Thursday, July 30, 2009

Video: Grand Central

PBS's The American Experience on the construction of Grand Central first aired in February. Special appearance by Jill Jonnes.

Interestingly, it discusses how the construction of the terminal was financed by leasing the air rights - one of the first times this was done, and something real estate developers and train agencies have been trying to replicate around the city ever since.

I definitely appreciate lots of things about Grand Central, but I do wish it still had a nice big train shed.

The RER as a development tool

Why are so many real estate executives on the MTA board? Because transportation drives real estate development, and they want to control that. So did the French government, and the Paris municipal government, and the regional government of the Ile-de-France, in the 1960s. They had particular ideas about where they wanted people to live and work, and they set about making it easy for them to do that.

Of particular interest was the planning and construction of five new towns in the Paris suburbs, with the idea of concentrating and organizing the new population of the region: Cergy-Pontoise, Marne-la-Vallée, Sénart, Evry and Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. There were also the two airports in Orly and Roissy, the business district in La Défense, and the new peripheral and suburban campuses of the University of Paris.

Alon Levy's proposal for an RER-style system in New York ties together every single commuter rail line. However, if you look at the map of commuter rail lines in Paris (PDF), you will notice that even after forty years, only a small number (lettered A-E on the map) have been converted to RER service. The RER program is very precisely targeted to achieve specific development goals. The first four lines served all these centers, as follows:

Line A: Cergy-Pontoise, Marne-la-Vallée, La Défense, University campuses VIII, X and XII
Line B: Orly and CDG airports, University campuses XI and XIII
Line C: Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, Orly airport, University campuses IX and XII
Line D: Sénart, Evry, University campuses VIII, XII and XIII

Line A in particular included an entirely new branch to serve the new town at Marne-la-Vallée. It attracted so many passengers that within ten years it was transporting more than 55,000 passengers per hour in each direction at peak times. I have been told that during the late 1980s and early 1990s it was the most crowded line in the world.

The long-term value of the RER is potentially debatable: the poorer Paris suburbs are notorious for the extreme alienation of their residents, and we can speculate that the RER had some role in that. An anonymous Wikipedia author alleges that because residential development has been concentrated east of Paris and job development to the west, there is a commute imbalance resulting in overuse of the A line.

That said, it seems to have been fairly successful at accomplishing at least some of our goals. All RER lines except the Malesherbes branch of the D line have service at least half-hourly, and large sections of the suburbs are within walking distance of an RER station. According to the INSEE (PDF), car ownership in the Paris suburbs is 77%, compared with 45% for the city itself and 81% for the country as a whole. I'd like to get the comparable numbers for the New York region, as well as figures for pollution, energy usage and carnage, to make a full comparison, but these figures make a good impression.

As I wrote in my earlier post, I think we need to think out in more detail the reasons for any of these regional rail improvements. That thinking out can quantify some of the potential benefits more and lead to better prioritization of the steps involved in implementing such improvements, and hopefully to a better chance of selling them to politicians and the public.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Terminal approach capacity and the Paris RER

In thinking about Paris and New York in the context of Alon Levy's guest posts at the Transport Politic (one, two, and my reply, and Jarrett's), one of the big differences that struck me between the two commuter rail networks is the approach tracks to the stations. Paris's are huge: the six main line stations had between six (Austerlitz) and fifteen (Nord) from the city limits to the stations. This number of tracks continues until the various lines branch off. Only the small lines had less: four for Invalides, two for Vincennes and two for Sceaux.

By contrast, here in NYC, we had a maximum of four tracks at five stations: Grand Central, Penn (for the LIRR), Bay Ridge, Hoboken and Jersey City. All the rest have or had two, and the Empire line has only one track over the Spuyten Duyvil bridge.

In the comments to my previous post, Adam writes, "in order for a rail terminal to be effective, it must have six tracks going into it at least." If he's right, it's not surprising that commuter rail in New York has been less effective than in Paris. It also points to the benefits that Alon's plan could bring to commuter rail in New York.

However, I will point out another difference between Paris and New York. There were some lines that were entirely taken over by the RER, like the Sceaux line, and their central terminals were converted into simple stations on the new lines. Most of the RER is made of lines that used to terminate in one of the six main-line stations, however. Some of them were rerouted into totally new alignments within the city: for example, the Saint-Germain line was run through the RER A tunnel instead of to the Saint-Lazare station. This was essentially what the Pennsylvania Railroad did in 1910. The rest were diverted into new through-stations built underneath their former terminals, such as the RER D, which connected lines from the Nord and Lyon stations. This is more or less what the LIRR East Side Access plan is doing under Grand Central, except that the line isn't going through.

