Friday, December 28, 2012

Valley Transportation Myopia

The San Jose Mercury News has an article about the 25th anniversary of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority's light rail system, quoting a few supporters and one critic. The supporters are VTA transportation planning manager Kevin Connolly, "the train's godfather" Rod Diridon, and a few riders, all of whom have Spanish last names and say that they ride the trolley because they don't own cars. The single critic quoted is Tom Rubin, an accountant who gets paid as a "transportation consultant" who mostly gets paid to attack transit. Sometimes Rubin will make arguments that seem "pro bus" in order to attack rail, but when there's no rail involved he's happy to attack buses.

On Twitter, some transit advocates did criticize the VTA. They're probably right. I've never been to Silicon Valley, but it sounds like it was relatively badly planned. It also sounds like there's a zoning issue behind the fact that many of the farms bordering on the lines haven't been built up with dense, walkable neighborhoods. That said, there's a bigger factor at play, one that I've touched on many times in the past: transportation myopia.

In the twenty-five years since the first VTA trolley ran, the federal, state and county governments and the VTA have widened four competing highways and built numerous interchanges and other "improvements." Here are a few that I could find details on:

CA 237Convert to "freeway standards"1997
I 880Widen from US 101 to Montague Expressway2004$76.3m
CA 17Add auxiliary lanes2007$28.2m
CA 87HOV lanes south and north2007$121.9m
I-280Ramp Metering and Widening2010$5.5m

As you can see, just about every branch of the VTA light rail system has seen millions of dollars invested in competing roads. Add to that the cost of constructing the 101, 280, 680 and 880 to begin with, which only happened within the previous twenty-five years. Those wouldn't have affected the design of the system, and thus the "Cost to run a light rail vehicle for an hour," but they have definitely sapped ridership, which affects all the other indicators mentioned.

Rubin is actually half right when he says "I think the original concept was very seriously flawed." Whatever the flaws of the original trolley concept and zoning, they pale in comparison to the flaw in the concept of building a trolley system at the same time as you expand the competing road network.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The MTA's $27 million consumer surplus

One of the often repeated fears about dollar vans and other privately operated transit options is that they will "poach" customers from a public transit operator on the route, which may have a legal monopoly, and that by doing so they will "skim" profits from that route, reducing the revenue that public operator gets and increasing the burden on the taxpayers, or reducing the "coverage" that the public operator can cross-subsidize. This is a legitimate concern, but in most cases it is completely unfounded.

To begin with, the agency has to make a profit on the route. Even if private operators believe they can make money, it is not always profitable for public operators. Sometimes this is for legitimate reasons: if the private operators can only make a profit through exploitative wages or hours, or by not offering a reasonable set of benefits, we don't want to encourage that exploitation. But if the profits earned by the private operators come from reducing costs in other ways, from offering a better value, or even from being able to raise fares on people who can afford it, the only objection is the skimming one.

How many routes make any operating profit, let alone an overall profit? I'll look at the New York MTA because it's my hometown transit monopoly, but I'm interested to hear about other systems. In early 2010 the MTA released ridership and cost figures for each of its bus routes, based on data from Labor Day through the end of November 2009. There were 22 routes that brought in more in fares than they cost to run.

If we extrapolate those figures to the whole year, these 22 routes combined brought in $27,400,000. Of that, most came from just five bus routes that netted over $2 million apiece: the Bx12, the M86, the Bx19, the M23 and the M79. The remaining 166 routes lost a combined $276 million, more than ten times as much as the 22 top routes brought in.

To put this in perspective, that $27 million surplus was 3.3% of the total $823 million grossed by New York City Transit buses. It's 0.87% of NYC Transit's overall $3.1 billion in farebox revenue, and 0.33% of the total $8.3 billion operating expenses for 2009. In other words, it's a drop in the bucket. Nobody at NYC Transit or the State Legislature would miss it.

There may be good reasons not to allow private buses to run on New York City streets, but skimming the consumer surplus is not one of them.

Greenfield toll, HOV and bus lanes are no improvement

The news is that the toll roads in Orange County, California are not bringing in as much money as planned. Similarly with Maryland's Intercounty Connector. In Virginia, high occupancy/toll lanes won't bring any revenue for the state government, even though it spent half a billion dollars on them.

Some people, who don't like the idea of toll roads in general, will take these developments as evidence against the whole idea of tolling. It's not; it's evidence against the wisdom of building roads. It's especially stupid to build toll roads and competing free roads at the same time, as was done in California, just as it's stupid to build transit and competing free roads at the same time.

What's really annoying is that for some people, building toll or high-occupancy vehicle lanes is automatically assumed to be a greenfield operation, the same way Kate Slevin insisted that "we can't have BRT without" a wider Tappan Zee Bridge.

Some of this is related to the idea that a toll is only used to finance the cost of road construction - and not maintenance or reconstruction, somehow. That idea was put to rest in 1937 when Bob Moses issued new bonds for the already-built Triborough Bridge. Just as you can always remove or reduce tolls and pay for a road with tax money, you can always collect or raise tolls and use them to pay for other things.

You can always convert an existing lane to toll, HOV or bus-only. It's easier when you have a nice wide, uncongested highway so that you have room to build nice landscaped barriers around the special lanes, but there's usually room for a jersey barrier. And of course you can always make the whole highway tolled, HOV or bus-only.

The main problem is that if you only implement tolls or vehicle restrictions on new greenfield lanes or highways, those highways will be empty a lot of the time. In the past they've tended to fill up eventually, but with current driving trends this will happen more and more slowly. One day someone will look at a ten-year-old tollway and realize that the promised cars will simply never appear. How many of those empty highways will we have built by then?

It's time to stop thinking that all HOV, bus or toll lanes have to be added. That kind of thinking doesn't solve any problems, and only leads to empty roads and empty treasuries.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Free transit won't keep commuters coming back

Just a quick note. Eric Jaffe has a review of an MIT study of transit mode shift. This study has a lot of interesting implications, but claims of the value of free transit are overstated.

The study piggybacked on a MIT initiative in September 2008, where all employees with full-time parking permits were offered a free one-week transit pass. A number of these employees agreed to participate in the study, where they committed to commuting by transit for at least three days that week, and fill out a survey. Thirty percent of the survey participants gave up their parking permits immediately, and 25% were still on transit six months later.

Jaffe touts the free aspect of the trial as significant, but I think he - and the study authors - are overstating it. The key is that the transit was only free for one week; after that, the participants who shifted to transit had to pay full price.

Remember, these are full-time MIT employees; I don't think they're exactly poor. In the surveys they indicated that relative cost was a factor in their mode choice, but transit doesn't have to be free to compete on cost grounds. Most of the transit passes mentioned by the authors cost more than $65 per month, but probably less than $65 plus gas, car maintenance and insurance.

There are important take-aways to this study. I'm sure the free trial helped convince drivers to try transit; it's hard to justify even a week of transit if you're already paying $65 per month for a parking permit. And once they tried it, many of them realized that it wasn't all creeps and weirdos. Equally important, there was a value proposition there. For some participants, transit provided a better overall value for the price than driving. For other participants it didn't provide better value, and they went back to driving.

