Tuesday, May 26, 2009

It's a marvelous place for a Barnes dance...

As you've all probably heard by now, Broadway from 42nd to 47th Streets was turned over to pedestrians last night. Commissioner Sadik-Khan says that it will actually improve (car) traffic flow, because they won't have to have three phases for the lights at those diagonal intersections. Certainly the cars seemed to be moving fine on Seventh Avenue today.

The Department of Transportation will be tweaking the project from now until December. Here's a tweak I humbly suggest: the intersection where Broadway crosses 45th and Seventh requires pedestrians walking down Broadway to cross one way, wait and cross the other way. That breaks up the flow. A Barnes dance would allow people to cross diagonally and continue down Broadway, connecting the chunks into a more coherent whole.

I know, it would require three phases in the light. I hope it would still be an improvement over the old pattern.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Bridge Route

In the comments to my last post about the lack of redundancy on the Northeast Corridor, Adam missed part of the point:
The main problem with the Tappan Zee alignment is that it skips NYC, the most important stop on the train. Ideally, we'd have six tracks under each river for either commuter or long distance trains.

Adam's proposal would not provide very much redundancy, as CityLights observed in suggesting that a Staten Island route would "serve as backup route in case something happens in Manhattan." Redundancy doesn't just mean having multiple routes, it means having routes that connect multiple locations without going through the same point. Something that can take out two tracks in Midtown Manhattan could also take out six.

What is really frustrating in all this is that there used to be a very good set of alternative routes to the Pennsylvania Railroad between Washington and New Haven, and the New Haven Railroad between Philadelphia and Boston, that combined would have allowed trains to completely bypass the pinch points I described in my previous posts. Various combinations of these were called the Poughkeepsie Bridge Route, the Federal Express route, and the Alphabet Route. Freight trains used the route regularly from 1890 to 1974, and passenger trains for part of that time.

The key is the Poughkeepsie Bridge, a railroad bridge across the Hudson at Poughkeepsie, which connected the Erie hubs at Maybrook and Campbell Hall to the Central New England hubs at Hopewell Junction and Boston Corners. The rail superstructure on the bridge was badly damaged in a fire in 1974 and never rebuilt, and the tracks between Maybrook and Hopewell Junction have been abandoned.

The bridge structure itself is still solid, and the right-of-way is still intact. If restored, the tracks could move passengers and freight from New England to Pennsylvania and points south and west without going through New York City, taking pressure off the Northeast Corridor and the bridge at Selkirk. Even though there's only room for a single track, the lines on either side could be double-tracked.

Well, readers, you'll be interested to know that a group of visionary citizens has gotten together to restore the bridge. After fighting for many years, they've gotten the support of political leaders, and their project has received a share of the federal stimulus funding. If all goes according to plan, in October the bridge will reopen ... as a rail-trail.

Now don't get me wrong, I love rail-trails. I've spent many happy hours strolling the Airline and cycling the Old Put. But you've got to keep your priorities straight. A rail-trail from Maybrook to Hopewell Junction is not worth our budget dollars, it's not worth our stimulus dollars, and it's certainly not worth using the only rail crossing infrastructure between Penn Station and Selkirk. All this activism, political capital and money could have gone into upgrading the multi-use walkways on either side of the Mid-Hudson Bridge and providing the staff to keep them open and safe after dark. That's really all you need to have a decent connection between rail-trails on either side of the Hudson.

"But Cap'n," you say, "there are no tracks. It would cost millions to restore the tracks from Maybrook to Hopewell, and many of the lines that used to connect at those points are gone too. You're talking about billions to get it back to the point where you can have normal speed electric passenger trains between D.C. and Boston using this route."

Maybe billions is what it would take. But I would argue that billions spent on a project like that would revitalize Orange and Dutchess counties and provide much needed redundancy on the Northeast Corridor. The restored capacity would also shift thousands of car and plane trips to transit, with their attendant benefits of increased efficiency, improved social structures and reduced pollution and carnage. Isn't that worth a few billion?

Finally, let me compare this proposal to the disastrous Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project, which the good folks at Tri-State seem to think would be worth $14 billion (and counting) and three new vehicle lanes just so that they can put "helped introduce BRT® to the NY area" on their resumes. If expanding a highway bridge is worth $14 billion, surely maximizing the passenger throughput of an existing rail facility is worth half that. Right?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Redundancy and the Northeast Corridor

In my last post, I talked about the value of redundancy in transit networks. Connecting this back to our goals, I think this speaks more to the relative value of transit over cars. If you've got a robust transit network (thanks to commenter Most but not all on the last post for that term), you can compete with car networks that strand people if they lose access to their cars. If you have a sickly transit network, like the commuter rail lines that only run during rush hours, you'll lose people to cars whenever it's practical to drive.

