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.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The failure of the left

Yesterday I discussed how conservatives in this country have failed to support transit, despite having excellent reasons why it fits with their own ideology. Today it's the left's turn.

There are lots of liberal, radical, socialist and communist people who support transit, for good reasons. Properly-funded transit can provide access for all, while private car use discriminates against anyone who can't afford a car, gasoline, repairs and insurance. It brings people of different ethnic and class backgrounds together. It pollutes less and uses less energy, and it encourages dense living which is more efficient and less polluting.

There are plenty of conservatives, like this idiot, who see transit as a commie plot. Certainly, if you ask leftists whether they support public transit, you'll almost always get a yes answer. Campaign mailings from Greens and liberal Democrats regularly tout "support for transit."

Unfortunately, that support for transit is often very thin, and when it comes time to go beyond rhetoric and make hard choices, the left often fails. Here are some reasons why your lefty friend totally supports transit, but this case is different, man:

- Distracted by other issues. If a bookstore has an "Environment" or "Green living" section, good luck finding any books about transit there. It's all How You Can Build a Mountaintop Commune out of Old Twist-Ties and Barter Your Organic Gooseberry Jam for Biodiesel at the Contra Dance. Green politicians tend to either be wide-eyed technophiles (if Lovins is wrong, they don't want to be right) or back-to-the-land Luddites, or both at once.

- Conflicting priorities. Subaru wagon liberals may pay lip service to transit, but they still see cars as a tool to liberate and uplift the poor. Thus, they are easily swayed by Richard Brodsky's nonsensical claim that congestion pricing is a regressive tax. When the transit unions demand a wage increase to cover their car payments and their houses in Nassau County despite zero inflation, these liberals support it. They support the Los Angeles Bus Riders' Union when it insists on spending all the transit money on upfront operations instead of capital investments that will bring operating costs down over the long term, because in the long term all these poor people will have cars, right?

- Unrealistic plans and sloppy execution. Rather than focus on the immediate problems and support existing reform efforts, they come up with simplistic ideas like the "People's MTA" and "OurMTA," and then when things turn out to be more difficult than they thought, they give up and go on to some other project.

In the governor's race, we have City Council member Charles Barron, who could have been a real asset to the congestion pricing campaign, but in his best Subaru-wagon fashion he chose to see it as a tax on poor New Yorkers. In fact, the easily distracted Barron rarely says anything about transit or roads, apparently feeling that they have nothing to do with poverty or racial inequality. In September, George Haikalis convinced him to put free transit in his campaign platform. When I pointed out that Barron had opposed congestion pricing, Andrea Bernstein asked him about it, and he quickly distanced himself from the cornerstone of Haikalis's plan, saying that free transit could be funded by "a stock transfer tax or a personal income tax surcharge." So there we have conflicting priorities, distraction and unrealistic plans all rolled into one.

The Green Party candidate, Howie Hawkins, is much better than Barron. He supports congestion pricing, as well as a number of other measures to restore full funding to transit. But would he follow through, if elected? He also mentions personal rapid transit and direct elections to the MTA board, which are both bad ideas. A campaign letter I got the other day spends five paragraphs talking about the military (at best a minor issue for state government), and only mentions his support for "public transit" twice, each time as one item in a list.

The Left should be transit's strongest support, but people on the left get so distracted by the myriad of green agenda items, try to put every poor person in a car with subsidized gas and roads, and come up with grandiose plans that they abandon almost immediately. Even if they manage to win an election, there's no guarantee that transit will be the better for it. As with the right, it largely depends on the individual candidate, but the various left-wing groups are a huge disappointment.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The failure of the right

The current craziness that has come out of Chris Christie's office recently, and the future craziness promised by New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, have shown that the American right is not a reliable source support for transit. It doesn't have to be this way, but it is.

I'm not a conservative, but I think there's a coherent ideological argument for transit on conservative and libertarian principles, and I appreciate this argument. It goes something like this:

In the past, private companies ran the trains, interurbans, trolleys and buses. They were usually able to make a profit providing freedom and personal mobility to people of all ages and income levels. Then the government interfered in the market, forcing operators to charge fares that were too low, and subsidizing roads, garages and oil so that private cars had an unfair advantage. The private operators went out of business, and since then a skeleton transit system has been operated by the government at great public expense.

Government subsidy of driving has also destroyed our traditional small towns and cities, leaving hard-working families with a difficult choice between long drives and a gentrified urban lifestyle surrounded by intellectuals and criminals.

A conservative solution would gradually phase out driving subsidies and allow entrepreneurs to start new bus and train services. As publicly-owned transit routes become more profitable, they could be sold off to the highest bidder.

