Monday, January 30, 2012

Tappan Zee traffic volume: Don't pee on my back again!

Yes, it's time for another episode in our "Don't pee on my back and tell me it's raining!" series about the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project. Last month I addressed one of the New York State Department of Transportation's favorite claims, that the crash rate on the bridge is more than twice that on the rest of the Thruway, and that the only way to fix that is to build a new bridge. Today I'm going to address another claim that they love to make: that bridge traffic will increase over the next several years, and therefore a new bridge is necessary to accommodate that. I've already covered this back in October, but today I've got support from a famous economist, a team of financial experts and the State Transportation Commissioner herself.

Here's what the Federal Highway Administration says in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, copied directly from the Scoping Packet:

The New York Metropolitan Transportation Council (NYMTC) projects that both population and employment growth will continue in Rockland and Westchester Counties (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 thirty years.

This increase in traffic volumes is presented as a fact of nature, one that nobody can control, least of all the little ol' Federal Highway Administration and New York State Department of Transportation. But the State has the authority to set tolls, and in today's New York Times, economist Nancy Folbre, recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant," summarizes the well-supported case that toll prices can affect traffic volumes. And on Friday, libertarian columnist Nicole Gelinas struck gold in the 2009 Merrill Lynch / Loop Capital preliminary financial plan for the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project:
Even a significant toll increase is unlikely to full fund the Project capital costs, and could pose potentially adverse traffic demand response. Toll increases require significant efforts to gain stakeholder support.
An "adverse traffic demand response" just means lower traffic volumes. Well, ahem, one man's "potentially adverse traffic demand response" is another man's problem solved! It's only a problem if you've already built a bigger bridge and you need the tolls to pay for it. If you reduce traffic volumes instead of building a bigger bridge, well, you just saved us five billion dollars.

But wait, there's more! Now let's connect these statements to the principle that roads compete with transit for people, and thus to New York State Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald's statement last week:
Our position has always been you cannot build transit until you replace the bridge. We don’t think it is financially feasible at this time for transit to be included, but we are building a bridge that will last for 100+ years, so at some point in the future, if the ridership numbers, and the fare box recovery ratio warrant the investment, we will make sure that it happens.
This pretty much wraps up the case. The current plan is to widen the bridge, and probably to sneak a couple of extra car lanes in, making it easier for people to drive. The Thruway will always keep tolls low on the bridge, making it cheap for people to drive. In other words, the government of New York State will do everything it can to make sure that there is never enough demand to warrant setting aside bus-only lanes on the Tappan Zee Bridge.

The current Tappan Zee Bridge is a sprawl-generating machine. A replacement bridge with transit would not stop the sprawl. The replacement bridge will not have transit anyway, if Governor Cuomo has any say in the matter. Let's tear down the bridge and not build another one. But we'll be okay, and we can have jobs.

It's time to end this charade. To find out more, visit my new website,

Who will stop the Tappan Zee boondoggle?

Last week the Federal Highway Administration released two sets of documents relating to the Tappan Zee Bridge reconstruction project. There wasn't much discussion of the Scope Summary Report, where hundreds of people complained about the way the Federal Government has been handling this project and were completely blown off. That's backward-looking and old news. A lot more attention has been paid to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement because it finds, in the words of an Associated Press writer, "no ecology obstacles" to the plan.

Streetsblog's Noah Kazis has recycled several of my posts with added points, including a critique of the bridge planning under New York State's own Smart Growth law, a more thorough corroboration of my toll calculations by Charlie Komanoff, a report embarrassing the State with its own clumsy denial of Streetsblog's Freedom of Information requests, and a striking illustration of the FHWA's lack of interest in public input: the old outreach offices have been closed.

One of the craziest things about this is that the thing is supposed to cost five billion dollars, and nobody has said where that money will come from. The Governor has floated several different "trial balloons," but in the end declared that it will have to be "publicly financed." In theory this is all in the Governor's budget proposal, but in practice the budget is the usual spaghetti of confusing similarly-named funds and accounts folding endlessly back in on itself; the Tappan Zee Bridge is mentioned once or twice, but not in a way that seems connected with anything.

Despite the fact that lots and lots of people said there should be "transit on the bridge," the FHWA said they wouldn't do more than "not preclude" transit. Transportation Nation's Kate Hinds called New York State Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald and asked her about this. McDonald's response was interesting:
That is what we have said all along…Our position has always been you cannot build transit until you replace the bridge. We don’t think it is financially feasible at this time for transit to be included, but we are building a bridge that will last for 100+ years, so at some point in the future, if the ridership numbers, and the fare box recovery ratio warrant the investment, we will make sure that it happens. So we are building the bridge to not preclude it in the future. And what that means is the footings will be spread appropriately and there will be enough weight-bearing capability on the bridge to hold transit in the future.

I've highlighted a key phrase that jumped out at me the second time I read it: if the ridership numbers and the fare box recovery ratio warrant the investment. You could read the part about "ridership numbers" as McDonald simply saying she's not going to put the State in a position where it's vulnerable to the Empty Lanes Attack. If they're going to reserve a lane for buses, they want to be able to say that that lane moves enough people to justify keeping private cars out.

The bit about farebox recovery is more troubling. Currently, fares paid by Tappan Zee Express and Orange-Westchester Link riders cover about ten percent of the cost of running those buses. What McDonald is saying here is that it's not "financially feasible" to spend that much money subsidizing bus rides as well as reserving the lanes for buses. Cannily, she doesn't say what kind of farebox recovery ratio would warrant the investment, allowing herself and her successors to dismiss any request for transit.

