Saturday, November 28, 2015

Coming downstairs, bump, bump, bump

Last year, a number of people noted that recently there had been a significant drop in vehicle miles traveled across the country. At a minimum, this shows that transportation engineers are wrong to base their recommendations on simplistic linear models. Connecting this with similar drops in vehicle sales and sales of sprawly houses, some felt that there was evidence that Americans are "falling out of love with the automobile."

I tend to agree with both of these points, and they're the kind of change I would like to see happen, but more recently the picture has clouded. Vehicle sales are up, the average fuel efficiency of vehicles sold is down, home sales in some sprawly areas are up, and VMT is rising again. What's going on? Was all that good news just a blip? Should we keep building big roads?

The Archdruid has the answer. I've tweeted about him before, and … crickets. If you're reluctant to click through and read him, let me just remind you that you're reading a blog by a guy with a name that sounds like a superhero crossed with a sugar cereal mascot. Go read the Archdruid, he's good.

So John Michael Greer, the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America and an occasional guest on the KunstlerCast (December 2011, July 2014, December 2014), predicted that we'd see something like this. Basically, when a society has built more capital (infrastructure, buildings, mines, etc.) than it can maintain, it begins to defer the maintenance of that capital. When it can't defer maintenance any longer, there is a crisis. This crisis is compounded if the maintenance is dependent on non-renewable resources.

The critical thing to note is that we don't fall all the way down. When someone claims that a situation is unsustainable, one popular response is to deny it and predict business as usual, and another is to predict a complete and sudden collapse, all the way back to nothing. The Archdruid predicts something in between, something a lot like what we've been seeing.

Greer observes that a collapse has the effect of tipping "some fraction of the stuff that would otherwise have to be maintained into the nearest available dumpster." That relieves the society of the responsibility for maintaining it, providing an opportunity to recover some balance and stability. It can seem like the fall is over, and many people will then pick themselves up and resume business as usual. But business as usual will just lead to more capital that the society is unable to maintain, and eventually to another collapse. And so on.

When the resources used to build and maintain the capital are not renewable, it makes things worse, because the periods of stability and regrowth are shorter and the collapses are bigger. The result is what the Archdruid calls a "stair step down": with each crash, the standard of living gets lower and lower.

Our energy and economic crises fit the pattern that Greer describes. In 2008 we abandoned large tracts of McMansions, malls and Mitsubishis for apartments, streets and transit, and that helped us to recover a bit (in combination with unsustainable emergency strategies like fracking and quantitative easing). If we were smart we'd use that time and energy to build more sustainable trains and apartment buildings. But we're not that smart, so a lot of us have gone back to building mega-bridges and sprawl. That means that the next step down is not far off, and it will probably be painful.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

I am Monoculture, Destroyer of Worlds

There's an idea going around that "gentrification" imposes a monoculture on the neighborhoods it touches. In a whirlwind of destruction it sweeps away the indigenous diversity that existed since the dawn of time, tearing up unique old buildings, tossing aging deli owners as for away as Florida and scattering younger ones to the Five Towns. In its wake it leaves a sterile landscape of Vertical Suburbs, identical high-rises anchored by chains like 7-Eleven, the Gap and Trader Joe's!

What's that you say? The old buildings are recent and identical? They're already full of chain stores, clone restaurants and relatively newly arrived inhabitants, selling the same mass-produced stuff? The residents haven't moved out at a higher rate than any other time in the past fifty years? The new businesses aren't chains, and many of them sell handmade and secondhand items?

Well, it's still a monoculture! In a whirlwind of destruction it sweeps away the hopes of immigrants just beginning to put down roots with their first bodegas and Dunkin' Donuts franchises, swamping the old residents with hipsters from Ohio in identically unique flat caps and tattoos who produce a sterile landscape of coffee bars and vintage stores!

The great thing about this argument is that these elements can be combined in infinite ways to fit the situation. Any time there's a change you don't like, just highlight the diversity in the old and the similarity in the new. Bonus if you can sniff out any privilege the new people have over current residents!

Meanwhile, if you look at culture from a place of curiosity and not a place of fear, you find similarities and differences everywhere. Fads, formulas, common suppliers and the desire for a consistent customer experience are indeed forces that promote uniformity, but it is often a superficial uniformity. Uniformity is unsustainable, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics ensures that diversity always wins in the end. The Goths convert to Christianity, but then produce the Reformation. The Romans may have gotten the Iberians to speak Latin, but within a few centuries the Italians can't understand them any more.

