Saturday, March 26, 2011

Know your opponents

I want to get people out of their cars, for the reasons given above: clean air and water, efficiency, safety, health, better society, and fairness. Some people disagree with me on this, for a variety of reasons. If you're like me, you want to persuade those people to change their minds, to strengthen your cause. I've realized recently that the reasons for defending car subsidies fall into three groups, and each group requires different counterarguments.

The first defense is Denial. You've got a reason why people should stop using cars, and they don't think it's a problem. Global warming? Peak oil? They don't exist, or they can be solved with technology. Bowling alone? They're really happier that way. Car crashes? Unavoidable accidents. Obesity? It's a moral failing. Poor people can't get to work? Just buy every rider a car. Education is the key here, showing them why it is a problem. But they probably won't listen to you, so they need to hear it from a source they trust.

The next defense is Not Our Problem. They're insulated from the problem (by having enough money to pay for car expenses, or by never walking beyond the parking lot), or they don't think it affects them (asthma, bowling alone), or they don't think it will affect them (car crashes, obesity), or it's far in the future (global warming, peak oil). These things happen to other people, usually people they don't know, so why should they care? Not much you can do with these people. Empathy implants? For some circumstances, you can show them that it does affect them or their loved ones, and that may change their minds about one factor.

The third defense is You Can't Do That Without a Car! It's a favorite of the Very Serious People who want to reassure the world that they're not really (gasp!) anti-car. You can't pick up a chair on the subway! You can't transport two kids on the bus! You can't move an apartment by bike!

The key, as Carla Saulter and Clarence Eckerson know, is to keep showing that you can do that without a car. The supposed convenience of cars and the supposed independence of cars are illusions: the convenience is entirely dependent on the infrastructure, and transit and pedestrian infrastructure have the same capacity to make things convenient and to set us free.

The fact is that there's nothing you can do with a car that couldn't be done some other way, given the proper infrastructure. It may be that cars are the most efficient way to do them, but that's not always as obvious as you may think. We need to show all the You Can't Do That Without a Car people that you can. That's how we'll get them over to our side, because they're the most promising allies of the three.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A missed opportunity for rail-oriented development

Another of the many things that make the overnight casino bus crash so frustrating is that even if there was no possibility of changing the law to allow gambling closer to the city, the location they used would still have been ideal for rail.

As Arcady pointed out in the comments to my first post on this topic, the casino that the bus was returning from, Mohegan Sun, is located right next to the New London and Northern, an active freight line that is currently part of the New England Central Railway. It would have been a tiny part of the resort's construction budget to build a station there.

Mohegan Sun is one of the largest casinos in the country. Curiously, its biggest competitor, Foxwoods, is just a few miles away across the Thames River. Foxwoods is located at 350 Trolley Line Boulevard, so named because a branch of the Shore Line Electric Railway ran down it. I don't have any maps or pictures of the old line, so I don't know how easy it would be to rebuild it or to link it to the nearby Providence and Worcester line, but the location was once served by rail.

The Foxwoods website says that it's served by over a hundred buses a day. According to the Mohegan Sun website, over twenty buses a day arrive there, but I think the real number is higher. There is definitely the ridership to justify reactivating passenger service on that line. Arcady writes, "they'd need a new station and permission to run more trains across that drawbridge east of Old Saybrook."

It's true that there are only five Shore Line East trains a day that cross the bridge. It's also true that most of the Amtrak trains that go through New London are pretty full. But the Shore Line East trains could be extended to Mohegan Sun and beyond, to Norwich, Willimantic and even Mansfield Depot, just a few miles from the University of Connecticut. If the line is electrified, trains could run directly from Penn Station or possibly Grand Central.

The Niantic River Bridge is being replaced, and the new bridge will allow for more trains, and the upgrades to the Hartford-Springfield line could relieve some of the congestion on the Shore Line, but it's still a drawbridge that has to be raised for boats to go under, and the number of trains will be limited.

