Joby Jacob, Ph.D.

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Thursday, July 2, 2015

"Steal" These Ideas to Improve Transportation in Council District 23

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    In my previous two posts, I looked at improving bicycling and parks in Council District 23. Today, I'd like to focus on improving the transportation in the district. This is one of the most difficult problems to solve, since the district is completely devoid of subway access. Access to rapid or commuter transit is through a bus/subway transfer, MTA Bus Company express bus service, or the nearby LIRR Bayside and LIRR Queens Village stations.

Improve Rapid Transit Throughout the City So The Area Benefits Long Term

    A candidate might expect some of the population of District 23 to oppose subway expansion to the district - however, part of being a leader is anticipating tomorrow's problems today and taking positions that protects your constituents' interests tomorrow. Recently the Daily News reported that as the population of the NY Metro region has exploded, the stress on transit and commuter railroads has reached a peak. Yet our city has not built a serious upgrade to transit infrastructure in some time. Of all the transit starved regions in the city, perhaps none stand out like Staten Island and Eastern Queens.

    The unfortunate reality is that there won't be a subway line to the district soon - but if the local representatives are advocates that strategically find funding and cajole the MTA to build the capacity for future expansion to our area, then one day decades from now we can talk about expansion of rapid transit to our district - and it won't be a pipe dream.


    Advocate for a 2nd Avenue subway that allows future expansion to Queens: If phase 3 and 4 of the 2nd Ave Subway are built as a four-track subway, then it could be connected to the Queens Super-Express tracks (see below) and along the Atlantic Avenue LIRR to serve Eastern and South Eastern Queens respectively. (This idea was first proposed by former MTA chairman Elliot Sander - see the image on the below right).
Phases of the Second Avenue Subway
Done right, the Second Ave Subway can serve as the backbone for a new subway to Queens.

    Advocate for the Queens Super Express: The Queens Super-Express was a bypass of the Queens Blvd line proposed by the MTA in 1968. It would have allowed faster service to Eastern Queens along the LIE or Jewel Avenue. Of course these plans died a quick death due to the fiscal crisis of the 1970's. However, building these tracks will ensure that there is better service for residents of Eastern Queens as well as better service to the transit hubs that they use (Forest Hills, Kew Gardens, Jamaica).
The 1968, Super Express proposal bit.ly/1mnkwDn

    Advocate for the Lower Manhattan-Atlantic Terminal-Jamaica-JFK Rail Link as an opportunity to help develop downtown Jamaica: The JFK Rail Link was first proposed after 9/11 and would link JFK, Jamaica, Brooklyn, and the Financial District and could spur economic development. It would make getting from the LIRR Main Line to Downtown Manhattan a one-seat-ride. It would also help in the economic development of Downtown Jamaica and Brooklyn, so any councilmember pushing for this would find natural allies throughout the council and state legislature.
Link JFK, Jamaica, Downtown Brooklyn and Financial District. 

    Advocate for 24/7 City Ticket fares on LIRR: Right now, LIRR customers in Queens pay a fare well in excess of the cost of the ride. A ride from Queens Village Station to Jamaica costs $10.00 - that is not a fare most residents will be willing to pay and it far exceeds the actual cost of that trip for the LIRR. The fare structure of the LIRR subsidize riders who are traveling from further out in Long Island and penalizes city residents. There is one time of the week when taking the railroad is affordable — the weekend. On weekends, the LIRR charges a fare of $4.25 per trip using the City Ticket program. The council should see if the City Ticket program could be extended to 24/7.

Improve Express Bus Service

    Build Dedicated Bus Lanes on Queens Boulevard: The QM1, QM5, QM6, QM7, and QM8 all run down Queens Boulevard for at least part of their route and are essential to our community for the connectivity that they provide - since they provide a one-seat ride to Manhattan. Recently, as part of the 'Great Streets' Vision Zero initiative, the New York City Department of Transportation announced that it would completely transform Queens Boulevard. There will be bike lanes and pedestrian facilities along the whole length of the boulevard. The first phase of this transformation will begin this August. While improving the safety for thousands of pedestrians and cyclists is great and long overdue, there is one thing glaringly missing from these plans - and that is the complete lack of dedicated bus lanes. A dedicated bus lane would obviously speed up trips for busses that might otherwise get stuck in traffic along the Boulevard and anyone representing District 23 should make advocating for this a priority.

