USDOT Under Secretary Polly Trottenberg Visits the Rudin Center

by Nolan Levenson, photos by Marilyn Lopez

Polly Trottenberg, Under Secretary of the US Department of Transportation, visited with the NYU Rudin Center and Wagner students, faculty, transportation professionals, and representatives of the media last week to discuss timely issues in federal transportation policy. Her talk focused on financing transportation, the successes of the TIGER grant program, and the increasing role of technology and data in government.

She also addressed how the Sequester will impact USDOT. Since the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) composes about 75% of the USDOT’s budget, they will bear the burden of the spending cuts. Airports with less traffic may lose their funding. There will also likely be impacts to the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) budget, but about half of USDOT will be unaffected.

Ms. Trottenberg also highlighted the increasing difficulty of financing transportation as the gas tax no longer covers the nation’s transportation infrastructure needs. She pointed to tools such as gas sales taxes and Vehicles Miles Traveled (VMT) taxes, and emphasized tolling of highways as a potential significant revenue source. She acknowledged that while federal transportation law prevents the tolling of existing road capacity, state law and legislators have also failed to initiate policies that would change this limitation, which creates a political block on a potential new revenue source for transportation. In general, she said, she believes that state transportation policy must be pushed in a more progressive direction.

Many in the room were happy to hear Ms. Trottenberg’s support for more open data and advanced technology use at the federal government. She said that USDOT should tap into the resources of the private sector to better understand and analyze transportation issues throughout the country. She pointed to a moment when her staff was on the phone with Google employees in Stuttgart, Germany, when the USDOT staff asked about the reliability of real-time traffic data. After a pause of a few seconds, the Google employees responded, “well it’s not like it’s more than 60 seconds off,” a response met with laughter by USDOT staff considering that to be, of course, extremely reliable. The story was also received with laughter during our discussion, and the audience appreciated the example for government’s need to tap into existing technological resources.

Tomorrow night: Kickoff meeting of Open Transportation Data Meetup

Tomorrow night, join the NYU Rudin Center, Code for America and the Straphangers Campaign to discover and discuss open transportation data in the New York City region. We’ll have presentations from MTA and NYC DOT, plus an open mike session.

The event is free and open to all. Sign up here:

Wagner Transportation Association Visits the NY Transit Museum

This weekend the Wagner Transportation Association (WTA) visited the NY Transit Museum in Brooklyn. Here are some pics!

Did you know that the Court Street station (originally an IND station) where the museum is located accommodates both IRT and IND/BMT trains? Because IRT trains are about a foot narrower than IND/BMT trains, the platform needed to be extended out so that museum customers could safely board the trains.

Manhattan Commuting Trends: An In-Depth Look

Carson Qing

Earlier this week, we discussed the unique patterns of employment “re-centralization” that the New York City metropolitan area experienced over the past decade. Now, we focus on the region’s core, Manhattan, and where its commuters are coming from. A detailed analysis, building on last year’s report describing trends in commuting among Manhattan’s workforce, reveals that most of the growth in Manhattan commuting has originated from waterfront neighborhoods in Jersey City, Hoboken, and Brooklyn, areas that experienced significant high-density residential development in recent years.

Using the Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics dataset from the U.S. Census Bureau, I identified specific towns and neighborhoods (defined as ZIP codes) that have the greatest increase in commuters to Manhattan. The interactive map below shows areas of residence with growth and declines in Manhattan commuters from 2002 to 2010 in absolute numbers. Zip codes shaded as blue represent a decrease or no difference in commuters to Manhattan. Darker shades of red indicate greater increases in commuters to Manhattan from that zip code. Click around to see the figures at a neighborhood level.

These numbers indicate substantial increases in Manhattan work trips originating from Northern Brooklyn, Western Queens, Jersey City and Hoboken, the South Bronx and Staten Island. The five neighborhoods with the greatest increase in Manhattan commuters were Williamsburg (+5,405), the Paulus Hook section of Jersey City (+4,262), Downtown Brooklyn (+3,598), Williamsburg/Bedford-Stuyvesant (+3,373), and Greenpoint (+3,139), all consisting of neighborhoods situated along either the Hudson or East River waterfronts. Areas that saw declines in commuters to Manhattan were largely in the northern and eastern suburbs, consisting of neighborhoods in eastern Queens and Westchester, Rockland, and Nassau counties.

