Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What you get when you make hasty generalizations

On Monday I pointed you to a Times op-ed by Elliott Sclar and Robert Paaswell, and observed that they chose to focus on the private transit systems of third world cities like Calcutta (which in that particular spelling is practically shorthand for crowds and squalor to most Times readers) and ignore the reasonably clean and safe vans in New Jersey and Chinatown. Last night I showed how this guilt-by-association game leads to a number of erroneous conclusions.

First, I want to discuss one bizarre point in the op-ed, the parenthetical aside in this paragraph:
Indeed, even though the van companies are already operating on the former bus routes, the Taxi and Limousine Commission has not added enough personnel to cover its new regulatory responsibilities. (It’s worth asking why, if such funds were available, the city shouldn’t reinstate some of the bus routes instead).

Sure, it's worth asking. There are no dumb questions. But an answer comes to my mind pretty quickly: one TLC enforcement agent can monitor several routes. One agent is a lot cheaper than the number of bus drivers needed to run all those routes. So it's worth asking why, if I answered this question right away, the guys who run two prestigious academic institutes couldn't come up with the answer before their op-ed went to press. My guess is they didn't want to know, and they thought it would make them sound clever. Not exactly.

Here are a few more of their erroneous conclusions, which happen to result from applying their selective methods to perfectly accurate observations. Sclar and Paaswell are correct that appropriate regulation is necessary for transit to be an effective tool for achieving our goals. But they make a mistake in conflating public ownership and regulation. In reality these are not the same thing. You can have poorly regulated government enterprises; the MTA is often said to be one. You can also have well-regulated industries that are privately owned, like restaurants. If the authors are Communists who believe that everything should be run by the State, they don't say that upfront, and if they're not Communists they don't make a good case for transit being treated differently from food preparation.

Once established, Sclar and Paaswell argue, transit providers can become organized and entrenched, protecting their interests at the expense of the public. They are correct here: I can think of one city in particular where a "cartel" of transit operators has jealously guarded their monopoly even though the public winds up paying more money for less service. Unfortunately for their argument, it happens to be our city, and the cartel is the Transit Workers' Union. They may not engage in the kind of violence that the authors breathlessly related, but they are certainly succeeding in stifling innovation and impeding efficiency measures.

In this op-ed, the argument I'm probably the most sympathetic to is the one about employee wages and hours. I strongly believe that everyone deserves a job with decent pay for a reasonable workday. But it doesn't make sense to fight this battle in every workplace. Transit cannot shoulder the burden of social justice by itself. There are other social goals that I consider more important than maintaining the wage levels of unionized public-sector transit workers. What does it matter how much you're earning if you spend most of it on Metrocards, or if you're obese, your wife gets run over, your kid has asthma, or your house gets flooded.

I am also troubled by the hours worked by van drivers, but I'm equally troubled by the amount of overtime racked up by MTA workers. I don't want to see anybody overworked, no matter how much they get paid for it.

In contrast, Sclaar and Paaswell don't seem concerned at all about the amount of overtime that MTA operators are working. That makes me think that they don't really care about the hours anyone works. They just know that other people might care, so it's a handy thing to throw at the vans.

And I think that's the bottom line. This op-ed isn't science, and it's not journalism. It's a couple of cranky old guys who've been doing things a particular way their whole lives: publicly owned, unionized transit. That way is running into some difficulties, so someone tries a different approach: private jitneys. This also happens to hurt their friends in the union.

Do Sclar and Paaswell actually go try the vans? Do they ask around to find out how vans can be successful? No, they start from some prejudices they formed on a cramped bus ride in Rio, and brainstorm all the bad things they can think of about jitney service. They edit it (sort of) into an op-ed, and presto! Top of the Times opinion page. Yay.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

More ivory tower nonsense

Yesterday I told you about a very sloppy Times op-ed by Elliott Sclar and Robert Paaswell. The authors link private jitney service to third-world cities, suggesting that they're necessarily dirty, dangerous and foreign. They ignore the jitneys that ran on New York streets in the early part of the twentieth century, which were emphatically not foreign, the Brooklyn and Chinatown "dollar vans" that may sometimes be dirty and dangerous, and the New Jersey vans that are fairly clean and well-regulated, but are not particularly foreign.

You can see how silly Sclar and Paaswell's guilt-by-association game is if you think about other things that exist in third-world cities. For example, Bamako has open-air food markets that stink to high heaven, so if we have open-air food markets they'll stink to high heaven. If we had followed that logic twenty years ago we wouldn't have any greenmarkets.

As I wrote back in January, there is nothing inherent in the concept of private transit, or the jitney service model, that makes jitneys dirty, crowded or dangerous. They are that way because lots of people in those cities are desperate enough for transportation that they'll put up with danger, crowds and filth. Most New Yorkers are not desperate, and we won't put up with that level of danger or discomfort. Go to West New York and you'll find private vans (and buses) that are clean, well-maintained and pretty safe. They need to be in order to attract customers. They're also fairly well-regulated by New Jersey authorities.

Another area where Sclar and Paaswell ignore well-known facts is their assertion that the vans are bad because they don't take Metrocards. I agree that this should be changed, but it wouldn't be that difficult. Metrocards are currently used by the Airtrain, the PATH train, Bee-Line buses, and the Roosevelt Island Tram (currently out of service). From 1996 through 2006 they were accepted by the seven private companies that offered bus service under franchise agreements with the Department of Transportation.

Metrocards - or whatever technology replaces them in the future - could even be used to regulate private van operators. Want to accept Metrocards? You have to show a recent inspection certificate. Too many moving violations? We'll deactivate your Metrocard account. But Sclar and Paaswell aren't trying to find solutions, they're trying to find reasons to reject the vans.

