Sunday, September 30, 2012

Where to put more buses

Recently I raised the question of what it would take to get car and plane travel on the Northeast Corridor down below 24 million trips a year, which is fourteen percent of the current total. Some commenters, notably Alon Levy, argued that it could be done by increasing capacity on current Amtrak trains particularly by adding more cars and improving the signaling system. A new tunnel under the Hudson would be a big help, and this week Senator Schumer made the case for funding preliminary investments in the next budget.

In a follow-up post I argued that while we should definitely be pushing increases in rail capacity, we shouldn't ignore the fact that most of the recent increase in Northeast Corridor transit ridership has been by bus, notably using practices imported from China and Scotland. We definitely shouldn't take the simplistic approach of abandoning train advocacy and "loving the bus, but we should ask ourselves how much bang for the buck we get per hour of advocacy on trains as compared to buses. At this point it looks like we have the advocacy resources available to work on both.

So how can we get more buses on the Northeast Corridor? Well, the two big capacity constraints here in New York are the city streets and the bus terminals. The Port Authority Bus Terminal is full, and the only way that Bolt, Megabus and the Chinatown buses have been able to run more buses is by picking up passengers at the curb. Now that's being squashed.

I've talked quite a bit about frequent service in local transit, following some of Jarrett Walker's excellent posts, and building on the assumption that a train or bus line that comes reliably within ten minutes gives you "freedom" to not worry about the schedule. For intercity buses, the time frame is a little longer, given how long it takes to get a ticket, get your meals and snacks, get on line and board the bus. If there are buses coming every half hour, with enough seats for everyone who wants one, most people would be satisfied.

As I wrote back in 2008, once you're providing satisfactory service, the thing to do is to pick up somewhere else. The Port Authority Bus Terminal is convenient for people who live along the Eighth Avenue line or in Hudson County. It's kind of convenient for people who live a short distance from Times Square, but after thirty-five years I'm really coming to loathe that one-block tunnel.
Chinatown is convenient for people who live there, and for people who live near one of the Chinatown vans. It's also relatively convenient for the Sixth Avenue and Centre Street trains, but not for any of the Broadway or Lexington Avenue lines. In 2008 Megabus and Bolt Bus started picking up at Penn Station, and that was convenient for LIRR and New Jersey Transit riders. Peter Pan Bus Company, one of the co-owners of Bolt, approached Manhattan Community Board 6 about setting up a bus stop on Lexington Avenue across from Bloomingdale's, but were met with resistance.

In contrast, the George Washington Bridge bus station has been underutilized, and I think that's because it's not very convenient to get to. The tunnel from the subway is nicer, but that subway station is only served by the A train. To get to the terminal from the #1 train, you need to walk several blocks through the crowded streets of Washington Heights.

In the comments to my last post, Alon Levy wrote, "I'm implicitly assuming a distribution of New York-area stops that includes a variety of major destinations and origin clusters: Midtown, Chinatown, Fort Lee, Newark, White Plains, and so on. The problem with this is that whatever you do, the buses slow down dramatically once they need to use city streets. The more distributed the destinations are, the worse this problem is. Want to travel from the south to Flushing? Enjoy your hour-long slog through Manhattan and western Queens traffic. Really, any destination in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island is a nightmare. From Boston, Jersey is also a nightmare."

I don't think Jersey is a nightmare from Boston, particularly Fort Lee and Secaucus, because many of the buses that go from Manhattan to Boston actually travel through the Lincoln Tunnel to New Jersey before crossing the George Washington Bridge, passing right through Fort Lee and Secaucus. White Plains, Flushing and Parkchester are are a shorter drive from Boston than Manhattan is.

On Twitter, John Morris pointed out that Bolt Bus already serves Newark Penn Station, a major train and bus hub. I discovered that they also have a stop in Soho just outside the Holland Tunnel. Megabus also serves the major New Jersey Transit transfer station in Secaucus. White Plains has long had intercity bus service through Greyhound, Shortline and Trailways.

The obvious locations for additional bus stops are close to major transit stations and highway offramps. My top nominees are Flushing, Jamaica, Jackson Heights, Parkchester, Fort Lee, Williamsburg (Lorimer Street), Elmhurst (Woodhaven Boulevard), Sunset Park (36th Street) and Bay Ridge (59th Street). I'm frankly puzzled that Chinatown bus companies aren't already running intercity buses from Sunset Park, Elmhurst and Flushing, but I've seen no evidence.

What can you do to make these bus stops more likely? Write to the DOT and the bus companies to suggest them. Lobby for bus lanes on the BQE and the LIE to speed the buses out of the city. Tolls on the BQE, the Cross-Bronx, the Major Deegan and the Bruckner Expressway would make room for buses to go faster.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Queue myopia

Benjamen Walker has a new radio documentary out for the BBC (MP3), all about waiting on line. It's definitely worth a listen. I especially appreciated the distinction between "serpentine" first-come first-served queues of the kind you get at banks and airports, and separate queues of the kind you get at most supermarkets. It always drove me nuts when Duane Reade drugstores had the separate queues, because I kept getting stuck with a tube of toothpaste behind someone with a cart full of stuff, watching people fly through the next register. I'm really glad they've gone serpentine.

I have to say that while I share Walker's concerns about inequality, I have a problem with the overall thrust of his thesis. I'm aware that people generally don't like being called "myopic," but I can't think of a better word. Let me know if you have suggestions.

My problem with Walker's approach to "priority queueing" is the same as my frustration with Richard Brodsky's arguments against congestion pricing, or the Free Public Transit campaigns, or the typical liberal opposition to raising the price of just about anything. It's based on a limited view of its subject, in this case queuing, and focuses in on a local pattern of inequality while ignoring the wider inequalities that exist.

In all of Walker's examples, he presents an existing system without inequalities, and describes a "priority queuing" that allows people to get what they want faster by paying more. But in all those cases, if you zoom out you find that there was always inequality; it has just been realigned on a finer scale, or perhaps in a more blatant way.

Before I get into the exact examples, there's a clear inaccuracy in Walker's story, one that shouldn't have gotten past the fact-checkers. In a segment on the I-85 Express lanes in Atlanta, one of his sources claims that "they kicked the carpools out of the hot lanes, slowing down all the other lanes." Walker himself repeated this in an interview with Mike Pesca on the Brian Lehrer Show. It's not true, and it should be corrected.

It seemed funny that they would be called "hot lanes," since "HO/T" stands for "high occupancy/toll," meaning that you can use them if you either have high occupancy or pay a toll. And in fact the PeachPass FAQ says, "Three person carpools, vanpools, motorcycles, Alternative Fuel Vehicles, and transit will be able to use the HOT lanes without paying but are still required to register for a Peach Pass account prior to using the roadway." The Atlanta Journal-Constitution confirms, "Three person carpools, vanpools, motorcycles, Alternative Fuel Vehicles, and transit will be able to use the HOT lanes without paying but are still required to register for a Peach Pass account prior to using the roadway."

These "hot lanes" in Atlanta have been inserted into a system where the very rich have had helicopters for decades and chauffeurs for centuries, and the very poor have no cars. Airplanes have boarded first class passengers before coach for as long as I can remember. Was it ever any different? Maybe back when the middle class couldn't afford air travel at all. Atlanta, remember, is the place that gave Raquel Nelson a higher penalty than the driver of the car that hit her son.

