Sunday, February 28, 2010

Let's subsidize bad choices - and then tax them!

Matt Yglesias talks about the best way to discourage people from eating junk food. Tyler Cowan says that taxing junk food is more effective than subsidizing healthy food. As Yglesias points out, these taxes are essentially undoing a subsidy for junk food, and we could just eliminate the subsidy:
Of course as a first step in an ideal world we’d reduce our spending on agricultural programs that subsidize production/consumption of unhealthy foods, a crazy policy initiative supported by nobody except all the relevant members of congress.

Speaking of sugar, this is the same argument I made in my post about sticks, carrots and sugarlumps in Hasselt, Belgium:
And really, that's what entitlement is, right? You get so used to the reward that when it's taken away it feels like a punishment. ... What seems to have been the deciding factor is that the people of the area created a consensus Mobility Plan together, and seem to have really taken ownership of it; Olsen writes, "Now, people in Hasselt often speak of "their" bus system, and with good reason."

Similarly, subsidizing the price of transit increases overall travel without changing the mode share, and charging people to drive just counteracts the subsidies placed on it. As I wrote in my post about the G train and the Kosciuszko Bridge, subsidizing the G train will be ineffective as long as the State subsidizes the BQE.

Friday, February 26, 2010

More bad transit funding framing, this time from Russianoff

At the end of a New York Times article Thursday, Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign was asked whether he thinks MTA chair Jay Walder will raise fares:
"It’s clear that he and his administration don’t feel there's much of a likelihood of an Albany bailout, so there's only so many things you can do," Mr. Russianoff said.

As I wrote in December, "bailout" evokes the worst possible frame in the minds of the public, when you're talking about government funding. A "bailout" is something that you do because you really have no choice, but you always resent the clowns who got themselves into that mess in the first place.

As anyone who's been paying attention knows, it's not "the MTA" (who've had several changes of leadership under three different governors in the past ten years) who got themselves into the current mess. First it was Pataki, and then Giuliani, and now the State Legislature, who've starved the agency of funding. If anyone needs a bailout, it's the state government, which is now bankrupt because it's tried to promise everything to everyone, including low taxes. It can't afford to pay for the services it offered before the recession, and the politicians have all promised their constituents "no new taxes," so there's no way to fund anything. Grover Norquist would be proud.

I am utterly baffled by Russianoff's actions. He has consistently opposed any increase in fares, even though the unlimited-ride Metrocard and free subway-bus transfers have brought the MTA's total farebox revenue down much lower than it was in 1998. He has avoided naming anyone other than "the MTA", "the Governor" and "the Mayor" as appropriate protest targets even though he's seen (sometimes in person) Shelly Silver, Pedro Espada and Dean Skelos stiff the MTA multiple times. He has allowed MTA saboteurs like Marty Markowitz and Martin Malavé Dilan to greenwash their records with "protests" against the MTA for service cuts.

Worst of all, Russianoff's latest proposal to make up some of the MTA deficit with stimulus funds was way too little, way too late, but it allowed wafflers like Chris Quinn to "support transit" without actually supporting transit in any meaningful way. In the process, it has seriously undermined the case for bridge tolls, because now people can say, "there's a perfectly good way to fund the MTA that's been endorsed by the Straphangers' Campaign; we don't need to toll the bridges!"

Russianoff, right after observing how carefully Walder chose his words, has dealt another blow to the case for bridge tolls by feeding the "bailout" frame to the Times. Thanks, Gene!

So if it's bad to talk about "bailouts," then what are good concepts to invoke when talking about transit funding?

Fairness: the poorest New Yorkers ride the subway. Keeping fares affordable and providing convenient service helps to lift them out of poverty.

Environmental protection: the best way to deal with global warming is to get people out of their cars and onto trains and buses.

Efficiency: highways cost a ton of money to build and maintain, and they move a tiny fraction of the people that a comparable subway does. When they're as full as they are in New York, trains and buses also use less fuel per passenger than private cars.

Responsibility: even though it's always come from City residents through our income, sales and property taxes, transit funding has been administered through Albany since the MTA was created in 1968. After forty years, the State is reneging on its historical obligations.

