Sunday, December 30, 2007

Thames River (CT): Thinking long term

In today's New York Times there is an editorial about the railroad bridge over the Thames river which I've discussed previously. The article concerns commuters from New London who would like to ride the train to work but can't, because there are no commuter trains. The State of Connecticut used to run ten Shore Line East trains a day to New London, and they all had to cross the bridge to turn around.

This caused a problem: the Thames River Bridge is a lift bridge which is normally left open to let boat traffic through, so only about forty trains a day can go across. With the growing popularity of the Acela Express, Amtrak customers wanted more trains to Boston, and Amtrak wanted the revenue. In 2003 the State of Connecticut promised Amtrak that it would stop running commuter trains from New London for fifteen years, allowing Amtrak to increase the number of Acela Express runs. In exchange for this, Amtrak agreed to allow Shore Line East customers with monthly tickets to travel on non-Acela trains (see video) to and from New London.

This is a problem that doesn't happen so much in transit-poor parts of the country. Most places are so happy to have any train service that they don't care if it's Amtrak or something else. Of course, not that many of them use it for their daily commutes. Unfortunately, the rates that Amtrak charges for its Northeast Corridor trips is too high for all but the wealthiest to pay for their daily commutes. Rather than pay to maintain or widen the inefficient I-95 bridges, Connecticut wisely chose to support Shore Line East service. While a ticket from New London to New Haven is $14 on an Amtrak Regional train, it's only $8.25 on Shore Line East. Monthly tickets are $360 on Amtrak and $175 on Shore Line East.

However, the agreement only applies to customers with monthly passes. Amtrak will not honor single tickets from New London, meaning that people who don't travel every day, or want to try the new service, have to pay the higher fare. Another big deal is that Amtrak is reservation-only. New London commuters without monthly passes need to go on line or pick up the phone to reserve each day, an added step that would deter regular commuters. If the train is completely booked one day, they can't get on. No train for them.

As the New London Day reports, many potential commuters are discouraged by this practice. This means that there are lots of potential Shore Line East customers who aren't using the service, and instead are most likely commuting by car, contributing to the traffic jams on I-95.

It's great to see the Times and the Day arguing so forcefully for transit. But why such limited vision? All they're asking for is to have Amtrak sell cheap tickets to commuters between New London and points west without reservations.

Meanwhile, there's tremendous demand for shore line service. It was booked solid the day before Thanksgiving this year. That means demand can only grow, and as James RePass of the National Corridors Initiative told the Day, "Shore Line East doesn't need to go to New London. It needs to go to Providence. ... There are tons of people who would like to go from New London to Boston and back." But there's no room to meet this demand. As the articles point out, the need to open the bridge to let boats through means that at most forty trains a day can cross it. That's how many are running now, and if they're all full, and they've all got as many cars as can fit, there's nothing more to add. The line is maxed out.

In transit advocacy, demand is often very ambiguous, so when the Cap'n sees demand, he wants to see it satisfied. Why doesn't anyone at the Times or the Day ask about upgrading the line? It's two tracks between New Haven and Providence; why not make it three or four? Many of the news articles mention that Amtrak is planning to upgrade the other two major bridges, over the Niantic and Pattagansett Rivers, in the next few years. This is the perfect opportunity to add capacity; if it's proposed after the reconstructions are done it would be hard to justify wasting the money that is now being spent. In fact, it's probably too late; they've already upgraded the bridge over the Quinnipiac River.

However, the point of my previous Thames River Bridge post was that there's more than one way to get to Boston. While many of the Amtrak customers on this route are going to Rhode Island or Route 128, a large number are going all the way to Boston, or to points north and west of Boston. If you can provide an alternate route, you can free up space for local passengers along the shore. I'm not the only one to suggest it; posters on the, On Track On Line and Train Orders message boards have proposed running trains on the old Inland Route through Hartford and Springfield, either temporarily or permanently. A poster on the board even suggested using the old Air Line through Willimantic and Putnam.

Of course, there are several challenges to both ideas. The Inland Route is not in very good shape for passengers. One poster from the Train Orders board said that it took him four hours to get from Boston to New Haven in 2003; the current shore line schedule has two hours 25 minutes for Regional trains and two hours five minutes for Acela Express trains. There are many reasons for this, as enumerated by poster Dutchrailnut: "No high level platforms at 90% of stations, no Electrification, single track, to many freights, not properly signalled." Still, it would be a worthy use of federal and Massachusetts money to rebuild the second track, add a third track where feasible to minimize freight conflicts, electrify the line and upgrade the signals and the platforms. Dutchrailnut didn't mention grade crossing eliminations, so I'm hoping that there aren't too many grade crossings to worry about.

The other suggestion was to reactivate the Air Line; several posters mentioned that it was considered for the service that eventually became Acela Express. It's shorter and more direct than the shore line. The challenge there is that it's now a rail-trail, and it would be politically difficult to take that trail away. All of the bridges that were washed out would have to be rebuilt, and possibly some of the viaducts. All of the track between Portland, CT and Franklin, MA would have to be rebuilt, with electrification and signalling. Any stations along the line would have to be rebuilt with high-level platforms. Grade crossings would have to be eliminated. We're talking a lot of money.

Still, I'm sure either of these ideas would be cheaper and less environmentally destructive than ConnDOT's eternal pipe dream of an interstate highway between Manchester and Providence. It doesn't have to be done all at once, either. Here's my suggested progression:

Inland Route:
  1. Double-track lines; add diesel local service
  2. Add signals and high-level platforms; add more service
  3. Electrify line and straighten curves; add through express service
  4. Add third track where possible; add more trains

Air Line:
  1. Rebuild bridges and viaducts; widen to two-track width and straighten curves where feasible; build trail alongside right-of-way where possible
  2. Replace single track with sidings, signals and temporary stations; add minimum diesel passenger and freight service
  3. Double-track line and rebuild stations with platforms; add more service
  4. Electrify line and eliminate grade crossings; add through service
  5. Add third track where possible; add more trains

Friday, December 28, 2007

What will it take to get people out of their cars?

A couple of comments on Streetsblog got me thinking:

In the comments on a video of drivers on a "Gridlock Alert day", "Paulb" points out,

I think any American who sets their goal as compelling other Americans to leave their cars parked and use public transportation should watch this film and think very very carefully about how they go about it.


And yet, watching the drivers interviewed in the film, you can see it, it's obvious, the pride and pleasure they take in the ownership and use of their personal cars.

I agree with Paulb that we should be careful, for the reasons he mentioned, but we should still work towards it. Not just "leaving their cars parked," but getting rid of them.

The thing is, Aaron's film clearly shows that what they're enjoying is not anything specific to their cars, or to cars in general. They're not going fast and they don't have any more flexibility, safety or convenience than a subway rider. They're stuck in traffic, while underneath them thousands of people are zooming by in fast, heated trains that don't have to stop for lights or traffic.

I know, someone's going to talk about how in Bay Ridge or Staten Island, their car gives them flexibility and convenience. But that's not the car, it's the infrastructure that's been built for drivers instead of walkers and transit users. With a different infrastructure they'd have just as much flexibility and convenience on the bus or trolley.