The result of this is that in Paris the capacity of the old stations is pretty much untouched. Every new RER line represented an indisputable increase in central capacity. However, Alon's plan takes capacity from the existing Penn Station trackage for the through tracks. I think that the increased capacity from through-running would more than make up for it, but I felt it was worth noting.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Detective mystery

Tonight on PBS's History Detectives: Boxcar Home. Watch it online or check your local listings. Stay tuned for the thrilling plot twist toward the end.

Bonus: look at the tops of the freight engines.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

I remember traffic jams

There have been a number of stories lately about cities undergoing "planned shrinkage": mostly in Rust Belt cities like Detroit, Flint and Youngstown, where the population has been declining precipitously and in response, city governments have begun "landbanking," keeping abandoned and foreclosed properties instead of selling them at auction. This is a sensible response to a situation where, Planetizen blogger John Kromer writes, "no one expects postindustrial cities to return to the population levels that existed at mid-twentieth century."

On the other hand, why not? It's true that the factories that once drew people to these cities have mostly gone out of business, but the fact is that these towns have three very important things: water, the relics of pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, and a climate where large numbers of people can survive without air conditioning.

This is more than can be said for, well, most of the South and Southwest. California's Central Valley is drying up, and the Colorado River is in for some trouble. The sprawling exurbs have been the worst hit by rising gas prices. Everyone expects energy costs to rise, and that will have a huge effect the large elderly populations in Florida, Arizona and Southern California. California is already seeing its population growth slow.

If I were President... No, wait, I understand that it's hard for the President to change the country's direction much more than he is right now. If I were Dictator, I would figure out which parts of the country are really sustainable given current trends. Not moronic extrapolations of past trends, but what we can realistically expect in the future. I would divide the country up into at least two zones.

In the "least sustainable" zone, all subsidies for housing, jobs and transportation would immediately cease, and a radical plan would be put into place. The walkable cores of every town that has one would be preserved for a sustainable population level, and all abandoned or foreclosed structures in the sprawling exurbs would be dismantled and salvaged.

In the "most sustainable" zone, any plans to shrink sprawly areas would continue, but walkable urban areas would be strengthened and enlarged to make room for the migrants and refugees from Scottsdale and Orlando. Money saved by not funding highway expansion in LA could instead be spent on buses in Ohio.

Of course, I'm not the Dictator, or even the President. That's probably a good thing. But I hope that the President and his advisors are thinking about things like this. And I hope that the next time transit and livable streets advocates report on things like transit shortfalls, highway widenings and planned shrinkage, we can connect them to other environmental issues like water and the effects (not just the causes) of energy shortages and climate change.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

"Atlantic Yards" project will shrink the yards themselves

Since we're on the subject of central rail terminals and track capacity...

Bruce Ratner's Atlantic Yards project was supposed to benefit everybody: he would renovate and expand the Long Island Railroad's Vanderbilt Yard, build the tallest building in Brooklyn (designed by Frank Gehry!), bring pro sports back to the borough, build condos for the rich and affordable housing for the poor, and provide millions for the MTA.

Some people were skeptical, and it turns out that almost all of those promises have been broken. If you needed another reason to oppose this stinking heap of corruption, the Atlantic Yards Report tells us that the latest iteration of the plan would not actually enlarge the Yards so that they could store 76 cars instead of 72; instead, it would shrink them down to 70 cars or less.

LIRR president Williams let that slip in a Senate hearing in May, in which she said that it was settled on as part of a "value engineering exercise" with Ratner's staff. Gee, I'm so glad she's in control of the entire MTA now. Thanks, Senator Smith!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Niantic Bridge gets stuck...

The Day has the story. Fortunately, it was in the position where it disrupted boat traffic (mostly recreational) not train traffic. Anyone up for a little proactive redundancy, in case it gets stuck in the wrong position before they can replace it?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

What we can learn from Paris

Last week, the Transport Politic ran two guest posts (part one, part two) from Alon Levy about the benefits of Paris's Regional Express Network (RER) and ways to bring them to New York. For many months I've found Alon's commentary to be very well-informed and helpful, and I encourage everyone to read and digest these two posts. Alon's explanation of the benefits of through-running will be useful to any plan for transit in New York, regardless of mode. I have a few quibbles with the analogy, and a few suggestions that I hope will fine-tune Alon's proposal and make it even better.