You can combine the notions of fairness, efficiency and responsibility by comparing the State Legislature to a deadbeat parent: over the years the Legislature has wasted a lot of money on tax cuts and big highway and bridge projects, repeatedly promising transit riders treats like a new subway line, but sometimes even shirking its responsibility to provide basic maintenance for the tracks and cars. It's run up huge debts, and the payments have been getting smaller and smaller every year. Now it's saying it can't even pay enough to provide for basic needs, but it still manages to find money to build lavish bridges and highways for its "real children," the motorists.

Russianoff could have subtly evoked this frame by saying something like, "It’s clear that he and his administration don’t feel there’s much of a likelihood of Albany coming through for the people of New York, so there’s only so many things you can do." With this framing the obligation is clearly on the Legislature, the transit riders are deserving, and the Legislature is shirking its responsibilities. This seems like basic message crafting that any good transit advocate would have learned twenty years ago. Why do I have to be the one to point it out?

In another recent post, I took all the transit advocacy organizations in the city to task for their lackluster efforts, but I am convinced that most of the people and organizations involved are good, honest people who really care about the transit riders of New York, and about the environment. I would really like to believe that about Russianoff too, but things like this make me wonder what's really going on.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The only green road is a dead road

Planetizen linked to an Environmental Leader story about a new proposal for rating the "greenness" of roads, with a PDF of the proposal. The thinking behind this is so shallow that it just boggles my mind.

There's nothing in the proposal about the environmental impact of encouraging people to drive instead of walking or taking transit, or of encouraging people to drive further than they would otherwise. The authors write, "Decisions regarding the location, type, timing, feasibility or other planning level ideas are excluded. While planning is fundamental to roadway and community sustainability, these decisions are often too complex or political to be adequately defined by a point system."

If that's the case, maybe the point system is not appropriate here. But it seems pretty easy: would this road compete with an existing transit line? Zero points! Would it facilitate sprawl? Zero points! The problem is finding a road plan that wouldn't get zero points.

The authors also go on a lot about rating the "sustainability" of roads. But since roads contribute to environmental destruction by their very existence, I'm thinking that unsustainable roads are friendlier to the environment in the long term. Think of the Central and Embarcadero "Freeways" in San Francisco, the West Side Highway here in New York, and the plans to remove the Alaskan Way in Seattle. If these highways had been sustainable, they might still be around, cutting off access to neighborhoods and waterfronts with ugly, noisy elevated structures.

There's no such thing as a "green" strip mine or a "green" subdivision in a desert, and there's no such thing as a "green" road. Some roads are necessary evils that we tolerate for the greater good. Maybe it's nice if they're made with reused, permeable materials instead of oil and rocks fresh from the ground. But they're still roads, and the only way to call them "green" is greenwashing.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

If you care about the G train...

Back in September, I observed that transit lines are often in competition with parallel highways. The main reason that governments have to spend so much money subsidizing transit is because they're spending more money subsidizing roads. As an example, I gave the proposed Tribororx line from Yankee Stadium to Bay Ridge, which is paralleled for much of its length by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the Belt Parkway. How much ridership can we expect this line to have if the State is spending billions to upgrade the competing highway at no direct cost to drivers?

In the comments to my post, Jonathan pointed out that the G subway line also parallels the BQE in this corridor. Historically, the G has had notoriously low ridership. That has begun to change in recent years due to the booming popularity of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, but the MTA still treats it with contempt. After the V train was introduced, the MTA wanted to cut the G back to Court Square at all times. Under pressure from advocates, they agreed to run the G on nights and weekends, when the V was not running. Somehow, though, there seems to be track work on nights and weekends, nine times out of ten. I'm always surprised to actually see the G at Queens Boulevard stations.

The MTA has also run four-car trains on the G. I think they're back up to six cars, but the combination of short cars, truncated service, and infrequent service discourages people from taking the G, which in turn reduces ridership, which leads to more cuts...

The initial low ridership that seems to irk the MTA managers so much can be easily traced to the local-stop configuration of the G train and the BQE. Why would you want to sit through stops at Classon Avenue ... Bedford/Nostrand... Myrtle-Willoughby... Flushing... Broadway... if you can hop on your car and get to Queens without stopping? The alternatives through Manhattan are not much quicker; the E and the F run local, and the A only makes two stops more than the E (Spring Street and 23rd Street).

