Friday, February 29, 2008

Hakeem Jeffries, Man of the People

After reports like this and this, your Cap'n was trying to imagine some of the conversations that led Assemblymember Jeffries to take such a strong stance on behalf of his constituents.

Law Partner: Hey Hakeem, guess what? I may not be able to afford the gold trim on my '09 Escalade.

Jeffries: Oh, Dave, how awful! I know how much you like having that trim every year. A new car just isn't as satisfying without it. Did the senior partners give you a small bonus?

Dave: No, it's that congestion pricing. They want me to pay the same to get into Manhattan as people from New Jersey!

Jeffries: The same? That is not fair! People coming from Jersey should always pay more! I'm going to put a stop to it!


Brodsky: Yo Hakeem! What up, my man? Did you hear about that congestion pricing?

Jeffries: It doesn't sound good to me.

Brodsky: It sure ain't. It's unfair to working families!

Jeffries: Working families! I think I have some of those in my district! I bet I have thousands, even! Oh my poor constituents!

Brodsky: They're all going to have to pay $5,000 a year just to get into Manhattan.

Jeffries: $5,000 a year! Some of them earn less than $40,000! They can't afford to pay $5,000 a year.

Brodsky: Then they won't be able to get into Manhattan. The city won't let them in.

Jeffries: But some of them have jobs in Manhattan! They need to get to work! ... Hey, wait a minute, Richard. I have an idea. I've heard rumors ...from a reliable source, mind you... that somewhere in my district there's a tunnel, and if you can get inside the tunnel, there's a train that goes all the way to Manhattan. If my working families could get on that train, I bet they could hide from the Congestion Pricing cameras.

Brodsky: No dice, Hakeem. How are they going to get their kids to private school?

Jeffries: Oh yeah, I forgot about that! I'm so out of touch.

Brodsky: Hakeem my man, when you're in the Assembly you have to always think about your constituents' needs. You forgot the piano and aikido lessons too.

Jeffries: Oooohhh! Those congestion pricing people are restricting my constituents' freedom!

Brodsky: And we gotta act fast! They're trying to shove this thing down our throats!

Jeffries: You're right, Richard! And they're being so disingenuous about it.

Brodsky: You got it, homie. Disingenuous and naïve. But they're no match for the working people of New York. Especially when the working people of New York are represented by progressive fighters for justice like you and me, and Jeff and Rory.

The Transportation-Land Use Cycle, Detailed

Damian Newton of Streetsblog LA posted a predecessor to my Transportation-Land Use Cycle, produced by the NJ DOT (who ought to know):

The good news is that it works the other way too. I hope my version shows that.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Ending the BRT Bait-and-Switch: How Rapid?

For years now some transit advocates have been touting systems under the heading of "Bus Rapid Transit," arguing that it can bring many of the benefits of rail rapid transit at a significantly lower cost.

A lot of transit people are skeptical of BRT, with good reason. BRT is often used, quite consciously, by people opposed to transit (or opposed to funding transit with taxpayer money). Under some definitions, BRT can include everything from rubber-tired underground or elevated metro systems such as those in Paris and Montreal to the same ol' bus with a new paint job. Here is a list of BRT characteristics from Wikipedia:

  • Bus only, grade-separated (or at-grade exclusive) right-of-way

  • Comprehensive Coverage

  • Serves a diverse market with high-frequency all day service

  • Bus priority / Bus lanes

  • Vehicles with Tram-like characteristics

  • A specific image with a Brand name

  • Off-bus fare collection

  • Level boarding

That scale can be abused by unscrupulous people to divide and diffuse support for rail. Often it seems that the agency in question spent a lot more time and money on branding than on anything else. Image is important, but it's not everything.

In particular, the "BRT" pilot project for New York City is particularly disappointing, where each corridor was proposed to get a minor, heterogeneous collection of improvements. The BRT documents have been MIA from the MTA's website for some time now, and my hope is that the whole plan is getting a hard look from people at the DOT, and will emerge much better than before.

So here's my proposal to cut down on the "BRT" bait-and-switch. Let's focus on the word "Rapid." Rapid should mean something, and that something is "fast." Fast may mean different things to different people, but I think for every project, the affected people should agree on how fast is fast, and anything below that is just not Bus Rapid Transit.

There's often no concrete prediction for time improvement (such as a minimum speed, or areduction in trip time). In the absence of a specific number, focus on a specific feature. It may be that there's a corridor out there that could get major increases in speed through level boarding and signal prioritization alone, but the primary factor is right-of-way, and the single most important feature is physical separation of the right-of-way. It's hard to be rapid when you're stuck behind double-parked cars.

