Monday, May 31, 2010


Several years ago I remember walking around the East Bronx and the South Bronx, and noticing lots of new developments: single-family houses, townhouses, apartment buildings. At first it was nice to see since I knew what bad shape a lot of that housing stock was in, and how much of it had been destroyed in the seventies.

But then I noticed that almost all these developments had some kind of parking, and there were cars using all the parking. Rows of townhouses with ugly concrete parking pads in front, and on each parking pad an SUV, minivan or sedan. One more person who will see the city in terms of its highways and parking meters instead of its subways and buses. One more family that will drive to Westchester and Connecticut instead of taking the train to Manhattan. More pollution in the air, more oil burned, more chance a kid will get run over. One less person to support transit and livable streets in the city.

I thought of Freddy Ferrer and how proud he was of helping to "rebuild the Bronx." But he was rebuilding it from a city into a suburb. At first I blamed him for it; after all, he took the credit. And he may very well have approved of, or at least been indifferent to, all these cars being added to the city, all these urbanites transformed into drivers, seen them as a sign of upward mobility. But now I know that it was mostly zoning.

Our neighborhood's in the middle of a rezoning procedure right now, and I've been thinking about how much zoning affects transportation. This is not new territory; Matt Yglesias, Michael Lewyn and many others have extensively documented how single-use zoning encourages car use and discourages walking and transit. However, New York's zoning is emphatically not single-use, and the proposal for Sunnyside and Woodside is nothing to worry about from that perspective.

I've been specifically thinking about how minimum parking requirements affect transportation. This is also not new territory: the great Donald Shoup pretty much lays it all out (PDF). And Angus's report from last week's meeting indicates that City Planning is currently doing what they can to keep parking requirements to a minimum. They're still outrageous, but that can't be fixed by rezoning.

The best thing would be to rewrite the zoning code to reduce or eliminate minimum parking requirements citywide. The next best thing would be to expand the urban zone where parking requirements are almost nonexistent (PDF). It currently includes most of Manhattan and Long Island City, but not the other truly urban parts of the city: Upper Manhattan, Brownstone Brooklyn, Williamsburg, Bay Ridge, Western and Central Queens, the Bronx west of the Bronx River, and Saint George.

But I thought about the people mentioned in Angus's report who asked about schools. It seems reasonable that if City Planning is planning for population increases, they should have some mechanism to force the Department of Education to provide schools for the additional children. This is one area where I think the Queens Crapper and friends are right on: the agency that plans for new construction should have the authority to arrange the government services necessary to support the people who live in that new construction.

The Crapper and others have said the same things about buses and subways, but from a negative point of view. They don't actually want the increased density, so they just say, "You can't build that big building! There's no room on the subways!" Some defenders of parking requirements even say, "You can't expect them to take the subways, there's no room!"

There is an expansion of the car transportation network built into the zoning code. Every time a developer builds a new building, they are subsidizing an increase in car capacity. You may say that they ultimately pass on the cost to the buyer or renter, but then the government is forcing a homeowner to sink money into car infrastructure that they may not have otherwise been interested in. Now that they've spent the money, though, they'd be silly not to use it. I once rented a house with a garage and felt stupid keeping only my bicycle in it, but it came with the house.

Then it hit me: the zoning code does mandate transportation, but only car transportation. There is no such expansion of the transit system mandated. In some areas there is no expansion of the pedestrian network mandated either. What happens when homebuilders are required to provide parking but not sidewalks?

What if there was a mandate to contribute to the expansion of the transit system? What if every developer had to pay a certain amount into the capital fund for the local transit agency for every housing unit they built? I'm not talking some piddling few thousand dollars, but something that would have the equivalent trip-generating potential of that parking space. Ideally, they would be able to choose to fund transit instead of providing parking.

There have been various proposals for new taxes to finance transit expansion, but I think this is the best one. It's exactly equivalent to minimum parking requirements. We do have something similar in New York, in the form of the Mortgage Recording Tax, but it is not calculated on a per-unit basis and only applies if a mortgage is taken out.

It comes down to this: parking requirements are forcing the owners of every new building built outside of Manhattan and Long Island City to subsidize car ownership. There is no corresponding requirement to subsidize transit use. As long as that imbalance exists, transit will have an uphill battle. Change it, and you change everything.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

More difficulties predicting mode choice

As I mentioned in my last post, EngineerScotty and Jarrett Walker have been discussing various factors that motivate people's choice of one travel mode or another. Scotty and Jarrett are both interested in getting people to shift from cars to transit for similar reasons to the ones I list at the top of this blog. Scotty brought up Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and describes his reasoning as follows:
I think that actual research into what transit users want, as opposed to what planners, politicians, and amateur kibbitzers such as myself might think they want, is highly important.

