Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Better transit on the hundred foot avenues


We’ve got them all over New York City: avenues that are a hundred feet wide from property line to property line. Some of them are dangerous speedways like Gun Hill Road in the Bronx, and some are congested urban business corridors like Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill. Some run through transit deserts like Little Neck Parkway, while others have four-track subways and multiple bus lines like Seventh Avenue in Manhattan.

I wish I could point to a single one of these and say that its configuration is ideal for our goals, but even Seventh Avenue has many shortcomings That said, some of these avenues are clearly better than others for local transit, some are better than others for long-distance transit, and some are better than others for pedestrian comfort and convenience.

I’ve realized that these avenues work as interesting case studies for how terrain, politics, land use and function interact to produce environments that are better or worse for transit and walking. Transit and pedestrian improvements can be independent, or they can complement each other. Running transit underground, as on Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn, or elevating it, as on Brighton Beach Avenue, is great for transit speed, frequency and reliability, but it’s no guarantee of a safe and comfortable pedestrian environment. Rezoning to allow and encourage shops and residences right next to the sidewalk can also improve conditions for pedestrians.

I’ve talked a lot about subways and els already. You know I’m in favor of them. But while we’re fighting for grade-separated rapid transit - or even if we have it - we still need to talk about surface transit. Surface transit is great for short, local trips, especially for people with mobility impairments, and reallocating street space from mixed traffic to transit, pedestrians or even parking can improve conditions for walking.

I’m planning a series of posts that explore some of these hundred foot avenues and evaluate particular strategies for their effectiveness in promoting transit or walking, or both. Stay tuned!

Friday, January 27, 2017

Do we need the Port Authority Bus Terminal?

In 2015 I talked about the proposal to build a new bus terminal in downtown Flushing, and came up with the following list of six features. The current Port Authority terminal on 41st Street provides some of these some of the time:
  1. One-stop shopping for buses.
  2. Easy transfer between buses, and from buses to trains.
  3. Short-term bus layovers.
  4. Long-term bus layovers.
  5. Avoiding street congestion. There are ramps for the upper level, and an outbound tunnel under Ninth Avenue. This leaves many buses stuck in traffic, particularly those heading north and east.
  6. Ticketing, shelter, bathrooms, food and shopping for people waiting for buses.

Any transit system is easier and more attractive with one-stop shopping, short-term bus layovers and easy transfers. But long-term bus layovers, avoiding congestion and passenger facilities are more important for long distance trips than short ones.

If I’m taking the bus to Binghamton, I might have to wait an hour or more, so it’s really important for me to have shelter, bathrooms, tickets and food. (It would be nice to have seating and a place to store my bag, but that’s a whole other post.)

Cheaper services with higher frequency, like the New Jersey Transit 166 bus, don’t need a terminal, any more than the M5 does. Of course we all need safe places to pee and grab a snack, but people waiting fifteen minutes for a half hour New Jersey Transit bus ride don’t have any more need than people waiting fifteen minutes for a half hour New York City Transit bus ride.

All movement is quicker if you don’t have a lot of people or vehicles in your way. But for someone who’s getting off right on the other end of the Lincoln Tunnel, going up three flights of stairs cuts out most of that time savings. Trips with more than a mile between stops benefit more from grade separation, because they have the time for a bus to get up to speed.

As I pointed out in my post on the proposed Flushing bus terminal, there are actually advantages to having buses pick up and drop off on the street. It allows for through-running, so that passengers whose destination is beyond the terminus can just stay on the bus, which then heads out to a layover point in a less congested area. Street pickups can also make transfers more efficient and robust by spreading them out across multiple stops.

Street-level transfers are better for the local economy. Bathrooms and shelter are public goods that need to be provided by the government, but food and shopping? That’s what downtown streets are for, in a very real sense. In Flushing the streets do an excellent job of providing snacks, drinks and banking for bus and train passengers. A government-owned building filled with corporate concessions is necessarily less dynamic and less friendly to small businesses.

The Port Authority Bus Terminal in Midtown provides all these services for long-distance bus lines like Greyhound, Peter Pan and Adirondack Trailways, but it claims to have no room for other long-distance carriers like Megabus, Fung Wah, Vamoose and Hampton Jitney. Some of these companies claim they save passengers money by not paying gate fees to the Port Authority, which is another way of saying that the City doesn’t charge enough for what is essentially a rental of valuable commercial real estate.

