My Last Trip To NYC

I flew to New York City on February 19, 2020 on a business trip that would be just like a hundred business trips to Manhattan that I’ve taken before.  My flight arrived at a packed LaGuardia Airport, and I steered my roller bag through concourse traffic, trying to navigate past the slow movers and the gawkers.  I used the bathroom at the terminal, standing shoulder to shoulder with other random travelers needing to answer nature’s call, washed my hands without thinking about whether I was spending 20 seconds on that task, then moved with the flow of travelers down to the baggage claim level and outside the terminal.  

I stood in line at the taxi stand with perhaps 25 other people patiently waiting to get a ride into the City.  I took the cab that was next in line when my turn came, without giving a second thought to who might have sat in the passenger seat before me, or when the cab was last cleaned.  I arrived at my hotel, located about a block from Times Square, and waited in the crowded lobby to check in.  Because it was a nice night and I wanted to get some exercise before dinner, I walked over to Times Square, stood among hundreds of other residents and visitors moving through that NYC landmark, and took this picture of the heroic George M. Cohan statue in the middle of the Square like a true tourist.  I then walked around the area, thinking about how hard it is to take an enjoyable walk in New York City because of the crowded sidewalks.  I even wrote a blog post about it the next day.   

I ate at a random restaurant suggested by the hotel concierge, without thinking about how close the other patrons were, or noticing whether they were sneezing, coughing, or having trouble breathing.  I slept in my hotel room, made coffee the next morning using the coffeemaker in the room, plugged my computer cord and smartphone cord into the outlets, then spent the whole day in a conference room that was full to the brim with about 20 people sitting right next to each other.  We all got coffee from a shared coffee urn and poured cream from a common cream container.  At lunch we got sandwiches and cookies from a common tray.  At the end of the day I took another cab back to the airport, stood in the TSA pre-check line with other passengers breathing in that LaGuardia terminal indoor air, and then navigated through the crush to get to my gate.

I was aware of the coronavirus at that point, but the only time I thought about it during the whole trip was at the gate, when I sat in one of the common seats in the gate area and wondered about the people who had sat in the seat that day, and where they might have been traveling from.  But it was a fleeting thought that passed by, and I then concentrated on checking and answering the emails that had stacked up during the day.  My flight was called, I stood in line to board with my group, and then sat in close proximity to other weary travelers on the 90-minute flight home.  To my knowledge, no one on the flight was wearing a mask.

As I sit and think about what was a pretty routine, uneventful trip to Manhattan only two and a half months ago, it seems like a totally different world.  I don’t know if or when I’ll take another business trip to New York City, but I can be sure of one thing — it won’t happen with the kind of carefree nonchalance that I felt, without thinking about it, on that last trip, or during the hundred or so trips that preceded it.

The Subway Vector

If you look at the New York Times map and chart of coronavirus cases and deaths in the United States, one fact screams out for attention:  the New York City metropolitan area has been far, far more affected by the epidemic than any other part of the country.  The disparity is profound.

As of today, the Times reports 34,726 deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. — and fully half of those are in New York and New Jersey alone.  The incidence and mortality rates in those states are orders of magnitude higher than in other areas.  And it’s not the entire state of New York that is producing those staggering numbers, either.  Instead, the hot zone is for the most part limited to New York City and neighboring communities.

In fact, if you cut the New York City metropolitan area numbers out of the equation, you find that the per capita numbers for the rest of America are far less alarming than the overall numbers, and much more in line with the data reported from other countries.  The vast disparity in the virulence and transmission of the coronavirus in the New York City area, compared to the rest of the country, is compelling support for making decisions on reopening the country and the economy on a state-by-state, locality-by-locality basis.

6068390_040120-wabc-crowded-subway-imgThis drastic difference in the impact of COVID-19, though, begs the question:  why is the New York City area being hit so much harder than other areas?  Of course, it’s more densely populated than the rest of the country, which clearly must have an impact.  But there is an ongoing, increasingly heated controversy about whether New York City’s mass transit system — and, specifically, its subways — are a vector for transmission of the disease.  An MIT professor has looked at some data and argues that the subways are having a noticeable impact.  Others, including transit authority officials, contend that the MIT study is not scientifically valid and shows, at most, correlation — which is not causation.

It seems entirely plausible that subways could be a contributor to New York City’s bad coronavirus statistics.  If you’ve ever ridden the subway, you know that the platforms and cars are crowded, with people packed together, sharing metal poles as they steady themselves against the jostling of the cars, and also sharing limited breathing space.  The social distancing being practiced in other parts of the country just isn’t possible.  And, in my experience, the subway cars aren’t kept spotlessly clean, either.  If you compare that method of transportation to the “car culture” that prevails in other parts of the country, where most people travel in their own vehicles with windows closed, it could provide an explanation for at least part of the disparity in the coronavirus data.  At the very least, it is a possible cause and hypothesis that should be fully evaluated.