In some ways, Paris and New York are two very different metropolitan areas. According to Wikipedia, the population of the New York urban area is about twice that of the Paris urban area, and covers almost three times the area. Paris is the capital of France and of the Ile-de-France region, while New York is not even the capital of New York State, and the metro area is spread out across New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.

Still, there are many similarities: both are cosmopolitan centers of finance and culture, and have long attracted and absorbed large immigrant populations from afar. By the early twentieth century, both cities had extensive subway and intercity/commuter/freight rail networks; I've written before about where they diverged, how Paris developed a better rail network while New York stagnated, how the ARC project showed promise for replicating Paris's success, and how it currently seems to be headed down a dead-end.

Now to Alon's proposal. The first place where it differs from the Paris RER is in the initial segments. Alon writes, "RATP bought two unprofitable commuter lines from SNCF and connected them with new subways." These lines (the Saint-Germain and Sceaux lines) also happened to be lines with minimal branches or connections to other lines, which allowed the fare and electrification systems to be implemented in a contained way.

Of course, the isolation of the lines (and of the Vincennes line which was not sold by the SNCF but still used for the RER, and of the five-mile initial branch that was constructed to Marne-la-Vallée) was part of the reason they were unprofitable, and tying them into the network raised their profitability. If not for the RER they might have been abandoned like the Old Put and the New York, Westchester and Boston, or used only for freight like the West Shore and Lehigh Valley lines.

That brings me to my next point - one of my favorite ones: why should we implement any kind of RER-type system in New York? Today we just found out that financial pressures have forced the MTA to push the Second Avenue Subway completion date back another year. Alon wants us to not just finish the subway, but to dig three new commuter rail tunnels deep below Manhattan, two below the Hudson, one below the East River - and another one across the harbor lengthwise.

We're talking billions of dollars here. What would we get for it? That's the question that the politicians and voters will be asking. Now we transit geeks know what we want out of it: a shiny, flashy, speedy new train network. But there are lots of non-transit geeks who would argue that for a mere fraction of the cost we could simply buy one-way tickets to Paris for all the transit geeks to go look at the one over there.

Alon gives some further justification for his plan. The primary benefit he foresees is a huge gain in efficiency from through-running trains instead of turning them in Manhattan and storing them in the nearby yards. Additionally, there is the potential to increase ridership, presumably leading to higher farebox recovery and possibly recouping some of the cost of the tunnels and electrification. Finally, there is the potential for transit-oriented development.

I agree that we should make improvements of this kind here in New York, and I agree with Alon's reasons, but I think they need to be thought out in a bit more detail. That thinking out can quantify some of these benefits more and lead to better prioritization of the steps involved in implementing such a plan, and hopefully to a better chance of selling it to politicians and the public.

So thanks to Alon for putting these posts together, to Yonah for giving him the space, and to everyone who's commented so far. I'm looking forward to a lot more interesting posts on this topic.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Cycle, Revised

My recent exchange with Jarrett Walker (see Jarrett's original post, then my reply, and Jarrett's response) about the concept of mobility has encouraged me to update my chart of the transportation cycle.

The discussion with Jarrett has allowed me to split the notion of transportation quality or value into two parts, mobility and comfort. What I've realized is that while mobility for all is important to me, comfort for all is a much lower priority. I think government should make it affordable for everyone to travel reasonable distances to jobs, shopping and other activities, but I don't think that subsidized travel needs to be particularly comfortable. Of course it would be nice, but heading off global warming is a higher priority for me.

However, when transit offers equal or better mobility compared with private cars (as it does in many parts of New York), then comfort can be the deciding factor. So both factors influence mode choice.

I've also redone the chart in Gimp, instead of the original MS Paint, which gives me cleaner lines. Hope you all like it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Protecting the vulnerable with force

In previous posts, I discussed the mixing of road users with different levels of vulnerability, and varying abilities to harm each other. In the absence of any higher authority, this can turn drivers, cyclists, equestrians and even stronger pedestrians into bullies who abuse the power that speed, weight and protection give them. I also discussed barriers that can be put between road users, and how their value is limited.

Another strategy that can be used to protect the vulnerable is to take a group of strong people and make it their responsibility. Usually this is done with the police and the judiciary, who are given the authority to arrest, fine and jail people who abuse their power. In theory, this is a good idea: make laws, pay people to enforce them, and give them the tools to do the job.

