Sunday, November 29, 2009

The supposed convenience of cars

Like most people in this country, I was raised with the constantly repeated assumption that everything is more convenient in a car. Unlike many, I did have some counterexamples: my dad's mostly car-free existence in Manhattan. The low barrier to basic teenage mobility at my dad's (a couple of subway tokens) vs. my mom's (hours of training for the driver's license, hundreds of dollars for the car, and constantly having to pay for gas, repairs and insurance). Beach traffic on the LIE being worse than beach crowds on the LIRR. Being able to change a cassette on a bus without rear-ending the car in front of me.

Here's another moment of clarity for me: I had been living in Chicago for half a year, getting around pretty well by foot, bike, L, bus and Metra, but still with the sense that people with cars had it much easier than I did. I envied the attention that the WBEZ announcers paid to the motorists who took 35 minutes to get from Mannheim to the Post Office.

I was excited, then, when I needed to move and rented a car to help with it. The car was definitely helpful; it would have been a major pain to move all that stuff without one. It only took a few hours, and since it was a 24-hour rental, I figured I'd go play with the car for the rest of the time, and enjoy my new mobility. I knew the first thing I wanted: to buy a good chair for my new bedroom. I headed off to the strip malls west of town.

I then discovered how difficult it can be to find a particular strip mall store (I think this was an Office Max) if you've never been there before. I was tooling down one of those six-lane boulevards on the West Side, and I saw a sign for Office Max, but I was too far over to the left! By the time I got into the right lane, I had overshot the Office Max. This particular boulevard was divided, so I had to drive south until I found a place to turn around, drive back north of the Office Max, turn around again, and make sure I was in the right lane when I got to the store.

I eventually got the chair, but then I got stuck in traffic getting it home, and I still had to drive out to Midway to return the car. What had started out as an exciting exploration of freedom turned into an hour or two of anxiety and frustration. I actually don't remember if I got the car back on time, or if I wound up keeping it for another day.

This was probably my first experience of Strip Mall Overshoot, but it wouldn't be my last. It may seem small, but it's just one of the many ways that cars are less convenient than other forms of transportation, even for transporting furniture. This was a small chair, it fit into a relatively small box, and at that point in my life I could have easily carried it a mile. If I had known where to buy a chair like that within a mile of my house, I could have just gone and gotten it. I could also have taken it on the Metra, and maybe even the bus.

At that point, the seed of an idea was planted in my head, and here is the fruit of that seed: there is nothing inherently convenient about cars, or about any vehicle. It is the system that makes them convenient, and that system includes both the vehicle and the infrastructure. Provide unlimited, subsidized "free" car infrastructure, and cars will be convenient. Run buses often, everywhere, all the time, and buses will be convenient. Put everything in a giant skyscraper with computer-controlled elevators, and elevators will be convenient. Trains, walking, bayou boats, swinging from vines, conveyor belts, scuba diving: whatever it is, if you throw enough money at the infrastructure you can make it convenient.

It's not useful to argue about which mode is more convenient. The better question is which system is more efficient, pollutes less, kills less people, can serve the largest segment of society, and can bring people together instead of isolating them.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Rob Hopkins's Urban Challenge

Last month I discussed my suspicions that the transition movement may be just the same old back-to-the-land movement with renewed energy from the peak oil and climate crises. I'm not prepared to dismiss it completely out of hand, but I do think that it needs to let go of its contempt of cities and tone down its agriculture fetish to be truly effective.

I think it's worth quoting in depth the paragraph on page 37 of the Transition Handbook where Rob Hopkins dismisses New York:
If we see climate change as a separate and distinct issue from peak oil, we risk creating a world of lower emissions but one which is, in terms of oil vulnerability, just as fragile as today’s – if not more so – as energy prices rise.

A good example of this is New York, which recently emerged in a study as having one of the lowest per capita CO2 emissions of any large Western city, less than a third of the per capita US average. This is due to the density of living, the walkability, good public transport and the low heating requirements of apartment living. So, from a climate change perspective we can argue that New York is a good model of low carbon living we would all do well to emulate. Now let’s weave peak oil into that mix. What happens to New York in the event of a power shortage, or when the price of importing food starts to rise sharply? New York experienced such a power cut in August 2003, and although it only lasted for a day, its impact was keenly felt. While New York may have a small carbon footprint, it has little or no resilience to declining oil supplies (a concept explored in depth in Chapter 3).

You can read more of that section on the publisher's website.