I have seen this dynamic in person multiple times. Many years ago, my girlfriend lived in Fort Greene and worked at Queens College. She would take the G to the E to the Q74 (or sometimes the A to the E, it didn't really save any time), and the total trip would take her an hour and twenty minutes. A couple years later, one of her colleagues at Queens College rented an apartment in Brooklyn Heights. I asked him if he was prepared for the long commute. Not really, he said. He had a car, and it took him twenty minutes to drive to Queens College.

Once I had a meeting in Brooklyn Heights, and from Woodside I took the 7 to the A, a little more than an hour. That meeting took longer than expected, and I had to rush back to Woodside for another meeting. With that story in mind, I hailed a cab and was home in twenty minutes.

I have a neighbor in Woodside who regularly visits his elderly aunt on Ocean Parkway. He used to spend forever on the F train, but now he takes a car service. If he owned a car himself, I'm sure he would drive.

This is the main reason for the low G train ridership: the state spent a ton of money building the BQE and the Kosciuszko Bridge, and now they're planning to spend another $1.7 billion to replace the Kosciuszko. Not just with another bridge the same width (three lanes in each direction), but with a wider one, with four northbound lanes and five southbound. These added lanes are sold as "reducing congestion," but who are they trying to kid? They'll be filled up with cars in no time.

It's true that the replacement bridge will have a unicycle lane that will make it easier for non-motorized traffic to get from Brooklyn to Queens, but the main thing it will do is make it even easier for people to not use the existing G train infrastructure, or the proposed Tribororx.

The DOT will have the second of two open houses next Wednesday in Greenpoint. They are also accepting comments by email on the project at But the public will not be asked whether they want the new bridge to have nine lanes instead of six like the old one, or even to decrease the number of lanes to four in order to save money and encourage people to use transit. They will not be asked whether there should be tolls on the bridge to help pay the enormous cost, and to discourage overuse. No, they will be asked which of four "designs" they prefer, with the difference being mostly cosmetic. As with the Tappan Zee Bridge, the most important decision - how many lanes - was taken by the DOT without soliciting public input.

Henry Ford is quoted as saying that customers could buy the Model T "in any color, as long as it's black." In this case, you can have your bridge in any design you want, as long as it costs $1.7 billion dollars and has nine lanes to encourage lots of driving and draw riders off the G train.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

MTA Bus outdoes NYC Transit

Yesterday I discussed the cost data for New York City Transit buses that Larry Littlefield so helpfully pointed us to. I wasn't able to find similar data for the subways, but I did find it for the MTA Bus Company (PDF).

For those who don't know, a little back history. Seven of the original trolley and omnibus companies that first introduced service to the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens over a century ago were still in existence in 2005, but they were pale shadows of their former selves, operating buses on specific routes under monopolies granted by the New York City Department of Transportation. Since the introduction of free subway-bus transfers in 1997 and unlimited-ride Metrocards in 1998, their revenues had decreased, but their capital costs were mostly covered by the DOT.

In 2005, these zombie companies transferred their lines, buses and depots to a new public-benefit corporation, MTA Bus. For whatever reason, this company was separate from New York City Transit and from MaBSTOA (the Manhattan and Bronx Surface Transit Operating Authority), the company created to take over the Fifth Avenue Coach lines in 1962.

The tables for the MTA Bus routes are actually a lot more informative, because they give per-trip ridership data. That allows us to guess at how full the buses are. The average fare for MTA Bus routes is $1.28. Six MTA Bus routes make an operating profit:
RouteNotesOverall direct operating cost per riderOverall farebox recovery ratio
Q33Jackson Heights/82nd Street/LGA$ 1.08118 %
Q23103rd St/108th St/69th Ave$ 1.16111 %
QBx1Co-Op City/Whitestone Bridge/Flushing$ 1.19107 %
Q72Queens Center Mall/Junction Blvd/LGA$ 1.20108 %
Q64Forest Hills/Jewel Avenue/Kew Gardens Hills (formerly Q65A)$ 1.21107 %
Q69Queens Plaza/21st Street/Ditmars Blvd (formerly Q19A)$ 1.25102 %

