Monday, December 5, 2016

We still need more car-free weekenders

Some years ago, I wound up arguing about congestion pricing in my local cafe with a woman I’d never met before. I said that as someone who didn’t own a car I didn’t want to pay to maintain infrastructure for people who did. She responded with the usual, “Well, some of us have to have cars,” and then put a new spin on it. “I need one to get to my farm upstate.”


She clearly felt she had won the argument with that one, and I let her think that, because it was clear there was no getting through to her that evening. I grew up surrounded by farms, summer houses and weekend houses, and I can tell the difference between them. If you’re spending Sunday night in your apartment in Sunnyside, either you have a weekend house with a garden, or you own a farm but you’re paying other people to milk the cows and collect the eggs. Either way, you can leave your poseur pickup truck at the New Paltz park-and ride, and you are not entitled to my tax money subsidizing a free ride for you across the Queensboro Bridge.

Since then I’ve had similar encounters with other people, and read about many more, where someone who identified as a city resident argued in favor of maintaining free bridges, free parking, wide streets or minimum parking requirements, or opposing bus lanes or bike lanes, because they also identified as a driver. This person usually complained about owning a car in the city, either having to pay for parking or to move their car twice a week for alternate side sweeping. It seemed like they hated everything about car ownership.

The people in question didn’t use the car to commute to work, and rarely used it for shopping or to go out at night. So why did they have a car? To go to their country house (or sometimes “farm”) in the Catskills, in Vermont, in Connecticut. Sometimes they didn’t even own a country house, and just used the car to drive to short-term rentals or hotels.

It made me wonder, what if they didn’t need a car to have a weekend away from the city? What if, like me and my family, they took trains and buses to get to hotels? They could even own a house in a small town, walking distance from a bus stop or a train station.

I wrote about this back in 2009, and Alon thought we should concentrate our attention instead on getting suburbanites to move to the city. We see how well that worked out! But the reason I think it would be effective to provide more alternatives for car-free weekends is not based on absolute numbers. It’s based on the fact that so many people who are obstacles in the fight for safe streets, efficient movement, reducing pollution, bringing us closer together and providing access for everyone are people who own cars primarily to get to their country houses and weekend hotels.

If we can give those people an alternative to parking their cars in Manhattan, would they stop identifying as drivers and be more supportive of transit and walking? We can’t know until we try it. And as Bruce pointed out in the comments to my old post, the worst is that we can make it easier for a bunch of non-drivers to have a relaxing weekend away from the city. I’ll talk about some specific idea in future posts.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Is it worth the parking?

Joe Cortright had a nice piece recently where he showed that 83% of the amount of driving in cities can be explained by the cost of parking (and possibly other factors that are correlated with it). I’ve made similar connections between the lack of free parking and the “density” that so many urbanists credit with high transit use.


Was all this nasty parking worth ... whatever they did to the Montclair Terminal?

It’s hard to figure out causation amid several correlations. Cheap parking is also a proxy for the political strength of the motorist community in a city. How much driving is actually encouraged by the cheap parking, and how much is encouraged by free, wide roads or transit subsidy cuts demanded by those drivers?

It might be possible to disentangle these factors eventually, but it seems likely that we’ll find that cheap parking is directly responsible for at least some driving. There are several implications of this:

First, anyone who’s fighting any of the negative externalities of car use should spend some of their time fighting cheap parking. That means people fighting against pollution, carnage, resource depletion and economic insolvency.

Second, there are some people who see cheap parking as a social justice issue, viewing it through the narrow lens of poor drivers vs. rich drivers, ignoring poor non-drivers. Others see it as an economic development issue, ignoring the economic costs of cheap parking. We need to find ways to present that broader picture for these advocates in hope of bringing them over to our side of this issue.

There are several ways to fight cheap parking. The most straightforward ones are simply to institute pricing on existing free parking and raise prices on cheap parking. That means parking meters, gates on lots and garages, and permit systems. Some cities may be tempted to outsource this to a private corporation, the way Chicago did, but advocates seem to agree that this has been a disaster.

Parking prices, like most prices, are influenced by supply and demand. Another tactic is to fight the expansion of parking supply. Minimum parking requirements, subsidized government parking, zoning variances and zoning and tax policies that make it unprofitable to build anything but parking lots: all these are points where advocates can push back on parking.