Other bus companies say that they offer more convenient pickups in Chinatown and the Upper East Side. But that just begs the question: if bus terminals are so great, why we don’t have them for every direction that buses go? Someone decided it was better to have apartment buildings at the mouth of the Midtown Tunnel, and office buildings near the Holland Tunnel. Were they wrong?

The other claim, that there is no room in the Port Authority terminal for Bolt and LimoLiner, is also questionable. Why do Red and Tan, Academy and Suburban load all their buses in the terminal, when most of them leave frequently for short runs? Why is New Jersey Transit, a government-owned provider of short-haul services, the biggest carrier in the terminal?

Imagine if New Jersey Transit shifted just half of their bus pickups to the street. First of all, I’ve been told that there are more jobs in East Midtown than near the Port Authority. Some of the buses could pick people up and drop them off closer to their jobs. Second, the buses could provide transfers to other trains beside the Seventh and Eighth Avenue, Broadway and 41st Street lines. That would all take a load off the E, 7 and Shuttle trains.

Moving some local NJ Transit buses to the street would free up space in the terminal. I’ve heard that the tight schedules are a source of delays, so just having more wiggle room would improve reliability on the remaining routes. This would still leave room to bring in some long distance services off the street. If it turns out we still need room for long distance services, we can move more NJ Transit buses to the street, as well as some of the shorter, more frequent runs by private carriers.

Some people might complain that the buses would just get stuck in Midtown traffic. This is why it is essential to give them, and the jitney vans, full access to the dedicated bus lanes on 34th, 42nd and 57th Streets, and to make those lanes real busways instead of the half-assed arrangement we’ve had since the DOT botched the process on 34th Street. It would also help to make them true through-running routes, going through the Midtown Tunnel or over the Queensboro Bridge.

You may have heard that the Port Authority board has declared its bus terminal to be at the end of its life, and said that it wants to use eminent domain to acquire a new property somewhere west of the current terminal, build a new terminal there at a cost of billions of dollars, and sell the current terminal to developers. The main thing wrong with this is that it would be horrible for subway transfers.

It’s bad enough to have a terminal where only the east end touches Eighth Avenue, meaning that some passengers have to walk more than two avenue blocks to get to their trains. The Port Authority Board wants to add at least another full avenue block. From what I’ve heard, most of these people have chauffeurs and all of them have free parking, and they’re baby boomers who equate driving with success, so none of them ever make this transfer.

Stephen Smith has argued that any amount in the billions should be spent building enough train tunnels under the Hudson to accommodate all the bus passengers, so that bus transfers can be made in New Jersey, and the terminal can be torn down and not replaced.

I agree with Stephen’s vision as the ultimate goal, but in the medium term there will be short trips that are best made by bus through the Lincoln Tunnel, and those trips should have access to our streets for pickup and dropoff. There will also be long distance bus trips that will be more convenient if they connect to the subway than to a commuter train, and we should have a terminal for them in Manhattan.

The good news is that a terminal serving a few long-distance routes can be much smaller than the current one. It could fit on the site of the South Wing of the current terminal, and probably doesn’t need as many levels - or the parking garage. If that wing really needs to be rebuilt, some of the buses could be relocated temporarily to the lower level of the North Wing - or the Farley Post Office.

The bottom line is that we don’t need a huge bus terminal if we have trains. If we want to spend billions improving our transit system, rail is a much more efficient, sustainable and wise place to spend it.

Friday, December 16, 2016

What if the MTA is interested in bringing back the trains?

I’ve always opposed the proposal to convert the Rockaway Beach Branch of the Long Island Railroad into a bike trail, because I think the land is too valuable as a rapid transit corridor to use for anything else. Trail advocates protest that they too are in favor of transit, and they wish we could bring transit back to the corridor, but gee, sadly the MTA is just not interested.


Not only was the MTA not interested, according to the trail pushers, but it was a waste of time to get them interested. Nobody in the area wants a train. The selfish NIMBYs would block any attempt by the MTA to rebuild the rails, and the parents whose kids use the ballfields “on” (actually near) the line would howl. The line will never be reactivated. But the NIMBYs wouldn’t oppose a park!

