Thursday, April 26, 2012

Making up for the police with bureaucracy

I don't know exactly how much credit the Police Department deserves for the drop in "street crime" (i.e. things like muggings, sexual assault and drive-by shootings) over the past twenty years, but I'm willing to give them a lot. In terms of other types of crimes that happen on the street, not so much. Streetsblog has covered this territory in great detail, and if you're not already following their coverage of the department's "no criminality suspected" approach to vehicular manslaughter, you should be. In terms of routine enforcement, they rarely issue tickets for reckless actions like speeding, red light running and failure to yield.

In terms of misdemeanors, the NYPD's traffic division has been doing a fairly good job of enforcing rules governing alternate-side parking, metered parking and no standing zones; if they make Jimmy Vacca and his friends mad, they're probably doing something right. Unfortunately, they don't seem to be doing very well at enforcing the laws that protect pedestrians and pedestrian and transit spaces, especially outside Manhattan. It is not at all unusual to see cars and trucks parked on sidewalks, in crosswalks and in bus stops all over Queens. These appropriations put pedestrians in danger and slow down walking and transit trips, but I almost never see a traffic cop writing tickets for those offenses.

To a large extent, traffic calming facilities like bollards, sidewalk extensions, signal timing, lane reconfiguration, and restoring parking and two-way traffic flow, discourage the illegal behaviors that the NYPD doesn't punish. They can be thought of as making up for the deficiencies of policing. In most cases, though, they're actually better than police enforcement, because they work automatically through physics and psychology, and they're usually cheaper than paying for cops.

There's another way to make up for inadequate policing, but it's much less effective. If there's some kind of special permit requirement, the city can use that to enforce the laws. For example, taxi drivers and owners have to go to the Taxi and Limousine Commission to get their licenses and permits renewed, and any complaints can count against them. So how's that working? And as every New Yorker knows, taxi drivers conduct themselves with greater care than the average driver. Or maybe not. Actually, what you get is regulators who over time develop sympathy for the people they're supposed to be regulating and wind up going easier on them than the actual police.

That brings me back to last night's post, where a raft of politicians want to set up a special permit system for intercity buses in New York City. Most of the problems they complain about are enforcement issues:

  1. The buses often idle. "Some neighbors believe" they can make residents' asthma worse (Gotham Gazette).
  2. The buses make it "difficult to maintain a steady flow of ... pedestrian traffic" (Gotham Gazette).
  3. "and automobile traffic" (Gotham Gazette)
  4. and "to regulate trash and parking" (Gotham Gazette).
  5. Competition also creates "the possibility of accidents and even violence" (Gotham Gazette).
  6. Parked buses "could tie up deliveries, and other businesses in the area will be affected as well" (Tribeca Trib).
  7. "Noise" is a problem, according to Council Speaker Quinn. (Greg Mocker).
  8. The buses park in local bus stops. (Tri-State).
  9. "People's homes and businesses are being blocked by buses, commercial areas, residential areas," says Senator Squadron. Whatever that means (Metro).
That's right, there are laws already on the books against idling, blocking the sidewalk, blocking the road, littering, physically attacking your competitors, and parking in city bus stops. If the NYPD were doing its job, they would be enforcing all these laws. But get this: "In a Chelsea Now article, police officers from the nearby Fifth Precinct report that it is difficult to maintain a steady flow of both pedestrian and automobile traffic because of the buses. The buses' multiple staging areas also make it difficult to regulate trash and parking." The NYPD has the power to ticket the drivers and owners of these buses, but for some reason they just throw up their hands. Well of course Dan Squadron feels like he's in the wild west. The sheriff's out of town!

Unfortunately, this is not like traffic calming, where you can simply set up infrastructure that will restrict the ability of these buses to idle, block the sidewalk or road, or litter. You could of course set up attractive infrastructure: build a nice big bus terminal with dedicated on-ramps to exclusive bus lanes on the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges, for example. You'd probably get a lot of buses off the streets that way.

But no, Squadron and his colleagues Chin and Silver want to set up a whole new layer of bureaucracy and create a new class of entrenched interests protected by high barriers to entry. What could possibly go wrong?


Adirondacker12800 said...

And you could set up a nice big bus terminal with dedicated on-ramps to exclusive bus lanes to the Lincoln Tunnel and direct the intercity buses there, for example.........

eric said...

"You could of course set up attractive infrastructure: build a nice big bus terminal"

They already did so. It's called the port authority bus terminal, and it is the nation's largest and world's busiest.

eric said...

To clarify, last time I took an intercity bus to NYC, I was let off right next to Penn Station, about 5 blocks from the port authority bus station. It didn't go to chinatown, it went to midtown. I liked being able to jump out right onto the street, but I did think it was a little weird that it didn't have to go into the port authority terminal. So while I agree with you about the regulation--that if they're going to have intercity buses pick up and drop off curbside, it's pointless to regulate--but if you already have a bus station, shouldn't you make the buses use it? I don't know...

busplanner said...

Re: Port Authority Bus Terminal

1. Already operating over capacity during peak periods.

2. Chinatown and midtown street loading bus companies don't want to pay the fees charged to use the terminal (or, frankly, to pay any fees to load on the streets.

3. Plans to expand terminal have been deferred for a number of years due to "lack of funding" at Port Authority (think World Trade Center rebuild cost overruns).

threestationsquare said...

Why don't any of the Chinatown buses from Boston and other points in that direction terminate in the Flushing Chinatown? This would involve less backtracking than Canal St for passengers going to midtown. It has easier/quicker access to I-95 (straight over the Whitestone; today buses spend a lot of time around the Kosciuszko Bridge and on the Bruckner Expy). And presumably space in Flushing doesn't command quite such a premium as space in Lower Manhattan.

On the other side, buses terminating at Journal Sq might be nice but there are more obvious drawbacks.