When I read this, I immediately disagreed with Hopkins's conclusion (which seems to be that cities are doomed and we should all be living in small towns where we can use horsecarts to get our produce to market) but I had trouble defending New York against his specific accusation. The 2003 blackout did point to a particular vulnerability that the city has.

At 4:15 on August 14, I was working in Lower Manhattan in an enterprise that was essentially dependent on the Internet to function, so the boss told us to go home. The subways were non-functional, there was gridlock on the streets, and we didn't even think of taking a bus or a cab. I found a co-worker who lived near me and we walked six miles back to Queens. It took us a couple of hours. At least two car lanes on the Williamsburg Bridge were allocated to pedestrians. My wife had brought our infant son with her to work in the Bronx, and was not prepared to carry him ten miles home. One of her co-workers drove them to her apartment in Harlem, where they spent the night. The next morning they took three buses to get home. Power was restored the following evening.

Our resilience was tested in a less dramatic way three years later, when mismanagement by Con Edison resulted in sections of Queens losing power. At first there were two days of low power (our air conditioner and desktop computers wouldn't work, but the fans and laptops would), followed by a day of no power. At that point, Con Ed brought in several diesel generators in trailers and parked them next to large apartment buildings. Switching the apartment buildings to the generators freed up some electricity for smaller customers, but it took over a month before our generator was disconnected and driven away. In the meantime it was spewing diesel fumes around the clock under our bedroom window, which didn't help our son's asthma any. It was kind of a surreal experience, because in this case the subways were running normally and other neighborhoods had power. We could go work or shop in Manhattan or Forest Hills and it would be just another day with lights and air conditioning, but then we would get off the train and see stores with the lights off and the doors open.

There are two main questions that Hopkins's challenge raises. In both cases we made it through with minimal loss of life and property, but both cases were relatively temporary. What Hopkins is saying is that when peak oil finally catches up with us we will have to make do indefinitely with a much lower energy level. Is it possible to power a metropolitan area of nineteen million at roughly a thousand people per square kilometer without fossil fuels? What is a truly sustainable size and density?

In both cases we had a certain amount of redundancy between electrical, liquid and muscle energy that allowed the city to function at a reduced level while the problem was fixed. When the subways weren't running, there were gasoline and diesel powered buses, taxis and cars to transport those who couldn't walk or bike. When the cables couldn't bring enough power to work our lights, computers and air conditioners, we had diesel powered generators to supplement them.

In some visions of the future of cities, most transportation is powered by electricity, using energy ultimately supplied by sustainable sources. We already have electric subways and elevators, and in the past we've had electric streetcars and trolleybuses. Ultimately, I would like to see most car and truck trips replaced by electric rail and bus, and of course walking and bicycling.

But isn't that putting all our eggs in one transmission basket? What happens if we get another blackout like in 2003, and we don't have any cars or diesel buses to travel in? What if we get a brown-out like in 2006, and we don't have any diesel fuel to generate more electricity with?

Some of the answer is generating power locally, and in fact there are buildings in the neighborhood that have installed solar generators on the roofs and natural gas co-generation systems in the basements, but these only provide a fraction of the electricity needed, and the co-generation requires a supply of natural gas. I suppose we could have a completely redundant system of generators and buses powered by natural gas, but that presumes that we will have enough natural gas available then.

If any of you out there have information or insights, I'd love to hear them. Maybe you think Hopkins is right, and we should all move back to the land? In any case, please assume that we will reach peak oil, and that climate change will make other fossil fuels like "clean coal" and natural gas unsustainable. Feel free to disagree with those assumptions, but they are the premise of this discussion.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


I came across this Freakonomics blog post via the Saint Louis Urban Workshop, and had to mark it up. Many of the corrections I make were pointed out in the comments to the article, but it's been ten days and Morris hasn't yet responded. Can't the Times hire an economist who's willing to actually look at the data and talk to people on the ground, instead of cherry-picking whatever figures and quotes support his professor's preconceived notions?

When does transit fare policy treat people unequally? When it treats them exactly the same.


At thea huge risk of overgeneralization, there are two major constituencies for mass transit. First are wealthier workers who commute to jobs in city centers where parking is expensive. The Another group consists of the very poor. Unlike the “choice riders,” who could drive if necessary, low-income “captive” riders often have no other option. In many cities, there are middle-income riders who could afford a car but have chosen not to own one, committing themselves to the transit system indefinitely. There is no good name for them, because people like me would prefer to pretend that everyone really wants to drive. Let's call them "committed" riders.