In practice, it somehow fails to work out. I've written several posts about traffic enforcement chiefs who believe their number one priority is to move traffic, public safety officers who believe that anyone outside a car is asking for it, and prosecutors who refuse to charge blatantly negligent homicidal drivers.

Streetsblog has more, including police officers who are bullies themselves, and not disciplined by any superior officers. Today a report from Transportation Alternatives documenting a systemic failure of the NYPD and the District Attorneys to protect, well, anyone from reckless driving.

Part of this can be ascribed to the difficulty of democratically controlling any armed force; while the Mayor nominally controls the NYPD, ever since the 1992 police riot, mayors have been cautious about doing anything that might upset too many officers. The NYPD also has a policy of favoring car patrols over foot patrols, presumably for efficiency, meaning that a much larger portion of the force travels throughout the city in cars than the general population. Combine that with the large number of officers who are recruited from the suburbs and encouraged to park their personal vehicles for free on sidewalks and in bicycle lanes at home and around the precincts, and we can begin to understand why many individual officers identify and empathize with other drivers, and feel no sympathy for or responsibility to protect pedestrians and cyclists.

There is obviously much that can be done to improve enforcement of laws against reckless driving and other abusive behaviors. The T.A. report contains recommendations, and Streetsblog has been doing an admirable job of putting traffic justice on the radar of the candidates to replace Manhattan District Attorney Morgenthau (although apparently not covering Brooklyn D.A. Hynes' reanointment campaign at all).

While we should continue to press our law enforcement agents and judiciary to exercise their responsibilities, the examples I cite above show the limits of this strategy. Barriers are not enough, and the police are not enough.

Unclear on the concept

From an article in the Oxford (Ohio) Press - reprinted by Air Rail News without attribution:
The Hamilton Vision Commission is trying to fast-track a plan to include a train station at the Butler County Regional Airport in a statewide passenger rail system now being laid out on paper. ... “We think it is strategically located in the heart of the county,” said vision commission member Rob Wile ... He said it is immediately surrounded by vacant land...

Apparently this "vision" has never heard of infill development.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

More on the XBL and profitability

Last week I lamented that the National Transit Database did not provide figures for mode share. However, I did find something interesting: farebox recovery data. For example, Rockland Coaches, a.k.a. Red and Tan Lines, a division of Coachusa, made an $8.4 million profit in 2007 (PDF), just over two dollars per trip. Evidence that quickways help bus operators to make a profit.

I've now crunched the data (all from 2007, updated link) and come up with some overall numbers to substantiate my impression:
AreaAverage farebox recovery ratio, weighted by unlinked trips
Nationwide transit40.5 %
Nationwide bus27.5 %
Buses in the tri-state area (NY-NJ-CT)38.1 %
Agencies that use the XBL95.9 %

Note that these agencies that use the XBL do not run all their routes through there.

Here are the twenty bus agencies with the highest farebox recovery ratios:
StateNameFare Revenues per Total Operating Expense (Recovery Ratio)
PATrans-Bridge Lines, Inc.105.8
NJNew Jersey Transit Corporation-45 (NJTC-45)104.4
NJTrans-Hudson Express102.8
NJRockland Coaches, Inc.102.2
NJCommunity Transit, Inc. (Community Transit)101.3
NJOlympia Trails Bus Company, Inc. (Coach USA)100.9
NJOrange-Newark-Elizabeth, Inc. (Coach USA)100.8
RIBonanza (BZ)96.8
NJAcademy Lines, Inc.93.9
NJHudson Transit Lines, Inc. (Short Line)88.1
NJSuburban Transit Corporation (Coach USA)86.5
NYAdirondack Transit Lines, Inc, (Adirondack Trailways)82.6
NJDeCamp Bus Lines79.3
NYMonroe Bus Corporation78.2
NJLakeland Bus Lines, Inc.74.6
NYMonsey New Square Trails Corporation71.8
VABlacksburg Transit (BT)61.8
NCChapel Hill Transit (CHT)61.7
FLGainesville Regional Transit System (RTS)55.8
CAUniversity of California, Davis (Unitrans)53.6

The last four obviously do not use the XBL. Of the others, I'm not familiar with Orange-Newark-Elizabeth; Wikipedia says they just run three local routes in those three cities, but given the rest of the pattern I'd be surprised if they didn't have some XBL revenue. There is a clear pattern: all the bus agencies in the NTD that make more than 70% farebox recovery use the XBL, and all the ones that make less than 63% do not.

