Projjal Dutta

Please tell us what you do.

 

I am the director of sustainability initiatives at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

In this job, I wear two hats. One is to turn our own operations, and our own facilities, greener. But I also have another operation, which is to explain how public transportation itself makes regions green.

For example, the State of New York has the lowest per capita energy consumption of the entire country. The city of New York, on a per capita basis, has about a quarter of the carbon emissions as all of the average of America (and many parts of America are higher than the average).

Put another way: if the Kyoto Protocol target for the developed countries is to reduce 80% of their footprint by 2050, then basically New York has already done it, compared to the American average. And if all of America could have a New York-like carbon characteristic, that shift would represent the single biggest dent into global warming.

That’s how important public transportation is. It forms the foundation on which many other things get built. And if you have good density through public transportation, then it’s not necessary for people to use public transportation — they can walk. They can put their hand out on a curb and hail a taxi. They can ride a bicycle. All of those things require a certain density, provided by public transportation.

And public transportation has co-benefits — the best example of that is called ‘a trip not taken.’ If you have to get groceries in the suburbs, you’re probably going to do a ten-mile round trip. Five miles from your home to the grocery store, pick up the groceries, and come back. And the carbon implications of the groceries — say ten pounds of produce that have grown in California, trucked in an air conditioned truck, brought here, distributed, put on the shelf — the carbon emissions spent getting them on the shelf is actually still less than what it takes to take a ten pound bag of groceries, put it in your 6000 lb. car, and drive it home.

In New York City, if you’re going to the supermarket on your way back home tonight and picking up a few groceries, you’re not driving a car. So it’s a ‘trip not taken.’ It’s a non-motorized trip. And that’s also a benefit that density and public transportation produces.

So my other job, the way I see it, is to point out this benefit, that is not recognized widely. It is certainly not compensated. You pay a fare to go from A to B. You don’t pay a fare to go from point A to point B in a green way. Nor for that matter should you. However, when you go to a Honda showroom, and you see two Civics with identical upholstery, same steering wheel, same windscreen, and one of them is a hybrid, another is a regular engine, you are willing to pay a premium on the hybrid, often a greater premium than would be warranted by just fuel savings alone, and you do that because it moves you from point A to B in a greener way. You see that as a separate attribute of it’s service, similarly you can buy green power from Con Ed, you can give Virgin Atlantic 40 dollars on top of 400 dollars when you buy a ticket with a carbon offset. You can do these things in the other sectors, but in the public transportation center, you cannot do that primarily because you cannot measure it, you cannot quantify it.

My first task is to green our operations – but my other, and in some ways more critical task, especially in the United States, is to try and make the case that public transportation makes the region greener. You can figure out how much carbon emissions were saved last year due to the fact that the MTA ran it’s operations, and that should be worth some money. Either in the marketplace of cap and trade, or something like that, or as revenue from the general funds – whatever. But that deserves support, and this is no longer parochial for the MTA – that sort of thing would help transit companies all over the US if such a structure came into place.  Those are the two things that I do.

 

What you are working on specifically now?

I’m working on an initiative called Smart Fleets, where we are collaborating with London Underground. It turns out that it does not matter whether you have three of us in a subway car or three hundred people during rush hour — because the subway car’s own weight, which is called dead weight or dead load, is so much greater than the live load that almost its entire electricity consumption is a function of how heavy that car is. Cars have gotten heavier primarily because they have gotten fancier, they are now air conditioned, they have all sorts of electronics on them, they light up and tell you what the next station is, tell you what time it is…and that is called feature creep. 80% of our electricity consumption comes from what is called traction power, which is moving subway and railroad cars.

If you really want to make a difference in electricity consumption for the trains, you have to reduce the weight of the car. And, you have to make it so they regenerate energy when they brake, like the Prius does. You can try to increase this efficiency also through driving techniques, through the geometry of the track, etcetera.

Right now we’re working on the smart fleets so that when our new, next generation of cars, which will hit the tracks in about 5, 6 years  – we’re working to make new cars lighter and more efficient. It’s a huge subject; you can drill deep, deep, deep very deep into that subject. And that’s one thing I am working on right now.

In the other broad area of my work — trying to get recognition for the benefits of mass transit – I work with colleagues like myself from agencies all over – public transportation agencies all over the US. San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Washington DC, LA, Portland, etc. To develop a way to actually quantify our benefit in metric tons of carbon so that we can have a product to sell and also to convince authority say, at the U.S. Department of Transportation or the EPA that indeed, this is valid and can be measured and audited, and show how you can measure it. So working on that methodology, that also takes up a fair chunk of my time.

