Saturday, February 28, 2009

Revenge of 1975

The transit geeks' favorite whipping boy, Randal O'Toole, has a new comment out, and this time I just can't resist breaking out my whip.
Closing Broadway to auto traffic may reduce congestion on cross streets and avenues, but limiting auto access could also turn Broadway itself into a deserted wasteland. [...] Broadway might have sufficient pedestrians to maintain retail businesses — but it might not. It may be that many of the pedestrians originally arrived by taxi or in other automobiles.

Randal, when your buddy Sam Staley is saying just the opposite of what you're saying right above, you know you're out of touch. Staley appears to have left his Ohio suburb and actually visited Times Square at least once, and it looks like he didn't come in a car. And boy his legs were sore!

But at least Staley saw the obvious: that most shoppers and entertainment patrons arrive in Times Square by way of the eight subway lines that converge under it, or by the six NYC Transit bus lines that pass through it, or by the seven other subway lines a block away, or by the hundreds of buses that converge on the Port Authority Bus Terminal a block to the west. Some of them even come on foot or by bicycle!

All that seems to elude O'Toole, who is apparently stuck in some small city in 1975 where the shiny new mall has just opened out by the bypass and the Woolworth's is closing downtown. Guess what? This is 2009 now. Big box stores are closing left and right and strip malls are emptying out.

A clear illustration of this is that the good folks at Brownstoner have observed that the Fulton Mall seems to be hanging on quite well:

Biking through the Fulton Mall this week we were struck by how unaffected it appeared to be by the recession and broader downturn in the retail environment. We obviously don't have any numbers on sales trends at any of the stores, but we were impressed by the fact that there was only one small store that was empty and only one other For Rent sign on the entire seven-block stretch.

What is the Fulton Mall, for those of you as clueless about New York as Randal O'Toole? Why, it's a pedestrian mall along Fulton Street in downtown Brooklyn. It's actually a cool kind of pedestrian mall: it's got buses too.

All this shows that the relative success or failure of shopping centers depends less on what mode customers use to get there than on what kind of value they get out of that mode. If people can't afford to drive to the Super Mega Classy Galleria they won't shop there.

Now maybe Sam Staley, Mike Bloomberg and Mr. Brownstoner can get together and talk some sense into Joe Chan? Please, Joe, play to your strengths. Downtown Brooklyn is not and will never be Rodeo Drive. It won't even be the Poughkeepsie Galleria. Stop throwing money at parking garages and harassing bus users. Buses, subways and sidewalks work for Brooklyn: they deliver the customers. Be nice to them.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Ways to Transit Independence

There are four ways I can think of; the rest of you are welcome to chime in if you know any others.

The first way to financially independent transit is simply the farebox. If you can get passengers to pay for all your operating and maintenance costs, and maybe even some of your capital expansion costs, you're golden. This is why borrowing is a bad idea, though: the more farebox revenue you spend on debt service, the more ongoing subsidies you'll need to ask for. Other challenges include losing passengers to competing modes, and being politically or economically unable to raise fares.
As we saw in the news articles that started this whole discussion, the vast majority of public transit agencies in the US are unable to fund their operating costs - in many cases, even when ridership is high - and depend on subsidies out of general tax revenue.

The second way is to run a side business. The MTA brings in money from advertising and from renting space on its properties for newsstands and other businesses. Ben Kabak of Second Avenue Sagas is a big fan of this revenue source, but it's important to place some value on transit riders' dignity and sanity, and I personally can't stand being bombarded with ads all the time. It also compromises the system's integrity if the managers are chasing ad revenue.

Another strategy is to tax a specific thing and dedicate the revenues to transit; the most salient example of this is the Triboro Bridge and Tunnel Authority, whose bridge revenue goes to fund the New York City Transit Authority. The MTA also gets revenue from the Mortgage Recording Tax, but that's a double-edged sword. First, with hardly anyone taking out mortgages these days, revenues from that are way down. Second, there have been a large number of real estate speculators involved in MTA management recently, and I have to speculate that there was some kind of condition on the continued collection of the mortgage recording tax where they were allowed to have some say in how its proceeds were spent. Since most of the powerful real estate people don't take transit (former MTA chair Peter Kalikow owns a large collection of Ferraris), it's safe to say that they may not always have the best interest of the transit riding public at heart.

