Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Dangerous roads for walking

I've had criticisms of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign over the years, but in general they share my goals and they do good work. Case in point is their report The Region's Most Dangerous Roads for Walking released back in March. Based on police reports, they provide maps of car crashes that killed pedestrians in 2008, 2009 and 2010 (although the Google Maps limitations make it hard to see them all at once), and they list all the stroads in the New York metro area and Connecticut where five or more people were killed over that three-year period.

It is in a spirit of constructive criticism that I suggest that fatalities per road is not the best way to compare roads. Roads have different lengths, so it makes more sense to compare fatalities per mile. This is a little tricky, because it usually involves some fraction of a fatality, but it you can get past that in your mind you get a better measure of dangerousness. So here, ladies and gentlemen, are New York City's most dangerous stroads, measured on a per-mile basis:

StroadBoroughMaximum width (feet)2008-2010 fatalitiesLength (miles)Fatalities per mile
Brighton Beach AvenueBrooklyn95616
Fourteenth StreetManhattan8542.21.82
Gun Hill RoadBronx10053.51.43
West StreetManhattan195751.4
Grand ConcourseBronx180651.2
Ocean ParkwayBrooklyn20065.41.11
21st StreetQueens10043.71.08
Kings HighwayBrooklyn13576.71.04
Eastern ParkwayBrooklyn210441
Seventh AvenueManhattan145551
Amsterdam AvenueManhattan10066.80.88
Avenue UBrooklyn8044.80.83
Queens BoulevardQueens19067.50.8
Third AvenueManhattan10056.40.78
Fourth AvenueBrooklyn12045.50.73
Atlantic AvenueBrooklyn1007100.7
Union TurnpikeQueens1006100.6
Jamaica AvenueQueens906100.6
Richmond AvenueStaten Island100470.57

I should point out that there may be others with at least one fatality per mile, but not listed by Tri-State because they were less than five miles long. Maybe someone at Tri-State can take a look and share that data.

The scariest ones are short stroads like Brighton Beach Avenue and the Bowery. With two bridge exits crossing it, I know exactly why the Bowery is the way it is. You can see on a similar map, CrashStat from Tri-State member organization Transportation Alternatives, that the part of the Bowery up by Gemma and the old CBGB's is not the really dangerous part. Every year, three or four people die for the convenience of Staten Islanders.

But according CrashStat, the fatalities are pretty evenly spaced on Brighton Beach Avenue. Why six fatalities in three years?

Monday, May 28, 2012

No more permanent parking garages

In the past, I've talked about various negative aspects of parking. Basically, parking encourages driving, parking lots themselves are a special kind of hell, and parking takes resources (land, air, concrete, transit money, builders' money, politicians' time, people's time) away from more worthy uses. The only time I support parking is at the curb, when it replaces lanes for moving mixed traffic. Of course, the famous Donald Shoup has put some numbers on the High Cost of Free Parking.

Tonight I want to talk about garages. More than the one or two car family garages, I mean the big places to park cars that have something on top of them. Sometimes it's more layers of parking, sometimes it's a building. Just about every town bigger than 50,000 people - and many smaller than that - has some kind of multi-story garage, and lots of buildings now include a "parking pedestal" - a few stories of parking with a building on top. When these are at street level, they are deadly to the pedestrian experience, as Ben Fried at Streetsblog has shown on Brooklyn's Fourth Avenue.

In response to that criticism, some architects have come up with the concept of a "parking sandwich": a building with retail on the ground floor, then one or more floors of parking, and then multiple floors of office or apartment space on top. This has been proposed for the Nyack Superblock, a site that now contains a large surface parking lot.

These multi-story parking garages are their own kind of hell. In Angel or really any violent television show or movie that takes place in Los Angeles after 1970, horrible things are constantly happening to people in parking garages. They're the deserted alleys of the Radiant City.

It's kind of understandable why politicians would want to build parking, or require other people to build it. If you take a short-term view of the world and think that everyone is just going to keep driving, then of course you want to build places for them to put their cars. But for those of us who think it's pretty likely that people will stop driving, it's actually painful to see so much land and air and time and money and materials going into building these things.

The problem is that once you build parking garages, they're really hard to retrofit. Often they're built with enough space in between the levels for cars to drive and people to walk, but not enough to be a comfortable place to live or work if you build floors on top of the concrete and ceilings underneath the next level. They've got these weird ramps - who's going to want their desk in the middle of one of those? Or your kitchen table - you'd be constantly getting breakfast in your lap. And the - I can't call them windows - openings to let light in and fumes out. Often they're the wrong size and shape for windows, usually too narrow. There is a plan to replace one of the hardly-used garages at Yankee Stadium with a hotel, but it would require tearing down the brand-new garage.

Look, most of these garages are already mandated by law. I would be much more comfortable if those laws simply went on and mandated that the garages have to all be of a form that can be converted to apartments or offices fairly cheaply. Sure, that's an additional expense that we're foisting on the builders, but the parking itself is usually an unnecessary burden, so what's a little more? If you're really concerned with the developer's bottom line, then just ease up on the parking requirements in the first place.

Can we do this? Build it into the zoning code? Require it for LEED certification? Let's take action now so that we don't waste too much more.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Gridlock Sam's uninspired, unviable elevated busways

I've already given my main objections to "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz's plan to toll the East River Bridges and use some of the money to reduce tolls on the MTA bridges that don't go to Manhattan. I've talked about how Schwartz goes out of his way to provide "something for the drivers," but fails to give them what they really want: validation of the status that they sought by becoming drivers in the first place. I've talked about how this "something for the drivers" is not about compensating the current drivers, but sinking money into durable infrastructure for anyone who will drive in New York City in the next thirty to fifty years. This is not a vision of a sustainable future.

