Sunday, July 15, 2018

A better express bus map


Express buses are easy in New York City. Just walk over to your express bus stop at the usual time and wait. Eventually the bus will arrive, you get on board, pay, find a seat and relax. When you're getting close to your stop, push the button, the bus stops, and you walk to work. Now they even have BusTime and MetroCard!

Express buses are easy if you're a regular passenger, that is. If you're not, how do you know which bus to take? You look at the complicated bus map for your borough, not posted in any subway station or bus shelter. Except if your borough is Manhattan. All the express buses are designed for trips to and from Manhattan, but the MTA doesn't show any express buses on the Manhattan bus map.

So you look at the bus map for the borough that's not Manhattan in your trip and figure out which bus is passing closest to the stop in that borough. Find the schedule for that bus. It may be posted on the stop, it may not, but the schedule is critical.

The schedule has tables telling you whether there is a bus scheduled to leave when you want to leave, and when it is scheduled to arrive in Manhattan. Everything besides the original departure time is approximate, and the buses almost always get stuck in traffic, so be prepared to board up to half an hour late depending on how close you are to the origin, and to get to your destination up to an hour late. Be sure to check BusTime so you know whether the bus is even coming.

The schedule does tell you where the buses stop in Manhattan. There used to be buses with suffixes after the route number (or not) indicating whether they stopped on Third Avenue or Downtown instead of Sixth Avenue, or maybe other routings, but the MTA has been gradually reorganizing them into separate numbers.

One key bit of information that's in the schedules but not the borough bus maps is where the buses stop and where they go express. It may seem obvious because most of the buses go on expressways, but some of them stop on the service roads of those expressways, and some don't. A few stop on Queens Boulevard or Woodhaven Boulevard, but most don't.

As you're probably saying to yourself right now, it doesn't have to be this way. Do the express buses really need to be on the same map as the local buses? Probably not. Is there a way to indicate on the map where the buses go in Manhattan? Probably. Is there a way to indicate on the map where the buses go express? Yeah.

The biggest thing that would make these maps easier to read is not showing extra information. Outside of Staten Island, where a bus network redesign is being implemented this summer, there are fifty express bus routes in the city. Almost half of them run only on rush hours, in the peak direction. Only sixteen of them run seven days a week. So if you're looking for an express bus on a Sunday you don't need to see the QM44, the X63 and the BM5. The resulting map is much cleaner.

That said, as I've written before, it's crazy not to offer Sunday service everywhere. When the Department of Transportation first started subsidizing private companies like Green Lines, they should have made funding contingent on seven day service. When the MTA took over their operations it should have immediately instituted Sunday service wherever there was Saturday service. Running buses on Saturdays and not Sundays is religious discrimination, and it has no place in New York City.

I'll have more to say about this map in the future.

Friday, June 22, 2018

What's the real story behind those photos of abandoned dockless bikeshare bikes?


At this point you've probably seen at least one, maybe several: pictures of "abandoned" or "discarded" dockless bikeshare bikes in China. I'm talking about the ones with hundreds, if not thousands, of bikes in the same picture. They're either very tightly stacked side by side, or more frequently jumbled on top of each other in a humongous heap, in a field or an empty lot. There's usually at least two different colors of bikes, representing different bikeshare companies.


There's almost never any explanation beyond a short caption. When I read "abandoned" I had this vision of some guy riding along on a bikeshare bike. All of a sudden the bike has a flat next to a field, so he casually tosses the bike into the field and walks on. A little while later a woman comes along. She gets tired of riding and stops next to the field, and sees the previous bike lying there. She tosses her bike on top of that one and walks away. Then some ill-behaved youths come running up carrying a bike that they found on a sidewalk, and throw it on top of that. It becomes the thing to do in this obscure Chinese city (Fuzhou? Chongqing? Qingdao?). For some reason, the bike companies have no interest in recuperating these hundreds of bikes, which have cost them tens of thousands of dollars. The bikes sit in the field and rust.

