Friday, March 28, 2008

The Last Palm Tree

Author Jared Diamond, among others, has wondered, "What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say?" A new discovery may one day help us to answer that question. Scientists at the University of New North Wales have cracked the code of the Rongorongo writing system. Today they released the translation of a text, which they say dates from shortly before the last tree was felled. Your Cap'n is pleased to bring you this text in its entirety:

RANO RARAKU - Chiefs from a number of outer-valley communities blasted Paramount Chief Parumapuka's "Demand Pricing" program, which would charge chiefs for every moai that they take from the quarry during peak periods. The goods paid would be dedicated to "mass moai" that require significantly less wood to transport and erect.

"This is a regressive tax," complained Nau Nau Chief Porotoki. "It will hit the poor and middle-wealth villages hardest, while the richest villages will still be able to erect all the moai they want." Chief Veperinu from Hangaroa said that enforcing existing laws is all that is necessary to eliminate the shortage of trees.

Chiefs from Hangaroa said that the most unfair part of the proposal was the plan to allow chiefs from the west coast, who already pay a charge to transport moai, to deduct that charge from their payment. "This plan does nothing to discourage chiefs from the west coast from obtaining moai," said an angry Chief Karik'a. "It is unfair to the other villages."

Members of the Campaign for Easter Island's Future said that the island may be past the point of Peak Logging, that the current system is unsustainable, and that enforcement of existing laws would not do enough to curb deforestation. "If the Council of Chiefs doesn't pass Demand Pricing, we could lose the rest of our trees in just a few years," warned petroglyph carver Aru Nasaparatek'a. "It would be an absolute disaster if we lost all our trees."

Chief Rup'itara from Oroi, however, encouraged concerned villagers to support his Nine Pukau Plan, which highlighted the development of alternative technologies. "We need to force the issue of metal moai transport technology. Why wouldn't reforestationists support this issue? We need to do it now." Skeptics argued that metal technology was not advanced enough to transport moai, and wouldn't be for many years.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Yes We Can!

Our quote of the week - and video of the week - come from Jaime Lerner, former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil and governor of Paraná.

I'm not against cars. But your city doesn't have to be oriented toward them. A car is like your mother-in-law. You want to have a good relationship with her, but you can't let her conduct your life.

The most important message that Lerner (and the Peñalosa Brothers who followed his example in Bogotá) have to convey is that building sustainable cities isn't a matter of money. It's a matter of priorities and political courage. Here is a video of Lerner's TED talk, which goes into more detail.

Lerner seems to have developed a standard roadshow about sustainability, BRT and cities; if you can't watch the video you can read the same points in any number of interviews. That doesn't make them any less valid - just more accessible.

Here's a bonus quote, from Lerner's "Song of Sustainability," which echoes some of Caetano Veloso's work:

It's possible, it's possible!
You can do it, you can do it!
Live closer to work!
Work closer to home!
Save energy on your own!

Friday, March 7, 2008

You Don't Eat the Stone

The folktale of Stone Soup goes roughly like this: a hungry traveler with no money enters a village. The villagers, mistrusting the traveler, hide their food and tell the traveler they have nothing to give. The traveler pokes around in the main square and finds a stone. He asks the villagers to lend him a pot and starts boiling water, which arouses their curiosity. He tells them that he's going to cook stone soup, but that it would be better with a little salt. One of the villagers brings him salt, and then he says it would be even better with a some herbs. This continues until they've brought him the ingredients for a hearty stew, which he shares with them. They offer him a bed to sleep in and give him their wifi passcode so he can email his wife.

The next morning the traveler moves on. In some versions, he puts the stone in his bag to make soup from the next time; in others he gives it to the appreciative townspeople. But in no version does he actually eat it. This is very important. Remember this.

There are many versions of this story, but they all have the same moral: what you can't get by asking directly, you may be able to get just by hanging around and starting an interesting project.