I would like to point out what these agencies for-profit corporations (and one division of NJ transit) don't have: specialized vehicles, passenger information, offboard fare collection, subway-like station spacing, traffic signal priority and other Intelligent Transportation System applications. They have one single "iconic station" (I suppose you can call the Port Authority that), and one Exclusive Bus Lane. I'm not saying none of those other things matter, but let's have some perspective.

Other than that, all I can say is that with the amount that's been written about farebox recovery, I'm baffled as to why no one seems to have noticed this before.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Service alert!

Just got this in my inbox: "BKLYN-bound 7 trains are running with delays. Due to signal problems at Queensboro Plz. Visit for details."

Do you know how long I've been waiting for a Brooklyn-bound 7 train?

Incidentally, I couldn't find any details - or even this alert - at

Why do we care about mobility?

Jarrett Walker has provided a lot of insightful commentary and thought-provoking questions since he established his Human Transit blog a few months ago. His most recent series questioning the value of streetcars is in this vein: we should question every mode, because modes are just tools for accomplishing our goals.

In his most recent post and the previous one, Jarrett observes that streetcars don't improve mobility relative to buses. For him, mobility means "How many places can you get to in a fixed amount of time?"

Interestingly, Jarrett uses Walk Score to count the places, meaning that his mobility takes density into account. That makes it more valuable than simply measuring how many route-miles you have available to you. There was some back-and-forth in the comments about whether streetcars could increase mobility by increasing density relative to a similar investment in buses, but I don't think there was a solid conclusion.

My main response to Jarrett's post, though, is simply "Why?". He writes, "I'm just suggesting that the mobility offered by a transit service is an independently assessable feature that some people might want to decide if they care about." But do they care, and if they don't, why would they start? And why do we care whether they care? Because they'll start a campaign against this service? Because they'll stop using it and starve it of fares?

What I'm missing from these posts is a sense of overall goals. I've got them right up at the top of the page: "Reducing pollution, Increasing efficiency. Reducing carnage, Improving society, Transportation for all." I suppose that mobility would come under the headings of increasing efficiency and improving society. The five principles that I extracted from Transportation for America's torturous PDF were "Safety, Sustainability, Fairness, Independence, Prosperity," and I'd put mobility under Prosperity. For me, these are lower on the priority totem pole.

Of course, mobility can be used to sell a service, potentially drawing people out of their cars, and thereby contribute to more goals. But as with the anti-streetcar campaign and the loss of fare revenue, these are hypotheticals for a hypothetical streetcar. Why not cross those bridges when we come to them?

I think in order for us, Jarrett's audience, to value the goal of mobility, he needs to explain it in terms of our own goals - and not hypothetical ones. Otherwise it's a tool without an application. A provocative discussion, but not quite as productive as it could be.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Capturing the consumer surplus for transit

I remember when the MTA raised fares from $1.25 to $1.50 in 1995. That was a big deal for me, just out of college with student loans to repay. Still, I was middle class and I made it through; there were a lot of people who were hit harder.

Now I'm doing better; the price goes up the same amount (although not the same percentage) and I hardly notice it. Streetsblog commenter Niccolo Machiavelli (not his real name) has pointed out that between the unlimited-ride Metrocard, the pay-per-ride discount and the free transfers, the real average price of a NYC Transit trip has actually gone down considerably since 1995. Ben over at Second Avenue Sagas has observed many times that the subway is a pretty good deal for a lot of New Yorkers. When he speculated about doubling fares, and now raising them by 36%, many commented that they would be happy to pay that if it meant the MTA would go for several years without having to beg from the general fund.

Of course, people are still graduating from college with massive student loans - in many cases much bigger than what I had. And there are still lots of poor people who live or work in the city and have been seriously hurt by these increases. Under Ben's proposed fare increases, many people would have to pay for these increases with money from their budgets for food or health care. Some of them would not be able to afford to commute by subway, and would take jobs closer to home or ride bikes.

This situation brought me back to my undergraduate economics class. A number of concepts stuck with me, and one of the major ones was price discrimination. My professor used the example of golf balls, where he claimed that identical balls from the same factory were labeled as "budget" and "premium" balls, and given different prices. People who wanted the best price bought the budget balls, and people who wanted the best quality bought the premium balls (they were misled by the word, even though there was no difference in quality).