Now I'm going to turn to a relatively minor point, but still an important one. Schwartz's plan includes some improvements to transit, but they're small and uninspiring; what you might expect from a traffic engineer who feels obligated to come up with something to contribute to transit but is completely uninterested in it. It's got several bad points, including these elevated busways along the median of the "LIE, Bruckner and Belt":

I'm very much in favor of using highway rights-of-way for transit, for a number of reasons linked to my goals (see above). Reducing highway capacity discourages driving. A dedicated right-of-way with grade separation allows transit to move faster, making it more competitive with driving and thus improving ridership and revenue. Using a highway right-of-way enables grade separation without expensive tunneling or property condemnation. But these elevated busways are probably the worst possible way to provide a dedicated grade separated right-of-way.

First of all, Schwartz's proposed elevated busways are expensive. Part of the success of the Lincoln Tunnel XBL comes from the fact that it uses lanes that are already there. The only additional expense is moving the bollards. In contrast, Schwartz's proposal would leave all of the existing lanes for private vehicles and construct expensive elevated roads above them.

Second, the proposed busways do not take existing car lanes. The famous BRT of Curitiba, Bogotá and Guangzhou take lanes away from cars and trucks, thus reducing the competition from government-subsidized private vehicle travel. Schwartz's proposal would actually increase the available road space for private vehicles by removing buses from the roadway.

Third, they are still busways. The only reason to run buses instead of trains is that they can use existing road infrastructure. If instead you're going to construct an entirely new platform, it is much more efficient to put tracks on it.

Fourth, Schwartz gives no thought to Manhattan terminal capacity. More than anything else, this is what convinces me that he just tossed this in to please transit advocates (or bike advocates who spend some time on transit issues). How does Sam Schwartz expect the bus riders to get to their jobs in Manhattan? Does he just want to terminate the busways at the bridges and tunnels and have them fight their way through against private cars? Does he really not know that when the DOT tried to build a dedicated busway on 34th Street, they were defeated? Does he not know that there's an organized movement with political clout fighting against bus stops in Manhattan?

Schwartz's plan is sold as being more politically and financially viable than the plans put forth by Bloomberg and Ravitch. If you build proper terminals for these busways in Manhattan the plan becomes financially unviable, and if you use the existing streets and curbs in Manhattan it becomes politically unviable. Nice try.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Man's parking-lot inhumanity to man

A few months ago I was so caught up in my tablet (probably writing a blog post) that I forgot to ring the bell to get off the bus, and it sailed right past my stop. I was in a hurry, but I said to myself, "No problem, I'll just cut across this parking lot!"

It had been a while since the last time I was in such a big parking lot, so I had forgotten how hellish they were. When you spend a lot of your travel time as a pedestrian being bullied by drivers, you may think that full-time pedestrians are the only people who get bullied by drivers.

I wasn't even bullied by any drivers that day. I just had to walk across an enormous expanse of asphalt, with the sun beating down, constantly aware that a car could come speeding up behind me, or zip around the corner in front of me, or pull out from one side or the other. And this one wasn't even so bad. It was only March, so the sun wasn't too hot. There were no dust storms, or flash floods, or any of the other things that make wide expanses of asphalt so unbearable.

As I walked, I looked at the other people in the parking lot and thought, "They're not full-time pedestrians. They're drivers! They get shat on just like me!" This is not an "us and them" issue. The drivers and the parking lot designers were making "us" (i.e. other drivers) miserable.

But then I realized that even among drivers it's not all "us." The people who park closer in have a distinct advantage: the closer in you park, the longer you're a driver and the less time you're a pedestrian. You can bully the other drivers who get the spaces further out, because they've become pedestrians while you're still a driver. This is one of the reasons people go nuts over parking spaces.

You may think, "Well, okay, but at least it's equal opportunity, because everyone can park closer in; they just have to get there earlier or get lucky." And "handicap" spaces - well, people with handicap permits deserve the advantage because they have a hard time getting around on foot. But this parking lot was attached to a hierarchical institution where the closer-in spaces were assigned to people higher up in the hierarchy. After I crossed that awful parking lot I came to another one, reserved for people with higher rank. Then I came to a smaller lot with numbered spaces that were assigned to specific individuals.

At this institution, the top people get to stay drivers for the longest period of time, while those at the bottom of the pyramid become pedestrians almost as soon as they arrive. That's one way the hierarchy is reinforced. In some places, the assignment of parking spaces is a form of power in its own right, and the person who controls that assignment can exact favors in exchange for granting a preferred space. The really special people (I have no idea whether they exist at this institution) are the ones who get driven around; they always get dropped off at the door, and never have to walk through a parking lot.

This is just one of many ways that drivers bully and harass each other, not just pedestrians. It's worth remembering. And interestingly, as a bus passenger I'm not even at the bottom. I don't have to walk through the parking lot at all (especially if I'm not in a hurry). There are sidewalks for us bus passengers, and although drivers often bring their cars onto the sidewalks and bully us there, it's less common.

Parking lots are hell, and they're hell for almost everyone. So why do we keep building them? Why do we have a large regulatory apparatus whose primary job is forcing people to build parking lots? Why do we have an army of people ready to spring into action the moment they think there's not enough parking? The whole thing is crazy, tragically crazy.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Gridlock Sam's plan is not fair or equitable

I've got objections to "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz's plan to toll the East River Bridges and use some of the money to reduce tolls on the MTA bridges that don't go to Manhattan. I've talked about how Schwartz goes out of his way to provide "something for the drivers," but fails to give them what they really want: validation of the status that they sought by becoming drivers in the first place. I've talked about how this "something for the drivers" is not about compensating the current drivers, but sinking money into durable infrastructure for anyone who will drive in New York City in the next thirty to fifty years. This is not a vision of a sustainable future.

