Thursday, December 31, 2009

They're not in Woodhaven's corner

This breaks my heart. I am totally serious. I really like Woodhaven: it's a cute little neighborhood tucked away under the el, with a great shoe store and a couple nice parks nearby. It's very sad to see them treated this way.

The proposed MTA service cuts will deprive Woodhaven of Z skip-stop train service to Manhattan, and the Q56 bus from Jamaica to East New York. This was on the front page of last week's Queens Chronicle.

Concerned residents called a press conference and invited their alleged representatives to speak out on their behalf. Assemblymember Miller and Councilmembers Ulrich and Crowley are too new to know where they really stand, but Crowley's cousin did speak in favor of congestion pricing back in 2007. Of course they did attack the MTA instead of their colleagues in the State Legislature who cut its funding.

State Senator Joe Addabbo, who this summer sat on his hands as his colleagues killed bridge tolls to fund the MTA, did not attend the meeting, but his office issued a lame press release putting all the blame on the authority.

The biggest hypocrite has to be Assemblyman Rory Lancman of Fresh Meadows, whose district stretches down to pick up the few white votes left in Woodhaven. You may remember Lancman as the Assembly's point buffoon during the congestion pricing debates. Yes, he's the one who released one of many unworkable "alternative plans" to congestion pricing, notably involving $500 million to improve bus service.

Okay, Rory, where's that $500 million? The MTA could really use it now. What's that? You cut the budget by $53 million instead? Of course, Lancman seems to have completely forgotten that proposal, falling back on his tried-and-true blame game: "The MTA needs to start at the top. It needs to reform itself. It needs to restructure itself."

The most depressing thing is that the Woodhaven community leaders seem to have fallen for that trick. Back in March, the Chronicle reported on the efforts of Maria Thomson, the executive director of the Greater Woodhaven Development Corporation and the Woodhaven BID, to prevent cuts to the Q56 (emphasis mine):
In her testimony to the MTA board during its public hearings, Thomson asked the members, "What are you thinking? How can you discontinue a bus that has no replacement?"

Thomson has reached out to a number of elected officials to make them aware of the situation. "They are lobbying for us," she said and working on the community’s behalf to get the line reinstated in the budget.

Your faith is touching, Ms. Thomson, but you do know that legislators don't have to lobby anyone but their colleagues and maybe the Governor to get a budget increase? How many times will you reach out to the same elected officials after you've seen them cut funding when they promised to increase it? Please don't tell me that you're planning to support Addabbo and Lancman's re-elections campaigns next year after all this?

Sadly, I'm guessing that she will. The Project Woodhaven blogger - clearly an ally of hers in this fight - ends the story with this line: "Well, the ball is rolling -- and we've got the right people in our corner." As long as they keep thinking that, nothing's going to change.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Let's not bring the land back to us, either

Every time I hear some breathless article about how we'll all be "urban farming" I have the urge to write a nice long post about why that's a bad idea. Fortunately, Matt Yglesias and Jeb Reed have done that so I don't have to.

First off, livestock are different from plants. A few sheep, goats or alpacas on a block would probably be okay, but I don't want to smell cows or pigs under my window, and I don't really want to hear chickens or donkeys while I'm trying to sleep.

But don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to stop anyone from raising plants in cities. My wife is cultivating an avocado grove in our kitchen, to accompany the aloe veriscaping in our living room. A neighbor has given me some great tomatoes from her window box. It's always nice to see a house with a little garden, or a community garden on a formerly abandoned plot of land. I'd rather see a farm than a parking lot. I'm all for composting, wherever the compost winds up. I don't have anything against anyone who wants to do urban gardening, even on a large scale.

I do have some problems with urban agriculture, though. They stem from the idea that it will somehow save us from global warming, pollution or some vague evil that haunts cities. This is a relatively new variant of the tired old back-to-the-land religion, combined with the "shop locally" movement, which quickly becomes absurd if taken too literally, and it doesn't really make any more sense than either of them. Yglesias says it all: we have cities for a reason, and it isn't so that we can grow acres of chard.

Bottom line: urban agriculture is not sustainable on a large scale. It will not save us from global warming, it will not provide enough fresh vegetables to cure obesity in the black population, and I can't think of any other claim that its proponents have made that passes the sniff test.

Why does it matter if the promises of urban agriculture are false? Because those false promises are used to ask for subsidies. Sometimes they're subsidies on a massive scale, like the "Hanging Gardens of Barcelona" proposal that Reed lampoons. Sometimes they're MacArthur Genius grants as described by Elizabeth Royte. And just about everything in between.

That's money that could be going to all kinds of better things, like more effective ways of fighting global warming or obesity. For example, every fifty thousand dollars spent on urban farming is at least one less bus driver (the actual number will depend on the city's labor market, collective bargaining agreement and farebox recovery ratio).

Urban farming also has the potential to be the excuse for much antisocial behavior in cities. There's going to be someone who insists on having a donkey in their backyard, but that's not the worst. I've already been chewed out for wanting to reapportion some parking spaces - by liberals who felt that they had an unquestionable right to drive in the city because of course they need the car to drive to their farm upstate! Now that they can have a farm right here in the city, every liberal can drive an SUV without criticism: you see, they need it to pick up the wood for the planting boxes, to bring the excess compost to the recycling station, blah blah blah.

You want to grow collards in your window box, or potatoes in the community garden? Be my guest. But just say no to subsidies for urban farming. Use the money for transit, or even for farms near the city. And for god's sake, don't hand people another excuse to sanctimoniously drive in the city.

Friday, December 25, 2009

No widening without tolls

As I wrote last week, the State and the City of New York have been underfunding the MTA for the past fifteen years, but they seem to have enough money that they plan to spend $500 million to rebuild the Brooklyn Bridge, $700 million to rebuild the Kosciuszko Bridge, $1 billion to rebuild the Goethals Bridge and $250 million to rebuild the BQE just south of the Brooklyn Bridge in Carroll Gardens. That $2.4 billion they plan to spend on the roads could fill the $400 million hole in the MTA budget for six years - or even pay back some of the MTA's crushing debt. And that's not even touching the $10 billion the state plans to spend to rebuild the Tappan Zee Bridge and a section of the Thruway.

Even worse, much of this money isn't even allocated for reconstructing the bridges or highways, but for widening them. As I wrote before, the State DOT is fond of lying about their control over a highway. They claim that the highways and bridges need to be "modernized" and "brought up to standards" for safety reasons, but each of these facilities is capable of carrying two lanes of traffic with plenty of room. They're only unsafe because the DOT has tried to cram three lanes in where there's only enough space for two.

In the case of the Major Deegan, canceling the widening saved the State between $100 and $170 million dollars, about half the cost of the project. If that's true of the other projects, we could save $1.2 billion just by doing that. Of course, nobody seems to know what happened to the money saved from the Deegan widening, so the DOT would probably try to hang onto that money and use it for highways upstate, but if the Governor were determined he could put a stop to that.

Whether it's $2.4 billion or only $1.2 billion, a big chunk will come from general sales and income taxes paid by people who don't even drive. With our current climate situation, to make transit riders pay to widen highways for the elites, worsening the air, wasting gasoline, increasing congestion and inviting more death and destruction onto our streets, is downright criminal.

If drivers are going to get good roads, and wider roads, they should pay something for them. At one point there were tolls on all the East River bridges and even the Kosciuszko's predecessor, the Penny Bridge. In 1911, Mayor Gaynor removed the nickel toll on the East River Bridges, apparently reasoning that the cost of constructing the bridges had already been raised. Since then we have had to pay billions to maintain and reconstruct those bridges.

"Gridlock Sam" Schwartz has proposed removing tolls from all the bridges in the city that don't either cross the Hudson or enter the Manhattan central business districts. As a compromise to get congestion pricing to pass, it might have been worth it, but without tolls on the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro bridges, it would be a disaster, and in fact the lack of a toll on the Kosciuszko is still bad for Brooklyn and Queens.

Some people seem confused as to why the state and city would have to contribute to the MTA's funding. In part it's because we insist on such a low fare for the MTA, and in part because we contribute so much to the competing bridges. We should not continue to use general sales and income tax dollars to maintain and widen roads and bridges for people who think they're too good to take the train. If there isn't a toll on the East River bridges, there should be a toll on the Kosciuszko. And if the legislature won't agree to any tolls, then we shouldn't pay to maintain the bridges. Just close them, like the Champlain Bridge, until the drivers agree to pay.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Flexing stimulus funds

Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers' Campaign suggests taking $141 million from the MTA's capital budget and transferring it to the operating budget. His proposal has been echoed all over the media, including on Thursday by Congressman McMahon.