Amusement parks? There are multiple amusement parks in a given area, and they probably already practice some kind of price discrimination. I'm sure that wealthy people who don't want to wait on line at Six Flags can pay for other options, like jet skis. And community colleges - people with more money can get an education at a private college without waiting. Before you could buy Gold Tech Support, the support was always better for IBM customers than for Emachines customers, and people who assembled their computers from parts got no support at all.

That's only scratching the surface. People with money have long been able to jump the queue in nightclubs and restaurants, and shop in stores with shorter lines. Just compare the lines in Brooks Brothers or Ann Taylor to those at Marshall's, Conway or Ross's. If you're prepared to bribe someone you can get all kinds of special treatment; in 2003, Esquire ran two great articles by Tom Chiarella on what you can get for a twenty dollar bill. Usually you don't even have to do anything as crass as bribery, you just have to look like you're going to spend some money.

In the end, I am just as disturbed as Walker at the idea that something can be so much easier for people who have more money. But I recognize that it's always been that way. These new high-tech "priority queues" are just a rearrangement of that inequality, not creating something new. There may be problems with that rearrangement, but you'd have to dig deeper to find them.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Buses or trains on the Northeast Corridor?

On Sunday I posted about setting goals and working through disagreements. One area I had in mind was the Northeast Corridor. We currently have 86% of trips, or 137 million per year, going by car or plane, and I asked what it would take to flip that so we have no more than 14% of trips, or 24 million, by car or plane.

My original thought was that with so many passengers traveling through New York Penn Station, and the often-repeated claim that the North River Tunnels leading into Penn being maxed out, any increase would have to be in buses. In the comments, Alon convinced me that there is capacity in the tunnels, and that Amtrak can move more passengers by running longer trains, improving signaling and increasing the number of seats per train. Increasing the number of seats may be counterproductive, because it will lower the quality of the experience and thus limit what Amtrak can charge for a seat.

The question then comes down to a strategic issue. Which is likely to get more people out of their cars, improving signaling and increasing train length, or increasing the number of buses? It's a little more complicated, though, because the strategies are unequal in various ways. It might be better to ask which gives you the biggest bang for the buck, but it's not all about money. Which strategy gets the largest number of people out of their cars per hour of activism?

Signal improvements and train cars are fairly straightforward because there's no constituency that feels threatened by better train signals or longer Amtrak trains. There is only the constituency that wants to deny Amtrak funding. Activist hours would simply be spent fighting for that funding.

In contrast, there are constituencies that are opposed to various ways of providing more bus capacity. The intercity bus companies seem to be able to buy new buses with fare revenue and maybe even build terminals in other cities, but they don't seem to have enough income to build their own terminals in Manhattan, so any indoor terminal or garage would have to be built with public funding.

Up to now, intercity buses have expanded on the cheap by simply using curb space. This has fueled the explosive growth in this sector of the market, but by enabling "community review" of bus stops and other onerous requirements, New York City has put the curb out of reach of many intercity operators.

That leads us to the final set of questions for tonight: Given the new law, how can we continue to expand intercity bus service in the Northeast Corridor? What is the best use of activists' time? Would an hour spent on bus service get more people out of their cars than spending an hour lobbying for longer Amtrak trains and better signals?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Greenwashing with recreation

I got pretty annoyed this weekend listening to Lieutenant Governor Duffy blathering on to Alan Chartock about how Governor Cuomo loves the environment so much, he would never approve hydrofracking if he thought it would harm the environment at all! How do we know Cuomo loves the environment so much? Because he just loves spending time outdoors in the woods!

I was composing a thousand word blog post in my mind about greenwashing through recreation, when Stephen Miller announced a caption contest with a photo of Cuomo canoeing on some pristine Adirondack body of water. So here is a picture that tells the whole story:

I would credit the photographer, but the Governor's Flickr stream doesn't say who it is. Very nice shot, though.

Please feel free to retweet my contest entry tweet. Also, please share this picture on Facebook! As a pseudonymous fictional entity, your Cap'n is not allowed on Facebook, so please be my minions!

You can find out why the Tappan Zee Bridge is a cancer in our midst at, or by browsing my Tappan Zee-related posts.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Pulling the spool

Imagine a giant spool of rope, tied to a basket full of people descending into frigid, stormy water. There are handles on both sides of the spool, and you and your friends are pulling desperately on those handles, trying to pull the people to safety. On the other side of the spool are another set of handles, and there are people pulling on the handles in the other direction. They are not all bad people: some believe that it's really for the best. They will occasionally stop pulling and come attack you and your friends. Sometimes one of your friends goes to try and pry your opponents' hands from the handles.

Neither side has a single leader. Sometimes people will shout directions at their team, but not everyone will listen. Sometimes a whole bunch of people will all grab on one handle and pull; that's good in theory, but not everyone can grab the same handle so there will be some who can't find a grip and simply stand there. Sometimes one subgroup will yell at others to let go of their handles and grab the one that the subgroup is pulling. And sometimes that backfires, because the wheel gets stuck at the very spot that they left.

Now imagine that the people in the basket are Clean Air, Clean Water, Energy Security, Street Safety, Economic Stability and Fairness. The higher the basket rises, the more we approach those goals. The handles on the wheel are Parking Pricing, Parking Quantity, Road Pricing, Road Space, Fuel Pricing, Development Density, Transit Availability, Transit Value, Taxi Availability, Pedestrian Safety, Pedestrian Comfort, Placemaking, Bicycle Safety, Bicycle Infrastructure, Electoral Reform, and others.

It's not a perfect analogy (there are no perfect analogies), but it gets at a problem I've been running into. Some people have a particular angle on the campaign, and they think theirs is the one that everyone else should be working on. Maybe it's buses, and they think everyone should stop worrying about trains and bikes and walking and get behind the buses. Maybe the people who think density is the key get into a fight with the people who think pricing is the key.

I've gotten into a few of those arguments recently, in the comments and on Twitter. Someone will see something I've written and tell me that I should really be focusing on something else.

Now there are legitimate sources of disagreement. Two groups may simply not share the same goal. One may not believe that the energy supply is in jeopardy, and another may not believe that pedestrian deaths are worth worrying about. They will of course have different priorities.

One group may also be misguided, actively engaged in counterproductive behavior. For whatever reason, I seem to wind up in a lot of these arguments. In those cases, it can be hard to tell whether they are actually misguided or their critics are.

It may also be that one particular handle needs a whole bunch of people pulling on it at once, to get it past a sticky point. In that case, it makes sense for some people to stop working on what they're doing and go help out.

It may be that one particular strategy is so much more effective than any of the other ones that more people should focus on that. Pull that handle and the spool will spin further.

Even in last two cases, sometimes it just makes sense for someone to keep doing what they've been doing. Maybe they're really good at lobbying elected officials, or maybe they know a lot about taxis. Maybe they just like working on sidewalks. If that's what they're happy doing and they're not actively undermining your activities, just let them do it. Not everyone needs to be working on your issue.

So my point is: if someone's part of the movement but not working on your issue, and you've asked politely, as long as they're not working against you, just let them do their thing and get out of the way. It doesn't mean that they're not an ally.