One network in need of robustness is the Northeast Corridor train line from Washington, D.C. to Boston. If you want to go from Boston to Washington by train, you have to go through New Haven, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore. As we saw with last year's Thames River bridge outage, there is a little bit of redundancy between New Haven and Boston provided by the "Inland Route" through Springfield, but even that is not electrified between Springfield and Framingham (I think), and is single-track for most of that stretch with heavy competition from freight.

I'm less familiar with the Delaware/Maryland area, although Wikipedia says there are three routes from Washington to Baltimore, all in good condition and currently used for passenger rail: the former Pennsylvania mainline currently used by the Northeast Corridor, the CSX Capitol subdivision used by MARC commuter trains, and the CSX Old Main and Metropolitan subdivisions, partly used by MARC. But if anyone has other ideas about pinch points there (and information about the electrification status of any of these lines), feel free to leave them in the comments.

Between Baltimore and New Haven there is simply no alternative to the mainline. Compare this to the Peter Pan buses, which routinely switch between Interstate 95/91 and Interstate 684/84 to get from New York to Hartford, depending on where the traffic flows better. This is not an argument for buses or cars, it's an argument against sickly, non-redundant rail infrastructure. There are tons of pinch points along the Corridor that would completely disable large sections of it. We've seen the Thames River, and I'll mention a few others and how we could get around them.

The first pinch point I want to mention is the Morrisville-Trenton Railroad Bridge over the Delaware River. However, there is a bridge just four miles upstream that is used for electrified SEPTA commuter rail from West Trenton to Philadelphia. The currently-unfunded project to reactivate passenger service from West Trenton to Newark would provide an alternative route for less than $200 million (plus electrification).

The next pinch points are the bridge over the Passaic River in Newark and the Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River in Secaucus. The century-old Portal Bridge is a known weakness and is due to be replaced in the next five years - but because it's so essential, the replacement project will be huge and complicated. There's also the Hell Gate Bridge over the East River.

But let's skip those for the moment and consider the weakest point in the whole corridor: the Hudson River crossing into Penn Station. Even if the ARC tunnel eventually connects to Penn Station (or even Grand Central), you've still got a huge amount of train traffic being routed through Midtown Manhattan. We could even consider the whole stretch from Newark to New Haven as a single, ninety-mile-long weak point. Currently, the nearest place where FRA-compliant trains cross the Hudson (other than the float bridge for freight trains) is Selkirk, NY, a little south of Albany. Passenger trains cross a few miles further up between Rensselaer and Albany.

As I've covered before, there are tentative plans to run commuter rail over the replacement for the Tappan Zee Bridge, but the focus is entirely myopically centered on "commuter rail" connecting the former Erie mainline at Suffern with the Hudson Line at Tarrytown. The (flawed) Tappan Zee process did consider running the line east to connect with the New Haven line in Port Chester, but rejected it because of low commuter ridership projections. The prospect of a more robust Northeast Corridor would bolster the argument for this new line.

I'll end it here for now. There's another idea I'll get to in a later post.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

In Praise of Redundancy

My apartment in Queens is close to a subway line, but I also have another subway line and a Long Island Railroad station a short walk away. There are buses as well, that can take me to Manhattan, Brooklyn or other parts of Queens. I can also get to many destinations by bike, or even on foot if I walk long enough. We also have taxis and gypsy cabs and car rental agencies.

This redundancy is important for many reasons. It can allow the system the capacity to deal with heavy demand. If one part of the network breaks down, I can use another. If the MTA needs to upgrade the signals on one line, I can use another. When one union went on strike, I was able to use the buses driven by workers from another union. When massive power failures shut down the subway and the resulting chaos clogged the roads and swamped the buses, I was able to walk home.

Streets in a grid system have redundancy built in to them, which is good for buses, taxis, bikes and pedestrians, but it's only good for car drivers and passengers as long as they have a system to fall back on if their vehicles break down.

When planning for new transportation systems or expanding existing systems, it's important to build in redundancy. In the short run it may seem better to add capacity to existing lines or streets, and in so cases it is. But when the existing lines don't have redundancy, it can be better in the long run to add another line or system.

There are several issues I've come across that relate to redundancy, so I'll be referencing this post in the future. I wanted to lay the groundwork here: redundancy is usually good in the transit world.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The disabled, cars and transit

I was wrong to state in my last post that the recent article on Roosevelt Island bike parking was the first time that Streetsblog had turned its attention to the island. In 2007, Glenn McAnanama wrote a post about restoring elevator access to the Queensboro bridge.

