Monday, June 28, 2010

Azumah gets to the core

Photo: Taggart for the Daily News
Last night the Wall Street Journal and the Daily News reported that Joel Azumah, an occasional commenter and subject of discussion on this blog, would begin running buses on the X25 and X90 routes abandoned by the MTA. Today, the Village Voice and WCBS said that the service was up and running with "10 bootleg buses and two vans." Somehow he turned into an Italian guy named Joe Lazuma, at least according to WCBS reporter Mike Sierra Nax.

Joel was a bit disappointed with ridership today, telling the Voice, "Suffice it to say, the numbers were a lot lower than I expected." However, he's already expanded his services to include the X29 route to Coney Island and the QM22 to Jackson Heights. And these are no jitneys: he is running a schedule that is very close to the old MTA schedule.

So how is Azumah getting around the city's anti-competitive laws that essentially make it impossible for anyone to start a bus service without being Hasidic, and extremely difficult for Hasids? How does he pick up passengers from the street without having to "go through the process the right way and explain their routes, business plan, information on their bus fleet," as a city official told the Journal?

Joel has a cute solution: he's not picking up just anyone, only members of the "Apple Core Transportation Club." How do you become a member of this elite cadre? You print out a PDF like this one from his website. Apparently there's a similar system for people who don't have internet access.

DOT staff have made noises to the media that indicate they may try to go after Joel. I hope that Goldsmith and Sadik-Khan rein them in and let Joel go ahead. What kind of government fails to provide an essential service, and then prevents anyone else from doing it?

In terms of ridership, I hope that Joel is prepared for a rocky start. He has tried to provide service before, on Staten Island and in New Haven, and wound up having to pull out. A new business, even if it's a field you've been in for years, often loses money for the first six months or more. It's by sticking in there and showing people that you're dependable that you gain their trust and loyalty. If he can keep running the buses for months, I think ridership will gradually grow. Oh, and a little on-board wifi probably wouldn't hurt.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Revised farebox ratios including weekend service

Commenter George K found a mistake I made back in May, in calculating weekend farebox recovery ratios for New York City Transit buses. Even though it clearly says (and I clearly repeated) that the average weekend fare was $1.29, higher than the weekday average of $1.14, I used the $1.14 figure to calculate the recovery ratio.

I've put up a new spreadsheet with the revised figures, along with averages for the entire week. Weekend service actually lifts five bus routes (like the Q58) into the rarefied realm of operating surplus, but brings four routes (like the Bx40/42) down below 100%.

Here are the 23 routes that earn an overall operating surplus or at least break even. Thanks, George!

RouteWeekday Farebox Recovery RatioTotal Weekday Cost Recovery RatioWeekend Farebox Recovery RatioTotal Weekend Cost Recovery RatioOverall Operating Cost Recovery Ratio

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Controlling passenger rail costs Upstate

Tri-State's Ya-Ting Liu is reporting that the State will have to start paying Amtrak $30-60 million a year to subsidize its long-distance trains, in addition to the $20 million that we currently pay for the Adirondack train to Montreal. In addition, upgrading the trains to Positive Train Control will cost hundreds of millions.

In that post, Liu does not give any ideas for dealing with these funding issues, so allow me to suggest two possible solutions, based on the Magic Formula for Transit Ridership. The idea is to reduce the operating shortfalls in Amtrak service. Amtrak's Empire Service is competing with the Thruway and the free Route 9 and Henry Hudson/Saw Mill/Taconic Parkways. If we reduce the subsidies to those competing facilities, the ridership boost on the Amtrak services should be enough to pay for the train operations.

As I've discussed before, the State DOT wants to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge at a cost of $14 billion dollars. As is customary for the State DOT, there are noises about "structural deficiency" and "bringing it up to interstate standards" of lane width and shoulders. There is a lot of concern about where the money would come from.

We can save a ton of money by simply reducing the number of lanes on the bridge from seven to four. The space freed up could provide ample shoulders and allow the lanes to be widened to interstate standards. The reduction in traffic would reduce the wear and tear on the bridge, postponing any reconstruction many years into the future.

Most importantly for this post, reducing capacity on the Tappan Zee Bridge would reduce the relative value of the Thruway and correspondingly increase the relative value of Amtrak service to Albany. This would lead to a shift from driving to train ridership, which would help to fully fund the train operations and provide a host of environmental benefits.

If the Tappan Zee Bridge is not enough, there are also plans to reconstruct the Patroon Island Bridge that carries Interstate 90 from Rensselaer to Albany, at an estimated cost of $104.1 million. (PDF). Reducing the number of lanes from six to four would provide room for wider lanes and shoulders, and make the Taconic that much less attractive for Albany trips.

There are a number of other projects that compete with Amtrak service, including reconstruction of the Major Deegan at $266 million. The capital plan is full of little $20-30 million projects for "free" roads and bridges. Why are they worthy of funding, while the State will have to scramble to find money to subsidize Amtrak service?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Black Hole of Transit Coordination

In my seven recommendations for integrating commuter vans into New York City's transportation system, number 4 is integrated fare payment. Commuter vans currently only accept cash, no Metrocards, no PayPass.

As I wrote, last month, transit benefits from good coordination. These can include a centralized information clearinghouse for routes, fares, schedules and policies, schedule coordination to minimize transfer times, and a single fare system to make transfers cheaper and more convenient.

