Saturday, December 27, 2008

Real Rail Access for Raleigh

Logan Nash over at Trains for America blogs about how increased train ridership means that some Amtrak stations are overburdened.

I'm all in favor of increasing station capacity to meet demand - in terms of station size, facilities and staffing, but much of the article is concerned about parking. The News and Observer writes, "A record Thanksgiving crush saw as many as 900 passengers a day streaming through a station that has only 57 parking spaces." As you may remember, I don't believe that park-and-rides are the answer, because they undermine transit-oriented development. Amtrak, the State of North Carolina and the various local governments should at least look into other ways of getting people to and from the station.

This map shows that in 1895 there were thirteen train stations in Wake County. The population then was around 50,000, and last year it was 833,000. The N&O says that Patrick B. Simmons, Rail Division chief for the North Carolina state Department of Transportation, "lives in North Raleigh, but he drives to Durham when he has to catch a train because it's easier to find parking there."

In what's now North Raleigh, there were stations in Forestville, Wyatt, Neuse and Millbrook. What if Mr. Simmons were able to convince the State to fund the extension of the Piedmont trains to Wake Forest or even Henderson? They could restart service in some of the in-between stations - with small parking lots, enough to take the burden off of the Raleigh station. Reopening of stops at Garner, Auburn and Clayton along the Carolinian would also help, as would some of the stops that both trains pass, such as Method and Nelson.

It's great that some people are changing part of their trips to train. What would it take for them to make the whole trip by train?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Who Does the City Council Represent?

It would be nice if drivers, pedestrians, transit riders and other road users could all get along. Unfortunately, it doesn't really work out that way. First and most importantly is the carnage: the demand to "move traffic" creates a danger to pedestrians and cyclists - and of course car drivers and passengers themselves. Second, there's only so much land to go around, particularly in a densely settled area like New York, and the more of that land is devoted to cars, the less is available for pedestrians, etc. Third, there's only so much money in the budgets of various transportation funders, and the more money that goes to cars and general-purpose lanes, the less is available for transit, etc.



When these conflicts get fought in the City Council, pedestrians, transit riders and cyclists would like to feel that their city council members are fighting for them. Sometimes they are, as in the case of Rosie Mendez, in whose Lower East Side district 81.8% of households do not own a car. Mendez not only voted against caps on pedicabs and for congestion pricing, but rode in a pedicab to participate in a Critical Mass ride in 2007.

Inversely, Jim Oddo represents a central Staten Island district where only 17.7% of households do not own a vehicle. It's not too surprising that he voted for the cap on pedicabs and against congestion pricing, even though it would only have affected 6.2% of his constituents.

The councilmembers are individuals, and their votes on these issues don't always follow the purchases of their constituents. There were some pleasant surprises, such as when Tony Avella (14.9% car-free households) voted against the pedicab cap, or when Michael McMahon (29.2% car-free) voted for congestion pricing.

What's more disturbing is when councilmembers from "green" districts hampered bills that would have helped their constituents. For example, 80.8% of households in Speaker Quinn's district do not own cars, but she sponsored the pedicab cap bill. All ten of the councilmembers from "green" districts voted for congestion pricing, but Alan Gerson waffled on the issue before the vote, potentially giving cover to the "concerns" of assemblymembers like Deborah Glick that ultimately led to the defeat of the plan. A few councilmembers from "yellow" districts, like Brooklyn councilmembers Diana Reyna and Matthieu Eugene, voted for the pedicab cap and against congestion pricing, despite the fact that 70% of the households in Reyna's district and 67.3% in Eugene's don't have a car.

Friday, December 19, 2008

A Council that Looks Like New York City

In recent posts, I've documented the low levels of car ownership in the city: in fully three-fifths of City Council districts, the majority of households do not own a car. If the council members were chosen at random, we would expect that at least thirty of them would not be car-owners. Here's that lovely map again:



At this point, I honestly don't know about the transportation arrangements of the incumbent councilmembers, and maybe there'll be some pleasant surprises, but I'd be really shocked if more than a handful were car-free, or even took the subway on a regular basis. I do know that Speaker Quinn is driven around in a ginormous city-owned SUV, despite living just a half hour's walk from City Hall. Lew Fidler drives a silver Infiniti. It's my understanding that every councilmember is given at least one reserved parking space somewhere in Lower Manhattan, and a placard, if not a custom license plate.

If any of you have information on the car ownership or commuting habits of other city councilmembers, please leave it in the comments or send an email.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The White Zone

As long as you have cars on a street, people are going to need to load and unload them. This is a pretty basic fact, but you'd be surprised to know how often it's ignored. The most recent example is in the redesign of Grand Street in Soho that was implemented this fall.

In the past there weren't as many cars, so the city could simply provide one big pool of curbside parking and there was enough for long-term parking, short-term parking and loading. Over the past fifty years more people have acquired cars, and long-term storage has crowded out loading.

Of course, the need to load and unload has never gone away. People have developed ad hoc workarounds, but they just pass the problem on to someone else. Parking on the sidewalk takes space from pedestrians and puts lives in danger. Parking in bike lanes too. Enough said about those.

The other fix, double-parking, is not much better. When it blocks an entire travel lane it causes congestion and inspires horn-honking, one of the chief complaints about the new Grand Street design.

Before the bike lane was added to Grand Street, there was a single travel lane that was wide enough for drivers to double-park and for other drivers to pass them. From a motorist's point of view this may sound ideal, but it's bad for pedestrians and cyclists. The street alternated unpredictably between stretches where a car could comfortably pass a cyclist (or vice versa) and stretches where a the safest action was for the cyclist to ride in the middle of the remaining pavement, preventing unsafe passing but potentially provoking reckless actions from impatient drivers.

The other main problem was that it was simply a waste of space. At a given time there may be two or three cars unloading on a single block, but an entire lane-width was sacrificed for this 24/7.

The current design is a big improvement: it takes that lane-width and allocates it to bikes, making east-west travel much easier. Most notably, the innovative layout uses parked cars to prevent drivers from blocking the bike lane. It even addresses the issue of loading space during business hours, but for some reason not on weekends, which is what some residents are complaining about. It simply needs to be adjusted so that there is room for loading on weekends. Future street design changes should similarly leave space for loading and unloading.

A thought came to me when I was writing this: in many bike lane installations like this, there is often opposition from "community leaders," who usually happen to be motorists. The DOT regularly assures motorists that no parking spaces will be sacrificed for the bike lane. In this case, they were not being truthful; it's not clear whether they anticipated the conflict over loading, but from now on they really have no excuse.

It's not fair - or necessarily even effective - to put in the bike lane and leave the bike activists to fight with residents over loading zones. It runs the risk of provoking a backlash that could convince skittish politicians to abandon the bike lane. From now on the DOT and bike lane proponents should be up-front about the need for loading zones pretty much around the clock.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Transit Shouldn't Always Be Free

Lately there's been a lot of talk about making transit free. It's been done in some places, like downtown Portland, Oregon. It's been championed by Ted Kheel and Charles Komanoff, in a plan that was recently updated (see this Streetsblog discussion). There's a whole blog devoted to the idea, and the editors of the blog post comments on other blogs.

I have a lot of respect for Komanoff, and the idea isn't stupid by any means. There are probably many situations where it makes sense, such as on buses in Midtown, as suggested by the RPA. However, I've come to the conclusion that free transit is generally not a good idea.

Kheel and Komanoff acknowledge that transit fares can function as congestion pricing to discourage overuse of the system, and because of this their latest proposal includes subway fares during rush hour. Matt Yglesias expands on this idea in a recent blog post.

I've realized, though, that in this issue (as in many issues regarding support for transit), people come to the table with different goals. I can think of a few reasons for supporting free transit, and depending on which one(s) motivate you, you may or may not be interested in alternative methods or discouraged by negative consequences. Free transit has the potential to:

  • Encourage choice of efficient/less-polluting/community-building modes

  • Encourage travel (and therefore commuting, shopping, socializing)

  • Relieve the burden of poverty

  • Reduce the cost of collecting fares


The fare-collection issue is a big one, but the cost of fare collection can be reduced by using proof-of-payment systems. The burden of poverty can be reduced by tax credits, need-based subsidies or other systems (in Curitiba, Jaime Lerner paid people in bus tokens for recyclables brought to collection stations). An effective transportation system encourages travel all by itself; in order to be effective it doesn't have to be free, just affordable.