The pride and pleasure that they take is pleasure in glamour. Virginia Postrel has the clearest thinking on glamour of anyone I've read. While you're waiting for her book to come out, you can get a sense of it from her take on the glamour of air travel.

These drivers are mortgaging their houses and sitting in traffic on Fourth Avenue because it says that they've arrived, that they've got "freedom," that their lives fit this desirable category. If you can find some way to let them keep that glamour, you can take away their cars and the only thing they'll notice is how much thinner and healthier they are and how much more money and free time they have.

This is essentially the same as the question asked in the comments on a 1958 Disney futuristic video by "Steely," who I assume is Paul Steely White:

People don't want "reality" (whatever that is). what a bummer! They want a compelling aspirational narrative with a little magic and spectacle thrown in.

the existentialists have this notion of "auto projecting" (double entendre!) -- how people are constantly moving forward toward a better future. the act of shopping and the act of driving are similar in this way. probably somethign to do with our eons of hunter/gathering and nomadic living.

if cars and consumption are not it, then what is the new american dream?

Let me restate Steely's question this way: what would allow these people who were sitting in their cars on Fourth Avenue last week to take the subway or bus and not feel any less successful, powerful and free? What can you give to replace the glamour of the SUV?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Some good videos

Tonight I watched a bunch of good videos, many of them from the TED symposium (brought to you by - ugh - BMW):


Sunday, December 23, 2007

Water Taxi: What if?

The New York Times City Room blog reports that New York Water Taxi is suspending its East River service for the rest of the winter. The Brooklyn Eagle reports that ridership is declining on the Sunset Park route as well. Gothamist has additional coverage.

Times blogger Jennifer 8. Lee (I just wanted to type her middle initial) links to a Times article from 2005 describing the ferry companies' long struggle to make profits. I don't have the figures handy, but I'd be surprised if the ferry service to Long Island City has been profitable since the Long Island Railroad started running into Penn Station.

If anyone wonders why the ferries are losing money, and what could be done about it, all they have to do is try to use them. Let's talk about the best commute right now, and I'll focus on the Long Island City route. Imagine a woman who lives in the CityLights building in LIC and works in the office building at 55 Wall Street. Even she faces a relatively unpleasant walk to the ferry. She's two blocks from the ferry entrance, but for most of those two blocks there are no sidewalks along the west side of Second Street, so she has to cross over to the east side. Once she gets through the gates of the ferry property, it's another two blocks where the walkways are inconsistent and dump her in the middle of a half-empty parking lot where she has to constantly look over her shoulder to make sure nobody's speeding in. At least her arrival at Wall Street is relatively uneventful.

The next easiest commute is probably a guy coming from Long Island or eastern Queens who takes the train to the LIC terminal, and walks across the street to the ferry entrance. Assuming that he doesn't have very far to go on the railroad and works on Wall Street or the World Financial Center (the ferry used to go there, but it doesn't any more), he's in pretty good shape.

That's about it for convenient commutes. Once you get people who don't take the LIRR or live in Queens West, they're coming in on the #7 train to Vernon-Jackson, which is two long blocks further than Citylights, meaning over ten short blocks from subway to ferry dock. The nearest bus stop is in the same place, and the nearest stops on the E, V and G trains are even further. That's fine for an occasional recreational trip, but it just doesn't work for a daily commute.

The ferries are also limited by what's on the Manhattan side. As I said, if you work in Wall Street or the WFC you're in great shape, but most other job sites are more difficult. At 34th Street, the only employers that could actually be described as convenient to the ferry dock are the Heliport and the Water Club. There's a bunch of employers nearby, including the NYU Medical Center and Bellevue Hospital, but they're not convenient. The biggest obstacle is the singularly unpleasant intersection of 34th Street with the FDR Drive, which also includes a lane or two of cars coming from Waterside Towers and the Water Club. Anyone who's ever been there will know exactly what I mean.

The Water Taxi dock in LIC has a large parking lot. What about commuters who drive there and park? The problem is that anyone who drives to the dock has already driven past at least one bridge or tunnel to Manhattan. Why not just keep going to work? The only reason would be if they could step off the ferry and be at work, and that's a relatively small group of people.

Up to now I haven't mentioned schedules, because they've varied a lot over time. In the past there have been more ferries, but now there are just four ferries in the morning and four in the evening. There are only four LIRR trains (inbound only) in the morning and two (outbound only) in the evening that are at all compatible with the ferry schedules. Some connections are very tight so that if either the train or the boat is late the commuter is stuck in Hunters Point, and some require up to half an hour's wait. As far as I know there is no communication between ferry operators and LIRR personnel.

There is a midday and weekend "hop on/hop off" ferry, but it only runs during the summer and has a completely different route from the commuter ferries.

The last problem is the fare structure. For commuters from LIC, it ranges from $7 to $11 per day, depending on whether they're going to 34th Street or Wall Street, and whether they buy a ten-trip book or a monthly pass instead of buying single tickets. This is on top of the cost of a Metrocard or LIRR ticket. Considering the amount of effort spent on fighting an $8 charge that would be paid by a tiny portion of commuters, it's not surprising that these fares aren't exactly bringing the crowds in.

So what if the city and the ferry operators actually had the will and the power to do something about this? What would it take to make ferry transportation out of LIC work?

The first thing is operating assistance. In the Times article from 2005, Brooklyn Councilmember David Yassky was quoted as saying, "Mass transit doesn't work if it's not subsidized." I think he's overstating it a bit: there are a handful of examples of profitable mass transit, the best one being the New Jersey vans, but even those are subsidized with public roads. The ferries get subsidies in the form of shipping infrastructure like the Coast Guard and the terminals that are often built for them by public agencies, but that's clearly not enough to compete with the road and parking subsidies that many driving commuters get, or even the subsidies for train and bus service. If we want ferry service to work, we need to commit to providing a certain baseline of funding.

In exchange for that funding, we can require a certain minimum level of service. Peak-direction rush hour service is not real transit, and should only be implemented if it's necessary to avoid a complete shutdown. People need the flexibility to go home in the middle of the day if necessary, or to get to work late. Every subsidized ferry line should offer at least hourly service between 8AM and 10PM, seven days a week. Yes, seven days a week. Of course there aren't going to be "recreational riders" from Hunters Point in January - but there may be some people using the ferry for family outings on the weekends, if it's convenient. The government should be willing to pay for this level of service to be offered at reasonable fares, if necessary.

Now I don't want to see my tax money going to run empty boats, so we need to do what's necessary to make it convenient to use the boats - on both ends. The New York Waterway example is very instructive here. Imperatore didn't expect thousands of people to want to go from the dock in Weehawken to the West Side Highway; he paid for a fleet of buses, and your ferry ticket includes the bus ride to the dock in New Jersey and another bus from Pier 79 to wherevery you need to go in Manhattan. And those buses do cover a large chunk of Manhattan. Why didn't the Water Taxi people make a deal with the Emperor to have some of his buses pick people up at the East 34th Street dock? Why didn't NY Waterway do that when they had the franchise? Why didn't Water Taxi run their own buses?

