Sunday, January 08, 2006
The Times on traffic: a "nightmare" intersection or "not that bad when it's functioning"?
The article began (graphic at right from the Times):
"This is what traffic engineers consider a nightmare," said Samuel I. Schwartz, surveying the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues in Brooklyn on a cold night shortly before Thanksgiving.
Around Mr. Schwartz - a former deputy transportation commissioner who has been credited with helping to coin the term gridlock in the 1980's - was a sea of steel and chrome and brake lights winking angrily in the night.
Waves of pedestrians ignored the long diagonal crosswalks, swarming past the cars and trucks inching home. Buses lumbered around the corner like whales in an aquarium, blocking off two lanes at a time.
During the commuter rush, as many as 4,600 vehicles pass through the intersection every hour, according to the city's Department of Transportation. Hundreds more join the flow toward the intersection from Fourth Avenue, which cuts across Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues to the west, servicing South Brooklyn's docks and residential neighborhoods.
A few feet below lies a major transit hub - the Atlantic Avenue and Pacific Street subway stations, which handle 10 lines, and a Long Island Rail Road station - that serves about 50,000 riders a day. And on the intersection's north side sits the Atlantic Terminal, a mall that houses, among other things, one of the busiest Target stores in the Northern Hemisphere. But in the coming years, drivers, pedestrians and those who live nearby may remember these days as a time when traffic was not really so bad after all.
Over the next four years, if the developer Forest City Ratner Companies gains state approval, an 18,000-seat basketball arena for the Nets is scheduled to rise on the southeast corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, the centerpiece of the company's proposed Atlantic Yards project, the biggest in Brooklyn history.
If the Atlantic Yards development is built as scheduled, 7,300 apartments housing about 18,000 residents would join the arena on the 22-acre site, as well as space for some 2,500 office workers and retail to draw shoppers.
"If you slow things up on Flatbush, you're backed up to Prospect Park," noted Mr. Schwartz, who has been hired by Forest City Ratner to consult on the project. "If you slow up Fourth Avenue, you're backed up to Park Slope. And if you slow down Atlantic, you're backed up to Central Brooklyn."
True, but it's worse: as relevant community boards and transportation engineer Brian Ketcham (quoted lower in the story) have commented as part of the environmental review of the project, traffic on those arteries also affects the Brooklyn Queens Expressway and the Brooklyn Bridge. A signal fault of the draft scope for the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) being conducted by the state Empire State Development Corporation, they say, is that it sets boundaries of a quarter-mile for the primary review area and a half-mile for secondary impacts, while the likely impact would extend much farther.
The Times article continued:
Though the project has spurred heated debates over eminent domain, the use of public subsidies, gentrification and other issues, those with worries about Mr. Ratner's plans most commonly worry about traffic. Last fall, the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods, an umbrella group of block associations and other local groups, distributed questionnaires about the project. Almost a quarter of those who responded cited traffic as a specific concern they had about the project, by far the most frequently cited issue.
"They are primarily worried that that intersection is already close to gridlock on a daily basis, that there is already no parking, and that there is already a substantial and increasing danger to pedestrians," said Candace Carponter, the co-chairwoman of the council and an opponent of Atlantic Yards. "And there is no way that adding tens of thousands of people to that intersection on event nights isn't going to radically exacerbate the problem."
But James P. Stuckey, the developer's executive vice president for development, questioned whether the group's questionnaire was statistically sound and said that the intersection "is not that bad when it's functioning."
He added: "It can be improved. What I think is realistic, is that traffic is a major issue to be dealt with."
Well, maybe it is "not that bad when it's functioning," but that's irrelevant, since it would be functioning differently if the Atlantic Yards project is built--and even if it isn't, given the other development in the northwest section of Brooklyn.
As for whether the questionnaire was statistically sound, well, it wasn't a poll of residents, so it doesn't have that level of validity. But it certainly establishes a threshold of concern. Is Stuckey trying to say that a lot of people aren't worried about traffic? Their elected representatives are.
Keep in mind that the statistical soundness of many of the developer's statements could be questioned. As noted, the latest issue of Forest City Ratner's Brooklyn Standard contains some dubious numbers regarding the expenditure of public money, the number of construction jobs, and the value of the railyard bid.
