Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Really Narrow Streets need good trains

I've written before about the concept of Really Narrow Streets. I got an email (and I know some of you got it too) about a project to build a new village in Maine with Really Narrow Streets. Conspicuously absent from the sales pitch was any explanation about how people would get to and from that village - except for one sentence saying that parking would be restricted to the outskirts of town. The proposed location is over a hundred miles from the nearest train station, and even buses don't go any closer than Bangor, more than 35 miles away.

The village sounds like a wonderful place, but if you want people to live there or even visit, they have to be able to reach it. And no matter how wonderful a place is, people sometimes have to leave. A village-sized community in particular will have some people who live there working outside, some people who live outside working there, and people leaving for shopping and services that a village of that scale is unable to provide, such as specialized medical treatment.

A couple weeks ago Alon discussed the division of trips into commuting and non-commuting. Here's the table I made based on one he gave:

Short trips
Foot or bicycleCar
Long tripsTransitTransit/walkableCommuter suburbs
CarAuto-oriented denseSprawl

The Piscataquis Village project is clearly in the quadrant where short errands can be done by walking, but longer trips have to be done by car. Residents and workers will all therefore be expected to have cars and use them on a regular basis. This makes me suspicious that, as on Roosevelt Island, people will be tempted to drive their cars into the village and colonize the Really Narrow Streets for parking "just this one time," or "just because I have a mobility impairment," or for hundreds of other reasons. People are always creative at finding reasons for the rules not to apply to them.

Almost all the Really Narrow Streets on the Piscataquis Village slideshow (photos mostly borrowed from Nathan Lewis, who borrowed them from random tourists) are easily accessible by train. When I was a kid, my parents took me on vacation to a small tourist town in Liguria. I remember being enchanted by the Really Narrow Streets, in particular one that turned into a path winding up into the hills to the next town. I also remember the train station right in the middle of town; the town was easier for tourists to get to by train than by car. The streets that I showed in Boston, Quebec and Rockport are all accessible by train. So are the streets that Lewis shows in Tokyo, London, Paris and various Italian towns.

This is true not only for old Really Narrow Streets, but new ones as well. There's a great development in Sweden built right on a commuter rail stop with hourly service (PDF). Residents who need goods and services that are not available in the village can hop on the train and be in Lund in five minutes.

Some day in the future there may be enough people living carfree in Piscataquis County to support restoring passenger service on the Bangor and Aroostook line, and then a new village with Really Narrow Streets will make perfect sense. Until then, we should look to development sites that are convenient to existing transit. Ideally, we are looking for a brownfield less than an hour away from a major job site on a train or bus line with frequent service all day and evening. It would also be nice to have walkable connections to an existing street grid, so that it can "infect" the surrounding area with its walkability.

Perhaps once we've built a few of these, we can propose an entire new or revived train line, with a series of walkable villages with Really Narrow Streets right next to the train stations and comfortable walking paths connecting them. But a walkable village without transit is a village of drivers who walk every once in a while.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The cost of new riders

Some nice person Reddited my post on park-and-rides. So far it's only gotten one comment, but that comment is extremely insightful:

This article leaves out the obvious reason that has long been the reason park and rides are added to projects I work on in the AA phase - goosing up ridership. Federal funding rating has long been based on cost per new rider, and if you can't get costs down, you can always get ridership up (in the models, at least) by adding park and rides.

FTA has now published new guidelines (PDF) that emphasize transit supportive land use at the same level as cost effectiveness (which is also no longer based on cost per new rider, as well) so hopefully we'll start to see a shift in the next few years as projects conceived and developed under these new guidelines move into engineering and construction.

This may be more important than the congestion-fighting mentality I've described in recent posts in accounting for the proliferation of park-and-ride lots and garages in transit systems new and old. Both ideas flow from, and reinforce, the Kotkinist idea that the ideal commute is a solo drive in a personal car from the driveway of a single-family home to a parking lot.

I've heard the complaints over the years about the cost-benefit requirements for various Federal transit capital funding programs. In principle I'm in favor of cost-benefit analysis. Who wouldn't want to know whether they're getting their money's worth?

