Thursday, June 28, 2012

That doesn't mean other options can't work

Sustainable transportation advocates in New York City have been campaigning for years to tear down the Sheridan Expressway, a lightly used 1.25 mile stretch of four-lane highway in the Bronx connecting the Bruckner Expressway with the Cross-Bronx expressway. It was built in 1956-1958 and named in honor of Arthur V. Sheridan, Bronx Borough Commissioner of Public Works, who oversaw construction of the Cross-Bronx under Bob Moses and was killed a car crash in 1952 while driving to pick up his eleven-year-old son. It was planned to continue north as an elevated expressway above Boston Road, all the way to Co-Op City, but those plans were abandoned in 1971 after years of protests.

The Sheridan Expressway should never have been built. It cuts the residential neighborhoods to the west off from the Bronx River. At the time it was built you didn't want to go to the Bronx River, but now it would make a nice riverwalk. For cars it is redundant with the Bronx River Parkway, and for trucks it is redundant with the Bruckner and Major Deegan Expressways. I have a double standard for redundancy: for transit and freight trains it's good, but for cars it's bad, and the very simple reason is that we want to encourage people to take transit and ship by train instead of cars and trucks.

The New York State Department of Transportation was always hostile to the idea of tearing down the Sheridan, and recently we heard that the City Departments of Transportation and City Planning have abandoned the possibility of tearing it down. Advocates were disheartened, but today Transportation Nation provided a ray of hope, courtesy of City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan:

"I think you know the Bloomberg administration has been very innovative when it comes to traffic engineering," she said. "But in this instance this particular option didn’t work — but that doesn’t mean other options can’t work here and we’re going to continue to explore them."

I have another option that I hope Sadik-Khan and her colleagues will explore: let's tear down the Bronx River Parkway instead, from the Bruckner to the Cross-Bronx.

Steve Anderson tells us, "The proposed expressway was to serve vehicles that could not travel on the Bronx River Parkway, whose extension into the Bronx was in the design stages at the time." As I mentioned above, there is a mile-long section of the Bronx River Parkway that also connects the Bruckner and Cross-Bronx Expressways. The Sheridan serves cars, trucks and buses, but the Parkway serves only cars.

As we saw last month, this section of the Bronx River Parkway is no picturesque historic drive. It's a dangerous six-lane highway built in 1950 on eight blocks that used to be low-rise apartment buildings. If it were torn down, new apartments could be built to replace them, perhaps with a greenway in part of the old right-of-way. It might not be as big a triumph as tearing down the Sheridan, but it would be a lot better than nothing.

In fact, section of the the Parkway just north of the Cross-Bronx is the part that's elevated over the subway yards and the zoo, the site of the crash that killed seven people. Governor Cuomo is planning to spend 232 million dollars to replace that elevated section. As I suggested in May, that project is a huge waste of money. We could make it a lot safer by rebuilding it as a four-lane road with shoulders and a parallel greenway, at least from Pelham Parkway south.

Is tearing down this redundant section of the Bronx River Parkway one of the "other options" that Commissioner Sadik-Khan had in mind? If not, let's hope she adds it to her list.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Gonna get fooled again, again?

Three of the reasons that are most commonly cited for rebuilding the Tappan Zee Bridge are the current bridge's narrow lanes, no shoulders and high maintenance costs. But what if, instead of paying five billion dollars to replace it, we could get rid of those problems for a few million? Better yet, what if we could avoid them altogether? Fortunately, that's exactly where we are with the Verrazano Bridge.

The Tappan Zee Bridge used to have wider lanes until 1990, when the six existing lanes were squeezed to make room for a seventh. I don't have crash rates going back that far, but if the bridge builders say that the crash rates are due to narrow lanes, then presumably they were lower before. I also haven't been able to find a breakdown of the maintenance costs, but I'm sure the increased wear and tear from 30,000 more car and truck crossings every day has contributed to the increase. I'm also very curious to know how much it costs to run a machine across the bridge every day moving the barrier from one side of the bridge to the other.

As I've argued before, if we want to stop the carnage and save money, why not get rid of the reversible lane and its expensive machinery and widen the lanes again? Furthermore, can we acknowledge that the reversible seventh lane was a bad idea, and shouldn't be done again? Apparently not. Governor Cuomo has decided to build a new bridge, and he and his Thruway and DOT appointees will ignore any proposal to solve these problems that does not involve a new bridge.

That brings us to the Verrazano Bridge, where Cuomo's MTA is proposing to do exactly the same thing, as reported by Ted Mann in today's Wall Street Journal. In twenty years, will we be hearing that this bridge also has high maintenance costs? Will there be a push to replace it with a bigger bridge because it has "an accident rate double the rest of the system"? How much will the Governor want from our tax dollars when that time comes?

When I first heard about this plan for the Verrazano, I was pleased at the prospect of an HOV lane to speed buses from Staten Island to Manhattan. My first thought was, "yeah, they should extend it all the way through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and up Church Street." But there's a big difference between taking an existing car lane for transit, building a new greenfield, elevated or tunnel transit right-of-way, and shoehorning a new lane into an existing road. With the shoehorn approach comes increased carnage and operating expenses. Given the Cuomo Administration's record of "peeing on our backs and telling us it's raining," and the State DOT's history of this tactic on many roads under multiple governors, we can expect that this will mean new showers in the future.