So the next time someone says "Bus Rapid Transit" to you, ask them, "How rapid?" If they can't give you a number then say, very sweetly, "Well of course the right-of-way will be physically separated for most of the route, right?" If they can't even promise that, then tell them to come back when they've got the numbers. Otherwise, they can call it Bus Slow Transit and abbreviate it BST, pronounced "bust."

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


The Tri-State Transportation Campaign has put up a page about Bus Rapid Transit. I've got some things to say about BRT, so stay tuned, but in the meantime, one thing that's been frustrating me is that the New York City BRT documents have been taken down. Fortunately, I found one that I'd saved on my hard drive, so here it is for your enjoyment:


If anyone has the others, please let me know.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Don't induce what you can't sustain

Years ago when your Cap'n was just a wee deckhand, he was hired to work on board a ship. This ship had just gotten a contract with a big express shipping company, and needed lots of hands on deck. The pay was good, and there were new guys coming on board left and right, to the point where Jill, the girl whose job it was to go find us had her own berth on the ship. You could tell she cared about us, and she was happy to be finding honest work for people. The fact that she got a handsome finder's fee didn't hurt either.

Now the captain of the ship was so concerned about filling the orders for Big Express that he didn't pay attention to how much he was paying us or Jill. But soon enough it sunk in that with the money Big Express was giving him, he couldn't afford to pay us and Jill and still pay off the mortgage on the ship. One day in June, the Ship's Mate pulled out a parchment with twenty names on it, and Jill came and broke the news to us one by one.

Now, your Cap'n is a resourceful guy and this was right at the start of the Internet shipping boom, and being able to say I had worked with Big Express I was swabbing the decks on another ship for the same pay before the week was out. But when Jill walked me to the gangplank, she was crying. Now I'm a gallant guy, but she wasn't crying for me, she was crying for all of us. She'd been so happy to be bringing us work, and now here she was taking that work away.

Another quick example is pigeon shit. If you keep your eyes open you'll see lots of people putitng out food for pigeons in this city. Listen to them talk a few minutes and you'll hear about how noble their cause is, sustaining life, enabling the handsome birds to survive the harsh winters. And then you go to climb the stairs to the el and slip on pigeon shit. Have you ever seen one of these egotistical fuckers cleaning up after their precious pigeons? Oh no, they're too old and fragile to do anything but scatter breadcrumbs on the sidewalk. Have they made any effort to hire a strapping young fellow to clean up those crumbs after they've been through the pigeons? No. No follow-up, no sustainability. They get the gratification of being the Great Provider, and you get to step in shit.

This is what concerns me about the latest transportation effort from City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who will be running for mayor next year. Ferries! Everyone loves a boat ride. The plan has been well-received among some environmental groups, including the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. But there are some concerns, discussed in this Streetsblog post, that the ferry service could eat up money that would serve more people if it were spent on trains and buses, and then fail.

The Alliance's founder and Director of Programs and Policy is Carter Craft, a sharp guy with a deep understanding of transportation, so I'm not surprised that their recommended guidelines for ferry service implementation echo some of my concerns about half-assed ferry service. In the comments on that Streetblog thread, Carter makes the following point:
Let's not forget that waterfront neighborhoods are almost completely un-served by subways right now; the bridges go way high above and the tunnels dive way,way down below the river beds.

I agree that ferries are the best way to serve the waterfront neighborhoods, but we have to be careful about induced demand. Induced demand is not what ferry advocate Paul Kamen thinks it is, a belief that building transportation is hopeless. It's a factor that requires that transportation be scaleable and sustainable, and here's where we get back to Jill and the pigeon feeders.

Here's also where I get to use this image of the Land Use-Transportation Cycle created for me by Pantagraph Trolleypole. Now I think I actually left out an arrow, because the relative quality of transportation can influence land use. A prime example of this is Schaefer Landing, a 135-unit luxury condo development on the Williamsburg waterfront. The developer included a one-year Water Taxi pass with every unit, but of course those were useless when the Water Taxi stopped running. All the people who live in Schaefer Landing were left with the long schlep to the subway, or driving.

I think we've demonstrated that even for waterfront neighborhoods, ferry service can't compete with subsidized buses, trains and cars without subsidies of its own. As the Waterfront Alliance rightly points out, any sustainable plan for ferry service has to include indefinite subsidies for that service.

