to online data visualization resources, which is probably the most comprehensive guide on the subject. Though their emphasis is mostly on exchanging knowledge and best practices amongst their partners, it reveals the need that is felt to reform the way we use data in community planning.

Despite these hopeful trends, few cities to date provide open access to data surrounding pending development applications. It remains a black spot in the era of open-access data and smart cities. Let’s hope Daniel Kinnoch’s tool developed for Adelaide starts to change this for the better, and that more cities will make information surrounding development applications open to the public— we’ve seen here that people, if not institutions and tech startups, will find a way to use these data in a meaningful way.

Do you know of any similar mapping tools that are being developed where you live? How do you feel about cities making a broad spectrum of information on development applications open access? Do you think the information that made available in the case of Adelaide could have been presented or used in a different way? Share your thoughts via the comments below.

How to end the NYC housing emergency

New York City clearly has a housing emergency. The dire shortage of housing has created a market which overwhelmingly benefits existing landlords and property owners, by exacerbating demand at the expense of renters. As discussed in an earlier post, New York City averages a 3.12% rental vacancy rate, which is well below a minimum 5% vacancy rate needed to ensure adequate access to quality, affordable housing. A healthy vacancy rate is important as it helps to buffer against high rents, helps increase access to a variety of housing types, and encourages competition and individual consumer choice in the housing marketplace.

However it is no small task to increase the city’s vacancy rate. In order to reach a minimum 5% vacancy rate by 2025, it would necessitate the creation of 27,000 new rental units per year for the next 12 years.

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This is something that neither the private market nor government can do alone. Here are just a few examples of how the city could increase the vacancy rate and augment the stock of affordable housing…


There are currently three different sets of median annual household income for the New York City metro employed by HPD, the US Census, and US HUD, ranging from $48,040, $51,270, and $63,000, respectively. Unfortunately, the NY HUD Metro FMR Area Median Income (AMI) rates, which are used to determine housing affordability (and therefore federal and state financing), include all five New York City boroughs as well as Rockland, Putnam and Westchester counties.

Due to federal statute 42 USC §1437a, Westchester and Rockland counties are included in the NYC Metro but must determine their income limits individually. However Putnam County is still included in the broader metro area. Not only does this over-inflate the income levels for New York City, but Putnam County is able to utilize skewed income limits for their affordable housing projects as well. Individually, HUD limits for Rockland and Westchester are $105,400 and $104,200, respectively. Putnam’s limit is set the same as NYC but their US Census median household income is $92,711; New York County’s median income is only $67,204 by comparison.

median hh income-01

Redefining affordability will help allocate housing funds more efficiently to those who need it most, while ensuring a more equitable regional distribution among affordable housing providers (federal and state distribution of CDBG, HOME funds, etc.). By reducing the city’s HUD income limits, more housing development projects will become accessible to a wider set of the population and encourage more cost-effective, lower-income developments rather than wasting valuable resources in expensive, high-income counties. While some middle-income earners may become ineligible in New York City (the limits would be reduced if Putnam left the equation), the increase in rental vacancy rates related to other programs may help reduce the need for subsidized middle-income housing.

Focus on renters rather than homebuyers

Many of the city’s affordable housing programs do not currently differentiate between qualifying AMI’s of potential renters as compared with potential homebuyers, even though median household incomes, and therefore their housing support need, is extremely different. For example, the median household income for a renter in the city is $38,500 while the median household income for a homeowner is $75,000.

In order to provide cost-effective distribution of affordable housing funds, funding levels should more closely resemble the fact that the city’s homeowners earn almost double that of renters. Affordable condos, co-ops, and other home-ownership projects should be required to meet deeper affordability rates in order to qualify for funding. Ultimately, this will allow more funds to be available for a greater number of affordable rental housing initiatives as hard-to-reach rental support is often less expensive. Besides down-payment assistance, most affordable home-ownership programs are an outdated relic and stretches valuable resources in a renter-dominated NYC.

rental vacancy rate by asking price

What the above chart shows us is that we may not really need a drastic increase of rental units charging more than $2,000 per month. Any affordable housing recommendations should therefore focus on increasing the number of units available in the lower price brackets. By funding less-expensive units, the City can construct more units overall.

As well, the New York City Housing Trust Fund (HTF), which is no longer in operation, could be reinstated to help fund new construction, major rehabilitations, land acquisitions, and preservation of citywide affordable housing. Funds garnered from new programs, discussed later, would be set aside specifically for households earning less than 80% of a newly redefined AMI.