Yes, definitely. But allow me to join the numerous commenters, as well as Scotty and Jarrett and Maslow themselves, in pointing out that there are tons of problems with using Maslow's hierarchy. Here are the ones that are the most salient for me:

1. Scotty frames the entire thing as what motivates people to use transit, without acknowledging that the issue is competition between transit and private auto use. Jarrett adopts that unquestioningly, as does Brad Aaron in his summary for

2. Jarrett tries to use the concept to argue why transit geeks just can't motivate the general public to go along with their grand schemes. But as commenter Adrian points out, "The disagreements you're alluding to are more about the appropriate time-scale for change, than they are about a pyramid of needs. The person waiting in the rain for a bus wants a better bus service right about now, but the warm and dry urbanist wants to create an urban form over the next few decades in which waiting for a bus in the rain will be less common."

3. Maslow himself acknowledges seven exceptions to the hierarchy, including number 5:
Another cause of reversal of the hierarchy is that when a need has been satisfied for a long time, this need may be underevaluated. People who have never experienced chronic hunger are apt to underestimate its effects and to look upon food as a rather unimportant thing. If they are dominated by a higher need, this higher need will seem to be the most important of all. It then becomes possible, and indeed does actually happen, that they may, for the sake of this higher need, put themselves into the position of being deprived in a more basic need.

However, I should point out that Scotty does not actually try to apply Maslow's original categories. He creates his own groups in terms of Maslow's concept of "pre-potency":
Human needs arrange themselves in hierarchies of pre-potency. That is to say, the appearance of one need usually rests on the prior satisfaction of another, more pre-potent need. Man is a perpetually wanting animal. Also no need or drive can be treated as if it were isolated or discrete; every drive is related to the state of satisfaction or dissatisfaction of other drives.

Scotty arranges the needs in eight categories of pre-potency, going from the bottom of the pyramid to the top: Access, safety and security, reliability, time and convenience, comfort, cost, amenities and societal acceptance. I think it's a good start, but I would prune it drastically, and keep in mind that this is forming the basis for whether people choose various modes or not:

1. Availability. What we readers of Jarrett's blog typically call "access." Can you get from here to there when you need/want to? Once you're there, can you get back, or continue on to your next destination? On the most basic level, nobody's going to choose a mode that won't take them where they need to go.

2. Value. This includes not only the monetary cost, but other costs as well. Door to door, how long does it take you to get there? How reliable is it? Is the risk of bodily harm within your tolerance? Can you get work done on the way, or at least get a little exercise? Scotty's distinction between incremental, access and system costs is valuable, but they all fall under this umbrella.

3. Amenities. These include everything tangible that makes the trip more or less pleasant but doesn't involve basic cost calculations, including comfort and fun. This is where most of the individual variation comes in: one person's value is often another's amenity.

4. Glamour. Everything non-tangible that affects mode choice: status markers, fantasies, the presence of attractive people (or conversely, their absence).

Two modes can compete on all these levels, but from what I've seen, most of the competition between transit/cycling/walking and private cars takes place on the level of availability and value. The vast majority of transit systems in this country are uncompetitive because they just don't go to most of the places where people want to go, when they want to do it.

The systems that are competitive on availability often lose on one of the value criteria, usually trip time. The Lincoln Tunnel XBL/toll/parking nexus gets thousands of suburban commuters to take buses by making them competitive on only two variables: trip time and monetary cost. And I'll point out it accomplishes this by allowing cars to stay slow (no tunnel expansion) and making them more expensive - not by anything it really does to the buses.

For the systems that are competitive on availability and value, they can win passengers through amenities and eventually glamour. This is where we are in New York. Most of the people who drive or take taxis on a weekday do so not because they're faster (they're not) or they go someplace transit doesn't (they don't), but because they offer a bit more space and privacy, and because they're more glamorous. In New York, transit needs to offer similar service levels and similar status endorsement in order to win over those who are either too good for the subway, or too old for that shit.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Mode choices

Recently, I've argued that we would expect an S-shaped shift from private cars to transit if the following conditions hold:

Efficiency: for every dollar of subsidies, transit gives people more access to places where they want to go than cars do.
Demand: people patronize systems depending on the access that they offer.
Representation: subsidies are distributed based on demand.

I've now discussed efficiency and representation. I've touched on demand before, but it's the kind of thing you can say a lot about: what factors go into a person's mode choice? Recently, EngineerScotty and Jarrett Walker have also discussed some of the motives for mode choice. But before I do that, I think it's important to observe that "mode choice" actually covers several different choices that people can make.

