Monday, October 26, 2009

Spatial, narrative and habit navigation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Other Tappan Zee Bridge possibilities

In my post on the Tri-State Transportation Campaign's strategy for redirecting the Tappan Zee replacement and expansion towards transit and transit-oriented development, I wrote that, yes, I can see the strategy, and if it works it could transform Rockland from New York's answer to Raleigh, NC into a place where someone might actually want to walk around, with downtowns that function. If it works.

What if it doesn't work? Well, last year the State DOT split the environmental impact studies into a "highway phase" and a "transit phase." Of course, the highway phase comes first, and the transit phase may never happen. Tri-State's own intern, Paul Murphy, warned about the possibility. It's a trick that's been pulled many times.

If the transit phase never comes to pass, we'll have a bridge that's five lanes in each direction including one for "high occupancy/toll" vehicles, and there will probably still only be 1500 bus passengers per day. This would raise the private-auto mode share from 98.3% to 99.7%. It will probably also cost $23 billion dollars, a truly staggering amount, of which only $3.3 billion has been found.

Tri-State's Steven Higashide writes about finding federal money as though there's a limitless supply. There isn't. Even though the feds can theoretically print money, they are constrained by the influence of budget hawks, and the share that any given state gets is limited by inter-regional power plays. That means that this $20 billion has to come from somewhere. It will probably come from transit funds, including money that would otherwise have been available for the Second Avenue Subway, Metro-North to Penn Station, citywide BRT, Northeast Corridor upgrades, and every other deserving project you can think of. Like Boston's Big Dig, this could wind up sucking the cash out of every transit project for years, leaving us unable to build anything but a series of unconnected, slow, inefficient bus tunnels.

Even if, as Higashide writes, funding could come from user fees like Thruway tolls, parking fees or gas taxes, those fees could also potentially be used to fund transit, but would not be available if they're taken by the Tappan Zee Bridge project. Some of the other options are much worse: tax increment financing districts and income taxes would take money from people who may not even drive.

What bothers me a little bit is that it seems like Tri-State is actually trying to help the State DOT to find funding for this project. It's true that the transit costs are slightly more than half: $8.9 billion out of the total $16 billion estimated in preliminary financials (PDF). So you might expect people to feel that transit advocates ought to find some of the cash.

But let's look at another possibility: what if nobody can find enough funding and the bridge never gets built? If no one pays for anything, it would eventually just be condemmed, and shut down for years like the Poughkeepsie Bridge. But if we can find $3.3 billion, that's enough to cover the cost of the rehab. And if transit advocates can find another $2.5 billion, it would pay for a fully grade-separated busway from Suffern to Port Chester.

Commenter "Anon" on the Tri-State blog doesn't think that BRT on the existing bridge would fly. "You are not going to get the Suburban populations of Rockland and Westchester to give up a general use lane to bus only especially considering the current backups." At this point, probably not.

But what would happen, land-use-wise, if we did nothing? Would these counties continue to sprawl? I doubt it. Sprawl needs roads to survive. If you don't build any more road capacity, it will stagnate and fester. If you take away road capacity, it will wither. Westchester and Rockland have pretty much run out of room, and will have to densify if they get any more population growth. Since the general consensus is that the price of gasoline is going to go up, we'll probably see more people switching to transit and moving from sprawl to walkable neighborhoods, either in Rockland or elsewhere. Finally, whatever form the ARC tunnel takes, it will make commuting by train from Rockland much easier, fostering transit-oriented development there. Without the bridge widening, a constituency for transit will grow steadily until there is broad-based support for funding and building a real solution. That possibility is the most promising to me.

It all hinges on whether funding for the $7.1 billion in highway components will be found. If the State DOT finds it, the best position for Tri-State to be in is the pleasant helper; they can then envelop and redirect. If the State DOT doesn't find the money, all Tri-State has to do is to wait and be ready to influence Plan B.