    Build a 34th Street Busway: Many express buses from eastern Queens travel down the 34th Street Corridor, and invariably get stuck in traffic. As my friend Jessame recently remarked, "you have a ten minute ride to Manhattan and then spend over 20 minutes getting to Macy's." A dedicated busway, which was first proposed by the DoT in 2008 would reserve space for the busses attempting to cross-town and improve the speed and travel times for riders from District 23. Unfortunately, local opposition in Manhattan killed the proposal; however, this idea would directly benefit residents of District 23 and who ever represents this district should strongly advocate for it.
Parts of 34th St would have been closed to cars (NYC DOT
Parts of 34th St would have had a dedicated bus lane (NYC DOT

Improve Local Bus Service:

    Redesign Bus Service to Queens Community College: Bus service to and from Queens Community College is too complicated - the busses that serve the campus (Q27, Q30) have to make complicated turns to serve the campus (see the image below) and the bus stop dedicated to facilitating loading/unloading of passengers is to the periphery of the campus. There are three problems with this: (1) all those turns slow down the busses; (2) it's inequitable - students who use public transportation are left on the periphery of the campus while those who drive are much closer to their classes; and (3) it is not the fastest way to load and unload passengers. Recently, the city began a complete reconstruction of the Fordham bus plaza in the Bronx to address very similar concerns. Done right, a bus plaza would speed up service, reduce the inequity between drivers and those who take transport, and beautify the campus and/or neighborhood.
    Screencap from MTA Queens Bus Map


    Fund a Study to Examine Effectiveness of Staggered Starts: Since outer-borough residents are so far away from their subway stops - the majority of bus riders ride the bus between their stop and a subway station. During the AM commute, by the time the bus reaches the midway point on many routes the bus is completely full. A friend and neighbor Corey Bearak explained to me once that the bus unions had long ago suggested deploying busses mid-route to avoid bus bunching and crowding. I think it's a great idea and ought to be studied. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

"Steal" These Ideas to Improve Parks in Council District 23

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In my last post, I examined ways to make bicycling in District 23 safer and more enjoyable and I also invited the candidates for District 23 to "steal" these ideas.

Today, I'd like to look at what can be done to improve the parks in the district. I have to say, if you live in District 23, you're probably here for the parks or for the schools - or both. District 23 is defined by two large parks: Alley Pond Park and Cunningham Park. I don't know if it’s true, but a representative of a neighboring district once told me that District 23 has the most parkland per resident of any council district in the city. Cunningham Park already has a great (and very effective) advocacy organization—Friends of Cunningham—so I am going to keep my comments limited to the other parks.

  • Improve access to the ‘Upper Alley’: If you live in Glen Oaks or Floral Park and want to walk or ride your bike to the Soccer fields, Adventure Course or Picnic Area of the Upper Alley you really can’t. (There is a backway using the Motor Parkway - but you'd have to know your way around the park trails to do so). The access road to the park takes you under the Grand Central Parkway and up a fairly sizeable ramp - there’s no sidewalk or bike lane here. And quite frankly, it’s a shame that this is how you are welcomed to one of New York City's premier parks. Ideally, any improvement will connect the pedestrian and bicycle paths in both the upper and lower Alley. 
There's no sidewalks at the entrance to the Upper Alley Pond Park.
(Credit: Google Streetview) 
  • Restore the Alley Pond Overlook: Alley Pond Park has an overlook that is entirely covered in thorns and the pedestrian path to the overlook is in terrible shape. Assuming you find the pathway up and brave the bramble you're presented with a beautiful view looking south into Queens Village. The Parks department needs to clear the overgrowth and restore the overlook. Funds will need to be allocated to restore the pathway up to the overlook.
  • Study Restoring the Alley Pond Pedestrian Paths - Alley Pond Park had a very beautiful partially-paved pedestrian path that would take you from the “Upper Alley” to West Alley Road and 233rd Street, along the Cross Island Parkway, but it has fallen into disrepair. 
I believe that was once a park bench along the Cross Island Parkway Greenway
  • Study Restoring the Bridle Paths: There are a set of Bridle Paths along the Grand Central Parkway that lead from Cunningham to the Potamogeton Pond Park in Hollis Hills - but they once extended to Alley Pond Park. The paths could be restored with proper lighting and paving as a pedestrian and bicyclists trail that makes getting to Alley Pond Park easier for folks who live in Queens Village and Hollis. 