Now let's move on to the next big one: it's not fair. Schwartz actually calls his plan "the Fair Plan." This is reiterated by Charlie Komanoff and Brian Lehrer who call it "fair" and "equitable." The problem is that it's only fair if you take a very limited view of the system.

You've probably all heard the story about the two women who went to King Solomon, both claiming to be the mother of a single baby. Solomon, in his wisdom, offered to split the baby and give each woman half. One of the women, realizing that half a baby was worse than none, told Solomon to give the baby to the other woman. Solomon replied that she must be the real mother because she was willing to part with the baby rather than see it killed.

Schwartz and his friends spent time talking to people who had opposed the Mayor's congestion pricing plan and came up with something that at least some of them felt would be fair. To me it seems like a classic case of splitting the baby. It will not satisfy the drivers and will prevent transit from successfully expanding into the outer boroughs and suburbs. We have enough money to maintain one transportation system for the area, but we can't afford to properly maintain two - or at least, there are very few New Yorkers who want to pay high enough taxes, gas prices and transit fares to maintain both.

Worst of all, it's an example of a special crazy kind of "fairness" that completely ignores history. It was apparently football coach Barry Switzer who said, "Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple." That's the mindset of New York drivers, who benefit from the billions of dollars poured into the region's highway system over the past fifty years, and zoning codes that require every builder to supply parking, outside of Manhattan and Long Island City. They can't even wrap their minds around the idea that New Jersey drivers already pay tolls to enter Manhattan.

This kind of bizarro "fairness" that ignores history and splits babies is not too surprising coming from Shelly Silver and Peter Vallone, Jr. It's sad to see it coming from Melissa Mark-Viverito and David Yassky. It's downright depressing to see it coming from people like Sam Schwartz, Charlie Komanoff and Brian Lehrer, all of whom really ought to know better.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

From Sheepshead Bay to City Hall

On Saturday I wrote about the abandoned Manhattan Terminal at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge, where trolleys used to turn around, allowing their passengers to transfer to the BMT Centre Street trains (now the J/Z) and, after 1936, to the E train (now the F). In addition to the trolley terminal, the Centre Street loop was four tracks, two from the Williamsburg Bridge to Chambers Street and eventually connecting with the Montague Street Tunnel (now used by the R train), and two from the Manhattan Bridge intended to connect with the trains from the Brooklyn Bridge. The tracks across the Brooklyn Bridge were removed and the tracks from the Manhattan Bridge reconfigured to connect to the Sixth Avenue line, and two of the Centre Street tracks have now been abandoned.

As I wrote four years ago, that means that these two tracks are now available for additional service. In general I think we shouldn't give rail infrastructure to buses, and I would ideally like to see the old Tomkins and Nostrand Avenue trolleys rebuilt.

In the meantime, I would be willing to see these relatively short tracks used by buses. In particular, the Nostrand Avenue Select Bus will be running from the Bridge Plaza bus station in Williamsburg south to Sheepshead Bay. It will connect to the 2, A and J trains at all times, the 3, C and M trains during the day and the 5 and Z during rush hours. But the transfer to the J/M/Z at Bridge Plaza is not particularly convenient, involving walking a block and a half, crossing busy streets, and climbing stairs.

What if instead the buses continued across the bridge and into the tunnel, where they could whisk passengers right to existing stations with transfers to the N, Q and R at Canal Street and the 4, 5 and 6 at Chambers Street, and the J and Z at every stop?

There are similar challenges with ventilation as there are in my proposal for the trolley terminal, but with hybrid or natural gas buses we could keep emissions to a minimum. You might argue that the buses would still get stuck in bridge traffic, but not if we gave them a dedicated lane. We might not be able to allow other buses, like the Chinatown vans and buses, into that tunnel, but we could allow them to use the lane on the bridge if there's room.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Something for the future drivers?

I've got a lot of objections to "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz's plan to toll the East River Bridges and use some of the money to reduce tolls on the MTA bridges that don't go to Manhattan. I've talked about how Schwartz goes out of his way to provide "something for the drivers," but fails to give them what they really want: validation of the status that they sought by becoming drivers in the first place. Inadequate as it is, that "something for the drivers" may be too high a price to pay for tolls on the East River bridges.

Schwartz is talking about widening the Belt Parkway, the Staten Island Expressway and the Van Wyck Expressway. The "Bus Rapid Transit down median," as shown in the image above, would add capacity to the Long Island, Bruckner and Belt Expressways by moving the buses into a new separated lane.

There are people who are currently drivers, who have made Investments in driving like buying or leasing cars, or houses with garages and driveways, or houses or businesses in car-dependent areas. Some of them maybe should have known better, but given the blind eye that we've turned towards pollution, carnage and resource depletion, and the pressure that all of us have felt to Grow Up and Get a Car, because Families Need Cars, we can be sympathetic. I want to see something for those people. I don't know, twenty years of free transit for Nassau and Westchester?

I just don't want something for Drivers, that essentializes their decision to buy a vehicle, and that they can't enjoy if they then renounce driving. I also don't want something for future drivers. Any kind of massive government investment in driving will not just benefit existing drivers, but generations of drivers to come. We want future generations to walk and take transit, not keep driving.

The status quo is crazy. Let's just get that out there right away. This idea that there are two paths to prosperity, one for working class "real New Yorkers" that leads to an SUV and a McMansion in Spring Valley and another for "hipsters from Ohio" that leads to a cargo bike and a Park Slope brownstone, is false. Large lot, car dominated development is unsustainable, and we will bankrupt our city and state if we try to sustain it.

