Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Checking in with the Red Hook Tunnel Bus

Every once in a while I like to check in with our old friend, the Red Hook Tunnel Bus. Faithful readers will recall the many abortive proposals to bring decent transit to Red Hook in Brooklyn, a neighborhood cut off by the BQE where residents going to Manhattan have either a long walk or an unreliable local bus ride just to get to the subway. Even though the entire neighborhood is close to the entrance to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, none of the buses that currently go through the tunnel stop in Red Hook. A bus through the tunnel could get Red Hook residents to jobs and subway stations in Lower Manhattan in ten to fifteen minutes, while a similar trip could take 45 minutes by bus and subway.

There's still no word from the MTA about any possible tunnel bus; while the Ravitch plan calls for an expansion of the bus system, it does not recommend any specific routes. However, today the Daily News ran a story about a private bus company based in Red Hook, Trans Express, which has had to lay off about sixteen employees because of the current economic downturn. Trans Express's website shows that they not only have 55-passenger tour buses, but also a number of 32-passenger midsize buses and 22-passenger cutaway minibuses - very similar to those used by the private jitneys that go to New Jersey.

I'm not up to date with the current legal climate, but I'm guessing that Trans Express wouldn't be able to just start picking up passengers at bus stops in Red Hook. They'd have to either get some special kind of license, or else charter each run as a subscription service - requiring everyone to buy tickets in advance. They might not be willing to take such a chance.

However, other people might. A nonprofit organization (or, say, a multinational retail furniture outlet) that's interested in a pilot project might be willing to do the work to publicize the service and get commuters to subscribe. You can rent one of these minibuses, with driver, for about $700 a day (ten hours), maybe less in the current market.

In the best-case scenario the bus makes three one-way trips an hour, 30 trips per day, and it's full on every trip (20 passengers). That would bring the cost per passenger per one-way trip to $1.16, about the cost of a subway fare. If it's only half-full on average (ten people), the cost per trip per passenger is $4.67.

If our nonprofit didn't invest with Madoff and has some cash to subsidize the service, they could get it down to half that, which is under the cost of a monthly Metrocard, or even just accept a token payment of $10 per month.

Clearly, the $700 figure includes some markup by the charter company, but I don't know what that might be. The bottom line is that it wouldn't be impossible to make some money on this service. You're probably not going to get rich, but you might not have to subsidize it indefinitely.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Winning the Battle and Losing the War

A few days ago, NPR had a story featuring a fascinating new book about Claudette Colvin, whose protest of bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama in March 1955 predated that of Rosa Parks by nine months. Colvin was only fifteen, while Parks was 42. In both cases, there were seats available for the white passengers, and other black passengers being forced to stand. Housewife Aurelia Browder was arrested in April of that year, and eighteen-year-old Mary Louise Smith was also arrested in October of that year. The choice to rally around Parks for the 381-day bus boycott was apparently a strategic one, as the boycott leaders felt that Parks had more "gravitas" than either Colvin (who had become pregnant in an alleged rape), Browder or Smith (whose father was rumored to be an alcoholic, although Smith claims that the rumors were untrue). However, Browder, Colvin and Smith became plaintiffs in the Browder vs. Gale lawsuit that ultimately outlawed segregation on buses in Alabama.

The story got me to thinking, "Whatever happened to the Montgomery bus system?" Interestingly, the Montgomery Area Transit System's History page has nothing about the boycott, but it talks about an interesting experiment in "demand and response transit" that led me to a 2000 article in the Nation magazine by Joann Wypijewski.

And that article leads me to this question. Colvin, Browder, Smith and Parks were all courageous leaders who saw injustice and refused to stand for it. They, and boycott leader E.D. Nixon, succeeded in ending segregation in the transit system, and inspired leaders across the country and around the world to end legal segregation in transit, in schools, in housing and in businesses and services.

Looking at the transportation system as a whole - including all the ways that people get from home to work, play, school and shopping - what did these leaders accomplish? I think it's fair to ask, because all these protests were planned and thought through, from Colvin being inspired by the work of Tubman and Truth before her, to Parks being the secretary for the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, to Nixon choosing to focus on Parks rather than Colvin, Browder or Smith. They had goals in mind, and they set out to achieve them. Did they succeed?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Extremes of transit subsidies

The Free Public Transit advocates make some very good points. I've disagreed with them before. But I think even they would agree that there are limits to how much transit should be subsidized, and to what should be free. There are also limits to what level of service should be subsidized.

There seems to be a fairly strong consensus for a minimal level of transportation subsidy. If a road or sidewalk is available, it's usually free to use - assuming you supply your own power. In the past, residents have sometimes been expected to maintain their own roads, especially in remote areas, and it gets more problematic when water is involved. But at the very least, people seem to agree that the government has the responsibility to maintain clear public rights-of-way on land, and to keep them relatively crime-free. Only the most extreme libertarians would argue that every individual should pay for the full cost of maintaining and policing all the streets they use, without any governmental tax or fare collection.