These photos are designed to scare, and they have been effective. Since they've appeared I have read several tweets, blog posts and articles where various people express their fear of "what happened in China." Ofo comes to town and next thing you know the hayfield behind the old Lowe's is full of bikes and there's nowhere to go smoke a joint. Those arrogant tech companies. We can't let that happen here!

You know what I haven't read? An explanation of how the bikes actually got in the field. Because the story I told is completely implausible. Yeah, I've heard about how wacky! and exotic! those Chinese people are. Then I got to know some, and it turns out they're just people. Sure, they'll do things in large numbers for money (like moving to cities) or social interaction (like the annual Lunar New Year travels) - just like Americans. They don't just do random stuff like throw bikes by the hundreds in some field.

What is the real story of what happened to those bikes in China? I'd be interested to know, but for now here's my guess: those bikes were thrown in that field - or stacked in that lot - by some organized group of people, led by a particular person or a small group. And the most likely organized group is the government. I strongly suspect that in every one of those pictures, the bikes were put there by government employees, on orders from some petty bureaucrat. Why? Maaaybe because they were broken. Maybe because the company had no permit to operate in that area. Maybe because that bureaucrat hates bikes. Maybe that bureaucrat is just an asshole.

When I think about it that way, it's no longer a story about arrogant tech companies or unsustainable bike share. It's not even about Those Wacky Chinese. It's about arrogant bureaucrats, supported by reactionary old people who drive, intent on maintaining control and preserving the hierarchy that puts them on top. And they're all boosted and broadcast by reactionary media people who love to get a rise out of us with scary photos.

That's a story as old as time, and it should scare us all that it's happening with bikeshare.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Transmillennial NYC?

A while back I was arguing with someone about "Bus Rapid Transit," and they suggested that New York should emulate the system used in Bogotá. I was skeptical; I've read about the Transmilenio and seen the Streetfilm, It didn't seem a good fit, but I felt like I didn't know enough.


I haven't been to the Colombian capital, but I've now looked at the network in more detail, and its applicability to New York area is extremely limited. Implementing anything resembling a Transmilenio corridor without converting general driving lanes to busways would require taking large amounts of land that is currently used for housing, retail or industry. I just don't see that happening on, say, Northern Boulevard or Church Avenue, and I don't want to see it happen.

The twelve Transmilenio corridors (not including the Carrera 7 stub) range from four to eight miles long, and are either at-grade or depressed, rarely elevated. They are all anchored by either the downtown or by a connection to another Transmilenio corridor. They fall into three types, as follows:


There is one corridor, the Eje Ambiental, that is roughly sixty feet wide. It could be emulated on any street of that width, like Fulton Street or Bergenline Avenue. I'm not going to consider those here, because they're everywhere.

Four corridors have sidewalks and at-grade crossings, like the Avenida de Caracas (see above); I call them Arterials. They have four to six lanes of car traffic and sometimes a bike path, and range from 120 to 150 feet wide.


The other seven corridors have grade-separated crossings, and at least some of the car lanes are limited access, like the Calle 26; I call these Highway corridors. The corridors can be up to 450 feet wide and include six to twelve car lanes and sometimes a bike path or even two. There are planted medians and sometimes even parks in the medians.

With this in mind, here are the basic criteria for Transmilenio-style corridors:
  1. At least 120 feet wide, so no Route 17 corridor in Bergen County
  2. At least four moving car lanes after the busway is installed, so no Grant Highway corridor in the Bronx
  3. At least four miles long, so no Whitestone Expressway corridor in Queens
  4. At or below grade, not primarily elevated, so no Bruckner Expressway corridor in the Bronx
  5. At least one good anchor, so no Route 18 corridor in Monmouth County
I will add the following for this exploration of New York, in keeping with our principles (see above):
  1. No parallel trains. Some trains are overcrowded, but for this let's focus on corridors with no rapid transit service at all, so no Seventh Avenue corridor.
  2. No adding lanes. If a corridor has functioning, accessible parkland, let's leave it, so no Mosholu Parkway corridor.
  3. At least 140 feet wide if the avenue already allows curbside parking. On-street parking beats off-street parking, and it's really hard to get the city to install bollards, so no 164th Street corridor.
I am not making any attempt to forecast demand in this post, aside from restricting my exploration to New York City and the counties closest to it. If you do try to think about demand, keep in mind that demand is not static, and it responds to the availability of alternatives.