For the ferry to work, it needs to have that network of buses in Midtown Manhattan. It also needs a network of buses going to the Hunters Point dock from all the LIC subway lines and the major residential centers in the area (Greenpoint, Blissville, Sunnyside, Dutch Kills, Ravenswood and Queensbridge). These buses could be owned and operated by the ferry company, or shared with NY Waterway, or even the MTA - that's another way that government officials can show that they're serious about making ferries work. At a minimum there needs to be a subway circulator in LIC, a bus running across 34th Street in Manhattan, and a bus that serves the UN, the hospitals and other job sites on First and Second Avenues. The LIRR should offer at least hourly service in both directions between the LIC terminal and Jamaica, at least 8AM to 10PM, seven days a week.

Finally, and this is really a no-brainer for anyone that thinks for a minute, pedestrian access to the LIC docks needs to feel at least as safe, convenient and comfortable to walk to as Pier 11 in Manhattan. That means wide, comfortable, well-lit sidewalks (that aren't blocked by police cars) all the way from the Vernon-Jackson station to the dock on Hunters Point, and a safe, calm crossing of the FDR exit in Manhattan.

Sidewalks, buses, trains, hourly service, reasonable fares: we're talking about a lot of money here. But I'll leave you with this quote from, of all places, a Fark comment thread about Amtrak ridership. Firefly212 writes:

I find most of the critics of Amtrak are people who are of the mindset that if doing something half-assed for a long time doesn't work, then surely it simply can't be done.

What Firefly212 says about Amtrak is true of just about any government investment in mass transportation. Since 1910, the only person who hasn't been running the ferries half-assed is Arthur Imperatore. The Water Taxi people have clearly put some effort in, but the pedestrian environment, the lack of buses? Half-assed. The government support? Totally half-assed. Let's do this fully-assed or not at all.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Zeroth Right

Today, City Councilmembers Bill de Blasio and John Liu unveiled a Subway Riders' Bill of Rights; here's coverage from Second Avenue Sagas and First and Court. I think that all those rights are good, but there's at least one right that I think is missing. In the spirit of Isaac Asimov, and to save our representatives from some renumbering, I'll make it the Zeroth Right.

0. The status of "person," not to be ignored when things like bridge tolls and congestion pricing come up.

This kind of dismissal has been coming from all kinds of people, but I'll focus on Councilmember Liu, who in several statements made in response to proposals to toll the "free" 59th Street, Williamsburg, Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges, claims that the tolls would be unfair to "Queens and Brooklyn residents."

"you would be inhibiting people from Queens and Brooklyn from transportation into Manhattan, which is just not acceptable."

"People don't want it, all over Brooklyn and Queens"

"unfair to Queens and Brooklyn residents"

Thanks, Councilmember! What about all us subway riders from Brooklyn and Queens who never drive over those bridges, but pay for their maintenance with our income and sales taxes? That toll money could provide some subway and bus improvements to offset the driving subsidy.

What about all us Queens and Brooklyn residents who have to deal with people driving through our neighborhoods to get to the "free" bridges instead of staying on the highway to the tunnels and toll bridges? Isn't that unfair to us?

We just got stuck with an increase in Metrocard prices because you've refused to charge people even a fraction of the cost of maintaining these bridges. Because you've refused to consider us as people, people who work, shop and pay taxes. Maybe if you start giving us our Zeroth Right we'll have a chance of getting the First Right on your list.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Red Hook Tunnel Bus Gets Some Friends

Back in October, I gave a couple of "what if" scenarios about mitigating the disruption caused by closing the Smith/9th Street Station in Brooklyn. The most straightforward suggestion was running a shuttle bus from the station through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to lower Manhattan. Gary from First and Court and the Gowanus Lounge crew liked the idea.

Turns out Gary has been busy. Brownstoner and Second Avenue Sagas are reporting that the idea of running shuttle buses through the tunnel has been taken up by Assemblymember Joan Millman. In fact, her chief of staff says she wants to see it start now, rather than 2010. That way, if there's demand for it now, they can ask for it to be continued after the station is reopened.

In the Second Avenue Sagas comments, Gary says that he and others have been lobbying Millman, as well as Borough President Markowitz and Councilmember deBlasio. Three of the Brownstoner commenters report that the idea of running buses from Red Hook through the tunnel is not new; it's been around since the '70s at least. So it wasn't an original idea, but it looks like I was the one to bring it up in connection with this station closing. I'm very happy that people who live in the area found it helpful, and I hope it happens! Great work, guys!

Monday, December 10, 2007

New York's Waterloo Station?

One of the most infamous moments in modernism was the demolition of Penn Station in New York, and almost as bad, the construction of Madison Square Garden and Penn Plaza in its place. It shocked people so much at the time that it launched the historical preservation movement.

In fact, for historical preservationists it was a humiliating defeat - not so much a Waterloo, because they have since gone on to many victories, including Grand Central Station, but a Franco-Prussian War, or a Vietnam, a humiliation resulting in an obsession with the event and a desire to somehow "undo" it. Kind of like Brooklyn's loss of the Dodgers, or the abandonment of the construction of the Second Avenue Subway.

In the 1980s, the preservationists acquired a champion in Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was probably looking for a way to concretely mark a legacy of his 24 years in the Senate. Facing Madison Square Garden to the west was Penn Station's twin, the James Farley Post Office. But since the Post Office had almost entirely switched from using trains to using trucks and airplanes to transport mail, the large mail-sorting facility in the Post Office didn't need to be there anymore. Moynihan (with an advisor, perhaps?) saw an opportunity: if the mail facilities were moved out of the Post Office, it could be renovated into a new Penn Station. It had a similar façade, also designed by McKim, Mead and White, and was of a similar size.

Since Moynihan died in 2003, his daughter Maura has been working to keep his idea on track. It's not easy: between former governor Pataki's attempt to arrange a groundbreaking ceremony before leaving office to the ambitions of the various real estate owners and developers in the area, the project is being pulled in several different directions.

I've got a lot to say about this, but the rest will have to wait. For now I'll just say that it's all very well for the historical preservationists and the developers to have their say, but there's a conspicuous absence of any voices of people who will actually use the station on a regular basis. In the Observer interview, Ms. Moynihan says that "it's a transportation project first and foremost," and I hope she does keep that perspective.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Thames River (CT): what if?

As described in this PDF, Amtrak is in the process of replacing a key bridge carrying Northeast Corridor trains over the Thames River in New London, Connecticut. The New London Day is reporting that Amtrak plans to simply suspend service between New Haven and Boston sometime in May for the four days necessary to remove the old bridge and put the new bridge in place. Understandably, this is causing some concern for passengers. The passengers from Kingston, RI to Boston will be able to take commuter trains, but passengers from the intermediate stations will be SOL, to say nothing of the passengers hoping to go from Boston to Connecticut and points south and west. They'll have to take a bus - and Amtrak won't arrange it for them.

Reporter Katie Warchut gives a number of possible solutions. First she asked the obvious question: why can't the trains from New York turn in New London? Amtrak spokespeople poured cold water on that one: they would have to have an engine on each end, which is impossible. Considering that they already do some push-pull operations, I'm skeptical. ConnDOT offers the possibility of increased Shore Line East service between New Haven and New London. NARP executive director Ross Capon suggested bustitution.