What does this have to do with the Moynihan Station project, you ask? Well, here's the thing: do you think anyone really wants to catch a train in the old Farley Post Office? Look at this picture of the old Penn Station:

Now look at this picture of the Farley Post office by Tom Fletcher:

Whee! Look at all those steps. Now let's say you've been working hard all day at an office nearby and you just want to get on the 5:20, crack your Bud and stare at the embankments for an hour. Are you going to want to walk up all those steps? Now imagine that you're going up to Brattleboro for the three-day weekend with your big wheelie suitcase. You don't want to climb steps! Look back at the photo for the old Penn Station. No steps! Do you know any other train station with steps like that?

The Farley Post Office made a good post office, and it might make a good mall or a good facade for an arena, but it won't make a good train station. Catching a train there would be more glamorous than scuttling like a rat through the Central Corridor, but it won't be any more convenient, especially with the multiple levels that are planned.

Going back to my post from yesterday about what we really want from Penn Station: an end to the scramble, better connections, higher ceilings and daylight. Maybe a nice symbol or two. But this report from the Regional Plan Association doesn't hide the fact that Senator Moynihan's original plan would not have helped much with any of those things. What would be really nice would be to have the old Penn Station back, in its original place next to the Seventh Avenue Subway.

The problem is that they didn't just tear down Penn Station. They built two of the ugliest buildings in the city. These buildings, Two Penn Plaza and Madison Square Garden #3, are so bland that they don't even make lists of the ugliest buildings in the city. People don't want to think about them enough to write them down. But they're there, and they're used, practically every day, for all kinds of important things. I've been to Madison Square Garden three times: for the circus, the Garlic Festival and a Nader rally. We need to keep Madison Square Garden in business so that New York may someday host the Garlic Festival again. And what about the offices in Two Penn Plaza?

Well, it turns out that last year Shelly Silver tipped a nice plateful of stew beef into our pot. He convinced the Dolans, the owners of Madison Square Garden, to move it to the Post Office and got some developers to promise that they would build lots more office buildings. Two Penn Plaza may wind up staying, but the Garden will be gone, which will let the government rebuild Penn Station as "Moynihan East." The Municipal Art Society has the rendering.

There are lots of problems with the plan. I won't go into them here, but the Municipal Art Society is doing a good job of keeping track of them, and I encourage you to follow their blog and take action to keep the state from giving too much away to the developers.

The main issue is the cost. I think it's up to $3 billion now. Everything seems to be $3 billion: the THE THE Tunnel, the PATH upgrades, you name it. We've got declining revenues, everything is costing more, and the government is promising $3 billion left and right. The total cost for this project, including all the office buildings that Stephen Ross is drooling over, comes to $14 billion, but my understanding is that the developrs will pay the $11 billion.

What's one way to save money? Drop the Post Office conversion. It's too far from the subway, nobody wants to catch a train there, it won't get rid of the scramble. It's not the old Penn Station, and it never will be. It's got lots and lots of steps. The only people who are still clinging to it are the preservationists who are hoping that they will finally fulfill their oath and have peace. I'll tell you what, preservationists: if you just make sure that something gets built east of Eighth Avenue that has nice high ceilings, lets in natural light and doesn't look too hideous, then I will hold the oath fulfilled, and ye shall have peace and depart for ever.

As for the Farley Post Office, if we don't want to railbank it, then let the developers have it. Keep them from sullying the facade, make sure you can still buy stamps and mail things 24 hours a day, and then they can do whatever they like with it. Make them pay for it, though; that would bring down the price of rebuilding Penn Station, maybe even to something affordable.

Remember: nobody ate the stone. Would Senator Moynihan have wanted us to eat the stone? I don't think so; he was a pretty crafty guy. Let's put his name on the part east of Eighth Avenue and have done. I don't want to see tons of gubernatorial political capital expended on an empty symbol.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Farley Post Office: Thinking long-term

I've previously mentioned the plans to convert the Farley Post Office to a new Penn Station with offices, a shopping mall and a new Madison Square Garden. They're redeveloping similar stations in Philadelphia and Boston.

Ever wonder why someone would build a huge post office - covering two entire city blocks - over an active rail line in the middle of a city? There aren't that many people who need to mail packages, are they? They used to sort mail there? Why not stick the sorting facility somewhere out by the highway, where people can get to it easily?

Of course the answer is that mail didn't use to come into the city by highway, it came by train. Most of the businesses were a short distance from the post office, and many got their mail by handcart. But that's long ago, and trucks and airplanes are the answer to everything!

