Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Our priorities, and labor's priorities

In the comments on my last post, Yonah asked,
Do you know how much of the cost savings afforded by jitneys are due to the lower pay their drivers receive? How much do they get paid relative to publicly employed drivers?

Excellent question. I don't know the exact answers. I have the impression that some drivers work as independent contractors: some own their own vans and work as part of a syndicate, others drive the vans and pay either a flat fee or a percentage to the van owner. In either of those cases, they don't have a fixed wage. They may not even earn minimum wage, which I believe is legal for legitimate independent contractors.

In any case, I imagine that the drivers wind up taking home significantly less than drivers paid by the MTA. I also doubt that they get any of the benefits negotiated by the TWU, which just about everyone would agree are quite generous.

I don't feel great about this. As I've said before, I'm a big leftie. My dad was in a union, my wife is in a union, and in general I think unions play a critical role in standing up for workers. I also think that everyone deserves a living wage, decent medical and pension benefits, and reasonable work hours and conditions.

That said, I do have other priorities, as shown at the top of the blog. If it comes down to it, I would have to say that reducing pollution and carnage, increasing efficiency, improving society and providing access for all are more important than labor issues. As long as the drivers aren't being enslaved or abused, I wouldn't insist that they have absolute parity with TWU drivers.

In response to previous posts on this issue, some commenters have argued that the TWU contracts go beyond reasonable. I have to admit that there are several things that bother me about the current contract. The idea that pension benefits are based on the last year's pay including overtime is just preposterous. I didn't appreciate the TWU taking a cost-of-living raise when the cost of living was not actually rising. The relatively young retirement age is also not appropriate.

I wouldn't have a problem with these things if the MTA were flush with cash, but it's clearly not. Why should the transit workers get raises while the MTA is cutting service? The TWU has fought for congestion pricing and bridge tolls, but they haven't put their full power behind that issue. Of course it's not just the TWU, but also the other public employee unions that have demanded more at a time when the government is earning less. Is the TWU really okay with getting hefty raises and benefits in the short term, while putting the government in a position where it won't be able to hire transit workers in the long term?

Essentially, the TWU's first priority is providing for all their members, and transit seems to be only an afterthought. My first priority is providing for myself and my family, but transit comes next. In my priorities the wages and conditions of transit workers are important, but they are a lower priority than the very existence of transit.

Monday, April 26, 2010

What we need jitneys for

Back in January I promised you an answer to the question, "What do we need jitneys for?" Recent events have made me think that it's time for that answer.

First, what advantages do private jitneys have over public buses? Jitneys are cheaper. The MTA data released last year show that while some lines are able to cover their operating expenses (fuel and salaries, mostly) with fares, most require some government support, and all of them need the government to contribute towards the cost of buying and maintaining the buses and depots.

Many of the privately operated bus lines are unable to cover all these costs; the State of New Jersey owns over 500 buses that are used by private operators (PDF), and depots to service them. But the jitneys receive no capital support and nothing that is typically called operating support. This is very important with transit budgets being slashed around the country. The State Assembly can't cut its contribution to transit if it didn't contribute anything in the first place.

The second advantage is flexibility. The MTA is required to post notices 30 days in advance and hold hearings in all five boroughs before a bus driver sneezes. That's a good thing when it comes to protecting essential service, but you also want a transit provider who's willing to experiment and take risks (financial ones), and dynamic enough to reallocate resources on the fly.

I can't tell you the number of times I've been standing at a bus stop for ten minutes or more because of bus bunching or someone calling in sick. Or I've waved two standing-room only buses away and watched a third go sailing by. I keep thinking to myself, "Well, this is a missed opportunity for someone to make a buck." A private jitney driver would be able to radio to other drivers that there are busloads of students waiting at the stop, and they could switch from a less-popular route.