In the Standard's "Frequently Asked Questions About Atlantic Yards," the fourth question asks if the project will "bring in more traffic than the area can handle?" The short answer: "No." That's rather conclusory, since local and state officials are studying the issue. The answer continues: "While FCRC recognizes the potential for traffic congestion at various intersections during certain peak hours of the day, they are committed to working with city and state agencies to implement any mitigation measures that may be necessary."
The Times continued:
With three major thoroughfares converging, the area is considered by many traffic engineers to be among the most congested in the city. Both Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues are major commuter routes to the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges, in part because Brooklyn - unlike Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx - has no cross-borough highways. Atlantic Avenue is also one of two preferred routes through Brooklyn for commercial traffic; the other is Linden Boulevard.
There are few options for avoiding the intersection. There is no alternative route to Flatbush, which cuts diagonally across the street grid. Part of Fulton Street, which is north of Atlantic and runs parallel to it, is reserved for buses. South of Atlantic Avenue, parallel streets like Dean are largely residential.
"People will seek shortcuts through that area," noted Mr. Schwartz, citing a major concern held by residents. "You have this maze. And drivers will try to find a way to get out."
The city has tried for years to improve the intersection. During the 1990's, when Forest City Ratner was building the Atlantic Center mall, a lane was added to Flatbush Avenue on the northbound side, and the pedestrian concourse beneath the intersection was improved.
To accommodate the opening of the adjoining Atlantic Terminal mall in 2004, Atlantic Avenue was widened as it approaches the intersection from the west, with the addition of a right-turn lane. The mall was also set back from Flatbush Avenue to allow for the addition of a bus-stop lane.
The Atlantic Yards project would lead to 40,000 new vehicle trips through the area each weekday, according to an independent study by Community Consulting Services, a transportation and environmental consulting firm advocating better traffic planning in Brooklyn.
Forest City Ratner officials disputed that study, saying that it overstated the vehicle trip increase by 40 percent to 50 percent, in part by failing to subtract trips generated by homes and businesses that would be replaced by the project.
What? Is Forest City Ratner saying that the residents and businesses within the Atlantic Yards footprint recently generated tens of thousands of trips daily? I doubt it. There are relatively few businesses--a dozen?--and only a few hundred residents--an estimate generated by the anti-Ratner Prospect Heights Action Coalition was 863, but that number included 400 homeless people, who aren't doing much driving. I'd like to see the other reasons to dispute Ketcham's study explained, and that's an unfortunate constraint in a story that needs to cover a lot of ground.
Also missing--a significant omission from this article--was any reference to the cost of fixing the problem. Regarding the development in downtown Brooklyn and environs, including Atlantic Yards, Ketcham has predicted an annual cost of $100 million to the city and state. Again, that number may be worthy of debate, but it should be on the table, since it should be factored into cost-benefit estimates from new developments, and a study by Forest City Ratner consultant Andrew Zimbalist, relied on for optimistic assumptions about future revenues, says nothing about traffic.
The article continued:
In an interview, Mr. Stuckey acknowledged that managing the additional traffic around Atlantic Yards was a challenge, but one that his company was ready to handle.
"It's very easy to say, this is a problem, and not have to show it," he said. "We have the added responsibility of analyzing the problem and then showing how we're going to solve it. And we and the government agencies take that very seriously."
Why is Stuckey speaking for the government agencies? The issue is much bigger than Forest City Ratner--and the city Department of Transportation has been criticized for not being proactive enough.
The article continued:
The company's decision to substitute additional residential units for most of the office space originally planned for the project, he said, will alleviate some potential traffic problems, because residential tenants usually drive after the evening rush.
The developer predicts that only a small fraction of the roughly 18,000 tenants would drive to work. (The project includes about 2,800 on-site parking spots reserved for residential tenants, as mandated by city regulations.) Based on the company's experience with the nearby MetroTech office development, only 5 percent or 6 percent of the 2,500 office workers traveling to the project will commute by car, Mr. Stuckey said.
That's confusing--if only "5 percent or 6 percent" of office workers would commute by car, how much does the switch to residential help? Note that one of the original arguments for building office space was that the site was close to a major transit hub.
The article continued:
Studies by Forest City Ratner found the worst congestion on eastbound lanes of Atlantic Avenue during the commuter rush: As Atlantic crosses Flatbush, four lanes merge into two, one of which is often blocked by stopped buses. Mr. Stuckey said the plan provided space to expand Atlantic Avenue by one lane, with a fourth lane in front of the bus stop to draw buses out of the traffic flow when stopped for passengers. The project calls for a similar expansion on Flatbush Avenue south of the intersection.