One thing that surprised me looking at the Transmilenio system was how many of the lines (seven out of twelve) are the "highway" type, with separated local and express carriageways and any retail or housing set back from the sidewalks (almost all of them have sidewalks, which is a lot more civilized than most of our highways here). But when people (like the person I was arguing with) talk about adopting Transmilenio designs in New York, they're almost always talking about arterial corridors within the city limits, so that's what I'm going to focus on for this post.

So, are you ready? Here they are, all five of them!


The thing about arterial corridors in New York City is that we don't actually have very many that fit the Transmilenio model. We have a lot of big, wide avenues that feel dangerous, but when we actually measure them it turns out most of them are only a hundred feet wide, like Church Avenue in Brooklyn or Gun Hill Road in the Bronx. Even Astoria Boulevard in East Elmhurst is only 120 feet.

The remaining Arterial corridors do not form a coherent network at all in the five boroughs. They don't even extend the subway network, because stroads like Kings Highway and Linden Boulevard only widen to Transmilenio widths half a mile or more from the subway. The best you can say is that some of them would provide new routes parallel to crowded lines, like West Street.

The most promising corridor is Woodhaven Boulevard. The City has finally succeeded in upgrading it to Select Bus service, but they never proposed Transmilenio-style high island platforms. They tried to get separated center lanes, but after a long, hard fight with motorists and bean counters they settled for converting some of the inner express roadway to dedicated lanes with median boarding.

Woodhaven is also paralleled by the dormant Rockaway Beach Branch of the Long Island Railroad, which would have much more capacity and be somewhat better located. If the Rockaway Branch is ever reactivated, a Transmilenio-style busway would just add capacity to that, the way an Ocean Parkway busway would add capacity to the F and G trains a few blocks away on McDonald Avenue. Not a bad idea, but not the transformative change promised by some people.

Does that mean there's no application for Transmilenio-style busways in New York? Not quite; things actually look a lot more promising in the suburbs. Stay tuned for that!

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Who's your Suburb Buddy?

Adam Hengels had a good post about fighting rising rents back in 2015. He points out that while "gentrification" battles are almost always fought on the neighborhood level, the problem is actually regional:

The battlefield is not in the gentrifying neighborhoods. It is in the more wealthy neighborhoods where empowered residents fight to keep new people out.


There are tons of pretty suburban towns, and even small cities, that could be cozy, hip, dense alternatives to Manhattan or Brooklyn, but they've got zoning that keeps apartment buildings out and stifles nightlife, giant parking lots surrounding the commuter rail stations, infrequent train service and parking requirements that drive foot traffic away. If they got their act together, a lot of people would be moving there instead of here.

Here's an example: I live in Woodside, Queens. Per capita $24,399, population density 44,500 per square mile. We've got a decent commute to Manhattan (30 minutes to Grand Central), and a nice mix of shops and restaurants (a Walk Score of 94). I'd be happy to have more people here, but if they went someplace else that'd be okay too.

If I walk down to the Long Island Railroad station, I can get a train to Hewlett and take a short walk to the village of Hewlett Bay Park, which Wikipedia lists as the wealthiest per capita place (city, town, village) in the New York metro area at $113,320. Hewlett Bay Park has a population density of just 1,382 people per square mile, and a Walk Score of 42. It's an hour and thirteen minutes to Grand Central: a beautiful walk to the LIRR Far Rockaway Branch station, then change at Penn for the 3 train to the Shuttle.