In response to my post, Roosevelt Islander raised an issue that's worth tackling:
You should also be aware that some of the residents opposed the concept of a car free Roosevelt Island saying that cars are needed for many of the elderly,disabled and parents with children to conveniently get on and off the Island for shopping and other necessities.

I can't find where they articulate that, but I do remember seeing it, and I've heard it in other places, including the congestion pricing debates. I may take on the parent issue later, but I want to address the issue of the elderly and disabled now. As I wrote in the comments, I think that's a crock. Let me explain.

First, in this case, the issues relating to the elderly and disabled are essentially the same; the relevant elderly are simply people who are disabled by age-related causes. The disabilities that affect transportation are mobility, sensory and cognitive.

The argument essentially is that many elderly and disabled people rely on private cars to get around, so any restriction on car use amounts to discrimination. The weakness in this argument is that it assumes that they have no choice but to rely on cars, while in fact the great majority of New York's disabled use transit just like the rest of the population. My father never drove in his life; when he was unable to walk more than half a block at a time, he took buses and taxis.

When the disabled rely on cars instead of walking short distances, what they are doing is spending thousands of dollars on really big heavy wheelchairs. Sure, there are people who are not strong enough to walk from the Motorgate to their apartment, but there are a range of solutions, and if they choose the most wasteful, polluting and dangerous one we are not required to support that choice. There are plenty of smaller, less dangerous mobility devices, powered by humans or electricity, and in fact you see them all over Roosevelt Island.

Disabilities don't just affect walking. My grandfather lived to be 88 years old; when he was 75 and living in Florida he joked that no one over seventy should be allowed behind the wheel. This is actually serious business, though: many people have been killed and injured because of elderly drivers' inability to operate cars safely.

Of course, many elderly people recognize their disabilities and choose to stop driving. Beyond that, there are many people whose disabilities have prevented them from driving, such as the blind and the mentally ill.

There is certainly discrimination in transportation; in fact, privileging car owners is a particularly repulsive form of discrimination, because it attacks the economically disadvantaged, those who make choices to benefit the environment, and those who make choices to not put their fellow citizens at undue risk. Worst of all, it affects those elderly and disabled who do not drive because they are unable to drive safely. It is the height of hypocrisy for the beneficiaries of this discrimination to turn around and play victim.

All this is not to say that disabilities are irrelevant. Quite the contrary, while the American Association of Retired Persons has recognized the value of walkable communities for the elderly, we can't have transportation systems that require everyone to walk, bicycle or climb stairs. The Americans with Disabilities Act is gradually reforming transit and sidewalks so that they serve the disabled better. Government should commit to providing transportation for all, regardless of disability, and that means bringing transit to the disabled when they need it.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Roosevelt Island: What's up with that?

Streetsblog turned its attention to Roosevelt Island for the first time in three years, with a link to a Roosevelt Island 360 post about reactive island managers "storing" bikes that are left overnight at various bike racks around the island. It got me thinking about the place, and how there are - relatively - few cars there.

It turns out I'm not the only one; a group of Columbia urban-planning students under the direction of Floyd Lapp have been studying the island's transportation challenges for the past semester. (There is also a group of Hunter College students doing the same thing, presumably as part of the 2009 ECAC Urban Planning Championship.) The Columbia students have released their report, but I'll be damned if I can find it online. What I did find is an article in the Main Street Wire (PDF), and more interesting in some ways, a webcast of a brown bag talk that Lapp and his students gave to the NY Metropolitan Planning Council in April. You can get a 512K/s RealVideo stream of the talk, or choose a lower-res or Windows Media stream from this page. (It gets more interesting after the first five minutes.)

So far I'm about half an hour into the talk, and it's got all kinds of interesting details. For example, that the planners of Roosevelt Island wanted it to be completely car-free. Unfortunately, there had been cars on the island for many years, first arriving by ferry and then by elevator from the Queensboro Bridge, and finally over the bridge to Queens that was built in 1955. Once the bridge was built, at a cost of $6 million, it was hard to keep the cars out.

This brings up a distant memory I had: I don't know how old I was or how long ago, but someone said to me, "They oughta just build a bunch of parking garages right outside of Manhattan and ban cars from the island." I've heard it repeated a few times since. Apparently it comes from a 1961 article in Dissent by Paul and Percival Goodman. According to Columbia student Audra (whose last name went by on the screen at about ten minutes in, and I'm not going back to look for it just because they can't be bothered to put up a decent public website), the planners of Roosevelt Island were inspired by that article. They designed it with its own "peripheral parking" - the phenomenally ugly Motorgate, which can be yours if you act now (PDF).

