Thursday, January 9, 2020

Stop romanticizing the country

Recently on Twitter I attacked the practice of transferring resources from city dwellers to country dwellers. One of my followers tried to defend it on the grounds of "equitable growth" because some people need to live in rural areas for farming, mining and other natural resources management purposes. My response was "fuck 'em" - not the people who actually do farm or mine or maintain parks and reservoirs, or who provide the goods and services for them, but the people who just want a big house in a picturesque area with lots of land, and feel entitled to government subsidies for that.

The specific example we were discussing was the building of new government facilities in remote areas, particularly facilities like universities and administrative offices that have no direct connection to rural activities, but there are many other examples of this kind of transfer of resources. Elected officials can keep taxes low in the country while raising them in cities. They can subsidize credit, transportation, utilities or other expenses of living and working in the country more than they do in the city. They can impose restrictions on cities that impair their efficiency but don't have the same effect on the country, like minimum parking requirements and restrictions on density.

There may be good reasons to encourage people to live in the country. Farming, mining, and other rural activities can be difficult in themselves, and the isolation of the country can make them even less attractive. Financial incentives, improved transportation and resources like broadband and cheap electricity can increase the labor pool and the number of people willing to invest in farms and other rural businesses.

When these incentives are targeted to a real public need, everything is great. But often they're simply targeted at people living in a specific place, or at "rural areas" in general. This can happen when people don't take the time to target initiatives well, or when there's a general hostility towards city life - or city dwellers - or when politicians exploit country dwellers for power. There is also a strong tendency for people to romanticize rural life.

Every mistargeted incentive is an opportunity for free riding, and incentives for rural living attract a lot of free riders. For all the disadvantages of country life that I mentioned above there are many incidental advantages like access to outdoor recreation, pleasant views, cheaper land and lower levels of certain types of pollution.

Many people prefer to live in the country and do something other than farming or mining or resource management, or providing services to farmers or miners or resource managers or tourists. There's a long tradition of artists, writers and philosophers moving to the country for inspiration or contemplation. There's another long tradition of wealthy people buying country houses for recreation and to escape poor people in the cities.

I want to point out here that this practice is largely restricted to white wealthy and middle-class people. In most cities there are creative and scholarly communities that are open to poor and nonwhite people. Rural communities where artists and writers live can be racist and exclusionary. They can also be remote and difficult to access without cars, which can constitute a barrier for people with low incomes. Poor and nonwhite people frequently move to the country for farming or mining, but less frequently to retreat for creative pursuits.

It's also important to note that the incomes of most of these country dwellers are dependent on cities. The farmers and miners are producing food and materials that will mostly be consumed by city dwellers. The artists, writers and philosophers are also producing art, writing and philosophy mostly for consumption by city dwellers. The tourists who rent hotel rooms and buy things in the country come mostly from cities. The wealthy people who buy summer, weekend and retirement houses in the country do it mostly with money they've made selling things in cities.

This pattern of earning money in cities and spending it in the country, and often paying taxes in the country, can be a legitimate exchange for real rural value, particularly when it comes to agricultural produce or mined resources or accommodation in pleasant or interesting places. When it's a country home it represents another transfer of wealth from the city to the country.

When an artist or writer or philosopher produces something in the country that they could have just as easily produced in the city, and receives subsidies intended for farmers or miners, that represents a transfer of wealth with nothing in return. When a worker could earn a living in the city but can't find work in the country, and chooses to live in the country and not work, any public assistance they receive constitutes a one-way transfer of wealth.

A transportation improvement that helps farmers and miners get their goods to market provides value to the producers and the buyers, so it's good for people in the city and the country. A transportation improvement that helps tourists and vacationers is probably valuable too. A transportation improvement that just helps people to make money in the city and live in the country is not a great value for taxpayers in general, and actively bad for city residents,

The absolute worst is when politicians spend tax money to "create jobs" in rural areas. I'm talking about factory, office, academic or entertainment jobs, jobs that are not specifically rural, and could be located anywhere. Jobs that would be much more efficiently located in or near cities.

First of all, this kind of economic development spending is a zero-sum game. It's possible to not spend it at all, and that's often the wisest course, but any jobs created in the country are jobs that are not going to city dwellers. That means that they are more likely to go to white people and people from higher-income backgrounds.

Second, putting office, academic and industrial jobs in the country is inherently less efficient, so we're wasting taxpayer money providing the infrastructure to support these activities beyond what they would cost us in the city.

