Tuesday, November 29, 2011

From tragedy to farce in Bushwick

Today Streetsblog had a post about a few blocks immediately to the east of the Knickerbocker Avenue el station in Bushwick, where development is hostile to pedestrians.

I was curious, so I pulled up the zoning for the area on City Planning's handy new ZOLA map (also on this PDF). The block with the military recruiter is zoned R6 with a C2-3 overlay, and the equally sprawly Burger King across the street is in a C4-3 commercial district. The C4-3 zone allows a floor-area ratio (FAR) of 3.4. The C2-3 overlay only allows a commercial FAR of 2.0. Both allow a residential FAR of up to 2.43, depending on setbacks. The developers could have built taller on both blocks.

These two zoning categories have identical parking requirements, and if the Burger King qualifies as "Refreshment stands, drive-in," it would have to have one parking space for every 400 square feet of floor area, with no waiver (PDF). The Burger King is about 5000 square feet, meaning that it's required to have thirteen spaces. In the parking lot there are about sixteen. The phone store is a bit more of a mystery, because when the amount of parking required is less than 25 spaces per lot, it is waived, but the developer built the parking anyway.

Noah Kazis writes, "Zoning may not be the chief culprit here. Head a block west along Knickerbocker, or follow the elevated subway tracks along Myrtle, and you’ll find vibrant commercial corridors with stores facing the sidewalk, not a parking lot. Even so, this seems like a location crying out for an intervention from New York City’s planners and economic development officials."

So if the zoning created that sprawl to the east of the el, why is there multistory mixed-use urban development under the el and to the west? The key is that the zoning code only covers new development, and all the buildings to the west were built in the 1930s, before the current zoning code was adopted in 1961.

The next question is, why were the block with the Burger King and the block with the phone store new construction? What happened to the buildings that were there before 1961? To find that out, I found the area on the Digital Tax Map, and plugged the Block Number into ACRIS. There were some records referring to a "Bushwick II Urban Renewal Plan." And that led me to the fire. In 1977 the All Hands Fire was started by three boys playing in an abandoned knitting factory. It destroyed several blocks of stores and apartments. For years, not much was built except the ugly sprawly police station.

I haven't found much about the history of the Burger King block specifically, but the block with the military recruiter and the phone store was sold by the City in 1983 to a guy named Ralph Goffner. The deed contains the interesting clause that "The development and use of the subject property is limited to off-street parking purposes only, and any successor in interest shall not use the premises for any other purpose." Clearly, Goffner is now using the premises for other purposes as well as parking. I'm assuming that the City relaxed that covenant at some point, but I haven't found documentation. If so, they may have required that Goffner continue to use some of it for parking.

The bottom line is that it's not 1961 in Bushwick, and it's not 1983. It's 2011, and we now know that large curbside parking lots are anti-urban and anti-pedestrian. Single-use single-story buildings are pretty out of place next to a train station as well. The City should rezone the area to allow for denser development without required parking - C4-5A or something like the R6N district that I proposed in July with a C2-5 overlay.

Monday, November 28, 2011

It's about jobs

Today, jobs are the No. 1 concern of most New Yorkers and Americans. Unemployment in New York state is at 8 percent and nationally it's even higher. At the same time federal, state and local budgets have fewer resources to invest in capital projects that help spur economic growth. But here in Rockland and Westchester counties, Gov. Cuomo has achieved an economic victory that has eluded us for almost a decade. Thanks to the governor we now have an expedited plan for the slaughter of puppies, which could bring more than 100,000 jobs to our region at a time when we need it most. Yet despite this monumental progress, there are some people who are trying to derail plans for killing puppies before bludgeoning even starts. After years of study, the people of our region cannot afford to wait any longer. We need to kill these puppies, and we need to kill them now.

For more than 10 years we have seen studies for bashing puppy heads in, but we have never seen a real plan for action. When Gov. Cuomo came into office he promised to restore the state's economy and he is delivering on that promise. The governor requested and won approval from the president to have the puppy slaughter put on a list of expedited projects, one of only six mayhem projects in the nation put on a fast timeline for implementation. At a time when many states are reducing or shutting down butchering projects, Gov. Cuomo has delivered a project that will create up to 150,000 jobs in the region. It would be a colossal mistake to continue the pattern of debating plans for killing puppies until we let this monumental economic opportunity pass us by.