But what if it is Tri-State's help that gets the funding? Between the overall cost and the uncertainty of the transit component, I worry that this project will do more harm than good. While it's certainly impressive to get the State DOT to support transit-oriented development workshops, I don't think that those are worth the downsides. It's a very dangerous game that Tri-State is playing, and I sure hope they have an ace or two up their sleeves that I don't know about.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Enveloping the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement study

Over the past year or so I've been very critical of the State DOT's plan to rebuild the Tappan Zee Bridge, and of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign's support of this plan. In the comments to Tri-State's most recent blog post on the plan, the Campaign's Steven Higashide took the time to respond.
Cap’n, this project will result in a much improved transit system that has the potential to target development in the Hudson Valley around transit stations instead of in open space. As you may know, at our urging NYSDOT has begun a training program for towns to do just that (the program is managed by Regional Plan Association, Project for Public Spaces, and Reconnecting America, all highly professional organizations). The new bridge will also provide pedestrian and bicycle access, which the current bridge does not. The existing bridge has 4 general purpose lanes in the peak direction already, so the expansion is primarily adding transit capacity.

While we support this project, we don’t support it passively. We continue to work with the study team and in the stakeholder working groups to improve the project. For example, in the Draft EIS the study team is now examining a busway option that replaces the Rockland HOT lanes/Westchester bus lanes with a separate dedicated transitway.

Another "Anon" commentator wrote this:
No new bridge, no radically improved transit for the I-287 corridor. You are not going to get the Suburban populations of Rockland and Westchester to give up a general use lane to bus only especially considering the current backups. I seriously doubt that commuter rail could be added to the existing bridge. Moreover, the bridge likely needs to be replaced one way or another as it was built on the cheap in the first place. If the bridge is going to be replaced, 3 additional lanes (IIRC, only one additional general use lane) are going to represent a marginal increase in cost for the project.

My recent post on the Tao Te Ching's recommended approach to conflict came out of my thoughts about Tri-State's approach. A more recent thinker, Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, echoed the water metaphor in his own writings, and developed this idea further:
If your heart is large enough to envelop your adversaries, you can see right through them and avoid their attacks. And once you envelop them, you will be able to guide them along the path indicated to you by heaven and earth.

Ueshiba also stressed the value of redirecting an opponent's energy towards the good of all:
Opponents confront us continually, but actually there is no opponent there. Enter deeply into an attack and neutralize it as you draw that misdirected force into your own sphere.

This is the way I understand Tri-State's approach. The State DOT is not an opponent, they have just misdirected their force, and Tri-State is enveloping the DOT with their hearts and helping them to redirect that force towards bicycle and pedestrian access, bus rapid transit and transit-oriented development.

They may have something of a point, actually. I actually went back and looked at an earlier analysis that I did of the plans, and was a bit comforted. According to the DOT's 1999 survey, up to 7042 vehicles crossed the bridge per hour in the eastbound morning peak, and 98% of them were private cars and trucks. By their analysis, each lane can move between 1700 and 1900 cars per hour (fitting with Adirondacker's recent comment), so the planned configurations would be able to carry between 7600 and 8075 cars, depending on how many people drive in the HO/T lanes.

On the transit side, in 1999 there were 1350 people per day traveling by bus across the bridge (possibly four buses per hour with about 30 people each). Alternative 3B, the "BRT only" proposal, would transport 2100, but the theoretical maximum that a dedicated bus lane could transport per hour (basically a continuous line of packed buses) is 9000. Alternative 4D, "BRT plus commuter rail," is planned to carry 6800 people per hour, but the maximum is 39,000.

This means that the planned "BRT" by itself would not cause that much of a mode shift (just from 98% private auto to 80%), but Alternative 4D as planned would bring it way down to 54%. Alternative 3B maxed out to 9,000 passengers per hour would bring modeshare to 45%, and Alternative 4D maxed to 39,000 passengers per hour would bring it down to 12%.

So, yes, I can see Tri-State's strategy, and if it works it could transform Rockland from New York's answer to Raleigh, NC into a place where someone might actually want to walk around, with downtowns that function. If it works.

Of course, all this criticism of Tri-State is meant in a supportive way. One thing you can do in a supportive way is to buy tickets to their annual benefit dinner next week. They do a lot of really good work.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

When we need private transit

A little while ago, NPR's Planet Money team did a report for This American Life on health care finance. I've been following the health care debate and noticing some areas that could inform a good transportation financing plan. Towards the end, there's a good quote from Miami University economist Melissa Thomasson:
Melissa Thomasson says that what we have combines the worst of the market and the worst of government. Markets are usually really good at controlling costs. When they work best, products come into existence, like cell phones or stockings. They start expensive, and then they get cheaper and better. But markets don't guarantee that everyone can afford the things they need. Government can be good at that, ensuring universal access. But when you're paying for everybody, it's hard to control costs.