We have to ask ourselves whether the increased capacity offered by an HOV lane (not a dedicated busway) is worth this tremendous cost, in money and in lives. Staten Island leaders should recognize that it will be much safer and cheaper if the MTA takes a lane for the busway, and that a lot more of their constituents will get to work in comfort with a busway than without one.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Why do so many people care about curbside buses?

In my post about the crazy law passed last week by the New York State legislature to (over)regulate private curbside buses in the city, I asked for help getting the word out. I got numerous tweets and retweets, and two of the three people I asked by name responded. Matt Yglesias wrote a nice blog post highlighting the burden caused by requiring a "traffic study" for each new bus stop permit, and noting the double standard for buses versus cars. John Stossel had a post highlighting the connection between private enterprise and innovation, which is particularly strong in the transit field. Some nice person also reddited my post.

And for the record, I totally understand why Tom Vanderbilt didn't respond to my call. It's not really his area, while both Yglesias and Stossel have written specifically about private van services in the past. But thanks for everyone who took up the call! I doubt we'll get this thing repealed any time soon, but hopefully more people will be watching the next time this comes up.

So I promised you an explanation for the bizarre urgency with which politicians and (non bus riding) "community members" achieved consensus on the issue of regulating (out of existence) intercity curbside bus pickup here in New York City. The explanations they gave - chaos, danger, congestion - were unsatisfying, in part because these were all things that were already regulated. I've got another explanation: barriers to entry.

It's been widely observed that much regulation is pushed by existing businesses to make it hard for new competitors to horn in on their territory. Just the other day, Planet Money's Jacob Goldstein said that they like to "claim that they're dangerous" and need to be regulated. The more established private operators like Greyhound and Adirondack Trailways pay a "gate fee" to the Port Authority for use of their terminal. (This gets weird when small commuter bus lines like DeCamp get free buses from the New Jersey Department of Transportation to reduce their capital expenditures, because it becomes a net transfer of funds from the State of New Jersey to the Port Authority.) Curbside buses pay almost nothing for their street space, which was thrown in the faces of the established companies when Megabus relocated to 41st Street, in between the two wings of the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

One weird thing is that Megabus is owned by the conglomerate Stagecoach, from the city of Perth in Scotland. You would think that it would then be the patriotic thing to support the companies that rent in the Port Authority, but the biggest, Greyhound, is owned by First Group, headquartered in Aberdeen, Scotland; we're really just pawns in some giant multi-generational clan war. The other big non-Chinese curbside bus company, Bolt, is a joint venture between Greyhound and Peter Pan (a family-owned business based in Springfield, Massachusetts). Stagecoach actually owns a whole portfolio of small profitable bus operators that rent inside the Port Authority under the Coachusa brand: Short Line, Red and Tan, Suburban. The lawsuit itself is more First vs. Stagecoach than anything else: Bolt is not trying for a near the Port Authority, and is not being sued, and the Coachusa companies haven't joined the suit.

A big factor is definitely the established companies putting up greater barriers to their curbside competitors. There's another factor here, that I'll get into soon.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Balaji Prabhakar and the invisible carrots

A few days ago I wrote about two pilot projects carried out in Bangalore and Palo Alto by Stanford computer scientist Balaji Prabhakar. In each case, Prabhakar's team implemented a lottery where the more an employee traveled to work at off-peak times, the greater their chances were of earning a small cash reward. Last year a new pilot was implemented on Singapore's trains.

As I wrote before, Prabhakar's work is promising because it tests the psychology of incentives and does not assume that people are always rational actors. But I have a big problem with the way it's been framed in recent news articles, specifically a June 11 Times article by John Markoff and a Transportation Nation post by Andrea Bernstein and a Planetizen post by Jonathan Nettler, both from the following day.

There seem to be four elements involved in Prabhakar's plan: it is perceived as providing positive incentives rather than punishments; it tries to make doing the right thing fun and interesting by making it more like a video game or collecting box tops; it only targets the "margin," those people who are most likely to shift; and it relies on network effects to build a sense of enthusiasm for the change.

Markoff's article focused almost exclusively on the first, and brought in the frame of carrot versus stick: "A few years ago, trapped in an unending traffic jam in Bangalore, India, he reflected that there was more than one way to get drivers to change their behavior. Congestion charges are sticks; why not try a carrot?" Bernstein loved it, excerpting those last two sentences and putting "Carrot or Stick" in her title. Nettler went further, calling it a "kinder, gentler way to alter driver behavior.

Did Prabhakar even think about it in those terms back in Bangalore? The word "carrot" is only mentioned by him once, in the title of a talk he gave this past March. The metaphor is invoked by several journalists and PR people, but not him.

The problem with this thinking is that it ignores all the other carrots that are out there. From road subsidies to cheap gas to minimum parking requirements to the use of cars as heuristics for maturity, power and sexual attractiveness, the world is full of incentives for people to drive.