The main complaint I heard was that there was a double standard: transit projects were being asked to justify their funding in ways that most road projects would have completely flopped. And yeah, it's hypocritical *and* idiotic to care about one set of costs but not another.

I had thought that that was the only real problem with these cost-benefit analyses, and it seemed like it had been fairly well covered by other bloggers. I assumed that the "benefit" part of the formula represented something that more or less corresponded to an actual benefit. Boy was I wrong.

The metric was referred to as the "cost per new rider," but that's a bit vague. The official term is "incremental cost per incremental rider." To estimate it, a transit planner comes up with ridership estimates for the entire system if the project is built and for a no-build scenario, and divides the difference by the amortized cost of the project.

Does this make sense to anyone but a bureaucrat? When would you ever do a return on investment analysis where the "return" was simply providing a service? If you're deciding whether to build a factory, would you base your decision on the cost per unit? No, you'd look at the cost per dollar of profit. If you're a sane government official deciding whether to build a soup kitchen, would you look at the cost of providing a meal? No, you'd look at the cost of keeping people from going hungry.

Similarly, if you're deciding whether to build a transit facility, why would you give a shit how many people use it? Your ultimate goal is not to get people to ride the thing. It's to reduce pollution, or carnage, or to increase efficiency, improve society or provide access. If your project can do all those things without anyone actually riding it, that's better!

In general, yes it's true that a commuter who's on a train isn't driving, and therefore not polluting, using gasoline or running people over. But that's where the park-and-rides come in. If a commuter is only on your train for half their commute, they're still behind the wheel for the other half, polluting, burning gas and putting lives in danger the whole way. And if they then stay in the car for errands on the way home, that's more driving, plus they're shopping at car-oriented stores.

What's worse is that a park-and-ride can induce more driving, because it can make a car-oriented suburban life affordable and convenient for people who work downtown but wouldn't pay to drive all the way downtown, either in pure dollar terms or in convenience cost. If a park-and-ride encourages someone to move from an apartment in a walkable neighborhood to a house in a car-dependent suburb, that may make Joel Kotkin happy, but it sucks for the environment.

That's what's missing from the Federal metric. What is the incremental cost per incremental rider in terms of transit trips still half driven? What is the cost in terms of induced driving for errands? In terms of induced driving by spouses and children? Nowhere.

So what about these new guidelines? Well, I'm not too impressed. They talk a lot about parking - presumably from the point of view that the more parking there is at transit stations the better, but it's actually ambiguous.

What I'd like to see is some attempt to quantify how much less driving people would do with the project in place than without it. Of course, you'd also have to take into account competing road projects that are being funded at the same time.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Park-and-rides and congestion

One reason I've been talking so much about congestion is that it's key to the thinking that goes into these massive park-and-rides. What's baffled me for so long, but what I could never put into words, was the double standard applied to commuting and local trips.

Transit planners wanted to get people out of their cars on Route 17, the New Jersey Turnpike and the Lincoln Tunnel, so they built a park-and-ride (PDF). Now people can take the train from Ramsey to Hoboken or change for trains to Manhattan. But they're still getting in their cars to go to Ramsey, sometimes for many miles. Why don't the planners see it as part of their mission to get them out of their cars door-to-door?

I've already covered the Kotkinism behind this double standard, but now I'm examining the question of how it can be justified. The answer is congestion. At the beginning at least, suburban roads were less congested than urban streets. Since then the constituency for widening suburban roads has been stronger with a broader base, while opposition to widening urban streets has been weaker and less organized. In general, people get more upset about the government knocking down their houses than about it taking away their front yards.

The congestion is also more concentrated as commuters approach the urban core, especially in a centralized city. This makes transit a more obvious and more cost-effective solution for core commutes and less obvious for the "last mile," or ten, or fifty, to home.