These functions could really be performed by any entity, public or private. But in order to provide access for all and get people out of their cars, they need to be done effectively and sustainably. Surprisingly enough, that is not always a given. In fact, many people have done an astonishingly shitty job of it.

The best example is probably the Information Black Hole of New Jersey. Although New Jersey Transit has a good map of its rail lines, and both rail and bus schedules posted online, other carriers tend to get left to their own devices. The Port Authority has only recently posted links on its website to the bus companies that serve its bus terminals. To find out where the buses go and when, you have to consult the individual company websites. There is no information about buses and vans that pick up at the curb. Most shamefully, there has never been a comprehensive bus map for any part of the state, until 2008, when an individual volunteer began putting one together - which still includes very little besides New Jersey Transit buses. The New York transit map includes very little information about transit in NJ, just the main terminals and the PATH stations, and nothing at all about buses.

There may be some schedule coordination between New Jersey Transit buses and trains, but I don't think there's very much among any of the other bus carriers. There is most definitely none between NJ Transit and the Long Island Rail Road. Both train companies serve Penn Station, but you can't get departure information for both at the same time unless you're standing on the border between their two territories inside the station. If you're trying to get from Queens or Long Island to NJ, you have to spend a lot of time matching up schedules.

The only fare integration in the entire New York metropolitan area is the Metrocard, used among the various local MTA transit agencies and the Westchester Bee-Line bus system. It is accepted by the Roosevelt Island Tram and by the Port Authority for PATH trains and the JFK Airtrain, but only pay-per-ride, not monthly passes. Significantly, the MTA commuter railroads do not accept Metrocard, and neither do ferries, commuter vans or taxis. The Port Authority has introduced a contactless smart card on the PATH trains, which it hopes will be used regionally, but it has not implemented it on the Airtrain or on any of the buses that serve its terminals. The MTA has essentially ignored this smart card, instead running a pilot using Mastercard Paypass.

In a future post I'll talk about why information, fare and schedule coordination sucks so badly in this area, and what can be done about it.

A five borough van plan

Last night Andrea Bernstein reported that the the city was planning to announce a radical expansion of private vans, to compensate for the MTA bus cuts. New York 1 has the details from the Mayor's press conference this morning. Of the routes in Brooklyn and Queens that have been cut by the MTA, the city will choose "three to six" as pilot projects.

An hour before this, the Taxi and Limousine Commission approved a plan to replace the X90 bus with a taxi share stand at 71st and York. The taxis would cost $6 per person and go down the FDR to Water Street and end at the World Financial Center. Apparently the share taxi stand at 79th and York is pretty popular.

It occurred to me that this could be the culmination of a longstanding plot to privatize bus service, or some kind of brinksmanship to get real transit funding out of the legislature, but I think the best explanation is that the Mayor has come to the realization that Silver and Sampson will never properly fund the MTA. He sees it as a managerial challenge to provide good transit for the city, and if he gets to boost private companies and weaken a union or two, so much the better.

I have a few concerns with this plan, though. The first is the suitability of the routes. If they've been cut for low ridership, how does the Mayor expect them to work? Jitneys and taxis have lower overhead, but they can't conjure up profits out of thin air. If the routes were eliminated because they duplicated other routes, then the jitneys will probably succeed. If they are the only transit route to a given place, they stand a good chance of failing.

The second concern is that this would widen the existing divide between the "haves" (Manhattanites with $6 share taxis) and the "have-nots" (outer borough residents with $2 vans). It would establish two tiers of transit service to correspond to the existing two tiers of taxi service, and re-establish the two-fare zone.

This would be okay only if these two pilots are eventually integrated with the services offered by the MTA into a single system that would include a range of well-regulated options overlapping throughout the city, from private taxis to share taxis to jitneys to scheduled buses, eventually accepting Metrocards or their smart card replacements and allowing free transfers. Most importantly, it would include quality van service for upscale passengers who are willing to pay a premium to avoid lowest-common-denominator transit.

This has the potential to evolve into a system that could get people out of their cars and lead to an expansion of the constituency for transit. But it won't be easy. The Amalgamated Transit Union already held a low-key protest at the Mayor's press conference, and the tabloids are ready to jump on any problems that might arise. Transit advocates need to press for these conditions, in rough order of priority:

1. The city must pay enough for strict enforcement of all vehicle and traffic licensing, insurance and safety standards. A lot of money will be freed up by not chasing "neutral good" operators who are licensed but operating on unauthorized routes. That should be put to good use keeping riders safe and avoiding bad press.

2. The city must streamline the process of permitting new vans and share taxis.

3. Vans must have a decent chance of obtaining authorization to operate on routes anywhere in the city, regardless of whether there is an established MTA route. However, scheduled bus service should get priority in bus stops, giving them an incentive to anchor the routes.

4. The city and the MTA should institute a process where van operators can accept Metrocards - or whatever new technology replaces them - allowing a free transfer to other van services, or MTA buses and subways.

5. The city and the MTA should allow private companies to bid on bus routes, either existing MTA ones or private ones. These should be fair bids, not sweetheart deals aimed at divesting the MTA of valuable rights.

6. The city and the MTA should work to provide more quickways to help private and MTA buses compete with private cars on subsidized roads.

7. The city should work to find good layover locations for vans. They could work with the Port Authority to allow through-running so that the vans can be stored in Brooklyn, Queens and New Jersey.