And then of course, as Milton said, "They also serve, who only stand and wait."

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Great Curbside Land Grab of 1947-1952

In previous posts I've talked about how it was illegal to park your car overnight in New York City in the 1940s, how car ownership got out of the NYPD's control, how the car owners developed a sense of entitlement, and how the media and politicians sympathized more with car owners than with anyone else.

On Tuesday I described how in 1952 Mayor Vincent Impellitteri proposed an overnight parking tax of $5 per month, an "automobile use tax" of $5 per month and a city gas tax of 2¢ per gallon. This was in response to a budget crisis - you thought there were no budget crises before the 1970s? - that may well have been brought on by the city building so many new roads without any new money to pay for them.

As I wrote on Tuesday, it's generally a bad idea to let someone use your stuff for free if you plan on charging them for it in the future. If you set expectations well - in other words, make it clear that you're doing them a favor and tell them exactly when you want them to start paying - it may work out just fine. The worst thing you can do is just kind of let them grab your stuff and then appeal to their sense of charity. That implies that they have a right to your stuff, and you'd let them have it for free indefinitely if you had enough money.

The worst thing is exactly what Mayor Impellitteri did, and it turned out as bad as you'd expect. From what I can tell, the State Legislature did not give the city the right to levy an "automobile use tax"; otherwise Bloomberg would have just done it. They also did not allow the city to charge a per-gallon gas tax, although the city does charge a 4.375% sales tax on gasoline. However, they had already given the city the right to charge for overnight parking in 1947.

On February 22, the City Council passed a home rule measure assenting to the change. And then the backlash began in earnest. On March 12, Acting Traffic Commissioner T.T. Wiley went to the Times to complain about how much of an administrative "headache" the $60 overnight parking fee would create, and on March 18, the president of the Automobile Club threatened "serious trouble" if the city went ahead with the fee. On April 4, a group of seven City Council members announced their opposition to the automobile use tax and the overnight parking fee. On April 14 it was the turn of the City Comptroller, Lazarus Joseph.

Critically, the Council and Joseph ignored the entire possibility that drivers might have some obligation to pay even a part of the upkeep of the roads that they used. The Pigovian, and now Shoupian, idea that free parking can cause people to drive more, making the city a worse place, was not even considered. The entire focus was on finding "alternative sources of revenue" - anything besides car use to tax, or even short-term gimmicks.

In the end, the Board of Estimate vetoed the overnight parking fee. For those who don't know, the Board of Estimate was a crazy, undemocratic institution that ruled the city for ninety years. It was an executive council consisting of the Presidents of each of the five boroughs with one vote each, plus the Mayor, the Comptroller and the City Council President who had two votes each.

The Board of Estimate was deposed in 1989 when the United States Supreme Court ruled that its power violated the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection, because Brooklyn's 2.3 million inhabitants had the same vote as Staten Island's 378,977. Imagine if the city today were controlled by a group consisting of a few mostly reasonable people like Mike Bloomberg, Scott Stringer and Ruben Diaz Jr. paired with faux-populist panderers like Christine Quinn, John Liu, Marty Markowitz, James Molinaro and Helen Marshall.

Back in 1952 the Board still had all its power, and on April 21, in the words of Times reporter Charles G. Bennett, it "informally decided to leave it to Controller Lazarus Joseph and his aides to turn up sufficient alternative sources of city revenue to justify dropping further consideration of what promised to be the most controversial and most sharply attacked item of Mayor Impellitteri's tax program." And that was it. The drivers had been squatting on city streets for free for five years, and they have continued for another sixty.

Another interesting angle to the story was that in all the New York Times articles I could find about the issue, the only people in favor of the overnight parking fee were members of the Impellitteri administration, and their arguments were couched entirely in terms of fiscal need. No citizens groups were quoted on the pro side of the issue to balance out the Automobile Club and their members. It is not clear if there was anyone.

It's a striking contrast with the city's installation of bicycle facilities, where every new project is challenged with a statement along the lines of "Cyclists need to start obeying the law and respecting pedestrians before they get any more lanes." If motorists had been held to that standard in 1952, they'd all still be parking in garages.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The limits of kvetchocracy

Earlier this year it was big news when the City released a map, and summary reports of complaint calls to its 311 telephone system. Deputy Mayor Goldsmith claimed that it would "help residents hold government accountable," but it's really hard to take any concrete information from it besides the simple fact that these are the places and issues that people have called 311 about.

I'm a big fan of trouble ticket systems, especially those that empower a competent, conscientious manager to keep better track of requests and responses. 311 is a great tool for that. Interpreted with caution, the statistics can even tell us some useful things about the city. But as a reliable gauge for what the population as a whole want or care about, or even a replacement for other forms of citizen participation, it sucks. Here are some reasons why.

  • It can be rigged. If a media outlet or political leader asks a group of constituents to call 311 about an issue, it can be a good thing if it helps to document that issue. But it can lead to misleading counts of calls.
  • It is easily stymied by silos. If you call 311 about a problem with the subways, the operators will transfer you to the MTA's much less helpful system at 511. There is no recording of your call, so David Greenfield has no way of comparing the number of subway complaints with the number of parking complaints - if he gets a tally of subway complaints at all.
  • It favors the unimaginative. On several 311 calls, I've wasted time with the agent tried to find the right pigeonhole for my issue. If you have a well-known problem like "parking ticket lookup" the agents know exactly what to do with it, and it shows up nicely on the tallies. If you have a hard-to-categorize problem? Last I checked, there was no catch-all where someone from the Mayor's office would actually try to figure out uncategorizable problems.
  • Some people are discouraged. If your step-street has been covered with trash for years, why would you expect a telephone call to solve it? If the cops are not ticketing people who park on the sidewalk, why would you expect them to start just because you ask? In those cases the lack of a 311 call doesn't mean people don't care, it means they've given up. Last month's map actually shows encouragingly that the districts with the most calls tend to be ones with large African American populations, so maybe those populations have overcome their discouragement, but it is always a possibility.
  • It favors people with time on their hands. If you call 311, you always have to listen to some long-ass announcement about alternate side parking. Then you have to explain your problem to the agent, which takes longer if you don't have a boring problem. Then you have to give the agent your name and contact information, and write down the tracking number. All that takes time, and if you're on your way to the subway you don't have that kind of time.

Who has that kind of time? The young and the old. Children and teenagers may have time, but they can't vote and probably don't think of 311 as something available to them. Unemployed people have time, unless they're following the advice of job coaches to make their job search into a full-time job, but they may feel discouraged and disenfranchised, especially if they come from low-income backgrounds. That leaves retirees and people on long-term disability.

These retirees are the same people who show up at all the community board meetings. Many of them are nice people who care about their neighbors, but most of the current batch are trapped in the middle-class Baby Boomer ideology. This is the worldview that equates car ownership, parking and use with freedom, opportunity and upward social mobility, and sidewalks, apartments and transit with dirt, crime and corruption. This worldview colors and pervades their activities, making them more likely to care about noise, parking and congestion, and less likely to care about sidewalk obstruction, transit delays and pedestrian harassment.

