Sunday, May 29, 2011

Why new medallions?

We've seen the problems with the taxi system as it is. The Bloomberg administration's "Borough taxi" proposal is pretty complicated. The City will auction off 1,500 new citywide taxi medallions, and the bidders will get 6,000 new "borough only" medallions. The details are hazy, but it sounds like if you buy one citywide medallion, you get four "borough only" medallions free.

Why such a complicated proposal? Let's look at some other possibilities. First, what if the city got rid of the medallion system and simply charged a nominal fee to every taxi driver? Yellow cabs are already charged $550 per year, and livery cabs pay $275 per year. So $550 a year and you can operate a yellow cab anywhere in the city.

I would imagine that most of the livery cabs would convert to yellow cabs as soon as they could. You'd see a lot more taxis in Manhattan at rush hour, and less in the "inner boroughs." On off-hours, though, you'd see a lot more taxis in the boroughs because there just wouldn't be enough demand in Manhattan for all the cruising cars. Would the quality of driving in Manhattan decrease? I'm not convinced. Certainly, reliability in the inner boroughs would go way up. Would there be taxis cruising outer neighborhoods like Bellerose and Throgs Neck? Doubtful. So this would help the availability problem in Manhattan and solve the reliability problem in the inner boroughs, but it might reduce availability in the inner boroughs.

What if instead we added some yellow cabs, and then converted all the livery cabs to "borough taxis"? The borough taxis would be painted a uniform color scheme and outfitted with meters and availability lights, and allowed to pick up street hails and set up legal taxi stands - but only outside of Manhattan below 96th Street. There would be a fee, but it would be lower than that for yellow cabs. The additional yellow cabs would take care of the availability problem in Manhattan, and the standard color, lights and meters would take care of the reliability problem in the boroughs. The availability problem in the outer boroughs would remain unaddressed.

So why make it so complicated? There are people who claim that yellow taxis are safer, but the medallion system only reduces the pool of drivers, it doesn't come with any additional safety requirements. In fact, Bruce Schaller found that livery cabs have 3.7 livery crashes per million miles traveled, as opposed to 4.6 yellow taxi crashes. You could argue that taxis cause congestion, so we want to keep the overall number of taxis down, but the medallion system just winds up concentrating them in the area with the most congestion - Manhattan below 96th Street. A congestion pricing system - even one just for taxis - would be a more effective solution.

Stay tuned for the answer.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The problems with the current taxi system as it is

A couple weeks ago, I observed that taxis can help us with our goals of reducing pollution, carnage and obesity and increasing efficiency, fairness and social connections. But they can only do that by making it easy for people not to own a car, and they can only accomplish that by being available and reliable. I would add that they need to be affordable - cheaper than a car, when used in combination with transit, cycling and walking.

The yellow cab system in Manhattan serves our goals. My father is an example: he ran a successful small business for twenty years without a driver's license, using taxis when he needed to transport moderately heavy equipment. Thousands of Manhattanites rely on yellow cabs for all kinds of trips where they feel that buses and subways are inadequate.

The de facto gypsy cab system in the "inner boroughs" (roughly, Manhattan north of 96th Street, the Bronx west of the Bronx River, Queens west of Flushing Meadows and Forest Park, Brooklyn west of Kings Highway, and Staten Island north of the Staten Island Expressway) is also pretty successful at integrating with transit to provide an alternative to car ownership. To the extent it succeeds, it does so because it's available (the gypsy cabs cruise the streets and respond to hails) and affordable (the rates are often lower than yellow cab fares for comparable trips).

Reliability is the big question in the "inner boroughs." "The Changeling" on the Bed-Stuy Blog gives a list of shortcomings: (1) from a distance it's hard to tell whether a car is a livery cab and whether it's already taken, (2) the honking that substitutes for availability lights is annoying, (3) haggling is difficult, and some passengers resort to flirting, (4) some cars and drivers are unlicensed and some dispatchers are unprofessional.