Private jitneys can help protect us from the greed of the State Legislature, and they can help ensure higher and more consistent levels of service. So if they have all that going for them, why aren't they everywhere? I'll get to that soon.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Competition is about relative value

I find Yonah Freemark's blog The Transport Politic to be very informative, and his more thoughtful pieces at sites like Next American City to be frequently insightful. I feel similarly about Aaron Renn's Urbanophile blog. That's why it pains me to say that one of Yonah's recent columns, while intriguing, was seriously flawed, based on a limited view of transit in the world. In it, he linked to a recent post by Aaron Renn, which was flawed in its own way.

I should point out that the Urbanophile post was about whether density is necessary for a city to be competitive. Briefly, businesses depend on access, and they will go where access is cheap. I honestly don't give a shit about whether my city is competitive, because that just means that someone else's city is losing out. My priorities are up at the top of the page: pollution, efficiency, carnage, society, equity - and competitiveness works against equity. (I'm aware of the value of healthy competition, but it's got limits, that's all.) But in essence, he's arguing the following:

access = mobility / density
In physics, you can increase mass while holding volume constant by increasing density, or you can increase volume while holding mass constant by decreasing density. In urbanism you can increase access while holding mobility constant by increasing density, or you can increase mobility while holding access constant by decreasing density. So Columbus might be less dense than Indianapolis, but there's just as much access because the roads are less congested. Similarly for Houston and New York, to quote a commenter.

Well yay, equitable access! But uh - pollution, efficiency and carnage? Not so great. By relying more on driving, and on longer distance trips, less dense cities promote pollution, waste money and resources, and put more people at risk of being killed or injured by cars. If all you care about is your city's competitiveness, well, how competitive can you be if your air quality sucks, you're spending a huge chunk of your budget fixing roads, and your residents are being killed?

Yonah rightly observes that this equitable access may be great for businesspeople with private cars, but it leaves out "everyone else - the young, the old, the poor, the sick," so it's not very equitable after all. Those who can't use cars need walkable neighborhoods with transit. But if people with cars can do just fine without walkability and transit, they won't support them, and everybody else will suffer. Density acts as an equalizer here, forcing walkability and transit patronage, and ensuring that walkable stores and transit providers will have enough business to stay afloat.

That's where Yonah goes off course, following the illustrious trail of Simpson, Curtin and Olsen. Like them, he treats car use as a force of nature:
Unlike inner-city districts with their medium and high-rise buildings, streetcar suburbs are characterized by low densities, little neighborhood retail within walking distance, and very few accessible jobs, three significant factors that make them difficult to adapt to transit. In other words, while they may have been built with streetcars in mind, they transitioned to the automobile age naturally.

The fact of the matter is that the absolute access afforded by streetcar suburbs is irrelevant. As Michael Kemp wrote back in 1973, when we're talking about people switching from one mode to another, what matters is their relative access, and that means comparing the access afforded by transit to that afforded by cars.

Surprisingly, Yonah talks about "failure" without discussing what failure actually means for an enterprise: people get what they want from the competition. There is no mention of how the roads got to be such stiff competition for the streetcars. It's left to Stephen Smith of Market Urbanism in the first comment to point out "the widespread subsidization of the roads, which were at that time not mostly funded by user [f]ees, but rather out of general revenues (which, perhaps not coincidentally, were in large part paid by 'traction magnates')."

People in streetcar suburbs didn't abandon the streetcars because the density was too low. They switched to driving because they could get where they wanted quicker by road, and they could do that because the government built a bunch of big new roads for them to drive on. If there had been no cars, people in those suburbs would still be taking streetcars - or they would have moved back to the cities, if the streetcar suburbs were really as inefficient as Yonah claims.

It required a massive government intervention to build all those roads, and that intervention is proving unsustainable. The roads are crumbling, the bridges are falling down, and there's no money in the budget to repair them. Despite the hugely expensive oil wars, the price of oil rose a few years ago and popped the housing bubble. Everyone who knows what's going on expects the price of oil to rise again and stay high. Eventually it will become difficult for all but the richest to own cars, and that's the main reason we should live in walkable neighborhoods with transit.