I'm not for "controlling costs" when it's a euphemism for giving workers a raw deal, but I am for it when it means reducing administrative bloat, sinecures and abuse of retirement benefits.

Of course, universal access is one of our goals, so any transit system will have to have a "public option" to ensure a minimum level of mobility to get to jobs, shopping, socializing and health care.

Beyond the cost issue, government-run transit systems tend to be bad at customer service and full of bureaucratic inertia. This is also true of corporations, but the worst offenders in that regard tend to be government contractors, public utilities, insurance companies and other entities that are insulated from competition by some kind of monopoly.

Privately run transit operations have the potential to radically remake our transportation system, for a fraction of the cost of publicly-run ones. We just have to provide minimum service, keep the labor issues under control, and work out the proper set of subsidies and incentives to guide the private operators in the right direction.

How are we doing?

By now you've seen the Cycle images that I've made recently:

We've got our goals: access for all, health, safety, clean air and water, efficiency, and a better society. We have some ways of measuring the end results: incidence of asthma and other diseases, road deaths and injuries, amount of pollution, energy prices and various kinds of alienation. You can find some of these at Transportation for America's State Facts pages.

We don't have a great measure of access. We do have WalkScore, but that doesn't mention things that are a short train ride away. We have the census journey-to-work data that can tell us something about where people have long commutes, and is used by the Pratt Center to propose "BRT" routes (PDF), but they don't tell us about non-work trips like daycare or shopping.

We do have some measures of government priorities, like the transportation allowances granted to car companies vs. transit, the 80/20 funding split, and the relative tax benefit levels.

Unfortunately, the measures of government priorities don't often tell the whole story. For cars, the vast majority of operating costs are outsourced to the individual drivers, but this "time tax" is not counted. Most of the costs of manufacturing, maintaining, fueling, storing and insuring the vehicles are also outsourced, despite the subsidies I mentioned above, but these are not considered to be transportation taxes. Conversely, governments can often get much more "bang for the buck" from transit, pedestrian and cycling facilities, in terms of providing alternatives to private car ownership.

What I would really like to see, for every transportation and housing project, is an estimate for how it would be most likely to change the mode split in an area. How many riders will that widened bridge attract away from transit? How many people can be expected to buy cars once they move to a development that has 2,600 new parking spaces (PDF)? How many people who currently drive down Flatbush Avenue would take BRT instead?

I know it'd be an enormous task, but I'd like to see aggregate mode-split forecasts for policy decisions like the 80/20 funding split. How many people could be expected to switch to transit if we had a 50/50 funding split, and how would that affect transit system profitability? What about various potential gas tax levels? And how would those mode splits affect the indicators for our ultimate goals: health, safety, clean air and water, efficiency, and a better society?

I think this kind of thing is important to get it across to people that this isn't just abstract power games. Some people do stand to lose some things if transit advocates get what they want, but it may be possible to persuade them that the sacrifice is worth it. If we could say something like, "a 50/50 funding split could be expected to reduce asthma by x percent," it could really drive the point home.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Tao of conflict

Of all gentleness and submissiveness in the world
Nothing compares to water,
And to tackle stiffness and toughness there is nothing better,
There is no easier substitution.

Be submissive to overcome dominance,
Be gentle to overcome toughness,
There is none in the world who knows not,
There is none who can follow.

Therefore the master says,
"Accepting the nation's shame, is being stately;
Accepting the nation's adversities, is being majestic."
Righteous words seem contradictory.

Tao Te Ching, collaborative Wikisource translation, verse 78.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Killing the cash cow

Last week WNYC's Brian Lehrer had a segment on tolls and transportation that made me squirm a little. There were several bizarre moments, including when Senator Savino embarrassed herself by giving a bike route from Boro Park to Flushing along the BQE service road and McGuinness and Northern Boulevards, and Stacey from Basking Ridge repeating the lie that "mass transit is not an option" for the disabled.

The most sensible people on the segment were callers Andres from Jersey City and TJ from Boro Park, and Lehrer himself. Despite her obvious windshield perspective and her partisan shilling for the car-oriented Bill Thompson, Savino was clearly pro-transit - although I'm disappointed that Lehrer didn't ask her to explain how she let bridge tolls fail in the Senate.

