In the past two decades, New York City has experienced a remarkable turnaround. The city’s dynamic economy, robust transit system, walkable neighborhoods, cultural diversity, and global connections have restored its leadership position both nationally and internationally. Nearly nine out of ten jobs added in the region from 2005 to 2015 were in the five boroughs, after decades of being outpaced by suburban neighbors
While the city benefited from global urbanization trends, the resurgence would not have been possible without intentional policy choices. Large capital investment programs dating back to the 1980s restored much of the city’s housing stock and returned public transportation infrastructure to working order. Public safety improvements starting in the 1990s made New York one of the safest big cities in America. And over the last 15 years, renewed focus on public health, education, and public spaces has improved the well-being of city residents.
But this success remains fragile and incomplete. Poverty remains high, incomes haven’t risen for the majority of households, and increased demand for living in the city has resulted in skyrocketing housing costs. Neighborhoods that were once bastions of affordable housing have become too expensive for long-time poor and working-class residents, forcing many to move, with fewer and fewer options of places to go.
The city’s wide disparities in race and socioeconomic status are perhaps most pronounced in the areas of health and longevity. Residents of the more affluent Upper East Side live, on average, ten years longer than residents of Harlem next door, who are primarily black, Hispanic, and less wealthy, and are more likely to have less access to stable housing, a good job, and a healthy environment.1
More than 360,000 more people call New York City home today than in 2010, and 610,000 more people work here. Yet investment in the city’s infrastructure has not kept pace, leaving many systems in disrepair. Subways are overcrowded and frequently delayed—and more serious disruptions occur with alarming regularity. Streets are more congested than ever before, costing billions in lost economic productivity. Bus service is slow and ridership has dropped dramatically, due in part to passengers switching to faster and more reliable to on-demand services. Two of the city’s major transit hubs—Penn Station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal—cannot handle current passenger loads, and rail services are prone to frequent failures.
The impacts of climate change will add to these challenges. Many of the areas most susceptible to sea-level rise and storm surge are densely populated neighborhoods with lower-income residents, or residents of color. These include communities in the Rockaways, Jamaica Bay, Coney Island, and the East Shore of Staten Island. Much of the city’s critical infrastructure is also located in the floodplain, such as power plants, rail yards, public housing, and hospitals.
Addressing these challenges will require reforming many of New York City’s public agencies and authorities, and reforming their regulatory structures to enable faster decision-making and unlock new funding sources. And because these challenges are regional in nature, addressing them will also require greater collaboration with neighboring cities and towns outside the city’s borders, as well as with state government.
Fortunately, New York City has a strong track record dealing with crises. Whether reducing crime or improving transit, the city’s civic, business, and political leadership have usually come together to make things happen.
The Fourth Regional Plan recommends actions that would build on the city’s successes to sustain and broaden its prosperity.
Modernizing the subway system to increase capacity and improve service is a priority. The plan proposes a Subway Reconstruction Public Benefit Corporation to oversee overhauling the entire system within 15 years, and providing fast and reliable service, clean and accessible stations, and better customer service. The subway system would also be extended to underserved neighborhoods.
Another transit priority for New York City is to significantly improve commuter rail service across the Hudson River by building and extending the Gateway tunnels to Sunnyside Queens, allowing through service at a renovated and expanded Penn Station, renovating the Port Authority bus terminal at 42nd Street, and building a second bus terminal under the Javits Center.
Longer term, the region’s three commuter rail systems should be unified into a comprehensive regional rail network that would provide a second rapid transit service for city residents, with frequent service and affordable fares. High-speed train service to Washington D.C. and Boston, better transit connections to all three New York airports, and increased capacity at Kennedy and Newark would ensure New York remains connected to other cities.
Charging drivers to enter the Manhattan commercial core is an important strategy to reduce traffic and raise revenue for the transportation system. City streets should also be redesigned to prioritize walking, biking, and transit, with wider sidewalks, more bike and bus lanes, and new streetcar and light-rail lines. As on-demand, and ultimately, driverless vehicles become commonplace, the city must take steps to prevent additional traffic while taking advantage of the benefits these vehicles provide, such as reduced demand for parking and more efficient travel. Parking spaces should be converted to rain gardens, bus or bike lanes, or sidewalk space.
The plan includes many recommendations to relieve the city’s housing crisis. Tens of thousand of homes could be added with new construction by encouraging more vacant units to be put on the market, and more two- and three-family homes out of existing single-family homes. Zoning regulations should be reformed to lift arbitrary density caps in Manhattan and allow for denser development near train stations in higher-income as well as lower-income neighborhoods. Inclusionary zoning should be applied not just citywide, but throughout the region.
The city must preserve the affordable housing that already exists, and invest in the public, shared-ownership, and supportive housing systems that can help end homelessness and build wealth in low-income neighborhoods. The city should also provide stronger legal protections for low-income tenants, and proactively inspect rental units to identify and address unhealthy living conditions. Many of these policies could be paid for by redirecting existing housing subsidy programs.
The city can support sustained, diversified job growth by expanding mixed-income districts near the Manhattan Central Business District and promoting job centers in places like Jamaica and the Bronx Hub. A diversified job market also requires that the city limit the conversion or redevelopment of older commercial buildings and industrial land so that different building types can accommodate a variety of businesses.
Adapting to climate change will require major investments in both green and grey infrastructure citywide. Green roofs, rain gardens, more trees, and permeable pavement would reduce heat, storm-water runoff, and contaminated water released into the harbor and other waterways. These features would also create healthier and more livable neighborhoods.
Many projects are already underway to protect the Lower East Side, Lower Manhattan, Edgemere and other communities from coastal storms and sea level rise. These projects should be fully funded and completed. But in the longer term, the city must make difficult decisions about coastal adaptation. In some neighborhoods, the best strategy may be to protect against rising sea level and storms, while a managed transition in other neighborhoods would be a better solution if there is greater risk or the densities don’t justify the cost of protection. In those cases, the transition will need to be led by local communities and supported with effective buyout programs and assistance to low-income renters and other people who are especially vulnerable to climate change, including seniors. The proposed Regional Coastal Commission and state adaptation trust funds, capitalized with surcharges on homeowner insurance, could help coordinate strategies and fund these investments.