Monday, August 27, 2007

Park and Rides are Not the Answer

Streetsblog just linked to this New York Times article about how congestion pricing could encourage commuters from the suburbs to take the train or bus instead of driving all the way into Manhattan.

Here's what Times reporter Ken Belson and the planners he interviewed are afraid of:

Still, the money generated from congestion pricing will take years to collect and spend. In the meantime, suburban commuters face crippling traffic jams, overcrowded trains and buses and a shortage of parking spaces at stations. So any new riders might be getting on trains and buses already running at capacity.

Regional governments should be looking to increase train and bus capacity and to encourage private bus operators to get into the act. Here's what they shouldn't be doing:

Mr. Cameron said that 15 percent of Metro-North trains are out of service every day, and Connecticut residents must wait an average of four years to get reserved parking spots at stations on the New Haven Line. There are similarly chronic shortages in New Jersey, Westchester and Long Island. At the Princeton Junction station in West Windsor, there are 3,560 spots to accommodate 7,080 daily riders.


New Jersey Transit and the state’s Department of Transportation have added nearly 15,000 parking spots at train, bus and light-rail stations since 2002 and expect to build an additional 3,700 in the next three years to keep up with ridership, which has hit records the past several years.

Mr. Kolluri and transportation officials elsewhere say that more spaces could be added, but that many towns are unwilling to accept them because they fear an increase in traffic — the same problem that has led Mr. Bloomberg to pursue congestion pricing so vigorously.

Okay, Messrs. Cameron, Kolluri and Belson, repeat after me:

Park and Rides are Not the Answer.
Park and Rides are Not the Answer.
Park and Rides are Not the Answer.

The town leaders have it right: if you build parking, it encourages people to drive. What is the answer? Make it easier for people to get to the train or bus station ... without driving! That cuts down on traffic in the suburbs, which is almost as big a problem as in the city.

The best answer: make it easy for them to walk.

Look at each station, and figure out how many commuters live within a comfortable walking distance. Try walking around the area: does it feel safe? Are there nice, wide sidewalks? Safe places to cross the street? Interesting things to look at? Stores to stop in along the way? If not, build them!

The next best answer: get them to live within walking distance.

All three of the tri-states have made noises about slowing sprawl and encouraging transit-oriented development. But go to any Long Island train station and you won't find too many people living in town. There are stores and parking lots ... and more stores and parking lots. From most of the elevated LIRR stations you can see that the areas behind the stores have been hollowed out to make more parking lots. To find actual houses and apartments you have to walk a while. I know people who've moved to the Island and haven't been able to find an affordable apartment near the train. Fix this. Change the zoning so that developers can build apartment buildings (without parking garages; I'm looking at you, New Rochelle) right near the train and shopping. They walk to the train; no traffic!

The next thing: jitneys and shuttles

Many suburban houses, if they're not walking distance to a train, are a short ride away. If these people ride to the train, they probably don't spend more than fifteen minutes in the car, and most of that is spent sitting in traffic. If they could spend ten minutes on a shuttle bus, they probably would. Make it a small, low-floor bus that can zip through subdivisions. Don't have just three buses that take forever to wind through every cul-de-sac; run a whole bunch. Don't make a lot of widely-spaced bus stops that they have to walk to, make it so that they can just walk to the end of their driveway fifteen minutes before the train leaves, hop on and go.

You tried buses and nobody rode them? Well, the start of the congestion pricing trial is the perfect time to start new habits. Rather than training a whole bunch of new train riders to drive to the station, make the bus easy. Make it free for the first month. Offer free service for a year (and maybe a cash payout too) for anyone who gives up their reserved parking spot. Identify some neighborhood "thought leaders" and do whatever it takes to convince them to ride the bus. If Bob the Systems Administrator sees Liz the Senior VP from Mutual Funds waiting for the bus, maybe he'll try it too.

I'm not even a marketing consultant. I bet a marketing consultant could come up with some even better answers. But please, please move away from the same old sprawl-inducing stopgaps. Repeat after me one more time:

Park and Rides are Not the Answer!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Please Give to the Anti-Curb Cut Fund!

We know that cars are bad.

Curb cuts, driveways and garages are also bad. They look bad, and they get in the way of people trying to walk down the street. But most importantly, they're bad because they make it easier for people to own cars!

I once rented a house that not only had a curb cut, but a driveway and a garage. I didn't own a car, so I rode around town with the garage door opener on the handlebars of my bike. It was fun for a little while, but then I realized that it was kind of a waste of space, even though it was a small garage. I talked to my landlord, and he took $50 off my monthly rent and rented the garage to the guy who lived behind us.

But I know that not everyone is like me, and most Americans would see a garage as a valuable place to store a car. In dense cities like New York, not having a garage or a driveway can deter some people from even owning a car (or a second car), because it's so hard to find (or afford) parking.

In my neighborhood there is a significant opposition to curb cuts, largely on aesthetic grounds. There are restrictions against putting in curb cuts in some areas, but once someone's poured the concrete, there's no easy way to get rid of them. Even if the owners move, it's very likely that they'll sell the place to someone who wants to use the curb cut. Who would buy a house with a curb cut just to tear it out and re-sod the grass? This is a source of frustration for many of my neighbors.

But now I have an idea: use the Power of Real Estate!

I recently heard a neighbor talking about how she had had trouble with a nearby business that attracted undesirables (my word - read what you like into it), so she bought the building, closed down the establishment and opened a different one, that brought in a different clientele. The things you can do if you can afford to buy a building - or borrow enough!

I thought about that in relation to curb cuts. Imagine if, whenever there's a house with a curb cut on the market you could buy it, tear up the driveway and put down grass. If there's a driveway or parking lot, tear that up too. If there's a garage, renovate it into a basement, workshop or sitting room. You might get less money for it in the end, but wouldn't it be worth it? How much would you pay to get rid of a curb cut?

You wouldn't even have to buy the house. You could just make an offer to the buyer and the seller: you'll tear up the curb cut at your own expense, or reimburse the owner for tearing it up. And you'll pay the closing costs, or maybe the difference between the purchase price and an estimate of what it would have gone for with a curb cut. That would probably come to less than $5,000, right? In exchange, the buyer has to sign a 99-year covenant saying that if they ever put in a curb cut, they forfeit the property to the neighborhood association.

Hey, the house wouldn't even need to change hands. You could offer the current owners the same deal without selling: you'll tear out the curb cut at your expense and pay a lump sum in exchange for the covenant.

Okay, so you don't have a spare $5 grand sitting around. But could you find four neighbors who'd each be willing to spend $1000 to get rid of that curb cut down the block? Or 99 neighbors willing to spend $500 each to help get rid of ten curb cuts in your neighborhood? It might not even need $5,000; I think it only costs $350 to tear up a driveway. You could maybe find a rich anti-curb-cut philanthropist or foundation to give you a matching grant. Or have a fundraising party, or solicit donations on the street. It's an environmentalist action, after all, and helps to stop global warming!

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Some Basics

Here are some basic assumptions on this blog. I'm well aware that not everyone agrees with them, and I know that they're not true in all circumstances. But, this blog is not a place for discussing them. These are some background assumptions. I may change them as time goes on or add justifications for them, but for now feel free to critique them ...elsewhere.
  • Cars are bad
  • Transit is good
  • Walking and cycling are good
  • Trains are better than buses