But as it becomes more expensive to own a car, transit and walking become more attractive. Transit providers and local shops will flourish, and they will return to the streetcar suburbs. In other words, the viability of streetcar suburbs is inversely related to the expense of driving.

Above, I argued that even though you could function pretty well driving around Columbus, it was not so good for pollution, efficiency and carnage. You could make a similar counterargument to my own argument about streetcar suburbs. Walking to the streetcar and the local grocery may give you good access, and it doesn't generate a significant amount of pollution or carnage, but it's not that efficient. Much more efficient to have people living above the grocery store, etc. But won't that kind of efficiency sort itself out?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Us, them and their dollar vans

I recently noted the disconnect in Maspeth between the agenda of "community" groups who want to crack down on jitneys and the interests of community members who want a cheap, convenient - and, incidentally, safer and greener - way to get to work or shopping. I didn't realize how sharp this disconnect was, or how deep it went.

There were clues, however: a photo of one of the vans on the Comet website shows Chinese characters printed on the side, and a couple of very nasty comments on the News article (the worst of which has been deleted) expressed hatred towards immigrants.

A tip from a Maspeth resident helped complete the puzzle: not only are the van drivers Chinese, but most of the passengers are Asian as well. Judging by their names and at least one photo, Roe Daraio and the other Comet leaders are not Asian.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Keeping perspective on fare collection

As discussed previously, Mike Jaccarino, the Bronx reporter for the Daily News, recently ran a story about the MTA's lax fare inspection practices on the Bx12 Select Bus pilot program. Jaccarino's simplistic "they're getting away with it" narrative completely missed the bigger story: that the MTA is losing money because the fare inspectors refuse to ride the bus, instead forcing it to sit for five minutes or more at each inspection.

Some readers were shocked, with good reason: I don't think any other transit agency does it this way. Sadly, this is not an isolated problem; the NYPD does not usually patrol buses for any other reason, leaving the driver in charge of law enforcement in addition to all their other responsibilities.

Jaccarino's simplistic report allowed Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz to duck responsibility for ensuring adequate bus service to his constituents:
I’m not fighting it, I’m open to it, but I am just concerned that the system is set up in a way that it is easy for those that want to use the bus not to pay a thing and we lose even more money for the MTA.

If you believe Markowitz, the MTA lost money by converting the Bx12 Limited to Select Bus Service, and will lose even more with the B44 and any future Select lines. If his concern for MTA financing were genuine, Markowitz might be surprised to know that the Bx12 is New York City Transit's second most profitable route, with fares covering 123% of operating costs and 64% of total costs. We don't have pre-Select data to compare it to, but it's likely that the Select service has contributed to this success.

So how can the line be so financially successful if there's so much farebeating? First of all, the MTA insists that there isn't. But even if there is, the Select Bus Service offers enough value that it attracts additional paying customers who more than make up for the money lost to farebeaters. That's another important point that Jaccarino missed.

There are a number of reasons why it's still a good idea to get the MTA/NYPD to do proper fare inspections:

1. The current procedure is fucking nuts.
2. Now that Jaccarino spilled the beans, farebeating will probably go way up.
3. More fare inspections will bring that income even higher, possibly even paying for the capital expenses.

Most importantly, even with the fare evasion, it's still a very good idea to put Select Bus Service on the B44. That line is currently the 40th most profitable route in New York City Transit, recovering 88% of operating costs and 46% of total costs. If Select service brings that up over 100% of operating costs, that would save almost $29,000 per day, or $11 million per year. Not a ton of money, but nothing to sneeze at.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The party of no transit

Here's the latest proposal to address the transit funding crisis: make transit worse. That's right, Roe Daraio of a group called Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together (Comet, get it?) wants to "help the MTA" by reducing transit frequency. You see, Maspeth has some private jitneys that do not always follow the laws and regulations. Daraio argues that the "commuter vans" are stealing passengers from the MTA buses and draining their farebox revenue.