That leaves us with the first reason: encouraging use of transit because it's more efficient, less polluting and builds better communities (and yes, I know that last one is very loaded). Of course it's not transit itself, but encouraging transit use relative to car use. And to do that you don't need to have free transit, only transit that's a better value than driving.

Free transit is not guaranteed to be a better value than driving. In many places, for a significant segment of the population, transit is practically free anyway. I mean that in the literal sense of "practically": it costs so little relative to some people's incomes that it might as well be free. But it's not a better value because in these places it has non-monetary costs: it requires more waiting and offers less flexible schedules, and often doesn't even go near where a potential user wants to go. So the freeness doesn't make it worthwhile. It may even lead people to believe that transit is worthless.

One major objection that I have to free transit is that it can discourage the development of for-profit transit. How can you make a profit if you don't charge for anything you sell? Or if you're competing with the same thing offered for free by the government? It can be done (I've paid good money to for-profit water suppliers when there was free government water available right nearby), but it's another challenge in a field fraught with challenges.

I'm also a proponent of farebox recovery. When a public transit operator can reduce the subsidies necessary to run a route without driving people away from transit and into cars, then I think they should.

So that's why I think the Kheel Plan still goes too far, and why free-transit absolutism is misguided. Free public transit? In certain places at certain times, yes. Everywhere, all the time, no.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Saving the Vermonter

I don't really understand how this happened. Earlier this year, the state of Vermont had plans to buy three diesel-multiple-unit railcars from Colorado Railcar, with very good financing from the FRA. The railcars were estimated to save Vermont so much that the operating costs plus the loan payments would be cheaper than running the Vermonter with the current equipment.

In June, the Governor suddenly backed off the deal, apparently because they couldn't return the railcars for 90% of the price if they weren't satisfied. Now word is that the state is considering suspending the $5 million a year that it budgets to subsidize the service.

With all the wild figures that have been floating around over the past few months, somehow $5 million a year seems like a really tiny amount. Especially when we're talking about rail service for an entire state. And of course it's exactly the wrong direction to be going in; at this time the price of gas and jet fuel may be low, but we don't want to count on that. I'll write more about this later.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

City Council Quintiles

I've made a couple changes to this map that I made the other day:



I divided the Council up by quintiles because any more than five colors and it gets hard to read. The "green quintile" is the areas with over 75.5% of households without a car; these ten districts include lower and Midtown Manhattan (some of the densest areas in the country), Upper Manhattan and most of the South Bronx. Lots of apartment buildings, lots of subway access.

The "yellow quintile" contains ten districts between 64.4 and 75.4%. It includes the Upper East and West Sides (which are just as dense as the green districts but where the residents believe that their wealth entitles them to drive to their summer homes), a good chunk of Brownstone Brooklyn extending out to East Flatbush, Greenpoint and Williamsburg, and Joel Rivera's transitional Central Bronx district (which includes dense areas like West Farms and more spread-out areas like Belmont). Slightly less dense, but lots of attached row houses and projects. Still good subway access and not much parking.

The "orange quintile" has the rest of the majority-carless households; I moved Dom Recchia's district (Bensonhurst and Coney Island, at 50.8%) into this quintile for the new version. These eleven districts contain a mix of row-house and apartment districts (South Brooklyn, Astoria, Coney Island, Ocean Parkway, Soundview) and areas with more detached houses (East Elmhurst, Windsor Terrace, Morris Park, Bensonhurst).

The "red quintile" contains a number of "transit villages" with lots of apartment buildings (Forest Hills, Bay Ridge, Flushing), detached houses on relatively small plots (Forest Hills Gardens, Springfield Gardens, Throgs Neck). These ten districts also include some areas with lots of apartment buildings that are not well-served by transit, like Riverdale, Co-Op City and Far Rockaway. I moved James Sanders' district (Southeast Queens, 31.2% of households carfree) from the purple quintile into the red for this version.

Finally, the "purple quintile" includes the most suburban parts of the city, such as Staten Island (with no direct rail connection to Manhattan), Marine Park and Douglaston (parts of which feel like a North Shore Long Island town). It also includes the Central Queens district recently won by Anthony Como in a special election, containing the neighborhoods of Maspeth, Middle Village and Glendale. Of the neighborhoods in these districts, only a few have subway service (Howard Beach, Rockaway Park, Woodhaven), but that service is slow and infrequent. The more affluent parts of Northeastern and Southeastern Queens have Long Island Railroad stations, but the coverage isn't very good. Also, most of the properties are large enough to hold driveways.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Reflecting what?

From an article by Peter Baker in yesterday's Times (emphasis mine):

Ideas that used to be considered on the fringe are now much more centrist, including heavy government spending in the short term to lift the economy and addressing energy and climate change through green technology.


Sigh. Yes, "green technology" like walking, cycling, buses and trains. Somewhere between the progressive transportation campaigns and Baker, the message got fouled up. I'm not sure which of these it is:
  • Walking, cycling, buses and trains are still on the fringe, and liberals haven't embraced them yet.

  • Serious support for non-car transportation is going mainstream, but the mainstream still doesn't think of it as a reasonable way to address climate change.

  • Mainstream liberals get the non-car thing, but liberal policy wonks don't.

  • Liberal policy wonks get the non-car thing, but mainstream reporters like Baker doesn't.

In any case, I think all the links on that chain could use more work.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The City Council

I was thinking recently, and I realized that I couldn't remember ever seeing a map of the City Council districts by household car ownership. I took the car ownership census data from the Tri-State/Pratt factsheets, the map from the Department of City Planning, and used the Gotham Gazette's City Council district information as a reference.



The color code is as follows, in terms of the percentage of households with no cars:




Green75.5-82%
Yellow64-75.5%
Orange51-64%
Red34.5-51%
Purple10-34.5%


Enjoy!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Enough with the "roads and bridges" already

I swear if I hear "roads and bridges" one more time in a news story about infrastructure spending, I'm gonna hurt somebody. And I'm not the only one.

Yes, it's a good idea to reduce unemployment by providing public sector jobs. And as these not-unemployed people earn paychecks and spend them, they pay taxes and create (or maintain) jobs for others. I'd even say that there are essential roads and bridges that are in danger of falling apart and killing people, so we should put some of these people to work fixing or rebuilding them.

However, what we should not spend money on is anything that increases highway or parking capacity. Obama says that his plan would be the biggest infrastructure spending plan since the Interstate Highway System; well, the Interstate Highway system is a big part of what got us into this mess.

If we hadn't spent so much on highways, it wouldn't have been so cheap for people to live fifty or a hundred miles from their jobs with no rapid transit to get them there. If we hadn't spent so much on roads and bridges, we wouldn't have neighborhoods where hundreds of people can't walk to get a quart of milk. If we hadn't spent so much on roads and bridges, we might have had more for trains and buses. Housing wouldn't have gotten overvalued to the point where $4/gallon gas popped the bubble.

The time to turn this battleship is now. Obama should not continue the mistakes of the past. We've built enough roads and bridges, thank you. For at least the next ten years, all new infrastructure should be for railroads, bus depots, busways, cycle tracks and sidewalks, and the Big Three need to start making trains and buses.

The next time you read or hear "roads and bridges," try to leave a comment asking to replace those words with "trains and buses." There's a ton of people out there who are sick of sprawl, and there's a lot of work to be done to give them affordable alternatives to it.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Not a Biggie

Ever wonder why so many commercial vehicles park on the sidewalk in New York? NYPD Deputy Inspector Michael W. Pilecki answers that question in an interview with the New York Times:

“What we ask our agents to do when they’re out in the field is to be particularly aware of those types of violations that really impede the flow of traffic and increase the likelihood of accidents,” he said. “We want them to focus on things such as double parking. Vehicles parked in bus stops. No standing. Obstructing a traffic lane. Obstructing a bus lane. Those are the biggies.”

[...]

“Chief Scagnelli will say, ‘Let’s not forget why we’re all here: We’re here to move traffic, move traffic, move traffic, reduce injuries, move traffic, move traffic, move traffic, reduce accidents, move traffic, move traffic, move traffic, reduce fatalities, move traffic, move traffic, move traffic,’ ” Mr. Pilecki said.

Note that obstructing a sidewalk is not on that list. Given the choice between blocking a lane of traffic and blocking the sidewalk, many drivers will block the sidewalk.

Chief Scagnelli and Inspector Pilecki should change their priorities. Safety first, not second (or fourth). When blocked sidewalks force pedestrians into traffic, that's a safety issue.