When you get people from all over the country, and all over the world, coming together in one city or one neighborhood, of course you get some assimilation. But you also get a lot of continuity. A friend of mine is doing the artisanal hipster food thing, but she's actually using recipes and techniques passed on in her family for generations, knowledge that might have died out if she had taken a nice office job.

Yes, there is displacement, and it's not all good. There's a lot that we should be doing better. But we're not losing our diversity. The encroaching monoculture is a myth, a scary story that people tell their kids at bedtime. We're grown up now, and it's time to face facts. There is no monoculture.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The anti-bus terminal

The Department of City Planning thinks it would be a good idea to have a bus terminal in the new "Flushing West" district that they're planning (PDF). Apparently at one of their outreach sessions people talked to them about "Rerouting of bus routes to alleviate traffic on Main Street" and the "Need for a distinct central bus terminal." So they said they would "Evaluate siting a mixed-use Bus Transit Center (BTC) near northern and southern edges of the rezoning area."

As this map shows, there are twenty MTA bus lines that converge on Flushing, as well as the #7 subway, the Port Washington Branch of the Long Island Rail Road, and private buses to Chinatown and Sunset Park. There are also private buses to various casinos in the region. Of these, the underground 7 train station is the only one that is at all protected from rain or snow. The buses pick up and drop off at a variety of stops along Main Street, 39th Avenue, Roosevelt Avenue, 41st Avenue and 41st Road.

Because the Flushing West district starts at Prince Street, a block west of the western entrance to the Main Street subway station, the proposed bus station could be as close as the corner of Roosevelt and Prince, 225 yards from the subway, or as far away as Northern Boulevard and the river, three quarters of a mile from the subway.

But is there actually even a need for a distinct central bus terminal? It's a good idea to go over the reasons we have them. City Planning gave only one: "Provide relief to bus congestion from curbside layovers in the downtown." But if we think about existing bus terminals like the Port Authority or Newark Penn Station, they provide value in several ways:

  • One-stop shopping for buses. Right now if you're going to Bay Terrace, you can take either the Q13 or the Q28, which is handy because they leave from roughly the same spot in Flushing. But if you're going to Northern Boulevard in Bayside you'll have to decide ahead of time whether you're taking the Q12 or the Q13, because they leave from stops a block apart.
  • Easy transfer between buses, and from buses to trains. Right now if you want to change from a northbound Q44 to an eastbound Q13, or from the 7 train to a southbound Q17, you have to walk a couple of blocks on crowded sidewalks.
  • Short-term bus layovers. Some of the bus routes (like the Q44) pass through Flushing, but most of them terminate there. It makes sense to start and end as many bus driver shifts as possible at transit hubs, because it encourages drivers to commute by transit. Sometimes drivers need a short break between runs, and sometimes they finish a run early. It's important to have enough short-term bus storage to handle those needs.
  • Long-term bus layovers. Demand is not flat for buses; there are rush hours. It is often more efficient to store buses close to the transit hub in the middle of the day instead of sending them to the depot (a two mile trip) and back.
  • Avoiding street congestion. One of the biggest time savers for bus riders at the Port Authority is that most of the buses have direct ramps into and out of the Lincoln Tunnel, and don't have to compete with private cars.
  • Ticketing, shelter, bathrooms, food and shopping for people waiting for buses.

The first thing to ask is what the current arrangement does and doesn't provide. It does not avoid much street congestion or provide for long-term layovers. According to the City Planning powerpoint, the buses stored for short-term layovers get in the way of buses picking up and dropping off passengers. As I detailed above, some of the transfers require walking multiple blocks through dense crowds, and there are a few problems with one-stop shopping. There is very little shelter for people waiting for buses.

On the plus side, transfers from the 7 train to most of the buses are pretty quick and easy. One-stop shopping for the buses that go on Main Street, Kissena Boulevard and Parsons Boulevard works pretty well, and now that bus schedules are available through Google Maps it's even easier to know which bus is scheduled to leave next. There are public bathrooms and Metrocard machines in the subway station. Downtown Flushing's biggest advantage is in terms of food and shopping. If you're transferring in a hurry you can usually pick up a scallion pancake, a Big Mac, a bubble tea or any of a staggering variety of other fast foods and beverages before the next bus leaves. Within a block of the Main Street station there's a Macy's, a Duane Reade and half a dozen Chinese mini-malls.

So what would the proposed bus terminal provide that we don't already have? Shelter and space for short-term layovers, maybe shorten a couple of the transfers and make one-stop shopping a bit easier. Hmmm, maybe that would be worth it if someone else paid for it...

