Saturday, August 27, 2011

The hurricane death toll

I've lived through one big hurricane in my life so far, and observed a few others through media reports. People make a big deal out of having enough supplies and batteries and water, but one thing that's struck me is how many of the deaths and injuries come directly from car use.

As the big hurricane was blowing in, my wife and I hunkered down for the night in our hallway near the bathroom. In the morning, the storm had passed. Trees were down, and many areas were without power, but very few people had been injured or killed. Then the water started rising. We had been a block and a half from the river; soon we would be only half a block away. We put as much of our stuff as we could in the attic, put the cats in their carriers and walked another block inland to a colleague's house.

There were deaths. Almost all of the ones I heard about involved one of three factors:

1. People driving in high waters, being swept off the road and drowned.

2. People driving in water where power lines had fallen, and being electrocuted.

3. People living in flood zones where nobody was foolish enough to live before cheap cars and "drive till you qualify." When the floods came they took too long to evacuate. If they didn't try to drive anyway (see number 1), they were drowned on top of their houses.

When Hurricane Katrina came through New Orleans, I saw another way people could be killed:

4. Evacuation plans that assume that everyone has a car. People without cars were left to evacuate on foot. Many of them were turned back when trying to get to higher ground, because their carlessness revealed their low-class status, and they had no cars to hide their dark skin.

People will die in this hurricane too. If you pay attention, you may notice the same pattern.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Manhattan is special

One of the most frustrating things for me to hear over the last few years has been "Why does Manhattan get all the good stuff? Why don't they do this in Brooklyn or Queens?" People who say this don't usually expect that they would do them in the Bronx or Staten Island, but they like to leave those boroughs in so they can be really anti-Manhattan.

A good example is this guy who claims to speak for "the outer boroughs" while living in an Upper East Side highrise. Another is the "two New Yorks" meme that came up in last winter's snowpocalypse as well as the congestion pricing fight.

The implication is that the location of these projects is entirely driven by elitism. Our Billionaire Mayor who lives on the Upper East Side only thinks of his fellow rich Manhattanites. They get all the exciting projects, and the working-class stiffs get to slouch along with their worn-out old highways and boulevards.

The most frustrating thing is that most of these people are completely full of shit. They claim to want projects like these to be located in Brooklyn or Queens, or maybe even the Bronx or Staten Island, but if someone tries to build one they rise up, like you're trying to put a methadone clinic or a toxic waste dump in their neighborhood. "Why are you dumping on Queens?" or of course, "This may have been a success in Manhattan, but it'll never work in Brooklyn."

There are a few people who genuinely want to see the benefits of transit and livable streets spread out among the boroughs. There's a good argument to be made for the "polycentrism" of the Paris or Los Angeles metropolitan areas, which evens out the demands on the transportation system somewhat. But even they don't always get why things happen in Manhattan. So here are four reasons why Manhattan is special, and why it makes sense to put things - new things, fancy things, exciting things - in Manhattan.

1. More people live in Manhattan. If you want to serve a lot of people, you can build something in Manhattan and they're all right there.

2. As a corollary, because lots of people live there, Manhattan is dense, one of the densest places in the country. Some projects need a critical mass of people to get going, and in Manhattan it's relatively easy to find thousands of people who are interested in something.

3. More people go to Manhattan. It's the primary employment center, the primary center of trade, of shopping, of art and performance. It's centrally located within the metropolitan area and well-served by the transportation system, so that people can get there relatively easily from all over the city. It's also a mixing ground for people from different groups to meet, a neutral territory with a strong police presence and lots of eyes on the street.

4. Less people drive to Manhattan and in Manhattan. Less Manhattanites own cars. It may not seem this way if you stand in the middle of Park Avenue at rush hour, but per capita there's a lot less car ownership, and a lot less driving. Many people drive everywhere but Manhattan: they leave their cars at the North White Plains lot and turn into pedestrians and transit users for the day.

Bureaucrats, politicians and advocates ignore these facts at their own peril. I've seen the DOT try to site numerous projects in Queens. Some of them attract instant opposition, because they would compete with cars, and others fail to attract enough pedestrian or bike traffic, and wind up being abandoned. A pilot project needs to work.

Some Manhattanites are snobs. Some Manhattan residents and businesses have too much influence, especially over Our Billionaire Mayor and his Sycophantic Staff, and they get things that they're not really entitled to. But more often, things happen in Manhattan because the DOT or the MTA know that there will be a lot of pedestrians or transit users there, or they'll be able to get there relatively easily.

The next time you see something happening in Manhattan, and you're ready to spring forward with cries of "Elitism!", check these four aspects of Manhattan's specialness that have nothing to do with elitism. You just might find there's a rational reason for it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Summer Streets: I want more!

I went to Summer Streets again last week, and again I had a good time. But in addition to my expansion suggestions, there were a few things that have started to get to me after four years. These are all pretty small things, but they could make a difference in people's enjoyment of the event, and in how well the event accomplishes its goals.