Schwartz's plan would sink a whole pile of this toll money into car infrastructure. Once that money is spent we will feel pressure to make it easy for people to use those roads in order to recoup our investment. They will also enshrine the precedent that we have to keep spending money on roads, and the toll money will continue to be supplemented with the sales and income tax dollars of people who don't drive.

Maybe Schwartz is playing some kind of game. After all, in 2010 his employees gave a talk in Chicago about the advantages of tearing down urban freeways (PDF). Maybe he's only pretending to be unable to imagine that only a tiny percentage of my grandchildren (his great-grandchildren) will want to drive. Maybe he thinks that getting the bridges tolled is the thin end of the wedge, and in twenty years we'll have enough political support to dedicate all the toll money to extending the subways out to Syosset. If so, he's a very good actor. But unless those new highway lanes are secretly built with hidden rails, ready to be unveiled at the implementation of Fair Plan Phase II, we'll be stuck with a lot of new roads to maintain.

The bottom line is that we are never going to get our pollution and carnage down to acceptable levels, maintaining our energy supply and our dynamic economy, and provide access for all to work, commerce and society, as long as our outer neighborhoods and our suburbs are dominated by cars and their infrastructure. We can't give those up for East River bridge tolls. It's just not enough.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Saving the Manhattan Terminal

A transit advocate looks at abandoned transit infrastructure and thinks, "Imagine if we reactivated that!" Certain other people (if they have a name, I don't know what it is) look at abandoned transit infrastructure and think, "Imagine if we turned that into a park!" And you know what? That made sense for the High Line. With its multiple twists and its passages through buildings, even with a brand-new driverless electric metro it probably would have been too noisy and inconvenient to be worth reviving.

This is not the case for several other pieces of abandoned rail infrastructure in the New York area. I've already expressed my frustration with the Walkway Over the Hudson (squatting on the perfectly functional Poughkeepsie Bridge) and the North/South County and Piermont trails (preventing anyone from reactivating the incredibly useful Putnam and Erie lines). Even though the "Tappan Zee Park" proposal was to use road infrastructure (not yet abandoned), it was still a pretty shitty idea, and was exploited by the Governor to divide and conquer his environmentalist opponents.

Unfortunately, these proposals just keep coming. I try to ignore them, but some people seem mesmerized by anything that sounds like a park. There's the "Queensway" proposal to turn the abandoned Long Island Rail Road Rockaway Beach Branch into a trail, which is a bad idea and shouldn't be encouraged. But tonight I want to talk about a much worse one: the "Low Line" proposal to turn an abandoned underground trolley terminal into a park, lit by sunlight piped down by futuristic fiber optic cables.

For the moment, forget about whether anyone would enjoy hanging out underground the way they do in Bryant Park, even with copious amounts of light. Forget that there's a 46-acre park a few blocks away. Let's talk about the transit infrastructure that would be sacrificed for this project. The Manhattan Terminal is a 60,000 square foot underground station with eight loop tracks for trolleys:

The MTA's Real Estate department, spurred on by the "Low Line" people, has posted a video of the space, which is definitely worth watching. The tracks and the trolley wire guides are still in place.

So we could turn this space into a park or a disco. Or we could take advantage of its strategic location at the base of the Williamsburg Bridge, the crossing of two subway lines and the gateway to Lower Manhattan and return it to its intended use: as a transit terminal.

Funny how not one of the Chinatown bus kvetchers has suggested actually providing a terminal for the buses. Would the full-size intercity buses fit? I don't know; Peter Hine doesn't mention the clearance. Certainly the Chinatown vans would all fit.

The diesel and gas fumes might be a challenge, but if the "Low Line" people can talk about piping sunlight down from above, why can't we talk about a good ventilation system? The Port Authority Bus Terminal is a little stinky, but seems to be able to avoid asphyxiating its passengers.

If this were connected to an exclusive bus lane across the bridge like the one in the Lincoln Tunnel, they could really improve transit access.

It's heartening to me that on every breathless news article or blog post about the "Low Line" there were several comments suggesting that the space could be restored as a trolley or bus terminal. I hope that the next time some idiot proposes turning good transit infrastructure into a park, someone will set up a Kickstarter page offering to pay them to go away.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Something for the drivers

One of the biggest objections I have to "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz's proposal to reinstate tolls the East River bridges is the extent to which it goes to provide "something for the drivers." It is based on a serious misreading of the objections to Bloomberg's congestion pricing proposal and Ravitch's bridge toll plan, and if it succeeds it will be an empty victory.

Schwartz correctly observed that the vast majority of the objections to the congestion pricing plan and the Ravitch plan came from drivers. Unfortunately, he failed to grasp why they objected. Sure, they came up with all kinds of reasons, like "it's wrong to charge people to access a part of the city," and "it's a regressive tax." But none of these reasons made any sense, and if they weren't so dead set against the idea of tolling the bridges they would have known that.

The fight against congestion pricing was almost entirely symbolic, like the numerous actions that Jimmy Vacca has taken: deactivating parking meters on Sundays, getting rid of the parking violation stickers, and enshrining a five-minute "grace period" in law. These drivers view their status as car owners as either a birthright or a hard-fought victory. It is a symbol of their worth and their station in life, and when the city slapped a sticker on their cars it turned that symbol into a badge of shame.

For the past hundred years the "free" bridges and streets have been a potent symbol in their own right, demonstrating that the city may not be able to do much, but they're doing all they can to promote driving, and drivers are their top priority. The NYPD's ticket-fixing, the DCP's minimum parking requirements and the widespread tolerance of double parking have had similar symbolic value.

Already, the actions of Janette Sadik-Khan have made drivers less welcome in parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, and they have encountered vehement opposition. The idea that a person who has put in years of sacrifice to become a car owner (or has inherited that status from their parents) would count no more, or even less than, some kid from Ohio who just sits around all day playing bad music or making artisanal pickles drives these people nuts with rage. But to charge a fee to cross the river would be the ultimate insult. If there are more important things for the city to do than to help responsible citizens navigate the streets with a free bridge or two, then the city has truly failed them.

