The NYC DOT is looking to rebuild the crumbling Brooklyn-Queens Expressway through Brooklyn Heights with a second elevated highway. But if our various transportation agencies could learn to work together the city wouldn’t have to.
“if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” -Abraham Maslow
It should be no surprise that to every highway engineer the solution to traffic is always more roads. In this case, it is the NYC DOT, which last week announced their initial plan to rebuild the crumbling Brooklyn Heights cantilevered section of the BQE from Atlantic Ave to Sands St. The DOT had originally been looking at building a tunnel to replace the structure, but apparently the presence of a major city water tunnel directly in the path of any reasonable alignment, not to mention the network of subway tunnels, nixed any tunnel plan for good. The new plan involves building a temporary elevated highway alongside the existing one while they rebuild it. Naturally, the neighbors in Brooklyn Heights are not too pleased with such a plan. At a recent raucous town hall meeting (you can watch all 3.5 hours here) residents warily asked how this new structure would negatively impact them, with one person even suggesting DOT builds the structure further west through Brooklyn Bridge Park, which sparked loud applause.
One thing that DOT took away from this meeting was that the public is, rightfully, skeptical of their plans. A hard thing for professionals to understand is that they need to show their work in a way that the layman can follow along — just presenting a final plan will spark outrage unless people understand why it is the chosen alternative and why the others may not work. But in her opening statement DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg pointed out that the NYC DOT is a single city entity, not connected to the MTA or Port Authority and thus cannot impose bridge tolls or increase subway service. Other possibilities, like congestion pricing, is beyond the scope of this project.
And therein lies the key problem: due to our fractured political system for building and maintaining infrastructure we often cannot implement sensible or affordable solutions.
Make no mistake, this is by design: the DOT exists to handle traffic. If fewer people drove then the DOT would need less money, fewer resources, and provide fewer jobs. Thus it is in their interest to build a new highway, otherwise commuters would take mass transit and funding would be lost. The DOT provides a necessary service of maintaining our roads and bridges, but there is a tipping point where they begin to justify large projects only as a self-sustaining act. Well known to traffic engineers and urban planner is the concept of induced demand where building new roads, or more technically providing more capacity and a faster route, only encourages more people to drive. In the end it is often found that traffic is WORSE after a new highway is open. This, famously, was Robert Moses’s trick for justifying building ever more roads and bridges.
In the case of the BQE rehab the DOT is upfront that they are only going to consider an option which involves more roads. This is a typical case of confirmation bias on behalf of road builders. But the flip side to induced demand is when you remove a highway drivers will simply find another way. The DOT counters this with an argument that downtown Brooklyn streets are already packed during the day, so dumping thousands of new cars into the streets will bring the city to a halt.
Except this won’t happen. In truth if the DOT was to simply shut down the BQE for an extended period of time commuters would simply find another route. This is linked to Braess paradox which states:
“For each point of a road network, let there be given the number of cars starting from it, and the destination of the cars. Under these conditions one wishes to estimate the distribution of traffic flow. Whether one street is preferable to another depends not only on the quality of the road, but also on the density of the flow. If every driver takes the path that looks most favorable to him, the resultant running times need not be minimal. Furthermore, it is indicated by an example that an extension of the road network may cause a redistribution of the traffic that results in longer individual running times.”
The DOT knows that without a single preferred route drivers will use any number of other streets, opt for mass transit, or not drive through downtown Brooklyn at all. But DOT planners have to use all the red lines on a map to scare ignorant laymen into believing it will cause mass traffic jams. However, they would never admit to this because it would conflict with their core mission: providing more space for cars. This phenomenon has been witnessed in cities around the world when highways are shut down, even in car-centric Los Angeles which was preparing for Carmageddon when the 405 freeway was to be shut down for a bridge replacement. Famously, nothing happened: drivers found another way, or chose to not make trips at all. Back in New York, we have a better way already.
The Subway Option
New York has a giant web of subway lines, which even in their sad present state still work remarkably well and allows most New Yorkers to live their lives never having to own a car. Because highways often promote sprawling development it’s harder for suburban drivers to switch to mass transit as an alternative. But Brooklyn was mostly developed before the highways were slashed through and the subways still serve the borough relatively well. This means that we have a mass transit network in place which could take over the burden of most of the traffic currently using the BQE. The DOT’s own numbers tell the tale. Up to 2/3 of the traffic using this section of the BQE are intra-borough trips (this is car traffic, not truck, which I’ll address later). If the BQE was shut down without a complicated second highway to pick up the current traffic then large portions of users could switch to mass transit. The DOT, by their own admission, would not consider this since the MTA is a state agency in which they have no say, and admitting that their own users could use a different service altogether would be an admission that their highway doesn’t need to exist.