  • Reduce AMI Rates: Provide greater access to deeper affordability rates for the city’s population most in need.
  • Greater funding for rentals: Redefine AMI levels to account for the discrepancy in renter and homeowner median household incomes and to prioritize hard-to-reach renters.
  • New York City HTF: re-establish the affordable housing trust fund which would be used to fund new construction, major rehabilitation, land acquisition, and preservation of citywide affordable housing.


In New York City, there are approximately 8,000 acres of residential land zoned R5D or less (<2.0 FAR, ~1-3 family homes) within ¼ mile of a subway station. Just to give an example, an overall increase of just 0.5 FAR of these areas could potentially create over 146,000 new units of housing at an average of 1,200sf per unit. By focusing on existing low-density areas well-served by mass-transit, the city could easily increase the supply of housing within the private market and act as a “pressure-release valve” on the dire vacancy rate. Further density increases could be considered along wide-streets, coupled with enhanced commercial overlays, to create higher-density corridors utilizing the existing Inclusionary Housing (IH) bonus program, which provides full utilization of a density bonus for provision of affordable housing.

A citywide initiative, in partnership with existing local development corporations (LDC’s), could further study LDC-selected opportunity corridors in the neighborhoods of Canarsie, Ocean Parkway, Gravesend, Bay Ridge, Windsor Terrace, East New York, Cypress Hills, Ridgewood, Woodside, Elmhurst, North Corona, Astoria, Jamaica, Kingsbridge, Unionport, and Pelham Parkway. These areas could be designated as priority receiving areas for city and state affordable housing funds and implement a strengthened Inclusionary Housing program.

Since these geographies must rely heavily on efficient mass-transit to jobs and services across the city, housing developers could have a menu of options in order to receive a given Inclusionary Housing density bonus. These could include adding funds to the HTF, increasing their payment into the MTA’s portion of the real property transfer tax, and/or paying into a Transit Expansion Fund (TEF) which would act as a dedicated source of investment for service improvements in the designated growth areas mentioned above. Parking requirements should be reduced or waived altogether.

  • Upzone Transit Corridors: new development rights and reduced parking requirements could result in an additional 7,000 market-rate units per year.
  • Strengthen Inclusionary Housing: increased FAR penalty for not utilizing IH in designated areas and boosted IH requirements could result in an additional 3,000 units of affordable housing per year.
  • Menu of funding: determine and implement a menu of payment opportunities for developers citywide to pay into the HTF, an increased RE transfer tax, payment into a TEF, or a combination of these payments.


Annually, there are approximately 110,000 vacant units unavailable to sell or rent in New York City. 40% of these units are used only occasionally as seasonal or recreational homes while another 30% are undergoing or awaiting renovations. It may be feasible to increase the tax rate on seasonal or recreational residential units in the city, with the hope that some will be pushed back into the market, with the new source of revenue dedicated to the HTF. As well, the city could initiate a Rapid Repair & Renovation (RRR) program, geared specifically for renovations of units available to residents below 150% AMI. RRR would help speed permitting and inspection process, and could connect renovation projects with special access to renovation loans.

In New York City, which has a dearth of developable land, property owners should not be encouraged to keep residential properties vacant by means of lower tax assessments. To further increase the supply of new homes, a new, higher tax rate could be placed on vacant residential land to encourage its redevelopment. All new tax proceeds on vacant residential land could be dedicated for the HTF. On a tangential note, vacant industrial and heavy commercial parcels could be studied to understand the impacts of a higher-tax rate, in order to prevent land-banking of these properties in hopes of future residential rezonings.

  • Recreational Home Tax: pushes 2,000 market-rate units into the market per year and could produce an additional $44 million in tax revenue annually (estimates a 10% decrease in recreational homes. Increase in quarterly tax rate of 0.0125%. Would equate to an additional $1,000 per year for recreational homes with an assessed value of $2 million).
  • RRR Program: potentially pushes 2,000 affordable-units and another 4,000 market-rate units into the market faster, every year, with minimal cost.
  • Vacant Lot Tax: re-categorize vacant residential land to a higher-rate tax class, which could increase tax revenues from 6% to 45%. This has the potential to create 5,000 new units, 2,000 affordable, per year (there are more than 30 million sf of vacant land zoned R6 or greater. Unit count assumes only 20% of that is developed, and at an average of 4.0 FAR).


