Friday, March 30, 2012

Vehicles for roads, streets and country roads

I've long appreciated the distinction that Chuck Marohn has been making between roads and streets, and I'm glad he's added country roads to the mix. Chuck has pointed out the problems that arise when we try to treat streets or country roads like highways, and when we try to treat highways like streets. A lot of that, and a whole lot more problems, come from the vehicles we use to navigate those different ways, specifically from trying to use road vehicles on streets and country roads, and vice versa.

As Chuck says, a road is for long-distance travel, and it functions most efficiently at maximum speed with the minimum number of intersections. A street is a place for commerce and other social activity, including local travel, and it functions best at low speeds with lots of connections to other streets and spaces. A country road is for medium-distance travel, and it functions best when no one is trying to use it as a highway or street.

The most efficient vehicles for moving things on highways are trucks, and the bigger and faster, the better. The most efficient vehicles for moving people on highways are "over the road" buses, the high floor kind with one door at the front. If you don't care about the costs to yourself or others, a sports car is the most effective way to move people (yourself and maybe one other person).

The most efficient way to move things in streets are the various slow-moving human-powered strategies: backpacks, pushcarts, hydraulic-assisted forklifts. Which strategy depends on the size of the things. The best way to move people in streets is on foot or wheelchair.

The best way to move things or people on a country road is a pickup truck.

A lot of the problems we have on streets (as in places for social activity) come from people using trucks, sports cars and big buses on them. They are big, heavy and hard to maneuver, and we wind up killing people when we try. People have tried various strategies to compensate for this, but none have worked very well.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Mystery models of the Northern Branch

I'm old enough to remember the days when computers were expensive enough that the only people who could afford one had either a lot of money or an IBM employee discount. Even when it got to the point that most households had a computer, there were still a lot of programs that were so complex they needed a large mainframe to run. Then there were proprietary programs that required expensive licenses, and the number of trained programmers was relatively small. Many governments, even if they wanted to keep their business open to the public, had no choice but to restrict access to their programs.

Those days are mostly over. Today, my cell phone can do a lot more than the average mainframe could in 1982. A lot of software is open source and can be downloaded and shared for free. A relatively inexperienced programmer can may not be able to delve into the depths of some programs, but can still take an existing program and create a freely accessible interface for it on the World Wide Web.

In short, in this day and age there is really no reason for a government to keep their computer programs secret. Any code that was created by government employees should be open source, and ideally should be able to be run by any citizen. Applications that analyze large databases can be opened up with a Web interface and an internet application-programmer interface so that independent programmers can connect to them.

Unfortunately, transportation modeling has not moved into the twenty-first century. Case in point: the Northern Branch Corridor Project in New Jersey, whose managers would "prefer" to plop 2,310 parking spaces up and down the train line. I combed through the Draft Environmental Impact Statement - it's pretty readable as these things go - looking for New Jersey Transit's justification for building that many spaces, and the best I could find was this section from the Executive Summary (PDF):

ridership for each of the Build Alternatives was projected to the year 2030 using the North Jersey Transit Demand Forecasting Model (NJTDFM, the model). The model was used to estimate total LRT riders by zone to each station. NJ TRANSIT then used data from the model (such as percentage of people that would walk, drive, carpool, be dropped off, or take the bus based upon distance from each station, and the type and density of development) to estimate how riders would travel to each station. This produced an initial parking demand at each station. The station locations were then reviewed to determine the maximum amount of parking spaces that could reasonably be provided at each location, without overwhelming the communities. The model was then constrained with these maximum parking numbers, and a second iteration of the forecasting model was run. This resulted in adjustments to individual access modes to each station and a final, revised parking demand at each station

So, why build that much parking? Because our computer model says that there will be that much demand. Why does the computer model say that? Does it take into account the effect of parking lot capacity and price on the demand for parking? Does it account for the effect of zoning changes (for example, to allow dense development without accessory parking adjacent to the stations) on parking demand and drop-offs? Who knows.

I emailed one of the senior transportation demand forecasters at New Jersey Transit last week, and asked him these questions. I also asked about public access to the NJTDFM. If I hear back, I'll let you know.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Passenger trains are becoming profitable.

Your Cap'n is not psychic, he just has his finger on the pulse of the universe. A week ago, Yonah Freemark tweeted a story about Amtrak trains in Michigan. In February the State of Michigan completed stimulus-funded upgrades to a section of state-owned track between Kalamazoo and the Indiana state line, allowing passenger trains to travel up to 110 miles per hour. Last week Norfolk Southern Railroad, which owns the track from Kalamazoo to Dearborn and is trying to sell it to the state, placed "slow orders" on that section, forcing all trains to travel below 30 miles per hour.