Third, creating jobs in the country encourages more people to move to the country. They often leave efficient, walkable apartments and move to remote, car-dependent houses. They frequently buy cars, and those with cars typically drive more. They then add to the constituency of rural drivers demanding more and wider roads.

Subsidizing jobs in the country also creates a constituency for more jobs. We see it all over rural New York State: a politician can't get a factory in Plattsburgh without another politician wanting one in Elmira. Nelson Rockefeller built a SUNY campus in every State Senate district, regardless of how little housing there was for faculty and staff nearby, or how much a remote location added to the cost to transport students and supplies.

When farms or mines or rural factories close because the land is exhausted, or because other areas have more subsidies or less worker protection, or because we've subsidized transportation or water or energy, there are often jobs in the city. People used to move to the city for jobs, and they are again, more and more. But sometimes they don't want to leave the country. I get that. It can be hard to leave the place you know, and family.

I'm not blaming the people who don't want to leave the country, I'm blaming the politicians who pander to them by locating and subsidizing office, industrial and academic jobs in the country. Migration is a normal state for humanity. People have been doing it throughout our history.

That brings me to another element that has been underlying this whole dynamic: a romantic view of the country shared by many in power, and pandered to by many more. It is an old view, at least as old as the angels' visit to Sodom in the book of Genesis. In this view, cities are dirty places full of violence and evil people, while the country is clean, quiet and full of honest people.

The view of the country as inherently good helps explain a lot of the counterproductive subsidies I've discussed. Why wouldn't politicians want to subsidize writers and artists and teachers and factory and office workers living in the country, if the country is inherently good? Why wouldn't they want to make it easy for city people to get to the clean country as quickly as possible, so they can become virtuous country folk, or at least benefit from the country's virtues? Why wouldn't they want to help country people get in and out of the dirty city as quickly as possible, to minimize the harm and contamination?

Of course the city is not inherently dirty and sinful and violent, and the country is not inherently safe and friendly and clean. The country is a great place to grow food and collect water and quarry gravel. It's also a great place for city dwellers to experience natural beauty and to get some quiet and solitude and exercise. It's not a great place for factories or offices or bedroom communities. It's not a good place for a school, unless the school is essentially a city in itself. And it's really not a good place to shop, especially if we take into account the cost of transporting goods from where they're made to the shop, and from the shop to the home or business where they'll be consumed.

The city is a shitty place to mine copper. It's also a shitty place to grow food, despite what urban farming advocates may tell you. It's not a great place to get quiet and solitude. But as managers have discovered over and over throughout the centuries, despite everything they may want to believe, cities are great for offices and schools. They're not too bad for factories and bedroom communities, contrary to all the twentieth century rhetoric about light and air and noxious uses. And they're ideal for buying and selling things.

The romantic view we have of the country is doing real damage to both the city and the country. It's making them both less efficient, less safe, less healthy, less inclusive and less fair. We need to use the city for what it's good for, and we need to use the country for what it's good for.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

How we got hope back

When I first got into transit advocacy it was a lonely place. The dominant narrative here in New York was that the city was a money pit, a dirty hole of crime and corruption where funding went to die. The safe thing to do, for people and dollars, was to leave the city for the calm, quiet fields of the Hudson Valley and the rustic forests of the Catskills, where the Thruway, the Taconic and other scenic friendly roads would whisk you swiftly to your modern house surrounded by healthy Nature.

This narrative was bolstered by constant stories of wastefraudandabuse at the MTA and the fact that the Mayor and the Governor had promised to build the Second Avenue Subway decades ago, and nothing had opened. Even the 63rd Street Tunnel went nowhere in particular. Nothing else happened.

It was understood that the people of the East Side and the Bronx had been waiting for their subway since 1929. After that were the various proposals to extend the E and F trains in southeast Queens, and then maybe the 7 train. Any newer ideas had to get on line behind those.

The residents of various neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn met every proposal to expand service with dramatic complaints. Crime! Noise! Shadows! Nonwhite people! They were well-connected, with their champions including then-City Council Speaker Peter Vallone.

Transit advocates internalized this response. Transit discussion boards were focused on documenting existing conditions - and critiquing them, and reminiscing about past expansions. If someone proposed a new expansion, or advocated for an existing proposal, another poster would often remind them how long it had been since the last real expansion, the difficulties faced by recent proposals, and all the other proposals currently waiting in the queue.

A poster didn't even need to know actual details about how deep neighborhood opposition ran or why the city was in a budget crisis. Regurgitating the same handful of anecdotes was an easy way to win know-it-all points.