If you've got a blog or a newspaper or a PR department, I hope you'll put out stories in support of these goals. Maybe you can find the time to try out the share taxis or the existing vans. If you're "just" an ordinary citizen, I hope you'll talk to your friends, write your legislators, and send letters to the editor in support of these goals.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Senate candidate worth fighting for

You may remember that two years ago the State Assembly killed a plan to charge drivers for using the "free" East River bridges - currently maintained with general tax dollars - and use the money to make up for funding cuts to subways, buses and commuter rail. Last year, the State Senate killed another version of the plan.

While it can be fun to put the blame on obstructionist leaders like Assemblymembers Brodsky and Dinowitz and Senators Espada and Diaz, the fact remains that even those legislators who were the most in favor, like Senator Duane and Dick Gottfried, gave very tepid support. The rest of the legislators clearly didn't see tolls as a win for their constituents, and were probably holding out for some deal that never materialized.

People all over the state are frustrated with the legislature for other issues like voting down gay marriage, shutting down the Senate with partisan squabbling, and the current budget craziness. There is probably more momentum for replacing the incumbents than at any time in the past.

Sadly, although some of the challengers this year would be better on LGBT issues or gerrymandering, most of them, like Michael Gianaris, seem content to continue lavishing our tax money on "free" bridges for solo suburban drivers.

But I don't want to be completely depressing. There are a few bright lights here and there. One of them is in Senate District 16 ("the Jewish Gerrymander," PDF), which has long been represented by the useless Toby Ann Stavisky. During the debate on the Ravitch Plan, Stavisky was "unalterably opposed" to tolls on the 4.5% of her constituents who use the bridges, but "excited" about the plan that wound up being passed - which turned out to be a total failure. One particular quote from Stavisky is amusing - in a frustrating kind of way: "One of the problems is that there’s a sense of distrust between the legislators and the MTA — well-earned I must say." Yes, she certainly worked hard for it.

In probably the most reassuring news about the Senate this year, Stavisky is being challenged by retired biologist Isaac Sasson, who will be spending a million dollars on the primary. How did a cancer biologist get a million dollars? He won $13 million in the Lotto in 2007.

Unlike many Senate candidates, we don't need to ask Sasson whether he's in favor of bridge tolls. In 1991, long before he was a multi-millionaire, he wrote a letter to the Times suggesting that while vehicles with three or more occupants should cross for free, those with two occupants should pay five dollars and those with only one should pay twenty.

Of course, per-vehicle tolls already provide an incentive to carpool: if the toll is $10, then two occupants each pay $5, and three would pay $3.33 (and take turns paying the extra penny). Maybe Sasson felt that carpoolers need an even greater incentive. Or maybe it's evidence of the lottery being a tax on people who flunked math. Either way, replacing Stavisky with Sasson would be a big win for the people of the 16th District, which is as much of a doormat for suburban cars as the 12th.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Happy kestrels help greenwash the New York State DOT and Toyota's campaign of sprawl

Painting: John James Audubon, 1832
One of the great ironies of John James Audubon's love affair with nature was that in order to produce his dramatic, lifelike illustrations of birds he first killed them with a shotgun and mounted their corpses on wires. It is likely that by stimulating interest in bird-watching, Audubon's paintings helped bring about current laws protecting endangered species, saving many more birds than Audubon himself killed, but the contrast is poignant.

There is a similar irony at work in a campaign being conducted by the society that named itself after the artist, on behalf of the American kestrel, a small falcon sometimes known as the sparrow hawk. With a $35,000 grant from Toyota, the New York Audubon Society and the New York State Department of Transportation are installing nest boxes for the kestrels along highways throughout the state. Pat Bradley, North Country bureau chief for the public radio station WAMC, filed a report complete with the sounds of nest boxes being constructed and cars driving along a highway - but sadly, one that failed to look past the press releases.

Bradley interviewed Laura McCarthy, Grassroots Coordinator for the Albany chapter of the Audubon Society, who says that the primary problem is the kestrel's loss of habitat, and in fact the kestrel was chosen as a poster child for the entire grassland ecosystem. What is causing this loss of grassland? "Development, commercial and residential," says McCarthy. In a word, sprawl.

And sprawl is a huge problem, particularly in New York's rural and suburban areas. In an excellent post, Joe the Planner observes that the area occupied by the Buffalo metro area has tripled since 1950 (emphasis in the original): "Buffalo's metro population has essentially remained unchanged for the last 60 years. With all the talk about population loss, it seems that many people don't realize this. Buffalo hasn't shrunk; it's just spread-out. This makes the effects of sprawl quite obvious because there's been no significant statistical muddying caused by changes in population."

Buffalo Assemblymember Sam Hoyt, sponsor of the State Smart Growth Public Infrastructure Policy Act, told Streetsblog, "There doesn’t seem to be any recognition that we keep building infrastructure where it doesn’t exist while, particularly in upstate cities, you have a vast network of existing infrastructure that is abandoned or unused that could be used for some development and save the taxpayers a whole lot of money."

The infrastructure is not just expensive, but it enables, invites and facilitates sprawl. Streetsblog's Noah Kazis tried to get Hoyt to acknowledge this, but it's not clear if Hoyt was avoiding the issue or if he just didn't get it. And who is the primary builder of sprawl-enabling infrastructure? None other than the New York State DOT.

