Sunday, July 29, 2012

Why streetcars don't work anymore

Many people, including Jarrett Walker, have written skeptically about the value of streetcars over buses in mixed traffic. They're right to be skeptical, but they don't explain why we can't just go back to the way things were. I've often wished we could go back to the time when there were trolleys on the streets of Long Island City and interurbans serving places like Hoosick Falls (minus the sexism, racism, and so forth). But as James Howard Kunstler is fond of saying, history is not symmetrical. There are good reasons why streetcars won't do what they did in 1912 unless we change other things.

Suppose that next year, instead of restoring passenger service on the Northern Branch, New Jersey Transit rebuilt the North Hudson County railway along Broad Street in Palisades Park and Leonia. Would people jump back on the trolleys and ride them to the ferries to the city?

Some, probably, but most would either keep driving to work or keep catching the Red and Tan buses that take the Turnpike and the XBL to the Port Authority. The simple reason is that any suburban streetcar or interurban built today would face a lot more congestion than its ancestors in the golden age of streetcars. In 1912 there were hardly any cars, and people didn't own horse-drawn carriages at anything like the numbers that they own cars today.

If we go back to our goals (see above), the reason I at least support streetcars is that they allow people to access goods and services without driving their own cars. But mixed-traffic streetcars have never competed well. They were preferable to walking or horsecars, but whenever people could take elevated or underground railroads they did. When cars and even buses came along, they abandoned the streetcars for those as well.

I am not saying that we should all love the bus. Buses lurch, they're expensive to operate, they keep losing their rights-of-way, and they are no easier to install than trains. But until private cars are few and far between, mixed-traffic streetcars will be a waste of effort. We need to be pushing for transit that can compete with cars, and that means transit with its own right-of-way. In cities, that means subways, elevateds or green tracks trolleys.

Of course, here I'm talking about transit that operates in mixed traffic for its entire length. A line that operates in mixed traffic for a segment of its route may turn out to be worth it. It all depends on how well it can compete with cars.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Shit or get off the pot

I've written before about how the MTA is unwilling to innovate to solve transit problems. In particular, they are unwilling to try bus services that cost something other than $2.25 or $5.50, and they are unwilling to run new local bus service through the tunnels that they own. The good news is that there are people who think they can provide service where the MTA has failed. The bad news is that the City of New York won't let them try.

Recent events have brought this into focus. In 2010 the MTA cut service all over the region, and cuts to the the QM22 bus here in Queens were particularly notable. This was a weird express route that made only a few runs during rush hours to Midtown from a part of Astoria and Jackson Heights that is not close to either the N/Q or the 7 train. The riders were dedicated and well-organized. Joel Azumah, a bus company owner and a regular reader of this blog, stepped in to provide replacement service.

By law, the New York City Department of Transportation has the authority to approve all bus service within the city, and I don't know the last time it approved a new permit. The old trolley companies like Queens Surface and North Shore, which had all converted to buses and ceased to function like anything but government patronage monopolies, were gradually absorbed into the MTA.

The politically-connected Satmar Hasidim have been able to accomplish superhuman transportation feats in this city. Former DOT commissioner Iris Weinshall, also the wife of a sitting U.S. Senator, couldn't get the DOT to remove a bike lane, but the Satmar could. Similarly, they have gotten a permit to run their own gender-segregated private bus service. Nobody else.

The DOT did not grant Joel a permit to run his QM22 replacement service. He tried to run the service on a technicality, claiming that it was a private transportation club, but he didn't fool anyone. The DOT took him to court and won.

The Bloomberg Administration then made an incredibly clumsy, half-assed attempt at allowing private transit operators to run on some of the routes that had been cut. They could have simply allowed bus operators to submit proposals that would have served a majority of the passengers on the abandoned routes, and dealt with those proposals on their own terms. Instead, they decided on the routes and fares and invited dollar van operators to apply for them without the possibility of modification. The van drivers did not commit fully to the pilot, ridership was terrible, and the pilot was abandoned after a very short time. The QM22 was not among the routes offered for bid, nor were any of the other express bus routes.

Now the MTA's fiscal picture has now improved, at least temporarily, and the authority has announced that it will restore service on a number of bus routes. The QM22 is not among those routes, and a number of politicians are holding rallies "demanding" that the MTA restore it. The leaders of this group, Senator Gianaris and Assemblymember Peralta, have both gone on record opposing the use of bridge tolls to increase transit funding, and then voted to cut the funding for the MTA. When a politician insists that money be spent on a particular route but doesn't provide money for it in the budget, they're implicitly saying that other routes deserve the money less, but of course Gianaris and Peralta won't say what routes should not be restored.