Stay tuned, there's more to come.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Under Sclar and Paaswell's noses

On Friday the Times ran an op-ed piece by Elliott Sclar and Robert Paaswell against the City's pilot private van project. or at least the headline and cartoon were against the vans; the actual article pulled its punches at the end.

There are so many things messed up with this article, it's hard to know where to start. The best place, I guess, is with the skimpy data. This is an opinion piece, not a peer-reviewed paper, but the level of scholarship is shockingly low compared with academic Times writers like Paul Krugman and even Eric Morris. I honestly don't get it, because Sclar and Paaswell seem to write fairly well-researched and thoughtful articles for academic journals. Apparently they feel that different standards apply for a politically-oriented opinion piece, so they popped out this turd.

Sclar and Paaswell talk about private transit "in the developing world," specifically referencing Calcutta, Rio de Janeiro and Johannesburg, but they don't seem to be aware that we've had private van services operating in the New York area for at least fifteen years. Are there "higher levels of pollution and more accidents and traffic fatalities" in Flatbush, in Jamaica, in West New York? If there are, it's not particularly the fault of the vans.

Space in op-ed columns is limited, but this is an important piece of information that deserves to be mentioned. I can think of two reasons why they could have left it out. Maybe they really are clueless and don't know about the three massive local private transportation operations taking place a short subway ride from their offices, or maybe they know but are leaving it out because it spoils the picture they want to paint of Bloomberg turning New York into Calcutta. Either way, it's something they and the Times should be ashamed of.

The op-ed is a little bizarre in another way: Sclar and Paaswell assert that "the Bloomberg administration considers private transit services a temporary solution, to end as soon as the money to restart the affected routes is found." I've heard allegations to that effect, but nothing official. If it's true, it would be big news, because running one of these lines requires a major investment of time and money. If the city is asking the van owners to make that investment while all the while planning to yank their licenses when the routes start to show a profit, well that would screw them over in a major way, and Sclar and Paaswell show a serious lack of empathy for van operators by framing it this way: "informal services like commuter vans, controlled by powerful operators, can become difficult to dislodge, thanks to the political influence they wield." Well yeah, if the city encourages someone to make an investment and then arbitrarily takes it away without adequate compensation, they should be prepared for the investor to get upset.

Still, the authors don't seem quite sure whether Bloomberg wants the vans to run permanently or not, so at the end they give suggestions for both possibilities - fairly reasonable suggestions that are pretty incongruous given the ominous tone of the rest of the article.

I've got a bunch more to say about this op-ed, but this is a good place to stop for the night. Feel free to join in!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The vans do exist!

I got an email yesterday from an anonymous reader:

Today I decided to take the Q79 up to Panera Bread in Douglaston and do a little work on my laptop. I started at the "Group Ride Vehicle Stop" at the corner of Little Neck Parkway and Jericho Turnpike.

After I'd been waiting there for about fifteen minutes, a man walked up and introduced himself as the owner of the van company! He said that there would be a van along within five minutes, and called the driver on his cell phone to make sure. In a few minutes the van pulled up and off I went. That's what I call personal service!

We didn't pick up any other passengers along the way, but the driver was friendly and professional, and the van was reasonably comfortable. The driver was frustrated that the city had let so much time pass between the cancellation of Q79 service and the beginning of the van pilot. He pointed out that there was a fair at the Farm Museum today, and said he had brought people there earlier, but nobody wanted a ride on this run.

Before, while we were waiting for the van, the owner said that business had been slow, but that he was committed to making it work. He's currently running two vans on the line, and since it takes 15-20 minutes to go from one end to the next, that means that the headway is about 15-20 minutes. He said that as business picks up, he hopes to increase that to four vans.

I gave him the address of your blog, and your email address, as well. I would have taken a van home, but it was after 6PM so I had to walk part of the way!

Thanks for the report, and thanks to the owner of Alpha Van Lines for sharing that info with our tipster! If anyone has more news about the vans, feel free to drop me a line.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Who's prepared for a loss leader?

Yesterday I observed that the new pilot van project is shaping up to be a bust because (a) nobody's marketing it, and (b) the vans aren't showing up. I don't know for sure why this is, but my guess is that it's the interaction of three facts: these van owners have never started a new route, they're used to keeping a low profile, and the structure is very decentralized.

The main factor, I think, is that this is a very new situation for everyone involved. The operators are mostly Jamaicans and Haitians who have their experience running the dollar vans in Flatbush and Jamaica. They started up during the transit strike in the 1990s, and have been going ever since, but I've noticed that they don't seem to have expanded. For example, It seems fairly obvious that if you go to Jamaica and you go to Flatbush, you might want to connect the two and maybe serve Crown Heights and Brownsville as well. As far as I can tell, that service doesn't exist, and the routes are very similar to the way they were when they were started.

The Chinatown vans seem newer, but they travel on express routes with no direct competition, and were serving a pent-up demand when they started. The Jamaicans, the Haitians and the Chinese have all lived under the shadow of the repressive commuter van laws, which meant that they had to be very subtle about marketing their services, so when they finally have the opportunity to do real advertising and PR, they shy away from it.

The whole structure is weird, too, at least with Community Transportation. The city contracts with Community, but Community only owns a small number of vans, maybe even just one. The rest of the vans are independent contractors who work for Community, and if they don't want to drive a route, the company management has very little power to force them.