In Pat Bradley's story, the DOT comes off as people who care. "Part of our job is to foster the environment," State DOT Region 1 Public Information Officer Peter Van Keuren told Bradley. On paper, that's correct; the DOT's mission is "a safe, efficient, balanced and environmentally sound transportation system."
Photo: Together Green, 2010
In practice, this is hogwash. Anyone who reads Mobilizing the Region knows that while there is significant variation from region to region within the agency, overall the State DOT never misses an opportunity to build a new one or widen an old one. Here in the city, they lost a fight to widen the Major Deegan, but are in the process of expanding the Brooklyn Bridge and are pushing to widen the BQE in Brooklyn Heights and over the Kosciuszko. Enabling sprawl for only $1.5 billion of your tax dollars.

The State DOT doesn't give a shit about the kestrel or any other part of the grasslands ecosystem. If they did, they'd be pushing Governor Paterson to appoint a permanent DOT chief who would pay more than lip service to smart growth, and focus on revitalizing existing communities. That's a battleship-turning maneuver worthy of Michael Bloomberg and Janette Sadik-Khan, but at some point it will have to be done.

As I'm sure you figured out, Toyota doesn't give a shit about the sparrow hawks either. If they did, instead of spending $35,000 on a few nesting boxes they'd be putting some of their $4 million annual lobbying budget behind Sam Hoyt's smart growth bill. Of course, smart growth means less driving, which means less driving in Toyotas, so don't hold your breath.

To be fair to the Audubon Society, they've been active in the smart growth movement. And bringing attention to the kestrels and the grasslands is very important. But Toyota and the State DOT have gotten a ton of good press from this. By contributing to the greenwashing of these two villains of sprawl without even exacting some concessions, they may have set back the kestrels' cause instead of advancing it.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Glamour and honesty

In my last post, I echoed Ben Kabak's criticism of Commissioner Sadik-Khan for the use of the term "surface subway." I think the phrase is dishonest, and if it gets more people to support Select Bus Service, then many of those people are going to be disappointed when they find out that it only brings a 10% reduction in travel time. This could fuel a backlash that could be exploited by status-quo politicians.

But hold on! I've been talking quite a bit about glamour lately. Glamour involves an escape from reality, so it is inherently dishonest to use a glamorous frame to sell something real. Doesn't that mean that I'm telling transit advocates to be dishonest?

To some degree I am. First of all, I think everyone should be aware of glamour, not necessarily that everyone should use it. Secondly, this is politics. Everyone is dishonest in politics. The real question is where honesty fits in our priorities.

I can definitely respect someone who makes honesty their top priority, but I don't think they'll find it very easy to get things done. In any fight you're going to be up against professional liars and dissemblers, and sometimes you need to fight fire with fire.

With glamour in particular, everyone has escape fantasies, and if they're not compatible with your goals they will hinder you. We need to get people fantasizing about high-speed rail so that they stop fantasizing about cross-country road trips.

At some point the reality diverges from the fantasy, and that is where we can draw the line between an honest PR campaign and a scam. If you take away the fantasy, is the person left with something of value? Something that they would agree is valuable?

For a non-transportation example, imagine a woman who is thin because she's on a unsustainable diet. A man notices her and they start dating. She goes off the diet and gains a lot of weight.

If she's a generous, caring person, or fun, or good in bed, and her boyfriend isn't a shallow jerk, he may stick around. He was drawn in by the glamour, but stayed because he saw value in her. On the other hand, if she's mean or crazy or a wet blanket he may dump her. He probably should have figured that out in the first place, of course.

For a transportation example, a lot of the seating on the TGV is cramped, and you can't open the windows. But it still gets you where you want to go quickly at an affordable price. People aren't switching from Ryanair for the glamour.

And now back to Bus Rapid Transit. If Select Bus Service promises a "surface subway" - a 75% reduction in travel time - but only delivers an 11% reduction, people are going to be pissed, or at the very least stay away. But if there is physical separation, bus cameras and/or signal prioritization, the reduction in travel time could be closer to 40%. I think that's substantial value.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

How the "surface subway" can hurt the real subway

A year and a half ago I called Aaron Naparstek out for using the phrase "surface subway" to describe bus rapid transit. Now the News is reporting that on Monday Commissioner Sadik-Khan used it to describe the plans for Select Bus Service on First and Second Avenues: "We are basically building a surface subway for the 54,000 riders who use this route every day," she told Pete Donohue.

On Wednesday, Ben at Second Avenue Sagas took the Commissioner to task for calling it a "surface subway." He pointed out that the main features that distinguish Select Bus Service from the existing M15 Limited are offboard fare collection and dedicated lanes. The dedicated lanes are not physically separated, though, which means that any jerk with a car who thinks he/she is more important than a bus can park there. Maybe they'll get a ticket, maybe they won't. There is no signal prioritization and no camera enforcement. The result is that while it takes 22 minutes to get from 125th Street to Houston on the Lexington Avenue line, Select Bus Service will only reduce the time on the bus from 90 minutes to 80. Finally, even the best Bus Rapid Transit can't transport anywhere near the number of people that a subway can, because the vehicles are just that much shorter.

In the comments to Ben's post, Marty Barfowitz defends Sadik-Khan:
“surface subway” is a metaphor. it’s a sound bite. it’s a fast, easy way to explain and sell a new transit concept to a public, a political establishment and a local press that barely pays attention to this stuff. [...] it’s, frankly, a bit ridiculous to suggest that the use of this term is “cheating” new yorkers. as if anyone is going to step aboard the SBS and think: hey, this is supposed to do everything a subway does! rip-off!

I have to disagree with the honorable Mr. Barfowitz on several counts. First of all, any poet will tell you that a metaphor is more than just a comparison. It involves an analogy between something that exists in one domain and something that exists in another. We already have surface subways, they're called trains.