If we make "congestion mitigation" the top mission of government transit funding, it's not actually surprising that we get so many Kotkinist park-and-rides, allowing the suburbanites to stay in their cars until the last possible moment. That way the transit planners can take credit for fighting congestion without actually having to worry that some potential riders would be inconvenienced by having to walk to the train, god forbid move to a denser neighborhood.

What if, instead of worrying about congestion, transit planners and their government funders actually thought about reducing pollution and carnage, increasing efficiency, improving society and providing access for all? Would they be building, maintaining and subsidizing them at anywhere near the scale they do now?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Putting congestion in perspective

So a couple of commenters went there: saying that car congestion contributes to pollution and inefficiency, and therefore reducing congestion contributes to my goals (listed above). Superficially, that's true, and that argument's been used many times to get environmentalists to go along with all kinds of shitty road projects. But we need to keep these things in perspective, and that means taking into account other impacts on our goals.

The argument is that cars use gas and pollute the air constantly, so that the longer they take on a given trip, the more gas they use and the more pollution they generate for that trip. Acceleration runs the engine faster, so that stop-and-go traffic uses more gas and pollutes more than free-flowing traffic.

The main problem with that argument is that all of the "congestion mitigation" techniques are complete failures. Widening highways just induces more driving, so that before long the highways are all full. Building transit may take some cars off the road, but that road space is just taken by other cars. The only proven way to reduce congestion is road pricing.

Okay, so what's wrong with reducing congestion with road pricing? Well, it's not so bad if it incentivizes walking and transit use, but not if it simply discourages travel. We want that economic activity; we just want it to happen on foot, by bus and by train. Cars use more fuel and pollute more per person-trip than a moderately full bus, and way more than the same number of people on foot or by bike. Of course, road pricing would also free up space for buses, and increase demand for competing transit services, so that's a good thing in itself.

The overall point is that sometimes mitigating car congestion would contribute to our goals, but not enough to pay too much attention to. In general, it's just not a productive way to think about transit. Car congestion is a problem for drivers of private cars, and when transit planners worry about it, it's a sign that they're thinking more about those drivers than about their own passengers.

Carfree 24/7

Alon just put his finger on something I've been trying to get at with my posts about park-and-rides: that we want to be planning communities where it's easy to be car-free all the time. I've touched on this before, but that was almost three years ago. Alon sums it up with this great table:

Short trips
Foot or bicycleCar
Long tripsTransitTransit/walkableCommuter suburbs
CarAuto-oriented denseSprawl

I've changed Alon's wording and layout around a bit, but I'm still not satisfied. If anyone has any suggestions, please let me know. In any case, the worst places are like Armonk or Accord, where there's nothing to walk to and no way to get to anything without driving, and the best places are like my neighborhood in Queens where you can walk to everything you need on a daily basis and take the train into Manhattan for work.

Alon's point is that you can also have these wonderful villages with Really Narrow Streets where people can walk to the coffee bar and maybe even the supermarket, but if transit is absent or impractical for trips to work or to the doctor (as in the proposal for Piscataquis Village in Maine), most people are going to own cars and drive. Most small towns in the country used to be walkable with a bus or train to the city, and then they went through a period like this. Over the past thirty years, since the vast majority of people drive anyway, the walkable downtown shops and restaurants have been driven out of business by Best Buy and Applebee's.

As I've been saying about the park-and-rides, you can have commuter rail to the city every half hour, or even light rail every ten minutes, but if there's nothing to walk to (as in Scarborough or Harriman), most people are going to own cars and drive. Too much new transit is like this, and too much old transit has been turned into it.

Friday, February 17, 2012

What is congestion?

A lot of people really care about congestion. A major source of capital funding in this country is the federal Congestion Management and Air Quality grants. Occasionally, in an argument over some aspect of transportation policy, someone will announce, "But your proposal would cause congestion!" and sit back triumphantly, thinking they've just won.

In the past I've argued for congestion pricing, but honestly I just can't get too excited about fighting congestion. If you read my list of goals above, you'll notice that reducing congestion is not on there. Congestion does affect my goals, so I do care on some level, but other factors may outweigh it.