I'm guessing that the individual van owners aren't prepared for the upfront costs of providing anchor service. They probably operate on very thin margins and don't have enough money to go for more than a day without bringing in something. They also probably don't feel much ownership of this project, and thus not much desire to see it succeed.

The decentralized ownership in Community Transportation thus leads to a situation of perverse incentives. The people who are most committed to seeing the Q74 pilot succeed - Bloomberg, Goldsmith, Yassky and Ricketts - lack the power to actually compel the vans to show up. The people who have the power to provide service - the actual van drivers - don't have much stake in the project. In this way it actually reminds me quite a bit of the congestion pricing campaign.

What's the answer? Very simply: figure out ahead of time whether the market is (to use Klein's terms in this PDF) "thick" (has enough passengers to support jitney service right off the bat) or "thin." If it's thin, you can't just run a few vans and expect people to flock to them. Someone has to be responsible for marketing and anchor service. And I think it's pretty clear by now that all five routes are thin markets.

Fortunately, in this pilot project it's not too late. The TLC's solicitation of interest in the project mentioned that they would allow up to three groups to participate in each route. I bet they wouldn't say no if a credible private group offered to take on the route with the most potential (I'd say the "hipster shuttle" between Alphabet City and Greenpoint) and commit to (a) spending at least $1000 on advertising, and (b) running vans, empty or not, at least every fifteen minutes, 7AM to 1AM, for the rest of the ninety-day pilot. From what I've seen, that's what it would take to actually get a route like this going.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Adrift without an anchor

The vans really are MIA.

I realized yesterday that I have not yet actually seen an official "Group Ride Vehicle" on the street. Now I've spent more than three hours looking for them at various times of day on six separate days over the past week and a half.

I thought I saw two last Wednesday, but they definitely didn't have the official stickers. It's been suggested to me that they were "poachers" - commuter vans that were not authorized for this particular program.

At first I thought it might have just been Community Transportation that was either uninterested or incompetent, but then a reporter for the Brooklyn Courier waited for two hours on Monday without seeing a single B23 van. Okay, I thought, those aren't very promising routes; maybe the new and improved B39 "Hipster Shuttle" will have more luck.

Yesterday I went to try the B39 and found this van in the stop at 14th and Irving. Needless to say, it wasn't going to take me to Brooklyn, and it wasn't there to cover the new van service. There were two guys standing nearby, probably Con Ed office workers on their coffee break, and they told me they'd been there for ten minutes and hadn't seen any "Group Ride Vehicles." I waited for fifteen minutes after that, but no vans showed up.

So if the vans weren't thee, where were they? I'm guessing on illegal runs where they knew there would be higher ridership. That would guarantee them a certain minimum income per hour.

Well, okay, but by doing this they're essentially guaranteeing that there will not be enough vans to provide frequent service, and as a result people will not wait for the vans, and these lines will fail, and they will lose an opportunity to expand their market to new customers. Why would they do such a thing? Why would they do absolutely no marketing? And why bother signing up for the pilot project if they weren't prepared for even a single day without customers?

I've been puzzling over this for the past week and a half. I've come up with some likely reasons, but I'm not sure that all of them apply, or that they're the whole story. My best guess is that it's the interaction of three facts: these van owners have never started a new route, they're used to keeping a low profile, and the structure is very decentralized.

For a lot of this explanation, I'm going to draw on the excellent analysis by Klein, Moore and Reja (PDF), particularly the notion of minimal scheduled service as an "anchor" that brings in customers. But really, the concept of an anchor should be familiar to anyone who's started or expanded a business. Basically, you can never be sure that customers will appear out of nowhere, no matter what you're selling, and you need to be prepared to go for six months without any income, and a year or two without any profit. So you keep your restaurant open for the full hours even if it's empty, until word gets around and it stays full. Judging by the number of restaurants that I've seen close within a month or two of opening, it's not uncommon for people to fail to plan for this possibility.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What van operators can do

In my last post I discussed some things that the Taxi and Limousine Commission could do to give its Group Ride Vehicle program a better chance of success - like changing the name. But part of the idea is that it's a privately run system, and that the route contractors have some responsibility for their own income.

It's pretty easy to think of ways the vans could get the word out about their services: in the case of the Q74, advertising in the Queens College student paper, The Village Voice and other periodicals that students are likely to read. Advertising on the connecting E and F trains, on bus shelters and even on the competing Q64 buses. Hiring a few attractive college students to hand out fliers. Wrapping their vans in ads promoting their own business instead of someone else's.

The van operators could even set up their own website, as a supplement to - and linked from - the existing TLC page. They could start a Facebook page and a twitter feed.

The van operators could also engage in some positive PR. Reach out to campus organizations and student leaders. Demonstrate how flexibility is a strength of jitney operations by having lots of vans available (and signs directing people to them) after major events on campus. Organize an event or two, like maybe a reggae dance party.

The big question is why they haven't done any of this? Some of it costs money, but others can be done with a little time, thought and connections. You might also ask why the vans are so scarce in general. I'll have some thoughts about that soon.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Marketing a new transit service

Last week the News reported that passenger counts on the new Q74 private van service were lower than expected, and they got a few suggestions from potential passengers. Here's one:
Dori Birch, 47, didn't know the vans were available until she saw the newly installed blue-and-white "Group Vehicle Ride Stop" sign along Queens Blvd. in Kew Gardens.

"Maybe it needs to be advertised more," Birch said.
Birch is right on there. We can all think of ways the vans could be sold: I'm going to break them down into things that the TLC could be doing, things that the van company could be doing, and things that either group could be doing.