High-density residential developments along the waterfronts in New Jersey, Brooklyn and Queens, paired with the expected increase in Manhattan-bound commutes from those neighborhoods, indicate that there are significant opportunities for expansion in ferry services in New York City. The East River Ferry that connects the neighborhoods of Downtown Brooklyn/DUMBO, Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Long Island City with the Midtown East and Lower Manhattan business districts has been far more successful than originally anticipated during the first year of its 3-year pilot service, carrying more than 1.6 million passengers (300,000 more than expected). A long-term extension and expansion of ferry services on the East River should be strongly considered as a strategy to relieve rush hour crowding on subway lines such as the L and 7 lines and provide a more convenient travel alternative.

The growth in Manhattan commuting to from the west in suburban New Jersey is not limited to communities with “one-seat” rides into Manhattan where no transfers are required to get in. Communities in Bergen and Passaic Counties along the Main-Bergen and the Pascack Valley rail lines, where Manhattan-bound rail trips require transfers at either Secaucus Junction or Hoboken to enter Manhattan, have also seen significant increases in commuters to Manhattan: these include towns such as Fair Lawn (+39% increase), Paramus (+30%), and Lodi (+47%). Workers traveling to Manhattan from those areas are much more dependent on the regional express bus system operated by NJ Transit and private companies to commute into Manhattan, and will continue to be dependent due to the cancellation of the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) rail infrastructure project in 2010. Making the region’s system of commuter buses run more efficiently, whether by creating additional capacity at the Port Authority Bus Terminal or providing an express bus lane in the Lincoln Tunnel during evening rush hour, should help accommodate this growth in commuters from suburban New Jersey and sustain the region’s economic productivity and competitiveness in the 21st century.


The State of Employment Decentralization in Major American Cities

Carson Qing

Since the mid-20th century, employers have followed its employees to the suburbs, and have adapted the workplace to fit their employees’ commuting needs, leading to the rise of the “corporate park” and the “edge city.” Some scholars have observed that in the 2000s, a dramatic shift has occurred as cities were again attracting the jobs that left in earlier decades, as employers respond to changing preferences among younger workers who desire a more urban lifestyle. Others contend that such a conclusion is premature, and that employment decentralization, also known as “job sprawl,” still occurs, as there is still high demand for suburban living. Using data on private sector employment from the Census Bureau’s Local Employment Dynamics, I tried to determine if the pattern of employment distribution across metropolitan areas had truly shifted in the past decade, and based on my findings, it seems that job distribution and movement vary by region, although generally, the trends remain slightly in favor of continued employment decentralization in major U.S. metro regions.

Metro regions with an increase in the share of its workforce employed clustered within 5 miles of the Central Business District were:

  1. San Francisco: +1.5%
  2. New York: +1.3%
  3. Detroit: +0.8%
  4. Chicago +0.2%
  5. Philadelphia +0.1%

The above cities are all older designs, where most development occurred early in the 20th century, in the pre-automobile era. Metro regions with the greatest increase in the share of its workforce employed within 20 – 50 miles of the CBD (or, “job sprawl” tendencies), were:

  1. Atlanta: +4.5%
  2. Dallas: +2.9%
  3. Houston: +2.6%

These cities are generally sprawling, Sun Belt areas that have experienced much of its growth during the late 20th century. After accounting for job trends based on distances from each region’s CBD, I observed the following patterns of employment growth (see methodology below for more detail):

Jobs in New York and San Francisco are increasingly concentrated in their urban core. In these cities, employment is no longer de-centralizing, but is re-centralizing. Both cities have a dense and diverse urban core that offer distinctive amenities and advantages for workers and employers, which could be a major driver of these recent trends.

A group of cities had an increasing share of jobs in both its urban core and its exurban fringes, but a smaller share in the “core-periphery” area: the peripheral areas of the primary city, and inner-ring suburbs that border the city. These cities exhibit a “U-shaped” relationship between the increase in the share of jobs in a given zone and the distance from the center city. One-third of the metro areas sampled exhibited this spatial pattern of job growth, including Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Detroit, and St. Louis.

In Houston and Dallas, employment decentralization has been sustained. Areas further from the city are capturing a greater share of the region’s jobs. This trend resembles the traditional pattern of late-20th century employment decentralization.