The point of the missing arrow on the Land Use-Transportation Cycle is that subsidizing ferry service doesn't just provide for the existing waterfront residents, it encourages the development of more housing, which means more residents, which means more subsidies down the road. This is part of a larger package of subsidies and regulatory changes that has encouraged waterfront housing development.

If Quinn and Carter and the other ferry proponents want to serve existing residents that's good. But do we really want to encourage more people to be dependent on the subsidized ferry service? Where do we get the most bang for our subsidy buck? If it's trains and not ferries, then we should be encouraging people to move to areas served by trains, and reverse the subsidies and regulatory changes that are guiding them to the waterfront. Otherwise we're hiring deckhands we can't pay, and feeding pigeons with no plans to clean up their shit.

Thoughts on the Decline

Everyone's running out of money right now. Much of parking and sprawl are privately funded, while transit and livable streets projects (and roads) are primarily publicly funded. Here's the task I see for proponents of transit and livable streets:

Get public funding secured as much as possible for transit and livable streets, and get roads as defunded as possible. Then try to stall parking and associated sprawl projects until they run out of funding. Hopefully by the time anyone can afford to build anything again there'll be more of a public consensus, and more private money, for transit and livable streets.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Film Review: Quest for Justice

"When the law is on the wrong side, only one man will fight for the people." Opens Friday nationwide.

The latest offering from Christopher Guest (This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman) centers around the fictional Community Board 20 in the Ebbetsania section of Brooklyn, a sleepy neighborhood famous only as the birthplace of former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.

Ebbetsania resident and retired colonoscopy technician Joe Ignazzio (Harry Shearer) is a regular attendee at the meetings, part of his 25-year crusade to get officers of the 58th Precinct to stop ticketing him when he parks in front of the fire hydrant next to Ohira's Diner. At every meeting he brandishes photos of Community Board Chair Steve Greenberg (Guest) parked by the hydrant without a ticket.

The board is abuzz when Rubin (Ed Begley, Jr.) mentions in a speech "how much I owe to Ebbetsania," and Rubin's high school sweetheart Marie (Catherine O'Hara), chair of the 58th Precinct Community Council, mentions that he told her he "longs for the good old days playing stickball on East 28th Place." Convinced that Rubin is mulling a run for the City Council seat being vacated by Marie's husband Jack (William H. Macy), the board members fall all over themselves trying to curry favor with Rubin for their pet projects. Particularly eager is Joe, who has kept his account with Citibank even though Citibank refused to join the Ebbetsania Merchants' Association, and is convinced that this will give him "pull" with Rubin.

Guest's movies have all had stellar ensemble casts, and Quest for Justice is no exception. The chemistry between Joe and his wife Dee Dee (Felicity Huffman), and the tension between his mission and her desire to keep Marie as a customer in her nail salon, is skillfully played. Janeane Garofalo and Parker Posey are excellent as the lesbian environmentalists behind the perennially frustrated organization, "Windmills for Ebbetsania." The bungled attempt by Steve and Marie to consummate a long-desired affair in the back of a chartered bus returning from Atlantic City is another choice moment. Sandra Oh, as second-generation diner owner Kitty Ohira, manages to highlight a serious issue (the frustration of the neighborhood's Japanese minority at being excluded from the political games) without either disrupting the comedy or descending into racial humor. Laura Linney's performance as Judith Rubin deserves mention as well.

This film lives up to the quality of acting and production we have come to expect from Guest's movies. Unfortunately, the writing suffers from a problem we have also come to expect from Guest. The film could work based solely on the humor derived from the hubris and monomania of the characters, but Guest unnecessarily goes beyond that to portray them as stupid. Once he gets over that, his films will be perfect. This is still a must-see for anyone familiar with neighborhood politics.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Let's Raise the Roof

Gary at First and Court highlights a Wall Street Journal article on the "resurgence of rail" (primarily freight) in the US.

An interesting item in the Journal article caught my eye: Norfolk Southern's "Heartland Corridor" plan, which spends $260 million, in part to raise the roofs of several tunnels in Virginia and West Virginia to allow double-stacked container cars to pass through.

That reminded me that the desire to restore service on the West Shore Line always runs into the problem that there's one tunnel that's only high enough for double-stacked trains in the middle. Conrail tore up one track and moved the remaining track to the middle of the tunnel, and now its successor Chessie won't give up that ability to run double-stacked trains. But if Chessie's competitor Norfolk Southern is doing this in Virginia, maybe Chessie will do it here.