Here are some things I notice:
  • The Q33 connects La Guardia Airport with the subway, and the Q72 connects Kew Gardens Hills with the subway.
  • All other routes touch at least two subway lines.
  • It was probably a good idea to extend the Q72 to La Guardia in 2006.
  • No Brooklyn routes make an operating profit. The most profitable Brooklyn MTA Bus route is the B103 (Fourth Avenue/Prospect Expressway/Avenue H/Avenue M), with a 93% farebox recovery ratio.
  • The most profitable express bus route is the BxM7, which runs from Midtown to Co-Op City, with 68% farebox recovery.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Habits of highly efficient bus routes

For many years, the MTA released only the bare minimum amount of information necessary to satisfy its legal requirements. Under Jay Walder, that is beginning to change, and more and more information is being made available on the agency's website.

One of the most jealously guarded secrets was ridership broken down by route. Apparently, the MTA didn't want people to know who was being subsidized more than others, for fear of jealous riders attacking each other. That too is changing. Although they are not putting all the data up as soon as they have it, blogger Larry Littlefield noticed that they did put a lot of it up in the documents supporting the most recent service cut proposal. For example, this PDF file gives ridership data and per-rider cost estimates for every New York City Transit bus line.

As Larry says, this is a document that everyone should read. For your improved consultation, I have extracted the data tables and converted them into a Google spreadsheet that you can download and play with. Since they give average fare data for weekdays and weekends, I've estimated the farebox recovery numbers for each line.

Interestingly, although there are no lines where fares cover the total costs (including the costs of the buses and garages), there are 22 that run an operating profit on weekdays, and ten that run an operating profit seven days a week. The average fare paid for weekday local bus service is $1.14, and on weekends it's $1.29.
RouteNotesWeekday direct operating cost per riderWeekday farebox recovery ratioWeekend direct operating cost per riderWeekend farebox recovery ratio
M8686th St. crosstown$ 0.66173 %$ 0.75152 % 172 %
Bx12Fordham Rd. Select$ 0.84136 %$ 0.93123 % 139 %
M7979th St. crosstown$ 0.86133 %$ 0.96119 % 134 %
Bx19145th St./149th St./Southern Blvd.$ 0.91125 %$ 0.96119 % 134 %
B74Coney Island projects to subway$ 0.81141 %$ 0.98116 % 132 %
M2323rd St. crosstown$ 0.71161 %$ 1.05109 % 123 %
B3539th St./Church Ave.$ 1.10104 %$ 1.10104 % 117 %
Bx9Kingsbridge Rd./Fordham Rd.$ 1.12102 %$ 1.11103 % 116 %
Bx35181st. St/167th St.$ 1.05109 %$ 1.12102 % 115 %
M1414th St. crosstown$ 1.03111 %$ 1.14100 % 113 %

Some things I noted:
  • All the routes except the B74 have multiple transfer points to the subway.
  • Four Manhattan crosstown routes (the rest of the crosstown routes make an operating profit on weekdays).
  • Four Bronx crosstown routes, three of which cross the Harlem River into Manhattan.
  • The pilot Select Bus route makes an operating profit.
  • Two routes in southern Brooklyn.
  • No Staten Island routes; the most profitable Staten Island bus, the S48/S98, has a 67% weekday farebox recovery ratio, and 70% on weekends.
  • No Queens routes (most Queens local buses are operated by the MTA Bus Company). The most profitable Queens NYC Transit bus, the Q58, has a 98% farebox recovery ratio on weekdays and 96% on weekends.
  • The most profitable NYC Transit express bus, the X27/X28, is one of the shortest. It serves Bay Ridge with a 66% recovery ratio.
I'd be interested to see what other information you all are able to extract from these.

Monday, February 8, 2010

What I want from transit advocates

Back in January 2009 I was feeling frustrated at the lack of action from transit advocacy groups, but then they came forward with an (ultimately unsuccessful) push in favor of the Ravitch plan. By July, though, other bloggers were feeling similar frustration. Chris O'Leary at On Transport and Ben Kabak at Second Avenue Sagas both wrote about their impatience at the lack of organization in response to the State Senate's blocking of bridge tolls.