The solution is straightforward: if the state and city won't fund transit adequately and the MTA chooses not to serve a particular area, the city should grant private operators the right to run pilot service and see if they can do better. They have consistently refused to, and this is evidence of a massive failure on the part of Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Sadik-Khan.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

More cars on the streets of Tenafly

Peter Rustin, the mayor of Tenafly, New Jersey, is against the current plan to restore passenger service to the Northern Branch of the Erie Railroad through his town. "The preferred alternative for this project will put more cars into the streets of Tenafly than it will take off," he told the Northern Valley Suburbanite (which is apparently a newspaper).

I would be inclined to dismiss that as typical demented NIMBY rantings, except that it's actually confirmed by the planners (PDF, page 9-28): "During the AM peak hour, which represents the worst-case scenario for traffic congestion, it is projected that 16 vehicles would park at or near the station during the peak hour. An additional 96 vehicles are projected to drop off passengers at the station, resulting in additional travel to and from the station during the peak hour, for a total of 208 trips. The reverse is expected to occur in the PM peak."

I've criticized traffic projections in the past, and Chuck Marohn, who's a trained engineer, echoed that criticism this week. The software that makes those projections for the Northern Branch, like most other traffic projections, is a state secret. In March I emailed Thomas Marchwinski, Senior Director Forecasting & Research at New Jersey Transit, asking very nicely for more information about the NJTDFM and how it was used in this project, and I have not heard anything yet.

So these are not the rantings of a demented NIMBY, but a demented computer. It may well be that the projected 208 car trips will not materialize, but Mayor Rustin is still justified in his opposition. In an earlier post, Matthew the Walking Bostonian made this astute observation:

The other problem is that they plan to do traffic "mitigation" in the vicinity of the parking lots. For example, Fort Lee Road at Grand Ave in Leonia is going to get widened, along with the construction of the 500 car garage. It's already a crummy place to walk, this will make it worse.

Matthew nailed it. Here's the map of "improvements" planned for Leonia, from Figure 9-10 of this PDF:

The key here is to notice the space between the green lines (the "existing curb") and the red lines (the "proposed curb"). It's supposed to be filled in with orange ("proposed widening"), but sometimes it's hard to see the orange. Take a look at the south side of Fort Lee Road between Spring Street and Station Parkway. That sidewalk is pretty narrow, and they just took out the whole thing for most of that block. They also did this weird thing where they shaved a few feet off of the eastern side of Station Parkway.

These "improvement" means that walking to the train station site will go from kind of unpleasant to downright hellish. This is not just true for commuters and anyone else who might want to take this train, but for people going to the large park there, many of whom are teenagers and families with small children. Oh, and here's Tenafly, from Figure 9-25:

Unfortunately, Mayor Rustin is not at all out of line here. Downtown Tenafly would be a much less pleasant place to walk around after the "improvements" planned by Marchwinski and friends. Rustin shouldn't be opposing the project or forcing New Jersey Transit to cut it short at Route 4, but he should be doing everything in his power to restore sanity to the traffic projections and their "mitigations." Anyone who can help him, please offer your services.

Monday, July 23, 2012

What's going to be cut to pay for the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement?

I've been asking this question for a while. Remember that this is a bridge that shouldn't exist, and should be torn down and not rebuilt. But Andrew Cuomo wants to rebuild it, twice as big, and at a huge cost. Who is going to pay for it?

Remember: it has long been established that it is economically impossible to cover the budgeted cost of $5 billion through tolls. If everyone who crosses now paid $15-20 round trip we could do it, but when the tolls get that high, people start doing what they should be doing anyway: working close to home, living close to work, or taking transit. In the topsy-turvy world of road tolls this is a bad thing, because then total revenue declines and the Thruway can't pay the bonds.

Charlie Komanoff has argued that the solution is just to build a smaller replacement bridge, but Cuomo seems to have decided that any plan that doesn't double the width of the bridge is not big enough for his legacy. There's a chance he's expecting that the second span will be cancelled, but not until he's safely elected President.