Are they? With the price of gas continuing to go up, shouldn't we be trying to find a more efficient way to distribute the mail? Shouldn't we think about "railbanking" our post offices, so that if there comes a time when we need a distribution center on top of a train line, we can reactivate them?

Penn Station: What do we Really Want?

In previous posts I've discussed the destruction of the old Penn Station and Senator Moynihan's vision for a new Penn Station. In that last post, I pointed out that the benefits of the planned Moynihan Station would be largely symbolic. Yesterday the Observer ran a report on the current troubles that the recession is causing for the plans. So let's go back to the drawing board (for a moment) and ask ourselves, what kinds of benefits could we actually hope for?

I've taken trains from Penn Station on many a pleasure excursion, and I've commuted regularly through there. I'm just one guy, but I do keep my eyes and ears open. The biggest problem I've had at Penn Station is the scramble. Because there aren't enough tracks, the tracks are posted close to departure time. This means that everyone's standing around in the halls (we can't sit because they took the benches out) until the train is announced, and then they all swarm towards the track, anxious to make sure they get a seat. Contrast this with Washington Union Station, or Grand Central, where the tracks are announced half an hour or more before departure. People go sit on the train and wait; it's much more relaxed and restful.

There's not much that can be done about this right now. The LIRR/Grand Central link will help, and so will the "THE Tunnel," to open up some track space. But that's a short-term improvement; the plan is for those tracks to be used up pretty quickly with trains from the LIRR Third Track. The planned Moynihan Station will do nothing for that problem.

One often-touted benefit of the planned station is more waiting areas. It's true that the halls and waiting areas of Penn Station used to feel very crowded. But since the LIRR and New Jersey Transit have expanded their waiting areas and added stairs, they don't feel dangerous or overwhelming anymore. There's almost always enough space. Not really any need for more space at this point - until you get more track.

The connections are good, but they could be better. You can get to the Seventh and Eighth Avenue subways, but the Gimbel's tunnel that connects you to the Sixth Avenue trains has been closed for years. The main entrance on 32nd and Seventh should have a prominent subway entrance, but doesn't. There's no connection to the street at 31st and Seventh; you have to either go out on 32nd Street or the pre-September 11th taxi stand. However, the LIRR has built a connection to 34th Street, and NJ Transit is planning to build a connection to 31st Street near Seventh Avenue. If anything, Moynihan Station would make things worse, because some people will get off the train and be over by Ninth Avenue, far from the subways and shops. Maybe shops will be built by then, but it's a hard sell.

The main thing that the modern Penn Station lacks is high ceilings and sunlight. It's true that there are relatively high ceilings in the Amtrak main hall, and NJ Transit and the LIRR have built some fairly large spaces. But they have almost no natural light, and a large part of the waiting still goes on down in the lower corridors, where the ceilings are low and it's all fluorescent.

This is one thing that Moynihan's plan offered us, and it's a big deal. Can we have it for a reasonable price?

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Has the Whole World Lost its Head?