In a press release, Norfolk Southern management made it clear that they had no incentive to upgrade the line. “Until ownership of the Michigan Line is transferred, Norfolk Southern is willing to perform work on the line on behalf of Amtrak or Michigan DOT to address any passenger operating concerns,” said John V. Edwards, Norfolk Southern’s general director passenger policy. “This work is not necessary to provide freight service, but if the passenger service providers want to provide the necessary funding, we will do it."

After thinking about it, I tweeted, "At some point it'll be profitable for railroad companies to offer passenger AND freight service in the US. Until then:".

Until the late twentieth century it was the norm for passenger trains to be operated by private companies, usually the same companies that owned or leased the tracks, but sometimes a different railroad company under an agreement. It was only when Penn Central went bankrupt that Amtrak was formed to take over the intercity passenger trains, but the railroads had been losing money on passenger service for decades. How could they compete with government-subsidized roads and parking?

So it recently occurred to me that with the price of gas rising and road budgets across the country being cut, ridership on passenger trains may rise enough to generate profits, and nobody's better placed to reap those profits than the companies that own the tracks. Clearly, Norfolk Southern doesn't see enough demand on the Michigan Line to justify upgrades, but they must have noticed that Amtrak is making a $2 million annual operating profit between Lynchburg, Virginia and Washington, DC, because starting soon they're going to be getting most of that money in "access fees."

When I tweeted that I figured it was only a matter of time before some railroad executive figured out that if the market conditions are right they didn't need Amtrak or state governments to run passenger trains. Turns out it took about a week. Yesterday, the Florida East Coast Railway announced that they're planning to invest a billion dollars to start passenger service on the tracks they own between Miami and Orlando.

I wonder who's next?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Not all housing is equal

Last weekend I read Matt Yglesias's concise 76-page critique of housing policy, The Rent is Too Damn High. I agreed with pretty much everything he says, and I think everybody who's interested in these issues should read it. I want to pick up on a couple of the points Yglesias made, but then to go in a different direction. Yglesias is mostly talking about the average price of housing relative to average incomes, and that's important, but I want to talk about the distribution of housing prices: how and why some houses and apartments are more expensive than others, and what that means for access (and therefore for justice and equal opportunity), for society, and for our other goals: increasing efficiency and reducing carnage and pollution.

Suppose that tomorrow there's a revolution in New York City. Zoning and rent control are abolished, and every member of the City Planning Commission and the community boards is sent off to the reeducation camps. Spreading out from the Empire State Building, developers cover the New York area in parking-free high-rises until there's enough housing for everyone, at affordable prices. Sounds great, right?

Almost. But all housing is not created equal. Some apartments are bigger, some have better views, some have are more conveniently located. Some come with relatively superficial amenities like pools and package services. Some are dangerous or bad for your health, from crime, pollution, bad construction or neglect.

Some housing differences are a matter of taste, like neighbors who play loud salsa music or cook Indian food. Some people choose their housing out of racism, moving out if a Black family moves in. Some people want to live near people like them. Some people want to live where there is ethnic diversity, with no single group dominating.

All these factors affect the price of the housing. People who can't afford higher rents will necessarily have to put up with some undesirable features, like bad views, loud music, crime or a long commute. And that's where issues of fairness arise.

Even though I sometimes talk about market solutions to various problems, I am not a libertarian. I believe that some people are poorer than others through no fault of their own - including twentysomethings and creative types as well as members of stigmatized minority groups - and therefore need something to balance out the inequality of opportunity that comes with inequality of wealth. I also believe that some people are less wealthy than others because they've chosen a career that benefits society in some way - like teaching or cleaning toilets - and society should compensate for that. I believe that it's good for people to live near others of different economic backgrounds, and for kids to grow up with other kids who come from different walks of life.

One way of accomplishing this is through a top-down program like subsidized artist housing or Section 8 vouchers. A similar method is the "inclusionary housing" programs, which are very problematic. There is a more market-oriented solution, though: build more cheap housing. And cheap housing is bad housing. The next question is: bad in what way?

If the only determinant of an apartment's price is its distance from job centers, then the poor and the young will all wind up living on the outskirts of town, paying for their poverty with long inconvenient commutes. If the only determinant of price is proximity to a hazardous waste dump, or neglected housing stock, or gang activity, then the poor and the young will wind up in substandard housing, exposed to toxins and victimized by gangs. If the only determinant of price is proximity to "the right people," then the poor will wind up clustered together, having little contact with other social classes.