What's more likely is that there will be some component that is directly paid for out of taxes, like the gas tax, the income tax or the sales tax. It will be paid by the Federal or New York State governments, but either way it will come primarily from people who don't drive across the bridge - and from significant numbers of people who don't drive at all. If we estimate that amount to be $1.4 billion, it will bring the tolls down to $10-12 round trip, as you can see in this modified version of Komanoff's spreadsheet.

As long as the bridge is getting built, there will be some component paid by other taxes; the question is simply how much it will be. The smaller the toll increase, the bigger the share that will have to be borne by taxpayers. Right now, through his unofficial press secretary Fred Dicker, the Governor has signaled that any toll increase will be minimal.

The tabloids have stoked a fierce backlash against toll increases following the most recent Port Authority bridge toll hike. The Governor has been saying, "the bridge will be paid for with tolls," but like his earlier insistence that he won't raise taxes and that he'll veto any redistricting bill that doesn't include an independent commission, it's pretty clear that this is just for show.

What is most disturbing is that, according to Dicker, Assembly Speaker Silver and Senate Minority Leader Skelos have come out against any Thruway toll hike. Silver thinks that more cars and trucks on the Thruway is good. Skelos wants government to be more efficient, but not so efficient that it doesn't replace the bridge. These quotes are about a toll hike that's independent of the bridge financing, aimed at keeping the highway solvent, and they're against that. It's possible that they could change their tune once it comes to paying for the bridge replacement, but it's also possible that they'll repeat these same platitudes.

If Silver and Skelos support rebuilding the bridge but oppose raising tolls to pay for it, and also oppose raising taxes (as Skelos at least is signaling), then there will have to be cuts in other things. I would actually love to see the Kosciuszko Bridge replacement cut, but I'm guessing it will probably be the transit budget that gets cut again. At which time expect to see Silver and Skelos's minions like Hakeem Jeffries, Jeff Klein and Marty Golden come out with the usual protests against transit cuts and fare hikes, all the while decrying the waste at the MTA.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The missed opportunities of the Northern Branch

I had to admit that New Jersey Transit isn't planning to pave paradise for the parking lots on the Erie Railroad Northern Branch. They want to take over some existing parking lots, build on top of some others, and tear down some warehouses that are unremarkable and kind of shabby. It still makes me unhappy, though, because of what they're not planning to build there: walkable suburban downtowns.

There are a string of dense, walkable towns lining the western slopes of the Palisades: North Bergen, Fairview, Ridgefield, Palisades Park, Leonia, Englewood Tenafly, Demarest, Closter, Norwood and Northvale. They didn't happen by accident, nor did they spring fully formed from the head of some central planner. They grew up around the Northern Branch, and the New York Central's West Shore Line, and the trolley lines of the North Hudson County Railway. But after the opening of Route 46, and Route 4, and the New Jersey Turnpike, and Route 80, and the Palisades Parkway, it got harder and harder for the trains and trolleys to compete.

Now New Jersey Transit is planning to bring back some of the railroads. They're not talking about restoring passenger service on the West Shore, or rebuilding the North Hudson, but they are talking about restoring service on the Northern Branch, in the form of a Hudson Bergen Light Rail extension to Tenafly. As I've mentioned before, I'm concerned about the amount of parking. One reason is that I think it will encourage local driving and lead to more sprawl.

Another reason that the parking bothers me is the opportunity that is being missed. While Englewood, Tenafly, Cresskill, Demarest and Closter all grew up around the Northern Branch, the centers of North Bergen, Fairview, Ridgefield, Palisades Park and Leonia were all along Broad Avenue or even further east on Bergen Boulevard or Anderson/Bergenline Avenue. What developed along the Northern Branch in these towns was largely industrial. Since then much of the industry has been replaced with commercial development, but it has been sprawling, car-oriented development.

If we're not going to bring back the Broad Street trolley, but we are going to restore passenger service, people will be traveling from compact, walkable downtowns to rapid transit through a sprawling, car-oriented mixture of industrial and commercial buildings. You can see why many of those who have cars would prefer to drive.

If I were designing this, in the tradition of Jane Jacobs and Andres Duany, I would first rezone the areas around the stations for dense, pedestrian-oriented mixed-use development, no parking required. I would then look at likely commute paths from the downtowns to the new stations, including 91st Street in North Bergen, Edgewater Avenue in Fairview, Ruby Avenue in Palisades Park and Fort Lee Road in Leonia. I would widen the sidewalks on those roads, run shuttle bus service from the downtown to meet each train both ways, and rezone the properties on either side for the same kind of mixed-use development. For each of these towns, this would essentially allow a secondary downtown to grow around the new train station, extending it and the old downtown to meet each other.