Secondly, I think that people are going to do just that: step aboard and discover that it's just a bus with a few extra features that don't save nearly enough time. And they are going to shout "rip-off!" If the News can make such a big deal out of the "farebeating" on the Bx12 even though revenues are up 30%, they're going to make a big deal out of the disappointment over the "surface subway."

What is especially troubling is the fact that several people over the past few years have pointed out the apparent contradiction in spending billions on the Second Avenue Subway while cutting bus service for lack of funding. Some have suggested canceling the Second Avenue Subway yet again. Portraying Select Bus Service as a "surface subway" instead of as important bus improvements feeds into that argument. If we can have a "surface subway" at a fraction of the cost, what do we need to dig a real subway for?

The answer, of course, is that for a fraction of the cost you get a fraction of the benefit. But while Pete Donohue might get that, don't expect Steve Cuozzo to get it, and don't expect greedy Assemblymembers to refrain from using it as a handy excuse to steal more from the MTA budget.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The key to successful ferry service

Last Friday, Times City Critic Ariel Kaminer and Second Avenue Sagas blogger Ben Kabak both hopped ferries and filed reports on their experiences and ferry politics in general. Both end up heartily endorsing the prospect: Kaminer says "If a few hundred thousand more New Yorkers could commute to work with the sun on their faces and the wind in their hair, we might be so much less stressed that we wouldn’t even recognize ourselves." Ben says "If even enough people for a few boat rides a day find the taxis cheaper and more convenient than their current commutes, the ferries will have paid off."

I read Ben's blog regularly, and I consider him a comrade in arms, so it pains me to say that he's wrong here. We need to provide more access to underserved populations and get people out of their cars, and ferries can do that. But they will only have paid off if they're the cheapest way to accomplish those goals, and I'm not at all convinced that they are. We have a number of other ways, including buses and trains, that may be cheaper and more effective.

Both Kaminer's article and Ben's post attracted an uncommonly large amount of thoughtful and insightful comments, many of which pointed to problems with the proposal. One reason they're so insightful, and yet so critical, is that we've been through this so many times. I know I've seen at least three ferry services fail, and probably more, over the past fifteen years. And yet, politicians keep proposing new or restarted ferry lines, studies keep being published, and pilot projects keep being funded, only to die out when the initial funding dries up. They don't seem to ask why.

Kaminer's article contains this particularly bizarre section:
Right now, with the major exception of the Staten Island Ferry, all the city’s routes are privately operated, mostly by the NY Waterway (which gets a boost from Goldman Sachs, whose employees commute in from New Jersey) and the New York Water Taxi (which receives subsidies from the city).

It’s hard to imagine ferry service expanding very far unless it becomes a public initiative, an integrated system with coordinated schedules and MetroCard access.

Well, no. If New York Waterway is privately operated and makes a profit, why is it so hard to imagine other services making a profit? Why not examine the differences between the services and at least take a stab at what makes the difference between a profitable ferry route and an unprofitable one?

What is especially interesting is that the New York Waterway ferries are not just profitable. They have the highest operating surplus of any true transit provider: fares pay for 139% of operating expenses for NY Waterway, and 115% for BillyBey (I'll explain the difference in a minute). The only operations that make more are the inclined planes of Chattanooga and Pittsburgh, which are essentially tourist rides at this point.

These routes are so profitable that until 2005, NY Waterway paid the Port Authority $600,000 per year in rent on the land for its docks. That did eventually become too much of a burden, so Waterway sold some of its routes to a new company, BillyBey, which negotiated a new agreement where it would pay ten cents per passenger instead of that rent. (The BillyBey routes are still marketed under the New York Waterway brand.) But Waterway still makes an operating profit of almost ten million dollars a year (PDF, and BillyBey still makes over a million (PDF).

So what's going on here? Why does the same company make millions crossing the Hudson, but be unable to do the East River run without massive government subsidies? Well, I explained some of it back in 2007: sidewalks, buses, trains, hourly service, reasonable fares. But there's another reason: bridge tolls.

Is it any coincidence that the profitable ferry routes parallel the only profitable buses in the country? As I observed with the Lincoln Tunnel buses, the situation at the tunnel weeds out two classes of commuters: those who don't want to pay the toll, and those who don't want to sit in traffic. They take the bus, the train or the ferry. On the East River, those who don't want to pay the toll can take the Queensboro Bridge, and those who don't want to sit in traffic can take the Midtown Tunnel. None of those people wind up taking the bus or the subway, let alone the ferry.

There's one thing that will make the East River ferries profitable again: put tolls back on the four "free" bridges. If you're not willing to fight for that, stop wasting my money on ferry services that will fail after a few months.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The other transit union is lame, too

Remember back in April, when Streetsblog's Ben Fried interviewed John Samuelsen, president of the Transit Workers' Union Local 100? Remember how he paid some lip service to the idea of challenging the legislature on their zeroing out of the state's MTA contribution, not to mention their theft of $118 million in "dedicated" MTA tax money? But then he seemed much more interested in demonizing Jay Walder for not agreeing to transfer $100 million in stimulus funding from the capital fund to operating expenses? And he gave cover to Joanne Millman and Bill Perkins, in the hopes that everyone would forget that they were AWOL on congestion pricing and bridge tolls? And he revealed that the recently elected Local 100 executive board hadn't made up their minds about whether or not they supported congestion pricing or not?

