Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
In the end, New York’s MTA and D.C.’s Metro were the only transportation networks capable of handling such an influx of new residents. But both cities will have some work to do.
Like an extra-long, extra-schlocky season of The Bachelor, the signs were there from the start.
Those who tuned in from the very first episode of Amazon’s hunt for an HQ2 may recall one telling element of the initial bid for its next quarters outside of Seattle: The tech giant wanted good transportation. Wherever Amazon landed, direct access to trains and buses, in addition to highways and airports, would be critical. So in that sense, this season’s twist ending—it picked New York City and the Washington, D.C. suburbs—was no surprise. These are two of the best-connected transportation cities in the United States.
Few other cities on the shortlist of final contenders could have reasonably absorbed the influx of 50,000 workers on their existing transportation networks—which is why the news of transit’s primacy came as a reality check for otherwise strong candidates. “I felt like the region performed strongly on all of the criteria,” one booster in Raleigh, North Carolina, which made it to the last cut, told the News & Observer in the distant universe of September 2017. “And then you get to transit and you think, well that might be our weakness. Because we don’t have a mass transit system in place yet.”
In Dallas, which also made it to the final round, critics pointed out that Amazon was unlikely to be hornswoggled by such empty amenities as the “the longest light rail system in the nation.” Atlanta, we know now, thanks to the after-the-fact release of cities’ once-shrouded benefits package, proposed devoting a special car on its MARTA system for Amazon employees only, plus 50 free parking spots and an exclusive airport lounge reserved for executives of the ‘Zon. That remarkable dowry perhaps spoke to the city’s insecurities around its lack of reliable options outside clogged highways.
New York City was barely mentioned in early mumblings about where HQ2 was going to make its final landing, maybe because it seemed a little too obvious a choice. No other town has such a high reliance on transit, because no other city has the breadth and depth of public transportation options. It’s true that—like D.C.’s Metro system—the NYC subway has been struggling of late. But its bones are great. And the costs to upgrading both systems to better accommodate tens of thousands of Amazonians pale compared to the expense of creating or expanding new transit systems in other shortlist cities.
From a mobility perspective, the company also chose its Gotham location wisely. It will settle in one million feet at 1 Court Square in Long Island City, a formerly industrial section of the Queens waterfront that has undergone a rapid condo-fication over the past decade. It’s well connected to the 7 train, one of the few lines that have benefited from partial automation and other recent upgrades, and also the G, which runs more reliably than other lines. The E, M, F, R, N, and W are all nearby, too.
And there’s even a wild-card mode in the mix: Long Island City would be along the path of the proposed Brooklyn Queens Connector, a $2.7 billion streetcar project proposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio to run a low-capacity, low-speed light-rail line from Red Hook in Brooklyn up to Queens* along the two boroughs’ formerly industrial, now heavily gentrifying waterfronts. Amazon’s HQ2 siting has thrilled the Friends of the BQX, since the project has been considered all-but-dead for the past year.
Meanwhile, D.C.’s Crystal City—aka Alexandria and Arlington, aka “National Landing”—is already hooked up to the Blue and Yellow lines* on the WMATA. The agency has plans to upgrade stations in the vicinity, in addition to building a pedestrian bridge from Reagan National Airport and a bus-rapid-transit corridor. Some of the cost would come from the half a billion dollars that Virginia and Arlington County have pledged to spend on their new beau, including $223 million for transportation. As Faiz Siddiqui pointed out in the Washington Post, the addition of thousands of new commuters riding the District’s rails (and buses) could be a welcome addition to the system, which is currently enduring a cycle of ridership declines, declining fare revenues, and service cuts.
The immediate HQ2 transit implications for New York City are a bit cloudier: This is a city whose transit agency has actually blamed riders for an alarming decline in on-time performance over the past several years. Routine breakdowns and signal mishaps during the weekdays, plus drawn-out maintenance routines cutting into weekend and nighttime service, have combined to generate a proper state of crisis for the country’s largest transit provider.
While New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has injected $1 billion into an emergency action plan for the subway, riders haven’t seen noticeable improvements. He has proposed using revenues from a congestion pricing scheme to fund the MTA’s ambitious 10-year, $40 billion subway action plan, released in May, but it’s not clear when congestion pricing will become politically palatable or if it would raise close to enough money. Ridership is also declining on this system, in spite of population growth and booming tourism. The authority is at perhaps its lowest point in a decade, financially speaking, and plans to raise fares in March; meanwhile, New York has promised $1.5 billion in incentives to Amazon.
Will New York City pull out the stops to revamp transit to meet 25,000 new tech workers? Will it run longer trains on the G line, add service on the Long Island Railroad, improve station entrances and platforms on the nearest MTA connections? Based on a joint Cuomo/de Blasio press conference last week, trains don’t seem to be leading the region’s Amazon welcome wagon. The mayor and governor mostly talked about the ferries, the swanky and heavily subsidized boats that have expanded service under de Blasio’s administration. These are fun novelties and useful transit for a handful of commuters, but probably not for 25,000 workers.
“So, despite the fact that Long Island City is fully capable of coping with HQ2’s transit challenges, I am deeply worried about Long Island City coping with HQ2’s transit challenges,” the transportation writer Aaron Gordon (also a CityLab contributor) recently wrote in his subway-focused newsletter Signal Problems. “The very reasonable—and pretty cheap!—answers are there right in front of us. Yet, our elected officials steadfastly ignore them in lieu of fantasy solutions that pose more questions than they answer.”
To see what an Amazon-fueled transit boom might look like, it’s useful to look at Seattle: The Emerald City has become a poster child of what meaningful investments in public transit can do to keep a booming city population moving in an era where other cities seem to be giving up. And Amazon played a part in that transformation. The company spent $5.5 million building a one-mile streetcar through its South Lake Union neighborhood; like most modern urban streetcars, its transit utility for the city at large is low, but it’s a LaCroix-level perk for HQ1 workers.
More broadly useful has been the million or so Amazon kicked in to help local transit agencies overhaul the Seattle bus system—and to remarkable success. About one-third of Amazon’s SLU commuters take public transit to work, while nearly 20 percent walk. Seattle’s transit improvements, some argue, came not from the company’s commitment to civic goodwill, but as a response to the crushing traffic created by Amazon’s growth over the past decade—“to buy Seattle’s silence,” as the local alt-weekly The Stranger put it.
If Amazon opened its corporate coffers a bit to help fix the MTA, they’d buy more than that in New York—they might purchase the attention of the beleaguered agency’s political minders. Few other cities embody the disconnect or apathy among elected leaders towards transit as much as New York City. The subway brought Jeff Bezos to town; he’ll probably expect it to function properly once his employees show up.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the route of the BQC and the Metro lines that serve Crystal City.