Some of the trains could be operated as shuttles from New London, or perhaps even Providence with an awkward change in direction. Would gamblers from, say, Chinatown, put up with a three seat ride (subway, mainline train, shuttle) instead of a one-seat bus? Probably not during rush hours, but during off-hours they could get a two-seat ride, and it might just boost ridership enough to make regular local service on these lines viable.

If you're thinking it's too expensive, just take a look at satellite photos of the area, and marvel at the amount of money that was spent on bringing cars to these resorts. New stations at Mohegan Sun and Norwich would cost a fraction of one of those parking lots, and rehabbing the rail line would be within the same range. The main point is that these casinos could have been major drivers of rail expansion in the area, but instead they were boosters of the road infrastructure.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Vice in your backyard

In the comments to my previous post on the overnight gambling bus crash, Jonathan wrote, "I am kind of disappointed in this post; I thought you were going to argue for more conveniently located casinos in order to spare the hopelessly addicted the long dangerous bus ride." Well, Jonathan, you can always GYOFB, but we aim to please here, so...

The second thought I had about the gambling bus crash is that it indicates multiple major failures of transportation and land use policy. There is clearly a high demand for late night gambling, and the system is set up to satisfy it in a grossly inefficient way, with eight-hour bus trips to casinos in the woods of rural Connecticut.

A lot of this comes from the longstanding practice of "solving" problems of vice (which also include undesirable sexual and drug-related activities) by pushing them outside the city, instead of figuring out how to regulate them effectively. With subsidized roads it became possible to push casinos outside the metro area completely, as with Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

There are many crazy things about this whole story, but one of the craziest is the fiction that it is somehow "Indian gaming." The Pequot nation has a glorious history, but at one point the population was too small to fill one of these buses. The numbers have increased since then, but only by counting anyone who can show the remotest connection with the group. They don't live on the reservation, or near each other at all.

The people who developed the casino, the people who run it, and the people who gamble there come from the whole spectrum of American ethnicities. As I understand it, people with Chinese and Jewish backgrounds are especially well-represented among all three groups, largely because other ethnic groups have a history of considering gambling to be sinful.

The fact that the law required these casinos to be located on a reservation in Eastern Connecticut (but convenient to Interstate 95) means that people who want to gamble in the middle of the night will have to spend a lot of time on the road.

I know it would be almost impossible politically, but imagine if we could set up a place in lower Manhattan where people could gamble. It would be walking distance from Chinatown, from the N train to Sunset Park, from the R train to Elmhurst, and from the Chinatown buses. It would also be accessible to non-Chinese people from all over, of course.

Hm, now that I think about it, there are places in Lower Manhattan where people can go to gamble - perfectly legally. Unfortunately, you're not allowed in unless you're a member of an elite club. You can pay one of the club members to gamble on your behalf, but you lose the excitement of being there. Even then, many of these "brokers" require a minimum bet in the thousands, out of reach of many Chinese waiters. Oh, and they're only open from 9 AM to 4 PM.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The cost of sucky outreach

And the parson made it his text that week, and he said likewise
That a lie which is half a truth is ever the blackest of lies,
That a lie which is all a lie may be met and fought with outright,
But a lie which is part a truth is a harder matter to fight.
-Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Grandmother's Apology

Opponents of the Prospect Park West bike lane accuse the Department of Transportation of undermining the community review process in numerous ways: fudging the data, colluding with supporters, bait-and-switch tactics, disguising permanent changes as temporary trials, and other dirty tricks. Opponents of other changes, like the 34th Street Transitway, the Midtown pedestrian plazas, and various other bike, pedestrian and transit projects around the city have made similar accusations. Some committed transit, cycling and pedestrian advocates have even bought into this, echoing the idea that Commissioner Sadik-Khan is haughty, dismissive and contemptuous of the community.

This is a lie which is part a truth, which makes it a harder matter to fight than an outright lie. As I've written, the "fudged" data are actually perfectly sound, but not in the way usually presented by the DOT or its supporters. The Prospect Park West bike lane was developed in response to pressure for traffic calming and safer bike routes from a large bloc squarely in the mainstream of the community. The 34th Street Transitway was designed to serve the walking and bus-riding supermajority of the street's users. The DOT has gone out of its way to meet with stakeholders, holding meeting after meeting and offering incentives and compensations.