Well, if you've ever been to Roosevelt Island you know that the Motorgate doesn't really work. For a place that was planned to be car-free, there are quite a lot of cars, and the areas where you could let a toddler run free are actually pretty small. In J.H. Crawford's terms, the last car has never left Main Street, and it is not a playground for anyone. The island's two long-term care facilities, Coler and Goldwater Hospitals, have large parking lots with many cars. In 2005, the state (i.e. Pataki)-controlled Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation allowed the developers of the Octagon apartment building to build a 148-car underground garage, over the objections of residents. There's on-street parking up and down Main Street, and just, well, cars in all kinds of places.

So what happened to crush - or at least defer - the idealistic dreams of Roosevelt Island's planners? Well, I'd be interested to some day find out more details, but some possible factors come to mind: one, that people who are in their cars don't want to get on a bus. They want to park as close to their destination as possible, whether it's home at the Octagon or work at Goldwater Hospital. People who live across the street from the Motorgate are probably happy to park there, and people who take the subway or the tram are probably happy to transfer to the Red Bus, but drivers do not want to park and then take the bus to get to their buildings.

The second is that driving is a status symbol, and people with status (but who still feel insecure about it) will fight to maintain their symbols. It probably just started with a few people at the hospitals who thought they were too good to take the tram and bus to work - or even to park at the Motorgate and take the bus. But then someone said, "How come he gets to park right next to the hospital?" and then someone else said, "How come she gets to park right next to the hospital?" and pretty soon it's an insult to deny someone a parking permit.

In any case, it's pretty clear that peripheral parking doesn't work. The park-and-ride lots that the Goodmans so admired have turned out not to be the answer in the outer boroughs and suburbs, and the Motorgate is not the answer for Roosevelt Island. The place was better before that eyesore was built, it would be better off if it had never been built, and it will be worse off if they ever build the fabled "fourth quadrant." It would be a tremendous improvement to tear the whole thing down, and turn the Octagon garage into a biology lab or something.

The very least that should be done is the Columbia students' Shoupian suggestion to boost the parking to market rate and turn the top deck into a green roof. And that makes me think: a big factor in this whole thing is that all the parking on the island has been underpriced, subsidized by the RIOC and the taxpayers of the state of New York. That changes parking from a commodity to a treasure, bestowed on the deserving healers of Coler and Goldwater and coveted by the island elite. Make them pay for it and it turns back into a lump of rock - one of the largest concentrations of concrete in the country.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The siren song of car-free living

Streetsblog.net linked to a blog post by Matt Yglesias in response to the Times "Room for Debate" post I just discussed. He writes,
But one should be clear that nobody lives in Washington, or even Manhattan, without ever using a car. I don’t own a car. But Washington Post superstar blogger Ezra Klein does. And last weekend he and I drove in his car to Costco where we bought supplies for some mass weekend grilling.


In environmental terms, however, the crucial distinction is actually how much gas is burned rather than whether or not one reaches a pristine state of carlessness. If someone who’s currently driving 300 miles a week to drive back and forth from Dale City to downtown Washington starts driving to a nearby commuter rail station instead, that will be a substantial reduction in pollution, notwithstanding the fact that he’d still be suburban car owner. Indeed, the reduction involved would be much larger than the reduction involved in someone like Ezra—who owns a car, but doesn’t commute in his car regularly—went "car-free."

Yes, I'm not surprised that Klein owns a car. Some of us non-car-owning people do bum rides off of car owners - although many of us don't need to. And it is important to not get hung up on carlessness as some magical state of grace, and to keep our ultimate goals in mind.

Talking about our ultimate environmental goals, burning gas is not the only crucial distinction related to car use. In addition to how much pollution is released and how inefficiently resources are consumed, there’s also how much pollution (aside from carbon monoxide) is released, how much sprawl is generated, how likely it is that people and other animals will be killed or wounded, and how much political support is siphoned away from transportation that serves the poor, the disabled and teenagers.

Car-sharing is a clear improvement on the pollution and efficiency fronts. It’s a bit less clear when it comes to sprawl, carnage and transportation for all.

There's also a big difference between carfree world, carfree nation and carfree community I would like to highlight this quote from J.H. Crawford's response on the Times blog: "Once the last car disappears from the street, it becomes a playground for people of all ages. This can be seen any day in Venice or Fes. Peace, safety and tranquility settle over the street, and a rich and vibrant social life takes the place of the stink, noise, and danger of cars."

Even if we never get to carfree nation, it would still be nice to have that as part of our ultimate goals: a few places in every community where children, adults and old people can socialize in peace without worrying about being run over.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Living Carfree

I'm still trying to process this bizarre Times blog post that Streetsblog linked to this morning. It's a legitimate topic for discussion, springing off an earlier article about the Vauban suburb of Freiburg, Germany, which is trying to be completely car-free: what would it take to have a car-free town, neighborhood or city here in the US? The Room for Debate blog is one that puts questions like this to "experts" chosen by the blog owner. Sounds good, except that there was something a bit off about all the responses.