Transit managers that believe they do offer a better value than drivers should try free trials. Rather than offering them to everyone and overloading the system for a week, though, it would probably be better to simply mail a random chunk of the population free one-week transit passes. Whatever happens, it's important to make a clear distinction between free trials and free transit.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Tweaking congestion by time of day

Last week I observed that we have a degree of control over the speed of cars and the level of congestion on streets. We can design streets to encourage or discourage speeding. In between, we can adjust the capacity of the street by making it one-way or two-way, and adding or removing parking. There are a host of other traffic speeding/calming strategies like signal timing, lane width changes and sidewalk extensions. But I closed by observing that congestion varies with time of day, and even with time of year (Gridlock Alert Day?).

A street that has stop-and-go traffic during the rush hour may have smooth-flowing cars in the middle of the day, and wide open spaces at 1:00 AM. This daily variation can cause huge problems. Many years ago I had the frustrating experience of renting a moving van on Tenth Avenue at 3:00 PM, and getting to Third Avenue around 3:30. Much worse, of course, is the carnage caused by cars speeding through deserted streets late at night and on weekends.

Traffic engineers know all about the daily variation, of course. Their solution is simply to design a road big enough to keep cars flowing during the peak demand, and if people can go even faster on the off-peak they consider that a bonus. Of course, those of us who have to cross the street with those fast cars don't consider it a bonus.

Traffic calming advocates might say that the observed traffic speed should never rise above 20 MPH between 6AM and midnight. On high-demand streets this will lead to gridlock during rush hours, and probably slow traffic during middays and "shoulder" times. If I had to choose, I would choose slower traffic over death, but some of the most vocal, powerful people in the city would rather go fast. Fortunately, there are other ways.

The way that's currently employed by the New York City Department of Transportation is rush-hour parking restrictions on avenues and boulevards across the city. This is a relatively blunt instrument and the city wields it clumsily, with long periods of No Standing on places like Queens Boulevard and Flatbush Avenue. These are much longer than the actual rush hours, leading to speeding and dangerous conditions.

This is where congestion pricing comes in. By congestion pricing I don't just mean a cordon toll to keep traffic low. I mean a charge that varies by time of day: higher when there's more demand, lower when demand drops. The idea is to keep cars moving at roughly the same speed all day. Because the charge can be set by computer, there is much more flexibility than with rush-hour parking restrictions.

What I found on my visit to London was that the congestion charge worked well to keep cars moving all day. The problem was that they were moving too fast. That's a problem that congestion pricing advocates in other cities would do well to keep in mind.

Some day I hope we have congestion pricing here in New York City to flatten out that daily variation in driving. But I hope that we take advantage of that flattening to restore two-way traffic flow (yes, even on Manhattan avenues) and on-street parking, to keep speeds down below 20 MPH. Eventually we can widen sidewalks and add more bike lanes as necessary to accommodate cyclists and pedestrians, and tweak the parking, lane configuration and congestion charge to keep cars moving, but at relatively safe speeds.

Tactical Transit Strike Force!

Back in 2010 I wrote a list of things I wanted from transit advocacy organizations, but wasn't getting. Well, there's a new organization in town that aims to deliver at least #3 (discuss new revenue sources), #4 (hold elected officials responsible), #7 (focus on transit) and #8 (a simple, accessible structure). It's called the Riders' Alliance. They're just getting started, but it's a promising start. I've joined, and we'll see where they go. You might want to give them a shot too.

One of their first focus areas is the G train, and they encountered resistance from the MTA to their request for more frequent G service. The Brooklyn Paper's Danielle Furfaro highlights their quandary: "Activists working to better the G train say the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has created a catch-22 by refusing to make any service improvements on the line due to low ridership. But critics claim ridership on the so-called Brooklyn Local remains low simply because service is so bad."

The G train arrives in the Brooklyn Army Terminal, with a little help from Pro-Zak and bitchcakesny.

Well, I claim that ridership on the G train remains low because it's competing with the free, subsidized BQE, and it'll just get worse if the State spends $1.7 billion to replace the Kosciuszko Bridge with a wider one. But what if Riders' Alliance members Dustin Joyce and Sarah Kaufman are right, and there is a pool of untapped ridership that is being kept away by the six-car trains and ten-minute headways?

The most straightforward way to test this would be to simply try it. This is the approach known as tactical urbanism that's already been applied in areas like street design. Imagine if the MTA ran ten-car trains at five-minute headways for a year. I'm guessing that they would see a big jump in ridership. At the end of the year, they could cut the frequency and train lengths back to whatever is necessary to support that ridership.

This kind of strategy is similar to the "penetration pricing" strategy sometimes used in marketing. In that case, the seller sets the price low (or free) temporarily to build awareness and brand loyalty. Examples include the special low introductory rates on credit cards and cable television. In our case, though, the goal would simply be to establish that there is a market for this service.

This has actually been done before, unintentionally, at the MTA. From 1976 through 2009 the G terminated at Smith-9th Streets. Then, when the agency reconstructed the Culver viaduct they temporarily extended the G to Church Street. This past July, after some lobbying, the MTA leadership decided to make the extension permanent.

We should be able to do this kind of experimentation without a major viaduct reconstruction. I know that train cars are expensive, and the MTA doesn't have that many to spare, but I believe that these experiments can be worth it in the long run. If nobody's willing to do it with trains, then we should do it with buses.

Think about a bus route that's losing the MTA a lot of money. If you can't think of one, I have a few suggestions. Or maybe it's a route that hasn't been tried. Or a route that's popular but could use just a little oomph to push it over the edge into running an operating profit.

Now imagine that some organization (it doesn't have to be the MTA, it only needs permission from the Department of Transportation to pick up passengers on the street) has a fleet of twenty brand new, clean buses with expert, responsible drivers. They take the Q79 route, say, and saturate it with buses, every five minutes or less, for a year.

What would ridership look like at the end of that time? Suppose by then you've got enough riders to provide service every fifteen minutes with a 50% recovery ratio. At that point, the MTA can take it over with normal bus service, and the Tactical Transit Strike Force can move on to, say, the B71.

We hear a lot about the power of targeted, experimental interventions to transform city life and give people a sense of what's possible. Now let's do that for transit.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Rockland County is not being short-changed by the MTA

Rockland County Executive Scott Vanderhoef has been complaining for years that his county pays more to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority than they get back in the budget. Last year the county paid some consultants at Cambridge Systematics to analyze the 2010 MTA budget (PDF). They came back with a grave accusation: county residents and businesses sent $110 million in taxes, fees and fares to the MTA, but only got $68 million in services and capital improvements, for a "value gap" of $41.9 million.

Dana Rubenstein reports that on November 30, Vanderhoef wrote to the MTA, asking for an "exemption" for the county from the fare and toll hikes planned for March. "Common sense financial fairness would dictate, therefore, that Rockland County be exempt from the proposed fare increases," he wrote. "During my 20-year tenure as Rockland County Executive and a NYMTC Principal, it is with a deep conviction rooted in justice that I have fought for Rockland County’s fair share from the M.T.A. Rockland County is burdened by its orphan status as a New York community on the West side of the Hudson River—deep in NJ Transit territory."

MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan shot that one down. "Rockland residents enjoy higher property values, Rockland’s Metro-North commuters bring home higher salaries, and Rockland’s overall economy benefits from the regional economy and its robust transportation system. Rockland’s contribution to the M.T.A. supports its entire system, benefiting even the Rockland residents who commute to NYC by car and who wouldn’t be employed as police officers or firemen or construction workers or teachers in New York City if there were no MTA to make the City run."

Aaron is completely right, but he didn't even need to go there. When this study came out back in March, Ben Kabak posted the story, and Larry Littlefield nailed it in a comment on Ben's post: "Everyone has a value gap because much of the money is going to the past. They just don’t want to pay a share of the debt."

Sure enough, Rockland's share of the MTA's $1.91 billion debt service comes out to $41.9 million. The so-called "value gap" is just Rockland's share of the bond payments. The Cambridge Systematics report didn't pick up on that because they decided from the beginning to ignored debt service. Oh, and all this debt was racked up under Vanderhoef's comrade in arms Governor George Pataki, who Rockland voted for in 1994, 1996 and 2002.

As Rubenstein pointed out, Vanderhoef has been complaining that the MTA short-changes Rockland since 1997. It probably wasn't true then, and it's definitely not true now. I'm glad she's found people to call him on this, but none of them seem to pick up on the point that the entire "value gap" is nothing but payments on the debt that Vanderhoef himself supported.

Should Rockland get better transit service? Absolutely. But not to make things equal, just to fix the county's broken transportation system.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Tweaking congestion

A bunch of people liked my post last week about the 85th Percentile Rule, in which I reformulated the rule to incorporate pedestrian and cyclist safety:

1. Decide on a speed limit based on the pedestrian, cyclist and built environment you want to see along this road. That's what you put on your signs.

2. Design the road so that 85% of drivers will feel comfortable traveling under that speed.

There's a problem with that, though. The speed at which people feel comfortable driving - and of course the speed at which people can drive - depends not only on the street design, but on the level of congestion. If things are more congested, people drive slower. Less congestion, they drive faster.

This is a problem because the level of congestion can change for all kinds of reasons. A new destination may come into existence: a new housing development, a new workplace, a new shopping or entertainment area. A new road or parking lot may be built, making a connecting road more attractive. A parallel road or transit line may be closed or have its capacity reduced.

When the demand for the road increases but the capacity stays the same, so does congestion. Governments have a number of ways of increasing the capacity of the road to keep congestion down and keep traffic flowing, without having to completely redesign and rebuild the street. The top two strategies are removing parking and changing the direction of traffic.

The picture above is West Tenth Street in Greenwich Village. Note that there's two-way traffic, but hardly any parking. Here's the same corner from earlier this year:

The relatively narrow horsecarts have been replaced with larger cars and trucks. There are more of them, and they're moving faster. Sometimes people want to park them, especially overnight. All of that led to greater demand, so the city converted West Tenth Street into a one-way street. It's not clear whether there was ever parking on this block, but there doesn't seem to be any now, at least at the time of day that I took the picture. The left side of the street has been converted into an exclusive bike lane.

What is bad for pedestrian and cyclist safety is when demand for the road goes down: a destination may disappear, a road or parking lot may be closed, a parallel road or transit line may open. But the government so rarely uses these tools in the other direction. There are legitimate fears of motorist confusion causing crashes, but I believe it's been shown that if you can manage things well, people adjust.

Some in government may see the added speed as a bonus for drivers. That may be, but if the speed goes above safe levels, it's not much of a bonus for everyone.
The government shouldn't simply take away parking and make streets one way. People should monitor speeds and make sure that they don't exceed the chosen speed limit by too much. If the 85th percentile speed is too much higher than the chosen speed, then the government should look to make a street two-way or add parking until the drivers slow down.

Congestion also varies with the time of day, but that's a different post.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Pulaski Skyway, a different "freeway without a future"?

Earlier this year the Congress for the New Urbanism released a new version of its "Freeways without futures" list. I wholeheartedly agree that all twelve of the highways in question are disgusting blights and should be removed. I've seen the Claiborne Expressway, the Sheridan and the Alaskan Way up close, and I have a special loathing for I-81 in Syracuse and Route 34 in New Haven. But there are a few roads that I think deserve to be on the list but aren't.

It's a bad thing when a highway cuts neighborhoods in half, like the Cross-Bronx Expressway, or cuts a neighborhood off from access to jobs and services, like the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in Red Hook, or cuts the waterfront off from meaningful recreational or commercial use, like the FDR Drive. Converting these highways to boulevards is a good thing, especially when the boulevards are designed to be walkable and livable. There are other criteria missing, though.

Think of a walkable urban area that's already well-served by transit. The streets are congested with cars for too many hours of the day. You don't need that many cars to bring customers to the businesses, and they're ruining the pedestrian experience. So why do you have a highway terminating there? That highway is basically pumping cars into an area that doesn't need them.

These highways may not be visibly blocking a cherished view or oppressing a street, but by aiming a firehose of cars into a compact urban area they are a major factor in the deterioration of walkable urban environments. When possible, they should either be torn down or turned over to transit.

The most obvious case is Congress Parkway in Chicago. It's six lanes of nasty urban traffic fed by an eight-lane highway. It doesn't need to be there, and it makes the South Loop feel oppressive. It should be narrowed and given sidewalks befitting a grand urban boulevard, from the Circle to the Lake. The District of Columbia is full of these; 12th Street NW is probably the worst. University Street in Montreal is not much fun, as I recall.

Here in the New York area, we have four highway tunnels and five highway bridges that empty directly into the streets of Manhattan. You could get rid of any of the highways (495, I-78, the BQE, the Long Island Expressway, the Grand Central Parkway, the Bruckner Expressway and the Major Deegan Expressway) and it would make a huge improvement.

It's hard to choose among these firehoses of cars, but one of the worst is the Holland Tunnel. This is because it combines two four-lane expressways, the Pulaski Skyway and the Newark Bay Extension of the New Jersey Turnpike, into a single stream. It's even more powerful in the other direction due to the Verrazano Toll Pump, sucking cars and trucks from all over Manhattan and Brooklyn through Chinatown, Soho and Greenwich Village.

Fortunately, we are coming upon a historic opportunity to turn down this firehose. One of the four-lane expressways that feed into the Holland Tunnel, the Pulaski Skyway, is nearing the end of its life. This expensive steel structure has contributed to the destruction of the sensitive Hackensack Meadowlands since 1932. Naturally, there is a plan to rebuild the structure, and lots of rehabilitation in the meantime. Remember the ARC Tunnel that Chris Christie killed? $1.8 billion of the money is paying for that rehabilitation.

Some people like the way the Skyway looks - from a distance, or from the inside of a moving car, at least. I admit that it has a certain beauty to it. But its function is destructive. If there were some way to turn it into a dedicated busway, that might be nice, but I don't get the impression it would work. If we like the look, let's keep a small piece of it up somewhere for posterity's sake, but don't hold people's lives hostage to aesthetics.