But note that the terminal proposal doesn't do anything to address the biggest obstacle to bus flow: private cars. And it would make the single most important transfer - the transfer from the 7 train to any bus - at least a block long, and potentially much longer. People currently disperse from the corner of Main and Roosevelt in all four directions to board buses using six staircases and two escalators; the proposal would concentrate them all along one route, accessed by one staircase: the one at the northwest corner.

Some people go to Flushing specifically for the restaurants. Others go for specific shopping and cultural anchors, and stop at restaurants on their way. But if you think about it for a minute, it's clear that the dispersed pedestrian flow from the subway to the bus stops is one of the biggest drivers of business at the shops and restaurants in the area.

There are of course other factors at play, but I wonder how much of the affluence and growth of Downtown Flushing relative to other transit hubs like Jamaica and Journal Square can be credited to this layout, where businesses are on the way in a sense that can't be said of the other hubs. How many people would cease to walk by the Quickly+ on Roosevelt if the B12 terminus were moved west of Main Street? Are the Flushing merchants ready to find out?

Sadly, I'm guessing that they are. That first quote from the City Planning powerpoint, "Rerouting of bus routes to alleviate traffic on Main Street," sounds just like the kinds of quotes that Flushing's elites give to papers. No matter how clear the evidence that the vast majority of shoppers arrive by bus or train, both the old white elites and the new Asian elites seem utterly convinced that anyone who matters comes by car.

Despite what livable streets advocates, city planners and the developers themselves wanted, these merchants and politicians insisted on raising the amount of parking in the new Flushing Commons development to an insane level. They fought bitterly a recent attempt to increase bus speeds through the area by dedicating lanes of Main Street to buses (PDF). The new mall south of Roosevelt Avenue comes with a staggering amount of parking.

It would not surprise me at all if it were a merchant or politician who asked for "Rerouting of bus routes to alleviate traffic on Main Street." This is clearly someone who sees the upper-middle-class white and East Asian drivers as the rightful users of Main Street, and the bus riders, many of them black and South Asian, as interlopers who must be banished to the periphery.

This is yet another situation where we have to ask "who's getting out of the way?" The only way that I could see a bus terminal as an improvement is if it (a) directly connected to the subway and (b) bypassed a large amount of car traffic. No long nasty tunnel like the one to the Port Authority; I'm talking about demolishing a big chunk of one of the blocks at the corner of Main and Roosevelt. I'm talking about bus-only underground ramps from further out on Main, Kissena, Parsons and Northern that flow right into the bus bays and layover garage.

Of course, that would be a humongous cost, and if you're going to dig a tunnel you might as well put in an orbital subway connecting Flushing to Jamaica, the airports, Astoria and Upper Manhattan. None of it sounds like it would justify the cost of construction, so let's drop that, at least for a few decades.

What could we do that's cheaper? In 2012 the Department of Transportation considered reconfiguring Main and Union Streets to provide dedicated bus lanes, and rejected those options because they didn't want to slow down private cars and trucks (PDF). If we really want to improve bus service, we could revisit those options. We could also widen the sidewalks on Main Street to make room for bus shelters.

What we should not do under any circumstances is move bus stops away from Main Street and into the Flushing West area. Transit advocates need to be clear: that is not a bus proposal, it's an anti-bus proposal. The staff at City Planning listened to the anti-bus people; now they need to listen to the pro-bus people and kill any effort to put a bus terminal in Flushing West.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

It's time to stop saying "gentrification"

Gentrification is a bad word, because it blames the wrong people. Don't talk about "gentrification" or "gentrifiers." Talk about what the problem actually is: high rents, high prices, displaced residents, displaced businesses, losing old buildings, ugly new buildings, or not enough trains, buses, classrooms or parks.

Everyone knows that gentrification is the biggest problem facing our cities, and that it's the fault of the hipsters and techbros and greedy developers. The rents and prices jump sky-high, displacing poor people and small businesses. Historic structures are torn down and replaced with out-of-scale apartments. This strains the already burdened infrastructure serving the neighborhood, resulting in crowded buses, schools and parks. Everyone knows that, but everyone is wrong.

It is true that the rent is too damn high in some neighborhoods, and prices are pretty high too. Some people are getting priced out of neighborhoods where they've lived. Some good-looking old buildings get torn down, and some ugly new buildings get built. The government isn't always quick to increase transit, school or park capacity to meet demand.

What is not true is that these high rents, high prices, displacements, ugly buildings and strained infrastructure are somehow caused by hipsters (whatever they are), techbros, or greedy developers (or even non-greedy developers). In fact, we know the cause: we've turned our suburbs, small cities and countryside into hellish car-scapes, and severely limited the growth of places where you can get around on foot or by train. People try to move to those places anyway, driving up the rents and prices. Developers respond to that by building where they can.

