"It's setting the table": A Q&A with Corey Johnson on his transportation plan

“Before I was speaker,” Corey Johnson recalls midway through our interview about his plan to re-imagine the city’s transportation landscape, “I was at an event in the East Village. And I caught the 14A on Avenue A. It was like 11:30 at night. I was sitting on the bus and I’m so tired taking the bus and I’m just, like, sitting there reading on my phone and this woman gets on the bus and she’s looking at me. I don’t know her, I’m kind of like, why is she looking at me?

“And she goes, ‘Mr. Johnson?!’ And I say, ‘Yes?’ She goes, ‘You take the bus?!’”

Johnson does the voices as he tells this story. A weary, sad-sack imitation of his own as it might have sounded that night and a high pitch inflection to imitate the way an older lady might sound when encountering a council member on a local bus at 11:30 PM.

If nothing else, Johnson wants you to know that he rides the buses and subways. That he’s never owned a car. That even as City Council Speaker who gets an NYPD detail, he still tries to take the subway to work as often as he can. The implication being that it’s self-evident to him, as with every other New Yorker who relies on the MTA, that the status quo is untenable.

He repeated these notes about his life a few times during our interview to discuss his transportation report, which details how municipal control for the subways and buses could happen. It also re-imagines the city’s streets towards pedestrian, bus, and bike usage, away from car-centricity.

I left the conversation with a better understanding of what this report is supposed to be. It’s a conversation starter, or as Johnson put it, “setting the table.” It’s so people like me can never again write, as I did in the mailbag back in January when someone asked about municipal control, that no one has put together a serious proposal for what that would look like.

But I didn’t come away with any better sense of the odds it happens. Not because it can’t, but because I have been conditioned to believe New York City transportation can’t have nice things.

I’ve included parts of the Q&A below. The full interview will run as a paid edition on Tuesday. Subscribe now if you would like to read it.

A few quick notes: Rob Newman and Kelly Taylor, Counsel and Deputy Counsel to the Speaker, were also present because they worked on the report. Also, the parts I’ve included have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.

Aaron Gordon: Since your speakership began it was very obvious to me that you were making transportation a key focus. When did that formulate in your mind and how did you settle on that?

Corey Johnson: I don't know when or if there was a moment that I made a conscious decision on that. But you know, I've lived in New York since 2001 when I was 19 years old. I've never owned a car, even growing up when I got my permit and driver's license. I've always been a mass transit user. I've used the subways and buses basically every day I've lived in New York City for almost 20 years.

So for me, as I said in the speech, the subways and the buses is where New York happens. It's where you see daily life in New York City. It's where you see frustrations, is where you see romance, it's where you see homeless people, it's where you see—

AG: Dance parties.

CJ: —Dance parties. It's where you see good parenting and bad parenting. It's where you see it all.

Kelly Taylor: Rats.

CJ: Rats.

What cities were you looking to as models as you were formulating this report?

Well, Rob and Kelly were the ones who, and their team, spent months doing extensive research on what other municipalities in the United States and around the world were doing. They can chime in specifically. But I would say, I think we took a look at what's happened in Berlin and how Berlin has sort of planned their streets. And I mean, they have a sort of a street car monorail system, the U-Bahn I think it's called. They have that and there are cities in Spain, I think Barcelona and Madrid have done some forward thinking street planning.

And then there are other cities. I think Scandinavia has been really forward thinking and about how they use their streets. Amsterdam is a major bike culture as we know. We looked at a bunch of different cities in Europe and we looked at what other cities in the United States had done, what had worked for them and what sort of could be improved on. Am I missing anything?

Kelly: It's mostly Europe. They are light-years ahead of us when it comes to particularly re-thinking car culture, cities in Europe-

CJ: Pedestrian spaces.

Kelly: Planned streets around, pedestrians and cyclists.

You mentioned you were part of the opposition on a protected bike lane project at one point [he did mention this earlier in the conversation, which we talked about and will be in the full Q&A]. Obviously community involvement is always part of these projects to some degree. And as I was reading the report, one of the things I was interested in learning more about is how you manage the community involvement process while at the same time trying to do all this so much faster at a much larger scale than we currently do. Because as the report notes that community process can often be a source of friction. How do you manage those two goals of both wanting the community involved and also doing things on a much larger scale?