In sum, we're diverting more than a billion dollars from critical transit improvements to maintain a road that blasts 30,000 cars a day (yes, only cars) into one of the densest, most walkable business districts in the country. If this thing were towering over a neighborhood instead of a swamp, it would definitely be on the CNU's list. Is it any less deserving of a teardown because it only saturates the area with cars?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Listening - skeptically - to NIMBYs

So Kaid Benfield's post "Mitigating the environmental paradox of smart growth: softening urban density" got the snazzier title "The Case for Listening to NIMBYs" when it was reposted on the Atlantic Cities. There are several parts of the post that I'm uncomfortable with (e.g. the idea of "nature" and "density" as monolithic things that always have the same effects on people), but I want to highlight the part that the editor (Richard Florida?) highlighted with the new headline.

Benfield quotes two planners, Susan Henderson and Lisa Nisenson, who make some pretty decent recommendations for better community engagement and more sophisticated placemaking. But he frames them in a false dichotomy:

All too often, I think smart growth advocates seek to ignore NIMBY opposition (“we’re right and they’re wrong”) or simply seek to overpower it politically. (Wise developers, to their credit, often negotiate with opponents, frequently succeeding in getting to a “yes” by making concessions that, in the long run, will save them time and money compared to legal battles. Urbanist policy advocates generally lament these concessions.)

Some pro-development commentators are starting to suggest a different strategy: acknowledge that NIMBY fears are frequently well-founded and address them with changes in design, policy and process that respect their concerns.

Yes, it's a bad idea to ignore NIMBY opposition. This is Bob Moses thinking, and it was wrong when he did it. On the other hand, it's also wrong to simply accept NIMBY claims. And it's often a bad idea to horse-trade with NIMBYs; I personally do lament some concessions. O woe of the half-assed height variance!

Here's the problem: NIMBYs lie. They don't all lie, and they don't lie all the time, but enough NIMBYs lie often enough that you can't just take their word for things. They don't just lie to other people, they lie to themselves. Of course, developers lie, too, and planners lie. We're all people.

NIMBYs are also irrational. Just like developers and planners and crazy anonymous transit geeks. We're all people.

Seriously, how many NIMBY Predictions of Doom have you heard? Things that made absolutely no sense? But when you looked in the person's eyes as they stood at the mic in the community center, you knew that they really believed that removing two parking spaces would lead to gridlock, chaos and honking twenty-four hours a day. And then the two parking spaces were removed, and there was no increase in gridlock, chaos or honking, but the person has never admitted that they were wrong. Somebody, somewhere should make a catalog of these crazy predictions.

We should listen to NIMBYs, not because that's how you get things done, but because they're people. People deserve respect, and one of the best ways to show respect is by listening. But listening and acknowledgment do not necessarily mean acceptance or agreement. We need to listen skeptically.

Yes, NIMBYs sometimes lie and they're often clueless. Even more often, they're engaging in at least one of these types of irrational behavior:

  • Escapism. Some people lead lives of quiet desperation. Some people are less quiet about it. One way to console themselves about their days in the office is to spend their nights as the Defender of the Neighborhood against the Oversized Tree Pits.
  • Inertia. Things are pretty good the way they are. Why would I want to change that? Besides, I'm looking to sell next year and I don't want anything that might bring the price down even temporarily.
  • Status anxiety. If my neighborhood gets a bad reputation, it could rub off on me.
  • Overgeneralization. If this thing has happened more than once before, it will probably happen again. Prejudice is a form of overgeneralization.

You may have noticed that people don't like it if you tell them they're being irrational. So what do you do if you think they are? Make them justify, rationally, their concerns and their Predictions of Doom. In other words: listen, but be skeptical. In the long run, listening without being skeptical doesn't do anyone any favors, including the NIMBYs.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Why no parking should be the future of parking

Yesterday, Eric Jaffe of the Atlantic Cities tweeted to his colleague Emily Badger, "One day we'll find something that pleases the Cap'n." They both actually do write a lot that pleases me (such as the Transit Riders' Union post and retailers don't need parking to thrive), but I reserve the right to criticize. Like now, I'm going to criticize Badger's latest post, "Car Elevators: Not Just for Rich People" (from the slug, the working title was apparently something like "Why Car Elevators Should Be the Future of Parking").

My first criticism is that if you didn't know better, you might get the impression from the post that car elevators were a new thing, at least to New York City. In fact, we've had them all my life.

While looking for corroboration of this, I found a story from July about an attendant who drove someone's SUV into the elevator shaft in one of these garages, but the elevator wasn't there so he crashed down five stories and hit another attendant who was actually in the elevator. Fortunately, they both survived.

We also have the columnar car lifts that you see in so many Midtown parking lots:

Now these are not the individual car elevators promised to rich Chelsea condo owners or Mitt Romney, and they're not the automatic garages that Badger talks about. They're run by attendants: you drop your car off and give them the keys. They go park it, and when you're ready to pick it up they get it out for you. You don't have to drive your car in the elevator or wedge it into some tiny space.

This may be a bit less efficient than the Milstein automatic garages, but probably not much so. They're certainly a better use of space than the garages with lots of ramps that Badger compares to the automatic garages. But while elevator garages may not be just for the super-rich, I don't know who Badger thinks can afford to pay fifty dollars a day to store a car in the city, or even twenty-five. In my book, that's just for the rich.

The rest of Badger's argument - that "cars and people live in a constant competition for space," and that these automatic garages can help relieve that tension - doesn't hold up. First of all, cars don't live, outside of cartoon movies. The competition for space is between the small minority who want to drive and park their cars in the city, and everyone else who's just walking here. When minimum parking requirements don't apply, off-street space is allocated by supply and demand. If a developer can get more money from an apartment building than a parking lot, then you'll see that parking lot replaced by apartments. Making it easier for a few rich people to store their cars on top of each other isn't going to free up more space for walking and apartments. At best, it'll free up some more garage space so that the next income bracket can buy cars. Yay.

As Brooklyn Spoke wrote in the comments, unless the cars are entirely symbolic (in which case they're hugely inefficient symbols to keep in a city), people will need to transport them to and from these automatic garages on a regular basis. That means more cars on the streets, which means more pollution and carnage, and less space for pedestrians and transit. The main reason why dense cities are more efficient and less polluting is because people don't have to drive as much. If there are people who won't live in the city unless they can drive, then let them go bankrupt out in the suburbs. Cheering a technology that makes it easier for people to drive in dense cities is missing the point.

Car elevators are the past of parking, and the present. They may also be the future. But that's really nothing to applaud or get too excited about. With any luck, the future of parking will be that there's a whole lot less of it around, regardless of whether it's organized vertically or horizontally. And that's why any new parking should be convertible to other uses when the demand goes away. That's what the future of parking should be.

Monday, November 26, 2012

A bus bridge to the Rockaways

As I wrote before, the best thing for the Rockaways is not to rebuild so much infrastructure-intensive development there; that means no more dense housing projects, and no more car-oriented racist gated communities. If you're going to rebuild those, the next best thing is to rebuild the old rail connection between the Long Island Rail Road and the elevated tracks in Far Rockaway and run express service to Penn Station.

Since I wrote that last post, in fact, I found out that the shopping center that was built across the old right-of-way has been failing for twenty years. The supermarket has been renovated, but much of the other space is vacant, and most of the cars in the parking lot are owned by park-and-riders from Nassau County. So it would be relatively easy for the MTA to buy out the owner, move the supermarket and rebuild the tracks.

