City Official Under Fire for Questioning the Benefits and Equity of Transit

Which came first ...?
Which came first ...?

She wanted to “start a conversation,” but not necessarily this kind.

A City Planning Commissioner was under fire on Monday from advocates for transit and equity, as well as by the MTA, for a series of statements that suggested she opposes transit improvements and service increases because it might lead to gentrification — a stance that runs afoul of her agency’s own policy.

Planning Commissioner Leah Goodridge’s comments came in a Twitter thread to Twitter that specifically raised questions about the MTA’s long-planned Penn Access project to add four Metro-North stations to underserved and low-income areas of the East Bronx, but also raised more general issues of the alleged deleterious role that better transit plays in neighborhoods of color and poverty.

Here is the start of the thread, with the rest of it below (Streetsblog has embedded the links chosen by Goodridge):

Goodridge, who was appointed to the Planning Commission by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, continued: “Because just like Harlem, some parts of central Bronx (further up north than south Bronx) will be less than 30 min from midtown. So it will attract a whole lot of folks who might’ve thought it too far before. Citibike is expanding in the Bronx too. All these new forms of public transit for the near future. But developers aren’t waiting until all of this is done. I decide on the applications that come through the City Planning Commission — and many are to build new luxury housing in the Bronx. This was before my time on the Commission but here’s one huge development coming. Waterfront luxury towers in the south Bronx just a few stops away from midtown. A lot of building going on in the Bronx. And some are historic real estate deals for the amount of money they’re investing in too.”

After the initial thread, Goodridge add another tweet that enraged cycling advocates.

Leah Goodridge
Leah Goodridge

“And speaking of transportation, do you know Jerome Ave? It’s a long strip in the south Bronx that includes many auto shops (much needed since many Bronx residents are drivers),” she wrote, including a link to a story headlined, “Three Years After Bronx Rezoning, Jerome Avenue Auto Shops Under Pressure.”

Taken as a whole, the thread suggested deep qualms from a city planning commissioner about transit improvements and Citi Bike, and at least implied support for car drivers — the very positions that advocates say is exacerbates rather than improves equity.

Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson, for example, is a strong supporter of the MTA proposal.

“The residents of the East Bronx deserve better transit access,” she said. “People wonder why people in the Bronx own cars, it’s because they subway stations are too far from where they live because it’s a two-fare zone. And the buses are not reliable.”

Gibson said the four Metro-North stations will be a “game-changer” because it will give people “a better alternative to their car” and “make neighborhoods better by supporting businesses.”

“We want people to stay and thrive in the borough,” she said.

Advocates agreed.

“Most Bronxites don’t have cars and have to rely on public transit to get around,” said Danny Pearlstein of Riders Alliance, virtually all of whose Bronx members are low income people of color. “While subways serve many north-south routes, all east-west riders depend on buses, which often get stuck in slow traffic. Commuters that need to take a bus or two to the subway endure some of the longest work trips in the nation. Ninety-five percent of Bronx bus riders are New Yorkers of color, with an average income of $20,000.

“Living in the poorest county in the state, home to the poorest congressional district in the nation, Bronxites deserve much better access to many more opportunities,” Pearlstein continued. “Better public transit is essential to delivering that. Housing affordability shouldn’t be pitted against the needs of Bronxites to get to work, school, healthcare and other necessities more easily. The answer is not to keep communities isolated to stop rents from rising.”

The answer is transit, says the MTA. The agency said its decision to open the new Metro-North stations was the product of years of advocacy from Bronx elected officials and long-suffering Bronx transit customers. Agency spokesman Tim Minton was especially passionate, at length, about the MTA’s support for the $1.6-billion project.