The troubling part is that McDonald seems to have no clue that roads and transit compete with one another - or possibly to be deliberately ignoring this fact. If we add a lane to the Tappan Zee Bridge (and everyone knows it's going to be at least three lanes), that makes it easier to drive, and lowers the demand for transit. In other words, as long as the government keeps widening the roads and bridges the farebox recovery ratio will never warrant the investment in transit.

McDonald has just flushed any credibility she had left on smart growth issues down the toilet, but what about her boss? Most of the posts about the bridge point the finger at Governor Andrew Cuomo, and clearly he's the one pushing for the bridge to be started this year. It's not hard to figure out why: he wants to have at least one inspiring infrastructure project finished by the time he runs for President in 2016. He doesn't see transit (much less "BRT") as necessary to this bullet point on his resume.

Transit advocates do not have the power to take away this bullet point that Cuomo so desperately seeks, and I can't think of anything we could offer him that would have equal political value. Is there a transit project that would move 150,000 people a day for $5 billion dollars and be finished by 2016 without requiring Cuomo to share the glory with anyone else?

If we want to stop this project, appealing to Cuomo or McDonald will not help. There are a few other avenues, though. Since October, the lead agency on the bridge replacement project has not been the State Department of Transportation, but the FHWA. The FHWA is part of the United States Department of Transportation, headed by everyone's favorite Republican ex-congressman from Peoria, Ray LaHood. LaHood has been actively courting the smart growth and alternative transportation crowd, and seems most passionate when he talks about bike facilities and high speed rail. Why not lobby him and his boss, President Obama? At the very least, every time LaHood shows up to speak at a pro-transit or pro-bike gathering, someone could say to him, "You know, Ray, this Tappan Zee Bridge project is a disaster, and your agency is leading it!" Not out loud, to embarrass him, but quietly, privately, so that he gets the message that people are paying attention and connecting it with him. (You can also mention the eerily similar Columbia River Crossing).

Another possible route of opposition is New York State's traditional system of checks and balances, known informally as "three men in a room." Streetsblog has mentioned that Senate Finance Committee Chair John DeFrancisco expressed frustration with the vagueness of the transportation budget. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has killed boondoggles in the past; would he or Dean Skelos be willing to expend enough political capital to kill this bridge project?

Since both the pro-bridge coalition and the pro-BRT coalition have reserved domain names for their positions, I have set up a website at showcasing all the reasons to tear down the bridge and not replace it. Please link and tweet it widely!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

On Bleecker Stroad

There's been a lot of brouhaha lately about New York University's plans to expand its main campus, and the (sometimes successful) efforts of the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation to thwart and scale back those efforts. As a former Village resident, I feel the GVSHP is wrong, but so is NYU.

I've lived in the Village and been a regular visitor all my life. There's something about the Village that's never felt right to me, but I've only recently acquired the vocabulary to describe it. It's Bleecker Street. It's also Houston Street and West Third, but I feel it most on Bleecker, in part because I avoid that part of Houston.

Bleecker Street is dead to me. I don't mean that the Red Lion has seen better days, although that may be true. I mean that when I walk from Sixth Avenue to Broadway on Eighth or West Fourth Streets, there's always something going on. There are stores, or NYU buildings bustling with students, or there's Washington Square. When I walk on Ninth or Tenth Street it's almost all residential, but with beautiful brownstones and carriage houses, and lots of stoops with interesting-looking people coming and going.

This is important because the Village has one concentration of shops around the subway stations at Sixth and Seventh Avenues, and another around those at Broadway and Lafayette Street. I regularly find myself on a trip to the Village with one thing to do near Sixth Avenue and one near Broadway, and I'm not the only one. There's steady traffic from one side of the neighborhood to the other, for work, shopping, entertainment and study. There's no direct subway connection, and the one bus is slow and unreliable, though, so most people walk.

When I walk down Bleecker Street, it's a jumping, happening place from Sixth Avenue (or even Seventh) to La Guardia Place. From Mercer to Broadway it's quiet and residential, but it works. From La Guardia to Mercer, Bleecker Street is dead. There's one ugly driveway on the north side and a couple of pedestrian paths on the other, in a stretch that's two blocks long (Wooster Street doesn't go north of Houston). The rest is just blank walls on one side and windows with curtains drawn on the other. Yeah, there are a few trees. So what? They don't help.

Houston and Third Streets are similar, at least on one side, and so are Mercer Street and La Guardia Place. Third Street is actually worse, because it's much wider in that area, and much less pedestrian-friendly as a result. Why are they this way? There are two black holes that are sucking the life out of those streets, and they have names: Washington Square Village and Silver Towers.

There is some interesting history behind these superblocks, fairly well summarized in the Wikipedia articles I linked in the above paragraph. The area was considered a slum in the days of Jacob Riis, and beginning in 1954 it was condemned, cleared and divided into three superblocks. The north superblock was given to NYU, and it now holds several NYU buildings. The central superblock was given to a private partnership including Paul Tishman, who built Washington Square Village, with 1200 apartments over a 650-unit parking garage. The south superblock was originally given to the developers, but after they couldn't get financing it was turned over to NYU, who built the Silver Towers and a Mitchell-Lama building over an underground parking garage. In 1964 the developers sold Washington Square Village to NYU, giving it control of all three blocks.