The honest answer is I'm not sure because anything you do in New York City in hundreds of distinct neighborhoods where people feel like their little—both neighborhood and then their block—is sort of their little village in their little home. Anything you do when you make changes it's going to stir some level of anxiety and opposition. I think if you use data, if you have other successful examples in the city, if you talk about it in a comprehensive master plan-like way, where it doesn't seem like this is just being imposed only on them, but it's a plan for the entire city, you can sell it in a way that still allows for community input but also says you don't get to entirely fend off this project. We’ll work with you, there might be some hyper local issues and concerns that could improve this project or that we haven't thought about from a local perspective but I think it's sort of an amalgam of those two things.

And there's no, I think, set path or plan on anything you really do in New York City. I mean, look at the ULURP process. You have a designated clock that works in some ways, but you know, there's opposition, there's support. It goes up, it goes down, it gets negotiated. Some things get included, some things don't get included. I think it would be similar to that.

Every once in a while I get an email from a reader who asks about municipal control. They're like, "That seems like a good idea, but what would that look like?" And I'd respond, "Good question." Nobody has really thought about it in a very systemic way until this plan came out, which is why I was excited to see it. It seems very thoughtful. It seems like you guys really put a lot of care into it.

But it kind of reinforced a question that I've had all along. It’s not an issue with your research, or your report. It’s just the situation. In order to do this, it seems like you need a large degree of buy-in from the state. And I don't know why the state would ever agree to give up power over the MTA. It gives them an awful lot of negotiating power over city issues. How do you get the state to that point?

I think that's sort of an impossible question to answer only because I never thought that Eliot Spitzer would only be governor for like 14 months. And I never thought that after Andrew Cuomo lost to Carl McCall in 2002 he'd come back as the attorney general four years later or that Anthony Weiner wouldn't run in 2009 for mayor. Crises happen which then sometimes spur action to actually do certain things. And so, I'm not saying that in a dismissive way. All I'm saying is the building block to get something done, if there's an opportunity, is number one having a plan that makes sense, that is defensible, that you could sell, that experts and policy makers say this is a real thing. You actually can achieve this. It's not a pie-in-the-sky utopian fantasy, but something that could actually get done. That's the first step.

The next step is actually getting public support. Again, I don't say this in a, I'm not saying this is about me. I'm saying it generally. If you look at, and I'm not comparing municipal control to the civil rights movements, but it's a good point to make: if you look at the African American civil rights movement, the LGBT civil rights movement, the women's suffrage movement, these are all movements that were led by people, not politicians. And these were movements that got politicians to move in the right direction where there's enough pressure.

I think Families For Safe Streets have done that. I think they've done that on safety issues around communities and speed cameras and pedestrianization and reckless driving and changing the verbiage from accident to crash. So I think with a well-organized group of people who can make the case on a public policy issue, they're the ones that can typically get elected officials to do the right thing and move in the right direction. And I think that's part of the reason why you saw, not that there was widespread opposition to the mayor's plan, but I don't think there was tremendous enthusiasm from other elected officials for universal pre-K, but I think the public was like, "This sounds good. I'm going to get free childcare for my four year old." And it makes sense and it's good public policy and I think the public's support for universal pre-K is what laid the groundwork to get the money from Albany to get it done.

I think this is the same thing. It's a long-term plan. It's setting the table, it's building public support, which I've seen a tremendous amount of public support just in a little more than a week since we gave the speech and I think that's the first step. Then the long-term strategy, is to go and sell this to the legislature and to the governor to make the case, to have a very, hopefully, intellectually serious argument and discussion about it.

And then, I don't know if I'm going to be the next mayor but hopefully whoever the next mayor is, this will be a roadmap for them on how to get it done. And I think if someone does get this done, they'll go down in the history books as someone who did something extraordinarily significant for the city of New York for the next century.

