Tuesday, December 06, 2005


The looming "disaster" of traffic, a call for a pause, and some possible solutions

Anyone stuck at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues in a car, or trying to cross by foot, knows that the crossroads can be overburdened and perilous. So the impact of Atlantic Yards--9.1 million square feet of development, mostly high-rise housing plus a basketball arena--stretching east from the crossroads could only make things tougher. When constituents ask him, 'What are you going to do about the traffic?', acknowledged City Councilman David Yassky at a meeting yesterday at Brooklyn Borough Hall, "I don't have an answer."

Such concerns added urgency to the session, the third in a series held by the Atlantic Yards Committee that includes City Council members, elected state representatives, and the chairpersons of Community Boards 2, 6 and 8. Given that the meeting started at 4 pm, there were only a handful of observers besides invited guests. The New York Post covered it briefly (ARENA WILL SNARL TRAFFIC: B'KLYN BEEP, 12/6/05), noting that Borough President Marty Markowitz, a fervent backer of the project, nonetheless shares deep concerns about traffic.

The committee "will serve as a vehicle for research, information and advocacy for Brooklyn during the planning, construction and post-construction phases of the project," but its power is merely advisory. The project is in the hands of the state Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), which has received much critical testimony. But it's not clear how much the ESDC will increase the scope of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement it is forging, nor who is responsible for implementing (and paying for) changes.

The committee first heard from Ryan Russo, the Downtown Brooklyn Transportation Coordinator of the city Department of Transportation, who described the city's efforts to study traffic--an effort several panelists found wanting. Yassky noted that, with some other issues related to Atlantic Yards, "we can deal directly with the sponsor or the state, but for traffic, we have to work with the city." He added, "The city has does have to be much more proactive, and not wait for [developer] Forest City Ratner to come up with an idea."

Indeed, traffic engineer Brian Ketcham of Community Consulting Services (which works with community groups and public agencies) later warned, "The main entry points to Brooklyn are all at overcapacity, without Atlantic Yards." Noting that some 42 million square feet of development are planned around downtown (and 63 million square feet in northwestern Brooklyn), he said of Forest City Ratner, "It's their responsibility to demonstrate they can come in here and fit."

Ketcham said current methods of estimating traffic use antiquated data and models, and that the city should spend $10 to $15 million--a fraction of the $15 billion in development planned in Brooklyn as a whole--to develop more sophisticated models. Without appropriate studies and subsequent mitigation, "We're going to wake up when this thing's finished to what I observed last Christmas eve: Atlantic Avenue gridlocked for three-eighths of a mile from Atlantic Center." He added that traffic could generate $250 million a year in externalities, including the cost of air pollution, traffic noise, and lost productivity.

"We are heading into a disaster. I think we need to pull back and put this thing on hold for a year," he said after the meeting. "We have 15 years to make development in and around Downtown Brooklyn fit in."

In written testimony, Ketcham offered harsh criticism of the ESDC's Draft Scope of Analysis for an Environmental Impact Statement, noting:
--the study area excludes chokepoints like the Brooklyn Bridge and the BQE
--the method for analyzing traffic does not show how traffic at one intersection affects another
--the time frame for analysis ends at 2016, when the project is fully built out, but state projects use a 30-year horizon for road and transit projects
--the DEIS must heed the Borough President's recommendation that estimates of trips (driving, public transit) be based on counts in Brooklyn rather than 30-year-old surveys from Manhattan.

"We can't double vehicle trips without new roadway capacity," he said, noting that capacity could indeed be increased by either prohibiting on-street parking or implementing congestion pricing to deter use of Brooklyn bridges and roadways. Other consultants supported the concept of congestion pricing, though they noted that the political decision is beyond the frame of the state environmental impact process.

Several meeting participants seemed interested in new tactics such as residential permit parking, transit discounts built into event tickets, shuttle buses, and even a new trolley system. Still, there seemed to be a disconnect between the immensity of the challenge and the preparedness to respond. When Russo described how the city had recently reconfigured the intersection at Flatbush and Atlantic, Yassky asked, "Do you envision additional mitigation?" The answer: "We don't have specific future plans."