I'll write more about the current fight - and the problems with what both sides are saying - later.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Tao of economic incentives

I haven't yet read Gernot Wagner's new book But Will The Planet Notice: How Smart Economics Can Save the World, but I heard him interviewed by Leonard Lopate, and the approach he's promoting seems very sensible. If there is a major economic incentive encouraging people to do negative things (drive, accept plastic bags, buy food sweetened with high fructose corn syrup), is it easier to fight that behavior directly, or to change the incentive?

We can think of this as an application of the Tao, or of Ueshiba's notion of enveloping your adversaries. If you prefer, you can think of it as leverage: if someone is using a lever to magnify their force on an object, is it better to push back on the object, or on the other person's foot? You can also think of it as getting past the superficial story to the real story underneath. The best kind of compromise is when it doesn't matter whether anyone gets what they said they want, but everyone is getting what they really want.

One example of incentives working in transit is Hasselt, Belgium, which is usually held up as a paragon of free public transit, but where it seems that the key was actually converting the government-sponsored inner ring road from an incentive to drive to a "Groene Boulevard" where buses and bikes have priority. However, in order to pass both free transit and the Groene Boulevard, their promoters had to convince the citizens of Hasselt that it was "their" town, their mobility plan, and their bus system. Getting to the levers is not easy, and neither is controlling them once you do.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Three factors in density

I concede defeat on one aspect of the density thought experiment: the commenters convinced me that there are places that don't have "the density to support transit" even if everyone who wants to go anywhere takes the transit. Phelan, California and Fort McMurray, Alberta may be examples of this. However, there are three aspects of the story that I'm sticking to:

1. If these places can't support transit, most of them probably can't support roads either. That's "support" either in the sense of inducing enough tax revenue to pay for their construction and maintenance, or providing a public service that would be considered worth the investment.

2. Most of the places that are generally claimed to "not have the density to support transit" are of the kind that would have the density to support transit if it had a 100% mode share.

3. As Jonathan said, if you make driving expensive or unpleasant enough (or if you just don't bother to make it cheap and comfortable), people will move to places where they can access things easily through walking and transit. That's the transportation-land use cycle that I identified in 2008 (here seen in a cleaned-up version by Pantagraph Trolleypole).

So the next time you're tempted to say something about "the density to support transit," ask yourself these three questions:

1. Would transit work if it had a better mode share?
2. Does the area have the density to support roads either?
3. Would people live or work more densely if the car infrastructure was less subsidized?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Density thought experiments

In recent posts, I've discussed how density isn't all that important in transit demand, how the idea of "supporting transit" is problematic, and how different people have different goals for transit, and density affects these goals differently. Because my own goals (see the top of this page) are wrapped up in a feedback loop based on mode share, my most intermediate goal is getting people out of their cars.

Transit mode share, in fact, is where density is least relevant. This may seem surprising, but only if you believe that density is the only way to control the relative value that people get from various modes. The transit boosters who worry about density actually believe that it's possible in the short term to increase the value of transit by throwing more money at it, but that that's unsustainable in the long run. Their big blind spot is that we actually have quite a bit of control over the value of driving, if we can find the political will.

This brings us back to the Magic Formula for Transit Ridership:

1. Give transit its own right-of-way and good terminals
2. Make it hard to use cars
3. Make it expensive to use cars
4. Profit!

Many transit advocates have enough exposure to the concept of (3) in the form of congestion pricing and gasoline prices, but they seem very resistant to considering step (2), probably because they don't want to be accused of wanting to take anyone's car away. The Very Serious People are all afraid to talk about decreasing the size of the road network.

But what if, while Spain was building all those high-speed rail lines, they didn't also pump billions into a truly gigantic highway network? If drivers faced constant congestion on old highways, wouldn't we expect higher ridership on the trains? Wouldn't we also expect that if the highway network was old and small enough, but the train network was the size it is today, eventually there would be enough demand for the trains that they would be completely profitable - operations and capital?

You can do the same thought experiment with any place. No matter how sparsely populated it is, just subtract some roads while keeping the rail and/or bus network constant, and eventually the place "supports transit." Take Wyoming. Now imagine it without interstate highways. Would that be enough to support restored passenger service on the train lines? How about if we turn all the roads to gravel?

Back in 2010, I had a similar discussion on Human Transit about the supposed convenience of cars. A lot of people had problems with the idea that convenience was dependent on the quality of the infrastructure, but I think I showed that if you throw enough money at any transportation system you can make it feel convenient to its users.

Similarly, if you make the car infrastructure shitty enough and expensive enough, you can make transit feel like a bargain. Density may make it politically easier to support transit expansion or harder to support road expansion, but that's not a matter of "the density to support transit," it's "the density to make it likely enough that transit will receive more political support than roads," which is not the same thing at all.

If you're really not convinced, I challenge you to come up with a place, or a route, where you can't increase transit ridership by taking away roads or increasing prices. If you want data, I have density and mode share figures for all of the municipalities and census-designated places in the New York Combined Statistical Area. Go for it.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Density and our goals

On my last post I got some great comments! Jeff "Pantagraph Trolleypole" Wood pointed us to Pushkarev and Zupan suggesting that commercial density is more important than residential density back in 1977; Jeff summarized that argument in 2010. So that's where a lot of this comes from.