The two groups have very different travel behaviors. For example, they favor different modes. As of 2001, the wealthy were much more likely to ride commuter rail or heavy rail (e.g. most subways) than bus or light rail; those earning over $100,000 took twice as many trips on the former modes as on the latter. For the poor, it is just the opposite. Members of households with incomes under $20,000 were almost six times more likely to take bus or light rail trips than heavy or commuter rail ones. I don't know what the middle class do, because I just assume that they want to drive drive drive like me.

The wealthy also travel longer distances. Those bus and light rail trips favored by the poor averaged only 6.8 miles, while the heavy rail and commuter rail trips preferred by the wealthy averaged 8.7 and 22.1 miles respectively. If you focus on the New York Subway, however, the poor tend to travel further than the middle-class or wealthy.

Since they are largely commuters, the wealthier tend to travel during the peak periods (the weekday morning and evening rush hours) and in peak directions (inbound in the morning, outbound in the evening). The poor, and the middle-class "committed" riders, who rely on transit for a wider variety of travel, take trips in more varied directions and are much more likely to travel at off-peak times.

What does this add up to? In pretty much every respect, the trips of the wealthier impose heavier costs on the system than the trips of the poor and middle class.

Bus service isseems to be cheaper to provide than rail service, but if I'd done my homework I'd know that it was actually the other way around. Short trips are obviously less expensive to accommodate than longer ones.

And even though vehicle occupancy is much higher during the peaks, on a per-rider basis it is still cheaper for transit agencies to provide service at off-peak times and in off-peak directions. This is because accommodating rush-hour traffic means purchasing extra vehicles and hiring extra staff which will be underused at midday, at night, and on the weekends. It also means problems with trips like reverse commutes; for example, commuter trains often travel outbound during the morning peak and inbound during the evening nearly empty.

Yet despite the very different burdens different types of trips impose on the system, most transit agencies prefer the simplicity of flat fares, regardless of time of day, day of week, mode, distance, or other forms of costs imposed (excepting, to a degreelargely but not completely, commuter rail service, which I just said was the preferred mode of the "choice" commuter).

This is why it was with considerable happiness that clueless Angelenos like Professor Brian Taylor and I read this article announcing that the New York MTA is considering cutting subway fares during off-peak times, as they have done for many years with commuter rail fares. Brian is my mentor at UCLA and is an outspoken advocate for equity in transportation; after seeing this piece he wrote me that “you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the country more excited by this article!”

What has Brian so giddy? This policy would be progressive in that it would benefit poorer and middle-class riders who disproportionately travel at off-peak times. It would also be equitable in that it would reflect the lower costs those riders impose on the system. This would help equalize the subsidy each passenger receives.

And in addition to being more fair, this policy would be more economically efficient. By using price signals to increase demand at off-peak times, it would put underused staff and equipment to work.

Consider that transit vehicles can be packed during the peaks but are decidedly light on traffic much of the time; economists Clifford Winston and Chad Shirley calculated that as of the mid-1990’s rail vehicles ran only 20 percent full. This figure has probably risen considerably since then, but I won't bother to spend half an hour to check it using the freely available data, because it suits my argument, being so low. Yet there is usuallysometimes no flexible pricing mechanism to fill those seats. Compare this with the commercial airlines, which are continually (perhaps maddeningly) adjusting prices to be sure every seat is occupied, and which have succeeded 81 percent of the time this year.

Unfortunately, for the moment new MTA chairman J.H. Walder is ruling out fares that are higher for longer trips, but this would be the logical next step. As with time-sensitive fares, this would appear to an academic in LA to combine greater equity with improved economic efficiency, while actually being regressive since it only applies to the subway system. Distance-based fares sound confusing and logistically difficult, but they need not be: the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington (which also offers an off-peak discount) already charge fares based on distance without any major problems, and in fact, so do the commuter railroads in New York, which pretty much wipes out my argument here.

But for now, off-peak discounts are definitely a step in the right direction. In a world where economic efficiency and social equity are often at loggerheads, this policy promisesappears to increase both. Let’s hope the new ideas will represent more than a (sorry) token effort.

This post is particularly frustrating because we sorely need good economic reporting on transit by knowledgeable people. Let's hope that next time Eric Morris and Brian Taylor actually run their ideas by people who live in the city they're, ahem, studying - and where the newspaper that employs them is based.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Us, them and our MTA

One of the most successful and persistent arguments against congestion pricing and then bridge tolls was, "Those crooks at the MTA don't deserve another penny." It's a hard one to refute. Here's an organization that's run by an unelected man who answers to an unelected board. Most of these people are uninformed real estate fat cats who collect Ferraris and are driven around in limos. The main qualification seems to be whether the governor owes you a favor.