New York City experiences the highest development soft- and hard-costs of any city in the United States. Unfortunately, these high costs are often passed on to tenants through increased rents. Materials, labor, and permits are just a few of the costs that the city could help reduce in order to increase housing access and affordability. The City could develop a Fast-track Archetype & Vendor Redevelopment (FAVR) program. This program has two major components:

  • Develop and maintain a series of residential “archetypes”; and
  • Develop and maintain a dedicated vendor pre-fabrication program.


In the short-term, a panel of city agency representatives, stakeholders, and community representatives could hold an intensive design competition in order to model a series of residential development archetypes or typologies (this is inspired by architect and former member of the City Planning Commission Stuart Pertz’s concept for a NYC rowhouse archetype) to be approved by each Community Board. These could include high-quality row-houses and apartment buildings well-suited to the proposed outer-borough housing expansion, and could provide an opportunity for cohesive placemaking unseen since the Brownstone boom of Central Brooklyn in the late 19th century.

Once the archetypes are publicly selected, the NYC Department of Buildings (DOB) could provide the site-plans and blueprints free-of-charge to developers, and could further allow automatic as-of-right development within specific zoning districts. City agencies’ familiarity with the designs would help reduce the time and costs associated with permitting, which would in-turn, need little pre-development review. This could also reduce the soft-costs associated with developers’ legal teams, expediters, and architects, among others, creating a virtual fast-track for development.


There is also demand-side benefits associated with a formalized and consistent housing typology: pre-fabrication opportunities. Beyond regulations, permitting fees, and fines, labor and materials are some of the highest costs associated with NYC’s housing development. Off-site pre-fabrication of materials has proven an effective way to reduce costs and waste. New York City has not only been able to capitalize on this, but has also found pre-fabrication a way to bring new, high-paying manufacturing jobs back to the city (Capsys Corporation, a modular home fabricator based in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, has already constructed 2,000 new units for developments across New York City and the country).

The second facet of the FAVR program is to develop an approved vendor program. Through a rolling bid process, publicly incentivized vendors (located in Industrial Business Zones, minority and women-owned businesses, employee wage requirements, proximate distance to a project, etc.), working in conjunction with the NYC Economic Development Corporation and  Small Business Services, could begin to efficiently pre-fabricate the materials based on the official DOB archetype plans. The resultant consistency of bulk production could further reduce construction costs while increasing local manufacturing jobs.

The City and State could also recommend the reduction or waiver of sales tax on residential building materials purchased through the FAVR program. Another source of revenue could call for a portion of all city sales tax generated from residential construction materials, regardless of participation in the FAVR program, to be dedicated to the HTF.

To further reduce housing costs, tax assessments on new construction with affordable housing could be waived out of ULURP, CEQR, and other permitting process fees, as it inflates the assessed construction costs over the life of the development. All fees and permits could be subtracted from affordable housing assessments.

  • FAVR Program: develops and maintains a series of housing archetypes and dedicated vendor program to speed up quality housing production and reduce development costs. This has the potential to create an additional 4,000 units into the market per year.

These are just four potential solutions to increasing the vacancy rate and ultimately increasing access to quality, affordable housing choices. Could these ever work in the real world? What other solutions are available in New York City’s existing climate?

There are between 3.37 and 3.35 million housing units in New York City according to the US Census and the city’s Housing Department (HPD), respectively. 2.17 million of these are rental units (65%), with the borough of Brooklyn claiming the greatest share of these at 30% and Staten Island the least at 5%.
 share of rental units by borough
Of these rental units, 987,000, or about 45% of the city’s rental housing stock are rent-stabilized, however less than 11% of these were built after 1947. Staten Island also has the highest vacancy rate (6.65%), followed by Queens (3.79%), the Bronx (3.23%), Brooklyn (2.61%) and Manhattan (2.8%). While we still have had a net average increase of more than 17,000 units per year since 2002, the last eight years have seen ahistorical growth, as compared to the 1980′s and 1990′s, where we only netted between 4,000-9,000 units per year. The city will need to produce 168,000 units of housing over the next 12 years in order to just maintain existing housing stock through 2025. As well, the city’s population is projected to increase by another 300,000 during the same time period. Assuming persons per household remains steady at 2.61, this population will require 115,000 new units of housing by 2025. But we need to meet more than demand; we must also increase the vacancy rate by at least 1.88% to meet that magical 5% threshold, which would necessitate an additional 3,500 new rental units yearly through 2025. In order to meet that total demand, the city will need to create around 27,000 new rental units per year, for the next 12 years. This rough estimate does not take into account the potential impact that home-ownership may have over the seven year period.

