Monday, February 28, 2011

Why the 34th Street Transitway matters

The Post has gone all-out against the 34th Street Transitway this week. On Tuesday, Steve Cuozzo spewed another of his rants about Commissioner Sadik-Khan, focusing on the pedestrian plaza planned as part of the Transitway. Today, the paper published an editorial entitled "Save 34th Street!" -as if there were anything lovable about the current state of the road.

Right after pointing out that the city plans to allow buses the entire length of the street, the Post editors write, "34th Street is to run eastbound only from Fifth Avenue, and westward from Sixth Avenue, rendering the road useless as a thoroughfare." It won't be useless as a thoroughfare, because buses and pedestrians will still be able to move in both directions. Here's a handy chart provided by the DOT:

That's right, private car and taxi drivers and passengers are less than ten percent of the users of 34th Street. I don't think the bus riders and pedestrians - the other ninety percent - would feel that the street was "severely degraded" by expanded sidewalks, a pedestrian plaza, slower car traffic and a protected busway.

The editorial continues: "Sadik-Khan came to the Department of Transportation from a nonprofit do-goodnik shop hell-bent on “reducing car dependency” — that is, giving automobiles the old heave-ho from Manhattan." They are clearly not talking about Sadik-Khan's former employer, Parsons Brinckerhoff, a for-profit engineering firm that builds bridges as well as transit facilities. It's not exactly a fair characterization of the Federal Transit Administration or the Dinkins Administration either.

The best I can think of is that for two years prior to becoming Transportation Commissioner she was on the Board of Trustees of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. You might call Tri-State "a nonprofit do-goodnik shop hell-bent on reducing car dependency," but they're certainly not hell-bent enough for me, and in any case, she was one of sixteen board members, and probably too involved with her paying work for Parsons to do much for Tri-State. The Post might be confusing her with her Director of Policy, Jon Orcutt, who has been Executive Director of both Tri-State and Transportation Alternatives. Clearly, Tri-State and T.A. have influence at DOT, but they don't run the entire place.

The Post then calls on the City Council to essentially harass Sadik-Khan and do what they can to shut down the project. This could be a disaster, because it could train the Council to react this way to any plan to speed buses. They already have a Pavlovian reaction to any opportunity to pander to drivers about parking; we don't want to see them doing this with buses.

This is a good opportunity to review the many reasons why we want this project to succeed:
  • Calming car traffic on 34th Street will almost certainly save several lives and prevent a host of injuries.
  • It will make getting around much easier, saving 5-10 minutes on every trip for the people who already use the 34th Street buses, either to homes or workplaces along 34th Street, or to the Port Authority, the Javits Center, Waterside Plaza, or Brooklyn, Queens and New Jersey.
  • By making it easier to travel across 34th Street, it will invite more people to use these buses, some of whom will probably switch from cars. It will also invite people to live and work in places that are convenient to get to by bus from 34th Street.
  • Many of these people will identify as pedestrians and transit riders, and support pedestrian and transit improvements.
  • There will be capacity in the busway for more buses, and bus lines throughout Manhattan can be rerouted through it, simplifying the network.
  • It will serve as a flagship for bus improvements in the city in a way that Fordham Road can't, because there are a lot of people who won't go to Fordham Road. They don't know what they're missing, but they still won't go.
  • A defeat on this issue will be symbolic, showing drivers that Sadik-Khan is vulnerable. Politicians and bureaucrats who see this getting killed will avoid doing anything like it in the future. Residents who see it getting killed will get discouraged and not ask for any new transit.

For all these reasons, you should come out and fight for the Transitway. Blog about it! Tweet about it! Write letters to the editor! Tell your friends! Go to meetings! Contact Transportation Alternatives to find out how you can be involved!

But most importantly, contact your City Council member. Tell them that you want the 34th Street project to succeed, both as a Transitway and as a pedestrian project. Remind them how many of their constituents use transit. Tell them not to be intimidated by anti-pedestrian and anti-transit editorials in the Post. Tell them not to cave, and not to pander!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Who is "the community"?