The fourth way to independence relates to the first way, and that's to bring down operating costs through investment. This investment can be subsidized by the government, but it often doesn't have to compete quite as fiercely for funds as operating revenues do. The type of investment that contributes the most to financial independence is dedicated, separated right-of-way. This is why the Lincoln Tunnel Exclusive Bus Lane accounts for so many of the profitable private transit operators in the country. It reduces the travel times for the routes that use the tunnel, and thus saves gas and operator wages. There are other ways: before the "private" bus lines in New York City were taken over by the MTA, most of their buses were purchased and owned by the City.

Recently, many people have wondered why the Federal government subsidizes many capital costs of transit systems, but is reluctant to subsidize operating costs. The main reason is that it's a lot easier politically. Give a man a fish and you've fed him for a day. Give him a fishing pole and he probably won't ask for another one for at least a month.

So what can these cash-strapped transit agencies do? One thing is to identify capital improvements that can lead to significantly lower ongoing costs. New buses, garages, signal priority, anything that facilitates operations. Of course the things that facilitate bus operations the most are busways. And the thing that facilitates transit operations the most is rail.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Your Chance for Justice?

If you've been paying attention to the carnage, you've probably gotten tired of hearing phrases like, "the driver remained at the scene and was not charged," and "there did not appear to be any criminality involved." You've gotten the message: if a driver kills someone with a car, it doesn't matter how fast they were driving, how many distractions they had in the car, or whether they had the right of way. As long as they weren't under the influence and didn't leave the scene, they won't be charged with anything. Even if they kill you or your children with their negligence.

This is not only a gross perversion of justice, it also feeds the cycle of car dependence. The less safe people feel on the streets, the more they will choose to drive instead of walking - and that in turn means more dangerous cars on the road, less people to demand pedestrian and transit improvements, and more people to demand improvements to car infrastructure, which leads to more people choosing to drive.

There is a clear pattern on the part of the NYPD, and it is affected by "windshield perspective," where the officers (who drive at a rate much higher than the general population of the city) are more likely to side with the driver than any pedestrian or cyclist victims. In other parts of the country where it is very hard to make a living without a car, police and judges are loath to take away someone's livelihood. But this is New York City, where you can get to just about any job by transit, so there's really no excuse for lenience.

That said, the NYPD are public servants and they do listen to public input. Every precinct has a civilian-run precinct council where the precinct's officers respond to public concerns every month. You can look up your precinct and find out when the precinct council meets. If you know of an incident where a driver injured or killed someone and wasn't charged, round up some of your concerned neighbors and go ask the precinct commander why. Be polite and respectful but firm.

The NYPD may sometimes seem like a law unto itself, but in theory at least it's answerable to the Mayor, and we elect the Mayor. If the NYPD doesn't charge drivers who kill, they're doing it with the approval of Mayor Bloomberg. This year Mayor Bloomberg is running for re-election, and it's a good time to ask him why he doesn't tell Commissioner Kelly to crack down on killer drivers.

Finally, the police aren't likely to do much if it doesn't lead to at least a few successful convictions, and New York prosecutors don't seem very interested in these cases. They give the run-around to anyone who seems to care.

The good news is that this is also a 4x+1 year, meaning that Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes and Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau are up for re-election. (The next 4x+3 year is 2011, when there will be elections for the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island D.A.s.) It seems that incumbent D.A.s have even more of an advantage than incumbent Assemblymembers, but at age 90, Morgenthau is considered vulnerable and will likely have at least two challengers this year.

New Yorkers who care about this issue can make it part of the campaign. Manhattan D.A. candidate Leslie Crocker Snyder's campaign website has nothing about vehicular homicide on its issues page. If we want anything to change, we'll need to bring it up at campaign events, in direct contact with candidates, and in the media. Otherwise the campaign will be dominated by gangs and drugs. Those are important issues, but we should ask how they compare in terms of the number of people killed each year, and by their overall effect on our society.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The goals of transit funding, and its obstacles

Why do we subsidize transit? There are two main goals, which we can broadly group under social and environmental. We want to make sure that everyone who has a legitimate need to get somewhere can do so. We also want to get people out of their cars, thereby increasing efficiency, decreasing carnage and pollution, and improving society.

I don't think that anyone is opposed to these goals on principle. The opposition comes from people who disagree about how effective transit subsidies would be in accomplishing these goals, and from people who have other goals that they place a higher priority on.

