Ecotourism: In search of the Digester Eggs of Greenpoint

 

digester eggs

Visually striking, eight digester eggs loom over the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant (Photo by NYC Department of Environmental Conservation)

By Len Maniace

Ecotourism usually conjures visions of rain forests and exotic fauna in Costa Rica and other distant locales. On Saturday I journeyed to Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Well, at least my subway trip produced less climate-changing carbon dioxide than a flight to Central America.

My destination was the site of eight gleaming stainless steel structures known as Digester Eggs, which dominate the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant there. On most days, 340 million gallons of sewage are transmuted into clean… well let’s just say, cleaner water.

Sewage – that’s the liquid that comes intermittently from your kitchen sink and toilet. In a city of 8.3 million people, however, those intermittent flushes quickly join up to become swift-moving streams and eventually mighty rivers of sewage.

Where the flush goes

One-third of Manhattan’s sewage travels under the East River, one-fifth of Brooklyn’s sewage flows north, and one-seventh of Queens’ sewage flows south, all into the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, the largest of the city’s 14 such facilities.

digesters in a row

Each Digester Egg contains 3 million gallons of sewage sludge that is digested buy bacteria. (Photo by Len Maniace)

“And we are happy to receive it here,” Ali Zainool, the plant’s manager, told the audience at an 11 a.m. tour, the first of three that day. It’s an annual event known as the Valentine’s Day Digester Egg Tour, even though it came eight days early.

One has to admire the confidence of New York Department of Environmental Protection officials for picking a holiday dedicated to romance and risking jokes about perfume on tours at facility where olfactory is not necessarily the sense one wants to focus on. For the record, neither I nor other visitors I spoke to, noticed any unpleasant odors.

Standing in a plant’s visitors center classroom and accompanied by the hum of giant compressors, Zainool explained the operation: wastewater entering the plant first meets up with giants screens that filter out branches, toilet paper and other debris; then said sewage is digested by hungry bacteria, before it is treated with chlorine, and then piped to the East River, a reasonable facsimile of water – clean enough to meet federal and state pollution codes.

If only that were the entire story, however. When skies over New York open, raining down on roofs, roads and parking lots, water rushes into the city’s 148,000 catch basins, racing down 7,400 miles of sewer lines toward sewage treatment plants, Zainool explained.

Wastewater treatment plants are built to handle some of this added storm water flow – an extra capacity equal to each plant’s usual flow. Larger rains, however, quickly overwhelm this added capacity. The overload is then shunted from underground sewer mains into the city’s waterways, releasing huge volumes of untreated sewage.

This is New York City biggest challenge when it comes to keeping its surrounding waterways clean. Newer cities and suburbs have solved this problem by building separate wastewater and storm water systems. New York City, however, is now looking for ways to keep much of the storm water out of treatment plants, or at least delaying it’s arrival.

Gray versus green

One method is the construction of huge underground tanks that temporarily hold this mix of rainwater and sewage, a project that comes under the heading of gray infrastructure. The other method is green infrastructure, working with nature to prevent runoff form ever reaching city sewers.
mapThese include green roofs, rain gardens and permeable pavement that allows rain and melting snow to penetrate sidewalks and parking lots into soil. Another tool is beginning to transform the streetscape in parts of the city, bioswales. They are street-side gardens surrounding trees that can divert up to 2,000 gallons of water from curbs into soil. Green infrastructure is an exciting innovation, but it’s a tale for another day.

There’s no missing the Digester Eggs at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. They are 140 feet tall and connected at the top by enclosed glass walkways which not only enable workers to oversee the operations, but they also provide spectacular 360-degree views of the city.

Standing in a walkway atop one digester egg, deputy plant manager Kevin McCormick explained that engineering, not aesthetics, was behind the eggs’ design. The shape is for ideal for mixing the digester’s contents, helping bacteria to break down the sewage.  The design is so efficient each Digester Egg needs only one 50-horsepower motor to churn 3 million gallons of sludge, resulting in a significant energy savings, McCormick said.