Bus and subway riders understandably felt like they had no say. The Second Avenue Subway was repeatedly abandoned - after the Second and Third Avenue Els were torn down, resulting in a dramatic reduction in service. In the 1970s "deferred maintenance" period, the trains and platforms rotted and filled with trash and graffiti. Crime went unpunished and undeterred. Commuter railroads serving the wealthy suburbs got higher subsidies than the subways and buses.

Meanwhile, fares continued to rise and as they paid more and got less, passengers began to wonder where all the money was going. They got no clear answers from a self-perpetuating bureaucracy led by unaccountable officials. In 2003, State Comptroller Alan Hevesi famously found that the MTA kept two financial plans: one to fool the public and one for the board to know what was really going on. So it makes sense that people don't want to fund "those crooks at the MTA." As Dave Olsen found with Whidbey Island and Hasselt, even if transit doesn't make a profit, it can be well-funded through taxes - if the people feel like it's "our transit system."

It's gotten better. Some have argued that the "two sets of books" allegation was actually unfounded, but even so, the MTA seems to have cleaned up its act since then. After the storm of negative publicity they began putting more and more financial information on line. Governor Spitzer reorganized the agency to give Executive Director Lee Sander more power, and now Governor Paterson has combined the positions of Chairman and Executive Director into a "Chairman and CEO" position held by Jay Walder, who has moved towards even more openness. More importantly, the MTA leadership has been seen to serve at the pleasure of the governor, and to leave when the Governor is under pressure.

Here's the kicker, though: if the MTA has gotten more accountable and transparent, it doesn't seem to have improved its reputation. In poll after poll on congestion pricing and the Ravitch plan, New Yorkers showed skepticism as to whether the money raised from tolls would go to improved subway or bus service. This mistrust is skilfully exploited by pandering politicians to avoid restoring cuts to the agency from prior years. This week, some of these have added oversight to the MTA and the other "authorities," but they give no credit for any progress that's been made, and it remains to be seen whether these reforms will have any success.

Another part of the problem, I think, is that we expect to have to fund state agencies out of taxes. There are probably some agencies out there that are self-funding through user fees, fines or something like that, but those are usually spun off as nonprofits, for-profit corporations or public utilities. The MTA isn't an executive department, so people don't seem to expect it to have a steady stream of tax funding. It can't be "our transit system" if it's some authority.

Interestingly from the "us vs. them" point of view, there was a project called "FixMTA" for a while this year, and they've since changed their name to "OurMTA." They have a nice vision of accountable transit, but so far I don't see a way of getting there. The name, though, points towards a solution.

Here's a way to achieve that vision: state agencies are seen as straightforward extensions of the governor's power, and the public understands that if they have a problem, it's the governor's responsibility. They may be dissatisfied with the way the governor does things, but they seem comfortable with the idea that they can vote him out in the next election (although I'm still baffled as to why people kept re-electing Pataki). This works for the State Department of Transportation, the Department of Labor and all the other executive departments.

Almost exactly a year ago I recommended replacing the MTA with a state Department of Metropolitan Transportation. That way it would be similar to the existing state cabinet-level departments: funded and accountable. Taxation with representation. Our transportation system.

Transport Azumah begins service to unconventional city pairs

Today was the first day for Transport Azumah's new service between New Haven and Boston. Next week, Azumah will begin running buses on several underserved routes between cities in the Northeast: New York and Cambridge, and New Haven and Philadelphia/Wilmington/Baltimore/DC.

The Harvard Crimson quotes Joel Azumah as saying that there will not be wifi or power outlets until the spring, but we've got it straight from the horse's mouth that unboxed bikes will be allowed "as long as they are tagged with the owner's name and contact phone."

Azumah didn't take me up on my suggestion to stop in White Plains and connect with trains to Manhattan and the Trailways and Shortline buses to Long Island and the Hudson Valley, but hey, he's the one with the hands-on experience, and it's his money on the line. Let's all wish him success in adding to the travel options in the Northeast - especially for cyclists!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Us, them and future us

As I've written before, in politics it makes a big difference whether a proposed government tax or expenditure is perceived as being for "us" or "them." Voters tend to resist a tax on "us" that isn't going to be spent on "us." They support initiating or continuing subsidies for "us," and oppose subsidies for "them." One reason I'm interested in privately run transit is precisely because it's not as dependent on this kind of identification.