This is an updated repost of a post from this morning. One of the silliest aspects of the congestion pricing debates is hearing people complain about the ability to deduct other tolls from the congestion charge. These are people who've gotten a free ride for almost a hundred years, while others pay for the MTA and Port Authority bridges and tunnels - and subways and buses, of course. Now we're asking them to pay for it, and they say that's unfair. When I wrote this post this morning, I only really had the latest silliness from Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, as reported in the New York Sun, to work with:
He is also demanding a special toll for New Jersey commuters crossing the Hudson River. Under the congestion plan that was recommended by a state commission earlier this year, drivers entering the city from New Jersey would not have to pay a congestion fee during rush hours because the tolls they already pay to use the bridges would cancel out the $8 charge.
There was also a brief report in the Post:
But about 20 City Council members signed a letter asking Mayor Bloomberg to push for a Jersey fee - or get the Port Authority to contribute more to the city's mass-transit network. "We are concerned that the burden of paying for congestion pricing will fall too heavily on New York City residents," the letter reads.
Now the Daily Politics has the full text of the letter, including its signatories. Streetsblog took the text out of its unnecessary Word document and posted it in full, with commentary. Here are my comments: First of all, anyone who thinks that New Jersey, Westchester or Long Island residents are all rich is invited to visit beautiful downtown Paterson, Mount Vernon or Hempstead. Anyone who thinks outer-borough residents are all poor is invited to visit the hardscrabble neighborhoods of Riverdale, Little Neck or Kensington. Anyone - outer borough or suburbanite - who currently pays a toll on the MTA bridges and tunnels is already contributing to the subways, buses and railroads. If they're part of the problem, they're way down the list. Now how about people coming from New Jersey? Well, guess what: they already pay tolls, and the tolls are set to go up. They also vary based on demand, which is the whole point of congestion pricing. Some might object that the money isn't going to New York City projects, but they'd be wrong. The Port Authority is spending $3 billion of that toll money on the new Trans-Hudson Express tunnel for New Jersey Transit trains. This tunnel is specifically designed to bring commuters from Bergen and Rockland Counties into Manhattan without cars. They are also spending $3.3 billion to overhaul the PATH train system, increasing capacity by 20%. Here are press releases: Capital Plan Details on "THE Tunnel" Details on PATH overhaul The scary thing about this letter is that Silver and the twenty City Council members are no dummies. They're some of the most progressive, sharpest politicians in the city. Or so I thought until I read that letter. If these politicians are craftily playing dumb, they're doing an Oscar-caliber job. There were some good comments in that Streetsblog thread. From Doc Barnett:
Likewise the abolition of slavery was deeply unfair to free men, as slaves were the exclusive beneficiaries of the thirteenth amendment when it was instituted. Our esteemed city council signatories of this letter would have proposed a plan that affected everyone equitably, by giving slaves their freedom and promoting everyone else to magical super emperor person. Maintaining inequality and unfairness is the new equality and fairness!
From JF, in response to the line "This is blatantly unfair.":
Is this some sense of "blatantly" that I'm unfamiliar with? A sense that means "superficially", or even "not really"?
From Larry Littlefield:
So the placard holders don't want to pay once unless others pay twice? How about this. Since retirees don't pay state and local income taxes, I don't want to either. These mutts have a very strange idea of what is blatantly unfair.
As this debate progresses, it's been ever clearer that our legislators live in an alternate reality:
  • where everyone, no matter how poor, drives to Manhattan but no one pays for parking;
  • where "elites" ride in taxis, but "working folks" drive big, expensive SUVs, and subway and bus riders don't exist;
  • where reducing the number of cars entering Manhattan has no effect on the areas those cars go through to get there;
  • where thousands of people who previously felt they were too good to take the subway are now prepared to drive to a strange neighborhood with a scarcity of parking, find a parking spot and then get on the train with at least another half hour to go;
  • where businesses would be grievously hurt by paying $8 per vehicle per day, but not helped by spending less time stuck in traffic;
  • where no matter how dire a need there is for money, the last thing citizens should do is trust their money to the legislature that they run;
  • where a Chamber of Commerce ignores the possibility of increased business for its members in order to keep it cheaper for potential customers to shop elsewhere; and now
  • where no matter how blatantly unfair the status quo might be, any attempt to change it is unfair.
This self-congratulatory echo chamber needs to be opened so that new voices can be heard. This November, let's try to elect at least nine out of 88 Assemblymembers and four out of 35 Senators who will take the train to Albany. Next year, let's elect a Mayor, a Borough President and five City Council members who will take the subway to work - even if they have to be driven to the station in an SUV. And in 2010 and 2011, let's double those numbers. All it takes is a few to let in some fresh air.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Tappan Zee: Priorities

The Tappan Zee Bridge is over fifty years old, and the New York State Department of Transportation and other agencies have been working on plans to rebuild or replace it. Since the transit connections to Rockland County are inadequate, most of the parties involved have expressed a desire to include a rapid transit (rail or BRT) component.

Last month, NYSDOT announced that it would "split" the Environmental Impact Statement process in two phases. This is a really weird idea, and it's hard for me to keep the whole thing in my head long enough to communicate it to you. Anything that weird should set alarm bells ringing right away.