The population of Hewlett Bay Park is estimated at 437 people, which is about a third the population of my co-op. Their zoning requires that every building be built on a minimum lot size of one acre, which is about a third the size of the lot my co-op is on. If the whole village were the same density as Woodside, it could hold about 17,800 people. Think how rents would go down across the metro area!

Last year we had a huge fight over a ten story building that would have added about 200 units to the neighborhood. That building would have fit on a single one of Hewlett Bay Park's 256 acres. Or if Hewlett Bay Park allowed townhouses near the train station, those 200 units could be spread across ten or twenty acres. My neighbors and I couldn't agree on whether we wanted it here, but I'll bet none of them would have been energetically opposed to putting it in Hewlett Bay Park.

Of course it's unfair to put all the burden on Hewlett Bay Park for accommodating the million or so people who want to live in New York. Right next door is Hewlett Neck, per capita income $88,049, population density 766.2 per square mile. There are a bunch of other wealthy villages and towns that are keeping people out with exclusionary zoning.

So why, even since Adam's post appeared three years ago, do people keep fighting at the neighborhood level? I think there are two reasons: first, the spatial segregation strategy of moving to the suburbs does effectively put a lot of distance between the wealthy and the crowds, not just in terms of raw travel time, or even in terms of social networks, but in terms of migration pressure. My wife and I did look at apartments in Scarsdale, but we're the exception in our class and income bracket. Most of the people moving into our neighborhood have been priced out of Inwood or Ridgewood. The people moving into Ridgewood got priced out of Williamsburg. The people moving into Williamsburg got priced out of Greenwich Village. The people in the Village got priced out of the Upper East Side, and the people there got priced out of Scarsdale. So even if we yell at the people in Ridgewood and Williamsburg it's not going to help much.

The second reason people don't fight Scarsdale is fragmentation. There are lots of wealthy, exclusive suburbs that are keeping people out who then chain-bid my mom's rent up. Why blame Scarsdale for my troubles and not Bronxville? How do I pick one?

It might be possible to do some kind of multilayered market research and find out exactly which set of racist NIMBYs to blame for the migration into your neighborhood, but that's probably not worth the trouble. We can do this quasi-randomly, keeping to a set of basic principles:

  1. It should have a good transit commute. I do not want to take decent car-free Manhattanites and ship them out to Yorktown Heights where they'll all buy Volvos. There are in fact many New York suburbs where you can walk to shopping, walk to the train, walk to everything. If you can't walk to shopping, we'll have to zone for shopping when we zone for apartments.
  2. This should be a place that can sustainably absorb lots more people. That means probably not low-lying areas like Deal or Centre Island. Hewlett Bay Park is on the bay, but it's mostly out of the flood zone and didn't do too bad during Sandy.
  3. Everybody pile on the favored quarter. New York has some suburbs that are not wealthy. Some of them are already changing, like Newark and Rutherford. Others are too poor to be attractive to people who already live in Brooklyn Heights, like Freeport. Let's focus on the top of the food chain.

With that in mind, here are the ten places in the New York area with the highest per capita income where Google Maps gives a transit commute time to Grand Central, with their densities and their walk scores. Next time your local NIMBYs come out in force against a building, pick a town from this list. I've already claimed Hewlett Bay Park for the people of Woodside, so spread things out by picking a different town. If you've already heard someone else using a town, pick a different one. If they're all taken, pull up the next twenty. Make a bunch of buttons saying WHY ISN'T THIS BEING BUILT IN DARIEN? and hand them out. Let's see what happens!