The biggest disappointment was Kate Slevin of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and her resolutely sunny we're-all-winners-with-transit schtick - which might explain Tri-State's bizarre stance on the Tappan Zee Bridge widening. I was particularly frustrated at how Slevin completely missed TJ's question, responding with a stock speech about how people are turning back to transit, which wound up reinforcing his point. I think TJ's question is a great one, so let me quote it for you:
How much is policy set indirectly by retaining the car - and the driver in the car - as a cash cow, as opposed to developing public transportation more, which perhaps is a lower revenue earner?

TJ's question echoes one asked in June by commenter P on a Streetsblog post announcing the pro-XBL Streetfilm:
My guess is that the Port Authority doesn't want to forego the tolls from the cars currently using those lanes. Pressure needs to be put on the PA from elected officials and advocacy groups that see a larger vision than just the PA's bottom line.

I've been thinking about P's question ever since, and I've done a little number-crunching. According to the Port Authority's 2008 financial statement (PDF), 20,937,000 vehicles traveled eastbound through the tunnel in that year, and the total operating revenues were $153,536,000. The XBL study found that 1700 buses use the lane every day. I will assume that half the average daily traffic, or 28,681 vehicles, passes through during the XBL hours, or 8,994 per non-XBL lane. I will further assume that trucks are 7% of these vehicles, as they are on an annual basis, and that these trucks have four axles on average. The Port Authority website tells us that these trucks would pay about $32 each, while cars pay $8 and buses $4.

This leads me to conclude that each non-XBL lane brings in $87,058 per day, and replacing it with a second XBL would cut all but $6,800 of that out, leading to a annual drop of $30 million - 19% of the revenue from the Tunnel. We may all agree on this blog that it's worth it, but it's still a big hit to ask the Port Authority to take.

If the Port Authority currently loses thousands a day on the buses, it makes most of it back in gate fees at the bus terminal. Buses pay $40 per departure (PDF), including any bus that goes into the terminal and doesn't immediately deadhead back to Jersey. If we estimate that that's 1500 of the 1700 buses, it comes out to $60,000 a day. The problem is that the terminal is pretty much at capacity, so any additional buses going through the lane would probably drop off on the street somewhere - my recommendation is to send them through the planned 34th Street busway, but in any case they won't be paying any gate fees.

Also, none of this affects westbound traffic. Since the tolls are one-way eastbound, the Port Authority could keep that XBL round the clock and just reverse direction without losing any toll money. Sure, they'd cause the mother of all Manhattan traffic jams at first, but then people would get used to it, and more of them would take the bus.

All told, it makes sense that the Port Authority would drag its feet on setting up a second XBL. It also explains that they want it to be high-occupancy or toll, not a bus-only lane, even though that would significantly limit its effectiveness. P recommends pressuring the Port Authority to take a larger vision beyond their bottom line - which would be nice if it works. The only other solutions I can think of are to raise tolls on both cars and buses, or to build a new terminal somewhere else and charge for it.

Getting back to TJ's question, here's a pretty clear case where relying on car use to subsidize transit is unsustainable if we really want people to shift away from cars to transit. The good news is that if you build your transit right, as ridership goes up, so does profitability, so eventually either the passengers would pay for all the operating costs, but even if you don't, if enough people use the system, a consensus in favor of collecting taxes to fund "our transit" will probably form.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Parkway or highway? Pick one and stick with it

Bob Moses didn't build the first parkways, but he did create some of the most famous ones. Many started out as quiet, four-lane roads surrounded by trees and grass; some even had parallel bicycle and pedestrian paths. A few of these have been minimally altered; you can get a feel for the original design if you visit the Bronx River, Bethpage, Palisades or Jackie Robinson Parkways. On the other hand, most have been widened to the point where they are unrecognizable as parkways. The most outrageous of these is the Southern State Parkway on Long Island, which is now eight lanes wide, double its original width. The Hutchinson River Parkway is eight lanes for part of its length, as is the Grand Central Parkway. The Belt, Cross Island and Northern State are six lanes for most of their lengths.

The worst part of this is that most of these parkways forbid any kind of buses from traveling on them. In many cases, Moses actually built bridges that were too low for buses or trucks to safely pass under. The result is a highway that is only available for private cars - the least efficient, most polluting form of ground transportation.

Moses's justification for barring buses and trucks was to provide a bucolic, recreational setting for leisurely drives. But the widenings have obliterated this character of the parkways, turning them into commuter highways like the LIE and the Thruway. Trees have been cut down and grass paved over. In some cases, like the Hutch, the bicycle paths were eliminated. In others, the highway swallowed up the entire "park," leaving nothing but asphalt. So we have noisy, smelly, dangerous, expensive highways that don't even help move buses quicker.