In general, employment decentralization has been sustained in the largest metro regions in the United States since 2002, but mostly at the expense of the “in-between” zones situated within 5 to 10 miles of the CBD, rather than the CBD itself. These generalized job growth trends show that the past decade was a period of deepening spatial divisions within U.S. cities. Overall, diverging demographic preferences and market forces are leading to an unconventional pattern of employment distribution, one that places the high-density urban core and the low-density suburban fringes at a distinct advantage over the medium-density urban periphery and inner-ring suburbs, locations that typically do not offer the agglomeration advantages of the central city, nor the accessibility advantages of the exurban fringes.



This analysis divided the 15 largest metro regions (defined as all census tracts within 50 miles of the primary city’s CBD) into 4 zones of analysis, based on distance from the city center. After calculating job growth for each of the zones and for each metro region, the data was smoothed to reflect a “best-fit” trendline. A composite average of the job growth data was also obtained and fitted to a trendline (highlighted by the red curve above). The composite average trend indicates that regional trends generally favor sustained employment decentralization, but there are distinctive variations across metro regions and the spatial patterns are more complex than anticipated.

The fitted trendlines of New York and San Francisco are negatively sloped (highlighted in yellow), which indicates that recent job growth and distance from the city center appear to be inversely related and have a highly linear pattern.

The fitted trendlines of Houston and Dallas are positively sloped (highlighted in blue), indicating that areas further from the city are capturing a greater share of the region’s jobs.

A Modest Proposal: Transportation Enterprise Zones

It’s a quiet week here at NYU and the Rudin Center, with the students still out on break and many of my colleagues in Washington, DC for the annual Transportation Research Board conference. I skipped the conference, but did make it to George Mason University’s School of Public Policy on Saturday morning for Transportation Camp DC, an un-conference organized by Frank Hebbert of NYC-based Open Plans.

Like all unconferences, Transportation Camp’s sessions were hit-or-miss. But I managed to end up in three that were quite interesting.

The first was on crowdsourcing strategies for mapping bike travel, organized by Kari Watkins and Alex Poznanski of Georgia Tech. They have been updating the CycleTracks app first launched by the city of San Francisco (which has received tens of thousands of trip logs from bikers) to map bike trips in Atlanta. This is a topic that’s dear to my heart, and I’m thinking actively about how Rudin can advance similar strategies here in New York to lay a baseline understanding of how bikes are used before the CitiBike launch this spring.

The second was about tactical urbanism and its meaning for transportation (I missed the organizer’s name unfortunately). Most of the discussion was about how tactical or informal and formal urban interests can interact. One participant suggested the need for a national organization like Project for Public Spaces to step up and develop a toolkit for helping community activists cross the bridge from tactical intervention to pilot, and how to connect with organizations like arts councils, business improvement districts, etc. that can inter-mediate their relations with authorities to get needed permissions and funds to evolve beyond one-offs.

The final conversation was about what session leader Andrew Jawitz of Car Free Maine called “civic hardware” – using cheap DIY technologies like Arduino and Raspberry Pi to build automated vehicle trackers for under $200. (Perhaps the best example was the Transit Appliance  that turned the beloved Chumby into an ambient next bus display for your desk or night stand)

• • •

The real epiphany of the day for me popped into my head during the tactical urbanism session, and really gelled during the civic hardware chat. Just like the old American maxim that “states are the laboratories of democracy”, by corollary “blocks are the laboratories of a city”, someone said.

Well then, why don’t we change the rules for transportation in the places that are really problematic?

What if we designated “transportation enterprise zones” and encourage experimentation and innovation by loosening some of the regulations that stifle mobility innovation? Immediately, a bunch of recent examples where this approach might have helped came to mind. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, huge swaths of New Jersey’s Hudson County were cut off from Manhattan due to the months-long knockout of PATH commuter rail (service to Hoboken, where I live, has still not been fully restored nearly three months after the storm). While buses, ferries and licensed taxis filled many of the gaps, and informal vans (so-called “dollar vans”) already carry many passengers across the river to New York each day (because as interstate commerce they cannot be regulated by the Port Authority or either state), I wondered if there might have been other rules that could be relaxed – parking, pickup and dropoff locations, even labor and safety regulations – that might have spurred additional providers to pick up the considerable slack left by the PATH’s destruction.

More prosaically, I wondered if a transportation enterprise zone might have been a way to steer a course through this fall’s squabble between San Francisco-based electronic taxi hailing app Uber and the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission. The conflict arose over the app’s end-run around the city’s decades-old separation of taxi fleets, designed to ensure a steady supply for street hails by prohibiting yellow cabs from making pre-arranged pickups. A citywide rule change, spurred by a left coast startup’s complaint, seemed premature. But why not pilot it for rides originating in a limited zone, perhaps one that by luck of the geographical draw (say Lower Manhattan south of City Hall) has suffered from a chronic shortage of empty trolling cabs?

