Tuesday, June 18, 2024

The symbolism of congestion pricing

Congestion pricing readers on the FDR Drive at 60th Street

Since Governor Hochul announced her "indefinite pause" on congestion pricing on June 7, I've been one of several people who pointed out that it would have improved almost everyone's lives. The people who currently walk, bike or ride transit would have a lot less cars to deal with, and a lot more funding for the transportation modes they use. The people who would pay the toll would spend a lot less time stuck in traffic than they do now. The people who wouldn't pay the toll would have a better commute by transit than their crappy current driving commute. And people who don't commute would benefit from cleaner air, less noise, less carnage and less wasted space.

So it's kind of puzzling why there's a group of people who really hate the idea of congestion pricing. And they're not all just upset about losing their discounted trip at taxpayer expense. Some of them are intensely, viscerally offended by the very idea, and desperate to stop it at almost any cost.

The people who are intensely offended are completely immune to reason on this. You and I may know that their business would save money by not having its workers stuck in traffic. We may know that the subway is way less violent than the highways. We may know that everyone's long term prosperity will be much greater if we're not wasting money, space and fossil fuels transporting three-ton easy chairs around with every individual. But they won't hear it.

They are intensely offended by the idea that they should pay extra every time they want to bring a large, heavy piece of machinery with them into Manhattan, just as they are offended by the idea that they should pay to leave that vehicle on the street overnight, that they should not be allowed to leave the vehicle in the middle of the street blocking a bus, or on the sidewalk, that sometimes a bus full of people or a person on a bicycle might be moving faster than them.

Why are they so offended? Because they were taught for years that cars are a mechanism for prosperity. Not only that by buying a car they raised themselves up in the social hierarchy, but that our government, and in fact all of our society, is aimed at helping them to prosper through their cars.

For these drivers, the government raises them up through free parking, or at least cheap parking. Powerful government figures give them free parking on holidays, free parking on residential streets, in the suburbs, at their country houses. These patrons do what they can to keep the tolls cheap, gas prices cheap, and parking cheap when it isn't free. They provide parking placards to hardworking civil servants and to people who do favors for them. And they look the other way when drivers double park, park on the sidewalk, go faster than the speed limit, and maybe even kill somebody once in a while. Because these drivers were just trying to take care of themselves and their families.

This free parking, cheap parking, cheap gas, cheap tolls, free sidewalk parking, and the occasional free killing are all aimed at lifting people up. Not lifting everyone up, but just the people who deserve it. And they know who deserves it because those people have bought into the system by buying a car and busting their asses to make the car payments, insurance payments, repair bills, gas, tolls, tickets.

Of course that's all bullshit. Of all the possible ways you could lift people up and generate prosperity, subsidizing driving is one of the most dangerous and destructive, and in a lot of ways it's just fucking mean. The fact that someone owns a car doesn't make them any more deserving of anything. The way cars enable people to bully other people is hugely problematic. See the entire rest of this blog for details.

And this is why a certain group of people is so deeply offended by congestion pricing. It calls them on this bullshit. Like bus lanes, bike lanes, open streets and pedestrian plazas, congestion pricing says that there is nothing about owning and using a car that makes a person any more deserving; in fact, they're causing damage, destruction and death everywhere they pilot the thing. And so many of them have built their lives around owning a car as their ticket to prosperity.

Congestion pricing offends drivers the same way that tearing down Confederate statues offends my cousins in Texas. The same way that providing decent housing and food for people who just got here from South America offends some people.vCongestion pricing is an official recognition by the government of the State of New York that driving is an antisocial activity. And that's why it would be such a victory for humanity, decency and compassion if it happens, and such a setback if it doesn't.

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Long Distance Jitneys to Pennsylvania

It's another guest post from long time reader George K!

Jitneys in the NY/NJ area are known for serving areas paralleling local bus routes. However, there are only a few limited examples (such as the Chinatown jitneys) that operate with no anchor.

What I found is that the NY-Pennsylvania market has a sizable amount of long-distance buses that operate on a semi-jitney model with no official anchor. They do have approximate departure times, and their schedules are set up to minimize the amount of deadheading (so trips usually leave from the outer end in Pennsylvania starting early in the morning until the early evening, and then leave from the NY terminal 3-4 hours later...there's usually no peak-only trips, since that requires purchasing a whole extra bus and not fully utilizing it throughout the day). Headway vary from every 1-3 hours, with most companies choosing a bihourly headway.