Scagnelli and Pilecki should also treat pedestrians as traffic. If you're going to say that moving some people is more important than others, do it by the green transportation hierarchy. It's great that Pilecki is telling his agents to pay attention to blocked bus lanes and stops; those should be at the top of his current list. But before them should be blocked sidewalks.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The MTA should be dismantled....

... not because they do their job so badly, but because they do it so well.

The MTA is unelected, but that does not mean they're not accountable to anyone. If you doubt that, just look at what happened last year. We had a new Governor, and the old Chair and ED of the MTA stepped down, to be replaced by new Spitzer appointees. Just like a government agency.

How would the MTA be different if it were the New York State Department of Metropolitan Transportation ("for a city of over one million people"), a regular old department appointed by the Governor? First of all, the MTA board would probably not exist, meaning a lot less formal influence for real estate executives.

Most importantly, of course, everyone would see that it was the Governor choosing whether to raise fares or cut bus service, and that it was the Legislature (more precisely, the "three men in a room") choosing whether to adequately fund transit or not. The Post and Channel 5 wouldn't be able to muckfake by stirring up dirt on the MTA execs without implicating the Governor - who in turn would probably string them up for making a big deal out of nothing. And people like this numbskull might actually have a clue where to direct their anger.

Oh yeah, there's something about bonds, but can we just put that to rest? The standards for municipal and state bond issuance are there for a reason: public funds are at stake. Allowing an "authority" to pretend to be a private corporation when it's still public funds at stake is at best an unjustified gamble, and at worst a disgusting swindle.

Finally, there's the often-told story about how the city was politically unable to raise fares from the initial 1904 nickel fare, with the exception of a deal that Mayor Bill O'Dwyer made in 1948 with his friend, TWU leader Mike Quill, to raise it to a dime. The nickel fare bankrupted the privately-owned IRT and BMT, and many have implied that the city - and in particular Mayor "Red Mike" Hylan - deliberately kept the fare low out of malice.

Once the NYCTA was formed in 1953, they were able to raise it to fifteen cents, and then thirty. The TA was taken over by the state-run MTA in 1968, and was able to boost the fare to thirty cents in 1970, and then in fairly regular increments up to the present day, through a charade known as the "token dance," where the Governor and the Mayor put on a sad face and talk about how if it were only up to them we'd ride the subway for free, with complimentary back massages, and then sternly admonish the MTA for all its waste, fraud and abuse.

Overall I've been impressed with Governor Paterson so far. If he forgoes the token dance this round, but instead stands up and says that it's his decision and the fare needs to go up, I'll personally campaign in a big way for his election to a full term. If he shows still more courage and gets his former colleagues in the Legislature to do the right thing and shift the subsidies from cars to transit, I'd say he's qualified to be the 45th President of the U.S.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Plan B (or is it C?) for Transit in NYC

So the MTA has released their doomsday scenario. This would be a disaster on many levels, and it's exactly the opposite direction we want to be going. All around the country a consensus is emerging that we need to move people from cars to transit. The current economic woes have many causes, but they have been exacerbated by a transportation system (private cars) that collapses when the price of gas gets too high. That combined with the emissions, death toll and cultural side-effects associated with cars have helped to build this consensus.

However, the Ravitch Commission will release its report on December 5, and the Governor will present his executive budget on December 16. The brightest scenario will be that through some combination of fare hikes, congestion pricing, bridge tolls, taxing commuters, taxing millionaires and abandoning boondoggles, the State and City will be able to not just stave off these really bad cuts, but implement the service increases that they planned last year, and the ones called for in Planyc 2030.

Last year's congestion pricing debate showed that there was a significant portion of the population who had not bought into the consensus. Although the Mayor, the Governor and a significant number of nonprofits understood the need for shifting subsidies from private cars to transit, large numbers of city council and state legislative representatives were ill-informed or chose to pander to their ill-informed, self-interested contributors against the interests of the majority of their constituents. So what if the legislature doesn't budge, and the MTA is forced to cut service?

Here is a way that the Mayor and the Governor, and Commissioners Sadik-Khan and Glynn (as well as Governor Corzine, Commissioner Dilts and Executive Director Ward), can shift some subsidies to transit without legislative approval. First, they can cut any and all road boondoggles from the budget and future plans, such as the Tappan Zee Bridge, Goethals Bridge, Thruway, Turnpike and Parkway widenings, the Shore Parkway and Sheridan Expressway reconstructions.

Second, they can take a page from Jaime Lerner and build BRT. And you know when I say BRT I mean real bus rapid transit, not a new paint scheme and a bus lane full of parked cars. I mean physically separated bus lanes on every Manhattan avenue (including West End) and the major cross-streets (including 181st Street). I mean bus lanes on every bridge and tunnel leading into Manhattan. And I mean bus lanes leading up to the bridges and tunnels.

But the MTA has cancelled plans for the Red Hook Tunnel Bus, and the current budget proposal contains cuts to local and express buses around the city. How can we have BRT if the Council and Legislature won't give the MTA the money to buy and run the buses?

Here's the third thing that the Mayor, the Governors, the Commissioners and the Executive Directors can all do: they can get out of the way and let private transit grow. The State of New Jersey has been pretty good about creating and maintaining a favorable business climate for private buses and vans, the Port Authority has been good about facilitating the use of their bridges, tunnels and terminals, and New Jersey Transit has been good about sharing the territory.

Mayor Bloomberg: please find and eliminate the bureaucratic obstacles to running a privately owned, publicly available common carrier. E.D. Sander and Commissioner Sadik-Khan: please help these buses use your bridges and tunnels, find places for them to load, unload and lay up, and get your people to see private buses as partners, not competitors. Also, please work together all of you to allow bus through-running, so that a bus can go from Hoboken to Williamsburg, or from Woodbridge to Woodhaven.

Some of you might be saying, "who's going to build their business in this economic climate? Who's going to lend them money?" Loans may be scarce, but they're not impossible to find, and I think that if the playing field is properly leveled there is a lot of money to be made in private bus service. It's something we should do even if the city and state pay their fair share of the MTA budget, but it has added urgency if they don't.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Kicking Clinton Upstairs

Bizarrely, just when Senator Clinton actually appears to have started giving a shit about transit after almost seven years of completely ignoring it, we may actually have a chance to get rid of her. It looks like she'll be our next Secretary of State, where her lack of principles may turn out to be an asset.

Apparently I wasn't the only one whose first reaction to the possibility of Secretary Clinton was "you mean she won't be Senator anymore?" The problem is that nobody that Jeremy Peters talked to thought "So who would be a really good advocate for New York in the Senate," but instead, "So who would the Democratic establishment in New York like to see in the Senate?"

Attorney General Cuomo? Seriously, what has he done in the past two years, except keep Jeanine Pirro out of office? What did he accomplish as HUD Secretary - except get the ball rolling on the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac mess? Congressman Higgins? Who is he, and what has he done for New York State? Lowey? Meeks? Israel? Do we really want someone who's played it safe for god knows how long? Velazquez at least has taken some initiative on something, although I'll be damned if I can remember what it is.

RFK Junior? Caroline Kennedy? Do we really want another political dynast who'll camp out here for just long enough to springboard into the Administration? No. Plus, I think RFK Jr. has done some good things, but I haven't heard much from CBK. If one of them wants a senate seat, I think their uncle should retire and give them his.

Who would be the transit candidate for Senate, somebody who has actually made rail a priority in Washington? Jerry Nadler, that's who. He's the only one that makes sense; the rest of the city's delegation has been completely useless. The only other possibility would be Chuck Rangel, but he's under a cloud right now.

But, Peters warns us, the natives are restless upstate: the governor, State Senate majority and (current) minority leaders, assembly speaker and senior senator are all from the NYC area. Hence floating the name of Brian Higgins. Well, you know we do have liberals from upstate. What about Maurice Hinchey or John Hall?

You know what Senate appointment might do the most for transit and livable streets in New York State? Anthony Weiner. Think about it: he's running for Mayor next year and he's been consistently against congestion pricing and bridge tolls, and pretty lukewarm about everything else. Appointing him to the Senate would probably discourage him from running for Mayor. He couldn't do worse in DC than he would in City Hall, and it's hard to imagine a him being a less enthusiastic transit supporter than Clinton.