Richard Layman points out that some parts of the transit network can reinforce others, and that it may therefore be valuable for apparently unjustified transit routes and runs to be cross-subsidized by "popular" routes, or even by the government. Jeff also pointed to the value of high-speed rail in inducing dense development near stations, and I think if we put these together we get something that Germà Bel's analysis misses: that an "unprofitable" high-speed rail line can be worth subsidizing if it gets people to downtown stations where they will walk and ride transit instead of driving.

Bel himself left a comment pointing out that any transportation investment yields private benefits (which should probably be paid for by the user) and public benefits (which could be paid for by the government), and pointing us to an interesting study of the new Italian high-speed rail network (PDF). I think that's very important, but I would add that the public and private benefits are not a matter of universal agreement, and especially with the public benefits there will be people who disagree about the relative value of transit cross-subsidy or economic development or emissions reductions. The debate is not just a matter of how much a project affects these outcomes, but how much the outcomes matter.

With that in mind, let me try to clear up a few more things about return on investment. If our goals are to induce economic development then we'll be looking at measures like levels of employment and tax revenue generated by that development. If we don't care about any of that and we just want to make sure that this project doesn't bankrupt the state, we'll be focused on capital and operating outlays. Either way, density of development plays a role. Just as importantly, though, we need to look at the transportation system as a whole consisting of redundant bus, rail and private auto networks, and figure out the most cost-effective way to make use of it. It's idiotic to declaim the waste on high-speed rail while ignoring the ROI of the multitude of inefficient highway expansion and rehabilitation projects. As Chuck shows, development density improves the ROI of both road and transit infrastructure.

As you can see at the top of the page, my goals are to increase access and improve society while reducing pollution and carnage and avoiding resource depletion. Because of that I may look at individual measures like access to jobs and services, pollution, fatality and injury levels, and rate of depletion of the various natural resources used by transportation and development. Many of these metrics are sensitive to the density of residential, commercial and industrial development.

However, other than access, all those goals require getting people out of their cars. This means that I can look at VMT reduction as a long-term goal, and increasing the mode share of transit and walking in the short term. More importantly, there's a cycle of government and private investment in transit. The more transit ridership there is, the less subsidy will be required, and the more money that will be available for expanding the transit network. In addition, the more transit ridership there is, the more political support there will be for government investment in expanding the transit network. Conversely, the less driving there is, the less political support there will be for driving subsidies. Transit mode share is really key here, more important than any of the individual measures.

Transit mode share, in fact, is where density is least relevant. This may seem surprising, but only if you believe that density is the only way to control the relative value that people get from various modes. I'll talk more about that soon.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

What does it mean to "support transit"?

Last week I singled out Richard Layman for repeating the chestnut "Spain doesn't have the population density to support economically many of the lines, based on ridership." Again, let me make clear that Richard is far from alone in assuming that density is required to support transit, and that his blog is informative, insightful and well worth reading for urban issues. He was also a good sport in leaving a comment on my post; unfortunately all the comments made it clear to me how deep the idea is ingrained in our understandings of transit.

A number of people have addressed this issue before. Richard mentions Steve Belmont and linked us to a scan from his book (see also David Alpert's take). Alon mentions Gary Barnes and his concept of "perceived density" (PDF); the Austin Contrarian has his own idea of perceived density.

I had a great idea for a phrase, "density is not destiny," but like most ideas it turns out that someone's thought of it before you; in this case it was Paul Mees, and Jarrett has an interesting discussion. But all these discussions are frustratingly myopic, assuming that the competing road network is a constant force of nature beyond political influence.

Instead of looking at the concept of "density," let's look at "support." What does it mean to support a transit line? Is it complete financial self-sufficiency, as Germà Bel demands for the Spanish high-speed network? If that's the case, then very few transportation projects anywhere would qualify. Is it the simple existence of the transit line? Then Newburgh's three-line transit system would qualify, since it exists, but that's not a very enlightening criterion. Is it a certain threshold of mode share, as the discussion at Greater Greater Washington would suggest? That's more promising, but it's not all.

Let's bring in some Strong Towns thinking. Chuck Marohn looks at any transportation project and asks, what is the return on investment? And it turns out the answer is connected to density. The ROI for a street, bus line, train line or ferry dock, it turns out, is dependent on the benefits derived from that investment. If it's a government investment, it has a "public ROI" indicating the benefits accrued to the public, whether in the form of tax revenue or any other goal.

ROI is the benefits divided by the costs. In transportation, sewers, utilities and other public projects, the costs are spread out geographically, so the ROI depends on the density of the benefits. That is where density comes in.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Navy Road and the projects

Ben Fried at Streetsblog said it all in just fifteen words:
How About an At-Grade Crosswalk Instead of a Ped Bridge With Fencing Over Navy Street?
But because he said it in the middle of a "Today's Headlines" post, I think it didn't get picked up the way it should have. I would have tweeted it, but it's hard to pick out.

I'm going to blather on about this for much longer than Ben just so that you might get the idea that there's something here, and pay attention to it, and maybe tweet a link to this post. But really, Ben said just about everything that needed to be said. If you like, you can stop reading and make your views known to the DOT and NYCHA and Councilmember James.

One of the reasons I write this blog is because there are things that get under my skin, and I just need to answer them and get it out there. One of them is people who think they've got a wonderful pro-pedestrian solution that nobody's thought of: pedestrian overpasses.

Sometimes pedestrian overpasses are the best solution. For example, when every other crossing of the Long Island Expressway involves fighting with half a dozen turning cars driven by entitled jerks, it's really nice to have your own little ramp with no cars around. In Strong Towns terms, pedestrian overpasses are good for crossing roads, which are in turn built to get cars from one place to another as fast as possible.