To prevent segregating the poor into inconveniently located bad housing with crime and pollution, we need to make some safe, solid housing available closer in, integrated with the rich people's housing. that is still affordable. In order to do that, we need to allow housing that's cheap in the non-dangerous, non-segregated ways. That means housing that's small or ugly, with crappy views and no doormen. Maybe housing that allows loud music if it doesn't bother anyone else. Regardless, it should still be well-built and well-maintained, and safe from pollution and crime.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Walking down country lanes

This is an expanded version of a post from January 11, 2009.

In many parts of the world it's common for people to walk a lot. Sometimes they'll walk long distances - hours, days - to get where they need to go. It used to be pretty universal.

When I was younger I thought this just happened, that you could get up and start walking and just spend the night wherever you wound up. I was disappointed to discover, in Christopher Wren's Walking to Vermont for example, but also firsthand, that there are large sections of the country that are really very inhospitable to people on foot. To a large extent, it's because major roads have been built for cars with almost no thought to pedestrians. Outside of towns and cities, sidewalks are scarce, shoulders are narrow, and speeds are high. In some places, pedestrians are harassed, particularly outsiders.

My first reaction was to praise long-distance trail projects, like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Coast Trail. Certainly, people do take long walks on these trails, and they're great for spending time in nature, getting exercise and seeing pretty mountains. But if you've ever hiked on them, you'll know that they're not very practical for actually getting anywhere. They usually don't go through population centers: Harper's Ferry, West Virginia is one of the few towns that are actually on the Appalachian Trail.

The first reason for that is that land in towns is expensive, and walking trails didn't provide a good return on investment for either private companies or governments to spend the money to develop them. The second is that they piggyback on existing trails, many of which were made for visiting mountaintops. While it's great for hikers to climb Bear Mountain on their way through the Hudson Valley, it's not really the most convenient route to get from, say, Peekskill to Middletown.

I then got interested in rail-trails like the Old Erie Path pictured above, and other linear parks like the Old Croton Aqueduct.  I love walking on these trails, but the rail-trails make me sad because they use infrastructure that could be used for trains.  Because of this, I get a bit disturbed by the intensity with which people cheer rail projects like the Walkway over the Hudson, the "Queensway" and the "Low Line."  It's clear that there's a real hunger for comfortable places to take long walks with nice views, and I don't want that hunger to eat up all the railbeds we have left.

I developed an interest in stories about people walking long distances, and looked for older ones that went back before all those roads were built and filled with cars.  Three that I can particularly recommend are Russell Shorto's The Island at the Center of the World, Graham Robb's The Discovery of France, and Jerry Ellis's Walking to Canterbury. It turns out that in a lot of circumstances it wasn't much easier to get around on foot. There were weather problems, brigands, lack of food and difficulty finding or affording places to stay. There were also difficulties such as not having a good path to travel or losing the path.

One thing that's very striking about the more recent narratives is how many times the walkers get into cars, buses and trains. Especially cars. Five hundred years ago, if someone walked from Paris to Brussels they'd have had to walk from inn to inn, and once they left home they wouldn't see their families until they came back. Today, Appalachian trail hikers regularly hitch rides to grocery stores, or get visits from family members in cars. Just about every trail journal has an entry about getting a ride to a campsite further down the trail and then hitching another ride back to complete the skipped section.

What I learned from these stories is that walking too requires infrastructure. The paths and maps need to be created and maintained. There need to be bridges or boats to cross rivers and other obstacles. There need to be places to obtain food and places to stay, and they need to be affordable to walkers. This is a lot of work, and down through the ages it's something that people have spent years setting up. This infrastructure doesn't just happen.

It's actually quite a tragedy that country roads used to be places where people could walk, but with the number and speed of cars these days I wouldn't want to spend a month walking along them. When I was a kid I once visited coastal villages in Italy and Greece, and one thing that impressed me so much - impresses me to this day - is how they had well-maintained footpaths to other villages. I'm talking paths paved with stone, but too steep and narrow for cars. They were much more direct than the roads, because they didn't require all the hairpin turns. They weren't hiking trails or rail-trails or carriage roads. They were footpaths, built for people to get around.

In a recent Strong Towns podcast, Chuck Marohn talks a bit about country roads. He points out that most country roads used to be much narrower, and unpaved, which made it hard to travel at speeds above twenty miles per hour. And in fact, when I visited Africa several years ago, the road that a friend took me on would have been difficult for a four-wheel drive SUV, and much more so for an ordinary sedan. We never worried about a speeding car coming around the corner, because it was impossible for anyone to speed on that road.