In fact, there's a few politicians I'd like to see kicked upstairs like that; too bad we don't have more senate seats. Would Sheldon Silver say no to a Senate appointment? He'd finally have an excuse for all those plane trips to D.C. But maybe we'd just get Speaker Brodsky instead. At least somebody already found a way to get rid of Iris Weinshall.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Future is So Yesterday

Any BRT proponent will tell you that image matters for transit. This is true for trolleys and subways as well as buses. But what image?

For as long as I can remember, subway design has been relentlessly modernist and futurist. The World's Fair subways of 1962-1964 had straight lines and hard surfaces, and since then the outsides have just gotten shinier and the insides brighter, until today you can go blind stepping on a train. The aesthetic is all about faster, sharper, newer. Aren't they going to run out of new at some point?

This drive to constantly be newer is kind of surprising, since it means that the subway seems to be one of the only areas of design that doesn't like to look back. it goes against the aesthetic of postmodern architecture, which according to Wikipedia has been borrowing from the past for at least fifty years. It even goes against the trends of subway station design, which after years of tacky orange tile (Lexington and 63rd!) and covering old mosaics with very very square tiles (Columbus Circle) has begun to recreate, restore and replicate some of the earlier designs.

I don't know about you, but I've always been irritated by the modernist aesthetic that presumes that everything made before 1930 was shit, and we have nothing to learn from the past. Mathieu Helie can tell you all about what's wrong with that idea. People in the past did a lot of good things, and we should take what we can from them.

I remember the first postmodern building I visited: the Harold Washington Library in Chicago. It looks good and it's functional too, especially the awesome top-floor atrium. Similarly appealing is the World Financial Center. Talk about a contrast with the buildings across the street! The WFC's outsides are a calming, brown stone, not another anonymous glass wall. The buildings have several welcoming public spaces in and around them, something that the World Trade Center never managed to achieve - assuming it wanted to.

Last weekend I took the kid to the NYC Transit Museum, and walking through the old subway cars I thought, "they don't make subway cars like these anymore." Then it hit me: why the fuck not? They were elegant and some of them had a lot of sophistication, even though they were built for the working class. The wicker seats! The ceiling fans! The open-ended cars! The wide doors! The subtle lighting!

And yet, transit agencies keep buying aggressively modern designs. They keep fighting this battle with car designers to prove who's more streamlined. Never mind that the car designers themselves have had great success with retro designs.

The success of the many "heritage streetcar" systems around the world and across the US, including the F Line in San Francisco, shows that there's definitely a market (sorry) for retro transit design. All across America you can find "tourist trolleys," rightly characterized as "transvestite buses," trying to capitalize on the nostalgia for old transit.

This is not just empty history-worship. It's an association with sturdy construction, quality design and dependable service, and more and more people are picking up on it. Focusing more on long-distance service, Alex Marshall argues that trains offer a level of comfort not easily obtainable in most other modes. In Pan's light-rail vehicle design poll last week, I wasn't the only one who wanted to vote for the PCCs. You can even buy for your living room a retro ceiling fan that evokes those on the R10 series cars.

I don't know when the MTA will ever have money to contract for a new order of subway cars, but when they do I hope they'll realize that the modernist schtick is itself getting old, and commission a design that incorporates the latest understanding of passenger comfort and convenience with the successes of the past. Maybe wicker seats get eaten by rats, but I bet there's some biodegradable polymer that looks just like it and can be easily made from old plastic bags or grown by algae. Maybe ten years from now we'll be relaxing on fake-wicker seats under the breeze of vandalism-resistant, non-decapitating ceiling fans, with lighting that's friendly but doesn't encourage muggings. Sure it's a challenge, but I think we're up to it.

By the way, the Nostalgia Train will be running on the "V line" between Second Avenue and Queens Plaza every Sunday from November 30 through December 28. Yes, I know, the V doesn't run on Sundays, and it goes all the way to Continental, but it's easier than saying "Along the Houston Street line, up the Sixth Avenue Line and through the 53rd Street Tunnel." You missed your chance to ride with the Rockettes, though.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Coming in 2010

Zeppelin tours of the New York harbor? A lot quieter than those damn helicopters. I'm looking forward to taking the Fung Wah Zeppelin Shuttle to DC. Thanks to the Overhead Wire.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Physicists: "It is Better to Close" West Houston Street

Some physicists in Korea and New Mexico have been making computer models of road use. They say that, counterintuitively, we've got a bunch of streets that actually cause congestion, and removing them (e.g. turning them into greenways) would reduce congestion on surrounding streets.



From this map (helpfully extracted in this post by The New Republic's Bradford Plummer) it looks like the dotted black lines are on West Houston Street, West Broadway, Kenmare Street, Grand Street west of Lafayette, and Canal Street west of Sixth Avenue. These lines show that if you made the streets unavailable to cars, congestion would improve on the rest of the grid.

This is due to something called Braess's Paradox, based on models worked out by John Nash. The paper (PDF) by Youn, Jeong and Gastner was discussed in a Christian Science Monitor article and WorldChanging; I found it by a brief link from The Overhead Wire.

Their model seems to be based only on trips from Washington Market Park in Tribeca to the Queensboro Bridge. It's not clear to me whether it would hold if you take into account all the other origin/destination pairs.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Cool real-time transit data

The New York Times has a story today about the real-time subway monitors in place on the L line, and how the line manager Greg Lombardi has set up a pilot program at Myrtle-Wyckoff where he installed flat-screen televisions to display the actual locations of all the trains on the line instead of just the estimated wait times.

I think this is a great idea, but it got me wondering: why stop there? I've read (sorry, I can't remember where) a great idea about wait times: why not have them displayed at the subway entrances - for example, at the top of the computerized screens that are now used 24/7 for ads - so that people know whether they have time to stop and grab a bagel, or whether they need to get downstairs as fast as possible? Or more importantly, display the service interruption announcements so that people can go upstairs and take the M instead?

Also, why not make this information available on the Web? Metro-North already allows you to see the Big Board online so you know when the next local to Stamford is. I'd love to see where all the L trains are. People who have web-enabled phones could see the information wherever they are.

For that matter, why not make it available as an XML stream, that computer/train geeks could do whatever they want with? They could feed it into their BAHN simulators, but also come up with all kinds of applications. A gallery in Williamsburg could put up something on their web site that says, "Come visit us! Take the L to Lorimer Street. The next train is leaving Union Square in six minutes!" The possibilities are endless.

Going further still, why not put historical data online in a queryable database? Researchers could look into bunching problems, on-time performance, and all kinds of things. Yeah, they're probably things that Mr. Lombardi doesn't want everybody knowing about - too many cooks and all that - but a proud manager has nothing to fear.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Annals of Lame BRT, Chapter X: Full Corridor BFD

Under Janine Bauer and Jon Orcutt, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign made a strong impression on me as a no-nonsense player who called it like it was. Lately, though, the Campaign has been disappointing, particularly when it comes to buses. It seems like one mention of "BRT" is enough to make them weak in the knees and swollow (metaphor shift alert) whatever horseshit the highway-builders shovel their way. If the New Jersey Turnpike Authority kept the exact same plans for widening the Turnpike and Parkway but called it "BRT" (with absolutely no justification), would the folks at Tri-State abandon their opposition?

Of course, the biggest example of "blinded by BRT" is the Tappan Zee project, where the Tri-State blog cheers anything that the New York State DOT calls "BRT," whether or not it falls under any reasonable definition of BRT. Yes, the "BRT" options are cheaper, but that's because they're not really BRT.

Recently I've gone over problems with the bridge replacement study itself, and today I'm going to focus on the rest of the corridor. To read the gushing press that Tri-State puts out, you'd think that Jaime Lerner and Enrique PeƱalosa were personally supervising the construction of tubes and high-platform loading areas, and that we were getting physically separated high-volume, short-headway articulated buses from Suffern to Port Chester, spurring the rearrangement of Westchester and Rockland into transit villages.

Sadly, nothing like this is going on. The only physically separated sections in the entire thirty-mile corridor are a three-mile section between Exits 1 and 5 of the Cross-Westchester Expressway, and a 1.5-mile section between Westchester Avenue and the New Haven Railroad line - fifteen percent of the total length. There is also an Option to convert the abandoned Piermont Line railroad right-of-way into a busway for two and a half miles between Suffern and Airmont - for a total of 23% of the total length - but I'm pretty sure that that's only if commuter rail isn't run on that segment.

