Mayor Bloomberg's Sustainability Plan: Good, Bad and Ugly

I've now had time to sift through more of Mayor Bloomberg's sustainability plan. I highly recommend the speech reading through the whole report if you get a chance or you can focus on a few of the different sections on Land, Water, Transportation, Energy and Air. I could probably spend a post or two on each of these in the future.

The Good
Everything in the plan itself is pretty much all good stuff for creating a more environmentally friendly and sustainable city. Most of these are administrative no-brainers, it's just a matter of changing the way procurement is done by the city and how incentives are arranged for individuals and businesses to do the right thing. There is too much to digest completely here, but the important part is that this Mayor has committed to sustainability as a major part of his agenda for the rest of his administration:

I make this promise to you: I will not spend my last 984 days in office pretending that all is fine and leaving these challenges to the next mayor, who may well pass them off to his or her successor. And we – the residents of a city that is a beacon to the world – will not abdicate our responsibility to that world. That’s not leadership. Leadership is about recognizing challenges and seizing opportunities. And we are going to seize this opportunity – to lead the way forward and create the first environmentally sustainable 21st century city.

What's the bad and ugly? The Bad is all the stuff that somehow got left out of the plan. And the Ugly is the risk that major pieces of this may get bogged down in getting approval at different levels of government before the next Mayor takes over.

The Bad - Errors of Omission

There are a significant number of ideas that have been floated around in recent years that could dramatically improve the quality of life and environmental sustainability of the city, particularly on the transportation front:

1. Cross Harbor Freight Rail Tunnel: A tunnel between Brooklyn/Queens and New Jersey's freight rail network that would eliminate hundreds of thousands of tractor trailer trips through the city. Congestion pricing, if it happens, may give trucks greater incentives to go around the city, but no matter what route they take, it will not reduce the amount of carbon going up into the atmosphere.

2. Car Free Central and Prospect Parks: Transportation Alternatives has been leading an effort to make Central and Prospect Parks Car Free. Last Summer the mayor agreed to extend the car free hours, but stopped short of making them 100% car free during commuting hours. This would seem to be an easy proposal that is very popular that could have been included to encourage more biking and improve quality of life for park users.

3. Pedestrian Only Streets: Currently all streets are primarily focused on moving as many cars through them as possible. While the mayor has inserted a general initiative to build public spaces in all communities, he did not propose pedestrianizing various streets around the city, like this proposal for Car-Free Bedford to promote pleasant public spaces and shopping areas around the city.

4. Onstreet Light Rail: Bloomberg is still very much a proponent of Bus Rapid Transit and he already has plans to create 5 of those routes by 2009 and expand it from there. I was hoping to see some experimental ideas for light rail such as Vision 42.

Perhaps the new Commissioner of Transportation will be able push these ideas to the forefront.

I was also hoping to see something more innovative about using water cooling systems to help improve energy efficiency of cooling systems. This is a fairly simple way to use the high specific heat of the Rivers and Harbor to help cool buildings in the warm months.

The Ugly
Getting approval for much of the agenda from the State Legislature and the City Council may be problematic and the next Mayor may not prioritize the environment over other issues or worse may have a political base that is more heavily dependent on regular auto commuters in NYC.

Yesterday, in a classic pandering move to the taxi industry, the City Council overrode Mayor Bloomberg's veto of very harsh and unnecessary regulations for pedicabs. This shows that not only are these folks not committed to new environmentally friendly modes of transportation, they will actively oppose it when it is politically expedient.

The state legislature controls much of the ability to allow the city to charge additional tolls for congestion pricing or install the cameras needed for enforcement. Since 50% of the burden for the new tolls would fall on drivers from outside the city and with very little incentive to favor them, it is unclear how to build a bicameral majority on some of the more controvertial parts at the state level.

In looking at the field of potential Mayoral candidates, there are few who seem to be willing to go out on a limb and support congestion pricing upfront and at least a few who actively oppose it, like Congressman Anthony Weiner. Others, like Christine Quinn, Marty Markowitz and other outer borough leaders will probably continue to pander to motorists with initiatives like free Sunday parking and continuing to make as much room for cars over alternative transportation like biking and walking. Scott Stringer and Dan Doctoroff on the other hand would be probably be the best hopes of carrying on Bloomberg's legacy on Congestion Pricing.