The new plan for killing the puppies both creates jobs and gives our community a better, bloodier spectacle. The current state plans will smash the puppies with extra speed, safety straps, space for emergency handiwipes, and an array of spikes. Right now for the more than 100,000 puppy-killers who go over the Tappan Zee every day, the rate of accidents is twice as high as the state average. The plan for bludgeoning the puppies is a plan the workers in our community want to carry out for Rockland, Westchester and the entire state. The state's plan also preserves our ability to cuddle puppies in the years ahead.

At the public meetings I have attended about the puppy bashings, I have seen some politicians and advocates say that it is not enough for the state to preserve options to snuggle with soft puppies in the future. In their view we should cuddle the puppies while we slaughter them or no slaughter at all. At a time when all levels of government face historic fiscal constraints, it would be inexplicably foolish to reject an investment of $5.2 billion in our region. It makes even less sense when the plans were designed to allow the other desired improvements in the future. What we need now is action, not another decade of debate and studies that go nowhere.

We have spent years waiting and now thanks to Gov. Cuomo we have the opportunity to kill lots of puppies, creating tens of thousands of jobs at a time when we need them most. To reject this opportunity to give struggling New Yorkers job opportunities and strengthen the economic foundation of our region would be the mistake we simply cannot afford. For the sake of our state as well as Rockland and Westchester, it is imperative that we cannot let the critics stop progress. We need to finally grind these puppies into the dirt.

The writer is president/CEO of the Rockland Animal Cruelty Association.

The above post is a work of satire. The author is opposed to all animal cruelty, including violence against puppies.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Building on our transit-oriented past

I've been criticizing the Tappan Zee Bridge for weeks now, so it's time to offer an alternative vision. Deactivating the bridge will not make Orange, Bergen and Rockland counties go away. People will still live there. The role of the area in the regional economy would change somewhat, probably for the better. A wise investment in transportation infrastructure could foster prosperity in the area, but rebuilding the bridge ain't it.

Rockland, Orange and Bergen counties did not go straight from farmland to sprawl. There were many years of transit-oriented development, for industry, tourism and commuting.
The old industries are probably not coming back, even if we have an energy shortage. A lot more will be shipped by rail, but it will probably still be done in containers loaded in Newark. You never really know, but I don't see a huge demand for ice again. Quarrying will only pick up if the cost of moving rocks and concrete from further away goes through the roof.

Tourism and farming are the two economic sectors most likely to return. "Eating local" in the future is more likely to mean vegetables from Orange County than from a backyard in Brooklyn. If travel gets more expensive, a weekend in Nyack could become a better value than a weekend in Stockbridge. Bedroom communities may continue to be the main driver of the economies of these three counties, but not in the current sprawling configuration.

The current sprawl will not function with gas costing more than six dollars, but transit-oriented development can. Fortunately Orange, Bergen and Rockland counties have a network of transit-oriented towns that is still almost complete.

The Erie, and Pascack Valley railroads are still carrying passengers through the area, and the West Shore, Northern Branch and Suzy-Q are still carrying freight. The old Erie main line to Piermont is still intact from Suffern to Nanuet, and the right-of-way has been preserved as a rail-trail from Pearl River to Tappan. The only break is a mile or so from the Nanuet station to the Orangetown town line. The spurs to Haverstraw and New City have been abandoned, but the right of way seems mostly intact.

Just as importantly, the walkable town centers that grew up around train stations in all three counties before the highway network are still there. Middletown and Newburgh, Suffern and Nyack, Paterson and Hackensack, are still there with many of their beautiful old buildings still standing. All they need are transit riders and zoning reform to become vibrant towns again.

This is my vision for a Rockland county (and Bergen, and Orange) freed from car dependence. With convenient rail connections to jobs in Manhattan and Jersey City, no one will need to drive to Westchester. With sufficient residential density in the downtowns, businesses can thrive on pedestrian traffic without huge parking lots. When a train station and shopping are within walking distance, cars become unnecessary.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Before the Tappan Zee Bridge

I've talked before about the amount of sprawl that the Tappan Zee Bridge has generated west of the river in Orange, Bergen and Rockland counties. One thing that's often overlooked is that this area did not go straight from farmland to sprawl. Before 1950 it had an extensive railroad network, moving goods, travelers and commuters between the areas north and west of the Hudson Highlands and boats on the river.