Streetsblog commenter Marty Barfowitz had the best response, which deserves to be quoted in full. This guy should have his own blog!
The TWU is "still" debating congestion pricing? Really!? I don't recall them hardly discussing, debating or supporting congestion pricing the first time around. As far as I could tell the TWU was mostly non-existent on the issue when it really mattered. I never understood that. Now look: The transit system doesn't have any money and TWU workers are getting laid off left and right.

Niccolo: If you can point to something here on the Internets that shows Roger Touissant vocally and publicly supporting congestion pricing when it really mattered, I'd be happy to be enlightened. But as best I can tell the TWU under Touissant didn't do a thing on congestion pricing making them, in my eyes, the dumbest, most self-destructive union in New York state.

It's gonna be tough for those TWU workers to make their car payments now that they don't have a job. But, hey, enjoy those free East River bridges and your solidarity with the working class motorist, you geniuses.

Okay, so Local 100 is useless. But there are other unions at the MTA: several other locals of the TWU, plus a couple locals of the Amalgamated Transit Union. They're going to tell it like it is, right?

Sadly, they're not. Their longtime supporter Corey Bearak posted a press release (PDF) today. The fact that a transit union still works with Bearak, anti-congestion-pricing point man, should tell you all you need to know. But in case you wanted to be sure:
Residents, whether riders or not, must united to oppose these misguided and harmful actions. As a first step contact your state legislator to press the Governor and the MTA. Second, call 3-1-1 and demand that the Mayor who found the time to tape a commercial to urge Lebron James to play here to prevail upon the MTA to restore these cuts.

Note that this is not contact your state legislator to demand that drivers pay their fair share, or to demand that they restore the $118 million they stole, or the other $150+ million that they're currently withholding. This is to ask them to "press the Governor and the MTA." Oh, and call the Mayor to "prevail upon the MTA."

Press the Governor to do what? Prevail on the MTA to do what? "The City Council proposed averting service cuts through $90 million in unused federal stimulus monies to cover operations and applying some $50 million in funds currently allocated to pay-as-you-go capital." So never mind the billions we're paying to renovate our "free" bridges. Never mind the hundreds of millions that the state and city have cut over the years. Never mind the $275 million in "dedicated" taxes that the state legislature is using for its own patronage. No, the ATU wants to take money from the Second Avenue Subway and other capital projects.

Does anyone wonder why I'm getting sick of these unions? Private buses - blocked. Two chances (congestion pricing and the Ravitch plan) to raise funds for the MTA and boost ridership - no significant support. The Legislature steals "dedicated" funds - crickets. Cost of living stagnant and tax revenues down - insist on raises. Concern trolls like Millman and Perkins, and pro-car crusaders like Bearak - given a great cover as "transit supporters." I mean seriously - what the hell am I supposed to think when they pull this shit?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Glamour, habit and the single trip

In recent posts, I've examined the effect of glamour on people's choice of transportation mode - but separating out different types of mode choice. While it is transportation habits that have the biggest impact on pollution, health, safety, efficiency and society, glamour primarily affects those habits indirectly. It does that through the three other types of mode choice: single trips, investments and subsidies.

I talked about investments on Friday and subsidies last night. What about single trips? Well, single trips only count for our goals if they develop into habits. Let's take this example from everyone's favorite Federal Transit Administrator:
Yes, transit riders often want to go by rail. But it turns out you can entice even diehard rail riders onto a bus, if you call it a "special" bus and just paint it a different color than the rest of the fleet.

The problem with this line of thinking is what happens after that first bus ride. Let's break it down using the three other factors of mode choice, Availability, Value and Amenities.

If the bus doesn't go where Mr. Diehard wants to go (no Availability), then he goes back to driving. If it's slower, less safe and/or more expensive than driving (lower Value), he goes back to driving. If it has roughly equal Value with driving but differs on Amenities like on-board wifi, absence of loud cell phone talkers or the ability to pull into the drive-through Starbucks, he may or may not choose the bus based on that.

There is a particular light rail effect that Rogoff and other Bus Rapid Transit promoters are trying to replicate. In many cities where light rail has been built, such as Salt Lake City, Phoenix and Charlotte, the glamour of the train attracted curious riders, who discovered that it offered them Value over a parallel car trip. Based on that Value, they developed Habits of taking the light rail. Many even Invested in housing or jobs along the light rail.

Something similar has happened with the BRT in Curitiba and Bogota. Because the buses run in dedicated rights-of-way, they are significantly faster than driving, so people choose them over driving. People even invest in housing along the BRT corridors. It's not clear to me, however, that the BRT systems have glamour, or ever did, for potential passengers. (On the other hand, it's very clear to me that they have glamour for transit planners and bicycle advocates.)

Rogoff and friends have taken this to the extreme, thinking that all that's necessary is the glamour. Make it flashy, and people will ride it. Walter Hook gets into some of this territory with his "killer BRT vehicles" and "iconic stations" They often forget that Value is what converts a single trip into a habit.

Lest anyone think that I'm just anti-BRT, allow me to point out that Mike Dahmus has been making the same argument against rail projects that add no real value, and Jarrett Walker has been saying the same things about streetcars.

The Investment and Subsidy effects of glamour are significant, and not to be ignored. But let me suggest that the single-trip effects are wildly oversold. If the Value exists, people will find their way to the transit service and make a habit of it. Glamour can work as a short cut, getting the word out quicker about that value, but glamour is not value. If the value is not already there, people will figure that out pretty quick, and the service will fail.