And yet... I don't know about you, but to me the DOT's process does seem top-down, offering a pretense of discussion while steering the group towards a pre-determined goal, and treating any concerns or objections as annoying obstacles to be cleared away. I had a discussion recently with a woman who knew very little about Prospect Park West, who was convinced that the DOT was imposing the project on the community. It "felt right," whether it was factually correct or not.

I think there are a few interconnected reasons for this perception. Part of it is that the DOT has a history of this kind of dissembling. Anyone familiar with the DOT's history knows that over the years it has come out with plans to suspend bike lanes on bridges, convert avenues to one-way traffic, narrow sidewalks and other nastiness. Once these plans are formed, only overwhelming opposition can stop them.

This is not Richard Malchow's DOT, or Chris Lynch's, and it's not Iris Weinshall's either. But it takes time to turn a battleship, and I'm sure the agency still has tons of dedicated, knowledgeable staff who hate public participation. One reason they hate it is that it's really, really hard. Many of them never had any training in how to do it right, and they're used to just barreling their way through. So they may try to start a discussion, but then when things get outside their comfort zone they retreat to what they know: rigidity and lip service.

Another reason the DOT sometimes seems unresponsive to the community is that "the community" isn't really the community. Go to any neighborhood in New York and you'll find half a dozen arrogant alterkockers who think that everyone in the area drives a car, hates any kind of noise and wants to preserve detached single-family housing for all eternity. If you ask them what the community wants, you'll get one answer. Poll the residents of the area, and you're likely to get a completely different answer. But these "community leaders" are so certain they represent the community that they feel no need to consult with anyone outside their own little echo chambers.

DOT planners know this very well by now. The ones who really care about community input will listen to a broad spectrum of voices in the neighborhood, and come up with a consensus plan that addresses the needs of all. But nothing pisses the "community leaders" off like bureaucrats not giving them special treatment, and they will actively work to undermine the consensus process. Jaded, impatient DOT planners have figured this out and will simply ignore the "community leaders" and barrel ahead with the plan.

The lie about the DOT ignoring public input is part a truth, and as Tennyson's parson said, it's a harder matter to fight. More democracy at the local level can help, and the City Council term limits have made a dent in this, but in the end the retired homeowners who have lived in the neighborhood for years have an advantage. Better trained planners at DOT will help too, but it will take time for the staff to turn over. In the meantime, the real community has to keep coming out over and over again and showing their support.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The logic of the overnight gambling bus

There's been a lot of discussion in the press lately about the spectacular crash of an overnight gambling bus on the Bruckner Expressway in the Bronx. What I've been trying to wrap my head around for the past few days is the concept of an overnight gambling bus, and what it says about the failure of planning in the country and the region.

First of all, it clearly shows that anyone who says "Americans won't take transit" is full of shit. Sure, these are Chinese-Americans, mostly first generation immigrants, who don't want to spend a lot of money on anything but gambling. They live in the densest, most transit-rich part of the country. They're gambling addicts, driven by their addiction.

That said, they live in America, and I'd imagine that many of them own cars. But here they are sitting on a bus for eight hours in the middle of the night. They pay the full operating cost of the bus, which makes a profit with no more subsidies than any other commercial vehicle.

Mode choices - a single trip or a habit - are not inherent in American culture, or in the topography. They're a response to economic incentives. These people have a burning desire to gamble, and the only time they can do it is at night. They're exhausted, and they don't have the energy to drive hundreds of miles. In these circumstances gambling itself doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but the bus does.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Quantitative bike lane evaluation

As I've made clear, I am very much in favor of the Prospect Park West bike lane. In my view, the city has demonstrated that it has improved safety tremendously. The opponents do have a minor safety issue: the increased density of the cars on Prospect Park West means that people boarding, exiting or unloading cars on the avenue are more likely to be "buzzed" by cars. This may feel less safe, but it may be compensated for by the fact that the cars are going slower. In any case, the reduced speeding has made the avenue safer for pedestrians, cyclists and car occupants, so there is an overall increase in safety.