Earlier this month I used the 34th Street Transitway project to illustrate the limitations of the "David and Goliath" script in reporting news. Greg Mocker had a nice report with a regular QM21 rider who had collected 375 signatures in favor of restoring cuts to her bus line.

I observed that most of the news reports up to now about the 34th Street Transitway had been focused on NIMBYs fighting to preserve the right to pick up and drop off at the curb on their street, while ignoring the benefit to bus riders. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer made a very wishy-washy statement on Channel 5 about the transitway. The DOT has been holding regular "Community Advisory Council" kvetchfests meetings in an attempt to calm these concerns.

The problem is that the "stakeholders" that the DOT has invited to this "Community Advisory Council" seem to only be from the immediate area of 34th Street. It is widely acknowledged that many people from outside the area transfer to the 34th Street buses from subways, ferries and other buses, but as far as I know there has been no effort to reach out to any of them. I don't think there are any NYU Medical Center employees represented. The M16 is the only transit service for Waterside Plaza, but no Waterside residents were at the meetings.

As I've also mentioned, express buses from Queens and Staten Island bring thousands of passengers through 34th Street, but the DOT has not invited any of them to these meetings either. Mocker helped put me in touch with the QM21 rider, and I asked her about the "Community Advisory Council" meetings.

No one advised us of any Town Hall Meetings. The passengers should always be included in decisions that’s being made for them. Town Hall Meetings and Forums should always have Passengers attend their meetings. Who speaks on behalf of them? Never one day there is a notice posted on the Bus inviting anyone to a hearing.

Angus Grieve-Smith, a regular reader who is also an occasional rider of the QM1/5/6, says that there are no signs about any hearings or "Community Advisory Council" meetings posted on those lines either.

So what's going on? Is the DOT trying to make a hard time for itself by packing meetings with people who want to kill this project? Do they believe that curb access is the only relevant issue?

I also have a question for all you "BRT" proponents out there. Do you factor these situations into your choice of which mode to support? Competition for streetspace and curbspace is clearly not an intrinsic feature of buses, but it is an intrinsic feature of any dedicated surface transitway that uses space previously reserved for cars. When you talk about "BRT" being so much easier to build, do you take into account roomfuls of wealthy entitled NIMBYs screaming about curbside dropoffs and property values?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Rigorous data

Last week, fellow bloggers Brooklyn Spoke, Aaron Naparstek and I traded tweets with Daily News reporter Adam Lisberg over an article he wrote about the difficulty of "reporting rogue bikers." Aaron took Lisberg to task for making it a story about "bike wars" and not police enforcement or 311 reporting in general. Brooklyn Spoke and Howard Wolfson pointed out the skewed perspective of Lisberg and his source, Nancy Linday: 1800 pedestrians have been killed by cars in the past ten years in New York, and only seven by bicycles.

It is very much to his credit that Lisberg chose to engage with four random guys on Twitter about his reporting. Aside from a little snark and defensiveness, he was generally polite and focused on the issues. I think I speak for Aaron and Brooklyn Spoke when I say I want to be constructive and supportive. I think Lisberg is curious about transportation issues and cares about the people of this city, and wants to see fairness and justice prevail. I am confident that he will produce a lot of quality reporting about the city's transportation issues in the future.

It is in that spirit of constructive engagement that I will now tear apart Lisberg's article. In summary, he says that the quality of the data that the city provides is inconsistent and favors its pro-cycling agenda. As evidence, he presents a breakdown of the calls to 311 and the reports of a Chinatown resident named Nancy Linday, who spent a lot of time reporting unlawful behavior by cyclists.

Let's start with the data. Lisberg writes:
That's because while the agency installing bike lanes is tracking their benefits closely, the agency that runs 311 doesn't even distinguish between complaints about bicycles and roller skates.

In other words, in the city's bike wars, the downside of cycling isn't counted as rigorously as the upside.
Uh, no. It's just not necessary to distinguish between skates and bikes in this context. I've traveled at least as many miles on skates in this city as on a bike, and I used the same infrastructure. I skated in the street, and when there was a bike lane I used it. If the Prospect Park West bike lane had been there fifteen years ago, I would have been in it.