Most of the time, though, pedestrian overpasses suck. They're at their worst when they cross streets that have wide sidewalks and retail, like I've seen in Santo Domingo. In these cases, a driver who wants to cross the street has a huge advantage over the pedestrians who have to climb up, over and down. Underpasses, as used on Queens Boulevard and in Paris and London, are just as bad. In Strong Towns terms, pedestrian overpasses are bad for crossing streets. In fact, they're one of the ways that streets get turned into stroads.

So now let's turn to the topic of Ben's tagline: Navy "Street." The Brooklyn Paper story he linked to gave the basics: Navy Street is a popular route between Fort Greene and Park Slope to the south and the Manhattan Bridge and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to the north, and for two blocks in between (joined together into one superblock) it passes between two subsidized public housing projects, the Farragut Houses (population 3,440) and the Walt Whitman Houses (population 4,276). There are buffered bike paths on either side of the street, and fences blocking pedestrians from accessing or crossing the street from the projects. In the middle of the superblock there is a pedestrian bridge across the street from one project to another.

Every once in a while, some young sociopaths get the idea that it would be fun to go up on the bridge and throw things at the cyclists passing below. Last August, they hit computer programmer Stephen Arthur in the face with a brick, seriously injuring him. The city responded with typical bureaucratic non-solutions: they first stepped up police patrols of the area, and now they're going to cover the overpass with a mesh fence.

Ben's one-liner gets to the heart of the problem: why is Navy Street like this in the first place?
In Strong Towns terms, this section of Navy Street is not a street, or even a stroad. This is a road. It has fencing on both sides for the entire length. It's been about twelve years since I spent much time in that area, but I seem to remember that there was no bike path, just four lanes of car traffic. This road was designed to speed cars through the projects to the Manhattan Bridge and the BQE, without stopping or interacting.

If I lived in those projects, I would probably detest Navy Street for cutting my home off from other parts of the city and bringing noise to my building, just so that outsiders could get through the area faster. If I were an alienated teenager who'd spent his whole life as the target of abuse and discrimination from white people who were mostly well protected behind glass and steel, I'd want to throw something at those cars. And if I saw a less-protected, slower-moving, well-fed-looking white guy going by, I might just throw something at him. It's not right, but I understand where the impulse comes from. In some sense, you could say, they're angry at Bob Moses for designing the projects and the road this way, and at all the people who supported him, and at all the people who maintain this degrading Corbusian environment. They can't throw bricks at them, so they throw them at Stephen Arthur.

By putting in the bike lane, the DOT acknowledged that drivers going to the BQE are just not important enough to justify four lanes of traffic. The bike lane was a good start, but as Ben says, they need to finish the job. Arthur already asked the city to take out the fences, so that if the kids throw things at him again, he can at least try to chase them, but that would be counterproductive. The DOT needs to take down the road and put in a street that serves the project residents and not just the people passing through. As you can see from the pictures, there's room to put sidewalks all along the street. In the unused "open space" NYCHA can put out benches and tables so that other residents can sit by the street, and those eyes on the street may deter potential thugs. Maybe even, as Holly Whyte suggests, have movable furniture, good public bathrooms and food vendors.

With the extra lanes and the fence gone, the cars will be going so slow that there will be no need for a pedestrian bridge; it can be replaced with a raised crosswalk. Hopefully then the residents can meet the cyclists passing through eye to eye, as equals, with respect, and no one will want to throw anything.

If you've read through to the end, at this point you may want to make your views known to the DOT and NYCHA and Councilmember James. Or maybe you want to donate to Streetsblog, so they can keep paying Ben Fried for those great insights.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

How the Tappan Zee Bridge hurts existing transit

It's become the standard position for environmentalists, transit advocates and anyone else who opposes the Governor's heavy-handed revision of the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement plans: "the new bridge must include transit" (PDF). Most of the people who disagree argue that the bridge should be built right away. Besides myself, at this point only a few, like the Hudson Riverkeeper and Alfred Strasser, say that a replacement bridge may not be the best choice. I think I've convinced Alon Levy too now.

The interesting thing about transit in Bergen, Orange and Rockland counties is that the services that go through the Lincoln Tunnel Exclusive Bus Lane to the Port Authority in Manhattan actually earn back almost all their operating costs in fares. In contrast, all the local services - many of them operated by the same companies under contract - require heavy operating support from the Federal, state and local governments.

This can be easily explained using the Magic Formula for Transit Ridership:

1. Give transit its own right-of-way and good terminals
2. Make it hard to use cars
3. Make it expensive to use cars
4. Profit!

Getting through the Lincoln Tunnel or across the George Washington Bridge by private car is slow and expensive. The XBL and the Port Authority Bus Terminal allow the buses to cut through this, giving them an advantage to compensate for their multiple stops, fixed routes and sometimes inconvenient schedules. Local roads offer no such advantage, so people use their cars whenever they can.