In the true outer boroughs (the South Shore of Staten Island and the eastern parts of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens), the problem is availability. The car services simply don't cruise. And honestly, there's also an availability problem in Manhattan at peak periods. During rush hour in the rain you can stand for a long time, and fights over taxis are not uncommon.

In essence, there are three problems, then: availability problems in Manhattan and the outer boroughs, and reliability problems in the "inner boroughs." So what can we do about these problems? I'll take a look at some of the Bloomberg administration's proposals in future posts.

The problem with "demand response"

As I mentioned in my previous posts about New York taxis, the system is set up so that legally, the only vehicles that are allowed to respond to street hails are the yellow cabs. The "livery cabs" are legally required to pick up passengers only if they've arranged the service in advance, by contacting the "base." In practice, no matter how many times the city cracks down on livery cabs waiting at informal stands and picking up street hails, they still do it and people still ride.

I've heard allegations that livery cab drivers are less safe than yellow cab drivers. Anecdotally, I've heard about as many horror stories about both and had as many negative experiences with both. I have no idea if anyone's studied crash rates or anything like that with a more systematic method. Even if the livery cabs are less safe, people still ride.

Why do people still ride? Because we want convenience. I regularly travel to a destination that's about twenty minutes by car and forty-five by transit. If I'm short on time I'll take a taxi, but I won't call a car service. The one time I did call a car service, it took fifteen minutes for the car to show up, so I might as well have taken the train. Now I walk five minutes to Queens Boulevard and hail the first taxi that comes along, yellow cab or livery.

This is the reason why every time a functioning transit system has been replaced with one of those "demand response" travesties, demand has gone down. A captive audience like lower and middle-income disabled people have no choice but to arrange their schedules around a ride arranged a day in advance. Anyone else will bike, walk or buy a car. That's what happened in Montgomery, and that's what happens in the "two fare zones" in the outer boroughs that don't have enough carfree households to support a taxi system.

In this age of ubiquitous connections, I could imagine something like the "thumb" in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, that would signal your availability to the nearest car service. That might cut down on cruising, but in practical terms all it would do would be to make hailing a livery cab legal.

In the "inner boroughs," where owning a car is expensive in both time and money, many people will simply risk violating the law by hailing a livery cab, and the drivers will take the greater risk in picking them up. As long as the current system is in place that will continue, unless the city floods the streets with TLC enforcement officers, and we all know they won't spend that kind of money.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

New York yellow cabs in practice

Regular commenter Helen "Trainstar" Bushnell's reaction to my post about taxis made me realize that I hadn't been entirely clear. The medallion "yellow cabs" are allowed to pick up street hails anywhere in the city, but they normally don't cruise anywhere other than Manhattan below 96th Street or the airports.

Yellow cab drivers are also known to refuse to take passengers outside of this zone, even though they are required to by law. There's an old joke about a guy who hails a cab in Midtown and asks to be taken to London. The cab driver says, "sure, why not?" and drives onto a cargo ship bound for Southampton. After a few days at sea they disembark and drive to Trafalgar Square, where the passenger pays and leaves. A few minutes later someone flags down the taxi and says, "Boy am I glad to see you! Can you take me back to New York?" The cab driver says, "What address?" and the woman says, "Eight Prospect Park West." The cab driver's face turns sour and he says, "Lady, I don't go to Brooklyn."

I usually get in the cab before I tell the driver where I'm going, but that doesn't always work. So why don't yellow cab drivers want to serve these areas?

Some say that there is too much crime in those areas, and there's definitely some truth to that (but not in places like Park Slope). The main reason is that they make a lot more money in Manhattan below 96th Street. The density of people without cars is much higher, and the people tend to be wealthier.

Okay, you may be thinking, but then why aren't there other yellow cab drivers to cruise the outer boroughs? Surely there's still money to be made there? The problem is that there are no other yellow cab drivers. The city limits the total number of medallions, and rarely increases that number. The medallions are also mostly owned by absentee rentiers who lease them to drivers, and these leases skim off a large percentage of the income.