The most basic problem is the name. Who came up with "Group Ride Vehicle Program"? Would you ride in a "Group Ride Vehicle" if you had any choice in the matter? "Group Ride" sounds like "group home," which makes people think of riding with developmentally disabled and/or emotionally disturbed people. I've ridden on buses like that, and it wasn't any worse than any other transit experience, but it's not the best image to project, especially in this case where it's not at all accurate. The main thing is that when I see something that says "Group Ride," it just doesn't give me the feeling that the "group" in question could include me. I would have used "jitney." A lot of people don't know what it means, but it's not much less clear than "Group Ride Vehicle."

These signs are not particularly inviting. How about just "TAKE A VAN TO QUEENS COLLEGE FOR $2!" and on the other stops you could have "TAKE A VAN TO THE SUBWAY FOR $2!" Short, simple and to the point, and you can have the other stuff in small print.

The TLC has sent out press releases and put up a website about the program, but the website didn't go up until the day after the service started. The maps are all in PDF format, which is not particularly necessary since each one is basically a single image; WNYC's webmasters extracted the images. How about a smartphone app that helps you find the nearest stop, or a layer for Google Maps? Or just a webpage optimized for smartphones with a nice easy-to-remember URL like

The TLC could also hook the van operating companies up with various community organizations in order to help their marketing.

I hope that the TLC will implement some of these things soon. It's not too late; the pilot still has eighty-eight days to go.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Marketing buses: vans vs. "BRT"

Recently I've been complaining about the marketing for the Taxi and Limousine Commission's new private van services, but in the past I've complained in general that BRT was being oversold, and later about the overzealous marketing that was being done specifically for the Transit Authority/Transportation Department joint Select Bus Service project.

So you may be out there thinking, "Yeah, Cap'n, what are you, some kind of fucking hypocrite?" Not so fast. There are times when marketing is appropriate and times when it isn't. Select Bus is not one of those times, but the pilot van program is.

With Select Bus, you've got buses that are packed to the gills during rush hour; the exclusive lanes allow them to run more frequently, transporting more passengers with only a few more buses and drivers, and a minimal increase in fuel consumption and pollution. There is such a huge pent-up demand for transit in these areas that any increase in capacity is used up pretty quickly. In these circumstances, everyone knows the value of the bus, so telling them what they already know is a waste of time.

If you were to run private jitneys along any of the proposed Select Bus routes, or any of the high-ridership routes in the city, you wouldn't have to do any marketing. You'd just have to pull up to any rush-hour bus stop that's jammed with waiting passengers, load up and go. As long as the vans get the passengers where they want to go faster than the bus with a reasonable amount of safety, people will figure out the value and act accordingly.

This is not such a situation. These are routes where there is significant competition from other transit routes and from private cars, and where the MTA couldn't make money even with hefty state subsidies. They're also routes that have lain fallow for over two and a half months, since the MTA ended service on June 27.

Assuming that the vans can make a profit at all, they need to get all those customers back and more. They need to get the word out that the service is available and that it provides value.

I am not suggesting that the van operators try the kinds of bait-and-switch operations that bus rapid transit promoters have engaged in. If the service doesn't provide value, customers will figure that out eventually; you might as well treat them with respect.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Making a habit of the vans

One of the big things I keep stressing, because transit advocates tend to forget it, is that transit doesn't exist in a vacuum. There are a very few transit systems that have an absolute monopoly, like the monorail at the Bronx Zoo that is the only way for the public to get close enough to see certain animals. Every other transit line has some competition, either from other transit lines, from cars, from bicycling or from walking.

The private van pilot services organized by the Taxi and Limousine Commission are no exception. As I wrote last night, the Q74 vans will be competing against the Q64 and other buses, as well as taxis, gypsy cabs and other options. Potential passengers are not floating out there in the ether waiting to be attracted by the vans; they're already taking one of these alternative services.

If these van services are to succeed, they need some very skillful marketing, because they receive no direct financial support from the government. They are operating at a loss right now, and the van operators have set aside a certain amount of money to pay the costs. However much that investment is, if it runs out before the vans can make a profit, the operators will abandon the service.

I'm going to review some of the issues with transit marketing. The idea of "mode choice" actually hides four different, related kinds of choices that people make: single trips, habits, investments and subsidies, and all of these affect the potential success of these van services. There are also four ways that transportation modes can compete: availability, value, glamour and amenities.

At this point it's pretty doubtful that anyone is going to invest money in buying or renting a house, apartment, store or office because of these lines, so the choices we are concerned with are single trips, habits and subsidies. The vans are available from roughly 6AM to 10PM seven days a week, which captures most of the trips that people will be making.

Ultimately it will be habits that will make or break this service: there is no money from the government, and there are just not enough people taking single trips to make it worthwhile. Value is the biggest factor in forming habits, one big factor in determining value is cost. Most of these vans are at a cost disadvantage, because many passengers are transferring from MTA subways and buses and will have to spend an additional two dollars for the vans. That is why frequency is so essential: if the trip times are not significantly shorter than the Q64 or other buses, people will save their money and take the buses.

This means that by the time the savings are exhausted, the vans have to have built up enough of a customer base that they make a profit running frequent service at headways of less than fifteen minutes. I'm not sure how many passengers it takes to break even on one run of a fifteen-passenger van at $2 a head, but let's say that they need an average of at least five people per run, or ten per round-trip. That comes to forty an hour, or 280 round-trips a day. That means more than 280 people, because many of them will take other modes back. In the case of Queens College, many students and faculty only have classes a few days a week, which means that the total is more like 500 people.

The pilot program runs for ninety days, which means that the van operators and the TLC have ninety days to convince over 500 people to make a habit of taking the vans. How do they do that?