You might think that a mode choice was a universal, permanent decision, such as "I will walk everywhere I go," or "I will always take transit." But that actually doesn't happen, unless someone's really trying to make a point. Even the most diehard walker will probably take a ferry if there's no bridge available.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, but pointing in a similar direction, no transportation system provides door-to-door service for every possible trip. It may not matter for our goals that someone walked the thirty feet from their front door to the car, but it may matter that once they got out of the car, they walked a full city block length to get out of the parking lot.

One kind of mode choice is per trip, based on particular circumstances ("It's icy, so I'll leave the bike at home") or as a trial. Often, it's based on whether the vehicle will be an asset or a burden later: someone may drive because they're planning to go straight to their country house after work, or alternatively they'll take transit because they're planning to go out drinking after work. In some circumstances you can even decide on the fly for a particular leg of the trip ("I didn't see a bus, so I hailed a taxi").

If someone makes a long-term mode decision, they often don't make it overall, but for a specific class of trips. One common scenario is the suburban resident who gets to work by bus-walk or walk-train-walk, but drives to the supermarket and the movie theater. Some people have fantastically complex arrangements that they can maintain for years: subway to work, commuter rail to visit the Stamford office, car service home from work, taxi to go to the doctor across town, car to go to Vermont for the weekend, bus to get to the museum, subway to meet a friend in Greenwich Village, walk to the deli, rollerblade to the park, fly to Punta Cana.

There are also long-term commitments and investments, the most obvious one being buying a car, a bicycle, a car-sharing or bike-sharing membership, or a transit pass. Other choices include the location of your residence, how much off-street parking it has, your workplace, whether you have to travel for work and how much and where, your favorite social hangout, your shopping, your child's school, a weekend or summer house, place of worship, and restaurants. Any of these locations may be better or worse for transit, driving, walking, bicycling or skating. They will all affect long and short-term mode choices.

One of the most frustrating things for me during the congestion pricing debate was to read comments like, "It's not a choice! I need a car! I need to drive! I need a free parking permit! How else am I supposed to get from my home in Rockland to my kid's school in Manhattan and my job in Brooklyn?" What was even worse was when instead of "I" they said, "some people, unlike you elitists..."

Since our proximate goal is to get people to stop using cars, we care about all these decisions: the short term and the long term, and the commitments that influence them. The good news is that there are tons of ways that the environment can be changed to encourage people to choose transit, walking or cycling more often. The bad news is that these can be changed in the other direction too.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

When buses are outlawed, only outlaws will drive buses

Anti-jitney NIMBYs, including Comet and the Queens Crapper, often point to dangerous behavior on the part of van drivers, including speeding, cutting off other drivers, overcrowding, and driving buses that are badly maintained or under-insured. There's no question that these are problems. The question is what to do about them.

Comet sees no value in the buses, and therefore accepts the legal fiction that they should only pick up passengers by prior arrangement, in zones approved by the Taxi and Limousine Commissioner and the relevant community board, along routes approved by the Transportation Commissioner. They badger the TLC and the NYPD to keep ticketing the drivers, trying to harass them out of the neighborhood.

What about us - people who see that private buses can supplement existing MTA service, make up for service cuts, and provide innovation where it's been lacking? What do we do to help the private buses succeed? Take it from a private bus operator who tries to play by the rules, Joel Azumah:
Throw in the fact that both legal and illegal vans are harassed in Brooklyn and Queens. Since the legal guys get no protection, many who started legal decided to become illegal to save money.

Quite simply, the market has to be structured (told you I wasn't a libertarian) to provide incentives for bus operators to work safely. Let's imagine a driver (call him Lawful Steve) who has all the proper licenses, registrations, inspections and insurance, keeps the vehicle clean and never carries passengers over the maximum, obeys all traffic safety laws and pays extra attention at all times. Steve also follows the "commuter van" rules to a T. He has received permission to operate in a particular zone on a particular route, and he follows that scrupulously, only picking up people who have called ahead to arrange trips.

Now let's imagine another driver, Neutral Jane, who also has all the proper licensing and insurance, and is just as safety-conscious as Steve. But rather than following the commuter van regulations, Jane picks up street hails and travels on popular routes.

Finally, we've got a third driver, Chaotic Dave, who has a Class D license and drives like a maniac in an uninsured, badly maintained van. He practices the absolute minimum in safety that he can get away with while still filling up his van with passengers.