In this century the situation began to change. The F train was connected to the 63rd Street Tunnel and work began again on the Second Avenue Subway. Then the MTA began work on an extension to Hudson Yards that hadn't even been on any advocate's list of proposals before. But Mayor Bloomberg and his staff arranged for city financing, and all of a sudden the Hudson Yards line was being dug, ahead of the E and F extensions, ahead of Second Avenue Subway Phase II, and even ahead of Second Avenue Subway Phases III through XXIIII.

Bloomberg also began overruling NIMBYs. In 2004 he rolled out the first round of safety improvements on Queens Boulevard, the beginning of the end for the "Boulevard of Death," over the objections of business owners who claimed that every sidewalk extension would mean another empty storefront. He then appointed Janette Sadik-Khan as Transportation Commissioner, and backed her up when NIMBYs objected to the Prospect Park West bike lane.

In a few short years we learned that NIMBYs are not all-powerful, the order of subway expansions is not set in stone, and we are capable of finishing projects. In other words, we have reason to hope. A lot of the negativity was in our own heads.

Does that mean that the NIMBYs are now toothless, the state budget is bottomless, and we can build all the things? Of course not. But it does mean that we can hope, and plan, and propose new things.

If you follow my twitter feed, recently you may have noticed me getting angry at people for negativity. It's not that I think we should never criticize anyone else's proposals, or even just flat-out say no. There is a time and place for negativity, and the negative comments I was responding to were not made at the right time or place.

I didn't intend this to be a paean to Mayor Bloomberg, but for a number of reasons he was able to escape the cowardice and windshield perspective that limits New York City's political class so much. The man has lots of flaws, but his terms as mayor were a time of real progress for transit.

The reason I get so angry is because I remember the bad old days. I remember when transit nerds used to smack each other down for daring to suggest running passenger trains on the Bay Ridge Branch. I remember when we had no hope. I don't want to go back to that time.

What is the right time and place for negativity? That's a whole other post.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Attack of the Vertical Suburb

Recently we've seen a rash of articles that talk about "suburbs in the city," or "suburbanizing the city." Some articles refer to certain tall buildings as "vertical suburbs." The claim is either that faceless greedy developers are building buildings with suburban features, or that new migrants from the suburbs just don't appreciate the city and are intent on imposing their suburban values. Sometimes the allegation is that the developers are responding to demand from suburban migrants, sometimes that they are creating it.

I've written before about how people mean different things when they say "suburb." So what do these authors mean when they talk about "suburbs in the city"? Why do they care? Should we care?

We can dispense with some of the critiques pretty quickly. Some of these articles observe that the new apartment buildings and shops have gates, doormen and security systems, as though these things don't already exist in cities. As though they haven't existed for as long as cities have existed.

They observe that some of the new shops are in malls on private property, as though cities haven't had malls on private property for as long as suburbs. That many of these shops and restaurants are chains, as though every neighborhood in the city isn't full of chains, As though people from every social class and ethnicity don't flock to malls and chains, no matter how long they've lived in the city.

A much more legitimate concern involves different standards for peace, quiet and respect for the law. In many suburbs, the law is an instrument of racist discrimination and segregation, often a brutal and violent one. The simple presence of people who aren't white, or who look poor, or who are simply walking by themselves, can be enough to prompt a call to 911 and a police response. Some people bring racist attitudes with them from the suburbs.

The police have a history of protecting wealthy white people and harassing poor nonwhite people, which means that a stereotypical suburban definition of safety includes a police presence that would make a lot of city dwellers feel less safe. I've heard of suburbanites migrating to more urban areas and then reporting technically illegal but victimless violations like sidewalk drinking, with no concern for or awareness of the potential impact on their neighbors.

People who grow up in suburbs and more urban neighborhoods can also have different standards for what counts as "quiet." Some of this is simply a consequence of the built environment: in denser settings it's easier to hear your neighbors. On the one hand, people in more urban neighborhoods tend to be more tolerant of noises coming from other homes, businesses and public areas. On the other hand, people coming from less dense areas are not always aware of how much they can disturb their neighbors.

I've sometimes seen noise tolerance framed as a matter of pure cultural heritage. I think this is total horseshit. Sure, there are particular communities that outlaw dancing on religious grounds, but otherwise, every culture has noisy parties, every culture stays up late sometimes, and every culture has some people who have to get up early the next morning.