For example, deficit hawks may place a higher priority on balancing the budget than on providing transportation for all. Back-to-the-land hippies may place close contact with nature over transportation efficiencies. Pro-business people may put economic prosperity ahead of reducing pollution. Libertarians may put "the freedom that cars bring us" ahead of the social benefits that come from pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods.

I believe that many of these objections are reasonable, but misguided. Others are half-truths or even outright lies invented to cover self-interest. Regardless, to the extent that transit is a priority for us, we want to see it overcome these objections. Now more than ever, transit is in competition with private cars, and in order to compete effectively it needs to be dependable. In order to be dependable, it needs a stable funding source.

Probably the worst way to fund transit is through general tax dollars that come from sales or income taxes. In that kind of budgetary free-for-all, there are lots of people who can think of better uses for money than transit. Between the needs of dying orphan babies and the demands of powerful elites, it's almost guaranteed to get short-changed.

It might be a good idea to develop some political power for transit to use in various fights, but financial independence is an easier way to build dependable service. In a later post, I'll discuss some possible ways to achieve this.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Cuza and Donahue get it - sort of

Coverage of the recent MTA "doomsday plan" and people's protests against it have been disappointing. Most of the stories talk about the human element: people that would be severely inconvenienced by the loss of transit service, or that would have trouble making ends meet if they had to pay the proposed fares. That's important. But a lot of them ignore the fact that the MTA has limits on how much money it can take in.

This Friday, though, NY1 reporter Bobby Cuza and Daily News reporter Pete Donahue seemed to get it. In their weekly transit review, they discussed the high turnout at the latest hearing. Cuza observed,

A lot of people, even when they come to speak they say, "This isn't really going to be heard, it's not going to make a difference." And the MTA themselves say that the real audience for this is Albany, because they're the ones that really have a say in whether or not to increase funding to the MTA, and whether or not these fare hikes are actually going to happen, and it just sort of raises the question whether these hearings really serve any useful purpose at this point, when really the message should be going to the lawmakers in Albany.

Donahue concurred:
Yeah, they'd be better off putting all those people on buses and taking them up to Albany, and have them scream and yell at the legislators. Because if the riders are going to get any help it's going to come from Albany. The MTA can't do anything; they can't print the money.

It would definitely be more effective to put them on buses and send them up to Albany. Or even to have rallies at the district offices of key state legislators. And that just sort of raises the question why our "transit advocates" aren't doing that, but instead are encouraging people to waste their time at these hearings.

Cuza and Donahue didn't go quite as far as I'd have liked them to, connecting the MTA doomsday plan with the Ravitch alternative plan for bridge tolls, or last year's plan for congestion pricing, and all of the anti-toll grandstanding on the part of the legislators. But then, the Straphangers' Campaign has been kind of quiet on that issue too.

What does Profitability Mean?

I've been thinking about profits and subsidies, in light of the statement made by The Transport Politic:

The overriding point, though, is that the meaning of the word "profitable" itself is subjective.

The TP is correct, so what do we mean by it? My first thought is that what I'm trying to capture when I talk about profitability is independence from subsidies. Of course, as I wrote in my last post, no form of transportation is truly independent from subsidies.

What I'm really talking about is avoiding the current mess described in that Times article everyone's been linking to. In other words, being independent of the current wave of budgetary crises that's been swamping transit systems all over the country. Let's look back at our goals:

If we want transportation for all, and if we want people to chose transit (leading to lower pollution, greater efficiency and more robust social structures), we need transit to have a stable funding source. Otherwise it'll always be prey to the Kit Bonds and Gavin Newsoms of the world.

There are essentially two ways to get - and keep - anything in this world: independence and power. If you have power, you can elbow out the others at the table and grab your share. If you have independence, you can get what you need all by yourself and keep the jackals at bay.

Transit has more power than it used to; otherwise, the funding levels discussed in the stimulus debate would be closer to ISTEA levels. But that power is currently shallow and unstable, and thus highly dependent on which party controls Congress. Truly powerful transit would be almost as important to Republican politicians as it is to Democrats.

I think that's why I like talking about privately run, profitable transit: not so much because I have some mystical belief in the value of entrepreneurship (please!), but because it's an indicator of power and independence. If a private bus line can demand - and receive - millions in subsidies from the government, it's got some power, and the state-run transit agencies that work with it have a similar level of power. If a private bus line can thrive without any direct subsidies, it's got some independence, and we could expect that public transit agencies operating in a similar environment would have similar amounts of independence.

