Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Working Families Party wants the MTA to stop defunding itself

Streetsblog reports that the "Working Families" Party is at it again. After being completely AWOL in the congestion pricing debates, last year they came out with a "Halt the Hike" campaign that coyly refused to take a position on Dick Ravitch's proposal to toll the "free" bridges. Last May they asked candidates to support Bus Rapid Transit - but not necessarily to fund the buses. This February, in response to the planned service cuts, they targeted first the MTA, then Mayor Bloomberg, and finally Governor Paterson.

Yesterday, Streetsblog's Ben Fried linked to a petition on the Party's website, which is so short I'll just quote it in full:
Another Fare Hike? Tell the MTA No Way

The MTA just announced another round of fare hikes -- including a new, limited ride $100 monthly MetroCard. Enough is enough! Sign our petition to the MTA and help us reach our new goal of 5,000 7,500 signatures:

"Limited unlimited MetroCards for $100? Fuggedaboutit! The MTA needs to stop using fare hikes as a short-term fix and come up with long-term solutions to solve its budget crisis."

There it is again, that weird frame that anti-transit people use to attack government-run transit agencies. The WFP is pretending that the MTA is not a government agency, that its revenue streams aren't determined by state law, and that it has some kind of control over its income, like it can go out and take a second job washing dishes to pay off its debts or something. Congratulations, Dan Cantor! You're using the same kind of rhetorical sleight-of-hand that right-wingers like John McCain and Wendell Cox use to attack Amtrak.

This petition demands the impossible, and because it does so, it sets the MTA up for failure. It's like that stupid bully trick where the bully hits you with your own hand and says, "Stop hitting yourself!" In this case it's a tag team effort where the State Legislature is the bully, and the Working Families Party is the sidekick who gets to play the moronic - but sadistic - mind games. Stop defunding yourself, MTA! Heh, heh! Now make like a tree and leave!

Of course, "the MTA" doesn't have feelings, and Jay Walder probably has a good therapist to help him deal with the stress of running the agency. The bullies' real victims are you and me, the people who actually ride the subways and buses. When the MTA hits itself, we're the ones who get bruised.

Of course, the Legislature has been relying on the public authority structure to hide the fact that the MTA is the state that is us. The WFP knows that if they tried to hold every state legislator accountable for defunding the MTA they'd have nobody left to endorse, and if they don't endorse a large subset of the candidates they risk being seen as irrelevant, so they go along with the lie.

Unfortunately, it seems to be working. The WFP was looking for five thousand signatures, and they had more than that as of this morning. They've now raised their target to 7500 signatures, and they're at 6257 right now.

It may not be much, but I put up a counter-petition asking the WFP to deny its ballot line to those who voted to cut funding for transit. I threw it up in ten minutes, and the Petitionspot site is kind of weird, but I've already gotten 36 signatures today, with just a link on Streetsblog and a single tweet.

The Working Families Party is clearly afraid to deny its ballot line to too many candidates, because they don't want to be seen as irrelevant. I actually think it's the other way around. If they endorse only 10% of the candidates in a given year, they send the message that they've got strong principles - and the ballot line is that much more valuable to those who actually get it. On the other hand, if they endorse a candidate in almost every contest, then it becomes clear that they have no principles, that they just choose the lesser of two evils. That really lowers the bar, because all you have to do to get the ballot line is be slightly less evil than your opponents.

I kinda figured out that the WFP was a craven, spineless organization back in 2000, when a Working Families volunteer handed me a flyer supporting Hillary Clinton for Senate. I keep hoping that some day they'll grow up and figure out that it's okay to have principles and to hold others to them, and that you can wield power without turning yourself into a half-assed version of Ray Harding. Maybe next year.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Transit financing kludges

It's really amazing what you can do for transit when you have consensus. Today, Yonah compares the difficulty that the Obama administration has had in funding transit to the new French national transportation plan, which spends just 5% of its money on roads. This plan comes from the right-wing government of Nicolas Sarkozy, which is genuinely conservative and anti-immigrant on many issues. Unlike the Democrats in the New York State legislature, the French left is very progressive on transportation, and would likely enact an even more ambitious program of transit funding if they win power.

At least twice, Yonah points out that "the state lacks a long-term funding source for the commitment" in this plan. But he goes on to say, "the plan suggests that whatever money that is available will go almost entirely to non-automotive modes of transport." This is the key: if you have a pro-transit consensus, the money will be spent on transit. Maybe not immediately, but eventually. As long as that consensus is intact, France will move steadily away from the car-dominated visions of Le Corbusier and Georges Pompidou towards a car-free future.

What does Yonah mean by "a long-term funding source"? Presumably he means some combination of dedicated taxes and fees, like the versement transport payroll tax that funds 40% of transit in the Paris region, as he described in a previous post. As he discusses, the New York MTA is also funded by a combination of dedicated taxes and tolls, but they are mostly sales taxes of one kind or another, and bring in less money when the economy is down.

The example of France shows that here in New York these dedicated taxes and fees are a kludge. There is no consensus in favor of transit. Local politicians pay lip service to transit, but they show a lot more concern about parking meters and tollbooths than about turnstiles and fareboxes. They constantly piss and moan about how much money the MTA spends on capital projects, but if there is any opposition to large highway widenings it starts at the grassroots, and politicians only jump on the bandwagon when they start to worry they'll be left behind.