I was intrigued, though, by this sentence in Warchut's article: "Amtrak trains from New Haven will make their normal runs to Springfield, Mass." By "normal runs," I'm assuming that she means Amtrak will continue to run their six diesel shuttles between New Haven and Springfield. But it got me thinking: what if?

What if it were simply unacceptable to have one of the busiest train routes in the country shut down for four days straight? What if Amtrak were committed to keeping some minimal level of service?

The most obvious solution is that the line from New Haven merges right into the old Boston and Albany mainline, which is still used by Amtrak for the Lake Shore Limited. This Inland Route has been regularly used in the past for trains between New York and Boston, as recently as 2004. How many passenger trains a day could CSX squeeze into their schedule? How many freight trains would CSX have to suspend if Amtrak sent all their Northeast Corridor trains to Boston along this route?

The second solution is that the Northeast Corridor tracks connect at New London to the Connecticut Southern Railroad, which hooks up with the CSX line at Palmer. It's not that practical because the junction at Palmer is not set up to allow direct connections in that direction; the Vermonter trains have to make an awkward switch in the opposite direction, and any service from New London to Boston would have to make a similar switch. Also, Palmer is only twenty miles east of Springfield.

There used to be a cut-off line between what is now the Connecticut Southern at Willimantic, CT and the former Milford, Franklin and Providence Railroad into Boston. Sadly, that was abandoned in 1959 and is now partially converted into a rail-trail. Even I recognize that it would be pushing it to displace a rail-trail and re-lay sixty miles of track to avoid four days of interruption. Of course, it would have other benefits too, but it'd be incredibly expensive to do it between now and May.

There are ten trains a day in each direction between New York and Boston. The two alternate routes, via Hartford and via Willimantic, are both single-track for most of the way and shared with freight trains. They have also not received the kind of upkeep and reconstruction that the Northeast Corridor mainline has - no Acela speeds here. Still, they could do for four days. Here's my suggestion:

  1. Run five of the ten round-trips along the "Inland Route" through Hartford.

  2. Run five Shore Line East trains between New Haven (or Stamford) and New London, connecting with the "Inland Route" trains.

  3. Run one additional Vermonter service through New London and Willimantic instead of Hartford and Springfield.

  4. Run two round-trip New York-Boston trains through New London and Willimantic.

It would be a smaller number of trains, and it would be slower and more awkward, but it beats bustitution. And it sure beats nothing, doesn't it?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Safe Routes to Marathon Dominance

From the blog of Malcolm Gladwell comes this quote from an interview with marathon runner Alberto Salazar:

Salazar ticks off the ironic circumstances that seem to cast the U.S. as a Third World country in distance running: "As big as we are, we have fewer people to draw on. In Kenya there are probably a million schoolboys 10 to 17 years old who run 10 to 12 miles a day. That's how they get to and from school. The average Kenyan 18-year-old has run 15,000 to 18,000 more miles in his life than the average American -- and a lot of that's at altitude."

Kenya believe it? Salazar's claim is fascinating, which means it needs to be double-checked. I found confirmation in another Sports Illustrated article, this one by Tom Layden. After a week-long trip to Kenya, he writes:

After many years of hearing that Kenyan children develop early aerobic capacity by running to school, I found this myth to be ... pretty much true. To be fair, I saw more small children walking than running, but I also saw dozens and dozens of slender boys and girls, wearing school uniforms, running lightly along the endless rural red-clay highways of western Kenya. They moved beautifully through thin air, as if running was a natural act, which it can be.

Some people have questioned the relevance of this to marathon running. "Race realist" Steve Sailer writes, "Joe Sang, a Kenyan researcher, asked 20 international runners if they ran to school as kids and 14 said no." I'm not an expert in sports or evolutionary biology, so I'm going to steer clear of that debate.

There are plenty of other reasons why it's good to have forty percent of your school-age population running (and most of the rest walking) 5-6 miles a day. Even if they're not going to become the next Paul Tergat, they're still going to be in pretty good shape. Also, every kid or two running is one less car polluting the streets and running the kids over.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Sprawl, sustainability and foreclosure

Cars are bad in myriad ways. One of the worst is that a car-bound lifestyle is unsustainable. This is not just about the cost of gas. Taking a car everywhere requires people to have parking available for you everywhere you go. The larger the percentage of the population that has cars, the more parking required, the wider and less pedestrian-friendly the roads that are required, and the more money required to build and maintain those parking facilities and roads. It may be possible to sustain the large death toll from cars due to crashes, but it's not possible to sustain the death and disability due to pollution. If left to continue, they will most likely make the world uninhabitable in a few generations.

Everyone has noticed the suburban sprawl that's engulfed this country over the past ten years. (I know, it's more like sixty years, but the pace during the recent housing boom has been particularly stunning.) If, like me, you're concerned about sustainability, you've seen mile after mile of cookie-cutter houses being built on former farmland or desert and wondered, "what's going to happen to all this?"

What is going to happen to all these cheapo McMansions when we come to the end of our ability to sustain them? When it comes time to make a payment to maintain the roads and parking garages?

We're beginning to see a bit of that now. The workability of most of the new "exurbs" and "edge cities" was based on long drives in cars. Most of these "communities" are not built for walking, cycling or transit. Even if it was safe to walk, there is nowhere to walk to. If you're lucky, you can walk to a convenience store, but the supermarket is almost always out of walking distance, not to mention other shopping, schools, government offices and parks. Parks! I once lived in a house where it was inconvenient to walk to a park. And of course, jobs. Some of them with insane commutes, two hours and up.

With the recent rise in gas prices has come a wave of foreclosures. There's a relatively simple connection, as you can read in any number of stories. The Housing Bubble Blog has all the sprawl-bankruptcy horror stories you could ever want, but there's a nice summary in a study done by Sperling's Best Places.

The pattern boils down to this: someone plans a life in one of these sprawling subdivisions where they need a car for everything. They mortgage their property to the hilt, so that they have no wiggle room for an unforseen rise in expenses. One of these unforseen rises is in the price of gas. If they lived in a transit-oriented place, they could switch to transit, but no, they skipped that option. They're faced with an impossible choice: fuel their car, pay the mortgage, or buy groceries. They might not even be able to do two of these, let alone three. They're forced to foreclose.

If they recover, they may switch to something car-dependent but not quite as much. Perhaps they're able to refinance to a more reasonable mortgage, or they buy a car that gets better mileage. Maybe they buy or rent a house closer to work, or find a new job closer to home, or both. But they're not out of the woods yet.

Neither are the somewhat more sensible people who budgeted better, or already lived closer to work or drove a more efficient car. Gas prices aren't going down any time soon. I haven't studied the peak oil projections in detail, but they make sense to me. Even if the peak oilers are wrong in the short term, we're not going to have abundant sources of oil forever. And even if we manage to develop amazing batteries and find another fuel source, it's just incredibly inefficient to live miles from all your destinations and not be able to go anywhere without pushing tons of metal around with you. The Levittowns and Scottsdales of the '60s are more efficient than Fountain Hills, but they're still unsustainable. Eventually these people will have to move too.