One of the reasons I live in New York is that as the least car-dependent city in the US, it gives me the best chance of living among people who share and support my chosen lifestyle. But even though we're majority car-free, and an overwhelming majority commute without cars, we still get politicians taking positions that favor driving and ignore transit. Part of this is because of the disconnect between the political class and the rest of the city, which can be blamed on the corruption and patronage that undermine democracy here.

Corruption is only part of the problem, though. All over the city you get people without drivers' licenses nodding their heads when John Liu says that bridge tolls were a way of "inhibiting people from Queens and Brooklyn from transportation into Manhattan." People who don't own cars cheerfully voted for people like Bill Thompson, who seemed to always find a way to be on the pro-car side of any transportation issue. People who never take their cars out of the garage complain about the perceived shortage of parking. You also get the craven "elitist" label thrown at anyone who favors bicycles, despite the fact that they cost a lot less than cars.

All these people - the non-drivers, the non-car-owners, the infrequent drivers - benefit from pro-transit and pro-walking policies. Why would they support politicians who attack these policies? Why would they vote for people who support pro-car policies that wind up coming back to hurt them?

I think the answer is that all these people think of themselves as drivers, or as potential drivers. Even if they never take the car out of the garage, they still might do it some day. Even if they don't own a car, they might be able to afford one some day. Even if they don't have a license, they might get one some day. That possibility is important to them.

I don't need to tell you that to most people around the world, cars represent mobility and freedom. More than that, they represent affluence and status. They are even associated with hard work and maturity, despite all evidence to the contrary.

In terms of status, symbols are not only confused with reality, they are often more important than reality. A car that makes it look like you earn a hundred thousand dollars a year is better for making connections (and getting laid) than actually earning a hundred grand, because most people don't actually go around flashing their W-2 forms. Those connections, in turn, can do more to get you to the point of earning 150 grand than you would get from earning a hundred grand.

I think this is why so many people get touchy whenever they hear about policies that could make it harder to drive in the city. Even if I don't own a Lexus, I might still be upset that I wouldn't be able to drive a Lexus down Broadway if I ever got one. They don't care that most people who can afford an Escalade can afford to pay $8 a day to drive it over the bridge, because they can imagine borrowing enough to get an Escalade but not enough to pay the tolls.

This is, of course, deeply irrational, and you can't argue with it. What we can do is to recognize that desire for status, and for the expression and acknowledgment of that status, and understand how anything that puts that expression in jeopardy is a threat. All we can do is offer alternatives.

We can't really make the bus or the subway glamorous (although you're welcome to try). What we can do is point to alternative status markers and reassure people that those markers will be just as valid as any car.

Isn't it enough to have the latest Armani suit, or gold watch, or luxury condo? To have dinner at the haute restaurant of the moment? Why do people feel that their package of status markers isn't complete without the SUV?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Outside the SubsidyScope

Last month the Pew Charitable Trust's SubsidyScope released a study of Amtrak subsidies. It made the news, and at the time I just shrugged it off as the kind of story that we'll have to put up with until (a) airline and private car subsidies come down enough to give trains the advantage or (b) Americans come to feel enough ownership of Amtrak to accept the subsidies the way they do airport and highway subsidies.

I also accepted the numbers, because I personally accept the need for Amtrak subsidies. Today, however, frequent commenter Bruce McF takes on the SubsidyScope numbers and shows that the work is a lot sloppier and less conclusive than I would have imagined from such a prestigious organization. No firm conclusions, other than that the subsidies are overstated.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Climate change

It's right there at the top of the blog: getting people to shift from cars to transit will reduce pollution. Transit is regularly cited as a potential strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But how much could we reduce with transit?

It's funny, I haven't been able to find a good answer to that question. Many of the papers and websites are full of nutty things like electric cars and pumping carbon dioxide underground. But I did find a few useful figures around the web. Still, this is a back of the envelope calculation, so make sure you stick lots of grains of salt onto it. Any pointers to better figures would be welcome.

First of all, what kind of decrease are we talking about? Well, no one seems to know. The current concentration of carbon dioxide in the air is about 390 parts per million, and the scientific consensus seems to be that we need to get it down below 350 ppm as soon as we can. More timid people have pushed for 450 ppm or even 550 ppm. Usually it's expressed in terms of reducing greenhouse gases by 20% by a certain date (say, 2030), and 80% by another date (say, 2100).

