Monday, January 19, 2009

I Want a Nice Big Imitation Steak

There are some pretty good meat substitutes out there. Some people like tempeh and veggie burgers; the only one that's really done it for me is seitan. Now I'm aware that seitan and tempeh are foods in their own right, and that if you play to their strengths you can get some pretty tasty, protein-rich meals. But by and large what you wind up with is something that doesn't resemble meat in any meaningful way.

Let's put those aside and focus on the use of vegetable proteins as imitation meats. Since you can find someone who likes to eat just about anything, you can probably find people who prefer them to meat. There are people on a budget who eat imitation meats if they're cheaper than real meats. But most people eat fake meat because they feel that real meat is bad for one reason or another. Maybe they don't feel comfortable being responsible for the death of an animal, or they don't want to contribute to global warming.

Setting aside people who are principled vegetarians, most people who can afford real meat just don't choose imitation meat. Imagine someone (not a vegetarian) who was invited to dinner by their rich uncle (also not a vegetarian) and said, "Let's go get a nice big seitan steak!"

Now you might get an idea of how I feel to read an article featuring Streetsblog editor Aaron Naparstek. The New York Times asked several New York thought leaders, including Aaron, what they would like soon-to-be President Obama to do for New York. Aaron responded, "The top priority has to be the creation of a citywide bus rapid-transit network, known in transportation circles as B.R.T."

Here we have an imaginary Obama asking Aaron what he wants - for all of us New Yorkers - and does Aaron say, "build new subways," like Jeffrey Zupan and Sam Schwartz? Does he ask for a nice new light rail line like Roxanne Warren? No, he says "BRT." BRT has been shown to be inferior to trolleys in just about every way. It's a seitan steak: the kind of thing you'd normally ask for only if you had some reason you couldn't eat a real steak.

We know that the government is running a huge deficit this year, so maybe this is more like the uncle trying to still pretend to be the big spender even though he got laid off last month. But then our dinner guest would still ask for steak, but they just might ask him to take them to the Argo Diner instead of Peter Luger's. And anyway, over the long run BRT tends to cost almost as much as light rail - if it's well-enough developed to earn its "rapid" name. There are some things you just don't buy at the 99¢ store.

Of course, our hypothetical birthday boy might instead say, "Hey Uncle, let's go to that vegetarian place you took me to last year. I love their stir-fry with tempeh!" This is taking the food on its own terms: expecting it to be nutritious and satisfying instead of thinking of it as a substitute for something else.

Buses are no substitute for light rail, but they do already transport thousands of New Yorkers in relative convenience and comfort. They can be made better: Aaron's Streetsblog has featured stories about the value of busways, and I've discussed potential applications of those ideas for New York. Aaron could have talked about the various possible ways to improve our city's bus system without implying that it would be some kind of substitute for rail.

One thing that Aaron should absolutely be ashamed of himself for is his use of the phrase "surface subway." Subways and elevated trains speed people along because they're grade-separated. You just can't go that fast on the surface, even if you have a dedicated right-of-way and signal priority. A surface subway is nonsense.

Aaron has done a tremendous amount for transportation in this city, and in 2009 I'm looking forward to many intelligent, informative Streetsblog posts on all areas of transportation. I have admired him and respected him for years, and will continue to do so. But in this case, he was given a big soapbox and he chose to use it to push a concept that is dishonest at its core. This post is not intended as an attack, or as punishment for violating some arbitrary principle. It's an honest expression of my disappointment, and my hope that Aaron will present things differently next time. Bus improvements, yes. BRT, no. "Surface subway," hell no!


Niccolo Machiavelli said...


I yield to no one in my preference for steel wheel on steel rail over rubber on asphalt. Still, me thinks you protesteth too much.

There are particular advantages and disadvantages to any system. In this case, there is the mechanical advantage of light rail versus the flexibility of BRT.

The advantage to BRT is its "point-of-the-spear" character and ability to drive new transit service to constituencies that are presently "under-served by mass transit". As such it has more in the way of ability to immediately displace automobile traffic at a much lower initial cost.

After a particular route has built up, and the drivers have gotten over, politically and socially, the loss of the road space, then laying down some rails and some constructing some catenary is appropriate. At that point the BRT can move on to the next transit frontier primed for conquest.

Grade separation is very important and very valuable. That said the New York area and many other older cities have a valuable reservoir of unused grade separated right of ways. Those right of ways remain unused because the abutting neighbors threaten the local politicians should service be re-instituted. BRT can establish a counter weight in a new constituency that can wedge its way into the attention span of the politicians and institutions that control transportation political economy.

BRT is a valuable tool in driving more capital intensive, if less flexible, and more efficient steel rail and steel wheel systems. We are a long way from that in time and money. BRT is the best thing on the shelf to put more asses in the seat at an affordable price in a reasonable time frame.


Niccolo Machiaveli

Cap'n Transit said...

Good points, Nico, but let me clarify: I'm not talking about "BRT" as a collection of bus improvements, but "BRT" as a marketing strategy. That's what I was trying to get at with tempeh on its own merits vs. tempeh as fake meat.

For the functions you describe, wouldn't it be just as easy (and probably cheaper) to just build some busways instead of inaugurating the SuperSpeediBus Line 5?