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Moving the City Along the Road to Sustainability
by Rich Kassel
On Earth Day 2007, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced PlaNYC 2030 -- a long-term vision for environmental sustainability for New York City. Unlike many other vision documents that are long on rhetoric and short on details, PlaNYC included more than 100 quantifiable strategies to hold Bloomberg and future administrations accountable on a wide range of environmental, economic and quality of life metrics.
By combining long-term vision with short-term quantifiable goals, PlaNYC 2030 changed the environmental debate in the city. PlaNYC represented a major new undertaking for the Bloomberg administration, which had focused on other issues during its first term. PlaNYC reframed the environment as a major priority for the mayor. It cast environmental sustainability as a critical component of how Bloomberg and his successors will meet the needs of an estimated one million additional New Yorkers who are projected to live in the city by 2030.
As an initial step, a new Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability was created to oversee the implementation of PlaNYC 2030. This office has been releasing implementation reports that provide a good overview of the mayor’s record on these issues so far. They and other materials are available here.
The mayor’s record on three key environmental issues is summarized below.
Given the millions of people who live, work, drive, use electricity and make things here, plus the tons of pollution that blow into New York City from upwind power plants in other states, air pollution is an unfortunate byproduct of life in the city. In fact, our city has never met -- and still does not meet -- the federal health standards for particulate matter (soot) or ozone (smog). In addition, thanks to the siting of commercial truck routes and bus depots, historically under-enforced anti-idling laws, and old boilers burning extremely dirty heating oil in many buildings, residents of low-income communities and communities of color breathe especially high levels of pollution.
In PlaNYC 2030, the Bloomberg administration vowed to "achieve the cleanest air quality of any big city in America." Recognizing the need to reduce community-level exposure to air pollution, PlaNYC2030 took aim at the high pollution exposures experienced throughout Hunts Point, Harlem and other low-income communities and communities of color. This approach was a logical follow-up to the focus on addressing inequities in the siting of waste facilities in the Solid Waste Management Plan, adopted in 2006.
Some of the highlights of the mayor’s record on air quality include:
- To protect the city’s school children, Bloomberg worked with the City Council to create legislation, signed earlier this month, to retire old school buses and require filters to reduce the amount of pollution inside school buses, following similar new laws to reduce emissions from construction equipment, transit buses and other diesel engines used for city business that he signed in 2003, 2005 and 2007.
- To reduce pollution and increase efficiency in the city’s highest mileage vehicles, the mayor worked with Councilman David Yassky and others to craft legislation to convert the city’s yellow taxis to clean and efficient hybrid-electric models. When litigation stopped the implementation of the mayor’s original taxi program, he created a set of incentives that has led to a significant increase in the number of hybrid taxis -- today, 21 percent of the city’s yellow taxis are hybrids.
- To reduce emissions in neighborhoods plagued by heavy truck traffic, the city partnered with the state Department of Environmental Conservation to create better enforcement of anti-idling laws along heavy truck routes, especially in environmental justice communities.
- To reduce pollution from critical -- but highly polluting boats -- the Staten Island Ferry and several private ferries are using cleaner fuels and advanced pollution control systems, eliminating more than 300 tons of smog-forming gases every year.
- To reduce emissions around schools, the Department of Education has installed new boilers to replace extremely old and dirty boilers in several dozen schools.
Probably no issue evokes the old slogan, "Think Globally, Act Locally" more than climate change. The impacts of climate change—including hotter temperatures, rising sea levels and increased precipitation—are as much a local issue for New York City as they are a global issue for the nation and the world.
In PlaNYC2030, the Bloomberg administration aims to reduce global warming emissions by more than 30 percent by 2030 (last year, these emissions dropped by 3.5 percent in the city). By that time, the city projects that 85 percent of our energy consumption will come from buildings that already exist today. Thus, the administration has focused on investments that will make our existing buildings more energy-efficient.
The list of climate initiatives contains large items and small, as the following list shows:
- The city has been investing approximately $80 million per year to make existing government buildings more energy-efficient -- and has launched more than 224 energy efficiency projects on government buildings.
