Saturday, December 18, 2010

Westchester-Rockland Pick-a-Mix

In browsing the Tappan Zee study documents, I occasionally come across a really useful nugget, and the latest one is on Page 7-3 of Chapter 7 of the Transit Mode Selection Report (PDF). It's a cute little pair of tables supporting a pair of charts. Don't look at the charts, they're just there to argue that commuter rail on the full corridor is too expensive.

The value of these charts is that they provide a breakdown of the cost estimates of individual components of the bridge, and taken with the figures on Page 3 of the Preliminary Financial Assessment (PDF), we get a fairly complete picture. This information is hard to come by, either as a deliberate plan to favor road construction, or out of general obtuseness, depending on how much you want to use Hanlon's razor.

CodeComponentCost in millions
BHB1Bridge with HO/T lanes $ 5,180
BR1Commuter rail capacity on bridge 1,220
RWH1Highway "improvements" (widening) 1,800
RB1Rockland HO/T lanes 263
RB1Rockland busway800
WB1Westchester bus lanes 560
WB2Westchester busway 2,210
RR1Rockland commuter rail 4,410
WR1Rail connection to Hudson Line 1,500
WR2Westchester light rail 2,295
WR3Westchester commuter rail 7,080
WR3Westchester commuter rail 7,080

The $16 billion figure (estimated to be $23 billion after inflation and debt service) you often hear bandied about comes from the current Alternative 4D: in Tier 1, BHB1 + RWH1 = $6,980,000; in Tier 2, RB1 + RR1 + WB1 + WR1 = $8,383,000. However, as I've written before, the organization into tiers was completely arbitrary and decided behind closed doors, subject to none of the rigorous and intensive public participation requirements of the rest of the project.

You can kinda sorta see why they would want to build the bridge before putting in the "BRT" lanes (they're actually High Occupancy/Toll lanes and don't qualify for federal transit funding), but there's absolutely no reason why the $1.9 billion in "Highway Improvements" (reconstructing the Thruway interchange with the Westchester Expressway at Exit 8 and widening the Thruway from the bridge west to Exit 12) need to be done before anything else. So I'm going to do my own Pick-A-Mix, and I suggest you try yours.

Phase 1: WB2 + RB1 = only $823 million, but I would make the Rockland "BRT" a real exclusive bus lane connecting to a reversible bus lane in the middle of the existing bridge. The total cost would be well below $4 billion dollars, and it might just take enough cars off the bridge so that there would no longer be any justification for replacing the bridge.

If the demand is there, Phase 2 would be BBH1 + BR1 + RR1 + WR1, for a total of $12,310,000. The total is slightly more than the current DOT proposal, but you could probably shave a few million off that by only building six general-traffic lanes on the bridge instead of eight. What's your mix?

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Helix and the XBL

My post last Wednesday on Chris Christie's plans to use the Port Authority's $3 billion ARC tunnel contribution on a bus garage, reconstructing the Lincoln Tunnel helix, and replacing the cables on the George Washington Bridge got some interesting comments, both here and when Angie Schmitt featured it on the Streetsblog Network. Some of the comments pointed out that since buses use roads, this doesn't have to be all for cars. Sean, Kate and Alon on Streetsblog, and Busplanner here, all argued that the helix reconstruction could help speed buses.

For those of you just tuning in, the Lincoln Tunnel exclusive bus lane is a counterflow lane. One of the lanes that is normally reserved for outbound traffic is allocated for inbound buses during the weekday morning rush, but then it's over, and there is no outbound XBL. It carries thousands of people every morning, in an impressive feat of bus service, and is quite likely possible for the continued viability of most of the country's private bus lines. Several transit advocates have argued for making the XBL two-way round-the-clock, and for doubling it in the morning rush. The Port Authority has studied this, but there hasn't been much movement on it. One of the items in the Strategic Plan was $800 million to expand the XBL, but the helix reconstruction and the GWB cables seem to have jumped ahead of this.

I agree that since the Lincoln Tunnel exclusive bus lane goes on the helix, it would be negatively impacted if the helix were to fall down. But rebuilding the helix by itself would not actually increase capacity. The current helix is three lanes inbound and four outbound, and we could conceivably press to increase that to four inbound and five outbound, with one in each direction reserved for buses.

The problem is that the helix still connects to a six-lane road cut through the bedrock of the Palisades, and we can't add any lanes to that without some serious blasting. Increasing the capacity of the helix would just move the backups a mile further out of the city, to the point where the lanes merge down to three in each direction again. This is the reason why most of the serious plans to increase the XBL capacity involve taking another car lane.

However, we've got some pretty clear indications that Christie understands that this is about subsidies for drivers versus subsidies for transit, and we know where he comes down on that issue. I wouldn't expect him to say, "Okay guys, sure, let's take a general traffic lane and give it to bus riders!" Unless it's some vicious sarcasm like his mom dished out with her bit about the money tree.

That's not to say that savvy politicians couldn't get an expansion of the XBL folded into the helix reconstruction. Maybe if everyone plays their cards right, Cuomo could threaten to block the helix reconstruction as a car project unless XBL expansion is included in it. But that's not going to happen if everyone says, "Well, the helix benefits buses too!"

Friday, December 10, 2010

The 2009 farebox numbers

The 2009 National Transit Database is out. As usual, everything from 74% up is inclined planes and the ferries and buses of northern New Jersey; 39-71% is college towns and urban rail; 30-39% is big city bus and light rail systems, and below 30% is small and medium-size towns and assorted boondoggles.

The top farebox earner, as last year, is the Chattanooga inclined plane, and it earned even more this year, almost a million dollars, for a farebox recovery ratio of 214.9%. This is a silly thing to count as a transit system, since it costs $14 per person, and the directions webpage only gives driving directions. The Pittsburgh inclines, which are well-connected to the bus and light rail networks, earned $110,000 for a ratio of 119.1%.

The two largest New Jersey ferry systems, Port Imperial and BillyBey, which both do business as New York Waterway, earned six million and almost a million dollars last year, respectively, for recovery ratios of 130% and 114%. One newcomer to the 70%-plus club was the University of Georgia, but that's just because the University pays for 98% of operating costs. I'm kind of baffled by the Pee Dee Regional Transportation Authority (PDF), serving the area around Florence, South Carolina. They claim to get 71% of their funding from fares, yet operating expenses were $16 per unlinked passenger trip, but fares were only $1.50. It seems like they must have gotten some big contract, but I don't see what it is. It's not a university town like Athens.

The other big story is the Stagecoach Group. This multinational transit firm from Perth, Scotland controls Coachusa, the company that owns the seven Lincoln Tunnel bus lines highlighted in blue in the table below. Some of their lines are profitable: Trans-Hudson Express, better known as Red and Tan in Hudson County, cost only $1.42 per trip to operate on average, and charges $1.45 for local routes and $4 for the New York-bound Route 99S. Orange-Newark-Elizabeth and Community Transit have also run an operating surplus for the past three years. The others bring them down, though, particularly Suburban Transit and Short Line. In 2007 their operations required a $7 million subsidy, in 2008 it was $11 million, and in 2009 it was back down to $5.6 million. I don't know how they keep those afloat, or if there will be some changes in the future.

NameFare Revenues per Total Operating Expense (Recovery Ratio)
Trans-Hudson Express177.0
Trans-Bridge Lines, Inc.128.8
Orange-Newark-Elizabeth, Inc. (Coach USA)125.8
Bonanza (BZ)119.3
Community Transit, Inc. (Community Transit)101.3
New Jersey Transit Corporation-45 (NJTC-45)101.3
Hudson Transit Lines, Inc. (Short Line)96.0
Martz Group, National Coach Works of Virginia (NCW)88.5
Rockland Coaches, Inc.84.0
Academy Lines, Inc.83.6
Monroe Bus Corporation80.5
DeCamp Bus Lines79.2
Suburban Transit Corporation (Coach USA)79.2
Lakeland Bus Lines, Inc.77.5
Monsey New Square Trails Corporation77.3
Adirondack Transit Lines, Inc. (Adirondack Trailways)77.1
Olympia Trails Bus Company, Inc. (Coach USA)74.4
Pee Dee Regional Transportation Authority (PDRTA)71.8

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sucked down the helix

The sad fate of the money that was to be dedicated to the ARC tunnel is a clear illustration of how easy it is for governments to spend money on car travel, and how hard it is for them to spend it on transit. The money was going to come from the Federal government, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and the Port Authority. The Federal money will probably go to some transit project, assuming the President doesn't cave into some Republican "cancel the stimulus" nastiness. The Turnpike Authority will widen the two toll roads it controls, and Christie wants it to turn some of the money over to the State Transportation Trust Fund.