These conflicts over "quiet" and "safety" are legitimate matters for concern. We should be on the lookout for potential instances where they may unfairly affect existing residents, or compound unfair effects of race, class and ethnicity. Preventing migration from suburbs to cities is grossly out of proportion to any risks posed by these conflicts alone.

So yes, there are legitimate concerns about people moving from the suburbs to the city, and a lot of illegitimate fearmongering. Would these migrations affect our goals of reducing carnage and pollution, and increasing efficiency and fairness?

The two features of suburbia that affect our goals the most are density and car-orientation. New migrants can make a city less dense or more car-oriented by buying larger apartments or by bringing cars with them from the suburbs. Some of these articles claim that the practice of buying pied-á-terre apartments is a major factor in "turning the city into a ghost town," but pieds-á-terre are a tiny fraction of any city's housing stock.

In practice, when they move to the city ex-suburbanites typically get small apartments and ditch their cars - if the city government doesn't encourage them to do differently. If apartments are cheap they'll get a big one. If there's free parking available, they may keep their cars. But lifelong city dwellers will get big apartments and cars too, if they're affordable. So these are also largely myths.

As far as access for all, there is a concern that when people (typically characterized as wealthy white people) move from the suburbs to the city, they will necessarily displace previous residents of the city (typically characterized as poor nonwhite people). These former urbanites will have nowhere to go but the suburbs vacated by the people who displaced them, but will have less ability to afford the resources (particularly cars) that make the suburbs bearable. The grim game of musical chairs will improve access for the wealthy ex-suburbanites, but make it worse for the displaced urbanites.

It is in fact not clear how much the increased demand from ex-suburbanites actually contributes to rising rents, and even whether urban residents are being displaced, as opposed to moving out at the same rates they have historically, and simply not being replaced by people with similar ethnic and class backgrounds. But as I and many others have written, the way to address displacement concerns is simply to build enough urban housing that there is room in the city for the urban dwellers to stay and the ex-suburbanites to join them. This includes upzoning suburban areas and selling off public parking lots and garages, to create the kind of walkable, lively places that can satisfy at least some of the people who want to leave the suburbs.

I have my suspicions that at least some of the authors of these articles are not really concerned with segregation, malls, neighborhood conflict, rising rents or displacement. Maybe they've simplistically decided that everything suburban is automatically bad. Maybe they've decided that the populations that lived in the city when they were in their twenties are the true indigenous population, eternal and unchanging. Maybe they think the way they moved from the suburbs in 1992 is the only way to do it, and they resent everyone else for Doing It Wrong.

Actually, I don't really care why they're writing these articles. I just want them to stop. Whatever their goals, these authors clearly don't care about the economically and physically oppressive situation that is driving people to leave the suburbs, and they don't care that dense living with less car use is the only thing that will save our grandchildren from global warming.

The stereotypical suburbs are not bad because they have malls, or because some rich white people live there, or because they're relatively quiet. They're bad because they're racist, exclusionary and car-oriented. White people, and malls, and quiet, are not inherently anti-urban. We can call out racism, exclusion and car orientation in urban settings without getting irrelevant issues caught up in the mix.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

There is no neutral transportation budget arbiter

Recently I had another Twitter argument with a transit budget hawk. You know, about how slow and expensive the MTA has been at delivering new subway infrastructure, and how some fantasy busway would not be slow or expensive to build at all, and would magically deliver results comparable to a train line.

(Some other advocates, like Alon Levy, have brought up high construction costs not as an argument for busways, but to argue that we can build more trains if we can build them cheaper. I disagree with this argument in part, but it's a different argument, and deserves a separate post.)

Over the years I've given different counterarguments to this. The biggest is that it's not about how much total transit capacity we can roll out. Our goals depend on rolling out transit infrastructure that can be sustained and used equitably for long after we run out of cheap fossil fuel, and on getting people out of cars, and both of those in turn depend on the Cycle.

Busways are never as cheap or quick to roll out as their advocates claim, and they can drain budget dollars and political energy away from trains. In this recent argument, as usual, a busway was raised as an explicit alternative to a rail proposal. Busways can also interfere with rail by occupying valuable corridors, as we see with the Orange Line in Los Angeles.

I finally figured out another big thing that's wrong with these arguments: they're not aimed at convincing me that a busway is better than a train. They're entirely based on political feasibility. I know the political system, says the busway advocate. They will never approve this expensive rail project. But they will approve this cheaper busway. You should abandon your quixotic campaign for rail and throw your lot in with my busway.