The New York Central's West Shore Line ran from Albany along the river to Weehawken. The Erie ran from Binghamton and Port Jervis to Piermont, and later to Jersey City, splitting into the Main, Bergen County and Northern branches. The New York, Susquehanna and Western ran from Stroudsburg and Warwick to Edgewater. The various docks and junctions were significant employment centers, but the area also contained vacation destinations, bedroom communities and industrial uses such as rock quarrying and ice harvesting.

With the opening of the various bridges and tunnels and the highways connecting them, truck freight became more economical than rail. At the same time, new refrigeration technologies made ice harvesting unnecessary, and the creation of various mountain parks put an end to rock quarrying in these counties.

The bridges, tunnels and highways also put the area within easy commuting reach of Manhattan jobs. The housing crunch created in the city and inner suburbs by building height restrictions, racism and crime made even houses in Orange and Ulster counties desirable. The result is the sprawl we see today. That sprawl is real, and it represents an outrageous amount of wasted effort. But if we look, we can see the area's transit-oriented past. That can be the foundation for a sustainable future.

Independent Medallion Driver Option

Here's an email I got from the Taxi and Limousine Commission, which is stuck in the Internet of 2002 with Corey Bearak:

To All Interested Parties:
Industry Notice #11-31                                                           November 21, 2011
For Immediate Release

 Owner Must Drive Rules &
the Independent Medallion Driver Option
The New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) recently modified its Owner Must Drive Rules to allow a Medallion owner to designate, under an Independent Medallion Driver Option, an Independent Medallion Driver for a one year period beginning on January 1 of each calendar year. The designation form MUST be submitted to the TLC by November 1 of the current year for the upcoming year (for example, a designation for Calendar Year 2013 must be submitted to the TLC no later than November 1, 2012).

The Independent Medallion Driver selected would be responsible for satisfying the owner’s service requirement. One change of the designated driver will be allowed during the calendar year period. If the designated driver does not cover the required shifts, the owner of the medallion MUST drive the vehicle themselves to make up the difference.

The form that will need to be completed by both the Medallion Owner and the selected Driver can be found at the following locations on our website:
 http://www.nyc.gov/html/tlc/downloads/pdf/ind_med_driver_desig_removal_app.pdf ,

The form lists the documents and the payment amount that are required by the TLC for this option to be selected. Failure to complete the form in its entirety and to provide all required documents and payment will result in the request being denied.

The standard annual filing deadline of November 1, 2011 for the upcoming year has been extended to December 23, 2011 for those medallion owners seeking to designate a driver under the Owner Must Drive Option for Calendar Year 2012. This is a one-time extension of the deadline. Future selection documents, beginning with the 2012 submissions for Calendar Year 2013, must be filed by November 1 of the current year for the following calendar year. Late filed documents will NOT be accepted.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Roads and trucks for natural gas

A big topic in state politics lately has been high- hydraulic fracturing, in which water and lubricants are transported by diesel-powered tanker trucks on narrow country roads to a drilling site, then pumped into an underground layer of shale, breaking apart the rock and releasing methane. The methane floats to the surface, where it is captured and pumped into "natural gas" pipelines. From these it is burned for heating or in electrical generators.

This "hydrofracking" is being heavily promoted by a group of businessmen and women who stand to profit and politicians who want to be able to take credit for delivering "jobs" to high-unemployment areas. They claim that it's "safe" and "clean," even though the lubricants and methane have contaminated water supplies in the past.

Beyond the health risks, though, this is an incredibly inefficient way to generate electricity. A leaked draft report by the New York State Department of Transportation" - not the most conservative bunch when it comes to roads - estimates that "the Marcellus region will see a peak year increase of up to 1.5 million heavy truck trips, and induced development may increase peak hour trips by 36,000 trips/hour." The report says that it will cost $210 to 378 million a year to resurface the roads - and often widening them, of course - to accommodate these trucks.