I want to show you something very cool and neat.  So look at this. So you see that this is the new Second Avenue subway and that these are the stations, 72nd and 86th, and the track kind of comes in a V shape down to a low point and then goes up. Now if you could get on and off a subway car fast enough then the best alignment would be a rollercoaster. You would start it once in the morning and it would keep going because every time it would just climb up a hill [to a station, and stop…] and then fall down a hill again. But you clearly cannot. This track is – in the real world – a close simulation of that.

So when the train is pulling into the station – when it is hitting its brake, with tons and tons of steel coming to a halt, that’s energy that you are just throwing away. Instead we can take that kinetic energy and change it into potential energy. When the train leaves the station, it actually rolls down a bit of a downhill gradient and so – it is turning the potential energy here, back into kinetic energy there.

 

Section drawing of the Second Avenue subway, showing the dip between stations.

 

 

That’s so cool!

Isn’t that cool? So, of course, you can’t do it everywhere because of soil conditions, sometimes you can’t do it because of legacy reasons – there are cross town tracks that you have to, you know, circumvent, and going over is easier than going under, etc. But wherever we can, we’ve one this all along Second Avenue, and this is something we did not have in our older system. So it’s a very simple, very effective method.

A secondary benefit of it is that the train, when it pulls into the station, it has not dissipated as much energy as heat, and has instead converted some of that into potential energy because it has slowed by rolling uphill while it is entering the station. So it is a cooler method, too. Less heat dissipates into the station environment, and the station’s heat load goes down.

The new stations on Second Avenue will be ‘air tempered.’ So they won’t be fully air-conditioned; it’s a new system and increasingly stations all over the world work this way. And the heat load of these new stations where the trains will roll uphill into the station, will be about 10, 12, 15% lower than the heat loads of old stations, so the air cooling system will have the benefit of that. We will be spending less energy to cool the heat that braking trains used to put there in the first place. So it’s very interesting! Yeah.

What makes New York environmentally friendly, or livable for you?

 

New York is livable – it is more than livable, it’s wonderful — because of density. And not just the density of people, but I think the density of opportunity. The density of entertainment – the density of food – and the diversity that comes with the density. You know, as you increase the density of pink or blue dots, you get more and more purple dots, so all of that is much greater in New York — which is what I love, and, it is founded on the fact that, that it brings many people together in essentially such a small amount of space.

What is unprecedented about New York, what I really like about New York, is New York balances it all. There is great density in many places in the world, including in the third world where there is density out of necessity, out of poverty. But here there is density out of choice.

In most other places in the world, including almost all the rest of the United States. If you are successful, your way of showing that you are successful is to build a huge house. Status equates to size. Your house has many more bedrooms, it has a huge swimming pool etc. I think New York presents a model, which I think, indeed, is the only model for the rest of the world going forward, and for America – is it allows you to be very successful and still live in, you know, a couple thousand square feet. Which in this city is huge – if it’s well located, overlooking the park, the river etc. you can, you can show your success and so on, without, without basically having to, I don’t know, I’m trying to find a non-French word for it…but without out ah – um – use tremendous resources. That, I think, is a great model.

I also like the fact that public transportation is the commons of today, it’s the one place where the guy that made 2.5 million dollars last year, and the guy that made 25,000 dollars last year rub shoulders, hang on to the same strap, hang on to the same bar. You and I are going out to look at Grand Central after this interview, and there’s probably half a dozen billionaires that probably walk through that space everyday and they do so not because they cannot afford their own private car but because the Metro North railroad actually provides them a convenient, fast and easy way home to Westchester, and they work in the city. So I think the fact that public transportation holds – to that billionaire it offers convenience and speed; to the person at the other end of the scale — they can get get to work too. At the bottom of the income ladder, you can still get to your job without needing a car, the upkeep on a car, and a drivers license.

New York I think is inherently friendly in that it allows anyone to move across the city easily. I’ve found this is not just true to today but it’s historically been true. At Astor Place, downtown, the station has a picture of a beaver in the tiles on the walls — because that was what the Astor family’s fortune was based on. But also, there were lots of immigrants that were traveling in the system and they could tell each other “Get off at the station where you see the beaver picture.” Because they couldn’t read English.

Another great thing about New York City transit is that it is a single fare system, as opposed to, say the London Underground which is priced by traveling across zones. Lots of places are zoned.

The poorest people typically live farthest from the opportunity. So if you have a zone system, it’s essentially a regressive tax, because low income people may have to travel the farthest to get to jobs in the city center and their fares would be higher. In New York City, the whole system is one price.

What would you like to see happen in New York in the next ten years, twenty years?

Um, I’ll first give you a sort of, a realistic answer. Then I’ll also give you a sort of hopeful, buoyant answer.