The drivers could charge more to serve the outer boroughs, but they are forbidden by law from charging anything other than the meter rate. That leaves a vacuum in the outer boroughs, which has been filled by the car services. Because the number of car service licenses is virtually unlimited, there is not the same problem with rent-seeking that you find with medallion owners. This brings the cost of a trip to the individual driver way down, allowing him or her to charge a lower rate to reflect the lower demand in the outer boroughs, and still make a profit.

Sounds like a good system. What's the problem? We'll see...

Monday, May 23, 2011

New York City taxis as they are, and as people want them to be

If you've been a little puzzled by recent coverage of various taxi-related issues in the media lately, don't feel bad. It's not your fault. For some reason, the news organizations and blogs seem more interested in talking about the way someone wants to see the system work, or the way someone says the system works, or the way the law says the system works, and not much interested in describing how the system actually works.

For example, you may have noticed that the Bloomberg administration is trying to get taxis to pick up passengers outside of Manhattan. Then you read that the Bloomberg administration is punishing taxi drivers that pick up passengers outside of Manhattan. Nobody points out the inconsistencies.

In this post I'll try to give you my understanding of how for-hire passenger transportation works in the city, as actually practiced. And yes, I'll call them all taxis.

First, you have the "medallion cabs," which number a little over 13,000. These are all painted yellow by law with lights on top to indicate availability. By law they charge set fees based on distance and time, as measured by meters. They are allowed to pick up passengers by being hailed on the street, but they mostly pick up in Manhattan below 96th Street and to the airports. They are often based in Queens, and may pick up passengers between their bases and Manhattan.

Then you have the "livery cabs," also called "car services" or "gypsy cabs." The vehicles are usually Lincoln Town Cars with license plates that read "T" followed by a long string of digits. They can be any color but yellow, and almost never have lights on top. Livery cars are all associated with a "base" with a dedicated dispatcher, and they may display stickers identifying their base. The fees may be posted on the base's website, but are often negotiable.

Most passengers hire a livery cab by calling the dispatcher or walking into the base. Some services can be reserved by email or text message. Many accept corporate accounts. By law, drivers are forbidden to pick up passengers who hail them on the street. In practice, they cruise any street with reasonably heavy pedestrian traffic north of 96th Street or outside Manhattan. Because they have no lights on top, they indicate their availability by tapping their horns at passing pedestrians.

"Black cars" are the highest-quality, best-maintained livery cabs, usually painted black. The black car services only accept corporate accounts, and often have standing arrangements to bring employees to work and back. Many companies have a "guaranteed ride home" policy where any employee who works later than a certain time (such as 9PM) is entitled to a black car ride home at the company's expense.

Every once in a while you'll also see a plan to create taxi stands in the outer boroughs. For some reason they never mention that there are already taxi stands in several locations near major transit hubs. There are two near me in Queens. Of course they're completely illegal: the drivers feed the meters in commercial parking spaces. But they're there.

In practice, then, you can hail a yellow cab in Manhattan below 96th Street. You can hail a livery cab or find a taxi stand in the rest of Manhattan or in the subway-accessible outer boroughs. In the rest of the city, the former "two fare zone," you can typically only get a ride by calling a car service.

That's the way it is. Some people would like it to be different, and they have various plans to bring that about. In future posts I'll talk about some of these complaints and proposals.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Manhattan - and Long Island City - parking maxima

Today I tweeted about a plot of land for sale in Long Island City, right on top of the ditch for the Long Island Railroad East Side Access project. It's around the corner from the Queens Plaza subway station (E, M and R trains) and a couple blocks from the Queensboro Plaza el station (N, Q and 7 trains). It wraps around "Clock Tower Plaza," the very nice 1927 Art Deco Bank of Manhattan building; you can see in this Forgotten NY page that there used to be a very forgettable modern three-story building at that location. And if you made the April 1st bid deadline, that land can be yours for only $9,500,000!