Unfortunately, there's a problem with the data demonstrating this, and the bike lane opponents have seized on it in their SLAPP lawsuit, which you can read in this PDF helpfully hosted by Streetsblog. The number of crashes resulting in injuries on the avenue have actually increased by twenty percent since the lane was installed, according to the Department of Transportation's data. Rather than acknowledging that, the DOT has preferred to compare last year's data with an average of the three previous years. The bike lane opponents argue that the decline in injuries was actually due to retiming of the traffic lights, and that the bike lane increased injuries.

The bike lane opponents are wrong, for three reasons. The first has to do with measurement. Some injuries are not reported to the police, and it's possible that there were more injuries in 2009, but they weren't all reported.

The second reason has to do with outside factors. The opponents do not mention that the twenty percent increase was from four injuries in a six-month period to five, a total increase of one injury. Things like injury rates always fluctuate over time due to any number of factors. That additional injury could have been due to the fact that a particularly reckless driver moved to Windsor Terrace that year, for example. It could be due to almost anything, which is why the ideal is to have a multi-year average before and after. It is even possible that the injury rates went down, but that last year there just happen to have been two or three more crashes resulting in injury.

There is also the effect of popularity to consider. When I lived in Park Slope, I avoided crossing Prospect Park West whenever I could. I spent somewhat less time in the park than I would otherwise have, and once I got in the park I stayed there until it was time to go home. It may very well be that more people are feeling safer crossing Prospect Park West, and are thus crossing it more. There is more safety per crossing, and more safety per person, but we aren't measuring those, we're only measuring overall safety per half year.

Now watch Councilmember Lander debate Jim Walden on New York 1. Lander is a charismatic young politician going up against a lawyer who looks like Agent Smith, so he's got an advantage already. But he squanders that advantage, because he will not acknowledge that injuries went up from 2009 to 2010. Walden picks up on that - and so does Errol Lewis, although he was pretty fair - and they both try to pin Lander down on it. Lander avoids the issue, and it makes him look like a shifty politician, hiding Things the DOT Doesn't Want You To Know.

There is no way to avoid that issue. The only thing to do is acknowledge it, respond to it and move on. Yes, unfortunately there was one more injury, and our sympathies are with the victim. It may be caused by the bike lane, but it's much more likely to be a reporting error, normal fluctuation, or increased use of the street by pedestrians. We won't know for sure until we've got a couple more years to measure. There's nothing to hide, we just don't have enough information at this time to say whether there's a real increase in danger due to the bike lane.

Sometimes the data says things you don't like. You have to own it. You can't look like you're fudging it or ignoring it. We need to maintain our integrity - and our appearance of integrity - in this fight.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Our next big goal

You might have any number of goals for New York City's transportation policy in the near future. Let's say you want to cut something in half. It could be our greenhouse gas emissions, or the amount of gasoline burned in the city, or the number of people killed in road crashes, or the childhood obesity rate. In order to do any of these things, let me repeat, it's not enough to get people to take transit. You need to get people out of their cars. If you're genuinely fighting for "balance" or "choice," you won't accomplish your goals.

Remember that if transit is more efficient at providing access for subsidies than roads are, if people patronize systems depending on the access that they provide, and if subsidies are distributed based on usage, then transit will grow by itself, and we don't have to do anything. But if we're concerned that corruption may be skewing the distribution of subsidies, or if we just want to help the process along, then we can apply pressure. Pressure in one direction moves the cycle towards car dependence (and thus towards carnage, pollution, obesity and inefficiency), and pressure in the other direction moves it towards transit use (and thus towards health, safety, efficiency and clean air).

So here's my question: at what point will we have a solid majority of the City Council in favor of prioritizing transit over cars? At what point will we have a solid majority of the city's Assembly delegation, Senate, Congress?

Right now, as we know, 55% of New Yorkers take transit to work. You would think that there would be a solid majority in the City Council supporting transit. But car ownership (and transit use) is spread unevenly across the city, leading to the possibility of a Council dominated by powerful blocs of members from Eastern Queens, for example.