The latest news is what will probably happen to the three billion dollars the Port Authority was going to contribute to the project, $595 million of which was going to be spent next year. Andrew Grossman at the Wall Street Journal lists three projects that are at the top of the Authority's wish list: reconstruction of the Helix ramps leading to the Lincoln Tunnel, replacement of the cables holding up the George Washington Bridge, and a new bus garage at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. In case you suffer from transportation myopia, Ben at Second Avenue Sagas points out that only one of these projects is exclusively transit-related. As you may remember, most of the goals we have for transit (cleaner air, reducing carnage, less waste of energy) depend on getting people to shift from cars to transit. For that, in general, shifting money from transit to cars is bad.

I can't find an estimate anywhere for the cost of the Lincoln Tunnel helix or the George Washington Bridge cables, but on Page 16 of the Authority's 2008-2015 Strategic Plan, it says that the total cost for the new bus garage would be $500 million, of which $400 million was expected to come from the Port Authority. If that price hasn't gone up, that leaves $2.6 billion for the other two projects, and I can imagine that they'd be pretty expensive.

But what if the Port Authority were committed to using this money for transit? It turns out that in this Strategic Plan there are a number of other things on the wish list. Some are expansions of the transit system, some are equipment maintenance, and some are subsidies for transit-oriented development.

ProjectEstimated cost in millions of dollars
Expansion of the Lincoln Tunnel exclusive bus lane800
Lengthen the Grove Street and Harrison stations on the PATH to ten cars230
Signal replacement on the PATH253
Transit-oriented development: Newark Airport station on Northeast Corridor line155
Transit-oriented development: George Washington Bridge bus station150
Transit-oriented development: Jamaica AirTrain Station425
Transit-oriented development: Lower Manhattan-Kennedy Airport link right of way350
Total$2,863 million

How about that? It comes out to a little over $2.6 billion.  And according to DNAinfo's Julie Shapiro, the PATH signal replacement is funded from other revenue streams, which brings us under $3 billion total.

So here we have $3 billion in transit funds that is currently unallocated, and $3 billion in transit-related needs listed in the Strategic Plan. And yet, Executive Director Chris Ward completely disregards the Strategic Plan and picks two road-related projects that aren't even listed in it. What could that be about? Ward hints at it in the DNAinfo article: "Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo will work with Christie to decide what those projects will be, but Christie 'will take the lead,' Ward said." And there you have it: Christie overriding the Strategic Plan and diverting more than half the ARC Tunnel money to roads. I never thought I'd miss the days of Jon Corzine.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

To Secaucus ... and beyond!

Some random notes about the proposed #7 extension to Secaucus. The first three have been mentioned by other people, but I wanted to compile them here:

- It will need at least one additional set of escalators to get people out of Grand Central. Many times I've been in there and it's felt like a trap.

- It should have a stop at Tenth Avenue, ideally with an escalator at the east end taking passengers up to the Ninth Avenue entrance to the Port Authority Bus Terminal. That would ease crowding at Times Square, and in that awful tunnel between Times Square and the Port Authority.

- It's mostly local in Queens, and there's no sense in making it an express in Jersey - unless you have express tracks as in Queens. There should definitely be a stop at the Hoboken/Jersey City line to serve residents nearby and so that people can transfer to the Hudson/Bergen Light Rail, and another on the other side of Jersey City at Kennedy Boulevard.

- The line should not just stop at Secaucus; there are several "streetcar suburbs" that could be revitalized by continuing the train further. What comes to mind first is rebuilding and electrifying the old New York and Greenwood Lake line that was part of New Jersey Transit's old Boonton line. When the Boonton line was connected with the Montclair Branch, passenger service was halted on the part of the line between Montclair and Hoboken, that stopped in Kearney and Glen Ridge. According to a Wikipedia contributor, in addition to the three stops abandoned by NJ Transit in 2002 (Benson Street and Rowe Street in Glen Ridge, and Arlington in Kearney), there were originally three other stops in Glen Ridge (Walnut Street, Orchard Street and Belwood Park), three stops in Newark (Forest Hill, Soho Park and North Newark) and a West Arlington stop in Kearney.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Deputy Mayor Robert Steel, keeping hope alive

Original photo: Associated Press.

Railfans and environmentalists across the city should be singing the praises of Robert Steel, Deputy Mayor for Economic Development. Our beloved fantasy maps had been trampled by Christie's pandering to the austerity fetishists, and then kicked when they were down by Andrew Cuomo's own attempt to appease the bond gods. In a flash, Steel picked them up, dusted them off, and raised them in triumph at the head of a cavalry charge.

From an AP report, it sounds like someone in Steel's office had seen the work of a few environmentalist transit advocates, Steve Lanset, Ralph Brasket and Joe Versaggi, showing that extending the #7 subway under the Hudson River to Secaucus could be done for half the cost of the "ARC Tunnel." Someone at the Hudson Yards Development Corporation was feeling a bit defensive about the city's own overpriced tunnel to nowhere - the current #7 extension to the Javits Center. Someone in City Planning was frustrated at Chris Christie's cancellation of the ARC project - and probably about the ARC project itself, bloated with unwanted features and beset with so many compromises and kludges that it had lost most of its supporters. Half the transit advocates in the region openly scorned the plan, and the other half had trouble keeping a straight face as they defended it.

They put their heads together and realized that they would need powerful allies to overcome Christie's strong pro-car bias. What better allies than the real estate interests that had gotten Bloomberg and Doctoroff to commit billions of taxpayer dollars to extend the #7 to an area that in 2005 was factories, warehouses and parking lots? The lower price tag dodged Christie's moronic but effective "money tree" attack, allowing him to accept the tunnel while still keeping his image of the Great Budget Cutter.

It's not clear how involved Steel himself was in any of this, but at the very least he saw the genius in the original idea and its appropriateness in the new context, and allowed it to be floated in the Times. By doing this, he has restored hope to transit advocates on both sides of the Hudson. Even with callous austerity panderers in both statehouses, we may still see some transit expansion.

This is why I voted for Bloomberg last year, even with the stupid term limits business: if Bill Thompson had won, you know we'd have some flunky like Joe Chan doing economic development, and if he showed any vision at all he'd be tearing down the Port Authority to put in a parking garage for Christie's new car tunnel. And that's why we need to find someone with vision who can run in 2013 and knock all the corrupt Democratic politicians out of the race. Get working on it now, people, or we'll all be in trouble.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A gift from Randal O'Toole?

So I was having this Twitter exchange with Virginia Postrel, whose work I've found very helpful in the past. It started with a column she wrote for the Wall Street Journal on the glamour of wind turbines and high-speed rail. I responded:
capntransit: @vpostrel Of course, highways have NEVER been oversold with glamour. And they always pay their own way. Right?

vpostrel: @capntransit Highways were glamorous in mid-20th century, w/ the self-deception that implies. But they're funded by gas taxes.

capntransit: @vpostrel No, highways are not completely funded by gas taxes.

vpostrel: @capntransit Gas taxes + tolls=not subsidized. Sounds like Wisc isn't consistent, but the TX example doubly proves the pt.

capntransit: @vpostrel I don't think taxes + tolls covers it. Maybe in Texas, but definitely not here in NY.

vpostrel: @capntransit In CA, where I live, they haven't built non-toll highways since the 1970s.

So I went looking for figures about California and came up with this one from a guy named George Crissman almost $7 billion in 2004. The funny thing is that it's part of an anti-transit campaign. As far as I can tell, the reason he went to the trouble to compute it is that he divides it by vehicle-miles to get 2¢ per vehicle-mile, and then by 1.6 to get 1¢ per passenger-mile. Still, wow, 6.9 billion dollars in highway subsidies in 2004.