The project would be built in stages over a decade, Mr. Stuckey said, allowing for adjustments as problems emerge.
Since basketball games usually start at 7:30 p.m., the developer expects the arena portion to generate most of its evening traffic after the commuter rush, and no morning traffic at all. Mr. Stuckey also disagreed with critics who said the area lacked enough garage space. The firm's own survey, he said, indicates that there are about 1,500 parking garage spaces - most of which service office commuters and lie empty after the work day - reachable by foot or shuttle bus. By relying largely on remote parking for sports events, the developer hopes to keep much of the arena traffic away from the Flatbush-Atlantic intersection.
If basketball games start at 7:30 p.m., wouldn't about half of the evening traffic occur during the commuter rush? (Note that the TLC considers the weekday rush hour from 4-8 p.m., though in Manhattan the peak travel period is considered 4-7 p.m.) Also, why wasn't Stuckey asked whether the company still plans to build an under-arena garage, which could present security risks? The graphic accompanying the article cites 4,000 parking spots, which suggests that 1,200 spots would be located at a garage facility connected to the arena--but Stuckey didn't affirm that in the article.
Note that critics do question the availability of parking. But, taking Stuckey's numbers, let me try some math: 1,500 parking spaces, at a (generous) average of three people per vehicle, suggests 4,500 visitors. Add in 1,200 spots at the arena (?), and still well over half the attendees at an arena even drawing 18,000 attendees would have to walk or travel by public transportation and--as noted below in the article--some 40 percent of Madison Square Garden attendees drive. (And if there is no arena garage, well, that makes the challenge even greater, so Forest City Ratner should be challenged to describe its onsite parking plan.) So why didn't the article talk about some innovative ways to reduce traffic like congestion pricing, residential parking permits, and event tickets tied to use of public transportation?
Late in the article, the EIS process was finally cited, as was the impact of traffic beyond Atlantic Yards:
Much of the proposed arena's impact depends on what means of travel people choose to get there. Known as "modal split," it is one of the issues under consideration by the Empire State Development Corporation, the state agency charged with supervising the project's environmental review. At Madison Square Garden, which, like the proposed Atlantic Yards arena, sits on top of a transit hub and is surrounded by heavily trafficked streets, half of all visitors come by mass transit. Forty percent drive. The rest walk.
"Your first goal is to get as many people into mass transit as possible," said Mr. Schwartz. He said that could require a significant rehabilitation of the notoriously unwelcoming Atlantic Avenue station, a greater police presence there and more trains scheduled for late evening, when games end.
But also at issue is the broader development of greater Downtown Brooklyn, set into motion last year when the City Council approved a landmark rezoning of the area.
"The biggest issue is not Atlantic Yards, it's all the other developments that are going to come before it," cautioned Brian Ketcham, the executive director of Community Consulting Services, who has criticized the state agency's methods for measuring traffic in the area.
That includes the new Brooklyn Bridge Park, and an expanded cultural district anchored by the Brooklyn Academy of Music. A May 2005 report commissioned by the Department of Transportation estimated that office space in and around the business district would nearly double in the next two decades. The city also predicts a boom in retail, cultural institutions and new housing in the area, including 7,300 units from Atlantic Yards.
Yet the same report noted that the major thoroughfares were "already overloaded" and that additional traffic "would not be accommodated" without significant improvement. Mr. Ketcham's own study indicates that the overall traffic - vehicle, public transit or pedestrian - will more than double.
"If you can't get there, nobody's going to come," he said, "and all of this investment is going to go down the tubes."
Note that the city itself said the major thoroughfares were "already overloaded" and that major changes are needed. Here's where an estimate of cost would have been appropriate. Also note that the project would close off streets, which also affects traffic flow.
Still, in contrast to previous long stories in the Times about the developer's community relations strategy and changes in the project, a supporter of the development, or the developer's spokesperson, did not get the last word. (Who should get the last word? With a finite amount of space in print, it's a judgment call.) In this case, Ketcham, a Cassandra on the issue, finally gets a hearing. Note that, though Ketcham has been commenting forcefully about Brooklyn traffic issues for years, he hadn't been quoted in the Times since 1998. He's an important part of the debate, but this issue also requires questions of city officials and the MTA.