Knowing this, it is not surprising that the 311 calls reflect the priorities of middle-class Baby Boomers more than any actual reality on the ground. That will always be present as long as a 311 call takes so long and other populations feel discouraged and disenfranchised. Cutting the alternate-side announcements to ten seconds or less would make a difference, but the totals are not representative of public opinion in general. We need to be very careful that they're not taken out of context.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

How not to deal with parking moochers

Let's say that you live by yourself in a two-bedroom apartment. Your friend's brother is coming to town to look for a job, and your friend asks if he can stay with you. Do you (a) say "Fine, and I'll even let you stay rent-free for two months, but then you'll have to start chipping in?" Or do you (b) pay all the rent yourself for two years and then say, "Man, I know you're not making that much, and I love having you around, but the rent just went up and I need some money for these root canals I had"? If you answered (b), congratulations! You're Mayor Vincent Impellitteri.

In previous posts I've talked about how it was illegal to park your car overnight in New York City in the 1940s, how car ownership got out of the NYPD's control, how the car owners developed a sense of entitlement, and how the media and politicians sympathized more with car owners than with anyone else.

When 1952 began, it was still illegal to park overnight in New York City, but I get the impression that the ban wasn't enforced very much. Then Mayor Impellitteri made a dramatic speech to the Chamber of Commerce. He began by saying how proud he was of the city, especially when Winston Churchill "marveled that we could ride along the Belt Parkway without encountering a traffic light for miles," but then turned around and said, "it's lucky we weren't traveling through our business and garment industry districts at that hour." Way to sell your city, Mayor!

Impellitteri went on to propose not just a $5 per month fee ($43.47 in today's dollars) for overnight parking, but a $5 per month "automobile use tax" and a city gas tax of two cents per gallon. (A cigarette tax too.) That's terrific, and it's essentially what Mayor Bloomberg, Lieutenant Governor Ravitch and many others have campaigned for in the past five years. And it was necessary because it costs a lot of money to maintain the roads and bridges that the cars drive on all day and park on all night. Someone has to pay for it, and it was bankrupting the general fund. Did Mayor Impellitteri say that? No, like our wimpy housemate he appealed to the drivers' sense of civic duty.

Yeah. I think you can figure out how that went. But I'll have more details.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Tappan Zee Bridge is NOT structurally deficient

If you haven't guessed, I'm kind of sick of writing about the Tappan Zee Bridge at this point. But I'm jumping back into the fray because there are some issues that need correcting. I asked nicely on Twitter, but people don't seem to have picked up on it, so I want to go into detail.

If you follow the official "Build the Bridge Now" Twitter feed (kind of boring, because much of it is the same seven or eight tweets over and over again), you'll be treated to a number of dishonest claims that are commonly repeated by highway departments all around the country. They're big deals, and someone should really talk about them, but they're not big deals for this project, because everybody does it. They're also possible to weasel out of because they're technically true, but missing some critical bit of information. Here I'm talking about claims that the bridge carries more than it was designed for (the State let those cars on), that the lanes are too narrow (the State narrowed them in 1990) and that it will create thousands of jobs (there are plenty of ways to put thousands of people to work).

There's a more serious claim being made, one that is demonstrably untrue. That is that the Tappan Zee Bridge is structurally deficient. "Structurally deficient" is a big claim. It means that there is something wrong with the structure of the bridge that makes it more likely to collapse suddenly and dump a bunch of cars into the river. It is distinct from "fracture critical," which means that one failure can make the whole bridge collapse. It is also different from seismically unfit, which means that an earthquake could do more damage to the bridge than the engineers are comfortable with. Finally, it is not the same as "functionally obsolete," which is just a fancy way of saying that a bridge doesn't carry as many cars as the engineers want it to.

The Tappan Zee Bridge is fracture-critical, seismically unfit and functionally obsolete, but it is not structurally deficient. The difference is important, because "fracture critical" and seismically unfit talk about what could happen if there is an earthquake or a fracture. "Structurally deficient" talks about how likely a fracture is. "Functionally obsolete" just talks about how many cars can fit on the bridge. Don't get confused like Andrea Bernstein did.

When the "structurally deficient" claim is just coming from the "Build the Bridge" Twitter feed, or Car and Driver Magazine, you can kind of dismiss it as basic partisan hackery. But lately, this claim has been repeated by ostensibly neutral news sources like the New York Post (yeah, I know, but it has also posted some good critiques by Nicole Gelinas) and CBS News.

I was most disturbed to hear it show up on a program that I actually listen to for my own interest, National Public Radio's Science Friday. I was kind of grumbling as I listened to their segment on Time To Overhaul America's Aging Bridges? and thinking that they really should have had Strong Towns' Chuck Marohn on. And then host Ira Flatow asked, "What is the worst bridge in America?"

Flatow's guest, Barry LePatner, replied, "You talked about the Tappan Zee Bridge. It is a bridge that carries 140,000 vehicles a day. New York state - the New York Thruway Authority, which manages that bridge, pays $100 million a year to keep it afloat. It is structurally deficient. It is fracture-critical just like the I-35W. And while they're planning to build a new bridge nearby, it's still going to take many years. The risk to every driver who goes over there every day is tangible." And it turns out that all of these stories - Science Friday, "Build the Bridge," Car and Driver, the Post and CBS News - all get the claim from LePatner.

The Tappan Zee Bridge is simply not structurally deficient. Here is the 2011 National Bridge Inventory report for the Tappan Zee Bridge; you will see that under "STATUS" it is listed as "Functionally Obsolete." That is not the same as "Structurally Deficient."

If you don't believe "", you can see that it is not on this list of structurally deficient bridges in Rockland County from the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics. If you look at the list of Rockland County bridges on this PDF from the New York State Department of Transportation, you'll see that it is listed as "Functionally Obsolete," not "structurally deficient."

Now, this is the 2011 National Bridge Inventory, and LePatner's website and book are based on the 2009 database. Maybe the bridge was listed as structurally deficient in 2009, but taken off the list in 2011? Unfortunately, the only copy of the 2009 database I can find is in a pretty hard-to-read form, but it seems to me to be saying that in 2009 the bridge was rated as neither structurally deficient nor functionally obsolete.

In any case, in general the database is not the most reliable. And it's certainly not a suitable basis for any kind of coherent infrastructure policy. As I wrote a year and a half ago, not all infrastructure is worth replacing.

Of course, it is a suitable basis for building the career of Barry LePatner, construction lawyer, and there's nothing really wrong with that. We just have to consider the source, and I think Flatow could have shown a lot more skepticism.

But why did LePatner say last week that the Tappan Zee Bridge was structurally deficient? If the bridge was listed in 2009, I could see why he would have put it in his book. And I can understand that a lot of work went into his book and map, and he doesn't have the resources to update it for the new database.

Still, this is LePatner's major case, and he's been in four major news outlets this summer, specifically focusing on the Tappan Zee Bridge. Surely he knows that there's a new National Bridge Inventory - didn't he check to see the Tappan Zee Bridge's status before repeating this claim? Maybe not - if it was on the structurally deficient list, have they done enough work to take it off? Could somebody be paying him to spread this claim? Maybe, but I think the promise of future business for his firm is enough explanation.

Intentionally or not, LePatner is spreading misinformation. I hope that all the news outlets involved - Science Friday, CBS News, the Post, Car and Driver and even the PR flunkies who manage the "Build the Bridge" Twitter feed - check the facts. Don't listen to me; I'm just some anonymous blogger! Go to the source, and then publish your corrections.