What got Stephen Smith interested (I'm assuming it was him tweeting @MarketUrbanism) was when I mentioned that there is no parking required for this land. Stephen didn't know that most of Long Island City has no parking minimum, and asked about other parking minima and maxima in the area. If Stephen doesn't know about it, a lot of other people probably don't. You can look it up in the Zoning Resolution (PDF), but a lot of people get intimidated by zoning documents, so I figure I'll read it for you and put it all down here for handy reference.

First of all, there is an area (is it the only area in the United States?) where there are no parking minima (except for public housing projects). This includes Manhattan Community Districts 1 through 8, meaning everything south of 110th Street on the West Side and 96th Street on the East Side (except Roosevelt Island, which is its own beast). It also includes the "Long Island City Subject Area," in the core of LIC, essentially everything in Queens west of 29th Street and south of 41st Avenue.

As Stephen asked, there are in fact parking maxima for these areas. In Manhattan south of 60th Street it's one space for 20% of the new dwellings. North of 60th Street it's one space for 35% of new dwellings. In the part of LIC northwest of the Sunnyside Yards it's one per 50%, and in the rest of LIC it's one per dwelling unit.

In practice, in Long Island City the developers always seem to want to build more apartments than they're allowed as of right, so they keep going to the community board for variances, and the community board demands lots of parking. I'm pretty sure that's how all the parking along Fifth Street got built. And of course there was the recent freak-out over the size of parking to be built at the new building on the south side of the plaza.

All things considered, though, I think this zoning has been very good for LIC. I'm surprised we haven't seen similar districts in other high-density, transit-rich areas outside Manhattan, like Downtown Brooklyn, Jamaica or the Bronx Hub, or north of 96th Street like 181st Street in Washington Heights.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Taxi networks and car ownership

As I wrote in my last post, taxi networks help us the most with our goals when they help people to renounce car ownership, or to avoid it altogether. If people are already paying $8000 a year to own a car, a few twenty dollar cab rides are just an added expense, but if those cab rides can save them the $8000 a year, that's a good deal.

There are always going to be some people who say, "This is really frustrating. I'm selling my car and taking buses and taxis!" and others who say "This is really frustrating. I'm buying a car so I don't have to take buses and taxis any more!" Our goal is to see the car sellers outnumber the car buyers. To be attractive as an alternative to owning a car, taxis have to be everywhere and they have to be reliable. Let me give you an example.

A few weeks ago I was doing some business out in Eastern Queens, and I wanted to get back home quick. Normally I would take a bus and two subways, which can take anywhere from forty-five minutes to an hour and a quarter. I knew that a taxi could get me home in 20-30 minutes. So I went to look for a taxi. No taxi. Taxis don't cruise the streets of Eastern Queens.

Normally, I have the numbers of a few car services in my phone, but they're all out of the neighborhood, so it would have taken them at least twenty minutes to pick me up. That would have defeated the purpose of saving time. So I wound up taking transit. On a later visit I got the number of a local car service, and that worked well.

I could have looked up "taxi" in Google Maps and called the closest one, but there are some car services that you really need to avoid. Many companies are great, but some have dangerous drivers, bad service or dirty cars.

This is why people can't rely on taxis to replace a car in many parts of the city. In these specific cases, a private car was more convenient, and would have given me more freedom and independence than a taxi. This is the problem that Bloomberg and Yassky are trying to solve with their "Borough taxi" plans. I wish I thought that any of those plans would work.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Taxis, choices and our goals

There have been a number of stories about taxis recently, so I wanted to examine the issue in more detail. In discussing taxis I'm also going to include "livery cars" (gypsy cabs), black cars, limousines and other for hire transportation. How do taxis fit into our goals? How do we decide which taxi initiatives to support, which ones to oppose and which to remain neutral on?

First let's think about some consumer choices that can affect our goals. Remember that people can choose to take transit for a single trip or as a habit. They can make an investment in it, and they can vote or lobby for a government subsidy to it. Similarly, people can choose to take taxis for a single trip or as a habit, or they can support government subsidies for taxis.