1. Framing. Several times I heard and read reference to the street being "closed," and at 1:00 I heard repeated announcements that they were going to "open it up again."

To someone like me, who rarely takes taxis and drives even less, when cars are allowed it doesn't feel "open" to me. It's open to me for three mornings a year, and pretty unavailable the rest of the time. Repeating over and over again that Park Avenue will be "opened up again" emphasizes that we don't belong.

A few times I've stayed on one of the streets and been directly addressed by the staff, who don't seem to be aware that bicycles are allowed on the streets even when Summer Streets is over. Last week a bunch of us were traveling the right direction in the Centre Street bike lane and got yelled at.

A more neutral framing would be to simply say, "Cars will be allowed on the street again. Be careful of the cars; they can kill you. Pedestrians move to the sidewalk, and bicycles move to the right."

2. Practice what you preach. What's with the DOT employees racing those stupid golf carts around? They're still three times heavier than anything else on the road. The DOT staff drive them too fast, and expect everyone else to get out of their way. They were never being used to transport anything, only to drive some self-important-looking people around.

There's a great spot at the foot of Park Avenue South where you can sit on a bench and look right up the avenue to Grand Central and the Pan Am Building. Across the street are an Au Bon Pain and a Starbucks. On each of the three Saturdays I took a break and sat there with an ice coffee, watching everyone walking, skating and riding by. This past week my view was blocked by one of those NYPD dollar vans, parked right on the sidewalk.

The DOT and the NYPD should respect the non-motorized, small-vehicle nature of the event. Leave the golf carts in the garage, and park the vans on the side streets. If people need to get someplace in a hurry, they should take the subway or a taxi - on one of the other avenues. Let the VIPs go be Very Important someplace else.

3. Be flexible with space. Someone decided that exactly half of the street should be dedicated to walkers and runners, and half to cyclists. There were little signs at key intersections reminding people to bike on the left and walk on the right, and they are always placed exactly midway between the sidewalk and the median, no matter how many cyclists or runners there are.

The volunteers shouted out at regular intervals, "Bikes to the left, walk to the right!" If cyclists went too far to the right they singled us out for special scolding, but never seemed to say a word to the runners or strollers in the left-hand lane.

All I'm asking for is a little flexibility. Volunteers should be told that if there are consistently more cyclists than pedestrians passing through an intersection, they should move the sign over, or at least refrain from scolding cyclists who ride just to the right of the sign.

4. The Park Avenue Tunnel. Every time I pass that, I think about how cool it would be to ride through it. It would also alleviate some of the bottlenecks in the East Thirties. It only needs to be open in one direction. Any arguments for not allowing bikes into the tunnel can also be made for not allowing cars into the tunnel on the other 362 days of the year.

5. Brooklyn Bridge conflicts. The DOT is intentionally directing hundreds of bikes and pedestrians onto the Brooklyn Bridge walkway on sunny summer weekends. This year I rode over on the second week, and it was packed with both cyclists and pedestrians, who were not always respecting each other's space.

This is a golden opportunity for someone (I'm thinking Transportation Alternatives, but it could be somebody else) to organize in favor of converting one car lane to a cycle track. It could start with Summer Streets, then be extended to every summer weekend, then 24/7. All you would have to do is station a few people at each end of the bridge with petitions and flyers, and you'd get both cyclists and pedestrians signing on. Alternatively, you could ask local politicians to cross the bridge on foot, and even on bike if they're willing.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Money and Summer Streets

Earlier this month, I made some suggestions of changes to Summer Streets for livable streets activists to fight for. I've got a few more, but first I wanted to address a comment by "Greg Temps" on that earlier post. Some of you might be wondering why I pay so much attention to what some random anonymous guy writes on the internet. (Beat.) I find his arguments particularly worth considering because they sound like something that someone at the DOT might say.

Almost everything you mention costs money. While the city shortens parade routes and threatens to cut teachers, maintaining the event as it is is hard enough.
This is a recipe for doing nothing, ever. I've lived in this city for a large chunk of the past forty years, and I can't remember a time when there wasn't something being cut from the budget. But I do believe that if you're making a case for the government to spend money, you should either suggest a revenue source or something else that could be cut. I think we can raise taxes a bit in this city, and I'm willing to pay more if it means a longer Summer Streets. I've also said that the budget for reconstructing city-owned highways and parkways should be cut back. Those would both provide more than enough money to cover the additional costs.

Food trucks and temporary sidewalk cafes cannot be allowed on Summer Streets as an integral part of the event is that NOTHING on the entire route is for sale.
That's not true. All of the existing businesses along the route are selling things like crazy. The corporate sponsors may not be selling anything immediately, but they are definitely making an advertising pitch. Does it really matter if I can't buy the applesauce right there?

There are existing food trucks, like the Mud Truck on Astor Place, that are evicted for Summer Streets. I think the Mud Truck contributes at least as much to the life of the plaza as the Starbucks does. Why does Starbucks get to keep selling coffee during Summer Streets, but the Mud Truck doesn't?