I've also been hit by a skater, and it wasn't fun. I was waiting to cross Seventh Avenue on foot one evening in Midtown, against the light, and looking uptown for cars. This jerk going against traffic body-checked me and knocked the wind out of me. If I hadn't been so stunned I would have grabbed his backpack and knocked him off his skates.

No, I wasn't seriously injured. In fact, I wasn't injured at all, just rendered uncomfortable for about thirty seconds, and a bit shaken for an hour. In fact, that was a lot more than happened to Linday, as Lisberg reports: "When she dialed 311 in October to complain that a bike almost hit her on the sidewalk at 58th St. and Fifth Ave., she said her call was transferred to 911 and back again."

The best response to that came from Gothamist commenter Tom Giebel: "The city needs to start a new system, maybe 211, for people who feel the need to report things that almost happened." When I was hit by that skater, I didn't call 311. I've been almost hit by bicycles tons of times and haven't called 311. I would say that pretty much every day I almost get hit by a car, but I don't call 311.

My overall point here is that skaters and skateboards use bike lanes and endanger pedestrians, so it makes perfect sense to lump them together. This is not a sign of lack of rigor; if anything, the fact that the DOT only measured cyclists using the Prospect Park West bike lane on one day is less rigorous. Combining complaints about cyclists and skaters only seems odd if you have a particular axe to grind against cyclists, as Linday clearly does.

This brings me to my second major criticism of Lisberg: he doesn't consider the source. He identifies Linday only as someone who "lives in Chinatown, works in midtown and says both places are full of out-of-control cyclists." Linday has a very uncommon name, and a few minutes googling revealed that she's a professional urban planner who's worked with Fred Kent and Holly Whyte on placemaking, and concluded that bicycles ruin the pedestrian environment. Note that Kent had the opposite conclusion, and that another Project for Public Spaces alumnus, Andy Wiley-Schwartz, is now working for the Department of Transportation, incorporating bicycle facilities into public plazas among other things. Linday is also a runner, and maybe she doesn't like sharing the Central Park loop road with cyclists.

There are three possibilities. The first is that Lisberg didn't bother to do that search, which means he was sloppy and got played. The second is that he did the search but didn't think it was worth reporting, which means he didn't grasp what was going on. The third is that he thought it was worth reporting but withheld that information, which means he was dishonest with his readers.

How then to interpret these paragraphs:
The next day, she took careful note of every lawbreaking cyclist she saw near her office. A day later, she said, she dialed 311, demanded the operator take notes and dictated them for more than an hour.

It got a response: A sergeant from the Midtown North Precinct called her within days, gave her his direct line and told her to call him anytime with bike problems.
To me all that says is that if you've got an agenda and are willing to harass a 311 operator, you will be rewarded by the police. Thanks, NYPD! And then, Lisberg reveals Linday's agenda: "That may sound like an example of 311 working - but Linday said she wants those complaints to be tabulated by the people who set bike policy in the city, not just the cops who have to stop the rogue bikers."

Let's connect that with an article written by Deputy Mayor Goldsmith, who oversees both the cops and the people who set bike policy. Interestingly, he just released a website where you can track 311 calls, including "Bike/Roller/Skate Chronic" (it's under "Public Safety"). Goldsmith writes, "The citizen with a thoughtful idea is not always the loudest. Many citizens with legitimate concerns or constructive suggestions may not enjoy either crowds or microphones. Avenues for their civic engagement ought to exist too."

So a well-informed professional with an agenda to distort the city's decision-making process spends a lot of time compiling data and harassing the city, and gets an NYPD sergeant's attention. She then calls up a Daily News reporter, who runs with her angle and fills in the David vs. Goliath script with a token quote from the heartless bureaucrats. Lisberg takes no time to consult a single cyclist, even though he considers himself a fan of Aaron Naparstek's work, or to situate Linday's concerns in the overall context of threats to pedestrian safety. Again, here's hoping he'll do better next time.