Such a plan would allow these towns to return to their old transit-oriented pasts. Instead, New Jersey Transit has decided to lead these towns further down the car-oriented dead end, by building more parking and making it easier to drive and hard to walk. No wonder the leaders of these towns are upset. The planners didn't even try.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Cheap parking hurts food trucks too

Food trucks have been in the news recently. National Public Radio, in particular, has been interested, and particularly in New York. In April, Planet Money's Robert Smith tagged along with the Rickshaw Dumpling truck. In May, Leonard Lopate interviewed three food truck owners. In June, Ilya Marritz exposed the dysfunction in our city's permitting system.

Tonight on Twitter, Alon Levy and Stephen Smith pointed out that even the Arab Spring is related to food carts: in December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after he was forcibly prevented by government officials from selling produce on the street and then denied any appeal, shouting "How do you expect me to make a living?" before lighting the match.

Like Stephen, I have mixed feelings about food trucks. I've enjoyed their food and I appreciate how they foster dynamism and experimentation with food. I would prefer to see them run their refrigerators, and other electrical appliances from the grid rather than by gasoline-powered generators or compressors. In my hierarchy of street space allocations, I put the high-energy-use trucks above general parking, but below taxi stands and delivery loading zones, and way below low-energy-use retail like hot dog, ice cream or tamale carts. If the city, the business improvement district or property owners were to provide them with grid electricity, I would be happier. I also wouldn't mind seeing small, cheap storefronts with takeout windows instead.

Any way you slice it, given any parking space in the city, I'd rather see a food truck there than some bureaucrat's government car, or a curb cut for a car wash. But that's the problem that Smith, Lopate and Marritz's interviewees all highlight: food trucks never had priority for curbside space, and now in most of the city they are in fact prohibited from using it.

That in turn connects this issue with the issue of curbside bus stops that I discussed a couple of weeks ago. Where there's a fight over curb space, chances are you'll find it's underpriced.

Right now, an army of NYPD officers are employed to keep curbside space clear for private cars and curb cuts. It would be simpler, and probably require a lot less policing, if the city set up two marketplaces. One would be for short term rental: fifteen minutes to 24 hours, run like the SFPark pilot. Another would be for long term use.

In this long term leasing system, Mohamed the produce guy can bid against Courtney the artisanal hákarl rugelach truck owner, the Double Fast Bus Company, Sid the dentist who wants to park his BMW in front of his office every day, Jose the bagel shop owner who wants customer car parking, Aaron the cafe owner who wants customer bike parking, Ben the pizza maker who wants customer seating, Theresa the plumber who wants a curb cut, and the aquarium, for long-term leases. If Courtney wins the bidding, she gets to park there every day for a year or sublease it on days when she's not using it.

You could have separate leases for morning, afternoon, evening and night parking, and even by day of the week. We could bring back separation of church and state on Sundays, and if the Temperance Tabernacle of Our Lady of Chastity wants parking for their parishioners, those parishioners need to outbid Dave's House of Drinkin' and Whorin'.

It's not a perfect system, and it may turn out that all on-street parking is dominated by big churches, curb cuts and dentists. It may need to be tweaked to provide adequate opportunities for buses, food trucks, fresh produce and pop-up parks, but I can't imagine it would be worse than what we've got today. At the very least, the people who use that space for personal vehicles would have to pay for it.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

They paved some crap, and put up a parking lot

There's too much parking in New Jersey Transit's plans to restore passenger service on the Northern Branch of the Erie Railroad. There are many reasons why it's too much, but in this post I want to focus on one reason that doesn't apply: they aren't going to pave paradise to put up these parking lots.

I had been all ready to lead, months ago, with stories of beautiful old buildings and verdant glens bulldozed for parking lots. And if I had less scruples, like some NYU faculty and Greenwich Village NIMBYs, I might just have gone ahead with that. But I believe in supporting my opinions with facts, so I actually went to see the places where the new stations will be built.

Some parts of Bergen County are actually pretty paradisaical. I found some beautiful old buildings and verdant glens, but they're not anywhere near the planned parking lots. Many of the lots will just take over existing parking lots that are currently used for something else. There are a few buildings that the New Jersey planners want to tear down, but I can't get excited about any of them.