Of course, the MTA in its current state could probably not easily handle the extra traffic. While southern Brooklyn is well served by subway lines, the service on these lines is lacking. Bad routing has created bottlenecks which limit service on the B,D,N,Q, and R trains. I outlined an alternative solution for this problem but service could be improved even without an expensive new yard.
Currently both J and W trains terminate in lower Manhattan. When the BMT Nassau St Subway was built it was the last link in a great subway loop network. Trains from northern and eastern Brooklyn would swing through the Lower East Side and Financial District and loop back into southern Brooklyn. However, as new subway lines replaced the old elevated lines and jobs in lower Manhattan began moving to midtown this loop service began to be less effective.
Previously M trains looped south to Bay Ridge or Coney Island. There were even rush hour R trains between Bay Ridge and Chambers St. As recently as 2010 there were rush hour M trains making the journey down to Bay Parkway to allow for super-express D trains in Brooklyn (budget cuts combined the M and V trains to reroute M trains through midtown and back into Queens, which has been a popular change).
The main reason J and W trains terminate in lower Manhattan is more rational than technical. J trains terminate at Broad St because there isn’t enough demand between lower Manhattan and Brooklyn for a train which doesn’t go to midtown. W trains terminate at Whitehall St due to a lack of yard access in Astoria. But in the mornings and evenings there are a number of W trains which start at the 86th St station in southern Brooklyn so they can access the Coney Island Yard. The Montague Tunnel, through which the R train runs, only sees up to 10 trains per hour at rush hour since R trains are limited by a bottleneck in Queens. This leaves plenty of space for extending J and W trains south during the day. W trains would continue along the D to Bay Parkway, allowing some D trains to run express, while J trains would service Bay Ridge. This would more than double service along 4th Ave and southern Brooklyn.
Some may argue against this increase in service since it would only add local service; express trains are maxed out. But there is more to a commute than how long a train takes to get from A to B. Wait time is often more of an impact on ridership than travel time. Wait times along the R in southern Brooklyn are notoriously long to the point that, even with traffic, it’s often faster to drive. At 10tph a rider must wait AT LEAST 6 minutes for the next train (more often it is much longer) and, as is often the case, must transfer to a midtown bound express that could also have another 6 min wait. That is up to 12 min of just waiting, at rush hour no less. But with added local trains, that wait time could be cut in half. A potential rider knows that a train is only a couple minutes away so it’s worthwhile to wait. Since riders are already going to transfer to express trains to midtown, extending the J, which doesn’t go to midtown, still helps reduce the overall trip time. Crowding at transfer stations on the R in Brooklyn can reach dangerous levels during rush hour and cause delays due to boarding. More trains means less crowding and fewer delays which speeds up the entire network. Extending the J would also allow riders to have more choices about where they transfer, further reducing crowding at popular stations. Other services could be considered as well, such as bringing back super-express D trains or adding the much-discussed express F train.
(In the case of the schematic above this is just one option. A further study should be done which takes into account the disadvantages of interlining to find the best balance of service. But the point is there are more than a few different ways to increase service to southern Brooklyn.)
It’s not technical, it’s political
Commissioner Trottenberg brings up the point that the city DOT cannot tell the state MTA to add service. Except that Polly Trottenberg sits on the board of the MTA. It’s at best disingenuous to suggest that she has no say in the matter or that the city and state couldn’t–just for once–work together on something so crucial. Furthermore, it turns out that one of the neighbors of the project in Brooklyn Heights to be personally affected is none other than the head of the MTA himself, Joe Lhota. In a now-deleted tweet Lhota said “I always wondered what would turn me into a Community Organizer. This is it. NIMBY (and proud of it)”. The feud between Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo is old hat at this point, but this is an easy win for de Blasio. The costs involved with extending service would be a fraction of building a temporary highway, and not building the road would speed up the reconstruction considerably since the contractor could begin work sooner and not have to work in such dangerous conditions.
A traveler will chose the path of least resistance. No doubt some drivers will still opt to drive, especially commuters from Staten Island and New Jersey . But if there could be even a 25% reduction in driving by the removal of the BQE via an increase in subway service then the local streets wouldn’t see much of an impact. Additionally, the DOT could adjust light timers on more heavily used avenues throughout Brooklyn to handle the offset traffic. What the DOT should then focus on is how to handle the truck traffic which will spill over onto city streets. According to DOT numbers, 79% of trucks are headed to northern Brooklyn with half headed into Queens with slightly fewer headed from Queens into Brooklyn. If the DOT can paint bike lanes everywhere then surely they can have truck lanes on designated roads at the same time; 4th Ave, Atlantic Ave, Flushing Ave for example. But this is exactly what the DOT is trying to avoid. Billions of dollars, prestige and, most importantly, jobs are all at stake.
The alternatives are clear. Whether the DOT wants to take their blinders off is a harder question.