I don't particularly think that having "nothing for sale" is integral to the event. I mean, sure, we don't want it to turn into sixty blocks of tube socks and funnel cake, but I don't think that's a real danger here. There's a lot of middle ground between free applesauce and $5 mozzarepas.

The main point is that people need to take breaks, and when I take a break I don't want a mini zoomba class, I want to relax with a cup of iced coffee and people-watch. Right now it's hard to find a good spot for that, and I don't think it should be hard. I'd take a free cup of coffee, but I don't think that's in the budget.

Hitting the ceiling

No, I'm not talking about the debt ceiling, I'm not talking about getting angry, and I'm not talking about a real ceiling. I'm talking about economic recovery.

As I wrote yesterday, our economy has the short-term capacity to put everyone back to work, thereby bringing income and sales taxes back to earlier levels. We have factories and workers sitting idle because demand is low, and executives aren't driving production because they can park their money in bonds without worrying about inflation eating their principal.

There's a reason why Paul Krugman wants the Federal Reserve Bank to commit to an inflation target of four percent. If executives knew that their cash reserves would be worth 82% of their present value in five years, they would do something else with them, like hiring people to make trains. Those people would buy more stuff and pay more taxes, and the economy would recover.

Some of it would, at least, and that's where we get into the problem. There are sectors of the economy that are not healthy, and those are the ones that brought us down in the first place: transportation and housing. If you remember, the housing bubble depended on "drive 'til you qualify," people buying houses with really long car commutes, and no transit alternative. It was popped by the peak in gas prices. When people couldn't afford to pay for those long commutes, they stopped buying houses in the sprawl and SUVs to drive to them, and the whole thing came down. The credit-default swaps were awful, but they were mostly a sideshow.

When economic activity declined, people used less oil to get to work, but also to ship things (because people were buying less stuff) and to run oil-fired power plants. The price of oil came down, and road congestion eased.

The stimulus was a little crazy: roads and bridges, cash for clunkers, government mortgage guarantees. When the economy started to recover, thanks to the stimulus, people immediately started buying sprawl houses and SUVs again. The price of gas started to go up. Then we had a mini-crash and the whole thing stopped.

This is absurd, and I'd be laughing my ass off if it weren't so serious. It's like a comedy where a guy on an airplane stands up too fast and bumps his head on the luggage compartment. He sits down dazed, and then as soon as he recovers he stands up again and hits his head. There may even have been a scene like this in Airplane!. Will he ever learn to stand up slowly, partway, and move sideways?

That's kind of the question for us. As long as we keep trying to run our housing sector on sprawl houses, and our transportation sector on roads, cars and oil, we'll keep crashing as soon as we start to recover. We could rezone our cities for dense, transit-oriented development, use the stimulus funds for rail and the housing guarantees for renters (say, that the government will pay your rent for six months every ten years if you can't make the payments), and reform the Federal Railroad Administration regulations for railroad cars. Any recovery that happens after that would be more stable.

Of course, any measures designed to encourage sustainable development will take time, and in the meantime we've still got all this sprawl infrastructure, with people living and working in it. To the extent that economic activity increases, some of it will take place with cars and trucks in these sprawl areas, and thus contribute to global warming and oil depletion. I've often wondered recently whether it wouldn't be better to let our economy stay depressed until the Baby Boomers die and we can forge a national consensus in favor of transit and urbanism.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The short term and the long term

Once again Matt Yglesias puts his finger on an important issue: "The inability to even keep long-term and short-term issues straight in a conversation is mind-boggling." This is the problem I have with a lot of my fellow transit advocates who keep harping on the debt, like Chuck Marohn and Jim Kunstler. I don't want to insult them the way Yglesias is insulting the Republicans, because I think it's a bit more excusable for Marohn and Kunstler, but it's still frustrating.

Yes, it's true that we're facing the peak oil crisis and the climate change crisis, and Marohn is quite right that we have an additional crisis of overbuilt infrastructure that we don't have the financial ability to maintain. We may not even have the "real" ability to maintain it, in terms of resources like manpower, asphalt and energy, while still feeding ourselves and producing goods for export.

The fact is that those are all three long term problems. There are similar-looking short-term problems, but the solution to a short-term problem is not always the same as the first step of solving a similar long-term problem. For example, if it's cold in my apartment one day, I may want to turn on a space heater. If it's cold in my apartment all winter, I may want to replace my weatherstripping. The first step to replacing weatherstripping is to see if the hardware store is open, but that won't make my apartment any warmer in the short term. I may want to turn on the space heater and see if the hardware store is open. It may be a bit wasteful to run the space heater with leaky windows, but for a day it's not that big a deal.

This is what I think Marohn and Kunstler are missing when it comes to Paul Krugman, Matt Yglesias and their calls for Keynesian stimulus. Marohn and Kunstler criticize Krugman for not realizing the severity of the situation. Krugman may or may not realize the severity of the situation, but he knows that the economy has the short-term capacity to put most people back to work and bring tax revenues back up, if the government were willing to tolerate some inflation.