Among the most important places we can have an impact, though, are projects that we support. I’ve written before about how dense housing, transit, and even bicycle and pedestrian projects are often built with obscene amounts of parking.

There are several projects that I’ve been tempted to support because they would provide alternatives to driving. But I’ve kept my mouth shut, or even argued against the projects in their current form, because they include too much parking. I’ve concluded that we would be better off without a Tappan Zee Bridge bike path, or an expansion of Metro-North to Rhinecliff, or a housing complex on a deck over the Sunnyside Yards, than with those projects and the parking that people want to build with them.

I hope you’ll do the same. If something comes along that you think would be really good, but it includes lots of parking, please ask yourselves, "Would this be worth all the parking?" And then act on that.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Who will save New York City from #SaveNYC?

A lot of people are alarmed by the language Donald Trump, with its emphasis on “taking back our country” and “making America great again.” They evoke the phrases used by ugly, repressive movements throughout history: They have taken over our land and ruined it. We must defeat them and take it back.


Brian Lehrer recently had a great interview with Mark Lilla, a Columbia humanist who’s just written a book on reactionary thinking. Lilla observed that reactionary movements thrive on words like “once” and “again,” evoking past golden ages that were often entirely fictional (Lilla gives the example of Hungarian fascists who imagine a time when their boundaries contained no Jews or Roma) and promising to make them reality in the future.

As I was writing this, I was struck by the realization that these reactionary movements never succeed in bringing about the golden ages they promise. Instead, at best they establish an isolated decline, and at worst they unleash horrific mass murders.

Anyone who knows Trump’s history of racial provocation has not been surprised that his comments appeal to reaction as well. But I’ve been just as disturbed by the rhetoric used by some around recent migrations and developments in cities.

When Andrew Cuomo created a nonprofit organization called “The Committee to Save New York” back in 2011 to provide superficially independent advocacy for his initiatives, it struck me as the messianic delusions of an egomaniac with real power. But Jeremiah Moss’s “SaveNYC” campaign - an outgrowth of his “Vanishing New York” blog, feels like a totally different kind of threat. It feels reactionary.

In his blog Moss bemoans, in inflammatory terms, the loss of small businesses, institutions and landmarks, and the opening of chain stores and trendy spots. If you read it regularly - or if, like Moss, you read the news and walk the streets with an eye for these events - the cumulative weight of all those closings definitely brings a feeling of impending doom. How long before Manhattan looks like the Westchester Galleria?

I have no reason to doubt the individual facts that Moss cites: businesses closing, buildings demolished, chain stores expanding and yes, corruption and inequality. But as with Trump or the other cases Lilla cites, it’s not at all clear that the past was any better, or that the reactions championed by Moss will make the future like the past, or any better at all.

Anyone who knows the history of New York - or human history for that matter - knows that businesses have been closing and buildings being demolished since forever. Many of the beloved businesses bemoaned by Moss and his fans were once the crass new businesses and buildings, taking the place of earlier beloved authentic community businesses and historic buildings, and maybe even longterm residents.

Even chain stores have been in New York for longer than any of the businesses mentioned by Moss. Sure, the chains keep expanding - until they stop. Queens is full of buildings that used to hold Child’ses and Woolworths. They didn’t ruin the city, and neither did Chock Full O’Nuts or Horn and Hardart. Remember when it seemed like Krispy Kreme and Blimpie were going to take over the city?

I’ve never seen any quantitative data to show that the numbers of quirky independent storefronts, soulless corporate chain stores, venerable community institutions, ridiculous hipster playplaces, or beloved family businesses have changed significantly over the years. I also haven’t seen data on the rates at which businesses are opening and closing, and buildings are being demolished.

I suspect that if we had any, it would show that the relative numbers of various kinds of businesses have remained relatively constant over the years, with individual businesses simply moving from despised new invader to community institution over time. I would also guess that the rates of change have been roughly cyclical, without a dramatic increase in turnover in the long term. In other words, what we see here looks less like a response to actual trends and more like the recency effect in action.