The rest of the BRT corridor in Westchester is dedicated and separated, but without any barriers. In Tarrytown it runs along White Plains Road (Route 119), but would simply be marked as a bus lane. In Downtown White Plains it would run in dedicated lanes along one-way city streets (not such a bad thing). In eastern White Plains and Harrison it would be along Westchester Avenue, the service road of the Cross-Westchester Expressway. In all these locations it would actually take a lane away from general-purpose traffic, which is nice, but it would also be open to right-turning cars, standing cars, and any asshole who thinks they're more important than a bus.

The "BRT" on the replacement bridge and along the Thruway would be in the middle lanes, eliminating the threat from turning and standing cars, but it wouldn't be dedicated bus lanes, just "High Occupancy/Toll" lanes, separated from the general lanes by four feet of striped pavement. In this case, not only would they be open to any asshole who thinks they're more important than a bus, but it would be legal for any private car to be in the lane, as long as they either have at least one passenger or pay a little extra. These lanes would also be in addition to the existing capacity of the highway (and the proposed climbing lane), leading to a net increase in capacity for single-occupancy vehicles and trucks.

Just so you don't think it's all me, this afternoon faithful reader and linker Pantagraph Trolleypole (who has recently revealed his true identity) observed that Congress has legislated that HO/T lanes do not count as BRT (and thus do not qualify for transit funding), for the simple reason that they do not protect buses from being stuck in general traffic.

Sure, the proposed route is better than what we have now. If we've got no chance of anything better I'll take it, but I don't think we should cheer. One big thing that bothers me is that there's no allowances made for further improvements down the line. If the HO/T lanes get full to the point where buses are running just as slow as everyone else, I want someone (like, say, Lee Sander) to have the power to kick the toll-paying cars out of the lane. If it fills up again, I want that someone to have the power to kick the HOVs out of the lane and make it buses only. If the Thruway Authority loves HO/T lanes so much, they should use one of their own lanes for it.

Similarly, if the "BRT" lanes on Hamilton Avenue start filling up with standing trucks, I want our hypothetical BRT defender to have Nat Ford-style superpowers to smite them with the wrath of parking enforcement agents. That, or I'd like the State DOT to commit to putting up Jersey barriers to keep them out.

Shoot, all that and we've still got no guarantee that there'll be commuter rail across the bridge before 2099.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

New York City's Dollar Vans

I came across this interesting article from 1996 by Howard Husock about dollar vans in Brooklyn and Queens.

Some combination of subsidized public transit and unsubsidized private transit would seem to offer hope for both improving the city's transit system and accommodating the ambitions of van owners and drivers. In fact, the TA, in January 1992, did issue a thoughtful, thorough internal report that considered such options as “withdrawal from markets where vans operate at a competitive advantage” and the “development of coordinated public-private bus service.” The latter option, said the report, is "complex, involving new ways of doing business." Which may help explain why it was not pursued.

[...]

It is worth noting that former Metropolitan Transit Authority chairman Robert Kiley, now president of the New York City Partnership, has endorsed just such an idea of a combined public-private bus system—and has despaired of the MTA’s ability to move it forward.


Imagine what our transit system would look like if Kiley had succeeded.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Tappan Zee: Sorting out the factors

If I was a real math whiz you'd be seeing some purty factor analysis of this, but I created a spreadsheet with a chart that lets us see the effects of various Tappan Zee build scenarios on relative capacity, which is hopefully a decent approximation for relative value.

It's been really hard to pick out from the documents on the State DOT's web site, but here's the raw data I used:











1999 survey data (Alternatives Analysis Chapter 4, p. 6)
Percent of people crossing by private car98 %
Percent of people crossing by bus02 %
Vehicles per lane per hour (Level 1 Screening Criteria, p. 18)
Typical1700
Maximum1900
Passengers per hour by transit mode (Transit Mode Selection Report Chapter 5, p. 16)
Alt. 3B (BRT) Planned2100
Alt. 4D (BRT+CRT) Planned6800
Alt. 3B Max9000
Alt. 4D Max39000




The current mode share on the bridge is 98% private cars. The scenarios with any form of Bus Rapid Transit would bring it down to 70-80%. Commuter rail - or maximizing use of the bus lane to 9,000 passengers per hour) - would bring it to 40-55%. Maximizing use of the commuter rail (i.e. 39,000 passengers per hour) would bring it all the way down to 12-16%.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Joe Chan is at it again

I'm sorely tempted to write something really insulting about Joe Chan, the president of the Downtown Brooklyn partnership, but I think it's wiser to let his record speak for him. Let me just say that I think the fact that Dan Doctoroff likes this guy so much says volumes about Doctoroff and Bloomberg and the depth of their commitment to transit, livable streets and urban diversity. Thanks to Brownstoner for keeping us abreast of the latest Chan news.

Here's Chan last August about his plan to demolish a few historic houses in Downtown Brooklyn for a 700-car parking garage with a park on top:
The goal is to have a vibrant, alive, energetic park, and have a critical piece of infrastructure underneath it. It will really be the centerpiece for a couple of million square feet of mixed used development in Downtown Brooklyn.

Here's Chan, who's supposed to be Downtown Brooklyn's chief business booster, in December about the Fulton Mall:
With all the housing stock that we have now and the demographics in the communities that surround Downtown Brooklyn, the fact that there’s not a Bed Bath & Beyond, a Pottery Barn, a Pier 1 in the downtown of a city of 2.5 million people is odd.

Now the Brooklyn Paper reports that Chan "lobbied the transit agency on the Nu Hotel’s behalf" to prevent a bus stop from being reinstalled in front of the hotel.
It’s a weird place for a bus stop. For a guest’s first experience [to be] inhaling a bunch of bus fumes — it’s less than an ideal way for them to experience a morning in Downtown Brooklyn.

So that's Chan's vision of downtown Brooklyn: a place where tourists arrive at hotels in cars, and the main "vibrant, alive, energetic" attractions are Pottery Barn and Pier 1. Is this really what the rest of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership wants as well?

I also wanted to comment on this part of the Brooklyn Paper article:
“Why not keep it where it was?” asked Nu Hotel General Manager Bertrand Nelson, who not only deals with exhaust from buses, but also a procession of transit riders coming into his lobby to use the always-spotless bathrooms.

“People waiting for the bus come into our vestibule when it gets cold, and we can’t have that,” he said.

This is connected to my recent post on places to rest. If the city or the Partnership provided decent public toilets and a warm place to wait for the bus, there would be a lot less people asking to use the hotel's.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Tom Toles rocks!

Toles on transit funding.

I remember a Buffalo News cartoon he did many years ago in response to a comment about "naysayers" from some politician: "Say nay to paving the shores of Lake Erie? Just say nay."

Monday, October 6, 2008

Quote of the day

From Ibne Ahmad of the International News, Rawalpindi, Pakistan, via Planetizen:

Often there are no sidewalks. Even when there are, parking bays are carved out of them, or cars simply park on them in a symbolic ritual that illustrates class distinction between members of the car-owning minority as first-class citizens, and the rest.


This dominance ritual takes place the world over, although it's often more than symbolic, as when pedestrians are forced into dangerous traffic because the sidewalk is blocked by cars.

Profitable Transit and its Enemies

In the past I've praised the New Jersey "dollar" vans, which are a shining beacon of bus service because they turn a profit without direct subsidies. Well, as linked from Streetsblog, now a few Hell's Kitchen residents, aided by Assemblymember Gottfried, want to firebomb that shining beacon. This is similar to the complaints in Chinatown from Councilmember Gerson, Community Board 3 and the Fifth Precinct.

How do you tell the difference between a NIMBY and a responsible citizen? The responsible citizen wants to find a solution to the problem that works for everyone; the NIMBY just wants to make the problem go away. It's true that bus ridership is growing, and that growth is leading to more sidewalk and street congestion, but the solution is not to make the buses go away. Rising bus ridership is good!

The solution is to find someplace to put the buses when they're not picking up or dropping off. The Times reports that the Port Authority Bus Terminal is essentially full. There are plans to expand it, but they won't happen for a while. Gotham Gazette reports that the city tried to allow bus parking on Pike Street by the FDR Drive, but "Residents of the nearby housing projects understandably were none too pleased and urged the board [CB3] to vote down the proposal. It did 23 to 7."

This NIMBYism is actually kind of mind-boggling. Hello! You live in a housing project with a highway bridge on one side and a highway on the other. What do you care if there are a few buses parked on the over-engineered street nearby? Same for the people in Manhattan Plaza, which looks like a project even if it isn't one. You live between the Lincoln Tunnel and Times Square, and you're complaining about a few buses?

