New York City’s broken infrastructure

New York City’s broken infrastructure


I live in New York City or "the broken website everyone uses" as @xuhulk coined. Some days it is a truly marvelous place and other days, a marvel that anyone can even live here.

I’ve looked for a general list of New York’s infrastructure problems but I have not found even a single one. While I could certainly go on about the things that are great about New York, I want to be able to be honest about the city’s shortcomings. A list of infrastructure issues would setup a focused prompt for conversations about where to start improving NYC. We may not be able to agree about what to do about any of these issues, but hopefully we can agree on the current reality.

Here I’ve loosely documented some of the major pieces of physical infrastructure that are broken in New York City. The list does not include national problems that only incidentally apply to New York and focuses on issues that are best represented by our most populous and dense city. For the purposes of this piece, I’m defining infrastructure as "the basic physical structures needed to operate a city". Perhaps in a later list I can investigate the vast set of non-physical infrastructure systems like inequality, homelessness and schools.

I don’t want this list to be something needlessly negative but a list to help us New Yorkers focus. If we want to talk about what making New York better, where should we start? Wikipedia does a very good job putting a positive spin on New York City’s environmental issues here. While broader than infrastructure and overly positive, it is worth a read. I learned that while NYC is responsible for 1% of the US’s greenhouse gas emissions, it makes up 2.7% of the total population — making NYC significantly more environmentally friendly than cities such as Portland and SF.

Much like NYC, this document is intended to be a constant work in progress rather some authoritative unchanging thing. I am no expert on this, only an interested observer. If you have any recommendations please contact me or collaborate on the post on Github.

1. Trains

I’ve you’ve visited absolutely any major city outside of the US, coming back to the trains in New York is always a bit of a drag. Our unreliable and messy train system, while once a point of pride, is a bit of a sore spot with the city.

Timeliness: Trains run on time 74% of the time in NYC. [source]

Expansion: Until late 2015, the train routes had not expanded at all since WWII

  • The only recent expansion, the 2nd Ave subway, is taking a while
  • Plans for the 2nd Ave subway started in 1919 and initial funding was approved as part of a larger plan in 1929
  • Due to the great depression, WWII and funding challenges, digging on the 2nd Ave subway did not begin until 1972. Digging is expected to finish in 2016 and the stations are expected to fully open in 2029

Cost: The subway is 5–7x more expensive than subways in comparable cities

  • The 2nd ave subway costs about $2.3 billion per mile. Subway tunnels in other dense, first-world cities can vary widely in cost, but almost always are between $200 million and $1 billion per mile of route. [source]
  • The recently opened Fulton Center station is the 2nd most expensive train station in the world, second to the PATH station under the WTC. [source]

Old signaling (called ‘Fixed-block signals) make it difficult to know where trains actually are or how fast they are traveling. [further reading]

  • These old signals are why few lines have estimated arrival times for trains — due to these signals, no one knows where the trains are or how fast they are going.
  • CBTC is a modern technology the MTA is slowly rolling out. CBTC allows a central operator to know more precisely where trains are on the tracks and thus run them more closely together. [source]
  • CBCT was installed on the L & 7 but took 18 years to install.
  • Highly recommend watching this video on how CBCT and Fixed Block signals work

Other issues

  • Disaster preparedness is a real issue (see Sandy closings)
  • Little Wifi or even cell phone access on the subway
  • Heating/cooling in the stations
  • Track fires are an issue [source]

2. Trash

Unlike pretty much any other modern city in the world, New Yorkers are totally comfortable partying in trash. Walk around the Meatpacking district on a Saturday night (don’t do this) and next to all the Bentleys and Ferraris will be…huge piles of trash. While visibly inconveniencing the rich may be another point of pride in NYC, there are some more fundamental problems with trash that affect us all. [source]

  • Trash collection and processing costs 2.3b per year.
  • Roosevelt Island has a network of pneumatic tubes to aid in trash removal [source]
  • The 10 year #OneNYC plan seeks to address the trash problem but doesn’t provide much clarity around specific changes that will happen over the next 10 years.
  • The city only recycles 15 percent of residential waste [source]
  • Since closing the Fresh Kills landfill (due to local and EPA pressure) in 2001, there hasn’t been a local-ish way to dispose of ~50,000 tons of residential and commercial waste every single day.
  • Currently, 76 percent of the city’s residential trash is sent to landfills (in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and South Carolina), 14 percent is recycled, and 10 percent is converted to energy. [source]

3. Water

In spite of our ~100 year old water system that supplies 20 million people, we have some really fresh water. In NYC, our water comes from the Catskills and requires very little treatment. That said, we were teetering on potential water supply disaster for a while. Up until a few years ago, had a single 100 year old tunnel collapsed, we would have had 20 million people without water.

Supply: Until late 2013, NYC only had two water tunnels. If either tunnel failed, NYC would be out of water for 2–3 YEARS.

  • Construction on Tunnel #3 began in 1970 and it became operational in 2013 but is not complete. The final phase 3 and 4 of Tunnel #3 is expected to finish in 2020. 24 people have died building it.
  • Check out this write up about the story of building Tunnel #3

Tunnel #1 and #2 are ~100 years old and very leaky / broken but no one is sure how broken!

  • If we turn off Tunnel #1 or Tunnel #2 to repair, we don’t know if we will be able to turn them on again.
  • Since tunnel #3 is operational, the city plans to inspect and repair Tunnel #1 and #2 which have not been inspected since construction.

4. Sewage

Approximately 70 percent of New York’s sewers are combined. This means that household and industrial wastewater, rainwater, and street runoff -1.3 billion gallons daily- are all collected in the same sewers and conveyed together to the City’s 14 treatment plants.