“This opens thew gates of economic opportunity, educational access, ability to get better health care through increased mobility,” said Minton. “This is what the people of the Bronx have been asking for for a very long time. And the MTA is being responsive to their desires and hopes, their dreams and indeed their demands to get the same kind of access to transportation that exists in other places, such as on Long Island and in other boroughs. … They’ve said to the MTA , ‘We demand better access, more stations, trains in neighborhoods currently only served by buses.’ And after extensive study, and work on planning and budget, and securing funding, the MTA is now in a position to say to tens of thousands of Bronx residents, ‘The answer is yes. We will give you this opportunity. We will give help you realize the hopes and aspirations that you have been telling us for decades.'”

Minton also pointed out that the detailed environmental assessment that was conducted by the Federal Transit Administration to specifically identify impacts included a chapter on environmental justice, which is at the heart of this discussion. In issuing a “Finding of No Significant Impact” in September 2021, the FTA concluded, “The Proposed Project would benefit residents in the study area, including the surrounding minority [sic] and low-income populations, by providing new passenger rail service and increasing regional accessibility to the eastern Bronx community by offering rail service to and from Manhattan or the New York and Connecticut suburbs served by Metro-North’s New Haven Line. Due to measures incorporated into the Proposed Project’s design and construction, there would not be a disproportionately high and adverse impact upon the surrounding environmental justice communities.”

Department of City Planning spokesman Joe Marvilli echoed the MTA statement with his own: “Access to transit is vital to create better economic opportunities and reduce commute burdens for all, especially for historically underserved neighborhoods. By planning with communities to bring better public transit, including fast ferries and bike sharing, we expand access to jobs, make it easier for residents and workers to get around the city and region, and reduce harmful emissions citywide.”

(An irony not mentioned in that conclusion nor in Goodridge’s thread is unavoidable: One of the main needs for environmental remediation in the Bronx, and the ostensible cause of transit deprivation and job displacement in the borough was the growth of the car in post-war America. It is unclear what fares will be for service to and from the new stations; transit advocates, Gibson and Goodridge all agree that the fare should be the same as a regular subway ride.)

Cycling advocates were also frustrated with Goodridge’s thread, given that bicycling is often tarred as a precursor to displacement, when, in fact, it is not. And Citi Bike bills itself as a major force for equity.

“Through our Multimodal Report, we know that a growing majority of Citi Bike riders identify themselves as a member of a racial or ethnic minority,” said Caroline Samponaro, the Lyft-owned bike share company’s vice president of Transit, Bike and Scooter Policy. “We’ve also seen our Reduced Fare Fare Bike Share membership double over the last year and these riders take 54 percent more rides than regular members, demonstrating that Citi Bike is filling critical transportation needs for this group.”

In an interview with Streetsblog hours after her Twitter thread went viral like a pandemic, Goodridge, a housing lawyer for Mobilization for Justice, defended her position and consistently claimed she was just trying to “start a conversation” about the long-term implications of multiple forms of infrastructure that “longtime Bronx residents are saying they have concerns about.”

“I’m not anti-transit,” she said. “I believe there should be more accessible transit. The conversation needs to be about what happens when there are luxury developments that accompany transit expansions that are a bit more expensive than the subway.” She referred several times to luxury development in the South Bronx, which is outside the scope of this Penn Access project. And she suggested that she was starting a conversation about the cost of rail service, but this one has been underway for quite some time.

“I’m a native New Yorker,” she added. “I want to generate a conversation about what gentrification looks like and when you have far out neighborhoods in outer boroughs that not have been as accessible to some people before and there are luxury towers going up now. That raises a question of what happens when higher income residents move to those neighborhoods: how will long time residents benefit from that investment?”

She said some critics put words in her mouth.

“I’m not saying that the Bronx ‘should not have nice things’ or access to transit,” she said. “But we have communities that haven’t been invested in in a long time and now they finally get that investment in the form of more transit at the same time as luxury housing. We have to ask, ‘Will the longtime residents benefit?’ I’m a tenant-right employee in the Bronx. so I am very sensitive to displacement.”

She avoided commenting when reminded that both former Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and current Borough President Vanessa Gibson strongly support the Metro-North expansion. And she admitted that she had not testified on the service expansion during the public comment period last year.