Given this, it is no surprise that buses across the Tappan Zee Bridge (also contracted out to Stagecoach subsidiaries) earn back only ten percent of their operating costs, with the remaining amount paid by the State DOT. I just found a fascinating report (PDF) done by the State DOT in 2005 on transit in Rockland that sheds some light on just how the Magic Formula leads to profitability. The table on page III-54 in particular deserves to be excerpted here:

ServiceTappanzee ExpressCommuter BusFixed Route TOR
WhereTappan Zee Bridge Lincoln Tunnel and George Washington BridgeLocal Rockland service
Operating Expense / Rev. Vehicle Mile$ 5.73$ 5.04$ 5.09
Rev. Passengers / Rev. Vehicle Mile0.570.481.28
Operating Expense / Revenue Passenger$10.04$10.39$ 3.96
Total Op. Revenue / Revenue Passenger$ 0.98$ 8.18$ 0.78

The Tappan Zee Express and the "Commuter Bus" have a lot in common. Both bring commuters from Rockland County to work run using intercity coaches operated by subsidiaries of the Stagecoach Group, at a cost of about five dollars per mile or ten dollars per passenger, and they both carry about half a commuter per mile. The difference is that when Stagecoach operates under contract as the Tappan Zee Express, they only earn an average of 98 cents per passenger. When they operate through the Lincoln Tunnel as Short Line or Red and Tan, they can charge an average of $8.18 per passenger.

Stagecoach can charge that much because people who want to get to Manhattan will pay it. The Tappan Zee Express fare may be set by contract, but if they thought they could make more they'd have cancelled the contract and run service across the bridge without it. It's simple supply and demand: there are enough people willing to pay $7.40 to go from Nanuet to the Port Authority to make it worthwhile, but there aren't enough willing to pay that much to go from Nanuet to White Plains.

People don't want to pay that much for the bus across the Tappan Zee Bridge because it doesn't give them much of an advantage over driving. Or in State DOT-speak, "Operating revenue for this service is impacted by challenging suburban auto-oriented market as well as the low fare structure in contrast to other commuting express services using Over-the-Road Coaches."

But we've got all these commuters who ride buses to Manhattan. Why don't the local buses make any money? They're also operated by Stagecoach and cost about the same per vehicle mile. They get more passengers per vehicle mile, so their expenses per passenger are lower, but they can only charge 78 cents a ride on average. There aren't enough passengers to bring the expenses per passengers down below that amount, and there's not enough demand for them to raise the prices to cover the expenses.

Demand for these local buses is low because the State DOT, Rockland County and the municipal governments have spent the past sixty years building stroads and parking and prohibiting dense mixed-use development - in other words making it easy for these bus commuters to make all their local trips by car and depriving the local buses of their advantages for anyone who owns a car.

Now the Tri-State Transportation Campaign is pushing hard for "BRT on the bridge" (PDF). How would the "BRT" envisioned by Tri-State work under the Magic Formula? It would have its own right-of-way (or close enough if the State tweaks the HO/T parameters properly, which is a big "if" in itself), and if the State doubles the bridge tolls as planned, but the State would make it easier to use cars by widening the bridge. There are other factors like the price of gas, but chances are that any ridership boost will not be enough to make the service self-supporting like the Lincoln Tunnel services, meaning that if the State cries poverty and cuts the subsidy, the bus service would simply vanish, either immediately or after a brief transit death spiral.

Similarly, local bus service is hampered by stroads, parking and sprawl, which are all mandated by local ordinances. The "BRT" envisioned by Tri-State would not help any of this, because it would be sprawl transit, taking commuters from highway park-and-ride to office park and not focusing on walkable downtowns.

The Tappan Zee Bridge is bad for transit, and "BRT on the bridge" would not be any better. If you really care about transit, about walkable downtowns, about preserving open space, about conserving resources and about curbing pollution and carnage, there's only one solution that makes any sense: tear it down and don't replace it.

If you'd like to gently suggest that the Tri-State Transportation Campaign stop promoting "BRT on the Bridge," you can email them at You can also blog, tweet, or leave comments on their blog or Facebook page.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The population density to support my ass

I swear if I read one more time that such-and-such a place "doesn't have the population density to support" transit, or sidewalks, or high speed rail, or multifamily housing, or mixed-use development, or sushi restaurants, or anything other than Joel Kotkin's suburban American fantasy, I'm gonna spit. At this point all you urbanists, livable streets advocates and transit supporters really ought to know better. Yes, you, Richard Layman, but you're not alone so don't feel bad; you're just the most recent person to say it, who happened to set me off.

Layman is summarizing the myopic "lessons learned" in an article about Spain's high-speed rail system (don't miss the "next page" buttons!) by mainstream reporter Tim Sheehan of the Fresno Bee, based in part on an interview with political economist Germà Bel. Sheehan writes:
"There is no question whether (Spain's system) can cover its costs. It cannot," Bel said. "It actually has not recovered one single euro from the infrastructure investment. The government claims they are recovering the operating costs, but the numbers are not clear."

The busiest high-speed lines in the world are capable of making money, Bel said, including between Paris and Lyon, where about 25 million people ride the French TGV trains each year, and the Japanese Shinkansen trains between Tokyo and Osaka, which draw about 130 million riders a year.

"But this is not the case with any single line in Spain," Bel said. "The most crowded operation is Madrid-Barcelona, and it has not even had 6 million people in a year."
Robert Cruickshank took issue with Bel's argument and Sheehan's portrayal of it. He also faults Sheehan for holding highways to a double standard. What about Spain's highways? Are they half empty too? Do they pay for themselves, since many of them are tolled?

Note that Bel doesn't say anything about population density; I think that's something that Layman is reading into it. What he and the other analysts tell Sheehan is that the system doesn't have high enough ridership, which is not the same thing. In fact, Bel's own research fails to show that population density is a significant factor in urban transit ridership.

