Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The roads (and trains) to downtown are crumbling

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal chronicled the infrastructure challenges facing our cities and suburbs (“Slow Road to Recovery", WSJ, 10/14). This is a real problem for urban communities, as the majority of the aging infrastructure is located in our urban centers. As the article mentions, 42% of urban highways are congested. And it’s not just our highway infrastructure that is at risk, our mass transit infrastructure is also deteriorating with no major reinvestment in sight. New York may be an outlier in its dependence on mass transit – at least for an American city – but the challenges here are no less acute than elsewhere.

Why should transportation matter to those of us working to improve downtown and neighborhood commercial districts? Because commercial districts function first and foremost when they are convenient. This is why we often hear merchants say parking is critical. But the truth is, it is often less about parking than it is about plain old access. Businesses in dense urban communities often lack parking, but they are doing just fine thank you. As a visiting assistant professor at Pratt Institute, I often talk to my students about the importance of access. Whether by car, bike, bus, train or two legs, one of the things we can do to support commercial districts to ensure that are easy and convenient for people to visit, work and shop in. 

One particular issue that came up in the recent Mayoral primary here in New York was the long commute that many New Yorker's face. In fact, mayoral candidate Christine Quinn made a case for public policy that would, by the year 2023, ensure that no New Yorker commute more than an hour to and from work. In a city like New York, which is really a collection of cities, these distances matter. Young professionals priced out of Manhattan and increasingly Brooklyn – and whose jobs are downtown or in other boroughs – will increasingly choose other cities where life is just well, easier. In fact, a few years ago the City of Philadelphia built an entire marketing campaign around attracting these young professionals, calling on them to “Stop Paying Someone Else’s Mortgage”. They might as well have added, “decrease your commute by half and live in a decent apartment you can afford while you are at it!”
I guess public transportation access
to Philly has greatly improved.

I often joke with my friends in Brooklyn (I live in Queens) that they might as well live in Philadelphia, because sometimes that is how long it takes me to get there by public transit. By car, with no traffic (which as we now know is rare) the commute can easily be three times as long. The long commute also disproportionately affects lower income people – of the 750,000 commuters in New York who travel more than an hour a day, ¾ of them earn less than $35,000/year. The lost productivity, not to mention the incredible waste and pollution created by this congestion is a shame. When Quinn mentioned during the mayoral primaries that “our transportation infrastructure hasn’t kept pace” – she might as well have been talking about all major American cities.

One of the glimmers of hope, however, is the growing bicycle infrastructure that is being built. I recently wrote about a panel I attended at the International Downtown Association conference on “bike friendly business districts”. Improving access to our business districts by ensuring that biking is convenient and safe is probably one of the smartest moves we can make to support our local commercial districts - particularly in dense urban areas. That, and investing in our overall urban infrastructure before it undermines continued economic growth. 

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