To balance out that entirely too credulous "OMG! Bridges collapsing!" segment, I hope that Science Friday will run a more skeptical discussion in the future. Obviously no segment on infrastructure policy is complete without Strong Towns' Chuck Marohn, renegade civil engineer. "Engineer Scotty" Johnson in Portland is fighting his own Tappan Zee boondoggle, the Columbia River Crossing. Alon Levy, mathematician by training, has attracted a following with his incisive comments on transportation infrastructure. If Flatow really wants to go for entertainment value, he could bring on Jim Kunstler who will tell the audience that all the bridges will collapse within the next hundred years. Kunstler's former podcast host Duncan Crary has been doing interesting collaborations with the crew of an Erie Canal freight tugboat.

I emailed Science Friday last Thursday asking for a correction, but I have not gotten a response yet. You can contact them at In the meantime, please spread the word on your own blogs, Twitter, Facebook, chapbooks, town criers, semaphore, whatever it takes.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

PIty for the rich and fake populism in 1940s New York

You may not have heard this particular story before, but it'll sound awfully familiar. That's because the story of the Great Curbside Land Grab of 1952 is just another instance of the Fake Populist Resource Grab. The stories are timeless; in fact they're being repeated again today with the MTA payroll tax. And just like today, it's not clear how much of it was a deliberate, planned strategy to defraud the public and the poor, and how much was clueless, entitled selfishness dressed up as victimization and self-pity.

What is clear is that in 1912 curbside space was a resource that was available to anyone, if underused, and in 2012 it is restricted to people who own a car and want to park it. But the responsibility for maintaining and cleaning this space is a public obligation, paid for by everyone, whether they drive or not, through sales and income taxes.

As I wrote last week, the New York Times archives tell us that between 1912 and 1947 New York City had seen a huge increase in car ownership, but it was still illegal to park a car at the curb overnight. Due to a previous Empty Promise, most of these new car owners had not budgeted for garage space, so some of them parked on the street illegally. Others paid for garage parking, but not enough to generate profits for the garage owners, so the garage owners boosted their revenue by parking people's cars on the street instead of in their garages.

Even in 1949 people are getting ready for a Fake Populist Resource Grab. In the Fake Populist Resource Grab, you start with a group of people who are stuck. They went out and bought a car or a house on Staten Island, or started a business, or bought a taxi license. They never expected to have to give up double-parking, or pay for the bridge or the trains, or compete in an open market. But now someone is telling them they have to.

Then somehow (and I'm never quite sure how they do it) they get pity. No matter how rich they are, or how unfair their position already is compared to those who don't have that car, that suburban house, that restaurant, that taxi medallion, their plight somehow provokes a gigantic outpouring of sympathy from the media and politicians. Even people who have viciously punitive attitudes towards the homeless and hungry somehow manage to feel all tender and solicitous.

In the case of overnight parking, people felt bad for the drivers who had no garages to park in. Bob Moses, in his letter to Mayor Impellitteri, said that the "solution of the parking problem" is to build new garages for all the people who didn't budget for garage space. He wanted to use revenues from existing parking facilities to build new garages, but not for transit. Of course, he wanted street and parkway maintenance to be paid out of the general fund.

As I said before, with the number of cars there were in 1947, it made sense to park some of them on the street overnight. Nobody else was doing anything with that space in the middle of the night. But it also made sense to charge people something for the privilege of using that space. The city thought so, and in 1952 the State Legislature passed a law allowing overnight curbside parking and authorizing the city to charge up to $60 for an annual parking permit.

As we all know, the overnight parking certainly happened. The sixty dollar fee, not so much. Tune in soon for the details...

Saturday, September 15, 2012

What does mode shift look like?

Last week I mentioned estimates that 86% of travel in the Northeast Corridor is by heavily polluting modes (5% by plane, 81% by private car), and only 14% by transit (6% by train, 8% by bus). What if we wanted to flip that and make it 14% by plane and car, and 86% by bus and train? How could we get there?

In the comments on last week's post about Amtrak and the Chinatown buses, Ryan Miller points out that I neglected to mention that Amtrak is sold out for the peak hours at least. This point is also made by his cousin Stephen Miller, the new Streetsblog reporter, in a post on September 5.

The North River Tunnels that carry the Northeast Corridor from New Jersey into Penn Station are at capacity. There are only three ways that Amtrak can add more trains, two being a new tunnel under the Hudson or rebuilding the Maybrook line, and both of those are far off. Increasing the speed of the trains may allow a few more runs to fit in, but that won't allow Amtrak to double its ridership. That means that in the next ten years, trains will continue to carry the same number of people, and any increase in Northeast Corridor transit ridership is going to come from buses.

The expansion of bus service will most likely take place at the lower-cost end of the market. Jarrett Walker likes to talk about how buses are theoretically no less comfortable than trains, but it's much harder for a bus to achieve a train-comparable level of comfort on a long-distance run. Even on the smoothest highway (i.e. not the New Jersey Turnpike), the curves are sharper and lane changes are relatively frequent. There is no cafe car.

The best strategy, therefore, is for Amtrak to consistently aim to capture the high end of the market, increasing the speed, wifi and amenities on the Acela Express to a level that will satisfy the air shuttle riders, and those on the on the Regional to just below that level. That means that Bolt and Megabus need to get to one step below that, and Peter Pan and Greyhound need to build reputations of safety, comfort and reliability that are solidly middle class, to compete with driving.

Most importantly, capacity at all levels of bus service needs to increase. And here we run into another problem noted by Stephen: the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Midtown is also at capacity. There is no room for most of the commuter buses to park during the day, so they have to go back through the tunnel to a garage in New Jersey and come back in the afternoon.

Here's another chart from that Amtrak report (PDF, page 4), showing that in 2010 people took 161 million trips on the Northeast Corridor. If you figure that most of them traveled between 8AM and midnight, that works out to 27,568 trips per hour. If Randal O'Toole is right and 8% of that is on buses, and we guess that the buses carry an average of 30 passengers, that's 74 buses an hour, which sounds about right.

If we assume that the total number of trips will remain constant, that means that we need to plan for a tenfold increase in the number of buses cruising into New York, i.e. 662 more buses per hour. Linear projections are stupid, but let's just imagine that the "Baseline Growth" scenario of 260 million trips per year projected by Amtrak in the chart above comes to pass. If that's all absorbed by buses, it means 1227 more buses per hour; if it's the "High Growth" scenario then we're looking at 1569 buses per hour.

Are we ready for that? I didn't think so.

Could we be ready? Sure! That's the kind of thinking we transit advocates have to do. What does mode shift really look like?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The right to free parking in 1940s New York

As I wrote on Sunday, around 1947 the ban on overnight curbside car storage became untenable. The New York Times reported that there were so many cars in the city, and so many of their owners felt entitled to park on the street, that it would have required a huge increase in the police force to ticket them all. The NYPD had no choice but to ignore a large percentage of the illegal street parking.

I feel like I should take some time to address the entitlement issue. First of all, as "Old Urbanist" Charlie Gardner commented on my first post in this series, the streets were too wide to begin with: "If the carriageway is excessively wide for the needs of traffic, as many American residential streets are, you may as well park cars along it." In the middle of the night, that was certainly true of every street north of 14th, and most of the ones south of it. The drivers saw it as wasted space, and it was. They needed space to store their cars, the city had it. Why not put it to use?