It gets weirder though: this guy got his formulas for calculating subsidies on the basis of Federal highway statistics from Randal O'Toole! That's right, one of the biggest road-widening apologists in the country has given us this formula in connection with his self-published 2000 book, The Vanishing Automobile. O'Toole writes:
Get all the data you need to calculate highway subsidies in your state from Highway Statistics. For any given year, you will need to download tables HDF, SF-1, LGF-1, LGF-2, and VM-2. From table HDF, add together the following for your state:

* The amount of federal highway user fees that are diverted to mass transit;
* The amount of federal highway user fees diverted to (from) other states or for general purposes.

These are the diversions. Ignore state diversions because they are accounted for in table SF-1. Then add together the following:

* Appropriations from state general funds from table SF-1;
* Other imposts from table SF-1;
* Miscellaneous from table SF-1;
* Federal funds from other agencies from table SF-1; and
* Total dispersements by local governments from table LGF-2.

From this sum, subtract the following from table LGF-1:

* Motor fuel and vehicle tax revenues;
* Tolls;
* State highway user imposts; and
* Federal FHwA funds.

What is left are the supplementary funds. Subtract the diversions from the supplementary funds. If the result is less than zero, there is no subsidy: Road users are subsidizing something else. If the result is positive, there is a subsidy. To calculate the subsidy per vehicle mile, divide the subsidy by the total number of vehicle miles driven in your state shown in table VM-2. To get the subsidy per passenger mile, divide again by 1.6.

So I've taken all those tables and put together a spreadsheet that calculates the subsidy for each state. There are some interesting figures in there! According to the 2008 numbers, the biggest total road subsidies come from California ($11 billion), Texas ($8 billion), New York ($8 billion) and Florida ($5 billion). Tennessee pays for 91% of its road expenses with user fees, mostly gas taxes; no other state comes close. In actuality, $260 million in federal gas tax money is diverted to other states or uses, but that's made up by $522 million in local government funding. Tennessee is followed by Indiana (66%), Ohio (65%), South Carolina (63%) and Maryland (62%).

Again, I'm still not quite sure why O'Toole wants to help us calculate the billions of dollars that subsidize roads. He seems very fond of the per-vehicle-mile and per-passenger-mile figures, probably because those measures favor a system that involves lots of long trips. I'd like to see a figure of subsidies per trip, but I can't find a figure for trips in the National Highway Statistics. Table HM-62 gives weighted average daily traffic per lane on principal arterials, but it doesn't tell us how many lanes of principal arterials there are. I could probably figure it out, but I'm just about ready for bed.

The other thing that I'm not sure about is that O'Toole tells us to get the motor fuel and vehicle tax revenues from Table LGF-1, but Crissman gets his from Table LDF. These are very different figures, and I don't know which to go with and why. The spreadsheet that I've linked to uses LGF-1.

You do get some interesting figures per capita, though. In big empty states like Alaska, Wyoming, Nebraska and South Dakota, roads are subsidized to the tune of more than $500 per person. Good ol' frontier self-reliance! Sadly, New York isn't far behind South Dakota at $403 per person. The lowest subsidies per capita are Tennessee, South Carolina, Ohio, Maryland and Connecticut.

For those of you who are more familiar with this data than I am, is there a reason why I've never seen this before? Is the data suspect, or the formula?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Japan's "Catbus" could ease traffic, reduce pollution

Tired of traffic? Japan's got an answer.

It's a huge cat shaped like a bus that can climb over smaller cars and under overpasses.

The eleven-foot-tall public bus, designed by Studio Ghibli, travels on grass without tearing it up and can hold up to twenty passengers, reports

Because it doesn’t take up any road space, it can reduce traffic jams by 20-30%, according to designers.

Even more impressive: it’s partly solar-powered.

The "Catbus" can climb over cars less than 2m high. If an oversize vehicle gets too close to the bus, the bus will swat it away with one of its huge paws.

While the new buses take time to grow to full size, compared to the subway, these buses are a bargain. They are 70 percent cheaper to build and 60 percent more efficient than underground trains.

Also, these high-capacity, space-conscious cats could reduce Japan's fuel use by 1.21 gigawatts per year, according to designers.

The first 2,000 miles of bus stops are to be built in Tokyo's Totoro neighborhood, according to

Read the full story at

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Twas ever thus...

R. Crumb

Planetizen recently linked to a Times article about an odd development battle in Jersey City. There is an old Pennsylvania Railroad viaduct that many want to rebuild as a pedestrian walkway, like the High Line in Manhattan and before it the Promenade Plantée in Paris. However, the actual bridges across streets are gone; all that remain are a series of six block-long, hundred-foot-wide stone embankments. In order to build a walkway the entire railbed would need to be rebuilt on top of the embankments.

Those plans are opposed by the developer, Steve Hyman, who bought the property from Conrail for three million dollars and wants to subdivide it and build housing. The coalition has a long archive of newsletters and articles detailing their fight with Hyman over the past ten years. According to one 2005 Times article (Word doc) he once wanted to simply knock down the embankment, the rendering in the latest article suggests that he is willing to at least preserve the outer appearance of them, but maybe hollow them out for parking.

Now here's the part where I slapped my forehead in disbelief. Hyman has visited both the High Line and the Promenade Plantée and claims to be a supporter of both, "But Jersey City is not New York or Paris," he told the Times. "The embankment is not located in an area filled with shops and commerce like those places have."

Well you know what? Ten years ago the area around the High Line wasn't filled with the kinds of shops and commerce Hyman is thinking of, it was filled with meat packing plants and hookers, and it was not a pleasant place to hang out in if you weren't interested in meat of one kind or another. Twenty years ago the area around the Promenade Plantée was a shabby nowheresville.

In fact, the Jersey City embankments are not very far from shops and commerce: the eastern end is right across the street from a Bed, Bath and Beyond, a block away from the Newport Mall, and a few blocks more from all the development along the waterfront. It really wouldn't be hard to develop this if someone had the desire and the resources.

Hyman does talk about resources: "And there is no money here to build a High Line. It cost $150 million in New York — and about a third of that was contributed by celebrity philanthropists." In Paris there was a similar story, described by the Boston Globe, but the money came from the city instead, and I don't think Jersey City or Hudson County have that kind of money, and I wouldn't bother asking Chris Christie for it.

Hyman's right about the resources, but he's totally off about the history. He could just be lying, but I've heard this from other people who were being completely honest. They go to Paris or Manhattan or Copenhagen and they see something they like. Then they either think it was always there and always fabulous, but it wasn't, once upon a time it looked just as crappy as Jersey City or Queens. Or else they think this stuff just happens magically, because it's Paris, or Manhattan, but it doesn't, it takes time, money and effort.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Cap'n's Bookshelf: Tepper Isn't Going Out

When I first started reading rave reviews for Tepper Isn't Going Out, Calvin Trillin's 2003 novella, I wasn't impressed. A story about parking regulations and the New Yorkers who live by them? How interesting could it be? In the end, I'm glad I decided to give it a chance, and I recommend it to anyone who's involved in the ongoing war for transportation resources here in New York.

The book's protagonist is Murray Tepper, a marketing executive in search of a list of people who will buy anything. Like many upper-middle-class New Yorkers from the Baby Boom generation, Tepper owns a car and has spent years doing the complex dance of parallel parking, alternate side cleaning rules and meter feeding necessary to store his car in Manhattan's publicly subsidized facilities. He finally masters the system just at the point where he can afford to rent a space in the garage attached to his building, and presumably pay full price for parking wherever he goes.

Tepper doesn't always use his garage space. He spends most of the book parking his Chevy Malibu in various free and metered spots around the city. Often, he just sits there and reads the newspaper, to the frustration of many other drivers, who see him in the car and assume he's "going out," hence the title of the book.

The frustration and puzzlement of the other drivers gets so intense that the paranoid mayor Frank Ducavelli, clearly a caricature of Rudy Giuliani, gets involved. He is convinced that Tepper is up to no good, and has the city attorney give Tepper a summons under an obscure law from 1911. But sympathetic stories about "SIMPLE GOOD SENSE FROM AN OLD-FASHIONED GUY" appear, and Tepper is deluged with letters of support. The judge dismisses the case, and Tepper gets a sudden change in fortune that allows him to retire.