I was of course upset by the golf ball company's dishonesty in implying a difference in quality, but let's put that aside for now. The company would have gotten more money per ball if they had charged only the "premium" price, but they would have sold less balls. They would have sold more balls if they had charged only the "budget" price, but they would have gotten less money per ball. By charging both prices, they get more money from the people who are willing to pay it, and they still sell balls to the people who won't pay the premium price. A while ago I realized that haggling takes an even finer-grained approach: people who are unwilling or unable to pay a high price can usually get it for cheaper, but people who can afford the good, but just want to get the thing and take it home will pay more.

Clearly we have a similar situation in the subway, with one group of people who can afford to pay more and would, and another group who can't afford to pay. People who have a goal similar to transportation for all are unwilling to price people away from transit - and that of course includes me.

But with a funding crisis in transit, the consumer surplus - the aggregate difference between the fare and the amount that some people are willing to pay - is a source of funding that we should not ignore. Now if the MTA decided to simply label every other train as a "premium train" and price it higher, even though it was just as crowded (yes, I know) as the "budget trains," that would be dishonest and unethical. But there are honest, ethical ways of exercising price discrimination. For example, the MTA currently charges a reduced fare to the elderly and disabled, on the theory that they're less able to afford the full fare.

Economists reading this may scoff at the simplicity of my ideas, and they will be gratified to know I got a C in that class. If you're one of them, please answer me this: lots of transit advocates throw around terms like "elasticity," but we hardly ever hear about consumer surplus or price discrimination, even though they're very common in markets?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Someone's being proactive...

From the comments at Greater Greater Washington, MARC's expansion plan (PDF) from 2007.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


In the comments to my recent post comparing bus networks on each side of the Hudson, the always-informative Alon Levy suggested that the east-of-Hudson buses aren't as good because they don't need to be: "Long Island and the eastern Hudson Valley have rail service with 80% share of the commuters to Manhattan market."

Alon has a very good point, and it's one that I'll take up in a later post. But my main reaction on reading his comment was, "Why the hell aren't I notified about these things?" I mean, I knew it had to be high, but I didn't think it was that high.

I asked Alon where the data came from, and he gave some sources in the comments. Turns out it was even on an earlier version of the Metro-North homepage. He also gives some suggestions as to how it could be calculated by independent analysts like your Cap'n.

My question is, why isn't this reported on a monthly, or at least annual, basis? For every transit agency? Many of us want to get people out of their cars. It affects many of our goals. Wouldn't we want to know how many of them were already out of their cars before we started, and how well we're succeeding (or not)?

You'd think that something like the National Transit Database would have that data handy. Sadly, I couldn't find it. Their "Transit Profiles" tell you all about how many people each agency moves, how far, at what cost and with what kind of equipment, but not how well they're competing with private auto travel (or anyone else, for that matter).

(The National Transit Database does have lots of interesting information, including the fact that the Red and Tan Lines, a subsidiary of Coachusa, made an $8.4 million profit in 2007 (PDF), just over two dollars per trip. Yowza! I wonder how much that went down after the Pascack Valley improvements were implemented. By contrast, Transport of Rockland received over $12 million in subsidies, which is about $3.70 per trip. Guess which one uses the Lincoln Tunnel XBL?)

Of course, transportation bureaucrats and the elected officials who fund them don't care that much about market share. The bureaucrats care about staying employed, and the electeds care about getting re-elected (with maybe a few kickbacks along the way). At best they see transit as a government charity, and at worst as some meaningless government program. Run it well enough to keep people who matter from complaining, and they're happy. Most of the statistics in the National Transit Database are aimed at demonstrating that. If they ever cared about getting people out of their cars, they've given up on doing it through transit quality.

The bottom line is that anyone who does care about pollution, efficiency, carnage or sprawl, all of which require getting people out of their cars, should be working to get market share numbers for all transit services. And maybe finding a way to get the electeds to care about it. Otherwise we're all fumbling in the dark.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Many segments of the population are too old for this shit

When your Cap'n was a young whippersnapper, I traveled all over Europe and North America on the cheap. I stayed in youth hostels and friends' couches. I rode overnight from Chicago to Montreal on a Greyhound bus and on another trip from Paris to Venice in a non-sleeping compartment (with the return trip spent slouched against my bag in the corridor, surrounded by Italians who didn't care about "non fumare").

