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 Peñalosa 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)
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.