Alan Chartock is fond of saying that fracking will not be worth it "if one little girl gets sick from drinking water laced with benzene," but what if one little girl gets run over on a road that's been widened for the fracking trucks? With that many new trips I'm guessing it won't be just one, either.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Job sprawl and the multipolar city

Back in 2009 I had an interesting discussion with Alon Levy, Jarrett Walker, Jeff Wood and Damien Newton about transit and multipolar cities. Jarrett, in particular, highlighted the efficiency benefits of multipolar layouts:
If you want a really balanced and efficient public transit system, nothing is better than multiple high-rise centers all around the edge, with lower-rise density in the middle, because that pattern yields an intense but entirely two-way pattern of demand. If balanced and efficient transit were the main goal in Los Angeles planning, you'd focus your high-rise growth energies on multiple centers such as Westwood, Warner Center, Burbank, Glendale and perhaps new centers in the east and south, while continuing to add density in the middle as opportunities arise.

It's expensive to have your jobs centralized in a small area and your housing scattered around it. It results in large crowds at rush hour and empty trains and buses in the reverse peak, or else large railyards and/or bus garages in the middle of the city. In a multipolar city there are jobs and residences everywhere, so that in the rush hour there is a greater use of the transit system but it is not highly unbalanced in one direction. In Paris, for example, you have people who live in Nanterre and Noisy-le-grand commuting in to work at the Bourse or one of the government offices, but at the same time you have people who live in the Marais and the Latin Quarter commuting out to La Défense and Montreuil.

In a multipolar city like that, you want circumferential routes, not just radial ones, because it's more efficient for someone who lives in Saint-Ouen and works in Nanterre to go directly west instead of going south into the city first. New York could stand to be more multipolar, and David Giles has pointed to job sprawl as evidence that of such multipolarity emerging. In our current transportation network, circumferential highways like I-287, I-278 and the Belt Parkway are much more functional than any similar transit routes. Given this, David argues that job sprawl favors drivers over transit users. He argues that we should build "bus rapid transit" to even out this disparity.

The thing is that there's a big difference between a multipolar city and sprawl. Multipolar cities have, you know, poles. Of higher density, near major transit hubs. Sprawl has highway interchanges, but the density is still fairly uniform. You can get off the train at La Défense and walk to your job, but you can´t do that for most of the jobs in the White Plains area: they're too far from the station. Because of this, job sprawl forces most people to drive and is much less efficient than a multipolar city.

David did consult me and other smart people for his report, and on the whole I like the way it turned out. But I disagree with his ultimate conclusions, especially the emphasis on "bus rapid transit." There are two problems with that. The first is that buses are always more expensive to operate, per passenger, than trains. The second is that it won't ultimately solve the problem of job sprawl. That second point deserves a whole post, so look for one soon!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Our expensive cheap roads

On November 8, Gizmodo ran a great piece by Rachel Swaby about the deterioration of the American road system, much of it based on interviews with Tim Lomax of the Texas Transportation Institute. The roads were originally designed for private cars, with the expectation that most freight shipping would continue to be done by train. They were mostly constructed out of compacted dirt with a layer of asphalt on top, unlike the German Autobahn which was asphalt on concrete.

Truck freight offered a particular advantage over rail for shippers: on trains, small loads of a container car or two had to be decoupled from the train and possibly coupled to another train for the next leg of the journey. The more times a train had to be stopped in a yard, "broken" and reassembled, the longer the trip for the entire cargo.

A full truck, by contrast, could hold a lot less than a full train, but it could go directly from the loading point to the unloading point. Both freight railroads and road builders were surprised by the speed of the shift from rail to road. The roads were paid for by the government, and most of them were "free." Lomax tells Swaby that "companies are pushing the limits of what our roads can take, which increases their profits—but at the taxpayer's expense." It's clear to me that this has been going on for as long as there have been companies.

You probably know what happened next. The railroads began losing money, and cut their passenger service first. American housing and retail reorganized themselves around roads, and manufacturing and other industries followed. Faced with such intense demand for the roads, the federal, state and local governments embarked on a massive expansion plan. This just fed the appetite for more roads.

I've known for years about this vicious cycle of road subsidies, but I didn't make the connection with the use of dirt instead of concrete under the asphalt. It makes me wonder: if all these roads had been made with concrete, how much longer would it have taken to build out the 1950s era Interstate system? How many railroads would have avoided bankruptcy? How many downtowns would have been saved from being paved over for parking?