New York’s other transit system


The temporary PATH entrance at World Trade Center in Manhattan. A massive escalator full of commuters.

So I’ve been working recently in Newark. As a lifelong Long Islander (Brooklyn IS Long Island) I hadn’t actually had much of a reason to travel to Newark before (honestly we’re indoctrinated to not think of New Jersey too much), and had never much thought about the PATH.

PATH stands for Port Authority Trans Hudson (I know… “Trans” isn’t a real word). It was originally the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad, which dates back to 1890.

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It was taken over in 1962 by the Port Authority, which used H&M land to build the World Trade Center. You can still see direction signs for “Hudson Tubes” or “H&M Tunnel” in the tile work in Subway stations.

So… until November of 2012, I had never set foot on the PATH. And honestly, when I walked from the 34th St. Herald Sq. to the underground 33rd St. PATH, it was surreal, a whole system I had never explored.

Since then I’ve been commuting daily on both the MTA and NYs other transit system, the PATH. I’ve made a point to visit all the stations on the PATH (which is smaller and more manageable than that task would be on the Subway), and to take my sketchbook… or actually the sketchbook app on my iPad (you can click on sketches to see higher resolution images). Its been one of those “same-but-different” kind of experiences.


Tile work for the old Hudson Manhattan station sits adjacent to new signage for the PATH at 14th St in Manhattan.

When I first stepped onto the Path I got an odd feeling like I was traveling in a different city… like the first time I used the S-Bahn in Berlin, or the T in Boston. I guess thats appropriate, because it does service a different city, or rather multiple different cities, Jersey City, Hoboken, Harrison, and my destination Newark… it just also happens to overlap with Manhattan.

Having two systems seems a little bit odd… Swiping my card and then having to pay again gives me the feeling like its the early 20th Century and I’m switching between the IRT and BMT. The method of payment is where the differences begin.

On the subway you “Swipe”… on the PATH you “Tap”. This means that the PATH card…  made of thick plastic like a credit card, and called a SmartLink is equipped with a microchip to confirm you’ve paid. Sure you can also use a Metrocard (which by the way is inserted into the turn style in one hole, and is expelled from another) but a Metrocard swipe will cost you the Full NYC toll of $2.50, and a PATH ride is cheaper if you buy the SmartLink, coming in at a reasonable $1.70. The Subway in Rio de Janeiro had a similar system, I liked it there and I like it here… it seems to mess up less than my Metrocard which about 5% of the time I swipe too fast and have to hear the pissed off snicker of a person behind me.


A TV distracts a commuter at the cavernous Journal Square station in Jersey City.

I’m not actually sure how or why the fare is reduced, but it may be because of increased advertising revenue from all the TV screens. On the trains, and in most PATH stations, you have a multitude of screens assaulting the brain with celebrity news, real estate ads and “clever” word games. I eventually learned to ignore them… but they were a bit jarring at first. I suppose TV systems like these exist on MTA trains too, they just tend to be either above ground at the station entries, or at the LIRR or Metro North stations.

In many ways the PATH feels more like a regional rail, then a inner city transit system. The major stations  (JSQ, 33rd, and WTC) are all laid out like a big underground suburban terminal with separate platforms for trains going to separate destinations. When I first entered the 33rd street station I was surprised to find a baby Penn station, only blocks away from its mother.

The culture also feels a little more like a regional rail, with the conductors around a lot more (they’re regularly using a series of buttons and speakers that are just right there – on the wall  – not locked up in a sacred closet), and commuters do things like remove coats and leave newspapers on the seat for the next rider to share (the prevalence of the free dailies around stations might have something also to do with this).


Commuters transfer between trains and “recycle” newspapers on the PATH.

Commuters also do something I never see on the Subway anymore, walk from car to car while the train is in motion.  This is largely due to a design flaw.  Smaller stations like 9th Avenue and 14th St are similar to Subway station layout, with long, hollow, and often labyrinthine hallways. The difference chiefly being that the NYC Subway tends to have multiple entries and exits (and if they only have one it is typically in the middle of the platform), and the PATH has all of its riders embark onto the platform from one end. This results in shoulder to shoulder ridership near the station entrance and an empty car on the furthermost part of the platform.