"It's just so startling," observed Assemblywoman Joan Millman. "I was there yesterday, at the intersection. It was impossible, without an arena."

Several transportation consultants also testified about the importance of accurate and thorough models developed by the government, not the developer. "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz, speaking before Ketcham, also observed that the scope of the study area should include major transportation arteries. He suggested that Madison Square Garden was the best model for Atlantic Yards arena traffic, with about 50% of visitors using public transit, 40% using cars, and 10% walking. "You want to get as many people as possible underground," he said, citing the importance of subways and trains.

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who asked probing questions of several experts, challenged Schwartz, saying, "You can't compare Madison Square Garden to Brooklyn," pointing out that large parts of Brooklyn lack public transit, Manhattan has far more taxis, and that people from Staten Island and Queens might not use public transit. Responded Schwartz, "I'm saying that's what we should strive for."

However, the issue of traffic goes far beyond the arena, as it would account for 19% of the weekday trips, according to Ketcham's statistics.

State Assemblyman Roger Green asked if there were any examples of best practices regarding such projects. Schwartz called it an "excellent request"--and it's possible that, if the Empire State Development Corporation doesn't come up with such a list, Schwartz might be called on to do so. He led off by saying that, when asked two months ago to testify, he had no professional interest in Atlantic Yards, but that last week he was invited by Forest City Ratner to discuss consultant work at an upcoming meeting.

Some of the traffic mitigation tactics mentioned at the hearing--and more--were detailed by transportation analyst and journalist Aaron Naparstek, in a 12/3/05 post on his web site, titled Seven Solutions to the Atlantic Yards Traffic Problem. He canvassed a range of planners to come up with solutions--though, he acknowledges, "The question is whether the city can generate the political will and revenue to make these changes happen."

They include:
1. Improve subway service and facilities to encourage increased use, especially by Manhattanites.
2. Create incentives to take transit, such as free or reduced subway or bus rides connected to event tickets.
3. Limit and manage parking space to encourage use of mass transit, including a residential parking permit program.
4. Design a great pedestrian environment, making the intersection of Flatbush, Atlantic, and Fourth avenues a far more hospitable place. This would require more traffic-calming features at the intersections of residential streets and a redesign of architect Frank Gehry's current plan for superblocks.
5. Get Bus Rapid Transit Rolling (BRT), using dedicated lanes.
6. Make Brooklyn more bike-friendly, encouraging use of the clean and cheap form of transportation with bike lanes and parking facilities.
7. Implement congestion pricing

How to pay for them? Writes Naparstek:
First, it should be remembered that Forest City Ratner is asking for more than $200 million in public subsidies for the Atlantic Yards project. A significant portion of that public money should be invested in improving the public space around the project. It shouldn’t all go into a half-billion-dollar basketball arena, the most expensive ever built.
Second, every transportation expert I spoke to suggested that we take a very serious look at implementing congestion pricing in New York City... Congestion pricing is raising about $175 million a year [in London], all of which is being plowed back into bus, pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure.

Could it work?
If I'm making it sound like these seven ideas will totally get rid of traffic then, yeah, I'm overselling it. But that's not my intent. The truth is that even if they built the Atlantic Yards project and implemented these seven ideas to their fullest, we could still have more automobile traffic coming in and out of the neighborhoods around the development, particularly during arena events.
Still, these seven ideas are some of the very best ways of dealing with that. And, truly, since something like 40% of the rush hour traffic coming down Flatbush Avenue is thru-traffic to the free Manhattan Bridge, a congestion pricing fee really does have the potential of reducing traffic a significant amount in and around Downtown Brooklyn.

So, in essence, the challenge is political more than technical.

Great coverage here. I'm just starting to dig into this issue, as I'm a new resident of the area. At first I was indifferent about this new development, but the more I find out about it, the worse it seems. Traffic, congestion, construction...forever! Sounds like a nightmare.

I look forward to learning more. Keep up the great writing.
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