The cynical answer is that I just hope that good public transportation survives.

Public transportation undergoes these cycles — I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie “The French Connection” – that’s New York in the early 70’s — graffiti everywhere. People that I’ve met, people my age, that lived in Westchester and Long Island, their parents would bring them to the city and they would never go on the trains. I once gave a presentation to the Deputy Mayor of Helsinki, who actually lived in New York while getting his Ph.D at Columbia, in that era. He himself gave a presentation about green and this and that. And then he said, “When I was in New York back then, we never went downstairs after dark.” And he meant he never went in the subway after dark because it seemed scary. And the drying up of financial resources is happening. Again.

The MTA is caught in a bind. It has very little control over its own financial fortunes. It’s almost all determined by legislators of the state. And I think we are caught in a bind in the sense that – you can either think of public transportation as a social good like you think of water supply. You charge at least something, so that nobody leaves the tap on — you don’t want somebody to leave their tap on and just drain all the water in the system. But at the same time, what they pay when they turn the tap on is actually a very small fraction of what it actually costs to get the water to them because we as a society believe that one of the things that we do from our tax revenues is get water – we get drinking water to people. You can think of public transportation that way, and say, “we’ll charge you something but you know, it’s essentially a service that society provides for itself, for everyone in society.” Or, we can think of it as a market-based thing – like in London at rush hour, where you could be paying as much as 6 or 8 dollars for one ride.

Here, we are caught in the middle. I don’t advocate the London model at all, I don’t think it’s fair, but at least they can pay for themselves, or pay more substantially for themselves because they have this ability to charge a lot of money for a ride.

We don’t have that, and again, I clarify, I don’t think we should be charging a lot of money. We should probably be doing the reverse, we should be charging even less than per ride if it were possible. But that would mean this has to be taken on as, you know, a social good, in the same way as providing drinking water. And so my cynical answer to you, my hope is, we are able to break out of this financial feast or famine, and the legislative and the executive power that oversees us, that they basically understand how important it is for the State of New York, for the people of New York, that this service is there and that this remain well funded, and also funded and resourced in more stable ways.

One of the problems is a lot of the subsidy money that comes to us from the state comes from things like the mortgage recording tax, which is something charged in real estate transactions. It’s a very small fraction on transactions, but when times are low, real estate transactions dry up. There are no mortgages happening or there are no big transactions happening so there is no mortgage recording tax. If you are running Metro North, you have a train at 9:37 a train at 10:07, and a train at  10:37. You can’t say that we are in the midst of a recession so you won’t get the 10:07 train anymore, it’s only 9:37 or 10:37. We have to provide a service that is invariable. In fact, when recession hits typically our ridership goes up because fewer people are driving cars. People depend on us because we provide a cheaper way of getting around. So – yet and that is the time that sources of funding dry up. So my cynical and sort of small hope is, that I wish more stable and better funding can be organized by the political leadership, because we serve people no matter what the economy is doing.

But my buoyant answer would be that the positive message about mass transit will spread over a much larger audience, and more people understand that public transportation is key. It’s key to everything.

It’s key to public health. By survey data, we find that the more public transportation there is in an area, the better shape people are in. Conversely, in places that have no public transportation, people are more likely to be overweight — probably because a strictly automobile lifestyle means it is hard to walk or bike anywhere, and so the less active people become.

It’s key to energy security – if people drive less, then we are less dependent on foreign oil.

It’s key to jobs: the construction of a system creates many jobs. It’s a shot in the arm for the local economy – typically large infrastructure projects take 20, 30 years to realize from start to finish, so there is steady employment, and at the end the whole community benefits from the system.

I just wish that public transportation’s presence in the US increases a whole lot. That will be good for the US and great for the world.

Great answers, thank you. Also I love the word buoyant. So my next question is –

You like the word buoyant?

I do. [Laughter.Can you describe a happy day – what is a happy day for you in New York City and what would you do and where would you go?

How do you mean happy day?

What is your ideal day in New York and what would you do and where would you go? Would you hang out on the 6 train?

Ah – happy day – in New York – um –

Enjoy the parks?

Yeah I, would say that a nice late spring summer, late-summer day, walking around in the city, going to the parks, I have kids so we end up going to Riverside Park a lot, I also like doing – last summer for instance I walked the entire length of Broadway, from the Battery all the way to 215th or 221st street wherever it ends, in three different sections in three different days, and it obviously changes. It’s a dramatic play of spaces — Broadway touches all parts of New York in a way that few other streets do, so that sort of thing I would say is very delightful.