In an egg and the human gut

The breakdown of sewage by bacteria is a biological process similar to how food is digested in our intestines by bacteria. And as happens in that human process, this one also produces natural gas, or methane. But rather than allowing methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, to escape into the atmosphere, McCormick said the city uses the methane to heat the sludge to 98 degrees, the temperature at which the bacteria are most active, and also to heat water that’s occasionally added to the process, thereby saving energy and money.

The city has even bigger plans for tapping methane at the plant – a composting program that would breakdown food scraps much the way backyard compost piles work. A test project that composts scraps from a New York City elementary school is now underway at the site. If successful, the city would collect scraps from many more school cafeterias and then sell the methane to a local supplier.

Creek Vista

Newtown Creek Nature Walk was created as part of the modernization of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. (Photo by Len Maniace)

Other stuff side

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In Queens, a subway too far

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The No. 7 train in Queens. Earlier plans called for it to continue to College Point and Bayside.

By Len Maniace

Last spring Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed a major subway expansion in his home borough of Brooklyn and since then the Metropolitan Transportation Administration has taken up the cause with a $5 million study for a Utica Avenue subway line.

Subway-starved Queens, however, still waits relief from overflowing station platforms. Perhaps the difference is that Queens native, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, is a well-noted car guy.

While grumbling about the subway is a New York tradition, Queens commuters have particular cause to complain. A glance at the subway map shows vast areas of eastern Queens unserved. Our analysis of readily available subway data goes deeper. It shows that Queens ranks last among the four boroughs served by the subway system, when population is considered. (Staten Island has no subway service, but rather gets by with a commuter rail, which does not enter Manhattan, and its famous ferry.)

The total number of subway stations in each borough provides one glimpse of transit availability around the city: Queens has 81 stations, compared to 170 in Brooklyn (the closest in size and population to Queens) and 148 in Manhattan. Only the Bronx has fewer stations, 70, but that borough has nearly 900,000 fewer people  than Queens 2.3 million and it is less than half Queen’s size. ­

Subway Service Bronx Brooklyn Manhattan Queens
By Population: stations for every 100,000 residents   5  6.5  9.2  3.5
By Area: stations for every 10 square miles 16.7 23.9 64  7.4

See chart below for additional data, including that upon which this analysis is based.

Once population is factored in, Queens has only 3.5 stations for every 100,000 people, well behind Brooklyn’s 6.5 stations per 100,000. Manhattan, the region’s employment center, easily leads the pack with 9.2 per 100,000 people. And that borough is set to get three new stations along Second Avenue this year, the first phase in New York’s first new subway line in decades.

More growth is expected in Queens, especially in Long Island City and Flushing, as well from an ambitious plan to build a massive housing complex atop the Sunnyside rail yard – all of which will further overcrowd the local subway lines, despite new technology that will permit trains to run more frequently than is now considered safe.

Growing while other boroughs were abandoned

Although all of New York’s boroughs are now growing, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan still have populations smaller than in 1950, before the great suburban migration, while Queens added 770,000 people through 2014.

As the city’s largest borough geographically, Queens fares even worse once physical size is considered. Queens has 7.4 stations for every 10 square miles, compared to Brooklyn’s 23.9 stations, Manhattan’s 64 stations, and the Bronx’s 16.7 per square mile.

Queens also ranks last or near last in the number of subway lines, major transfer stations,   and bridge and tunnel crossings into Manhattan, a critical factor that limits additional service into Manhattan, most riders’ destination.

The subway doesn’t stop here

The City University of New York was created to provide a quality, affordable education for New Yorkers – an historic commitment to forging one city in a metropolis long divided by great wealth and poverty.

Commuting inexpensively to CUNY seemed to be part of the deal. The colleges are located near subway stations so students, faculty and staff don’t need to own a car. There are two exceptions among CUNY’s dozen senior colleges, though: Queens College and the College of Staten Island, which is located in the only borough lacking subway service.

With 18,000 students in undergraduate and graduate programs, Queens College is the system’s second largest institution. A decades-old proposal would have created a spur from the Queens Boulevard line to the college.