I want to end by pointing out that many citizens with legitimate concerns may not enjoy spending a day tabulating lawbreaking, or even an hour haranguing a hapless 311 operator. I personally have gotten discouraged reporting cars parked on the sidewalk and given up, but I would note that the 311 map includes a lot more examples of "Illegal Parking" (which lumps sidewalk parking in with blocked hydrants and a lot of other issues) than of "Bike/Roller/Skate Chronic." There are many reasons why legitimate complaints do not go reported, and counting complaints doesn't give you a real sense of how much people care about the issue. Complaint counts should be taken with a huge grain of salt, and definitely not used as the main basis for policy decisions. I don't have a solution, but Linday's goal is a recipe for disaster.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Peak oil, climate change and buses

Jarrett has a thought-provoking post about the age-old rail versus bus debate. But he buries what I think is the biggest advantage that trains have over buses:
Some variable cost differences. Broadly speaking, bus-based projects that use portions of existing roadway will be much cheaper than building rail for those same segments would be. Beyond that, costs for bus vs. rail projects can be hard to compare. Capital costs for rail include vehicles, while a busway is sometimes run with an existing bus fleet. Certain bus-rail comparisons in certain corridors may turn up significant differences in operating cost that may be valid in that situation, but need to be checked carefully to ensure that they assume the same factors on both sides.
Well, sure it's hard, and we need to be careful. But let's focus on ongoing maintenance and operations. Is there really any disagreement on the fact that train cars last longer than buses, that railroads last longer than asphalt roads, and that maintenance per passenger is cheaper for rail infrastructure, both vehicles and roads? Similarly, is there any disagreement that trains are cheaper to operate per passenger, in terms of energy and personnel?

As I wrote last month, some time in the next century we will get to a point where it will be difficult to build more infrastructure, and the pace of construction will drop precipitously. The infrastructure we have then will be more or less what we will have for the following hundred years. The easier it is to maintain and the less energy it requires to operate, the more energy will be available for other purposes.

This is one of the reasons why I get so frustrated with organizations like the Los Angeles Bus Riders' Union that promote buses over trains. Less extreme but still frustrating are the Pratt Institute and the Straphangers Campaign here in New York, and the Institute for Transportation Development Policy which is based here but operates worldwide. There are a few arguments they make, some more defensible than others.

The most obviously bogus argument is that we should never spend anything on capital; all the money should go to running buses as cheaply as possible. If you take that to its extreme the buses will eventually fall apart, so nobody really believes that we shouldn't spend anything on capital. What remains is to find the right balance between capital and operating costs.

Those who argue that we should be spending less on capital owe us an explanation for why we should do this while the government is not spending less on car infrastructure. After all, it's the relative value of transit that will ultimately drive the mode shifts necessary to accomplish most of our goals, and if we stop investing in transit while others continue to invest in roads, the relative value of transit will decline.

The most defensible argument is that we should be investing in transit expansion, but it should be "BRT" (something better than a regular mixed-traffic local bus, to be eternally negotiated downward) and not rail. These arguments clearly ignore the long-term cost of maintenance and operations.

Suppose we could get a network of exclusive busways in all the corridors of the Commute Plan (for instance, PDF), or for the same price we could get exclusive rail of some kind in six of the eleven corridors (I'm just pulling that number out of my ass). And then we run out of oil, and only the rich can drive. People are left using the transit system that's built. Which would you rather have: the rail one that will last for years, or the roads that will get more and more potholed as the years go on?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Bureaucrats as a special interest

If you're a transportation geek you're very familiar with AASHTO, which was originally the American Association of State Highway Officials, and only recently included "transportation" in their name. If you've been watching the news recently you may have also noticed the Governors Highway Safety Association (not to be confused with the other GHSA) and the New York State Association of Counties (not to be confused with the other NYSAC).

These organizations have a contradictory and misleading status. They are composed of appointed or elected officials, which may lead some to believe that they represent the public or are fighting for the public interest. In fact, they are private nonprofit organizations, and their agendas often differ from that of the public at large.

The biggest problem is the "Senate" problem: AASHTO and the GHSA give the same representation to Wyoming with its tiny population and tinier transit riding community as it does to Illinois, just like the United States Senate does. The 5,379 people in Hamilton County get the same representation in NYSAC as the 2,465,326 people in Kings County.