Yes, of course they spend more time driving around the other boroughs than driving into Manhattan. Schwartz looked at that and thought that if he made it easier and cheaper for them to do that, they would allow tolls on the bridges. But this is not about money or convenience, and that's why nuts like Richard Brodsky are completely unimpressed. It's about symbolism, and Schwartz's plan would in fact reinforce that symbolic segregation by expanding the roads in the outer boroughs. There is nothing you can do "for the drivers" that would erase the symbolic humiliation of the government making them pay to drive into Manhattan.

You and I know that the road network is completely unsustainable, and that some day New York's drivers or their children or grandchildren will have no choice but to give up their cars. Some of them see the writing on the wall, and they may be willing to give in on tolls into Manhattan if Schwartz throws in enough goodies "for the drivers." But they may ask too much. They may ask for things that will make the bridge tolls worthless. Is Schwartz willing to give them those?

Uninspiring answers on federal transportation authorization

I was a little cranky last week when I tweeted this in response to Streetsblog DC's "Seven Questions as Transportation Bill Conference Gets Underway":
You can tell @StreetsblogDC's been inside the Beltway too long: none of these are questions that I would ask.
Streetsblog Capitol Hill Editor Tanya Snyder was gracious enough to respond to the substance of my tweet and give me a chance to say what questions I would ask:
@StreetsblogDC Will this bill reduce carnage and pollution, increase efficiency and access, and improve society, better than no bill?
Another reader, Ryan Richter, sent in his own set of seven questions, and Tanya responded to them today. Basically, the answer was: it depends what bill eventually comes out of the conference committee, if any. Tanya mentions some slight improvements in the Senate bill over the current transportation authorization, but only slight ones:
  • allows transit agencies, under some limited circumstances, to use federal funds for operations instead of just capital.
  • provides funding for TOD planning
  • would permanently restore parity between transit and parking commuter benefits
  • maintenance requirements that will help steer states away from building new highways that would only exacerbate sprawl
  • the Core Capacity Improvement Project, which would expand funding eligibility to include improvements to the capacity and functionality of existing fixed guideway systems
  • directs U.S. DOT to “achieve a balance” between rail system development and improvement of the current system
  • requires U.S. DOT to develop a long-range national rail plan, as well as regional rail plans that address implementation
  • expands the kinds of grants Amtrak can apply for (currently, Amtrak can only apply directly for high-speed projects)
  • allows Amtrak to match grants with ticket sales
  • creates a 100 percent federal grant program for Amtrak and the states to improve or preserve long-distance service
  • allows Amtrak to take over responsibility for environmental reviews
  • encourages on-time service by penalizing Amtrak’s host railroads when they are to blame for consistently late train service
These are nice, but they don't add up to much by themselves. As Tanya says, in the end, "Don’t expect this bill to radically shift the balance from car travel to anything else."

So what are the alternatives? Well, there's the House bill, which is worse in every respect. Congress could continue to pass "extenders" maintaining the same crappy gas tax and funding formulas as was passed in 1998.

What if they didn't pass anything and let the 1998 authorization expire? First of all, the gas tax would expire with it. Depending on supply and demand, either the price of gas would drop by 18.4¢ per gallon or the 18.4¢ would go into the oil company profits, or something in between. The bigger the price drop the greater the incentive to drive, but we're talking at most 5% of the price, so it probably wouldn't make that much difference.

Then, federal funding for most highway and transit projects would cease. If people wanted to pay for those projects they would have to turn to some other agency with taxation authority, which would be state and local governments and toll road authorities. In separate articles earlier this year Ed Glaeser, Lisa Schweitzer and Bruce Katz argued that this would be more efficient, effective and innovative, but Yonah Freemark points out that when given the chance, states and local governments have shown "a complete disregard for public transportation investments."

I'm not convinced Yonah is right. One of the reasons that state governments have done this is because transit advocates have tended to look to either local or federal government. Just look at Streetsblog, which has excellent local coverage in New York, LA and San Francisco, and excellent federal coverage from Tanya. But what anyone in DC can contribute is inherently limited, and there's always the pressure to file horse-race stories. When Streetsblog started their Capitol Hill blog, I thought they would have done much better to hire someone in Albany. Maybe if the federal government's nominal role in transportation policy is diminished, people would start paying more attention to what's going on in their state capitals, and things would start to change.

Even if, on the whole, it would be slightly better to pass the Senate bill or something similar, the whole thing is completely uninspiring. Why are transit advocates spending so much time and money on it? Where would we be if instead they had swung with the pendulum and made alliances with people who wanted to cut the road budget?

Earlier today, Chuck Marohn tweeted, "We need to be accepting of small failures that provide knowledge, less tolerant of large failures emerging from conventional thinking."

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Gridlock Sam's plan

Last month Crain's ran a glowing profile of "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz, and I was certainly impressed with the stories about him injecting even a tiny bit of concern for cyclists, pedestrians and transit riders into the New York City "Department of Traffic," surrounded by engineers who were trying to cram as many cars as possible into Midtown Manhattan. Sam is clearly trying to help as many New Yorkers as possible get around efficiently, and he deserves credit and support for this. Plus, anyone who follows me on Twitter can't be too bad.

Schwartz has been making the rounds lately with the latest plan for tolling the East River bridges. I've long argued that something along these lines is necessary, for reasons that I laid out in detail in an recent blog post. In addition, his plan would deal with the very specific problem of the tolls on the Verrazano and Manhattan Bridges, which offer truck driver going from Brooklyn to New Jersey the perverse choice between paying $70 to travel on the Gowanus and Staten Island Expressways or pounding the streets and tourists of Lower Manhattan for free.