At the end of the book, a character named Ray Fannon, a columnist for the Daily News, visits Tepper and lays out an alternate explanation for the events described in the book. I won't give away the ending, but his speculations were provocative.

For a while I thought that Fannon was right, because I noticed something in the book: nobody actually uses their cars for transportation. I mean, they go places; Tepper regularly drives down to Russ and Daughters' to buy a nice whitefish. But it's not clear that he's driving in order to get fish, as opposed to just driving in order to get to a good parking spot, and picking up a nice whitefish because the spot happens to be in front of Russ and Daughters'. It's not just Tepper; nobody in the entire book drives to get anywhere. What clinched it for me is that there were two times when Tepper actually did have to go somewhere. Once he caught a cab, and the other time he took the subway.

In Tepper Isn't Going Out, driving and car ownership are entirely symbolic activities. Owning a car is a marker of your status, and meter-feeding and the alternate-side dance are things you do to display that status. Tepper understood that, which is why he continued to park long after he began renting the space in his garage. Ducavelli went after Tepper because he saw that Tepper's parking interfered with the transportation functions of the city, and felt threatened. All the people who defended Tepper did so because they felt that status was more important than transportation, and respected his right to display his status at the expense of people who actually wanted to go somewhere.

My elegant theory was somewhat dashed by reading a Times profile of Trillin that came out as he was finishing the book. According to the Times, Trillin actually owns a car in Manhattan and drives it down to Russ and Daughters' on a regular basis. So maybe Fannon was wrong after all, and Tepper simply wanted to be left alone.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Should the MTA Board be elected?

One of the stupidest ideas to come out of the Left recently is that the MTA should be run by an elected board rather than an appointed one. If you think the system we have now is crazy, you don't want to see it with an elected board.

Now don't get me wrong: the current setup is definitely dysfunctional. The board is packed with real estate speculators and "transit advocates" who spend a lot of time protecting underpriced parking. Most of them don't even ride the trains.

One result has been a series of sweetheart deals, where the MTA has sold off the air rights above its rail yards to well-connected developers for below-market prices, with plans to build large, money-losing parking facilities that will draw customers away from the MTA.

The sweetheart deals are disgusting, but they're minor, one-shot deals, and the amount of money involved is tiny compared to the MTA's total debt. The MTA can only get back on a sound financial footing if the Legislature restores some of the money it has siphoned off in the past fifteen years.

We want to fix this, but a directly elected board is not the way. Even worse would be Howie Hawkins's proposal to have two-thirds of the board elected by the public and one-third by the MTA employees. Why would this be such a bad thing? It's democracy, right?

Let me give you a little illustration. Many years ago, I was in an officer of a small student political group in a distant city, and I got a call from a bicycle activist I knew. He wasn't a member of our organization, or even our political party, but he was running for election to an obscure municipal board that just happened to have influence over bicycle policy. I helped this guy reach out to the student body in a way that clearly violated campus rules, and he won by a small margin, quite possibly entirely due to that outreach. Now that city has over four hundred miles of bicycle facilities.

Sounds great, right? The results are impressive, but the whole thing was completely undemocratic. A tiny, dedicated group was able to sway an election to represent a fifth of the city. Only a small number of people were informed enough to know who they were voting for when they went into the booth. If you want democracy, you want the issues and agendas to be disclosed and debated well in advance. The only reason I feel comfortable with this is the knowledge that the pro-car people were pulling the same kinds of tricks. It was a dirty fight, so we fought dirty.

I'm pretty sure that this kind of dirty politics is not what Hawkins has in mind when he talks about a directly elected MTA board, but that's what we'll get if his plan gets put into place. It's also the kind of thing that regularly happens on school boards around the country. If you've been paying attention for the past year and a half, you'll be well aware of the number of people who haven't. Very few people know who their State Legislators are, and of those people, a tiny proportion know that these legislators have been redirecting money "dedicated" to the transit system for other purposes. Would you trust these people to vote for a representative to the MTA board?

In general, there were way too many candidates on the ballot this fall. The Federal government has a nice clean system of checks and balances where we vote for a President, two Senators and a Representative, and that's it. Everyone in the Federal government is accountable to the President or the Congress, or else they're members of the judiciary.

In New York we voted for Governor, Comptroller, Attorney General, Senator, Assemblymember and a whole bunch of judges. I was having trouble keeping all those races straight, and after I came out of the voting place I wasn't entirely sure whether I had actually cast a vote for an Attorney General candidate. I would be happier if we just voted for a Governor and a single legislator. People would be much more likely to know who they're voting for if they only have to keep track of two races.

The most democratic way to run New York's transit system is to have it be an executive agency just like the Department of Transportation. Sure, a Governor or an Assemblymember with a lousy transit platform might get elected on the basis of some other issue, but it's not like that doesn't happen for everything else. I really don't think we need to vote every year for our representatives to the transit board, the school board, the park board, the utility board, the insurance board, and so on. In fact, it might not have been as easy for Cuomo to duck the question of transit funding for as long as he did, if it had been clearly spelled out that the Governor controls the subway system.

That's my spiel, but I know that there are places that actually do have elected transit boards. There was some news in this election about people running for the BART board in the Bay Area. If anyone reading this is familiar with elections like that, please tell us what you think.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The problem with not borrowing

We've heard a lot about the evils of borrowing in the recent election cycle, but I don't think enough attention has been paid to the evils of not borrowing. In other words, to the problems of not having money when you need it.

Obviously, if your income goes down and you don't borrow, you can't spend as much as you used to. This is not necessarily a bad thing if you don't need to spend as much money. For us, though, it is. Accomplishing our goals will require a massive shift from personal cars to transit, and we will need to spend lots of money to develop the necessary capacity.

If your income is down and you don't borrow, you miss out on investments that could increase your income down the line. Worse, deferring maintenance can mean bigger expenses down the line, as with the Manhattan Bridge. The worst is when you spend money for infrastructure that doesn't get used for 73 years.

It may be better to borrow if it will increase your income later, if it will avoid much bigger expenses, or if it will allow you to put previous investments to use. You just need to be fairly certain that the costs won't exceed the benefits. Of course, you can never be completely sure: nothing about the future is a hundred percent certain. It's important to be careful and not take big risks. But it's also important to take small risks to avoid major expenses.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Getting rid of minimum parking requirements

In many circles, minimum parking requirements have been accepted as part of zoning laws without question for years. Of course there have always been those who disagreed, but the conventional wisdom goes like this: people will have cars, if there's no off-street parking they'll park on the street, off-street parking is in high demand as it is, so we need to force developers to create on-street parking. As I wrote back in May, there is no corresponding mandate in favor of transit expansion, so these constitute an implicit subsidy to driving.

Clearly, parking minima should be phased out, but there will be objections from people who use on-street parking. How do we address these objections? You could argue that anyone who depends on the city for free parking should take what they can get, and you'd probably be right, but those people have more power than us, so we can't just tell them to suck it up. You could also argue that the best way to deal with scarce on-street parking is to start charging for it, and I'd be happy to support you on that, but we should be realistic about your chances of success there.

Some of my neighbors have a proposal. Since the argument for parking minima often rests on the idea that adequate transit is not available, why not eliminate or cap these minima in areas where we know transit is available? That's already what's done in the zone (PDF). The proposal is to eliminate or cap parking requirements within a quarter mile of transit.

One of the members of the group asked how to define transit. Does it include subways and buses, or just buses? It's a very good question: while many people can justify car ownership even if they live above one subway station and work above another one on the same line, I think most people would agree that a lot of the apartments within a quarter-mile of a subway line that goes to Manhattan don't need space for a car. But what about buses?

Well, it's clear that people use the buses. There are many bus routes in Queens that carry more than 10,000 passengers a day, round-trip. Most of those do not go to jobs in Manhattan, but rather they connect to subways. People seem satisfied with them. But those are for commuting; in order to live without a car, you need frequent service around the clock, seven days a week. Fortunately, I've already made a frequent bus network map for Queens. Most of the borough is within a quarter mile of a frequent bus or subway.