There are medium-term problems, and I'll discuss them in a future post. But they're not what many people think they are.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Our transit system could be profitable like Hong Kong's

Last week I discussed Alex Marshall's take on the profitability of the Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway. As Alon Levy pointed out, the MTR does make an operating profit, so what I said was a little inaccurate. I said "Marshall responded that the Hong Kong MTR makes money on real estate and uses that money to subsidize its transit facilities." What Marshall actually said was that the Hong Kong MTR makes money on real estate and uses that money to supplement the income from its transit facilities. Here's the relevant paragraph from Marshall's blog post:
Hong Kong’s MTR is unusual in also actually making money from its fares as well. How it can do this relates in part the uniqueness of running trains on an intense few strips of land filled with development. But for our purposes it’s worth looking at its actions as a developer, and that as a model for transportation agencies and departments in this country.
Here Marshall acknowledges that the MTR makes an operating profit, but dismisses that as a consequence of "the uniqueness of running trains on an intense few strips of land filled with development," and thus not relevant "for our purposes."

Here I want to disagree with Marshall. I think the urban layout of Hong Kong is not unique for our purposes, and very relevant to the issue. In fact, people thinking only of the United States would say that "running trains on an intense few strips of land filled with development" is a great description of what the New York MTA and Port Authority do.

The development density, though, is only part of the story. It is one source of the MTR's operating profit, but only because it is Step 2 of the Magic Formula for Transit Ridership:

1. Give transit its own right-of-way and good terminals
2. Make it hard to use cars
3. Make it expensive to use cars
4. Profit!

The Mass Transit Railway has its own right-of-way. Hong Kong is one of the fifteen most expensive places to buy gas. And it is hard to drive there. But the density is only part of the reason it's hard to drive. The highways in Hong Kong are relatively few, and relatively narrow. If you're coming from the mainland there are at most fifteen lanes of traffic leading into the city.

New York may not make it quite as hard to use cars, but driving here is notoriously unpleasant and difficult. It is pretty expensive, except for the free bridges and highways, and the free or cheap parking.

What Marshall is neglecting, what too many transit advocates neglect, is the fact that transit is in competition with private cars driving on government-subsidized roads. If the roads are expanded or driving is made cheaper, transit ridership falls; I think we'll see a small drop in the Hong Kong MTR's profitability when the Central-Wan Chai Bypass is opened. If the roads are repurposed or driving is made more expensive, transit ridership rises and transit agencies become profitable.

This is why Marshall's interview and post are so frustrating. If we want the New York MTA to become profitable, we don't need it to buy a bunch of land and build high-rises on it. (In most of the city, the zoning would require them to build parking anyway.) Here are four steps that should do it:

1. Give buses at least one dedicated lane on every major bridge and tunnel.
2. Don't spend billions replacing the Goethals and Kosciuszko Bridges or the Pulaski Skyway. Tear down the Sheridan Expressway and any other highway that is "structurally deficient or functionally obsolete."
3. Institute market pricing to cross the East and Harlem River Bridges, and for parking.
4. Profit!

I know that Marshall is in favor of congestion pricing. He's probably in favor of market-rate parking pricing as well. He might even be in favor of some highway teardowns. Why didn't he say any of that to Andrea Bernstein?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The non-excludable benefits of transit use

I had a discussion over twitter this weekend with Market Urbanism about public goods. A lot of people think they know what public goods are. After all, they know what public means and they know what good means. But a public good is a specific term in economics, and it refers to a thing that is non-rivalrous and non-excludable. Planet Money did a nice podcast on them, and the Wikipedia article is pretty good, and has a nice chart:
RivalrousPrivate good (MP3 players)Common-pool resources (timber)
Non-rivalrousClub good (movies)Public good (lighthouses)

So a lighthouse is a public good because it is non-rivalrous: if I use the lighthouse to guide me, that doesn't keep you from using it. It is non-excludable: the State of North Carolina cannot prevent anyone from using the Cape Hatteras Light to guide their ships, except by driving them out to sea, which is against Federal law.

Interestingly, the examples of excludability given in Wikipedia all seem to take the community as their universe. A good is still considered non-excludable even if you can exclude people who aren't in the community, as long as you can't exclude community members.

In the most straightforward sense, a train ride is a private good. It is rivalrous because if there's only room for one more person on that train and you get on first, I can't get on. It is excludable because the turnstiles and the transit police can keep people from using the subway. The same is true for buses, cars and bicycles.

But that's the direct benefit to the rider. It is often argued that there is an additional benefit to transit: reducing road congestion. In practice, it has been found that transit does not significantly reduce road congestion. This is probably because when congestion gets bad enough people respond by moving, changing their habits or agitating for more capacity, so the primary benefit of transit to drivers is in reducing road expenditures.

There are indirect benefits: getting more workers to work and consumers to stores instead of driving them away helps the economy run better. Good access to stores and workplaces boosts the success of those businesses, creating more profits and jobs. These in turn raise tax revenue, meaning the government has more to spend. The more efficient the transportation system has, the better use the community makes of land, building materials and fuel. These benefits are rivalrous in the sense that they are divided among members of the community, but they are not excludable because the benefits are available to the entire community. In this sense, transit use is a common-pool resource.

