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.


Matthew said...

This law does look pretty insanely stupid. I always suspected that they would try going after the curb-side buses though. They're occupying some public space for their private company and not paying for it. The fair thing to do would be to charge a fee for the use of the space and leave it at that. None of this intrusiveness.

Boston forbids curb-side pickup and all the discount carriers use the South Station Bus Terminal. It seems to work out, but I'm guessing that the Port Authority doesn't have room for that. Or wants too much in fees.

Tom Powers said...

Although buses are taking up publicly-provided space, the alternative of having everyone drive a car would also take up space, probably even more space.

I'd have more sympathy for the idea of charging bus operators for congestion if the same State Assembly who wants this bill hadn't killed congestion pricing in NYC.

nathan_h said...

Emailed Squadron:

Why are you pushing through bills that will kill the bus services that non-wealthy New Yorkers rely on multiple times a year to travel the region? Cheap buses, originally "chinatown buses", are the only good thing to happen regional transportation in the last decade. Certainly better than anything that has originated in Albany.

Please stop this horrible thing that you are doing.


Regarding the unbelievable cluenessness of these bills, that these bus company can and do supplement their fleet in the holidays is fundamental. Of course chauffeured senators wouldn't know anything about it, but when you ride Megabus home for Christmas it's often an incorrectly branded CoachUSA bus, which is just fine. That is why they can still offer cheap tickets for peak travel.

Airlines can not scale up to fly more airplanes at holiday time. Highways can not scale up to carry more cars. BUS LINES CAN SCALE UP BY REPURPOSING OTHER BUSES.

Until New York State makes that perfectly good business practice illegal. Fucking idiots.

Matthew M. Robare said...

I'll bet my boots Greyhound has been donating to those legislators. They've been losing a lot of money to Megabus -- after all why spend the same amount of money on a bus ride with Greyhound from Boston or Philadelphia to NYC as it would cost to take Amtrak when you could take Megabus for cheap.

Austin 5-000 said...

Thanks for this post. I called Daniel Squadron (I live in Brooklyn Heights, part of his district) and let him know how disappointing this is. I don't need Greyhound writing a law to tell me that I can't get a bus in Chinatown.
This whole group (Golden, Stavisky, Nolan, Meng, and Squadron) needs to wake up and start actually thinking not reacting on transit issues.

Greg L. Turnquist said...

This is pretty ridiculous, but just what a politician would order. Whatever happened to original, entrepreneurial ideas? Must they all be killed in favor of existing solutions that are broken down and expensive?

P.S. I found your article a la John Stossel, and subsequentially tweeted it!

jazumah said...

It doesn't matter because the process is illegal under federal law. They are essentially regulating interstate commerce. I am not going to follow it. Period.

Alon said...

Personally, I think the idea is good and every mode of transportation that uses roads and curbs needs to be regulated to make sure it doesn't occupy too much space without paying for it.

As a result, I support congestion pricing.

Cap'n Transit said...

I agree, Alon, but this kind of regulation is worse than none.