  • This means that during floods, water from all these sources flows through the streets.
  • During heavy rains or snow, combined sewers can fill to capacity and are then unable to carry household and storm sewage to treatment plants. The mix of excess stormwater and untreated sewage must be released directly into the city’s waterways. [source]

Superfund sites on the National Priorities List such as Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal.

  • Among other issues, the Gowanus Canal has gonorrhea [source]
  • Newtown Creek contains a baffling 30 million gallons of spilled oil [source]

Flood risk has risen 20x since late 1884s [source]

  • Curious about what factors lead to this. Global warming?

5. Communications

Maybe one day we will have FIOS. Until then, almost all New Yorkers are stuck with Time Warner which has a (near?)monopoly on internet and cable delivery in the city. Many New Yorkers feel that due to this monopoly, Time Warner does not deliver quality service or competitive pricing (it has 1.5 stars on yelp).

  • Comcast and Time Warner are under investigation for slow internet speed [source]
  • Verizon FIOS rollout has not gone well. The city is currently investigating Verizon for "An egregious failure on the part of Verizon to deliver on the FIOS agreement.". [source]
  • Cell infrastructure is largely pretty good for most carriers but I haven’t found much information on it aside from consumer reviews.

6. Energy

Many veteran New Yorkers will remember the blackout of 2003. After looking more into that, I learned that energy supply (both electric and gas) are very well developed and modern in NYC. But, the pies and delivery mechanisms for ‘last mile’ service are very old and leaky. Very recently, these old leaky pipes caused an explosion in the east village injuring 19 people.

  • The city gets 98 percent of its electricity from natural gas. And natural gas meets 65 percent of heating needs. [source]

Marcellus natural gas pipeline

  • The pipeline, while it is a modern way to deliver natural gas, the natural gas is sourced through fracking which causes a wide array of environmental problems. [source]
  • Check out this 3 part series on the environmental and economic issues around fracking in New York.
  • New York State has banned fracking, but a large portion of our natural gas (not sure how much) comes from Pennsylvania [source]

Old Pipes: There are over 6,300 miles of very old natural gas pipes under the city. They leak and break causing explosions [source]

  • "In 2012 alone, Con Edison and National Grid, the other distributor of natural gas in the city, reported 9,906 leaks in their combined systems, which serve the city and Westchester County. More than half of them were considered hazardous because of the dangers they posed to people or property, federal records show" [source]
  • Con Edison experienced 83 leaks for every 100 miles of main in 2012. [source]

7. Roads

As an avid biker, my experience with the roads is largely dodging potholes. My only accidents in 6 years of biking in the city have been with the road, not with drivers or other bikers. Over those 6 years, I’ve seen the road quality generally improve and the number of bike lanes (and bikers) expand very rapidly. While I vividly understand the plight of bikers in the city, I do not personally understand the experience of drivers in the city of New York. As a result, this information may be particularly biased and incomplete.

Robert Moses

  • He is credited with building every road in the city with ‘expressway’ and ‘parkway’ in its name — including the BQE, the Cross-Bronx expressway and the Triborough Bridge.
  • Highly recommend the Bowery Boys podcast and reading The Power Broker.
  • All of his roads and bridges were designed to NOT accommodate city busses. Robert Moses felt that the poor, people who ride the bus, should not be on his roads or going to his parks. [source]
  • In addition to being classist, Robert Moses was also very racist. Moses wanted to "keep African Americans from using pools in white neighborhoods by making the water too cold." [source]
  • Since he had so much power, his classism and racism are built into the cities roads and lack of train infrastructure (he also stopped train development from 1930–1960).

Congestion is an issue in New York. Mayor Bloomberg tried to enact Congestion Pricing in the city but it failed when the economy collapsed in 2008. [source]

  • A lot of the traffic on Canal St. consists of trucks from Brooklyn, and Long Island on their way to New Jersey. Most could travel a more direct route over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge into Staten Island, and then over the Goethals Bridge into New Jersey, but they do not. The reason? A one-way toll for westbound traffic across the Verrazano (the bridge is owned by New Jersey). Most simply skirt the fee to use the Manhattan Bridge-Canal Street-Holland Tunnel route for free. The result? Heavy pollution, and terrible congestion for downtown residents. [source]

Pedestrian safety and "The Rule of Two"

  • A driver has to be violating two misdemeanors at the same time when they hit a pedestrian for it to be the drivers fault [source]
  • The act of hitting the pedestrian or cyclist with right of way doesn’t count as one of the two violations. [source]
  • Unless those two violations are met, killing a pedestrian walking with the signal results in a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. [source]
  • Mayor de Blasio’s "Vision Zero" plan is showing mixed results [source]

There are certainly other infrastructure issues I haven’t listed here. I really struggled with where to draw the line on what constitutes ‘infrastructure’. When you think about it, virtually every social issue comes back to the infrastructure that supports or enables it.

Infrastructure issues could include the low number of public schools, lack of affordable housing units and limited space in homeless shelters. Inequality is a issues where NYC truly…shines. I struggled with whether to or how to include inequality as a topic in the list. But, I have not found a way to quantify inequality through its infrastructure related symptoms such as unoccupied luxury housing units or availability of affordable housing.

I hope this list is a helpful as a broad overview of some of the issues New York City faces. A thesis could be written on most of the individual bullet points in this list much less the larger themes. I’ve tried to link to insightful and readable articles to help the reader dig into issues they are interested in but I know even that gives an extremely incomplete picture.

As I mentioned above, this is meant to be collaborative work in progress. If you have any contributions or want to pose some changes to this list please contact me or collaborate on the post on Github.