How much of that is transportation-related? Well, this paper from the EPA (PDF, page ES-15) says that in 2007 the US produced 7,150 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent (which includes things like cow farts and laughing gas), of which 2,000 megatons were from transportation (up from 1,547 in 1990). This includes the emissions involved in generating electricity to power subways. So if we could eliminate all transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, it would reduce our total by 29%. Well, it's a start!

Okay, seriously, how much of those two gigatons could we eliminate through transit? Again, people were very timid about this. A report by SAIC for the American Public Transit Association (PDF) says that two-car households could reduce their carbon footprint by 30% if they use enough transit to get rid of one of the cars. Lame! I want to know what happens if they get rid of both cars!

Transit advocates seem very keen on telling you how much greenhouse gas would have been emitted if every transit rider had driven instead; the SAIC report gives it as 6.7 megatons, and on page 9 of this PDF from the APTA puts the figure at 4 to 25 megatons. Sounds impressive until you remember that the total annual transportation emissions are 2,000 megatons. You can kind of understand why they don't put it that way.

Still, I'm happy for transit that it's sparing us from all those gases, but even though it's labeled in the SAIC report as "Potential Role of Public Transportation in Reducing CO2 Emissions," it's not. It's the current role. What is the potential role? Well, two University of South Florida researchers interpret the National Household Travel Survey to indicate that the mode share of transit is currently "1.59% of person-trips." In other words, one sixty-third of the total person-trips. So if we multiply that figure of 25 Mt by 63, we get 1,575 Mt.

So shifting the entire population of the US to transit would eliminate three-quarters of our transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, and 22% of the total US emissions. How do we manage that? This APTA report (PDF) argues that a 10% annual compound growth in transit ridership would reduce annual carbon emissions by 142 Mt in 2020 and 910 Mt (13% of the total 2007 US emissions) in 2040. I personally think their model is limited and would like to see a logistic model that takes into account the increasing difficulty of shifting people to transit, but maybe that will appear later. It probably doesn't affect the estimates for 2040 significantly.

Since the transportation sector only accounts for 29% of greenhouse gas emissions, other contributions will probably have to come from the commercial, industrial and residential sectors (agriculture is relatively small). But we can do a lot with transportation, if we can find the will.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

State Senate quintiles

This week New York voters re-elected most of their City Council members, and elected a few new ones, with most of them not having taken much of a stand on transportation issues. It's time to start looking to next year and the state legislature. Of course, the biggest obstacle to real reform this year was the dysfunctional State Senate, where the Democratic and Republican patronage machines clashed in a titanic struggle while largely ignoring the needs and wishes of their constituents. Because of this, the real winners were the "fare hike four" (sometimes more, sometimes less) who withheld their votes for power and got it: Pedro Espada, Hiram Monserrate, Ruben Diaz Jr. and Carl Kruger.

The fate of the Ravitch plan shows that the State Senate can have a big influence on the MTA. Transit advocates should pay attention to this race, and try to do what they can to get crappy senators replaced with more transit-friendly ones. Here's the quintile map, based on one from the Department of City Plannning, converted with MapShaper and colored with data from the Tri-State/Pratt factsheets:

In the green districts, with Perkins, Serrano, Duane, Squadron and Krueger, more than 73% of the households are car-free. In the yellow districts, with Espada, Schneiderman, Montgomery, Dilan and Diaz, it's between 65% and 73%. In the orange districts, represented by Adams, Onorato, Sampson, Parker, Hassell-Thompson and Monserrate, between 50% and 65% of households are car-free. In the red zone, Savino, Kruger, Golden, Stavisky and Smith represent districts that are between 34.4% and 50% car-free. The purple districts, with Huntley, Addabbo, Klein, Padavan and Lanza, are less than 34.4% car-free.

Duane, Squadron, Krueger and Schneiderman have mostly been pro-MTA - although they certainly could have been more vocal about it. Espada, Dilan, Diaz, Monserrate, Montgomery, Parker, Hassell-Thompson, and Kruger have actively obstructed funding the subways through bridge tolls. Savino talks about MTA funding, which is better than nothing. Adams, Smith and Klein have all been disappointing in various ways.

Republican Senators Golden, Padavan and Lanza are especially disappointing, because they had an opportunity to form a grand coalition with the rest of the Democrats in favor of transit funding, but instead chose to play power politics and allow the Gang of Four to kill the Ravitch plan.

Some of the seats will be contested in 2010. The Democrats have only a single-vote majority, so they will be trying to expand that caucus, and the Republicans will be trying to win back control of the chamber. The stakes are high: whoever controls the Senate will control the 2010 gerrymandering - not only for the Senate and Assembly, but also for Congress. Rather than blindly supporting along party lines, transit advocates should look for good candidates to support - no matter what party they're from.