Since at least 1968, the elite politicians, planners and bureaucrats of New York have acknowledged the value of transit, but they've been unable or unwilling to forge a true consensus in favor of funding transit, like the one that exists in France. Instead they've relied on kludges like bridge and tunnel tolls, the Mortgage Recording Tax and now the payroll tax that are ostensibly "dedicated" to transit. In that way they were able to provide funding while maintaining the fiction that transit funding was a relatively small part of the state budget.

Kludges never last forever, though, and this one has now broken down. Pataki and Giuliani realized that they could cut the transit budget and borrow money to make up the difference, and they would be long out of office by the time the bills came due. This year, senators like John Sampson and Assemblymembers like Rory Lancman realized that they could actually take money from the "dedicated" transit taxes, and the collective immunity provided by mass voting would protect them - if not, enough people would be clueless or easily distracted by stories of "the unaccountable MTA," and "Walder's $350,000 salary," and lies like "two sets of books," that they would face no consequences for their actions.

Kludges are supposed to be short-term, unsustainable fixes, and not only should they have sunsents, but while they're in place people should be working to build consensus in order to provide long-term support. This was not done under John Lindsay and Nelson Rockefeller, it was not done under Dick Ravitch, Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch, and it hasn't been done under Bloomberg and Paterson. The French aren't relying on kludges, and we shouldn't either. We need to get some trustworthy, cooperative people who support in Albany, and then we won't have to worry about funding transit. It will happen because it's what should happen.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A simple solution to the commuter parking crunch

Today, Ben at Second Avenue Sagas linked to a Wall Street Journal article about the MTA's plans to raise parking fees at its commuter railroad stations. He ends on a note of concern that commuters who are priced out of their parking spots will drive all the way to the city instead.

I can reassure Ben here that this will not increase the number of commuters driving to the city. The article's author, Andrew Grossman, also could have reassured Ben if he had provided some important additional information.

The key here is that parking is in high demand along Metro-North and Long Island Railroad stations. Most stations have wait lists for their parking permits, at some stations customers can wait eight years. Fees vary from $200 a year to almost $1000. Some stations have implemented valet parking to try and squeeze more cars into lots.

I don't blame Ben for not knowing this, but I do blame Grossman for not putting it in his article. Don't tell me there's no one at the Wall Street Journal who's on the wait list for a parking spot at a Metro-North station. Grossman didn't bother to ask, possibly because it suited him and his boss, Rupert Murdoch, to have a story about the MTA vs. the unions, possibly because he was under a tight deadline and went with the simplest frame.

There's something else that Grossman left out. He is a transportation reporter, but he works at, you know, the Wall Street Journal, so you'd think that when he's writing an article about money he would ask someone who knows about money. Like WSJ economics reporter Conor Dougherty, who did a nice article three years ago about Donald Shoup and parking pricing. He might have been able to inform Ben that it's possible to set parking prices to keep the lots about 85% full, so that there is always a space for people who want to park.

Sure, some people will be unable to afford the more expensive fees, and maybe they will drive to the city, or maybe they will walk or take a bus to the train station, or even take a bus all the way to the city. Maybe they weren't even using the spots: the Times quotes Rye City Clerk Dawn Nodarse as a witness to all kinds of market distortions:
The problem fuels itself, she said: As the waiting list gets longer and longer, people who have changed jobs or even retired become increasingly reluctant to relinquish their permits, in case they need them again.

“Maybe they go into the city twice a month, but they know that it takes so long to get the permit, so they hang onto it,” Ms. Nodarse said. “We can’t force people to give up their permits.”

Whatever they do, their spots will be taken by those on the waiting list, who may be driving to the city today. At worst, there will be no change in the number of people driving to the city. At best, it may decrease the numbers. And in all cases, it will bring the subsidy level for the commuter railroads down a bit, closer to the level of NYC transit.

Of course, in the end park-and-rides are not the answer, and should have some kind of sunset provision. Maybe the MTA should just keep raising the parking fees past the Shoupian ideal, using the extra money to subsidize local jitneys and building transit-oriented development on the space that gets freed up.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Acting without consensus

As I wrote a few weeks ago, the best way for a community to accomplish anything is through consensus. History is full of "leaders" who just had to Act Now, and couldn't wait for consensus. Interestingly, many of the most dramatic abrogations of consensus involve leaders who were reacting to an existing breakdown in consensus. Think of Caesar crossing the Rubicon: there were already other Roman leaders who were operating as dictators, and he just wanted in on the act.

There have been dictators and strongmen throughout history, and there are areas where people seem to agree that consensus is not a good idea. In theory, the military operates in a top-down fashion, and there's only one captain on a ship, but in practice if you read accounts of the best military commanders and ship captains, they are constantly concerned with getting their crew to buy into the mission. If they fail, history is full of rebellious army officers and naval mutinies.

In practice, strong leaders are not always followed by other strong leaders, so any dictatorship is unsustainable. If democratic institutions promoting consensus are not in place, dictatorships tend to degenerate into corruption once the strong leader has passed from the scene.

Even when consensus-oriented institutions are in place, many people have created competing authoritarian or corrupt institutions. Corporations were one such tool: the Dutch East India Company had the right to rule its ships and colonies without the kind of consensus typically required in the home territory. These state-chartered corporations are the Renaissance ancestors to our modern authorities.