This is a hot-button issue, because New York City’s subway system is a primary source of transportation for hundreds of thousands of commuters every day, and if the subways are — after careful study and analysis, of course — determined to be a vector for transmission of COVID-19, that will dramatically complicate the process of reopening the Big Apple.  And mass transit is a political issue, as well, and there is a risk that political considerations will affect taking a hard look at the public health issues related to  subway use and operations in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen that our political officials can’t resist playing politics even in a time of global pandemic.  But at some point, public health considerations should trump petty political posturing.  We need to figure out why NYC is such a huge outlier, and then take steps to make sure that the causes for the disparity are properly addressed so that people in New York — and in the rest of the country — are protected the next time a virus sweeps across the world.

Into Full Dispersion Mode

Kish has been in touch with our neighbors up in Stonington, Maine.  Stonington, as you may recall, is a tiny lobster village located at the far tip of Deer Isle, jutting out into the Penobscot Bay.  It is a remote location, to say the least.

img_8663In their communications, our neighbors have mentioned something interesting:  many of the seasonal property owners are coming up earlier than ever before to open up their Stonington residences.  Normally, only permanent residents would be in Maine during this time of year, in what the locals jokingly call the “mud season.”  Typically, the summer residents wouldn’t show up at their Deer Isle places until late May or the beginning of June, at the earliest — and yet, this year, here they are already, up from New York City and Boston and Washington, D.C.

Can you blame them?  The big East Coast cities are COVID-19 hot spots, where many of the U.S. cases of coronavirus have been identified and there are concerns about how the medical facilities will handle the caseload.  In contrast, one neighbor told Kish that there are no reported COVID-19 cases in Stonington, on Deer Isle, or indeed anywhere in the surrounding county.  (Of course, nobody up there has been tested, either.)  According to recent news reports, there have been 155 cases of coronavirus in all of Maine, with most of those clustered in Cumberland County, where Portland is located, which is about three hours away from Stonington by car.

I would imagine that the dispersion from NYC and Boston to places like Stonington is being seen throughout Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.  It’s mind-boggling to think of how difficult it must be for Manhattanites living on a densely populated island to achieve meaningful “social distancing” during this time.  If you’ve got to work remotely, and you’re fortunate enough to have the option of going to a faraway location where you aren’t cheek by jowl with other people as soon as you step out your front door, why not take “social distancing” to the max and head out to the remote, less populated areas and wait until the COVID-19 virus burns itself out?

Many of us wonder whether this coronavirus pandemic will result in lasting changes to American culture and society.  I think that one possible result is that more people will become interested in exploring, life outside the big cities, where there’s some elbow room to be had when the next epidemic hits.  They might just find that they like it.  And with the technological advances that allow people to work remotely, why not go into full dispersion mode?

Sidewalk Roulette

I’m in New York City today for a quick trip, staying just next to Times Square.  Last night I went for a walk before dinner and realized, again, what a special experience it is to take a walk in Manhattan in the midst of its extended pedestrian rush hour.

real_estate_160129960_ar_-1_bwybxpzmohfmIf you’ve only been walking recently on the sleepy streets of a city like Columbus, you’re really not prepared for the Big Apple pedestrian experience.  Not only are there fewer people walking around Columbus — by a factor of about 50 or perhaps even 100, I’d estimate — but there aren’t as many sidewalk obstacles, either.  No pop-up vendors shilling stocking caps, no dirty water hot dog stands, no mounds of trash bags waiting to be collected, no building scaffolding at some point on every block, no bike messengers zipping in and out. When you go for a walk in Manhattan, in contrast, you’ve got to be aware of all of those things as you navigate the crowded sidewalks.  Your mental reflexes had better speed up considerably, or you’re going to find yourself in trouble.

Walking to work in Columbus is a reasonably pleasant experience, where you can put your brain on autopilot and let your mind wander a bit.  In New York City, that approach would be fatal.  You’ve got to adopt a much more active mindset, with all senses on high alert, as you calculate distances, scan for openings in the ebb and flow of pedestrian traffic, and make sure you don’t tumble into an open cellar door or invade the space of a homeless guy sitting at the foot of a building who wasn’t visible until the last second when the foot traffic parted to pass him.