Even if we do that, it would take a while to rebuild. The MTA is apparently hard at work rebuilding the trestle across Jamaica Bay. It's not clear how long that will take, but in the meantime, the MTA should have done more with buses. In the few days after the hurricane, the MTA, the DOT and the NYPD worked together to build an impressive rapid bus corridor connecting downtown Brooklyn with Midtown Manhattan. Why can't they do that for the Rockaways?

In fact, it's much easier for the Rockaways, because we're not talking about taking lanes from a relatively narrow, heavily trafficked avenue like Lexington. Instead you've got Cross Bay Boulevard, which becomes Woodhaven Boulevard and connects directly to Queens Boulevard and the Long Island Expressway. Cross Bay Boulevard is 145 feet across, and Woodhaven is 195 feet. There's plenty of room to take two lanes for buses, like this.

This is the rendering from page 41 of this PDF from the DOT illustrating possible layouts for "BRT Phase II." Looks awfully like Woodhaven Boulevard, doesn't it? In fact, here's Google Street View of Woodhaven at 101st Avenue, looking north:

It's a slightly different angle, but the buildings are the same. That's right, four years ago, DOT bus planners were looking at Woodhaven Boulevard as a model for rapid bus service. Even before A train service was wiped out, the Q53 more than doubled its ridership, to 14,844 per weekday, in the four years after it was taken over by the MTA. Imagine how many more people would ride it if it had its own dedicated lanes.

As an idea, this is a no-brainer. With subway service to Manhattan cut, Rockaway residents deserve a rapid bus to Midtown, connecting to the A, J, Z, M and R trains. The only obstacle is political.

Why the 85th Percentile Rule still matters

Earlier this month Pedro Madruga at Copenhagenize found a really bad zombie rule that continues to wreak havoc all over the world: the 85th Percentile Rule. This is the procedure used to set a speed limit:

1. Design the road to permit the highest speeds that the budget and the landowners will let you.

2. Measure the speed of drivers and find the 85th percentile - the speed where 85% of drivers are going at that speed or slower. Round to the nearest multiple of 5. That's the speed limit that you put on your signs.

As Madruga points out, this is a shitty idea, because most pedestrians and cyclists aren't going to go more than ten miles per hour, never mind stopped cars and buildings. Animals too, of course. This leads you straight into Strong Towns' famous Conversation with an Engineer.

However, Madruga doesn't acknowledge that the 85th Percentile Rule does contain two valuable insights. The first is that large differences between the speeds of drivers on a road can be dangerous. If you've taken physics, you know that relative speed is what matters in a crash. With pedestrians and cyclists we're able to ignore that, because the difference between a pedestrian's speed and zero is so much smaller than that between a driver's speed and a pedestrian's. But for drivers and car passengers, it matters.

The other insight is that some drivers follow the speed limit, while others drive as fast as feels safe. The bigger the difference between those two groups, the more destructive it will be when a member of the feeling group hits a member of the limit group. By increasing the speed limit to the 85th percentile, they encourage the limit group to travel at the same speed as the feeling group, minimizing that difference.

We don't want to throw out that insight. But we do want to be less crazy about it. The key is to change the order of the steps:

1. Decide on a speed limit based on the pedestrian, cyclist and built environment you want to see along this road. That's what you put on your signs.

2. Design the road so that 85% of drivers will feel comfortable traveling under that speed.

By reversing those two steps, we make safety and comfort for all a priority over speed, and we acknowledge the value of a safe pedestrian environment in maintaining a livable city. That's the kind of thinking that goes into Twenty is Plenty and the New York City Slow Zones that it inspired. We can get finer-grained and more flexible than that, but it's the right direction.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Civilized walks

Last week I wrote about two self-propelled travel memoirs, and how the travelers seem to have spent almost as much time being driven around as they did on the water or the trail. As I've written before, if I'm going for a walk I want to walk. I don't want to be driven to one trailhead and picked up at the other end. This is not some misplaced authenticity fetish: I know that even before cars, walkers got rides on horses and oxcarts and boats. It's just a matter of taste. I don't like being driven around. I find it infantilizing.

Here's the kind of "civilized walk" that these books make me long for: a long walk from one interesting place to another, taking several days. Ideally, it would run through a mixture of cities, suburbs, parks, countryside and small towns, with some long quiet stretches where I could walk for an hour or two without encountering too many people. It would have a comfortable indoor place to stay every night. Since I don't have the kind of connections that David Morine had, that means a room in a reasonably priced inn, hotel or bed and breakfast.

A civilized walk would not require climbing mountains or crossing large wilderness areas, although it might be nice if there were optional side trails to do those things. It would not involve camping, lean-tos, youth hostels or couch surfing.

For me, a civilized walk would also not require being picked up or dropped off in anyone's car. It would not involve walking on the side of any busy roads or stroads. That means that the entire trip would be on car-free trails, sidepaths or sidewalks, with maybe a few short bits on small streets, country back roads and driveways. It also means that both ends of the walk would be accessible by transit.

You can also have civilized day walks that are transit-accessible at both ends, entirely on trails, sidepaths, sidewalks or pedestrian-priority streets. There are plenty of these in the greater New York area, but they've been covered, at least in part, so I won't focus on them.

I don't know how widely my preferences are shared. It's pretty clear that some people don't want to own cars, and just about everybody hates walking anywhere near a stroad. Beyond that, do other people feel as uncomfortable being driven around as I do? All those Appalachian Trail hikers don't seem to have a problem with it. Do other people mind walking down paved country roads where a drunken tourist might come around a corner at fifty miles an hour? It's not clear.

In future posts, I'm going to explore some of the possibilities for civilized walks like this. There are lots of incomplete options, and some promising leads, but I haven't found anything yet that really looks like it would work.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Real Rockaway train service

As I've written before, the Rockaway Peninsula is one of the least sustainable places in the New York area. This sand bar might be okay for some cheap, replaceable summer bungalows and amusement parks, but it's no place for year-round inhabitants, much less large public housing projects. It's definitely not a place where you'd want to sink lots of money into expensive road infrastructure, but that's what the state has done, and every time it tries to charge people a reasonable fee for maintaining this massive system, they whine about it. The residents also made the mistake of depending for their power on bad sources, first on organized crime and nuclear fission, then on a legitimately underfunded but inept state agency.

For all their tough talk, it sounds like the Governor and the Mayor have passed up the opportunity to dump this money pit. We will rebuild, apparently. We'll rebuild the acres of single-family homes sprawled across the sand. We'll rebuild the parts of the housing projects that were damaged. We'll rebuild the train bridge that makes the commute slightly less polluting. We'll rebuild the telephone poles.

One of the most obnoxious elements of this whole thing was the pride that the MTA staff displayed in putting twenty R32 cars onto flatbed trucks and driving them over to the Rockaways. Don't they get it that this is really bad symbolism? Every time a train car is loaded onto a truck it sends the message that cars and trucks are the "real" transportation, and we have to do all kinds of things with them to get the trains working. On the other hand, these are probably the same MTA managers who live in East Northport and drive to their train yards and bus depots. Their entire lives are spent driving to run a transit system, so how can they ever imagine it could be any other way?