One source of confusion is that there are really four requirements for a car-free community:
  • Internal: it must be possible for someone to live in the community without a car
  • External: there must be people whose circumstances outside the community allow them to live car-free
  • Critical Mass: there must be enough of these people to make a complete community
  • Community Structure: it must be possible to fulfill all the overall community functions without cars

Many of the respondents gave answers that seem to imply that the internal requirement was not satisfied: that there are no communities in the U.S. where it is possible for anyone to live without a car. Particularly odd was the response of Witold Rybczynski:
There are only six American downtown districts that are dense enough to support mass transit, which you need if you’re going to be carless: New York City (Midtown and Downtown), Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and San Francisco. That’s it. The breaking-point for density and mass transit feasibility seems to be about 50 persons per acre, which means families living in flats and apartments, rather than single-family houses, even row houses.Not necessarily high-rise apartments, but at least walk-ups.

Um, okay. Funny how that sweeping generalization was belied by the very next response, from D.J. Waldie: "I live in Lakewood — the Levittown of the West." (Apparently he means California; I'd never heard of it.) "Lakewood was built with the expectation that each household would have no more than one car, and it would be driven by dad to the plant while mom raised the kids at home. [...] I can’t drive. And I daily benefit from these planning choices." (Emphasis added.)

Streetsblog commenter Rhywun felt similarly: "I've long thought Witold was nutters, but this is just absurd. I've lived without a car quite easily in several cities lacking 'mass transit'." Many of the commenters on the "Room for Debate" blog voiced similar thoughts.

Rybczynski didn't seem to be the only respondent who believed that it was impossible for anyone to survive without a car in the U.S. Alex Marshall wrote: "But there will still be a need for some trips by car, and completely excluding cars strikes me as a little obsessive." Marc Schlossberg wrote: "With some small design guideline changes, these urban centers can form the basis for the suburban transformation that is needed to reduce — but probably not eliminate — the use of cars as the only available and rational transportation mode in the suburbs."

It's true that they're focusing more on the "critical mass" problem, but that's just a strong disconnect between these guys and the millions of people in this country who get along just fine without cars. Millions! These are supposed to be transportation experts; aren't they familiar with the census data that shows things like a majority in central Los Angeles? Significant minorities (over 10%) of car-free households in other cities? Sixteen percent households car-free in Waterbury? Many of these are not Rybczynski's dense cities. They're medium-sized cities and suburbs.

What gets me is that there are, as I said, millions of people all across the country who are living car-free every day. They do this in cities, suburbs and even small towns. Outside the big cities, most of them are invisible to car-oriented planners and politicians. But these respondents to the Times blog are talking about getting along without cars! And they act as though these millions don't exist! Some experts!

A real expert might actually go down to some of these places - or even right in their hometowns - seek out and talk to these car-free Americans. Find out their secret! A real expert might even be one of these car-free people. Apart from Waldie, apparently that kind of person isn't expert enough for the Times.

Next on "Room for Debate": the challenge of Sunday brunch wait times. Is it a realistic goal for Americans to someday get a table for brunch without waiting at all?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Destination: Supermarket

The Brooklyn real estate blog Brownstoner is always a good read, particularly for their coverage of parking issues in the borough. They've been covering the controversy over plans to tear down the historic Officers' Row (a.k.a. Admiral's Row) in the Brooklyn Navy Yard to make room for parking for a supermarket.

For those who haven't been following this particular insanity, let me try to summarize it. The Brooklyn Navy Yard is being redeveloped into a mixed-use site, but there are currently no plans for housing, and the only housing that it's really convenient to are the Ingersoll, Whitman and Farragut subsidized housing projects. The developers want to build a supermarket there, but since not that many people live within walking distance, they want to build a 400-space parking lot so that people who live within a few miles can drive, the way they now drive to the Fairway supermarkets in Red Hook and Harlem. It would be too expensive to build rooftop parking or a garage, and there's not enough space for the supermarket and the parking lot, so they want to tear down a row of ten nineteenth-century houses.

The kicker is that the projects don't currently have a convenient supermarket, especially since Gristede's owner John Catsimatidis demolished one on Myrtle Avenue to make room for a new development. The Navy Yard developers have convinced local politicians that the only way for the project residents to get good food is to build this parking lot, setting it up as a conflict between poor, undernourished minority children and heartless wealthy historic-architecture fetishists.

This week, Brownstoner has the latest news about Catsimatidis's development:
When times were good, he had been planning to build four buildings on this stretch. Now, however, he's just putting up one smallish one; ... he's planning on putting in a 12,000-square-foot supermarket below grade. ... That'll make it a little harder to argue that Admirals Row needs to be demolished to make way for a supermarket, won't it?