Actions taken without consensus tend to provoke a backlash, which can not only wipe out the original actions but go even further. The reactions to highway-builders like Bob Moses have played out in "freeway revolts" and the livable streets movement.

People who are expected to cooperate with the actions without first consenting can work half-heartedly, if they don't actively undermine the actions; this is probably most obvious when drivers double-park in bicycle lanes. There is also the risk that some of the people involved will not completely understand the rationale, and will thus pervert it in some way. The prime example of this last is the park-and-ride, which started out as a crutch to support transit, but became a means of allowing drivers to use long-distance transit without supporting local transit or walkable neighborhoods.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Deficiency bait-and switch

Today, Transportation Nation breathlessly tweeted that "One quarter of U.S. bridges are deficient, One in FOUR." My god, I thought, that's awful! There are days when I cross at least four bridges; what if one of them falls down? But in all honesty I took it with a grain of salt. I've heard stuff like this before, you see.

If you read the blog post and the full report (PDF), you'll discover that a quarter of all bridges are "structurally deficient or functionally obsolete." Functionally obsolete means "inadequate for today's traffic." Oh.

To give you a sense of the difference, the Throgs Neck Bridge is structurally deficient. Large trucks are only allowed to cross at night when there's very little other traffic, because in 2005 the bridge engineers discovered big cracks in the concrete. By contrast, the Whitestone Bridge is only functionally obsolete: it has relatively narrow lanes and can't carry as much weight as the State DOT thinks it should, but otherwise it's in good shape. In neither case are we talking about something like the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis.

Apparently, though, in the minds of congressional staffers, "a lot of people want to drive over them (usually for free) and that means that sometimes they have to slow down" is exactly equivalent to OMG THE BRIDGE IS FALLING DOWN EVERYBODY PANIC!!!" In this mindset, both are equally deserving of funding, and the fact that together they make up a quarter of the total means that Something Must Be Done. Forget about transit, about unemployment, about global warming, the bridges are going to fall down and we need to spend money now!

If you look at the actual data that went into the report, it's the last line on this table. Out of 603,245 bridges, 71,179 are Structurally Deficient (12%, which is more like one in eight than "one in FOUR") and 78,468 are Functionally Obsolete (13%) for a total of 149,647. The Federal Highway Administration thoughtfully provides area totals as well, so that we can see that the Structurally Deficient bridges only comprise 9% of the total surface area of the country's bridges.

Turns out I'm not the only one who's jaded by this annual "infrastructure madness." Jack Shafer wrote about it last year for Slate. The entire post is worth reading, but my favorite quote is this one:
So credulous is press coverage that reporters almost never ask whether some Rust Belt bridges might be redundant or economically superfluous because industry and population have moved on. And just because a bridge occupied a place on the traffic grid once shouldn't give it a right to eternal service.

I would add that somehow every time a bridge is slated for rehabilitation or rebuilding, it always seems to wind up with a few extra lanes tacked on. So there's actually a triple bait-and-switch going on: you're willing to spend money to prevent heavily used bridges from collapse, but you wind up spending a lot more to (1) add lanes to (2) relatively unimportant bridges that are (3) not in any danger of collapse.

We kind of expect credulous reporting from mainstream outlets like the Star-Tribune. But how about some healthy skepticism from public radio reporters like Andrea Bernstein? Or transit advocates like Veronica Vanterpool? We're counting on you, guys. Don't get taken in.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

It still has to be transit-oriented

Planetizen links to a post by Chuck Wolfe that synthesizes recent discussions by Jason King on the rise of "urbanism," Roger Lewis questioning "transit-oriented development," and Liz Dunn on supplementing WalkScore with a "JaneScore." Wolfe puts it all together to come up with "urbandwidth," which is just an awful, horrible word.

I'm trying to figure out just what's so awful about "urbandwidth." I think it's partly the stress mismatch that screams, "I'm a naive neologism!" Combine URBan with BANDwidth and you get the URB clashing with the BAND and you don't know which to stress. Is it some kind of ur-bandwidth, the rate at which Abraham received information? What is "bandwidth" doing in there, anyway? Is Wolfe arguing that information access is the critical measure of the value of a society? If so, why?

King is certainly right that people are using - and modifying - the word "urbanism" in all kinds of ways now, and that's good. I think that Dunn is right about WalkScore not telling you everything you need to know. It tells you about the availability of walking routes to important destinations, but it says nothing about their value, amenities or glamour. Lewis is also right that walkability is important.

There's more to livability than urbanism, though, and Lewis is quite wrong when it comes to discounting transportation-oriented development. I'll start with the "urbanism" issue. I've lived in cities for most of my life, and I love them. I don't believe that it's sustainable for most of the population to live in small towns or suburban sprawl, much less in individual houses in the middle of nowhere, even if that's what they say they want.

I do believe that there is room for some diversity in living styles. No matter how many people live in cities, there will still be some areas that we would consider "country" or even suburban. We can do that in a sustainable way. The key is getting people away from car-dependence, and that means high local density even in a context of low global density: suburbs built around streetcars and commuter rail, and country towns and villages built around train stations and bus stops.

There have been copycat movements for "new suburbanism" and "new ruralism" (PDF). As you would expect from something promoted by Joel Kotkin and Randal O'Toole, "new suburbanism" comes with boatloads of sneering populism and misinformation about cars and the desires of so-called real people. "New ruralism" started as a marketing term for a particular kind of retirement community, but at least it's not divisively attacking latte-sipping strawmen.