Unfortunately, "congestion is bad" has become such an article of faith that in 2006 when Mayor Bloomberg said "We like traffic, it means economic activity, it means people coming here," he was attacked by both car activists and cycling activists. I hope that you, my readers, will be a bit more tolerant.

But what is congestion? I think it's important to distinguish a few different aspects. First of all, congestion is not confined to the movement of vehicles or even people. We can have literal congested arteries, where fat deposits slow or block the flow of blood. We can have sinus and chest congestion, where excess mucus can interfere with our oxygen supply or our elimination of carbon dioxide. There is definitely congestion on electronic data networks, just this evening I heard a podcast where someone was talking about congestion in the power grid, and I imagine there's also congestion in aqueducts and sewers.

Back in the realm of vehicles, the most familiar form is road congestion, but we also have air traffic congestion and rail congestion. Road congestion isn't always vehicles: we can have congestion of bikes, pedestrians, roller skaters or golf carts.

What all these things have in common is trouble with flow. Interestingly, it's not all about speed. Sometimes the overall throughput is satisfactory, but the trouble is that there are stops and starts. Other times the flow is constant but it's too slow. There are also two different sources of congestion: either it comes from increased demand, or from other stuff blocking the duct. For example, in power congestion it's simply that people are trying to force more electrons through a grid of a constant size. In contrast, nasal passages and bronchial tubes stay the same width, but get blocked by mucus. Sudafed works by decreasing the production of mucus, while Mucinex works by thinning the mucus; both reduce the blockage, allowing air to flow better.

We see the same divisions in road congestion. Sometimes people get to where they're going in a reasonable amount of time, but they spend too much time stopping and starting, while other times the cars flow at a steady pace but slowly. Sometimes the traffic pattern induces a large number of cars through a road that isn't built to handle them, while other times it's a whole bunch of low-priority vehicles that block the higher-priority vehicles.

For a concrete example, we can turn to Mike Grynbaum's report from last year about the large number of off-duty taxis heading from Manhattan to Queens and back at 4PM for the change of shift. Just as it's more important for air to flow through our noses and lungs into our bloodstream and back out than for mucus to flow out, it's more important for buses, cars and trucks to get to Queens and back than taxis.

It's not that you don't need to drain mucus from your sinuses, and it's not that the taxis don't need to get to get out to Queens for their change of shift. It's just that the mucus could drain slower and leave more room for you to breathe, and the taxis could travel slower and leave more room for other vehicles. The same is true for all the entitled drivers who could be taking the train or traveling at less congested times.

So there you have it: off-duty taxis and discretionary car trips are the snot of New York's roads. Parking pricing is the Sudafed for that snot, and congestion pricing is Mucinex.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Transit planners, sprawl and "quality of life"

In my post on the Law of Transportation Inertia (people in cars tend to stay in cars), Joel Azumah captured the thinking of many transit planners when he commented, "I love park-and-rides. They aggregate commuters that want a better quality of life." Joel may not have a formal degree in transit planning, but as one of the most innovative transit providers in the country I would say he is certainly doing transit planning. I disagree with his statement here, but I can understand how he gets to it.

By saying that suburban drivers are "commuters that want a better quality of life," he is channeling another Joel - Joel Kotkin. The idea that suburban park-and-rides are anything but a necessary evil is permeated with Kotkinist ideas: the suburbs offer better quality of life than the cities, the suburbs are the dynamic future, the car brings freedom. Most of all, Americans want the suburbs, they want to drive.

Of course, I've got a lot of problems with Kotkinism, mostly because it's incompatible with my goals. Other transit advocates may have less of a problem, maybe because they have different goals, because they know something I don't, because I know something they don't, or because they haven't thought things through.

A Kotkinist transit planner believes that transit is good, but so are cars. Any government action that makes it harder to drive is social engineering and must be avoided. Thus, the Kotkinist transit planner's job is to allow the suburban driver to partake of the benefits of transit, without challenging his or her suburban lifestyle in any way.