On the other hand, if I wanted to spend the rest of my life shuttling back and forth between Irkutsk and Tristan da Cunha, in the greatest speed and comfort attainable with our current technology, should I be able to do that for free, at government expense? My guess is that even the most die-hard free-transit activists would say no.

So I think the vast majority of people reading this can agree that the sidewalk in front of your house should be free (whether subsidized directly by the government, or indirectly by unfunded mandate) and that high-speed, multiple frequent luxury trips to the South Atlantic should not be free. There's a lot of gray area in between.

In fact, "transit" usually refers to short-distance public transportation, and our respected colleagues at specifically say that they want to "Remove the user fee [fare] from urban buses, trains, trolleys, street cars, and light rail." (My emphasis.)

Where do you draw the line? (I'm not telling you, I'm asking you.)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

$500 million for what?

Streetsblog links to a Post article about "stimulus funds for transit projects" that includes the $500 million overhaul of the Brooklyn Bridge - which hasn't carried transit since 1954.

Again, why are we spending so much taxpayer money on an upgrade that only benefits drivers? If we put half a billion dollars into rehabbing that thing, it should have a dedicated lane for buses. Otherwise, I'm sure it'd hold up just fine for another fifty years if we only had one lane of cars in each direction and a dedicated bikeway, leaving the rest as a beautiful linear park.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

More on trains, speed and comfort

A number of readers weighed in with commentary about high-speed rail. Apparently you can walk from car to car on a TGV. And Bruce, I may be wide now, but I wasn't when I last rode a TGV!

In response to Bianca's comment, I wouldn't want to open the windows on a train going 125 mph, but that's my point: sometimes comfort is a higher priority than speed. As long as there are normal-speed alternatives, I'm okay. It's true that you can't open the windows on an Amtrak train either, but that to me contributes to the sterile 70s-airline feel of Amtrak trains. I still remember riding out of the Gare de l'Est one September night in a couchette with the windows open, picking up speed as we headed for Frankfurt. There was something special about that. And no, the rest of the experience wasn't particularly luxurious, but thanks for the straw man!

For some reason Bruce and Bianca seemed to think I was talking about California high-speed rail. It's true that California is the closest to bringing us something comparable to a TGV, but there are plenty of other proposals, and I was thinking more about the Albany-Buffalo or DC-Charlotte plans.

I was also thinking about some of the "normal speed rail" arguments in the comments on the Transport Politic. One thing that can save us from going round and round in semantic arguments is going back to our goals: to get people out of planes and cars and thereby reduce pollution, improve efficiency, revitalize downtowns and cut down on carnage. Christopher Parker and Patrick make a very good argument in those comments that bringing up the minimum speed can have almost as much benefit as raising a maximum.

Sometimes I wonder how many people would choose the train rather than the bus if it went where they wanted to go, when they wanted to go, in a reasonable amount of time, there was decent food, and it didn't get delayed. We don't need Shinkansens for that, and in fact they may be counter-productive.

There is a bait-and-switch going on, no question about it. Most of the money in the stimulus package for "high speed rail" will probably not be spent on anything that fits the formal definition of high-speed rail. Your Cap'n deplores the dishonest double-dealings of the Obama administration - but it's still money well spent.

Also, finally, the TGV only operates on dedicated track for part of its routes. It uses plain old normal-speed rails to get from the end of the LGV to its terminals. That's how they're able to serve thirteen different destinations with only two branches of the LGV Atlantique. It's still fast.

High-speed rail isn't much fun

I've got something to say about high-speed rail. I've traveled on the TGV three times, and each time I was really uncomfortable. The windows don't open, there's no compartments, there's no dining or lounge car, the seats are small. As I remember, you couldn't walk from one end of the train to the other, and there wasn't really any reason to, since it was all coaches.

Yes, maybe it's important to be able to get from LA to San Francisco in three hours, or from Chicago to Minneapolis in four. Business travelers probably don't care if they don't leave their seats as long as they have a laptop and wifi. But one of the big advantages of train travel is the comfort. Let's not sacrifice that for a top speed that's hardly ever achieved.

More than just a commuter

There's something that rubs me the wrong way about the term "commuter rail." It's as though the only reason anyone had to go anywhere was to get to work. The commuter-rail mindset is what gives us branch lines with peak-direction only service and nothing on weekends. It implies that people who want to go shopping, visit friends, see a show or even go to the doctor are going to do that by car. Even people whose work takes them to more than one place during the day aren't really commuters once they get to their base. Railfans, teenagers, families, lovebirds, the elderly - they're not commuters, so they're interlopers on the commuter rail line.

This is the kind of mentality that results in the disembowelment of formerly walkable, mixed-use streetcar suburbs to make room for acres of park-and-rides, or turns moderate-sized regional centers like Stamford into mazes of parking pedestals and ramps to underground garages. Because if you're driving everywhere, why walk or take a bus to the train? You'll be driving to the supermarket on your way home. And if everyone's driving to the supermarket, why put the supermarket where people can walk to it instead of cheaper land out by the highway? Easier for the delivery trucks.