Image: lizard31 / Cheezburger

If you want to actually solve a problem, you need to get to the root of it. Prabhakar's "solution" to congestion alleviates the symptoms, but it does not solve the problem. Now I like a good short-term solution, or "kludge," as they call it in Kannada. I love that when I have a headache I can take a couple of pills and relax, and maybe in the morning my headache will be gone, but if the headache isn't gone the next day I'll go see a doctor. In the end, whatever is causing my headache needs to be fixed, or else I'll wind up with a heart attack or an inoperable brain tumor. The underlying problem needs to be dealt with.

In the case of Stanford and large parts of the New York area, the problem is that driving and sprawl living are incentivized. In the case of Bangalore, the problem is that the tech companies are prohibited from building at locations that are well-served by the existing transportation network. These create "carrots" for people to congest the roads and buses.

Prabhakar is right that it's silly to subsidize bad choices and then tax them, but he doesn't deal with the subsidies. A procedure that brought the latest institutional psychology to bear on the problem of people getting entrenched in inefficient, unfair, destructive systems? Now that would be impressive.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Who's sticking up for the bus riders?

Today the New York State Legislature killed bus innovation in New York City. What are we going to do about it?

Yes, you read that right. The State Senate passed two bills (one and two) sponsored by Marty Golden (who styles himself a friend of transit, but has often failed it when the chips are down), Daniel Squadron (who's been a more consistent supporter of transit and should really know better) and Toby Stavisky (who is hopeless). They have already been passed by the Assembly, where they were sponsored by Shelly Silver (the Assembly's creepy dictator who sometimes does the right thing, but can never be relied on), Cathy Nolan (who likes to think of herself as a progressive but is usually pretty backward-thinking when it comes to transit) and Grace Meng (who is running for Congress on a promise to "focus on transportation").

The bills will require "cities having a population of one million or more" (the Legislature's bill-of-attainder legalese for New York City) to set up a permit system for curbside intercity bus pickups. They will no longer be allowed to go where there's space. Now they will have to apply (and reapply every three years) under a process that can take up to a hundred fifty days. The DOT will have to do a traffic study for every. single. bus. stop. and "consult" with the MTA and Port Authority if the proposed stop would "overlap" with an existing facility owned by either agency. The application would have to go through the fucking community board for a "notice and comment period of forty-five days."

There's a lot of other weirdness if you read the bill, which shows that the people drafting it are either clueless about how buses are run, or want to make it impossible to run a curbside bus operation in the city, or both. The bus operator has to include the US or State DOT registration numbers of each bus that would use those stops, a proposed schedule and the number of passengers anticipated, and notify the City DOT if that information changes. They will have to post a copy of the permit in every bus and pay up to $275 per bus.

The schedule and anticipated number of passengers is a pain in the ass, for obvious reasons, and not just for jitney-type services. One of the great advantages of buses is to be able to respond, in a short time frame, to changes in demand. Big holiday weekend for the colleges? Throw on a few more bus runs. Slow business to the beach in the winter? Cut a run here and there. No more.

What's really crazy is tying this to specific buses. If you pay any attention to bus service, you'll know that bus companies buy new buses and sell old buses. They also rent and charter extra buses to respond to demand. If a bus company replaces a bus, do they have to pay a whole new $275 and go through the 150-day process? Is this $275 per bus per stop, so that if a company wants the flexibility to shift some buses from a Midtown pickup to a Downtown pickup and back, they have to buy two permits? Chartering will essentially be impossible under these circumstances.

Why this added layer of bureaucracy? Well, there have been a whole bunch of reasons given, but all the complaints boil down to the NYPD not doing their job. Squadron and friends have a solution! They'll make the DOT do the NYPD's job, and add a whole bunch of other things for the DOT to do on top of that - without any increased funding, of course; I guess they'll just have to take money out of the Select Bus planning budget! But that can't be all; I think this is a pretext, and I'll get into the other motivations later.

As I've written in numerous blog posts over the years, the explosion of intercity bus service in Manhattan has been one of the few areas of major transit expansion at a time when Amtrak has been stagnant in the Northeast Corridor, the ARC Tunnel has been blocked and New Jersey Transit's capital improvements have been squashed, the Metro-North and LIRR budgets have been funneled into East Side Access and a bunch of crazy parking garages, and government-run local bus and subway service has been cut. Well, now you can say goodbye to that.

This is now virtually a done deal. The bills have passed the Senate with near-unanimous votes, and the Assembly on party-line votes. There may be some tweaking to be done, but unless something crazy happens (and in Albany, you never know), they've got veto-proof majorities.

So how did we get to this point? Why did nobody call up Dan Squadron and say, "No offense, Senator, but your bill is fucking nuts and you need to pull it now"? Where were the transit advocates?

Journalists, who are seriously uninformed on this issue and have not taken the time to actually figure out what's going on, have covered it as your typical David and Goliath story, where Goliath is either the Port Authority or the bus companies. They like a transit story where there's someone who's losing their transit and they can stick a mike in their face and broadcast their pain to the world. They can sort of deal with the death of transit plans, like the ARC tunnel. They have a really hard time dealing with the loss of potential transit, or transit flexibility: something that's hard to pin down even though you and I know it's there.