While people like Joel Azumah actively believe that transit is compatible with sprawl, others may adopt this kind of Kotkinism as a purely practical stance. Someone who believes in transit may go along with the cars because they feel that any transit is better than no transit, and maybe that the cycle will take care of the cars eventually. A hardcore Kotkinist may go along with the transit to keep the masses quiet and to co-opt the transit advocates.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Why do transit planners love park-and-rides?

Park-and-rides are not the answer because of the Law of Mode Inertia: people in cars tend to stay in cars. Parking lots and garages will not get people out of their cars, at least at the parking end of the line, and thus they will do nothing to revitalize walkable neighborhoods or build a constituency for walking and local transit. So why do certain transit planners seem to love putting park-and-rides in their projects? Why have they shown up along the Northern Branch of the Erie Railroad and the North Shore segment of the Staten Island Railroad and the "transit-oriented development" for the Tappan Zee Bridge? Why was so much stimulus money spent on a huge garage at the Botanical Garden?

There are a few reasons that come to mind. The first is a fear of empty trains. When you introduce a new product, it rarely catches on right away. There is almost always some adjustment period while people find out about the new product, try it out and change their routines. The sensible thing is to have enough money saved up so that you can keep providing the service until it catches on.

Public transit planners don't often have that luxury. Government budget hawks are ready to swoop down a the sight of Empty Trains, and the climate makes it hard to ask for operating assistance. They want the thing to be successful from day one, which means catering to everyone who might conceivably want to take that train, including some people who live more than a short walk away and don't want to take a bus.

The others have to do with goals. For many years, planners didn't appreciate walkable neighborhoods, and if they do now they don't recognize the value of transit in delivering the pedestrians who would walk in those neighborhoods. This relates to the Law of Mode Inertia: somehow they haven't figure out that every commuter who gets off the train and drives home is one less shopper at the walkable stores, and one less diner at the walkable restaurants.

These planners also don't seem to understand the self-identification correlate of the Law of Transportation Inertia, and its role in the transportation cycle: park-and-riders tend to identify as drivers, so that every park-and-rider is another driver who's going to fight for subsidies to drivers at the expense of transit.

One of the big goals they do have, however, is to "eliminate congestion," and park-and-rides are very good for that.

Political realities

I'm not a mind reader, so I don't know for sure why the Tri-State Transportation Campaign's Kate Slevin said, "we're not against a new bridge; we can't have BRT without one." But I suspect it has something to do with what John Gromada said in response to a post of mine that was featured in Nyack News and Views: "The political reality is thus that your plan has no chance of ever happening."

Political reality is a handy thing. Everyone seems to have a healthy grasp of it, at least judging by the number of people who have lectured me recently on the political reality of the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, the fate of the Rockaway Branch of the Long Island Rail Road, and the parking garages proposed for the Northern Branch of the Erie Railroad.

The political reality is obvious to people - until it isn't. For those of you who don't remember five years ago in New York City, we had resigned ourselves to a Department of Transportation that tried to impose arbitrary one-way plans on neighborhoods that didn't want them. Physically separated bike paths were something we could only dream of in our city. Then, on May 14, 2007, Janette Sadik-Khan was appointed Transportation Commissioner, and the political reality changed.

For the Tappan Zee Bridge itself, the political reality for years was that there was an uneasy truce between the highway pushers, the train advocates and the cycling activists bus rapid transit proponents around a (pretty shitty) plan that would include all three. Then one morning Andrew Cuomo calculated that it wouldn't get done in time for him to take credit for it, and presto! all three vanished overnight.

I'm all for taking a realistic view of the political landscape - in fact, last year I criticized Slevin and friends for their lack of appreciation of the politics of the 34th Street Transitway. But there's a big difference between my realpolitik and that practiced by Slevin or Gromada or Dave Zornow: I never rule anything out for good.

As Jarrett Walker is fond of pointing out, physical principles can be absolute and forever, and should constrain your sense of what's possible as you advocate for transit. For example, any vehicle that runs on a road with shock absorbers is going to be more jerky and less comfortable than a vehicle on tracks without them. Politics is different. Politics can change. A political analysis can give you an idea of which strategy is more likely to accomplish your goals, or which battle is worth fighting. It may suggest that at this point there is not enough political support to build a new rail line. What it can't do is tell you for certain that there will never be enough support.