Single trips and subsidies do play a role in forming habits. A habit starts with one trip, and that single trip gives the customer information to decide to make a habit out of that service, to use it occasionally, or to avoid it altogether. Of course, you can't take even a single trip if you don't know that the service exists. Even if the TLC isn't directly subsidizing the service, they do have a role in getting the word out about it.

Frequency is the key to van success

Anna Gustafson of Yournabe had a nice report on the van pilot press conference, and asked a key question that nobody else seems to have bothered with:
For riders on the Q74 line, vans will run weekdays from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., making stops every 15 minutes during the rush hours of 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 30 minutes at all other times. On weekends, vans will run from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. and make stops every 30 minutes.


Along the Q79 route, vans will run weekdays from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. and make stops every 15 minutes during the rush hours of 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. and 30 minutes at all other times. Rides will be available on weekends from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and will make stops every 30 minutes.

Let me say right away that I have my doubts as to whether these frequencies will actually be adhered to. But if they are, it would essentially doom these services. Jarrett explains why low frequency drives people away:
Frequency is best described by headway, the elapsed time between consecutive trips on a line. The headway is also the maximum waiting time, and half of it is the average waiting time. Add those to the much-advertised travel time (technically called in-vehicle travel time or IVTT) and you have a sense of how long a real-life trip will be. And those are the realities that will ultimately drive ridership.

Let's imagine a Queens College student who gets off the E train at 10:00 AM. The headway is thirty minutes, making the average wait time fifteen minutes. Google says that it takes nine minutes to drive from the subway to the college, and if we add five minutes for picking up and dropping off other passengers, it's about half an hour total time.

However, Google also says that our student can get to college in half an hour by getting back on the E train and taking the Q88 bus from Forest Hills. In fact, it's probably a lot less than that, because our student is already on the train, so they either get off one stop early or one stop later and catch the Q64. That bus has fifteen minute headways and eighteen minute in-trip time, for a total of 25 minutes.

What this means is that if the vans can't offer a headway of fifteen minutes or less, they might as well pack up and go home. You can do similar calculations for the Q79 and the Brooklyn runs. Long-distance private bus services like Coachusa can run on half-hour headways because they've got a near monopoly and a customer base that has been riding these lines for almost a hundred years; these vans can't count on anything like that.

As I said before, I'm not sure that these headways were anything other than a way to give Gustafson an answer without getting into a long discussion on jitney economics. It may be that Ricketts is planning on anchoring the cascade himself at these headways, but that he plans on adding vans whenever there are enough passengers to make it worthwhile.

With a private service, however, that anchor has to be cross-subsidized by other runs; otherwise it's just a waste of money and eventually it will be shut down. The pilot program runs for ninety days, which means that if ridership hasn't risen to profitable levels by December 20, the vans will go back to Jamaica and Flatbush. What are Ricketts and the Taxi and Limousine Commission doing to make sure that it does rise?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The case of the missing vans

The big transit news this week is that the Taxi and Limousine Commission began a pilot of their pilot jitney program. On Monday, vans allegedly began running between three of the old Q74 stops, two on the edge of the Queens College campus and one at the Kew Gardens subway station (PDF).

I say allegedly because I waited for an hour at the subway on Monday morning, and no vans showed up. I knew I was in the right place, because there was a nice guy from the TLC handing out flyers for the vans that never came. Fortunately the stop is right in front of a Starbucks with a convenient patio - and I wasn't in a rush.

Okay, maybe there was some problem in the morning. I went out to Queens College in the afternoon. I passed by Gate 2, where the NY1 story was shot, and there were no vans. I asked a hot dog vendor if he had noticed people getting on vans, and he said no.

I walked over to the third stop, on Kissena Boulevard, and waited. No vans. A large number of students emerged from campus at 4:30, but most of them took the Q25 in one direction or the other. A number of people actually did sit down and wait at the stop, but they were just waiting to be picked up by friends or relatives, in private cars.

Wednesday morning there were two vans waiting at the subway station, but I didn't have the time or the need to go to Queens College. This morning I didn't see any vans at the subway in the morning or the afternoon, but I didn't wait around long.

The vans are being operated by Community Transportation Systems, run by van pioneer Hector Ricketts (PDF). He's admitted to the News that ridership was lower than expected. Of course, showing up definitely helps, but in general, there's a lot of problems with the way this service has been marketed - or not marketed. I'll get into them in a subsequent post.

Transit in New York, and across the country, is in a bad state. There are two ways we could get out of it. One is for government to institute a wholehearted Keynesian stimulus involving full funding of transit operations and expansion, while avoiding dumping dollars into the "roads and bridges" money pit. I'd love to see it, but I'm not holding my breath. The other, where the market will bear it, is for the government to get out of the way and allow private operators to provide transit service. This is a test of that second strategy. No pressure, guys.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A time for not borrowing

Now I want to get back to the discussion of borrowing that I started a month ago. Borrowing is often a good idea if you can be reasonably confident that you'll be in a better position at payoff time than you are at borrowing time. If you borrow $5,000 when your annual income is $10,000, and pay it off when your annual income is $50,000, you've done pretty well. Last time I forgot to mention one way that you might be in a better position at payoff time: inflation. It can boost your income without any action on your part!

There are some times when borrowing doesn't make sense. One of those times is simply when you don't need the money. Borrowing always increases your risk (except in times of high inflation). If you don't owe anything and lose your job (always a risk), you just have to figure out how to make enough to survive. If you owe money and lose your job, then you have to figure out how to survive and make your loan payments.