We're talking about a huge migration. Over the past sixty years, people have migrated from the cities to the suburbs and "exurbs," and now they're all going to have to move back. Many of them have already started; it's no coincidence that high-density cities like New York and Chicago, and streetcar suburbs like Scarsdale and Winnetka, have been relatively immune to the foreclosure crisis: many of their residents can take transit to work and walk to the supermarket. In fact, the former "inner cities" have seen a "reverse white flight" of migrants from the suburbs.

The problem is that there's not going to be enough room for these migrants. We're talking millions of people, and the population has increased since their parents and grandparents moved out. Plus, much of the housing stock and transit infrastructure has been destroyed. Apartment buildings and stores knocked down for parking in a desperate attempt to save the "dying downtown"; trolley tracks ripped up, elevated railroads torn down, subway tunnels filled in, rail rights-of-way turned over to highways and recreation trails. Meanwhile, hundreds of McMansions accross the country sit empty, and their numbers will increase.

It's true that many of the houses built in the past fifteen (or fifty) years were built cheaply, but it's still a lot of sunk capital. We're going to need to find a way to rebuild towns quickly and cheaply, so we're going to need to figure out how to move these McMansions closer together - and closer to a train station - and convert them to apartment buildings. There's a lot of money in it for whoever figures out how.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Smith/9th Streets: What If?

Metro reports that the MTA's project to reconstruct the Culver Viaduct in Carroll Gardens will require them to close the Smith-9th Street station for up to a year, starting in 2010. The Daily News reports that people who use that station regularly aren't happy. The Brooklyn Eagle says that many Red Hook residents take the B77 bus to Smith/9th and transfer for the F to Manhattan. Curbed, the Gowanus Lounge, SubChat, Second Avenue Sagas, TransitBlogger and the Rider Diaries point out that this is a Bad Thing in the short term.

I don't know what the ridership figures are, but it's fair to say that this will inconvenience a lot of people. Nobody seems to have any ideas about how to mitigate this. Some of the reports say that the MTA will run a free shuttle bus to connect with the F and G at Carroll Street. Shuttle buses for a year One SubChat commenter suggests extending the B77 to 15th Street and adding service on the B75. Mostly, people seem pretty resigned to being inconvenienced. Craig Hammerman gives the usual Community Board whine about not being consulted sooner. Paul Fleuranges points out that there's no way to avoid closing the station - thanks, Paul! Sometimes I think transit advocates have been beaten down so much that they've sacrificed some of their imagination.

When I read something like this, I like to play a game of "what if?" As in, "What if I had an unlimited budget and supreme power?" Sometimes I get into wacky territory, but then I can pull back a bit and get something useful.

Okay, let's start with the wacky: if I really had unlimited budget, I'd dig a tunnel. The Culver Viaduct is said to have one of the best el views in the city, but it still slows down the trains a lot. And you can dig a tunnel first and then tear down the viaduct. I'm sure it would cost an arm and a leg, but they're talking about doing the same thing with the Gowanus Expressway viaduct. If it's worth a cost-benefit analysis for the cars, it's worth one for the trains, too.

Here's another possibility: what's the big problem with bustitution? Buses get stuck in traffic, a lot. This slows them down and makes them unreliable. There's no guarantee that the bus schedule will match up with the train schedule, meaning that people may have to wait for the bus and the train. This could add a lot to people's commute time.

This is not an impossible problem, just a very difficult one. The main thing that makes buses go slow is that they get stuck in traffic. So what if we got rid of the traffic? (Remember, we're still playing "what if?".) Let's take Smith Street and make it into a two-way dedicated busway, with only local car traffic allowed, like Fulton Street in Downtown Brooklyn. Ideally it would go all the way up to Borough Hall since many people transfer from the F or G to one of the other lines in Downtown Brooklyn, but just having it on the eight blocks from Ninth Street to Carroll Street would be a big help. Sure it would inconvenience a lot of drivers, but I'd like to see numbers: how many drivers would be inconvenienced by being barred from Smith Street versus how many subway riders would be inconvenienced by bustitution. If there was a problem with Smith Street, you could put it on Court, Columbia or Hicks.

My last idea would be the easiest to implement. Where are all these F train riders going? If they're staying on the F train, probably somewhere in Midtown. Plenty of them probably switch at Jay Street for the A train to downtown, though. Just six blocks west of the Smith/9th Station is the entrance to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, but even though the Red Hook and Carroll Gardens residents have to deal with the pollutants it brings to the air, if they have a car they can't use it without going to Staten Island or Canarsie.

Using the tunnel, a shuttle bus could probably get to the A train station at Broadway/Nassau in not much more time than it would take to get to the Carroll Street Station. And of course people would be able to transfer to all the subways that run through Lower Manhattan - or just walk to their jobs down there. If they really want to go to Midtown, the bus could be extended along Church Street or the FDR Drive to meet up with the F/V at West Fourth, or even all the way up to 57th Street. They should probably have something like that already, considering how badly served Red Hook is by transit.

I'm sure it would cost a lot of money to run the buses and pay the drivers, but come on: we're closing an entire station, and a busy one at that. I'd like to see a cost estimate. If it turns out that it's just too costly to run buses through the tunnel 24/7, how about just during rush hours? You wouldn't even need to set up an extra route: the x29 bus (PDF) from Coney Island goes right past the Smith/9th Street station and makes eleven runs every rush hour in peak directions. All it would have to do is pull off the expressway, pick up passengers and get in the tunnel.

So we've gone from the fabulously expensive to the pretty reasonable. I think some combination of these things with a shuttle to the Carroll Street Station would help. Considering some of these things is a lot better than just saying, "Gee, I guess we'll have to close the station. Sucks to be you!"

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Access Denied: ARC Nibbled to Death

In 1955 Paris had six major train stations, all with commuter rail components, and three commuter rail lines that terminated in small stub stations. All of these lines stopped short of the heart of the capital, requiring passengers to transfer to the metro if they were going to central locations or to the other side of the city. The metro system had only two-track local lines, which meant a frustrating trip for anyone who wanted to go any distance within the city.

The 1965 infrastructure master plan laid forth a grand vision for access to the city, which has gradually been put into practice. Four new tunnels were bored deep below the surface, connecting the stub stations with the commuter rail networks of four of the major stations. Two gigantic new stations (Châtelet-Les Halles and Saint-Michel-Notre-Dame) were created in the center of the city to allow transfers between the lines, and a series of stations were created along the lines allowing transfers to the metro. A zone payment system was implemented, allowing people to use the new Regional Express Network (RER) for intra-city trips at the same price as the metro, and with the same tickets. The result is that people from the suburbs can now be almost anywhere in the city in a short period of time, and people can cross the city quickly.

In New York in 1955, there was a similar situation. There were two major stations in Midtown Manhattan, four major terminals just across the river (Weehawken, Hoboken, Exchange Place, Communipaw Terminal and Long Island City) and two stub terminals (Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn and Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx). Four other stub terminals (Bay Ridge and Bushwick Terminals in Brooklyn, 180th Street in the Bronx and Saint George in Staten Island) had lost passenger service earlier in the century, but still had the tracks in place. Two subway lines, the Flushing and Canarsie Lines, also stub-ended under 41st and 14th Streets.