Honestly, I agree with that. The real issue is not why the curbside lanes were used for overnight parking, but why it's free. That's an issue of middle class entitlement.

At first most of the car owners were wealthy, and it has been scientifically proven that wealthy people find ways of justifying their advantages in society. After World War II, rising prosperity and greater efficiency put car ownership within the reach of less wealthy Americans, and governments were flush with cash and made it a priority to provide more and better roads and parking for this segment of society. Car ownership was seen as increasing mobility and thus a gateway to middle class status.

This conception of the benefits of car ownership has always had a huge bait-and-switch component to it. In New York City in the 1940s it was no exception. When people looked at the price of a car, they didn't figure in $20-35 per month in garage rental. When they got their cars, many couldn't afford to pay and took their chances on the street. Garage owners now had to compete with free street parking and lowered their rates accordingly, which meant that they didn't have enough income to expand their facilities, and resorted to bribing the police.

These social-climbing drivers felt cheated, but they didn't take their anger out on the car dealers. No, they felt that the city owed them the free parking necessary to make their cars as affordable as they thought. To be honest, I still don't quite understand that thought process, but it pervades the city to this day.

Up to now I haven't mentioned a significant presence in this whole affair: the Automobile Club of New York, the local chapter of the American Automobile Association. The Automobile Club are still around today, spreading misinformation about the not-so-historical Bronx end of the Bronx River Parkway in order to grab more of our tax dollars for road projects.

The Automobile Club's fingerprints are all over this one. They pop up in a lot of these old New York Times articles, constantly pushing the idea that drivers are uniquely entitled to free street storage for their personal property. We'll see how that plays out in the next post.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Sometimes the center is wrong

Some transit advocates love explaining to us that of course we all need cars sometimes, and some of us need cars all the time. They're not anti-car, cars aren't going away, they support transit *and* cars, and ferries and bikes and walking.

Some of this may simply be that it takes people a while to come around to a new idea. I remember when I first saw the slogan, "Auto-Free New York." I thought, "what the fuck is that? Never gonna happen. Nobody's going to listen to this." But over the years, as I've read more and experienced more, I've become more and more convinced that we can't live with these machines and they will eventually have to go. A lot of people who are "not anti-car" may simply not yet have processed all the horror that comes from cars.

I have no such understanding or sympathy for the sanctimonious centrists who want to take the Wise Middle Path. They see pro-car people and anti-car people, so they position themselves in the middle and spout platitudes about "choice." Then they get to insult "bike zealots" and "rail fanboys" so that they look reasonable and sensible by comparison. These are the transportation equivalents of Paul Krugman's Very Serious People. Why can't we all just get along? Why do we have to say "no" to anyone? That's so mean!

To fully appreciate how crazy this Very Serious view of transportation really is, let's imagine that we were truly committed to mode choice. Real mode choice means that if anyone, anywhere, wants to use a particular mode to get somewhere, it should be provided by the government at an affordable cost. If we support bikes and cars and subways and buses to get from, say, Woodside to Lower Manhattan, and maybe "BRT" in addition to local buses, why stop there?

If I want to go to Lower Manhattan by aerial tram, the government should build one, right? A ferry dock at the old Penny Bridge landing, with an inclined plane leading to it? Airships to Boston, Chicago and Syracuse? High-speed rail from my apartment to the corner pub? What's the matter? Don't you support all modes?

The response to this is that our Serious transit advocate only supports Serious modes. What makes a mode Serious? How about if we looked at where people are and where they want to go, and figured out the most efficient system to build from scratch? Oh, no, it must not be based on that kind of blank slate cost benefit analysis, because highways and parking tend to do pretty badly on those.

Instead, it's based on modes that would be the least demanding or outside the mainstream, which turn out to be cars, buses, rail-trails, and maybe reactivating an old train line as commuter rail or light rail - with lots of park-and-rides, of course.

I can understand this up to a point. I don't like disrupting other people's lives unnecessarily. But if they're disrupting my life, and mooching my resources, then either they get disrupted or I get disrupted. And if they're making the planet worse for all our children and grandchildren, then that should be stopped.

The true Wise Path can only be found by taking a broad perspective. When you do that, you see that sometimes it veers quite far from the Middle Way.

How the overnight parking ban broke down

Okay, so I promised you the story of how overnight curbside parking became legal in New York City, as reported in the archives of the New York Times. Let's begin in 1947, when reporter Bert Pierce declared an "acute space shortage" for the city's 750,000 passenger cars. Many garages were converted to commercial spaces during World War II, and many parking lots were built on during the postwar boom. My guess is that the garage owners were charging as much as they could, but at those rates it was just more lucrative to use the land for housing or shops than for garages.

At that time, the legal thing to do if you owned a car was to rent overnight space in a garage, which cost roughly $20-35 dollars per month. If you paid more, the garage would send a valet to pick up the car in the evening and drop it off again in time for you to go to work in the morning.

Some people could afford cars, but didn't want to pay for a garage space, so they tried to park illegally. Sometimes they were ticketed, but more often they got away with it, because the police simply didn't have enough officers on patrol at night. In April 1947, the Times's Joseph Ingraham reported that a "confidential telephone command" had gone out to all police precincts directing them to only ticket cars that were parking hydrants or otherwise causing unusual hazards. When news of the order became public, however, Police Commissioner Wallander (not the fictional Swedish detective) immediately denied that it had come from his office, and declared "I am opposed to overnight parking and summonses will be issued as before."

It wasn't just individual car owners that were parking on the street. The Automobile Club of New York and several politicians claimed that parking garage staff would charge customers to park their cars, and then turn around and put the cars on the street. Charles Wolf, a skin care specialist, testified to the City Council in June that the garages had a deal with the police. "The license plate, which is supposed to be a holy piece of metal with nothing on it but what is assigned by the Motor Vehicle Bureau, has in certain areas an insignia in the form of a circle, white or red, and that car is not touched when parked overnight. Why? I will leave that to your imagination."

In 1947, then, the situation is becoming unmanageable. The city got some people together and came up with a plan. It wasn't a bad plan, but it got hijacked along the way. Stay tuned for that story...

Saturday, September 8, 2012

How Amtrak can charge so much for the Northeast Corridor

The New York Times tells us that if you focus only on trains and planes, Amtrak's share of the Northeast Corridor travel market is about half. The Washington Post tells us that it's one of the few sectors where Amtrak brings in more in fares than it spends on operating costs. If you've priced travel options in the corridor, you know that this farebox recovery comes from high fares.

In a post on Greater Greater Washington, Malcolm Kenton of the National Association of Railroad Passengers explains why Amtrak needs to charge higher prices, but he doesn't explain how they can. You might have wondered how a publicly owned company can afford, politically, to charge market prices. In other markets, transit operators face pressure from activists and politicians to keep fares low. Why haven't Northeast Corridor politicians raised an outcry about Acela Regional tickets?