PlaceStateCountyPer capita incomeDensityWalk ScoreTransit lineTransit commute to Grand Central
Hewlett Bay ParkNYNassau$113,3201,38242Far Rockaway1:13
New CanaanCTFairfield$105,846322.786New Canaan1:09
DarienCTFairfield$105,846203.927New Haven0:59
North HillsNYNassau$100,0931,54327Port Washington1:01
WestportCTFairfield$97,39550323New Haven1:08
Sands PointNYNassau$95,647222.423Port Washington1:26
PlandomeNYNassau$95,102857.615Port Washington0:58
MatinecockNYNassau$93,559118.15Oyster Bay1:25
GreenwichCTFairfield$90,0871,27894New Haven0:44
ScarsdaleNYWestchester$89,907873.236Harlem0:32

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Stroller bloat on the subways

If you follow transportation politics you’ve heard of induced demand, a principle that activists have been invoking for decades to oppose road widening: Adding more capacity without market pricing simply invites more people to use a valuable resource. We see induced demand in roads and parking, as well as oil.


People have invoked induced demand in opposition to things that are much less destructive than driving. Transit managers have removed benches, lockers and trash cans from stations in the belief that this will reduce the demand for sitting, storing things and eating.

So what’s the difference between good induced demand and bad? It’s all about what it is that’s in demand. What are its real costs and benefits? Do the benefits justify the costs in the long term, and how long is long term? Can we handle the demand in the short term, and what happens if we can’t?

In terms of trash cans, given the staggering amount of money the MTA wastes on other things it wouldn’t be a huge expense for them to buy enough trash cans so that there’s one within twenty steps in all their stations, and to hire enough people to keep them from filling up and keep the platforms and tracks clean. The same is true for lockers and benches Somebody decided that the benefit wasn’t worth the cost, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that person drove to work and never found themselves on a subway platform holding an empty sandwich wrapper, or waiting for a train with tired feet.

In terms of roads and parking, we know that it costs an obscene amount of money to build a single structured parking space. Elevated roads and tunnels are similarly exorbitant. At-grade roads and parking are cheaper, but still cost a lot. They also encourage driving, with its pollution and carnage and waste of energy. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think it’s worth the cost.

I brought all this up to give you an idea of what goes through my mind when I hear people talking about how accommodations for disabled people help everyone. The usual example people give is how curb cuts for wheelchairs make life easier for parents with strollers. Sometimes people go on to talk about how elevators also help people to use strollers. And that’s where I start giving these people the side-eye.

I’m very much in favor of making our buses and trains wheelchair-accessible. I know several people with mobility impairments, including my own parents, I’ve talked with people who use wheelchairs and crutches about the difficulties of navigating the subway, and I’ve been temporarily disabled in the past. If we induce more demand for travel by people in wheelchairs and those with canes and walkers, I’m all for that, because up to now they’ve been forced to rely on Access-a-Ride, which is slow and inefficient, and limits their participation in society.

I have no objections if we build elevators for people in wheelchairs, and they happen to be useful for people with strollers, or even with “granny carts” for shopping. There is an added cost, though: the elevators are designed with a particular capacity of disabled users in mind, and induced demand from stroller and shopping cart users means kore crowds and longer waits. More demand also means more wear and tear on the machinery, more frequent outages (especially if the MTA doesn’t adjust its maintenance budget), and more money for repairs.

It doesn’t stop just at elevators making life easier for people with strollers, though. It starts getting presented as a moral obligation for us to fund elevators for parents. And since most parents who travel with their kids are women, it gets presented as an anti-sexist obligation to fund elevators. Then you get petitions for the MTA to allow parents to take strollers on buses without folding them. And that’s when I get pissed.

Last year I was on a bus in Great Britain, where people are allowed to bring strollers on buses. The bus filled up and people were having difficulty finding places to stand, because all the floor space was taken by strollers. The women traveling with the strollers made no move to take the kids out and fold them, so everyone else had to squeeze around them, including one woman who delayed the bus because she was not expecting to have to fold her own stroller.

It’s one thing to bring an unfolded stroller on an empty bus in Lebanon, New Hampshire. It’s a very different thing to bring one on a crowded bus or subway in New York City. We don’t have the capacity for it, so insisting on that space is taking away capacity from everyone else, including parents who carry their kids and fold their strollers. If you think there’s a significant value to society in giving that public space to unfolded strollers, get off your high horse and let’s talk about why it’s valuable and how we’re going to pay for it.