Instead of a visionary plan like in Paris, New York's leaders chose to retrofit the city for the automobile. Between 1955 and 1965 they opened the Tappan Zee Bridge, the Newark Bay Bridge, a third tube for the Lincoln Tunnel, a lower level for the George Washington Bridge, the Throgs Neck Bridge and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Long Island Expressway, the Garden State Parkway, the New England Thruway and Interstate routes 78, 80 and 84 and a section of the FDR Drive were built during this time.

In the meantime, rail infrastructure in the New York area languished. The Independent Subway Second System plans collected dust on the shelves. The New York, Westchester and Boston Railroad had already been cut back to the city line and turned into a branch of the IRT. The Putnam Line, which terminated at Sedgwick Avenue, was torn up and is now a recreational trail. Bushwick Terminal was closed and the tracks removed. The Central Railroad of New Jersey bridge across Newark Bay was torn down, and the Communipaw Terminal at Jersey City turned into a museum. The Pennsylvania Railroad's Exchange Place terminal and the West Shore Line's Weehawken Terminal were abandoned along with their tunnels through the Palisades. Staten Island's North Shore Line and the Arthur Kill Lift Bridge were also taken out of use. Traffic to Hoboken and Long Island City was gradually reduced. In a symbolic attack on the rail system, Penn Station's celebrated above-ground structure was demolished and replaced with a new Madison Square Garden arena.

While Paris built several expressways as well, during the economic crisis of the 1970s they chose to abandon their expressway plans and focus on the RER, while New York abandoned its subway plans and focused on roads. The single major rail project that was completed during that time was the 63rd Street tunnel, but its lower-level tubes, intended for commuter rail use, have still not been connected to anything, and have been called "the tunnel to nowhere." A few minor connections made slight improvements in the system, but there were still obvious deficiencies. Most of the trains terminated at Penn Station, but a large number of jobs are in East Midtown or Downtown, requiring a subway transfer. Travelling between Queens and New Jersey, or Brooklyn and Westchester County, requires a series of complicated transfers.

In the 1990s transportation planners, perhaps motivated by the success of Paris's RER, proposed a series of upgrades to connect portions of the transit system. A few of these have been put in place, mostly by New Jersey Transit. The Kearny Connection allowed Morris and Essex Line trains to enter Penn Station, the Montclair Connection allowed Boonton Line trains to use the Kearny tracks and the Secaucus Transfer allowed passengers from the ex-Erie and Pascack Valley lines to transfer to Penn Station-bound trains. The Weehawken tunnel was converted to light rail use, allowing residents of that area to reach jobs, trains and ferries along the waterfront. In addition, there are plans to extend the Long Island Rail Road Flatbush branch to Lower Manhattan, and to revive service on Staten Island's North Shore and West Shore lines, probably with light rail.

More exciting was a grand vision for connecting job sites in Midtown Manhattan. The #7 subway tunnel would be extended west to the planned Hudson Yards development and the Javits Center. The Long Island Rail Road would use the 63rd Street Tunnel to connect to Grand Central, freeing up space for Metro-North trains to terminate in Penn Station via the Empire Connection and Hell Gate Bridge. In the "Acces to the Region's Core" plan, a new tunnel under the Hudson would allow more New Jersey trains to reach Midtown; a 2002 bulletin from the Regional Plan Association shows them making a loop through Penn Station, Grand Central, Rockefeller Center and the planned Hudson Yards development. Finally, to the symbolic wound from the destruction of Penn Station, the old Farley Post Office one block to the west would be converted to a new Moynihan Station.

This grand plan had its faults, but it would have been a big improvement. Now, ten years later, it's in tatters. The MTA has forsaken any attempt to connect Long Island Railroad trains with the actual Grand Central structure, preferring to dig a tiny terminal deep underground, with a single exit to 42nd Street and difficult subway transfers. New Jersey Transit's loop has shrunk to a single six-track station under 34th Street, which is also deep below the ground and unconnected to any other tracks. Worse, both of these plans leave no opportunity for expansion: the NJ Transit station terminates in front of Water Tunnel #1. The #7 train extension will only be a single stop, possibly even without the shell of an intermediate station. The Moynihan Station will not allow rail passengers to connect to any new subways, and it is unclear what use it will be, except as a waiting area and a symbol.

Even these plans, though, did not allow for through-running of trains between the three major commuter rail systems. They did nothing to unify the three incompatible electrification systems currently in use, create connections between the various lines, or revive dormant lines like the Bergen Arches, the Bushwick Branch and the Putnam Line. The light rail line proposed for Staten Island's North Shore Branch would not connect take advantage of the recently rebuilt Arthur Kill bridge to connect the island with the mainland.

The New Jersey Association of Rail Passengers has been a persistent critic of the awfully-named "THE Tunnel" project. The Regional Rail Working Group has been a critic of the LIRR East Side Access project and a big supporter of through-running.

Every year the components of this plan become less useful and more symbolic. I think it's time to pause and reconsider. With the money we have, do we really want to wind up with three "tunnels to nowhere" and a glorious station structure that adds no functionality whatsoever? If we're spending the money to dig deep, why not dig tunnels that could eventually connect to each other, or to existing tunnels? Let's see what we have and what we can afford. Let's try to overcome the archaic territorial divisions between the various counties of New York and New Jersey, and the Byzantine boundaries between New Jersey Transit, the Port Authority and the various MTA fiefdoms. Let's stop worrying about offending Senator Moynihan's friends and family, who probably don't take the train anyway. Let's do something real.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Geography of Saratoga

Streetsblog linked today to an interesting blog post by James Howard Kunstler. I have to confess from the beginning that I haven't read any of Kunstler's books, only a few articles.

In general, however, I agree with his positions that suburban sprawl is unsustainable (and generally feh), subsidizing car infrastructure is a waste of money, and we should be improving our trains and pedestrian facilities. I also agree, in general, with his critique of the transportation politics of his own hometown of Saratoga Springs. It's a critique that applies around the country, including in my own neck of the woods.

Given all that, I was surprised to discover that I know more than Kunstler about rail service to Saratoga. He claims that there is one train a day in each direction, that they're "invariably late, and not just a little late, but hours late," and that there is "no awareness among the public here, or our leaders, that we would benefit from improving the passenger railroad service, and around the state of New York generally there is no conversation about fixing the railroads."

I visited Saratoga four years ago by train, and in some ways the picture is worse than Kunstler paints it. Back when most people arrived at Saratoga by train, the train station was a block from Main Street. They tore up those tracks years ago, and now the trains stop a mile and a half out of town. It's not a particularly nice walk, and neither is the walk to the spa or to Yaddo. Bus service is infrequent, indirect and not tourist-oriented. The Convention and Tourism Bureau and Chamber of Commerce websites give extensive driving directions, but don't mention bus or train service.

In many ways, though, Kunstler's view of train service is inaccurate. There are two trains a day passing through Saratoga in either direction: one from New York City to Montreal and one to Rutland, Vermont, with relatively convenient schedules for tourists. Lateness is a problem on Amtrak, but the trains through Saratoga aren't as late as often as he suggests. Once you get downtown, it's very walkable. When we were there, the city was just building a new station, which subsequently opened with fanfare. There is a conversation about fixing the railroads in New York State; just read the back issues of the ESPA newsletter to find out about it. Based on this, it seems clear that Kunstler rarely, if ever, takes the train.