A few times they almost had me convinced. Against the power that has now arisen there is no victory, they whispered. Why not make the best of it? Have a nice rail trail. It'll close at dark, but in the wintertime we'll try to keep it open "slightly later" in case you're trying to ride home from work. You like the South County Trailway, don’t you? It’s not so bad!

So here it is a few years later, and it turns out that a lot of the NIMBYs have opposed a park. There are people in the area who are in favor of bringing the trains back. And the MTA is doing a study of reactivating train service! The bike trail advocates (who were really transit advocates that had given up hope, you remember) must be overjoyed!

Turns out that - surprise! - the bike trail advocates, now paid by the Governor and park-oriented nonprofits, are against reactivating the rails, and they’re repeating all the NIMBY arguments. The most bizarre one I’ve seen is that the noise of passing trains would distract students at three schools at the Metropolitan Avenue Campus. This is complete nonsense: my kid went to school for six years across the street from the noisy 7 train el and doesn’t remember ever being distracted by it, and the Rockaway Branch would have brand-new rails on an embankment. But as LLQBTT pointed out on Twitter, the presence of these schools is actually a point in favor of reactivating train service. Wouldn’t an Expeditionary Learning School be much better if the Expeditions could be taken by train? Wouldn’t it be better if kids could take the train to Little league practices instead of being driven by their parents?

The bike path advocates are also making up new, ostensibly pro-transit, arguments that don’t make sense to anyone who actually does transit advocacy. How many riders would we really expect to take the new Rockaway Beach Branch train to Kennedy Airport instead of the AirTrain, and why do we care? They indulge and amplify the fears of a handful of Rockaway residents that Rockaway Branch trains would “end the A train.” And if they believe that it would “cause slowing of trains” on the LIRR main line, why not support finishing the partly-built connection to the Queens Boulevard subway, as described by Capt. Subway?

The worst of all the arguments against bringing back the trains a legal one: that a section of the right-of-way was transferred to Forest Park, and that restoring the trains would constitute “alienation of parkland.” This is absolute hogwash. New York City parks are criss-crossed with transportation corridors, some of which are genuinely oppressive, destructive and deadly, and the City has not to my knowledge raised any legal objections. The Jackie Robinson Parkway - its name an insult to the athlete - has a much bigger negative impact on Forest Park than the Rockaway Beach Branch ever will. It would actually make a great busway and bike path, opening up the park to residents of some of the poorest Brooklyn neighborhoods, but the Trust for Public Land has shown no interest in it.

More than anything else, these statements by the bike trail advocates have given proof to my hunch that they are not in favor of transit, that they think a bike path is more important than anything, and that they are willing to lie through their teeth in order to get one.

Monday, December 5, 2016

We still need more car-free weekenders

Some years ago, I wound up arguing about congestion pricing in my local cafe with a woman I’d never met before. I said that as someone who didn’t own a car I didn’t want to pay to maintain infrastructure for people who did. She responded with the usual, “Well, some of us have to have cars,” and then put a new spin on it. “I need one to get to my farm upstate.”


She clearly felt she had won the argument with that one, and I let her think that, because it was clear there was no getting through to her that evening. I grew up surrounded by farms, summer houses and weekend houses, and I can tell the difference between them. If you’re spending Sunday night in your apartment in Sunnyside, either you have a weekend house with a garden, or you own a farm but you’re paying other people to milk the cows and collect the eggs. Either way, you can leave your poseur pickup truck at the New Paltz park-and ride, and you are not entitled to my tax money subsidizing a free ride for you across the Queensboro Bridge.

Since then I’ve had similar encounters with other people, and read about many more, where someone who identified as a city resident argued in favor of maintaining free bridges, free parking, wide streets or minimum parking requirements, or opposing bus lanes or bike lanes, because they also identified as a driver. This person usually complained about owning a car in the city, either having to pay for parking or to move their car twice a week for alternate side sweeping. It seemed like they hated everything about car ownership.