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign has rightly said that using stimulus funds intended for capital projects should be "a last resort." Most of those "capital expenditures" are on things like signal replacement that are just as essential to the operation of the system as the train operators' salaries. "Deferred maintenance" is what made the subways such an unpleasant, scary place in the 1970s and '80s.

I think that Russianoff is about half right: we should flex stimulus dollars to fund operating expenses for the subways and buses. But not the stimulus dollars that were dedicated to things like the Second Avenue Subway and signal replacement. There's half a billion dollars that the City DOT plans to spend on the Brooklyn Bridge, including fifty million in stimulus funds. Just take that and use it to pay the train and bus operators (and of course, the debt service on the capital plans that Russianoff encouraged us to support in past years).

Let me see if I can take on the top objections. First of all, it's illegal, the money has been allocated to the bridge already. Well, since most of our leaders are also lawmakers, I've noticed that most legality objections go away when there's enough political will.

Second, that money is for safety! The bridge is structurally deficient! If we don't fix it now it will fall into the river like that bridge in Minneapolis! It's true that there are corroded anchorages and supports, but we could extend the life on them quite a bit by simply not driving as many cars over them. If we were to close one lane of the bridge in each direction, I bet we could go for another twenty years without replacing those parts.

Third, the money is for reducing congestion and improving safety! Most of the money will be spent to widen the approaches from one lane to two. Do you want to pollute even more by filling the approaches with idling cars? Don't you care about safety? The main problem of the bridge is trying to fit too many cars into a limited space. Widening the approaches will not solve that problem, it will just move the idling cars from the approaches to the bridge itself. The high capacity of the bridge creates a danger zone all around it, and widening the approaches will just encourage drivers to speed. Removing a lane in each direction from the bridge will discourage motorists from taking it, thus reducing congestion and improving safety.

Fourth, it's an iconic symbol of New York! Do you want it to look like crap? The subway is also an iconic symbol of New York. Which do tourists see more of? Plus, removing cars from two of the lanes would free up space for bicycles, removing them from the walkway and making it much nicer for tourists on foot.

Just a few weeks ago, activists united to defeat a similarly misguided proposal to widen the Major Deegan Expressway in the Bronx, saving over $100 million dollars. If we can get $500 million from the Brooklyn Bridge, plus $400 million from the Kosciuszko Bridge widening $250 million from the BQE widening and $1 billion from the Goethals Bridge widening, I think that'll take care of the MTA's needs for a while.

Whatever happened to that $100 million from the Deegan widening, anyway?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Network effects in transit

A while back I wrote about the notion of consumer surplus. It's the economic idea that while there may be a price that brings in more money than any other single price, a seller can often make more money by charging different prices to different people. This is because some people will simply not buy if the price is too high.

Some sellers simply use the consumer surplus to maximize their profits on that one item. Others will use the profit on one item to sell another below cost. Sometimes this is done to get customers' attentions, as with free giveaways. This is also known as a loss leader.

A similar strategy is when sellers see themselves as offering a certain class or suite of products. They know that their customers value the fact that they offer the complete line, because of one-stop shopping. Even if they lose money on one product, they will profit overall.

This is one of the reasons that even profitable transit providers will run "empty buses" or train cars (they usually have at least one passenger). As many of the commenters on the recent Streetsblog thread point out, having reasonably frequent off-peak service - for return trips, shopping, transfers, or even just to provide that extra wiggle room in case the passenger is running late - increases the ridership during peak times. Even if they lose money on one bus run, they will profit overall. This is true of other cost-benefit calculations, like energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

Well, except that most of them don't actually profit. I'm reminded of the old joke, "We lose money on every sale, but we make it up on volume!" If the average farebox recovery is less than 1 (or if the average greenhouse gas emissions are too high), then you need to do something else to achieve your goals. But the point is that the not-quite-empty buses sometimes don't have as bad an effect on the overall averages as you might think.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bad transit funding frames

When you think of the word "bailout," what comes to mind?

If you're a real old salt, you might think of a leaky boat (or a good boat in a bad storm) that keeps taking on water. Bailing out is throwing the water out with a pail. And you'd want to know who was the jerk that took the boat out in the first place without properly sealing it.

You might also think of someone who's been arrested and is offered the opportunity to post bail. Bailing them out is going to the court with enough money to get them released. And you'd want to know who was the jerk that went and got arrested in the first place.

If you're thinking more of current events, you would probably think of the homeowners who bought houses with mortgages they couldn't afford to pay. Or you might think of all the banks, investment firms and insurance companies that wound up losing so much on defaulted mortgages that they couldn't afford to repay their debts or deposits. In that case, bailing out is when the government arranges for a loan to be forgiven or renegotiated, or simply pays it back on behalf of the debtor. And in that case you want to know who was the jerk that took out a loan in the first place without making sure they had enough money to pay it back.

The boat scenario, the jail scenario and the banking scenario are what the linguist Charles Fillmore calls frames, and what his colleague George Lakoff has used to explain why some political arguments succeed or fail regardless of whether they're logically sound, or even true. The boat bailout frame contains other concepts such as sea, oars, rain and tarp. The jail bailout frame contains concepts like bondsman, recognizance and court date. The financial bailout frame contains concepts like foreclosure, derivatives, the Fed and TARP.

They're different frames, but they have a lot in common, and the term bailout was first applied to the financial world as a metaphor to indicate that someone was coming to the rescue of someone else who was in trouble. Note that in all the cases they usually got themselves into the trouble, and the person bailing them out is not necessarily doing it out of kindness.

So now what do you think of when you think of an MTA bailout? You think "Okay, now who are the jerks that got themselves into this mess, and why do I have to come pull them out of it?" MTA rescue is almost as bad: you're thinking, "What, they need to be rescued again? What are they doing that they keep getting into these kinds of situations?"

In the typical bailout there is no external agent who's causing the trouble. The fault is the person who's in trouble. Similar with the kind of rescue being evoked here: it's not the innocent maiden being rescued from the dragon, it's those overconfident mountain climbers having to be rescued from the storm again.

Lakoff's argument is that frames bypass the logical parts of our brains and go straight to our emotions, so you have to be really careful to evoke the right ones. Using the word "bailout" or "rescue" in an article or blog post about a financial crisis is pretty much guaranteed to get a big chunk of the readership wondering whether they didn't bring it on themselves.

Of course, they didn't - not completely at least. Pataki was the first to cut the State's contribution to the MTA, and Giuliani cut the city contribution. That has continued under Bloomberg, Spitzer and Paterson - although to be fair, the legislature cut some of that money on its own. And when Bloomberg and later Paterson tried to toll the city's bridges to make up at least part of those cuts, the State Legislature voted against the plans. In this case, more than two-thirds of the shortfall is the documented fault of the legislature: they miscalculated how much tax revenue it would take to properly fund the MTA, and they refused to cut anything else from the budget, forcing Paterson to cut everything across the board. The MTA may be partly at fault, but in this case, the fault is mostly that of Shelly Silver and Pedro Espada.

This means that when people use words like "bailout" and "rescue package" to describe what's going on with the MTA, they're obscuring an important part of the story. No wonder the comments sections of the major papers are full of people who think that the MTA doesn't deserve the money. The frames lead them to that conclusion.

Now, it may be entirely innocent, that these reporters and bloggers are just repeating what they've heard from other sources, but it's still counterproductive. Anyone who repeats these words together is really not doing the MTA any favors.

If you want to do the right thing, use words that will portray the situation in a light that fits more with the reality, and point towards ways to properly fund the agency. Contribution suggests a shared endeavor for the good of all. So does paying their fair share. Investment implies that the money will probably pay off in the long run.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The anti-transit shell game

Jarrett Walker brings this to our attention: Rupert MurdochLeonard Asper's National Post is trying to bring in the pageviews with a new "rethinking green" series. Recycling hurts the environment! Feed the world by growing fish in the desert! At first I thought it was just being contrarian to attract attention, like the Freakonomics guys, but then I realized that there's something more sinister at work.

Reversing climate change and cleaning up the mess we've made will require tremendous sacrifices, and for a democratic society to commit to sacrifices on that scale there has to be a clear understanding of the danger at hand, and a strong consensus about the best action to take. People like Leonard Asper and Wendell Cox are bent on preserving the advantages that their class has appropriated over the years, and they are willing to sacrifice the welfare of their grandchildren for this.

They are also willing to lie and cheat to do it, and they've realized that you don't need clarity or consensus to maintain the status quo. All you need is fear, uncertainty and doubt. If enough people say, "but I heard that recycling doesn't actually accomplish all that much," and "hydrogen-powered fish farms in Alberta will save us," then the consensus breaks down and Asper's buddies get to continue blasting the air conditioning as they drive their Escalades to the golf course in Scottsdale.