The way to handle political uncertainty is very simple. Rather than saying "we can't have" something, you just say what it would take to get that thing. For example, in order to get "BRT on the Bridge," someone needs to either overcome Cuomo's ambition, or make your plan compatible with it. You can still say that a plan (say, prtonthebridge.com) is so far outside of what's currently being done that it's a waste of time to discuss it unless something big changes.

It may be less satisfying than saying "Never going to happen!" but it's a lot more honest.

Monday, February 13, 2012

We could have "BRT on the bridge" tomorrow

The new site set up by the Tri-state Transportation Campaign is brtonthebridge.org. I happen to prefer my own site, thetappanzeebridgeisacancerinourmidst.com, because nobody but transit advocates gets excited about "BRT," but I'm not opposed to some bus improvements on the bridge. Let's do it! Let's have BRT on the bridge right now!

But wait! Here's Kate Slevin telling Judy Rife that "we're not against a new bridge; we can't have BRT without one." Huh? But I thought that BRT was this cheap, flexible thing. No need to condemn people's homes. No need to pay for expensive rails or big studies. You can do BRT with some cops and a little paint!

The truth is that we could have high occupancy/toll lanes - the bridge component of the "BRT" that was planned in the last round - in place in a very short period of time. Here's how it could be done. Since 1990 the bridge has had a "reversible" lane shoehorned between the three eastbound and three westbound lanes. One of the reasons the bridge maintenance costs are so high is because they include a special vehicle that moves a barrier from one side of the lane to the other.

The Thruway Authority could replace the movable barrier with two fixed barriers, leading to a single toll booth (or two), which would only let in the following vehicles:

- buses
- cars with at least three people
- cars whose drivers are willing to pay an extra toll

It's not strictly necessary to allow high-occupancy vehicles or toll-payers, but it can help deflect an empty lanes attack.

That's all we need. The governor could issue an executive order tomorrow and have the system in place within a week. So why doesn't Tri-State demand BRT on the bridge now? Why are they telling us that we can't have BRT without a new bridge?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

People in cars tend to stay in cars

I've been thinking a lot about park-and rides and mode shift lately in the context of the Northern Branch restoration project, and I've come up with a new generalization. I even thought of a catchy summary for it, like Isaac Newton: people in cars tend to stay in cars.

Of course I'm standing on the shoulders of giants here. Donald Shoup found (PDF) that on average, when parking is free, drivers will prefer to spend three minutes circling for a close parking space than three minutes walking from a further space. Retailers fear any reduction in parking capacity or increase in parking cost out of fear that their driving customers will choose a competitor with easier or cheaper parking.

This extends to mode choices as well. In an illuminating report, "Guaranteed Parking, Guaranteed Driving" (PDF), Rachel Weinberger and her colleagues found that car-owning Jackson Heights residents who owned off-street parking spaces near their houses tended to drive more than car-owning Park Slope residents who had to circle for on-street spaces. I find this to be true when I walk, shop and eat in my own neighborhood: my car-free neighbors tend to be more visible and available than those with guaranteed parking, and those who have cars but no guaranteed spaces are in the middle.

In my view, park-and-rides have a similar effect. When I take the train or the bus, I walk past all the neighborhood shops and restaurants, and I know that if I need groceries, hardware, medicine, a haircut or a cup of coffee, I can stop on the way. If I need something I can't get near my apartment - a suitcase, a television, a kabob or a bagel - I can get off the train at a nearby station and walk a little further. If I need something that's not available at all in my neighborhood - a hair dryer, a package of frozen dosai, quality clothes, books - I can take the train or bus to Manhattan or to another part of Queens.

My neighbors who drive to work or for social trips know that they will probably not be able to find parking near any of the neighborhood stores or restaurants, so they stop at places with abundant parking on the way home. If they have guaranteed parking and they need something from outside the neighborhood, they are more likely to drive to a "cheaper" car-oriented store like Costco or Target than take the train to Manhattan.