Monday, November 14, 2011

A real "no build" option for the Tappan Zee Bridge

By law, the environmental review for every major capital project has to include a "no build" alternative, so that the consequences of building the thing are seriously compared to the consequences of not building it. Sometimes the no-build option wins out, as with Westway and the state's plans to widen the Major Deegan Expressway in 2009. Most of the time, unsurprisingly, the no-build option is a sham to satisfy the formal requirements. Some of those times, though, the projections for the no-build scenario are so divorced from reality that it borders on fraud.

The no build alternative advanced to satisfy the requirements for the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement is really not an alternative at all. "The No Build Alternative would involve the continued operation of the existing seven-lane bridge with ongoing maintenance to keep the bridge in a state of good repair," says the Scoping Packet. It envisions the state raising tolls and taxes to maintain an increasingly deteriorating bridge, while new residents pour into Rockland. These residents would be sitting in traffic for hours each day, with traffic backed up to Coxsackie and forlorn employers in Westchester staring at thousands of empty cubicles.

As I've written before, these projections are bullshit. It's already a pain in the ass to drive across the bridge, and people have responded by taking jobs in the city or by simply not moving to Rockland, Orange and Bergen. Employers have responded by hiring people who live east of the river, or by relocating to the city.

This is true for bridge maintenance as well. Just because maintenance costs rise doesn't mean we have to pay them. We could dramatically reduce maintenance - and crashes - by simply reducing the number of lanes on the bridge. If only half as many vehicles took the bridge, it would dramatically reduce the stress. They're doing it on a bridge in Montreal, and it's a boon for transit. It's even got some people talking about BRT on that bridge - without replacing it!

I may not have been clear enough in my earlier post, but just as failing to expand the bridge will not result in huge traffic jams, unemployed Rocklanders and empty cubicles in Westchester, neither will reducing the number of cars that can use the bridge. If only half as many people can get across the bridge, then people will compensate by making adjustments to their homes, their jobs and their transportation.

The grinding traffic jams on the bridge are there not because it's such a wonderful way to get to work, but because it's underpriced. As Eric Jaffe writes, the only way to get rid of them is to charge market rate tolls. Before you protest about gouging the poor Rockland residents, let me remind you that almost all of them moved there because they could get the suburban life for cheap. It's cheap because we're subsidizing their driving, but nobody ever promised them it would be cheap forever, did they? Oh, and the State plans to double or triple the tolls even if they replace the bridge, so you should be just as mad about that.

The great thing is that as tolls go up, maintenance costs go down and the money available to pay them go up. There is likely to be a point at which the tolls cover maintenance again and other Thruway users no longer have to chip in. On the other hand, it's possible that the particular structure of this bridge is hopeless, and there is no toll level that would attract enough drivers to cover the cost. In that case, we can simply have an orderly devolution of the bridge, where we raise tolls enough to keep the bridge going for five or ten years more, and to build up capacity on the four railroad lines that serve the area.

The past ten years' discussion of Tappan Zee Bridge replacement has been full of this kind of dishonesty. Wouldn't it be nice if the discussion could be honest from now on? An honest discussion would consider the possibility that the best option might actually be to tear the bridge down and build nothing in its place, or to turn it into a greenway without building a new bridge. Instead, the three goals listed on Page 1-7 of the Scoping Packet are,

Ensure the long-term vitality of this Hudson River crossing
Improve transportation operations and safety on the crossing
Maximize the public investment in a new Hudson River crossing

These are goals for "the crossing," not for the people. They admit no solution that doesn't involve spending lots of money on "the crossing."

Tomorrow, November 15, at 5:00 PM is the deadline for commenting on the scope of the environmental review. If you think that the scope of this project is too narrow, and that the "no build" option is bogus, you need to make your opinion known. You can email them, or you can call them at (877) 892-3685. Anything you send them, they have to respond to it and they have to include it in a report.

The future of the Hudson Valley, and the future fiscal health of the State of New York, depend on us stopping this boondoggle. Please act.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Some consequences of energy depletion

Many people accept the likelihood of peak oil and climate change, but haven't quite thought through all its implications. Here are five things that I think are likely results:

- Mode shift: In the past four years, the price of gasoline has already gotten high enough relative to income that driving is unaffordable for a larger segment of the population. This trend will only continue. Biodiesel, electric cars and hydrofracking will only postpone it.