Someone could argue that these buses are not as reliable as the subways. If the MTA can cut any bus route, what's to stop them from cutting the Q46? Suppose a developer builds an apartment building without parking along the Q46, and then it gets cut? Then everyone in the building would buy cars, and fill up the streets!

There are a couple things to keep in mind here. One is that these frequent routes are not like the abandoned routes that have been given to the van companies. They have high ridership, and it would be hard to drive that many riders away. Most of them have very high farebox recovery ratios, and if they were abandoned it would be possible for lower-overhead jitneys to make a profit.

The other is the principle of induced demand. If developers aren't forced to build parking, residents will find it much easier to take transit, and that in turn will mean higher ridership for those transit lines. It will also mean more political support for transit subsidies, and less for driving subsidies.

I would argue that it is reasonable to eliminate or cap parking requirements for any building within a quarter-mile of a transit line (of any mode) that has service at least every ten minutes between 6AM and 10PM, seven days a week.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Learning from the failure of the livery van program

Earlier this week, Taxi and Limousine Commission Chair David Yassky acknowledged that the Commission's plan to run vans on five abandoned local bus routes was failing, and took responsibility for that failure. I don't think it's quite dead yet, and I'll have another post soon on ways to save it, but for now I'd just like to give some reasons why it's failing.

First of all, please send this to every uninformed loudmouth who tries to tell you that they need to run the MTA like a business, man. There are some runs that can never make a profit without radical changes that are beyond the control of the MTA and most potential bus operators. There are also many differences between running a private business and running a public agency. These differences show in the case of the vans.

It's very admirable of Yassky to take the fall for this project, but he's a government guy who spent eight years in the City Council. I don't get the impression that this was his idea. I don't know if he has any business experience, but he's never been a big pusher of privatization. At least some responsibility should rest with the person who told him to do this but didn't give him any resources with the necessary business expertise. Maybe Bloomberg, maybe Goldsmith, maybe both.

So now here are some points to take away from this whole debacle:

Jitney service is qualitatively different from scheduled government bus service. It really seems as though Yassky's (and Bloomberg's) big mistake was thinking that the "dollar vans" are profitable because they're smaller and non-union, and would therefore be able to succeed where the MTA failed. Unfortunately for this program, that's only part of the story: they can be profitable when they operate in thick markets (to use the term introduced by Klein, Reja and Moore (PDF), but will not automatically be otherwise.

Admitting ignorance is the first step on the path to wisdom. Bloomberg, Goldsmith and Yassky have never run a jitney operation. Ricketts and Haqq have never run a transit service for middle-class white people. None of them seem to have read Klein, Reja and Moore, even though I found it by just googling around. Maybe they should have looked to people who had at least some experience or knowledge in those areas.

Consider the customer's perspective
. I don't really see any evidence that anyone involved in running this pilot ever imagined what it would be like to be a former passenger of any of these bus routes. Your bus route gets cancelled, so you find other transportation. Three months later, the city gives some guy permission to run fifteen-passenger vans with non-working seatbelts on the route, but you can't use your Metrocard or get a free transfer. You figure you'll give it a try, so you show up at the bus stop one day. There is no schedule, and you can't find any information on the TLC website. Maybe you wait fifteen minutes, maybe an hour. The van never shows up. Nobody is there to explain anything to you. You call a number on the sign, and nobody answers the phone. You're late to work or class. How many times would you go back?

Transit is in competition. People have different ways to get there.

Thin markets need an anchor. If you've got enough competition, you will need some kind of anchor to keep people showing up at the bus stops. You can't do it half-assed.

Sometimes marketing can help. In thick markets, everyone knows about the transit service and the operators compete on the basis of value. In thin markets, knowledge is scarce and marketing becomes much more important.

Gaps in service can kill your business. Wouldn't it be bizarre if all the Q74 riders had simply stopped going to classes, if the Q79 and B39 riders had stopped shopping, for three months, just waiting for someone to come along and put up a small, cryptic sign? They didn't; they found other ways to get where they were going.

Take constructive comments seriously. The TLC has been completely defensive and unwilling to entertain reasonable suggestions. Isn't that the point of a pilot, to gather feedback?

Well, I'll have another round of suggestions coming up soon. Gotta keep the hope alive! Or something like that.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Muddle-headed transit advocates

Every so often we get a new study that examines some aspect of transit politics and comes up with counterintuitive results. This is generally a good thing, because it's always important to reexamine your assumptions, but anti-transit forces will often inflate their conclusions in order to undermine transit advocates. Usually there's some theme of, "Oh, you muddle-headed transit advocates! You really mean well, but a bus with only two people on it is more polluting than a single-occupancy car. Don't you see that transit will never stop us from polluting the air?"

The latest such study, "Maintaining Equity in Transit-Rich Neighborhoods" (PDF), comes from Stephanie Pollack, Barry Bluestone and Chase Billingham of Northeastern University. I'm sure that Garyg or some other troll will be linking to it from the Streetsblog comments in no time: "Oh, you muddle-headed transit advocates! You really mean well, but transit lines only wind up increasing the percentage of people in the neighborhood using cars! Don't you see that transit will never be a real alternative to driving?"

Just reading through the reports on the article, I began to have some doubts, and after flipping through the PDF, I've got some real concerns. But before I get into the article, I'd just like everyone who reads it to imagine how much easier it would be to read if the authors had done a global search and replace of "TRN" with "transit-rich neighborhood." Done? Okay, let's move on.

The report is based on the Census data, and deals with a number of outcomes, including median income, racial diversity and attempts to estimate population displacement, but the outcomes we're concerned with are transit use for commuting and motor vehicle ownership. The authors studied the neighborhoods around 42 transit stations that had opened between 1990 and 2000.

So first, here are the big news findings: in 19% of these 42 transit-rich neighborhoods, the percentage of people commuting by transit increased at less than 80% of the rate for the metropolitan statistical area as a whole (and in 31% of them, the increase was more than 20% higher than the metropolis). In 26% of these neighborhoods, car ownership rose more than 20% faster than in the surrounding metropolis (and in only one neighborhood was it less than 80% of the rate for the metropolis). The authors' explanation is that transit-oriented development can lead to gentrification, bringing in wealthier suburbanites who keep their cars.

It's a prospect that's worth watching out for, and Pollack, Bluestone and Billingham recommend several possible measures to prevent it, including bundling transit passes with housing, unbundling parking, and reducing parking requirements. Those are a good idea in any area well-served by transit, whether the transit is old or new. But the effects they report are not very large, and it is important to connect them to our overall goals.

In terms of access for all, these results are largely irrelevant. The access is there, because the transit has just been built. There may be a long-term cyclical effect if the transit is not well-patronized; I will discuss that later.

In terms of increasing energy efficiency and reducing pollution, we want to see worldwide change. In terms of asthma and carnage the effects are local, but they are per area, not per capita. In terms of obesity and carnage, we are concerned not with increasing transit use but decreasing car use; walking and bicycling are as good for those as transit, if not better.

Why do we care about local effects as opposed to metropolitan or global effects? Because if people get displaced, they go somewhere. If poor, transit-dependent nonwhite people are forced by gentrification to move to a less transit-oriented suburb, they will not be any more likely to afford cars there than they did in the city, so they will bring their transit-dependent ways to the suburb. This means more business for the suburban transit lines, and more political pressure for transit expansion in the suburbs, if they can organize enough to overcome the inevitable opposition. The result could very well be a net decrease in car ownership and car use across the metro area.

The effects measured by Pollack and her colleagues are only directly relevant for one of our goals, improving society. Unfortunately, that's the goal that's been the hardest to pin down. Walkable neighborhoods, more face-to-face interaction, walkable businesses are all part of it. Car ownership definitely brings these down, as do car commutes, but it's hard to know how much.

Of course, transit use is a feedback loop, and if these car-owning yuppies demand wider roads it will set back the cause of transit. However, since there were overall population increases in many of these neighborhoods, there has been an overall increase in raw numbers of transit riders, and since there is gentrification, these transit riders tend to be wealthier and more influential, and thus more effective advocates for transit expansion, and more likely to be seen by potential transit funders as "us" than as "them." A racist state legislator is more likely to vote to fund a transit project if his friend's daughter lives in the neighborhood than if there's nothing there but "those people." And you thought the Cap'n couldn't do realpolitik!

