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 fa├žade, 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.