I gradually came to the conclusion that some things are more important than saving a few bucks. Stumbling around Northern Italy I realized that a good night's sleep is one of them. This was confirmed a few years later when Priceline saved me $20 by booking an "off-peak" flight with a two-hour layover in Phoenix at 1AM. Suffice it to say that I've never had anything to do with Priceline again.

Now I try to arrange things so that I always have a seat, and somewhere that I can get some rest. I'm still willing to put up with a lot, but it's less than I used to put up with. I'm not rich by any means, but at this point I can afford to pay $20-30 more for a flight that will get me home before my bedtime, and to take the train even when the bus is cheaper. I imagine that this will continue to change as I get older. And I don't think I'm the only one.

Now I have a strong aversion to cars. Been there, done that, but it's the transit life for me - for all the reasons listed at the top of this page. But supposing I had different priorities, and comfort was more important than avoiding any chance of losing control of a vehicle, or of minimizing my contribution to global warming. Confronted with the choice of relatively cheap and convenient but uncomfortable transit versus paying for a car, I would at least be tempted by the car.

The less convenient transit is, the more people opt for driving. I happen to think that cars have their own peculiar set of discomforts, but at least you don't have nuts preaching at you unless you specifically tune them in. You never have somebody's elbow in your ribs unless you drive a pickup with a bench seat. If you want a more comfortable seat, all you have to do is pay more.

That's the frustrating thing about the New York subway: there's no way to upgrade. No matter how much money you put into the Metrocard machine, the seat is still the same old molded plastic (possibly still sticky from some kid's Mountain Dew). There's no cupholder, no makeup mirror. The most you can do is buy a better Ipod.

Well, almost. James commented on my previous post:
Cap'N, depending on where you live in the city, there is another option re: a higher cost but higher quality option - it's called Metro North and the LIRR. When I find myself experiencing periodic subway burnout, I cough up the extra $2 for a Metro North ticket and enjoy a quiet, fast and immaculately clean trip home.

I have, in fact, had that experience. I live walking distance from the Woodside LIRR station, and there are times when I will spring for the $5.75 or whatever it is and be home in 25 minutes (if I'm near Penn Station to begin with). Of course, the commuter rail lines don't stop in very many places and they don't all have convenient schedules, but when it works out it's great.

There's a third option, even: express buses. As I understand it, many routes were specifically designed to capture some of the market that was leaving the transit system. There was one time when I needed to read books and articles and take notes. The subway was impossible: even if I got a seat, there was nowhere to put the book while I was writing the notes. I tried taking commuter rail, but it was actually too fast to get anything done. What worked pretty well, though, were the express buses. For at least part of every trip I had two seats to myself, and was able to spread out. Even when I didn't, the seats were wide enough that I could manage. And it was quiet: cell phone conversations were kept to a minimum, nobody was rowdy or intrusive. On the way home in the evenings, I think half the bus was snoring.

The commuter trains, of course, are full of people who feel like they're well off enough that they don't want to put up with the noise and dirt of the city. Some of them were born to it, others strove for it. The particular express bus route I rode, I noticed, was full of older Black and Puerto Rican women. I never had much of a conversation with them, but I got the feeling that they had taken the subway when they were younger, but after twenty or thirty years in whatever office or bank branch they worked at, they were too old for that. They had earned the $4 price of the bus ride, and the extra time it took to get to Midtown, and they needed it to keep their sanity.

Without the express bus system, these women would be driving cars. Without the commuter trains, the suburbanites would be driving into Manhattan too. These modes are helping transit to work for the middle class. They work. Let's use them more.

Friday, July 3, 2009

NYC-area bus networks - east vs. west

The greater New York area has one of the best train networks in the country. However, there are some major gaps in this network. West of the Hudson, these gaps are filled by an extensive bus network. It's not as convenient as the train, but most towns from Point Pleasant Beach to Albany have daily bus service, with routes stretching deep into the Poconos and Catskills. These are relatively new, clean, comfortable buses, and most of northern New Jersey has hourly service or better. Much of it is provided by private operators at a profit.

Now let's look east of the Hudson. There are three major private companies, which stick to established routes: Bonanza up the Hudson and Housatonic valleys; Bonanza, Peter Pan and Greyhound along the shore and up the Connecticut River valley.

