Thursday, April 7, 2011

Competing for resources

Noah Kazis at Streetsblog has a nice analysis of the current mess with the 34th Street Transitway, with quotes from Kate Slevin of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and Joan Byron at the Pratt Center for Community Development. Noah stops short of saying what needs to be said, though: what happened with the 34th Street Transitway was a miserable failure for the "bus rapid transit" strategy followed by Slevin and Byron (and Walter Hook from the Institute for Transportation Development Policy, and to some extent Noah's old boss Aaron Naparstek).

The key here is that "BRT" has not just been sold as a bus improvement, it's been sold as an alternative to the subway. Aaron and even Commissioner Sadik-Khan have called it a "surface subway." Tri-State writes, "Select Bus is an effective way to bring faster, more reliable transit service to parts of the city which are underserved by the rail network." The Pratt Center writes about its "COMMUTE" plan:
In tight-budget times, BRT makes more sense than ever. Multi-billion dollar subway and commuter rail projects don't serve the communities with the most urgent transit needs; they also require an all-or nothing commitment that burdens the transit system and its riders with debt, and don't deliver their promised benefits for many years.

I'm all for bus improvements, but Byron, Slevin and friends are going beyond that and arguing that we should abandon any push to expand the subway network and focus on "BRT." How's that working out for us? Well, let's see, I've been waiting for many years and still haven't seen a physically separated busway delivered to the streets of New York. Our transit system and its riders? Burdened with debt in part from deferred maintenance while we're twiddling our thumbs waiting for "BRT" to arrive.

What went wrong? The pro-BRT crowd assumes that the only competition between cars and transit is for capital funding. BRT requires less capital funding, so it must be easier to put in. Well, no. Transit competes with cars for a number of different resources. Money, yes, but also land, people (to maintain and operate the system), the goodwill of the public, and the attention of the public.

Cars have a vast advantage in terms of people, because most of the operators and many of the maintenance staff are either volunteer or privately funded. In other places they have a vast advantage in terms of money. Here in New York the money is more balanced, but it still probably tilts towards the cars. "BRT" requires a bit less money to build, but more money and people to build.

What makes "BRT" so superficially cheap is that it requires no purchase or appropriation of land. Instead, it takes the land from cars, which Byron and Slevin treat as having zero cost. To the people who like to get their bottled water and Goya beans delivered to their doorstep, that land has a cost. To the people who believe that their customers all come by car, that land has a cost. To people who drive, the land used for "a vital traffic lane" has a cost.

These people may be wrong, or they may be blowing the whole thing out of proportion, but that's not the point. The point is that they and their representatives have to be convinced, just like the taxpayers and their representatives have to be convinced to support subway construction. Both of those require political energy, which is in short supply. The question is which one requires less energy.

In terms of goodwill and attention, the subway beats "BRT" by far. There are two separate, independent volunteer blogs dedicated to the construction of the Second Avenue Subway. Ben Kabak has branched out into other topics, but anything relating to the Second Avenue Subway gets his immediate attention. Phoenix has what, four blogs devoted to its tiny light rail line? There is no such blog for any of the "Select Bus" projects. People are fiercely dedicated to the subway system in a way that they just aren't with buses. They're inspired by subway construction in a way that just doesn't happen with buses. The subway has their goodwill, and it holds their attention.

Speaking of attention, who has been fighting for the 34th Street Transitway? Me, Streetsblog and the East Side Volunteer Committee of Transportation Alternatives. While this project was under attack by the ninnies at the Post and the Goya bean moron, where was Kate Slevin? Everywhere but 34th Street. Where was Joan Byron? Furthering kvetchocracy in Washington heights. Where was Aaron Naparstek? fighting for a bike lane. Eventually Tri-State blogged a bit about it, and Transportation Alternatives got involved, but it was too late. This is not the first time that the BRT activists have been MIA when they were needed, either. They were MIA for the Merrick Boulevard Select Bus too.

I'm not saying that these aren't worthy projects. (Okay, well maybe I am saying that furthering kvetchocracy is not a worthy project, but Byron has plenty of projects that are worthy.) I'm saying that buses just aren't that inspiring. I don't really blame Slevin and Byron and Aaron for getting bored and wandering off to work on other projects. Trains are that inspiring. Maybe they don't interest the BRT activists, but they do interest plenty of people, so that when kvetching started taking off on Second Avenue, the bloggers were there to remind people that there's a LOT of people behind the subway project.