I agree that the term "transit-oriented development" is awkward, and I would be happy to drop it and "urbanist," but I can't get completely behind Lewis's walkability. There's no question that walkability is essential, but honestly I take it for granted. It's just the natural way of things, and any built environment that can't be walked in is a sick system. I think that if people manage to see their environment from outside the sick system they realize that, but I don't see any way to convince them other than by showing them. A campaign for walkable neighborhoods seems like a campaign for edible food or breathable air, but then again...

The problem with focusing so much on walkability is that sometimes people do need to go beyond walking distance. If someone lives in a walkable rural village, they can visit their friends, pick up the mail and get a pound of salami, all on foot, but the village probably can't support a clothing store. If someone lives in a walkable suburb with all their daily needs plus a bookstore, a movie theater, some restaurants and a few boutiques, sometimes they want to go to a poetry reading or listen to some reggae. Even in Greenwich Village, where you can be within a short walk of a mind-boggling smorgasbord of dining, shopping, work and entertainment, sometimes you want to go to, say, Carnegie Hall or the Museum of Natural History, or even to Bear Mountain, and you want to get there faster than you can walk.

Bicycles can get you a bit beyond the village: our rural resident can bike to the big town and buy a skirt, our suburbanite can get to the reggae club, and our New Yorker can go anywhere in the city and suburbs. But if the rural resident wants to go to a poetry reading, the suburbanite to a museum, and the urban resident wants to visit another city, it's a bit too far to bike.

Finally, it's great when there are good jobs within walking or bicycling distance, but often times that's not the case, especially for people with relatively specialized occupations. Some jobs involve lots of travel over wide distances, as well.

For everything like that, there's transit. If you focus exclusively on walkability and don't provide transit, there are governments and corporations that are providing all kinds of incentives for people to get to those places by car. Sure, in developing countries and in past centuries people have walked for days to get places, but when the most convenient option is a car, most people will use it.

Living without cars is necessary to sustain our environment. Walkability is necessary for car-free living, but it is not sufficient. We need transit-oriented development. If you don't like the name, feel free to come up with a better one, but you can't get enough people out of their cars without transit.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Consensus, trust and bad faith

Here's the most interesting quote from Alex Blumberg's piece on consensus and the economy in Jamaica and Barbados:
Alex: For Tony Wolcott, it all comes down to one simple thing. Which, when he said it, I couldn't believe what I was hearing:

Tony: Trust and that to me is a key factor in the whole cohesion of the social partnership that we've got here.

Alex: The reason that I'm laughing is that you represent the employers of Barbados, and again, I'm putting this into the American context. It's just sort of hard to imagine an American leader of a business association talking about how much they trust the labor union. It just doesn't seem possible, right?

Part of the problem is simply that so many of the actors are obviously acting in bad faith. Marty Golden sits by and watches as the MTA fails to get proper funding, votes for the budget that strips $143 million from the agency, and then attacks Janele Hyer-Spencer for voting for that same budget. The TWU leaders make a mockery of the overtime rules that earlier labor leaders worked so hard to establish. Real estate mogul Bruce Ratner milks the MTA for all it's worth, even as it's preparing to cut subway and bus service.

How do you build the kind of trust that Tony Wolcott talked about? Well, one difference between Barbados in 1991 and New York in 2010 is that the leaders in Barbados actually seemed to care what happened to the country. I honestly think that on some level Bloomberg cares what happens to the city and state, and Paterson cares, and so does Jay Walder. At the very least, I think they want to be seen to have done a good job.

I have no reason to think that John Sampson cares about the State or even his legacy, and the same with Lloyd Blankfein and John Samuelson. All three of them just seem to be trying to milk the system for as much as it's worth and then retire to Florida. How do you establish trust with someone like that?

Ultimately, the thing to do is to reform the system so that dishonest politicians like Sampson and Richard Brodsky can't get the kind of power that they currently have, and so that greedy unelected business owners like Ratner have limited influence. I'm guessing that if we had trustworthy politicians and trustworthy business leaders, then the TWU - which as far as I know is a fairly democratic institution - would drop its defensive postures and begin to work with the others.

To accomplish this long-term goal, we have to reform campaign finance, ethics and patronage. There are several promising proposals in these directions being floated by Andrew Cuomo, Ed Koch and others; let's hope that at least one of them has some success this year.

At this point, though, reestablishing trust is a long way off, and consensus is even further. In the meantime, we need to use methods that don't rely on consensus, but we can't lose sight of the fact that they're necessary evils, and we need to plan for the day when they're gone.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Consensus through democracy

Last week I talked about consensus, with some good comments by Bruce and Alon. Consensus is how getting people out of their cars translates into stable government support for transit.

In order to build a consensus in favor of transit, you have to understand what people want, and convince the majority that transit can help them get it. You also have to convince a sizable minority that transit at least won't stand in the way of what they want. Those are hard things to do.

One way to get ideas out to people and work towards consensus is democracy. Some people confuse consensus and democracy, but they're not the same. We don't really have to imagine democracy without consensus; I would bet that most of us have had to put up with some half-baked government initiative that somehow got voted into law, like free Sunday parking.

We can also imagine consensus without democracy, for example with an enlightened monarch who manages to listen to everyone. It's not very likely, though; as Churchill observed, "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." Autocrats are generally pretty bad at listening to other people, and so are oligarchs. My main point is that democracy doesn't guarantee you consensus; it's just a helpful way to get there.