Private colleges don’t fare better in Queens. The borough’s largest private school, St. John’s University, also lacks subway service.

There have been plenty plans to fix this transit gap through the years. Among previous
proposals, one would build a subway under Northern Boulevard from Long Island City to Flushing and then beyond to Bayside; a super-bypass line that would parallel the Queens Boulevard lines on Long Island Railroad tracks; and various spurs to go to underserved areas of eastern and southeastern Queens.

Screen shot 2016-01-22 at 3.44.15 PM

This ambitious plan for the New York City subway system showed Queens crossed by a grid of transit lines.

But times changed and those dreams never became reality. New York’s Master Builder Robert Moses guided the city away from transit and into private cars in the decades after World War II. The city’s near bankruptcy in the 1970s downsized any surviving plans.

Times are changing, again. Transit ridership is up dramatically. New York’s 1.75 billion riders in 2014 were the most since 1948. What’s more, when it comes to the environment and economic development, subways are golden. The subway system produces less carbon dioxide per passenger and moves many more people faster than gridlocked roads.

A transit resurgence in the future?

Recent plans and projects reflect transit’s growing popularity. The MTA expects this year to complete a 2-mile segment of the 8.5-mile Second Avenue line that would travel from 125 Street to Hanover Square, downtown. And in recent months, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has unveiled one ambitious transportation project after another, a grand vision for the region not seen in at least half a century.

The list includes a rail tunnel under the Hudson, expanding Penn Station, adding a third track along a key stretch of the Long Island Railroad, and rebuilding LaGuardia Airport. These projects come on top of previously announced plans to bring Long Island Railroad service directly into Grand Central Terminal and building a rail link to LaGuardia Airport from the No. 7’s Citi Field station. And then there is the previously cited $5 million MTA study for the Utica Avenue line in Brooklyn.

All told, these projects are expected to cost in the tens of billions of dollars and shape the region’s transportation future for decades to come. They won’t, however, materially improve prospects for commuting by subway in Queens. There are no new lines reaching into unserved sections of the borough and no new connections bringing a growing population of workers into Manhattan.

Bronx Brooklyn Manhattan Queens
Subway stations 70 170 148    81
Subway lines  7   18   21    12
Transfer stations  2   16   23      5
Crossings to Manhattan  4    8      4
Population       1.4 million 2.6 million 1.6 million 2.3 million
Land area, square miles  42    71   23 109

This is our first look at this issue. We welcome your ideas and participation.

I’ve provided links to the sources of the data cited in this report, but the information is not always easy to find. I soon will be posting instructions on how to find the specific data cited.

Posted in Queens, sustainable transportation, transit, transportation | Tagged , | Leave a comment

My city was gone: the case of America’s disposable cities

Abandoned row houses in Baltimore, another of America’s disposable cities.

Abandoned row houses in Baltimore, another of America’s disposable cities.

By Len Maniace

Americans consume a lot of disposable products that are bad for the environment: plastic shopping bags, cheap clothing, flimsy furniture and digital devices that are tossed after a few years.

But perhaps the disposable that causes greatest environmental and human loss is America’s disposable cities. These cities were once proud, thriving places of industry and culture. Now they are hollowed out, largely abandoned by industry, government, jobs – and anyone who could move away.

A few of the low-lights on this list:
* Detroit’s population dropped 61 percent to 713,00 in 2010 from 1.8 million in 1950 –  the equivalent of San Francisco and an additional quarter million people disappearing.
* St. Louis lost an even greater share of its population, 63 percent, falling to 319,000 in 2010 from 857,000 in 1950.
* Cleveland was another big loser, declining 57 percent to 397,000 from 915,000 over the same period.

We usually don’t think of less crowded cities as bad for the environment – after all, don’t people make pollution? The fact is, the decline for American cities is environmentally destructive. Well-designed, livable cities are environmentally sustainable and probably essential if the planet is going to cope with climate change. How so?