Indeed. In the comments, David from Third and Bond (who identified himself as in favor of the supermarket project) wrote, "As the interlocutor with Mr. Catsimatidis, I heard him say clearly that there were 2 types of supermarkets, the 10-12K supermarket for residents within a 4-5 block walking radius and 20-25K+ supermarkets that were more of a destination." Mr. Brownstoner responded, "Taking that logic a step further...the Myrtle Market would cover Ingersoll and Whitman and then you could build another 10-12K sf market at the navy yard for farragut; with a market that size, as opposed to a big destination market, surely it would be possible to save most if not all of the admirals row houses...right?"

With a little help from Catsimatidis and David, Mr. B put his finger on the key to this and any other fight where supermarket developers try to argue that they have to build lots of parking to feed the poor: in the walkable sections of New York City, all you need is a 12,000 square foot supermarket to serve residents within a 4-5 block radius. "Destination supermarkets" are only necessary to increase the developer profits, not to bring quality food to anyone.

I would argue that parking-oriented destination supermarkets are especially bad for walkable neighborhoods, because they encourage people to drive to them. I've been told by several acquaintances, and I've read on other people's blogs, that they bought cars in order to "save money" by driving to Fairway or Trader Joe's or Costco for groceries. Whether or not they're actually saving money, they're taking away their business from the walkable and transit-oriented shops and giving it to big-box stores. They're also clogging our streets with more unnecessary cars. We should not be subsidizing that, and we should not destroy our heritage for it.

Of course some people will want to go a little further afield for special foods. But they don't need to drive. One time I lived in a poor neighborhood where the supermarkets had a limited selection. I took the subway down to the Sloan's on 55th and Eighth every couple of weeks. Thank you, Mr. Catsimatidis!

Here's a good example of a destination supermarket: The new Trader Joe's on Atlantic and Court is walking distance from many of the neighborhoods targeted by the Navy Yard store, and a short bus ride from most of the rest. And it's been selling out of cereal, with no parking. Need I say more?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Lower Manhattan buses: a better way

On Sunday I discussed the saga of the ninety or more buses that are stored in Lower Manhattan every day. Some of these buses are tour buses, and others are commuter buses from New Jersey that bring workers in in the morning and take them home in the evening. There are also a number of MTA-run express buses from all over the city that also lay over in Lower Manhattan, and I'm not sure they're counted in the total. In the past I've seen numerous buses parked along West Street, Greenwich Street and Church Street; I don't know if they're still being kept there.

My previous post dealt with efforts to find places to keep these buses where they won't get in the way, but the fact of the matter is that Lower Manhattan is one of the most crowded places in the country, and it's really not the best place to keep hundreds of buses. According to the Express, some people have figured this out:

If the bus garage cannot get funding, Catherine McVay Hughes, chairperson of C.B. 1’s W.T.C. Redevelopment Committee, mentioned several alternatives. One that has gained particular support in the community is for tour buses to park in New Jersey, with the tourists taking the PATH train in to see the World Trade Center site. That proposal has not gained much political traction, but Hughes said several 9/11 family members support it as well.

Another idea would be for the buses to take the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel to Red Hook after dropping people off in Lower Manhattan, just a short ride away, Hughes said. Joyce Mulvaney, spokesperson for M.T.A.’s Bridges and Tunnels, said commuter buses would fit through the tunnel but double-decker tour buses might not meet the 12-foot height cutoff.

I've got an even better idea: store the commuter buses from New Jersey in Staten Island, Spring Creek, Springfield Gardens, Far Rockaway and South Jamaica. Some of you may recognize those neighborhoods as the locations of MTA Bus Company garages. They are in fact the homes of the MTA buses that are parked in Lower Manhattan in the middle of the day, so they have room for the Jersey buses. The MTA could make a little cash by renting them out, but it actually makes more sense to trade space in those garages for space in Hoboken, Newark, Nutley, Cliffside Park, Trenton, etc.

Now why would the MTA, New Jersey Transit and private bus companies want to clog up the roads, burn diesel and emit fumes, and pay drivers to schlep the buses all the way out to these far-flung garages, only to bring them in again right before rush hour? Well, they already run buses out there for passenger service, actually. It would just mean a few more on the roads. The best part about it is that those buses could be used for passenger service as well. Rush-hour, peak-direction only bus service is just as bad as rush hour, peak-only train service.

"But Cap'n," you say, "there just isn't enough demand for that kind of service. The buses would be empty most of the time." Maybe so, but do you know for sure? Frequent, convenient service can induce demand. If you run them every hour during middays until the new bus garage gets built, you may just wind up with a solid transit constituency.