On the outer end of the route, the jitneys typically offer door-to-door service. For example, the jitneys out to the Poconos stop at predetermined locations off I-80 (e.g. gas stations or restaurants) ...all of them have a Paterson stop (taking advantage of the fact that I-80 runs through the city), and most have one or more stops in Stroudsburg. On the outer end, the companies offer door-to-door service to either Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, or Hazleton (Interesting enough, no single company served all three cities). They also included the immediate suburbs of those cities in their door-to-door service area. The benefit of course is comfort and convenience for the passenger in not having to worry about taking a connecting bus to reach the main intercity station in the Downtown neighborhood of these respective cities, but it comes at the expense of reliability to a certain extent, since the distribution of riders who want a particular trip might not necessarily line up with the quickest route to the highway.

For the routes to Lehigh Valley and Reading, they all have a stop at Newark Airport, which makes sense given its proximity to I-78. Most also have a stop in Union City. Surprisingly enough, none of the Reading companies stop in Allentown, despite its proximity to I-78. (The closest thing to a direct connection between those two cities is OurBus, which runs once a day and only stops at the Wescosville Park & Ride).

Interestingly enough, one of those companies (Caribe Tour Express Transportation) also operates from Reading to Philadelphia, with 4 round-trips per day. (Those trips start earlier and end later than the Amtrak Thruway Express service which is contracted out to Krapf Coaches). It would be a mutual benefit to both Amtrak and Caribe Express if those trips were able to be thru-ticketed with Amtrak trains, hopefully leading to a virtuous cycle of service being expanded on the corridor. (For the door-to-door service in Reading, they might want to consider taking the most direct route to/from the BARTA Transportation Center, and then performing the door-to-door service for any remaining passengers.)

To elaborate on the concept that these jitneys operate with no anchor, the Poconos jitneys serve Washington Heights and Paterson, which are far enough from Midtown Manhattan (where most of the intercity buses operate) that in the event of an issue with their preferred jitney, most people would likely look around for another jitney company rather than backtrack all the way to Midtown for an intercity bus. For Scranton, Stroudsburg, and Wilkes-Barre, the individual jitney companies roughly match the frequency of the Martz Trailways buses, and there's multiple jitney companies, so the total number of vehicles moving towards your destination is much greater in Washington Heights or Paterson compared to Midtown Manhattan. For Hazleton in particular, there's one single round-trip to NYC on Fullington Trailways, and it's basically a reverse-peak trip, so that's serving a completely different market than the jitney companies. It is the same situation for reading, with its one single round-trip to/from NYC on OurBus/Klein Transportation (which also doesn't stop in Union City like the jitneys do).

TransBridge and the Lehigh Valley jitneys are arguably the closest example of an anchor/jitney cascade relationship (simply because TransBridge and the jitneys share a stop at Newark Airport...though the frequency to any given point in Lehigh Valley isn't much better than any individual jitney company). But again, TransBridge doesn't serve Union City, and doesn't serve Upper Manhattan, Fort Lee, Paterson, or Irvington, so it is still for all intents and purposes an independent market.

This service opens up a significant amount of opportunities for both commuters and leisure travelers. The flat-rate pricing makes it appealing for budget-conscious travelers (with the risk that the jitney might be sold-out at the last minute, though that is of course a concern even for variable-rate pricing models). Some of the companies add a few extra trips at times when it is expected to be busy (holiday weekends, or weekends in general).

Better-publicizing these services can tap into the market of people who are looking for leisure destinations that don't necessarily require a car rental. For example, a hiker can take a jitney to Stroudsburg, take the Monroe County Transit Authority River Runner up the Delaware River and go for a hike. (Unfortunately, the hours of the River Runner are limited, and it only runs on Saturdays, though I believe it runs on Sundays if it's a 3-day weekend, since it's designed for people who want to canoe down the Delaware River and camp overnight ...they leave their car at Kittatiny Vistor's Center or Delaware River Water Gap Park & Ride, put the canoe on the trailer at the back of the bus, take the bus up north, and then canoe down the river). There's definitely room for improvement on the shuttle (an extension from Milford Beach to Port Jervis to connect with Metro-North would be nice, as well as having the midday trips run the extra mile to the Martz Bus Terminal instead of just the park-and-ride, as well as service that runs past 3:05pm from Milford Beach), but of course that would require additional resources. (Right now, they use 3 buses for the operation. Those expansions would likely require them to add a fourth bus...which they should probably do anyway, since the bus route is actually fairly popular with park visitors, and loading and unloading the canoes often causes buses to run behind schedule ...last year, Raymondskill Falls was restricted to shuttle passengers only). With all that in mind, I think it would definitely be a wise investment.