- Depopulation of sprawl: The housing market collapsed in 2007 because people could no longer afford to "drive 'til you qualify." The commercial real estate market collapsed right after because employers didn't want to be dependent on workers driving in from miles around. Most of suburban America is unsustainable at a gasoline price of five dollars a gallon, and an even bigger chunk is unsustainable at ten dollars a gallon. The recession has cut gas prices and commute times, and people have started creeping back into the subdivisions, but any recovery will send them back into more urban areas.

- Survival of cities: We have had concentrated population centers for thousands of years, and we will continue to do so. Even if the total population declines, there will still be trade and industry. Expensive energy will make the 3,000 mile Caesar salad an expensive rarity (if it survives at all), but just as the Romans traded with the Chinese, so will future Americans. These goods may not be transported by plane, diesel ship and truck, but by electric ship and rail (if we're lucky) or sailing ship, canal boat and horse (if we're not). Whatever the conveyance, there will continue to be a need for transfer, storage and distribution centers, and that means cities. They may not be as big as they are now, but we're not all going to be blacksmithing and raising goats.

- Rust belt resurgence: Shortages of energy and water will make it difficult if not impossible to live in areas that depend on air conditioning for survival, like those around Phoenix and Houston. People will move to cooler cities that are nodes in water and rail transportation networks. That means the same "Rust Belt" cities that their parents mocked: Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Springfield.

- Capital shortage: When energy, transportation and asphalt (which is made out of oil) are expensive, it will be hard to build any new infrastructure. We may be able to build some things, but that ability depends in part on how quickly we deplete the supply of fossil fuels and uranium that we have left, and how quickly we build alternatives to harness renewable energy.

- A vicious cycle of transportation inadequacy: The cost of any infrastructure project also depends on how well the transportation system is functioning when you need to transport supplies for the new infrastructure. Let's say you want to rebuild an abandoned rail line, like the old Air Line through Connecticut. If you can get the supplies 90% of the way by rail or boat, that's great. But if you need to spend exorbitant amounts the fuel to carry the supplies by truck across potholed roads, that's going to add to the cost.

Any that I missed?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Inefficient cities of the future

In response to my post on inefficient cities, Alon wrote that in Kampala his cousin observed, "The heavier vehicles take the space they want, and pedestrians get the short shrift because they're lighter than cars and if they don't make way they get run over." This is what happens all too often when there is not enough to go around - in this case, enough space to maneuver in the streets - and when the rule of law is weak. Might makes right, and the mighty happen to be the rich who can afford to buy big, heavy vehicles.

It doesn't have to be this way. In the Third World, if you go to places where there is enough street space, such as smaller towns, everyone shares. If you go to places where the rich can't bring their cars, like the narrow streets of the old towns, you can find a more equitable distribution of space.

Interestingly, in these inefficient cities even the rich with their big cars usually have trouble getting around. They may be able to get around a little faster and easier than everyone else, but they still get slowed down and frustrated.

As I wrote in the last post, Los Angeles and Houston have notorious traffic along those lines, but up to now they've been able to build lots and lots of roads to keep cars moving. Kampala and Cairo and Lagos cannot. And here's the problem for LA and Houston (and Las Vegas and Phoenix and Atlanta and Charlotte ...): some day soon, they will lose the ability to build lots and lots of roads. Once that happens, they will become as paralyzed as Cairo and Lagos.

For some, it won't matter. Vegas and Phoenix are so closely tied to the sprawl economy that if sprawl becomes impossible they will lose their reason for existence. People will leave, the cities will shrink, and if there is still a need for anyone to live and work there, they'll probably get around just fine by bike. But they are also heavily dependent on air conditioning and imported water, and if either of those break down the cities will become uninhabitable.

For others it does matter. As Kunstler has argued, coastal cities like LA and DC, river towns like Memphis and Cincinnati, and lake ports like Detroit and Buffalo, will see a resurgence. But the extent to which they function well depends on how well-adapted their transportation systems are for people without cars.