All in all, this is something to be mildly concerned about, and if the report gets more people working to bundle transit passes with leases and to eliminate parking minima and unbundle parking, that's a good thing. But the analysis is so sketchy and so distantly related to the goals of transit advocacy that at this point it's a wash. Keep that in mind, all my muddle-headed transit advocates!

P.S. Also, check out Charles Siegel's comment on the Streetsblog DC discussion of the issue. It's true: the best way to bring down the price of anything is to produce a lot of it!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Chris Christie and the money tree

A few days ago, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was campaigning for a congressional candidate in Pennsylvania, and he offered this anecdote about the ARC Tunnel:
In our house, when I used to go my mother and say "I’d like something new, I’d like to buy something," my mother would look at me and say "well, of course Christopher, you can have that just go in the back yard and take the money off the money tree. You know where that is, right?" …to me it is a moral imperative to say no to these things.

Christie is clearly fond of this story in justifying budget cuts: he used it in January to describe Corzine's budget, and in July when discussing the budget of the Delaware River Port Authority. It's a cute little story, but it's not really helpful.

Christie describes his upbringing as "middle class," and it's doubtful that he ever had to go without food, clothing or shelter. His parents both worked and brought in money, so there was money for things that were a priority. When he wanted "something new," that wasn't a priority, so he had to do without. The honest thing for his mother to say would have been, "Christopher, we only bring in so much money. For us to have enough to pay for the thing you want, I'd have to work overtime, or else you'd have to go without new clothes for school this fall."

There is always money in the budget. That's what budgets are for. When someone says "there's no money in the budget," what they're saying is, "all the spending that's in the budget is a higher priority than this thing you want." Nobody likes to hear that their project is a low priority, so politicians fudge the issue by saying, "there's no money." The money tree is a cop-out, a way to avoid talking about budget priorities. I'm glad my mom was a lot more honest with me.

Brian Williams tried to get Christie to talk about his priorities, but he chose the wrong words. He stayed in the "no money" frame, so Christie was able to look justifiably baffled by Williams's question about "finding money." Williams needed to get out of that frame and point out, as I did, that Christie has no trouble finding money for projects that he likes.

Interestingly, Christie did point out to Williams that New Jersey "can't print money like the federal government." It's true: states don't have the power to set interest rates and perform quantitative easing like the Federal Reserve. Some states can borrow money to provide stimulus, but in New Jersey, the Governor and the Legislature are constitutionally required to pass a "balanced budget" with no borrowing.

Of course, Christie could support a constitutional amendment to get rid of that balanced budget requirement, or push the federal government to print money for stimulus, but he clearly likes that balanced budget requirement. It's his own lack of money tree, and he can point to it any time he wants to cut a program. Not quite a reverse Houdini, but enough to allow him to avoid being held accountable for his priorities.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Is the rent 2 damn high?

We all got a good laugh out of Jimmy McMillan, gubernatorial candidate for the Rent is 2 Damn High Party, at the debate last week. He was clearly a clownish figure, with his black gloves and his muttonchops. And he was outrageously nonsensical, one minute saying that all we had to do was execute the plans that Obama has put in motion, the next promising to "bulldoze some of those mountains in Upstate New York, to make New York State an independent state ... for the children!" and then again promising to "help all Americans." He showed that he knows almost nothing about most of the issues, claiming for instance that there is a hunger crisis "even here at this college," meaning Hofstra University. Even as a karate expert, he was clearly the least qualified person out of the seven to be governor.

McMillan got me thinking, though: is the rent 2 damn high? What does that even mean? There are definitely some high rents: today on Craigslist there's a three bedroom apartment going for $8600, a two bedroom for $4330, a one bedroom for $4195, and a studio for $2200. With what I'm making, I can't afford to live in either of the Manhattan neighborhoods where I grew up. And I'm sure that there are millions of New Yorkers who are struggling to pay their rents, whatever they are. So in some sense, yes, the rent is 2 damn high.

On the other hand, I live in a wonderful neighborhood in Queens, with lots of nice shops and restaurants. I can get to almost anywhere in Manhattan in less than an hour. The streets around me are quieter than Columbus Avenue or Second Avenue. And as a family, we can easily afford our mortgage and maintenance bill every month. As far as I know, most of my neighbors are in the same situation, whether they rent or own. So in that sense, no, the rent is not 2 damn high.

If you say that something is too high, you're inviting the question, "2 damn high 4 what?" Too high for someone to afford on a janitor's salary? That's probably true throughout Manhattan south of 96th Street, unless you want to live in an illegal boarding house in Chinatown. But there are places around the city where the rent is lower. In the Bronx there are studios under $800, and three bedrooms under $1500, close to the subway. True, those are in relatively high-crime neighborhoods, but then you're saying that the rent is 2 damn high for a janitor to live in a low-crime neighborhood.

Once you get into that, what seemed like a simple problem reveals itself to be much more complicated. What if we invested more in policing those areas? If they got safer, would the rents rise? What if we could make it so that the lowest paid workers still got enough to afford to live somewhere safe? What other expenses do they have? Can we cut medical expenses so that people have more money to pay for housing?

McMillan is wrong. It really doesn't all boil down to one issue. He deserved to be laughed off that stage not for his beard or his gloves, or even for his lack of knowledge about basic facts. He deserved ridicule for taking such a simplistic approach to a complex problem, and for attempting to mislead people into thinking that we deserved a Strong Leader because of it.

The problem is that this criticism applies to most of the other people on stage with McMillan last week. There were only three candidates who showed any grasp of complexity and nuance: Kristen Davis, Charles Barron and Howie Hawkins. Warren Redlich might as well be running for the "Government Salaries R 2 Damn High" party, and Carl Paladino on the "Business Taxes R 2 Damn High" party line.

Most disappointing of all, because he's expected to win the election with more than sixty percent of the vote, is Andrew Cuomo. Forget about his nominations by the Democratic, Independence and Working Families parties, he might as well be running for the "Taxes R 2 Damn High" party. While Davis, Barron and Hawkins each proposed measures that will stimulate the state's economy and thereby increase revenue, Cuomo expects us to believe that he'll reap huge savings by eliminating the same wastefraudandabuse that politicians have promised to eliminate election after election, back to his father and beyond. His insistence on a property tax cap and avoiding any tax increases has led him to promise spending cuts that will plunge this state into a deep depression.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Poor people with cars

In the comments on my last post, Joel writes:
I know that the image of NJ drivers are BMW driving upper middle class yuppies. However, I have put in many miles in NJ and I can tell you that many parts of NJ have residents that are treading water in 1980s vintage automobiles. Warren County and large chunks of south Jersey have poverty problems and the land usage makes demand for NJT bus service sparse. These people are finished if fuel climbs.

I am not saying that raising tolls and the gas tax would be bad. I am simply saying that most of our transit advocates have transportation myopia that causes them to misunderstand their respective markets. Christie has done his best to protect the people that don't have much and he is doing it again.

I'm glad that you're not saying that raising tolls and the gas tax would be bad, Joel. (I'd be interested to know when and how you think they should be raised.) But you raise an important point, and I'm going to use it as a springboard to discuss a persistent problem in leftist transportation discussions: compassion.

I'm a compassionate kind of guy, and like many leftists, a lot of my politics are motivated by compassion. But a lot of leftists get paralyzed by their compassion - or maybe it offers them an excuse to avoid something they didn't particularly want to do anyway. They lose perspective, lose the ability to distinguish between different levels of pain, and between short-term disruptions and long-term inequities. For some reason it happens a lot when the topic of poor people who drive cars comes up.

Let me give an example, taking Joel's argument to its extreme: I live in Queens. I just heard about this great job in Chicago. Obviously, none of you are going to suggest that the government pay for my commute; I should either move to Chicago or get a job here.

But what if my Senators and the Senators from Illinois get a great idea for economic development: ten dollar flights to Midway! The federal government covers the difference between the ticket price and the airline's cost per passenger. I take the job in Chicago and start flying back and forth every weekday.

A year goes by and it's a hugely popular program. The city is talking about building a new airport in Brooklyn to accommodate the demand. The US has occupied Iran to ensure a steady supply of jet fuel. But it's straining the federal and state budgets, and the government is looking at either raising taxes or cutting other programs to pay for it.