First, these cities’ near abandonment was a waste of the energy, materials and tax dollars that went into building them. That effort was then duplicated by the construction of new homes, offices, school systems and sewage treatment systems elsewhere.

Screen shot 2015-04-30 at 12.08.39 PM

Detroit’s once-glamorous 4,000-seat Michigan Theater was abandoned and turned into a garage. Photo credit: Sean Doerr/WNET

Secondly, these replacement communities are, in important ways, far more damaging to the environment than the original cities. They were mostly suburbs, or suburb-like cities that are land and energy hogs.

They consumed vast amounts of farms, forests and other open spaces to create settlements too-sparsely populated for energy-efficient transit or even walking to be a feasible way to get to work, school or shopping. All that extra energy consumption, for routine travel and for heating and cooling these sprawling settlements, means we’re on locked on a course to produce more carbon dioxide that contributes to climate change.

The recent troubles in Baltimore got me thinking about the disposable nature of American cities. It’s a connection between the environment and justice that’s too often overlooked. One can blame a few protestors, the police, or city officials for what’s happened there. You don’t need a degree in criminology, however, to know that neighborhoods where unemployment reaches 50 percent are places where some people will do desperate things. Baltimore, too, has hollowed out; its population dropped to 621,000 in 2010, nearly 35 percent fewer than the 950,000 in 1950.

It’s no coincidence that these and many other cities started losing population in the 1950s, despite the historic baby boom. That’s when the nation began to rapidly build highways into the countryside and to abandon transit and rail travel. In effect, government policies put a thumb on the economic scale, outweighing the historic advantage of cities as places where creative ideas and industrious people came together to create wealth.

Decaying grain silos in Buffalo, a city that’s lost more than half its people. Photo credit: Alicia Whitman

Decaying grain silos in Buffalo, a city that’s lost more than half its people. Photo credit: Alicia Whitman

In our economic system, when that competitive advantage is gone and there is no longer a reason to be in a city, business moves on. The effect is like locusts leaving a stripped-bare field for a new one, or space aliens in a science-fiction tale plundering the resources of one planet and moving on to another. Only in this case, it’s humans who leave behind these exhausted cities.

Not all American cities are being abandoned, but they are exceptions. New York City has rebounded and is growing rapidly. One wonders, however, if that growth is sustainable and whether the city will remain a livable place given the slow pace of infrastructure improvements, such as subways, needed to keep pace with that growth.

I shouldn’t give the impression that disposable cities are a phenomena of the Midwest. Many cities in New York and neighboring states are hollowing out:
* Buffalo, home to 270,000 people in 2010, declined 53 percent from 580,000 in 1950.
* Nearby Niagara Falls’ population declined 51 percent to 50,000 from 102,000.
* Rochester numbered 211,000, down 37 percent from 332,00.
* Camden, N.J., had 44,000, down 38 percent from 125,000.
* Newark, N.J., was home to 227,000, a 37 percent decline from 442,000.

Aside from these numbers, too little hope and too much violence, what are these places like? Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders provided one picture in My City Was Gone, a song about her hometown of Akron, Ohio. Its population dropped 35 percent to 199,000 from 290,000.

“I went back to Ohio,
and my city was gone.
There was no train station,
There was no downtown…”
“All my favorite places,
My city had been pulled down…”
“But my pretty countryside,
Had been paved down the middle,
By a government that had no pride”

Way to go Ohio. At least we have the song’s killer bass line.

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Learning to count trees and their benefits

Street trees

New York City is about to embark on its third census of street trees. Photo by NYC Parks.

By Len Maniace

I’d like to learn to play the piano and to speak another language fluently, but instead I found myself learning how to count trees this Friday past. One does what one can.

About 20 of us would-be tree counters gathered at the Arsenal building off Fifth Avenue in the lower 60s, headquarters for the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation.

Soon we were out in a chilly wind that felt more like November learning to identify tree species, taking various measurements of said trees and assessing their health.

All this focus on trees is for Tree Count 2015, the city’s third decennial census of street trees, an endeavor that could strike some as odd. Why not count telephone poles or birds – oh wait, the Audubon Society does count birds every Christmas.