Other potential test beds come to mind – Detroit’s buses are an endangered species. Could more lax rules entice some budding entrepreneurs to fill the gaps? New York’s airport taxi dispatching schemes are an over-regulated mess, with numerous shady operators operating at the margins – why not de-criminalize them and work on improving the flow of vehicles through the terminals instead of punishing drivers and passengers alike with archaic queues?

Where else might this work? The enterprise zone idea originated in the 1970s, when British geographer and urbanist Peter Hall proposed that the model of Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan might be re-imported to the United Kingdom to spur investment. He argued that “fairly shameless free enterprise” might be used as an “extremely last-ditch solution… only on a very small scale.” (1) People like Paul Romer (here at NYU’s Urbanization Project) have more recently argued, in the developing world at least, for the opposite – that they are a high priority strategy to be implemented expeditiously and on a massive scale. The result is the so-called “charter city”.

I object to charter cities. In the name of anti-corruption they throw the baby out with the bath water. As Rudin Center visiting scholar Greg Lindsay has argued, they work great on paper but are destined to failure when they get entangled in the messy land struggles of developing nations. But targeted deregulation is something worth trying when nothing else works. And enterprize zones are a viable pragmatic response to stagnation and partisan paralysis. As one analysis conducted for the Minnesota state legislature noted “…enterprise zones have received support from both ends of the political spectrum. Professor Hall was a Fabian Socialist. The Thatcher government, on the other end of the political spectrum, enacted legislation adopting the zone program in Britain. Both the Reagan and Clinton administrations proposed zones with the latter succeeding in enacting them. Congressmen Jack Kemp (a conservative Republican) and Robert Garcia (a liberal Democrat) were coauthors of the initial federal proposals.”(2)

Why not give it a shot? What would you propose for a transportation enterprise zone?


  1. Stuart M. Butler, “Enterprise Zones: Pioneering in the Inner City,” Economic Development Tools (1981): 25-41.
  2. “Enterprise Zones: A Review of the Economic Theory and Empirical Evidence”, Don Hirasuna and Joel Michael (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Minnesota House of Representatives Research Department), January 2005,

Policy by the Numbers

NYU Rudin’s Sarah Kaufman has posted on Google’s Policy by the Numbers blog about social media and transportation, and the importance of saying you’re sorry. Check out the full post here, or read this excerpt below:

…a large portion of responsiveness is accountability. In our analysis, we found a major discrepancy in the use of “thanks” and “sorry” in the Twitter feeds of private transportation providers (specifically, American Airlines and JetBlue) versus public agencies. Specifically, the airlines apologized far more than public transportation providers for delays and cancellations: in the two months studied, American Airlines wrote “sorry” and its synonyms 3,949 times; PATH, 62 times; Metro-North, 39 times; NJ Transit, 25 times; and the others, three or fewer times. Similarly, while customer engagement dominated both airlines’ Twitter accounts (85% on average), demonstrating their need to be constantly responsive to and direct with customers, public transportation providers communicated less directly with their customers (34%). These patterns indicate a universal orientation toward customer service throughout the private companies, which must earn and maintain customer loyalty. However, public transportation providers, which often have a monopoly on customers, likely do not feel the same need to focus on them.

The entire social media report is available in Part 1 (Twitter use analysis) and Part 2 (Policy recommendations).

Short Talks, Big Ideas: Recap and video

Last night’s Video of last night’s excellent Short Talks, Big Ideas session is now up:
Short Talks, Big Ideas

Thanks to the 100 or so attendees, and in particular, to all of our excellent presenters:
David Mahfouda, Weeels, brought to light the concept of taxis as public transit
Taylor Reiss, NYC Dept. of Transportation, showcased exciting plans for Select Bus Service
Jesse Friedman, Google, proposed new ideas to make bus ridership more appealing
Brian Langel, Dash, presented his new app Dash for personalized car data
Susi Wunsch, Velojoy, discussed the importance of women in bicycling efforts
- Raz Schwartz, Rutgers, showed the compelling urban data that can be gleaned from social media and neighborhood connectivity
Matt Healy, Foursquare, demonstrated the movements of New Yorkers shown through FourSquare checkins

We’ll see you in the Spring with more exciting events. If you have speaker suggestions for our next Short Talks, Big Ideas event, please get in touch!