Tenafly North

New Jersey Transit plans a 570 space surface lot on 8.6 acres of land that currently holds an auto body shop, a couple of crappy strip malls and a bunch of small parking lots.

Tenafly Town Center

There would be a 40 space lot for kiss-and-ride and "handicap" parking on the site of a 15-space municipal lot. How they're going to shoehorn the 25 spaces in there I don't know, but this is already an ugly parking lot.

Englewood Hospital

No additional parking. I think they figure that anyone who wants to drive will drive to the Route 4 or Tenafly North station.

Englewood Town Center

The station will be next to an existing 500-space municipal garage. The planners basically say that downtown Englewood is overparked. "Within one-third of a mile from the station there are approximately 1,003 on-street parking spaces and 708 off-street parking. Two municipal lots that currently provide 138 permit spaces, 27 metered spaces, and 43 free public spaces are located near the station site. An approximate 500-space parking deck completed construction after the survey was conducted. The spaces were added to the capacity totals. Observations indicate that time-limit on-street parking restrictions are prevalent near the proposed station. Of the 1,711 spaces that exist in the area, 888 were occupied, leaving approximately 823 available spaces."

Englewood Route 4

This is where the most parking is planned, because the planners want drivers to just pull off Route 4 and park. If the Preferred Alternative to Tenafly is built it will be a garage with 430 spaces. If passenger service terminates at Route 4, they will build 870 spaces. The site is currently occupied by a warehouse. I couldn't see much of it through the trees, but it didn't look all that exciting.


There is a very Nineties office-park style office building next to the station, with 172 parking spaces. New Jersey Transit plans to build a deck on top of that lot holding 550 more spaces.

Palisades Park

The plan is to knock down these warehouses and strip mally retail and build a 320-space parking lot. I was really ready to fight for these buildings until I actually saw them.


This new strip mall is pretty uninspired. It would be torn down and replaced with a 350-space parking lot. I don't think anyone would miss it, as long as they could get their kimchi someplace else.

91st Street

The plan would put a 40-space handicap/kiss-and-ride lot on part of the back lot for this hideous strip mall. Parking for parking.

So New Jersey Transit isn't planning to pave paradise to put up these parking lots. But fear not, fellow park-and-ride haters! There are good reasons not to build so much parking. I'll get into them in another post. If I can't do Joni Mitchell I can at least do Donald Shoup.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The failure of the state

Some transit advocates, urbanists and planners are uncomfortable with libertarian approaches to their fields of interest. I'm sympathetic, but I want to hear what their alternatives are.

As I've written many times, I'm not a libertarian. I don't believe that there's any such thing as a free market. Every economic transaction in human history has been influenced by the state. There are simply greater and lesser degrees of state control. Sometimes the state can run things with a relatively light hand, and the market will control costs and encourage investment in a relatively efficient way. Other times the absence of state control can lead to inequality and bullying.

I would love to see the world's transportation run by an enlightened, populist democracy. But as it stands now, even the local transportation system here in New York City is burdened by corruption, elitism and cronyism. The framing of various debates around congestion pricing, budgeting, the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, park-and-ride lots, "Moynihan Station" and snow removal have shown the challenges facing any statist approach to transportation management. What do you do when the decision-making functions of the state are corrupt or misinformed, and the chosen outcome is worse than the status quo?

Then there are the instances where the state simply won't provide. What do you do when the state forces middle-class people to choose between uncomfortable transit and comfortable cars? When it shuts down a subway but won't run a bus through a tunnel it owns? When it won't protect the majority of its citizens against a deadly threat?

Melissa Thomasson observes that markets foster innovation and control costs, but government is necessary to ensure universal access. That said, I'd be happy if we could accomplish our goals of reducing pollution and carnage, improving efficiency and access, and improving society, all through the heavy hand of the state. I think under some states it may be possible. But it's clearly not happening here and now, and I'd like to hear from people like Will Doig and Brendon Slotterback and Anthony Flint. Do you see these state failures? What can be done about them within your framework? What is your alternative to a market solution?

The high cost of cheap on-street parking

Last week I promised you another explanation for the crazy law that was passed by the New York State Legislature, essentially outlawing small curbside bus companies. (For a maddeningly Orwellian take on the legislation, go read this blog post by Tri-State's Nadine Lemmon where she spins it as "a victory for community leaders and sustainable transportation advocates.") I've given one explanation: established companies like Greyhound and Peter Pan raising the barriers to keep competitors out of the market. The other explanation is that too many powerful people want cheap curbside parking.