Measuring the urban forest

As we wrote several weeks ago the city will depend heavily on volunteers – from 4,000 to 10,000 – for the count, which is set to begin in mid-May and run through the end of September. Friday morning was one of a dozen classes for volunteers to learn about the count so they can then help train a legion of citizen tree counters.

Sharing their expertise were Charles Cochran, the Street Tree Census Assistant Coordinator, and Philip Silva, co-founder and co-director of TreeKIT, a small nonprofit operation that built the digital tools allowing the census to switch from paper for recording tree details.

Along with a digital tablet for recording tree data, the two were equipped with a measuring wheel that looks like it might be unicycle for a small child. As you role the wheel on the ground it measures distance, sort of like an car odometer, only here we are measuring distances from tree to tree with the accuracy of one-tenth of a foot.

Checking trees: Dead or alive

Along with training, the volunteers will get a tree count guide that tells them how long to spend gathering 16 pieces of tree data: Step Six: Tree Structure: Alive, dead or a stump – five to 10 seconds. Step Eight: Identifying a Street Tree – approximately 60 seconds. To identify tree species there’s a dandy color poster that organizes trees according to characteristics as well as those most commonly found on city streets.

So why is the city counting street trees. The city learned from its two previous counts: it had a big problem with potentially lethal dead trees lining city streets from the 1995-6 census; that street trees produce roughly a $122 million benefit in energy savings, clean water, clean air and the removal of global-warming carbon-dioxide from the air after the 2005 census.)

That information helped shape city policy. After the first census, NYC got serious about removing dying trees. The second tree census led to NYC’s Million Trees program to expand those environmental benefits.

The environmental and civic group I head, the Jackson Heights Beautification Group, pledged to count trees on some 120 blocks – a figure that was double our original plan after one persuasive Park employee convinced us we’d barely break a sweat. We’re gathering volunteers now for the Jackson Height effort now.

We’ll keep you posted on the progress of Tree Count 2015. If you are interested in participating elsewhere in NYC click hear.

Posted in Street Tree Census, street trees, trees | Tagged | Leave a comment

A crucial role for volunteers in NYC’s underfunded parks

Unequal city parks

A huge gap exists in conditions between the city’s premier parks and others, such as Saratoga Ballfields in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Photo credit: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times.

If you doubt that New Yorkers love their parks, consider this past Saturday. On what was the nicest day of the spring so far, more than 300 park advocates chose to sit inside NYU classrooms learning how to make their parks better places. Oh, and did we say they were volunteers?

They were an amazing slice of New York, with seemingly every segment of our diverse city, including all five boroughs, represented. The event was sponsored by Partnership for Parks, a program of the City Parks Foundation. P4P serves as the essential connective tissue between an understaffed Department of Parks and Recreation and a public that craves parks and is willing to labor to improve them.

An army of volunteers keep city parks in shape

These volunteers are a determined and practical group. They clean, plant and paint their neighborhood parks, all the while knowing that there is no shortage of money from wealthy donors to lavish these services, and far more, on New York City’s premiere parks.

commissioner

City Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver is calling for a more equal park system.

But after decades of a growing divide in the city’s park system that picture may be changing. City government seems to recognize the problem; Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver speaks openly of the need for equity in a system that numbers more than 1,700 parks, 1,000 playgrounds and covers 29,000 acres.

In his talk to the volunteers, Silver cited some shocking statistics; 215 city parks had received less than $250,000 in improvements over the last 20 years. That figure is especially disturbing when you realize how little $250,000 gets you in park improvements: new playground equipment, sprinklers, new surfacing and benches can cost several million dollars.

To overhaul all 215 parks would cost $1 billion, something not possible without a dramatic infusion of money. As a first step, however, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Silver last October announced that 35 of these parks would divide $130 million for renovations. And because the work isn’t expected to be completed until December 2017  Silver said Saturday that the department carry out some smaller improvement more quickly.