But let's assume that for some routes, there just aren't a lot of people traveling in the middle of the day. Well there are routes that do see significant midday demand. Shopping routes, lunch routes, people going to meetings. These are routes between one job center and another. For example, from Midtown to Downtown; I bet there's a lot of people who'd pay $3 or even $5 to take an air-conditioned express bus from Grand Central, Penn Station and the Port Authority to Wall Street in the middle of the day. There'd be even more demand if the buses had dedicated busways along Sixth Avenue and Broadway. so they didn't get stuck in traffic.

Other possible destinations are transportation centers like the airports, Downtown Brooklyn, Long Island City, White Plains, Secaucus and Newark. Or suburban business clusters like Morris County, NJ or Lake Success on Long Island.

Some of the buses, like the tour buses, really do need to sit in Lower Manhattan for eight hours. But most of them don't. There are still plenty of people who want to go places, and the buses can get them there and make some money for their owners at the same time.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Lower Manhattan - the perfect place to store buses!

The East River waterfront in lower Manhattan is planned to one day be a relaxing place for pedestrians to stroll. For me personally, it's hard to relax with the FDR Drive over my head, but it's at least supposed to be a link in the greenway loop, allowing cyclists, skaters and pedestrians to get from Lower Manhattan to and from the Lower East Side and points north in a relatively quick and convenient way. To that end, the city has striped bike lanes along a significant stretch of the waterfront, and they're planning to build a fancy esplanade there. That's a good thing.

Curbed reports that one obstacle to the esplanade is that there are 92 buses that currently lay over there. The city had planned to move eighteen of those buses to the Hudson River waterfront in Tribeca, but the Tribeca NIMBYs rose up in force, prompting Councilmember Gerson and Borough President Stringer to grandstand in their favor. The latest news is that the City will put the project on hold until it can find a new place to put the buses.

The thing I hate most about NIMBYs is that they're all negative. They don't care about any of the reasons why someone would want that project, they just want it out of their backyard. That's the case with all of the Tribeca NIMBYs quoted in the Trib article: yes, buses are not fun to look at and they foul the air, but they're just as ugly and smelly over by the East River.

Fortunately, some of the people in the Downtown Express article are more reasonable, and are actually looking for, you know, solutions. There's eventually going to be a rebuilt garage in the World Trade Center bathtub with space for 80 buses. Community Board 1 chair Julie Menin likes a plan by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to take over part of the current 2,000-space Battery Parking Garage eyesore and put the buses there. "The plan Menin supports, formulated by the L.M.D.C., would be for the L.M.D.C. or the city to buy half of the garage and rebuild it so it can house 120 buses."

Sounds good, right? The garage is a parking magnet, drawing private cars into Lower Manhattan where they don't belong. Converting some of that space to bus parking would remove that incentive. The plan would even deck over part of the tunnel exit and make the area much more pedestrian friendly - sadly, too late for poor Marilyn Feng.

Except the more elaborate the plans get, the more expensive they get, and nobody wants to pay for it. The LMDC is apparently broke. When you get cash-strapped public agencies and developers in the same room, you get wacky plans like this, as described by the Express:
The L.M.D.C.’s plan for the site shows either a five-story or a seven-story garage, with either a 41-story or 31-story residential tower on top of it. The development can total nearly 1 million square feet, based on available air rights, according to the L.M.D.C. plan.

Money is the chief obstacle. The L.M.D.C. was once expected to fund the garage, but spokesperson Mike Murphy said there is no money allocated. Money for the garage could have come from a $29 million economic development fund, but that fund is nearly empty after $5 million went to help small businesses and $22 million went to cost overruns at the Deutsche Bank building.

Okay, so why not put in for stimulus funds? With enough money, we could even turn it into an actual bus station, so that commuters can wait in comfort instead of on the street. Apparently that hasn't occurred to anyone, so we'll be using the stim to resurface roads around the city.

Oh, and some people want to expand the parking garage so that there's still room for cars. Genius...

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Urban highways are expensive

Planetizen links to an article in the Detroit Free Press about a new report:
A third of major U.S. interstates and major highways are in poor or mediocre condition, but it’s a particular problem in urban areas with populations of 250,000 or more, said the report by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and the road advocacy group TRIP.
The groups are using the study as ammunition to get federal lawmakers to significantly increase spending in the next six-year federal highway bill, which Congress will begin debating this summer. AASHTO is pushing for an increase in federal spending from $286 billion to $470 billion in the next highway bill.