Thinking about it now, I've always assumed that a choice to take transit was a choice not to drive, but it's not necessarily the case. A person could choose to take transit instead of walking or riding a bicycle. Transit is not necessarily better for our goals in those cases; the rider may be paying a fare, but he or she may not be reducing the total pollution generated in the area. Similarly if someone takes a taxi instead of taking transit, walking or riding a bike, that's a net negative for our goals.

In the choice between taxis and private cars, there are several choices:
  • To take a taxi instead of driving for a single trip.
  • To take a taxi instead of driving for a habit or routine.
  • To not buy a car and take taxis or transit instead.
  • To subsidize a taxi system with curb access, law enforcement, roads, etc. beyond what is paid for the taxi permit or medallion.

Choosing to take a taxi instead of driving can reduce the need for parking if enough people do it, but the taxi driver may have to drive a significant distance more, to get to another fare, than the passenger would have if they had driven in a private car. It's probably good for the environment overall, but it's not clear how good.

Taxis have the greatest effect on the environment when they are a factor in a person's decision to sell a car, or not to buy one in the first place. To do that you need a reliable system where a person can expect a taxi to be available when they need one. Reducing car ownership is the critical role of taxis, and availability of taxi service is the critical factor in their ability to reduce car ownership.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Such small portions

I guess I'm in something of a Woody Allen mood tonight. Here's the opening quote from Annie Hall:
There's an old joke - um... two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of 'em says, "Boy, the food at this place is really terrible." The other one says, "Yeah, I know; and such small portions." That's essentially how I feel about life.
And that's essentially how Yonah Freemark, and Tanya Snyder, among others, seem to feel about Federal transportation funding. Federal funding formulas are terrible - they overwhelmingly favor subsidies to personal auto use - and Congress hasn't increased overall transportation funding!

To be fair, the gas tax does act as something of a deterrent, but it may not be enough to outweigh the draw of increased infrastructure. And it's actually hard to tell what Snyder is feeling beneath all the Beltway horse-trading coverage, but she generally seems encouraged by more overall transportation spending, and discouraged by spending cuts.

Yonah, and Snyder, are right to call for a move away from formulas, or at least towards formulas that tilt more towards transit. But as long as the formulas favor driving, it's better to decrease overall funding than to increase it. That's simple math.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Do you want to be Serious, or do you want to be right?

I very much appreciate that Yonah has taken the time to read my response to his earlier post, and taken my critique in the constructive spirit that I intended. But I have to confess I'm not sure why he's so perplexed.

In his April 29 post, Yonah lays out his goals for transportation, and they're much the same as mine: he deplores "very high traffic fatality rates" and "our continued dependence on the congestion-causing, sprawl-inducing, pollution-generating private automobile" and favors publicly-owned transit systems that produce "gains to the society in other ways" - just as I want reduced carnage, increased efficiency, improved society, reduced pollution and access for all. So our goals are the same; we just differ on how to achieve them.

How do we differ? I look at the people killed by cars; the wasted space, material, time and energy devoted to creating, moving and storing cars; the damage done to society by our isolation in cars; the pollution spewed by cars; and the injustice of denying access to jobs, housing and commerce to people who don't own cars, and I conclude that the problem is cars and we need to get rid of them.

Yonah looks at all these things, sees that we can replace cars with transit, and concludes that the problem is we don't have enough transit. He then argues that we need to let people build more cars and more car facilities so that they will let us build a little more transit. Then he is perplexed that I don't agree.

Let's try a thought experiment. Imagine that we wake up tomorrow morning and none of the cars work. We can't get them working because the knowledge is locked away in our brains like the Third Doctor in Doctor Who. Trains, ships and airships still work, and over the next thirty years (ten for Los Angeles), the cars and highways are recycled into a comprehensive rail network, supplemented by bicycles, canal boats and the occasional horse or donkey cart. (If the suddenness bothers you, assume instead that one car after another stops working, over the course of thirty years, and we can't fix them or make any more.) How would that affect our goals?