What do you think will happen? Lawful Steve will go broke sitting by the phone. Neutral Jane will make money, but she will still be fined for picking up passengers without prior arrangement, operating on an unlicensed route, and operating outside of the designated zone. Chaotic Dave will too, but at least he'll be spared the expense of getting all the proper paperwork and maintaining his vehicle, and the hassle of trying to follow all the safety rules. In fact, Dave won't get busted that often, because the TLC and the NYPD are so busy going after Jane, and maybe even stopping Steve because he's running a commuter van and must be up to no good. Eventually Steve and Jane will realize that it just doesn't pay to be safe, and either join Dave or else get out of the transportation business and open a Boston Market franchise.

If you don't want to hear it from me or Joel, how about Jay Walder?
The point to be stressed here is that an integrated transit system with commuter vans does not have to cause the city to sacrifice its concern for public safety. At the state level, an adequate regulatory structure already exists to satisfy these concerns. Alternatively, the city government could handle this function. What is required in either case is a cooperative, rather than combative, regulatory atmosphere.

In other words, if the city were to pass laws that make it easy for private operators to get permission to transport passengers, then the NYPD and the TLC wouldn't have to waste time going after Neutral Jane for operating outside her zone. They could concentrate their scarce resources on Chaotic Dave and the safety issues that really matter. Lawful Steve and Neutral Jane can get on with the business of providing quality, safe service without worrying about getting busted for picking up street hails.

More transit, safer vans, less drain on the budgets of the TLC and the NYPD. It's a win-win for everyone! Right?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Diverting the Cycle

In the past, I've argued that we would expect an S-shaped shift from private cars to transit if the following conditions hold:

Efficiency: for every dollar of subsidies, transit gives people more access to places where they want to go than cars do.
Demand: people patronize systems depending on the access that they offer.
Representation: subsidies are distributed based on demand.

This is actually a good thing because it means that nobody needs to force anyone to stop driving. As long as the efficiency condition holds - and I think it does - all we need to do is make sure that the demand and representation conditions hold - or compensate for them - and let the market do the rest.

I'll discuss the demand condition in later posts, but for now I'll just say that there's a lot more than access that goes into mode choices. What I want to focus on here is the matter of representation.

The simplest thing for government to do would be to simply give people what they want. If 20% of people want transit, 5% want walking and cycling and 75% driving, then spend 20% of the budget on transit, and so forth. There are several reasons why government would not want to do this.

First, they might legitimately believe that it is not in the best interest of the people to allocate money based on use. This is often quite reasonable; in fact, they might feel that it is important to spend a larger share of transportation money on transit because they believe it will help provide access for all, reduce carnage and pollution, increase efficiency or improve society. On the other hand, they might feel that they are doing more for their constituents by helping them to afford the (supposed) convenience and independence of cars.

In a similar vein, people in government might feel that people who spend more should be entitled to more, and if drivers pay more taxes than transit riders, they should get more money. This argument is often used by anti-transit pundits like Randal O'Toole and Ronald Utt. All else being equal, sure, people should get back in services what they pay in taxes, but some of us believe in redistributing tax value to compensate for existing injustices.

Third, they might feel that what's important is not the amount spent per citizen, but the amount of service provided. If transit is more efficient, they can simply spend less on it, and there is no relative change in people's access. This would be fine if everyone already had sufficient access, and if the use of cars didn't cause all these other problems.

Fourth, they might not actually represent their constituents, but instead a subgroup with different transportation habits. I believe that this is a significant factor here in New York City, although by no means the only factor.

Finally, they might be corrupt and simply want money for themselves and their cronies.

The solution, of course, is to get people in government who are honest representatives of their constituents, share our goals above, and understand the value of transit in achieving those goals. Easy as pie!

Again, I'll talk more about the demand issue in the future.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Speaking truth to Peter Rogoff

Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff made waves around the transit blogosphere (Yonah Freemark, Jarrett Walker, Matthew Roth) with his address to the summit on the future of transit in Boston. I agree with Rogoff's overall point: don't induce what you can't sustain. You can cut ribbons on a hundred shiny subway lines, but if you have to shut some of them down a few years later because you didn't maintain them properly, you've failed. If they drive away the new riders because they're uncomfortable and undependable, you've failed.

Some of Rogoff's other points were pretty lame, though. He argued that transit agencies should be concentrating on buses because "fully three quarters of the funding backlog we face in achieving a state of good repair is associated with underfunded rail assets." But as Yonah pointed out, "there are two very obvious reasons it costs the FTA more money to maintain urban rail: one, many of this country’s subway systems are decades old; and two, the FTA doesn’t have a responsibility to maintain the roads buses travel on — other state and federal agencies do."