The Garden State Parkway is a disaster in many ways, but at least it allows buses for the entire length. Many bus routes would be excruciating - and have very low ridership, if they survived at all - if they couldn't go on the Garden State.

It's time for New York state to get with the program. Return the parkways to their original four-lane configurations - with suitable modifications for safety - and rebuild the parks and greenways that once surrounded them. Or else give up the Jay Gatsby fantasies, face the reality that you're dealing with commuter highways, and allow buses to use them.

It is true that many of the bridges are too low for full-size buses. The State DOT often replaces parkway bridges, and in recent years they've even been trying to match the aesthetics of the originals; they can do this while raising the height to allow buses. In the meantime, there are many cutaway vans that can fit under these bridges with no problem. Allowing cutaway van service on the Grand Central, Interboro and Belt Parkways would be a big improvement for transit in those corridors.

The nutty Long Island Transportation Plan 2000 envisioned putting "Rapid Commute Vehicles" - don't call them buses! - on some of the parkways. But in a classic highway department move, these would be brand new lanes with "RCV priority." I haven't heard much of LITP 2000 since way back when; let's hope that those widening plans died with it.

Last month, in response to my post about improving bus service to Connecticut, Woody left a good suggestion:
Put bus lanes on the West Side Highway or Henry Hudson Parkway, whatever it's called, from the Port Authority Bus Terminal right up to the George Washington Bridge to Jersey and onto the Cross Bronx Expressway heading east.

Some of the parkways were designed to keep the riffraff -- that's us bus riders -- off these carriage ways by making the overpasses too low and the underpassings unpassable. But I don't think the Henry Hudson suffers from that design feature.

I checked, and in fact the first low bridge on the Henry Hudson is not until 232nd Street. Even beyond there, as you can see above, the Google Street View vehicle followed a full-size school bus all the way to Fieldston Road. That means that it's physically possible for buses to go from 57th Street all the way up to the George Washington Bridge without hitting a light. Let's make it legal.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Transitioning back to the land

As I've written recently, the Transition movement has some promise, but so far it hasn't delivered much. Others have had more pointed criticisms.

A group called the Trapese Public Education Collective observed (PDF) that the Transition movement specifically avoids taking controversial stances on anything other than the necessity of transition. As an example, they point to a Transition group's refusal to participate in protests against the installation of a gas pipeline in County Mayo, Ireland. They ask, "How can we talk about climate change and peak oil and not deal with politics or side with communities struggling against the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure?" They take it further into a critique of capitalism, but I find most valuable the point that the Transition movement avoids examining a lot of the more systemic problems in industrial society.

Others take issue with the "local self-reliance" principle that is central to the Transition movement. They point out that if only a few towns become self-sufficient, then those towns could become islands of sustainability in a sea of chaos. They would then be at risk of being taken over by those who had wasted their resources, or else have to become fortresses. The town-by-town scale is too small for our interconnected world, they argue, and more cooperation needs to be in place.

My biggest problem with what I've read is the contempt for cities that positively drips from the pages of The Transition Handbook. The original Energy Descent Plan was written for Kinsale, Ireland (population 2,257), and the most popular Transition Towns are Totnes, Devon (population 8,000) and Lewes, East Sussex (population 16,222). On Page 37, Rob Hopkins admits that New York has "one of the lowest per capita CO2 emissions of any large western city," but then goes on to dismiss it - and city living in general - in a single paragraph, based on the 2003 blackout, as having "little or no resilience to declining oil supplies (a concept explored in depth in Chapter 3)."

I was eager to read in Chapter 3 a detailed discussion of how cities lacked this resilience, but there was nothing more of it, just an explanation of why resilience is important and how to cultivate it in your small town. This cavalier dismissal of half the world's population, more than anything else, led me to the conclusion that while the Transition movement brings some interesting perspectives, ultimately it cannot be taken seriously as a whole.

By the time I had gotten to Page 37 I had already read a lot that was uncomfortably familiar. You see, I'm a product of the Back to the Land movement. I grew up with organic brown rice purchasing coops and people living out of old school buses. Most of those people are very nice and well-meaning, but they were just clueless about what it takes to have a real society. Sure, you can have a commune out in the woods, but if you want to "tread lightly on the land," you need support from - guess where? that big bad ol' city you thought you left behind. And how many innocent deer and dogs - to say nothing of innocent children on bikes or not-so-innocent teenagers driving stoned - need to die against the front grille of your Subaru Wagon before you realize that motorized country life has nothing to do with living in harmony with nature?

