Watching the Wheels


In order to reach David Andrew King’s office on the third floor of Buell Hall, a beautiful old brick building nestled in the center of Columbia University’s Morningside Heights campus, I take a Metro-North train from my home in Fairfield, Connecticut. The station is just a few miles south of where two trains collided in mid-May, injuring more than 70 people, some critically, and halting service on one of the country’s busiest railroads for almost a week. Today, like most days, my train is delayed due to maintenance. My peak-hour one-way ticket cost $15.75, and it takes me an hour and 15 minutes to arrive at the Harlem-125th Street Station. “There’s an old joke,” King will tell me when I arrive. “Everybody’s least favorite transit system is the one they rely on on a daily basis.”

I had wanted to try riding a Citi Bike—the new and controversial bike share program colonizing sidewalks in parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn—from the 125th Street Metro-North station to Columbia, but the bike docks don’t yet extend north of 59th Street, so I walk to the subway on 125th Street and Lenox Avenue instead. I pay my $2.50, push through the turnstile, and take the downtown 3 train to 96th Street. I walk the stairs up and around the station, pace the platform for 10 minutes, and then ride the 1 train back uptown to 116th Street—Columbia University.

When I finally knock on King’s door, I’m thinking what most people do at the end of a long commute: There’s got to be a better way. But while so many New York area residents begrudgingly accept inconvenience as a way of life, King is trying to determine what the future of transportation might actually look like in Manhattan, the outer boroughs, the suburbs, and beyond. As an assistant professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, specializing in transportation and land-use issues, King analyzes what makes sense (and what doesn’t) in our transportation system and encourages his students to do the same.

“If we look forward five years, 10 years, 15 years, I suspect that we’re going to have a much different relationship with transportation in our adult lifetimes,” King says. “We’re going to likely have self-driving cars, and really that may have a dramatic influence on cities. Everyone could essentially call a taxi anytime they wanted to. We wouldn’t have to supply parking anymore.”

King teaches four courses under the umbrella of urban planning: a survey course on methods for planning research, a transportation economics and policy class, an elective on transportation and land-use planning, and, finally, a year-long thesis course for second-year master’s students. During the summer months, however, King focuses on his own research, not just studying the city’s past, but imagining its future.

Sitting at his desk with his back to a small window overlooking the campus, King speaks passionately about problems facing our transit system, and how what he sees as a misallocation of public funds and a closed-mindedness toward new technologies have kept it from evolving properly. It’s easy to picture King some 23 years ago as a 20-year-old college dropout opening a bar in the Warehouse District of Minneapolis—the center for the arts in the Twin Cities—and becoming involved in local planning politics after his friends’ independent coffee shops were forced to provide a high number of coveted parking spaces for their modest, 1,000-square-foot businesses.

“It ruined their opportunity,” says King, who went on to complete both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Minnesota before earning a Ph.D. from UCLA. “That was one of the things that got me interested: the way cities value the arts and small-scale business.”

King has written extensively on cruising for parking spots, a common phenomenon that worsens congestion in the city and contributes to air pollution. In theory, the solutions to these kinds of problems sound like little more than common sense: Encourage people to forgo their cars by improving public transportation choices, revamping taxi and jitney services, or hiking parking fines and congestion tolls.

“I’m very interested in what cities and communities can do,” he explains. “I’m skeptical that we should be sitting around with our urban problems and waiting for Albany or waiting for Washington to step in and make the changes.”

The MTA serves roughly 10 million trips per day, fully one-third of the daily transit trips in the entire country. Yet New York’s subway and bus systems seem poorly equipped to get commuters where they actually need to go.

“Our transit system is focused on getting people in and out of the Manhattan core, but that’s not where the jobs are growing; the jobs are growing in the outer boroughs and suburbs,” King says. “It’s very difficult if you live in the South Bronx to get to a job in Brooklyn. The distance might not be any different than the distance to midtown, but it’s impossible for you to get there in a reasonable amount of time. That is a huge challenge to the city. How can we provide the appropriate transportation choices to where people need to go, and not just in and out of midtown?”

Ultimately, what King craves is innovation—a sign that real progress is being made, and that the city is not just spinning its wheels, so to speak, with easy fixes. Citi Bike is one such solution, according to King, and even if it’s met with opposition from residents who don’t want to see bike share stations installed in front of their apartment buildings, he believes the new program will eventually win over the majority of the public.

“I think the biggest challenge to it, just like any investment or any change, is that there is a strong status quo bias,” says King, who hopes Citi Bike will quickly expand to Morningside Heights and other parts of the city. “As people are introduced to it, it turns out they love it, and the few people who are opposed will eventually change their minds when they realize it’s not a terrible thing.”

King also sees students as an ideal demographic for programs like Citi Bike. “Students are a natural fit for this,” he explains. “They’re also a natural fit for car shares, because they’re not going to have access to a car to the same degree. Another advantage of students is they have odd schedules. With setting a bike share up in a commuter neighborhood, the rack will be filled at 8, and then at 8:05 it will be empty. But students come and go throughout the day, so they will naturally redistribute the bikes a little bit easier.”

What may truly determine the future of transportation in major metropolitan areas, King believes, is the pairing of vehicle shares and new technologies. Cars that can park themselves and adjust their speed according to traffic flow are already on the market, but companies like Toyota, Audi, and even Google are making gains in developing fully autonomous systems.

King predicts that once implemented, self-driving cars will look something like a sophisticated, high-tech taxi network. This, along with a changing economy, could soon make vehicle ownership a thing of the past.

“If people decide that they don’t want to own their vehicles anymore, that will have a dramatic effect,” says King. “Young people now are more likely to have student loan debt, and it’s very difficult to, in your 20s, buy a house, buy a car, pay off your student loans, save for retirement. Something’s got to give, and it seems like the house and the car are going away because they require a substantial amount of upfront money.”

King’s former students, ironically, may be some of the few who will still be able to afford car loans. Planning is “booming” right now, according to King, and he says that his school’s recent alumni are finding jobs working for the city, the state, consulting firms, architecture firms, engineering firms, and community advocacy groups to help organizations better navigate an ever-changing urban landscape. King’s former teaching assistant Maxwell Sokol graduated from the program in 2012 and is now a planner at Parsons Brinckerhoff, a large planning, engineering, and construction management organization in New York. Since starting his job last September, Sokol has been working on a high-profile environmental impact statement for the Department of City Planning concerning a proposed rezoning of a 73-block area surrounding Grand Central Terminal.

If King’s predictions are right, however, the urban landscape that organizations like Parsons Brinckerhoff and the Department of City Planning are hoping to navigate will be far less congested in years to come. But even for someone like King, it is still hard to determine exactly what this New York will look like, or when it will arrive.

“It’s difficult for me to say what the optimal way is,” he says earnestly, “but it’s not what we have now.”