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News You Probably Can't Use, But About Which You Can Certainly Brood

  • Yesterday, the MTA announced they’re extending the on-demand e-hail pilot for 1,200 Access-A-Ride customers through the end of the year. If you need a refresher, the e-hail pilot allowed less than one percent of AAR customers to get rides on-demand through the Curb app, paying the normal AAR fare with the MTA picking up the difference, which saved the MTA money on a per-trip basis over regular AAR. The pilot program was scheduled to expire in April, so this at least continues a service many of its users have hailed as transformational, although it doesn’t exactly assuage concerns about its long-term prospects.
    The MTA also announced they will provide more AAR trips "in taxis and for-hire vehicles (FHV) in coming years" although a lot of details on that initiative, such as for whom it will be available, how many rides will be replaced with FHVs and what the time scale is, are still forthcoming.
    There are two main sources of e-hail customer satisfaction: 1. customers could make trips on-demand, whereas under the traditional AAR service they have to book trips at least 24 hours in advance (as an aside, think about what your life would be like if you had to book all your public transportation trips 24 hours in advance) 2. The trips were direct without the notorious multi-borough tours to pick up other customers.
    The expansion of taxi/FHV-based trips, which have been available since the beginning of the month under the title program Enhanced Broker Service, in theory brings the second benefit to more AAR customers, but not the first. Those trips will still need to be booked at least 24 hours in advance. Joe Rappaport of the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled told AMNY that riders have been complaining about sloppy execution of the Enhanced Broker Service since its launch.
    Advocates like Rappaport have been calling for the MTA to expand the e-hail program in its entirety so more customers can experience both benefits. The MTA has contended it can’t afford to expand the program—even though each e-hail ride is roughly half the cost of a traditional AAR ride—because those customers take so many more trips. Notably, the MTA has never presented a study or analysis on this despite repeated requests from advocates. I suppose the MTA’s position is that its well-publicized budgetary pressures make it a non-starter.

  • First spotted by @uws_cyclist, the B (and M) trains this week had strange service advisories, telling riders service “may end early each evening,” as if NYCT didn’t know! Living off the B myself, I have become accustomed to it seemingly never running past 9 PM anyways, but this is the first time I’ve seen such hedging language.

    I asked NYCT about both the weird wording and the seemingly permanent B service changes. Regarding the wording, spokesman Shams Tarek said they are “actively working to improve the signage we use to explain this type of service change, and will be more descriptive and clear about this on our digital assets as well.”
    As for B service constantly ending early, VP of Service Delivery Barry Greenblatt, widely regarded as one of—if not the—foremost expert on subway operations, said in a statement provided to Signal Problems that this is the result of work starting earlier on weeknights. Due to the location many of the work trains leave from, it often impacts B service. His entire statement is below because I think it’s a great example of how complicated planned work can be:

    The introduction of 10pm start times for overnight work has led to work trains being dispatched from storage yards as early as 8 PM in many cases, which requires train service to close early on a lot of lines. The most impacted portion of the system is the 4th Avenue Corridor where work trains originating from 38th Street Yard [between 9th Ave and 36th St on the D] must traverse the 4th Avenue express track between 36th Street and DeKalb Avenue regardless of their ultimate destination. This diverts Manhattan-bound D and N service to the local track, which if full service were to operate, would require the B, D, N and Q all use the same track at DeKalb Avenue. They won’t fit, so northbound B service — which again is redundant at every station on the line—ends earlier than usual under these conditions — about two hours earlier — to provide the needed track capacity at DeKalb Avenue for all of the 38th Street Yard work trains to go to their various jobs throughout the city. Note that often this work is on the B line itself, for example on the Concourse line last week.

    So how are we making this as least impactful as possible? In a lot of ways. In addition to ending the redundant B service early when needed, we have built additional tracks at Jamaica Yard in Queens and Linden Yard in Brooklyn to relocate work trains for storage, loading, and unloading. We are also staging work trains in other yards to the extent possible and altering work train routing.  All of these extensive efforts have allowed us to do a massive amount of repair, maintenance and improvement work with reduced impact on customers.

    Up until now I suspected ending B service early was a cost-saving service cut. It’s always fun to learn new things!

  • Second Ave Sagas (who is a lawyer by day) has a very informative breakdown of the ADA lawsuit last week. As he points out, this is yet another issue where cost control looms large. Speaking of: Alon Levy provides a rough sketch of the costs of installing elevators in metro stations in different cities around the world, something I haven’t seen done before (spoiler: NYC pays the most and it’s not close).

  • The L train was horribly delayed on Thursday morning due to loose wires on the track. Station metering had to be done at Bedford Ave. Dan Rivoli of NY1 reports this was a result of the overnight repair work, suggesting such delays may be more common once the L tunnel repairs begin. Regardless of this specific incident’s relevance, I think it’s fair to assume that conducting intensive nightly construction work for 15-20 months will result in many AM commute issues.