Monday, June 29, 2015

"Steal" These Ideas to Improve Bicycling in Council District 23

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    I've met two of the candidates in the race, and I look forward to speaking with the others soon. The two I've met with (Barry & Ali) want to improve cycling in the area. District 23 actually has a lot of cyclists, and interestingly, it seems many use their bicycles for recreation as opposed to travel and for daily errands.

Big Capital Projects: The following projects have the potential to greatly improve the quality of life for District 23 residents.


    Make Funding the Motor Parkway East Proposal a Priority: The Motor Parkway East project would use government property to connect the 3 miles of greenway in Queens with the massive 40 mile Motor Parkway Trail project in Nassau. This greenway would essentially create an east-west emerald ribbon that connects parks, schools, tourist destinations, and business districts, with will increase the quality of life for everyone in District 23. Right now our council district is cut in two by Creedmoor Hospital and the Cross Island Parkway, making crossing this facility easier for both pedestrians and bicyclists will increase the quality of life for everyone who lives in the district. Since this a relatively short greenway and requires the acquisition of no land, it can be built rapidly.

    Work With NYC Department of Transportation to Plan and Build The Southern Queens Greenway: The Southern Queens Greenway is an ambitious proposal to build a greenway along the Cross Island Parkway—think Joe Michaels’ Mile but the entire length of the Belt Parkway system.

    Improve Access to Joe Michael’s Mile: Joe Michael’s Mile is technically outside of the district but it is a destination for many cyclists who live here and is just outside the district's borders. A 3 mile long greenway that sits between the Cross Island and Little Neck Bay getting to this greenway is an experience (Northern Boulevard has cars speeding along at 40 MPH, there are 4 on/off ramps for the Cross Island Parkway here and cyclists and pedestrians have to contend with it all) any improvement to make crossing this street more pedestrian and bike friendly will connect our communities better.

Quick fixes: The following fixes can be made rapidly in the district and would cost relatively less money than the big capital projects.


    Install more bike parking in the district: This would allow more people to come and park their bikes while making a quick stop into a grocery store etc. In most cases it can be done with no impact on street parking for cars.

    Complete The 73rd Avenue Bike Lane: Currently the bike lane ends abruptly at 73rd Ave & 199th St. And there's no indication of what one should do from that point forward.
  • Extend the 73rd Avenue Bike Lane east 1.6 miles to 230th Street: The extension of the lanes would provide a backup route for the Motor Parkway when the park is closed after dark and during times when the snow has not yet been cleared on the path.
  • Install Wayfinding Signs at 199th St: Signs would indicate that cyclists could turn south to access the Motor Parkway at 75th Avenue & 199th Street.
At 73rd Avenue & 199th Street the bike lane ends abruptly

    Improve the experience of Getting to the Cunningham Mountain Biking Trails: Cunningham Park is a destination for Mountain Bikers across the region—a lot of parents bring their kids to the trails by car—simply putting a parking-protected bike lane along the eastern edge of Cunningham from the Motor Parkway north to the trails would encourage more cyclists to ride to the trails. It could also beautify and soften the hard edge of the street by adding plantings.