Of the nine complaints about curbside buses, seven related to illegal activities (idling, blocking the sidewalk, blocking the road, littering, physically attacking your competitors, excessive noise, and parking in city bus stops) that were not being prosecuted. The other two relate to parking:

6. Parked buses "could tie up deliveries, and other businesses in the area will be affected as well" (Tribeca Trib).
9. "People's homes and businesses are being blocked by buses, commercial areas, residential areas," says Senator Squadron (Metro).

If you've been following trends in the worlds of progressive and libertarian transportation policy, you've heard about UCLA urban planner Donald Shoup and his strong case that parking - on-street and off-street - is underpriced. Cheap parking leads to drivers circling for spaces, which compounds street congestion. It also leads to office workers, salesclerks and neighbors hogging valuable commercial spaces, so that they are unavailable for shoppers. And it encourages people to drive - at least, those who can get a space.

Imagine if curbside parking were charged at market rates. Shoup recommends that the rate be set at a level that allows for about 15% of the spaces on each block to be unoccupied at any given time. Rates in Midtown Manhattan would be sky-high, of course, and in Chinatown they'd be pretty high too. If they were still high enough for a bus company to make a profit picking up passengers, they could do that. If not, then they wouldn't pick up there.

If Greyhound didn't like Megabus paying for curb space outside the Port Authority, they could outbid Megabus, and maybe free up a gate in the terminal for another bus company. If a shopper or a delivery truck driver wanted to park in that space, they could outbid the bus company. But I'm guessing that the shopkeepers, office workers and status-seekers who currently take up a lot of the curb space in Midtown and Chinatown would find a garage space or take the train.

Would this price out some of the residents, shoppers and businesses that can't afford to pay so much for curb space? Maybe, but how is the current first-come, first-served system any better, with its circling and space-hogging?

Would market pricing also bump out smaller curbside bus operators? Probably some, but the DOT could institute some kind of incubator program where an up-and-coming bus company could get a discount on curb rates in exchange for submitting to more frequent inspections or something. Others could probably find a convenient corner where they could afford the parking rates, or even rent their own terminal.

Market-rate parking is a notoriously difficult political challenge, and one approach has been to sidestep the resistance by outsourcing the meters to a private company. After Chicago's 2008 deal was panned as a short-term sell-out, many people have been leery of such projects. But if done right, it could rationalize the curbside busing system without the need for a new cumbersome layer of bureaucracy. Imagine if Dan Squadron, Margaret Chin, CHEKPEDS and Tri-State had used that opportunity to push for rational curb pricing instead of giving us this turkey of a law.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Why you should care about the Cross-Harbor rail freight tunnel

For years, people have been talking about a cross-harbor rail freight tunnel, but it hasn't caught on in the public's imagination. Look, already with you! You're thinking, "Geez, do I really want to read some post about a freight tunnel? I don't ship freight. What do I care?" But you should, so don't close this window! Here's why: less carnage, saving tax money, no more highway hostages. Read on for details.

Ever since the Poughkeepsie Bridge was closed, freight trains going from west of the Hudson (New Jersey, most of upstate, most of the rest of the continent) to east of the Hudson (New York City, Long Island, Westchester, New England) have had to go all the way up to Selkirk, a tiny hamlet south of Albany, to cross the river.

There are two alternatives to the "Selkirk hurdle": put the rail cars on a barge across the harbor, or transfer the goods to trucks. A lot of shippers have been using a third alternative: sending the stuff on trucks the whole way. And of course that means more trucks and bigger trucks.

How do trucks get across the Hudson? On the Verrazano, George Washington and Tappan Zee Bridges, and through the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels. How do they get from Brooklyn to Queens? On the BQE. How do they get from Queens to the Bronx? Over the Queensboro Bridge and on Manhattan streets.

The proposed Cross-Harbor Rail Freight Tunnel would allow trains from west of the Hudson to travel through Jersey City and Brooklyn to points east. They would connect to yards in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Long Island where goods could be loaded onto trucks. The estimate is that a million trucks would be removed from the region's roads. Because the trucks would be doing short distribution runs, they could be smaller. Here are some reasons why that's a good thing for us:

1. Carnage. Smaller trucks are safer in an urban environment. The safest truck, of course, is no truck at all.

2. Road maintenance. The amount of damage that a vehicle inflicts on a road is proportional to the fourth power of that vehicle's weight. Getting this heavy freight off our asphalt roads and onto steel rails would save a lot in maintenance.