Traffic deaths and pollution drop to the tiny levels from trains, bicycles and donkey carts. They rise a bit as more trains run, but never approach anywhere near the levels we currently have. There is a mass upheaval as all the people in the suburbs and exurbs move their homes, jobs and shops closer to downtowns and train lines, but the increase in efficiency and social cohesion is phenomenal. There are new battles as the rich try to find new ways to shut the poor out of jobs, housing and commerce; maybe they succeed, but maybe they don't.

Now let's imagine that instead we wake up next morning (or in 2041) and the rail transit network has been magically increased so that it is the same size as the road network. There's just as much carnage and pollution as before; if anything, there's more. Things run a bit more efficiently, but the road system is still prone to crazy traffic jams and generates tons of sprawl. The poor have more access, but not as much as they should. Politically, this brings us back to around 1965, and the politicians exhibit the same kind of denial that they do now. Maybe rising gas prices shift the political winds, and eventually the road system is cannibalized to extend the train system, buoyed by political support from a large transit-riding population. Maybe not, since what I described is pretty close to the transportation network here in the Greater New York area, and most politicians pander to drivers.

For a third scenario, imagine that we wake up tomorrow and the transit network is ten times its current size, the same size as the current road network - but the road network is also ten times its current size. Have we gained anything? No.

This is why the absolute amount of transit matters very little. It's the absolute amount of car usage that matters, and the way to make a difference in that is through changing the funding formulas. If we keep the same formulas but increase the size of them, we don't win anything.

This is why the Very Serious People are wrong when they say, "I'm not anti-car." If you're not anti-car, you're not doing it right. It's up to you: do you want to be Serious, or do you want to be right?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Why we move things

Before I write more about moving things around, I wanted to discuss why we move things. This may seem obvious, but it's a good idea to put it down. Often we assume that things are a particular way, but once we come out and state these assumptions we realize that they're not that way after all.

Let's think about a relatively simple product like apple juice. Apples are grown on trees in an orchard in the country. They are picked and transported to a juicing plant, where the juice is extracted, pasteurized and packaged. I assume the pulp is used for compost if nothing else. The containers of juice are then brought to the store, where a customer brings them home.

The customer drinks the juice, uses up the energy, and then pees and shits the rest into the toilet, where it gets flushed to a sewage treatment plant. Eventually the sewage gets separated into fertilizer, which is sent back to farms and orchards, and water, which is released into the water system.

When we think about moving stuff around, we can break it down into stages. First, raw materials are grown, mined or collected, usually in rural areas. They are brought to a plant and processed, possibly multiple times, and then moved to one or more storage facilities. Finally they are distributed to the consumer and consumed.

But wait, that's not the end! The consumer may convert some of these products into energy and gaseous emissions, which more or less dissipate by themselves. But there are usually solid or liquid waste products that need to be removed from the consumer's location. Some of these may be reused or recycled, but much of it just needs to be put someplace where it won't be in the way.

Some people live near farms. Some live near mines, oil wells or reservoirs. Some live near factories, bakeries and warehouses. Some live near shops and restaurants. Despite the efforts of planning boards around the country, some even live near dumps and sewage treatment plants.

It may be possible for some people to meet many their needs within a short distance, but it's not possible for anyone to meet all of them. Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books were marketed by her libertarian daughter as an example of self-reliance, but if you read them closely you'll notice that the Ingalls family actually fails to self-rely, over and over again, even when a weak government allows them to take over other people's land for their own benefit. When they prosper they trade their produce for manufactured goods from "back east." When they fail, they are saved by Doctor Tan's imported quinine or Pa's migrant labor.

So we need to move things around. That said, it's important to note that we don't always need to move them as far as we currently do. We can reduce pollution, obesity and carnage, and increase efficiency, equality and quality of life by reducing the distances that things have to be moved. We can also do that by reducing the way we move them, which is the topic of the rest of this series about freight.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Getting people out of their cars by not subsidizing the roads

As I've discussed numerous times, if we want clean air and water, safer streets, more sustainable energy use and better societies, it's not enough for people to use transit. We need people to stop using cars. To do that, most transit advocates try to run transit from existing residential neighborhoods to existing job centers. That's a good start.