Improve The Safety of People Who Use The Motor Parkway in Fresh Meadows:







  • Paint a crosswalk and install a sidewalk bulb-out at 75th Avenue & 199th Street: (see the crossing as it is now on the right) would tremendously improve visibility for pedestrians and cyclists entering and leaving the Motor Parkway. Sidewalk bulb-outs push the sidewalk into the parking area and make crossing pedestrians more visible to drivers (see the pic on the bottom right). It would also be a beautiful entrance to Fresh Meadows.
  • Work With the Parks Department To Redesign the Trail between the Clearview Expressway and Francis Lewis Blvd: Currently, the trail narrows west of the Clearview‡.  The trail is too close to the softball fields, and runners and cyclists often have to contend with spectators and children walking unawares onto the trail. This can be dangerous for all. Widening the path, moving the softball fields a few yards north and west or moving the trail south to connect with the remains of the old Motor Parkway roadbed are all ways to improve safety and the park experience for all. ‡(If you're interested, this is because the when the Clearview was built, it cut the Motor Parkway in two; the section east of the Clearview remained as a trail, but west, they had to reroute under the Clearview. The western section is still there, but is no longer used as a trail.)

    The 75th Ave/199th St Motor Parkway Exit                
    (From: Google Street View)



    A bulb out / mid-block crossing in San Francisco.                

    Install Trail Maps & Wayfinding signs: If greenways are truly going to help drive business in district 23, then folks using these facilities need places to check in and see where they are and what’s nearby. The Motor Parkway, Joe Michael’s Mile, etc would be good places to start. At greenways across the country, this is standard practice but this has not yet caught on in New York. Below, you can see two examples one from Massachusetts (showing nearby places to eat, bike shops, and a visitor center), the other from Ohio (showing a general trail map).

Greenway sign indicating nearby shopping & restaurants

A Greenway Trail Map
(From Ohio Bikeways)


    Paint New Bike Routes: There are several ways to go east/west in district 23, but only Winchester and Commonwealth allow safe north/south pathways.
  • Plan & paint a new North/South Bike Route: There are several ways to go east/west in district 23, but only Winchester and Commonwealth allow safe north/south pathways. That means you have travel far to the east to go south, a bike lane on either Francis Lewis Boulevard through Cunningham Park would allow faster north/south travel. Additionally, a bike lane on Bell Boulevard (or alternatively, on Corporal Kennedy & Oceania) would allow more to come and enjoy Bayside without using a car - perhaps relieving some of the parking congestion in the area.
  • Plan & paint new bike routes in Queens Village: There are a lot of ways to get around North of Union Turnpike but south of Union there aren’t very many bike lanes. For example, a 90th Ave Bike Lane between Braddock Avenue and Francis Lewis Boulevard would provide a great east/west bike route

Biking, Parks & Public Transportation in City Council District 23

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Recently, Mark Weprin, the councilman for NYC Council District 23, resigned. In September, the Democrats will hold a special primary election for the seat. Thus far, there are four candidates: Bob Friedrich, Barry Grodenchik, Rebecca Lynch, & Ali Najmi, (alphabetically by last name). While I'm not going to use this space to endorse one candidate or the other, I'd like to focus on areas where things in District 23 could be improved. I invite the candidates to feel free to “steal” any of my ideas! In the course of the next three posts, I'd like to examine ways to improve:



Monday, July 11, 2011

Fracking: What You Need to Know

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Recently, I tweeted about the French instituting a fracking ban while Governor Cuomo partially lifted New York’s ban. What is fracking you might ask? Properly known as hydraulic fracturing it is a process whereby a hole is bored into subterranean layers of shale (a sedimentary rock) and an undisclosed mixture of water and chemicals is injected at high pressures to crack the shale open and release the natural gas.
By US Environmental Protection Agency [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The process of fracking is highly controversial, and was featured at length in the 2010 documentary Gasland (IMDB). The release of chemicals which naturally occur in hydrocarbon deposits is a potential source of water contamination. These chemicals include volatile organic compounds which can potentially cause kidney damage and benzene which is a carcinogen. Additionally, there is concern that the chemicals used for fracking might leach into the water table as well. The level of exposure to these chemicals in areas which have been fracked has not yet been quantified and it is not known to what extent leaching may occur.