Beyond that, though, if borrowing is a good idea when you can reasonably expect to have a greater income at payoff time than you do at borrowing time, then it's a lousy idea if you have reason to think your income might be lower, or even if your expected increase in income is not enough to pay the interest.

Sadly, many transit agencies borrow without any expectation that their revenue will be higher when it's time to pay the money back. The MTA here in New York has borrowed a ton of money, without any reason to expect higher revenues in the future. The improvements that were paid for with that money did not bring in new customers who could pay a lot more. They did not bring in a new constituency that would demand support for transit in the State Government. They just kept people taking the trains and buses, i.e. maintaining the MTA's farebox revenue, but a large share of the MTA's budget came from state contributions and other taxes like the mortgage recording tax, which were subject to many factors unrelated to the MTA capital program.

One bad reason for borrowing is to "spread out payments." It's total bullshit, and you can see that if you just ask, "Why not pay on the installment plan?" The answer is, "because then we'd have to wait." And that makes it clear that the spreading out payments is just an excuse to get the money before you've earned it. No. You need to ask yourself if your financial situation will be any better at payoff time, and if it isn't, just sit tight and wait.

There is a problem in government with sitting tight and waiting. Lots of government agencies get their funding by crying poverty, and the system is set up to reward that. A few years ago the Port Authority was flush with cash - at least as transit agencies go - and everyone wanted a piece of the pie. In addition to a new order of PATH cars and related improvements, and chipping in a few billion for the World Trade Center redevelopment and the new train tunnel, Schumer and Paterson wanted the Authority to help pay for Moynihan Station, everyone's favorite vanity transportation non-improvement.

I don't think the Port Authority fell for that one, but pretty much all of its savings have been vacuumed up by various other agencies and projects around the region, to the point where it's almost as cash-strapped as everyone else. But it's hard to save up for a project if everyone's got their eyes on your money. Administrators who want to avoid that kind of headache will avoid saving up money, and simply borrow to pay for what you want and then scream for more when the money runs out.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A time for borrowing

Last week I argued that there are times when it is actually appropriate to borrow:
On one level it's very simple: if you will be better off when it's time to pay the loan back than you are when you borrow it, then borrowing is a good idea. But behind that simplicity lurk many complications...
One of these complications is the question of interest. If you borrow at interest, you not only have to be better off when you repay than you are now, but so much better off that you can afford to pay the interest as well.

We can start with student loans. The idea is that you can't earn a very high salary without a college degree, so tuition, room and board would be a big chunk of your income (if any). But with a college degree - so the theory goes, at least - you will be earning a lot more than without one, and the loan payoff (even including interest) will be a much smaller percentage of your income.

Business loans are similar. You borrow money to pay for a new refrigerator for your deli, and then you sell more cold food and drinks. That increased income pays the loan and the interest. This can be true for Starbucks opening a new store, or Bombardier building a new factory.

John Maynard Keynes argued that when individuals and investors are afraid to borrow that way, government borrowing can play the same role. In a recession, tax revenue is low. The government borrows and spends the money on social services and putting people to work. Those people spend that money on food and other necessities, which puts more people to work. Eventually the economy gets going again and people start borrowing and spending on individual and corporate levels.

The genius of stimulus is that just like student and business loans, it can pay for itself. Every time someone earns that money, they pay a percentage of it back in income taxes. Every time they spend the money on taxable goods and services, they pay a portion of it in sales taxes. The same is true for the additional money that gets borrowed and invested as the economy grows again. Government revenues are higher when it's time to repay the debts.

The most tricky part is of course knowing whether you will be better off in the future. No one can know exactly what's going to happen. You may never be better off than you are now. You could be worse off.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Why highway tunnels suck

Since some people didn't quite get my brilliant idea, I was marveling at the number of people who otherwise agree with me about most transit and livable streets issues, but don't see any problem with putting highways in tunnels. And this is not the first time: I've seen otherwise reasonable people support the Gowanus tunnel, and even lament that Westway never happened.

I started writing an explanation of why highway tunnels are problematic. Then Streetsblog highlighted the fact that I'm not alone in this. Over on the other side of the country, Dan Bertolet is having very similar discussions with fellow Seattleites who don't see any problem with putting the Alaskan Way in a tunnel.

So here is your answer: highway tunnels suck for many reasons. As discussed in the comments on Ben's blog post, they are expensive, draining money from other worthy uses. They require ventilation structures that spew carbon monoxide into the air, in much larger quantities than subway vents. As Dan Bertolet observes, if they free up road capacity it's only temporary. And here are three more from me:

The cars still come from somewhere. Ben recently had a post about the never-completed Nostrand and Utica Avenue subway lines. A number of commenters observed that the area is now very car-dependent and full of transit NIMBYism. I'll go further and point out that the people here regularly vote for anti-transit politicians like Lew Fidler, Alan Meisel and Carl Kruger. Their car-oriented lifestyle is not just encouraged by the lack of subways, but facilitated by highways like Linden Boulevard, the Belt Parkway and even the BQE.

The cars are going somewhere. If you look at the congestion on Sixth avenue in the middle of the day, or Bleecker Street on a Friday night, how do the cars get there? Many of them come on the BQE, on the FDR or on the West Side Highway.

The cars are probably not spending their entire time in the tunnel. If they could get from origin to destination without using any streets, that might not be so bad. But the tunnel (or parkway, or elevated highway) doesn't go everywhere, so the drivers are going to have to use local streets at both ends. When they do, it's a bad scene.