Schwartz's plan, similar to the one put out a few years ago by Charlie Komanoff on a commission from Ted Kheel, would also reinstitute tolls on the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro bridges, and implement a "screenline" toll to drive across 60th Street in Manhattan. The toll would be five dollars. Instead of the massive increases in bus and subway service promised by Bloomberg and Ravitch, it would provide relatively little:

  • Reduce bus fares by $1 in neighborhoods with no subways
  • No service reductions on local buses for three years without Community Board approval
  • Consider restoring some local bus service discontinued in 2010

Why the huge reduction? Schwartz tries to build support by offering "something for the drivers too." Komanoff and Kheel proposed to raise tolls on the Whitestone, Throgs Neck, Marine Parkway, Cross Bay Veterans and Henry Hudson bridges. Schwartz goes the opposite direction and proposes that instead of using the toll money for transit, as is done with the current tolls on the MTA bridges and tunnels, and as Bloomberg and Ravitch proposed, he would use some of the money to widen the Belt Parkway to Interstate standards and allowing truck traffic on it. He also proposes to widen the Staten Island Expressway, and the Van Wyck Expressway near Kennedy Airport, where it gets most congested.

Charlie Komanoff likes the plan: he gushed in Streetsblog about how it "feels inclusive" and "feels egalitarian."

I'm a lot more skeptical. Sam Schwartz has contributed to the discussion with this plan, but I hope it doesn't end with this plan being adopted. To me it doesn't actually feel inclusive or egalitarian anywhere below the surface. It doesn't fit well with my own goals, particularly with expanding the constituency for transit beyond the core of the city. There are a number of other things that bother me. I'll go into them in detail soon. In the meantime, feel free to share your own concerns in the comments.

Monday, May 14, 2012

This is a G train to Brooklyn Army Terminal...

Last month, Manhattan Borough President and mayoral hopeful Scott Stringer revived hopes for what he called "the X line," also known as the Tribororx. This line was proposed in the Third Regional Plan in 1996. In 2007 Michael Frumin, now an MTA manager, worked with the Regional Plan Association to flesh out the idea. The proposal was to run rapid transit along existing rail rights-of-way from the Brooklyn Army Terminal in Bay Ridge to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

There have been objections about using the right of way for rapid transit. The old New York Central Port Morris Branch in the Bronx is the only portion that is currently unused. The Hell Gate Bridge is used by freight and Amtrak trains. The rest of the way is occupied by the New York Connecting Railroad and the Bay Ridge Branch of the Long Island Railroad, freight railroads that see a significant amount of traffic. If the Cross-Harbor Freight Tunnel is ever built, it will connect to these lines.

From the Brooklyn Army Terminal to New Utrecht Avenue the right-of-way is very wide, with plenty of room for two new subway tracks next to the existing tracks for the N train and the Bay Ridge freight line. The Hell Gate Bridge can fit all the Amtrak and freight traffic onto two tracks, and has a third track and room for a fourth. The crunch would be from New Utrecht Avenue in Brooklyn to 50th Street in Queens, where there is one track in use, but the right of way only has room for one more.

In 2008 I found that the Draft Environmental Impact Statement forecast 24-64 trains per day using these lines, for an average of 1-3 trains per hour. If the line is restored to two-track service, that would allow plenty of time for commuter trains, or even more frequent service if the freight trains are only run late at night.

Another option is to tunnel under the existing right-of-way in the two-track section and run freight trains underground and passenger trains on the upper level. This would be expensive, but not as expensive as building a new subway.

I also suggested that it might be easier to extend existing subway lines along the right-of-way, thus providing a one-seat ride to neighborhoods closer in, than to run a single train the whole way. So for example, you could extend the B train across the Hell Gate Bridge to Woodside; extend the M train, either from Middle Village or from Jackson Heights, north to the Bronx or south to East New York; extend the L train west to Brooklyn College, or extend the G train south and west to the Brooklyn Army Terminal. I created this fantasy map showing the route that the G would take and some possible stations.

I was inspired in part to write this because of the recent post on Scouting NY showing the inside of the Terminal itself. There are offices now where the warehouses used to be, but Building B still has the tracks in the middle, waiting for a G train to glide in.

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

You could even use the skycrane to lift commuters up to their offices. Door-to-door service!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Chinese names for New York neighborhoods

Here is a list of New York neighborhoods, streets and suburbs with significant Chinese populations, with their names in Simplfied Chinese writing. I do not read or write Chinese, so please submit additions or corrections.

English汉语Commuter Vans
18th Avenue第十八大道None known
86th Street八十六街None known
Avenue UU大道None known
Bensonhurst本森社区None known
Chinatown曼哈頓華埠To Elmhurst, Flushing and Sunset Park
Edison, NJ爱迪生To Chinatown (reported)
Elmhurst艾姆赫斯特To Chinatown
Flushing法拉盛To Chinatown and Sunset Park
Sheepshead Bay羊头湾None known
Sunset Park ("Brooklyn's Chinatown")布鲁克林華埠To Chinatown and Flushing

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Expanding the constituency for transit and livable streets

I've talked before about why we need walkable, transit-oriented suburbs. One of the big reasons is the cycle: the easier it is to take transit throughout the region, the bigger the coalition for transit:

Right now there are relatively few solid transit advocates in the City Council and even fewer in the State Legislature. We definitely need to work to make them more representative, but we can also work to increase the number of people in each district that get around without cars.

I realized that my earlier map of City Council districts by car ownership is not well-suited to this task. I divided it up by quintiles, so that there were roughly ten of every color. But no matter how many people in a district get rid of their cars, as long as that district remains in the same position relative to the other districts, its color will not change.