In 2010, Bel and his colleague Daniel Albalate did an amazing factor analysis (PDF of the 45 cities in the Mobility in Cities Database (yours for only $1,608 plus shipping!) and found that the factors that loaded most heavily on service demand were as follows:
PRIVATE_TIME (average time spent by private vehicle trip)0.747
FLEET (fleet of vehicles available for public transport purposes)0.553
MOTOR (number of private vehicles per capita)-0.524
PRICE (average price charged to urban transport users)-0.466
PARKING (number of parking spaces per thousand jobs in the CBD)-0.221
DENS (urban population density)-0.190
PUBSPEED (average speed of public transport vehicles in operation)0.0722
Here's a quick note on how to read a factor analysis. A positive value means a positive correlation, so the higher the GDP, the higher the demand for transit. A negative value means a negative correlation, so the more private vehicles per thousand residents, the lower the demand for transit.

The key here is the absolute value of the loadings. The greater that value, the stronger the relationship between the factor and the dependent variable. In this case, the effect of GDP is more than ten times as much as the effect of transit speed. Note in particular that population density and transit vehicle speed have the loadings with the lowest absolute value.

Finally, remember that this shows correlation, not causation. It may well be that high transit demand causes large numbers of transit vehicles to be available (funny how that works!) and high population density, not the other way around.

Again, this article by Albalate and Bel refers to urban transit, not intercity rail, but the dynamics involved in intercity mode choice are similar to urban mode choice. The time difference (3.5 hours for AVE vs. 6 hours by private car), number of vehicles per capita, tolls and gas would all make a difference. Those are some lessons that California can learn from Spain, but as Cruickshank argues, Sheehan was predisposed to find problems with high-speed rail. Maybe Bel tried to tell him, but he wasn't listening for it?

Friday, January 6, 2012

New York City's Really Narrow Streets

My last post on Really Narrow Streets got picked up by Streetsblog NYC and the Streetsblog Network, and I got a bunch of really nice comments. In addition to the cities I mentioned, commenters also pointed to Really Narrow Streets in Provincetown, the Toronto Islands, Baltimore and Philadelphia, as well as Bristol in England.

A number of commenters mentioned New York City, which does have several Really Narrow Streets south of Fourteenth Street. With the help of this Forgotten NY post, I've identified the narrowest streets in Manhattan and got a rough measure of their widths using Google Earth. There are ten of them under twenty feet wide:

View New York's Really Narrow Streets in a larger map
Interestingly, many of them are what I'd call alleys rather than Really Narrow Streets. What's the difference between an alley and a Really Narrow Street? I'd say it's one of function. Really Narrow Streets are the main pedestrian access to shops and residences. Alleys are used to allow cars and trucks to access rear entrances to loading docks and parking lots.

On Tuesday I happened to be walking through Lower Manhattan and I snapped my own cell phone pictures of some of these Really Narrow Streets/alleys.

Note that Liberty Place is covered with ugly scaffolding. So is Catherine Lane:

It seems to be almost entirely used as a driveway for that parking garage.

Cortlandt Alley is definitely used as an alley for motor vehicle access. Nate Berg has a great interview with Nick Carr of the Scouting Report about Cortlandt Alley's film career:
The big thing I always get asked to find are dank dilapidated alleys, and New York City has, like, 5 alleys that look like that. Maybe four. You can’t film in three of them. So what it comes down to is there’s one alley left in New York, Cortlandt Alley, that everybody films in because it’s the last place. I try to stress to these directors in a polite way that New York is not a city of alleys.

It seems like it would be possible, maybe with some zoning changes, for some foresighted developer to take one of these streets, open a bunch of vibrant storefronts and market the hell out of it so that every tourist stops there for shopping and street food after they visit Ground Zero. It might take a year or two, but I could see one of them becoming New York's answer to Bearskin Neck or the Rue Sous le Cap. In Strong Towns terms, think how much tax revenue the city would get from such a tiny amount of infrastructure.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

In praise of Really Narrow Streets

Lately I've been following posts by the Old Urbanist and one of his main inspirations, Nathan Lewis. Lewis puts aside political issues of compromise with car boosters and examines the question of how we would want our environment to look if we weren't planning for cars. He looks at pedestrian-oriented cities around the world and highlights examples of good design. One concept he refers to again and again is the Really Narrow Street.

These streets were usually created before cars were invented, and they have no place for cars. Some are too narrow for any car. Most are wide enough for one car to pass, but not much wider. There are examples from every continent, including Europe, Africa, Asia and South America.

In North America we have a few of these streets in some of our older towns. Here is one of the oldest, Acoma (established ca. 1300):

Here is Santo Domingo (1496):

Quebec (1608):

Boston (1630):

Albuquerque (1706):

One of my favorites, in part because it's a small town, is Rockport, Massachussetts (1743):

I spent an enjoyable few days in Rockport last summer. The street in this picture, Bearskin Neck, leads to the main docks and was a key route during the town's heyday as a fishing port. It now leads to the departure docks for some tourist boats, but is more of a destination in itself, and is lined with shops and restaurants. It functions essentially as a woonerf.

Notice that none of the streets above were laid out after 1800. Lewis attributes this to an American fad he calls "nineteenth-century hypertrophism," where wide streets became a symbol of progress and wealth. He observes that in his hometown of New Berlin, New York, the main street was designed so that you could turn a horse and carriage around in it, even though that wasn't necessary for any social purpose.