I still remember one time I rented a car and drove down the West Side Highway. Coming off onto 79th Street, I was bewildered and annoyed. What were all these pedestrians doing? And I was supposed to stop for them? I'd just been driving nonstop for a long time! A lot of our most dangerous intersections are highway exits, where drivers are still coming out of highway mode.

So that's why the BQE tunnel proposal sucks, why the Gowanus tunnel proposal sucks, why Westway sucked, why the Big Dig sucks, and why the Alaskan Way tunnel proposal sucks. Car tunnels suck, for at least six reasons. Don't support them, and don't accept that car capacity is sacred.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A brilliant idea for Broadway

Okay, I'm a civic-minded Queens resident with no engineering background, so maybe this won't work at all. But they tell me that Broadway in Manhattan is not up to federal highway standards, and they want to redo it.
Cross-Midtown Tunnel
My plan is simple: dig a "Cross-Midtown Tunnel" from Columbus Circle to Union Square. This will replace all the capacity that has been removed from Broadway over the past three years. I'm sure Allen Swerdlowe will love it because it will discourage traffic-enraged drivers from skipping off the highway to drive on local streets.

Given the Post's reactions to the changes that have been made on Broadway, I'm guessing they'll love my visionary plan. Sam Staley will adore it. It will have a place in Ben Kabak's ideal world. Sure, it'll have to be dug deep to bypass all the subway tunnels. But we'll throw in a few bucks to paint some buses and call it "BRT" so the transit people won't mind spending billions on this.

After all, if you agree with the State DOT that car capacity must be preserved at all costs on the BQE, then of course you agree with Michael Grynbaum that car capacity must be preserved at all costs on Broadway. Right?

Monday, September 6, 2010

A very frequent bus network for Queens

Jarrett's been posting a lot about frequent bus network maps, so he finally convinced me to spend a few hours putting one together for Queens. On one of his posts, a commenter going by "Anon256" posted a link to an attempt using frequency at stops.

I used some relatively simple tools: the MTA's published schedules, the MTA's General Transit Feed Specification data, and Google's My Maps feature.

To calculate frequency, I simply opened the PDF for each schedule, found a point where there were no branches, and counted the number of runs that passed by that point on a weekday between 12:00 and 12:59, inclusive. I did not look at how late the buses ran.

View Queens Frequent Bus Network in a larger map

Google's My Maps has an interesting limitation: if you try to display more than 250 points, it will split them into two pages. This means that I could only fit nine routes on the map. Because the network in Queens is so frequent, this meant routes with at least eight trips per hour, or headways of eight minutes or less. I also added the M60, which runs in Queens for a significant distance.

RouteWeekday noon hour tripsAverage weekday noon hour headway

I converted the GTFS data to KML using KML Writer from the Transit Feed tools; for the NYC Transit buses I first had to take the "stop_times.txt" file out of the zipfile, or else KML Writer would crash. Then I copied the KML data for these routes into a new file. Often there were multiple trip geometries available; I usually chose the first one. I then uploaded them to Google Maps.

Already you can see that there's pretty good coverage in Central Queens. Pretty much everyone in that area is within a ten minute walk of a bus that comes at least once every eight minutes, so in under twenty minutes they can be moving.

One particular point of interest is Kissena Boulevard in East Flushing. Because of the geography of Flushing, bus planners (with the now-defunct North Shore Bus Company) decided to run three high-frequency services along this route, meaning that it sees 27 buses on weekdays between 12 and 1PM.

Still, that leaves wide areas without frequent bus service, including Western Queens, Southeastern Queens, Northeastern Queens, the Rockaways and scattered neighborhoods in the center of the borough. But if we add the subways and the buses with nine-minute headways, which we can display thanks to a handy trick, we get pretty good coverage. Then it is only a scattered handful of neighborhoods that are not served: northern Jackson Heights, Whitestone, Bayside, Douglaston, Little Neck the southeastern neighborhoods of Saint Albans and Cambria Heights, Far Rockaway and Breezy Point. All those neighborhoods see buses at least every twenty minutes, if not fifteen.

There is another high-frequency corridor formed by the Q5 and Q85 on Merrick Boulevard. If you add in the Q4 and Q84, in the noon hour there are 24 runs along Merrick from Archer Avenue to Linden Boulevard. In this area there are also lots of dollar vans, so it's pretty well-served.

I think someone should definitely make - and maintain a map like this for Queens, or possibly some smartphone app functionality. It's definitely useful to see where the most frequent routes go, and it might get some people to try the bus. It's a lot easier for beginners than the full map (PDF). I think that even as I've laid it out, it could still be a bit denser, so I would probably add the 10-minute routes, which would round out the coverage.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Undermining bus lanes

This spring in Downtown Brooklyn, the Department of Transportation rolled out new exclusive bus lanes on Livingston Street (PDF), in part to make up for construction in the Fulton Street transit mall a block over. Sounds good, but a visit to Livingston Street showed that not all bus passengers are benefiting.

Last month I caught a bus on Livingston Street, but we drove the rest of the street in the regular travel lanes, stuck behind private cars. One of the passengers asked the driver why he didn't use the bus lanes, and he said that he's been ticketed for it.

As you might have guessed, this bus was not an official MTA bus, but rather a privately-owned "dollar van." I'm not sure how the van was registered, but legally it's not a bus, so the traffic cop had grounds for writing a ticket. By the letter of the law, it all makes sense.

Practically speaking, though, it's an incredibly boneheaded move. First of all, this punishes the passengers on the van by stopping it to write the ticket, and by delaying passengers on it and every other van whose driver avoids the lane. Secondly, because it does not significantly deter the vans from operating, it slows down the MTA buses every time the vans cross the lanes to pick up passengers at the curb. For that matter, it slows down private cars as well.