Parks get a smaller share of budget

Clearly this should be the start of bigger changes. The fact is, when it comes to parks, New York City aims to be world class, but lags behind when it comes to investing in our parks. As someone who has volunteered in parks for more than two decades, it’s clear the fault is not with the Department of Parks and Recreation. The blame goes to our elected officials and ultimately us – the people who elect them.

Central Park

A massive restoration of Central Park, including Bethesda Fountain, was carried out in recent decades by donations from wealthy New Yorkers. Photo credit: Central Park Conservancy

New York City spends less per person than many other American cities. What’s more park expenditures have declined as a New York City government priority through the decades. Our parks get 0.56 percent of the city’s budget, less than half the figure of 50 years ago, Heather Lubov, City Park Foundation executive director, told the assembled park volunteers Saturday.

In recent years, many park advocates and some elected officials have called for a more spending to close the gaps between parks in wealthy neighborhoods and the rest of the city. It’s been a long time coming. The last concerted effort to increase park spending was in a 2001, a campaign to increase city spending on parks to one percent of New York’s budget. The effort seemed to be gaining ground until September 11, when the city’s priorities suddenly changed.

Park spending in Mayor de Blasio recently proposed city budget would increase 3.6 percent, the same amount as the overall spending plan. The Gotham Gazette reported, however, that the budget would cut the number of the department’s park enforcement patrol officers, gardeners, urban park rangers, and maintenance workers. This is clearly a first draft and subject to change before the city’s overall budget for the coming year is approved. We will keep you posted on park spending and how you can have your say.

Posted in City Park Foundation, Parks budget, Partnership for Parks | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Building transit for NYC’s future and cutting congestion, too

Fair Plan

A mix of new tolls and lower tolls would produce much needed money to improve New York’s transit system.
KARSTEN BIDSTRUP/GETTY IMAGES/LONELY PLANET IMAGE

It’s not often we point to the New York Post for a socially and environmentally progressive idea, but in all fairness this op-ed article is that.

It supports the Move New York Fair Plan, which through a mix of new tolls on some bridges, lower tolls on others and tolls remaining unchanged elsewhere, would pump much needed money into New York’s transit system.

And if there was any doubt that the system needs improvement, this past winter full of subway breakdowns and delays should erase them. The Fair Plan is the brainchild of transportation engineer Sam Schwartz, a former NYC  Trafffic Commissioner and the man behind the Gridlock Sam column in the Daily News.

Planet NYC wrote about the proposal a year ago. If you missed it, the plan is worth reading about now. More important, it’s worth doing.

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BRT finally coming to Queens; Express to the beach and more

By Len Maniace

For too long Queens has been the city’s stepchild when it comes to rapid transit; The borough is New York’s second most populous, but ranks fourth in how well it’s served. Improvements seem likely, however, and soon.

A new bus rapid transit line, basically trolleys on rubber wheels, is moving forward in the form of a line from Woodside and Jackson Heights in the north to the Rockaways in the south.

BRT comes to Queens

The city’s most ambitious bus rapid transit line would run from Woodside in the north to the Rockaways in the south, transforming Woodhaven Boulevard (above) and Cross Bay Boulevard. Graphic by NYC Department of Transportation

As described in the Daily News, the buses would have their own dedicated lanes to reduce traffic delays; be equipped with devices to change traffic signals and speed travel; and be setup for curbside fare payment that allows for much faster bus boarding. The idea is to mimic the features of subways that make them faster than standard buses.

A speedier, greener travel option

While the line will provide express service to the Rockaways – a summer-time treat –  even more important is the promise of greatly improved service for a transit-starved corridor of central and south Queens. Many would be able to get to work and other other destinations without relying on snail-like buses or cars. That would be a big win for the environment and the city: fewer cars, cleaner air, less greenhouse gases, less congestion and big safety improvements on some dangerous roads.

BRT chart

The 14-mile BRT line would serve an area starved for rapid transit, a corridor that relies on slow local buses. Graphic by NYC Department of Transportation.

The project moved a big step closer to reality earlier this week when the city’s Department of Transportation picked one of several versions that had been under consideration.