What about bloggers? As far as I can tell, I'm the only one who's highlighting the threat to transit. Streetsblog and the libertarian blogosphere has cast a half-hearted glance over here every once in a while, but their think-tanks have been pretty oblivious. Will Doig at Salon, after telling us it's time to start loving the bus, then decided that we should only love government buses, because private buses are a failure of libertarianism. Jarrett Walker and Yonah Freemark seem completely uninterested in any transit innovation that isn't channeled through a government-run planning process.

A huge disappointment has been the absence of the fractal-thinking pattern-language dynamic-city crowd. They love to talk about pop-up this and guerrilla that, but for some reason pop-up, guerrilla buses have escaped their notice.

By far the most frustrating absence has been that of what passes for transit advocates in this town. Kate Slevin of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, Joan Byron of the Pratt Institute and Dani Simons of the Institute for Transportation Development Policy love to tell us how we can't have any trains because buses are the future. Buses are so cheap, you can roll them out for a fraction of the price of a train line!

Okay, Kate, Joan, Dani: here are buses so cheap that they require no public spending at all on capital or operations! All the government has to do is provide the roads and the sidewalks. It's the ultimate system! And where are they when we need them? The same place they were last year when we needed them for the 34th Street Select Buses: nowhere. This is the second time that these "advocates" have let bus riders down. Isn't it clear now that they don't give a shit about any buses that don't fit into their narrative about Cheap, Community Transportation that is So Much Better than the Train?

I end this rant with a call to action, or at least to make some noise. This issue will go precisely nowhere if it depends on one unpaid blogger sitting up until two in the morning to write about this stuff. I need you all to blog this. You're all welcome to join in, but I want to single out three people in particular that I would like to see pick up this issue.

John Stossel can be obnoxious, but he's got a television show and he's covered dollar vans in the past. This is right up his alley.

Matt Yglesias has picked up on some of my issues before, and he can see what's going wrong and explain it to a wide audience.

Tom Vanderbilt writes mostly about driving, but he has reviewed Jarrett's book. He likes to think things through.

Please, everyone, do what you can.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Why do we care about Willets Point again?

For years I've been reading about various plans to redevelop the Willets Point area, each worse than the last. Each time I wonder why everyone's so convinced that Something Must Be Done. It's not a slum where people live in close quarters and can die of diphtheria or something. On its own terms, it's a successful business district. Why do people care about this forlorn corner of the borough? And why the urgency?

There are some people whose goals are obvious: those who have a direct financial interest. The Related Companies and the Wilpon family are the main investors in the current scheme, and they stand to make a profit in rent and property sales. In addition, the Mets could get more business from residents and customers, who figure they might as well take in a game while they're in the area.

There may be some other business owners who see themselves as "on the way" to Willets Point, and hope to make some money that way. And then there are all the "economic hunters" (like the Queens Chamber of Commerce and Deputy Mayor Robert Steel) who see this as a way to bring jobs and tax revenue to the city.

I have a lot of trouble relating. First of all, I have no direct financial interest. Second, I'm much more of a fan of economic gardening than hunting. What that means, as Chuck Marohn describes, is finding a way to help ten small businesses add ten jobs, rather than a single business adding a hundred jobs.

For existing small businesses in Queens to benefit from this new development, they would have to be perceived as "on the way," and I just don't see that with the current plans. Maybe some drivers would think about getting off the highway to shop or dine, and maybe some would think about getting off the number 7 train, but most of the proximity boost comes from walking. The current setup actively discourages walking, and none of the plans would do much to improve that.

So why is Willets Point so urgent? It's not like it's the only industrial area in the city with crappy streets. After thinking and thinking, I believe I've finally figured it out: you can see it from Citifield. It's even closer and more visible than it was from Shea Stadium. It's right across the street, staring you in the face: junkyards! unpaved streets! grimy brown people in work clothes!

I'm guessing that someone has a box seat in Citifield with a grand view of the junkyards behind the field, and the Wilpons look out at the thing every day. They got ahold of the politicians and the Queens Chamber of Commerce, and there you go.

Of course, it's not your problem or my problem. To paraphrase the office proverb, lack of tolerance for muddy streets on their part does not constitute an emergency on our part. But it looks like they've got enough clout to make it an emergency for us.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Balaji Prabhakar and the mystery rewards

Last week, the Times ran a gee-whiz article about Stanford computer scientist Balaji Prabhakar and his pilot program to reduce the number of people driving to campus. With a three million dollar (!) grant from the US DOT, it implements a lottery where people who choose not to drive during peak hours get credits which can be used to "win random cash rewards from $2 to $50 over and over again."

Whenever I enter a random drawing - that I actually care about, as opposed to paying a dollar for a charity raffle - I always want to find out what the odds are that I'll win. Interestingly, the Stanford pilot gives no indication of the odds that a driver will actually win one of these payouts. It makes me wonder how many economists, investors and statisticians signed up for the thing.