The BRT efforts draw time and attention away from subway expansion, but they don't hold the attention, and the result is money and effort down the drain. Right now what we need to be doing is not spending a lot of time and energy fighting Mr. Goya Beans, but building support and starting to plan for our next subway expansion project. Whether you think that should be Phase 2 of the Second Avenue Subway, or the Tribororx, or the Seven to Secaucus, or the South Fourth Street tunnel, we need to get the ball moving now.


nathan_h said...

"Speaking of attention, who has been fighting for the 34th Street Transitway?"

I emailed my councilmember Steve Levin about it, and he just never responded. Too busy pretending to "save" doomed unfunded things, I assume, to bother himself with affordable transit improvements.

This person blamed the DOT for not putting a bike lane in its original design, and I think there's something to that. Bus riders may be more numerous than cyclists but they are not nearly as engaged. The outcome may have been the same if bike lanes were involved, but at least it would have ended with a bang instead of a whimper.

I agree with your thesis but if we should be fighting for rail, what about vision42? I think that captures the imagination as much as anything, perhaps enough to overcome the personal auto 'access' hysteria that emerged with the busway.

Helen Bushnell said...

I don't think that buses are uninspiring, I think that people pushing BRT are not inspired by them. People who think BRT is cool do not refer to it as a "surface subway".

Jonathan said...

Cap'n, I think you hit the nail on the head with the line about the Transitway land not being zero cost. It requires a lot of effort to bring the value of the transitway to people's attention and get them to advocate for it.

capt subway said...

The bottom line is buses simply are not glamorous. Replace the BRT lane with an LRV lane and you'll get a whole lot more people on board supporting it. I don't understand the animus against LRVs/streetcars on the part of many transit advocates here in NYC.

An LRV is superior to a bus in many ways. A six section artic tram is the equivalent of three artic buses - with only one operator. Trams cars have a usable life that is three times that of a bus. Trams provide a far smoother ride than buses and can operate safely at higher speeds and in narrower lanes than can buses. And more people would ride them. And, certainly, authorized transit buses can also travel in the tram lane if the lanes are made wide enough.

The densities along all the proposed BRT routes would amply justify LRV investment.

Alon Levy said...

All surface transportation has this problem of competing for scarce space. In some German cities, and now in Toronto, this led to pro-auto advocates replacing light rail with subways, which do not interfere with car traffic.

capt subway said...

And of course subways are so much cheaper to build and maintain than are LRV lines (LOL). Brilliant move on Toronto Mayor Ford's part.

The bottom line is buses simply are not glamorous. Replace the BRT lane with an LRV lane and you'd probably get a whole lot more people on board supporting it. As a rail vehicle it is truly a "surface subway". Thus I'm not sure where the animus against streetcars/LRVs on the part of many NYC transit advocates comes from.

And without getting into the superiorities of streetcars/LRVs over buses (capacity, speed, safety, ride quality, etc) certainly the densities, alone, along all the proposed BRT corridors would amply justify investment in LRV lanes.

Of course in either case you're still stuck with the zero sum land use game.

George K said...

capt subway: I think part of the reason why they are pushing for BRT rather than light rail is because the BRT lanes could be used by other bus routes. The M15 local could use the M15 +SBS+ bus lanes, and, along Fordham Road, the bus lane for the Bx12 +SBS+ is used by routes in the vicinity of Fordham Plaza.

Cap'n: The person who actually wrote the article regarding the Nostrand Avenue +SBS+ project does have a logic: He said that the BRT corridor won't do much good unless it is part of a BRT network. A passenger making a straight trip down Nostrand Avenue might switch to the B44 +SBS+, but a person traveling to, say Bay Ridge isn't going to be able to take advantage of the route, because they still have to transfer to a slow east-west bus (so they'll drive to make the trip).

The person who wrote this actually used to work for the MTA, and proposed a series of bus restructurings to make the system more appealing, but the MTA didn't listen to him (except for a few suggestions like extending the B83 to the Gateway Mall)