In other words, commuter rail means sprawl. Park-and-rides mean sprawl. Maybe they've both got their uses as transitional stages; get people driving to the station, and then eventually you can build condos and a shopping center there, and eventually walkable infill, like they're trying to do in Virginia. Commuter rail has probably prevented the New York suburbs from becoming complete sprawly wastelands, preserving some walkable infrastructure until the time comes for everyone to start walking to the train again. Sort of a "suburb-banking." But it's a lousy way to think of trains, as just conduits to squeeze workers into and out of the job centers when cars fail. It's one we should try to get away from as soon as possible.

Of course, in practice there are hardly any few true "commuter" lines in the New York area today, those ones that only run on peak commuting hours. Ten years ago, the Boonton, Main, Bergen and Pascack Valley lines in New Jersey, the Danbury, Waterbury and Harlem lines of Metro-North, and the diesel ends of the Raritan Valley, Greenport and Port Jefferson lines all had practically no service outside of peak times. But now, thanks to heroic efforts on the part of New Jersey Transit, all those lines in NJ have at least some midday and reverse-peak service, and the Main/Bergen lines have impressive levels of service morning through night. Apart from the Main/Bergen lines service is still sketchy, but it's a lot better than it was.

Travel on those lines and you'll see that it's not just commuters and reverse commuters. It's people going from the suburbs to Manhattan for shopping and social activities, but also local college kids going to the various schools, college students from all over going home to visit family, nature lovers heading to the trails and parks. And even more so for the electrified lines where you get people shopping, dining and socializing in regional centers like Stamford, White Plains or New Brunswick.

If you plan train service for commuters, you tend to get people who only use the train to get to work. Plan train service for everyone, and you get people who walk for their daily errands and take the train for major shopping and socializing. And that's a sustainable lifestyle.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

What's the Matter with Paterson?

It's all over the news that the Governor's approval ratings are in the toilet. For the life of me, I can't figure out why. He's on the right side of every issue I can think of, and he seems to be working hard to get things done in Albany. And for this, people give him lower approval ratings than Spitzer? Than George fucking Pataki? And all because of what? He's the only one willing to talk about raising taxes or cutting the budget?

The Governor's dramatic slide in approval ratings is entirely a creation of the Democratic party apparatus and the media. They should be standing behind someone with so much courage, but instead they're throwing him under the bus. Cretins.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Feds relax restrictions for light rail

I wrote in January about how the Federal Railroad Administration's antiquated safety rules were blocking the use of diesel multiple units, passenger rail cars that have built-in diesel engines instead of needing to be pulled by dedicated engines. There are only a few DMUs that are compliant with the FRA regulations, notably the Portland Westside line. There are also a few non-compliant DMU services, like NJ Transit's River Line, that have received a waiver from the FRA because the passenger cars run at different times from the freight trains.

Last year Austin's Capital Metro bought a bunch of cars similar to the ones used on the River Line in the hopes of getting a similar waiver for time-separated service, and was being stalled by George Bush's FRA. Now, under Obama, the FRA has indicated that it will work with Capital Metro and grant the waiver if they install steel cages around the fuel tanks.

Time-separated service is not great in terms of accomplishing much of our goals. It gets people to work and back, but has no flexibility for schedules, and they still have to drive for shopping and recreation. It can build a constituency for transit, potentially save families the expense of owning two cars, and reduce congestion somewhat, but it won't shift too many people away from car ownership. However, this change suggests that the FRA may be more open to relaxing its rules for DMUs in general. If that happens, maybe we could see DMUs soon on the New England Central, on the Suzy-Q and even on the Oyster Bay Branch.

Labor issues

In the past I've talked about the BRT bait-and-switch, and we just got a refresher on that, courtesy of Streetsblog, from ITDP Director Walter Hook. You can have "BRT" for a fraction of the cost of the Second Avenue Subway, and you can have "BRT" that can move passengers on roughly the same order of magnitude as a subway, but unless the subways are running with gold-plated wheels you can't move subway-like numbers of passengers for a fraction of the cost.

There's no such thing as a free lunch, and anyone who tries to give you one is suspicious. I'm very disappointed to hear this dishonest rhetoric coming from the ITDP, because I know they're telling the same thing to people in Ghana and Honduras, who may not have the same access to information that we do. Are my T.A. membership fees paying for this guy's salary?

There's a similar bait-and-switch that gets talked about with privatization. Private companies can operate transit routes for a fraction of the cost of public agencies, and private companies can provide a level of pay, benefits and support to their workers that's similar to public agencies, but unless there's a really blatant, systemic level of waste, fraud and abuse in the public sector, you can't get the same pay, benefits and support for a fraction of the cost.

There's just no such thing as a free lunch.

More on labor issues coming up.