3. No more hostages. If you're like me, you've come up with a great argument against a wasteful road project, when some smart-ass busts out, "Well, you may not drive, but your groceries got there by truck! You'll be paying more for cereal if the roads get congested!" They're holding your food hostage to get their road. With this project, you'll be able to smile sweetly and say, "Actually, my groceries come by train, so fuck off!"

So keep this in mind if you care about saving lives by getting big trucks off the road, or about saving money on road maintenance and construction: you like the Cross-Harbor Rail Freight Tunnel. Tell your representatives!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Individual mandates for transportation

This morning I was listening to Chana Joffe-Walt and Alex Blumberg talk about the Supreme Court healthcare ruling, and they gave a good explanation of the rationale behind the individual mandate: increasing the pool of insured customers - especially by adding healthy young people - reduces the risk that an insurance agency will wind up with a high percentage of sick people on their rolls, and paying out more than they take in. This in turn makes it palatable for the insurers to give up the right to deny people on the basis of preexisting conditions. Between that and the expansion of Medicaid, we should see a lot more efficiency in healthcare because people are not relying on unpaid emergency room visits to keep themselves alive.

As I listened, I realized that the situation in transit is very similar. All transportation infrastructure and services require a critical mass of users. We sneer at empty lanes and empty trains, and rightly so. They mean that the concrete and steel that have gone into the infrastructure is sitting unused, and if we have to put more resources into maintaining them we are getting relatively little use from those resources. The time of the train operators, conductors and station crews are also being wasted, as is that of the highway patrol officers, toll collectors and maintenance staff.

How do you get that kind of security? Just like in healthcare, you can't rely on people making a choice for each event. There are in fact at least four kinds of transportation choices: the Single Trip, Habits, Investments and Subsidies. Because we're creatures of habit who buy things and have government infrastructure spending, Single Trip choices determine a small minority of our transportation use.

I'd love to know if there are studies that show how many trips flow from each kind of choice, but even without one I think we can all agree that it doesn't make sense for a transportation provider to orient their strategy around Single Trips. Imagine if a supermarket ignored the Habits people develop around bread and milk, or Investments like microwave oven sales, or Subsidies in the Farm Bill. A supermarket that didn't sell milk, or microwaveable dinners, or corn products, would lose customers to those that did.

But going back to the comparison with healthcare, what if there were an individual mandate to purchase transit? Would we see a more stable, better funded transit agency that can offer more frequent service? Well, if we look at the National Transit Database, we see that the bus companies and agencies that have more than a 50% farebox recovery ratio, there are two groups: (a) ones that use the Lincoln Tunnel XBL and (b) ones that serve college towns. In the (b) group, the colleges usually pay the transit agency an annual fee drawn from tuition, and the student IDs function as bus passes. In some places, like Amherst, MA, the routes serving the colleges are free when college is in session. This is an individual mandate on a local scale.

We could do this in other places too, and there's a whole "free public transit" movement that argues for just that. But a lot of people hate individual mandates, and I have to agree with them in part. I'm uncomfortable with the idea myself, and if healthcare wasn't such a bullshit choice I would probably care more. In practice, the only people who have any real choice when it comes to health insurance are the very rich and the suicidally insane.

The good news is that an individual mandate may not be necessary for transit. Before I go pushing some big new expensive thing for transit, I always like to see if there's some way we're fucking up the transportation system as a whole. And whadya know, we have an individual mandate for driving. Almost every new building in this country is mandated to provide space for people to park their vehicles. Cities set aside large amounts of curb space for free vehicle parking. If you don't have a vehicle, then you're paying a premium on your rent, mortgage, shopping, government services and taxes for free parking that you don't use.

Today Josh Barro wrote, "Transit advocates aren’t incorrect when they grumble about road subsidies. But if they really want American mass transit to work better, they’re missing the key target. A much smarter approach would be three-pronged: reduce subsidies, allow looser urban zoning, and get transit costs down." And he makes it clear that "looser urban zoning" includes getting rid of those minimum parking requirements. Don't let that one out of your sight.