To remind myself why New York has so much trouble growing into the modern city it should be, I find it helpful to follow my dog down the block. If he urinates on the trash bags that get strewn on the curb as per our primitive waste-collection system, he’s committing an outrage against the Department of Sanitation. If he waits for a hydrant, that’s the Fire Department’s turf. Sometimes, he targets a bus stop, in which case he’s hitting a jurisdictional twofer: the Department of Transportation and the New York City Transit Authority, a division of the MTA. An orange traffic cone is another favorite, and that might be taken as a gesture of affection for the Department of Design and Construction, or possibly the NYPD. He might also cross the street into Parks Department territory or decide to go back indoors where the Department of Buildings rules. And if his license has expired, that’s an issue for the Department of Health.
Now, if my pup can run afoul of that many city agencies in a two-minute stroll down the block, imagine the head-spinning bureaucratic maneuvers involved in, say, achieving safer, quicker, and more comfortable commutes for millions of New Yorkers. All cities apportion the elements of urban life among different branches of government, but New York’s agencies, authorities, departments, and public corporations have evolved into billion-dollar fiefdoms, with their own cultures, goals, and instincts for self-preservation. The result is a ganglion of conflicting agendas, exemplified by the city’s shambling approach to traffic safety: No sooner has the transportation department built a bike lane, for example, than cop cars and garbage trucks block it.
New York’s particular form of deep-tissue paralysis is exacerbated by a perpetual power struggle between the city and the state. One of the principal rationales for the BQX, the streetcar line that the de Blasio administration has proposed running from Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn to Astoria, is that it would be an end run around the MTA: Rather than cooperate with a state agency, the city would prefer to launch a transit network of its own, even if that means asking an uncooperative federal government for an extra billion or two.
Some intramural conflict is a given in government, and democracy depends on competing visions slugging it out for a spot atop the agenda. And the city’s factions do sometimes gather around a table to tackle common problems. Occasionally, an agency will relinquish a chunk of unused land, which is how a new park will one day sprout on what was until recently Sanitation Department property on Gansevoort Peninsula. Much of the time, though, agencies operate in isolation, when they’re not in actual conflict. Hammering separate bureaucracies into a collaborative enterprise is the job of the city’s chief executive. Doing it would require a full-time mayor, though, preferably one who’s not bored by the task.
This morass has serious long-term consequences. Consider the Port Authority’s proposal to upgrade its antiquated terminal, the kind of demoralizing place that shaves a couple of minutes off your life span the moment you walk in. It’s cramped, shabby, outdated, and depressing — the perfect symbol of society’s scorn for buses and the people who take them. Even more emblematic are the Chinatown streets or the block of West 34th Street that private bus companies have commandeered. Passengers for Boston, Atlantic City, and other destinations line up in the snow, rain, heat, or gloom of night, while buses into and out of Manhattan clog streets, block intersections, or chug up elevated ramps, crushing the occasional pedestrian and poisoning many more with diesel fumes. In 2016, the PA, hoping to alleviate some of that misery, launched a competition for ideas on how to expand or replace the terminal. One firm that answered the call was Perkins Eastman, whose plan is one of those neat and intricate contraptions that seem preposterous until the last piece has been slotted into place, at which point they bloom into things of beauty. Instead of just rebuilding the terminal as a multistory structure tangled up in ramps, the architects would slip all the platforms into the basement level of the Javits Center, which is currently an exhibitors’ Siberia. The convention center would get that space back in a glamorous new wing built on a Hudson River pier. New Jersey buses would pass directly from tunnel to slip without ever surfacing in Manhattan. Passengers, too, can stay below decks from subway to bus at 34th Street/Hudson Yards. Or they can emerge into an airy new terminal, flooded with sunshine and linked to the Javits Center’s Crystal Palace.
The plan has more goodies — a waterfront park, storm-surge protection, a footbridge over Twelfth Avenue, an elevated pedestrian pathway slicing east toward Times Square, an open plaza with a fountain where the old bus terminal now crouches.
If all this sounds like impractical fantasy, it’s not. The Port Authority owns enough land in the area that raising a new crop of towers could theoretically cover the cost of the entire project. Okay, that’s optimistic accounting, but it does suggest that money’s not the highest hurdle. If this were a fully functional city, we might even be able to find out.
The plan’s real power, though, is also its greatest weakness. It pools the properties of various state agencies into a swath of public land, so the trajectories of bus passengers, subway riders, pedestrians, workers, tourists, residents, and conventioneers can intertwine. Rather than pit one cohort against another, the proposal treats them as overlapping groups, with equal claims to public space and the same desires for pleasantness and efficiency. But the whole vision depends on coaxing various government gangs to work in sync for the common good. The NYPD would have to relocate its tow pound, the Javits Center adapt its expansion plans, the MTA Bridges and Tunnels build new ramps for the Port Authority’s exclusive use. And so on. These managerial challenges are so daunting that although the competition jury praised the resourcefulness and creativity of the Perkins Eastman entry, it also pointed out that the firm’s concept would require extensive negotiations and agreements among public agencies and stakeholders that have different objectives. You can practically hear the jury’s skeptical snort: Never gonna happen.
Even so, the PA has rolled the Perkins Eastman proposal and a similar idea put forward by the Regional Plan Association into a document for the public to ponder and comment on. True, the Port Authority’s rollout consists of nothing more than a meager website and a couple of poorly publicized hearings (the next — and last — takes place September 5), but at least it’s still keeping a beguiling vision alive.
Time is the enemy. With every passing month and year that a plan is studied, shelved, restarted, postponed, restudied, and scrapped, the city seizes up a little more and the costs of getting it to move again increase. So do the chances that an impatient politician will suddenly find a way to ram through an inadequate solution.
Stasis is built into the way New York works, and that’s not just the fault of government agencies; this is a city that runs on slow-moving lawsuits. When the MTA threatened to close the L line for repairs, transit advocates pressed the de Blasio administration to speed up buses by banning most private cars from 14th Street. The L’s shutdown sentence was commuted at the eleventh hour, but the 14th Street busway remained a good idea. It would give priority to pedestrians, bicycles, and transit passengers, making it a model for a less car-clogged future. A group of neighbors disagreed and sued, claiming that the busway plan should trigger a long, expensive environmental review. Meanwhile, M14 passengers roll along at the pace of a speeding sloth.
The BQX, the bus-terminal plan, and the 14th Street busway all point to a belief in a future of transit that lies not just in new technologies but in old ones, too. Rather than be seduced by sugarplum fancies of levitating pods and robot taxis, we should devote the streets, bridges, and tunnels we have for vehicles that New Yorkers of a century ago would recognize as highly efficient: buses, streetcars, and bicycles. But instead of heeding the urgent call of the past, we’re stuck in the short-term future, hashing out a great city’s transportation priorities for the next generation by dint of objections, inertia, and self-serving squabbles.
*A version of this article appears in the September 2, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!