This is a more recent version of a pilot that Prabhakar and his colleagues ran in Bangalore, where commuters from downtown to the suburban call centers received similar random cash rewards for shifting to a less congested time. Interestingly, in that earlier version they were all bus passengers, and got rewarded for taking the bus.

The Stanford team did publish a paper (PDF) describing the Bangalore pilot, in which they go into detail about the reward system on Page 4:
Reward pyramid: The scheme has a pyramidal reward structure with four levels, as shown in Figure 9. The reward amounts are Rs. 500, Rs. 2,000, Rs. 6,000 and Rs. 12,000 in levels 1, 2, 3 and 4, respectively. The total sum of money in the pyramid is Rs. 96,000, distributed equally among the four levels. (Note that this amount is roughly equal to the total cost of extra fuel per week which was estimated at Rs. 15,000 per day.) Thus, there are 48 prizes worth Rs. 500 each, 12 worth Rs. 2,000, 4 worth Rs. 6,000 and 2 worth Rs. 12,000. Each level has a minimum number of credits needed for qualifying at that level. This number is 3, 7, 12 and 20 for levels 1, 2, 3 and 4, respectively. A commuter who qualifies at one level automatically qualifies at all lower levels.
In other words, the only way to know your chance of winning any given prize is to know which level you've achieved and how many other people are in each level. You could, of course, write a computer program to tell the commuter what the odds are for each level on a given day, but why bother if nobody cares?

In figure 3, it is revealed that there were 8000 commuters registered in January 2005. With 66 rewards, the chance of winning any reward is one in 121, which is pretty good as far as lotteries go. With one lottery a week, it is likely that any given commuter will win the ₨500 reward within three years. If we assume that each commuter works with ten other commuters, any given commuter will know someone who has won within three months.

My guess is that these odds were high enough to get people to change their behavior on the basis of feeling alone. That's pretty impressive. I have serious problems with the framing of the issue and concerns about the application of this idea, which I'll raise in future posts.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Community boards would stifle transit innovation

Recently I expressed doubt that the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority could create an innovative bus service like the Koreana van between Flushing and Fort Lee. Commenter Three Station Square gave a couple of counterexamples: the M60, introduced in 1992, connected 125th Street in Manhattan with La Guardia Airport, and the S89, introduced in 2007, connects the West Shore of Staten Island with the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail. George K pointed out that the S89 followed part of the route of Joel Azumah's 144 bus, but that in turn had taken over the route from Red and Tan in Hudson County.

Most of the innovations listed by Three Station Square are tweaks, including the extension of the Q5 and Q85 across the city limits to the Green Acres Mall in Valley Stream. And they're good tweaks; we like them, right? Well, you can expect even those to go away if one of "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz's proposals is adopted.

Schwartz's "equitable transportation formula" includes this point: "No service reductions on local buses for three years without Community Board approval." Sounds great, right? We hate service cuts, and we like community. More power to the community! What could possibly go wrong?

Any transit expansion advocate who's ever been to a New York City community board meeting knows exactly what's wrong with that. Many of the people who are involved in community boards are nice people who really want to do what's best for their city and their neighborhood. But the boards themselves are undemocratic and tend to be dominated by drivers and obsessed with increasing the supply of free parking. Their proceedings are almost always reactive and usually reactionary. They tend to stifle and oppose growth and innovation.

Some of you may be familiar with London's borough councils (elected by district) or Paris's district councils (elected at large). The community boards are nothing like that. Prospective members must be nominated by either their City Council member or the Borough President, and then approved by the Borough President's office. Some councilmembers and borough presidents value inclusiveness and a diversity of opinion, and some don't. Community board members are all volunteers, and the significant time commitment makes it difficult for people with day jobs to attend.

As a result, the boards tend to be dominated by people who are older and wealthier than the average for the district. In 2012 that means that they tend to own cars and drive them, to see driving and parking as an inalienable right, and to identify more with drivers than with pedestrians, cyclists or transit riders. The top issues they care about seem to be: (1) getting developers to provide more parking, (2) preventing anyone from interfering with double parking, (3) preventing traffic changes that they fear would overwhelm the neighborhood with cars, and (4) doing something about those damn bikers that almost ran over poor Connie.

Older and wealthier people also tend to be more interested in protecting what they already have than in getting more that they might use in the future. As a result, transportation discussions at community boards tend to be about preserving existing rights and privileges. There is very little interest in innovation. When they do support innovation, it's usually ornamental initiatives that present no threat to the car-oriented status quo. Why risk what you've worked so hard to get?

I have a number of friends who put in a lot of time and energy on community boards around the city. This is not to denigrate their efforts; it's important for someone to show up and make it clear that these aren't the only people in "the community." But I think they'd all agree that giving more power to community boards is a bad idea.

Basically, if you want to kill an idea, the best way to do it is to require community board approval. Which is why I'd be fine with requiring community board approval to buy leaky headphones, or to walk up the down side of the staircase, or to split a line at the Duane Reade. But transit cuts are not like that.

So why wouldn't I want to kill transit cuts? Because you can't have transit expansion without transit cuts. As I wrote on Sunday, for an agency to try something new, it needs to be able to cut it if it isn't working out.