The initial Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) will evaluate plans for improving the I-287 corridor (including the Tappan Zee Bridge) and assess transit options for the corridor, identifying a mass transit mode for the corridor, its general route and its beginning and end points.

The second EIS product will focus on the details of integrating that mass transit mode into the communities it will serve, including route specifics and transit station locations and designs. A final decision on the first EIS document will kick off work on the second.

So let's see if I have this right:

  1. Evaluate plans for the corridor - presumably including all road choices, but only a basic subset of transit choices

  2. Evaluate transit specifics

The "highway and bridge improvements" decided during phase one would be constructed during phase two. The Tri-State Transportation Campaign is understandably worried that at a time when money is getting tighter and tighter, the state could wind up not building the transit component after all. Gee, sorry guys, we really wanted to build your busway. We really tried. We just ran out of money. Better luck next time.

The folks at Tri-State try to put the best face they can on it, but really it's crystal clear that these people couldn't care less about actually getting transit on the ground in Rockland and Westchester. They want to be able to say they tried, they want the green cred, but they have zero interest otherwise. I'm sorry, this does not deserve the green cred. Not yours, Commissioner Glynn. Not yours, Governor Spitzer. Why not? Just take it from President Cannito:

Peter A. Cannito, president of Metro-North Railroad, said, “The goal of this project has always been to expedite renewal or replacement of the river crossing while incorporating a regionally-beneficial public transportation component in the corridor. This new phased approach will help us accomplish that goal.”

It couldn't be clearer. The goal is not to incorporate transit in the corridor while replacing the bridge at the same time, it's to replace the bridge while incorporating transit. It's a subtle distinction, but what it means is this:

The cars and trucks come first, and then maybe the transit ...if there's any money left for you.

Think about all the recent capital projects where the costs have skyrocketed. Somehow things keep getting left out. It's bad enough when window dressing like the Calatrava bird thingy get cut, but when entire subways stations get zeroed out, it's really bad. And when an agency makes a "split" like this, it means that they consider the transit component to be just window dressing.

Don't believe me? Try it the other way.

The initial Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) will evaluate plans for a mass transit mode for the I-287 corridor (including the Tappan Zee Bridge) and assess road improvement options for the corridor.

The second EIS product will focus on the details of integrating those road improvements into the communities they will serve, including route specifics and facility locations and designs. A final decision on the first EIS document will kick off work on the second.

Why shouldn't it be this way around? Maybe the planning of the transit elements is more detailed, but I'm sure there's a lot they have to do for the highway stuff.

At a minimum, to avoid a repeat of the George Washington Bridge disaster, why not put in the phase one EIS that no matter what happens, the bridge will include a dedicated busway in both directions? One that can't be turned into an HOV or HO/T lane without a serious amount of effort?

Another thing: on Page 21 of the scoping document (man, I hate this jargon) you'll find this gem:

The build alternatives 3, 4A, 4B, and 4C include a number of common elements. The fundamental differences between the alternatives are the transit modes. The common elements include the following: [...] A River Crossing with two HOV lanes, eight general purpose lanes, shoulders and a full-length pedestrian/bicycle path linking Rockland and Westchester.

Hm, the current bridge has seven lanes, and all the alternatives would increase it to ten lanes? NYS DOT is not planning to consider the possibility of, say, converting one lane to HOV and adding only one more? Given the wacky recommendations of Steve Anderson and his friends, it's possible that the DOT tried to add even more lanes (twelve! fourteen!) and were beaten back by sustainable transportation advocates, but did they not even try to get it down to eight?

Let's take a look at our goals here:

Remember that if you want to have any effect on social structure, efficiency and pollution, you have to change the relative popularity of the various modes. What's the point of adding transit (especially a relatively low-capacity busway) to the corridor, if you add more than enough road capacity to outweigh that transit capacity?

Shouldn't we be going in the other direction? Seriously, if we're planning to add enough commuter rail to take hundreds of cars off the bridge, well then let's remove the facilities for those cars! It's just not enough to minimize the expansion of auto facilities; we have to decrease them. The replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge is a perfect opportunity to replace car facilities with transit facilities. Spitzer and Glynn deserve no green cred if they don't at least try.