A less car-dependent community has benefits that are non-rivalrous and non-excludable within the community. Reducing pollution, carnage and obesity, and increasing the quality and quantity of social interactions are all public goods that accrue to the community from getting people out of their cars.

This is one of the central challenges of transit: the benefit of transit use is spread across the entire community, but using transit may have a direct cost to individuals that motivates them to resist. A small, focused group of these individuals may be more powerful than the community as a whole.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Slaying the parking dragon

Streetsblog is reporting that the New York City Economic Development Corporation is trying to build a "vibrant downtown" next to the ferry terminal at Saint George on Staten Island, but undermining that goal by swamping it with parking.
Yet EDC wants the island’s transit center and would-be downtown to make room for a sea of parking, which will draw more traffic to the neighborhood streets, eat up space that could be used for housing or offices, and degrade the pedestrian environment. At this stage in the development process, it’s not clear exactly how many spaces the new development might contain. But all the spaces in the enormous surface parking lots would have to replaced one for one, ensuring at least a full floor of parking almost by definition. On top of that, EDC expects that additional parking be provided for all "the expected demand produced by the proposed development." With 14 acres up for development, that could be quite a lot of spaces indeed.
First I want to point out that this much parking will also drive up the cost to build the development. It will reduce the profitability of the development, and thus drive up the cost to the city.

This is not surprising for the EDC, which has a record of overbuilding parking, as documented by Streetsblog. One anonymous commenter attributed the parking appeasement to EDC President Seth Pinsky and City Planning Director Amanda Burden, and called on Bloomberg to override them. But to give them some credit, the EDC has facilitated the parking-neutral Fordham Plaza redesign and the parking-negative Queens Plaza project. Noah Kazis points out that it may be the Mayor himself who is trying to appease the parking dragon: "The potential to develop these sites while maintaining the availability of parking," he said, "combined with projects at the Homeport, Howland Hook, and at the Ferry Terminal – will be a catalyst for the further revitalization of the North Shore, as well as the entire island."

Whether this comes from the EDC or Bloomberg, if livable streets advocates could get the EDC to reduce the number of planned parking spaces, it is not clear that Staten Island politicians would be happy about that. Think about the Flushing Commons plan, where the developer wanted to build a relatively sensible number of parking spaces, but was met with fierce resistance from the area's business and political elite. The EDC and the City Council then put in money to build more parking.

Any effort to reduce the amount of parking at Saint George needs to either go through the local business and political establishments (Kenneth Mitchell in the Council, Matthew Titone in the Assembly and Diane Savino in the Senate), or else to be done with such force as to crush the opposition. Good luck on either of those.

Oh, and the less parking you have at Saint George, the higher ridership will be on the buses that go there, and the lower the subsidy they require.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Overpriced real estate and its underpriced access

Last week Andrea Bernstein interviewed Alex Marshall of the Regional Plan Association about the profitability of Jay Walder's new employer. After only 32 years of operation, Hong Kong's Mass Transit Railway is able to offer Walder a million dollars a year while constructing a large system expansion, all without direct financial subsidies from the government. Walder's old employer, our own Metropolitan Transportation Authority, gets hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the government for operating costs, and billions for capital programs, and it still has been required to cut service and borrow billions to balance its budget. It could barely afford to pay Walder $300,000 a year, and some critics have demanded that that salary be reduced for the next MTA chair.

The MTR and the MTA are the largest transit providers in Hong Kong and New York, respectively, two very large, fairly dense cities, so why the difference in their financial shape? That's what Bernstein asked Marshall, and Marshall responded that the Hong Kong MTR makes money on real estate and uses that money to subsidize its transit facilities.

On the face of it this sounds a little odd; you could equally imagine the government running a frozen yogurt stand and using the profits to fund interplanetary exploration. But transportation and real estate are more directly connected than that. The real estate cry of "location, location, location!" is really about access. Housing properties with access to jobs, shopping and entertainment command higher prices and rents. Workplaces that are convenient to housing can attract better workers, and thus pay higher rents to property owners. Commercial properties that are on the way from home to work also attract higher rents.

As Jarrett has pointed out, transit systems - and transportation systems in general - are more about access than about mobility. In other words, they provide the real value in real estate. Without access there is no demand for property. That is why Google runs buses to bring workers to its suburban campuses, why condos in Brooklyn, Queens and New Jersey run buses to bring residents to the train, and why Ikea runs buses to bring customers to its Red Hook store.

It makes sense, therefore, for the transportation system to receive some benefit in exchange for that value. This is Marshall's point, which he also lays out in a blog post: in New York the City and the railroads own just enough real estate to run the transit system, and they sell it whenever they can, as the New York Central and the Long Island Rail Road have sold the air rights over their yards. They have minor concessions in their stations, but just enough to keep the passengers from rioting.