It's not clear how long it will take to restore the trestle across the bay, but the MTA could use some of the reconstruction money to restore the original tracks that went to Rockaway from Valley Stream. That connection came in handy in 1950 when the trestle was destroyed in a fire, and the Long Island Rail Road was able to run trains through Far Rockaway, as shown in this schedule:

Did they learn from that bit of resilience? Nah. In 1956 the LIRR sold the trestle and the peninsular tracks to the city, and in 1958 a quarter mile of track was removed in Far Rockaway. In 1966 the State took over the LIRR, and in 1968 it took over New York City transit, but it didn't rebuild the connection. A supermarket has been built across the old right-of-way, as you can see in this satellite picture:

If the track connection were still there, it would have been a relatively simple matter to move the trains. Better yet, the LIRR could have run trains direct from Penn Station. They wouldn't have to take an hour and a half like they did in 1951, if they went express from Far Rockaway to Valley Stream.

I don't know exactly how much it would cost to buy out the supermarket, rebuild the tracks and adjust the stations platforms for LIRR train cars, but probably only a couple million dollars. For a few million more you could build an elevated trestle over the supermarket and not even have to demolish it. Sure, it's a lot of money, but probably nothing compared to what we're spending to rebuild the trestle across the bay.

On one level, all of this is silly, because we simply can't afford to keep people living on a sand bar year round. It'd be a lot simpler if the train line just had to serve beachgoers; it could be rebuilt every spring if need be. But if we're going to have people living out there all year, they should have some real train service, and despite what Gridlock Sam may say, we shouldn't lower the tolls. That would ensure that they will drive for years more, keeping the trains empty and heavily subsidized.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Squatting and bullying on the sidewalk

There are two related, interconnected phenomena involving the use of public space: squatting and bullying. Squatting is taking over a public space for a use that wasn't intended, usually one that is relatively private. Bullying is using superior force to abuse others.

Some squats are very noble, others are generally positive: a political demonstration, a game of stickball, a tamale vendor. Some are a lot less positive: a race riot, a game of three-card monte, a drug deal. Your own opinion and morality will determine which ones you think are positive, and to what degree.

So far I've been talking about squats where the squatter has roughly equal power to the "legitimate users" of the public space. But when there's a big imbalance of power, things can get really ugly. That's when squatting and bullying combine to form a menace.

I'm thinking specifically of sidewalks. Sidewalks have all kinds of unintended uses, but their primary, intended use is to facilitate walking. They do this by being a pedestrian space where large and/or fast objects are not allowed. They are very important to our goals, because we need walking to be a viable alternative to driving for many trips. If the sidewalks in an area become unusable or absent, people on foot tend to avoid that area, or to get into cars.

Of course it's possible for intended and unintended uses to coexist on sidewalks. Jane Jacobs famously discussed the "sidewalk ballet" of unintended uses that allowed her West Village block to be so vibrant and safe. What I'm concerned about is when there is so much squatting that the sidewalk becomes useless for walking. Some uses are officially permitted - as in, the users have a permit. "Sidewalk sheds" (aka scaffolding) are a big one. Sidewalk cafes, store enclosures and news boxes also tend to take space away from walking. On some sidewalks there's plenty of room; on others, it gets to be a problem.

Some uses are not officially sanctioned, but still on relatively equal terms. Sidewalk cycling, sidewalk used clothing sales and the famous double-wide strollers of Park Slope are examples of this. When two friends walk abreast for social reasons, even though it leaves no room for anyone else to pass, that's a way of abusing the sidewalk.

And then there's bullying. I remember one night when I was eight or nine, and three big guys were walking down the sidewalk towards me. They didn't get out of the way, and just knocked me down. My dad yelled at them, but they laughed and walked away.

Then there's the kind of sidewalk bullying done with cars. It's bad enough when someone parks a car on the sidewalk, but it's worse when they block the sidewalk, and the worst is when they block the sidewalk and drive towards you, so that you have to get off the sidewalk or go backwards.

I'll talk more about this in future posts.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Cap'n's Bookshelf: Two Coots in a Canoe and Becoming Odyssa

One of my recreational pleasures is reading what I call self-propelled travel memoirs. I can't stand travelogues that are full of passages like "Our driver warned us..." and I have a hard time relating to windshield memoirs. I like Paul Theroux's books about train travel, and his books where he travels partly under his own steam, like Kingdom By the Sea where he walks a good deal of the way around the coast of England, and The Happy Isles of Oceania, where he kayaks around a number of Pacific islands (traveling between them by ship and plane). I've discovered a number of memoirs by other authors that involve long walks, bike rides or paddles.

Earlier this year I read Two Coots in a Canoe, by retired conservation advocate David Morine, describing how he and his friend Ramsay Peard canoed the length of the Connecticut River. Morine's conversational style made for easy reading, but some of the emotional content was honest and raw, with a surprising twist at the end.

One intriguing aspect of this memoir was that Morine and Peard, both around sixty years old at the time, agreed that they wouldn't camp out once during the trip. Instead they collaborated with other conservation advocates and used the connections they had built over their lifetimes to arrange for free room and board, usually with local activists involved in preserving or restoring a section of the river. In giving voice to these activists and describing their campaigns, Morine paints a picture of the current state of the river and the challenges in sustaining its flow and its wildlife.

After I finished that, I read Becoming Odyssa, an Appalachian Trail memoir by Jennifer Pharr Davis. Pharr Davis's style is a bit overwrought with metaphors, but she gives you a good feel for trail culture, and her honest discussions of her own emotional reactions to the trail are insightful and illuminating. As an atheist, I appreciated that she described her Christian religious beliefs and observances as matters of fact without any attempt to proselytize.

Sustainable transportation advocates will be most interested in the passage when Odyssa (as the author named herself, an Appalachian Trail tradition) comes upon the scene of a suicide. Realizing that the deed has been done, she numbly continues on the trail and dials 911 from her cell phone. On page 204 there is this exchange with the dispatcher:

"I need to know where your car is," she said.
"I don't have a car. I hiked here."
"Well, where did you park your car?"
"I didn't park anywhere. I'm an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker."
"What county are you in?"
"I don't know what county I'm in. I'm at Sunrise Mountain in New Jersey."
"So where do you live in New Jersey?"
"I don't live in New Jersey."
"Then where is your car?"

After ten or fifteen minutes of this, someone else in the 911 call center overhears their conversation and tells the woman "Patch her through to the police now."

Pharr Davis may not have had a car at the time, but in both books I was struck by how much time all three travelers and their companions spent being driven around by friends, relatives and hosts. The amount of driving involved in the average Appalachian Trail through-hike is pretty amazing.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Can transit save the environment? Not without riders

The latest Eric Morris Freakonomics post, which I hate, got picked by Stephen Dubner for Marketplace Radio's weekly Freakonomics segment. Kai Ryssdal's interview, and whoever wrote the Marketplace headline, trashed Morris's carefully constructed pox-on-both-houses framing and turned it into a standard Tom Rubin muddle-headed transit advocates attack.

As I said last week, the funniest thing is that Morris's general thrust is actually the main point that I've been hammering at for years. That said, given his earlier writing, I'm not sure that Morris didn't want all along to write a muddle-headed transit advocates attack, but then ditched it for the pox-on-both-houses frame. If his point was really that we should have congestion pricing, he sure buried it. So here's the article Eric Morris should have written - or at least what I would have written.

