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?