Still, that doesn't explain it all. It doesn't explain why even Bill Perkins and Tom Duane were wishy-washy on bridge tolls. It doesn't explain why Dan Garodnick thinks that the primary concern of "the community" is curbside car access rather than faster buses. In these three districts, less than 30% of households have a car.

I'm beginning to think that changing the perceptions and priorities of our elected officials is more important than changing the composition of their voters.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A nationwide rail strategy

In the comments on my last post, Alon wrote, "What I've heard from rail advocates is the exact opposite - i.e., complaints that Obama should've spent all the $8 billion on HSR, and not on low-speed lines in Ohio and Wisconsin." I may actually have been misreading the criticism of the plan from rail advocates, and there may be two dissatisfied groups: one group who argued that the money should be spread around the country boosting key lines to conventional speeds like 90 miles per hour, and the other that argued that it should be concentrated on getting a small number of demonstration corridors in the same league with the TGV.

The Obama administration plan was presented as an initial step in getting lots of high-speed corridors built around the country. In contrast to both the "quick network" group and the "quick high-speed" group, the stimulus plan could be thought of as a "slow high-speed network" plan - a slow way to build high-speed trains. In that case, consider my last post a rebuttal to the "quick network" critics. In this post I'm going to take on the "quick high-speed" critics.

First of all, the stimulus was a nationwide plan, and its primary goal was to put people to work so they wouldn't be restless, and pay them so that they would spend money on American goods and services. Ideally you want the jobs to be created in places where unemployment is highest. Failing that, you at least want them to be spread evenly throughout the population.

Second, the President was proposing to spend eight billion dollars, and as leader of the country he's expected to spend taxpayer money fairly. Spending fairly means different things to different people, but most Washington politicians feel that "fair" means their constituents get some. Obama had to at least try to give some to everyone. That's why he had the application process, where even Wyoming and South Dakota were encouraged to apply for high-speed rail funding.

If Ray LaHood had stood up one day and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, we're going to spend eight billion dollars, divided up between California, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut," what would have been the reaction? All the Republicans would have screamed about government bailouts to rich coastal cities, and the Democrats would probably not have had the guts to keep the funding in the stimulus bill.

Third, it's the first principle of negotiating that you ask for what you want and settle for what you need. Obama seems to have forgotten this in the health care debate, and in the overall size of the stimulus, but his rail plan was a pretty good example.

It's true now that austerity-crazy governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, New Jersey and Florida have "given back" high speed rail money, but in some sense this is the best of both worlds. It allows rail projects in Vermont, Washington and Michigan to get significant boosts in their allocations, and it boosts the money for California even higher.

The Federal DOT hasn't yet announced which projects will get the reallocated money from Florida, but in the end, the money will probably be concentrated along the coasts and in the Saint Louis-Chicago-Detroit corridor. Who thinks that that would have passed if it had been in the original plan?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Obama's rail strategy

In 2009, the President announced that the stimulus package would include eight billion dollars for high speed rail construction. Since then, he has budgeted additional funding for rail and chosen specific corridors to spend the money on. This high-speed rail plan has been widely derided as a boondoggle, even by many rail advocates. They argue that what was really needed were targeted upgrades to corridors that already had high ridership. Furthermore, they felt it would be preferable to get these corridors upgraded to "normal speed rail," because the benefits of high speed rail would not be worth the expense.

Those rail advocates may be right about the best things to build. If Obama were absolute dictator, maybe that's what he should have done. But he's part of a political system, and each of these projects requires support from several partly independent actors in the system. In that light, the rail plan was based on a relatively sound strategy, and is starting to look better and better.

Remember that there are four kinds of mode choices that people make: single trips, habits, investments and subsidies. Habits are predominantly chosen on the basis of availability and value, but the other three are often made on the basis of glamour, and occasionally amenities.

Subsidies, in particular, are decisions about the future. At the current pace of passenger rail construction in the United States, many of the politicians making decisions about passenger rail will be old or dead before a rail system could be of practical value to most of their constituents. They're making decisions for generations to come, which puts a lot of the discussion in the realm of fantasy and glamour.