My hope is that Bloomberg teams up with Spitzer and makes deals with Quinn and the two State legislative leaders (Bruno and Silver) because they find that the environmental, health and other benefits outweigh the nominal costs to certain small groups of constituents. Bloomberg is a shrewd negotiator and I expect that he knows already that he has the necessary political capital to make this happen. This will not be easy and compromises will probably have to be made somewhere to achieve a consensus. There will be key moments in the months to come to apply public pressure to make sure these plans success and the Mayor has built a very good and diverse coalition of business and community leaders, but it will be an uphill struggle to get something this big done.

Despite the Bad and the Ugly, it's great to see a man of enormous persuasive powers, at the height of his respect and popularity with two and a half years to implement his vision take such bold steps forward on these issues. And while he hasn't directly said it, this is a very good start on building a sustainable post Peak Oil city.

Omitted (probably not even considered):

Free public transit

(seriously, click the link, the video is pretty cool ... but it's probably more of a state/federal project in the end.)

A mass transit system that gets most of its operating and construction budget from taxes, as opposed to fares, can easily improve the return(in passenger miles per tax dollar spent) on those taxes if reducing the fares to zero improves ridership dramatically. Especially if the primary object is to discourage car ownership / ridership.

Re New York city "Peak Oil City".
Kudos to New York for improving sustainability!

New York, faces a number of problems in order to be " energy sustainable".
People density is probably too high to get the optimal benefit of the "Compact city" .
See graph here: from this interesting online study :

In terms of energy use and gdp (PPP)/$, New York has some way to go.

New York
220 million BTU / capita = 64432 kWh/capita and 40.500 $ (PPP) capita
For comparison Denmark,(which by no means is sustainable yet. An early study has indicated that Denmark could be energy sustainable if consumnption was reduced to 30-40% of the present!).
Denmark GDP - per capita (PPP) $37,000 (2006 est.) and energy consumption 840 PJ = 147 million btu / capita ( 2005)

New York use 49 % more energy per capita and 36% more energy per GDP(PPP).
While this comparison is certainly not fair it still gives an indication of the monumental task we are faced.

kind regards And1

The mayor can to some extent reduce the damage and injury
that the city sponsors against the global ecology and peoples,
but the idea that he can make New York sustainable is sheer hubris,
or maybe it's sheer ignorance of what sustainable means?

So first, where are 8 million peoples' food supplies coming from, and what are their production impacts ?

Second, ditto for their energy and for their purchases' production energy.




So first, where are 8 million peoples' food supplies coming from, and what are their production impacts ?

Second, ditto for their energy and for their purchases' production energy.

I don't mean to be flip on this, but I don't have time to give a lengthy description of how dense cities allow large populations to live efficiently and not take up so much space as suburban living. So at the risk of giving too short an answer to your questions, my response is: All the land that they don't use

1. Capable of being sustained.
2. Capable of being continued with minimal long-term effect on the environment: sustainable agriculture.

They didn't say self sufficient. The very idea of civilization involves interdependent networks achieving a sufficient quality of life through specialization and trade. Urban areas trade their products to rural areas for food grown in the rural areas. No city is going to be able to grow their own food at the densities present in New York. Ever. This is not a bad thing. And I don't think those who wrote this plan would suggest otherwise.

Eventually nuclear terrorism is going to make us shut down our cities and recycle the material to make new housing developments in the rural areas. Until then...
I'd make half the streets bus, truck, and taxi only. You want to drive your car around, buy a taxi medallion at 100,000 a pop. We WILL lose the subways in the next hurricane, so get ready now. Figure a five percent chance of losing the subways in any given year, assuming that a major volcano eruption doesn't shut down global warming before then. That or a major nuclear war provoked by global warming, of course.
Why five percent? Because global warming is making hurricanes stay strong farther towards the poles. Our data base includes only a few hurricanes that were good enough to flood the New York City electrical infrastructure and the last big one in 1938 missed the city by miles, but we are now in uncharted territory. We literally don't know what will happen this summer, except that it won't be as mild as last summer. The smart money says it's going to almost as bad as 2004 (which was as bad as 2005, except that we didn't hit New Orleans till next year).
But we know that hurricanes have tracks for different climate conditions, and now the tracks point at NYC and the temperature is up.
Historically it's more like 1% in any given year. But historical data has lots of cyclones and storms that hit NYC and don't flood because they aren't strong enough. So figure on just as many storms but kick them up a notch or two, which is why 5%.
Remember, New Orleans screwed up transportation, petrochemicals, and economics all over the south. Lose NYC and we will find out what happens to our imports instead of our exports like in New Orleans. Not to mention NJ is also a significant source of refinery products.