This is part of the same pattern where the MTA will not operate sufficient service in these areas to meet demand, and the City will not license vans where they operate, but will not allocate enough resources to shut them down completely either, so the van drivers and passengers are harassed, but the problems of unregulated vans still exist.

I could kind of see the need to keep vans out of the bus lanes if there were a high volume of MTA buses that were slowed down by lots of vans, but that wasn't happening when I was there. As it is it's a completely nonsensical enforcement of arbitrary rules. The NYPD should internally acknowledge that from a practical point of view the vans are mass transit whose passengers could benefit from the use of the lane, and put their enforcement resources to work somewhere else.

The DOT's plans for Livingston Street don't acknowledge the presence of any non-MTA transit on the street. It seems bizarre that they would do such an elaborate study based entirely on legal fictions without addressing the situation as it exists on the ground, but as far as I can tell that's what they did. If they had any intention that these lanes would be used by private vans, they should probably communicate that to the NYPD.

The edge of husbandry

Recently I discussed Nassim Taleb and the idea of being able to withstand black swans. He recommends a healthy level of redundancy, but also argues that borrowing money can make you vulnerable to black swans, and saving money can protect you from them. Borrowing is also discussed in that great This American Life episode where our New York State politicians freak out about it.

In the past I've listed borrowing as an unsustainable good, and I've also been amazed that governments rely so much on borrowing to accomplish things.

Borrowing is good because you get to spend money on stuff. But as Shakespeare wrote, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be, for loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry." In other words, you have to pay interest, and it's hard to stop borrowing, especially for people who have difficulty thinking long term. Because of this, many people think borrowing is evil. Lending at interest was outlawed by the first Christian Council of Nicaea, and it is still illegal under Sharia.

Not everyone agrees that borrowing is a universal evil. Shakespeare was actually poking fun at these ideas by putting them in the mouth of the disingenuous buffoon Polonius. Garrison Keillor went further when he made "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" the motto of Bob's Bank, in the little green mobile home at the end of Main Street in Lake Wobegon. Essentially, Polonius and Bob are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Borrowing has risks - paying too much in interest, and borrowing too long - but it can be appropriate under certain circumstances.

On one level it's very simple: if you will be better off when it's time to pay the loan back than you are when you borrow it, then borrowing is a good idea. But behind that simplicity lurk many complications...

Friday, September 3, 2010

Brilliantly STOOPID

I'm a little late responding to this, but so far I haven't seen this angle covered in anyone's blog posts, only in comments. It also covers points that I've made in several posts before, and I'm frustrated that I haven't been able to convince very many people of the validity of those points, and getting kind of tired of repeating them.

This particular incident started with a "design workshop" for the State DOT's BQE widening plan. Some guy from Cobble Hill named Roy Sloane suggested tunneling straight under Gowanus and Fort Greene to bypass Brooklyn Heights. An architect working on the project, Allan Swerdlowe, called the idea "brilliant," and from there it made its way into the Brooklyn Paper, Gothamist, the Post, and finally Second Avenue Sagas.

Well, yeah, I guess the idea is brilliant, in the same way that it would be brilliant if someone stood up at one of those meetings and said, "Why don't we just tow the cars and trucks over Downtown Brooklyn using trained flying hamsters?" Yeah, that's kind of brilliant, and it wouldn't add to the congestion on existing roadways, either.

Many commenters pointed out that the Gowanus tunnel proposal has been around longer and would provide more benefits in terms of burying unsightly structures and putting cars out of sight. They are both brilliant, and both incredibly stupid ideas. I just feel stupid myself for even giving the idea any attention, but since so many others are putting their thoughts into it, I feel like I have to address it as well:

  1. As many commenters have mentioned, there is no way to build "Swerdlowe's vision" of a tunnel that whisks the cars under Downtown Brooklyn into Williamsburg, since many of them don't want to go to Williamsburg. They would either have to use local streets or continue to use the current structure in order to get to the Brooklyn or Manhattan Bridges.

  2. The tunnel would also require large ventilation structures, which would replace existing buildings or parkland and spew carbon monoxide.

  3. The BQE is not falling down. It is "functionally obsolete," which means that it is narrower than the highway builders think it should be. That is not a good reason to dig a tunnel.

  4. There are plenty of cheaper, more effective ways to increase safety than by digging a multi-billion-dollar forgiving highway.

  5. Of course it would add capacity. We're talking about the State DOT here. They're organizationally incapable of fixing a pothole without adding three lanes.

  6. It would be nice to remove the cantilevered highway, fill in the ditch in Cobble Hill, and tear down the elevated Gowanus highway. None of these desires require the highway to be replaced. As Gandalf said, "That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind."

  7. The billions that it would cost to dig this tunnel are billions that would not be spent on transit.

  8. Anything that makes it easier for people to drive encourages people to drive more, increasing the number of drivers and reducing the constituency for transit.

  9. If you want to move freight, build freight rail.

  10. As commenter Andrew pointed out on Second Avenue Sagas, most of the traffic on the BQE in downtown Brooklyn is induced by the "free" bridges. Toll the bridges, people will take the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel instead, and the BQE will see a lot less congestion and a lot less wear and tear.

The overall point, and I can't stress this enough, is that the BQE is in competition with all the parallel transit routes. Every dollar that makes it easier to drive private cars on the BQE takes away ridership from the Staten Island express buses, the Fourth Avenue subway, the G train and the proposed Tribororx line. So if you want to see healthy farebox recovery on these lines, don't build up any parallel car routes.