Wednesday, October 31, 2012

If the MTA doesn't want to take you to work...

I've got so much to say in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy that I'm posting twice in one night. In my last post I didn't include Flushing on the list of places that should have express bus service to Manhattan, because it already has express bus service to Chinatown.

Even if the MTA and the DOT boneheadedly refuse to go along with any of Transportation Alternatives' recommendations, or the two I added, the City still tolerates a small network of van services to cross the river to Chinatown. If you live in Flushing, Elmhurst, Maspeth or Sunset Park and work in Lower Manhattan, you may want to try these vans. I've been thinking about posting a map, similar to the one I made for New Jersey, but I've hesitated because I don't have complete information. In this situation I'll make an exception and put it up there:

These buses all run at least every twenty minutes, and the Flushing-Chinatown and Sunset Park-Chinatown buses run more frequently. Now, the Chinatown buses are express, so you can only catch them at certain points along the line. Here are some locations where I know you can find an express bus to Chinatown:

  • 41st Avenue between Main Street and College Point Boulevard, Flushing
  • Broadway and Justice Avenue, Elmhurst
  • Eighth Avenue and Sixtieth Street, Sunset Park

If you're not Chinese and the drivers don't know what to make of you, just ask, "Chinatown?" That usually clears things up. The Flushing and Sunset Park locations are the best places to get the line that goes from Flushing to Sunset Park as well. The Sunset Park-Chinatown bus goes local up Eighth Avenue until it heads for the Gowanus Expressway, and the Elmhurst-Chinatown bus goes local along roughly the route I've marked on the map until it gets to the BQE, but I don't know exactly where the Elmhurst bus goes east of Broadway (if you know, please tell me). In Chinatown, here are the places to get the buses:

  • Flushing: Division Street, just east of the Bowery
  • Sunset Park: Forsyth Street and East Broadway
  • Elmhurst: Elizabeth Street, just north of Hester Street

Here are some handy Simplified Chinese translations to help you:

English汉语Commuter Vans
Chinatown曼哈頓華埠To Elmhurst, Flushing and Sunset Park
Elmhurst艾姆赫斯特To Chinatown
Flushing法拉盛To Chinatown and Sunset Park
Sunset Park布鲁克林華埠To Chinatown and Flushing

I've also added the Flatbush Avenue dollar van route to the map, even though it's a local route and doesn't go over the bridge. Some of you may find it useful. If anyone knows the Utica Avenue route, please let me know and I'll add it.

Can we get an Emergency Express Bus network?

We now know that most of the tunnels under the East River were flooded by Hurricane Sandy, including subway tunnels, and that there is flooding in other low-lying parts of the system. Because transit officials moved the trains and buses to high ground, all of the rolling stock is in working order. MTA officials have wisely refused to give a definite timeframe for restoring subway service, but have said that it will be days before there is significant service. In the meantime they have said that the whole bus system should be running tomorrow. That's good.

There are still two problems. First, the bus network is not designed to bring people into and out of Manhattan efficiently. Since the 2010 service cuts, no local buses have traveled between Brooklyn and Manhattan. The only MTA buses that do are the express buses that go to Staten Island, Canarsie and southern Brooklyn. With the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel (recently renamed in honor of former Governor Hugh Carey) filled with water, I'm guessing they'll go across the Manhattan Bridge instead. Similarly in Queens, the express buses bypass everything west of the BQE, and a good deal of what's east of it. The express buses from the Bronx go through all of Manhattan without stopping.

Now you want express buses to speed through certain areas. The problem here is that there are no express buses serving the inner neighborhoods that normally have good subway service. People from Woodside (for example) or the Upper West Side could get to Midtown or Lower Manhattan by taking local buses, but it takes a hell of a long time and it's annoying. And it leaves all the people who live in Park Slope or Bed-Stuy or Cobble Hill without a way of getting across the river.