In the case of across-the board reductions like we saw in 2010, community boards can't prevent the State Assembly from cutting the transit budget. They can only tie the MTA's hands as they try to deal with those budget cuts. Schwartz's proposal would not make the cuts go away. It would either force the MTA to borrow more or raise fares, or it would hold back service reductions on routes that are popular with influential community members, usually the elderly. Other routes would have to be reduced even more to compensate.

As with the bogus fairness, the elevated busways and the dollar fare reductions in neighborhoods with no subways, this is an idea that may sound nice to people who don't know that much about transit. But under scrutiny, it falls apart.

Yes, we need tolls on the East River bridges, and I agree with the many people who have argued that it will happen sooner or later. It's not worth all these bad things to make it happen sooner. Almost all of the elements in Schwartz's plan would lead to a net increase in driving citywide, and that's not what we're in this for.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Hidden Downside of That Thing You Like

I've been unkind to Will Doig in the past; I think I called his frustrating police-our-own article about cycling "horseshit." It deserved a lot of criticism, but that was really not constructive. Despite that, Doig has been remarkably understanding and civil to me. He definitely deserves better, so I will do my best to be polite and constructive while tearing apart his latest piece about private transit.

Of all the problems with Doig's post, the worst is that it's a complete straw man. Personally, I don't really care if "libertarianism fails." It's kind of fun to see libertarianism fall on its face, but it's a hollow fun. LIbertarianism always gets back up and marches on, because its life force comes from a bizarre combination of Panglossianism, nature worship and abdication of social responsibility, so I've gotten kind of tired of cheering its failures. Plus, some of my friends are libertarians and when they're sad, I'm sad.

I'm upset when transit fails, because transit is one of our best tools to get people out of their cars. And I'm frustrated because Doig doesn't seem to realize that to the extent the Chinatown bus crackdown is a failure at all, it's one in a string of failures for transit. Taras Grescoe picked up on Doig's article and tweeted, "market romanticism is a dead-end." But as I wrote back to Grescoe, parochial state control is a dead-end as well. Doig says a lot about what the Chinatown buses have accomplished in the past several years, but he seems completely unconcerned at the idea that this could have come to an end, and that there's no hope for anything to replace them.

Of course the dangerous driving is a problem, and that's another part of the strawman: no libertarian I know would argue for private bus operators to be exempted from safety regulation, certainly not while regulatory restrictions remain on other forms of transportation. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration exists for a reason, and most people applaud when they do their jobs. I honestly don't think that this crackdown will destroy the Chinatown bus system, or private intercity bus service.

Last night I asked for others to chime in on the problems with Doig's article, and libertarian Stephen Smith (@marketurbanism) wrote, "First of all, all I'm seeing are anecdotes. Four people died recently in vans operated by Chinese people?? OMG!" Stephen is right. Doig is blowing the whole thing out of proportion. While the number of people killed and injured by negligent and incompetent private bus operators is significant and should not be ignored, it's still pretty small and not worth destroying a transit system for.

Doig also suffers from transportation myopia here. As I wrote last year, to the extent that those bus trips replace private car trips, or enable car-free lifestyles, they prevent injuries and deaths. Imagine the carnage if all the Chinatown bus passengers were out behind the wheel. Think about the overnight gamblers, driving four hours to Foxwoods and four hours back after twelve hours on their feet in a restaurant.

Stephen continued, "Secondly, there are very few marginally profitable public bus routes in the US – there're no profits to poach!" This is not entirely true; in the New York City Transit system there are 23 bus routes that do make an operating profit, which is then used to run the 167 unprofitable routes. But the total operating profit in 2010 for these routes was only $27 million, less than a tenth of the combined loss from the other routes and 0.38% of NYC Transit's total expenses for that year (including all the subways). If NYC Transit turned over all the profitable routes to private operators it wouldn't make a dent in the budget.

So my constructive criticism to Will Doig is this: please get a sense of perspective! One of Doig's favorite formulas - and he's far from alone in this - is "The Hidden Downside of That Thing You Like." In this article he gets digs in at food trucks and pop-up parks as well. Next time I would appreciate if he asked the following questions: Is this Thing really so bad, when we compare it with all the other things like it? Of all the possible alternative things, how many are any better? How likely is it that we could have one of these better things?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Could the MTA ever run the Koreana van?

Last night I wrote about a new van service running from Flushing, Queens to Fort Lee and Palisades Park, New Jersey. The service is privately owned and operated, and charges ten dollars each way (with a free trip every ten rides). Now let me ask: Can you imagine the Metropolitan Transit Authority starting such a service?

The wonkiest among you may reply, "No, because crossing the Hudson is the Port Authority's job." Fair enough; can you imagine the Port Authority starting such a service? As far as I know, the Port Authority has never initiated a new transit service at all. The only one they run is the PATH trains, which they took over when they bought the bankrupt Hudson and Manhattan Railroad in 1962. They rely on New Jersey Transit and private companies to provide transit across the Hudson.