Glamour + politics = subsidies

Recently in the blogosphere there's been some debate about the importance of glamour in promoting transit, cycling and walking. As I wrote yesterday, the doubters do have a point: when it comes to Habits, value beats glamour. A bus that shows up frequently and reliably and gets you there cheaper and faster than driving will have lots of riders. However, when it comes to Investments, glamour will often win out. Because glamour is at its core an escape fantasy, it prompts people to buy impractical cars and houses, take inconvenient jobs and put their kids in awkwardly located schools.

There's an even bigger way that glamour has an outsize impact on mode choice: taxation and subsidies. Many bloggers and authors have pointed out that if transportation were not subsidized at all, transit would have an advantage, or at least the playing field would be a lot more level. It's quite likely that the construction of the "free" Interstates 78, 80 and 280 in New Jersey contributed to the bankruptcy of Transport of New Jersey, not to mention the Erie Lackawanna and Lehigh Valley railroads.

When it comes to subsidies, I've suggested that if transit is more Efficient than driving, if people's Demand for a mode is based on the access it provides, and if the subsidies are based on demand, we would expect a continuous shift to transit. But people's Demand for a mode is based on a lot more than access, or Value, and a lot of that is Glamour.

Social psychologist Harold Mendelsohn seems to be the first to have observed that people "vote their aspirations more than their dispositions." The usually insipid David Brooks popularized the idea in 2003. And what are aspirations if not glamour?

Just as working-class people voted against high taxes for the rich because they hoped that they might some day be rich, many working-class Brooklynites didn't support charging people to drive a car into Manhattan because they hoped that someday they (or their children) would drive cars into Manhattan. They support highway expansion and sprawl-inducing lending practices because they hope that one day they will be driving to the McMansions.

So no, glamour does not directly affect people's Habits. It does, however, affect a single Trip, and more importantly their Investments, and their support for Subsidies. This has important implications for the way that transit, cycling and walking are marketed, and I'll get into those in later posts.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Factors and types of mode choices

In previous posts, I have outlined four clusters of factors influencing mode choices:


I also observed that there were at least three types of mode choices: per-trip, long-term decision and long-term investment. I've decided to rename them, as follows:


One reason that there's so much confusion around motivations for mode choice is that the four factors affect the types of decisions in different ways.

Availability affects all three decision types, but it's a slightly different type of availability. If I live in a small city with one of those three-loop bus systems, and Loop A is going downtown at about the time that I'm going downtown, and I know that I'll be coming back before the service ends at 6:30 PM, I may, for one Trip, say, "Hey, why not? Let's take Loop A downtown." But I wouldn't make a Habit of taking the bus downtown if there was a possibility that I'd have to stay late, or get home in less than an hour. I definitely wouldn't make an Investment in a home or a job that depended on Loop A - unless I had a bike or a car to serve as backup.

Value is important for Habits. It's not that important with Trips, because a single trip within a city doesn't cost that much. If I'm a teenager bagging groceries at a supermarket, it's probably not cost-effective for me to take taxis everywhere, but I may splurge for a cab on a hot date. Value should probably be the predominant factor in Investments, but it isn't always.

Amenities are not very important for single Trips. If you're running late or it's raining, you may be willing to stand on a bus. They're much more important for Habits and Investments, because these are things that you're going to live with for a long time.

Glamour definitely counts for single Trips; they can be a way to try out new modes and see if they live up to the fantasy. It's not so important for Habits, because it fades so quickly. To illustrate this, as I commented on Jarrett's followup post, think about the Hudson Line. It's exciting to ride along the beautiful river and look up at the Palisades, but I'll bet that most people on the 7:56 out of Croton aren't even looking at it. Fun gets real old after a couple weeks.

Where glamour makes the most difference, strikingly, is in Investments. That's because glamour is escapist fantasy, essentially, as Virginia Postrel observes, "life would be perfect if..." Life would be perfect if I got driven in a limo/drove a Miata/rode a fixie/rode the streetcar/walked to work. If I lived in a cabin in the woods/in a raised ranch with a backyard in Nyack/in a mansion in Scarsdale/in a condo on Park Avenue/in a loft in Williamsburg. If I worked on the road/in a modern office park in Lake Success/in a high-rise in Midtown/in a loft in Williamsburg/as a bike messenger. If my kids went to Bronxville High/Hunter High/the Dalton School.

All of these fantasies can override our calculations of Value. They can mess with Availability, but we come down to earth pretty quickly if that happens. They can mess with our Amenities, but that doesn't really matter. Where glamour really messes things up is when we wind up buying cars when we can get around fine without them, or when we buy a house in the suburbs when we were doing pretty good in that apartment in the city, or when we take that flashy job that requires the two-hour commute, or when we put our kids in the school that isn't on our way to work, so we just have to drive.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Transit riders' priorities, environmental priorities and the priorities of transit managers

I once went to a presentation on a transit bond issue, in a city of about a million people. The general manager of the city's transit department was there, and someone asked her how she got to work. She explained that she usually drove because the agency started running its buses so early, and sometimes she needed to be there to check in.

You might have thought that this was a perfect argument as to why they needed at least skeletal around-the-clock service. But it turns out that even in cities with 24-hour service, lots of transit employees and managers drive to work. It sorta makes sense for bus drivers: hey, they're drivers! It doesn't really make sense for anyone who works on the subway, and it certainly doesn't make sense for anyone with a nine-to-five job. But it happens way too much.