These organizations suffer from another "Senate" problem: who gets chosen to represent each state or county. What is the likelihood that Missouri will be represented in AASHTO or the GHSA by a pedestrian advocate from Saint Louis or Kansas City? State and county bureaucracies are often dominated by middle-class suburbanites, often wildly out of proportion to their populations.

When AASHTO argues against cycle tracks, or the GHSA blames the victim for walking, or NYSAC comes out against complete streets, it's important to point out that these are not representative government entities that follow the principle of one person, one vote. They are Senate-type nonprofits that are heavily skewed towards rural and suburban - and thus car-oriented - jurisdictions, and they represent middle-class suburban bureaucrats, not the population at large. They are special interest groups lobbying for money to be spent on their own agencies, and any recommendations they make should be taken with a grain of salt, considering the source.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The limitations of the David and Goliath script

Last week I called Greg Mocker out about focusing on drivers' problems without addressing pedestrian issues. He had already filed one story about sidewalks, and he followed it up with another one tonight. He's also got a great story about express bus riders on 34th Street, which is something I'm interested in. He's clearly a very good sport and didn't take my criticism personally.

Mocker is very good at confronting bureaucrats who aren't doing their jobs, and that's a very valuable public service. But as we saw with the snowstorm, things get very sticky very quickly when you get beyond simple incompetence and corruption, and into the area of priorities.

In the snow cleanup, there were a number of priorities that had to be set by bureaucrats, ultimately accountable to the elected officials who appointed them. After emergency routes, what should be cleared next, side streets or sidewalks? Streets or park walkways? Roads or bike lanes?

Similarly, the 34th Street busway is part of a deliberate plan by Transportation Commissioner Sadik-Khan to raise the priority of bus riders and pedestrians relative to drivers, taxi passengers and local residents who are getting deliveries. The Prospect Park West bike lane is an effort by Sadik-Khan to raise the priority of cyclists and pedestrians relative to drivers. These priorities are all set with the approval of Sadik-Khan's boss, Mayor Bloomberg.

The congestion pricing and Ravitch bridge toll battles were also efforts by Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Paterson to collect more money from motorists, but it was largely spun as the Out-of-touch Billionaire Mayor and the Out-of-touch Bumbling Governor versus the Hard-Working Outer Borough Drivers.

Sometimes the news people manage to get the right frame of two groups competing for street space or budget dollars or lower taxes, but they often seem to be incapable of getting out of the David and Goliath frame. The irony of this is apparent when you have two reporters from the same television channel (WPIX 11) covering both sides of the same story: Debra Alfarone interviews wealthy white Manhattanites fighting the DOT to stop them from providing better bus service, while Greg Mocker interviews a middle-class Black woman from Queens fighting the MTA for better bus service. In reality it's the wealthy white Manhattanites fighting the middle-class Black woman from Queens, but that's not the kind of David vs. Goliath story that sells television advertising.

That's the heart of the issue, really: that behind an apparent David and Goliath story of Outraged Residents confronting the Heartless Bureaucrats may be a much uglier story. The Outraged Residents may actually be a few wealthy or upper-middle-class people protecting their privilege and convenience at the expense of the convenience - or often the safety and well-being - of much larger numbers of less fortunate people, and the Heartless Bureaucrats may actually be engaged in an emotionally draining struggle to protect these less fortunate people.

The dilemma for Channel Eleven is that both groups may be viewers who will stop watching the Ten o'Clock News if they come out looking like selfish jerks. Some may even be advertisers who will pull ads if they come out looking like selfish jerks. So it's quite understandable that they would avoid showing the Outraged Residents as selfish jerks, even if they pretty clearly are.

I'm glad that Greg Mocker is actually standing up for the little guy, but it may get him into trouble if he takes it too far. If he does get into trouble, he may jump ship and go with another outlet that supports serious muckraking. If he stays, I would ask that he try to keep to issues of clear bureaucratic incompetence, rather than blaming the bureaucrats for setting priorities that help the little guys.