Suppose that someone gets bold enough to suggest that the program could pay more of its own costs if the fare were raised to twenty dollars. But that would mean paying a hundred dollars a week for me. It would add up to almost five thousand dollars over a year! My job only pays thirty thousand, so it would be a devastating blow to me. How am I going to pay for the mortgage on my house, the payments on my car, and my kids' tuition at private school?

My point, to be clear, is that any subsidy will eventually have a significant number of people who are dependent on it. Ending a subsidy like this will disrupt people's lives, causing economic suffering. But just as we currently live fine without ten-dollar flights to Chicago, we would be able to live fine if they were given and taken away. And just as people were able to live fine in Warren County without cheap gas and free highways, some day they'll be able to do that again. Maybe all the people who moved to Warren County to take advantage of the cheap gas and free highways will have to move back to the cities, but they won't necessarily move back to the slum conditions that many of them left behind.

Making the transition is important. A lot of the pain associated with eliminating subsidies is transitional. This can be mitigated with proper support: a favorable job market, a good safety net. Interestingly, when there is enough support, transitions like this are often not even perceived as painful. It's another chapter in someone's life, even an adventure.

We also need to realize that subsidies can hurt as well as help, and compare the pain of getting rid of a subsidy against the pain of keeping it. Think about the budget mess and fuel shortages that ten dollar flights to Chicago would cause, let alone the suffering that it would cause if we occupied Iran. Similarly, it would probably cause a lot more suffering over the long term to continue subsidizing sprawl in Warren County than to stop.

Note the difference between my argument and a libertarian one. I am not saying that all subsidies are evil and must be eliminated. I am saying that they must be justified, and that those that can't be justified should be eliminated. I'm not saying that they should be justified with some kind of cold monetary cost-benefit analysis, but in terms of how they fit with our priorities, and how compassionate they are. I'm also not advocating pain and suffering, I'm advocating adequate transition support.

Again, I'm not trying to make Joel the bad guy here. I don't know what he thinks should be done in Warren County. But "These people are finished if fuel climbs," sounds like an argument for letting these subsidies persist indefinitely, which is not an answer.

The bottom line is that compassion doesn't mean never doing anything that could possibly make someone suffer somewhere. It means keeping perspective, and doing what's necessary to reduce the overall suffering. And that includes measures to mitigate transitional suffering.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Budget goblins: the phantom menace

I've been meaning to write something about the shenanigans across the river with the "ARC Tunnel." I agree with a lot of the people who've said that the current plan with it's "deep cavern" under Macy's basement was a disaster, and I hope that eventually what will be done is to feed the new tunnels directly into the current Penn Station tracks, along with a sensible through-running plan to maintain decent frequencies. But I wanted to say something about the significance of the decision.

After Chris Christie gravely wounded the ARC Tunnel, there was no shortage of critical commentary. But most of it (Freemark, Renn, Herbert, Sollohub) focused on how Christie had "thrown money away" by giving up federal grants and the possibility of a significant infrastructure improvement for the short-term payoff of not having to raise gas taxes or tolls. And that's a legitimate point, but it's not the real story.

Paul Krugman is generally good at looking beyond the flimflam to find out what politicians are actually doing. In August, he ripped away the "deficit reduction" disguise from Paul Ryan's plan to cut taxes for the rich and benefits for the middle class. And Krugman, who lives in Princeton and regularly takes New Jersey Transit, will be directly affected by Christie's actions. It's disappointing, therefore, that Krugman's conclusion simply echoed those of the other commentators.

In order to get behind this particular flimflam, we need to go to Steven Higashide of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. Just as Krugman used the Tax Policy Center's analysis to show that Ryan's plan was not about deficit reduction, Higashide noted that the New Jersey Turnpike Authority is borrowing two billion dollars to widen the Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway (at a total cost of $3.6 billion). Christie's decision is not about fiscal responsibility.

Higashide and his colleagues at Tri-State, simply, have been paying attention to what Christie is doing. They've written extensively on the double standard that Christie maintains for transit and driving - as seen in Christie's 11% cut in the NJ Transit budget, which resulted in a 25% fare hike for Transit riders, while the gas tax stays the same. In April, Tri-State's Zoe Baldwin pulled this gem out of an interview with the Star-Ledger:
Editorial board member: What’s the difference between a gas tax hike and a fare hike, besides who it lands on?

Christie: That’s the difference.

What's the difference between cutting the ARC Tunnel and cutting the Turnpike widening, besides who has a shorter commute?

I have to be honest here: if I were governor of New Jersey, I would do the same kinds of things Christie has done, but in the opposite direction. I don't care how many studies they've done, or how much digging or construction, I would stop a massive highway project dead. I would raise tolls and the gas tax, and try to hold train and bus fares down. I'm guessing that most of the folks at Tri-State would too.

There are two important differences, though. One is that I wouldn't lie about it like Christie has, cry about the attacking budget goblins, and slather it in fiscal-responsibility flim-flam sauce.

The other difference is that I would be promoting transit because it's used by New Jersey's poorest residents. I would be promoting transit and cutting roads in order to get people out of their cars, which would decrease pollution, increase efficiency, reduce carnage, combat obesity and strengthen the downtown cores of New Jersey's many beautiful towns and cities.

As far as I can tell, Christie doesn't care about pollution, energy dependency, carnage, obesity or downtown businesses. He's cutting transit and promoting driving because "we" (he and the people who voted for him) drive, and "they" take the train. He's perfectly happy to pay for infrastructure and state services, but only for "us."

The Christian Science Monitor recently contrasted the ARC Tunnel cancellation with the breakthrough in the construction of the Gotthard Base Tunnel under Switzerland. Like the commentators I listed in the second paragraph, they get it exactly wrong: "The difference between the Swiss and New Jersey examples is this: One shows vision and a commitment to invest in the future, while the other shows shortsightedness." No, the difference between the Swiss and New Jersey examples (as well as the other examples they give in California and Pennsylvania) is that in Switzerland, "we" ride the train, but for Christie, for Meg Whitman in California, and for the Pennsylvania legislature, trains are for "them." We're still building lots of nice things for drivers.

Just as with Paul Ryan's tax cuts for "us" and sacrifices for "them," these budget goblins are a phantom menace, aimed at distracting us from the real issue: the upper classes want more services and don't want to pay for them, and they don't think the lower classes deserve what they're getting. That's what this is about, and you can see it if you don't have transportation myopia.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Jamaica Cutover: What if?

That's right, folks, it's time for another installment of What If?, where we look at some boneheaded move and ask, "What if the people in charge of this transit agency actually gave a fuck about their passengers?" The agency in question is the Long Island Rail Road, and really, can anyone think of a transit manager anywhere in the region who's done more to screw her passengers, transit advocates, and the people of New York than Helena Williams?

Back in August, you remember, there was a nasty fire in a 100-year-old switching board in Jamaica, that screwed up every LIRR rider's commutes for days, and I asked, what if the people in charge wanted to provide some redundancy to mitigate the effects of a disaster like this? Well, nobody's said boo about that, but a big irony that many people mentioned was that the switching board in question was almost ready to be replaced with a modern, computerized, centralized system.

Now it's time to do that replacement, and naturally, it's much easier to do that when the tracks are not actually in use. It makes sense that the Rail Road would run significantly reduced service. It just doesn't make sense how reduced their plans are. When I first saw the notice, I thought it must be some kind of joke. Especially this paragraph:
As a result of the extremely limited service, the LIRR advises that only customers traveling for essential business – such as first responders (police, fire) and service employees with no other alternatives – should use the LIRR during these two weekends. Customers traveling for recreational purposes during this period should consider travel on the Port Washington Branch or other travel alternatives.

Okay, seriously, what the fuck? If anyone thinks the LIRR is in it for the money, this should cure them of that illusion. If this were a for-profit business, its competitors would be salivating at the chance to snatch up disgruntled customers.

The notice is clearly written by someone who thinks that everyone on the island has cars, nobody but "first responders" actually needs to take the train, and weekend service is some kind of giant amusement park ride operated at great expense for people who are too lazy to drive themselves around. The idea that there are people who live or work within walking distance of a stop on the affected lines (all of which are more than a mile from the closest stop on the Port Washington Branch), and might not have an easy time driving themselves for one reason or another, seems utterly foreign.

