Thursday, February 24, 2011

Fw: Bad Transit Slows Growth Outside Manhattan

While Manhattan remains the epicenter of the NYC juggernaut, its sister boroughs have been growing too. Which is great: Manhattan is expensive, and if the outer boroughs were boring or dangerous, more people would try to squish onto Manhattan, making it even more miserably expensive. Good news: the outer boroughs are growing. Jobs are being created in retail as well as light manufacturing, healthcare, media and even technology, with startup companies taking advantage of lower commercial rents or working remotely.

But this is a somewhat unexpected development for the people who built the subway 100 years ago. Back then (even though Brooklyn was recently its own city, while Queens was a collection of villages), it was imagined that all would seek a way to get into Manhattan and back. Few apparently dreamed that people would need to get from Brooklyn to Queens, or from Staten Island to Brooklyn, on a daily basis. And the subways reflect that. They aren't set up for that commute. This adds a lot of time onto commutes for those who have them. They must resort to driving their own cars (pollution, gridlock) or taking several modes of transportation to get there.

So what does this mean long term for the various parts of New York City, and it's real estate values?

Transportation infrastructure is costly to fix and even costlier to build. With the MTA facing yet another shortfall, it wouldn't be easy to plan more services quickly. Alternatively, express bus lines could be started with relative ease, though they are hardly a bargain at $4 a ride. The only all-outer-borough subway train - the G - has been shortened practically to impracticality, with major service changes planned for the next two years as the all-important Culver Viaduct is shored up.  Parts of Brooklyn (East Flatbush, Canarsie, Bergen Basin) and Queens (Maspeth, Whitestone, Kew Gardens) are barely if at all serviced by subways.

Also of concern is the real estate available for such improvements. NYC is already suffering a housing shortage. If we were to put in a new line, where would we find the real estate? Any use of eminent domain, though likely to prevail, would cost years in court. So, additional subway lines are decades away from happening.

One alternative that could from extinction are electric light rail street cars. These would be relatively easier to employ, requiring only rail to be laid on street level and electrical wires to be strung above.  Indeed, many of today's bus lines take the place of street cars of yesterday. The B68 is one such example.  The December snows churned up asphalt recently at Bartel-Pritchard Square (which is really a traffic circle), revealing a glint of rail  from the old streetcar turnabout in the circle.

For brand-based businesses that rely on name prestige, Manhattan will continue to sing its siren song. Advertising and media companies will likely locate hither. Financial firms will continue to seek a downtown address (though megafirms such as Chase and Bank of America are in Midtown). And New York's burgeoning Silicon Alley (now some 15 years old, but garnering more and more venture capital funds) will likely seek out accommodations in Manhattan.

Thus far, jobs in the outer boroughs seem to be in services, with education and healthcare leading the way. This makes sense. Families move to the outer boroughs for quality schools and a slightly lower cost of living. And lifelong outer borough residents want to age in place, and can't travel into Manhattan for the elder care and physical therapy services they need.

Outerborough jobs tend to require time in the field as well - traveling from one home to another, making field visits or sales calls. These jobs are hard to do without cars. They might be easier, however, with a little love from the MTA and NYC.

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