The weirdest thing about this debate is that it's not like people don't take small children on subways and buses. They do, and they always have. It’s not always easy, but traveling with kids by car isn’t always easy either. So why are people talking about taking kids in elevators now? I think it's the size of strollers.

When my wife was pregnant we went shopping for a stroller. The “normal” strollers were all large, heavy and difficult to fold. They were also fantastically expensive, with models costing hundreds of dollars. We settled for a “city” model that cost under a hundred and was lighter weight and could be folded with one hand, but it was still pretty heavy and bulky. I think we took it on the train maybe three or four times, and yes, it was a pain in the ass.

We wound up using a sling and a Baby Bjorn to carry the kid for the first year or so. Once he was old enough to hold his own head up we got an umbrella stroller for twelve dollars at Toys R Us. It made a huge difference. Either one of us could push it to the subway stairs, unbuckle the kid, pick him up with one hand, fold the stroller with the other hand, pick that up and head into the subway. With a little practice we could get it done in two seconds. Once we were on the subway (or bus) the stroller slid neatly under the seat.

Even when it was unfolded the umbrella stroller took up relatively little floor space and sidewalk width. It was light enough that either of us could pick the kid up in it and carry them for short distances. It wore out within a year, but I just went back and got another one. By the time we were ready for a third stroller, the kid was ready to walk.

I can understand why people hesitate to fold “city” strollers and drag them up stairs, and I sure as hell understand why nobody wants to carry a full size Graco anywhere, with or without a kid in the other arm. What I don’t quite understand is why people don’t use umbrella strollers.

I mean, people do use umbrella strollers. I just saw one a few minutes ago. What I don’t understand is why so many people assume that you only need one stroller, and the standard suburban models are fine for the city. Why aren’t there periodic articles in Queens Parent and Time Out Kids about the Best Subway Strollers? Why don’t people get schooled in umbrella strollers in the cafés of Park Slope and Sunnyside the way they get schooled in bike seats and breast pumps? When someone complains about being asked to fold their stroller on the subway, why isn’t the first response simply, “Have you tried an umbrella stroller?”

I can think of three reasons. Time Out isn’t running any stories about umbrella strollers because they’re cheap and they’ve been around for years. They’re not writing any stories about plain old bibs and sippy cups either. For similar reasons, umbrella strollers are no good for yuppie prosperity signaling, and because they’re complex aluminum structures they aren’t good for hipster artisanal credit.

The main reason people avoid umbrella strollers is that they can’t hold anything but the kid. Modern strollers have huge compartments that can hold diaper bags, breast pumps and groceries, plus cup holders, bag hooks and even running boards for older kids to stand on. Even the “city” models have at least one basket. When people have one they fill those compartments with everything they might possibly need, which can weigh as much as the stroller, or even a toddler.

This is exactly like “sport-utility vehicles ” which get filled up with all kinds of stuff that the passengers never use, but the driver carries around just in case. Or the large house with rooms full of belongings that the inhabitants haven’t touched in years. And the reason is the same: induced demand. When land and buildings are cheap, people hold on to their stuff. When gas, roads and parking are cheap, people shove their stuff in the SUV and use the gas, roads and parking to cart it all over town. And when train, bus, sidewalk, stair and elevator space is cheap, people shove their stuff in giant strollers and push it all over town.

I wouldn’t have a problem with this if the space really were cheap, but buses and elevators are expensive. I would even be willing to subsidize bus and elevator space for unfolded strollers if we had a real discussion and concluded that this subsidy would bring a real benefit to society. I think there’s a real case for it for groups with more small children than adults, or where the caregiver has a disability that makes it hard for them to carry a child, an umbrella stroller and a diaper bag.

Unfortunately, that is not the discussion we’re having. The discussion we are having is polluted by induced demand, by the assumptions that all small children are carried in giant, unfoldable strollers by physically and politically weak women who are incapable of selfishness, bad judgment, ignorance or any other failings. Can we change that, please?

