It’s fun to draw maps of “deserts,” places where some cool thing is absent and where you can therefore imply that people are being abandoned or ignored. This Chris Whong map of New York “Subway deserts” for example, just showed up in Citylab:
Sure enough, most of the land area of New York city is not near a subway station.
But how many people is that? It’s a lot of people, but fewer than you’d guess from looking at the map, because so much of the subwayless area is low-density or even open space. Geographically accurate maps always invite you to misread area as population.
And in any case, should everyone in New York be close to a subway stop? The subway is not the whole transit system; it’s just the high-capacity backbone of it. You build subways only where you expect to fill long trains at high frequency for much of the day.
There may be places in New York that would profit from, and reward, the investment in a subway, but a map of everywhere that subways don’t go doesn’t even start that conversation.
The deserts that really matter are deserts of access, places where people are truly without options. And to assess that for New York, even just for transit, you’d have to care about the massive bus network. It’s the bus network job to cover the whole city, getting close to everyone. Much of the bus system is also very frequent.
That’s why the smart folks at TransitCenter — a New York – based transit advocacy foundation — have launched a Turnaround campaign, meant to call attention to all the things that can be done to make New York bus service more useful, so that almost everyone can get to useful transit. I deal with the barriers to good bus service all over the developed world, and the problem is always the same. It’s not the technical limitations to what buses can do. It’s the official apathy about them.
For example, many elected officials still believe that because buses are supposedly “flexible” they should just be changed so that they go by the house of anyone who requests them, as though fixed route bus lines were taxis or UberPools. If they get enough phone calls, these elected officials will tell staff to transform the route on the right into the one on the left, with no comprehension of what they’re destroying.
Obviously, bus lines designed for high ridership run straight, so that they are as useful to many many people as possible, and so that they can run as frequently as possible. Obvious stuff, but you have to fight this battle over and over, and that’s a lot of what I do.
So bravo to TransitCenter for its review of the New York buses. It’s something that people in any developed-world city would be smart to review, and contemplate.