A major reason for supporting transit expansion is that increased transit use will draw people out of their cars and thus reduce pollution and help save the environment. That part is true, but we have to be very careful how we do this, because transit expansion will not automatically lead to increased transit use and decreased car use.

Increasing transit service without increasing its use can even be counterproductive: today in the United States, the average bus trip requires more energy than the average car trip, because the average bus only has about ten passengers. If the energy powering transit comes from a dirty source, like coal or diesel, it can compound the problem. Environmental advocates not only need to get more transit, but they need to make sure people ride it.

The key to this is realizing that if transit is going to get people out of their cars, they have to choose it over driving. When people choose to make a habit out of taking the bus or the train, it's because it provides a greater value than driving. When people choose to live in a place with convenient transit access instead of choosing to buy a car, it's because they want that transit-oriented lifestyle. Instead of just building transit, environmental advocates need to make it a greater value and a more attractive lifestyle. Here are five ways we can do that:

1. Stop building roads that compete with transit systems. Last year a faithful reader wrote a post about disappointingly low ridership on seven new commuter rail lines. For each of these lines I was able to find a parallel road expansion that had been built at roughly the same time, increasing the value of driving and keeping people in their cars.

2. Give transit its own right-of-way. Transit systems that operate in mixed traffic - buses and streetcars, typically - have very little advantage over driving. When transit can get through a bottleneck quicker than private cars, it offers greater value. The highest-ridership bus systems in the country all make use of a single high-capacity queue-jumper, the Lincoln Tunnel Exclusive Bus Lane.

3. Charge market prices for driving-related expenses. Those Lincoln Tunnel buses are all competing (and winning) against high tunnel tolls. There is no easy way to drive from New Jersey into Manhattan without paying the tolls. Similarly with heavily subsidized purchases of gas and parking. You'd be surprised at how much better the bus looks if you have to pay five dollars for an hour of parking.

4. Sunset your park-and-ride lots. Having people drive to the bus or train may bring down the "cost per new rider" numbers, but the longer people drive to transit, the more pollution they emit. They will also probably drive for most evening and weekend trips. It may be strategically appropriate to build a park-and-ride to get people riding the new line right away, but the plan should be to get rid of the park-and-rides as soon as possible.

5. Legalize true transit-oriented development. The best way to keep people from driving to the station is to make it so that they can live near the station and walk to all their daily shopping needs. Sadly, in most of the country it is illegal to build an apartment building with a supermarket on the ground floor a block from a train station. We need to change that.

Of these five principles, Morris focused on number 3, charging market prices. That makes sense, since Freakonomics is mostly about prices, but at least three of the other factors are also Freakonomics-worthy. Number 1, keeping the road supply down, and number 4, keeping the parking supply down, are central to economic theory. Market prices tend to be lower when supply is higher. Number 5, legalize transit-oriented development, fits with Steven Levitt's libertarian leanings. Number 2, giving transit its own right-of-way, is the only one that requires substantial state intervention.

The main reason you didn't see these factors on Freakonomics, I'm guessing, is because they're not condescending or snarky enough for them. Sorry, guys.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A grand bargain for walkable streets

As I wrote before, after the failure of Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing campaign in 2008, advocates realized that the plan had failed to capture the interest of drivers. "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz then came up with a plan that offered "something for the drivers" to overcome their resistance. The problem is that it offers them too much. The proposed toll reductions and highway widenings would encourage a huge amount of driving, offsetting a large percentage of the reduction in driving encouraged by the added tolls and bus service.

The key failing, which I've also observed in other politicians who claim to be pro transit, is the practice of dividing the world into drivers, transit riders, cyclists and pedestrians, with the assumption that there is never any overlap or change among these categories, and that all people care about is their own transportation. This may be a good simplifying assumption to start with, but when it leads you to disasters like widening the Van Wyck, it's time to step back and revisit your assumptions.

So let's go back to what we actually know: that a significant segment of the opposition to congestion pricing came from people who currently drive. These people will probably not be driving much longer, however. I've been to the congestion pricing hearings. Most of the active opponents are over fifty. In thirty years, most of them will be dead, and many of those who are still alive will be too infirm to drive.

There are of course plenty of people under fifty who love driving, hate paying for transit, and fear that losing their status as drivers will infantilize them and drive all the chicks away. But they're a much smaller proportion of younger generations than they are among the Baby Boomers, and even the diehard motorists will think twice about driving when gas gets up over ten dollars a gallon. We shouldn't be building big highways for them.

The question becomes, then, how do we structure it so that "we" don't wind up taking "their" money? What can we do for the people who are currently drivers, and don't see any benefit to decreased Midtown congestion or increased transit funding? Something along the lines of Donald Shoup's parking benefit districts?

I have one idea. Let's take the sidewalks off their hands.

Although the City Department of Transportation oversees sidewalk maintenance, they report that 99% of the 12,750 miles of the city's sidewalks are the responsibility of whoever owns the adjacent property. The only thing the DOT has to do is send out inspectors and then fine the property owners whose sidewalks aren't up to standards. In practice, they have a program where they repair the sidewalk themselves and send the owner the bill.

From a pedestrian's point of view, that sucks. It means that the sidewalks quality is inconsistent from one property to the next. The city is constantly tempted to cut the sidewalk inspection budget, which provides a huge incentive for the property owners to skimp on sidewalk maintenance and hope that the inspector won't notice. When the inspectors do their job the property owners complain, hence the endless stream of kvetching to elected officials, community boards and the media in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.

It actually doesn't make sense for the property owners to be responsible for maintaining sidewalks. Most of the sidewalks are on city-owned right-of-way, not private property. The city sets strict standards that leave property owners hardly any room for self-expression. While the city DOT can take advantage of economies of scale to save money, small property owners have to pay regular market rate. On the few streets that are missing sidewalks, it is politically difficult for the DOT to force property owners to pay to build them.

Of course, it costs money to maintain all those sidewalks. According to this article, it cost the City of Los Angeles $172,727 to replace a mile of sidewalk. Sidewalk only needs to be replaced at most every ten years, for $17,273 per mile per year, or $220 million. This is a small portion of the $1.4 billion that Gridlock Sam's plan would raise in bridge tolls, leaving almost $1.2 billion for other projects. If enough of "the drivers" are satisfied with this arrangement, then we don't have to widen the Belt Parkway, and we can put all that money into transit projects.

Would "the drivers" like this? The Census website isn't cooperating with me, but I'm pretty sure that most drivers in Brooklyn and Queens own their homes, and a lot of those, especially the vocal ones who show up at meetings and call their city council members, live in single-family or two-family houses. For them, sidewalk maintenance is a big headache that they don't need.

The best part, of course, is that this benefit will accrue to "the drivers" even if they never drive again. Even if they sell their homes, they will still have well-maintained sidewalks to walk on. And so will the rest of us.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

What Not to Rebuild

I'm glad to see that some people have broached the topic of sustainability in the areas devastated by Hurricane Sandy, and in particular the idea that some uses just aren't a good idea on barrier islands.