Okay, so big whoop. Two trains a day! And they're not as late as you think they are! People are talking about railroads, just not enough! I know, I know. There's no question that more could be done to improve transit service and pedestrian infrastructure in Saratoga. The number one thing would be for the city to run a free shuttle bus - with room for luggage - from the train station to downtown every day. There are only four trains; how hard can it be to meet each of them?

The second would be for the state to finally double-track the rail line between Albany and Schenectady. The third would be to extend the double-tracking to Saratoga, and replace the jointed track with continuous welded rail as is used south of Albany.

The City of Saratoga Springs should make a list of the top tourist destinations (ours were the spa, the racetrack/museum and Yaddo; SPAC is right near the spa) and try walking to them (and the train station) from downtown. Most of the walks were fine, but in each case there were a few blocks that were extremely unpleasant. It wouldn't take much to add a few blocks of sidewalks and/or trails.

Finally, I have to add: why no love for the springs themselves? We tasted all the waters, and it was fun! As far as I know, we were the only ones doing that. And the spa was about as elegant and relaxing as taking a hot bath in your high school locker room. Compare that to Karlovy Vary, or even Truth or Consequences, New Mexico!

With all that said, I'd still go back to Saratoga, and I think you should too. If you're not big on horses, go when the races are over for cheaper rates. Stay in one of the awesome Victorian hotels. Drink the waters. Admire the architecture. Shop at the Price Chopper supermarket where the train station used to be. And go by train - it's not that difficult!

Here's a list of bus routes in Saratoga with links to schedules; Routes 471 and 472 connect the train station with Downtown. They leave on the hour and at five minutes after the hour - never mind that the trains don't get there anywhere near that time.

Here are Amtrak timetables in PDF format for the Adirondack and the Ethan Allen Express.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Towards a Million Fattie March

I first heard about Fat March in the magazine of the Rails to Trails Conservancy, to which I am a contributor. The RTC (no, not that RTC) helps to fund and lobby for the creation and maintenance of rail-trails throughought the country. They sponsor a useful database of rail-trails and other greenways throughout the country.

Rail-trails are good for a number of reasons. They give people a place to exercise and connect them to nature and parks. Overall, they provide a safe route for non-motorized travel, which can be hard to come by in many parts of the country. In many ways they're more useful than hiking trails, because they generally have low grades and wide curves, and many of them connect transit, residential areas and parks. There's something a little sad about them, though: once a right-of-way has been railbanked, it's very unlikely that train service will be restored.

Rail-trails are very well suited to long distance walking. The Fat March route used a number of trails in the Northeast, including the Hop River rail-trail in Connecticut and the Northern Central rail-trail in Maryland. The show's producers had help from the RTC in picking trails. Executive producer Julie Laughlin said this about rail-trails to Rails to Trails Magazine: "They're absolutely perfect for us. When you do a reality show, there is quite an entourage that goes with it. It's hard to be on city streets." By contrast, walking on roads is "nerve-wracking, it's noisy and it's hard to talk with one another." Fat March trainer Steve Pfiester told the magazine that the trails allowed the marchers to make the most progress. "When we get on [the rail-trails], we're just hauling butt."

Rail-trails and other greenways (and pedestrian infrastructure in general) could use some help. A large number of households are located in areas where it is not safe or comfortable for people to walk. By any measure, pedestrian projects receive only a tiny fraction of the public money spent on transportation. Many of the greenways are not connected to each other, or to transit, at more than one point, making them difficult, if not impossible, to access without a car. Many of the longer greenways do not have accessible hotels or campgrounds, making it difficult to arrange multi-day trips.

As a big fan of rail-trails and long-distance walking in general, I was thrilled to see them get exposure on a high-rated national prime-time television show. This will allow even more people to make the connection between rail-trails and health. I was disappointed that, although you see lots of trails on the show, the trails are never mentioned by name. Neither is the RTC or the East Coast Greenway Alliance, which has done a lot of work promoting trails in this area.

There isn't even a link to RTC or the ECGA on the Fat March website, and most surprisingly, there's no mention of it on the websites of those organizations. The RTC already had the product placement; I would have expected them to negotiate having the trails named on the show, or even buy an ad on the show or sponsor the website. A co-branded website could have brought in tons of donations and political support for rail-trails. I think they missed a big opportunity.

It's still not too late, though. Hopefully there will be another season of Fat March next year. In the meantime, I'll be that some of this year's Marchers are available for sponsorship. Imagine a commercial featuring Chantal or Matt saying "Donate to the Rails to Trails Conservancy. Because we all need a place to walk." Imagine a press release for a trail ribbon-cutting "featuring Sam from Fat March!" Imagine Anthony sending a letter to his fans asking them to write their representatives for more money for transportation enhancements.

In any case, this is your Cap'n speaking. I encourage you to donate to the RTC or the ECGA, and to write a letter to your representatives saying that you support greenways - for our health.

Too Fat to March?

I just finished watching the pilot season of a new reality TV show, Fat March. I actually watched the whole thing on streaming video from ABC's website, and I highly recommend it. This post contains spoilers, so watch it before you read beyond the third paragraph if you don't want your experience spoiled.

From what I understand, Fat March is based on Too Big to Walk?, a reality show produced by Channel 4 in Great Britain. I wanted to watch the British version, but Channel 4 doesn't even offer clips for free. I tried to pay to watch it, but they won't even allow you to do that if you don't live in the UK.

The show begins in Boston with twelve people, ranging in weight from 225 to 500 pounds, all classified as morbidly obese by their body-mass indices. Accompanied by a staff of forty people, including two personal trainers, production crew and medics, they set out on foot for Washington, DC, a distance of over 550 miles. The show was filmed over a ten-week period, divided into seven "stages," and an episode was broadcast devoted to each stage. The marchers slept in tents every night, but every stage featured a "challenge" where the participants had a chance to win additional prizes, usually including spa services and a night in a hotel.

Every marcher who made it to DC on schedule received a share of the prize money, and at the end of each stage the participants had a chance to "vote people off"; anyone who got at least one vote had to leave the show. The twist was that the prize money decreased by $10,000 per person for everyone who left the show, so the marchers had an incentive to cooperate.

I found the show to be entertaining and inspiring, and I'm hoping that ABC continues it, but there are a few things that I hope they do differently next season. The first is that the producers seemed to see interpersonal drama as a necessity to keep viewers hooked, so every episode devoted a significant amount of time to squabbles within the group. I was interested by the challenges of building and maintaining a team that could last through challenges like this, but I wasn't too interested by the "romantic" angles or the bickering. I would rather have seen less of this.

The next is that the guys who left the show were all the heaviest ones. I think that undermines the message of the show, and gives a contrary one: that some people are "too big to walk." Two of them had legitimate health problems that prevented them from participating, but the other two were voted off because their teammates thought they wouldn't be able to keep the pace set by the producers. To me that suggests that the pace was too tight. Can we imagine a show like this where the only reason people leave is because they're lazy or disruptive?

I've got a lot more to say about the show and long-distance walking, but this post is long enough, so I'll write about that soon.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Park and Rides are Not the Answer

Streetsblog just linked to this New York Times article about how congestion pricing could encourage commuters from the suburbs to take the train or bus instead of driving all the way into Manhattan.

