Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Fairness for upstate

One of the worst aspects of the current plan to properly fund the MTA is that out of a concern for parity and "fairness" to upstate it would tax cab rides to fund upstate road and bridge construction. Some have rightly argued that this would encourage more car use upstate, offsetting any gains in transit ridership. However, there's something to be said for people upstate feeling left out.

The simple solution is to use revenue (not taxi surcharges, because that would encourage more private car use) to fund upstate rail and bus use. That would do a lot more for upstate than simply feeding their driving habits. The DOT just released a state rail plan; I'd be happy to chip in for that. Also, transit systems around the country are facing budget shortfalls, and I'm sure that some of those systems are upstate.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Where all the buses are above average

In February, Streetsblog ran a series of interviews about "Bus Rapid Transit" with Walter Hook, director of the Institute for Transportation Development Policy. This series was disappointing in many ways, but there was one thing Hook said in Part 2 that stuck with me:
A rule of thumb should be whether or not a map company would include the BRT system in a map of New York City. If it doesn't appear on any map other than as a standard bus route, then it has failed to enter the public consciousness as something above and beyond normal bus services.
Let's compare this with Hook's definition of BRT in Part 3:
To be called BRT, a line must be a package of physical and operational components (stations, vehicles, running ways, passenger information, services, fare collection, traffic signal priority and other Intelligent Transportation System applications) that form a permanently integrated, customer-friendly, high performance system with a unique identity. BRT operations are generally tightly controlled by a technologically advanced system to keep service regular and reliable.
All of these improvements are good, so we would want them on every bus route, right? But then it wouldn't be "above and beyond normal bus services," it would be normal bus service. It would be a standard bus route.

Why aren't standard bus routes marked on maps (other than bus maps)? Because there's too many of them. So if every route was BRT, they wouldn't all be marked on maps.

The fact that some mapmakers decide to mark certain routes means that those mapmakers think they're special. Do we really not want all the bus routes to be customer-friendly, high-performance, regular and reliable? Why shouldn't they all have signal priority, prepayment, decent vehicles and adequate passenger information? For that matter, why shouldn't they all have decent stations and running ways?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Transit needs the middle class

Yesterday, in response to my previous post on social class, MHJ wrote:

That is one of the reasons I became a transportation planner in the first place - for once in my life, my race, ethnicity, gender and income didn't matter - everyone paid the same $2 fare.

I like it too, MHJ. But I'm going to disappoint you now: that "classless" system isn't entirely classless, and we may need to decrease our use of it.

I raise the issue of class and transportation because I have ambitious goals. We need to not just decrease emissions, but decrease them enough to head off global warming. We need to not just improve efficiency, but improve it enough to head off peak oil. To accomplish these goals we need to shift a substantial portion of people from cars to transit.

I know there are many people who agree with me. Over and over again I hear them asking, "what will it take to get people out of their cars?" Here's what it will take: classy transit.

In the US and other industrial nations, generally speaking the divide used to be between the rich with their private vehicles, and everybody else walking and taking some form of transit. This heavy middle-class patronage allowed for some cross-subsidy to benefit the poor. Middle-class taxpayers also got government to subsidize some transportation infrastructure that was also available for poor people. When private car ownership came within reach of the middle class, they abandoned transit and took their money and their political power with them.

We can't accomplish our pollution, efficiency and safety goals without getting the middle class to shift from cars to transit. If you disagree, I'd love to see your plan. Otherwise, the next question is how to accomplish that.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Replacing the M6

Streetsblog linked to an article in the Post this morning:

The MTA will soon eliminate the M6 as part of an overhaul of eight bus lines to make way for Mayor Bloomberg's planned pedestrian plazas at Times Square and Herald Square, according to agency documents. [...]

Cutting the M6, which has 5,200 average weekday riders, will result in a half-mile stretch between Worth and Houston streets without a bus line, the documents show, with the closest alternate being the M20 two blocks west.