Moss also concentrates exclusively on businesses that he sees as providing some unique value. In the Vanishing New York there are no corrupt restaurants, discriminatory boutiques, derivative bodegas or ugly buildings. Nobody goes out of business because they mismanage their finances, provide bad service or sell crappy stuff. Everything must be saved. Nothing must go.

So far this is a simple difference of facts and policy. I think that Moss and his followers are misguided and disagree with their vision of New York. They reciprocate. We each try to convince people to go with our side.

What I find disturbing is when the rhetoric goes beyond factual disagreements into the inflammatory. If we take Moss’s claim that “the soul of New York City is getting murdered” at all seriously, it can only be seen as a call to action. These are drastic times, he is telling us. And drastic times require what?

Similarly, reasonable people can disagree about whether the “Small Business Jobs Survival Act” would actually help any small businesses and their jobs survive (and whether that would actually lead to better lives for people overall). But when the rhetoric goes beyond policy recommendations into scapegoating, that’s not just disturbing but alarming.

Moss has ratcheted up the rhetoric: the hashtag for his SBJSA campaign is #takebackNYC. Who do they want to #takebackNYC from? The claim is that it’s the corrupt real estate developers. I’m not dismissing the undemocratic influence of these business people, but even if there is too much turnover in retail Moss has not made a convincing case that the real estate developers are behind it, or that this bill would do anything to improve the situation.

I’m not really worried for the developers; they can take care of themselves. I’m worried that the idea of “taking back NYC” will spread beyond them. I’ve already covered how the term “gentrification” in general, and Moss’s movement in particular, turn migrants (who often themselves have been displaced by rising rents in other neighborhoods) into the Other, and scapegoat them as the agents of displacement.

One thing I’ve noticed about angry people in political movements is that if they get blocked by opponents who are more powerful, they will often turn their anger on targets that they have a chance of defeating. Thus bus advocates will attack train advocates before they try to defeat road advocates. Pedestrians will attack cyclists instead of drivers. And similarly, I fear that the “take back NYC” crowd will find themselves unable to defeat the corrupt developers and will turn first on the non-corrupt developers, and then on people moving in to the developments.

Think about that the next time you read one of Moss’s jeremiads. When the people he stirs up find themselves unable to Save NYC, or Take Back NYC, what are they going to do? Who are they going to try to take back NYC from?

Saturday, October 1, 2016

When ridership doesn't matter

In the past couple of years I’ve noticed something that would be baffling in a lot of contexts, and is still kind of hard to believe when you see it. It’s called a pass-up, and it’s when a transit vehicle is so full that it can’t fit any more people, and leaves riders standing on the platform or the curb.


It’s bad enough when there really is another bus coming along in a minute. It’s bad enough when the city doesn’t have enough track capacity or enough train cars to move all the people who want to ride. But what I’m really talking about is when you can’t get on a bus and there isn’t another bus for ten minutes or more, or when one bus or train after another is uncomfortably packed.

It’s possible that the MTA, with its heavy debt service burden and its large employee benefit obligations, is incapable of bringing in a profit on any route at any time, no matter how many people ride it, so that it never helps the bottom line to add buses. But that would be a very different story than they told in 2010 when they cut service.

If you asked some of the people waiting for the M60 how they feel about the prospect of a fare increase, they would probably complain and tell you they couldn’t afford it. But if you asked them whether they’d pay fifty cents more to get a seat on the bus, or to just ensure there would be room for them on the next bus that came, they might say yes.

On the face of it, it makes no sense. These are paying customers; why wouldn’t the agency want their money?

We know it usually works in the other direction: transit providers don’t get enough riders, so they raise fares and cut back service, which drives away some of the remaining riders, in what is known as the Transit Death Spiral. We’ve put measures in place to protect transit systems from that. The problem is that those measures also remove most of the incentives for actually serving passengers.

The Transit Death Spiral is in fact a perfectly normal outcome for anyone who is selling something but is unable to compete. They sell less and less, and with less income they are unable to maintain the quality of their product. Customers give their money to the competitor, who can use it to improve the competing product.

