Testimony of Patrick McClellan, State Policy Director, Before the New York State Senate Committees on Transportation and Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions
February 19, 2019
Thank you Senator Kennedy, Senator Comrie, and members of the committees for holding this hearing on the urgent problems afflicting New York’s transit systems.
Transportation is currently the largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in New York State, responsible for one third of the state’s emissions, a substantial contribution to climate change as New York looks to become a national leader on this issue. One of the most important steps the state can take to reduce its emissions from transportation is to decrease the amount of daily vehicle miles traveled (VMTs) in the state, especially in highly congested areas like the New York metropolitan region, along with shifting to zero emission vehicles. The International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2018 report on global warming noted avoiding catastrophic climate change will require approximately 20% of current vehicle trips to be avoided through shifts to zero carbon modes of transportation like walking and biking and high-efficiency modes of transportation like trains and buses.
In addition to its contribution to climate change emissions, exhaust from cars and trucks are a major source of air pollution in New York City, which has severe effects on public health. An astounding 10% of children in New York City have asthma, making it the city’s leading cause of pediatric hospitalization, and children in New York City are admitted to the emergency room with asthma more than three times more often than children in the rest of the state. Childhood asthma is a leading cause of school absences and children with severe asthma miss as many as 30 days of school per year in the city. This problem is even worse in low-income communities of color in the city such as the South Bronx and Central Brooklyn, where many families struggle to afford medical treatment for the disease and the incidence of asthma is strongly impacted by proximity to truck routes, highways, and congested arterial streets.
Beyond the issues of climate change and public health, reducing the number of vehicles on the road would mitigate New York City’s extreme congestion problem, making streets safer and yielding significant economic benefits. The New York League of Conservation Voters (NYLCV) supports four proposals in the Executive Budget that, if modified by the Legislature based on public input, would decrease congestion and create a safer and greener New York.
The most significant measure the state government could take to decrease traffic congestion and immediately reduce GHG emissions would be to implement a congestion price plan for New York City. Governor Cuomo’s congestion pricing plan, which would charge private vehicles to enter Manhattan below 60th Street, is a vital first step to reduce emissions, protect public health, and make New York a more livable city. New York City is the third most traffic-congested city in the world, yet ridership on subways and buses is declining despite steady job and population growth. The constantly gridlocked traffic in midtown and downtown Manhattan, and its spillover effects near river crossings in the outer boroughs, is a huge burden for commuters and businesses, and is a large contributor to the city’s particulate matter pollution problem. The plan put forward by the Governor, with appropriate amendments from the Legislature to make it as strong and effective as possible, would alleviate several of the problems caused by excessive traffic in New York City, while generating revenue that must be used to improve the ailing public transit infrastructure throughout the MTA service area.
Congestion pricing is working in other global cities including London, Singapore, and Stockholm. In Stockholm, exhaust emissions fell by 14% after congestion pricing was introduced and childhood asthma rates fell by 50%. Improvements even a fraction as large in New York City would be a tremendous victory for public health. Furthermore, congestion pricing can induce shifts away from cars to mass transit. In London, bus ridership increased 38% after congestion pricing was introduced, and in Singapore public transit ridership increased by 15%.
Fixing New York City’s public transportation system, supporting suburban mass transit, reducing GHG and particulate emissions, improving public health, increasing traffic speeds, and making streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists is an ambitious agenda that requires many different policies – and NYLCV stands ready to work with you on including a wide range of these policies in the budget. However, congestion pricing is the only policy that will make a positive difference in every single one of these areas. The time to act is now. NYLCV strongly supports the inclusion of congestion pricing in this year’s budget.