The problem is that these busway advocates do not necessarily know the political system, not any better than you or I do. They're typically either repeating something they heard from someone else, or they're responding unthinkingly to a high cost figure. They have no special knowledge as to whether the politicians will fund the rail project, and they have no special knowledge as to whether the politicians would fund the busway, or allocate road space for it.

Instead, their appeal is based on an idea of legislatures and political executives as neutral budget arbiters, dispassionately weighing the relative costs and benefits of proposals. Their only concern is the return on investment for each project, as expressed by its ability to support ridership numbers.

This vision is laughable if you've read even one day of my Twitter feed. Every day I get examples of politicians deciding whether or not to support transportation projects, and costs and ROI are the bottom criteria. The top predictor of whether a politician supports a project is the prospect of a glamorous ribbon cutting. The next is whether it would ease a frustration in a trip they regularly take, or that of someone who they listen to. The third is probably whether it would get them a lot of angry calls from powerful people who have some idea, however loony, that the project might bring, crime, gentrification, congestion or historical desecration. Then some of them might be interested in the possibility of getting credit for Bringing Down Spending.

The typical American politician drives and doesn't know or care about any transit riders. This is something we're trying to change, and we're making headway here in New York, but we've still got a long way to go. They will be biased against any transit project, and they will be further biased against any project that would take road space from drivers.

The politicians are also making their decisions based on biased information provided by bureaucrats, who drive at a higher rate than the general public. Allocation of funding and land is dominated by transportation and planning departments, which tend to be focused on building roads and parking, and swayed by fads like diverging diamonds, rail trails and "BRT." Many of them will have a vested interest in the money and land going to roads.

All of this is to say that there is no guarantee that anyone in the process will be neutral, honest or focused on moving the largest number of people for the lowest amount of money. They're focused on ribbon cuttings, or their friends' commutes, or avoiding angering the Community Leaders, or getting their road project funded.

My top two strategies to get transit built are to focus on the potential for glamorous ribbon cuttings, and to get people elected who commute by transit, and who care about transit commutes. Decision makers are not interested in cost figures for their own sake, and neither am I.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Transit should be controlled by transit riders

I was listening to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson on Ben Kabak's new podcast, promoting his proposal to transfer control of the New York City subways from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which is controlled by the Governor, to a new board controlled by the Mayor (a post that Johnson plans to run for in 2021). Johnson's thoughtfulness and his desire for real solutions were refreshing in our political scene, and I appreciated his request for feedback on his proposal. And I have some!

In particular I was struck by Johnson's claim that a board that represents the diversity of the transit riding public would do a better job of serving that public. Now, don't get me wrong: I'm definitely not going to repeat the bullshit that a board needs people with technical or business expertise; that's what staff is for. The subways and buses should be managed in a way that benefits their riders, and riders deserve a say in how they're managed.

The thing is that the system doesn't just serve riders; it serves everyone who lives and works anywhere in the whole metro area. A bank executive who is driven to work isn't going to perform well if their employees can't get in on the train. An antiques merchant in Great Barrington is going to sell less if the weekend visitors from the city have less disposable income. Taxpayers need to know that our money is being spent well. Bondholders won't lend the MTA money unless they can make sure it won't default.

I wouldn't want the Kosciuszko or Tappan Zee bridge replacement projects to be managed by and for the exclusive benefit of drivers. In fact, the problem with these projects is that they actually are being managed by and for drivers. And you know, the problem with the MTA is that it is also being managed largely for drivers.

Johnson is right that the MTA is controlled by a group of people who don't ride transit, but he fingered the wrong group. The Governor clearly doesn't ride transit, but a lot of transit policy is not set by him, but by the State Legislature. As I've written in numerous posts, the State Assembly and Senate are almost completely dominated by drivers and people who are driven everywhere.

Under Johnson's proposal the State Legislature would have almost as much control as they do now, because under our constitution they are the only entity in the state with the power to tax. State laws also have the power to overrule city laws. Even if Johnson can persuade them to implement his plan, they can change it at any time.

To the extent the city government would have control, the City Council would have more power than this "BAT Board," because they have to pass the budget, and can pass certain laws constraining what the Mayor can do. The Council has gotten much better over just the past twelve years, thanks in part to Johnson's leadership, but as Streetsblog documented recently, they still cannot be counted on to reliably prioritize transit riders.