Queens is the last of the boroughs to get its own BRT line; probably the best known are those that run down Second Avenue and across 34th Street in Manhattan.

Though this type of service is known around the world generically as bus rapid transit, the New York City brand is called Select Bus Service.

This line would be the city’s most ambitious BRT  project. Unlike construction of subways, which can take a decade or more to complete, Select Bus Service can be built fast – and cheap. City Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said construction is expected to start in 2017 and be completed in about a year. It should cost $200 million.

A model for other transit-starved areas

The DOT’s pick, Concept 2, includes additional big changes along Woodhaven and Cross Bay Boulevards,  “separate lanes for local and through traffic, turning restrictions and wide, landscaped pedestrian islands for riders getting on and off buses,” according to the Daily News.

About the only thing missing from the plan are bike lanes, a point that some advocates have noticed. The addition of bike lanes would put the plan in a category that city transportation officials refer to as a complete street, roads that include transit, bikes, and and pedestrian amenities, such as those landscaped pedestrian islands – in addition to cars and trucks.

So maybe it’s now time time to consider BRT for two other major Queens destinations: Queens College and St. John’s University, institutions that generate huge numbers of auto trips which are served now only by pokey buses.

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DC has cherry trees, but plastic-bag trees bloom in NYC

By Len Maniace

Let some sing about April in Paris, but give me springtime in New York. The glaciers have melted, revealing months of litter, cigarette butts and dog excrement on sidewalks. And the plastic-bag trees are in full bloom.

Plastic bag trees

Legislation requiring customers to pay 10 cents for plastic and paper bags could mean a future with fewer plastic bag trees in bloom.

Spring –  just before trees leaf out forming a barrier that discourages bags from getting tangled in branches – is the peak of plastic bags in New York trees.

It’s astonishing just how many plastic bags end up in trees along the city’s neighborhood shopping streets. Walking along 37th Avenue in Jackson Heights, plenty of trees displayed one, two or three bags, but then we came across the rare specimen that accompanies this post.

A solution from City Hall?

Plastic-bag trees may become an endangered species in New York City, however. The City Council is considering a law that would require stores to charge 10 cents for each bag, plastic or paper. The idea is once bags have a financial value, shoppers will hold onto them for reuse. Or else won’t purchase them.

It’s a good market solution to an environmental problem, something that generally works better than relying on the public always doing the right thing. When one has to pay to pollute, that pollution magically is greatly diminished. In a market-oriented country, it would be nice – and more important – quite effective if the price of coal, petroleum  and other carbon fuels included the cost of their environmental damage.

Instead that cost is spread around to the general public in higher costs. That basically amounts to a hidden subsidy for pollution-causing products, compared with products that don’t produce similar damage.

Plastic bags’ damage

Along with finding homes in trees, plastic bags float in waterways have been eaten by all manner of sea life, usually to ill effect. And there is the direct cost of disposing of the bags, which supporters say, costs the city $12 million annually.

Councilman Brad Lander, D-Brooklyn, who is backing the bill, told CBS News that New Yorkers use 9 billion plastic bags each year, a figure which if correct works out to a shocking 1,000 bags for every city resident.

In any case, whatever the number, just by walking down the street and looking at trees, it quickly becomes clear that too many plastic bags are loose in our environment. And that is not good.

Please follow Planet NYC on Twitter and by clicking Follow Me button in right column.

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NYC’s big count: one, two, tree

Street trees

Street trees provide many environmental benefits besides beauty. New York City plans to count each one by fall. Photo by Rodrigo Salazar

By Len Maniace

This May’s census in New York City won’t be as historic as the one ordered by Caesar Augustus and later recounted in the Bible, nor as vast as the U.S. government’s decennial census.

Still, it would be a formidable challenge – counting every street tree from the northern tip of the Bronx to the southern tip of Staten Island, and from the eastern end of Queens to the westernmost point of, again, Staten Island.

From mid-May through the end of September and perhaps beyond, an army of citizen volunteers and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation will be counting each honey locust and London plane; every Ginkgo and sweet gum; in all, an estimated 170 tree species.

