Daniel Lugo

It’s a point of pride for New York that its transit system runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week — a level of service that many other major cities don’t offer. But it’s a costly feature, because it means the system doesn’t have a block of time everyday when major cleaning and repair projects could be undertaken along its hundreds of miles of track.

And while many New Yorkers might boast about their 24/7 system, relatively few use it: Out of a daily ridership that averages more than 5.6 million, only about 85,000 people typically are on the trains at any one time between 12:30 a.m. and 5 a.m.

If the trains stopped running around midnight, and didn’t start again until 5 or so, with overnight riders carried instead on buses traveling swiftly on streets largely empty of traffic, could New York City fix some of the maintenance problems that have combined to create a transit crisis?

The Regional Plan Association thinks it could. So the idea of a 24/3 subway system—one that runs around the clock only on weekends, when overnight ridership is highest—is one of dozens of recommendations in the organization’s Fourth Regional Plan, which is being released Thursday, 21 years after the last plan and nearly nine decades since RPA’s first blueprint for the region.

At just shy of 400 pages, the Fourth Regional Plan is not going to sit on most New Yorkers’ bedside tables. But RPA’s previous plans have shaped life in the city and its region in significant ways—mapping out the transportation network, pressing for federal funding of mass transit, and, in the 1996 vintage, calling for the Second Avenue Subway and the new development on Manhattan’s west side.

The new plan is framed by the city’s boom over the past two decades, and the many concerns that have attended it. RPA says during its years of preparing the new plan it heard “Housing was too expensive. Commutes were long and unreliable. The destruction brought by Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy underscored our region’s vulnerability to climate change, and raised questions about how prepared we were for the storms to come.” At a briefing earlier this week, RPA staff highlighted the region’s economic vulnerabilities: flat median income growth, high income inequality, rising housing costs and climbing poverty rates in smaller cities and towns.

A dramatically improved and expanded transit system, more affordable housing across the region and a strategic approach to adapting to climate change are the prescription for dealing with all those issues. “We can transform an expanding economy into an inclusive economy,” RPA literature reads.

The most ambitious aspect of the plan is the expansion of the region’s transit system. RPA calls for a full subway overhaul in 15 years, then expanding the subway system to hit underserved parts of the city. It also envisions a much more comprehensive regional rail system—including the reactivation of defunct lines, constructing new tunnels, and a rail line running from the new Gateway tunnel right into Brooklyn. The plan calls for a bus station in the basement of the Javits Center and for turning over as much as 80 percent of the streetscape to pedestrians, mass transit and bikes.

Technology like autonomous vehicles will be needed to free up street space. Restructuring the MTA and the Port Authority are key to the whole agenda, according to the plan. Funding the work will partially be accomplished by congestion pricing and tolls, and eventually by “vehicle miles traveled” charges, which are meant to put a price on driving wherever it is done, and to replace the gas tax, which will grow less relevant as electric vehicles take hold.

RPA’s approach to the housing crisis is rooted in development. It wants to fix “outdated policies that block new and affordable development” — like its recent report looking at the potential for developing multifamily neighborhoods in commuter-rail parking lots. And it sees some potential to create housing without any new building — by legalizing “mother-in-law” apartments and the transition of one-family homes to two-family housing through zoning changes: RPA says the region can create a half-million new homes through those steps alone.

The plan calls for mechanisms to prevent displacement like community land trusts, public housing, homelessness prevention and rapid rehousing, the provision of legal counsel in housing court and stronger rent regulations. Importantly, RPA stresses that fears about displacement shouldn’t stop the region from building new housing. While the fourth plan is built around four values—equity, health, prosperity and sustainability—growth is the most important outcome. RPA projects that by following the plan, the region can add 3.7 million people and 1.9 million jobs by 2040, as opposed to 1.8 million people and 850,000 jobs on its current trajectory.

The plan’s resiliency agenda is anchored by a Regional Coastal Commission to cut through the bureaucratic maze that governs shoreline development and protection. RPA also opens the door for a discussion about strategic retreat from low-density, high-risk areas within the region’s expanding flood zone. Erecting a cap-and-trade C02 regulation system like California’s is seen as a way to reduce pollution and generate up to $3 billion a year to fund other environmental work. The plan calls for 50 percent of power in the region to come from clean, renewable sources by 2030—an ambitious timetable.

RPA is unveiling the fourth plan on Thursday with a program of speeches and panels (you can watch a livestream here) headlined by the governor of Connecticut, mayor of Newark, Suffolk County executive and New York City’s first deputy mayor. Sustained political support will be critical if the fourth plan is to become anything more than just a long book. The departure of Chris Christie, killer of the Gateway Project, creates an opening on that side of the Hudson but the disagreements between the two most powerful men in New York, Mayor de Blasio and Gov. Cuomo, is an obstacle. However, as City Limits reported earlier this week, the de Blasio administration has quietly engaged in some thinking on the regional scale.

As it shaped the plan, RPA held hundreds of public meetings and worked with a set of nine community groups. In the plan, RPA stresses the need for a more inclusive planning process in the years ahead. Indeed, given that RPA’s board of directors includes a who’s who of private real-estate players, getting grassroots involvement from across the region will be just as important as the political dimension. Whether it’s shutting the subway at night or opening smaller cities to more multifamily development, the plan requires some tough decisions—the kind elected leaders are often reluctant to make unless there is at least some push from the people who elect them.