Here's what Times reporter Ken Belson and the planners he interviewed are afraid of:

Still, the money generated from congestion pricing will take years to collect and spend. In the meantime, suburban commuters face crippling traffic jams, overcrowded trains and buses and a shortage of parking spaces at stations. So any new riders might be getting on trains and buses already running at capacity.

Regional governments should be looking to increase train and bus capacity and to encourage private bus operators to get into the act. Here's what they shouldn't be doing:

Mr. Cameron said that 15 percent of Metro-North trains are out of service every day, and Connecticut residents must wait an average of four years to get reserved parking spots at stations on the New Haven Line. There are similarly chronic shortages in New Jersey, Westchester and Long Island. At the Princeton Junction station in West Windsor, there are 3,560 spots to accommodate 7,080 daily riders.


New Jersey Transit and the state’s Department of Transportation have added nearly 15,000 parking spots at train, bus and light-rail stations since 2002 and expect to build an additional 3,700 in the next three years to keep up with ridership, which has hit records the past several years.

Mr. Kolluri and transportation officials elsewhere say that more spaces could be added, but that many towns are unwilling to accept them because they fear an increase in traffic — the same problem that has led Mr. Bloomberg to pursue congestion pricing so vigorously.

Okay, Messrs. Cameron, Kolluri and Belson, repeat after me:

Park and Rides are Not the Answer.
Park and Rides are Not the Answer.
Park and Rides are Not the Answer.

The town leaders have it right: if you build parking, it encourages people to drive. What is the answer? Make it easier for people to get to the train or bus station ... without driving! That cuts down on traffic in the suburbs, which is almost as big a problem as in the city.

The best answer: make it easy for them to walk.

Look at each station, and figure out how many commuters live within a comfortable walking distance. Try walking around the area: does it feel safe? Are there nice, wide sidewalks? Safe places to cross the street? Interesting things to look at? Stores to stop in along the way? If not, build them!

The next best answer: get them to live within walking distance.

All three of the tri-states have made noises about slowing sprawl and encouraging transit-oriented development. But go to any Long Island train station and you won't find too many people living in town. There are stores and parking lots ... and more stores and parking lots. From most of the elevated LIRR stations you can see that the areas behind the stores have been hollowed out to make more parking lots. To find actual houses and apartments you have to walk a while. I know people who've moved to the Island and haven't been able to find an affordable apartment near the train. Fix this. Change the zoning so that developers can build apartment buildings (without parking garages; I'm looking at you, New Rochelle) right near the train and shopping. They walk to the train; no traffic!

The next thing: jitneys and shuttles

Many suburban houses, if they're not walking distance to a train, are a short ride away. If these people ride to the train, they probably don't spend more than fifteen minutes in the car, and most of that is spent sitting in traffic. If they could spend ten minutes on a shuttle bus, they probably would. Make it a small, low-floor bus that can zip through subdivisions. Don't have just three buses that take forever to wind through every cul-de-sac; run a whole bunch. Don't make a lot of widely-spaced bus stops that they have to walk to, make it so that they can just walk to the end of their driveway fifteen minutes before the train leaves, hop on and go.

You tried buses and nobody rode them? Well, the start of the congestion pricing trial is the perfect time to start new habits. Rather than training a whole bunch of new train riders to drive to the station, make the bus easy. Make it free for the first month. Offer free service for a year (and maybe a cash payout too) for anyone who gives up their reserved parking spot. Identify some neighborhood "thought leaders" and do whatever it takes to convince them to ride the bus. If Bob the Systems Administrator sees Liz the Senior VP from Mutual Funds waiting for the bus, maybe he'll try it too.

I'm not even a marketing consultant. I bet a marketing consultant could come up with some even better answers. But please, please move away from the same old sprawl-inducing stopgaps. Repeat after me one more time:

Park and Rides are Not the Answer!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Please Give to the Anti-Curb Cut Fund!

We know that cars are bad.

Curb cuts, driveways and garages are also bad. They look bad, and they get in the way of people trying to walk down the street. But most importantly, they're bad because they make it easier for people to own cars!

I once rented a house that not only had a curb cut, but a driveway and a garage. I didn't own a car, so I rode around town with the garage door opener on the handlebars of my bike. It was fun for a little while, but then I realized that it was kind of a waste of space, even though it was a small garage. I talked to my landlord, and he took $50 off my monthly rent and rented the garage to the guy who lived behind us.

But I know that not everyone is like me, and most Americans would see a garage as a valuable place to store a car. In dense cities like New York, not having a garage or a driveway can deter some people from even owning a car (or a second car), because it's so hard to find (or afford) parking.

In my neighborhood there is a significant opposition to curb cuts, largely on aesthetic grounds. There are restrictions against putting in curb cuts in some areas, but once someone's poured the concrete, there's no easy way to get rid of them. Even if the owners move, it's very likely that they'll sell the place to someone who wants to use the curb cut. Who would buy a house with a curb cut just to tear it out and re-sod the grass? This is a source of frustration for many of my neighbors.

But now I have an idea: use the Power of Real Estate!

I recently heard a neighbor talking about how she had had trouble with a nearby business that attracted undesirables (my word - read what you like into it), so she bought the building, closed down the establishment and opened a different one, that brought in a different clientele. The things you can do if you can afford to buy a building - or borrow enough!

I thought about that in relation to curb cuts. Imagine if, whenever there's a house with a curb cut on the market you could buy it, tear up the driveway and put down grass. If there's a driveway or parking lot, tear that up too. If there's a garage, renovate it into a basement, workshop or sitting room. You might get less money for it in the end, but wouldn't it be worth it? How much would you pay to get rid of a curb cut?

You wouldn't even have to buy the house. You could just make an offer to the buyer and the seller: you'll tear up the curb cut at your own expense, or reimburse the owner for tearing it up. And you'll pay the closing costs, or maybe the difference between the purchase price and an estimate of what it would have gone for with a curb cut. That would probably come to less than $5,000, right? In exchange, the buyer has to sign a 99-year covenant saying that if they ever put in a curb cut, they forfeit the property to the neighborhood association.

Hey, the house wouldn't even need to change hands. You could offer the current owners the same deal without selling: you'll tear out the curb cut at your expense and pay a lump sum in exchange for the covenant.

Okay, so you don't have a spare $5 grand sitting around. But could you find four neighbors who'd each be willing to spend $1000 to get rid of that curb cut down the block? Or 99 neighbors willing to spend $500 each to help get rid of ten curb cuts in your neighborhood? It might not even need $5,000; I think it only costs $350 to tear up a driveway. You could maybe find a rich anti-curb-cut philanthropist or foundation to give you a matching grant. Or have a fundraising party, or solicit donations on the street. It's an environmentalist action, after all, and helps to stop global warming!

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Some Basics

Here are some basic assumptions on this blog. I'm well aware that not everyone agrees with them, and I know that they're not true in all circumstances. But, this blog is not a place for discussing them. These are some background assumptions. I may change them as time goes on or add justifications for them, but for now feel free to critique them ...elsewhere.
  • Cars are bad
  • Transit is good
  • Walking and cycling are good
  • Trains are better than buses