Monserrate was recently convicted of misdemeanor assault for slashing his girlfriend's face with a broken bottle. He has not resigned or been expelled, but Queens Democratic party chairman Joe Crowley has said he will back Assemblymember Jose Peralta in the primary this fall. George Onorato will be 82 next year, and will also likely face a primary challenger.

The senators representing the "green zone" have pretty much supported transit. The "yellow zone" is a different story, with both Espada and Diaz. Since they both were responsible for the dysfunction in the Senate this year, it would be only right if they faced strong challengers, and transit advocates should throw their support behind those challengers, or even recruit some. One possible candidate to run against Diaz would be Majora Carter, who has brought nationwide attention to transportation justice issues in the district. Martin Malave Dilan and Velmanette Montgomery have been disappointing on transit issues as well, and I personally know several transit advocates who live in their districts.

The current State Senate is an embarrassment to the people of New York, in support for transit and many other ways. Let's hope that changes in 2010.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Low bridge, everybody down!

Last month I talked about how nutty it is to ban buses from a parkway (PDF) in the name of scenic recreational driving, even as you widen that "parkway" to six or eight lanes to accommodate commuter traffic, in the process completely destroying any scenic or recreational character that it ever had. I argued that if the State DOT wants to have parkways they should cut them all back to four lanes maximum, with parallel bike and pedestrian facilities, but if they want to have highways they should allow buses to use them.

Our express and intercity bus networks could really use some limited-access highways where they could cruise. The current schedule for the BxM4B takes 34 minutes to go down Fifth Avenue from the Bronx County Courthouse to Madison Square on a Saturday; Google Maps says that on weekends it should take 24 minutes for a car, but you could shave at least ten minutes off that by taking the FDR Drive. The BxM2 takes 53 minutes to go from 230th and Broadway to Penn Station; Google Maps gives that 33 minutes in a car and 17 if you take the West Side Highway. So we're talking time savings of up to 20 minutes. This can make a difference in ridership, particularly on the intercity bus routes.

Okay, but what about all the low bridges that Bob Moses famously built over his parkways to keep out buses and trucks? Well, the New York City Department of Transportation has a new treat for us: the clearances on all the parkway bridges in the city, either in PDF format or as a KML file. No more squinting at signs in Google Maps!

Here are the heights for typical buses in the current MTA fleet:
MCI D4500: 11' 5" (the big express buses)
Orion V or NovaBus RTS diesel: 9' 10"
Orion V natural gas: 11' 5"
Orion VII: 11' 3" (the new low-floor models)
EcoSaver IV: 10' 1"

This means that they will all fit on the Henry Hudson Parkway up to 232nd Street, the FDR to the Willis Avenue Bridge (with the exception of the Brooklyn Bridge and a couple of on-ramps in Midtown), or the Bronx River Parkway to Gun Hill Road, and the Grand Central Parkway to 60th Road. The old diesels and the brand new EcoSaver IV can go anywhere except for the Jackie Robinson and Cross Island parkways, the northern end of the Henry Hudson Parkway and the section of the Grand Central Parkway along Flushing Meadows.

The most straightforward thing to do is to end the blanket ban on buses on the parkways, and simply restrict them based on their height. The current ban seems to be in the Codes, Rules and Regulations of the State of New York, not laws, which means that the Governor or the next Transportation Commissioner could do away with it by executive order, without having to go through the Legislature.

Speaking of which, does anyone think that Frank McArdle would give a rat's ass about buses? I suppose he could turn out to be a pleasant surprise like Ray LaHood, but I'm not holding my breath.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The narrow worldview of energy greens

I was kind of startled to hear the anguish in Frank O'Donnell's voice tonight on Marketplace:
Warren Buffett is calling his acquisition of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad company a $34 billion wager on the economic future of the U.S. ...

Frank O'Donnell is president of Clean Air Watch, it's a non-profit environmental group. He says Buffett's acquisition is a sign he doesn't think the government's going to do much on global warming.

FRANK O'DONNELL: Well, this is very ominous from the standpoint of climate change. Warren Buffett is no dummy, and he seems to be making a multi-billion dollar bet that coal use is not only going to continue but grow in the future.

He says Buffett's in this to make money, not to change policy. But people follow Buffett. And deals like this one could make it hard to convince Americans we need to.