Lewis argues that Really Narrow Streets privilege the pedestrian and create an opportunity for intense commerce that cannot be matched by any street wide enough to handle cars and pedestrians together. This is an experience that shopping malls, cruise ships and theme parks are designed to replicate.

At this point you may be saying to yourself, "We tried pedestrian streets in the seventies, and many cities are allowing cars back in, because it killed the street." One answer to that is that the streets were still "hypertrophic," too wide to feel comfortable with just pedestrians. My main answer is that it was the subsidies to sprawl commerce that killed downtown streets. Many of them would probably have done just fine as pedestrian streets if the government hadn't been simultaneously building big competing highways and parking lots on the edge of town. Some of them have done fine.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The NYSAC is not your friend

You may remember the New York State Association of Counties. Last February their transportation committee passed a resolution opposing complete streets legislation, and I observed that they, like the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), constitute a lobbying organization protecting the interests of bureaucrats while pretending to be a governmental entity.

This week, Alan Chartock interviewed the Executive Director of NYSAC, Stephen Acquario. Chartock is pretty honest with his guests, but even he couldn't come right out and ask, "Where the fuck do you get off pretending that you represent the people?" if he wanted the guy to ever come back. Chartock is right to interview Acquario, because to my unending frustration, some people actually take this gang seriously.

The United States Senate and other one-state-one-vote organizations like AASHTO and the GHSA are pretty obviously unrepresentative, but the NYSAC goes so far beyond that level that I feel it's worth spending a post on. In case you weren't aware, here are some figures about New York State's counties.

The most populous county in New York, Kings (i.e. Brooklyn), contains almost 13 percent of the total population of the state, according to the 2010 Census. The five boroughs of New York City together contain 42% of the state's population, and the other five most populous counties (Suffolk, Nassau, Westchester, Erie (Buffalo) and Monroe (Rochester)) contain 28%. Under a system of one person one vote, these ten counties would control 70% of the votes, and the other 52 counties would be irrelevant.

Instead, the NYSAC operates by a system of one county, one vote, which means that the representatives of the 70% of the population who live in the ten most populous counties only have 16% of the votes. The ten least populous counties (Hamilton, Schuyler, Yates, Lewis, Schoharie, Seneca, Essex, Wyoming, Orleans and Delaware), with their combined share of 1.63% of the population, control an equal 16% of the votes.

The NYSAC's Transportation and Public Works Committee, which passed the resolution, is similarly lopsided. It is chaired by Jean Raymond, the Supervisor of the Town of Edinburg, NY (population 1,384), which has no buses, no trains and no sidewalks. The co-chair is Randy Gibbon, the Director of Public Works for Chenango County (population 50,477), which actually contains New Berlin, the home of Nathan Lewis (and here's what Lewis has to say about streets). Also on the committee is Andrea Horsch, chief lobbyist for the New York City Department of Transportation, but it's not clear whether she gets five votes or one.

Somehow Monroe County (3.8% of the population), Broome (1.0%), Livingston (0.34%) and Wyoming County (0.22%) each have two seats on the Committee. Maybe they have one representative for transportation and one for public works, or one for the legislature and one for the county executive, but I can't tell if they get two votes. Regardless, I'm pretty sure that the NYC, Erie and Monroe County representatives (with more than half of the state's population) don't outweigh the other 19 committee members.

I hope I've established by now how lopsided this organization is. Now back to Stephen Acquario and his interview with Alan Chartock. This year, Chartock has been asking all his guests the same question about party control of the New York State Senate. Here are the statewide political party enrollments as of November 1 (PDF):

Working Families42,7760.37%

With the Democrats just shy of a majority of registered voters and the Republicans only claiming a quarter of them, it's pretty obvious that the State Senate will not stay in Republican hands without a bunch of dirty tricks. Acquario said that it was in "the counties"' interest for the Senate to stay in Republican control, because a Senate controlled by Democrats would be dominated by senators from New York City who won't pay any attention to the needs of "counties."

It seems pretty clear to me that the needs of "counties" shouldn't matter. Counties aren't people. They contain people, and we do need basic safeguards to prevent urban majorities from running roughshod over country dwellers, but giving residents of sparsely populated areas an overrepresentation in government is a really bad way to do that.

If you have any doubt about the representativeness of the NYSAC, consider this final point. The official name of the dominant party is the "New York State Democratic Committee." Longstanding usage is that things associated with the party will be referred to with the adjective "Democratic" with a capital D, as in "the Democratic Party" and "Democratic control." Several times in the interview, Acquario referred to these things as "the Democrat Party," "Democrat control" and so forth. This is a well-documented insult to the Democrats that has been used by Republicans for generations, and it is never used unintentionally. It's been called "fighting words."

I do not take that insult personally, because I'm not a Democrat either and I have no love for the party that killed bridge tolls. However, it's a clear signal that Acquario is a Republican partisan who sees the Democratic party as an enemy. It shows, unequivocally, that he has no interest in representing the needs of Democrats or city dwellers. By using it, Acquario has exposed the New York State Association of Counties as a tool for rural Republicans to attack urban interests.

It is clear that Andrea Horsch and the other representatives of populous counties in New York State are wasting their time participating in this sham organization. There are better ways of ensuring the protection of the people who live in rural parts of the state. I suggest that we put their time to better use and withdraw from the NYSAC any basis for their pretense of legitimacy.