Opponents of new construction have many arguments at their disposal to stop development, covering everything from worries about affordable housing to neighborhood character and environmental impact. New Yorkers particularly love to complain that new development creates too much strain on infrastructure. It holds a certain appeal in a crowded city like New York: why upzone when the infrastructure cannot handle it?
In reality, much of New York’s infrastructure is far from reaching capacity. The upcoming completion of Water Tunnel No. 3 means that water infrastructure cannot be the limiting factor to development in the foreseeable future. Nor are schools the problem, since the city has built and expanded schools in neighborhoods with growing school-age populations. Objections over a supposed lack of schools make even less sense when one considers that a common complaint against new development is that it serves transients rather than families.
The one piece of infrastructure in New York that has capacity problems and cannot be easily expanded is the subway. Many lines are overcrowded, and adding new lines in New York is uniquely expensive. But not all lines are so busy. Two different datasets show that there is still room for additional subway riders: an MTA chart from two years ago measures morning peak loads at the most crowded point of each line, while the Hub Bound Travel report measures loads as subway lines enter Midtown and Lower Manhattan. Both datasets show that while some lines are bursting at the seams, others could add more riders.
The overcrowded lines are:
- The 4, 5 and 6 coming from uptown (this information predates the opening of Second Avenue Subway)
- The 4 and 5 heading uptown from Union Square; they are less crowded coming into Lower Manhattan from Brooklyn
- The 2 and 3 coming from uptown
- The L
- The E and F coming from Queens
- To some extent, the N and W coming from Queens
Other lines have more room for passengers on the trains, or room for more trains on tracks. Several are under capacity:
- The B and C coming from uptown
- The R coming from Brooklyn. To a lesser extent, all other trains coming from Brooklyn are under capacity, except the L, 4 and 5, and possibly A and C, on which the two data sources disagree
- The 7 west of Queensboro Plaza, where it discharges a large number of passengers who transfer to the N and W
This suggests a wide array of neighborhoods could take substantial upzoning without straining the existing infrastructure for Manhattan-bound rush hour trips. Relative to infrastructure, they are underdeveloped and in no danger of overdevelopment:
- Nearly all of Brooklyn, especially Downtown Brooklyn and points south and southeast
- Parts of Williamsburg close to the J, M, and Z trains
- Long Island City, near the 7
- Parts of Woodside and Astoria near the M and R trains
- Central Park West, and possibly the areas of the Upper West Side where people would take the 1 and not the 2 or 3
- The West Side of Manhattan south of Midtown, such as Chelsea and Greenwich Village
People in these neighborhoods have few good reasons to complain about overdevelopment. And yet, they do, all the time. They complain in Greenwood, close to the R. They complain in Sheepshead Bay, near the Q. They complain in Carroll Gardens, near the F and G. They complain in the West Village, near the 1, 2, 3, A, B, C, D, E, and F. And they complain near Pacific Park, formerly Atlantic Yards, on top of the Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center subway station. Opponents of Atlantic Yards specifically asked if the subway could handle this new development, and attacked the project for being far too dense.
In some cases, more development in and of itself would actually improve infrastructure for existing residents, because subway frequency is based on official crowding guidelines. On lines that run below capacity, any additional subway ridership coming from new development would lead to higher train frequency, making service better rather than worse. People in areas along these lines who oppose new development are using infrastructure as an excuse, and their opposition is actually preventing improvements to transportation infrastructure.
While many communities in the city oppose new development even when the subway is under-capacity, other communities support upzoning regardless of infrastructure. Stephen Smith has written about Hasidic urbanism and lax zoning in ultra-Orthodox South Williamsburg and Borough Park. Neighborhoods whose population is predominantly immigrants from China or Russia, such as Flushing, are also generally supportive.
The ultra-Orthodox are not assimilated into the general population and do not use the subway much, since they mostly travel to other ultra-Orthodox enclaves. They also tend to live in areas with plenty of subway capacity. However, Flushing is the exact opposite: the 7 train is critically overcrowded at its eastern end, and crowding only eases west of the Jackson Heights and Queensboro Plaza transfer points.
If subway capacity doesn’t determine the pro-development nature of these communities, why are they different than other, more not-in-my-backyard neighborhoods? The answer is simple: new development in pro-development areas tends to be for the neighborhood’s own residents and their families. Ultra-Orthodox birth rates are very high, so new development is required simply to keep up with population growth. Meanwhile, Chinese New Yorkers suffer disproportionately from overcrowding, and many are recent immigrants who would like to bring family members to the United States.
In other neighborhoods, zero or negative natural population growth and little to no new immigration by relatives means that new development is meant for people who are not typically connected to the area’s existing residents.
NIMBYism, it seems, is not driven by worry about infrastructure capacity; rather, infrastructure is used as a fig leaf for tribal concerns about who belongs in a neighborhood. When people complain about “overdevelopment,” then, it should not be thought of as more development than infrastructure capacity can support, but more development than existing residents want.