Q&A: Jonathan Bowles on how to make NYC more liveable
Jonathan Bowles, 41, is executive director of Center for an Urban Future, a public policy think tank dedicated to improving New York City by focusing on the problems facing low-income and working class neighborhoods. He lives in Forest Hills with his wife, Shweta, and their two small children.
What would you most like to see changed or accomplished in NYC?
Faster commute times from the boroughs is the best way to make the city more affordable to more people. There is a lot of real estate at the edges of the city, but people feel they can only go so far out due to the difficulties of commuting from the outer edges. Technology and signal improvements could allow more trains to run at faster intervals. We also need more rapid transit buses. Bus rapid transit is a global phenomenon that NYC is only just beginning. A lot of people drive in because the subway options are so bad. I'm all for congestion pricing as a way to create a fund to improve outer borough transit. Using congestion pricing to help finance subway and bus improvements to the outer boroughs -- that's the ticket!
Is the MTA's fare hike that raises the monthly card from $104 to $112 justified?
In the absence of support that should be there from Albany, the MTA has to keep hiking fares. We can't let the transit system fall apart. The state legislature and the last couple of governors have not done enough to support the MTA. We need to vote out the legislators who don't support it and demand more accountability from the people who are there. The press doesn't cover Albany much, either. No one knows what is happening up there!
You said you had two suggestions for improving NYC. What was the other one?
A It's gotten increasingly difficult for people to climb into the middle class here. We need more economic mobility. I'd love to see a return to the days when being in or coming to NYC was a springboard into the middle class. Too few people have the education levels to compete effectively in the work force and we have a skills crisis in NYC that few people are talking about. We have one of the highest rates of people failing the GED in the country. The city needs to be more focused on people-building skills and achieving educational goals because we're now in a knowledge economy.
Yet, your Center says one-third of all New Yorkers are in low-wage jobs. What is considered low-wage and what can they do to make more money?
We did the low-wage study a few years ago and went by the federal definition. Low-wage jobs do not allow you to enjoy a decent living in NYC. The largest growing demographic in NYC is the working poor. The poor are not just people on public assistance and people without jobs.
Should internet service be seen as a human right, not unlike utilities such as water and electricity?
I'd have to think about it, but it is a basic necessity. Not being connected is the equivalent of not having electricity. There's a great digital divide, with too many New Yorkers not tapping into high-speed internet connections. Their biggest barrier is price. People throughout the city have access to the internet: They just can't afford it. DSL is fairly cheap, but a lot of low-income people here don't even have a land line. It's incredibly expensive for telecomm companies to build out the infrastructure: They have to charge high rates to get that investment back. The best mechanism to bridge the digital divide today is probably our libraries.
What are the borough demographic trends?
Manhattan is not losing people, but there's a long-term trend of the other boroughs gaining a larger share of the population and jobs in the city. There are a lot of things happening outside of Manhattan. Developers are chomping at the bit to build more housing there.
What will NYC be like in 25 years?
It will be an older, increasingly diverse city. New York is always going to have a high number of poor people. The largest cities in the world always do, but I'm optimistic that we'll be able to fix the educational system and get to better jobs. Lots of poor and working people will give up on the city and move to places where a low paying job can take them a lot further. More low income people will live in the suburbs: That trend has already begun.
And for the people who want to stay here?
There will be more hospital and health care jobs. The industries here will increase the educated people in the city. There will still be middle class jobs, but they will be in knowledge industries. And there will be more middle class people living outside of Manhattan, but that's not necessarily bad. They'll bring more money, jobs and housing to the boroughs.
Are increasing property taxes a significant factor in diminishing the ability of ordinary New Yorkers to remain in the city?
Real estate values have gone up so much in the last 15 years that a lot of people who bought apartments based on what they were worth 15 years ago are having a lot of trouble paying the rates. But a lot of other people can't afford to buy anything at all. There's a huge degree of unfairness in the property tax revenues. Policy makers have to take a look at what is a better way to bring in more revenues for so many unmet needs.
The Center says that NYC lags the rest of the state in the installation of solar panels. But some advocates say that our city, because of the density and height of its buildings, isn't really equipped for being a solar power center as other cities.
There's no question we could be doing more. One of the big problems is that costs here are so much higher. The permitting process can be a real headache, too. We've just scratched the surface on what we could do.
What can be done to help our city's embattled small businesses?
NYC's Small Business Services have gotten better every year. They've got more programs. But simultaneously, the city is making life here more difficult for small businesses because they're seen as cash cows (to generate revenue by issuing fine-related violations). They're issuing tickets left and right! The traffic enforcement agencies are certainly the worst. A lot of the regulatory agencies could be much more flexible.