When gauging demand for intercity service, Amtrak would definitely be wise to look not just at traffic patterns and ridership on established intercity companies (e.g. Greyhound, FlixBus, Martz Trailways, etc), but also ridership on these smaller services. If Stroudsburg - Upper Manhattan is able to sustain 8 small companies who depend on social media and word-of-mouth for advertising, then it seems reasonable that the Amtrak service proposed up to Scranton should be considered for a better frequency than 3 round-trips per day. (Granted, it's possible NJ Transit might decide to supplement it with a few of their own trips in an arrangement similar to the Hartford Line, but in that case, they should be paying attention to this demand as well). The markets don't necessarily overlap 100% (I'm sure the Paterson riders and even a lot of the Upper Manhattan riders will likely stick with the jitneys even if Amtrak service is available), but I suspect that the latent demand is much higher than what's being projected.

Monday, May 27, 2024

Making all the polluters pay

The Midtown Manhattan skyline through the haze of wildfire smoke

Some climate advocates have adopted a strategy that they call "Making Polluters Pay." They argue that most carbon pollution is caused by a handful of large corporations, which means individual actions are a waste of time, and we should focus our efforts on various laws that would charge those corporations for pollution. Broadly speaking, I think this is a misguided, dishonest and ineffective strategy. There are many actions that individuals can and should change, and those changes should be a major focus of our climate activism.

I've written a bunch about "Making Polluters Pay" on Twitter and Mastodon, and I've wanted to write a blog post about it for years, but it's a difficult topic. Different advocates have slightly different versions of this argument, blaming different corporate polluters, criticizing different individual actions and advocating different legal measures. Some of the arguments are based on plain misrepresentation of the facts. Some are based on facts, but the facts don't support the conclusions. Some are valid arguments, but the measures they advocate would not be enough to keep us safe from climate change. And I want to be careful about how I criticize the advocates, who generally seem to have their hearts in the right places.

I'm going to start by simply saying that some of the observations are completely true. There are people who are selfish, dishonest and corrupt, and happy to lie, to abuse others and to destroy public resources to increase their own wealth and power. We have structures that grant phenomenal power to people in certain positions, limit their accountability and pass the costs on to less powerful people and to the taxpayers. We also have structures that make less powerful individuals complicit in the abuse, by limiting their awareness of it, helping them to deny it, and making them dependent on it.

A prime example of this is the way that wealthy capitalists have ordered their employees to burn fossil fuels, sold carbon-intensive products to the public, lied to them about the environmental impact of carbon pollution, and misled them about our ability to mitigate the damage through recycling and cleanup measures. If the handful of corporate owners and managers were the only ones at fault, the remedy would be simple: hold them responsible - with fines, restrictions, prison time, whatever it takes. Take them out, and let all the good people of the world rebuild a safe, loving society.

Of course, it's not just the petroleum, plastics and fertilizer industries: wealthy capitalists have similarly created industries in cement, beef, cars, shipping and air travel that pollute massively, while divesting from more sustainable industries like rail freight and transit. And all these industries are connected. Now how many fines and restrictions are we talking about? How many investors and managers are going to prison?

Even where there are a few corporate owners and managers, they are not the only people responsible. There are other owners - millions, in fact, because these corporations are considered safe and uh, responsible investments. They employ millions of people worldwide. They sponsor popular sporting events and television shows Thousands of corrupt politicians and captive regulators benefit from them. Everyone on earth is a customer, in some sense. Get rid of the top managers, and others will rise to take their place.