Be that as it may, it's actually more efficient to store the buses outside Manhattan. The land is cheaper, and there's less demand for sidewalks and parking areas. I'm sure there are plenty of parking lots in Jamaica or Mill Basin that are pretty empty in the middle of the day. In fact, there are bus garages in Brooklyn and Queens that are pretty empty because their buses are in Manhattan. You know what, you could even have a deal between the Jersey bus garages and the Queens bus garages. And while the buses are on their way to and from Queens they could bring a few passengers with them.

Of course, what I'm suggesting is through-running, a process that has a long history of success. The subways do it; imagine if you had a yard in Manhattan for every subway line. The bus companies and agencies should do it too.

Now I'm kicking myself, because instead of the MTA buying the Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens bus companies like they did a few years ago, they should have sold them to New Jersey bus operators. If Academy bought Command Bus Lines and Spanish Transportation bought Triboro Coach, they would be able to through-run across the 34th Street bus lane - or Canal Street - and out to the garages. And they probably would have been profitable enough to provide good service without direct subsidies. What a missed opportunity.

As it is, we can still do this. I don't know at this point whether it's the city or the MTA who owns those garages in Queens and Brooklyn, but they can lease space during the day to the Jersey bus companies, or even just have a reciprocal agreement and send all the MTA express buses out to Jersey instead of keeping them on Church Street or Sixth Avenue.

The bottom line is that through-running could make reverse commutes easier and free up valuable land in Manhattan. Greater efficiency all around. What do you say, Gottfried? Gerson?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Why we need the bailout plan - NOT!

I was listening to NPR this evening and their story on the Senate bailout bill led with these two quotes from senate leaders. First, Majority Leader Reid:
This isn't for lower Manhattan. This is for people in Elkland, Nevada, Reno, Nevada, Las Vegas, Nevada. This is for people to keep their jobs, to be able to buy a car, and get a loan to take care of that car, so a car dealer will be able to do as they have done for decades, to borrow money to buy cars so they have cars to sell. Right now they can't do that. I got a call yesterday from a car dealer in Las Vegas saying, "I can't buy any cars. .... The inventory we have, if somebody buys a car, most of them can't get a loan. And it's going to get worse, not better, unless we do something."

Then, Missouri Senator Kit Bond:
Today I was advised that the state of Missouri cannot issue bonds to build highways. The state of Maine is also having trouble.

So let me get this right. We need to pass this bill so that people can buy more cars and build more highways? Count me out.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Places to rest

Here are two recent items about public seating, in Gothamist and the Park(ing) Day NYC blog:

Perfectly functional chairs are rescued from trash piles and reassigned to stations where limited seating options leave subway patrons no choice but to stand for extended periods of time.


“Rest areas,” otherwise known as “parking spaces” are reserved for motorized vehicles in between trips, but where can the people go to rest in between trips? Must we always spring for a latte or a beer to get some relief?


No question that it's hard to find a comfortable place to sit in many subway stations and sidewalks. What's missing is the understanding (or acknowledgment) that much of this is by design.

I remember New York in the 1970s, when you could find a comfortable seat at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. You could also find a locker to store your bags while you strolled around the neighborhood took the subway someplace else. There were, generally, more benches on sidewalks and in subway stations. There were also more public bathrooms.

These amenities were removed by civic leaders and bureaucrats who felt that they "attracted the homeless." I'm sure they did, but come on, don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Sadly, for them public seating was probably not valuable enough to be compared to a baby. They could always find a restaurant or office to sit down in, and a private bathroom to pee in. Many of them probably had cars to keep their stuff in. So they didn't use these benches, bathrooms and lockers very much, and they didn't see any reason to keep them around.

Park(ing) Day will not result in more street benches unless it somehow convinces the BID leaders of the value of street benches, and deals with the issue of homeless people sleeping on them. The Take a Seat Project will probably not result in more subway station benches unless it does something similar with the MTA management.

It's good to call attention to the need. Now let's deal with the obstacles to meeting that need.

Another quick detour

I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks that the current market mess is a good illustration that it's a bad idea to invest social security funds in the stock market.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The downside is that people are riding the bus

This morning Streetsblog linked to a Gotham Gazette article called The Downside of Low-Cost Buses. It's another one of those "huh?" articles. Buses are good for the environment and good for social justice, but when they get too popular they're bad? Why is that a "downside" and not just a side effect that needs to be better managed?

It seems clear that the author likes buses and wants them to succeed, but framing the issue this way seems to encourage people to think of the buses as having a downside, as opposed to some growing pains, so that if any new challenges appear it would be that much more difficult to overcome them.

In fact, I had no idea that the buses were expanding so much. I'll bet most of the bus riders don't live in Chinatown; where are they coming from? Sunset Park? Flushing? Williamsburg?

Why not send survey teams out to ask bus riders where they live and work, and arrange for direct service from those places. Imagine if you could hop on a bus to DC at the corner of 59th and Fourth, or Metropolitan and Union, or Main and Roosevelt, or West Farms? Isn't flexibility supposed to be one of the advantages of bus service?

It turns out that there is already some flexibility. A website called Bus DC NY lists 120 bus stops in the area, including some in Brooklyn and Queens, but there is very little information (in English at least) on the web about any of these bus companies.

It's no wonder that transit is unprofitable in many places. As soon as a transit operator starts having growing pains, they're treated as dealbreakers, not just challenges - by their supporters!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A quick detour

In hearing the financial news lately, I had to make this comment: anyone remember the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, sometimes known as the "Financial Services Modernization Act"? It repealed the Glass-Steagal Act of 1933, which required separate ownership of deposit banks (like Chase), investment banks (like J.P. Morgan) and insurance companies (like AIG). Back in 1999, everyone sure thought that was a great idea: we couldn't have another run on the banks like in 1929! Let's get rid of those outmoded regulations!

Well, turns out those regulations were a good idea. As the Wikipedia entry says (with links to sources):

Economist Robert Kuttner (among others) has criticized the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act as contributing to the 2007 subprime mortgage financial crisis. Economists Robert Ekelund and Mark Thornton have made similar criticisms, arguing that while "in a world regulated by a gold standard, 100% reserve banking, and no FDIC deposit insurance" the Financial Services Modernization Act would have made "perfect sense" as a legitimate act of deregulation, under the present fiat monetary system it "amounts to corporate welfare for financial institutions and a moral hazard that will make taxpayers pay dearly".


Aren't you glad we modernized our financial services?

And although Phil Gramm, James Leach and Tom Bliley were Republicans, and the Act passed almost entirely on party lines, it was signed by Bill Clinton. It's precisely because he and his wife were so willing to horse-trade for things like this that I'm glad she's no longer a presidential candidate.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Cities are Born in Moments of Transition

In many discussions of the death of downtowns, the focus is on residents. Having fled to the car-oriented suburbs, the residents found driving and parking difficult in old downtowns built for pedestrians and streetcars, so they drove to the malls, and the downtown businesses either moved to the malls or died.

This is only partly true, and it ignores the cities' original reasons for existing. If you look at the history of almost any city, you'll find that it developed where it did because business was good, and business was good because transportation was good. Actually, because transportation was bad and good at the same time.

This may become clearer with an example, let's take New York. It's an ocean port city, and it developed because it was a good place for goods to be transferred from riverboats and pack animals to oceangoing ships. This means jobs for people doing the transferring, and for financial agents negotiating payments, and for people to fix the boats and care for the pack animals. Ocean port cities are also border cities, which means work for customs and immigration agents. There are tons of other ocean port cities: London, Alexandria, Hong Kong, Buenos Aires.

Paris is a river city. It developed where a major Roman road crossed a major river. That means ferryboats and later bridges, with tolls. Crossing a river is a good place for caravans to stop for rest and replenishment. It's also a good place to transfer goods from caravans to riverboats or vice versa. Cities also developed where two or more rivers came together. Other river cities include Saint Louis, Timbuktu and Istanbul.

Other cities grew up with other means of transport. Albany and Buffalo were canal cities. Chicago is a train city and a lakeport city; Pittsburgh is a train city and a river city. Albuquerque is a river city, a train city and a highway city. Havana, Hania and Honolulu are island port cities, good places for ships to refuel or wait out storms. Denver, Peshawar and Turin are mountain pass cities.

What all these places have in common is that travelers and traders had to slow down there, for one reason or another. Stopping was often a good idea, and sometimes mandatory. If they stopped, they almost always grabbed a bite to eat, often stopped for the night, sometimes got stuck for a long time, and occasionally settled down. In addition to the jobs I mentioned above, there were also jobs related to dining, lodging and, yes, prostitution.