After four years of college in a city with a decent transportation system, I had no desire to go "back to the land." I went back to the city, where my child can have a decent social life that doesn't require me to buy gasoline. A place where when I'm old I can walk down to the park or the bakery instead of being stuck in the middle of nowhere.

A town - especially a big town like Lewes - has the ability to support a car-free lifestyle if the majority of residents do their shopping downtown and patronize the transit system. But if they continue to drive out to the more convenient shopping at the mall, the town will never be sustainable.

More generally, getting everyone out of the cities and into self-sufficient towns of a few thousand people is a Herculean task, to say the least. Ignoring the challenge of making cities resilient seems like a sure-fire way to set up your town as a fortress in the future.

I'll talk a bit more about what Hopkins has to say about cities in a future post. In the meantime, take the Transition movement - and any movement that envisions the entire planet's population living in the woods - with a grain of salt.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Five things that Sadik-Khan can do for pedestrians

Like most livable streets and transit advocates in the New York area, I'm a big fan of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. If I didn't already think that Bill Thompson was a clueless blowhard, I would vote for anybody but him because he's promised to fire Sadik-Khan if he ever becomes Mayor. She has done a tremendous amount to make this city more livable, more environmentally friendly, and safer. I'm particularly pleased by the improvements to Broadway between Columbus Circle and Madison Square, by Summer Streets, and by the 34th Street bus lane. I'm looking forward to Phase 2 of the 34th Street plan, and to extensions of Summer Streets and the Broadway boulevard.

Still, there are some more things that could make things a lot better for pedestrians. Some of them seem pretty simple to me, others a lot more complicated. I'm guessing that she's considered most of them, and that there's some political reason why Bloomberg can't support her on them. Still, these are things I hope I will see in the next four years or so.

  1. Remove the barricades: During the 1997 Christmas shopping season, NYPD Chief Allan Hoehl decided to try preventing pedestrians from crossing at certain corners in Midtown Manhattan. A few months later, Acting Transportation Commissioner Richard Malchow made these barricades permanent. They force pedestrians to go several yards out of their way to cross the street - a small inconvenience, but a huge symbolic slap in the face to pedestrians from Giuliani's arrogant bureaucracy. Since Sadik-Khan took over the DOT, I've been expecting her to get rid of them, but they're still there.

  2. Make sidewalk extensions standard: They're documented to make streets safer for pedestrians. They should probably be on every corner. In 2002, Bloomberg and Commissioner Weinshall missed a golden opportunity: they spent $218 million to install curb cuts at corners throughout the city, bowing to years of sustained pressure from disability rights advocates. They could have installed extensions at many of those corners, but of course they didn't. Sadik-Khan could make up for that by setting a policy that in the future any corners that are rebuilt will be rebuilt with extensions by default. Those extensions could be omitted if circumstances argue against them, not the other way around.

  3. Summer Streets across the Manhattan Bridge: Summer Streets has proven to be wildly popular for two years running, and it's time to extend it. A large number of livable streets advocates live in Brooklyn and already travel to Manhattan for the event. We could make it easier for them to attend, and bring some tourist dollars and recreation to Brooklyn, by extending Summer Streets east on Canal Street, across the upper deck of the Manhattan Bridge and down Flatbush Avenue to Prospect Park. Sadik-Khan may need some help from the NYPD on this: I've heard that the policing costs are very expensive, but that the police staffing levels are very much overkill, and many of those cops could be replaced by event staff with no decrease in safety.

  4. Widen Penn Station sidewalks: Sadik-Khan has done great things for pedestrians in Herald and Times Squares, but it's well-documented that there's a heavy crush of pedestrians around Penn Station during weekday rush hours. That's where pedestrian improvements are needed the most. Why not take a lane or two out of Seventh and Eighth Avenues and make them available for pedestrians?