I also have a question about this: does the FTA "state of good repair" budget include buying new buses? Because a lot of times the best way to get into a state of good repair is just to buy a new bus, so buses get replaced more often than rail cars, while rail cars get fixed. So if the money to replace buses is coming out of a different pot, then the percentage of rail maintenance needs is much lower than 75%.

Third, I thought it was fairly well recognized that rail facilities are more expensive to build and maintain, but bus facilities are more expensive to operate - largely because you need at least one staff member for a bus that holds 60 people at most, but one staff member can drive a whole train carrying hundreds of people. This is a tradeoff, and the choice depends on your anticipated maintenance vs. operating costs for each mode. Since the FTA doesn't pay for operating costs, well, that money isn't found in Peter Rogoff's budget.

Jeff "Pantagraph Trolleypole" Wood had an insightful comment on Yonah's blog: "Part of my problem with this commentary is that it doesn’t put this in the broader context of transportation in general. If transit agencies are going to tighten their belts, why don’t DOTs have to do the same thing? While it’s easy to tell transit agencies to buck up, it’s another thing to say they should absorb all the pain."

This is a very basic concept in transit planning: if our goal is to get people out of their cars, it doesn't matter how good transit is, it has to be better than private cars. In theory, in a recession with a congress full of anti-tax nuts it's a good idea for transit agencies to forego sexy ribbon-cuttings and snazzy system expansions. But if the state highway departments are still getting their ribbon-cuttings and system expansions, then transit will suffer.

If Rogoff doesn't know that city transit systems are in competition with the DOTs - and that he's in competition with the Federal Highway Administrator - for tax dollars to subsidize their mode, with the world's climate at stake - then he's an imbecile and has no business running the FTA. If he does know, then all his rhetoric about honesty and speaking truth to power and having the guts to say "no" is just a load of Beltway hot air.

Why isn't Rogoff honest about how highway subsidies drain riders from transit? Why won't he speak this truth to power - in this case, to FHWA Administrator Victor Mendez and the highway nuts at AASHTO? Why isn't he asking the President to have the guts to say "no" to the constant demands for more roads and bridges?

Furthermore, why this namby-pamby business asking transit administrators to be honest and gutsy - but only with other transit administrators? Why not ask Jay Walder to speak truth to the power of Stanley Gee? Encourage him to ask Governor Paterson to have the guts to say "no" to the New York State DOT's billions for highway widening? Tell him to be honest about how the Kosciuszko replacement will drain riders from the G train and the Tribororx (if that ever sees the light of day)?

Maybe that would be too gutsy and honest.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Public and private on the Goethals Bridge

Image: Port Authority
As I wrote before, our government plans to spend over $2.4 billion in road projects over the next several years: $500 million to rebuild the Brooklyn Bridge, $700 million to rebuild the Kosciuszko Bridge, $1 billion to rebuild the Goethals Bridge and $250 million to rebuild the BQE just south of the Brooklyn Bridge in Carroll Gardens. Of this, only the Goethals replacement will be paid for by tolls.

Or will it? Today, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign tweeted a link to an article in the Staten Island Advance that tells us that the Port Authority has issued a request for proposals (PDF) for a public-private partnership to reconstruct the bridge.

This $1 billion project is also going to add a "managed use" lane to the bridge in each direction, either a high-occupancy vehicle or bus-only lane. This would bring the total number of lanes from four to six, adding capacity for 1600 more vehicles per hour to cross onto Staten Island in each direction. Believe it or not, this is actually a huge victory by Tri-State and Staten Island groups over the previous proposals that called for eight or more unrestricted lanes. There are also plans to reserve space for a "future transit corridor" that could carry light rail or buses (probably not subways or commuter rail, with that kind of grade). Finally, the current hair-raising three-foot-wide bicycle/pedestrian path that is never open would be replaced with a ten-foot path separated from speeding traffic by a generous shoulder.

Apparently the Port Authority, no longer a cash cow, has spent too much money on the World Trade Center and the ARC Tunnel and doesn't have any to lay out for the bridge. They want a private investor to design and build the bridge, and then maintain it for the next thirty to forty years. The company would lend a bunch of money to the Port Authority, which the authority would presumably invest somewhere, and then pay back to the company in periodic installments to cover the cost of design and construction. It would also pay installments for maintenance over the 30-40 year term of the agreement.