The people in question didn’t use the car to commute to work, and rarely used it for shopping or to go out at night. So why did they have a car? To go to their country house (or sometimes “farm”) in the Catskills, in Vermont, in Connecticut. Sometimes they didn’t even own a country house, and just used the car to drive to short-term rentals or hotels.

It made me wonder, what if they didn’t need a car to have a weekend away from the city? What if, like me and my family, they took trains and buses to get to hotels? They could even own a house in a small town, walking distance from a bus stop or a train station.

I wrote about this back in 2009, and Alon thought we should concentrate our attention instead on getting suburbanites to move to the city. We see how well that worked out! But the reason I think it would be effective to provide more alternatives for car-free weekends is not based on absolute numbers. It’s based on the fact that so many people who are obstacles in the fight for safe streets, efficient movement, reducing pollution, bringing us closer together and providing access for everyone are people who own cars primarily to get to their country houses and weekend hotels.

If we can give those people an alternative to parking their cars in Manhattan, would they stop identifying as drivers and be more supportive of transit and walking? We can’t know until we try it. And as Bruce pointed out in the comments to my old post, the worst is that we can make it easier for a bunch of non-drivers to have a relaxing weekend away from the city. I’ll talk about some specific idea in future posts.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Is it worth the parking?

Joe Cortright had a nice piece recently where he showed that 83% of the amount of driving in cities can be explained by the cost of parking (and possibly other factors that are correlated with it). I’ve made similar connections between the lack of free parking and the “density” that so many urbanists credit with high transit use.


Was all this nasty parking worth ... whatever they did to the Montclair Terminal?

It’s hard to figure out causation amid several correlations. Cheap parking is also a proxy for the political strength of the motorist community in a city. How much driving is actually encouraged by the cheap parking, and how much is encouraged by free, wide roads or transit subsidy cuts demanded by those drivers?

It might be possible to disentangle these factors eventually, but it seems likely that we’ll find that cheap parking is directly responsible for at least some driving. There are several implications of this:

First, anyone who’s fighting any of the negative externalities of car use should spend some of their time fighting cheap parking. That means people fighting against pollution, carnage, resource depletion and economic insolvency.

Second, there are some people who see cheap parking as a social justice issue, viewing it through the narrow lens of poor drivers vs. rich drivers, ignoring poor non-drivers. Others see it as an economic development issue, ignoring the economic costs of cheap parking. We need to find ways to present that broader picture for these advocates in hope of bringing them over to our side of this issue.

There are several ways to fight cheap parking. The most straightforward ones are simply to institute pricing on existing free parking and raise prices on cheap parking. That means parking meters, gates on lots and garages, and permit systems. Some cities may be tempted to outsource this to a private corporation, the way Chicago did, but advocates seem to agree that this has been a disaster.

Parking prices, like most prices, are influenced by supply and demand. Another tactic is to fight the expansion of parking supply. Minimum parking requirements, subsidized government parking, zoning variances and zoning and tax policies that make it unprofitable to build anything but parking lots: all these are points where advocates can push back on parking.

Among the most important places we can have an impact, though, are projects that we support. I’ve written before about how dense housing, transit, and even bicycle and pedestrian projects are often built with obscene amounts of parking.

There are several projects that I’ve been tempted to support because they would provide alternatives to driving. But I’ve kept my mouth shut, or even argued against the projects in their current form, because they include too much parking. I’ve concluded that we would be better off without a Tappan Zee Bridge bike path, or an expansion of Metro-North to Rhinecliff, or a housing complex on a deck over the Sunnyside Yards, than with those projects and the parking that people want to build with them.

I hope you’ll do the same. If something comes along that you think would be really good, but it includes lots of parking, please ask yourselves, "Would this be worth all the parking?" And then act on that.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Who will save New York City from #SaveNYC?

A lot of people are alarmed by the language Donald Trump, with its emphasis on “taking back our country” and “making America great again.” They evoke the phrases used by ugly, repressive movements throughout history: They have taken over our land and ruined it. We must defeat them and take it back.


Brian Lehrer recently had a great interview with Mark Lilla, a Columbia humanist who’s just written a book on reactionary thinking. Lilla observed that reactionary movements thrive on words like “once” and “again,” evoking past golden ages that were often entirely fictional (Lilla gives the example of Hungarian fascists who imagine a time when their boundaries contained no Jews or Roma) and promising to make them reality in the future.

