As we prepare for New York City’s post-pandemic future, it is important to reconsider how people move around the city and region.
Safety, improved connectivity, and greater reliability will all be key, whether addressing mass transit, private vehicles, bikes, walking, or ferries. Patterns of life and work are rapidly changing, and the approach to local mobility that has served the city well for more than a hundred years will not suffice going forward.
Most important is modernizing our mass transit system. During the pandemic, more than a third of the city’s workforce discovered that they could do their jobs from home. They will resist returning to the office if it involves standing room only on commuter rail, unexplained subway delays, or bunching of express buses that results in long waits in the cold or rain.
Commuters are not going to be satisfied unless transit services are safe, reliable, comfortable, and efficient. And for the growing population of older New Yorkers – transit must be more accessible.
Demands on transit services will increase with the introduction of congestion pricing in Manhattan’s central business district. New tolls on those driving into the zone are intended to encourage a significant “modal shift” from cars to transit. This will require new subway and bus service in transit deserts, and better connection to current and emerging centers of employment. There must also be seamless integration between ferries, city buses, and subways, including accelerating the expansion of the OMNY digital payment system.
The most dramatic change in city mobility patterns during the pandemic has been the surge in biking, including pedal-assist electric bikes that extend this option to riders with physical limitations. By some measures, Citi Bike is now the 25th biggest public transit system in the country and the largest bike share program outside of Asia. To take full advantage of cycling as a preferred way to navigate the city, bike lanes must be extended with adequate protections for cyclists and pedestrians.
New Yorkers are increasingly embracing cycling culture, but without the adequate consideration for the rules of the road required to maintain public safety in a dense urban setting. The tradeoff for the dedication of public space to cyclists must be respect for traffic lights, pedestrian right of way, and speed considerations on the part of the cyclists. Moreover, there needs to be strict enforcement or bans on illegal micromobility vehicles – all-terrain vehicles, all-electric bikes, and electric scooters – that are not appropriate for urban settings.
Finally, it is time to end longstanding practices that create obstacles to urban mobility without providing comparable public benefit. For example, tourist buses should be banned from the central business districts, parking placard privileges for government employees should be eliminated, curbs should be intensely managed to accommodate freight deliveries, and commercial waste zones should be implemented to regulate the pick-up of commercial garbage.
Mobility is critical to the economic prosperity and productivity of the city. It should be a top priority of the post-pandemic era.
Kathryn Wylde is president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City.