To break the pro-transit coalition among environmentalists, social justice activists, livable streets proponents and train buffs, Kevin Libin has a simple message, courtesy of Wendell Cox and Randal O'Toole: transit is less efficient than cars and pollutes more. Transit advocates like to tell you how much energy a full bus saves, and how much less carbon it spews into the atmosphere, but really they're living in a fantasy world. Nobody actually rides transit, so the buses pollute more per passenger than cars. Libin brings in some guy named Tom Rubin to deliver the solution: just relax and let the March of Technology make more fuel-efficient cars, and everything will be fine.

Nobody seems to disagree with O'Toole's numbers on the average efficiencies of transit systems, and I think every transit advocate should have a response to them. Commenters in the Streetsblog thread have made a number of important points: one near-empty bus can attract passengers who will also fill another bus (Hilary Kitasei, Jeff, Eric B and Librarian); it's important to look at the lifecycle energy use and pollution of each vehicle, not just while transporting people (Ben); and late night service gets drunk drivers off the road (Zach).

Jarrett's response is to point out that there are other reasons for transit: what he calls coverage services exist to "provide a little bit of service everywhere regardless of ridership, both to meet demands for 'equity' and to serve the needs of transit-dependent persons." His point, as I understand it, is that these coverage services account for the discrepancy between the potential efficiency of transit and its actual efficiency.

Libin actually addresses that in his article:
More roads, and more efficient roads, still won't address public transit's original, non-environmental purpose: providing mobility for citizens who lack their own. But where public transit is absent, or impractical, solutions for the small minority totally lacking other means have readily sprung up. Ridesharing applications for smart phones -- users enter their location and desired destination and a cost-conscious carpooler responds -- are already in wide use, Mr. Rubin says. Self-sustaining, small-scale private jitney systems have successfully operated for years in Atlantic City and Puerto Rico (all North America's early public transit systems were privately operated until they were nationalized). And with billions freed up from public transit funds, it appears entirely feasible to simply offer subsidized Prius taxis, or even car subsidies, to the small portion of the public entirely reliant on public mobility.

While taking exception to Libin's condescending frame - I don't "lack my own mobility" any more than some jerk who can't go farther than two blocks without being propelled by government-sponsored oil on government-sponsored roads - I agree with some of his potential strategies. Ridesharing and jitneys have a lot of potential, but as a supplement for transit, not a replacement. The subsidized taxis and cars are complete bullshit, just a way for Libin to gloat at the end, and not worth wasting electrons over.

In addition to Jarrett's response, I have another issue with Libin's argument, which is the matter of land use. It has been amply documented that city dwellers just use less energy than sprawled-out suburbanites. Libin pays lip service to this, but shows that he really doesn't get it:
But the thousands of delivery trucks, taxi drivers, emergency vehicles, service trucks, car-bound workers and buses mean even high-density cities will keep needing highways, ring roads, bridges and flyovers. Meanwhile the massive cost of overhauling cities is just more billions to address an automobile environmental problem that is already on the way to resolving itself -- money that might be better, and more effectively deployed toward other earth-friendly measures, such as reducing traffic congestion.

Well, it's not actually on the way to resolving itself, the overhaul will be done anyway, and transit-oriented lifestyles actually decrease the need for so many of the vehicles that Libin mentions. In addition, it's a feedback loop, one that works in both directions: if transit is better than cars, that encourages more people to use transit, and it becomes that much better.

But I've saved the main against Libin's (and Cox's, and O'Toole's, and Rubin's) argument for last. And that's the fact that this is just a shell game. These people are out to win at any cost, and if you start to win the climate change argument, they'll switch to efficiency. If you make headway in the efficiency argument they'll start talking about how we nasty elitists are trying to take away the True American Dream of living in a home so big you can't clean it by yourself. If you gain ground in the popular opinion argument, they switch back to emissions.

The only way you can win this is by keeping all the advantages of transit in mind:

Providing quality transit isn't just a matter of fairness to the poor, the young, the elderly and the disabled. Shifting people to transit isn't just a matter of clean air, energy efficiency and working towards a better society. It's also about making our streets safe for people of all ages to walk and play, about ending the carnage that kills thousands every year. Randal O'Toole may be able to show that transit is not living up to its potential in one or two of these goals, but he's just not going to be able to make the case that private cars are superior on all five counts.

Why we have government funding

Under Koch, Cuomo and Reagan we saw a reduction in public investment in infrastructure and services: our deteriorating parks, streets and subways allowed Reagan to deliver his famous tax cuts. Under Giuliani and Pataki we got private organizations taking up the slack: business improvement districts cleaned up the streets, and organizations like the Central Park Conservancy maintained the parks.

Of course, this is on a much more local scale: the BIDs and the foundations only pay for individual business districts and parks. If your neighborhood doesn't have enough rich donors, you don't even get a cheapo park conservancy, you just have to deal with inadequate city services. If your business district can't afford to tax its members, you get infrequent garbage collection and rarely seen NYPD patrols. In terms of transportation, we get oil wars and Cash for Clunkers for the rich, while the subway service is being cut.

Since the city, state and feds won't pay to maintain the existing facilities, they won't allow any new ones to be built unless they come with maintenance plans. Thus, the campaign for the Brooklyn Bridge Park rested not on convincing the city to build and maintain it, but convincing the neighbors to allow enough condo and recreational development to be built there so as to pay for the maintenance. The DOT's public plaza program has accomplished what it did only with local partner organizations who pledged to keep the plazas clean and functional.

Now Curbed links to a Post story about one of those plans that's coming apart. The new Hudson River Park was apparently built with the understanding that maintenance would be financed through allowing cars to cross the greenway and park at Pier 40, and eventually through some kind of recreational development on that pier. The neighbors didn't want to see that kind of development, though, and the pier has been deteriorating so that not as many cars can park there. The result is that the park is running out of funds.

Often we don't get a decent perspective on these things, so nobody explains why, for example, Brooklyn Bridge Park advocates were promoting condo construction. This Post article was an exception, though, thanks to one quote:
Geoffrey Croft, president of New York City Park Advocates, said Hudson River Park is falling victim to government refusal to pay for essential services (parks, among them), instead putting the cost on to risky development schemes.

"The problems at Hudson River Park are a perfect example of why these deals aren't in the best interest of the public," Croft said.

I'm so glad that Croft and New York City Park Advocates have come along. Instead of having two sets of parks, one for the rich and one for the poor, they want the government to fund them all. And it sounds like they don't treat it like a welfare system, but as a matter of basic fairness.

They've got an uphill battle in this economic climate, but park maintenance would be a great stimulus program. I've only just heard of them, but they sound like a great organization. We have plenty of organizations arguing for decent transit from a welfare point of view, and others from an environmental standpoint, but I don't know how often I hear it being advocated from a fairness perspective. And of course it'd be nice if we had someone doing this for business districts.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Beyond private and public

There's been some buzz around the web lately about "public-private partnerships," which are apparently the latest word in transit financing. Some are understandably opposed to this because they connect it with "privatization," which is a trend that goes back at least thirty years. But all these different names obscure the fact that governments and private organizations have been interacting for hundreds of years, and that there are common threads throughout.

In the transit field, even the most private carrier relies on some government security, and even the most public agency contracts out some of its services to for-profit companies, buys insurance from private insurers, and sells bonds to private investors. In between there is a range of possibilities; I think it's useful to distinguish them along several axes. The government can have a greater or lesser share in funding the infrastructure or the rolling stock, in paying for operations, in assuming risk, in collecting revenue, and in controlling routes and schedules.

In the example of the New York MTA, the government funds the capital expenses and pays for a dwindling share of operations, but the rest of the operations are funded through fares, tolls, advertising, rent and a jumble of sales and payroll taxes. Although the authority is nominally government-controlled, the government shares de facto power with shifting alliances of real estate firms representing the largest contributors to the mortgage recording taxes, and friends and campaign contributors to various politicians. The risk is mostly borne by the authority, and the MTA buses enjoy a monopoly on most surface routes.

In contrast, the "private" bus lines that used to run in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx were contracted by the New York City Department of Transportation. The buses, and possibly the garages, were paid for and owned by the city. The city paid for the roads and bridges, assumed pretty much all the risk, and guaranteed a monopoly on those routes. I'm not too clear on it, but I believe that the city paid whatever operating costs were not covered by fares, and possibly a small guaranteed profit. I believe the contract that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has with a private consortium to run its commuter rail lines is similar. Although the New York situation evolved out of a legacy system, I believe it is this kind of arrangement that most transit planners think of when they think of privatization.