Today the MTA Board today is at worst a fig leaf covering the Governor's management and the Legislature's budget priorities, and at best an advisory panel. On top of that we have another panel, the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, which is appointed by elected officials based on patronage, and elects representatives to the MTA Board who have no voting rights. Johnson's proposal does not give this "BAT Board" the power to tax, so the real power would remain with the power brokers in the State Legislature.

Having the State Legislature or the City Council control the transit system would not actually be a problem if we had a truly representative system. Even the State Legislature is dominated by representatives of districts with heavy transit ridership. Unfortunately, the system is corrupt and favors elite homeowners who drive. They also subscribe to an ideology of driving as emancipation, and make deals to favor "upstate" that ignore the sizable population of current and potential transit riders outside of New York City.

The focus some advocates place on the non-representativeness of the MTA Board, in particular on the predominance of white men, winds up distracting us from the non-representativeness of the State Legislature, where some of the loudest opposition to transit funding and fair pricing for road use comes from nonwhite and female legislators like Charles Barron, Kevin Parker, Toby Stavisky and Deborah Glick. Last week when first term Senator Jessica Ramos said not only that she doesn't have a driver's license but that "car culture is something that we need to start rethinking as a society as a whole," that statement was notable for how unusual and brave it was.

So yes, we should transfer control of New York City Transit's subways and buses back to the City government. But no, we should not create a whole new authority to run them, or a "mobility czar" to oversee buses, trains, ferries, bridges and streets. We should just make them all part of the Department of Transportation. If we need to borrow money for them, we should use the City's bonding ability.

And no, we should not create a whole new board with no real power. If people want to transfer the New York City Transit Riders Council from the MTA to the city, fine. We don't need another one.

Similarly, if for some reason the City can't borrow enough money using its own bonds, I could see us setting up a temporary authority to issue bonds. Those of you who have read The Power Broker know that the authorities that issued bonds to build projects like the Manhattan Bridge were set up to dissolve once they paid off the bonds. The genius idea that allowed Bob Moses to wield power for decades without ever winning an election was to insert a clause in the law that created the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority allowing it to issue new bonds. Removing that unjustified power from the Transit Authority is an essential step in restoring democratic control to our subway system.

The bottom line: municipal control is a good idea, but a new authority is not the way to do it. It should be done by direct executive power. Representation is a good idea, but an unelected board is not the way to do it. It should be done through our elected representatives to the City Council and State Legislature.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Did the Atlantic Ticket accomplish anything?

In June the Long Island Railroad instituted an "Atlantic Ticket" for people traveling on weekdays between southeast Queens and stops along Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. This fits with the RER, S-Bahn and Overground strategies that have been used in European cities like London, Paris and Berlin going back to the late nineteenth century. Instead of treating suburban trains like a completely separate system from the subways (and buses) they are run through the city center, at comparable frequencies to the subway, with the same fares and free transfers. So how does the Atlantic Ticket do in getting us to this goal of using our trains more efficiently?

Of the four differences between subways and commuter trains, the Atlantic Ticket addresses the fare difference and the lack of free transfers. They are the easiest to see: a rush hour commuter who takes the LIRR and the subway pays $13 one way or $346 monthly for a 55-minute trip from Rosedale to Grand Central, compared to $2.75 or $121 for 30 days for a much more crowded ride on a local bus to a subway. Many people take dollar vans to the subway, which brings the cost up to $4.75 one-way or $241 for 30 days. Riding the x63 express bus takes an hour and a half, but you get a seat and it's less than the railroad: $5.50 one way or $238 for 28 days.

The Atlantic Ticket offers a fare close to the express bus: $7.75 for a single one-way from Rosedale to Grand Central and $240 for 28 days. However, it is only good for travel to (or through) Flatbush Avenue, which takes about an hour and ten minutes from Rosedale to Grand Central. This is still quicker than the express bus, but about twenty minutes longer than LIRR trips through Penn Station. Surprisingly to me, it's also longer than taking a bus to the subway.

Why would someone pay extra for a longer ride? Comfort is one reason: LIRR trains are rarely packed, so even if they don't get a seat on the train they would expect some elbow room. But there's still a packed subway ride from Flatbush Avenue to Manhattan. Is riding a less crowded train for half an hour worth paying $3-5 more, but not worth $10.25 more? Maybe.

Another potential advantage is reliability. The subways and LIRR trains run on dedicated, grade-separated tracks controlled by the MTA. The buses and vans all run on busy avenues filled with other commuters. One insensitive driver can hold up bus riders for several minutes.