Eating out. Entertainment, I am always surprised by little things. One of the high points of the past month or so, past couple of months – I saw Merchant of Venice, which I had read as a text in school, in high school, many, many years ago. I saw it performed with Al Pacino as Shylock, and it was an incredible experience, that sort of thing can only happen in New York.

Why is it important to build the City Atlas? And what about the City Atlas interests you?

I see this as a means of communication and as I said my buoyant view of the world, a way to get the idea across that I think New Yorkers, are sitting on a carbon pot of gold, on an environmental model that can accommodate success and consumption with small footprints, yet standards of living, life expectancies that are high, basic education levels that are high, health levels that are high. Yet not in a taking the earth’s resources kind of way. It’s absolutely unique, this kind of lifestyle that today’s New York has. And I think that the City Atlas presents the opportunity to bring that to the fore, and that’s why I like it.

So do you think our actions and decisions of today affect the future of the city? And if so, how?

Absolutely. They absolutely affect the city and they affect the city because many models for living, including the creation of a city like New York, take more than one generation to accomplish. Your grandparents have to have participated in the development of the system and you have to do likewise. What we do will impact our children and grandchildren and not us.

And I think that, in contemporary society, there is a sort of forgetting of that planning, and instead, a living for the moment. For instance, for the longest time, for the past 400 hundred years, 300 years, sort of whenever since they have kept records from, Americans have saved substantial portions of their income. So basically they have socked something away for the future, for their own future, for sending their kids to school etc. etc.

But now, people on average have spent more than they’ve earned, so savings rates are, at times, in the negative. It’s also not a coincidence that there’ll be sections of today’s population that for the first time again, almost in human history, will live for shorter life spans than their parents did. Which is also unprecedented.

Typically life spans have always increased. People have lived longer than their parents and their parents lived longer than their grandparents. And I think that’s an incredible convergence and ah – again, I don’t know if there’s necessarily a causality, but there is certainly a correlation. This is all a very long winded way of saying that for overall health and longevity, we can wish for the model of New York to be the model.

Then we have to invest in infrastructure to re-build the things that provide the underpinnings of our lifestyle, in big things that will often see their best day, or their best ridership or the most water flowing through them many, many years out in the future. And most of us involved in conceiving it, designing it, constructing it, will not be around that day. But you still have to do it because you think of it as a system. It doesn’t take much to tear things down, after the Second World War good public transportation infrastructure all over the US was completely torn down in no time. It takes a long time to build.

So I think we have to take those decisions to sometimes invest, knowing that we will not benefit from that investment ourselves. President Obama wants to reintroduce rail – and in state after state they’re rejecting that money, they are basically– they are taking a very short term view of the situation. It is true that when that train is built, the day that train runs for the very first time, very few people will ride it.
It will still be the easier option to drive and there will be indeed more cars on the road. But systems start coalescing around backbones. Once you put that kind of backbone in place then along the route, development starts to happen. People start to move there. Values of land go up, density starts to happen, and low and behold, in twenty years, it’s a very different thing. To keep that twenty-year horizon in mind, plus the ten years that it took to build — you have to keep that 30, 35-year horizon in mind and go ahead. That is the stuff of visionaries, but I think there is not enough of that happening.

My last question is – what is best about New York City’s lifestyle and what would you most like to change?

So what do I like most and what do I like least?

Yes.

I like a lot about New York.

I think I like the stimulation and the the interaction with the people, and situations that happen in New York all the time. When you step out to get lunch and you walk past very interesting scenes, or you sit down to dinner and there is some conversation that you overhear at the next table that is interesting. So, I like, I like that randomness of enrichment. Suddenly out of nowhere you get a stimulus that you never expected. And it happens every day. I love that.

Least. What do I least like about it — I think this disinvestment that I was talking about, in the public realm.  The current city administration, which, by the way, we are not a part of – we are part of the state administration – the current city administration has I think done a lot I think to keep the physical infrastructure up and turn it around and change things around in terms of parks and bike lanes and so forth. But not enough of that has happened. For instance, even in our system – it is a hundred year old system. It’s a hundred and ten year old system in places. These things need major amounts of work. What other hundred-year-old system are we still utilizing? This is like crossing the Atlantic – going to London — on the Titanic. And you know transatlantic travel — formerly on the Titanic, now on an airliner — did not transform itself without a large measure of public funding and public support.

So I think so far there has been, out of necessity not choice, a lot of duct-taping of the system and it’s way past due to do more than duct tape it. So that’s what I like least. The public transportation system, which is a foundation of this city, needs help from society, from the people that use it, and from people that utilize other aspects of a city that is essentially founded on it. So, there has to be a measure of giving back into the system.

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photos: Maureen Drennan (top, middle), Jessica Bruah (bottom)

For more about the MTA and sustainability: www.mta.info/sustainability