During these two weekends, there will be no service at all on the Flatbush Avenue branch to Brooklyn, and no service between Jamaica and Mineola on the Main Line. There will be hourly service on the Long Beach and Babylon branches, with connecting service to Far Rockaway and infrequent diesels to the East End. There will be a weird hourly diesel-electric service that will express out to Babylon (but not stop), reverse over the old C.R.R.L.I. towards Bethpage (but not stop), and then go forward to Ronkonkoma (but not continue to Greenport).

There will be hourly buses from Jamaica to Mineola, where passengers can take electric shuttles to Huntington, connecting to a diesel shuttle to Port Jefferson, or a more infrequent diesel shuttle from Mineola to Oyster Bay. Every two hours, there will be a bus from Jamaica to Queens Village that will meet a shuttle to Hempstead. There will be no service on the West Hempstead Branch, but it turns out that there's been no weekend service on that branch for several months now.

There are several weird things about this. The most obvious is why they couldn't stop the Ronkonkoma diesel-electric express in Babylon, and time the Montauk trains to connect with it, shaving off some time for people going to the East End. Also, why not just reverse that train all the way to Hollis, and have a connecting train take people out to Ronkonkoma? Or have the diesel-electric express connect with a Ronkonkoma-Hollis train at Bethpage?

Another is that, given that it's weekend traffic and not beach season, why they couldn't have worked with a bus operator to run buses directly from Mineola into Penn Station and Downtown Brooklyn.

Instead, they just throw up their hands, say "Sorry!" and basically encourage anyone on Long Island with a car to drive into the city. I'm sure a ton of them will wind up on Queens Boulevard. Thanks, Helena Williams!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Transportation myopia

I've been writing this blog for over three years now, and there have been many issues that have come up repeatedly. There is one particular issue that I've found in just about every debate, every problem. It causes potential allies of transit to turn into enemies; it causes transit advocates to miscalculate their strategies. It has probably been the single biggest factor in the proliferation of unwalkable sprawl, and the bankruptcy of transit systems, over the past sixty years. I've decided to call it transportation myopia.

Essentially, transportation myopia involves people forgetting, even for a moment, why they care about transit, and treating transit as a goal in itself.

If their goals relate to the environment, they may forget that transit only helps the environment by getting people out of cars. We see this with the Tappan Zee Bridge project, where anti-sprawl advocates have been pushing for transit, but few have questioned the State Department of Transportation's primary goal of widening the bridge from seven lanes to ten.

If people are concerned about the financial and political support that transit receives, they may forget that transit is competing for customers and for political supporters against the road/parking/gas/car system. We see this with the "Save the G" campaign, where advocates failed to address a multi-year, billion-dollar investment in rehabilitating and upgrading the G's primary competition, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

Why do I need a name for this? So that I don't have to keep restating the reasons why it's a bad idea to consider the Q74 without mentioning the Kew Gardens Interchange, and so on and so on. I can just say, "Q74 advocates show transportation myopia," and link to this page. Less work for me, and perhaps most importantly, less than 140 characters.

A lot of transit advocates that I know and respect have demonstrated transportation myopia. If I call you out on it, it's nothing personal. We're on the same side, and I'm doing it to help you accomplish a goal that we all share. I've probably written some myopic things in the past, and you should feel free to call me out if I do it again.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Why 181st Street matters

I've long argued that the concept of "BRT" attempting to mimic subway lines is an inefficient and counterproductive strategy. When you've got a lot of people who think they're too good to ride the bus, it's flashy and can get people to try it, but when you've got lots of bus riders already, what you need is just an improvement in value. 181st Street in Upper Manhattan is an example of this.

On Friday, Streetsblog reported on a presentation by the Department of Transportation about alternatives for the 181st Street corridor in Washington Heights. "Alternative 2 would create a two-way, protected transit mall along this stretch, with raised medians serving as bus stops," writes Noah Kazis. Why does that matter? Check out the Bronx bus map (PDF):

There are five bus routes that start at the Port Authority's uptown bus terminal, cross Manhattan along 181st Street, go across the Washington Bridge to the Bronx, and fan out to cover most of the western Bronx. The Bx3 goes north past Bronx Community College, Lehman College and the VA Hospital to Kingsbridge. The Bx36 goes clear across the borough, past West Farms and Parkchester to Castle Hill. The Bx11 and Bx35 cover Morrisania and the Bx13 goes south to Yankee Stadium and the courts. They have high ridership, which keeps costs down; none of them require heavy subsidies:

RouteAverage weekday ridershipOperating farebox recovery ratio
Bx317,840105 %
Bx1114,860 93 %
Bx1310,700 94 %
Bx3515,860109 %
Bx3632,710 95 %

The Bx36 is a long route, but I would guess that more than half the ridership crosses the bridge to Manhattan, and even more for the other routes. Many of the people who live in this part of the Bronx are Dominican, and they use these buses to connect with friends, relatives and jobs in the Dominican neighborhoods of Washington Heights and Inwood. Others use these buses to connect with the A and 1 trains in Manhattan, which provide a more direct route to many destinations than the 4 and D trains.

Significantly, these buses also allow Bronx residents to reach the George Washington Bridge bus terminal, where they can take buses run by New Jersey Transit and Red and Tan Lines to various locations in New Jersey and Rockland County. There are also private van services that run from the GWB terminal across the bridge and west to Paterson and south along Bergenline Avenue to Hudson County. These buses form a vital east-west link between communities in an area where all the train lines run north-south.

If you actually go to check out these routes sometime, well, it can try the patience of Job. Double-parking is rampant along 181st Street, and all it takes is one double-parked car to hold up three buses. It's common for a bus to take as long to get from Broadway to Amsterdam as from Amsterdam to the Grand Concourse. These delays cause bunching, which has repercussions down all five lines.

Alternative 2 could actually work as a kind of "bus network acupuncture," relieving a pressure point and thereby improving flow on a large section of the network. Putting in bus lanes on three blocks of one street could improve the commutes of 50,000 people, and through speedier and more reliable trips, attract more people to the bus who might otherwise have taken car services. Compare that to the hundred-plus blocks of the First and Second Avenue Select Bus Service (M15 average weekday ridership: 53,510), and you get a huge bang for the buck.

And this is why it was so disheartening to me to read these words from Manhattan Transportation Commissioner Forgione: "We will not proceed with anything without community support."

I know what "community support" refers to, and it has precious little to do with actual community support. We're talking about a community board that's dominated by drivers in a neighborhood where 80% of households don't own a single car. These are people who are much more likely to double-park than ride the bus, even though the real community is much more likely to be riding the bus. We're talking about a lot of self-important "community leaders" who are convinced that their small circle of friends constitutes the community. These are the people who Commissioner Sadik-Khan stood up to, and got blasted for it. These are the people that John Liu, Bill Thompson and Jimmy Vacca repeatedly insist should have veto power over any transportation project. And it looks like in this case Forgione may defer to them.

Forgione is also talking about deferring to the "community" in Washington Heights, but what about the communities across the river in Tremont, Morrisania, Morris Heights, University Heights and High Bridge? Will their support matter?

I definitely believe that people should have some say over what transportation facilities are built in their districts. It would have been nice if Vacca and Liu had been around when people's homes were being bulldozed for the Cross-Bronx Expressway. Members of every affected community should be given the opportunity to raise their concerns, and those concerns should be taken seriously. But I don't think they should have veto power.

Alternative 2 would not tear down any buildings, and it will not blight the neighborhood. It would not flood parallel streets with displaced traffic. It would make these three blocks of 181st Street more like the Fulton Mall in Brooklyn, which would be an improvement.

Fortunately, Councilmember Rodgriguez seems to get this. His comments as reported by Noah were heartening. I hope he will talk to Councilmembers Cabrera, Foster and Arroyo and get their support on this. Transit advocates in that area should reach out to community leaders in the western Bronx and get them to the meetings where this project will be discussed. But the bottom line is that DOT cannot just listen to Washington Heights on this issue. They should conduct outreach along the five bus lines, and find out how much support there is there.