Addendum: Jarrett has a nice post giving me "Quote of the Week" - but also pointing out that he said much the same thing a month ago. I'm sure that Jarrett's post put the idea in my head, so I'm sorry I didn't remember it in time to give him credit! He's got a great take on the issue, and I will tweet it to Greg Mocker forthwith!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The "two New Yorks" frame is now officially a menace

Earlier today I pointed out how in the "satisfactory" snow removal after the latest storm, there are many crosswalks that were not completely shoveled. I've observed it today, four days after the snow stopped: the snowbanks blocking the crosswalk nearest to me are now frozen solid. Others have reported similar situations around the city. The response from Kvetch Greenfield? One tweet.

Now Streetsblog did find a News story that Jimmy Vacca and Dom Recchia are looking into the possibility that Cemusa may have shirked on their obligations to keep the bus stops clean. Anything to avoid openly questioning the results of their colleagues' actions and statements, I guess!

There have been a few other stories about the effect of the storm on pedestrians and transit riders: one from Manny Fernandez in the Times and one from Greg Mocker on Channel 11. Frustratingly, both of them fall back on the tired "two New Yorks" frame. (Tonight Mocker filed another report about snow on sidewalks and crosswalks that didn't use the "two New Yorks" frame - but he didn't connect it to the demands from drivers for clear side streets either.)

I'm convinced that in order to believe that there are only two New Yorks, divided along borough boundaries, you have to be either creepily dishonest, spectacularly uninformed or blissfully unobservant - any of which should disqualify you as a reporter. Applying the idea to this snow situation is even a stretch beyond that.

In order to write these moronic stories, Fernandez and Mocker had to forget the stories that they had filed in December (Fernandez, Mocker) featuring local politicians demanding that secondary streets be plowed. Mocker had to forget how he reported that Dan Halloran was satisfied with the cleanup of the January 6 snowfall.

A lot of the stories in Fernandez's piece are kind of bizarre WTF stories, anyway. Let's see: Joseph McDermott couldn't pick up a used car he had bought. Okay... Linda DelGaudio "spent the day" digging out her brother's car. Ummm... Frank Inzirillo had to take the day off because he couldn't dig out all three of his cars? My heart bleeds! Two men on Flatbush Avenue were forced to listen to Celine Dion while digging out a van? I mean seriously, this is some of the shittiest John Dos Passos-wannabe prose I've read. Hey, you effete Upper East Sider, listen to me, the guy with the Hispanic last name, while I give you the local color and show you how the other half dig their three cars out of the snow!

There are a couple of car-related vignettes in Fernandez's report that might have earned my sympathy if they too hadn't been so WTF? Leo Martinez's baby needs to go to the doctor, but god forbid they have a doctor in walking distance or take a taxi, no, Leo suffers because he's spending forty minutes and paying two other guys a total of $20. Peter Hristodoulias dug out his wife's car because the bus wasn't running ... but she had already walked to catch the express bus?

The fact that Hristodoulias's wife had to walk forty minutes to the bus is a problem, and so is the fact that Margie Perez walked to wait for an express bus that never showed up. But Fernandez doesn't connect that to the fact that many more side streets were plowed in that snowstorm. If the city had focused on the bus routes, it might have been able to plow them better. But no, thanks to David Greenfield, Tony Avella and the Times editorial board, the city made every side street drivable by cars before putting any further effort into bus routes.

Fernandez contrasted his Everyman commutes with Bloomberg's statement that he had to wait "a minute and a half" for the subway. Mocker also had a field day with that one. But Bloomberg also said that "everybody on the train seemed in a good mood." Who rides the number 6 train with Bloomberg, Manny Ferndandez, you man of the people? That's right, poor Black and Mexican people from the Bronx. But because they happened to be in Manhattan at the time, they were counted as "New Yorkers in Manhattan," not "New Yorkers elsewhere."

So no, Manny and Greg, there are not two New Yorks. In this story there were at least four: the elite Manhattanites in taxis, the middle-class apartment-dwelling transit riders of all races, the poor Black and Hispanic bus and subway riders, and the entitled outer borough drivers. In order to shoehorn it into your crappy frame, you lumped us outer-borough apartment-dwellers in with the elite Manhattanites, and the entitled drivers in with the poor bus and subway riders. In the process, you obscured several issues, and the most important one is that the entitled drivers overpowered the elite Manhattanites in order to screw over both us middle-class transit riders and the poor Blacks and Hispanics. Way to stand up for the little guy!