Then there are the various "private investment" schemes, where the government will sell some of the risk to private firms. In essence, the government is making a bet with the private investors. If farebox revenue goes up, the investors make money; if revenue goes down, people still get transit service. In the "leaseback" arrangement the private investors have no control over fares, timetables or routes, but in other arrangements they could.

In the private commuter bus lines that travel through the Lincoln Tunnel, although the routes and timetables are determined by the companies, there are restrictions as to what changes they can make and how. The operations are paid by fares, with some companies receiving government assistance, and any excess revenue going to corporate profits. The roads, the tunnel and the terminals are mostly paid for by the government and the Port Authority, but the companies pay tolls and gate fees for their use. In most cases, the buses are paid for and owned by the government. Each company has an implied monopoly on its route, and the government cannot legally engage in "destructive competition," although in theory I believe it's possible for one company to challenge another's monopoly. The risk is shared between the government and the operators.

The jitneys that are found in many developing countries, and also here in New York and New Jersey, are subsidized by publicly funded roads, bridges and tunnels, but the buses are usually privately financed, and operations are paid for through revenue collected directly by the operators, with the government taking a share through taxes and tolls and the operators and syndicates dividing the rest. There are usually no timetables; such dispatching as there is is controlled by the syndicates. The routing is sometimes controlled by the government, sometimes by the syndicates or operators. There is no official monopoly, although the syndicates may try to enforce one. Most of the risk is borne by the operators.

In all of these situations, it seems that there is a range of government financing, from infrastructure alone to infrastructure plus rolling stock, to both of those plus operations subsidies. The government can also enforce a monopoly to a greater or lesser extent, and assume a greater or lesser amount of risk. Funding seems to determine control: the more subsidies the government gives, the more control it has over routes and timetables.

Let's go back to that paraphrase of Melissa Thomasson about healthcare economics that I discussed in October:
Melissa Thomasson says that what we have combines the worst of the market and the worst of government. Markets are usually really good at controlling costs. When they work best, products come into existence, like cell phones or stockings. They start expensive, and then they get cheaper and better. But markets don't guarantee that everyone can afford the things they need. Government can be good at that, ensuring universal access. But when you're paying for everybody, it's hard to control costs.

It sounds like the typical "privatization" arrangement that I discussed above is also the worst combination of the market and government, and the "legacy" arrangement we find in New Jersey isn't much better. You get all the rigidity of government and all the greed of the private sector. If you've got a monopoly and rigid control of fares, routes and timetables, you might as well have the government doing it. Otherwise it just sounds like a union-busting tactic.

Selling the risk to private investors sounds like a nice idea until you think that with peak oil, farebox revenue is pretty likely to rise. It seems like a bad idea for governments to turn control over to private entities to eliminate a risk that's actually pretty low.

Meanwhile, in the private situations like the jitneys you do get the creativity of the market and the absorption of risk, and you can still keep the government involved enough to ensure access for all and things like safety, efficiency and clean air. If we want to work towards involving the private sector, that seems like the best arrangement for passengers and for the environment.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The supposed convenience of cars

Like most people in this country, I was raised with the constantly repeated assumption that everything is more convenient in a car. Unlike many, I did have some counterexamples: my dad's mostly car-free existence in Manhattan. The low barrier to basic teenage mobility at my dad's (a couple of subway tokens) vs. my mom's (hours of training for the driver's license, hundreds of dollars for the car, and constantly having to pay for gas, repairs and insurance). Beach traffic on the LIE being worse than beach crowds on the LIRR. Being able to change a cassette on a bus without rear-ending the car in front of me.

Here's another moment of clarity for me: I had been living in Chicago for half a year, getting around pretty well by foot, bike, L, bus and Metra, but still with the sense that people with cars had it much easier than I did. I envied the attention that the WBEZ announcers paid to the motorists who took 35 minutes to get from Mannheim to the Post Office.

I was excited, then, when I needed to move and rented a car to help with it. The car was definitely helpful; it would have been a major pain to move all that stuff without one. It only took a few hours, and since it was a 24-hour rental, I figured I'd go play with the car for the rest of the time, and enjoy my new mobility. I knew the first thing I wanted: to buy a good chair for my new bedroom. I headed off to the strip malls west of town.

I then discovered how difficult it can be to find a particular strip mall store (I think this was an Office Max) if you've never been there before. I was tooling down one of those six-lane boulevards on the West Side, and I saw a sign for Office Max, but I was too far over to the left! By the time I got into the right lane, I had overshot the Office Max. This particular boulevard was divided, so I had to drive south until I found a place to turn around, drive back north of the Office Max, turn around again, and make sure I was in the right lane when I got to the store.

I eventually got the chair, but then I got stuck in traffic getting it home, and I still had to drive out to Midway to return the car. What had started out as an exciting exploration of freedom turned into an hour or two of anxiety and frustration. I actually don't remember if I got the car back on time, or if I wound up keeping it for another day.

This was probably my first experience of Strip Mall Overshoot, but it wouldn't be my last. It may seem small, but it's just one of the many ways that cars are less convenient than other forms of transportation, even for transporting furniture. This was a small chair, it fit into a relatively small box, and at that point in my life I could have easily carried it a mile. If I had known where to buy a chair like that within a mile of my house, I could have just gone and gotten it. I could also have taken it on the Metra, and maybe even the bus.

At that point, the seed of an idea was planted in my head, and here is the fruit of that seed: there is nothing inherently convenient about cars, or about any vehicle. It is the system that makes them convenient, and that system includes both the vehicle and the infrastructure. Provide unlimited, subsidized "free" car infrastructure, and cars will be convenient. Run buses often, everywhere, all the time, and buses will be convenient. Put everything in a giant skyscraper with computer-controlled elevators, and elevators will be convenient. Trains, walking, bayou boats, swinging from vines, conveyor belts, scuba diving: whatever it is, if you throw enough money at the infrastructure you can make it convenient.

It's not useful to argue about which mode is more convenient. The better question is which system is more efficient, pollutes less, kills less people, can serve the largest segment of society, and can bring people together instead of isolating them.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Rob Hopkins's Urban Challenge

Last month I discussed my suspicions that the transition movement may be just the same old back-to-the-land movement with renewed energy from the peak oil and climate crises. I'm not prepared to dismiss it completely out of hand, but I do think that it needs to let go of its contempt of cities and tone down its agriculture fetish to be truly effective.

I think it's worth quoting in depth the paragraph on page 37 of the Transition Handbook where Rob Hopkins dismisses New York:
If we see climate change as a separate and distinct issue from peak oil, we risk creating a world of lower emissions but one which is, in terms of oil vulnerability, just as fragile as today’s – if not more so – as energy prices rise.

A good example of this is New York, which recently emerged in a study as having one of the lowest per capita CO2 emissions of any large Western city, less than a third of the per capita US average. This is due to the density of living, the walkability, good public transport and the low heating requirements of apartment living. So, from a climate change perspective we can argue that New York is a good model of low carbon living we would all do well to emulate. Now let’s weave peak oil into that mix. What happens to New York in the event of a power shortage, or when the price of importing food starts to rise sharply? New York experienced such a power cut in August 2003, and although it only lasted for a day, its impact was keenly felt. While New York may have a small carbon footprint, it has little or no resilience to declining oil supplies (a concept explored in depth in Chapter 3).

You can read more of that section on the publisher's website.

When I read this, I immediately disagreed with Hopkins's conclusion (which seems to be that cities are doomed and we should all be living in small towns where we can use horsecarts to get our produce to market) but I had trouble defending New York against his specific accusation. The 2003 blackout did point to a particular vulnerability that the city has.

At 4:15 on August 14, I was working in Lower Manhattan in an enterprise that was essentially dependent on the Internet to function, so the boss told us to go home. The subways were non-functional, there was gridlock on the streets, and we didn't even think of taking a bus or a cab. I found a co-worker who lived near me and we walked six miles back to Queens. It took us a couple of hours. At least two car lanes on the Williamsburg Bridge were allocated to pedestrians. My wife had brought our infant son with her to work in the Bronx, and was not prepared to carry him ten miles home. One of her co-workers drove them to her apartment in Harlem, where they spent the night. The next morning they took three buses to get home. Power was restored the following evening.