Chris and Ben expressed particular disappointment with NYPIRG's Straphangers' Campaign, since they are the closest transit riders have to a real voice. They got a lot of defensive responses, including one from Gene Russianoff of Straphangers, laying out what Straphangers had done. They both backed off, but both expressed frustration that there was no easy opportunity to get involved in a meaningful way.

I've long felt similar frustrations, so let me make it clear what I want from a transit advocacy organization, and how Straphangers and the various other players are failing in that regard.
  1. Find real, long-term solutions, not short-term fixes. The MTA is facing an annual deficit of over $700 million, and all that NYPIRG can talk about is a one-time transfer of $140 million from the capital budget to the operating budget?

  2. Identify alternate cuts. Right now the Governor and the MTA look like responsible adults for refusing to spend more than they have. The meaningless "Save the Y77!" rallies that have been held around the city have made the politicians who speak at them - and by extension, the riders who show up for them - look like spoiled children who want it all and won't listen when told that there's no way to pay for it.

    Meanwhile, the state will spend $2.8 billion (up from $2.4 billion) to widen roads and bridges around the area, all of which are "free" for drivers - paid for out of our general taxes. Cutting back on these projects would free up a lot of money for transit. I mention it, Streetsblog occasionally mentions it, but not a peep out of our transit advocates.

  3. Discuss new revenue sources. This is being done to some degree. Straphangers did support congestion pricing and the Ravitch plan, and so did a lot of the other organizations, acting in coalition as the Campaign for New York's Future and the Empire State Transportation Alliance. But really, I don't think it's effective to protest any cut, ever, without indicating some place where the money can come from.

  4. Hold elected officials responsible for their actions. A number of people, particularly in the State Assembly and Senate, spoke out quite forcefully against first congestion pricing and then the Ravitch Plan. At the time, Transportation Alternatives and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign were good about letting us know which segments of their constituencies they were supporting, and which ones they were hanging out to dry. Since then, though, Straphangers, the Empire State Transportation Alliance, and other groups have often been too willing to gloss over these actions. Straphangers, in particular, allowed the *ahem* Marty Markowitz to take the microphone at a "Save the Z" rally.

    I know that advocacy organizations sometimes have to make deals, but I really wish we had one organization that would be willing to organize pickets at some of these bogus protests with signs like, "Show us the money, Gianaris!"

  5. Help get transit out of debt - not into it. I was skeptical about the MTA's debt when we had to vote on the Bond Act in 2005. But after hearing Russianoff, I decided that it must be good and voted for it. I'd like to see a study, but I bet the MTA would be in better shape if it had failed. Debt is good when you think you'll have the money to pay it back. It's a bad idea when you're stuck with gigantic interest payments for the forseeable future.

  6. Don't get carried away by fads. A number of these organizations have gotten all starry-eyed over "BRT," but the worst in this regard has got to be the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, who have supported using rail infrastructure for buses in Rockland County and New Britain, and been way too inclined to overlook crappy road expansions because of the possibility of BRT.

  7. Focus on transit. Look at the organizations that make up the Empire State Transportation Alliance. There are trade groups and unions (General Contractors' Association), good government groups (Citizens' Union), environmental groups (NRDC) and bike groups. And it's great that they're involved. But they all have their own agendas, of which transit is only a small part.

    I've been a member of Transportation Alternatives for almost fifteen years now, and I keep thinking that someday they'll become a pure transit advocacy organization. But at heart they're a bike advocacy group, and bike advocacy groups can be frustrating to a transit activist. Every time you think you've got them focused on a transit goal, they go organizing a new bike tour, or spending all their time on a fight over a lane. Good ideas, maybe, but you can't depend on them to stay focused on transit.

    The Regional Plan association seems to be mostly pro-transit, but they have a questionable past, and they are more of a think tank than an in-the-streets group. It and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign are good allies, perhaps, but not the ones you want leading the charge.