Local governments across the country are facing budget problems, and Chuck argues that a big drain on the budget is the cost of maintaining all these wide, paved roads that serve a small number of travelers.  States across the country are already converting some low-traffic asphalt roads back to gravel to save money.   Beyond the cost savings, it'll be safer and more comfortable to walk on those gravel roads.  Hopefully that'll also satisfy our hunger for country walks, so that we can use the old rail lines for their original purpose.

Housing is about access

BBC Radio had an interesting documentary about the role of nonprofits, also known as "NGOs," in India. I was particularly struck by the story (starting at 14:50) of one nonprofit, SPARC, whose solution to the problems of the "pavement dwellers" (people who live in shacks on the sidewalk) in the Mumbai neighborhood of Byculla was to "resettle" them in new houses way the hell out in the suburbs (near a nuclear reactor, a fact not mentioned in the story).

A woman named Famida said that the new housing came with its own problems. "My life is very happy," she starts out, but it turns out it's not so happy. "There's no 24-hour water supply, so we have to wander around for water. We order water tanks, but the water is contaminated. A lot of people get sick from drinking it. The electricity bills are too high. There's no work either. We have to come here to work. In Mankhurd there are no hospitals, no schools. Everything is so far away. There are no facilities for kids, no playgrounds. There's nothing good there."

Housing is not just about shelter. It's not even about shelter and utilities. If it were, we'd have no problem housing everyone in the world. In fact, it's my understanding that most of the pavement dwellers came from rural villages where they had decent houses and sometimes even clean water and places for the kids to play. What they didn't have was work, hospitals or schools, and that's why they went to Byculla in the first place.

The housing problem is about access: access to jobs, but also to shopping, to government and private services. It's also about access to education, to social networks and to the levers of government. If you don't believe that last one, compare the cleanliness of streets in the South Bronx with those on the Upper East Side.

As the old real estate motto goes, "Location, location, location." But of course access is not just about location, it's location plus transportation. If the location is less convenient, as Famida tells us, you need to spend more money and time on transportation for the same level of access.

Our friends at the Center for Neighborhood Technology have added those up to put a price tag on access for most of the United States. The results show that "drive till you qualify" was a misguided myth. More about access and housing soon.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Mike Gianaris and Marge Markey and Joe Crowley will again stab straphangers in the back

Transportation Alternatives sent around a Media Round-Up to their members - and I am one - saying that the Daily News editorial on the latest MTA fare hike is a "must read." And wow! It certainly is a must read - as a great example of how not to hold anyone accountable for anything. This is the tale of the fare hike as told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

First, anyone who writes, "The MTA should" about anything that involves more than a million dollars is either clueless or lying. "The MTA" - presumably the MTA board and its Chair, Joe Lhota - don't have control over much more. It was the State Legislature, specifically Malcolm Smith and Sheldon Silver, who promised that any fare hike would be tied to service increases.

Second, anyone who writes, "Albany will" without mentioning specific legislators is either lazy or lying. Unless you have good evidence to the contrary, any time you read "Albany" in the paper, replace it with the names of your legislators. My legislators, Mike Gianaris and Marge Markey, have repeatedly insisted that drivers should never have to pay to maintain the bridges they drive on or the streets they park on at night, but they have shown no such tenacity when it comes to subway fares.

Third, since most State elections are not competitive, it's not the voters but the party leaders who decide on the candidates. The Queens Democratic machine has come down hard on anyone who even thinks about challenging incumbent legislators or their anointed successors, and worked with the Republicans to rig the election laws to make it much harder for anyone from another party to run. Party Chair Joe Crowley and the State Committee set it up so that last year I had no choice but to vote for Mike and Marge.

So it's not "Albany will," it's "Unless the MTA slashes expenses or the governor and Legislature come up with new funding, Mike Gianaris and Marge Markey and Joe Crowley will again stab straphangers in the back." Replace with your own legislators and party boss, and your state committee members if you know them, and remember it when they come asking for campaign contributions, and when they appear at the next bogus rally blaming "the MTA" for service cuts.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The transportation-land use cycle, illustrated

The transportation-land use cycle, illustrated by the Village of Piermont, NY and its environs:

The road builders say, "Everyone wants to drive, and a road will create jobs. That's why we have to build a big road!"

The employers say, "There's a big road, and everyone wants to drive, and I want to work near my house in the suburbs. That's why we'll build an office park!"

The town planners say, "There's a big road to the office park, and everyone wants to drive, and we're afraid they'll take our parking. That's why we need to require parking for everyone!"