And yes, there are divestment campaigns and anti-advertising campaigns that target these corporations. There are anti-corruption campaigns. There are individual responsibility campaigns encouraging people not to buy their products. You could have campaigns urging people not to work for them, although I haven't heard of any. But these take time and energy, and they're not what the "Make Polluters Pay" campaigns focus on. In fact, the main thrust of the "Make Polluters Pay" campaign is that the employees and customers bear no responsibility for buying cars, gas, plastics or beef. They're just innocent and/or captive tools of the capitalists.

Okay, so how about this example: the way that wealthy landowners have used their control of city, state and federal governments to pass laws that restrict the amount of housing and workspace that can be built in any given area, and mandate large parking lots and garages. They divest from sidewalks and transit. This leaves most of the buildable land in areas far from existing housing and job centers, and with a growing population, pressures people to buy cars and drive them long distances. Even if we convert all internal combustion engines into electric engines, we could not build enough renewable power for all these cars.

Unlike with the petroleum or car industries, in the residential property system, power is not concentrated in the hands of a small group of owners and executives. It's spread across millions of property owners, thousands of homeowner and condo associations and cooperatives, and thousands of zoning boards and city councils, not to mention the state legislatures and Congress, almost all of whom are landowners. You've probably met many of them. You may even be one - I'm a co-op owner.

This group holds a lot of privilege and power that the non-property-owners don't have, and most of the laws are set up to favor the property owners, but it's not a tiny group. Property owners are polluters, though. They support the system that forces people to drive. Not passively as customers, or under duress as employees, but as owners, managers and lobbyists. And as polluters, they should pay, right?

What about the voters who elected politicians that campaigned on expanding roads and parking, and defunding transit? The residents who take the time to attend meetings and speak for roads and against trains, buses and anything that slows down cars? Are the governments they elect not polluters? Do these voters and advocates not have a responsibility to pay?

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Rules for my neighborhood discussion group

I used to belong to neighborhood discussion groups - a Yahoo group and a few Facebook groups - but I've been clean for several years now. I still belong to a couple of livable streets groups, and every once in a while, someone tries to turn them into "community" discussion groups. Every once in a while, a friend or a fellow activist will share a screnshot from one of their local Facebook group, or maybe Nextdoor, which sounds ten times worse. Facebook knows that I like old pictures of trains and streets, so it shows me photos from some of these groups, and I'm tempted, but I always resist.

I would consider joining a neighborhood group if it adopted these rules:

  1. No former residents. You decided you wanted to move upstate, or to North Carolina or Arizona? Have fun, and don't let the door hit your ass on the way out. No, you don't get to come back and tell us that Those People are why you left. I don't want to hear about how you used to walk by that street corner every other Tuesday with your Uncle Dave, fifty years ago when you were eight years old.
  2. No NIMBY posts. Neighborhoods change. People come and go. We're not in this group to "preserve neighborhood character" or whatever euphemism you want to use for keeping Those People out.
  3. No scapegoating vulnerable people. A kid just got hit with a car, and you're going to go off about how pedestrians need to pay more attention? A woman just got harassed, and you're going to talk about what she was wearing? Get some perspective and compassion, or get out.
  4. No parking complaints. You own a car, and that makes you wealthier than half the neighborhood. That means you have to move for the street sweeper, or for parades or movie shoots. It may mean you have to drive around before you find a place to park. Deal with it. No, a new parking garage would not solve this and we are not going to ask the city to build one.
  5. No crime fearmongering. We want to be safe, but we don't want to hear vague claims about rising this or that, or how some of Those People were seen congregating in the park.
  6. No mind reading. You have a link to the resuts of an opinion poll? Election results? No? Then you don't get to talk about What The Community Wants, or How People Around Here Feel. Speak for yourself, and let others speak for themselves.
  7. No posts about broader issues unless they directly affect the neighborhood. Yes, I've heard that you're going to the anti-war demonstration downtown, or maybe it's the pro-war demonstration. Yes, I know there are a lot of people here who are the same ethnicity as people at war thousands of miles away. But this neighborhood is not at war, and there are better places to post your political opinions.
  8. No posts about other neighborhoods. Why yes, I've heard about that dance group you go to every weekend, and it sure sounds like a lot of fun. It might be cool if we had one here. But that group is not here, it's three neighborhoods away, and they have their own neighborhood group. There are also citywide groups for dancing. Yes, I know that not everyone is a member of those groups. But you're not going to reach everyone, and you need to stop somewhere.

