Friday, August 26, 2011

Manhattan is special

One of the most frustrating things for me to hear over the last few years has been "Why does Manhattan get all the good stuff? Why don't they do this in Brooklyn or Queens?" People who say this don't usually expect that they would do them in the Bronx or Staten Island, but they like to leave those boroughs in so they can be really anti-Manhattan.

A good example is this guy who claims to speak for "the outer boroughs" while living in an Upper East Side highrise. Another is the "two New Yorks" meme that came up in last winter's snowpocalypse as well as the congestion pricing fight.

The implication is that the location of these projects is entirely driven by elitism. Our Billionaire Mayor who lives on the Upper East Side only thinks of his fellow rich Manhattanites. They get all the exciting projects, and the working-class stiffs get to slouch along with their worn-out old highways and boulevards.

The most frustrating thing is that most of these people are completely full of shit. They claim to want projects like these to be located in Brooklyn or Queens, or maybe even the Bronx or Staten Island, but if someone tries to build one they rise up, like you're trying to put a methadone clinic or a toxic waste dump in their neighborhood. "Why are you dumping on Queens?" or of course, "This may have been a success in Manhattan, but it'll never work in Brooklyn."

There are a few people who genuinely want to see the benefits of transit and livable streets spread out among the boroughs. There's a good argument to be made for the "polycentrism" of the Paris or Los Angeles metropolitan areas, which evens out the demands on the transportation system somewhat. But even they don't always get why things happen in Manhattan. So here are four reasons why Manhattan is special, and why it makes sense to put things - new things, fancy things, exciting things - in Manhattan.

1. More people live in Manhattan. If you want to serve a lot of people, you can build something in Manhattan and they're all right there.

2. As a corollary, because lots of people live there, Manhattan is dense, one of the densest places in the country. Some projects need a critical mass of people to get going, and in Manhattan it's relatively easy to find thousands of people who are interested in something.

3. More people go to Manhattan. It's the primary employment center, the primary center of trade, of shopping, of art and performance. It's centrally located within the metropolitan area and well-served by the transportation system, so that people can get there relatively easily from all over the city. It's also a mixing ground for people from different groups to meet, a neutral territory with a strong police presence and lots of eyes on the street.

4. Less people drive to Manhattan and in Manhattan. Less Manhattanites own cars. It may not seem this way if you stand in the middle of Park Avenue at rush hour, but per capita there's a lot less car ownership, and a lot less driving. Many people drive everywhere but Manhattan: they leave their cars at the North White Plains lot and turn into pedestrians and transit users for the day.

Bureaucrats, politicians and advocates ignore these facts at their own peril. I've seen the DOT try to site numerous projects in Queens. Some of them attract instant opposition, because they would compete with cars, and others fail to attract enough pedestrian or bike traffic, and wind up being abandoned. A pilot project needs to work.

Some Manhattanites are snobs. Some Manhattan residents and businesses have too much influence, especially over Our Billionaire Mayor and his Sycophantic Staff, and they get things that they're not really entitled to. But more often, things happen in Manhattan because the DOT or the MTA know that there will be a lot of pedestrians or transit users there, or they'll be able to get there relatively easily.

The next time you see something happening in Manhattan, and you're ready to spring forward with cries of "Elitism!", check these four aspects of Manhattan's specialness that have nothing to do with elitism. You just might find there's a rational reason for it.


T.M. Brown said...

Hey man just as a little correction Number 2 on Manhattan is 100% correct but Number 1 is not: Brooklyn has about a million more people than Manhattan and Queens 700k more. Though they are gigantic in comparison, of course.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks, T.M. I guess in (1) and (2) I'm really talking about two advantages of density. Density #1 makes it easier for any project to succeed, but some projects can't succeed at all without Density #2.

There are certainly parts of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens that have both kinds of density. That's why projects like the Kent Avenue cycle track have been built in Brooklyn. But all three boroughs contain areas where there isn't that much density.

T.M. Brown said...

Yeah for sure, there's no doubt that Manhattan is exponentially more dense than BK and Queens and in a technical sense the daily fluctuations in population in Manhattan because of commuters also create a bell graph of "population" unique to NYC in the States. At least at that magnitude.

Alon said...

Sure, but a lot of things get built in the gentrified parts of Manhattan independently of density and car ownership. A good example is DOT's refusal to extend the protected bike lanes on 1st and 2nd Avenues to 125th Street, despite begs from CB 11.

George K said...

There are some projects that are just as worthy as Manhattan projects, and yet the Manhattan projects are further along than the ones in the outer boroughs. For example, Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, while not as dense as Manhattan would yield a lot of ridership if a subway line were placed under it. Yet, while Manhattan has 3 rail extensions going on (ESA, SAS, and the 7 line), that line isn't being built.

The same for Staten Island: The capital cost per projected rider is actually slightly less for the North Shore Rail Line than the SAS, and yet there is absolutely no progress that has been made in the construction of the line.

Of course, part of the issue are NIMBYs. In Manhattan, there is pretty much unanimous support for those projects, whereas there is at least some opposition to the ones in the outer boroughs.

The problem is that the opponents of the project tend to be more vocal than the supporters, for one reason or another, and that has to change.

Holly said...

Alon, CB 8 just voted to extend the 1st and 2nd lanes through their area last week. CB 11 has been asking for it, but CB 8 has been the hold-out. Why? The CB 8 transit committee is stacked with bike haters, after hearing them rant about the evil cyclists at the meeting I was truly shocked that they actually voted to extend the lanes (as long as enforcement increases, etc.). We need people who care about these things, and younger people in general, on the community boards.

giles said...

I understand your skepticism of the two New Yorks meme, but there is plenty of truth to it. Polls show strong support for increased spending on transit in the outer boroughs, and if more people made the connection between congestion pricing and better transit service i'm convinced that its approval rating would skyrocket, again, even in the outer boroughs.

Also, last winter i wrote a report detailing the truly astounding job growth and corresponding commuter growth patterns in areas of the outer boroughs that are not seeing any investments at all in transit. A precis is here:

We weren't friends on twitter then so maybe you missed it.

Of course nobody wants to see a Moynihan station built on Staten ISland but this mayor could spend a lot more of his political capital spelling out the benefits of BRT projects already under way, and they could have made a play for a much more ambitious and meaningful BRT system to begin with, targeting high growth areas like downtown Flushing, Jamaica, JFK airport, East Flatbush, Sunset Park, and St. George. Incidentally, the same reasoning extends to place making and public space. Manhattan has seen the lions share of investments when spaces like SI's north shore waterfront languish. Increased (and better) public transit options to and from the SI Ferry and some innovative placemaking around the ferry stretching all the way around the north shore, for example, could pave the way for an upzoning of St. George and radically increased building density. It sounds utopian but my impression is that most Staten Island politicos see the need for it and would welcome some real spending on the island.

I take it you're sympathetic to these kinds of projects, but i don't understand why you don't think Manhattan-centrism in the form of often unfounded bias is not at the heart of it. I mean they want to spend billions on a Moynihan station! which is as far as i can tell just a prestige project.