Transit riders want to see more and better service, so that we can get around quicker and with less hassle. People who care about global warming, street safety, obesity, oil dependence and things like that want to see mode shifts to get people out of their cars.

What do public transit managers want? I'm not a public transit manager, so I'm going to guess. If any of you out there are public transit managers, or know someone who is, then feel free to correct me or provide additional information.

If I were a public transit manager, I would want to see my career flourish and my salary go up. That means pleasing my boss, an elected official, which means more votes and campaign contributions. The main way that a transit manager can obtain votes and campaign contributions for an elected official is through good press. What gets good press? Grant announcements, groundbreakings and ribbon-cuttings, primarily.

What might get a little good press, but probably not enough to attract votes or donations? Service frequency increases. An increase in service hours. A study that shows efficiency gains. Increased ridership. Mode shifts from driving to transit.

What's not likely to get good press for the transit manager? A reduction in car usage, or a smaller-than-expected increase in car use, resulting in lower pollution, lower carnage, less oil use. Transit oriented development attracting new residents who don't use cars, or not as much. These are all positive, and may ultimately help the political patron get re-elected. But they're likely to be credited to someone other than the transit manager. Maybe the police chief, maybe the traffic commissioner, maybe a development agency. So even if the transit manager helps to serve the patron in this way, it's hard for the patron to understand that.

To sum up, transit managers only have a personal interest in transit expansion that comes with photo opportunities. They have very little to gain from mode shift. If they actually use the transit system, they also have transit rider's priorities, but otherwise, they have very little common interest with riders. If they happen to be environmentalists then they would share an interest in mode shift, but there's nothing that says you have to be an environmentalist to run a transit agency.

This is why I've never completely trusted transit agencies to lobby reliably for transit expansion and mode shift. And it explains the recent news, reported by Ya-Ting Liu and Yonah Freemark, that the American Public Transit Association is lobbying against the energy bill that would provide billions for transit.

Streetsblog DC reporter Elana Schor announced that she will be moving to something called Greenwire. If Liu is angling to fill her shoes - in function, whether at Streetsblog or at Tri-State - I think that would be great. During her year at Streetsblog, Elana regularly filed detailed posts about federal issues that were generally informative, but I often found myself scratching my head and thinking, "Yeah, okay, but how will this affect mode share?" For example, I've read at least ten articles about whether Congress will reauthorize the transportation bill this year or next year, and I'm damned if I can tell which option would be better for mode share.

Liu, and Yonah, have made it clear that (a) the American Power Act will increase transit's funding share, and thus likely its mode share, and (b) the APTA doesn't give a rat's ass about mode share. This is extremely helpful. I hope that in the future we'll see lots more posts from them both, explaining exactly how some debate in Washington will affect the issues that matter to us.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Anchoring the cascade

Image from Klein et al. (1997)

We know that jitney service can be profitable, as illustrated by the graph above, but that it requires a certain level of ridership (a "thick market" in terms of the authors of this graph). Below that there is a vicious cycle: jitneys run less frequently in order to allow more riders to collect at stops, but many riders will give up if they have to wait longer. In response, the jitneys run even less frequently, and eventually give up.

In theory, then, the route is completely unprofitable, and thus a candidate for subsidized "coverage" service. But with only coverage service, buses are infrequent, schedules are inflexible, and routes may be bent to serve low-ridership but politically expedient destinations. This can make the service less valuable to potential riders, which in turn can lead to "empty bus" accusations and make budget cuts more likely than they already are for coverage service.

If there is even minimal scheduled service, however, this changes. Economist Dan Klein, his student Binyam Reja, and the generally anti-transit Reason Foundation vice-president Adrian Moore have written an entire book about this, based on a fairly wide-ranging study of private bus transportation. They summarize their argument in an article for something called The Independent Review (PDF). I think that it should be read by every transit advocate, at the very least to get a sense of what is possible outside the box of regional authorities and "bus rapid transit."

Klein, Reja and Moore call this scheduled service an "anchor": if riders know that even if the jitney doesn't show up there will be a bus every fifteen minutes or so, they are more likely to wait. This means more passengers for the jitneys, so the jitneys will run more frequently. The presence of minimal scheduled service can make jitney service profitable - even profitable enough that the jitneys could cross-subsidize it.

Image from Klein et al. (1997)

This scheduled service could be run by a public agency. Klein and friends, being libertarians, come up with the novel solution of auctioning "curb rights": in exchange for providing scheduled anchor service, a company gets a separate bus stop where by law only it has the right to pick up passengers.

It seems to me that a similar minimum service could be achieved by simply paying a driver to make one unprofitable run every fifteen minutes, or even with a kind of insurance plan where drivers contribute a certain amount per week/month/year and are guaranteed a minimum amount per hour. This does nor have to be done by the government; it can be arranged by the jitney syndicate.

Let me reiterate that I am not a fan of libertarian ideology. I regard a small-government solution to an economic problem the way I would a ship in a bottle: an example of working within constraints that shows off the cleverness of the problem-solver. Practically speaking, though, we're being forced to build our ship in a bottle forged by the likes of Richard Brodsky and Pedro Espada. We need small-government solutions, because the amount of service we actually get from our current government is small.

We need higher-frequency, more flexible bus service, and Dan Klein and his friends have shown us how we can have it without depending too much on our corrupt, unrepresentative government. Let's use what they've given us, and if we ever manage to claw back some decent transit funding, we can decide what to do with it then.