Exposed pipes greet commuters at the 9th street PATH station in Manhattan.

The PATH has gone through a lot of trouble over the past few years, with lower manhattan station entrances changing multiple times since the fall of the World Trade Center, and experiencing massive trouble from Super-storm Sandy. Based on that, their service record is actually pretty good, but like any system delays do happen… the worst of these (IMHO) is not due to mechanical error, it’s due to draw bridges. Thats right… The PATH goes over multiple rivers and canals in New Jersey, and occasionally you get stuck in the middle of nowhere as a barge floats by. The bridges aren’t exactly draw bridges, they’re “lift bridges” which have giant steel towers and massive counterweights. The biggest of these is the Dock Bridge, right next to Newark Penn Station (which would be kind of attractive if they’d just paint the thing). While delays there are infrequent, knowing you’re so close to your destination makes it feel so much worse.


The Dock Bridge in Newark runs across the Passaic river into Newark Penn Station.

So… now I’ve become a regular on the PATH, and I can make a judgement. Overall it’s a nice system, and the Port Authority does a good job (it is cheaper after all) but for the regions sake I’m not so sure it should remain separate from the rest of NYC transit. Like I said earlier… I feel like it’s a throwback to the past every time I transfer from the MTA to the PATH. Subway Consolidation was good for the City (especially the outer boroughs) in the 1940’s, and with Bloomberg considering a stretch of the 7 line into Secaucus… maybe we should think about how good it would be for New Jersey and the Metro region as a whole to remove that barrier and have an integrated system.  It would help Newarkers get to Nets games, and it may help Long Islanders get over their indoctrination of not thinking of New Jersey too much.

Using art to relieve bicycle congestion

The Dutch city of Utrecht is no stranger to a phenomenon called “bicycle congestion”—a situation where infrastructural facilities for cyclists are used so much that their efficiency starts to suffer and negatively affects the cyclist’s biking experience (much like how congestion on roads affects motorists). Whether the congestion hits suggested bike lanes, seperated bike paths, or bicycle parking facilities, it’s detrimental to the competitiveness of cycling as a mode of transportation. And whilst the phenomenon in The Netherlands is most pronounced in Amsterdam, it’s worth taking a look at how the nearby college town of Utrecht deals with congestion on its bicycle routes, because of its inventive approach to the phenomenon.

One heavily used bicycle route in Utrecht runs due east from the Central Station, passing a street called Vredenburg and leading through the inner city before eventually reaching the Utrecht University campus at the eastern edge of the city.

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As the most direct route between the city’s central train station and the university, it draws a lot of bicycle traffic.

The number of bikes along the route typically peaks during the morning rush hour. Throw a few scooters and mopeds (who strangely are allowed to cruise on bike lanes in The Netherlands) in the mix, and you have a less-than-attractive route for cyclists, especially if they aren’t the type of able-bodied twenty-somethings who slightly dominate this city’s bike lanes.

The situation has prompted local municipal authorities to start a campaign to draw attention to alternative bicycle routes, of which there are plenty. Starting with the busy route leading eastwards of the inner city, an experiment is now underway. By painting red dots on (pre-existing) bike routes  and using red wayfinding signs, the city hopes to put alternative routes in the spotlight.


The red dots and accompanying signage at an intersection in Utrecht, The Netherlands. Source: De Utrechtse Internet Courant

The city will also place two informational signs at each end of the pilot route. The pilot runs until September, when it will be evaluated by the City. To that end, traffic counts will be conducted along the route. A user survey will also be conducted.


Using red stamps, the City of Utrecht hopes to draw attention to alternative bike routes. Source: De Utrechtse Internet Courant

The pilot was inspired by a plan by students from the Utrecht School of the Arts. Not everyone is excited about them, as some have already questioned whether this artwork will ever “function”. (Some locals have also expressed their hopes that the city will use eco-friendly paint.)

As long as we can all agree that if this is art, it probably can’t do much harm to the city either, these things might stand a chance to become a more permanent feature in Utrecht’s streetscape. It would surely be a welcome addition to the standard signage in place today, which is easily overlooked and falls short of its task to guide cyclists through the city.

routes utrecht

The trajectory of the alternative route (in red) and the main route (dark blue), which currently is heavily congested. Source: Google Maps (map edited by R. Woudstra)