Some routes will have great difficulty becoming profitable, but they could eventually be run by charity nonprofits, for those conservatives who are completely opposed to public transit. Some will suffer, but the usual libertarian-conservative arguments apply.

There are many libertarians and conservatives who think along those lines. They tend to have difficulty finding conservative politicians who share these leanings, though. Most conservatives tend to defend their big-government agendas with one of the following lies:

1. The Wendell Cox Closed System. Roads are all paid for by drivers, in the form of "user fees" like gas taxes and tolls. Not many people will actually discover the number of local and state roads that are paid for with general property, sales or income taxes.

2. The Joel Kotkin Real Americans. It's okay for government to spend money on things Real Americans want, and they want roads, cars and sprawl. This conveniently ignores the fact that "Real Americans" often change what they want depending on what they think will bring them the most happiness. It also ignores the frequent adjustment of the category of "Real Americans" to exclude those who decide they don't want roads, cars or sprawl. This is a special case of the more general Real Americans argument beloved by conservatives, notably Sarah Palin.

3. The Randal O'Toole Transit Socialism. Transit involves people getting close to each other, which is against American rugged individualism, and therefore it is an appropriate use of government funds to defend us against the commies. Somehow this is not a problem when people get close to each other on airplanes, in spectator sports arenas, or in shopping malls. Getting around on foot or by bicycle also somehow doesn't make you a rugged individualist, just a weirdo.

These patently false excuses for not supporting transit make it clear that these conservatives are more interested in defending their unsustainable transportation and living habits than in doing the best to ensure that their descendants will live in health and comfort.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Van operators know how to sell

Yesterday afternoon I was walking down Sutphin Boulevard when I heard a man shout "Six!" Other men nearby were saying the same thing, chanting "Six! Six! Six!" I didn't ask, and I could be completely wrong, but I'm guessing they were referring to the Q6 bus route. They seemed to be loading people into gypsy cabs (a share taxi route?), and nearby was a sign nearby saying "Authorized Commuter Van Pickup."

First, a clarification: A week ago I wrote, "The operators are mostly Jamaicans and Haitians who have their experience running the dollar vans in Flatbush and Jamaica." Jarrett pointed out that many non-New Yorkers might be unaware that the Jamaica I'm referring to is a neighborhood in Queens that is a major transit transfer point, with two subway termini, a massive Long Island Railroad station, a station on the AirTrain to Kennedy Airport, and two bus terminals. It is also a popular shopping district, and the home of York College, a large hospital and several courthouses. Confusingly, many of the people who live in this Jamaica, work in Jamaica, or "change at Jamaica" are immigrants from the Caribbean island of Jamaica. Apparently the names come from different words, pronounced in very different ways, in two distantly-related aboriginal languages, one Algonquian and the other Arawakan.

When I was in college, one of my classmates was a Jewish woman from Queens who had just gotten a new hairstyle, braided in African-style cornrows. She mentioned that when she told people she had gotten her hair done "in Jamaica," she had to clarify that she had not just come back from a Caribbean vacation.

In any case, Jamaica, Queens is also a major terminus for "dollar vans." People transfer primarily from the subways to the vans, but also from commuter trains, buses and other van lines. As on Flatbush Avenue, most of the people involved in running these vans are immigrants from Jamaica or Haiti. The usual explanation is that they were familiar with the concept, because jitneys are common in those countries.

On the streets between Jamaica and Archer Avenues you can see this business in action. In addition to the guys yelling "Six!" you can find several loading areas for vans. Some just have the "Commuter Van Pickup" sign installed by the City, but others have more elaborate signs. Some just have drivers, and others have people selling the van service, but all of them have at least one van waiting.

Information for the newbie is scarce: most of the vans have no markings at all indicating what route they travel on. If they have markings, they give the MTA bus line that anchors their route, but if you don't know where the Q5 goes, that number doesn't help you much. Some of the drivers are quite fluent in Jamaican patois, but less so in New York English. Still, they are quite good at letting people know that they are available to take you somewhere.

Contrast that to the Q74 and B39 situations, where you have the DOT sign, but no other signs and no vans. They left it to the Taxi and Limousine Commission to provide someone on the sidewalk to get people into the vans, but there were no vans to get into. Somewhere in the middle is the Q79 experience reported by our tipster, where after fifteen minutes' wait the van company owner came out to tell him that a van would be along soon.

Clearly, this is not about not knowing how to sell. It's about wanting to sell. If the van operators thought there was any money in the Q74 service, they would be out there waiting at the stop, and they would have five guys standing on the sidewalk chanting "Van to Queens College!" at everyone who walks past. They clearly don't. This pilot project is floundering, and the only way to save it is with some kind of anchor program. Will anyone step up to create one? Ricketts? Yassky? Sadik-Khan? Goldsmith? Bloomberg? Walder? Bueller?