By contrast, in Hong Kong the MTR keeps ownership of the areas around its station and develops shops, offices and apartments on that land. They use the rent from those developments to subsidize the trains. In essence, the property is overpriced and the access is underpriced, so the MTR is packaging the property and its access as an integrated product.

Here in New York, the MTA could do some of that. Stephen Smith just yesterday tweeted about a property right next to the Prospect Park subway station that is being built with an unnecessary underground parking garage. The MTA owns several surface-level stations in the outer boroughs, and could build on or near those properties to bring in additional revenues from those train lines - assuming that the zoning and the NIMBYs would allow them to build enough, without adding too much parking.

I've got more to say about Marshall's interview and blog post; stay tuned.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The train to where?

I have a question about the California High Speed Rail project. This post is inspired by Alon Levy's recent California high-speed rail post, but I've been wondering about it for over a year now. I've looked in the most obvious places (like the "Frequently Asked Questions" section of the California High Speed Rail Authority's website, and Wikipedia), but haven't found the answer.

So most of you have probably read the announcements that the initial segment of the high-speed rail project would be a 54-mile stretch of track between the towns of Corcoran (population 24,813) and Borden (which doesn't even have a population figure), at a cost of $4.15 billion. This was derided by the usual suspects as a "train to nowhere."

Being a big supporter of intercity rail, I was immediately ready to jump to the project's defense. No, the California High Speed Rail Authority couldn't be building a 200 mph shuttle to carry migrant strawberry pickers 65 miles. They're not even building it to go from Merced to Corcoran.

I assumed that the plan was simply to upgrade the San Joaquin route, so that these diesel passenger trains can move off the older, congested Santa Fe freight line and travel as fast as they can on a brand-new, dedicated, elevated, straight section of track. If that cuts the time from Corcoran to Madera from 1:19 to an hour, that's a nice improvement, right? It could win some hearts, and then the rest of the line can be upgraded south to Bakersfield and north to Modesto (at least), maybe shaving off another twenty minutes. Then they get some cash and electrify it from Oakland to Bakersfield, and then from Stockton to Sacramento. Then they worry about getting it to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Several times I've been ready to make this argument in the comments to a blog post or news article, and I've stopped myself. I realized I don't know, and I don't want to speak for the California High Speed Rail Authority. I figured I'd look into it at some point.

Well, now I've looked into it, and whaaa... ? According to the Los Angeles Times, the tracks will not even run a farmworker shuttle. There will be no trains on them. At all. They will spend over four billion dollars on tracks that will just sit there.

The idea is that eventually the tracks will be extended to San Francisco and Los Angeles and electrified, and then the trains will run. Special high-speed electric trains, like they have on the TGV. But until then, nothing. No San Joaquins. No renting the tracks out as a temporary short cut for Santa Fe freight trains to raise a little cash. They will gather dust for at least two years.

Maybe the LA Times reporters were misinformed. Maybe the plan has changed since then. But I haven't seen anything to suggest that. The High Speed Rail Authority knows that there are lots of people out there who think that the plan is either an expensive farm shuttle or a set of empty tracks. If they were planning to use the tracks, I'm guessing they would put that out on their website. But they don't.

So my question to any California high speed rail followers is very simple. Is this really the plan? Are they really planning to spend four billion dollars and just let the tracks sit completely unused for years, while the parallel tracks are congested? Do you think this is okay? Thanks in advance for your answers.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The war for Summer Streets is not over

This past Saturday I rode my bike in Summer Streets for the fourth year in a row, and it reminded me how much I like riding. I've never been an "avid cyclist" and I don't own a pair of bike shorts, but I have been a bike commuter at various times in my life. In the past several years I've avoided riding, mostly because I'm tired of being harassed on the road by people who are protected by two or three tons of metal. I was getting to my destination sweaty and stressed.

When there are no cars on the road, my anxiety level goes way down and I can actually have some fun. Sure there are a couple of inconsiderate people in every Summer Streets, but it would take a lot for them to do serious damage. All I really have to worry about is the cross-streets.

This year was extra special, because not only do we have the Skillman Avenue bike lane leading from my neighborhood to Queens Plaza, but we now have a nice car-free path leading across the Plaza, where there used to be a hell of bridge-bound multi-lane speeding traffic. I can get from my block to Manhattan entirely on dedicated bicycle facilities. The only really uncomfortable part left is the ride from the Queensboro Bridge to Park Avenue.

Also last week, after watching Clarence's commute on Streetfilms, I was inspired to ride across the Manhattan Bridge and try the physically separated bike paths on Sands Street, Flushing Avenue and Kent Avenue. That was another five miles where I felt the same kind of freedom and camaraderie as on Summer Streets, but you can experience it every day. On a Saturday afternoon the streets of Greenpoint and Long Island City were pretty quiet, so even the shared and unmarked sections were not stressful.

But I'm writing this post to tell you that our victory in Summer Streets is not solid. In an otherwise positive piece, Channel 2 included a poll asking "Do you approve of the Summer Streets?" and although 80% did, 64 people took the time to click "No." Some of them griped all over the comments section. There are other rumblings that suggest that the car elites have not pleased with this success, and are waiting for an excuse to demand that it be scaled back.