That's funny, when I first heard about Buffett's acquisition from Streetsblog, I thought that it was a bet that gas prices would go up, and I was heartened by the show of confidence in the efficiency and emissions-reduction potential of rail freight. After all, Buffett himself said,
They do it in a cost-effective way and extraordinarily environmentally friendly way. BNSF last year moved on average, it moved a ton of goods 470 miles on one gallon of diesel. It releases far fewer pollutants into the atmosphere. It saves enormously on energy consumption and, you know, it diminishes highway congestion.

If enough people follow Buffett, that would mean that the railroads would have plenty of capital to rebuild their second, third and fourth tracks, providing more capacity that can be used by passenger trains and taking cars and trucks off the road. What a boon for the environment!

I know that I tend to focus on transit, but I still recognize that energy and food can make a difference in the environment. Apparently O'Donnell is so focused on energy that he can take a story that is explicitly about the potential for rail transportation to improve the environment, and spin it so that it's all about energy. Wow.

Transit performance and frequent lines

Last week, the Times' Clyde Haberman described how New York City Transit had revised its performance metrics, so that they measure "absolute on-time performance" as well as "controllable on-time performance." The last measure excluded "situations deemed beyond their control — sick customers, police investigations, repairs, vandalism and so on," in Haberman's words.

Ben at Second Avenue Sagas says that the change is an improvement, but not really sufficient, and I agree with him. He observes that for frequent lines (roughly, less than twelve minutes between trains or buses), adhering to the schedule isn't the most important thing:
New Yorkers don’t really expect subway trains to run "on time" because the schedules, while available, are rarely used and aren’t considered gospel. The better indication of on-time performance involves train wait times. If I just miss a B train during the day, I expect to wait 8-10 minutes for the next one. If I’m waiting longer than that — no matter what time the schedule comes — I consider the next train to be late.

Let's go back to our goals for transit. First, it should work towards access for all; this is pretty much achieved by offering frequent, safe service. Then, it should get people out of their cars. If the train or bus is slower or less reliable than driving, people are going to drive instead. speed and reliability (and sometimes comfort) are where good management can make a difference, and that's how performance should be measured.

On-time performance has something to do with speed and reliability, but not enough. Let's imagine a bus route, the Q200, that runs every five minutes. The most popular trip, from the Statelee Apartments to the Hitek Office Center, is scheduled to take thirty minutes. The intended customer experience is to wait no more than five minutes for a bus and spend no more than forty minutes door to door.

In practice, the passenger crush at Statelee Apartments means that by the time everyone gets on, the next bus is right behind. This leads to the all-too-familiar bus bunching phenomenon, where Bus A is late - and packed - and Bus B is early and empty. So some passengers wait up to ten minutes for a bus, and then it can take 50 minutes door to door.

In terms of our goals, bus bunching is awful, because it reduces not only speed, reliability and comfort, but frequency - which means we're no longer providing access for all. But in terms of on-time performance it's not so bad: the leading bus may be late but the following bus is on time.

Now let's imagine that the bus operator institutes some kind of pre-boarding payment collection at the Statelee Apartments, reducing dwell time and eliminating the bunching. That's a major coup, improving frequency, reliability, speed and comfort. But they won't get that much credit for it, because in on-time estimates it's just a small improvement.

In the years before computers were everywhere, it may have made some sense to use on-time performance as a metric, but now that anyone can plug some numbers into a spreadsheet it's really lazy. So what could we use for a better metric?
  1. Average wait: The MTA calculates its subway wait assessment as "percent of instances that the time between trains does not exceed schedule by more than 2 minutes (peak) or 4 minutes (off-peak)." I would instead say, "If someone arrives at the bus stop (or train station) a minute after the last bus leaves, how long do they wait for the next available bus?" I would also make sure not to count buses that were too full to pick up people as available. Note that this has nothing to do with any schedule.
  2. Average trip time: Pick a popular trip. How long does it take, on average, door to door?
  3. Practical frequency: How often do available buses come? Bunches of buses (less than one minute apart) count as a single bus.
  4. Crowding: How many buses have one of the single seats available? This may not be cost-efficient, but it's still good to know.
By the way: if, as Haberman reports, Jay Walder is being hailed as "the Dumbledore of transportation wizardry," then who is its Cornelius Fudge? Dale Hemmerdinger? And if, as Gene Russianoff puts it, this new era of transparency at the MTA is not quite "the coming of the Paris Commune," should we be glad that we don't have to deal with Shelly Silver as Thiers and Pedro Espada as Mac Mahon?