The solution is to stop subsidizing car-oriented development and legalize more walkable, transit-oriented development. It has nothing to do with developers, hipsters or techbros. They are the symptom that will go away when the disease is cured.

The word "gentrification" automatically places the blame on the "gentrifiers." There is no way to hear the word without assigning the blame to them. If you know that they are not to blame, you have to make your mind do extra work to remove the blame from them each time you use the word. The people who hear you will not always do that work.

That's why I've stopped using the word "gentrification." Maybe you haven't noticed, but it's been absent from my blog and Twitter feed for over a year, except when I'm challenging the concept. But I still hear a lot of my friends and comrades-in-arms using it, even the ones who should know better.

So please, don't say "gentrification" unless you're attacking the concept. Think about what your focus really is - high rents, high prices, displaced residents, displaced businesses, losing old buildings, ugly new buildings, or not enough trains, buses, classrooms or parks. And then say that. And tell your friends!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Private or public what?

Recently with Uber, Lyft and even Leap, here has been a lot of discussion of public versus private transit. The stark opposition that some people draw between public and private obscures several important points. If we look at the history of transportation, nothing has ever been completely private or completely public. There are in fact three different ways that the public can be connected to a transportation project: money, control and accountability. These operate in many different areas, to different degrees.

Funding for capital construction, maintenance, procurement, or operations can come from general taxes, taxes on specific activities, fees and tolls on other kinds of transportation, or from fares. Fees, tolls and fares can be levied on transportation services and spent on things not directly related to transportation, including kickbacks, bribes, padding and profits. Money can be borrowed from private individuals, private companies, private nonprofits or government agencies.

Land, water and airspace can be owned by the government or private entities, as can the buildings, tracks, paths, roads, bridges and tunnels on, over, under and through them. The owners can grant access equally to all parties or reserve it for specific parties or classes of parties. Owners can charge money for access, and limit length and times of access.

Publicly elected officials or their employees can regulate scheduling and routing of the transportation services, and the policing of passengers. They can grant licenses to transport passengers and goods, and impose rules. They can regulate access to transportation facilities and services. The rules and regulations can be reasonable or arbitrary, or somewhere in between.

Publicly elected officials or their employees can regulate the way that a transportation provider interacts with its workers. The workers can form unions, and the transportation providers can form syndicates. These unions and syndicates can in turn form agreements with the governments and private transportation providers, with some degree of control over scheduling, routing and access, and over the hours that the employees work and the wages they are paid.

No transportation provider can provide everything, so transit providers need to purchase goods and services from other entities. Some of these services must be purchased from government entities. Publicly elected officials or their employees can regulate any aspects of this.

Funding, resources, operations, labor, procurement - all these things are some mix of public and private. The government itself can be more or less democratic, and more or less corrupt. Some entities look private but are wholly controlled by the government, and vice versa. This is all I can think of right now, but I'm sure I'm missing some things, and that's why I get frustrated when people present "public vs. private transit" as some clear binary opposition.

Don't get me wrong, I know why "privatization" has such a bad name. Often, from British Rail down to New York's "Group Ride Vehicle Program," what passes for privatization is some weird sandbox thing where the "private" operators are subject to so many conditions, regulations and oversight that you have to wonder why they're private. It's almost always an excuse for either reducing a useful government service, or looting publicly held resources, or both. The other reason the private operators are brought in is to do something that elected officials are worried will alienate voters, like raising fares.

As I wrote almost six years ago, we need to move beyond simplistic fears of privatization - or of government control - and recognize that every transportation service is a mixture of private and public funding, private and public control, private and public accountability. We need to lay out specifically how it fits our goals, and how it falls short. Some of you are doing that. More of you need to.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Which should we fight harder, job sprawl or housing sprawl?

Eric Jaffe had a good review of a University of Denver study about job sprawl. The study shows, basically, that if you make transit more convenient to people's jobs (or vice versa), they're less likely to drive to work than if you make it more convenient to their homes.

Thinking about it, that makes sense. If you own a car, you're much more likely to want to keep it at your end of the transit line than at the work end. Is there even anyone who lives in the city, keeps a car overnight in, say, North White Plains, and drives it to work in the sprawl every morning? I tried to think of actual economic or legal disincentives to this, but the real answer seems to be more primal: a car is a big expensive thing that you paid for, and you want it at the home end of the train line.

What I'm a bit less sold on is where the study authors, Gregory Kwoka, Eric Boschmann and Andrew Goetz, go from here. As Sandy Johnston highlights in a blog post, they also look at "non-work related personal trips" and conclude that working near a transit station is a bigger factor for determining whether you drive for those trips than living near a transit station is.