There are numerous flaws in this argument, but the most obvious is that this proposal would reduce overall service. If you're in Maspeth and want to go into Manhattan, you probably don't care whether the bus that takes you there is run by the MTA or a private operator. You might care about price, safety and comfort, but then again you might not. If you currently rely on the jitneys to supplement the MTA schedule, then that would no longer be available to you.

If this enforcement effort were to succeed, it's highly unlikely that the MTA would increase service to make up for the reduction in frequency. COMET is certainly not asking them to. There's no evidence that they see the jitneys as providing any value whatsoever.

In fact, Comet has been waging a campaign against the jitneys for over a year, and conspicuously absent from that campaign have been the jitney customers. In their quotes you get the impression that the vans are there for the sole purpose of getting in the way of Roe Daraio's car. The group seems completely oblivious to the fact that the vans are there because their own neighbors are paying them, and they are paying because they provide value.

Keep this in mind when you hear politicians talking about giving power back to "the community." They're not talking about people like you and me, who might be sick of waiting for infrequent MTA buses. They're talking about people like Roe Daraio, whose solution to reckless jitneys is to harass them out of business, and whose solution to the MTA funding crisis is to reduce transit service. For these "community activists," transit users don't exist or matter, and the more power they have, the less services we'll get.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

How not to do fare collection

Recently, the Daily News has been looking at fare-beating, starting with two pieces by Pete Donohue on March 17 and March 18. Earlier this month, Donohue's colleague Mike Jaccarino filed a report of fare-beating on the Bx12 Select Bus.

This offered Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz a ready-made excuse for his tepid support of the proposed B44 Select Bus service on Nostrand Avenue:

I’m not fighting it, I’m open to it, but I am just concerned that the system is set up in a way that it is easy for those that want to use the bus not to pay a thing and we lose even more money for the MTA.

If you've spent any time in Paris, you know what it means to take fare control seriously. In Paris, transit passengers are required to have a ticket or pass on them at all times. There are dedicated teams of "contrôleurs" who travel around the city on foot and by transit, setting up checkpoints at bends in subway corridors. On buses and commuter trains, they board simultaneously at the front and rear to cut off the possibility of escape. They work as the bus moves and get off when they've checked everyone.

By contrast, the Select Bus enforcement teams do not actually ride the bus. In some bizarre scenario out of CHiPs, the control teams drive up to the bus in an SUV, board it and check everyone's receipts, then get back in their vehicle and drive away. While this is happening, the bus just sits there, so everyone's trip is delayed by at least five minutes.

Of course this undercuts any attempt to market the Select buses as an alternative to a private car. But worse, if there are too many of these sweeps, it would wipe out the time advantage over traditional bus service. Jaccarino quotes a number of people who are legitimately angry that other people are riding for free while they pay, and have to futz with the validation receipts. But they assign vague blame to "the MTA" - a classic "bad MTA" story - instead of looking at what exactly the MTA is doing wrong: accommodating enforcement personnel who think they're too good to ride the bus.

The News could actually do a great service by printing a series on the myriad ways that New York City residents and taxpayers lose time and money by accommodating law enforcement personnel who think they're too good to ride transit. It would be on a par with their Boulevard of Death series, and a tremendous improvement over the simplistic "Queens Parking Crunch" series. But I'm not holding my breath; who reads the News, after all?

If the News is able to drum up enough outrage to bring about effective fare collection, great! More revenue is a good thing. But it is not worth adding more delays to everyone's trip and undermining the goals of Select Bus Service.

Monday, April 12, 2010

What people want

In my last post, I critiqued the grandiosity inherent in Joel Kotkin and friends' insistence that the Will of the People must be observed. People want big houses and they want to drive to them, Kotkin repeats. Anyone who suggests that "you can't have everything" is an out-of-touch elitist, forcing the People into their mold.

As I wrote, I believe that people really do want big houses and cars, and the roads to drive the cars to those houses. I do too. But I want all kinds of other things, many of which conflict with those desires. I contradict myself. I contain multitudes. We all do.