- The city Energy Planning Board was launched to coordinate planning among a wide range of city and state agencies to meet the city’s energy supply and demand needs.
- Bloomberg and former Vice President Al Gore launched an NYC Service initiative to organize volunteers to coat rooftops with reflective coating to reduce cooling costs and greenhouse gas emissions.
- The city committed to investing $25 million in energy efficiency improvements in the Castle Hill Houses in the Bronx.
- The Departments of Transportation and Parks and Recreation are collaborating on a pilot program to test high-efficiency, LED lights in parks and on roadways. Right now, the lights are easiest seen in Central Park from East 67th to East 72nd Street, but the city plans to expand the program.
Plus, many of the air quality and transportation initiatives will contribute to the climate goals. For example, those hybrid-electric taxis will cut fuel costs and climate pollution from the city’s highest mileage vehicles -- and all of the new bike lanes will help New Yorkers leave their cars at home, cutting congestion and climate pollution even more.
In 2008, the mayor’s proposal to use congestion pricing to fight traffic and help fund the Metropolitan Transportation Authority dominated the transportation agenda of the city and state. When the plan hit a roadblock in Albany (after passing the City Council), attention turned to efforts that could improve transportation in the city without requiring the state legislature's approval.
Today, New Yorkers are resting in pedestrian plazas formerly reserved for honking cars and riding to work on dozens of new bike lanes. Work is progressing on "Select Bus Service," a new style of bus service that is providing a faster, more convenient bus commute along Fordham Road in the Bronx and that is slated to be expanded throughout the City over the course of the coming decade. Perhaps most important, the city’s Department of Transportation is being revitalized and reshaped by Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan from its traditional focus on moving cars into an agency of multi-modal mobility advocates.Here are some highlights:
- NYC Transit and the city are implementing a plan to convert five bus corridors to Select Bus Service by 2014 (besides the existing Fordham Road line, Nostrand Avenue, First and Second Avenues, Hylan Boulevard and 34th Streetare all slated for Select Bus Service). Select Bus Service is the New York version of the Bus Rapid Transit systems being developed throughout Latin America and Asia. These systems offer many attributes of subways (e.g., paying before you board, longer distances between stops), yet are faster and less expensive to implement because they operate on the roads. The expansion of Select Bus Service is a tribute to the success of the first pilot project on Fordham Road in the Bronx -- which reduced travel times by 19 percent while carrying 5,000 more riders per day. The city and NYC Transit are discussing a second phase of projects that will identify another eight to ten corridors for Select Bus Service by 2020.
- More than 200 miles of bike lanes have been installed in all five boroughs in the last three years. This has almost doubled the number of bike lane miles in the city, and has raised the visibility and safety of bikers. Add in a new bill to allow bike commuters to bring their bikes into their workplaces upon a tenant’s request, another bill to require large parking facilities to offer spaces to bicycles, more than 6,100 bike racks, 20 sheltered bike parking structures, and the result is a city that is becoming more bike-friendly every day. As a result, more and more people are biking to work and school -- the Department of Transportation estimates that bike commuting has grown 45 percent since 2006.
- More on the fun side of transportation: Green Light for Midtown, otherwise known as "closing Broadway to cars" is revising the way New Yorkers look at our streetscapes. In particular, the pedestrian plazas in Herald Square and Times Square have become de rigueur stops for midtown workers, residents and visitors at lunchtime, after work and late into the night. And car-free days on Manhattan’s Park and Fourth Avenues have created new energy and vibrancy along these promenades on many otherwise-sleepy summer weekends.
After two and a half years, the progress on PlaNYC’s key air pollution, transportation, and climate change initiatives is clear. On other critical environmental issues, the path toward greater sustainability in the coming decade has been laid out: More than 250,000 trees have been planted with a goal of one million new trees, an Office of Environmental Remediation has been created to clean up brownfields that don’t qualify as federal Superfund sites, plans to clean up pollution from dirty home heating oil are being developed, and a package of bills to require that large buildings improve their energy efficiency awaits action by the City Council. While there is still work to be done, the city has embarked on a strong path toward a more sustainable future.Rich Kassel is a longtime environmental advocate on air, energy and transportation issues in New York City.
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