I can kind of see it. If you work in Manhattan, or even in downtown Denver, you're more likely to walk over to Walgreens or the Gap to pick up some necessities before you hop on the train home. You might meet friends or a date in the city after work. You might even buy groceries. On the weekend you might take the train into the city to go to a museum.

On the other hand, if you take transit out to the sprawl, you're probably just going to take transit right back rather than trying to walk around. But what I have a hard time with is the idea that when you get off the train from the sprawl and walk to your house, then you're going to get right in your car and drive to the supermarket or your kid's school or your AA meeting. I can't really see any of the New York drivers I know doing this. I know some who live in walkable communities, take the train to work in Manhattan, and then drive around on the weekends, but any car owners who live someplace walkable and work someplace not so walkable pretty much drive to work.

My guess is that this part of the study is a quirk of Denver geography. When I was last in Denver, they had only built part of the first light rail line, and there were some stations that didn't have much around them besides housing. Maybe there are a lot of stations where there isn't a supermarket or even a deli on the walk home from the train. Maybe these people live a short walk from the station but drive there anyway because there's a huge "free" park-and-ride.

I'm also not sure how this affects the land use and public investment cycles. In my experience, transit riders who don't own cars tend to be relatively strong advocates for dense development patterns as well as investment in transit and pedestrian infrastructure. People who take the train to work but drive evenings and weekends tend to identify as drivers and support sprawl zoning and investments in highways and parking lots. And sadly, even people who take transit or walk most of the time, but keep a car in the garage to drive to their country house in Vermont every few weeks, tend to identify as drivers and vote like drivers.

I think the best conclusion is that job sprawl is a slightly bigger problem than housing sprawl, but housing sprawl matters too. And even vacation sprawl matters.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Expanding transit and taxis

I wrote recently that by making taxi service more convenient and flexible, electronic taxi hailing services like Uber and Lyft have the potential to replace private car trips and even some car ownership. But some argue (or worry) that they can go further and replace public transit. I've already pointed out that even in this unlikely event, it would not necessarily be a bad thing.

The main value of transit is that it gets people out of cars, and the main challenge of transit in the 2010s (in large, walkable US cities at least) is that it doesn't have enough capacity to accommodate all the people who want to get out of their cars. The main goal for transit advocates right now should be to grow that capacity.

Since the days of Red Mike Hylan, transit advocates have focused on funding capacity expansion through government contracts, and big business has been a dirty word. But it's not at all clear that Hylan was right: the fact that the new 7 line extension was the first real rapid transit expansion in New York City since 1989 shows that we can't just forbid private investment in transit and expect the public sector to step in.

Some subway and commuter rail expansions are massively over-engineered and take forever (the Second Avenue Subway, East Side Access). Others are loaded down with park-and-rides (the Northern Branch), and eventually deep-sixed by ambitious politicians (the Rockland-Westchester corridor). Politicians have shut down many promising subway (Astoria extension), commuter rail (LIRR Third Track) and bus (Main Street bus lanes) proposals at the behest of NIMBYs or even cycling advocates (the Rockaway Beach Line).

The most shameful smothering of transit expansion was where ostensibly left-wing, pro-transit Manhattanites and their ostensibly left-wing, transit-loving representatives tightened constraints on the capacity for bus movement and storage, and blocked attempts to expand them, without a peep out of supposed bus advocates.

If we can’t count on government to expand transit fast enough to meet demand, or to even allow private buses to meet that demand, we have to see if someone else is willing to meet it. And that’s where Uber and Lyft, and less well known services like Via, come in.

These electronic taxi hailing services have essentially used venture capital to finance a massive expansion and upgrade of New York's taxi fleet. Hundreds of late-model Priuses and Suburbans have begun cruising the streets of New York, replacing Lincoln Town Cars and Ford Tauruses.

This is happening not because The People demanded an expansion and upgrade of the taxi fleet. (The bourgeois poseurs who claim to speak on behalf of The People would never demand such a thing, because it sounds too bourgeois.) It is not happening because the Sensible Bureaucrats conducted a study and decided to spend the money. (The Sensible Bureaucrats made some headway, but their colleagues were too busy cowering in pathetic fear of the power of the taxi medallion owners.) It is happening because Uber and others are making a profit on the financing of these vehicles, and the venture capitalists pouring money into Uber and Lyft are expecting to eventually make a profit themselves.

Of course, that's just taxis, and as I wrote earlier, by itself it won't get us to our goals. But is it a sign of a potential way forward for transit expansion?