As I was writing this, I was struck by the realization that these reactionary movements never succeed in bringing about the golden ages they promise. Instead, at best they establish an isolated decline, and at worst they unleash horrific mass murders.

Anyone who knows Trump’s history of racial provocation has not been surprised that his comments appeal to reaction as well. But I’ve been just as disturbed by the rhetoric used by some around recent migrations and developments in cities.

When Andrew Cuomo created a nonprofit organization called “The Committee to Save New York” back in 2011 to provide superficially independent advocacy for his initiatives, it struck me as the messianic delusions of an egomaniac with real power. But Jeremiah Moss’s “SaveNYC” campaign - an outgrowth of his “Vanishing New York” blog, feels like a totally different kind of threat. It feels reactionary.

In his blog Moss bemoans, in inflammatory terms, the loss of small businesses, institutions and landmarks, and the opening of chain stores and trendy spots. If you read it regularly - or if, like Moss, you read the news and walk the streets with an eye for these events - the cumulative weight of all those closings definitely brings a feeling of impending doom. How long before Manhattan looks like the Westchester Galleria?

I have no reason to doubt the individual facts that Moss cites: businesses closing, buildings demolished, chain stores expanding and yes, corruption and inequality. But as with Trump or the other cases Lilla cites, it’s not at all clear that the past was any better, or that the reactions championed by Moss will make the future like the past, or any better at all.

Anyone who knows the history of New York - or human history for that matter - knows that businesses have been closing and buildings being demolished since forever. Many of the beloved businesses bemoaned by Moss and his fans were once the crass new businesses and buildings, taking the place of earlier beloved authentic community businesses and historic buildings, and maybe even longterm residents.

Even chain stores have been in New York for longer than any of the businesses mentioned by Moss. Sure, the chains keep expanding - until they stop. Queens is full of buildings that used to hold Child’ses and Woolworths. They didn’t ruin the city, and neither did Chock Full O’Nuts or Horn and Hardart. Remember when it seemed like Krispy Kreme and Blimpie were going to take over the city?

I’ve never seen any quantitative data to show that the numbers of quirky independent storefronts, soulless corporate chain stores, venerable community institutions, ridiculous hipster playplaces, or beloved family businesses have changed significantly over the years. I also haven’t seen data on the rates at which businesses are opening and closing, and buildings are being demolished.

I suspect that if we had any, it would show that the relative numbers of various kinds of businesses have remained relatively constant over the years, with individual businesses simply moving from despised new invader to community institution over time. I would also guess that the rates of change have been roughly cyclical, without a dramatic increase in turnover in the long term. In other words, what we see here looks less like a response to actual trends and more like the recency effect in action.

Moss also concentrates exclusively on businesses that he sees as providing some unique value. In the Vanishing New York there are no corrupt restaurants, discriminatory boutiques, derivative bodegas or ugly buildings. Nobody goes out of business because they mismanage their finances, provide bad service or sell crappy stuff. Everything must be saved. Nothing must go.

So far this is a simple difference of facts and policy. I think that Moss and his followers are misguided and disagree with their vision of New York. They reciprocate. We each try to convince people to go with our side.

What I find disturbing is when the rhetoric goes beyond factual disagreements into the inflammatory. If we take Moss’s claim that “the soul of New York City is getting murdered” at all seriously, it can only be seen as a call to action. These are drastic times, he is telling us. And drastic times require what?

Similarly, reasonable people can disagree about whether the “Small Business Jobs Survival Act” would actually help any small businesses and their jobs survive (and whether that would actually lead to better lives for people overall). But when the rhetoric goes beyond policy recommendations into scapegoating, that’s not just disturbing but alarming.

Moss has ratcheted up the rhetoric: the hashtag for his SBJSA campaign is #takebackNYC. Who do they want to #takebackNYC from? The claim is that it’s the corrupt real estate developers. I’m not dismissing the undemocratic influence of these business people, but even if there is too much turnover in retail Moss has not made a convincing case that the real estate developers are behind it, or that this bill would do anything to improve the situation.