  8. A simple, accessible structure. The Empire State Transportation Alliance, Tri-State and the Campaign for New York's Future are all coalitions. I don't know if they all even have official incorporation documents, but regardless, the member organizations are the ones who run the show, and there's a limited role for individuals. The Permanent Citizens' Advisory Committee to the MTA is an official body whose members are appointed by government officials and required to maintain a working relationship with the MTA.

    In fact, the MTA itself has been a pretty good advocate for its own needs lately, but under Pataki it was, um, lacking. And you would think that people elected to represent districts that are majority car-free would be good transit advocates, but a lot of the time you'd be disappointed.

    The structure of the Straphangers Campaign is the most frustrating. It's an arm of NYPIRG, which doesn't even list their leaders on their website. NYPIRG is mostly funded through donations from college students (many of which are automatically charged to the students based on controversial referenda), and as far as I know only student representatives have a say in the organization's governance. The Straphangers Campaign may be focused on transit, but it is only a small part of NYPIRG, which has a very broad agenda.

    One response to Ben's criticism of Straphangers came from Lindsay Lusher Shute of Transportation Alternatives, who highlighted the importance of funding and suggested that people advocate "with their pocketbooks." Let's say I have a hundred dollars, and I want to use that money to promote transit in New York in the most effective way possible. If I give it to the RPA, who's to say that it won't be spent on an anti-fracking campaign? If I give it to Transportation Alternatives, will it be spent on a car-free Prospect Park campaign? If I give it to NYPIRG, would it be used for a report on prescription drug prices? All of these causes may be worthwhile, but transit is my priority. How can I trust that it will be the priority of any of these organizations?
I want to make it clear that I like all these organizations and appreciate that they support transit. But they're good allies, not good leaders for transit. Simply put, we don't have a good leader.

I would like to see a very simple organization, not a coalition. It would be a membership non-profit 501(c)3, either governed by membership vote or by a self-perpetuating board of directors. Its focus would be New York City. Its mission would be twofold: to ensure access for all and to promote policies that shift people from cars to transit. It might work with other organizations, but its core mission would not involve bikes, not pedestrians, not "mobility," not planning, not the environment. We've needed an organization like this for years. Why don't we have one?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Transit riders shouldn't have to sacrifice

All around the country it's a time of budget cuts. Some, like the New York State Legislature and Governor, are unwilling to prioritize any spending category, and cut everything across the board. Others, like the President, initiate spending caps but reallocate the spending. We need more leaders who are willing to do this.

If your personal income drops by half, do you just spend half as much at the supermarket and half as much at fancy restaurants? No, because feeding yourself is a higher priority than feeling pampered, and groceries are a more efficient way of feeding yourself. If instead you cut the grocery budget by a quarter and the restaurant budget by three-quarters, you can be just as well-nourished.

It's the same with transit. Government funding for transit doesn't just stimulate the economy by moving people around. It furthers social justice through access for all. It helps make our world safer, healthier and more sustainable by getting people out of their cars. These should be the priorities of government, whether the economy is good or bad, and no matter how much the government has to spend.

But where will the money come from? Let me tell you, it really pisses me off to see people holding rallies against the transit cuts in their district, without acknowledging that the MTA simply has a lot less money to spend than they've had in previous years. You may say you want transit to keep running, but if you can't find the money for it, what does that say about your priorities?

I want to make it clear that I'm willing to sacrifice. I'm not a liberal who clamors for spending but won't support tax increases to pay for it. Tax me! Tax my income, tax my apartment, tax me when I buy computers and fancy clothes. But don't cut my transit service. More importantly, don't cut the service of my neighbor, who might drive if transit is no longer convenient.

Sadly, there's a lot of stupid anti-tax rhetoric out there, and many politicians have sworn not to raise taxes. Even though it might be the best thing to do, it probably won't happen, which leaves us with a shrinking pot of money.

The government should spend more on transit, but it's not willing to raise more in taxes. The money should come from other things, like roads. Spending priorities should reflect overall priorities, and paying billions for free highways and bridges for cars should be a low priority.

It's as simple as that: free bridges for drivers=low priority. Low-cost transit=high priority. Time to get our priorities in order.