There's no word yet on how many people have been buying these Atlantic Tickets, but given the mixed benefits I suspect the number is relatively small. The LIRR Board Book this month credited the US Open golf tournament and the Belmont Stakes for increases in ridership (roughly 2% over last year), but did not mention the Atlantic Ticket at all. In a future post I'll talk about the two other factors, a direct ride (or at least a ride that is comfortable end to end), and frequency.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

No, the subway is not in a death spiral

Recently I've appreciated Aaron Gordon's transit reporting in the Village Voice and elsewhere. I like his drive and his passion for justice, and I agree with him about almost everything. But there's one big thing he said recently that I just don't agree with. In fact, I'm concerned about it because I think it could demoralize other transit advocates and direct their energy away from where it's most needed.

Gordon thinks our transit system - specifically the New York City Subway - has entered the dreaded Transit Death Spiral. This is a familiar story from the mid to late twentieth century, if you've read any transit history. He describes it this way:

people, for whatever reason—but usually austerity measures, poor service, and/or service cuts—start opting for non-public modes of transit, lower transit ridership leads to less revenue and service cuts, service cuts lead to lower transit ridership and less revenue, etc. etc.

Gordon neglects another factor that has traditionally been blamed for lower ridership: fare increases. Otherwise it's a decent summary of the story as it's usually told. But is that the whole story? Actually, no, there's a lot missing. If we add that missing information we get a much more encouraging picture. There are still problems - lots - but it's easier to know what to do about them.

The first missing piece is our goals. We do not exist to support a healthy subway system. Transit is a tool: it moves us around so we can function in our economy. The subway is one of the safest, cleanest, most efficient ways to accomplish that, and it helps us to live close enough together to support healthy social relationships.

The second piece is that a transit system is always in competition with some other way to get around. People still need to get to work, to shopping, to visit friends, etc. Some of these, like the subway, are better for our goals; others, like private cars, are much worse. This is why we care which one people use.

If we go back and look at the historical examples that led people to coin the term "transit death spiral," they all involved overwhelming competition from alternatives with more funding, more capacity, more staying power and the ability to deliver a premium product. The only competition Gordon mentions is from for-hire vehicles like Uber, Lyft and taxis. These may have more funding and premium products, but their capacity and staying power are severely limited.

Uber, Lyft, Via, Chariot - they're all backed by truckloads of venture capital money. That's what allowed them to finance so many car and SUV purchases over the past decade. But the Penn Central and the Erie-Lackawanna were competing with thousands of lane-miles of roads and thousands of acres of parking just here in the New York area, plus billions of barrels of artificially cheap gas. The scales are not comparable in any way.

A large amount of this competition was funded directly by the federal and state governments, and indirectly by them through eminent domain takings. These subsidies brought the cost to the driver of a private car trip well below the actual cost, and to a point not much higher than the cost of a transit trip, especially after the cost of the car, garage driveway etc. were paid for. The subsidies provided tons of capacity, so that the highway and parking system could absorb large numbers of new drivers.

New York and other transit-rich cities have given way too much to drivers (like the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the FDR Drive), but we did have our "freeway revolts" - preventing the Lower Manhattan Expressway, the Golden Gate Freeway, he Mount Hood Freeway and others from being built through our neighborhoods. Other cities spent hundreds of millions of dollars to destroy their downtowns and scatter their jobs across the land. That too contributed to "transit death spirals" as Northern urbanites bought cars and fled to the glamour of California and the New South.

This subsidized capacity was also maintained by the government until a majority of travellers had invested in cars, car-dependent housing and car-dependent jobs, to the point where when they approached the capacity of the new system they didn't abandon it, they just demanded more subsidies. That in itself required a huge amount of money and political will.

The electronic hailing system has never had anything approaching the capacity dumped into the region's highways and parking lots in the mid-to-late twentieth century. It sits on top of that system, of course. But that system was almost at capacity when the first Uber started accepting rides, and there is not much new capacity. The widened Kosciuszko, Tappan Zee and Goethals bridges are not near the regional core, and they are destructive primarily because they will maintain existing capacity at enormous taxpayer cost. Southern and Western suburbs are collapsing under the cost of maintaining their humongous highway systems. Uber and Lyft can't dump any more cars onto the streets of Manhattan, because they won't fit.

Subsidized capacity can work both ways, another point that Gordon ignores. A big factor in the death spiral of the privately owned subway companies was the gargantuan city-operated Independent System built under Mayor Red Mike Hylan, a former BMT operator, with the explicit intention of driving the private companies to bankruptcy. More recently, when US auto manufacturing companies and sprawl financiers were in a death spiral, the federal government stepped in with billions of dollars.