BUS LANE CAMERA ENFORCEMENT
As I noted, addressing New York City’s congestion problem requires more than just congestion pricing. In order to comprehensively address the city’s transportation crisis, the MTA must be able to regularly run buses that get riders where they need to go in a reasonable amount of time. Right now the bus system is paralyzed by gridlock and is losing riders year after year. This is largely because of vehicles – private, for-hire, and government – parking and idling in bus lanes, which is bad for local air quality in addition to its negative impact on bus speeds. That is why NYLCV supports the proposal in the Executive Budget to expand the existing bus lane camera enforcement program to more bus rapid transit routes and throughout the proposed congestion zone. Camera enforcement is effective in permanently deterring traffic violations because it is regular and predictable in a way that police enforcement cannot be. Reducing bus lane violations will make the MTA bus system more reliable, increase traffic speeds, and reduce air pollution.
Beyond the policy tools that the State has available to it, we also urge New York City to reduce bus lane violations by reducing the number of parking placards in circulation, aggressively targeting parking placard corruption, and piloting loading zones on busy streets.
LEGALIZATION OF E-BIKES AND E-SCOOTERS
Electric bikes and scooters are zero-emission modes of transportation and we support their legalization in this year’s budget. E-bikes and scooters are much safer than cars, emit no particulate matter or greenhouse gases, and are small and easily storable, making them ideal modes of eco-friendly transportation for urban areas.
E-bikes are already used by thousands of New Yorkers, most of whom are immigrant delivery workers who rely on the speed and cost-efficiency of e-bikes to make enough deliveries each day to make a living. However, these bikes are often confiscated by the police, disrupting the livelihood of low-income and immigrant workers, and taking away an efficient and environmentally friendly mode of transportation. Last year, New York City legalized “pedal-assist e-bikes” in New York City, but state law still prohibits the use of faster “throttle e-bikes,” which are used by thousands of delivery workers. Both pedal-assist and throttle e-bikes can become the preferred mode of transportation of thousands of commuters throughout the state, many of whom would otherwise drive to work, if legalized statewide.
Electric scooters are also a safe and highly efficient way to get around cities, and several e-scooter share programs have been successful in other cities including San Diego and Washington D.C.
The legislative language proposed in the Executive Budget to legalize e-bikes and scooters is promising, but it should be amended in order to make e-bikes and scooters as safe and successful as possible. First, there should be as few barriers as possible for New Yorkers to use these low-carbon modes of transportation. This means that legalization should be opt-out instead of opt-in for local governments. The requirement that riders wear brightly-colored or reflective clothing after dark should be removed as it is not supported by evidence that it makes riders safer but imposes a significant burden; and the requirement that riders wear a helmet should be removed as it is well-intentioned but likely to curtail use to a significantly greater degree than it enhances safety. Second, there is no reason that e-bikes and scooters should have to yield the right of way to automobiles, though requiring them to yield to pedestrians is good policy that NYLCV supports. The legislation’s implicit presumption that e-bikes are inherently dangerous and should be regulated more like motorcycles than traditional bicycles is simply not borne out by evidence. While we should strive to make e-bikes and scooters as safe as possible, the fact is they are dramatically safer and more environmentally friendly than automobiles and should be legalized statewide this year.
SPEED CAMERAS IN SCHOOL ZONES
NYLCV supports the expansion of the number of authorized speed cameras in school speed zones in New York City. However, the expansion should include at least 750 cameras rather than the 290 authorized in the Executive Budget. Speed cameras keep children, their caregivers, and other pedestrians and cyclists safe, thereby encouraging the use of modes of transportation other than automobiles. The legislature should seriously consider whether it continues to make sense for there to be a cap on the number of allowed school speed zone cameras or their hours of operation at all.
NYLCV also supports the proposed school speed zone camera pilot program for Buffalo that is currently moving through the Legislature. All interested municipalities should be allowed to use this proven method for making streets safer.
Transportation is the leading source of GHG emissions statewide, and while it is important to shift vehicles to zero- and low-emission fuel sources as quickly as possible, we must also reduce the number vehicle trips taken by providing New Yorkers with accessible, reliable mass transit and alternatives to automobiles. There are numerous opportunities in this year’s budget to put New York on the right path, and we encourage the Legislature and the Governor to work together to turn these ambitious ideas into reality for New York. Thank you.