Or maybe we should realize that roads are an inefficient way to move people and goods, particularly in urban areas, and stop throwing good money after bad. How's about we tear down all the highways in poor or mediocre condition and spend that $185 billion on train tracks?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Ready for the Reconstructions

Here in New York we've had our share of highway revolts. We've stopped a slew of ill-conceived expressways that would have made the fate of our city much more like present-day Detroit. But we still got stuck with some horrible highways like the Cross-Bronx, Bruckner, Sheridan and Major Deegan in the Bronx, the Gowanus and Belt in Brooklyn, and the BQE and LIE in Queens.

Recently, around the country, people have been talking about tearing down some of those blighted infrastructure. From the Sheridan in the Bronx to I-81 in Syracuse, there are campaigns in the area to convert these highways to boulevards and greenways.

It's important to note that these things don't just fill the surrounding areas with noise and pollution. They don't just cost a lot when they're first built. They're incredibly inefficient transportation systems that require huge reinforced concrete structures that are constantly pounded by multi-ton vehicles. They have to be rebuilt again and again, and each time we have to pay more as transportation budgets shrink.

The best time to suggest tearing down a highway is when it's scheduled for reconstruction. Then we can offer other taxpayers a choice: pay mega-millions to reconstruct the road as is, pay millions more for the inevitable widening proposal, or pay significantly less for an at-grade structure with "reduced capacity" for vehicles - but ideally with additional transit improvements so that it moves the same number of people.

That requires transit and environmental advocates to get ahead of the game. Every time you hear the phrase "scheduled for reconstruction," your ears should perk up. An alternative plan and organized community opposition should be ready to go at the first meeting - or better yet, the alternative should be proposed before. Don't wait for the DOT to set up their alternatives analysis for you.

And that brings us back to the South Bronx, and a question that's puzzling me. Sustainable South Bronx has a lovely page on their greenway plan - and Streetfilms has created a stirring short about it. But the greenway plan critically relies on a substantial segment along Bruckner Boulevard under the expressway. And in the Sustainable South Bronx's Summary 2 PDF, there's this quote:
In the future, the Bruckner Expressway is scheduled to be reconstructed. As part of this undertaking NYS DOT is planning a permanent at-grade bikeway along Bruckner Boulevard. However, this project is many years off, so the Master Plan recommends an interim, low-cost bikeway along Bruckner Boulevard between Hunts Point Avenue and 138th Street.

According to Steve Anderson's NYCRoads page on the Bruckner, it was already reconstructed, ending in 2002. How many years is "many years off"? How often do these things have to be rebuilt? When is the NYS DOT planning to reconstruct the Bruckner? How far in advance do they do planning without public outreach?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Department of Elite Name-Calling

Ryan Avent at the Bellows quotes the reputedly "left-leaning" Ezra Klein leaning hard right on transportation:
One of the quirks of the elite political debate is that it tends to occur in dense cities with extremely impressive transportation infrastructures. DC. New York. Places where cars are more of a luxury item. But that, as the graph shows, is not how most Americans think of them. Car stereos are a luxury. Cars are a necessity.

"Elite" is a fighting word in American politics, and since Klein is apparently on the left, your Cap'n is making a tremendous effort to restrain himself from saying something nasty back. Here our fine "left-leaning" blogger is resorting to the same repulsive spinning that we heard from the reactionary politicians in last year's congestion pricing debate.

Most of the time suburban motorists like to think of themselves as superior to the subterranean train riders, welfare-dependent bus passengers, underprotected cyclists, slow pedestrians and apartment dwellers. They assume that we all are gazing at their Suburbans and McMansions in desperate envy, wishing that we could just afford to have even a Subaru wagon and an attached single-family. They can't imagine that we might just be using the gas and insurance money to take an extra vacation every once in a while, or even making a principled decision to avoid being complicit in the collapse of our planet's life support systems.

Whenever there's any hint that transit riders or cyclists might have more power than motorists, all of a sudden the picture changes. We become the latte-sipping eggheads able to afford expensive condos in Manhattan or San Francisco, smugly chuckling at the poor obese rubes who are trapped in the suburbs with option ARMs spending hundreds to fill their gas tanks.

Ezra Klein, if you really lean as left as they tell me, do me a favor. Don't buy into that crap. Keep in mind that the income of the average transit rider in the country is far below that of the average driver. Give us some credit for perhaps figuring out that there's no way to stave off global warming without shifting massive numbers of people from cars to transit.

As a transit advocate, I see drivers as people who have been fed a line of bullshit. I don't fault them for that, since most of the country seems to have fallen for this bullshit. "We" don't want to punish "them" for driving. We just want "them" to stop driving and become "us." But if they persist in asking the government to build more car infrastructure and blocking transit improvements, what are we supposed to do?

Whatever you do, please stop calling your potential allies "elites." Thank you.