  5. Loading zones on every block: I've made the case that the lack of dedicated loading zones makes the city much more dangerous. The city's culture of double-parking, where "everyone does" something that's illegal and dangerous, poisons the relationship between motorists and traffic enforcement agents. Rampant double-parking encourages negligent idling practices. It also pits motorists defending their "right" to double-park against pedestrians who want narrower streets to discourage speeding, and cyclists who want protected bike lanes. The DOT is constantly reconfiguring parking on blocks around the city. What if every time they did that they set aside a space or two that was only available for loading and unloading, maximum occupancy fifteen minutes?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

States where women berely dare

Yesterday Streetsblog tweeted about a Treehugger post that uses the recently released commuting data from the census American Community Survey to compare women's commuting patterns by states.
The most dismal U.S. states to bike in, if we count simply by the number of women declaring to the census that they use a bike to get to work, are Mississippi, Delaware, West Virginia, Alabama, and Arkansas. Puerto Rico, also surveyed on the question, was similarly quite dismal. Mississippi had just 209 declared female cycling commuters, Delaware just 210, while West Virginia had 326, Alabama had 431, and Arkansas had 461. Puerto Rico declared 318 female cyclists.

The numbers are interesting, but it's important to keep in mind that unlike the regular census, this is a sample, with the possibility of sampling error. If we look at the actual data, the picture is a bit different. Delaware may have just 210 estimated women bicycle commuters, but that number has a margin of error of +/-187, meaning that the number could be as low as 23, or as high as 397. Keep this in mind when you're reading the rest of these figures.

The absolute numbers also tell only part of the story. If Delaware has only 210 women bicycle commuters, it also only has 873,092 people, 201,587 of whom are female commuters. It's the proportion of bicycle commuters among all female commuters that is really comparable from one state to another. If we consider Delaware's 0.10% figure (that's a tenth of one percent), the state rises from second lowest to ninth lowest, and Alabama (0.044%) drops from fifth lowest to second lowest.

In terms of proportion of women commuting by bicycle, the worst states are actually Mississippi (0.036%), Alabama, Tennessee (0.047%), Missouri (0.071%) and Arkansas (0.075%) - pretty much an Ozark-Delta-Appalachian belt of nastiness towards female cyclists. The best state by that measure is Oregon, with 1.4% of women commuting by bike. The next is D.C. (1.2%) and then a Rocky Mountain belt with Hawaii thrown in. So we know it's not the mountains.

In the Treehugger post, blogger April Streeter observes that 41% of all bike commuters in Rhode Island are women. That's an interesting number, but instead of the simple percentage of all cyclist commuters, a better estimate of the relative popularity of bike commuting between genders is the ratio of the proportions of bike commuters out of all commuters in each gender. Rhode Island's ratio is in fact high: 0.74% of women ride bikes to work for every 1% of men doing it. However, Vermont (0.86) and Utah (0.85) are even better. New England seems to be a good place for gender equality in bike commuting: both New Hampshire and Maine had 0.72% of women per 1% of men. Massachusetts (0.46) doesn't do as well, though, and neither does Connecticut (0.34) or New York (0.37).

The worst female-male ratios included most of our Graceland belt, with the worst in the country being - yup - Mississippi with only 0.08% of female bike commuters per 1% of males. Arkansas breaks from the belt with 0.43, but joining the bottom five are Puerto Rico (0.12) and Nevada (0.15). Tennessee had 0.18, Missouri 0.21 and Alabama 0.22 - but our friend Delaware is tied with Alabama.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Transition to what?

As I wrote a few weeks ago, the transition movement has intrigued me since I discovered it, but I have some concerns. I'll try to lay them out here.

When I first heard about transition towns, I was thinking, "oh, it'll be interesting to see how much they've reduced their towns' carbon footprints!" And ... nothing. Despite hundreds of towns that have signed on, it turns out that they haven't actually reduced the amount of fossil fuels used by any of them. In fact, I'm not sure that they've even measured the amount of fuel used by any of these towns to have as a baseline.

What have they done? Well, they've come up with a lot of plans about what they will do. Significantly, none of the plans seem to involve them "climbing down" now; they're all waiting for the crisis to hit before they do anything.

Given that the transition townspeople haven't actually accomplished any reduction in oil usage or pollution, you would think they'd be kind of humble about their accomplishments. But no, they go around giving weekend seminars about how to set up a transition movement in your town. For about $300 (including meals but not lodging), you too can find out how to make a plan that has not been shown to work at all.

I'm not suggesting that the whole thing is a scam, or that the leaders of the movement have intended anything like this. I'm not even saying that the people who are leading the workshops believe that they're scamming anyone. But I do think that some people are making a bit too much money on something that hasn't actually been shown to help anyone. Kind of like reiki or chakra balancing.