I’m not really worried for the developers; they can take care of themselves. I’m worried that the idea of “taking back NYC” will spread beyond them. I’ve already covered how the term “gentrification” in general, and Moss’s movement in particular, turn migrants (who often themselves have been displaced by rising rents in other neighborhoods) into the Other, and scapegoat them as the agents of displacement.

One thing I’ve noticed about angry people in political movements is that if they get blocked by opponents who are more powerful, they will often turn their anger on targets that they have a chance of defeating. Thus bus advocates will attack train advocates before they try to defeat road advocates. Pedestrians will attack cyclists instead of drivers. And similarly, I fear that the “take back NYC” crowd will find themselves unable to defeat the corrupt developers and will turn first on the non-corrupt developers, and then on people moving in to the developments.

Think about that the next time you read one of Moss’s jeremiads. When the people he stirs up find themselves unable to Save NYC, or Take Back NYC, what are they going to do? Who are they going to try to take back NYC from?

Saturday, October 1, 2016

When ridership doesn't matter

In the past couple of years I’ve noticed something that would be baffling in a lot of contexts, and is still kind of hard to believe when you see it. It’s called a pass-up, and it’s when a transit vehicle is so full that it can’t fit any more people, and leaves riders standing on the platform or the curb.


It’s bad enough when there really is another bus coming along in a minute. It’s bad enough when the city doesn’t have enough track capacity or enough train cars to move all the people who want to ride. But what I’m really talking about is when you can’t get on a bus and there isn’t another bus for ten minutes or more, or when one bus or train after another is uncomfortably packed.

It’s possible that the MTA, with its heavy debt service burden and its large employee benefit obligations, is incapable of bringing in a profit on any route at any time, no matter how many people ride it, so that it never helps the bottom line to add buses. But that would be a very different story than they told in 2010 when they cut service.

If you asked some of the people waiting for the M60 how they feel about the prospect of a fare increase, they would probably complain and tell you they couldn’t afford it. But if you asked them whether they’d pay fifty cents more to get a seat on the bus, or to just ensure there would be room for them on the next bus that came, they might say yes.

On the face of it, it makes no sense. These are paying customers; why wouldn’t the agency want their money?

We know it usually works in the other direction: transit providers don’t get enough riders, so they raise fares and cut back service, which drives away some of the remaining riders, in what is known as the Transit Death Spiral. We’ve put measures in place to protect transit systems from that. The problem is that those measures also remove most of the incentives for actually serving passengers.

The Transit Death Spiral is in fact a perfectly normal outcome for anyone who is selling something but is unable to compete. They sell less and less, and with less income they are unable to maintain the quality of their product. Customers give their money to the competitor, who can use it to improve the competing product.

Transit advocates knew there was a public interest in keeping transit around, so they got the government to subsidize it. But the reason transit was losing market share was that the government was subsidizing competing roads. There was a powerful popular consensus in favor of gas, roads and parking, and a popular distrust of railroad companies and “the traction interests.” There were also powerful undemocratic forces attacking transit, like Bob Moses, car companies and road lobbyists.

Transit advocates tried to promote an “all of the above” strategy, but rarely achieved “parity,” let alone more than 20%. They then largely fell back on charity arguments, which are inherently self-limiting because they implicitly accept the idea that nobody would take a bus or train unless they can’t afford to drive.

Then came transit advocates’ deal with the devil, the mistake that we’re still paying for today. After failing in both market competition and popular subsidies, transit advocates tried to beat road lobbyists at their undemocratic, competition-stifling game. They turned to public authorities.

Even today you see transit advocates arguing with a straight face that they can’t improve transit without a regional authority. Public authorities are the tools that Moses used to achieve power without a popular mandate. They allow elected officials to maintain a degree of control, but give the appearance of independence, protecting transit bureaucrats from all accountability to the voters or the market.

The result of this is that now, when there are plenty of passengers, the transit managers seem to have no interest in increasing frequency to serve the people who want to ride. What’s in it for them? They don’t get punished for leaving money on the table, and politicians don’t complain about crowded buses.

There are people who want to serve those people and take their money. But the city blocks them, and self-righteous bloggers spew bombast about “privatization” and “stratified transportation systems.” The state could serve them well, but the governor finds more political value in spending city money to build roads in the suburbs and the country. And on this the social justice advocates are silent.