Okay, so consensus is the best way to get stable support for transit, and we don't have consensus yet. Does that mean that we should focus on nothing but building consensus, and reject any transit initiative that is not built on consensus? Emphatically no.

The road-builders are still building. In some cases they pretty much have a consensus (has anyone heard a peep against adding general-purpose lanes to the Kosciuszko?), and in some cases (like the Tappan Zee Bridge) they are forging ahead without a consensus. Every square foot of "free" road and bridge, every new parking space, makes it easier to drive and harder to build a consensus around transit.

We can certainly work hard to bring drivers into the pro-transit consensus, but it's much easier to get people to support transit if they actually use it, if they think of transit users as "us," and not "them." Every mile of rail, every vehicle-mile of bus service, brings us closer to a pro-transit consensus.

Now here's the key, and I hope you're still reading: these short-term actions that improve the transit network and/or make driving harder or more expensive, and thus help to build a long-term pro-transit consensus do not themselves have to be done through consensus. Sure, it would be better if they were, but let's not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Vacation listening

I've been a little busy with other things lately, but I wanted to give you a couple Roberto Perez interviews to listen to regarding the 72nd Assembly District, the "Dominican" seat in Washington Heights. As you may know, half-hearted transit champion Eric Schneiderman is running for State Attorney General. Adriano Espaillat, who notably failed to support bridge tolls, is running for Schneiderman's Senate seat, leaving his own Assembly seat open.

Angus bookmarked an interview that Perez did with candidate Julissa Gomez, where she argues that the "commuter tax" would probably not be a bad thing. As Angus points out, in the context talking about the commuter tax doesn't really make sense, so Gomez probably means congestion pricing. Honestly, I don't care what she calls it as long as she supports it.

I would like to add this interview that Perez had with former Assemblymember Nelson Denis, who is also running to represent the 72nd district even though he's not Dominican. It's a revealing look at how the Assembly works. At the end, he points out that "you can't vote to cut money to the MTA and then come back and protest the cuts that you voted for." He doesn't propose any real solutions to the transit funding problems, but it's better than the same old crap we usually get from transit people. You also get to hear a Puerto Rican say the word "finagle" when talking to a Dominican.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The power of consensus

My recent post about sunsets has attracted a number of comments, mostly relating to my argument that park-and-rides are not the answer. When I wrote that post, though, I was thinking more generally and just used the park-and-ride issue as a convenient example. I had a couple of other necessary evils and unsustainable goods in mind.

One idea that's been coming up again and again is consensus. The most striking recent example comes from Barbara McCann of the National Complete Streets Coalition, who visited Copenhagen for the Velo-City conference, and observed that "what is most remarkable in Europe is not a single engineering technique, but the political consensus that Complete Streets are a fundamental tenet of transportation system design, construction, and operation. From this consensus spring a whole host of facilities, policies, and attention to detail that results in a system geared to travel by people, rather than vehicles."

It's not just complete streets: Yonah Freemark observed a pro-transit consensus at work in Paris, and Dave Olsen found one in favor of both transit and complete streets in Hasselt. Certainly if we had a consensus in favor of moving away from cars and towards transit, cycling and walking we would be able to get a lot done.

I get the feeling that Jarrett Walker has been dancing around this issue as well when he talks about railways vs. democracy in India, or funding transit in Chicago.

It also comes up when people talk about Mike Bloomberg, Janette Sadik-Khan and Marty Markowitz, and in the past about Bob Moses and Jane Jacobs. The authoritarian Chinese and the military dictatorship backing Jaime Lerner in Curitiba have both acted to boost transit. How much consensus did any of these people have, and how has it affected their achievements?

It has also come up in this excellent episode of This American Life where Ira Glass and Alex Blumberg compare New York, Jamaica and Barbados. I think this should be required listening for anyone interested in financing government services in a tough economy. What I took away from it is that at one point Jamaica and Barbados were both at the place where New York is now. The Barbadian political, labor and business leaders worked together to forge a consensus, and their economy is prospering. The Jamaican leaders continued to attack and point fingers, and their economy got worse.

There's no question that consensus is a big help in accomplishing your goals. But is it the only way? The only sustainable way?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The value of glamour

I just discovered that a couple weeks ago Cyclelicious ran a summary of my series on glamour and transit. But Engineer Scotty's discussion of glamour made it clear that my original definition ("Everything non-tangible that affects mode choice: status markers, fantasies, the presence of attractive people (or conversely, their absence)") was not an accurate description of this concept as I use it.

Scotty's inclusion of things like aesthetic, status and self-actualization under the category of "glamour" are consistent with my previous definition. They're not wrong, but they don't fit the category as I actually use it. In fact, I'm using glamour in a very technical sense. I'm building on the concept as it's been developed by Virginia Postrel. Her best explanation to date is probably her Weekly Standard article "A Power to Persuade," and her best discussion of glamour in transportation is "Up, Up and Away" in the Atlantic Monthly. You can read more in Postrel's article archive, and at her Deep Glamour blog, which has frequent guest posts.

The understanding that I've gotten from Postrel's writing is that glamour is an illusion, and therefore it is unobtainable. It vanishes if you try to grasp it. Despite the multiple attempts by Postrel and her guest bloggers to pin down what's glamorous and what's not, I've come to the conclusion that it's an incredibly personal thing. Like anything personal, it may be shared by millions, but it may not.