I wanted a system where we could see how a district is doing on an absolute scale. So here are the city council districts in terms of percentage of households without a car. I added the boroughs, townships and cities of Hudson County (which is like a fifth borough) for your edification:


You can see that the districts represented by Melissa Mark-Viverito, Rosie Mendez, Ydanis Rodriguez and Christine Quinn are the only ones with more than 80% of households car-free, and with the exception of Quinn, they have all fought hard for transit and livable streets.

The yellow districts cover the rest of Manhattan, the South Bronx and Brownstone Brooklyn. They have a range of representatives, from transit advocates like Letitia James to AWOL reps like Helen Foster, but none of them are anti-transit.

The orange districts cover Western Queens, the north Bronx and the denser parts of southern Brooklyn. Their Council representatives range from my own rep, Jimmy Van Bramer, who fights hard for transit, to the indifferent James Barron, to David "Kvetch" Greenfield who only cares about the car-driving half of his constituents. Union City, New Jersey is 40% carfree.

The red districts cover Southeast Queens, West New York, Guttenberg and Jersey City, Transportation Chair Jimmy Vacca's East Bronx district, Peter Koo's district in Flushing, Donna Rose's district on the North Shore of Staten Island, Elizabeth Crowley's Central Queens district, and Lew Fidler's southeast Brooklyn district. We have some big car kvetchers here.

The four purple districts are represented by two of the most anti-transit members of the Council: Dan Halloran and James Oddo. Mark Weprin is nowhere near as bad as his brother David, but he's not a big fighter for transit either.

This is why I want to get people in these districts to get rid of their cars. If the 36th District in Brooklyn were green (80% and up) it might be represented by a Quinn, but it's more likely to be represented by a Mark-Viverito. If the 44th in Brooklyn were yellow it might be represented by a James. It might also be represented by a Foster, but at least it would be less likely to elect Greenfield. If the 30th were orange it might still get a Greenfield, but it might also get a Van Bramer. If the 19th were red it might get a Gennaro or a Crowley.

So what would it take to move the 16th District from 71% to 80%? To move the 44th from 49% to 60%? To move the 30th from 319% to 40%? To move the 19th from 15% to 20%?

Monday, May 7, 2012

Investing in private buses

If you take "dollar vans" in the New York area, you'll notice an obvious difference between the ones that run on Flatbush, the ones that go to Chinatown or Jamaica, and the ones that go to New Jersey. Even in Jersey there is a difference between the vans that run on Bergenline Avenue or Kennedy Boulevard and the ones that serve Route 4 and especially Boulevard East.

The vans that run on Flatbush are typically cramped fifteen-passenger Ford Econolines, with ropes to allow the driver to close the sliding doors without getting out of his or her seat. The Jamaica lines have some cutaway vans with automatic doors, but there are still a lot of Econolines. The Chinatown buses are almost all cutaways, as are the ones on Bergenline and Kennedy.

It's on the high-volume, high-income Boulevard East route that you see the biggest difference. That's where you can find tour minibuses and even full-size buses. I once rode on a school bus, but it was a brand-new bus with modern seating, not some crappy high-backed bench seats.

Back in the nineties I rode an Econoline on the Bergenline route. My wife told me that there used to be a lot more of them on Bergenline, and even a few on Boulevard East. There is clearly some kind of hand-me-down arrangement, with the newest vans used on Boulevard East and Route 4, then sold to drivers on Bergenline and Kennedy. There may also be a parallel seniority system running the other way, since there seem to be more Dominican and Salvadoran drivers on Boulevard East than there were ten years ago.

The obvious question is why the vans on Flatbush don't really get upgraded. Typically, when a Flatbush van driver gets a little extra cash, the van gets a little bling: a fancy paint job, some decals, maybe a better sound system. Why don't the drivers buy bigger buses, or at least ones with automatic doors? What do the Jersey and Chinatown vans have that the Brooklyn ones don't?

The best way to know is of course to ask the drivers. At this point I don't have those connections, but maybe someone reading this does. I can make some guesses, though: it's the regulatory environment.

Even the drivers in Brooklyn and Queens who say they're "legal" just mean that they're authorized to operate a commuter van somewhere in the city. Nobody has the right to legally pick up passengers on the street. Because of this, even the "legal" operators face the possibility of large fines on every run. The expense and the uncertainty don't justify additional investment.

By contrast, any bus operator that crosses state lines is protected by the Interstate Commerce clause of the Constitution, and can legally pick up passengers on the street in either state. The New Jersey vans, therefore, can only be fined for violations like polluting or causing a hazard. The owners therefore have an incentive to replace their vans when they can no longer pass inspection. The State of New Jersey is also prohibited by law from engaging in "destructive competition" with private transit operators. If a van passes inspection and obeys traffic laws, it should never have to pay a fine.

So why do the Chinatown vans get upgrades? My guess is that they're better capitalized. Each route is run by a single company that assumes at least some of the risk of fines, while the Flatbush vans seem to all be run and financed by individual operators. The Chinese-American owners may also be able to get outside financing from their immigrant networks at levels that are unavailable to Jamaicans and Haitians.

This is also related to the disastrous failure of the Taxi and Limousine Commission's 2010 "Group Ride Vehicle Program." It relied primarily on Jamaican van operators and their decentralized model, which does not have enough capital to run a loss for any significant length of time.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Tolls and goals

I've been a supporter of congestion pricing from the day Mayor Bloomberg announced it. In fact, this blog started as a way for me to jot down arguments I found myself making over and over again in favor of the congestion pricing plan and later the Richard Ravitch bridge toll proposal. Since then I've expanded to many other areas of transportation. In particular, I've spent some time making my transportation policy goals more explicit than they were then, and describing the cyclic way that these policy decisions reinforce or undermine themselves. Lately, bridge tolls have come back into the media again, so I wanted to explicitly connect them to my goals.