Believe it or not, Randal O'Toole has your answer: it comes from other players in the market. Like a stopped clock that's right twice a day, O'Toole comes out with a useful insight once or twice a year, buried in his usual heap of misinformation. In this case, responding to the Times article, he's absolutely correct that the Northeast Corridor intercity market contains buses and private cars in addition to trains and planes. It also contains commuter railroads, which provide slower connections between city pairs like Boston-Providence, Philadelphia-Wilmington and Baltimore-Washington. New Jersey Transit and SEPTA even coordinate to provide cheaper service from New York to Philadelphia.

O'Toole dug up this chart that Amtrak themselves compiled (PDF, page 4) from unspecified data. It tells us that Amtrak carried only 6% of trips on the Northeast Corridor, and that airplanes carried 5%. The remainder is 89%, and O'Toole estimates that bus ridership is 8-9%. As far as I can tell he pulled that figure out of his ass, but it's all we've got to go on.

From all the market surveys, we know who's riding the bus in the Northeast Corridor: the poor and students. The buses have captured the low end of the market. Amtrak could have tried to fight them for it, but they could only have gotten prices that low by using their congressional subsidies on the Northeast Corridor instead of other routes. They would have lost money on all those low-end passengers, but not made it up in volume.

The buses, on the other hand, can make a profit at lower prices because most of their infrastructure costs (for roads and many of their terminals) are borne by the government. So they can serve the poorer passengers. Everyone makes a profit, and everyone can afford to travel! Nobody complains to their representatives about high Amtrak fares, because they can take the bus.

That, of course, raises the question: will the new burdensome law restricting low-cost bus lines in New York City drive up bus fares?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

When overnight curbside parking was illegal

There's a quote that's been floating around the net for a few weeks: Manhattan banned overnight curb parking until the 1940s. Ed Glaeser quoted an ITDP report (PDF) by Rachel Weinberger, John Kaehny and Matthew Rufo, who attributed it to Peter Norton's book Fighting Traffic.

I've heard good things about Norton's book, but I haven't yet read it. However, I was able to get some of the story from the New York Times archive, and it's a fascinating one. To begin with, yes, it was originally illegal to leave a car parked on the street overnight, the same way it was illegal to leave any of your personal property in the street.

When people drove carriages and carts around, of course, they tied them up in the street. So during the day, street parking was allowed. If you had a horse and carriage, however, you didn't leave it on the street overnight. The horse could easily be stolen, and was vulnerable to bad weather. City dwellers kept their horses and carriages in carriage houses, like these in Greenwich Village:

If your family history has stories of Great-Uncle Shlomo working long hours as a tailor to start his family on the Lower East Side, you can bet that Shlomo didn't have a carriage house to go with his fifth-floor cold-water walk-up on Rivington Street. Carriage houses were for two classes of people: those who needed them for work, and those who were wealthy.

That started to change with cars. Someone figured out how to lock a car's ignition so that it was hard to start without a key. Someone else figured out how to lock the whole thing up. They were heavy enough so that you couldn't drag them away without a tow truck. So why not leave them in the street?

To be honest, the only reason I can come up with is simply that the streets are public common spaces, not intended for the free storage of private property. And that of course leads to the question why it changed. If you think about it, it is kind of bizarre that the city devotes a sizable chunk of its public land, and a significant portion of its transportation and policing budgets and personnel, to helping people (roughly speaking, the second-wealthiest quartile of the population) to store their private property free of charge.

Reading the Times archive, it's clear that nobody in city government ever intended to do this. It was a fascinating combination of popular revolt and political chicanery - and it's even possible that the revolt was manufactured and it was all chicanery. Stay tuned for details.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Trainwreck at the edge of the water

Today I took a little trip up to the Mitsuwa Marketplace in Edgewater, New Jersey, and picked up some Pocky, instant iced green tea, and river views. This large Japanese supermarket, with in-house cafes and nearby bookstore and chatchka shop is definitely worth a visit; I've been going every few years since 1996, when it was called Yaohan. The Kennedy Boulevard jitney providers have taken over the shuttle service, which now costs three dollars each way and leaves from Gate 51 of the Port Authority Bus Terminal every half hour on weekends. But do yourself a favor and wait upstairs, because the jitney drivers don't shut off their engines when they're in the terminal.

It made me sad to look out the window as the van went down River Road, though, sad for what is and what might have been. Of all the missed opportunities for urbanism, this is one of the most extreme that I know.

I'm not sure what was at the foot of the Palisades when the Dutch arrived in the area; probably just some scree like in the Palisades Interstate Park further upriver. Ferry docks were built at strategic points, and the railroads dug tunnels through the ridge to the docks. In this stretch of the river, the West Shore Railroad had a tunnel through to Weehawken, now used by the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, and the New York, Susquehanna and Western had a tunnel to Edgewater, now abandoned. Tracks were built connecting the mouths of the two tunnels to the terminals of other railroads further south, and a series of piers were built along that railroad to ship various materials.

As the railroads cut back in the 1950s and 1960s, the shipping business migrated to other parts of the port area like Newark, or other parts of the world. Many of the piers were abandoned for years. Since the 1990s the area has experienced a huge construction boom. I'm sure there were several factors involved, probably including a significant rezoning, but it was also in part due to Arthur Imperatore's successful revitalization of the commuter ferry service, and the arrival of the light rail line.

Much of the ride down River Road in 1996 looked similar to what you might have seen in 1966, but it's unrecognizable today. Almost every pier, every plot of waterfront land, hosts either a shopping center or luxury housing. Many of the old buildings further inland have middlebrow stores and restaurants on their ground floors, and are being infilled with other shops and gas stations.

So this is infill development, really close to Manhattan, instead of way the hell out in Suffolk County or the Highlands. Why does it make me sad? Because it might as well be in Suffolk County. There are almost no walkable streets in the area. River Road has hardly any pedestrians and you can't blame people because it has wide car lanes, too many of them, and narrow sidewalks, and virtually none of the shops, restaurants or residences engage with that sidewalk. There is a semi-continuous riverwalk, but it zigzags around the piers and buildings, past windows and terraces that do not interact with it. Despite all this development, River Road does not make the frequent network map because you're very likely to wait more than fifteen minutes for a bus.

River Road is one of the reasons I'm so skeptical about "density" being an important factor in transit use or walkable streets. It's got density, or something resembling density. I don't know the numbers, but all of this new construction is apartments and townhouses, with no detached single family houses that I could see. But all that development was designed for driving.

Every housing complex has tons of parking, often obscured by an overhanging apartment or townhouse ... structure (it's hard to call them buildings because the architecture is so fragmented). Sometimes the parking is in its own big ugly building, and sometimes it's designed so that it's immediately adjacent to the apartment or townhouse of its occupant. The new shops and restaurants are all the same kind of strip development, overloaded with surface parking that would be equally at home in Scottsdale, Arizona as on Tonnelle Avenue on the other side of the Palisades.

So here we have dense infill development a short distance from one of the most walkable job centers in the country, and still it's just as car-oriented as Phoenix. I'm guessing that the two biggest factors involved are the zoning code and outdated standards followed by the New Jersey Department of Transportation, which together have built one of the densest driving-oriented suburbs I've seen.

I call this a "trainwreck," because I've been watching it for years, powerless to stop it. Of course I didn't have this blog back in 1996, and I was only just beginning to grasp connections between transportation and land use. I had no way to talk coherently about this, and nobody who would listen to me if I had. So I've had to just sit and watch for sixteen years, as one unwalkable waste of space went up after another.