Friday, November 17, 2017

The problem with offset bus lanes

In recent posts I’ve talked about how transit needs dedicated lanes, and how on a hundred foot avenue you don’t want to take a lane away from parking. The Department of Transportation seems to have figured this out, but there are serious problems with the approach they’ve been taking lately: offset lanes.


Last winter, Joby Jacob and I took the B46 Select Bus Service down Utica Avenue. I was struck by how slowly the bus moved, even in the sections that supposedly had dedicated bus lanes. It was pretty clear why: on many blocks there was a car or truck in the bus lane, sometimes more than one.

Sometimes all the curbside parking spaces were taken by parked cars, and the blocking car was double parked. It takes some spectacular chutzpah to think that your personal need to pick up an egg sandwich is pressing enough to keep a hundred people waiting. But as Donald Shoup has shown us, the underlying problem is that the City doesn’t price parking properly. If it cost more to park on these blocks people would park elsewhere, or for shorter periods of time, or even take transit. That would free up space for these short-term stops.

Sometimes there is space at the curb, but the drivers don’t pull all the way in to the space. This is occasionally understandable if the space is narrow enough that it would take a lot of time to parallel park. A lot of the time, however, there is plenty of room to pull in to the curb. The only explanation I can see for this behavior is that the driver is trying to signal to the police that they understand they’ve pulled into a no-parking zone (bus stop, fire hydrant) and will be leaving as soon as possible. It’s still a hugely selfish move, because it forces an entire bus full of people to wait for a gap in the next lane over to go around.

It doesn’t help that the DOT has debased the value of red paint by using it for part-time bus lanes, letting people get in the habit of unloading trucks and parking cars in red lanes, teaching them that the paint doesn’t really mean “don’t put your private vehicle here!” And the NYPD doesn't seem to be all that effective in keeping the lanes free.

So if we can’t put the transit lane at the curb, and we can’t offset it one lane, what should we do? Stay tuned...

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Local knowledge, global bullshit

In my neighborhood, on a narrow block zoned M-1 next to the Long Island Railroad main line, is a parking lot. A few years ago, the owners of the building across the street put forward a plan: the City would rezone the block for residential, and they would build a ten-story apartment building. The City Council member for this district said he had concerns but wanted to hear more.


After a few contentious meetings, stories emerged in the news and on Facebook, and were eventually published in a change.org petition and a website: the rents would be sky-high, the new building would be massive and out of context, and it would dump hundreds of new riders on the already overcrowded elevated train and neighborhood schools. The street was not adequate to handle the traffic. The entire community was against it. Eventually the City Council member declared that he was against the project, and it was dropped.

Last week I heard someone on a podcast talking about the value of local knowledge in city planning, crediting Jane Jacobs for it. Certainly, Jacobs catalogs a number of clear cases where planners came into an area with little or no knowledge of it, and royally messed it up. She might have declared the defeat of this project to be a triumph of local knowledge.

The problem is that all the stories I listed above were false. The existing building is run by a nonprofit specifically dedicated to providing affordable housing, and their plans for the site specified that the vast majority of the rents would be below market. The existing building, built in 1931, is a superblock with 472 units. Less than a block away are two more complexes with over 400 units each. Two blocks away is a row of four twelve-story towers-in-a-parking lot on top of a hill. This building would fit in completely with the existing context.

The impacts on transit are similarly overstated. First of all, some people won’t be commuting to Manhattan anyway. They could be retired, or telecommuting, or working elsewhere. And unfortunately, some won’t be commuting by train. In 2008, Rachel Weinberger wrote a great report called “Guaranteed Parking, Guaranteed Driving,” demonstrating that if you include parking with housing, people are much more likely to drive. The plans called for 220 units in the new building, and about as many parking spaces, which sounds dreadful. Based on Weinberger’s research we can predict that those 220 spaces would induce a lot of driving.

