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:



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.