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.