Most critically, and I'm not sure that Postrel has come to this conclusion yet, I'm convinced that glamour is an escape fantasy. Her review of a book called Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House makes it clear how glamour's effect on people is proportional to their yearning for a different life.

Another important aspect that doesn't always come through in Postrel's writings is the distinction between having glamour and being dazzled by glamour. Glamour is a tool for marketing and advertising, whether you're selling computers, houses, cars, bus rides, government subsidies, politicians - or yourself, as a potential friend, mate or sex partner. By tapping into people's escape fantasies, you can harness that longing they feel inside and attach it to your product.

I would argue that it's a rare person who doesn't have some escape fantasies, so you shouldn't feel guilty about being susceptible to glamour. You should also keep in mind that eventually glamour wears off and reality sets in, and if you don't have some underlying value you're going to be facing some problems.

It seems to me that there are four ways that people can interact with glamour:
attraction, fascination, emulation and creation. If it helps, you can think about people being attracted by the glamour of Lady Gaga, fascinated by what makes people pay attention to her, trying to emulate her, and then Gaga herself creating the glamour. If you don't get Lady Gaga, pick your own glamorous woman: Marilyn Monroe? Marlene Dietrich? Danica Patrick?

In terms of transportation, let's take vintage streetcars. There's the attraction that many people feel to streetcars, and the fascination that some people have for streetcars. Just as with a glamorous icon like Marilyn Monroe, people have varying degrees of success when trying to emulate vintage streetcars, from heritage systems to modern streetcars to the tourist "trolleys" sometimes described as "transvestite buses." And just as Madonna created her own, new glamorous image while incorporating elements of Marilyn Monroe's image, the Portland Streetcar has built on elements of the old trolleys to create its own glamour.

In terms of the clusters of factors that influence people's choice of transit over cars, Glamour only refers to the attraction that people feel. The fascination that people feel for trolleys is only relevant to mode choice if it makes them feel attracted. We can emulate the glamour of other forms of travel, or create new glamour, in order to attract more riders and subsidies.

The effect of travel modes on people's personal glamour is actually not a Glamour factor, but a Value factor. It's fairly well-known that customers, friends and dates tend to be attracted to different degrees if they see someone on foot, on a bicycle, in a beat-up car, in a fancy car, on the subway, or on a bus. Who gets attracted to what is, again, personal and context-dependent.

The key is that the people who choose their travel mode in order to impress others are doing it not because they're attracted to the glamour (they may or may not be), but because they find value in it. Saying "I'll be so cute riding this bike" is about Glamour; saying "Guys will think I'm so cute riding this bike" is about Value. The Value of Glamour.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Republican strategy

Back in March, Streetsblog reported that of the $143 million that the State Legislature cut from the MTA budget last year, $118 million was actually from taxes that are "dedicated" to the MTA. The legislature engaged in some "creative accounting" and managed to un-dedicate them. You would think that this would be gravy for anyone who wanted to challenge an incumbent this fall, but many of the challengers are staying away from it. In large part this is because Democrats running in primary elections are often seeking endorsements from other incumbent state legislators who voted for this deal.

Republicans are under no such constraints, and one of them has finally taken advantage of this. Staten Island express bus rider Nicole Malliotakis is challenging incumbent Janele Hyer-Spencer to represent the 60th Assembly district (PDF) that covers a chunk of Bay Ridge and the South Shore of Staten Island. Staten Island is in an interesting position with respect to congestion pricing: they already pay a bridge toll, so the 5.9% of District 60 residents who drive to Manhattan on weekdays would not have had to pay any more under Bloomberg's plan. Despite that, as Ben Kabak writes, she campaigned against congestion pricing, the Ravitch plan and bus lane enforcement cameras, and still had the gall to organize a "rally" against the MTA.

A month ago, while announcing her candidacy at a B37 bus stop, Malliotakis and Senator Marty Golden slammed Hyer-Spencer for her actions. Two weeks ago, Malliotakis reiterated the argument in an interview with the Staten Island Advance.

Malliotakis got Hyer-Spencer to embarrass herself with the absurd claim that "You have to be able to understand the technical nuances of these agencies," which the Advance mocked in an editorial the following day. She followed this up with a letter to the editor that appeared on Saturday. Yesterday the Advance's Tom Wrobleski pointed out the central failing of democracy in the Albany system: nobody knew what they were voting for; they just trusted Shelly Silver that it would work out for them.

In the Advance article, Hyer-Spencer pointed out a flaw in Malliotakis's logic: her mentor, Marty Golden, voted for the same budget. I'll go Hyer-Spencer one further and observe that during the negotiations on the Ravitch plan, Golden could have worked with progressive Democrats to establish a grand coalition in favor of rational pricing to balance out the massive driving subsidies that put bus riders at a disadvantage. That would have neutralized the power held by the Fare Hike Four as the most conservative and power-hungry members of the Democrats' slim majority. Instead, Golden decided to sit on his hands and let the Senate defund the MTA, betting that the Democrats' foolishness would bring his party back to power next year.

We can go even further than that. Malliotakis's big qualification is that she worked as the constituent liaison to the area for Governor Pataki, but of course Pataki was responsible for some of the worst cuts to the MTA budget - with the help of the Assembly Democrats and Senate Republicans, of course. It's kind of hard to portray yourself as a Pataki protege and a transit supporter at the same time.