Of course some people will take the train no matter what happens, and that number will probably increase as more people realize that driving is a pain in the ass. So let’s imagine that these 220 apartments produce a really high number of transit commuters to Manhattan, say 330, or an average of 1.5 commuters per apartment, including two-bedrooms, one-bedrooms and studios. According to the MTA, on the average weekday in 2016 there were 6795 Metrocard swipes at the closest station, less than five percent of the daily total. Even if all 330 commuted to Manhattan between 7:30 and 8:30 AM, that would add an average of three people per 167-person subway car.

Schools were overcrowded ten years ago, no doubt. But the city has recently opened two new schools and two new additions to existing schools, and plans to continue building more. The claim that the street was inadequate for the traffic is similarly false. It handles all the cars and trucks for the existing lot, and the proposal includes plans to build the missing sidewalk on the south side of the street.

A common theme was that “the entire community” was against this project. I was not opposed. I was slightly in favor, despite the oversupply of parking, because I found all the reasons for opposition incredibly thin, and I figured it would modestly increase the housing supply and thus help to bring down rents. I never heard any enthusiastic support, but there were plenty of people who were not opposed. I occasionally disputed some of the more outrageous stories with my neighbors on Facebook, in a respectful and neighborly way, and they got very upset. Some of them unfriended me.

So basically, the rents were going to be relatively affordable. The building was not going to be particularly large or tall for the area. It wasn’t going to increase overcrowding on the subway to any noticeable degree, and the neighborhood was not united in opposition. All the "local knowledge" was completely false.

I was originally going to write a post about how local people lie, similar to one I wrote back in 2012. I don’t think these neighbors of mine are lying, exactly. It’s more what’s been called “bullshit”: a propaganda soup mixed up without regard for truth. But I realized something else about this particular bullshit: it isn’t local.

There is one specific piece of local information: many tenants of the existing complex are not happy with the way the nonprofit has managed their buildings. Everything else is generic boilerplate about a “large real estate developer” looking to build a “massive apartment building.” These are the same things we read in stories from Morristown to Minneapolis.

My neighbors are almost certainly not in the pay of a large multinational corporation dedicated to opposing new housing construction. But they don’t just live in a local world. They read Jeremiah Moss and maybe Jane Jacobs too. They’ve seen at least half a dozen movies where the villain is a large real estate developer looking to build a massive apartment building. They’ve seen people protest new construction on TV, heard it on the radio and read about it in the New York Times. Many of them have friends in other neighborhoods and other cities who are engaged in similar struggles.

Some of them are afraid of the City's plans for Sunnyside Yards, which do sound like the kind of crazy, destructive thing Robert Moses used to do. Never mind all the differences, never mind that they've quietly acquiesced to the much more wasteful and destructive Kosciuszko Bridge replacement; they see this 200+ unit apartment building as the thin end of the wedge

They need no coaching; they know the script. Out of context, massive traffic jams, casting shadows, destroying the character of the neighborhood. The transit angle is something you don’t get everywhere, but these days you hear it wherever there’s a train. The rest of it is just a re-enactment of the same story they’ve heard dozens of times, with them in the role of the Local Heroes who Band Together. That’s why they unfriended me: I was saying the wrong lines.

These residents appear to display local knowledge (“we have a parking shortage”) but it is fake local knowledge disconnected from local reality, a prop to brandish during their performance. Similarly, “the community” is a prop, a fake community with fake unity, standing in for the real communities that inhabit the neighborhood, barely aware of each other, each with its own corrupt decision-making process and its multitudes of alienated minorities.

This is actually the opposite of the often-repeated fable of the Wise Locals against the Clueless Planner. The planner might not live in the neighborhood (though some of my neighbors are planners), but with some careful observation they could come up with more reliable local knowledge than anything produced by the opponents of this project.

The real lesson to take from the failures of central planning is not the value of local knowledge, but the value of humility. And the lesson we should take from the failure of this project is that local residents can be just as bereft of humility as anyone else, with consequences that are just as dire in the aggregate as the consequences of Robert Moses's hubris.