“I’m letting people know now,” she said. “I would be remiss if I didn’t point out what longtime area residents believe.”

She added something odd when Streetsblog asked why she mentioned the car repair shops that are in danger of going out of business. First, she said she had raised the point to highlight the flaws of the Jerome Avenue rezoning, then added, “There is a separate longer conversation to be had about drivers vs. bikers. Like when Brooklyn Bridge bike lane opened up, drivers said there would be more traffic. There is contention about giving more access to bikers.”

One thing stood out, though: Streetsblog had not asked anything about cycling. Nor did Streetsblog mention cycling in a follow-up question: “What is better for Bronx residents: more car ownership or more transit?”

Goodridge was not ready to respond to that specific question. “This conversation that I wanted to generate is about gentrification, but I’ll have more to say on that in the future.”

Car ownership is squarely a part of this conversation, as 60 percent of Bronx households do not have access to a car, and car ownership is a massive financial burden on low-income residents. In poor households, owning a car consumes about 23 percent of total expenditures, which is a higher percentage than in higher-income households, Brookings once found. A seminal 2015 study found that low-income households that obtained a car were able to work more hours and earn approximately $2,300 more per year — but spent an additional $4,100 annually on the vehicles.

“So they ended up with less time and less money overall,” reporter Todd Litman wrote in 2020. “For many lower-income people, automobiles are an economic trap: they force people to work harder so they can earn more money so they can pay vehicle expenses to commute to their job, making them worse off overall.

Other Twitter commenters mocked Goodridge’s description of the changes in Harlem due to subway improvements.

Others were less flip, but equally angered.

“The Bronx is the quintessential example of the result of discriminatory and harmful transit planning as evident by the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway and removal of the Third Avenue elevated train which exacerbated the borough’s decline in the 1970s and 1980s and fueled the borough’s nation leading asthma rates,” John Sanchez, a community board district manager, writer and housing advocate told Streetsblog. “Efforts to correct these damaging actions through expanding public transit should be encouraged throughout the borough, including expanded Metro North stations, expanded busways, and most importantly the implementation of congestion pricing and dynamic parking pricing.

“Regarding housing, any efforts to diversify neighborhood incomes is a worthwhile policy goal,” he added. “People of all incomes should be welcome to live in The Bronx, and there should be enough housing options for them all. Policymakers’ misguided efforts to only pursue low income housing opportunities, exacerbates and perpetuates the damaging effects of concentrated poverty. We have enough racial and economic segregation in our city already, and we should be seeking to reverse these trends, not reinforce them.

But some advocates were willing to listen, albeit critically, to Goodridge’s points.

“The relationship between transit investment and gentrification is very complicated,” said Liam Blank of Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “Improvements to a neighborhood will increase the value of the neighborhood, and as a result, lower-income residents can be displaced. The issue is more about how to mitigate the negative effects of gentrification, not to stop gentrification altogether. There’s also a case to be made that building more housing, even if it’s mostly high-income housing, increases the supply of housing, and therefore reduces pressure on existing housing stock and can reduce displacement in other parts of the city.

“I think she [Goodridge] is making a point that the city must pay special attention to the type of development that is allowed to be built around the new Penn Access Metro-North stations in the Bronx,” Blank continued. “The city must ensure that any new development includes a sufficient amount of affordable housing and allows for mixed uses. Additionally, the MTA should adopt fare policies such as Freedom Ticket, which would make commuter rail fares more affordable for intra-city trips, so that the commuter rail network doesn’t continue to be a premium shuttle service for commuters of higher socio-economic status. There’s a lot that can be done to mitigate the negative effects of gentrification, but expanding access to transit is not the root cause of the problem.”

Streetsblog also reached out to several public officials who have made conflicting comments about car ownership and transit, including Council Transportation Committee Selvena Brooks-Powers and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, but did not get a response.