That said, we don't want organizations to have too much power or independence, because that undermines democracy. Too little power and independence, and you have chronically cash-starved agencies cutting service left and right. Too much power and independence, and you run the danger of corrupt officials getting rich, or some day perhaps of having too much transit in the wrong places.

Friday, February 6, 2009

More on profits and subsidies

My last post generated some really thoughtful posts and comments. There were two comments here on the blog, then the Transport Politic picked it up and expanded on it, and that post in turn was featured on - on the New York mothersite and on the Los Angeles and San Francisco editions.

The Transport Politic observed, "But I think he [meaning me] doesn’t delve deep enough into the meaning of profitability, nor does he describe what an alternative rhetoric on transit funding might entail." There's a simple explanation for this: I don't do this stuff for a living, I have a day job, and I needed to go to bed. I'm happy to have this be a collaborative effort, and for others to pick up on this discussion while I sleep or work.

TP continues "The overriding point, though, is that the meaning of the word 'profitable' itself is subjective." I would argue that it's not so much subjective as fungible - that it means different things to different people, and that those differences have been used to sow confusion and reap discord.

There are a lot of good points made. A number of commenters - Larry Littlefield on Streetsblog NY, the Free Public Transit Editors on Streetsblog LA, Mike Sonn on Streetsblog SF and Bibi on the Transport Politic - all touched on the issue of hidden subsidies, and on what it means to subsidize transportation. Bibi in particular linked to a great article (PDF) by Paul Weyrich and William Lind on this issue. I'd like to expand on that.

In debates on transit subsidies, when anti-transit people say that they don't want public money used to pay for transit, transit advocates often respond that no public transit system pays for itself.

They're absolutely right about that, but it's a bad tactic. What the antis actually mean is that they're afraid of their money used to pay for someone else's transportation. Telling them that all transit is subsidized doesn't address that concern.

What does address this concern is the fact that if you add up the total cost of getting a person or a package from door to door, there is no form of transportation that is entirely paid for by the user, and there never has been. From the ancient Inca llama trails to the shores of Tripoli, from Clinton's Ditch to the Pacific Railroad Act, from the National Road to today's oil wars, governments have paid for the planning, land acquisition, operation and protection of transportation systems.

Once we get that settled, the question is simply which systems to subsidize, and how much. The answer to that depends to a large extent on what our goals are. Since it's bedtime now, I refer you to my post on goals from a year ago, and to the posts about cycles that followed it. Looking forward to your thoughts.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Unpacking the transit funding dilemma

It's been in the news a lot lately: public transit systems are being forced to cut service, even as they hit record ridership levels. This has come as a bit of a surprise to your Cap'n, since I know that transit can be profitable under some circumstances.

I had assumed that the subsidies were necessitated by unfair competition from subsidized private car travel, and that if ridership were high enough they could at least break even. In other words, that it was the inefficiency of operating almost-empty buses, trains and vans that necessitated such high operating subsidies.

It turns out that I was wrong, and that even at full capacity it is impossible to make a profit on many of these routes. This is why people are asking for operating subsidies to be part of the stimulus package being debated in congress.

It still rubs me the wrong way. Impossible to make a profit? You mean that if a private company set up on that route they wouldn't be able to break even, even with full buses? Then why do many buses in New Jersey make a profit even though they're not always full?

What's that I remember from Econ 101? Oh yeah, it's impossible to make a profit at that price. Those private buses in New Jersey are allowed to raise their fares, and to set them at a point where they can make a profit. So if the bus isn't breaking even with 50 people paying $1 each, maybe it would with 25 people paying $3 each. If the economy is really driving people towards transit, why not make some money off of that?

I can just hear the squawking now. You can't raise fares! Poor people have to feed their children! You'll hit them in the pocketbook! How else are they going to get to work?

So this is what's actually going on with the transit operating subsidies. They're not for keeping transit systems going - the demand is probably great enough for them to do that - but for keeping the transit fares within reach of the poor. In other words, a welfare system.

Let me say that I am sympathetic to that point of view. To me, "welfare" is not a bad word. I was once a college student without much income, and later worked at low-paying jobs with lots of student loans. I don't want to price basic transportation out of the reach of poor people.

My beef is that somebody is being less than honest here, and I think we can ill afford to do that. Transit is critical for lots of reasons, and getting large numbers of people to shift from cars to transit would bring tremendous benefits to society at large. But we can't do that if we can't afford to run the buses and trains where and when people want to go. What are we actually trying to do, and how can we accomplish that?