NYC can’t get sh*t done


Times Square gets ready for the yellow deluge now that City council has decriminalized outdoor urination. image from AP

The years have flown past for me since I moved to the city back in the 80’s. I consider myself to have the soul of a poet, the heart of a lion and the eloquence of Shakespeare; alas, lately I have the prostate of a Golf Digest subscriber. As I’ve written before, the breaking of the city’s transit grid has made getting around much more difficult for many people. There’s nothing like a two-hour ride on a train to make life miserable for those of us who forgot to tap the kidneys before we left the house. And as I frantically cross my legs and hope that I’ll find a Starbucks on the other end of my miserable commute to dump money into so I can use their john, I seethe. New York can’t get things done. The idea of accessible bathrooms is only part of it. My grouch list:

  • The city’s politicos and pundits have been arguing about public restrooms ever since the F*cking 1970’s, when pay toilets were made illegal. Once that happened and pay toilets were no longer available, business owners restricted their toilet facilities to ‘customers’, and New York became a place where getting access to a toilet was a matter of buying a beer or a slice or whatever the purveyor was selling (The irony of this is that the hated pay toilets were a dime apiece back in the heyday). Fast forward to the 1980’s, when the mentally ill folks discharged from institutions under the Reagan administration started using what few public bathrooms were left as homes. Every NYC mayor since Ed Koch has put forward some silly program to set public bathrooms up. None have succeeded, and AFAIK Bloomberg didn’t try. The best the city can do (just passed by city council) is pressure the NYPD to decriminalize outdoor urination (also public drunkenness and littering). I’m waiting for some clever entrepreneur to come up with a subway version of ‘truck bombs‘, the ubiquitous mystery-liquid filled bottles found along major interstate routes. 
  • We have a ‘back to the Future’ homelessness problem.In the 80’s, the Koch administration had an excuse when then-record numbers of people were sleeping on the streets–the state’s asylums had been closed after federal budget cuts, and thousands had been dumped on city streets. The current homeless crisis includes many of those people, still unable to be boarded anywhere in the city now that the day of the SRO has passed. But it also includes an unprecedented number of families with children. That’s a direct result of skyrocketing rents and a lack of affordable housing, a problem that’s been growing since the Koch era. Sidebar: remember the landlord lobby’s favorite bromide? That all problems with housing would be solved if we did away with rent regulations? How’s THAT working out? And with climbing rents, all the other problems below get worse. Consider:
  • Former Mayor Bloomberg’s failed PlaNYC tried to deal with the reality of another million people in the city by 2030. Well, the people are still coming, but there’s no planning–Bloomberg’s plan was reviled, but nobody has a plan B. There’s no interest from the state in tolling the East River bridges to help pay for the new subway lines needed for those extra commuters (Albany would have to sign off, and suburban pols won’t touch it). Bloomberg’s back-door plan to ease pressure on over-capacity subways by encouraging bicycle commuting is clearly not going to work–commute distances have gotten longer as a result of exploding rents, and the threshold for bicycle commuting is four to five miles, or 30 minutes. When the average one bedroom rental in Brooklyn is going to $2000 a month,  people have moved to cheap, far-flung edges of the city–in most cases out of bicycle commuting range.
  • You can’t solve the commuting problem in NY absent new subways. Thanks to Uber, we now have several thousand ‘new’ cars in the grid at a time when the grid is already over capacity. In Brooklyn, that means gridlock. Gridlock means that adding new bus capacity is a non-starter. Speaking of unsolved problems: intra-borough travel in Brooklyn is a patchwork of slow and unreliable buses or crazy subway commutes (it takes less time to take the train into Manhattan and back out to Williamsburg via the L train than to cobble together a ride on the various bus lines). This is a problem Brooklyn has faced since the 1950’s, when GM bought up the trolley lines (hence the theme of this post about the city being unable to cope with problems over a long haul). How’s that commute from Williamsburg or Bushwick into Midtown going to work if the MTA goes through with its plan to take the L train out of commission for a year or so? Related:
  • Hurricane Sandy made it clear that NY was vulnerable to storms in new and terrifying ways. Thanks to increases in sea level, the city’s transit system is vulnerable to flooding, one of the reasons that the L train is being taken out of service (flooding from Sandy has never been systemically addressed). I had blogged about the threats here, in writing about Mayor Bloomberg’s move to bring in natural gas from fracking. Please note the date of the blog–it was PRIOR TO SANDY. We’re sliding into year four post-Sandy. There were studies of Sandy-type scenarios developed over the years, gathering dust while the politicians didn’t deal with them. The loss of Downtown Manhattan (home of Wall Street) to hurricane flooding would be a multi-trillion dollar hit on the US economy. Where’s the plan? 

I didn’t want this to become a ‘cranky old man’ article. None of the things I’m writing about should be news to NYC residents. But people here in the Five Boroughs pride themselves on being smarter than the rest of the nation. We do big things. We dream big. And if we have chronic problems that we don’t even address, what’s happening in the rest of the country?



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