Friday, December 29, 2023

The 2022 farebox numbers

Agency	Fare Revenues per Total Operating Expense (Recovery Ratio)
Port Imperial Ferry Corporation, dba: NY Waterway	1.43
Hyannis Harbor Tours, Inc.	1.41
Bay State LLC, dba: Bay State Cruise Company	1.35
Trans-Bridge Lines, Inc.	1.33
Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority	1.31
Hampton Jitney, Inc.	1.2
Seldovia Village Tribe	1
Peter Pan Bus Lines	1
Golden Crescent Regional Planning Commission	1
Community Transit, Inc.	0.96
Chatham Area Transit Authority	0.93
Jalbert Leasing, Inc. , dba: C&J Bus Lines	0.92
A&C Bus Corporation & Montgomery & Westside Owners Association	0.83
Academy Lines, Inc.	0.78
SeaStreak, LLC	0.77
Chemehuevi Indian Tribe	0.75
Orange-Newark-Elizabeth, Inc.	0.71
University of California, Davis, dba: ASUCD-Unitrans	0.69
Chicago Water Taxi (Wendella)	0.67
Olympia Trails Bus Company, Inc.	0.66
Hudson Transit Lines, Inc.	0.63
Monsey New Square Trails Corporation	0.63

I remembered the National Transit Database a bit earlier this year, so here are the top hitters for 2022, and we can see the ridership recovery already. The four companies earning a profit from 2021 (Bay State, Trans-Bridge, Hampton Jitney and Hyannis Harbor) are joined by New York Waterway and the Chattanooga incline. Broadway Bus dropped from breaking even to earning just 23 cents on the dollar, and Peter Pan buses and the Seldovia Village Tribe ferries claimed to be breaking even. The Golden Crescent also claimed to be breaking even, but I think they're either lying or clueless or both.

It's not too surprising that the ferries did well in 2022: you can usually isolate from other riders on the upper deck. The New York Waterway ferries run every twenty minutes year round, charge $9 a ride and have gotten a lot of takers every time I've ridden them. They also load and unload passengers a lot more efficiently than the East River ferries operated by Hornblower.

Most of the Lincoln Tunnel buses are back over 50% farebox revenue, including Coachusa-owned Community Transit, Olympia Trails and ShortLine, so we'll see if they continue to improve. Red and Tan is only at 27%, which is probably why they still haven't brought back weekend service, but honestly I don't think they'll earn back those customers without losing money on the weekends for a few months.

Again, this just points to the foolishness of the Federal government and transit advocates. If the Feds had bailed out private transit companies the way they bailed out the airlines in 2020 and 2021, we'd be seeing a lot more people on the bus in New Jersey and the Hudson Valley.

The NTD now offers the ability to sort and filter in place, so you can sort and filter the data right in place, and even share a URL with your sorted and filtered data!

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Ten things to remember about public and private transportation


With a bunch of articles in the news recently about private intercity bus service, it's important to keep in mind several points:

  1. No transportation is completely private. Whether it's land, vehicles, fuel, air, research, wayfinding, public safety or search and rescue: you didn't build that.
  2. No transportation is completely public. Even in the strictest Communist states there have always been markets where people sell transportation without state control. In the United States, every government transportation agency buys goods and services from private vendors, and many contract their operations to private companies. Somebody, somewhere, is making a buck, and there's nothing you can do to stop it.
  3. Greedy, lazy people are everywhere. There's nothing about public ownership that guarantees good service.
  4. Most public transit used to be profitable. Most of the "public" transit systems around the world between 1850 and 1950 were built and operated by private companies, with large government subsidies. Some are still profitable today.
  5. Most roads and parking lots in the United States are socialist. And they're destroying the planet.
  6. Automakers and airlines are regularly bailed out by the government. Pundits and politicians only complain about bailouts and subsidies if they think they're going to the "wrong" people. Which ones they complain about usually tells you a lot about the pundits and politicians.
  7. It's all one big system. Whether publicly or privately owned or operated, public transit competes with publicly subsidized roads, airports, parking and personal cars.
  8. Private operators can take payment through larger fare systems. It takes a bit of planning, but it can be done.
  9. Transportation policy can't solve race, sex or class prejudice by itself. You may eradicate racism from buses, but as long as racism exists, racists will find a way to use transportation to oppress people.
  10. Trip cost is just one factor. For some people it's the biggest factor. For most, it comes after other criteria like trip time, safety, comfort and reliability.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Land trusts, co-ops and imperfect representation

Last month the New York Times ran an article by Claire Fahy about community land trusts. I've been hearing more about them lately: there's a group calling itself the Western Queens Community Land Trust that shows up to events, and my City Council member regularly indicates support for them. Several of the people I follow on social media also express support for them.