Your Guide to New York State's Judicial Nomination Process

As I mentioned recently, there were two bizarre judicial rulings in the New York State Supreme Court setting back transportation reform. On August 18, State Supreme Court judge Arthur Engoron declared that the Five Borough Taxi Plan was unconstitutional, and on August 22, State Supreme Court judge Bruce Cozzens declared that a payroll tax that funds a significant chunk of the city's transit operations is unconstitutional. They both rested their opinions on a dubious principle of home rule.

The State Supreme Court - that sounds like a big deal, huh? Like New York's version of Justices Breyer and Roberts? Actually, as I learned in eighth grade, the Supreme Court is actually the state's lowest court, able to be overruled by the Appellate Division and the Court of Appeals, not to mention federal courts. But it's still significant. So where did these guys come from, anyway, and how did they get this kind of power?

Governing magazine has the answer, and it links to two editorials that are definitely worth a read. I sure didn't learn this stuff in eighth grade! It turns out that New York State has a hugely crappy, undemocratic system of electing judges. Sure, you can get nominated as an independent, but to get the nomination of the Democratic or Republican parties you don't run in the primary like you might for a legislative seat. You need to be chosen by a Judicial Nominating Convention.

Who votes in the nominating convention? Judicial Delegates. Who chooses the judicial delegates? In principle, you can vote for them in the primary, but in practice nobody bothers to collect the signatures to contest a judicial delegate election. The county party committee can nominate candidates for the primary without requiring signatures, and the party committee is controlled by the county chair. So in practice, the county chairs nominate the delegates and tell them who to nominate for judgeships, and the delegates do it.

Okay, so where do these County Chairs come from? They're elected by the county committee, which is made up of the party's State Committee members from that county. In theory, the State Committee members are elected in the primary elections, but just like the judicial delegates, it's very rare to collect petitions and run for the State Committee. Most people just get nominated by the County Chairs themselves. Once that happens, of course, they owe something to the chairs, so they keep re-electing them.

Now you might have noticed that in this system, the State Committee members and judicial convention delegates have effectively zero decision-making power. Their entire function is to obfuscate the system so that people can't tell what's going on, and give it a veneer of legitimacy. So why do they bother? What do they get out of it? Besides a chance for some kinky sex in an Albany motel, that is?

The most ambitious of these people are candidates for higher office. By attending the State Committee and the judicial nominating convention, they have a chance to prove their loyalty to their patrons. This marks their place in the hierarchy, and then when vacancies come up for elected positions, including judgeships, they may be chosen by the county or state chair to be the party's candidate and not have to collect petitions. The less ambitious people, or the ones marking time in between elected terms of office, are rewarded for their loyalty with powerful roles on the boards of government authorities, and sinecures at well-connected nonprofits and corporations.

The State Court of Appeals is actually nominated in a slightly cleaner way, by the state's Commission on Judicial Nomination, whose commissioners are nominated by the Governor, the Chief Judge and the majority and minority leaders of the two legislative chambers. Of course, how the legislative leaders get elected isn't exactly clean either, but it's a slight improvement.

So the next time you hear, "State Supreme Court Judge," remember that they're essentially appointed by the county party chairs. And the next time you hear about a scandal involving a county party chair, think about how many judges that chair has selected.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

What is New York's Forest Hill?

As you may remember, Feargus O'Sullivan recently moved within London, from the "urban" neighborhood Shoreditch (I think) to the "suburban" neighborhood of Forest Hill. Many people were struck by his use of the word "suburban" to describe Forest Hill. Some ascribed this difference to British English, which he accepted, but I think that's (as we say) a crock, because even within the US or the UK, we can't keep our own definitions of "suburban" neighborhoods straight. I was also struck by his contention that every "urban" neighborhood in London is gentrifying, unless it was always wealthy. But I'm trying to find neighborhoods here in the New York area that would correspond, even roughly, to the ones he discusses.

In the comments, Benjamin Himric pins Feargus down to the following "independent variables" (my terminology) for distinguishing urban and suburban:

- relatively high density
- mixed use district (i.e., not overwhelmingly residential)
- close to the city core (presumably this refers particularly to areas that are not themselves mixed use)

SUBURBAN (in the British as opposed to American sense)
- relatively low density
- overwhelmingly residential
- relatively far from urban core

So can we put numbers on these criteria? Let's take a look at the London Borough Profiles, using the boroughs of Hackney and Lewisham as proxies for their neighborhoods of Shoreditch and Forest Hill:

1.7 miles to London Bridge Station
13 minutes by transit (London Overground)
163 people per non-greenspace hectare (66 per acre)
Jobs density, 2010: 0.66
Median house price, 2010: £292,500 ( $461,857.50; PPP $351,011.70)
Gross annual pay, 2011: £32,000 ( $50,528.00; PPP $38,401.28)

Forest Hill/Lewisham:
5.7 miles to London Bridge Station
30 minutes by transit (Southern Railways)
101 people per non-greenspace hectare (41 per acre)
Jobs density, 2010: 0.39
Median house price, 2010: £235,000 ( $371,065.00; PPP $282,009.40)
Gross annual pay, 2011: £29,000 ( $45,791.00; PPP $34,801.16)

I added in some dependent variables, using the OECD's purchasing power parity multiplier of 0.76 to convert the British prices and wages into something meaningful here. We can get a map of New York neighborhoods and their densities from the Department of City Planning. Quiggyt4 on Flickr has a map of jobs density. The New York Times has a map of income, and Trulia has housing price maps.

Looking at our dependent variables of density, mixed use and distance from the city core, there are only three New York neighborhoods that have 50-74 people per acre and are less than fifteen minutes from one of the two job centers: Fort Greene, Williamsburg and Woodside. Of the three, Fort Greene is the only one that's really mixed use, meaning that they have jobs that aren't just there to serve nearby residents, and that's only if you add in part of Downtown Brooklyn. It also has the right income mix and the projects to be the Shoreditch of New York City.

So what's Forest Hill for New York City? Sadly, it's not Forest Hills, which is much too dense (63 people per acre). More likely, within the half hour limit if you take the railroad, are Greenpoint, South Jamaica, East Flushing and Hollis. They're significantly more residential than Fort Greene or Williamsburg. Greenpoint is probably the best candidate for an analogue to Forest Hill.

Interestingly, of course, Greenpoint is the one New York neighborhood that Feargus mentions, and it's in his list of "currently hip city neighborhoods anywhere." I guess that just shows that "suburbs" - of any kind, really - aren't immune to gentrification. People got priced out of Williamsburg and they went to Greenpoint.

Another thing I noticed is that I couldn't find any neighborhood that had incomes and prices comparable to those in London, at similar densities. As you can see on the New York Times map, income levels in New York form a donut; once you get past the Van Wyck Expressway, or Van Cortlandt Park, or the Watchung Mountains, income levels rise the further you get from the city. There may be some cheap, low-density neighborhoods in New Jersey; I'll check that later.

I have read similar "Why I moved to the suburbs" stories that take place in the New York area, but the commutes tend to be significantly longer and the housing quite a lot more expensive. It's interesting that in London, the suburbs are still a bargain.