The request is confusing, because it refers to a "Construction Lump Sum" and a "Maintenance Lump Sum," and I thought that a lump sum was the opposite of installments, but maybe it refers to the fact that the amounts are agreed on beforehand. In any case, let's run this through Melissa Thomasson's ideas about the benefits of the public and private sectors:
Markets are usually really good at controlling costs. When they work best, products come into existence, like cell phones or stockings. They start expensive, and then they get cheaper and better. But markets don't guarantee that everyone can afford the things they need. Government can be good at that, ensuring universal access. But when you're paying for everybody, it's hard to control costs.

In this case, there will be no market beyond the initial bidding process, so don't expect too much cost containment. There will also not be the advantage of flexibility that come with entrepreneurship, because the entire process will be subject to an agreement negotiated between the winning bidder and the Port Authority.

The main thing that the Port Authority would get from the deal is that it wouldn't have to issue bonds to pay the upfront costs. It would also shift the risk of cost overruns and unexpected maintenance expenses onto the company. In exchange, the company would get interest on the loan, which the authority would presumably pay for out of tolls.

Eliot Brown at the Observer has an analysis pointing to some potential problems. The private partner may want a lot of money to cover the risk and the costs of borrowing, and while they would have an incentive to build something that would last thirty to forty years, they would have very little incentive to build anything that would last longer.

What Brown doesn't mention is that shifting the risk is not always successful. If the investors feel that they're not making enough money on the deal, they can default, leaving the Port Authority responsible for cleaning up whatever mess they make.

Essentially, this is like a teenage boy who wants to buy a car but can't get a loan on his own credit. He asks his parents to cosign the loan. Instead of an obligation to visit them when he might not otherwise feel like it, the Port Authority is just paying extra interest.

Now about this extra interest. The Advance says, "Borough President James Molinaro said an investor could stand to make a decent profit on the arrangement, which he said he would support." Well, that's nice, but it means that more than a billion dollars of toll revenue will be spent on this, money that might otherwise be available to subsidize PATH trains or the bus terminals.

What would happen if the Port Authority couldn't find a bidder? According to the Advance, "If no one comes forward to fund the project, the Port Authority will maintain the existing bridge, and Islanders will be stuck with its deteriorating roadway, dangerously narrow lanes and heavy traffic for the foreseeable future, until the economy rebounds or an alternate funding source is found."

The existing Goethals bridge is a pretty scary and dysfunctional thing, and the proposed new one would be safer for all and friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists, and have the promise of a new transit corridor some day. However, it would add up to 1600 more vehicles per hour to the roads of Staten Island and Brooklyn. And it would take a billion dollars out of the Port Authority budget, and it still runs the risk of a bankrupt partner dumping a financial mess in the authority's lap.

This bridge replacement should probably be done at some point. It's not quite as horrible as the Tappan Zee bait-and-switch, or the Kosciuszko that has no transit component. But this is not the time. The Port Authority should wait until it can raise the funds through public means, either by its own bonds or with federal money. It has already spread itself too thin, and we can ill afford to see it collapse and take our PATH trains and bus terminals with it.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

What transit needs from government

Jarrett has a helpful comment on my last post about the difficulties of cross-subsidy. Okay, so maybe you're all not quite on board with privately operated transit, but I hope I've shown that public transit can never reach its full potential of drawing people out of their cars, at least as long as government is also subsidizing driving. As I've said numerous times, private transit cannot bring us to our goals without significant government involvement. I want to summarize the ways.

  1. Enforcement. We need minimum standards of safety and responsibility. Transit providers need to be adequately licensed and insured, and to follow employment and traffic safety laws.

  2. Coverage. Some routes and schedules are necessary to provide access for all, or to complete a network so that other routes become useful, but are uncompetitive with private cars on even a basic two-lane paved road. If we want access for all, it has to be done by the government.

  3. Speed boosts. Buses have an inherent time disadvantage against private cars in stopping for multiple passengers. Government can compensate for that disadvantage by providing quickways that allow buses to get to the front of the line, recognizing their greater value.

  4. Loading, terminal and depot coordination. One thing that private buses do badly is loading. Bus operators have killed each other over access to passengers at the curb. Many of the recent complaints against buses in Lower Manhattan concern the loading of passengers and the storage of buses by private operators. Government needs the authority to regulate this properly to ensure a level playing field that promotes transit and avoids backlash.

  5. Fare coordination. Incompatible fare systems allow operators to compete at the expense of passengers. Government can provide a single payment system that allows for transfers, TransitChek and other advantages.

  6. Route and schedule planning. Is this necessary beyond coverage requirements? I haven't made up my mind.

Am I missing anything?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The difficulty with cross-subsidy

Recently I've been pointing to privately owned and operated bus service as a way to keep transit running. I'm not exactly happy about this, but I want to get where I'm going without too much waiting or crowding. Beyond that, I want to keep increasing the competitiveness of transit in order to get people out of their cars and fight pollution and carnage, waste and inequity.