An examination of the map of major shale deposits in the United States shows 3 major shale gas deposits in the Appalachian Mountains between the Mohawk River Valley and northern Kentucky. One of these, the Marcellus Shale formation is estimated to hold up to 14 trillion cubic meters (TCM) of natural gas. To put that in perspective currently the US consumes 646 TCM of natural gas per day and produces 593 TCM of natural gas per day. Dr Gary Lash of SUNY Fredonia estimates that only 10% (or 1.4 TCM) of these deposits are recoverable using current techniques.

About half of New York City's drinking water comes from the Catskills watershed which lies above the Marcellus formation. Any fracking which  threatened the drinking water of 8 million New Yorkers and the reserve drinking water of 2.8 million Nassau and Suffolk county residents is a political non starter. Predictably, early reports seem to indicate that Cuomo will not allow fracking in the NYC or Syracuse watersheds or within 500 feet of a drinking water source. Thus it appears the new rules will lead to the development of fracking in the western third of the state.

So what do I think about fracking? First off, clean potable water is a precious resource, more precious than energy. After all, you need water to live. Fracking has been utilized for many years in other states and in time cleaner and more environmentally sound techniques will be developed. New York should consider allowing fracking when such techniques have been perfected, not now.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Hemophilia Cured in Mice

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Gene therapy involves substituting or introducing a therapeutic gene to replace or accompany the defective one. Many previous attempts at gene therapy have utilized retroviruses, however the main pitfall of retroviruses is that scientists cannot control where the therapeutic gene will be inserted. This is a huge drawback as the therapeutic gene might be inserted in a potentially useful or necessary part of the genome, which could lead to even more genetic mutation.
by ICSident (CC License) via Wikimedia
Recently, a team of scientists led by Dr Holmes and Dr High used a zinc finger nuclease to repair hemophilia in mice. Zinc finger nucleases don’t actually exist in nature and are engineered from a fusion of a Zinc finger domain and a nuclease. Zinc Finger domains are typically found in transcription factors (proteins which help to control the rate of transcription of RNA from DNA) because they recognize and interact with very specific sections of DNA. Nucleases on the other hand as their name implies are involved in cutting the Nucleic acids. 

Typically, scientists have used the ZFNs to specifically induce a double stranded break in the DNA, this in turn recruits the DNA repair mechanisms. The Holmes/High team co-delivered a gene targeting vector which allowed them to replace the broken hemophilia gene with a good one. This is amazing, and raises the possibility of targeted gene-editing as a therapy for genetic diseases.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Cellulosic Ethanol, One Step Closer to Practical

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The fermentation of the natural sugars (and starches) in grains and grapes yields beer and wine, and this has remained essentially unchanged for almost 10,000 years.  Distilling these products yields pure ethanol.
An E-85 (85% Ethanol Fuel Pump)
By Mariordo Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Recently, there's been much ado about Ethanol subsidies in Congress. Corn producers are very keen on keeping these subsidies intact, of course. However, utilizing a good portion of our food grain for fuel production probably isn't a long term solution as it will serve to increase food prices.

In the production of our food crops, we have several tons of secondary material - such as corn stalks, which essentially go to waste. This material, is indigestible by yeast because it mostly consists of lignin. Furthermore, plants like switchgrass cannot be used for large scale ethanol production because most of the carbohydrate it contains is in lignin. (Switchgrass can grow on land unfit for food production making it an ideal biofuel crop.)

For many years, scientists have been trying to develop methods of breaking down lignin to produce fermentable sugars. Fungi which can break down lignins have been known for a quarter century, but scientists have been unable to develop that into an industrial technology. Recently, however, a potentially revolutionary discovery was made. The soil bacterium Rhodococcus jostii was discovered to contain a gene (dypB) which has lignin peroxidase activity. Bacterial genes are inherently easier to manipulate than fungal genes 

In their discussion, the authors state that they suspect that they have identified just one of a host of enzymes which make lignin digestion possible. In the future, scientists may be able to engineer a bacteria which overexpresses these genes and that might lead to industrial scale production of cellulosic ethanol.