Tree planting

As part of its Million Trees project, New York City has planted 143,00 street trees. The rest are in parks, schools, other institutions and on private property. Photo by Len Maniace

The mission is to document New York’s urban forest, specifically its hardiest and most-abused segment – street trees. With that information in hand, the city hopes to better care for and manage all these trees, as well as develop polices to make our city a more livable and environmentally friendly place.

NYC’s ambitious census 

The 2005 Street Tree Census counted 592,130 trees. Based on a growing body of research, the city estimated those trees produced $122 million in annual environmental benefits, such things as cleaner air and water, cooler streets and homes, and the capture of carbon that otherwise would have contributed to global warming.

Armed with that data, Mayor Bloomberg launched the city’s Million Trees program, begun in 2007 and expected to be completed this fall. That census found 19 percent more street trees than the 498,470 counted in the 1995-1996 census.

The earlier census uncovered a hazardous situation on city streets, 10,000 dead trees, which led to an effort by the city to remove dead trees and prune street trees on regular basis.

Volunteers do most of the counting

The city is now recruiting community groups and individuals to volunteer for the census and will soon begin training them. Among the lessons to be taught: how to identify the tree species they are counting.

Tree species is one of 16 pieces of information to be gathered for each tree. Others include tree condition: is the tree dead, alive, are roots overgrown, is there evidence that trees are being care for? That last point makes a difference in the long-term survival of a street tree, said Katerli Bounds, the Parks Department’s Director of Stewardship; trees with three or more signs that they are regularly being cared generally will live longer.

“The fact that people are paying attention and know that the trees are there really does have an impact,” Bounds said

Street trees

Street trees provide green spaces that absorb stormwater and provide habitats for butterflies and bees. Photo by Len Maniace

Parks expects anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 volunteers, many more than 10 years ago. The census will also benefit from digital communications improvements; it will rely on a smart phone app to provide satellite images of tree locations and to record tree data.

“In 2005 there weren’t smart phones,“ Bounds said. “It was all paper data collection, which meant we got Xeroxed copies of data sheets back at the end.”

How many more trees?

This year’s Census is expected to find another increase in street trees, largely because of the Million Trees program. That effort has planted 143,000 street trees to date; the rest going to parks, around schools and other institutions and on private property.

Perhaps out of caution officials are predicting only a modest, a total of somewhere between 600,000 and 650,000. Along with the natural loss as trees dying due to age, New York City was hit with unusually severe storms in recent years that upended a huge number of trees, Bounds said.

A tough life on the streets

“Hurricanes Irene and Sandy; there were tornadoes a few years ago; a couple of microbursts,” Bounds said. “There’s been all these extreme weather events so we know we’ve lost a significant number of trees.”

Those storm losses have not made the city less enthusiastic about street trees, however. When it comes to environmental benefits – as well as aesthetic and others that are hard to quantify – trees have a unique place in making cities livable, Bounds said.

“They are incredibly important pieces of the city’s infrastructure and it is very important for us to replace them,” Bounds said. “They cannot be replaced by any known technology.”

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In the News: Why prescription drugs are bankrupting us

Screen shot 2015-01-15 at 3.57.34 PM

Photo by Mark Pernice

Few dispute the notion that prices for pharmaceutical drugs in the U.S. are too high – especially when compared to those of other nations. An op-ed piece in today’s New York Times looks at that issue and finds several reasons.

Among the factors cited by the report, which is based in part on an article in the New England Journal of Medicine,  insurance companies’ coverage of drugs regardless of price or whether they are much better than existing, less costly drugs. Also cited: some pharmaceutical companies buying up the rights to cheap generic drugs so they can then jack up prices.

The high cost of pharmaceuticals – Amgen’s new leukemia drug Blincyto is expected to cost $64,000 a month – clearly needs attention if health care costs are to be prevented from soaking up more of the nation’s wealth, crowding out other essential spending.

The op-ed piece was written by Dr. Peter Boch, director of the Center for Health Policy and Outcomes at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

– Len Maniace

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