I don't want to give you the impression that private buses will necessarily be better than government buses, or that government has no role in transit. On the contrary, we've seen that unregulated transit tends to be restricted to places where it is profitable, undermining our goal of access for all. It is often dangerous, conflicting with our goal of increasing safety, and frequently uncomfortable. Private buses may also be more polluting, and spend a lot of time idling. All these problems decrease the competitive advantage of transit, conflicting with most of our goals.

Some government involvement is definitely needed for transit to serve our goals. In this post I'm going to talk about what government can do to promote coverage. As Jarrett Walker writes (PDF), "Coverage goals are met by the availability of service, regardless of its patronage." Expanding coverage helps provide access for all and improve our proximate goal of competitiveness.

At the most basic level, we can simply divide up the routes into those that have enough profit potential to attract a private operator, and those that don't. The government can operate the unprofitable routes, and license private operators to serve the profitable ones. This is essentially how it works in Rockland County, where the for-profit Rockland Coaches (currently owned by the Scottish conglomerate Stagecoach, doing business as Red and Tan Lines or Coachusa) operates the profitable commuter routes to Manhattan, earning a $9 million profit in 2007 but accepting $4 million in state aid in 2008. The government agency Transport of Rockland operates the unprofitable local routes, receiving more than $13 million in subsidies in 2007 and $16 million in 2008.

That leads us to a question, though: why not just let the government run the profitable routes, and cross-subsidize the unprofitable routes? What if Rockland County took over Red and Tan and merged it with Transport of Rockland? It would have been able to use the $9 million profit from last year to offset the $13 million deficit from the local routes, requiring only $4 million in subsidies. This is essentially what the MTA does with its bus routes: the $1.9 million operating surplus from the M23 is used to cover the $1.6 million operating deficit on the M104 and the $350,000 deficit on the M72.

The problem is that the surplus from profitable routes are not usually as high when they're operated by government agencies. Cost is lower for private operators, in part due to labor issues. They can also charge market prices (like $8.85 for a one-way bus trip from the Port Authority to Nyack), which is very difficult for a public agency to do. It's also a lot harder for a government operator to abandon a route, so the government agencies are much more timid when it comes to expanding routes, knowing that they might be stuck with them for years to come. There is less incentive for them to add extra buses to supplement an existing schedule.

Put this all together, and the government may not actually earn much from profitable transit routes. It may cost just as much to subsidize the unprofitable routes, and the profitable routes may even require subsidies. Because of this, it is often better to simply subsidize the unprofitable routes and leave the profitable ones to private operators.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Skimming the cream off the poached siphons

Some anti-van activists, like Roe Daraio and the Queens Crapper argue that private jitneys "have long poached fares" from the MTA and thus cutting into their revenue.

In his 1985 article about private commuter vans and public express buses, Jay Walder wrote:
the express buses are not only losing money as a whole, but also on a route-by-route basis. Hence, rather than harming the express service, or "skimming the cream" off its routes, the private vans are actually helping to reduce the city's transit deficit.

I wish I could just leave it at that. No poaching, no skimming. Jay Walder said so! Sadly, his argument doesn't apply here. In his study, the vans could save the MTA money because the MTA would eliminate unprofitable routes and leave the field to the jitneys.

In practice, the MTA has continued to run all the unprofitable lines that Walder identified twenty years ago. The amount they have spent to run these buses every year has increased (from $13 million to $20 million), and they have added more routes (for a total cost of $38 million).

I found it interesting that Walder was so surprised to find the Staten Island express buses losing money. Today it is almost an article of faith among transit advocates that no route earns enough at the farebox to cover its operating expenses, let alone capital costs. This is actually not true across the board: there are routes within the MTA, and entire independent companies, that make an operating profit. Some even make an overall profit. But the vast majority of bus agencies are heavily subsidized, a fact that many advocates use to counter accusations that a particular route or agency is "losing money."

In 1985, though, Walder wrote, "Contrary to general perception, NYCTA express buses are operating at a loss, with a deficit estimated at $4.7 million per year, or 85 cents per passenger." Clearly, not only were the NYC Transit express buses expected to earn enough profit to cross-subsidize the local service, but everyone else thought that that was actually happening.

The fact that these losses weren't openly acknowledged or widely discussed when found, well, I don't know what to think. But leaving the field to the private jitneys was only feasible if Walder's other recommendations were followed. That probably has something to do with it.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

But what does Jay Walder think?