The other big thing that bothers me is the emphasis on small towns and on food cultivation, and the relative lack of discussion of public or human-powered transportation. Now I know that everyone comes to the green movement with their own motivation. I personally would like trains and buses, bikes and walking, whether or not they were good for the environment, and it's kind of fun to be able to wag my finger at people and say, "You've got to build this subway ... to save the planet!" One of the beautiful things about the environmental movement is seeing the solar power people and the local food people and the clean river people all coming together and knowing that their areas of personal concern are part of a bigger need.

One problem with a lot of the green movement is that there's no sense of perspective, no understanding that all the basement hydroponics in the world won't help us if we're still driving Caitlin five miles each way to soccer practice. You also get a lot of arrogant "experts" who get bona fide green credentials for stopping an open-pit coal mine and think that that entitles them to declare that the only transportation fix we need is fuel cells.

The result is that if too many vegan activists show up to a meeting you get a plan full of intricate details about sustainable mushroom farms with a half page about transportation. And for that half page about transportation, do they say, "oh, let's go talk to Dave the transit geek, he'll know the best way to handle this"? No, they summarize some puff piece they read six years ago in the Utne Reader about french-fry biodiesel.

Finally, there is the stunning naivete about the forces that influence population distribution that has been all too typical of the lefty movements of the past century. We have cities, towns and rural areas for a reason. Forks, Washington is not the ideal base for your movement because it's a fucking rainforest, and rainforests can't sustain a population of any size. Same thing with your beloved ranch in New Mexico. If you try to get lots of cityfolk to move there you'll deplete the place so fast it isn't funny.

Sure, there are tons of cities out there that are unsustainable. Phoenix and Atlanta in particular come to mind. But there are other cities that have high populations because they're conveniently located along trade routes, and they're good places for people to live. As long as there are people on the planet who have the resources to settle down, these places will be relatively densely populated. A lot of these people will even make their livings off of trade instead of by working with their hands, and there's not a damn thing you'll ever be able to do about it.

I've got plenty more to say about the land-use aspects of this, but I think I'll save it for another post. Let me end this one by recalling that I said at the beginning that I find a lot of promising things in the transition movement. These concerns I'm airing don't change any of that. I don't want to destroy that movement, just to make the best of it.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Transit versus highways in Connecticut

Last week I argued that a two-way dedicated busway on the Long Island Expressway would help make bus service between New York and points north and east faster and more reliable. That would boost ridership on these services, making the for-profit companies more reliable and the government agencies less dependent on subsidies.

Joel Azumah has been weighing the potential profits to be gained from running buses to New Haven, so I asked him what he thought. He observed, "I think CT's bus issues stem more from I-95 being erratic when it comes to congestion."

I've been thinking a bit about this corridor lately, since both Metro-North and Connecticut Transit are facing budget cuts. It got me wondering what the government might be doing to subsidize driving there. It turns out to be quite a lot.

1937: Hutchinson River Parkway
1938: Merritt Parkway
1949: Wilbur Cross Parkway
1958: New England Thruway and Connecticut Turnpike
1967: I-84
1974: I-684
1988: I-691
2001: Widen Turnpike in Stamford
2004: Widen Turnpike in Bridgeport

You could argue that the tolls on the Turnpike were "user fees," so that all the highways built or maintained with this money were not directly subsidized. That argument went out the window when the state removed the toll booths on the Turnpike in 1985. At the time politicians tried to claim that it would be paid with an increase in the gas tax. Regardless, it's clear that the State of Connecticut has been spending billions to help people drive quickly in the corridors that parallel the New Haven line.

This affects the amount of subsidy required for Metro-North and Amtrak, and thus the number of trains that can be run and the fares charged. As Azumah observed, it also affects the profitability of Greyhound, Peter Pan and any other bus lines that might want to operate in that area. It even affects the service and fares on the buses paid by CT Transit, because many people use these highways for local trips, reducing bus ridership and starving them of revenues.

What could transit advocates do to restore competitiveness to transportation in this area? First of all, oppose any new widening projects. There are currently none that I know of on the horizon, but there are lots for the Turnpike east of New Haven. Second, press for tolls to be reintroduced, not just on the Turnpike but on the Merritt and Wilbur Cross, and on I-84, I-684 and I-691. Tolls on the Turnpike should be set at rates that would return traffic to levels where it will not interfere with intercity bus operations. Other options would be to use some of the lanes added in Stamford and Bridgeport as dedicated bus lanes.