Our resilience was tested in a less dramatic way three years later, when mismanagement by Con Edison resulted in sections of Queens losing power. At first there were two days of low power (our air conditioner and desktop computers wouldn't work, but the fans and laptops would), followed by a day of no power. At that point, Con Ed brought in several diesel generators in trailers and parked them next to large apartment buildings. Switching the apartment buildings to the generators freed up some electricity for smaller customers, but it took over a month before our generator was disconnected and driven away. In the meantime it was spewing diesel fumes around the clock under our bedroom window, which didn't help our son's asthma any. It was kind of a surreal experience, because in this case the subways were running normally and other neighborhoods had power. We could go work or shop in Manhattan or Forest Hills and it would be just another day with lights and air conditioning, but then we would get off the train and see stores with the lights off and the doors open.

There are two main questions that Hopkins's challenge raises. In both cases we made it through with minimal loss of life and property, but both cases were relatively temporary. What Hopkins is saying is that when peak oil finally catches up with us we will have to make do indefinitely with a much lower energy level. Is it possible to power a metropolitan area of nineteen million at roughly a thousand people per square kilometer without fossil fuels? What is a truly sustainable size and density?

In both cases we had a certain amount of redundancy between electrical, liquid and muscle energy that allowed the city to function at a reduced level while the problem was fixed. When the subways weren't running, there were gasoline and diesel powered buses, taxis and cars to transport those who couldn't walk or bike. When the cables couldn't bring enough power to work our lights, computers and air conditioners, we had diesel powered generators to supplement them.

In some visions of the future of cities, most transportation is powered by electricity, using energy ultimately supplied by sustainable sources. We already have electric subways and elevators, and in the past we've had electric streetcars and trolleybuses. Ultimately, I would like to see most car and truck trips replaced by electric rail and bus, and of course walking and bicycling.

But isn't that putting all our eggs in one transmission basket? What happens if we get another blackout like in 2003, and we don't have any cars or diesel buses to travel in? What if we get a brown-out like in 2006, and we don't have any diesel fuel to generate more electricity with?

Some of the answer is generating power locally, and in fact there are buildings in the neighborhood that have installed solar generators on the roofs and natural gas co-generation systems in the basements, but these only provide a fraction of the electricity needed, and the co-generation requires a supply of natural gas. I suppose we could have a completely redundant system of generators and buses powered by natural gas, but that presumes that we will have enough natural gas available then.

If any of you out there have information or insights, I'd love to hear them. Maybe you think Hopkins is right, and we should all move back to the land? In any case, please assume that we will reach peak oil, and that climate change will make other fossil fuels like "clean coal" and natural gas unsustainable. Feel free to disagree with those assumptions, but they are the premise of this discussion.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


I came across this Freakonomics blog post via the Saint Louis Urban Workshop, and had to mark it up. Many of the corrections I make were pointed out in the comments to the article, but it's been ten days and Morris hasn't yet responded. Can't the Times hire an economist who's willing to actually look at the data and talk to people on the ground, instead of cherry-picking whatever figures and quotes support his professor's preconceived notions?

When does transit fare policy treat people unequally? When it treats them exactly the same.


At thea huge risk of overgeneralization, there are two major constituencies for mass transit. First are wealthier workers who commute to jobs in city centers where parking is expensive. The Another group consists of the very poor. Unlike the “choice riders,” who could drive if necessary, low-income “captive” riders often have no other option. In many cities, there are middle-income riders who could afford a car but have chosen not to own one, committing themselves to the transit system indefinitely. There is no good name for them, because people like me would prefer to pretend that everyone really wants to drive. Let's call them "committed" riders.

The two groups have very different travel behaviors. For example, they favor different modes. As of 2001, the wealthy were much more likely to ride commuter rail or heavy rail (e.g. most subways) than bus or light rail; those earning over $100,000 took twice as many trips on the former modes as on the latter. For the poor, it is just the opposite. Members of households with incomes under $20,000 were almost six times more likely to take bus or light rail trips than heavy or commuter rail ones. I don't know what the middle class do, because I just assume that they want to drive drive drive like me.

The wealthy also travel longer distances. Those bus and light rail trips favored by the poor averaged only 6.8 miles, while the heavy rail and commuter rail trips preferred by the wealthy averaged 8.7 and 22.1 miles respectively. If you focus on the New York Subway, however, the poor tend to travel further than the middle-class or wealthy.

Since they are largely commuters, the wealthier tend to travel during the peak periods (the weekday morning and evening rush hours) and in peak directions (inbound in the morning, outbound in the evening). The poor, and the middle-class "committed" riders, who rely on transit for a wider variety of travel, take trips in more varied directions and are much more likely to travel at off-peak times.

What does this add up to? In pretty much every respect, the trips of the wealthier impose heavier costs on the system than the trips of the poor and middle class.

Bus service isseems to be cheaper to provide than rail service, but if I'd done my homework I'd know that it was actually the other way around. Short trips are obviously less expensive to accommodate than longer ones.

And even though vehicle occupancy is much higher during the peaks, on a per-rider basis it is still cheaper for transit agencies to provide service at off-peak times and in off-peak directions. This is because accommodating rush-hour traffic means purchasing extra vehicles and hiring extra staff which will be underused at midday, at night, and on the weekends. It also means problems with trips like reverse commutes; for example, commuter trains often travel outbound during the morning peak and inbound during the evening nearly empty.

Yet despite the very different burdens different types of trips impose on the system, most transit agencies prefer the simplicity of flat fares, regardless of time of day, day of week, mode, distance, or other forms of costs imposed (excepting, to a degreelargely but not completely, commuter rail service, which I just said was the preferred mode of the "choice" commuter).

This is why it was with considerable happiness that clueless Angelenos like Professor Brian Taylor and I read this article announcing that the New York MTA is considering cutting subway fares during off-peak times, as they have done for many years with commuter rail fares. Brian is my mentor at UCLA and is an outspoken advocate for equity in transportation; after seeing this piece he wrote me that “you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the country more excited by this article!”

What has Brian so giddy? This policy would be progressive in that it would benefit poorer and middle-class riders who disproportionately travel at off-peak times. It would also be equitable in that it would reflect the lower costs those riders impose on the system. This would help equalize the subsidy each passenger receives.

And in addition to being more fair, this policy would be more economically efficient. By using price signals to increase demand at off-peak times, it would put underused staff and equipment to work.

Consider that transit vehicles can be packed during the peaks but are decidedly light on traffic much of the time; economists Clifford Winston and Chad Shirley calculated that as of the mid-1990’s rail vehicles ran only 20 percent full. This figure has probably risen considerably since then, but I won't bother to spend half an hour to check it using the freely available data, because it suits my argument, being so low. Yet there is usuallysometimes no flexible pricing mechanism to fill those seats. Compare this with the commercial airlines, which are continually (perhaps maddeningly) adjusting prices to be sure every seat is occupied, and which have succeeded 81 percent of the time this year.

Unfortunately, for the moment new MTA chairman J.H. Walder is ruling out fares that are higher for longer trips, but this would be the logical next step. As with time-sensitive fares, this would appear to an academic in LA to combine greater equity with improved economic efficiency, while actually being regressive since it only applies to the subway system. Distance-based fares sound confusing and logistically difficult, but they need not be: the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington (which also offers an off-peak discount) already charge fares based on distance without any major problems, and in fact, so do the commuter railroads in New York, which pretty much wipes out my argument here.

But for now, off-peak discounts are definitely a step in the right direction. In a world where economic efficiency and social equity are often at loggerheads, this policy promisesappears to increase both. Let’s hope the new ideas will represent more than a (sorry) token effort.

This post is particularly frustrating because we sorely need good economic reporting on transit by knowledgeable people. Let's hope that next time Eric Morris and Brian Taylor actually run their ideas by people who live in the city they're, ahem, studying - and where the newspaper that employs them is based.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Us, them and our MTA

One of the most successful and persistent arguments against congestion pricing and then bridge tolls was, "Those crooks at the MTA don't deserve another penny." It's a hard one to refute. Here's an organization that's run by an unelected man who answers to an unelected board. Most of these people are uninformed real estate fat cats who collect Ferraris and are driven around in limos. The main qualification seems to be whether the governor owes you a favor.

Bus and subway riders understandably felt like they had no say. The Second Avenue Subway was repeatedly abandoned - after the Second and Third Avenue Els were torn down, resulting in a dramatic reduction in service. In the 1970s "deferred maintenance" period, the trains and platforms rotted and filled with trash and graffiti. Crime went unpunished and undeterred. Commuter railroads serving the wealthy suburbs got higher subsidies than the subways and buses.

Meanwhile, fares continued to rise and as they paid more and got less, passengers began to wonder where all the money was going. They got no clear answers from a self-perpetuating bureaucracy led by unaccountable officials. In 2003, State Comptroller Alan Hevesi famously found that the MTA kept two financial plans: one to fool the public and one for the board to know what was really going on. So it makes sense that people don't want to fund "those crooks at the MTA." As Dave Olsen found with Whidbey Island and Hasselt, even if transit doesn't make a profit, it can be well-funded through taxes - if the people feel like it's "our transit system."