This is where rapid transit comes in. And it has to be rapid so that the transit passengers aren't stuck in the same gridlock as everyone else. The guaguas of Santo Domingo and the bachés of Bamako have phenomenal ridership, but they´re slow, uncomfortable and unreliable during peak times. Streetcars in mixed traffic aren't much better. You need to have at least a physically separated transit right-of-way, and better a grade-separated one. Cities that either have enough of those already or can build them quickly will be in better shape than those that have built themselves around private cars.

Maybe you can see now how this is getting back to the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement. I'll follow up soon.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Inefficient cities

There are lots of cities in the Third World that I'd call "inefficient cities." It's hard to get anywhere because the transportation infrastructure is so overburdened. This is illustrated by a story I read recently about Kizza Besigye, a political opposition leader in Uganda who was shot in the arm with a rubber bullet and arrested four times, for walking to work in the capital of Kampala. This is not like the stories of crazy suburban high school administrators who threaten to arrest parents for child endangerment for allowing their children to walk to school. This guy's goal was to disrupt the government by walking to work.

One funny aspect of Besigye's story was that when the police arrested him, they gave him a number of choices. One of them was to simply call for his car. Their assumption was that everyone in the Ugandan political elite has not just a car, but a paid chauffeur. Since Besigye didn't challenge that assumption, it was probably accurate.

Clearly, Besigye didn't disrupt the capital by telling his driver to stay home while he walked. That would have actually eased traffic congestion slightly. What disrupted things was that his followers also walked to work, instead of taking buses, cars or motorcycles. Why did this disrupt things? Because Kampala's pedestrian infrastructure sucks.

I haven't been to Kampala, but I've been to other cities in Africa and the Caribbean, and I know that in many of them the sidewalks are narrow or nonexistent. The cities are designed for drivers first, and pedestrians are an afterthought. With proper sidewalks, New York was able to handle crowds of pedestrians during the blackout of 2003. Only the bridge walkways were too narrow for the crowds, so the DOT opened a lane to pedestrians on every bridge. In Kampala, apparently, they can't handle a bunch of people walking to work.

There are similar stories of car traffic, of people trying to get across town in Cairo or Lagos, and giving up because they've been stuck in the same place for hours. These are places that were designed for cars, but where most of the people don't own cars. Still, there are more car owners than the roads were designed for, and the result is gridlock. Los Angeles and Houston have notorious traffic along those lines, but up to now they've been able to build lots and lots of roads to keep cars moving. Kampala and Cairo and Lagos cannot. This is why I call them inefficient cities.

Believe it or not, this still relates to the Tappan Zee Bridge. I'll get to that connection eventually.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Wenn brauchen wir Beton vor alles...

My friend Alon Levy has done a great service for the transit blogging community by introducing us to a German planning proverb: Organisation vor Elektronik vor Beton. Literally it means "organization before electronic before concrete," and the idea is that changing the organization of an enterprise is relatively cheap, installing electronics is more expensive, and large infrastructure projects are the most expensive. So if your goal is to provide a service like transportation, you should look at organizational and compact solutions first, and pour concrete only as a last resort.

This is great advice when the goal is to get commuters to their jobs quicker, more comfortably and with greater flexibility. It works well if your goal is to improve access, especially for the poor, and when you're spending your own money that could go to other worthwhile problems.

The principle is less applicable when "jobs" are a goal. This could be from the perspective of Keynesian stimulus, or simply of old-fashioned patronage. When Barack Obama and Ray LaHood want to put people back to work, they're not necessarily interested in organizational streamlining.

The Keynesian practice of ignoring deficits in a liquidity trap gives them a huge pot of money to throw at "shovel-ready" projects. This would be great if it could be spent on much-needed transit maintenance and operations, but currently politicians get the greatest reward from funding big new projects, less from fixing things that are broken, even less for incremental improvements and hardly anything from keeping things running smoothly.

This combination of Keynesian budgets and "ribbon-cutting bias" means that the government is itching to spend money on stuff, and they care more about job creation than about efficiency. The transit projects that are most likely to get funded are the ones that create the most jobs for voters and donors in the districts of influential politicians. Those of us who care about efficiency may not like to see it take a back seat to considerations like stimulus and patronage, but there are different kinds of efficiency, including cost efficiency, fuel efficiency, space efficiency and time efficiency.

