OP-ED: Reimagining the Cross Bronx Expressway as a high capacity transit corridor

Oct. 19, 2020
With so much fervor and excitement over the Green New Deal, it is time to imagine the Cross Bronx Expressway as the model for a critical piece of public infrastructure that incorporates best practices in environmental design to aggressively tackle climate

Those who live along the Cross Bronx Expressway are familiar with the fumes and stench of exhaust wafting from the scurry of cars and trucks zipping along the concrete right-of-way. For more than half a century, the Cross Bronx has not only divided neighborhoods and communities, it has also been a source of toxic environmental hazards to its surrounding denizens. The onset of COVID-19 has only made clearer how the highway continues to exacerbate the public health of beleaguered communities situated adjacent to the highway. In an opinion piece titled For Some Near the Cross Bronx Expressway, COVID-19 is an Environmental Justice Issue, Too, Ese Olumhense reports that pollution is associated with high COVID-19 death rates, and that this link is most salient in the Bronx.

With so much fervor and excitement over the Green New Deal, it is time to imagine the Cross Bronx Expressway as the model for a critical piece of public infrastructure that incorporates best practices in environmental design to aggressively tackle climate change and racial justice. We must re-appropriate the Cross Bronx Expressway as an instrument and vessel that will heal and connect people rather than as one that continues to impact public health and separate communities and neighborhoods.  

Any attempt to resolve the adverse effects caused by the Cross Bronx must address the issue at its root: That a grade separate transport facility located in a densely populated part of the Bronx should not be dedicated to trucks and automobiles, but to high capacity mass transit. A plan debuted by the Regional Plan Association attempts to cover the open sections of the Cross Bronx with a deck, but such a solution does not confront the fact that there are still going to be a plethora of cars and trucks zipping by that still spew toxic fumes (i.e. some residents will still need to deal with exhaust from the elevated stretches of the Cross Bronx), and it also does not recognize other challenges that need to be reckoned with in order to meet the standards of the Green New Deal. For example, a simple deck over the right-of-way does not reduce commutes for approximately 80,000 of the those who traverse the borough in an east-west cardinal direction. While critics might invoke the tired argument that banning cars and trucks from the Cross Bronx would create spillover traffic into surrounding areas, the evidence of places where auto-centric infrastructure was removed with no replacement prove that the fear is unfounded. Decking without a new rail system does not provide a new form of mass transit that connects more neighborhoods to the current subway system. It does not resolve housing needs, nor does it truly mitigate the environmental hazards to forcefully deal with a planet rapidly becoming unlivable. 

We are uniquely politically positioned to demand much more from the Cross Bronx than its infamous creator ever intended. Constructing new subways in New York City is difficult due to a consensus of factors relating to cost, but one of which that stands out is the high capital costs it takes to construct tunnels and other dedicated rail right-of-ways. In the Cross Bronx, there is an opportunity to reuse an already grade-separated trench that does not interact with local traffic. Furthermore, by converting the Cross Bronx into an electric railroad for mass transit, the high demand for east-west transit needs across the Bronx can finally be met. Three out of 10 of the busiest bus routes in New York City are in the Bronx. A total of13,046,584 passengers rode the Bx12 (both local and Select-Bus) in 2019 alone. The Bx36 bus that closely parallels the Cross Bronx carried 6,938,411 passengers in 2019, which makes the service the 17th busiest route in the city. The high ridership figures of both routes suggest a great demand for east-west rapid rail service. The ideal location of this new east-west rail service should be the right-of-way currently occupied by Interstate 95.  

Repurposing the Cross Bronx as an east-west rail corridor not only allows for speedier journeys between Manhattan and the Bronx, but it also eliminates the toxic particulate matter at its source: trucks and automobiles. An added benefit to rail conversion is that it complements the decking of the trenched rights-of-way that allows for not only increased park and green space, but also for increased housing and mixed-use density that would not be possible if Cross Bronx continues to function as a highway. Bronxites have the highest rates of asthma. Six out of every 100,000 are afflicted with the condition, which is twice that of the city overall. What is perhaps the most twisted form of irony is that approximately 60 percent of Bronx residents do not own a car, which lends credence to the idea that the majority of the pollution is born outside of the borough. By including room for rail extensions in either direction into New Jersey or Queens, a new mass transit corridor coupled with increased green space would have tangible and immediate impacts to not just Bronxites, but to the wider New York City metropolitan area. If planned and designed correctly, the conversion of the Cross Bronx to a rail-based mass transit operation could provide a model for other cities to adopt as they try to undo the harms caused by the freeway movement. 

About the Author

Allen Lum

Lum is a city planner with a special expertise in public transport systems. Although he was born and raised in New York City, his favorite subway system is Hong Kong's MTR.