It's gotten better. Some have argued that the "two sets of books" allegation was actually unfounded, but even so, the MTA seems to have cleaned up its act since then. After the storm of negative publicity they began putting more and more financial information on line. Governor Spitzer reorganized the agency to give Executive Director Lee Sander more power, and now Governor Paterson has combined the positions of Chairman and Executive Director into a "Chairman and CEO" position held by Jay Walder, who has moved towards even more openness. More importantly, the MTA leadership has been seen to serve at the pleasure of the governor, and to leave when the Governor is under pressure.

Here's the kicker, though: if the MTA has gotten more accountable and transparent, it doesn't seem to have improved its reputation. In poll after poll on congestion pricing and the Ravitch plan, New Yorkers showed skepticism as to whether the money raised from tolls would go to improved subway or bus service. This mistrust is skilfully exploited by pandering politicians to avoid restoring cuts to the agency from prior years. This week, some of these have added oversight to the MTA and the other "authorities," but they give no credit for any progress that's been made, and it remains to be seen whether these reforms will have any success.

Another part of the problem, I think, is that we expect to have to fund state agencies out of taxes. There are probably some agencies out there that are self-funding through user fees, fines or something like that, but those are usually spun off as nonprofits, for-profit corporations or public utilities. The MTA isn't an executive department, so people don't seem to expect it to have a steady stream of tax funding. It can't be "our transit system" if it's some authority.

Interestingly from the "us vs. them" point of view, there was a project called "FixMTA" for a while this year, and they've since changed their name to "OurMTA." They have a nice vision of accountable transit, but so far I don't see a way of getting there. The name, though, points towards a solution.

Here's a way to achieve that vision: state agencies are seen as straightforward extensions of the governor's power, and the public understands that if they have a problem, it's the governor's responsibility. They may be dissatisfied with the way the governor does things, but they seem comfortable with the idea that they can vote him out in the next election (although I'm still baffled as to why people kept re-electing Pataki). This works for the State Department of Transportation, the Department of Labor and all the other executive departments.

Almost exactly a year ago I recommended replacing the MTA with a state Department of Metropolitan Transportation. That way it would be similar to the existing state cabinet-level departments: funded and accountable. Taxation with representation. Our transportation system.

Transport Azumah begins service to unconventional city pairs

Today was the first day for Transport Azumah's new service between New Haven and Boston. Next week, Azumah will begin running buses on several underserved routes between cities in the Northeast: New York and Cambridge, and New Haven and Philadelphia/Wilmington/Baltimore/DC.

The Harvard Crimson quotes Joel Azumah as saying that there will not be wifi or power outlets until the spring, but we've got it straight from the horse's mouth that unboxed bikes will be allowed "as long as they are tagged with the owner's name and contact phone."

Azumah didn't take me up on my suggestion to stop in White Plains and connect with trains to Manhattan and the Trailways and Shortline buses to Long Island and the Hudson Valley, but hey, he's the one with the hands-on experience, and it's his money on the line. Let's all wish him success in adding to the travel options in the Northeast - especially for cyclists!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Us, them and future us

As I've written before, in politics it makes a big difference whether a proposed government tax or expenditure is perceived as being for "us" or "them." Voters tend to resist a tax on "us" that isn't going to be spent on "us." They support initiating or continuing subsidies for "us," and oppose subsidies for "them." One reason I'm interested in privately run transit is precisely because it's not as dependent on this kind of identification.

One of the reasons I live in New York is that as the least car-dependent city in the US, it gives me the best chance of living among people who share and support my chosen lifestyle. But even though we're majority car-free, and an overwhelming majority commute without cars, we still get politicians taking positions that favor driving and ignore transit. Part of this is because of the disconnect between the political class and the rest of the city, which can be blamed on the corruption and patronage that undermine democracy here.

Corruption is only part of the problem, though. All over the city you get people without drivers' licenses nodding their heads when John Liu says that bridge tolls were a way of "inhibiting people from Queens and Brooklyn from transportation into Manhattan." People who don't own cars cheerfully voted for people like Bill Thompson, who seemed to always find a way to be on the pro-car side of any transportation issue. People who never take their cars out of the garage complain about the perceived shortage of parking. You also get the craven "elitist" label thrown at anyone who favors bicycles, despite the fact that they cost a lot less than cars.

All these people - the non-drivers, the non-car-owners, the infrequent drivers - benefit from pro-transit and pro-walking policies. Why would they support politicians who attack these policies? Why would they vote for people who support pro-car policies that wind up coming back to hurt them?

I think the answer is that all these people think of themselves as drivers, or as potential drivers. Even if they never take the car out of the garage, they still might do it some day. Even if they don't own a car, they might be able to afford one some day. Even if they don't have a license, they might get one some day. That possibility is important to them.

I don't need to tell you that to most people around the world, cars represent mobility and freedom. More than that, they represent affluence and status. They are even associated with hard work and maturity, despite all evidence to the contrary.

In terms of status, symbols are not only confused with reality, they are often more important than reality. A car that makes it look like you earn a hundred thousand dollars a year is better for making connections (and getting laid) than actually earning a hundred grand, because most people don't actually go around flashing their W-2 forms. Those connections, in turn, can do more to get you to the point of earning 150 grand than you would get from earning a hundred grand.

I think this is why so many people get touchy whenever they hear about policies that could make it harder to drive in the city. Even if I don't own a Lexus, I might still be upset that I wouldn't be able to drive a Lexus down Broadway if I ever got one. They don't care that most people who can afford an Escalade can afford to pay $8 a day to drive it over the bridge, because they can imagine borrowing enough to get an Escalade but not enough to pay the tolls.

This is, of course, deeply irrational, and you can't argue with it. What we can do is to recognize that desire for status, and for the expression and acknowledgment of that status, and understand how anything that puts that expression in jeopardy is a threat. All we can do is offer alternatives.

We can't really make the bus or the subway glamorous (although you're welcome to try). What we can do is point to alternative status markers and reassure people that those markers will be just as valid as any car.

Isn't it enough to have the latest Armani suit, or gold watch, or luxury condo? To have dinner at the haute restaurant of the moment? Why do people feel that their package of status markers isn't complete without the SUV?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Outside the SubsidyScope

Last month the Pew Charitable Trust's SubsidyScope released a study of Amtrak subsidies. It made the news, and at the time I just shrugged it off as the kind of story that we'll have to put up with until (a) airline and private car subsidies come down enough to give trains the advantage or (b) Americans come to feel enough ownership of Amtrak to accept the subsidies the way they do airport and highway subsidies.

I also accepted the numbers, because I personally accept the need for Amtrak subsidies. Today, however, frequent commenter Bruce McF takes on the SubsidyScope numbers and shows that the work is a lot sloppier and less conclusive than I would have imagined from such a prestigious organization. No firm conclusions, other than that the subsidies are overstated.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Climate change

It's right there at the top of the blog: getting people to shift from cars to transit will reduce pollution. Transit is regularly cited as a potential strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But how much could we reduce with transit?

It's funny, I haven't been able to find a good answer to that question. Many of the papers and websites are full of nutty things like electric cars and pumping carbon dioxide underground. But I did find a few useful figures around the web. Still, this is a back of the envelope calculation, so make sure you stick lots of grains of salt onto it. Any pointers to better figures would be welcome.

First of all, what kind of decrease are we talking about? Well, no one seems to know. The current concentration of carbon dioxide in the air is about 390 parts per million, and the scientific consensus seems to be that we need to get it down below 350 ppm as soon as we can. More timid people have pushed for 450 ppm or even 550 ppm. Usually it's expressed in terms of reducing greenhouse gases by 20% by a certain date (say, 2030), and 80% by another date (say, 2100).

How much of that is transportation-related? Well, this paper from the EPA (PDF, page ES-15) says that in 2007 the US produced 7,150 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent (which includes things like cow farts and laughing gas), of which 2,000 megatons were from transportation (up from 1,547 in 1990). This includes the emissions involved in generating electricity to power subways. So if we could eliminate all transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, it would reduce our total by 29%. Well, it's a start!

Okay, seriously, how much of those two gigatons could we eliminate through transit? Again, people were very timid about this. A report by SAIC for the American Public Transit Association (PDF) says that two-car households could reduce their carbon footprint by 30% if they use enough transit to get rid of one of the cars. Lame! I want to know what happens if they get rid of both cars!

