The Regional Plan Association, the collection of transit wonks and urban experts who release a sweeping vision for the New York metro area roughly once a generation, have come up with a truly radical idea: Close down the subway from 12:30 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. on weeknights. It makes sense, on a spreadsheet. The MTA could use those hours to swab down stations, repair the rails, and pick litter off the tracks instead of spending a fortune to run trains that hardly anybody rides. That’s how they do things in Mexico City, London, Moscow, and virtually every other subway system in the world. And it’s true that express buses zooming down empty streets would make perfectly adequate substitute subways in the middle of the night. So the question is, can New York live with changing its nickname to the City that Goes to Bed Late and Gets Up Early?
That pragmatic but hard-to-swallow proposal is buried deep inside the RPA’s sweeping new report on the New York metropolitan area, only the fourth in the organization’s nearly 100-year history.
The latest document ranges from the wonky to the wishful. It proposes, for instance, to let the rising waters reclaim New Jersey’s polluted wetlands, which they’re doing anyway. That would mean demolishing Teterboro Airport, unpaving the Meadowlands, and turning the whole area into a kind of Climate Change National Park — a green sponge to keep future storms from flooding the towns and suburbs all around.
What links the ideas of weeknight subway closures and an unlikely national park is a vision for the tristate area in 2040 as a more equitable and healthier region, better able to withstand the assaults of climate change. The plan, hammered out over years of community meetings and expert consultations, concludes that the New York metro region has two choices: Become an increasingly expensive, inequitable, and stagnant place where new jobs are added with an eyedropper, new residents are mostly retirees, and heavily populated zones remain vulnerable to natural disaster; or get serious about modernizing transit, attracting jobs, building housing, and narrowing the gap between the desperate and the inconceivably rich.
Much of what the RPA suggests is sensible: Install glass doors at the edge of subway platforms so 50 people a year can’t tumble onto the tracks and die. Deck over the trench of the Cross Bronx Expressway so that a new neighborhood can grow over its 60-year-old scar. Fix the subways before our grandchildren are of retirement age. But at the sloth’s pace of New York urban planning, these proposals qualify as moonshots.
The association has no power or money to put any of these grand ideas into practice, but it is the only organization dedicated to thinking in detail about how a vast and complex area can evolve over a generation or two.
Politicians keep their eyes fixed on the near horizon, and the region’s 782 municipalities often behave as if they were competing city-states. That leaves only the RPA to focus on projects that benefit everyone and on issues that nobody wants to think about. The first plan, published in 1929, acted as an instruction manual that the area followed for decades. It advised building the George Washington Bridge in upper Manhattan, rather than funneling interstate traffic through midtown; foresaw the need for the three airports that became LaGuardia, JFK, and Newark; and mapped out a network of highways and bridges that we still use today. The 1968 edition saw that even in the midst of rampant suburbanization, the metro region would need better public transit and more shared open space. The ’96 version urged the city to develop its far West Side.
Unlike most planning groups that make reports only to have them tossed onto dusty shelves, the RPA has a track record of seeing its proposals at least partly realized.
With climate change threatening the coastline, driverless cars coming, costs rising, and demographics shifting, wide-angle thinking matters more than ever. This fourth regional plan seems perfectly timed to address increasingly urgent problems but appallingly out of sync with today’s political climate. The sober report amounts to a primal scream — but with New York’s mayor and governor locked in a perpetual cage match and the federal government hostile to this entire part of the country, it’s hard to know who’s listening.