Restoring two tracks on the West Shore would allow for the resumption of passenger service not only to Teaneck and Orangeburg, but all the way up the river to large West Shore towns like Newburgh, Kingston and Albany, and better service to Bear Mountain. From Kingston and Albany there are other interesting possibilities as well ...

Monday, February 11, 2008


I've now created a diagram showing the basic government-transportation-choice cycle and some of its consequences, and another one showing its interaction with land use and relative quality of life. Now here's one showing two sub-cycles involving carnage and corporate profit.

In words, government priorities largely determine land use and the relative quality of transportation modes. These in turn cause more or less carnage. The carnage, along with land use and relative quality, determine individual choice of mode.

There is another sub-cycle involving corporate profit. The extent to which people use a given transportation mode influences the degree to which they buy goods and services related to this mode (primarily cars and car stuff, but also patronizing newsstands, reading subway ads, etc.). In turn, the profit encourages corporations to market not just the goods and services, but the modes themselves, and to influence governments to invest in the modes that are more profitable for them. The government also buys contracts to subsidize the creation, maintenance and expansion of transportation infrastructure, contributing to corporate profits, and the corporations will be more likely to influence individual choices and government priorities to get contracts for the more profitable modes.

As you can see, the chart is pretty complex, and I'm thinking now that there's also a relationship between land use and corporate profit. I've tried to take the information on all three charts and combine it into single charts that I've drawn on paper, but it's a big mess. I hope that these three are fairly clear.
you can imagine what it would look like if I had the information on all three charts

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Land Use-Transportation Cycle

After the stunning success of my previous Microsoft Paint wizardry, here is another version that incorporates land use. I think you can see how it would be difficult to include the various ultimate goals in here.

Basically, government priorities are a primary determinant in the relative quality of transportation modes, and in land use. These in turn influence the relative quality of life in neighborhoods oriented towards transit, driving, walking or cycling. The relative quality of modes and life in general both influence transportation choice. In turn, transportation choice influences government priorities.

The Basic Cycle

I think it's been years that I've had this idea in my head, of visually representing the relationship between the various goals I described in my previous post. I've tried it on paper, and it gets very complicated very quickly, so here's the basic cycle:

Quite simply, government priorities are the primary factor in the relative quality of transportation modes (transit, driving, walking, cycling). This in turn influences individual choice of mode, and individual choice influences government priorities. If your ultimate goal is transportation for all, then improving the quality of transit is your best bet. If your ultimate goal is ending global warming, reducing resource waste or building better social structures, however, you need to work on changing choices, and there are more factors involved there.

My apologies for the crude Microsoft Paint diagram. If anyone wants to redo this in a nicer-looking way, or can suggest a free or low-cost program for creating diagrams like this, please let me know.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Getting our Goals Straight

It's nice to see people coming together in support of transit, but often there's a lot of misunderstanding. Some people come up with a particular "pro-transit" campaign and are suprised when not all the other transit advocates get behind it. Sometimes everyone agrees that the project is worthy, but they just differ as to the priority. Other people have deeper objections.

In the short term, better transit has very simple, tangible benefits: the ability to get from one place to another easier and quicker. Most people are in favor of improvements to the transit lines they use, or that their friends use, or that they could imagine using some day. People who don't use that line might want the resources used somewhere else.

It gets murkier when you take a longer-term look. How do I know how long I'll be around to enjoy my subway line? How do I know that my kid will live in this neighborhood when he grows up? Or my grandchildren? Similarly with the transit system in San Francisco: if I'm not planning to live there, why should I care what they have? It gets to be more philosophical, and transit becomes more of a means to an end.

In this post, I'm going to mention a few larger goals that people can have when they think about transit. I'm also going to mention how I feel about those goals. I think it's important for people to articulate feelings like these and to understand that everyone has different priorities.

  • Economic revitalization: If people can get to and from an area easier, they are more likely to live there (raising rents and property values), and work and shop there (raising revenue for stores nearby, and tax revenue). Fron a local perspective, transit is as good for this as any other form of transportation, but from a global perspective, transit is more efficient and thus puts less of a burden on the economy when resources are scarce. This is dependent on the quality of transit.

  • Revising transportation priorities: Transportation investment requires limited resources: land, money, publicity. In some cases, more land, money or publicity going to transit means less land, money or publicity going to roads.