The survey and market data that Kotkin relies on for his assertions unquestionably show a strong desire for big houses and cars. But there is no effort to figure out whether a given person wants a big house for the extra room, or as a status symbol, or to reduce their stress. If they want a car, do they want it to pick up chicks, or to get to work, or to get to remote trailheads?

These questions are critical. If someone wants a house for the extra room, they won't be happy unless they get the extra room, but they might be satisfied with a really big apartment. If they want it for a status symbol, they might be satisfied with a high-rise apartment. If they want it to reduce their stress, they might be satisfied renting a storage unit, getting a massage, or adopting a voluntary simplicity ethic. Similarly, if they want a car to get chicks, they might be satisfied with a nice suit or some jewelry. If they want it to get to work, adequate transit should be plenty. If they want to go hiking, a Zipcar or even a bus might work.

Kotkin and friends also don't give people credit for contradictory desires. If someone wants both a big house and a position at the center of the urban gallery scene, wouldn't they be just as happy with a big loft in Bushwick as with a big house in Cold Spring Harbor? If they want to drive, but also want to be able to pick up groceries near their home, wouldn't they be happy living above a supermarket? It all depends on the relative strength of those desires.

We get none of this discussion from Kotkin, Cox, Stossel or any of the others. Their world is divided into the Elites, some of whom want to live in apartments and take transit or ride bikes, and the People, who never want anything other than bigger and bigger houses, properties and cars. They want these things because it is natural to want them, and the Elites don't want them because - well, we must be unnatural.

There is no consideration for the possibility that the desires for bigger houses, properties and cars may stem from some other underlying desires and be satisfied in some other way. There is no acknowledgment of the fact that a single person may simultaneously want a country house and an urban apartment, a long driveway and a short walk to the pub, and that everyone makes trade-offs in life.

Here's one of the many things that I probably didn't come up with myself, but I can't remember who I heard it from. Superficial compromise, like King Solomon's proposal to split the baby in half, will often satisfy nobody. The art of true compromise requires looking beyond people's stated wants and needs and discerning their underlying desires. By doing that it is much easier to find a solution that will satisfy everyone.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Giving the people what they want

While I really don't want to encourage Ian Bicking and his new friend Adam Schildge to continue insulting and patronizing me in the comments, they do help move the discussion along by repeating Joel Kotkin's more annoying talking points. So now that I've dealt with "the independence of cars" and "you're anti-suburb," let's move on to "what the people want." And here's hoping that they'll comment with a bit less judgment and contempt, and a bit more benefit of the doubt.

Ian writes, "Joel Kotkin has a certain advantage: what he's saying has empirical backing. There are real desires (for home ownership, for the independence of a car) that are widely expressed in our country." Adam writes, "Many people do not enjoy the benefits of dense urban living because they may prefer to have more personal space and the independence afforded by a car for occasional trips." Kotkin himself writes things like, "It's widely understood there that many people move to places like Dallas, whether in closer areas or exurbs, largely to purchase affordable single-family homes." And of course Wendell Cox writes, "Americans, like people all over the world, prefer to live in single-family homes and like to have a little land they can call their own for gardening, entertainment, and play areas."

I'm well aware that many people desire larger homes and land. I myself am one of those people; I would love to have a large, sprawling old Victorian with a forest behind it where my son can run wild. I would also like to have a condo with a view of the Brooklyn Bridge. And no commute. And I would like to eat nothing but Oreos, bacon and ice cream for the rest of my life and wash it down with beer and Coca-Cola, and I want to be slim and strong. I would like to have Love Hewitt available to satisfy my every desire, but not when I want to spend quality time with my wife. I want to be President and an inventor and an astronaut and a Solid Gold dancer.

Everyone has desires. Many of those desires conflict with one another. Nobody has enough time, enough space or enough money to fulfill all their desires. Not even Donald Trump - does he look like it? That's just the way the world is, and anyone who tells you that you can have everything you want is either a con artist or a nut or both.