Many advocates understand, though, that transit is much more efficient, and much more competitive with car travel, when it connects dense urban residential neighborhoods with dense urban job centers. Transit subsidy dollars can go farther this way, even if on paper they are accessible to smaller numbers of people.

So if we don't subsidize transit from sprawly residential areas to sprawly office parks, how do we get the people who live and work in those areas out of their cars? Simple: we get them to move.

As I wrote regarding freight transportation, development follows the transportation network. Invest in transit, and people will want to live and work near it. Invest in roads, and people will want to live and work near them.

The key is, of course, that you have to reduce government investment in roads, so that you're not setting up the transit service for failure. And of course you have to change the regulations so that you can get enough people and/or jobs and/or shopping to make the place walkable.

Rather than running inefficient transit to where the housing, shopping and jobs currently are, we need to run efficient transit to where we want the people to be, and stop building inefficient roads to where they currently are.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Swinging with the pendulum

If you're an economist (possibly The Economist), or an infrastructurist (possibly The Infrastructurist), or if you care about the Transport Politic, you might be upset about the lack of funding for transit. And there are good reasons to be. From a Keynesian perspective, less government spending on anything means continued high unemployment. And new transit construction is just cool. Yonah Freemark also argues that new transit must be built to keep up with population increases.

For those reasons, "transportation advocates" like Ryan Avent, Yonah Freemark, Jarrett Walker and Aaron Renn have continued to press for more spending, more spending, more spending, and to get upset when Congress and state governments cut budgets. I'm sympathetic, but I think the despair is completely unwarranted, and I'm getting pretty sick of the obsession with building more more MOAR! as though that's the only thing that matters. This approach is not working. We need to take a very different approach - one that you may have seen a bit in my past posts.

If you support transit because you care about global warming, or asthma, or carnage, or the social effects of sprawl, or conserving energy. Even if you care about equal access to jobs, services, housing and shopping, more transit is not always better. I've talked about this before, and people haven't really picked up on it. Maybe because I'm not being clear enough, or maybe because they think I'm being a nut. Still, let me try to be as clear as I can.

For pollution, efficiency, carnage, obesity and social issues, what matters is the mode share. Mode share is dependent on relative capital investment, not absolute spending. The government can build all the transit we want and it won't boost mode share, if it builds more roads than transit.

It follows, then that it doesn't matter how much transit funding is cut, as long as road funding is cut more. If they build the ARC tunnel and replace the Tappan Zee, the Kosciuszko, the Goethals and the Pulaski Skyway, then overall that's a net increase in car capacity. If they don't build the ARC tunnel or the replacement Tappan Zee, Kosciuszko, Goethals and Pulaski, then overall it's a net decrease in car capacity.

Transit advocates always have to fight people who want more money for roads. When the government is spending money, transit advocates have allies in the people who want to spend money. A winning strategy is to get the government to spend more on building transit than on building roads.

There are some people who honestly want to cut the budgets, right or wrong. The current political mood favors them. Let's take advantage of that. They want to cut the budget, fine! Cut the road building budget more than you cut the transit building budget, and I'm happy. Cutting the road budget will help the poor too, because it will force employers to move closer to population centers and become more transit-oriented.

It's absolutely true that the Republicans in power are mostly complete fucking hypocrites. For all their budget-cutting posturing, Chris Christie, Scott Walker and Mitch Daniels are spending boatloads of cash on new roads and wider roads. Transit advocates should take advantage of that, as Ben Kabak is doing. At best, you get more cuts in the road-building budget. At worst, you tarnish their budget-cutting reputations and get to call them out as hypocrites in the next election.

If you really care about pollution, efficiency, carnage, obesity, society and equality, you need to stop wasting your energy fighting the forces of austerity. The pendulum will swing back eventually. We need to swing with it, to use its energy to bring down the Tappan Zee, the Kosciuszko, the Goethals and the Pulaski. Then when it swings back, we'll have that many more transit riders ready to support train tunnels.