The best thing we can do to combat that threat is to balance it with requests for more. Here are some ways:

1. Extend the reach. Channel 11 has a bizarre story that Summer Streets "Angers Outer Boroughs." Turns out it's an extended interview with one Upper East Side crank who presumes to speak for outer borough residents. Over the years I've seen several known Brooklynites cruising Park Avenue, and I'm sure that a large percentage of the people I saw Saturday were from outside Manhattan. But Croft has a point: it should be expanded citywide.

In 2009 I suggested extending the event across the Manhattan Bridge - not on the bike path, but on one of the decks - and down Flatbush Avenue to Prospect Park. It could also be extended across the upper deck of the Queensboro Bridge and down Queens Boulevard, or north up Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, over the Macombs Dam Bridge and up the Grand Concourse. If you really want to reach Croft's "outer borough families," you could go all the way down Ocean Parkway to Coney Island, or Eastern Parkway, the Jackie Robinson Parkway and Union Turnpike to Lake Success, or Pelham Parkway to City Island. You could even go across the Verrazano to Staten Island. There are all kinds of possibilities.

2. Widen bottlenecks. The Park Avenue section flows well, but there was definitely some congestion on Fourth Avenue and Lafayette Street. This could be remedied by using Broadway or the Bowery south of Union Square.

3. Extend the hours. Why does it end at 1PM? That's when many New Yorkers are just waking up, and others are just finishing brunch. Some people want a little fun in the afternoon too.

4. Extend the days. Why not have it all summer, or even part of the fall? Or Sundays too?

5. Cater to people-watchers. One of my favorite parts of Summer Streets is just sitting and watching the parade of New Yorkers of all ages, but it's actually kind of hard to do. There are relatively few comfortable places to sit along Park Avenue. The handful of sidewalk cafes do a roaring business on those days, but imagine if there were more?

The DOT could give permits for restaurants along the route to set up temporary sidewalk cafes, and for food trucks to park in the curbside lane. Movable chairs and tables could be distributed along the sidewalk the length of the route, allowing people to take breaks, eat, drink and socialize. We don't need to worry about blocking the sidewalk, because people can walk in the street!

I know that these things cost money. The cost of policing, in particular, is one reason given why the hours and miles can't be extended. Setting out tables could also be expensive. But there have been repeated accusations over the years that the event is over-policed, and that more could be done with paid civilians and volunteers. The bottom line is that Bogotá does it every week, all year round, for seventy miles. Why can't we do it for ten weeks for half that length?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The future of the Suzy-Q

It's funny, just last night I was re-reading this post from 2009 on the planned restoration of passenger service on the New York, Susquehanna and Western line from Hackensack to Hawthorne in New Jersey. I was wondering what happened to it, since there have been zero news articles about it since. Since Chris Christie's money tree only bears fruit for highway widenings and mega-malls, I figured that it's not going anywhere unless the pressure gets turned up.

This morning, though, I read that the Morris County Freeholders passed a resolution calling for restoration of service on the Suzy-Q, but west of the area I discussed in 2009. Morris County, in conjunction with Passaic and Sussex Counties, wants to run passenger trains from Hawthorne west to Stockholm, just before the track terminates at the Sparta Junction.

I understand why the Freeholders have framed their study in this way, but it seems pretty obvious to me that the train would continue at least into Paterson, where passengers could transfer to an Erie line train to Hoboken, and probably all the way to Hackensack. If I were the Railroad God, I would extend it north to Port Jervis, south to Andover, and east to Edgewater or Hoboken.

It's sad that Star-Ledger reporter Dan Goldberg seemed completely unaware of plans to reactivate passenger service in Bergen and Passaic counties, which could have been running by now. He could have asked New Jersey Transit officials, or the project's champion, Democratic Congressman Bill Pascrell.

The section of the railroad west of Hawthorne runs along the boundary between New Jersey's Fifth and Eleventh congressional districts, represented by Republicans Scott Garrett and Rodney Frelinghuysen. Sadly, even though Garrett is a regular rail commuter and Frelinghuysen was once a champion of the Lackawanna Cut-Off, they have both succumbed to Tea Party mania. Frelinghuysen sponsored an amendment to reallocate high-speed rail funds for Midwest flood relief. Garrett has proposed eliminating Federal funding for Amtrak.

At this rate, though, there won't be funds to build more roads in that area, so the NYS&W's revenue will gradually increase. Maybe some day it'll have enough money to restart passenger service on its own.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Port Authority's toll hike is blatantly unfair

The big news the past few days has been the Port Authority's fare and toll hike plan. Many people are upset about it, but for me the PATH fare increase seems doable. It's higher than the NYC Transit fare, but don't worry, we'll catch up soon. The toll increase - well, I'm in favor of anything that brings the cost of driving up closer to the actual amount of resources used.

