Sunday, November 28, 2010

To Secaucus ... and beyond!

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Deputy Mayor Robert Steel, keeping hope alive

Original photo: Associated Press.

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 22, 2010

A gift from Randal O'Toole?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 19, 2010

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

Tired of traffic? Japan's got an answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the full story at

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Twas ever thus...

R. Crumb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 11, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 8, 2010

Should the MTA Board be elected?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The problem with not borrowing

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 5, 2010

Getting rid of minimum parking requirements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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