I can't find those "agency documents" anywhere to verify this, but it sucks and it's not really necessary. However, even if the MTA feels that running the M6 (along with the M5 and the M7) all the way up to Central Park South isn't practical given the changes on Broadway in Midtown, they should do something to provide service along Broadway and Sixth Avenue in Soho and Tribeca. I suggest running the B77 to 14th Street.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Social Class in Transportation

Last week, in response to an insightful comment on Streetsblog, I wrote that we would get nowhere ignoring the role of race and class in transportation. So now I'd like to talk a bit about class.

There are three reasons I can think of not to talk about class in transportation. You could argue that class doesn't exist, you could argue that the class system is fair, or you could argue that class doesn't matter in transportation.

A lot of people would like to believe that we live in a classless society, but the facts show that there is not equal opportunity for everyone, and that people get better opportunities depending on who their families are, where they grow up and where they go to school. These last three factors do not make people inherently deserving of the better opportunities they (we) receive. I particularly like the presentation of these facts in Alvarez and Kolker's film People Like Us and in Gladwell's book Outliers.

As for the third question, in fact, social class doesn't matter in transportation as much as some people think, which is why we need to talk about it.

I'm a firm believer in equal opportunity in all areas, including transportation. The concept of "transportation for all" that I'm working out is a way of getting there. The question is how much you can accomplish with transportation. Unequal opportunity permeates our entire lives (see the invisible knapsack, or the kittehs may make for easier reading). We can't solve this problem with just transportation.

We have other problems to solve with transportation as well. We want to end global warming and other pollution-related problems. We want to move from oil dependence to sustainability. We want to save future generations from the carnage that threatens us every time we walk out the door. We want walkable communities.

Transit can do a lot along those lines, and it can do a lot for equal opportunity. But just as it can't shoulder the entire burden for clean air, energy sustainability, safety and community, it also can't create a classless society all by itself.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Without deadlines, deals don't happen

NPR has a good quote from the head of Obama's Auto Task force, Steve Rattner:
"I think inevitably as part of this process, there are going to be deadlines. I've been working on deals for 26 years and without deadlines, deals don't happen," Rattner told Bloomberg Television.

It's clearly true of bridge tolls, too.

Gonna Get Fooled Again?

The New York State DOT has recently added lanes to the Staten Island Expressway west of the Verrazzano bridge - for buses, they said. But now they've opened the lanes to "HOVs." They claim that the highway wasn't functioning efficiently, and they needed to do it to reduce congestion. Of course, it reduces the speed of the buses and will drive customers away from the buses and into cars.

That's the situation today on the Staten Island Expressway, and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign's Michelle Ernst has written a scathing blog post about it. She calls it "same old same old," and points us back to a 2005 newsletter where she expressed concern that it could turn into a "bait-and-switch."

Here's a significant quote from that newsletter:

Further, a process by which a mass transit project is created but then turned into highway lanes begs questions of legality and future trust in the DOT’s intentions, or at least in the consequences of any action the agency takes to build special-use lanes. The DOT recently took over the Tappan Zee corridor project, which envisions construction of “high occupancy toll” lanes in Rockland County, another highway innovation untested in the region or NY State. Everyone involved in that project, and in other projects involving special use lanes, will have to ask how quickly highway agencies will roll over to political pressure to change the nature of those lanes if the DOT caves in on the Staten Island lanes.

Indeed. How's that going, then? Well, according to Tri-State's latest posts, the initial financing report says that the current price tag of $16 billion will probably be more like $23 billion after inflation and debt service. So far they've only figured out how to pay for $4 billion. The rest may be financed by "public-private partnerships," and we know to approach those with caution (PDF).

Significantly, the Financial Studies Report (PDF) does something that none of the previous Tappan Zee reports have done: separate out the costs of the various components. Up until now we've had to deal with the whole thing as a package, and accepting "BRT" has meant accepting the DOT's assumption that any replacements must widen the bridge to eight lanes and include two new "HO/T" lanes (which do not count as BRT). Now the tables on Page 3 of the study break down the various costs in a straightforward way. (I hope the staffer responsible doesn't get fired for such egregious transparency!)

The tables tell us that if we just want to rehab the bridge and use two of the seven lanes for BRT, plus build a full, separated BRT line from Suffern to Port Chester, it would only cost us $2.89 + $2.55 = $5.44 billion. Assuming that the inflation and debt service multiplier is linear, we're talking about $7.82 billion, which is roughly a third of what it would cost to build a commuter rail line from Suffern to Tarrytown, widen the bridge and add "climbing lanes" in West Nyack.

"But Cap'n!" you protest, "the studies show that millions of people will move to Rockland in the next ten minutes, and that they will all insist on driving their single-occupant Hummers back and forth across the bridge nonstop for the rest of their lives!"

Well, son, calm down. Remember that those studies were done before the recent economic collapse. Rockland is completely unsustainable in its present form. In this climate, people would have to be nuts to move to some car-dependent subdivision in Rockland. There will probably be huge growth around transit centers (Suffern, Nanuet and Spring Valley), and the rest of the county is going to be depopulated faster than you can say "Averill Harriman."

The people of New York have two options. We can prop up the Rockland sprawl for a few more years by mortgaging a new $23 billion ten-lane bridge to Lehman Brothers, or we can fix up the bridge we have and make do. Going along with this bridge just so that we can claim some "BRT!" victory that will be bait-and-switched out of existence a few years later is about as short-sighted as you can get.

I don't know why Tri-State staffer Steven Higashide is so bullish on the Tappan Zee reconstruction. Ernst seems to have a much healthier skepticism of the DOT's ways; I wish she could pass them on to Higashide.

Image: "Outline Cross Section at Main Span for Linear Park," page 7-20 of Alternatives Analysis Level 2 (PDF), by the Tappan Zee taskforce.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

What is Transportation for All?

Transportation for All is one of your Cap'n's top goals, along with reducing pollution, increasing efficiency, improving social structure, and cutting down on carnage (not pictured):

The spectrum of possible transit subsidies runs from absurdly over-subsidized commutes from Tristan da Cunha to Irkutsk - to absurdly under-subsidized arrangements that charge pedestrians to use the sidewalk. Transportation for all means finding that reasonable middle ground. Everybody should be able to get to their jobs, and to shop, and to play, and to community board meetings, regardless of their ability to pay.

The challenge is determining what constitutes a reasonable commute, what constitutes reasonable shopping, reasonable playing and reasonable government participation. The current global economic crisis was triggered by the fundamental unsustainability of exurban travel patterns. So we know we can't subsidize any and all travel.

My feeling is that government should subsidize travel for everyone from a home that provides a reasonable minimum of shelter (but not any home, and not all homes) to a job that provides a reasonable minimum of income (but not any job, and not all jobs), a store that provides a reasonable minimum of food and other needs (you get the picture), a social gathering "third place," and a certain minimum set of political venues.

Believe it or not, there are places in this country where you can walk from either your home or your workplace to the store, third places and political venues - and even some places where you can walk from home to work as well. (New York is one such place, which is a major reason why it's so great to live here.) In those cases, all the government has to do is maintain the sidewalks.

It's true that there are relatively few such places, especially by comparison to the number fifty or a hundred years ago. There are a lot more places where you can walk from home to shopping, and take transit to work, socialize and participate in government. If you add bicycling to the mix, that increases the number.

If government provides this minimum - for everyone who wants or needs it - this is a basic safety net that can help sustain our country. This doesn't require the government to subsidize outlandish commutes: as long as for every person there exists a place to work that's a reasonable distance from a place to live, the government can subsidize that commute, and people who've chosen to live or work in unsustainable places can relocate or fend for themselves.

When I say "subsidize," I don't mean "provide for free." I mean, "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need," and all that other Commie stuff.