First, the inherent advantages of encouraging people to shift from cars to transit for suburban-to-center commuting:

Reducing carnage. By discouraging driving, tolls decrease the number of cars on the streets. This does not only include the cordon area, but potentially the entire commute route from home to the zone. It is important to note that this does not by itself reduce carnage, and may in fact increase carnage if the increase in available capacity encourages drivers to go faster.

Reducing pollution. By discouraging driving, tolls decrease the number of cars on the street. By decreasing idling, they reduce the amount of pollution that each car spews.

Increasing efficiency. At a minimum, tolls encourage efficient use of our bridges, and of other car facilities to and in the cordon area. By decreasing demand for the bridges and other car facilities, they may spare us payment for the reconstruction or expansion of these facilities. They also decrease the demand for other driving subsidies, such as oil wars.

Improving society. By encouraging people to take transit from their homes in the suburbs, tolls will encourage denser suburban living, increasing demand for transit-oriented development and thus contributing to a critical mass for walkable suburban downtowns. This will give people alternatives to "bowling alone" and soccer chauffeuring.

Access for all. The increased demands for transit-oriented development will provide better access for the elderly, the young, the poor and the disabled.

Second, some effects that require combinations. If traffic calming measures are introduced, cordon tolls can definitely reduce carnage. If buses are exempted from these traffic calming measures, the buses will go faster, giving them an advantage and increasing farebox recovery. If the toll revenues are allocated to transit, they will allow transit to expand.

The increased demand for transit and decreased demand for driving will also have cyclical effects. It will permit better economies of scale, allowing expansion. It will increase support for government subsidies to transit and reduce support for driving subsidies. If transit has more frequent service and better coverage, it has a better advantage when competing with private car use. It will tend to discourage car use beyond the tolls themselves. These cyclical effects will compound the effects described above.

Those are the advantages of a pure cordon toll system. Some of you will probably see where I'm going with this...

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

When speeding is common, people die

By now you've heard the tragic headlines. A middle-aged woman accidentally drove her van off the side of the Bronx River Parkway yesterday, killing herself and everyone aboard - her parents, her sister, her daughter and two nieces. You may have also read statements by Robert Sinclair, president of the Automobile Club of New York, that the Parkway "lacks modern transportation engineering features" because it was conceived in 1907 and opened in 1925 as "the first limited access multilane highway in the U.S." He went on to complain about the guardrail: "It is very strange that there is a curb there," Sinclair said. "You don't put curbs on high-speed roadways because they can serve as launching pads, which appears to be what happened here. A big Honda Pilot flew over a 4-foot guardrail." The Wall Street Journal found that the State's "Five Percent Report" on the most dangerous roads claimed that the "section needs a 'deceleration lane' and other measures to improve the East 177th Street exit."

The fact that Sinclair finds it "very strange that there is a curb there" gives you a clue that he's talking out his ass, and that's probably where he found the "facts" that he solemnly delivered to the Associated Press. In contrast, Steve Anderson knows his shit, and on his site you can read that the entire Parkway south of the Sprain Brook Parkway was built between 1950 and 1952. While the section between Bronxville and Valhalla may well have "narrow lanes, steep hills, tight turns," the southern part has six lanes and is relatively straight and flat.

Being somewhat familiar with New York City's parkways, I saw that "curb" on Bing Maps and knew exactly what it was: a divider protecting a long-closed side path. In the early 1950s, Bob Moses was still building sidewalks and side paths along his parkways. It's very similar to the one on the Goethals Bridge, even though that was built much earlier under the Port Authority.

If you're wondering why anyone would walk on a narrow sidewalk separated from six lanes of speeding car traffic by a two-foot-high strip of concrete, you're not alone. That's why it was closed, and it probably wasn't very popular when it was open, even though it's the straightest route to get from Bronx Park to Soundview.

Sinclair doesn't think it's strange that the driver, Maria Gonzalez, was doing 68 in a 50mph zone. Neither does NYPD spokesman Paul Browne. The AP says, "Gonzalez was driving well above the posted 50 mph limit, but speeding is common at that point and she may have been simply keeping up with traffic, said New York Police Department spokesman Paul Browne."

Of course, that's the problem. Gonzalez probably wasn't doing anything particularly unusual or reckless - beyond driving in the first place. If speeding is common, it's because the road design encourages it. It's a six-lane limited-access highway, but it has a 50mph speed limit, probably because it has no shoulders. But the drivers see six lanes, so they go fast.

So what do we do when the road gives drivers visual cues to go faster than it's really safe to go? Sinclair and the State DOT - and Borough President Ruben Diaz Junior - have only one answer: spend more money. Spend $232 million dollars to replace the bridge (as a link provided by the Journal News shows), raise the curbs, add shoulders and even a "FULLY ADA COMPLIANT SHARED-USE PATH." But for the section of the Parkway north of Bronxville, even Steve Anderson, who is usually not shy about spending other people's money on roads, actually recommends that the number of lanes be reduced to discourage speeding.

That's what we should do south of Bronxville too. This section of the road is redundant with the Thruway/Major Deegan and the Hutchinson River Parkway, and it doesn't even carry trucks. It does not need to be six lanes wide. If we believe Governor Cuomo that the State needs to rein in spending, we should definitely not waste money replacing and widening this bridge. But we do not have to compromise on safety. We can convert the outer lanes of this road to shoulders. This will add protection and reduce speeding, preventing at least some future deaths.

It might even make the road safe and pleasant enough that we could reopen the pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure and restore a needed link in the Bronx's non-motorized transportation network. We can also open the Parkway to buses, at least south of Pelham Parkway, to give people another alternative to driving.