Starting a service like this - a service that crosses a state line and two rivers, and charges ten dollars! - is not something that the Port Authority, or the MTA, or any of our transit bureaucracies, would ever do under the current circumstances. Only a few people at either agency has enough power, and for them the risks are too great, and the rewards too small.

Back in January, MTA Chief of Operations Planning Peter Cafiero announced that the authority would be shutting down the number 7 line for eleven weekends from late January through mid-April, and again for five weekends in the fall. Regular reader Angus Grieve-Smith picked up on an idea that I floated a couple of years ago to run shuttle buses through the Midtown Tunnel, and convinced City Council member Jimmy Van Bramer to back it with city money.

The MTA refused, according to the Post: "MTA chiefs balked at his idea, Van Bramer said, because they worried that if they offered it to 7 riders, they’d have to do the same for other communities that deal with serial service outages, like those along the L line." One of their complaints is that even if the tunnel bus worked, it would be a lot more expensive than a shuttle to Queensboro Plaza. I'm not convinced of this in the first place; note that they studied shuttle routes to Grand Central, even though I argued for using the 34th Street busway instead.

In addition to the "then we'd have to give ice cream to everyone" argument, transit agencies are often also reluctant to increase service if they have any fear that they might have to cut it back again later. In part this is because service cuts require so many hearings and announcements, and offer opportunities for politicians to rail against "the MTA." Why would any self-respecting bureaucrat set themselves up for more public criticism than the minimum they can get away with? It's similar to the argument that severance pay and other measures that make it difficult to fire people also make employers reluctant to hire.

Can anyone remember the last time the MTA started a new bus route? It has acquired routes that were started by old streetcar and jitney companies. It has regularized and streamlined the system, combining some routes, splitting others and renaming some. But has it ever said, "You know, there are people here who want to go there. They're willing to pay for that. Let's make that happen!

The only possibility I can think of are the express bus routes that were started in the 1970s. The Select Bus routes are upgrades of existing routes, and they're being pushed by the Department of Transportation. There were a few other routes proposed as part of the congestion pricing debate (including a local route from down Northern Boulevard and 61st Street from Flushing to Woodside), but they never saw the light of day.

The MTA did not realize that there were lots of people in Sunset Park, Flushing and Elmhurst who wanted a quick, one-seat ride to Chinatown. If they ever did figure that out, they did not try to provide that service. If private operators had not stepped in to provide it, would we know that the market exists? What other potential routes are we missing out on?

Friday, June 8, 2012

New van service connects Queens and New Jersey

You've all heard about the Brooklyn dollar vans, run primarily by Jamaican and Haitian immigrants connecting various Black neighborhoods to downtown. You may have heard about the vans connecting the subway and Long Island Railroad stations in Jamaica (the neighborhood in Queens, not the island) with other Black neighborhoods in Southeast Queens, also run by West Indians. If you're faithful readers of this blog, you've heard about the network of Chinatown vans, run by Chinese immigrants, connecting Chinatown, Flushing, Elmhurst and Sunset Park. You've also heard about the New Jersey vans, connecting the Port Authority bus terminals in Midtown and Washington Heights with various towns in Hudson, Bergen and Passaic counties, run by Dominicans, Peruvians and Egyptians, among others.

I have a new addition to this list: Korean vans from Queens to Bergen County, New Jersey. As far as I know, this is the only direct transit service connecting the west side of the Hudson with the east side of the East River, except for a few sports specials. It's definitely the only transit service I know of that connects the two without stopping in Manhattan at all.

Last month, I was walking in Flushing with Stephen Smith and saw a van with a web URL on the side. I looked it up and discovered that Koreana Tours, a travel agency, is running a regularly scheduled van service (scroll down for English) from Flushing to Fort Lee and Palisades Park. If you've ever been to those places, you know that along with Koreatown on 32nd Street in Manhattan, they're the biggest Korean communities in the area, so it makes perfect sense that a van would make that trip.

Today I showed up at the Koreana Tours office at the corner of Union Street and 39th Avenue, just a couple blocks from the Main Street subway station. I had time to grab a pastry at the cafe across the street, and then the van pulled in to the Municipal Parking Lot. At first the driver and the manager didn't believe that a white guy wanted to take a Korean bus, but when I said I wanted to go to Fort Lee they were happy to take my ten dollars. They even gave me one of these stamp cards, so if I take the van ten times I get a free ride, just like buying coffee.

The fifteen-passenger van had an extra high roof, and was almost brand new and spotless (at least until I dropped a couple pastry crumbs on the floor). The radio was tuned to some top 40 station - no Korean pop music the way that the Chinatown vans play Chinese music, the Jamaican vans play reggae and hip-hop, and the Dominican vans play merengue and reggaeton. The van pulled out at 1:30 on the nose, and about forty minutes later dropped me off at the Bridge Plaza bus stop in Fort Lee. It continued on to Main Street in Palisades Park, which probably didn't take very long. At Bridge Plaza I could have gotten vans to take me to Paterson or Jersey City, and a number of other buses, but I had other business. The back of the card has a copy of the schedule:

As you can see, this is not a jitney, it's a scheduled service with six runs a day in each direction. It took me a little while to figure it out, but it seems clear to me that the departure times for Fort Lee and Palisades Park are reversed. So for example, after the van dropped me off in Fort Lee at 2:10, it continued on and picked up more passengers in Palisades Park at 2:20, then came back to Fort Lee at 2:30 and arrived back in Flushing at 3:10. The 9:20AM and 8:20PM runs continue on to Kennedy Airport.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The empty promise of Gridlock Sam's dollar buses

As I wrote last week, the transit portions of "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz's transportation proposal just feel kind of bizarre and divorced from reality. Sometimes it seems that the entire city's transportation advocacy discourse is dominated by drivers and cyclists. If occasionally a transit rider like Jay Walder may get a little bit of influence, they still don't get the support they need when the chips are down.