Of course, that's the problem with big-party politics in New York State: it really helps to have endorsements, but some of the most powerful politicians on both sides are so anti-transit that it's hard not to kiss up to at least one troglodyte. If Malliotakis had decided to run as a Democrat and challenge Hyer-Spencer in the primary, who could she have gone to for an endorsement? Vincent Gentile? Lew Fidler? Carl Kruger?

So Malliotakis takes who's available and goes with it. She didn't have to choose this issue to attack Hyer-Spencer on, but she did. Hyer-Spencer voted for same-sex marriage and GENDA, and replacing her with a typical Republican would be a setback for those issues, but Malliotakis probably wouldn't be a typical Republican in the Assembly. In 2002 she interviewed Chazz Bono, the child of Sonny and Cher, who was then out as a lesbian and has since transitioned to life as a man, and was very sympathetic about Bono's relationships with women. She seems like much more of a libertarian. I wouldn't be surprised if her outrage about the Assembly's thievery is genuine.

For the Republicans, though, it looks like their strategy of letting the Democrats embarrass themselves and then moving in to take over is backfiring. The Capitol is reporting that their campaigns are having a much worse time than expected.

I am not a Republican, but let me suggest an alternative strategy for Golden and other Republicans who want to regain power in the state. How about actually leading? How about thinking of the interests of the entire state, not just your own party and its members?

If Marty Golden, or Brian Kolb, want to help New Yorkers get to work, they can reach across the aisle to Tom Duane and Dick Gottfried and find a way to toll the bridges. They could even appease their Republican base by bringing in some private companies to run transit, as long as they do it right. People remember that Pedro Espada came up with a crappy plan that fell apart a few months later. If Golden came up with a good plan that stuck, I think people would remember that too.

Maybe Golden will pass up the chance to be a grownup on this issue, preferring to play power politics. Maybe Malliotakis will wind up being the adult.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Values are personal, and also communal

A couple weeks ago, Engineer Scotty reworked his list of transit values, taking into account the four clusters I suggested: Availability, Value, Amenities and Glamour. In general I like his classification, but I have to disagree with him in a couple of areas.

In this post I'll deal with the notion of amenity as opposed to value. As I wrote in my original post, "This is where most of the individual variation comes in: one person's value is often another's amenity." Scotty takes the opposite position: "Value includes factors that any reasonable user might take into account, and aren't dependent on personal taste or preference. Important value-based factors include cost, timeliness, and safety."

Any salesperson will tell you that some factors matter a lot to some customers, and not at all to other customers. Wealthier people tend to be less sensitive to small variations in price (but they're not always). People who are retired, lazy or just generally more relaxed will care less about timeliness. Tough guys and tough women will care less about safety. To many of these people, low price, timeliness and safety may be amenities, not values. On the other hand, they may really care about onboard wifi, the daily bridge game, or whether they have to stand in the rain.

So why bother distinguishing between amenities and values? The distinction matters on the individual level, but also on the aggregate level, since different communities will value the same factor differently. It's commonly thought that people who live in small towns tend to hurry less than people in big cities.

Communities can also change their values over time. For example, a big selling point of cars used to be that you didn't have to walk as much. But now that people are getting obese, they're starting to reconsider. Weight Watchers dietitians recommend that car drivers who want to lose weight park far from their destinations, and transit riders get off the subway a stop early, to get in extra walking.

Being aware of these community values and how they vary and change helps us to better understand what will get people out of their cars. Of course, there are universal tendencies that lead people to place a lot of value on time and money, but they are not exceptionless. The answer is not to retreat into facile assumptions like "Atlantans really love driving," but to understand what it is they love about driving, and whether it's possible to provide that with transit. Assuming that everyone cares equally about timeliness, price and safety can lead to one-size-fits-all solutions that will not always work.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Appreciating sunsets

Photo: Mhilsenrad / Flickr
There's a particular theme I've been noticing more and more lately: strategies that are either praised as universally good or condemned as universally bad, but that are in fact neither. Some are quite good in the short term but unsustainable; others are generally bad but tolerated as necessary evils.

Borrowing money at interest is the ultimate unsustainable good. It's nice to have the cash flow, but in addition to the expense of debt service you sacrifice some long-term autonomy.

Park-and-ride lots are a good example of a necessary evil. Long term, they are not the answer, but in the short term they may be necessary to build a constituency for transit.

What these unsustainable goods and necessary evils have in common is their term limits. In the long term we want to see them go away.

There are two dangers here. The first is that we may not realize that something good is unsustainable, or that a necessary thing is actually evil. Then we might keep borrowing after the need is gone, or keep building park-and-rides that aren't necessary. The person who started the borrowing or the park-and-ride may know that it's not sustainable, but fail to pass that information on to those who are in charge later.

The second danger is that many short-term solutions have a way of sticking around. Someone can divert the borrowed money into something that doesn't actually help increase income. Or the park-and-ride can develop its own entrenched constituency that resists any attempt to remove it.

Here's what we can do about this: first, be mindful and recognize when strategies are unsustainable. Second, make sure that everyone else knows it. Third, when implementing an unsustainable strategy, develop a complementary sunset strategy. Take out a loan with a fixed term, and dedicate part of the income to repaying the loan. Rent the land for the park-and-ride from someone who will have an incentive to redevelop it with transit-oriented businesses or residences.