I've already explained one reason community land trusts are a bad idea: they assign benefits to people based on where they are. The intent is to grant people benefits as compensation for hardship, past (oppressive urban highways and drug laws, and yes I know that these things are not really in the past), or present/future (cheap roads, communication and energy in the country). Despite this intent, the benefits regularly go to people who don't need or deserve them, such as recent arrivals and wealthy vacationers. The benefits also fail to go to people who do need and deserve them, because they've left the area, because they are not part of the legally defined group, or because there aren't enough benefits to go around.

But even if you ignore the fact that it's not really fair to distribute benefits to people based on where they currently live, there's another problem: the trust part. Community land trusts don't have a mechanism to ensure that those benefits are reliably and evenly distributed to the people who live in their declared territory. The trusts are currently constituted as private nonprofit corporations, and I am not aware of any mechanism for governance, proposed or possible, that could make them genuinely representative. We're just supposed to trust them.

Fahy says "The concept of a community land trust began in 1969" and talks about a recent increase in the use of community land trusts in urban areas. That's probably true, but the concept of a nonprofit organization owning property and leasing it out to individuals and families is much older. And in fact, Fahy mentions that the concept was directly copied from the Moshavim model of settler colonialism in Israel, which is a dubious distinction.

Here in New York we have nonprofit housing developers like the Phipps Houses that have been renting at below-market prices for generations. We've also had housing cooperatives since the 1880s at least, and they don't live up to the lofty rhetoric of "community" we hear from some proponents.

I've lived in two different housing coops. One suffered from underinvestment stemming from an effort to keep rents affordable; another suffered from corruption by the officials who were responsible for running the property, and managed to get away with tens of thousands of dollars.

From what I've heard, these are relatively minor concerns in the grand scheme of what can go wrong with a housing coop. The condominium models used around the country and around the world are similar. Among the more extreme risks are the collapse of the Champlain Towers in Florida in 2021. Some have argued that the disinvestment we saw in Champlain Towers is a flaw in the condominium model.

Beyond the risk of corruption is a more general vagueness about governance. Who decides what the land trust should invest in? Which new properties should it buy? How much housing should it build, or allow to be built? What criteria should it use for who it sells/lends to? Should it develop and lease commercial properties, community facilities, parking? If it earns profits, what happens to those profits?

Who chooses the people that make those decisions? Are they appointed by elected officials? Are they elected at the bottom of the ballot, overshadowed by candidates for President, Mayor or Congress? Or in low-turnout off-year elections? Or are they elected by the membership of the Land Trust - and who gets to be a member? Are they even just a self-perpetuating board of directors? Where is the trust there?

Since they live in the midst of housing co-ops and nonprofit housing, you'd think the people who are promoting community land trusts here in New York City would acknowledge the existence of those models, compare the community land trust model to those models, and have some argument about why community land trusts are preferable, but I haven't seen anything like that. You might also think they'd acknowledge the problems of governance and function that have affected co-ops and nonprofits. Nope.

Community land trusts are also promoted as a way to combat the housing crisis. Fahy says, "The primary model in New York creates rental units," but they don't really create any units. They simply buy property and rent it out.

The trusts have the power to reduce displacement by keeping rents low and resisting pressure to sell, but I haven't seen a discussion of how that would address the core problem of housing: there isn't enough of it in places where people want to live. They're not any more capable of creating new housing than any other organization; in fact, they may impede it. This is no solution for the vast numbers of people who don't already own housing.

In sum, community land trusts are likely to serve the wrong people, and may not even successfully represent those people, or function competently at all. They are promoted as a solution to the housing crisis, but even if they function perfectly they're no better at creating new housing than any other organizational model, and likely worse.

Why are we still talking about them?