When drivers and cyclists make big plans that include transit, as in the current proposal from Gridlock Sam, the transit component runs the whole range of uninspiring, from mediocre (we'll consider restoring the 2010 cuts, but only on local bus routes) to other people's fads (elevated busways!) to WTF. The WTF in this case includes reducing the fares on buses "in neighborhoods with no subways" by a dollar, i.e. from $2.25 to $1.25.

Part of the problem here may be due to Powerpoint. It's possible that this is better thought out than it sounds, and it was edited into inanity to fit in one bullet point. But honestly, if your bus proposals don't get their own slides, what does that say about your priorities?

Anyway, so what's wrong with reducing bus fares to a dollar twenty-five in neighborhoods with no subways? In principle, nothing. But there are costs, and unforeseen consequences, and it's not clear what it will accomplish, if anything. The main cost is the opportunity cost: what else could we do with that money? Increase frequency on the buses; build bus bulbs or physically separated bus lanes; implement traffic signal priority or offboard fare payment. Or we could even use it to extend the E train to Valley Stream. With all these possibilities, why did Schwartz choose to spend the money lowering the fare?

Then there are the unforeseen consequences of lowering the bus fare. Many years ago I bought an "Apollo" inkjet printer for a hundred dollars; the sales people told me that it was made by Hewlett-Packard, and had the same technology as HP-branded printers. Why did HP go to the trouble of creating a separate company and brand for this printer? Because they didn't want anyone to see a brand new HP printer selling for a hundred dollars. They didn't want anyone to associate "HP" with "cheap" in their mind.

Buses already have a reputation in Staten Island, eastern Queens, southeastern Brooklyn and the eastern Bronx as cheap, crappy transportation for people who can't afford cars. A $1.25 bus fare will just reinforce that image. That's something that Schwartz seems to have no problem with - but it means giving up on the possibility that these areas will ever increase their transit mode share. I have a problem with that, and I hope you do too.

So reducing bus fares would spend money that we could instead use to expand the system and make it better, and it would probably reinforce the reputation of buses in the outer boroughs as cheap, crappy transportation. But is it worth that?

Well, is what worth that? Schwartz doesn't say what he expects to accomplish by reducing bus fares. On one level it seems obvious: save people $40 or more a week! But why save those people money, and not lower the fare for subway riders, and for people riding the buses in neighborhoods where there are subways? The answer can only be to encourage more people to ride buses in the outer boroughs. Presumably this is instead of driving, but it could be that Schwartz wants to encourage people to make bus trips that they wouldn't otherwise have made, or that they would have made by walking, but it's not clear to me what the value of that is. Mobility for mobility's sake?

It's not clear, anyway, that lowering the fare will do either of these things. To begin with, take a look at this chart from the most recent MTA Transit Committee meeting:

That's right, almost half the fares are paid with unlimited-ride Metrocards. There's no way to take a dollar off if you're not paying per ride!

Now, it's quite likely that the percentage of people paying with unlimited Metrocards is lower in the outer boroughs than in Manhattan, but I'll bet it's still pretty high. But beyond that, a lot of the people riding buses in "the two-fare zone" are transferring to subways, or even to buses that go to "neighborhoods with subways." A rush hour visit to Kew Gardens, Pelham Bay Park or Flatbush Avenue will give you a sense of how many. Presumably, when they make the transfer, and when they come back, they would spend that dollar anyway. Thus, the discount would only apply to trips that begin and end in neighborhoods without subways. How many is that, really?

For that tiny number of trips, the $2.25 fare is already lowered by the 7% pay-per-ride bonus if the passengers pay with Metrocards and not cash. Many of the people riding those trips would be disabled and senior citizens eligible for the 50% discount on top of that. Whether the fare is $1.10, or $2.05, how often is that really a deterrent? Keep in mind that many of these people already pay a market price of $2 for "dollar vans."

Finally, if we're talking about getting people out of their cars, we know how much people pay to own and insure a car, and drive and park it on the streets of New York City. How many of them are sensitive to a few dollars in bus fare?

As you can see, I've tried mightily to make sense of this. I probably spent a lot more time on it than it deserves. And I'm pretty damn sure that I put more time and thought into it than Sam Schwartz or anyone who's working for him on this plan. A dollar reduction in fares in "neighborhoods without subways" is hard to implement, would accomplish very little, would probably be counterproductive, and would take money from more worthy uses.