  • Influencing land use: Transit can encourage developers to build denser and more walkable neighborhoods, and can encourage people to build denser and more walkable buildings in existing neighborhoods. This is dependent on the quality of transit and transit-oriented development (which also includes pedestrian and cycling facilities, zoning, tax policies and subsidies).

  • Influencing transportation choice: To the extent that transit, walking and cycling are more convenient and affordable than driving, people tend to choose them. This also depends on transportation priorities and land use (above) and reducing fear of death and injury from walking (see below). It is also dependent on marketing, and on the quality of transit.

  • Serving non-drivers: Many people do not drive, because they are too young, too old, physically or mentally disabled, unable to afford the cost of driving, unable or unlikely to drive safely (due to alcohol or drug addiction, or cognitive competence), because they think it's bad (for any number of reasons), or because they simply don't like it. The more transit there is, the better this population is served. And that's just a matter of fairness.

  • Reducing deaths, injuries and sickness, and fear thereof: Cars kill and injure vastly larger numbers of people than transit or walking, whether measured per passenger-mile, per passenger-minute, or in almost any other way. They require drivers and passengers to sit, virtually immobilized, for long periods of time, reducing physical fitness and contributing to obesity and disease. They also pollute the air, land and water, causing asthma and other diseases.
    The more people choose to take transit instead of driving, and the more land devoted to transit instead of cars, the longer-lived and healthier people will be. One example of this is when the Tramway des Maréchaux in Paris was built in the middle of a series of wide, dangerous boulevards, reducing speeds and making it safer for pedestrians to cross the boulevard.

  • Reducing pollution and global warming: Transit produces lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions per passenger trip than car use. This is dependent on transportation choice.

  • Using resources more efficiently: Transit uses less energy per passenger trip, which in turn can lead to less drag on the economy and less dependence on foreign resources. This is dependent on transportation choice.

  • Promoting better social interaction: Many have argued that lifestyles oriented towards walking, cycling or transit promote higher quality social interaction than car-oriented lifestyles. This is hotly disputed and difficult to prove one way or another. This is dependent on land use and transportation choice.

If I'm missing any goals that are important to you, please feel free to post them in the comments.

Okay, now here's where it gets fun: notice how the last four goals (reducing deaths, injuries, sickness and fear; reducing pollution and global warming; using resources more efficiently; and promoting better social interaction) are all dependent on transportation choice? In other words, if in 2058 the transit-using population in the US is a million more but the car-driving population is three million more, we've failed. If we build or revitalize 1000 walkable neighborhoods, but other people build 5000 car-oriented subdivisions, we lose. That means that for those goals, it's not enough to build transit. We have to do the dreaded thing that motorists are always accusing us of: we have to change the choices people make. We have to get people out of their cars.

What does it take to get people out of their cars? Well, I wrote it right there above: transportation priorities, land use, marketing, the quality of transit, and reducing fear of death and injury from walking. And of course many of these are dependent on transportation choice, so it can be a "virtuous cycle."

More importantly, in the other direction it can be a vicious cycle. Every dollar spent on car facilities (roads, bridges, "free" parking), every unwalkable home, store or workplace, every positive mention of cars in the media encourages people to drive. This is why it's not enough to fight for transit. We need to be against road-building, against parking, against unwalkable land use, against positive depictions of cars. We need to go negative.

Even more importantly, we need to take the fight to the motorists. We need to show them that transit can be fun, exciting and prestigious. We need to take over the roads, bridges and parking, and convert them to transit and pedestrian use. We need to infill the unwalkable land so that it's walkable again. And if we can't convert the car facilities and unwalkable land, we need to destroy it. We need to tear down highways and garages, narrow roads, build over parking lots, and turn office parks, strip malls and subdivisions back into farmland or parkland.

I used to think that it was enough for me to just take care of my own transit needs, and my family's. But it's not. Our future, and the planet's, means that we have to get people out of their cars and onto the buses and trains.

Obviously I'm not suggesting using Great Leap Forward-style totalitarian tactics to force people to stop driving or to live, work and shop in transit-oriented places. I think it can be done without physical force. At the very minimum, our government should stop subsidizing car use as soon as possible. I know, it's like turning a battleship. But you can't even begin to turn the battleship if you don't convince the captain to give the order, and you can't convince the captain without talking about it.

I think that this factor of influencing transit choice is an extremely important one, and it has massive implications for transportation policy worldwide, nationwide and in the region. I'll be referring back to this in the future.