Industries grew up in these places, because they are good places to get raw materials and ship finished products. Financial businesses too, because they're good places to make deals, change money, etc. Places that already have goods, services and lodging are good places for the entertainment industry, education, religion, government and other service industries.

As time goes on and transportation changes, may towns lose their original reasons for being. Not much canal freight goes through Chicago anymore, but the train tracks do, and so do the highways, and now the airports are major hubs. The shipping importance of Detroit declined over the years, but for a long time it had car manufacturing. Now that that's declining, there's not much left.

Transportation counts, and through transportation counts for more. This is where we get back to the failed downtowns of the 1970s and 1980s. They forgot this. They just assumed that everyone would want to go downtown, but they didn't remember why. Then they built bypass roads around their towns because the downtowns were "too congested." Almost always, a new mall was built out by the bypass, usually at the junction of two highways, and the downtown declined. The towns had had their transportation systems rearranged, often with their approval, to the point where they were irrelevant.

A case in point is Kingston, NY. At first it was a river port, then briefly a state capital, then a canal port, then a major railroad junction, and finally a highway junction. It had two "downtowns," the old Stockade area to the west (Uptown) and the port on the Rondout Creek to the east (Downtown). Then in the 1950s, it was blessed with a series of bypasses. First the New York State Thruway was built a mile west of the Stockade area; about that time, the East Chester Street bypass rerouted Route 9W around the Downtown area. The George Chandler Drive bypassed Uptown just a few hundred feet to the north, and finally, the Route 209 bypass made a big loop around the west and north sides of the city.

Beginning in 1960, no one with a car had any reason to go through Uptown Kingston. From south to north they could take Route 9W or 209, and from west to east they could take the Chandler Drive. Outside the city in the Town of Ulster, the intersection of Routes 9W and 209 became the center of a new, sprawling, car-oriented commercial district. IBM built a number of plants there, and then came a mall, then a bunch of strip malls, then a new mall, and finally a Wal-Mart. Uptown and Downtown, business after business closed. The only reasons to go to either center were the government offices, the bus station and a few specialty shops and restaurants.

I'm sure many of the merchants cheered the new bypasses, even as they were destroying the reason for their own existence. The lesson seems to have been lost on many urban planners and politicians, as well. Even those who long to revitalize downtowns don't seem to grasp the value of transportation transitions to the economies of towns. As long as people drive around the downtowns, they will not be stopping to buy things. Even if they go straight through the downtown, as in Syracuse or Hartford, if they're on a highway that gives them no reason to stop, they probably won't. And if they're going too fast to see the businesses around them, how would they know to stop?

Bringing industry back to downtown is a good idea. What's also good is to give people a reason to go through the downtown again, slowly, and to stop.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Queens Boulevard Trolleys: Another Way

In the comments to my last post on Queens Boulevard trolleys, Alon Levy offered a compelling argument that it would be impractical to connect the Flushing Line to the 60th or 63rd Street tunnels (or both) and thus free up the Steinway Tunnel for the purpose it was originally built for: trolleys. He may very well be right.

We can still put trolleys on Queens Boulevard, though, and still run them to Manhattan. Remember that the old Queens Boulevard trolleys used to go to Manhattan across the Queensborough Bridge. The right-of-way is still there, and so is the underground trolley terminal.

This could even be used for a Bus Rapid Transit "Quickway," but steps would have to be taken to make sure that the terminal doesn't get filled with exhaust fumes. For example, hybrid buses that could drive through and idle without running their generators, or enough clearance for natural gas buses.

Of course, the terminal no longer connects to the Second Avenue El, but as I discuss in the "Bridge xRT" post linked above, it can connect to the planned Second Avenue Select Bus, especially if an exit is built on the west side of the avenue. It could even connect with the Second Avenue Subway if the planners had given that some thought.

Also, the right-of-way is there, but occupied: the "South Outer Roadway" is used by cars and the North one is used by bicycles, pedestrians, construction vehicles and cop cars. There used to be a passenger deck on the outside of the upper level, as can be seen in some of the photos on Joseph Brennan's page. It might be possible to reconstruct it, but it would probably not be possible to make it wide enough to accommodate the existing bicycle and pedestrian traffic, which is often in conflict on the North Outer Roadway. Because of this, two lanes of the upper deck should be allocated to bicycles and pedestrians.

Again, I know, an expensive and politically difficult proposition. But it would bring several benefits. First, and most important, it would calm Queens Boulevard. Second, it would bring rapid transit to the underserved area between 49th Street and Grand Avenue - hopefully getting people to switch from cars. Third, it would capture local traffic along the Boulevard and reduce crowding on the subway and el lines.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Outside NY: Sunday Service is No Joke

Last time I checked, we weren't quite living in a fascist theocracy. But many public transit schedules seem to be written by theocrats. What's up with all the shitty Sunday service?

Let's forget other parts of the country. There are many cities and counties around the NY region, even ones that have quite decent bus service five days a week, that have skeletal service on Sundays, or simply no service at all. And they wonder why almost everyone who lives there owns a car!

I could vaguely see why some uptight Christian could think it was the Lord's work to shut down the bus system on Sundays, but unlike Orthodox Jews, a lot of Christians don't live walking distance from their house of worship. And in the day of the megachurch with the mega-parking lot, who are they fooling? Don't lots of churchgoing Christians go shopping or to a park after church?

I could also see why the bus drivers would like to have a guaranteed day off. If they can be called in at 5AM to fill in someone else's shift, it's nice to know that on Sunday they'll definitely be sleeping in or putting in some family time. But that's really not a good reason. In this day and age, all over the tri-state area, most of the stores and restaurants are open. The malls are certainly open, but if you live in Kingston and don't own a car, the only way you're getting there is on foot or by cab.

My guess is that Sunday service was either laid out when "everyone" walked to church, or cut back during some budget crunch, the drivers like it the way it is, and no politician since has given enough of a shit about the non-driving population to (a) fund Sunday service and (b) go against the drivers and the bureaucratic inertia.

If any statewide politician wants to be taken seriously on transit, they need to do something about this. It's a shame and a disgrace. People who live in walkable, transit-accessible towns like Kingston and Babylon are forced to buy and maintain cars if they want to get around. People who can't drive are left paying taxis and begging their friends for rides. Even in the places with skeletal service like Westchester and Nassau counties, transit users need to keep track of three different bus schedule (weekday, Saturday and Sunday) and of which routes aren't running at all.

The solution is simple: boost the subsidy for the county-level bus systems to bring Sunday service up to the same level as Saturday service. Yes, I know we're in a budget crunch, but really, some things just need to be done. And if the government won't do it, they should at least do what's necessary for private operators to make a profit on it.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Profitable Transit, continued

In response to my last post about profit-making bus routes in Brisbane and New Jersey, Pantagraph Trolleypole wrote:

Part of the problem I see with privatization, is that the company is not really accountable to the people and can slash service and raise fares to the point where it's dead.

I completely agree, and I don't think that basic service should ever be dependent on the profit motive. I am not suggesting privatizing existing routes; my suggestion is to allow the private sector to supplement existing routes with new routes and new service.

In many parts of the region there are parasitic "dollar van" services. In Brooklyn many people seem unhappy with them; in New Jersey they are overall well-appreciated. I don't know the Brooklyn version, but here's what I know about the New Jersey vans. By "parasitic" I mean that they use existing facilities, including the Lincoln Tunnel bus lane and the New Jersey Transit bus stops (although they have their own terminals in Manhattan). They operate on a strict cash basis and even make change. Many of them seem to be individually owned and operated, but with a central dispatcher.

There is no fixed schedule. In the afternoons and evenings, they wait in Manhattan until they are full, and then leave. In the mornings and weekends, they go slowly through Jersey until they have enough passengers, sometimes waiting at a stop if they're not full enough, and then head straight for the tunnel. They can get crowded, but not by Third World standards. I've heard complaints about the driving, but in general they seem well-driven.

These are not privatized routes. The vans approximately follow preexisting New Jersey Transit routes. The NJ Transit buses also run on these routes, but they are less frequent and slightly more expensive. Some people will only take NJ Transit buses, some will choose a NJ Transit bus if it shows up at the same time as a private van, and some will take whatever comes first. This means that if the van drivers all go out of business, there will still be a government-run minimum service.