None of my neighbors commute via park-and-rides, but the pattern seems pretty clear. If you need something, you can buy it right near your job downtown, or there might be somewhere to buy it near the train station or bus stop. Chances are, though, that you'll get off the train and immediately drive to a store with easy parking. What's least likely is that you'll drive home, park and then go to the store. So park-and-rides are bad for business at the transit stop, and near the homes of the parkers.

There is one more way that this works: in self-identification. You might think that transit riders would identify as transit riders and drivers as drivers, but it's not that simple. There are people who drive to the park-and-ride, people who drive when they're off work, and people who only occasionally drive up to the mountains for a weekend. Whenever they're not riding, they tend to be on foot or on transit. We might therefore expect them to identify at least partly as transit riders, but in my experience they all identify as drivers first, even if they hardly drive.

This leads me to my Law of Transportation Mode Inertia: on a given trip people in cars tend to stay in cars. But note the word "tend." Obviously there are plenty of people who transfer from car to foot or bus or train in their commutes, but there are particular conditions for these transfers, and most drivers will resist doing it more than once.

It is because of this principle that I get so frustrated with mainstream American transit planners' love of park-and-ride facilities, as seen most recently in the Northern Branch project. More on that soon.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The problem with the Northern Branch project

For a months now I've been telling people that the "transit" proposed for the bridge is just sprawl transit, and it's true. There wouldn't even be a stop in Nyack; if commuter rail is chosen the nearest station would be near the Palisades Mall in West Nyack, more than two miles away, and if "Bus Rapid Transit" is chosen the nearest station would be at the western end of Nyack, at the top of the hill where Main Street crosses the Thruway, a mile from downtown. The Thruway people would build huge park-and-rides at these stations, and park-and-rides are not the answer. People who drive to park-and-rides think of themselves as drivers, not transit riders, and they will vote accordingly.

Instead, I've suggested that Rockland County can improve its connections to jobs in New York City and New Jersey by rebuilding its rail network. There are four railroads that connect Rockland to Hoboken, but only two (the Erie Main and Pascack Valley lines) still have passenger service, but the trains run on the slower and more sprawly Graham Line instead of the Main Line between Harriman and Otisville, and the Pascack Valley trains terminate in Spring Valley instead of Haverstraw or New City. The Erie Northern Branch used to run to Nyack but now only sees freight as far as the New York State line in Northvale. The New York Central West Shore Line is currently owned and operated by the Chesapeake System as a high-volume freight line between North Bergen and Selkirk, but most of the second track has been removed, and if it were restored there would be room for commuter rail service.

For much less than the five billion dollars that Cuomo and friends want to spend doubling the width of the Tappan Zee Bridge, we could restore passenger service to Nyack, West Nyack, New City, Stony Point and Haverstraw. This would require restoring track in some places, re-acquiring the right-of-way in others, double-tracking and eliminating grade crossings here and there, and electrification. We might even have enough money to rebuild the old Erie Main through the Orange County villages of Goshen and Middletown. If we can ever build a new tunnel (which would cost a lot more than five billion but would move more people than the proposed bridge), the trains could go straight into Manhattan.

Believe it or not, there is movement in this direction. New Jersey Transit has just released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement for their plan to reactivate passenger service on the Northern Branch between North Bergen and Tenafly. At this point I would love to be able to point to this as an example of success that could be extended right up to Sparkill and Nyack. But there are problems. And by problems I mean parking. Way too much of it. This is from the executive summary of the DEIS:

Yes, that's right, 2130 or 2310 parking spaces! I tweeted about this a couple of weeks ago, and @majormajor42 replied, "what do you think of the Ramsey Rt17 station parking garage?" I think that's an excellent question, and I will try to give it the thoughtful answer it deserves in another post soon.

In general, park-and-rides are not the answer, because they make people transit commuters but drivers for everything else, so they should have sunsets and market-clearing prices. The Route 17 station is not the answer, but it's not too bad as far as park-and-rides go.