Transit advocates seem very keen on telling you how much greenhouse gas would have been emitted if every transit rider had driven instead; the SAIC report gives it as 6.7 megatons, and on page 9 of this PDF from the APTA puts the figure at 4 to 25 megatons. Sounds impressive until you remember that the total annual transportation emissions are 2,000 megatons. You can kind of understand why they don't put it that way.

Still, I'm happy for transit that it's sparing us from all those gases, but even though it's labeled in the SAIC report as "Potential Role of Public Transportation in Reducing CO2 Emissions," it's not. It's the current role. What is the potential role? Well, two University of South Florida researchers interpret the National Household Travel Survey to indicate that the mode share of transit is currently "1.59% of person-trips." In other words, one sixty-third of the total person-trips. So if we multiply that figure of 25 Mt by 63, we get 1,575 Mt.

So shifting the entire population of the US to transit would eliminate three-quarters of our transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, and 22% of the total US emissions. How do we manage that? This APTA report (PDF) argues that a 10% annual compound growth in transit ridership would reduce annual carbon emissions by 142 Mt in 2020 and 910 Mt (13% of the total 2007 US emissions) in 2040. I personally think their model is limited and would like to see a logistic model that takes into account the increasing difficulty of shifting people to transit, but maybe that will appear later. It probably doesn't affect the estimates for 2040 significantly.

Since the transportation sector only accounts for 29% of greenhouse gas emissions, other contributions will probably have to come from the commercial, industrial and residential sectors (agriculture is relatively small). But we can do a lot with transportation, if we can find the will.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

State Senate quintiles

This week New York voters re-elected most of their City Council members, and elected a few new ones, with most of them not having taken much of a stand on transportation issues. It's time to start looking to next year and the state legislature. Of course, the biggest obstacle to real reform this year was the dysfunctional State Senate, where the Democratic and Republican patronage machines clashed in a titanic struggle while largely ignoring the needs and wishes of their constituents. Because of this, the real winners were the "fare hike four" (sometimes more, sometimes less) who withheld their votes for power and got it: Pedro Espada, Hiram Monserrate, Ruben Diaz Jr. and Carl Kruger.

The fate of the Ravitch plan shows that the State Senate can have a big influence on the MTA. Transit advocates should pay attention to this race, and try to do what they can to get crappy senators replaced with more transit-friendly ones. Here's the quintile map, based on one from the Department of City Plannning, converted with MapShaper and colored with data from the Tri-State/Pratt factsheets:

In the green districts, with Perkins, Serrano, Duane, Squadron and Krueger, more than 73% of the households are car-free. In the yellow districts, with Espada, Schneiderman, Montgomery, Dilan and Diaz, it's between 65% and 73%. In the orange districts, represented by Adams, Onorato, Sampson, Parker, Hassell-Thompson and Monserrate, between 50% and 65% of households are car-free. In the red zone, Savino, Kruger, Golden, Stavisky and Smith represent districts that are between 34.4% and 50% car-free. The purple districts, with Huntley, Addabbo, Klein, Padavan and Lanza, are less than 34.4% car-free.

Duane, Squadron, Krueger and Schneiderman have mostly been pro-MTA - although they certainly could have been more vocal about it. Espada, Dilan, Diaz, Monserrate, Montgomery, Parker, Hassell-Thompson, and Kruger have actively obstructed funding the subways through bridge tolls. Savino talks about MTA funding, which is better than nothing. Adams, Smith and Klein have all been disappointing in various ways.

Republican Senators Golden, Padavan and Lanza are especially disappointing, because they had an opportunity to form a grand coalition with the rest of the Democrats in favor of transit funding, but instead chose to play power politics and allow the Gang of Four to kill the Ravitch plan.

Some of the seats will be contested in 2010. The Democrats have only a single-vote majority, so they will be trying to expand that caucus, and the Republicans will be trying to win back control of the chamber. The stakes are high: whoever controls the Senate will control the 2010 gerrymandering - not only for the Senate and Assembly, but also for Congress. Rather than blindly supporting along party lines, transit advocates should look for good candidates to support - no matter what party they're from.

Monserrate was recently convicted of misdemeanor assault for slashing his girlfriend's face with a broken bottle. He has not resigned or been expelled, but Queens Democratic party chairman Joe Crowley has said he will back Assemblymember Jose Peralta in the primary this fall. George Onorato will be 82 next year, and will also likely face a primary challenger.

The senators representing the "green zone" have pretty much supported transit. The "yellow zone" is a different story, with both Espada and Diaz. Since they both were responsible for the dysfunction in the Senate this year, it would be only right if they faced strong challengers, and transit advocates should throw their support behind those challengers, or even recruit some. One possible candidate to run against Diaz would be Majora Carter, who has brought nationwide attention to transportation justice issues in the district. Martin Malave Dilan and Velmanette Montgomery have been disappointing on transit issues as well, and I personally know several transit advocates who live in their districts.

The current State Senate is an embarrassment to the people of New York, in support for transit and many other ways. Let's hope that changes in 2010.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Low bridge, everybody down!

Last month I talked about how nutty it is to ban buses from a parkway (PDF) in the name of scenic recreational driving, even as you widen that "parkway" to six or eight lanes to accommodate commuter traffic, in the process completely destroying any scenic or recreational character that it ever had. I argued that if the State DOT wants to have parkways they should cut them all back to four lanes maximum, with parallel bike and pedestrian facilities, but if they want to have highways they should allow buses to use them.

Our express and intercity bus networks could really use some limited-access highways where they could cruise. The current schedule for the BxM4B takes 34 minutes to go down Fifth Avenue from the Bronx County Courthouse to Madison Square on a Saturday; Google Maps says that on weekends it should take 24 minutes for a car, but you could shave at least ten minutes off that by taking the FDR Drive. The BxM2 takes 53 minutes to go from 230th and Broadway to Penn Station; Google Maps gives that 33 minutes in a car and 17 if you take the West Side Highway. So we're talking time savings of up to 20 minutes. This can make a difference in ridership, particularly on the intercity bus routes.

Okay, but what about all the low bridges that Bob Moses famously built over his parkways to keep out buses and trucks? Well, the New York City Department of Transportation has a new treat for us: the clearances on all the parkway bridges in the city, either in PDF format or as a KML file. No more squinting at signs in Google Maps!

Here are the heights for typical buses in the current MTA fleet:
MCI D4500: 11' 5" (the big express buses)
Orion V or NovaBus RTS diesel: 9' 10"
Orion V natural gas: 11' 5"
Orion VII: 11' 3" (the new low-floor models)
EcoSaver IV: 10' 1"

This means that they will all fit on the Henry Hudson Parkway up to 232nd Street, the FDR to the Willis Avenue Bridge (with the exception of the Brooklyn Bridge and a couple of on-ramps in Midtown), or the Bronx River Parkway to Gun Hill Road, and the Grand Central Parkway to 60th Road. The old diesels and the brand new EcoSaver IV can go anywhere except for the Jackie Robinson and Cross Island parkways, the northern end of the Henry Hudson Parkway and the section of the Grand Central Parkway along Flushing Meadows.

The most straightforward thing to do is to end the blanket ban on buses on the parkways, and simply restrict them based on their height. The current ban seems to be in the Codes, Rules and Regulations of the State of New York, not laws, which means that the Governor or the next Transportation Commissioner could do away with it by executive order, without having to go through the Legislature.

Speaking of which, does anyone think that Frank McArdle would give a rat's ass about buses? I suppose he could turn out to be a pleasant surprise like Ray LaHood, but I'm not holding my breath.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The narrow worldview of energy greens

I was kind of startled to hear the anguish in Frank O'Donnell's voice tonight on Marketplace:
Warren Buffett is calling his acquisition of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad company a $34 billion wager on the economic future of the U.S. ...

Frank O'Donnell is president of Clean Air Watch, it's a non-profit environmental group. He says Buffett's acquisition is a sign he doesn't think the government's going to do much on global warming.

FRANK O'DONNELL: Well, this is very ominous from the standpoint of climate change. Warren Buffett is no dummy, and he seems to be making a multi-billion dollar bet that coal use is not only going to continue but grow in the future.

He says Buffett's in this to make money, not to change policy. But people follow Buffett. And deals like this one could make it hard to convince Americans we need to.

That's funny, when I first heard about Buffett's acquisition from Streetsblog, I thought that it was a bet that gas prices would go up, and I was heartened by the show of confidence in the efficiency and emissions-reduction potential of rail freight. After all, Buffett himself said,
They do it in a cost-effective way and extraordinarily environmentally friendly way. BNSF last year moved on average, it moved a ton of goods 470 miles on one gallon of diesel. It releases far fewer pollutants into the atmosphere. It saves enormously on energy consumption and, you know, it diminishes highway congestion.