Actually, wouldn't all those trucks and taxis interfere significantly with the buses? How about half the streets bus only. Let the cars, taxis, and trucks fight it out for one quarter of the streets. Let the remaining quarter be just for pedestrians and bicycles. Perhaps future "subway" lines need to be placed several meters above ground, unless we plan to use submarines in the subway system.

"Eventually nuclear terrorism is going to make us shut down our cities and recycle the material to make new housing developments in the rural areas." Ummm... I guess its safe to say you don't buy lottery tickets? :)

Glenn -

I well accept that NY does provide a dense pack for the 8 million,
but the practicality is that any city needs a really large area of sustainably managed country
with both farmland & forestry and, preferably, coastal fisheries,
to even begin to approach sustainability.

I suggest that operating that area under the constraints of sustainability
will require very substantial changes in federal US law, let alone NY State laws,
both of which are entirely beyond the city's mayor,
which is why his claim to be creating "the first environmentally sustainable 21st century city.."
seems to me ludicrous.

In reality the city is quite likely to have to be abandoned
as a post-peak America finds itself unable to organize the sea-defences.



I'm thinking that the lack of other major proposals (such as the freight train tunnels, the non-mention of car-free parks, etc.) mean that this proposal was designed to be shot down. Congestion parking was already floated in the 1980s and the parking garage owners got it stopped almost immediately. I suspect Bloomberg is trying to burnish his green credentials for a presidential run but doesn't want to have anything pass.

Also, seems to me that there's an easier way to discourage driving--the city should lean on businesses that get tax abatements and try to get them to stop paying for employee parking with flex accounts. If people had to pay for their own parking, it would make for a very different transit setup.

Finally, the plan completely ignores Brooklyn and Queens and their own traffic nightmares. I commute from Brooklyn to lower Manhattan by Bike and the only gridlock I see (and I see it three days out of five) is in North Brooklyn around Park Slope along Fifth Avenue north to Smith. Some of the backups are all the way up dean street and fifth avenue. Putting congestion pricing on Manhattan alone will not fix this.

Did he mention growth? Growth and sustainability don't go together. Without growth, we're talking a very different kind of society, not just tinkering at the edges.

But it's good that prominent people are at least having the discussion. :)

I've seen this point many times, in many different places, all of them vague.

Could you explain to me how exactly slowing overall economic growth down to zero percent would require drastic structural changes in an economy? I don't quite see it being so difficult... perhaps I'm just thinking of near-zero population growth japan and europe?

What about a dynamic market equilibrium is so difficult to sustain?

"Growth and sustainability don't go together."
What a strange statement.

Nature continually grows and finds its balances.. ('sustainability'), to survive and continue. But the natural world, including our own bodies does this with cycles of rest, advances and retreats, birth and death. Yes, we may well be talking about a very different kind of society, where we have checked our assumptions attached to the idea of 'Growth'. We have attached an assumption of immortality to some of our institutions and our creations (Like Corporations or Governments), so that we, in constant (Euro/Western) fear of death can refuse to let them die when their time has come. (GM Bailouts.. etc)

There is an abundance of healthy growth in business, education, personal development that we can see as a clear outcome of investing in forms of 'Sustainability' that we could be developing at this point. There are already plenty of reports about how environmental actions have created jobs, cut costs and boosted economies, where the naysayers had predicted the blight of entire regions if anyone dared to challenge the 'unrestrained consumptive greed' model for doing business.

Just the actions of 'rebreaking the table' will shake out a lot of dead wood and inspire all sorts of healthy new growth, and should also help to fortify against some of the cancerous growth of industries that have taken root against all common sense. It's what you do with a blueberry field.. burn it over to get the old stuff out of the way, and ready for fresh, clean growth to begin.

Bob Fiske