Transit advocates knew there was a public interest in keeping transit around, so they got the government to subsidize it. But the reason transit was losing market share was that the government was subsidizing competing roads. There was a powerful popular consensus in favor of gas, roads and parking, and a popular distrust of railroad companies and “the traction interests.” There were also powerful undemocratic forces attacking transit, like Bob Moses, car companies and road lobbyists.

Transit advocates tried to promote an “all of the above” strategy, but rarely achieved “parity,” let alone more than 20%. They then largely fell back on charity arguments, which are inherently self-limiting because they implicitly accept the idea that nobody would take a bus or train unless they can’t afford to drive.

Then came transit advocates’ deal with the devil, the mistake that we’re still paying for today. After failing in both market competition and popular subsidies, transit advocates tried to beat road lobbyists at their undemocratic, competition-stifling game. They turned to public authorities.

Even today you see transit advocates arguing with a straight face that they can’t improve transit without a regional authority. Public authorities are the tools that Moses used to achieve power without a popular mandate. They allow elected officials to maintain a degree of control, but give the appearance of independence, protecting transit bureaucrats from all accountability to the voters or the market.

The result of this is that now, when there are plenty of passengers, the transit managers seem to have no interest in increasing frequency to serve the people who want to ride. What’s in it for them? They don’t get punished for leaving money on the table, and politicians don’t complain about crowded buses.

There are people who want to serve those people and take their money. But the city blocks them, and self-righteous bloggers spew bombast about “privatization” and “stratified transportation systems.” The state could serve them well, but the governor finds more political value in spending city money to build roads in the suburbs and the country. And on this the social justice advocates are silent.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

New traffic patterns, new driving habits

I'm not a traffic engineer, but I know that old habits die hard. I also know that it's possible to create new habits, and once those habits are in place it's hard to get rid of them. Whenever you institute a new traffic pattern, it's an opportunity to teach new good habits, but also to inadvertently teach bad habits. And I know that here in New York we can't trust the NYPD to consistently enforce protections for pedestrians, so habits and barriers are our main lines of defense.


Because I know this, today it was frustrating for me to see the current state of the eastern end of the Queens Boulevard median expansion at 57th Avenue. It looks like the DOT plan involves four colors of paint (white, yellow green and beige), flexible bollards, stop signs and concrete islands. I only saw bollards at the slip lane just west of the Port Washington LIRR viaduct, and a stop sign in front of the Elks Lodge east of 51st Avenue. They have not laid down any beige paint yet, and green paint stops at Broadway. But the white paint continues east almost to the end of the project.

This is not so bad going eastward. The problem is that going westward, the first thing drivers encounter is a few lines of white and yellow paint. There is no beige paint to indicate that this is now pedestrian space, and no green paint to indicate that there is now a bike lane. There are no bollards, or even temporary orange barrels.

Some of these drivers have just come off of the express lanes, some off of Woodhaven Boulevard, some off the LIE. They are in four lanes of traffic being squeezed down to one, and many of them did not know there would be only one lane. They did not have any warning, so they did not know to slip over to the express lanes.

The result I saw today was people driving right over the yellow and white paint, as though it wasn't there and they had two driving lanes the way they've had since the sixties. Private cars, taxis, Access-A-Ride vans, even the Q53 bus drove over the lines. How long have they been doing that? How long will they be allowed to continue? What kind of precedent does that set?


Like I said, I'm not a traffic engineer. Maybe I'm worrying too much about this. Maybe once the green and beige paint get laid down, and the bollards put in, the drivers will all learn to slip into the express lanes, or even to take the train or the bus instead. But it just seems to me that we should have a hard barrier at the place where the median begins, to keep people from driving on it. And this is not an academic concern; the DOT's stats show that 87 people were injured at the 57th Avenue intersection between 2010 and 2015, two of them severely.


You may know that a 22-year-old cyclist, Asif Rahman, was killed on this stretch of Queens Boulevard in 2008. Since then his mother has fought hard to make the road safer for people who travel it in the future. As I was passing Rahman's ghost bike a cyclist overtook me, using the new lane marked only by white and yellow paint. It felt a bit safer already. We're all hoping the DOT does it right and makes it stay.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

A way among the tube socks

I am not a Bicycle Advocate, and I don't believe that Bikeshare is Transit. But I'm now convinced that the combination of bike share and protected bike lanes has improved mobility for a lot of people. It has worked for me when I've traveled to DC and London, and at home here in New York. The cost has been relatively low, whether measured in terms of dollars, square feet of public space, or advocacy hours.