In Brooklyn there have been complaints about private vans unfairly competing with NYC Transit buses. They offered a substantially lower price ($1 per ride in the 90s when the fare was $1.25 or $1.50). In part, they were able to offer that low price because they were under-licensed, underinsured and under-maintained. The NJ vans are well-regulated, and their fares are very close to the NJ Transit fares. If the fares are close, riders are indifferent to who operates the bus, and all operators get ridership.

The MTA seems to be pretty good at adding buses when there's crowding on a route, but if that's not true, I think that private operators should be allowed to start running vans on that route, using the bus stops installed by the DOT.

There are also private bus operators that have started their own routes, such as the local Chinatown buses connecting Canal Street with Flushing and Sunset Park, and the Hasidic buses connecting Williamsburgh with Borough Park. I think that entrepreneurs should be able to set up new routes with a minimum of hassle, and run them for as long as they can afford to.

In the "supplementation" case, the government provides the minimum service. In all cases, the government should regulate the safety of the private carriers, and provide and maintain infrastructure such as bus stops and Quickways. Since Pan mentions the airlines, I should say that I think the situation is very similar (except, I hope, for the disastrous state of the current airlines).

Saturday, August 9, 2008

"Summer Streets" a Success, Possibly Also Fun

This morning I went to "Summer Streets," where New York City banned cars from a long stretch of Park Avenue and other streets. It was a lot of fun.

After I got home, I realized how annoyed I was by the headline and focus of Sewell Chan's City Room post, Will Car-Free ‘Summer Streets’ Work?. Of course this is a large sum of money spent on police and planning, and a potential disruption for businesses along the route. But still, that Chan must be a hit at parties:

"Hey Sewell, guess what? Next Saturday I'm having a few friends over for some beers and conversation. What do you say?"

"I don't know, Bob. Do you think it'll work?"

Seriously, what kind of a question is that? Of course thousands of people came out and had a lot of fun. Does that count as "working"? Chan himself acknowledged that the DOT staff had no precise metric for measuring the success of the event. It's reasonable to ask whether the event is worth the money spent and the potential inconvenience, but Chan must just be really used to the NYC press rut where, when confronted with a new livable streets initiative, the reporter's first response is to stick a mike in a car window, and their second is to interview a shopkeeper about lost business.

Speaking of business, I passed tons of cafes, delis and restaurants along Park Avenue South. I'll bet that they've done more business this morning than they've done in the past six weekends. What, no story about that?

Friday, August 8, 2008

Pushing Transit Into the Black

Many transit activists are frustrated: what we've dreamed of for years is happening, but it's being stymied by short-sighted politicians. People are abandoning their cars for transit, but the government agencies that run the transit systems are - in many cases - not receiving the capital funding to expand so that they can handle these passengers. The Market Street trolley in San Francisco is packed, but Muni won't buy more vintage trolleys, and would have difficulty finding them anyway.

I've been skeptical for a while, but I'm starting to come around to Adron Hall's idea that the private sector can run good transit, given a suitably level playing field. Adron is no dummy: he doesn't believe that a private company could run, say, the Dutchess County Loop system in competition with subsidized personal transportation. But he does point out that private companies did just fine with transit before around 1929.

On Streetsblog yesterday, there was a very interesting post about Alan Hoffman's "Quickway" approach to Bus Rapid Transit: instead of building and operating a "BRT Line," build a BRT corridor that can be used by any authorized bus route. This can be used to bypass general-traffic bottlenecks and keep buses time-competitive with private cars. As I posted in the comments, it sounds a lot like the Lincoln Tunnel Exclusive Bus Lane.

I was also struck by a comment on the post by Hoffman himself, where he observed that the Brisbane Quickways were "ACTUALLY PUSHING MANY TRANSIT ROUTES INTO THE BLACK" (his emphasis). My first reaction was, "so? we've got plenty of profitable commuter bus carriers in the area: Adirondack Trailways, DeCamp, Martz and the Coachusa stable of Short Line, Red & Tan, etc." Well, guess what those lines have in common? They all use the XBL.

There are other carriers that are profitable without relying on the XBL: Bonanza, Peter Pan, the Chinatown and Hasidic buses, and the various independently owned Egyptian/Peruvian/Dominican/Jamaican "dollar vans" around the region. Much of this is because we've got the density to support such a large transit-using population. But it's also because the regulatory agencies worked with the bus and van operators to facilitate their operations. The Port Authority, in particular, has allowed a thick network of private transit operations to develop in Hudson County while policing it enough to make sure that it is largely safe and comfortable.

If the shift to transit continues and governments are unwilling to invest in the expansion of their transit systems, then they should allow others to do so. This doesn't mean "getting out of the way" of private enterprise, but it does mean at a minimum providing the basic regulatory infrastructure to ensure safe, comfortable commutes. All the better if they can fund physical infrastructure like the XBL, the Port Authority Bus Terminals and the auxiliary terminals and layover areas that compensate for the heavy subsidies given to private cars. And you know, it would be nice if they could coordinate information, publicity, scheduling and ticketing as well.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Queens Boulevard Clarifications

Last week I used Alon Levy's comment to segue into my proposal for bringing trolleys back to Queens Boulevard - and then through the Steinway Tunnel, calming traffic and allowing the #7 train to run "B division" cars that can hold hundreds more passengers per train.

Alon didn't like my idea. I respect that; he's been a faithful reader and a reliable source of transit information and wisdom. However, I think there were a few things I wasn't clear about, and hopefully Alon will change his mind.

I've only now seen this idea... I can't say it looks good. Streetcars have lower capacity per track than rapid transit, which means that what you're proposing is a net reduction of transit capacity from Queens to Manhattan.

Not at all. All those B division trains that I'm talking about running on the Flushing line wouldn't be diverted from the W or R or anything; the idea is to supplement those lines by sending the trains through 60th Street tunnel. If there isn't enough room in the 60th Street tunnel, there should be room in the 63rd Street tunnel; they don't run that many F trains.

Even without entering Manhattan, there's little need for light rail on QB. There are corridors that make far more sense for light rail: 125th, Fordham (or Tremont), Ditmars (or Junction), the Brooklyn Bridge. For a given light rail investment, these all should give better returns than adding service to QB.

I wholeheartedly agree that the corridors you mention have a much more pressing need for light rail. If we could put light rail in a dedicated right-of-way on any of those corridors, it would serve deserving populations, shift trips from private cars and relieve some of the nearby subway lines.

I'm happy to concoct all kinds of what-if scenarios here. But I'm also willing to talk realpolitik, and putting dedicated transit right-of-ways on any of those corridors (let's set aside the Brooklyn Bridge for now) is a heavy lift. Okay, here we go:
  • 125th Street is seven lanes (including parking) from the Hudson to Morningside Drive, and then six (including parking) to Second Avenue, and then a block of six lanes without parking between Second Avenue and the Triboro Bridge.
  • Tremont Avenue is four lanes (including parking) from Sedgwick Avenue all the way to West Farms, then six lanes (including parking) the rest of the way to the Long Island Sound. In a few spots it's wide enough for a median.
  • Fordham Road is six lanes including parking for almost its entire length.
  • Ditmars is four lanes (including parking) from the East River to Hazen Street, and then six lanes (including parking) for the rest of the way.
  • Junction is four lanes its entire length.

A two-way dedicated transitway takes up about two lanes of space. On a four-lane road like Junction Boulevard, that means removing all parking. That should work fine on 34th Street in Manhattan, but could make lots of business owners upset. In fact, it was opposition to removing parking from a de facto four-lane Merrick Boulevard that convinced the DOT to give up on their "BRT" plans for that corridor.

For the six-lane roads, you would essentially be removing a passing lane. People would still be able to drive and park (assuming that you put the streetcars in the middle so as not to interfere with parking or standing), but they wouldn't be able to double-park, and they'd be stuck if there was a breakdown. Not a big deal to me, but the DOT still finds it necessary to open the Fordham BRT lane to deliveries during certain hours (PDF), and seems to have dropped 125th Street from the First/Second Avenue BRT (before PDF vs after PDF).

Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems to me like it would be easier to take two lanes from a boulevard that varies from eight to fourteen lanes wide, and that is acknowledged by large numbers of people to be dangerously overbuilt. Queens Boulevard may not be where trolleys are desperately needed in the city, but they'd be well-used and well-appreciated.

I'm all for building light rail or BRT on any of the corridors that Alon identified, if there's political support for them. But right now Queens Boulevard has the space, it has the connections and it has the constituency. Why not use it?