Your Cap'n can be an arrogant sumbitch, but I'm not so arrogant that I believe I'm the first one to think of everything. And with jitneys, I'm not. It turns out that in 1983 New York's commuter vans were the subject of a study at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government by a 24-year-old master's student named Jay Walder.

Walder focused specifically on express van service on Staten Island. He summarized his findings in an article that was published two years later, when he was already working for the MTA Capital Program. He came to five conclusions, as follows:

1. "The vans are not siphoning off revenue from the NYCTA express bus system."

2. "Commuter vans do not have to sacrifice public safety."

3. "The vans were found to have a negative impact on traffic patterns... This problem may be alleviated to some extent by increased use of contra-flow express lanes on connecting highways."

4. "The city could best respond to the commuter vans in a cooperative atmosphere."

5. "The city should reexamine its role in providing express bus service."

Some of these points are no longer valid after twenty-five years, and others were based on inaccurate assumptions and never were quite valid. But the general thrust, expressed most clearly in conclusion 4 - privately owned mass transit is not a threat to be defended against at all cost - is still valid, and it's nice to see that Walder is the kind of person who's open to such ideas. When he worked at Transport for London, he dealt with the privatized system there, so he probably knows as much about private mass transit as anyone who might wind up running the MTA. It'll be interesting to see what he manages to accomplish. I sure hope he doesn't wind up getting thrown to the wolves like Lee Sander.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

We could have more private buses

Jitneys have two advantages over public buses: they're cheaper and more flexible. Privately run buses that don't use the jitney model (i.e. that run on a fixed schedule or don't pay their drivers per passenger) may not be quite as cheap or flexible, but they're more so than public transit. They may be the only way to expand transit if the Legislature refuses to provide adequate funding.

Even in this economic downturn there is significant demand for transit in the New York area, and whether due to labor costs, government inflexibility or lack of funding it is clear that the public transit agencies are incapable of meeting that demand.

We know that private buses can meet some of that demand. Full-service bus companies with fixed schedules are making profits right across the river in New Jersey. Private jitneys (aka dollar vans) are making profits in Jersey, in Brooklyn and even here in Queens.

Private buses can help fight global warming, make our streets safer, make our energy supplies last, and give people access to homes, jobs and stores that they couldn't get to with a car. So why aren't they already running on your favorite bus route, and what can we do to change that?

Well, it turns out that it's really hard to start a new bus route in the city, much harder than, say, a restaurant. There are intercity buses like Greyhound, tour buses like Grey Line, and school buses, but they all have restricted stops. The "private" companies that were absorbed into the MTA a few years back were all legacy companies that had been established in the era of trolleys, and were operating buses owned by the City of New York under franchise agreements with the Department of Transportation. Under a similar arrangement, two Staten Island express bus routes are operated by Atlantic Express under contract to the New York City Economic Development Corporation.

As I read the law (and I am not a lawyer), the Transportation Commissioner has to personally approve every city bus company, every bus route, and every bus stop. They don't do it that often. There is only one bus line in the city that operates legally with private funds. That is the Williamsburg-Boro Park express bus that connects two Brooklyn neighborhoods with large Hasidic Jewish populations. Unfortunately, the company that runs it doesn't seem to be doing well, and the city is looking for another company to take it over. But it's notable that this one route was established by a community with a reputation for political clout; the Chinese and the Jamaicans have had no comparable success.

In the absence of full approval, most jitney companies are operating illegally. As far as I can tell, very few operators are just some guy who happens to own a van. Most are chartered as commuter vans. The legal way that commuter vans are supposed to operate is this: a company that owns a properly registered van applies to operate as a commuter van in a particular "zone." If the application is approved by the TLC, the company is authorized to pick up passengers - but only by "prearrangement," that is, when requested by the customer by phone, or by a standing agreement, in advance. The vans are not allowed to duplicate an existing bus route used by the MTA. If they followed all these restrictions, only a handful of companies would be able to make a profit.

It could be worse: from 1994 to 1999, the City Council had the right to veto commuter van applications - and did so 98% of the time. That part of the law was found unconstitutional.

In practice, commuter vans operate outside their designated zones and pick up passengers on the street. Since they do not have designated stops outside these zones, and they are not allowed to duplicate public bus routes, they often simply stop wherever they are hailed. This arrangement seems to satisfy most of the customers and yield profits for the van operators, but it can block car traffic, which seems to be the main complaint of Comet.

Unfortunately, the current system also seems to make it difficult to expand to new markets. That's what will help us towards our goals. For that, the laws will have to be changed. That will require a coalition that would either include the TWU or be powerful enough to overcome it, and at least some TWU members have negative opinions of jitneys.