The State of Connecticut and the New York counties of Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess run subsidized bus systems, much of which is the infrequent, indirect "charity bus" service familiar to transit advocates from other parts of the country. Of these public systems, only one, the Westchester Bee-Line, brings passengers to the city, and only one Bee-Line route, the BxM4C, goes to Manhattan. (Judging by the name, I'm guessing that this route is a relic of the express bus routes formerly operated by Liberty Lines, which runs the Bee-Line system under contract to the county. The BxM4A and B, which did not go into Westchester, are now operated by the MTA Bus Company.)

On Long Island, there's one major private bus company, Hampton Jitney, which offers near-hourly service from Manhattan to and from the South Fork, and less-frequent service to the North Fork and Westhampton. Intercity carriers New York Trailways and Coachusa each offer three runs a day from their core areas in the Catskills and Adirondacks through Nanuet, White Plains and Queens Village to Hempstead and other major towns on Long Island. I'm pretty sure that Greyhound offers at least one run a day, but I don't have more details.

Local bus service in Nassau County is provided by Long Island Bus, which is under the MTA umbrella. There is very frequent service on some lines (for example, Hempstead Turnpike sees buses every few minutes at some times), and others not so much. The Town of Huntington is served by Huntington Area Rapid Transit, and the rest of Suffolk County by Suffolk Transit, and both of those are charity bus services.

Coming up, I'll talk about how this dichotomy affects commuting patterns, and what it means for future transit development.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Get it right the first time

Streetsblog has a post about a proposed "road diet" for Empire Boulevard in Crown Heights (or is it Flatbush?). The good news is that both the DOT and the community board agree that too much width is devoted to cars and the suggestion for a bike lane even came from the community board.

Streetsblog points out that the DOT has used a strategy like this for Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights, and is proposing a similar treatment for Allerton Avenue in the Bronx. This seems to be developing into a standard road diet for wide streets that are four lanes plus parking, around the city.

But there's something missing from this plan. Streetsblog commenter Richard V. (any relation to Richard III?) points out the problem: "This is just retarded I live on Empire and Empire is a mess as it is and adding this will just makes it worst. There is a Funeral home on Empire and Bedford that when it has Funerals Empire is all doubled parked. When the clubs are in session it's the same problem."

As I wrote in an earlier post, while it may be illegal to double-park, people usually have a legitimate reason to be parking at all. Wide streets and lenient enforcement make it easy to double-park, and that has obscured the fact that there is very little space available for short-term parking. Fifty years ago it might have been reasonable to provide an undifferentiated mass of parking, but that is now all taken up by long-term storage.

Since my earlier post there have been new clashes over road diets, with drivers and merchants blaming "the bike lane" for the fact that double-parkers are now blocking the street. The owner of Sylvia's restaurant in Park Slope, acting as president of the Fifth Avenue BID, is one example. Thankfully, some of the bike lane advocates pointed out that the lack of loading zones is the main cause of congestion, not the bike lane.

Livable streets advocates should try to head these potential conflicts off and not let them get to the point that Fifth Avenue got to. That means that we have to step in during the planning stages, and not let the DOT continue to claim, as they do on slide 8 of this powerpoint, that "All parking spaces are preserved".

As I wrote back in December, many neighborhood leaders and community board members are convinced that all hell will break loose if a single parking space is eliminated from their streets. They're ready to jump up and down and scream bloody murder - and put their neighbors' children at risk - to preserve the maximum number of spaces (ideally "free" ones).

It's obvious that the DOT wants to avoid fights with these parking warriors whenever possible. But they're really not doing anyone any favors. Preserving all parking spaces now means conflict later on. The difference is that that conflict will be between cyclists trying to use the bike lanes and motorists continuing to double-park while they run into the deli to pick up a bagel. Or if the DOT does the sensible thing and makes the bike lane a protected one between the parked cars and the sidewalk, it will be between the cyclists and the self-appointed "community leaders" who refuse to challenge anyone's right to unload their cars when and where they choose.

For bike lane and traffic calming advocates, that means that we need to do what we can to include expanded loading zones in every street redesigns or road diets. Wherever the street is narrowed, we need to turn long-term parking (which is a luxury in this city) into short-term parking - as much as is needed.

The DOT has shown that they don't have the stomach for that fight, and that means that the cycling and safety advocates have to do the hard work of building coalitions and organizing people around the (somewhat esoteric) idea of loading zones. We have to create a group who will shout as loud to repurpose the permanent parking as the NIMBYs shout to preserve it.

It's a hard slog, but there's really no way not to have a fight. The choice is simply whether to fight now or fight later. And there are lives at stake.