A massive influx of federal dollars could help the MTA too. Nicole Gelinas recently reported that Standard and Poor's cut the authority's credit rating. This means that the share of the operating budget devoted to interest payments on the bonds they've issued will increase, leaving less available to run the subways. But what if the Fed bought the MTA debt? That would free up a ton of money to fix the signals and the tracks. Hell, if Andrew Cuomo kicked in as much in bank settlement cash for the MTA as he did for the Thruway Authority, we wouldn't be talking about any of this now.

Because the available capacity and funding for ride-hailing services were relatively limited, we're already reaching those limits. The cost of all ride-hailing services has gone up since UberX was introduced, in many cases by two or three times, and customers respond. When fares were artificially low (remember flat $5 Uber and Via trips in Manhattan?) and there were lots of promotions, I took them a lot more than I do now.

One thing I like about app hailing, in fact, is that it requires so little investment. If you already have a smartphone and a credit or debit card, you don't need to buy anything or move anywhere to use Lyft. You just open the app, find a car and pay. An app ride can pretty much be dropped in to replace a transit, bike or walking trip - and vice versa.

The lack of investment means that as soon as a transit provider gets its act together (for example, let's say New York City Transit removes all the unnecessary signal timers from the subways), people will come back. If it's fast, reliable and not too crowded you can't beat a ride across town for $2.75.

Actually, you can't beat a ride like this even if it costs five dollars, maybe seven. This is part of the classic story of the Transit Death Spiral. Gordon only talked about "austerity," but the fare is a factor. The typical cautionary tale is of the transit operator that raises fares too high, driving passengers away. But if raising prices were all it took to bankrupt a seller, we'd have no businesses left.

Often the problem has been that the fares are too low. A major factor in the demise of New York's two private subway operators was that for over 45 years they were prevented by law from raising their fares to cover rising costs, and the city government refused to raise the fare past a nickel until after both companies had gone bankrupt. This is not a concern for the MTA as long as the government is willing to make up the amount needed to cover costs. It was only after the IRT and BMT had been running massive operating deficits for years that they entered the spiral.

The MTA should raise fares, and this is one of the best times to do it. Anyone who uses a ride-hailing app can see how much cheaper the subway is, and we know how much faster it is than any other option - as long as it's not disrupted or the middle of the night. Again, it's a bargain at five dollars.

The big objection to raising the fares was that it placed an undue burden on poor people. That argument was addressed when the City Council passed the Fair Fares plan, which will offer Metrocards at half the current rates to New Yorkers with incomes below the poverty line. The MTA can now raise everyone else's fares while keeping Fair Fares at this level, and thus not hurt poor people!

Over and over again while writing this post, I've found myself tapping out words like "overwhelming, gargantuan, massive, huge, enormous, humongous, truckloads, tons, billions." I'm using these words to describe the government investment in private cars (and the Independent Subway) that threw competing transit providers into a death spiral. Even today's car infrastructure subsidies, like the Kosciuszko Bridge replacement, are not on the same scale. The venture capital investment in Uber, Lyft, Via and Chariot is definitely not on that scale.

That's not to say that the government and venture capitalists couldn't do some damage to transit ridership. As I wrote years ago, the new Kosciuszko span will make it quicker to travel by car (and Uber) between Brooklyn and Queens. It could poach riders from the G train, and even the Queens Boulevard trains to Manhattan.

Ben Kabak has also expressed that to him, "With the transit crisis, the congestion and the high cost of housing, along with opposition to development, the city feels on the verge of a breaking point." I understand why he feels that way. I'm also frustrated with the slow pace of transit expansion and the constant, know-nothing opposition to building transit or housing.

But we need to keep some perspective. This is frustrating and destructive, but it's really nothing compared to the massive, huge, enormous system of driving and parking constructed in the twentieth century to compete with transit. The government can do more damage, and probably will. But its ability to build something that overwhelming, gargantuan, humongous - twice in a hundred years - is limited.

I won't say for sure that it'll never happen. But I have hope. Oil and natural gas are still getting harder and harder to extract from the ground. Young people have realized that suburbs and small towns are stifling, even when they're run by hippies and punks. I think we'll get out of this.

I still like Aaron Gordon's writing. I'm going to take his historical insights with a grain of salt from now on. Bit I'm going to keep reading it and following him on Twitter, and I encourage you all to do the same.