The retail developers say, "The town requires parking, and everyone wants to drive, and it will boost our rents. That's why we need to build parking!"

The residential developers say, "The town requires parking, and everyone wants to drive, and it will boost our sales prices. That's why we need to build parking!"

The residents say, "There's all this parking, and everyone wants to drive, and it will be more convenient. That's why we need to buy a car!"

The transit planners say, "Everyone who lives around here owns a car, and everyone wants to drive, and it will bring more passengers. That's why we need to build a park-and-ride!"

The road-builders say, "Everyone is driving to the park-and-ride, and a road will create jobs. That's why we have to build a bigger road!"

When does it end?

(FYI, the older parts of Piermont are a bit more progressive on parking.)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

About that value gap...

Ben Kabak picked up on an interesting story: Cambridge Systematics has just completed an analysis of the 2010 MTA budget on commission for Rockland County, and found a "value gap" of $41,930,000. According to Cambridge, in 2010 Rockland residents and businesses paid $110 million in taxes, fees and fares, but only got $68.0 million in services and capital improvements. The report says that the county can either withdraw from the MTA (which would have to be approved by the State Legislature) or work out some kind of "Value Gap Reduction," such as:
  • the MTA paying to subsidize bus service in Rockland
  • suspension of fees at MTA park-and-ride lots
  • increase in payments to the "DORF Fund," set up in 1988 by Tim Conway to address precisely these kinds of payment imbalances in the three counties of Dutchess, Orange and Rockland
  • decreasing Rockland's payments to the MTA
  • increase in MTA service in Rockland, for example suspending fees at MTA park-and-ride lots
Yes, the Cambridge consultants recommended reducing parking fees twice in the same bullet list. And yes, increasing service is at the bottom of the list. You can tell where these people have their priorities. But there's much worse in the report. Larry Littlefield won't shut up about pension and debt service, and he's absolutely right. In a comment on Second Avenue Sagas, Larry wrote,
Right, did they include the cost of debts, the cost of past pensions, and the cost of retiree health care in their analysis? Everyone has a value gap because much of the money is going to the past. They just don’t want to pay a share of the debt.
I think Ben scared people off the report (PDF) by calling it "a rather technical explanation," but it answers Larry's question. It's pretty clear that they include costs for pensions and retiree health care in the operating budgets, but right there on page 8 they say, "No debt service payments are included."
So what would debt service be? Further down on Page 8, Cambridge says that they calculated Rockland's benefits from the MTA Capital Construction budget by multiplying it by 2.19%, since Rockland has "2.19% of region’s population and jobs (US Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics)."

So if we multiply the MTA's total debt service of $1.91 billion by 2.19%, Rockland's share of the debt comes to $41.92 million, which is almost exactly the same as the "Value Gap." In other words, Larry is spot on. Rockland County has the same Value Gap that we all have: the MTA's debt. Larry continues:
And speaking of debt, did Rockland go for Pataki all those years? In that case, they voted in favor of it.
Why yes they did! according to Dave Leip, Rockland voted for Pataki 54.3% in 1994, 62.9% in 1998 and 62.7% in 2002. And of course in 2010, over 99% of Rockland County voted for one of the six anti-transit candidates.

At this point, though, it's worth asking what we mean by "fair." Should every county get back exactly what they pay into the MTA? Or should Rockland, with a median household income of $67,971, perhaps pay more per capita than the Bronx, with a median household income of $27,611? On the other hand, maybe we should separate transit from charity. Maybe, in fact, Rockland should get a greater share of the transit capital budget to compensate for the destruction wrought by the Tappan Zee Bridge, the Palisades Parkway and I-287.

So what if we did want them to get another $42 million a year in transit funding? Reducing payments and suspending park-and-ride fees are not going to improve Rockland's transportation situation. Increasing payments to the "DORF Fund" would help if it led to an increase in transit coverage, but not if it just allows Rockland to cut their own transit subsidies. Paying for Sunday service on the Tappan Zee Express bus? That's a no-brainer.

Here's an interesting one: "MTA could provide funds to establish a dedicated BRT/bus service on portions of the Piermont Line and Route 59 in Rockland County." I've said that if there's "BRT" anywhere in Rockland, it should be on Route 59 and not the Thruway, but this is one issue where Cambridge Systematics is more radical than the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

The best use of that money would be to reactivate the Northern Branch all the way through Sparkill, Piermont and Nyack, to take advantage of the dense, walkable development that already exists near the old train stations. And of course, if we tear down the Tappan Zee Bridge and don't replace it, the transit will need a lot less in the way of subsidies and Rockland's budget will be in a lot better shape.