  • The MTA is making progress on the much-needed Bronx bus network redesign. They released key findings from the various workshops they did with Bronx residents, including majority support for frequency vs. coverage (run more frequent service on fewer routes instead of less service on more routes) and stop consolidation. You can see the full report here. They expect to release a draft plan in May and a final plan in September. The transparency on this project thus far has been better than expected.

  • Funding The MTA news:

    • This week, the MTA funding roulette lands on...**spins, orders another drink, makes small talk**…the pied-a-terre tax!

    • PCAC put together an interactive tool to fund the MTA (which unfortunately doesn’t include any way to reduce the budget)

    • Good governance watchdog Reinvent Albany created a handy table for comparing the MTA proposals from the Governor, Assembly and Senate 

  • Finally, *finally* there is (a little) movement on significantly curtailing car usage in the Financial District, thanks to the Financial District Neighborhood Association. I still maintain the Financial District would become one of the best places in the city and one of the most unique destinations in the world if it was pedestrianized.

  • DOT is currently working through two different proposals for how to rebuild the BQE. But the City Comptroller has proposed his own idea, one that I suspect will become increasingly popular over time: what if we only kinda rebuild it? 

  • PCAC released an exemplary report on commute times, using the Broadway N/W to Bowling Green as a case study. They found in the AM peak adding nearly ten minutes to the scheduled 39 minute trip is required to regularly ensure an on-time arrival. The average actual travel speed along the 4/5 from 59th St to Union Square in the AM is only nine miles per hour. In the PM, nine minutes ought to be added. Riders are not able to board the 4/5 approximately a quarter of the time at Fulton St, although average speeds were 50 percent faster than the AM commute.
    What is also clear is NYCT cannot run the number of trains per hour that are scheduled on the 4/5, often missing the mark by four or five per hour, something the New York Times covered in 2017.
    I also liked the inclusion of proposals to de-interline or reconfigure route combinations to make operations easier, not because I am particularly in favor of any of them specifically, but because taking advantage of the subway’s unparalleled route flexibility is not discussed enough as a way to improve subway performance and serve riders better as we wait a decade or two for CBTC.

  • Hudson Yards opened this week and everyone fucking hates it. Seriously, one of the two subway extensions we actually managed to build over the last decade was to there? Anyways, I bring this up because the escalators at the Hudson Yards 7 station are broken

  • Who needs a Ford F-150 when you’ve got the subway?

  • Long Island helipad NIMBYism? “I see both sides because I'm a pilot ... I don't want to be next to one but so far, the ones that exist don't bother me personally.”

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

  • Motherboard took a deeper look at Via, the ridesharing app that says they pay their workers better and truly prioritize shared rides. Can a rideshare app be ethical? Probably! But is this one?

  • In a surprise to absolutely no one, the Trump administration’s preliminary budget is very good for highways and very bad for public transit. But there will be ample haggling to come.

  • China wants to extend its extremely problematic social credit system to paying for transit fares with your face. Part of me admires the sheer competency that would be required to pull that off.

  • DC Metro is moving ahead with subsidizing for-hire vehicle fees in lieu of providing late night service. Unfortunately, they’re only proposing a $3 subsidy per ride, which will likely be nowhere near the cost of a trip for most travelers. Leave it to DC Metro to come up with a solution that works for no one.

  • There’s no such thing as a perfectly fair transit fare.

  • Atlanta’s transportation is as much a racial story as a transportation story, and an upcoming vote in Gwinnett County will tell us a lot about how things have (or haven’t) changed. I highly recommend Kevin Kruse’s book, White Flight, to learn more about not only Atlanta’s midcentury politics but the making of modern America.

Head over to Subway Weekender for all your unofficial weekend and late night service advisory breakdowns.

Dog in a Bag

MTA Rules of Conduct Section 1050.9 Subsection (h) Paragraph 2: no person may bring any animal on or into any conveyance or facility unless enclosed in a container and carried in a manner which would not annoy other passengers.

Have a dog in a bag photo? Reading this on the subway and see a dog in a bag? Take a picture and send it to signalproblems@substack.com.

Photo credit: Nick Andersen

This has been another edition of Signal Problems, a weekly newsletter helping you figure out what is going on with the subway, made every week by Aaron Gordon. Read on the web or view the archives at signalproblems.nyc.

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As always, send any feedback, subway questions, or Dog in a Bag photos to signalproblems@substack.com. I’d love to hear from you. As someone on a stalled Q train once told me, we’re all in this together.