That's just one person. When you put a bunch of people together, their desires will conflict. Some are in direct conflict, some are in competition for scarce resources. Something's gotta go. Eight billion people just can't have everything they want.

Jim Kunstler tried to say something similar to John Stossel and got attacked for it. That's what happens when someone tries to be the adult in the room and step out of fantasyland.

Kotkin, Cox, Stossel and friends - including Chris Christie - are like those fuckers who put out bread crumbs for the pigeons. Look at me, the great caretaker, saving the birds from starvation! But do you ever see them washing the pigeon shit off the sidewalk? Do they do anything to ensure that the birds are protected from the consequences of overpopulation? Of course not. All they see is their own role in giving the birds what they want.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Repost: Carfree or Country?

This post ran back on New Year's Day 2009. Some recent commenters - not to mention Joel Kotkin and Kevin Drum - clearly missed it. Bottom line: it's possible for lots of people to sustainably live carfree in small towns. But I would add that it's not possible for lots of people to sustainably live carfree on two-acre lots in "the country." You do need density, even if it's local density.

Discussion of urbanism often runs into false dichotomies, many of which seem to be driven by the narrow viewpoints of their authors than anything else. We've got a whole generation of commentators and bloggers who've grown up with car-dependent suburbs, car-dependent houses in the country, and dirty, high-crime cities, and seem to have great difficulty imagining anything else.

If you think about it, though, the dramatic growth of car ownership over the last sixty years implies that lots of families didn't have cars sixty years ago. Most of them didn't have horses either. Quite a few of them lived in suburbs or even in the country, but they managed to survive quite well. How?

The infrastructure was different, that's how. Many places that are car-dependent now didn't use to be. As Matthew Yglesias put it yesterday:
traditionally a great deal of walkable urbanism took place in small towns rather than in cities, and also in small cities [...] and “streetcar suburbs” rather than big cities.

For example, Westchester County had two more train lines that were torn up a long time ago: the New York, Westchester and Boston and the Putnam Line. You can tell where they ran just by looking for places that "feel like" the old suburbs. Visit Ardsley, or Heathcote Road in Scarsdale, and you'll know what I mean. Binghamton used to have regular train service, and Saratoga had much more frequent service than it has now, to a station right downtown instead of the current one.

"Joe from Lowell" commented on Yglesias's blog, "I like to use the example of the towns in old westerns. People walking up and down the street, saloons and banks and churches, apartments up above, houses on side streets, usually a train station nearby - but as small town/rural as anyone could ask for."

This has changed somewhat. The NYW&B went out of business in 1937 and the Old Put in 1958. The 2001 bankruptcy of the Grand Union supermarket chain hit a lot of towns hard across the greater New York area. Grand Union's distributor C&S sold off a lot of stores to drugstore chains and other buyers who had no intention of keeping the supermarkets open, and many towns found themselves with no supermarkets.

Even so, there are still many "streetcar suburbs" and cities that even today are walkable and transit-friendly. As far as suburbs go: in Westchester there are several places where you can live within a fifteen-minute walk of both a train station and a full-service supermarket, as well as a range of shops and restaurants. Examples include Bronxville, Harrison and Tarrytown. There are similar towns in New Jersey (e.g. Montclair) and Long Island (Rockville Centre). Parts of New York City itself have a pretty suburban feel, but are still close to shopping.

Similar situations exist in medium-sized cities like Binghamton, large towns like Saratoga Springs, and small towns like Red Hook. Even in relatively car-dominated areas, there's often a significant percentage of the population that manages to live car-free. In many of those cases, unfortunately, even if you can find a house that's within walking distance of a supermarket there aren't many jobs that are within walking distance of such a house, and many desirable shops or restaurants are in unwalkable locations.

Overall, it's a lot easier to live without a car than some might suggest, and it's a lot easier to serve the populations of medium-sized and small towns than some might claim. All you need to see it is a little imagination.