Lots of people were upset about the proposal. New York State Senator Charles Fuschillo of Merrick is against the Port Authority increases, the MTA fare hikes and the MTA payroll tax, apparently believing that nobody should ever have to pay anything for a government service. In a hilarious development, Governors Cuomo and Christie expect us to believe that they had no idea the Port Authority would propose such a steep hike. They only signed off on its capital plan, they didn't expect anyone would have to pay for it! A bit closer to reality, there were various complaints against the plan, but the Bergen Record actually found a guy who reasoned that it would discourage single-occupant driving.

Tri-State and Streetsblog pointed out that for several years people have been noticing that the Port Authority had lots of cash on hand, and saying, "Well, let's get the Port Authority to chip in on this." In this way, the few billion dollars in question has probably been spent at least five times over. And this is the answer to my question from 2009 about why governments borrow to finance capital projects: if they try to save the money ahead of time, someone will take it.

One of the reasons the Port Authority is raising fares and tolls is that Governor Cuomo expects it to contribute $380 million a year to the MTA capital plan. This makes sense in a way, because people from New Jersey commute to Manhattan by train, bus and car, and benefit from having people ride the NYC Transit subways and buses. Some people have noted that the $380 million probably wouldn't be necessary if we were bringing in $500 million a year through congestion pricing on the East River bridges and tunnels. In essence, New Jersey drivers will be paying what the drivers from Westchester, Long Island, Connecticut and the outer boroughs refused to pay.

But even Streetsblog though didn't pick up on one of the grand ironies involved in having New Jersey drivers subsidizing sprawl in Bayside and Mamaroneck. Back in March 2008, in one of the craziest episodes of the whole crazy congestion pricing debate, twenty New York City Council members signed a letter complaining that the proposed congestion charge would be deducted from any bridge and tunnel tolls paid the same day. This, they wrote, was "blatantly unfair." They even demanded exactly what Cuomo is asking from the Port Authority this year: that it contribute to the MTA capital plan. Of course it was a total lie: the proposed congestion charge would have remedied numerous unfair situations, not created one.

And now, over three years later, it looks like this will happen without congestion pricing. Now, if there's a remedy for a situation that is blatantly unfair, and you apply that remedy in a situation that isn't blatantly unfair, that would be blatantly unfair, right? And yet - I have not heard a peep from David Yassky, Jimmy Vacca, John Liu or anyone else who signed that letter. They only care about fairness when they think their constituents are the ones being treated unfairly.

But that's not all. The supreme irony in the whole situation is the source of the Port Authority's money: congestion pricing. The Port Authority can charge such high tolls because it operates a secure cordon. You can't drive from New Jersey to New York City without paying a Port Authority toll unless you drive up to the Tappan Zee Bridge or beyond.

If we charged tolls on the East River bridges we'd have plenty of money for transit projects - and reduced congestion, and well-funded buses. But none of our state legislators want to stick their necks out for it, and neither does Andrew Cuomo. They'd rather just let New Jersey pay, and take the money. Excelsior!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Killing with concern in the Assembly

I usually don't even bother responding to the lies and distortions about our transit system that come out of the State Assembly echo chamber, but this one was a bit too close to home. Aravella Simotas represents a district near me, replacing her mentor Mike Gianaris, who has taken over the Senate district. She was recently interviewed for a local podcast, the Perez Notes. It'll be nice when host Rob Perez gets a real hosting service, but until then you can download the MP3 here if you want to listen to it on a portable device.

Simotas may put her words together into odd combinations and then stumble over them, but she's very good at one particular tactic, what I call "killing with concern." It goes like this:
  1. Acknowledge the problem and sympathize with the people experiencing it.
  2. Raise concerns about the proposed solution. Go into as much detail as you can.
  3. DO NOT propose any remedy to the concerns you raised in Step 2.
  4. If anyone tries to address the concerns you raised or proposes an alternate solution, return to Step 1.

You will notice that Simotas does this with the MTA and the taxis: yes, of course her constituents need good transit, but the MTA is so wasteful and unfair! Her constituents need good taxi service, but the current law was passed in an unconventional way, and may be unconstitutional!

This is, of course, standard practice for the Assembly, and she probably learned it directly from Gianaris and from her other mentors, City Council member Peter Vallone and his father, former City Council Speaker Peter Vallone. Read and listen to statements made by various Assembly members about transit and you'll hear it over and over: they'd love to do something about transit, but they've got this concern...

In this interview, it is easy to tell the difference between an issue that Simotas actually cares about (pork and redistricting) and one that she doesn't. If she cares about the issue she addresses all the possible objections and has a solution ready. If she doesn't care, well, gee, she'd love to help, but she's got these concerns...

I'd like to finish by pointing out that this bullshit artist was not actually elected in any meaningful sense of the word. She was chosen as the party favorite after heavy lobbying by Gianaris and the Vallones. Her primary challengers, the disappointing Jeremiah Frei-Pearson and some guy named John Ciafone, quit the race when it became clear that Simotas had overwhelming political and financial backing. The Republicans and the Greens couldn't find anyone to run against her in the general election. Voters have never had the opportunity to choose her over anyone else.