In my experience, bikeshare is not effective for getting people out of cars and taxis and decongesting our subways and sidewalks without that network of protected lanes and quiet side streets. I am a cautious rider, and I avoid streets where it feels like drivers have too much power or speed. Rather than fear for my life I will just walk or take the subway.

A few months ago I was on Irving Place and wanted to go to Soho. I figured I'd ride the relatively quiet Eighteenth Street to the Second Avenue protected bike lane. But when I got to Third Avenue I found my way blocked by a street fair.

I turned south for a few blocks on Third Avenue. I hate riding on big avenues without a bike lane; the drivers are either speeding or frustrated or both. It was also difficult to remember which streets went which way, but I think I avoided the pattern at Stuyvesant Square that sends you back west on Fifteenth Street, and headed east on Twelfth.

I was looking forward to getting onto Second Avenue. But when I got there I found the avenue completely filled by another street fair. These were not genuine community festivals, but the generic fairs that have become the norm here in New York City. My way was blocked by tube socks and mozzarepas. There wasn't even room on the sidewalk to walk my Citibike.

I doubled back and rode down Third Avenue again. I checked again a few blocks later and I was past the fair, but that was just luck; I didn't know until I'd gone all the way down the block.

For bikeshare to serve as a true transportation option, we don't just need a bike route network , but a reliable one. If any part of it is unavailable, the whole network is compromised, and people will be less likely to rely on it.

Of course it's not just bikes; the car network is disrupted. But drivers have lots of alternate routes: a driver whose way is blocked on Second Avenue would not be terribly inconvenienced by driving on Third. But for me, with Second Avenue blocked the nearest protected southbound avenue is Ninth Avenue/Hudson Street/Bleecker Street, meaning I would have to bike clear across the island and back.

This is also an issue for pedestrians. Walking a long city block out of the way is not always practical, leaving those of us trying to get somewhere mixing with the zeppole eaters.

As many have said, we need to reform these street fairs. We also need to convert more car lanes to bike lanes on the avenues. But in addition, we need to preserve some bike access through street fairs. If they can have fairs on sixty foot cross streets like Eighteenth, they can leave twelve feet of space on a 75-foot avenue like Second.

At a minimum, we should have some notification system for when the bike lane network is disrupted, whether by street fairs, construction or something else. A tweet on the Citibike feed would help.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Windows on the Van Wyck

A few weeks ago I went for a walk in Briarwood and Kew Gardens Hills. I got off the train at Jamaica-Van Wyck, the first time I’d ever used that station. It was full of red brick, reminding me of other stations that were opened or renovated in the seventies and eighties, like 21st Street-Queensbridge and 49th Street, but it was uncomfortably dark, despite the high ceilings and fairly bright lights.


I looked up and saw an elevated walkway inside the station, leading to the exit, similar to other grand stations of that era like Queensbridge, Auber in Paris, or Dupont Circle in Washington. On the other side of the station I saw what looked like balconies or windows above, but there was no light coming through them.


When I got outside, I crossed the Van Wyck Expressway on Jamaica Avenue. I looked down, and could actually see the outside of the station in the trench next to the highway. It's even more obvious in this Bing aerial photo:


It's hard to tell through the fence, but the panels on the walls look like they could be windows covered with paint or plastic.


I then looked up the station on the web, and found more information. The windows were uncovered as late as 1998, when Wayne Whitehorn took a series of pictures including this one:


Nycsubway.org has that photo, plus a couple of other good ones. According to user R32 3671 on the NYC Transit Forums, they were covered over by the year 2000, due to "vandals." Some commenters on SubChat said that the vandals actually broke the windows; others only say that they spray-painted graffiti over them. There was certainly graffiti all over the window covers when I took these pictures.


If they uncovered the windows now, in 2016, how often would people try to tag them? How much would it cost to keep them clean and guard them? Would it be more than the cost of maintaining the "Low Line" park proposed for the Manhattan Terminal, plus the amortized cost of constructing that park, estimated at $55 million in 2013?