In future posts, I'll talk more about unsustainable goods, necessary evils, and ways to sunset them.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Transit riders' priorities and transit agencies' priorities

If it's good for transit to have information available, then why do we have information black holes like in Northern New Jersey? Competing priorities, that's why. Maybe some complacency, too.

The City of New York is interested in development of the City. It recognizes that suburban commuters contribute to that development, but until recently has seen its role primarily as a facilitator of car commutes through its free bridges. Only recently has anyone in city government shown an awareness of the value of getting those suburbanites to take transit.

The State of New York is interested in the economic development of the State. Its agencies, including the MTA, have no incentive to make it easier for people to go to New Jersey. The MTA also runs subways and buses, and sees private bus lines as competition for its services.

New Jersey Transit sees part of its mission as getting commuters to Manhattan, but has no interest in anything that doesn't cross the river. It runs trains and buses, and is barred by law from destructive competition against private operators, but it doesn't want to give them free publicity, either.

The Port Authority is concerned with movement across the Hudson and economic development on both sides, but doesn't care about anything that happens too far from the river, except for the airports it runs. It produces maps for its PATH train service, but not for other organizations.

Small operators don't have the time or money to produce and distribute information about other services, but if they did, what would they get out of it?

It's a bit more of a mystery why medium-sized consolidated operators like Coachusa don't bother even printing a map of their routes on their websites. Of course, as commenter Busplanner points out, transit mapmaking "is a very slow and costly process."

Mapmaking certainly was a very slow and costly process, and I think a lot of transit operators are still thinking along those lines. But I don't think that's true any more, in this age of global positioning systems, geographic information systems and Google Transit.

Take your average college graduate and give them a one-month course in GIS. In another month, they could put out a very good county bus map, or a decent draft of a statewide map. Probably a lot less than a month, right? I don't know, but it seems likely to me.

Other reasons I can imagine are inertia and impatience. Coachusa is making millions off of its service. It's cheaper and faster than driving, so people keep taking it. It's pretty close to a guaranteed monopoly, so why bother putting in a lot of effort to get more? There's also no immediate reward for producing a map or any other kind of information product. You may get a bunch more single trips, and a number of investments, but it takes time for those to translate into habits. The value is not obvious, so it is often overlooked.

I'll talk about some possible solutions in a future post.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Information, social networks and the single trip

Adirondacker12800 has a lot to disagree with in my post about New Jersey, one of our local Transit Information Black Holes. There are basically two points that Adirondacker makes: that the bus networks in New Jersey are too complex to provide a useful map for, and that people get around just fine, so why make maps?

The reason is that, in order to achieve the goals listed above, we want to expand transit's reach past the current social networks. Even if it's true that only spatial navigators read maps, and only "foamers" try new transit routes on a whim, these map-reading transit buffs are one way that the use of a new transit system can spread from one social network to another.

But this is only one kind of mode decision, habit. As I wrote before, there are three others: single trips, investments and subsidies. Glamour has a much bigger effect on these decisions than on habits, and so does information.

Transit information can influence how people see themselves and their neighborhoods. Think of how ubiquitous subway bullets and maps are in media relating to New York, and Underground symbols in London. The "freeways" and boulevards of Los Angeles fill a similar role. People who live in a neighborhood without a subway station, like Maspeth, think of it as a neighborhood for cars, but people who live in Ridgewood think of it as a transit neighborhood.

A person who's heard about a particular destination and wants to visit will usually take transit if it's presented as a reliable way to get there, which is why restaurant reviews and entertainment listings should include basic transit information, especially in suburban areas where transit use is not assumed.

If someone's moving to, say, Fairview, where they can't see a train line on the map, they may assume that no one takes transit and buy a car. Once they've got the car they have an incentive to use it. People who don't want to drive may avoid Fairview altogether, depriving those buses of farebox revenue.

On the other hand, if people see that there is frequent bus and van service, they may choose to move there and not own a car, contributing to the critical mass of transit riders.

Information can also influence subsidies. If politicians don't see their districts on a transit map, they may conclude that all their constituents drive. As a result, they may cut transit funding or push for driving subsidies.

Adirondacker also mentions several attempts to map buses in New Jersey that failed to stem the exodus to cars. No examples of such maps were provided, but given that people have succeeded in producing relatively readable bus maps of Queens and the Paris suburbs, I think they can do it in New Jersey.

One strategy that Jarrett has mentioned several times is a frequent network map. While I think the concept has some limitations - if your goal is for every route to have frequent service, what happens to your map when you reach that goal? - it's a good start.

Today, Jarrett mentions the excitement he felt as a teenager, watching the buses in Portland's Fareless Square:
I remember that because it's the same excitement that many of us have felt in an airport, or a great European train station, when we see a departure board showing all the exotic places to which people are departing. In the entire passenger transport experience, this is the moment that offers the most visceral sensation of freedom -- look at all the places I could go, from right here! -- and as the car industry can tell you, creating a sensation of freedom is the key to success. Urbanists need to think more about this sensation, because it could help them describe transit mobility in a way that connects it to things that we all value. Things like freedom, and joy.

I would argue that maps have the same glamour effect on people - and not just spatial navigators. Don't discount the value of that sense of the possible in transit: whether it's a map, a timetable, a departure board, a view of a bustling transfer point, or an announcer's voice on the PA, we see transit as full of possibilities. We could go to Basingstoke or Reading! Massapequa, Massapequa Park! Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga!