Monday, August 31, 2009

The man behind the Simpson Curtain

Last week I posted about arguments for free public transit, some of which refer to the "Simpson-Curtain rule." "Politically and practically, for most systems, the easiest way is to raise fares. But soon after, ridership goes down," writes Dave Olsen.

As I wrote last week, things are actually quite different, and a bit more complicated. The rule is actually the Simpson-Curtin, rule, after the Philadelphia planning firm of Simpson and Curtin that came up with it. A 1968 paper by principal John F. Curtin is often cited as providing the basis for the Simpson-Curtin rule, but it is actually concerned with extensions to the rule for various additional factors.

From the 1940s through the 1960s, Simpson and Curtin collected data on transit fares and ridership. After crunching the numbers, they found that when fares were increased, ridership went down. The ratio of the change in ridership to the change in fare is called shrinkage ratio or fare elasticity, and is explained in more detail in this PDF from the VTPI. But briefly, Simpson and Curtin claimed that for every 3% increase in fares, ridership dropped 1%, for a shrinkage ratio of -0.33. The lower the absolute value of the ratio, the less an agency would have to worry about driving riders away with high prices.

So what's wrong with the Simpson-Curtin rule? Well, it represents correlation, but correlation does not imply causation. As I wrote in the previous post, to get causation, we have to come up with an explanation that fits the facts better than any other one. The explanation that Curtin, Olsen and others have made, that raising fares by itself causes reduced ridership, is not the best explanation.

Just a few years after Curtin's paper, in 1973, Michael Kemp published a paper arguing that "transit demand is inelastic with respect to money price." He indicates a number of other factors that affect demand, including level of service ("particularly door-to-door journey time"), trip purpose, distance, transit mode, urban form, and length of measurement period. In particular, since transit riding is a choice, it is dependent on the relative attractiveness of the alternatives. He notes:
One might hypothesize that, given the initial decision to travel, transit riding will be higher when the relative prices of substitute modes are at their highest; and that under such conditions transit fare elasticities will be relatively low. It follows that one would expect ... fare elasticities to be relatively low in very large cities with highly congested central areas, particularly for those modes catering to long-haul commuter traffic.

In other words, people are least likely to abandon the bus when it's hardest to drive ("relative price," here, includes travel time and convenience). The correlation observed by Simpson and Curtin is simply due to a lurking variable that drove down ridership and consequently pushed agencies to raise prices: the massive road-building that went on in the postwar period. Of course people aren't going to stick with their old bus system when the government is building new roads and parking lots for their cars! But if the government doesn't build as many new roads and parking lots, then transit still has a chance.

That brings us back to New Jersey, and what has allowed the bus companies to remain profitable for all these years. Not only do the private Lincoln Tunnel buses have the XBL, but they also have the Port Authority Bus Terminal and a law protecting them from destructive competition from the government.

There are two factors that are even more important. The buses (a) go to Manhattan (b) under the Hudson River. Manhattan is a notoriously unpleasant place to drive a car; despite the best efforts of the New York City DOT up until a year and a half ago, it is and was still incredibly congested. It can take half an hour to go a block, "free" parking is almost always full, and private parking is very expensive.

Still, as you pointed out on Friday, the private bus companies in Brooklyn, Queens failed many years ago, even though they continued on as zombies until recently. What's the difference? I think it's very simple: cordon pricing. You can drive across the East River without paying a toll, but you can't drive across the Hudson for free.

Recently I ran into my boss on the subway here in Queens. He told me that he lives in New Jersey and owns a car, but he takes the bus to the Port Authority and then the subway and another bus to work. He's tried driving in the past, but the tolls were too expensive. Sure that's anecdotal, but it fits with the pattern that Kemp found. If it's too expensive to drive, people will take transit.

During the congestion pricing debate, Aaron Naparstek wrote a post called, It’s the Bus Riders, Stupid. Aaron is actually referring to something different from what I'm talking about (and honestly, I always hated the Clinton quote he's referencing). However, it was - and is - the bus riders: cordon pricing would have eliminated the toll-free option for crossing the East River, and thereby increased ridership on the MTA buses, bringing up revenue. With cordon pricing in place, that revenue would be more stable than the other MTA funding sources, and maybe enough to start paying down the debt.

So there's your magic formula for transit profitability:

1. Give transit its own right-of-way and good terminals
2. Make it hard to use cars
3. Make it expensive to use cars
4. Profit!

Friday, August 28, 2009

More on the profitable Lincoln Tunnel buses

Astute readers will have noticed that I'm interested in free transit, but I'm also interested in profitable transit. Mainly I'm interested in successful transit, and both extremes are promising in different ways. A high farebox recovery ratio indicates a strong demand for the service, and it suggests that whether the operator is public or private, the service will be relatively stable. A well-run free transit system could indicate strong political support for the system, which also suggests that the system will be stable.

With that in mind, let's take another look at those profitable buses that go through the Lincoln Tunnel. You'll find them on the right half of the graph below:

Although most of these services have very high ridership, some are actually low, like Olympia Trails, but make up for it with high fares like the lucrative service to Newark Airport.

Of course this is correlation (0.67, in fact) not causation. To get causation, we have to come up with an explanation that fits the facts better than any other one. So far, this seems to be the best explanation: something about the Lincoln Tunnel created high demand for the buses, which allowed bus operators to run fuller buses and/or charge more per trip, and that leads to profit.

One of the biggest factors is probably the the Exclusive Bus Lane. It gives buses their own queue through the tunnel so that they don't have to wait behind private cars, and that time advantage makes up for the multiple stops they have to make before they get to the XBL. This is, of course, a tremendous indirect subsidy to the bus companies. The State of New Jersey also buys buses for many of the companies, relieving them of this capital cost.

"Fine, Cap'n," you say, "but the Gowanus Expressway and the LIE both have HOV lanes. They're used by express buses that bear a passing resemblance to these New Jersey buses. And those buses in Brooklyn and Queens also got free buses from the government, but they lost money for years until they were finally taken over by the MTA, which continues to operate them at a loss. Why didn't those make a profit?"

Good question! I think there are a few factors. One, as described in this article about the deCamp bus company that serves Montclair, the law creating New Jersey Transit in 1980 contained a clause prohibiting the agency from operating "in destructive competition" with the private bus companies. Several of them have successfully sued NJ Transit on the basis of that law. There can be no public option.

Interestingly, the article also mentions that last year State Senator Beck sponsored a bill that would modify this restriction to add that "Under circumstances where the private entity fails to provide safe, adequate, and reliable public transportation services, it is the responsibility of the State, and instrumentalities thereof, to supplement, compete against, or replace such services."

The second is the Port Authority Bus Terminal. As Alon Levy wrote in the comments last January, "the XBL works only because it feeds directly into a gigantic terminal." Yeah, it's kind of a nasty place, but it's nowhere near as nasty as it was thirty years ago, and it's very good at what it does. It has ramps directly from the Lincoln Tunnel to the terminal, so that many of the buses are in bus-only space from Secaucus all the way to the end. It has an underground entrance to the Eighth Avenue Subway, with a one-block tunnel (that's just as nasty as it was thirty years ago) to the Times Square hub where people can access up to nine subway lines (depending on how you count them), with Grand Central and Penn Station just one stop away. It is very efficient at getting buses out of the tunnel and turned around again, or shuttled off to nearby storage. It's also very good at getting people out of the buses and onto the subways, or vice versa.

I'll get to the most important factor next time.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tripping over the Simpson Curtain

This blog was recently featured as "Blog of the Week" on the Free Public Transit Blog. I do believe in access for all, meaning that we cannot have equal opportunity until we all have equal access to housing, jobs and shopping, regardless of whether we can afford the favored transportation mode of the moment. However, I don't think we have any collective obligation to make it comfortable. And while I'm very honored to be featured, I'm not by any means convinced that all public transit should be free.

In addition to the fairness and equal opportunity arguments, free public transit advocates argue that there is a cost to fare collection itself, some of which is paid by the transit operator in the form of security, and some by the rider in the form of delays. I feel that most of this cost can be eliminated with a well-run proof-of-payment system, but that's not the main point of this post.

The main argument is that making transit free will entice drivers to shift to transit, which is good for our goals, including combating pollution, resource depletion, carnage and sprawl. One proponent, Vancouver resident Dave Olsen, points to something called "the Simpson-Curtain rule", which specifies that "Revenue for any system drops when ridership dips or when fares are increased." So if revenue goes down when fares are increased, then if fares are zero, revenue must be infinite!

Well, not really, but Olsen claims that free transit will get more and more people to stop driving, until we've all turned our cars into planters and hopped on the bus. To support this, he took a visit to Whidbey Island, Washington and then wrote a summary of the fare-free buses in Hasselt, Belgium (it's not clear whether he actually went there - after all, US Airways is not fare-free). In both places, transit is free, ridership is booming, and everyone is happy. The rest of his series involves mostly local Vancouver politics and arguments for eliminating fares there, and can be found here.

I was intrigued by this story, and as I suspected, things are actually quite different, and a bit more complicated, than Olsen portrays them. Stay tuned for more on that.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Access is more important than mobility

Sometimes transportation planners are confronted with a problem of access where transportation improvements aren't necessarily the best solution. Sometimes I seem to detect a note of frustration, something like "Well, what are you wasting my time for? I'm a transportation planner!" And sometimes they push ahead with the transportation improvements because, well, that's their job.

If I'm not imagining this, then it's, ahem, not such a good idea. Sure, your job is to improve transportation, but if that's not what's needed then you're wasting the customer's time and money.

This is certainly not unheard of outside the planning world: people often pay for clothing and food that are completely unrelated to their needs. But transportation planning is different when it's public money at stake. An ethical planner should simply not knowingly agree to facilitate a massive waste of tax dollars.

At one point I actually owned a car, and I was fairly far from home when it broke down. I was able to get it limping along to the next town and right into the first mechanic on the street. He could have charged me an arm and a leg just to look at the thing. But instead he told me where the nearest auto parts store was, and suggested I buy a bottle of "gas dry" and see if that fixed it. I bought a bottle for $5 and it actually didn't fix it, but I figured that if this mechanic was willing to pass up guaranteed work, he was a pretty honest guy. I brought the car back to him, and he eventually fixed it.

Last week Grist had a well-sourced article (which came to me via Planetizen, via Portland Transport, via that nicely illustrates how improving access without mobility can get people to drive less. And of course by driving less, we reduce pollution and global warming, increase energy efficiency, and all the rest. In this case, when stores are located within walking distance, people walk more, improving their health as well.

Transportation planners should be willing to acknowledge when there's a possible non-transportation solution that's worth considering, especially when they're dealing with taxpayer money. They should then be prepared to say, "You know, you really need a business development planner. That's not my specialty, but let me introduce you to Joe, who's really good at fostering downtown businesses."

Monday, August 24, 2009

Access for all

Last April, I talked about Transportation for All as one of my goals in choosing to advocate one transportation policy or critique another. Jarrett introduced the term mobility, which seems to fit a little better with what I'm aiming for. But now Jarrett comes along with access, which may fit even better.

Jarrett writes, "Mobility is how far you can go in a given time. Access is how many useful or valuable things you can do." They're clearly connected: you can have minimal mobility and minimal access, like the Count of Monte Cristo in the Ch√Ęteau d'If, or you can have maximal mobility and maximal access, like Rick Steves. However, mobility and access are not the same thing at all: you can have minimal mobility and maximal access, like Neo in the Matrix, or you can have maximal mobility and minimal access, like Charlie on the MTA.

When we think about the public welfare justifications for transportation subsidies, it is clear that their goal is access, not mobility. As a society founded on equal opportunity, we find it unjust for certain people to be restricted in the jobs they can have, the places they can live, and the stores they can shop at, through no fault of their own. It may be because they cannot drive due to disability, because they cannot afford a car or gas, or because they cannot even afford to ride the bus or train.

That is the main reason we have subsidized transit. The benefits to society in the form of decreased pollution, more efficient use of energy, safer streets and greater social cohesion are often forgotten by those who fund transit.

The only problem I have with the phrase "access for all" is that it's already the name of a long-established Dutch internet provider.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The value of ridership

Back in February, it was all over the news: even with "record numbers of riders," transit agencies were cutting service and raising fares. On Tuesday, Transportation for America released a report giving more details about the service cuts and fare hikes.

Lots of people have been baffled by this, including your Cap'n. We had images of packed buses making their way through cities and money pouring into fareboxes, while guys with green eyeshades still sadly shook their heads: not enough to overcome the declining tax revenues. My first guess was that the agencies simply weren't charging enough. That's a factor, but it's not the main factor.

I finally had a chance to sit down and crunch some numbers from the National Transit Database, and I've figured out that the main factor is that those buses aren't packed. "Record numbers of riders" means that the buses were going by with fourteen people instead of the usual ten.

I took the NTD figures for the 374 bus services "directly offered" (on an individual basis, not under contract to some other entity) for 2007, the latest year we have data for. Some of the systems in the Transportation for America report weren't in there, but I marked all the ones that I could find, 46 of them. On most of the systems identified by T4A as facing service cuts, the average number of passengers was 9.9. The nationwide average number of passengers per bus per revenue mile was 10.8; not too different. The average farebox recovery for the systems facing service cuts was 21%, which is below the nationwide average of 27%.

The Transportation for America authors use some 2008 data; I can't find it on the NTD website. T4A gives some numbers in their report, but some of those are for agencies that run both rail and bus services (maybe ferries too), and that's hard to tease apart. So I figure I'll just do a hypothetical: imagine that the buses were all packed, with forty people on each one. I know that when buses get full, fuel costs and dwell time go up, but for now let's assume that operating expenses stay the same.

With forty people on each bus, farebox recovery goes up to 86% for the services facing cuts, and 94% nationwide. With only twenty people on each bus it still goes up to 43% and 47% respectively, but the systems in Gary and Baton Rouge both make a profit.

So clearly my initial guess was wrong, and the ridership gains were much more modest. It is possible to run a bus without subsidies in any city in the country, if you can get enough people to ride. Of course, that's the big "if"! I'll talk about that in future posts.

If you'd like to play with the data, the spreadsheet is here. Also I'd like to note that some states have no systems facing cuts. For example, no one is stranded in Iowa.

Monday, August 17, 2009

More craziness, this time in Pittsburgh

I've only been to Pittsburgh, but I had a really good time. It definitely fulfills the Tourism Department's slogan, "Pittsburgh: It's Not as Bad as it Used to Be!" Seriously, though, I experienced no noticeable pollution, it was mostly compact and walkable, the trolleys were cool, and it was visually just a fascinating place to explore. They don't need helped much there!

So I don't think the latest weirdness is Pittsburgh-specific. Here it is, anyway: next month Pittsburgh is hosting the G20 summit, which is expected to bring in lots of money from all the delegations and protesters. And plans are still being worked out, but it seems like the city intends to, well, shut itself down for three days.

At first I thought it was some crappy anti-transit security theater stuff, since a number of these restrictions will affect transit: Amtrak trains will pass through the city without stopping, trolleys may not be allowed into the Downtown subway tunnel, and buses may be turned back or not run at all. A modern-day Apocryphal Marie Antoinette might have said, "Can't get to work? Let them drive the Lexus." But this will apparently also affect schools, universities, nonprofits and businesses.

I have to wonder whether the hit to the economy from closing the downtown for three days might be more expensive than the gain from hosting the summit, and apparently I'm not the only one. I think there's a good case to be made for reasonable security to protect diplomats and heads of state, but if you have to go this far, you've clearly got big problems on your hands.

But if the Port Authority of Allegheny County really is channeling Apocryphal Marie Antoinette, they might want to keep in mind what happened to the real one - despite her security arrangements.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Bus Meister: build in external challenges

Yesterday Streetsblog featured two articles in the companion site Streetswiki by transit planner Andrew Nash. Nash has put up a paper called Web 2.0 for Transport Planning that he will present at the Transportation Research Board next year, and a description of a project he calls BusMeister, and is asking for feedback in the form of wiki edits.

I admire Nash's efforts to further collaboration, and his desire to harness the benefits of "Web 2.0" applications to this end. I'm also intrigued by his use of the wiki application to solicit feedback. I hate to disappoint by going all Web 1.0 on him, but my suggestion is a more global one that I think is better presented as a blog post.

Nash is right that there is a lot of citizen interest in improving transportation, and that incorporating that interest has the potential to empower people and serve them better at the same time. This interest can be seen in the genre of subway fantasy maps. I've created my own fantasy maps from time to time. BusMeister could help make these proposals more useful to professional transit planners.

However, there's a big gap in getting transportation improvements from idea to reality, and getting professionals to notice them is only part of the challenge. The rest is that there are other people involved, many of whom don't care about the improvement. But they do care about a number of finite resources (land and money, mostly) that that improvement is competing for.

The Straphangers' Campaign's Rider Diaries bulletin board is full of innovative subway routing proposals, to the point where some regulars came up with the phrase "Brian's imaginary train set" to describe them. If that sounds a little disparaging, there's a reason for it. Often these proposals are designed to fulfill a personal need of the designer, or an abstract desire for simplicity, or some other minor need. Often, proposals like this are shot down because they would route trains away from major commuting populations, or require large new tunnels without much justification.

If you're Bob Moses or (sometimes) Dan Doctoroff, you may be able to get your plan implemented without a lot of debate. But usually, if a proposal makes it out of the discussions of railfans, bus geeks or historical preservationists to the main political arena, it often encounters people who worry that it might take away precious budget money or land, or bring "undesirables."

Train projects get in line for funding, or fail to win political support for the necessary right-of-way - if they're not simply dismissed as impractical. Bus projects get shot down by motorists afraid they will no longer be able to "double-park to see the doctor."

Sometimes the opposition is justified, sometimes it isn't, but it's important for transit and livable streets advocates to understand the potential sources of opposition to their proposals. Not necessarily to shoot them down, but at least to anticipate the level of commitment that the project would need.

Politics is a notoriously difficult subject, and I have no illusions that an application like Bus Meister would be able to precisely quantify the level of opposition that a given proposal would generate. But I would hope that it would be able to give participants real-time feedback on at least some of these aspects of a proposal, and allow them to fine-tune it. Things like anticipated capital and operating costs, number of parking spaces or lane-miles of roadway required, and amount of time added to competing single-occupant vehicle trips. (That last is a good thing if it doesn't generate too much opposition!)

This might add way too much to the complexity of the project, but I wanted to make the suggestion, and I hope Andy will find it useful. Thanks for the stimulating question.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Visions of the future: Mad Max, peak oil and carnage

Whether or not you believe in peak oil, you probably have at least one picture in your mind of what a world running out of oil might look like. If you've seen the 1981 movie Mad Max 2: the Road Warrior, the vivid images are probably still easy to recall: small pockets of near-sanity ruled with an iron fist and besieged by brutal, marauding gangs, with unbalanced loners scavenging the desert around, and everyone fighting over the few remaining drops of precious oil

I don't know when it was that I realized that car culture was unsustainable, but in discussions of it my mind has come back again and again to those images. I alluded to them briefly in a recent post, and I've seen them mentioned in many discussions of sustainability and peak oil.

Interestingly, there aren't too many other ideas about what a post-oil world could look like (that don't posit some more powerful energy source). Can you think of any - that aren't obviously based on or inspired by The Road Warrior? Once the movie came along, it seems to have satisfied that need.

Tonight I got to wondering: where did this movie come from, and who, and why? I knew it was made in the interior of Australia, and that made sense because it's in desert areas like that that I've felt most strongly the fragility of human settlement.

I checked out the Wikipedia entry for Mad Max 2 and the other movies in the series, and discovered an essay by co-screenwriter James McCausland connecting it to the oil shocks of the 1970s, and specifically to the concept of peak oil. McCausland reports that he and George Miller "wrote the script based on the thesis that people would do almost anything to keep vehicles moving and the assumption that nations would not consider the huge costs of providing infrastructure for alternative energy until it was too late."

I don't remember exactly when I first saw The Road Warrior; I know it was on video, at someone else's house, and I was in my teens. I've always been uncomfortable with violence in movies, but if the movie has enough value I can get past that, and I did with this one. However, a few years later the Cinema Village showed the first Mad Max, and I actually walked out in the middle, when Max and his family are at the beach. But I didn't leave; I just hung out in the lobby and came back in for the final scene. Maybe the setting just wasn't far enough removed from present-day reality for me to stick it out through the violence.

The violence; I think that's one of the things that struck people about these movies. It made sense when the Wikipedia author mentioned that Miller had been an emergency room doctor before he wrote Mad Max, and that he incorporated a lot of what he saw and heard into the movie. Anyone who works in an emergency room sees a lot of carnage, and I think that comes through in the movies.

What doesn't quite seem realistic to me is the brutality. Now I know there's a lot of real brutality out in the world, and that it can emerge in many places, especially when society fails to function properly. But what just didn't add up for me in Mad Max was the pervasiveness of it. It's been a long time since I saw it, but if my memory is correct, many of the characters just seemed like brutality machines, who came into the movie brutal with no external explanation. I just think it's hard to keep so many people so brutal for so long. Yeah, people are nasty and ugly and vicious, but even the nastiest can be kind and tender and vulnerable sometimes.

Maybe Miller has seen a side of humanity that I haven't, and maybe he knows better than me. And certainly resource conflicts can get very brutal, as Jared Diamond explains, in places like Rwanda. But I still have hope that humanity can't get quite as bad as Mad Max suggests.

Regardless, if you read Collapse, you'll understand that the more prepared we are, the better chance we have of coasting to a soft landing and not descending into chaos, whether Rwanda-style or Mad Max-style. So if you think there's something to this peak oil stuff, time to get moving.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

More on population projections

In the comments to my previous post, Citylights writes, "Lower Manhattan and Hudson Yards will have to accommodate the 1 million extra New Yorkers that are expected to live here by 2035. Because all other areas of the city are anti-growth."

Since I'm playing at urban planning with these posts I should say a bit about population projections. They're tricky things. I'm still not convinced that every town in the country is going to experience explosive population growth. Particularly not car-dependent places like Rockland County. Immigration is slowing, and birth rates are dropping.

But the walkable parts of the NYC region will probably see at least as much growth as is currently projected, from "sprawl refugees" fleeing the high cost of driving and the general unpleasantness of the strip-mall, cul-de-sac life. Still, I'm not really convinced that they all need to work in Midtown or Downtown, or live in the five boroughs. Instead, we should probably plan for the kind of multi-centered city that Jarrett described, because it's easier to grow. How big can you get when you still have to shoehorn most of the population onto a third of Manhattan Island every weekday?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Planning the next New York transportation network

As I wrote in earlier posts, Paris's Regional Express Network (RER) of commuter/rapid trains was not simply designed to make connections, but to accomplish specific development goals. The same 1965 SDAURP (Master Plan for the Urban Development of the Paris Region) that laid out the RER also planned the development of the five "new towns" around the region and the suburban campuses of the University of Paris. Anticipating a new wave of residents who would study and work in the area, regional planners under the direction of Paul Delouvrier, the General Delegate to the District of the Paris Region, designed these train lines to connect residential developments with universities and job centers. They also aimed to relieve congestion on certain metro lines that were overloaded, particularly the 1 and 4 lines, the main east-west and north-south lines in the system.

Any similar system in New York should take into account similar planning goals. One of the reasons that the New York area is so fragmented is that we don't have a single Delegate, or a single regional planning agency. Instead we have three Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs): the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council Council (NYMTC), the North Jersey Transportation Planning Association (NJTPA), and the Southwestern (Connecticut) Regional Planning Authority (SWRPA). Each of the three have come up with plans similar to the SDAURP, some better than others. We can piece them together to get an idea of the priorities that our planners have.

Of course, these plans should be viewed with some skepticism. Although the planners are supposed to act in the best interests of everyone in the region, they have been known to occasionally fail in that task. Also, different people have different priorities, and you will probably not have the same priorities as these planners. With that in mind, I will probably revisit these plans and question them - and I encourage you to do the same on your own blogs or in the comments. In the meantime, though, let's operate on the assumption that the planners share our priorities, are working in the best interests of everyone in the region, and are knowledgeable and competent.

The NYMTC has actually just released their draft plan for 2010-2035. The NJTPA has their draft Long Range Plan for 2035 available, but in some ways the New Jersey State Plan is more valuable. The SWRPA released their plan in 2006, and it can be downloaded as a PDF from the Town of Weston's website.

I'll talk more about these plans in future posts, and their implications for future transit improvements, but feel free to have at them in the comments.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

I don't want to take your car away

I've often seen transit/road funding discussions framed as "those anti-car liberals want to take your car away!" Many transit advocates come up with lame responses like "But I'm not a liberal!" or "I'm not really anti-car! I want choice!" This is bad framing.

I'm not a liberal because liberals are wishy-washy; I'm a leftist. And I am anti-car. And I will confess to the occasional desire to take your car away, but mostly to keep you from killing me or my family with it. But I don't support any policy that would actually confiscate cars from large numbers of people.

I don't have to because I believe you will give up your car sooner or later. If you don't give it up now, you may when gas goes back up to four dollars a gallon. Or maybe when it gets repoed because you paid the mortgage first. Or when the cars themselves become so expensive that only the very wealthy can afford them. If nothing else, then you'll give it up when the road warriors shove a gun in your face.

These things may sound silly and apocalyptic, but more and more people are coming to the conclusion that at least the first few of them are very likely to happen. Within fifty or a hundred years, car ownership will only be affordable for the wealthy, or for enthusiasts, or for people who make their living with it like taxi drivers, farmers and construction contractors.

If I'm right that this will happen, where do you want to be when it does? Stuck in a cul-de-sac in Mahwah? Driving to an office park in Hauppauge? Shopping at the BJ's in Eastchester? Or living in a walkable neighborhood, working in a pedestrian-friendly downtown, and shopping around the corner from your home?

What kind of transit do you want to have to rely on? Do you want to be crammed onto a ten-year-old guagua with a driver who may have bribed his way through the test? Groaning as the latest round of budget cuts decimate your once-great Bus Rapid Transit system? Stuck as the repairman tinkers with the rusty PRT prototype? Or relying on your time-tested subway, trolley or streetcar?

No, I don't want to take your car away. I just want there to be some reasonable transit around for me to take when I'm old, and for my kid to use. I don't want you to kill the hope of a sustainable rail transit system because you spent all my tax money on your stupid highway widening and airport runways. Can you please think about sustainability before it's too late and we've wasted everything we've got?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

For posterity

I've written a fair amount about goals, but it's a good idea to occasionally go back and reexamine your goals. In thinking about it last night, I realized that there are basically three categories of goals: selfish goals that are for my own benefit, short-term goals that will benefit other people who I will interact with in my lifetime, and long-term goals that will benefit future generations.

As the Dalai Lama says, loving others is essential to our own survival, success and happiness, so my short-term goals for others are really a form of selfishness. Similarly, my long-term goals for future generations arise from a concern for my child and possible further descendants, and for others who will come.

There are real, practical benefits to getting people out of their cars and into trains and buses or onto bikes or their feet. But it would not be fair to future generations to do something for our own benefit that would hurt them. In fact, just as it ultimately helps us to make some sacrifices to benefit others around us, we can even gain by from making certain sacrifices for future generations.

One thing that I really don't care about in the future is whether there are human beings around. People are what they are, and if humans aren't around, then I'd hope that the dolphins or cockroaches will be having a good time. Death is a part of life, and so, ultimately, is extinction. The complexity of our civilization and all its achievements may be nice, but ultimately they're a means to an end, and that end is happiness.

That's not to say that I hate humans and want to see everyone die a horrible death. If people disappear from the face of the earth, my main concern is that it happen in a way that minimizes the suffering involved. Similarly, if we're going to be around for a long time, I would like us to enjoy that time as much as possible. And given the choice between a relatively quick, painless extinction for the human race or millenia of suffering, I would choose extinction.

One of the reasons I'm so concerned about air and water quality and efficient use of resources is that pollution and resource depletion can lead to suffering. In fact, it already has. Jared Diamond's Collapse is an essential read for anyone concerned with the future, because it examines ways in which pollution and resource depletion have already contributed to suffering, death and the decline of societies. But even today we can see its effects: asthma, cancer, unemployment, bankruptcy are all consequences of our failure to make responsible choices for transportation.

Large numbers of people agree that we can't sustain our current levels of pollution and resource consumption. If those people are right, then within the next hundred years we will be unable to produce enough energy to travel the way we do, and if we don't stop polluting the way we do millions will suffer. I'll talk about some of the practical implications of this for transportation policy in later posts.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The value of belonging

I've lived in New York City for much of my life. I've also spent time in a few other large cities, and on some college campuses. On the other hand, I've lived in a few small American cities, and some rural areas. I've also traveled to a fairly wide variety of locations around the world. I haven't seen everything by any means, but I've seen a lot of different ways of living.

I've owned or rented a car in some of these places, but most of the time I've been carfree. I've been thinking lately that there's a big contrast between the way I feel when I'm in a place like Woodside or Park Slope, and the way I feel when I'm in a place like Raleigh or Phoenix. It's about belonging.

I actually started out this post thinking that it was about being in a majority, and I went looking for lists of places by car ownership, but I've realized that that's not it. It's about being part of a group, about being understood.

I went to college in a town where less than fifteen percent of the households were carfree, but the campus was a fairly self-contained place, and most of the students lived carfree. But even when I was off-campus, the university was a major force in the town, so most of the people had encountered carfree students, and a significant amount of public resources were dedicated to us.

It can be a pain to be in a minority of any kind, especially a less-powerful one. Needless to say, being in a hated minority (like "poor people" or "Black people") is much worse. And sharing a category (like "people without cars") with a hated minority can be bad too, even if you're not part of that hated minority.

I wanted to be carfree, and I moved back to New York in part because carfree people are the majority here. And it's worth it, even when the elite minority pretend that we don't exist. But if I couldn't live here, I'd be able to stand living in a place where we were a recognized minority with some power. And if I couldn't be in a place like that, I'd rather be in a place where people at least understand that some others live without cars, even if they hate us. Anything's better than being ignored.

I think that that is essential to getting more people to live without cars. First, recognize that they do, then give them some power. But being the majority is the best.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

More "capability liars"

In the past, I've offered this supplement to the Serenity Prayer:
And God, protect us from those who lie about what they can and can't change, and give us the insight to see through their lies.

The most common kind of these lies is the "Reverse Houdini," where someone restricts their options so that they can tell you, "I wish I could do something, but my hands are tied." Somewhere in there is the "Rain Dog," who will pee on your leg and tell you it's raining. The "Loading Zone Lie" is when the DOT reassures a community group that the new bike lane will involve "no loss of parking spaces," only to eliminate the double-parking that had become the standard for loading and unloading. I've come up with a new kind of "capability liar," and it seems to me that someone should have already discussed them, but I'm drawing a blank.

Here's an example of what I mean: in June, Streetsblog had a post that included links to stories about the reconstruction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway through Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill. The Brooklyn Paper writes:
The narrow lanes, short on-ramps and lack of shoulders along the highway make this part of the BQE especially dangerous and agonizingly congested.

As Streetsblog commenter Larry Littlefield points out, the congestion is largely due to the way congestion pricing was blocked by the representatives of those car commuters, so you could make a strong case that they chose congestion and we should stop bailing them out. But the "dangerous" aspect would appear to preclude that. Everyone's against road danger, right? Reducing carnage is one of our top priorities.

Here's where the lie comes in: all the solutions being examined to improve safety would involve adding lanes or extending ramps. That means more money, and more capacity - which essentially means rewarding the people who refused to support congestion pricing with even more subsidies. But you can't be against that, because you'd be against safety, or against "bringing the highway up to interstate standards."

But there's another way. The BQE is currently three lanes in each direction; what if we just used one of those lanes to widen the others, extend the ramps and expand the curves? There are plenty of four-lane interstate highways out there, so it should be easy to do this and still meet federal standards.

There are similar situations where we suddenly find out that some highway has "no shoulders," and that something must be done about it right now to save lives. But why doesn't it have shoulders? Sometimes it was built that way, but usually the travel lanes took over the shoulders at some point in the past. And then we get these plans to have buses use the shoulders. Well, shoulders are necessary for safety, so if you want to have them back or set aside lanes for buses, you can take the travel lanes.

Something like this is never, ever mentioned, because it means a reduction in highway capacity, and that's something that just isn't discussed. I can kinda see why the State DOT wouldn't bring it up, since for them, the bigger the highway project the better. However, I don't understand why environmentalists and livable-streets activists don't raise the issue. They'll bring up highway teardowns (particularly along waterfronts) and road diets for city streets, but not reducing capacity of highways. They should, though: highway expansions are expensive, and the bigger the highway, the more it costs to maintain.

In a time when we're cutting budgets it makes sense to cut road budgets as well. If we're scaling back the Second Avenue Subway so that it won't have a third track for trains to pass each other in emergencies, if we're not going to get that Tenth Avenue station on the #7 train, if we're pushing back the date for finishing these projects, then we should also cut back on road projects. If Amtrak can reduce the number of tracks on the Hartford line in Connecticut to reduce maintenance costs, if the MTA lowers the speeds on trains for safety, the State DOT can reduce the number of lanes on the BQE to save money and make it safer there.

The BQE in South Brooklyn should be scaled back to a size where it's safe to use. If drivers object to the increased congestion, they can pay the toll on the tunnel. If the tunnel isn't convenient for them, they should push to get tolls put on the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, at least, which would encourage a whole bunch of other people to use the tunnel - and a bunch more to take the train.

So, any suggestions for describing when an agency complains about an unsafe road, but omits the cheapest way to make the road safer?