If it's a choice between a five billion dollar beton transit project or a 500 million dollar elektronik project, sure, we want the cheaper one. But if the government plans to spend five billion no matter what, then it's the choice between a five billion dollar transit project and a 500 million transit project plus a 4.5 billion dollar highway project. Under these circumstances the elektronik project will not ultimately save money, and the highway project will use more energy per passenger-mile and induce more sprawl.

The highway project will also compete with parallel transit lines, so it could wind up reducing energy and spatial efficiency further. It will encourage people to drive more and reduce the constituency for future transit projects, compounding the effect.

On top of all that efficiency we have other goals like reducing pollution and carnage, and increasing health and social interaction. These goals mean that we need to get people out of their cars, and for me at least they are more important than simple cost efficiency.

So yes, Organisation vor Elektronik vor Beton. But if you're getting béton anyway, then make it Schiene vor Beton.

There's another reason that I'll get into in a future post.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The end of sprawl has come to Westchester and Rockland

The Tappan Zee Bridge replacement proposals are predicated on three assumptions: that people will keep moving to Bergen, Orange and Rockland Counties to live; that employers will keep moving jobs to Westchester and Fairfield Counties; and that people living west of the Hudson will keep wanting to drive to jobs east of the Hudson:

The New York Metropolitan Transportation Council (NYMTC) projects that both population and employment growth will continue (see Figure 1-4). Between 2010 and 2047, the populations of Rockland and Westchester Counties are expected to increase by 50,000 and 134,000 residents, respectively. Employment is projected to increase by 47,000 jobs in Rockland County and by 160,000 jobs in Westchester County during this timeframe. This growth in population and employment will increase daily volumes across the Tappan Zee Bridge for the next several years. (PDF)

Figure 2. Historical bridge traffic volumes and capacity constraints. "Getting Up to Speed" (PDF, 2007)
None of those is true. I've already shown how the traffic projections are wrong. You might object that this leveling is due to the recession, and if the population and job projections are correct, traffic will go up. Well, that's wrong too. The number of cars trying to squeeze onto the bridge began to level off in 2000. This mirrors general trends in driving habits.

Figure 3. Historical bridge traffic volumes, gas crunches and highway openings. "Rockland County Tappan Zee Corridor Transit-Oriented Development Study (PDF, 2007)
This weekend I found two great charts from 2007 that also riffed off the NYMTC projections. This one, produced by the the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, shows that traffic on the bridge is self-limiting. When it becomes too inconvenient to drive across the bridge, people find another way to get to work, or another job, or another place to live. The other, produced by the Regional Plan Association, shows that the traffic is limited by the cost of driving and encouraged by new highway construction. We really shouldn't have to spell any of that out for anyone, but there it is.

What about our second assumption, then, that there will be job growth in Westchester and Fairfield? Reports suggest that that supply is leveling off. Employers are finding that if they locate in a downtown area, they attract more creative and dynamic employees. In general it's more fun to work in the city where you can eat a different cuisine for lunch every day than in some office park where you eat at the corporate cafeteria every day instead of spending your lunch hour stuck in traffic on the road to Applebee's. "It's a switch back to 'I don't want to be isolated in an office park, I want the vibrancy of a downtown, public transportation and the ability to shop and walk around'," Gerard Hallock, executive managing director of Colliers International, told the Wall Street Journal.

Finally for our first assumption, that people are going to keep moving to Bergen, Orange and Rockland counties. Let's look at the housing market there.
There's a glut of housing in these areas. No one wants to live in New City because you can't get anywhere without driving, and driving is dangerous and uncomfortable. But mostly, since we've run out of money and space to build new roads, and since the price of gas has risen, driving is slow and expensive. Housing prices are down in Bergen, Orange and Rockland. In contrast, if you look at housing in Westchester, where housing is denser and people can commute to the city by train, prices are recovering.

New York Zillow Home Value Index
So let's review: we're spending five billion dollars to build a bridge for people who live in Rockland to drive to jobs in Westchester, but people aren't moving to Rockland, jobs aren't moving to Westchester, and the people who live in Rockland aren't going to drive across the bridge if it's not convenient.

This is a project that kinda sorta made sense ten years ago if you didn't question the projections too much. In 2011, it's clearly a waste of money. It's a zombie project, one that was almost dead for good until our governor and president reanimated the corpse. Thanks, guys!