I have to say, though, that boardwalks and beaches seem like the easiest things. If the sand gets washed away you can bring more in on barges, and boardwalks are pretty easy to rebuild. Even train trestles - simple ones, across a shallow bay or along a sand bar, away from other structures - are cheap compared to a lot of things. Cheap bungalows, especially the summer-only kind that have no heat or insulation, aren't too bad. Here's a short list of things that were really a bad idea to build in the first place, and shouldn't be rebuilt.

  • Racist gated communities. I have sympathy for the people in Breezy Point and Seagate who lost homes and belongings in the floods and fires, and I know it's no fun to be displaced. But we have to acknowledge these places for what they were: segregated enclaves designed to enable white people to live relatively cheaply within the city limits without having black or brown people living next door.

    Beyond the sheer repulsiveness of the idea, it corrodes the fabric of the city. I'm not sure these places should be rebuilt at all, but if they're rebuilt with public funds, it should be on the condition that the gates come down and the streets and beaches are open to everyone.
  • Housing projects. As the Pratt Center has pointed out, the public housing built on Coney Island and the Rockaways, as well as in Red Hook, is not just vulnerable to storms, it is remote from the city's job center, and a prime cause of the problem of poor people with long commutes. The projects on the Lower East Side are less remote, but still not well-served by transit.

    I don't know the current state of the buildings, but we definitely shouldn't put more money into any projects in Zone A. Beyond that, while the Pruitt-Igoe (or Cabrini-Green) treatment is problematic for inner city projects, it makes a lot more sense to dynamite projects on remote barrier islands. Replacing these projects with Section 8 vouchers would probably make the city more sustainable.
  • Toxic industrial sites. As the waters of the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek rose, many feared that water seeping through the Superfund sites along its banks would contaminate the rest of the area. There's value to waterfront industry, but we have to be careful about this kind of danger (also highlighted by the Pratt Center).
  • Car-dependent sprawl. In my last post, I made a connection between car-dependent sprawl and the climate change that enabled this storm. We shouldn't use rebuilding funds to perpetuate these polluting practices.

    According to L Magazine the "walks" on Breezy Point are car-free and safe, but most people get to and from the enclave by car. There's a similar pattern the length of Rockaway and in Gerritsen Beach and Marine Park. Much of the Jersey Shore and the South Shores of Staten Island and Long Island are car-dependent sprawl, especially as you get further away from the train stations.

    Some of these areas should be designated as waterfront preserves, with the only construction allowed being cheap summer bungalows and wooden boardwalks. The rest should be zoned for greater density and mixed use.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Governor Cuomo, climate change and transit

Nathan H. was following my train of thought when I wondered whether a politician - specifically, Governor Andrew Cuomo - could be a "car guy" and still be an effective advocate for transit. That train of thought started with Cuomo's statements on climate change in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy:
It's a longer conversation, but I think part of learning from this is the recognition that climate change is a reality, extreme weather is a reality, it is a reality that we are vulnerable. Climate change is a controversial subject, right? People will debate whether there is climate change … that's a whole political debate that I don't want to get into. I want to talk about the frequency of extreme weather situations, which is not political … There's only so long you can say, "this is once in a lifetime and it's not going to happen again."

The next stop on that train was the Governor's numerous statements announcing storm precautions and service restorations on the transit system, which Noah Budnick of Transportation Alternatives took as an admission that the Governor controls the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. It's obvious that the MTA is a state agency, but from the beginning governors have distanced themselves from it, in part to avoid responsibility for raising fares. Cuomo could not resist taking credit for the positive things the MTA has done in this storm, prompting speculation that he may continue to acknowledge ownership of it for the rest of his time in office.

Let's connect the two. Despite the shell game played by Tom Rubin and perpetuated by his followers like Eric Morris, the more people we can get to shift from cars to transit, the slower our climate will change. The bigger the rail network we can leave for our children and grandchildren, the easier it will be for them to get around without putting more carbon dioxide into the air.

You may ask why we should bother curbing New York City's carbon emissions. Dense, transit-oriented cities already have low per capita pollution; New York's is half as much as Denver's. We emit a small portion of the country's total greenhouse gas emissions (less than one percent), and an even smaller portion of the world's. True, but Cuomo is the governor of the entire state, and a large percentage of the state's population lives and works in dense, older areas easily served by transit. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that if the Governor could shift half the state's population from cars to transit, he could cut the state's greenhouse gas emissions in half.

Beyond that, New York City and New York State may have a reputation as weirdo outliers whose ideas won't fly in Peoria, but there are a lot of people around the country and around the world who are paying attention to us. If Cuomo leads on transit, many of those people will follow. If he ever succeeds in his goal of becoming President of the United States, getting the country to shift to transit would have a huge effect on the world's carbon dioxide emissions. New York State could provide a proof of concept for him.

Until last week, I was sure that Cuomo - who admitted to not having ridden the subway in years - was both clueless and uninterested on these issues. His raising of the climate change issue, awkward and fumbling as it was, changed that for me. It seems now that, like the President, the Governor had chosen to be silent on the issue, afraid that it would make him a magnet for reactionary mockery and ruin his carefully crafted reputation as a Democrat that Republicans could do business with. On October 30, it was clear that he had made up his mind that it was foolish to remain silent.

Similarly with transit, it is clear that Cuomo realizes that the city is dependent on its subways, buses and commuter trains to function properly. He knows what Joe Lhota repeated many times: that millions of people depend on the system every day. He knows that keeping it running smoothly means happy voters.

Has Cuomo gone beyond that and made the connection between a smooth, ubiquitous transit system and slowing the rise of the oceans? Unfortunately, that is not clear. Let's hope he has, and that his days of treating the subways as a trivial service are over.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The cost of climate change denial

One thing I've heard in several places is how much surprise there has been in the areas hardest-hit by the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy. I found that a little puzzling at first. You live in a designated flood evacuation zone. There have been articles about it for years. Why would you be surprised?

On reflection it makes sense. These areas haven't seen such severe flooding, at least in living memory. Then there's the climate change denialism that can be felt even here in New York. Although most people here are cosmopolitan enough to pay lip service to the scientific evidence of global warming, many only believe it on an intellectual level. It seems so abstract, this idea of the sea levels rising, that it's hard to imagine it happening in our lifetimes.

This may explain why so much of Zone A seems to have been geared towards spewing out as much carbon dioxide as possible. The Lower East Side is one of the densest, most walkable places in the country, despite the best efforts of Bob Moses' urban renewal team. Red Hook is pretty urban, even though it's cut off from the subway system. Hoboken is one of the least car-dependent towns in Hudson County, and Mayor Zimmer is trying her best to turn it around, but it's still has less than 39% carfree households.

But the City Council districts containing the Rockaways, Gerritsen Beach, Coney Island and the South Shore of Staten Island are some of the most car-dependent in the city. They're zoned for low-density sprawl, and they fiercely attack any effort to improve non-car transportation.

At climate change events, some of the most dedicated countries are those that could be sunk by rising sea levels, like the Pacific island nations of Tokelau, Kiribati and Tuvalu. Is it time for the Rockaways, Coney Island, Gerritsen Beach and Red Hook to follow Hoboken's lead and be a force against climate change?