Roads have a definite glamour to them. Although there are plenty of train songs and movies, and some about buses, ships, airplanes, spaceships, airships, bicycles, walking and even dogsleds, most of the media fantasies in the past sixty years have focused on cars. The dubious connection between driving and freedom is hammered into us in almost every half hour of television, every magazine. The road builders and airlines have a hand in this too. Visions of the future often involve wider roads, faster cars, faster planes and even flying cars and jetpacks.

The road plans currently being promoted all involve expanding the road network. Even if it's only a modest expansion like the Kosciuszko Bridge, it's still a step on the way to Tomorrowland. In contrast, the pragmatic vision of many rail advocates is a step on the road to the rail network we had in 1960. A lot of transportation geeks would be happy to have that back, but to the general public it's not exactly an inspiring vision. We had that back in 1960 and people chose to drive instead. Now the road network is vastly bigger than it was in 1960; why would people choose rail?

Obama and LaHood needed a vision of the future that would compete with the car vision, while still being in reach. The only thing that can do that is high-speed rail, with at least one demonstration corridor.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Who's representing Queens?

On Saturday I pointed out that the "Community Advisory Councils" convened by the Department of Transportation for the 34th Street busway project are heavily weighted towards the small minority of neighborhood residents who are NIMBYs opposed to the project, largely because the DOT has solicited no participation from residents of Queens, Staten Island or Waterside Plaza.

There is one person who claims to represent Queens, at least in some sense, at these Community Advisory Council meetings. He is not a bus rider, though; I have never heard him address a transportation question from any point of view other than a driver's. His name is Corey Bearak.

Bearak lives in a part of Eastern Queens where it is considered embarrassing for any middle-class person to get around without a car. For trips to Manhattan it is understood that some people have to leave their cars at home, but in Bearak's version of the American Dream everyone will somehow be able to drive and park everywhere even in Manhattan - for free, of course.

For many years Bearak has been involved with an organization called the Queens Civic Congress, a confederation of neighborhood groups. The Congress provides a useful forum for community boosters to share information, but it goes far beyond its mission when it takes positions on controversial issues, claiming to represent the views of the people of Queens, as they did with congestion pricing. Its member organizations are not representative, and the organizational structure of the Congress itself is not representative, but the Congress still takes positions as though it were.

Bearak has attended meetings of the Community Advisory Council, but it is not clear what segment of "the community" he is there to represent. He is a paid lobbyist and spokesperson (and probably webmaster) for the "Committee to Keep NYC Congestion Tax Free." He is also a paid Policy and Political Director for the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1056, a lame union representing the drivers for many of the MTA Bus lines that were taken over by the City a few years ago.

What's Bearak's role in the Community Advisory Council for the 34th Street Transitway? You can get a hint from this PDF (Bearak has the quirk of blogging in PDF files and classic rock quotes):
At a recent (November 4) meeting concerning the proposed 34th Street Transitway, a consultant for the project several times told residents with their concerns that that these plans only resulted because the city did not get “Congestion Pricing.” Hmmm......

As Derek & the Dominos sing and play, Tell The Truth.
You can read more of Bearak's dispatches about the Transitway and other issues on his website.

None of this is intended as an attack on Bearak, who's a nice enough guy. I disagree with him on numerous issues and I think that the whole anti-congestion pricing campaign has been slimy and dishonest from the start. I'm also very suspicious of what he's up to with regards to the Transitway. But he's got a particular agenda and a particular code of ethics, and he sticks to them.

My main criticism is of the DOT. Why did they limit the "community" to people living right near 34th Street? Why concede the frame that the only "community" that matters is the tiny group of people who really care about curbside car access? And once they did, why did they then let Bearak in? They wound up with a bunch of entitled NIMBYs screaming about not being able to get bottled water delivered by truck, and a guy who seems to be paid to attack the Bloomberg Administration - and no express bus riders to balance them out! Strategic geniuses they ain't.

The DOT needs to open up the process to people who actually favor the Transitway. Put signs on all the buses that use the Transitway, and invite a bunch of people in Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island to come out and say how much they want it! Until the DOT does that, they just look like a bunch of masochists.