If enough people follow Buffett, that would mean that the railroads would have plenty of capital to rebuild their second, third and fourth tracks, providing more capacity that can be used by passenger trains and taking cars and trucks off the road. What a boon for the environment!

I know that I tend to focus on transit, but I still recognize that energy and food can make a difference in the environment. Apparently O'Donnell is so focused on energy that he can take a story that is explicitly about the potential for rail transportation to improve the environment, and spin it so that it's all about energy. Wow.

Transit performance and frequent lines

Last week, the Times' Clyde Haberman described how New York City Transit had revised its performance metrics, so that they measure "absolute on-time performance" as well as "controllable on-time performance." The last measure excluded "situations deemed beyond their control — sick customers, police investigations, repairs, vandalism and so on," in Haberman's words.

Ben at Second Avenue Sagas says that the change is an improvement, but not really sufficient, and I agree with him. He observes that for frequent lines (roughly, less than twelve minutes between trains or buses), adhering to the schedule isn't the most important thing:
New Yorkers don’t really expect subway trains to run "on time" because the schedules, while available, are rarely used and aren’t considered gospel. The better indication of on-time performance involves train wait times. If I just miss a B train during the day, I expect to wait 8-10 minutes for the next one. If I’m waiting longer than that — no matter what time the schedule comes — I consider the next train to be late.

Let's go back to our goals for transit. First, it should work towards access for all; this is pretty much achieved by offering frequent, safe service. Then, it should get people out of their cars. If the train or bus is slower or less reliable than driving, people are going to drive instead. speed and reliability (and sometimes comfort) are where good management can make a difference, and that's how performance should be measured.

On-time performance has something to do with speed and reliability, but not enough. Let's imagine a bus route, the Q200, that runs every five minutes. The most popular trip, from the Statelee Apartments to the Hitek Office Center, is scheduled to take thirty minutes. The intended customer experience is to wait no more than five minutes for a bus and spend no more than forty minutes door to door.

In practice, the passenger crush at Statelee Apartments means that by the time everyone gets on, the next bus is right behind. This leads to the all-too-familiar bus bunching phenomenon, where Bus A is late - and packed - and Bus B is early and empty. So some passengers wait up to ten minutes for a bus, and then it can take 50 minutes door to door.

In terms of our goals, bus bunching is awful, because it reduces not only speed, reliability and comfort, but frequency - which means we're no longer providing access for all. But in terms of on-time performance it's not so bad: the leading bus may be late but the following bus is on time.

Now let's imagine that the bus operator institutes some kind of pre-boarding payment collection at the Statelee Apartments, reducing dwell time and eliminating the bunching. That's a major coup, improving frequency, reliability, speed and comfort. But they won't get that much credit for it, because in on-time estimates it's just a small improvement.

In the years before computers were everywhere, it may have made some sense to use on-time performance as a metric, but now that anyone can plug some numbers into a spreadsheet it's really lazy. So what could we use for a better metric?
  1. Average wait: The MTA calculates its subway wait assessment as "percent of instances that the time between trains does not exceed schedule by more than 2 minutes (peak) or 4 minutes (off-peak)." I would instead say, "If someone arrives at the bus stop (or train station) a minute after the last bus leaves, how long do they wait for the next available bus?" I would also make sure not to count buses that were too full to pick up people as available. Note that this has nothing to do with any schedule.
  2. Average trip time: Pick a popular trip. How long does it take, on average, door to door?
  3. Practical frequency: How often do available buses come? Bunches of buses (less than one minute apart) count as a single bus.
  4. Crowding: How many buses have one of the single seats available? This may not be cost-efficient, but it's still good to know.
By the way: if, as Haberman reports, Jay Walder is being hailed as "the Dumbledore of transportation wizardry," then who is its Cornelius Fudge? Dale Hemmerdinger? And if, as Gene Russianoff puts it, this new era of transparency at the MTA is not quite "the coming of the Paris Commune," should we be glad that we don't have to deal with Shelly Silver as Thiers and Pedro Espada as Mac Mahon?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Spatial, narrative and habit navigation

I may be covering things that have already been discussed, but this is something I haven't seen elsewhere before, so if you have, please point me to it.

Jarrett's recent post about spatial vs. narrative navigation, and Angus's reaction, got me thinking about something I've been trying to put into words for a long time. When some transit advocates talk about navigation tools, sometimes it seems like they think there's only one kind of user for any given transit facility. Meanwhile, I can think of four: old-time regular users, new regulars, occasional users and tourists. Each group has its own wayfinding needs, and what helps one group may be useless to another.

Tourists and occasional users are the most likely to use spatial navigation. They have an origin, a destination and a set of landmarks. They can consult the map on the wall, or the map in their heads, and plot out a good route. Of course, plenty of them get narrative directions from a regular user or from a trip planning program, which they can then memorize, write down or print out.

I would argue that regular, long-time users go beyond narrative navigation to something else, especially if they have a set routine. They walk the same way from their home to the station or stop, maybe picking up coffee or a newspaper along the way. They prewalk to the spot that will put them in the best place when the train stops. They often know the conductor and the other regular passengers. They know the best route to transfer, and their routine at the work end is similarly predictable.

These old-time regulars don't need maps or even timetables. They show up in the same place at the same time every day, and either the train comes or it's late. They usually know the times of the trains before and after, in case they're a little early or late.

New regulars often get shown the trip by the old regulars, but they may also find their way through spatial or narrative navigation methods. After they've taken the trip enough times, though, they become old regulars and everything is done by habit.

Some transit agencies go out of their ways to help tourists, like the ones in New York, London, etc. They not only have maps on the walls, but have free system maps and timetables in every station. Others may post a map or have a timetable available, but leave out critical information. In some places, the system maps are only available in a central location. Many jitney systems have no published information at all, and rely entirely on word of mouth. Just about every travel book involving transit has a scene or two where the traveler is confronted with a complicated system and absolutely no documentation.

For a transit geek, a lack of information can be positive or negative. It definitely makes learning the system more challenging. This can be fun if we don't have to get anywhere soon, and if the system doesn't wind up marooning us in some suburb when rush hour ends. But if we actually want to learn the system in a reasonable amount of time it can be maddening.

Many transit customer service people don't know how to deal with an explorer. I can't tell you the number of times I've asked about a route and been asked in response, "where do you want to go?" It's hard to explain that I don't want to go anywhere right now, but am wondering if I'll find out someplace interesting to visit along this route. I usually just mumble something and excuse myself, since there's a line of people behind me who actually have to go somewhere in particular.

I've also had the experience of finding the person who has access to the cabinet in the central office where the map booklets have been sitting, and they're quite pleased that someone actually wants the schedule for the elusive #10Y bus. I think these two experiences point to something that is worth stressing: that in the vast majority of transit systems, most passengers are old-time regulars. In other words, if you took away all the maps, timetables and brochures, only a small number of people would notice.

Now I'm going to ask a difficult question: do these people matter? Clearly not, to some of the transit systems, or else they would have made more of an effort to develop good materials and put them out there where people can see them. The dollar vans in New Jersey make plenty of money without published maps and schedules, so why go to that extra expense?

Do they matter to us? Well, only as far as they fulfill our goals of access for all and getting people out of their cars. First of all, if there's a class of people that wants to use the transit service but is being systematically excluded through insufficient information, then that's bad. For example, a Mexican living in Sunset Park who spends an hour on the train to Corona to visit relatives but could get there in half an hour if he knew about the Chinatown vans. Any community with a high level of illiteracy can also be a challenge for outreach.

As far as getting people out of their cars, we need to look again at which people need more information: tourists, occasional users and new regulars. There are plenty of cities with perfectly functional transit systems that are shunned by tourists - but there are also possible class issues involved as well. There are people who will use the train or bus for their regular commute but drive or take taxis to all other destinations, even though they may be more convenient by transit. Finally, there are people who make a trip by car every day and never learn that they could be taking transit. Remember all the stories from last year's oil price spike with people who said, "I never realized that the bus was so easy; I'm not going back to driving!"

I think the proportions are different in each town, but each transit agency should sit down and look at the number of potential customers they could be getting from tourists, occasional users and regulars, and then survey those populations to see what it would take to get them to use the system. One agency may discover that they could capture a big chunk of the tourist market that currently gets stuck in traffic driving to XYZLand. Another may realize that their commuter passengers could be converted into nightlife passengers. A third could find that there are frustrated commuter drivers that just need to know about the 28X express service.

On the other hand, it may just be that everyone who needs to know about the system finds out by word of mouth, and nobody needs to waste time. That transit geek who wants to find out where the G33 goes? He can stop by the central office and pick up a wad of timetables.