It’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to experiencing the thought processes of a race car driver.  If I speed up, do I have enough space to pass the slow-moving guys in front of me and get back to my side of the sidewalk before the people coming in the other direction start cussing me out for disrupting pedestrian flow?  Should I cut around the street side of the scaffolding to avoid the woman with the baby carriage who’s blocking the way, or if I do that will I be able to get safely back onto the sidewalk before the approaching traffic arrives?  And when you’re walking in the area around Times Square, there’s the ever-present possibility that the person in front of you will stop in the middle of the sidewalk without warning to take a selfie or a photo of the Allied Chemical Building, so that factor also has to be added to the mental matrix.

Walking in New York during a busy period isn’t for the faint of heart, but it does get your blood pumping.  I can’t imagine, however, what it would be like to try jogging in this busy place, where everything comes at you even faster.

Welcome Back From NYC

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who is viewed as a likely candidate for mayor of New York City in 2021, apparently is upset about gentrification and displacement.  During a recent speech at a Martin Luther King Day celebration, Adams made some controversial remarks on the topic that made mention of Ohio.

12016738035_d242e539fc_bAccording to a Washington Post report on his remarks, Adams complimented long-time residents, saying:  “You were here before Starbucks.  You were here before others came and decided they wanted to be part of this city. Folks are not only hijacking your apartments and displacing your living arrangements, they displace your conversations and say that things that are important to you are no longer important.”  The Post article reports that Adams then turned to the topic of recent arrivals to New York, and said:  “Go back to Iowa.  You go back to Ohio! New York City belongs to the people that [were] here and made New York City what it is.”  The article also states that Adams said: “You are not going to enjoy this city, and watch the displacement of the people who made this city.”

Gentrification and displacement are serious issues, and obviously Adams feels strongly about them.  Still, telling recent arrivals to get out of town doesn’t exactly seem like a thoughtful and measured response to the issues — even by blunt New York political standards — and a Martin Luther King Day celebration seems like an especially ill-suited forum for delivering that kind of negative message.

Since Adams is urging people to go back to Ohio, I just want to note that Columbus, and other parts of Ohio, would be happy to welcome transplanted New Yorkers — and anyone else who wants to come to a place where they won’t be judged by how long their family has lived in town.  We think that Columbus belongs to whoever lives here and wants to be part of our community.

 

Anticipatory Improvements

I flew through New York’s LaGuardia Airport recently, and these signs are everywhere. The Port Authority, which operates LaGuardia, obviously wants appalled travelers to know that it also recognizes that the airport is an embarrassment for such a major city. Of course, the signs leaves unanswered the key question: namely, how did the Port Authority let LaGuardia sink to such a state in the first place?

I’m not sure that touting anticipatory improvements is a good approach. To me, the signs and their slick representation of the supposed LaGuardia to be are a pointed reminder of just how crappy some of the bleak and overcrowded existing concourses are.

Congestion Taxes

It sounds like an April Fool’s Day joke, but it isn’t:  New York lawmakers have approved a budget that will impose a tax on drivers who venture into Manhattan — one of the most congested driving areas in the world.  Drivers in New York City not only will be cursing the gridlock, now they’ll be paying extra for the privilege, too.

maxresdefaultThe budget deal will create a six-member commission that will set the fee to be paid by drivers who cross into Manhattan below 61st Street.  Because the idea is to use the tax to reduce congestion, pricing is expected to be variable, with higher rates during the peak periods and lower rates at night and on weekends.  Electronic readers will assess the tolls, which are expected to be between $11 and $12 for cars during daylight periods and about $25 for trucks.  The tax is forecast to generate about $1 billion in revenues, which New York lawmakers promise to use to address desperate repair needs in New York City’s subway and commuter rail systems.

Congestion taxes are used in other congested cities of the world, like London, but New York City will be the first U.S. city to adopt them.  And if the taxes work as planned in the Big Apple, it isn’t hard to foresee other congested areas of the country, like southern California, adopting them, too.  After all, local governments are always looking for new revenue sources, and this particular approach can be pitched as a method of using taxes to achieve a virtuous result — reduced road congestion and, if the tax revenues are earmarked, improved mass transit.

I’ve driven through New York City exactly once, in a rental car on a Saturday morning when the roads weren’t bad.  I can’t imagine what how nerve-wracking it would be to drive there on a daily basis — and now to pay special taxes for that added stress.

And here’s what’s interesting, too:  if congestion taxes are, in fact, designed to reduce congestion, that reflects an acknowledgement that taxes influence behavior.  That is, such taxes presuppose that some drivers will forgo taking their cars into the congested zone in order to avoid the tax — otherwise, the tax would have no effect on congestion.  But if taxes do in fact affect behavior, and people take action to avoid taxes, what does that mean for New York and New York City generally, which have some of the highest income taxes and other taxes in the U.S.?