The second problem is that the current bus system doesn't have anywhere near the capacity to handle the numbers that crowd into Manhattan on the subways and commuter trains on a normal weekday. Since most of the southern half of Manhattan is without power, that won't be an issue right away, but the demand for rapid transit into Manhattan will probably grow faster than the supply can be restored.

Now I'm hoping that someone at the MTA will figure this out and set up some kind of express bus system. The staff of Transportation Alternatives has set out some guidelines. They also have points about biking, walking and emergency vehicles, but these three speak specifically to transit:

  • Emergency Bus Lanes to allow swift transit throughout the City until subway service is restored.
  • High Occupancy Vehicle Requirements on crossings into the most congested areas of the city.
  • Carpool Staging Areas offering parking and passenger pick-up locations in support of drivers sharing rides to meet the HOV requirements.

I agree with these, but I don't think they will provide enough capacity. I would add the following two recommendations:

  • Temporary Express bus routes from major population centers and transit hubs to Midtown and Lower Manhattan.
  • Allow anyone with the proper license, registration and insurance to operate buses.

Off the top of my head, here are five locations that should have express buses running from them: Atlantic Terminal, Jamaica Center, Queens Center Mall, 86th and Lex, and Verdi Square. What are your five?

If the MTA and the DOT don't do any of that, you may want to consider the Chinatown vans.

Friday, October 26, 2012

There are worse things than congestion

Chuck Marohn has been on a tear lately against the goal of "fighting congestion." He got going on this particular tear in September with a post about the empty stroads of Kansas City, arguing that by eliminating congestion, the government drove the life out of town. I have no idea why he didn't pick up on my snot metaphor from February, but I'm glad he's posting this stuff.

I want to add a data point here: with pricing you can reduce congestion and still have a vibrant urban center. But the pedestrian environment suffers. I'm talking about the case of London.

From the beginning I was a supporter of congestion pricing here in New York. Some of my first blog posts were about congestion pricing. I fought hard for it. I still think it's done some good things in New Jersey, and would be an improvement over what we have now. But until recently I had never seen it in action. I have now been to London for the first time since congestion pricing was implemented there, and I have some serious concerns.

While in London I almost never saw a traffic jam. Wherever I went, cars seemed to be flowing freely. In theory that's good: people and goods get where they need to go, without being stuck in one place polluting too long. But in order to get the cars to move that freely, London's traffic engineers made the pedestrian environment much worse.

It's my understanding, based on the work of Ben Hamilton-Baillie, that Greater London started making things difficult for pedestrians long before congestion pricing was enacted. The photo above illustrates a suite of anti-pedestrian tactics employed to speed cars. The Earl's Court tube station, on the right, is a very high-traffic pedestrian "destination" (in that the pedestrians temporarily become transit riders); you can't see that many of them, but there are a large number of people waiting to cross Earl's Court Road, the two-lane street in the picture.

Earl's Court Road is only two lanes wide, but it's one-way in order to allow faster cars to go around slower ones. There is no parking allowed on this section of the road, to provide more space for driving. The side streets around the Tube station are one-way in opposing directions, so that no driver has to cross the road. Because of this, the only reason for the traffic lights in this picture is to give pedestrians a chance to cross the street.

The lights themselves were timed to allow lots of cars to move through the intersection, while forcing pedestrians to wait and then rush across as soon as the light changed. There may have been a "beg button" as well; I certainly saw a lot of them in London. The lights were also spaced fairly far apart; there were several times when I saw an interesting shop or restaurant on the other side of the street, but couldn't get to it without going two or more blocks out of my way. Even though Earl's Court Road is narrower than most Manhattan cross streets, there was very little jaywalking because the cars came so fast.

Throughout London I saw plenty of other devices designed to speed cars at the expense of pedestrians. There were fences, Z-crossings and dedicated turn lanes. Despite having wide sidewalks and lots of street life in many places, it was not a very pleasant place to walk. The side streets tend to be calmer, with neckdowns and raised crosswalks, but it's very hard to go anywhere in the city without spending some time on larger streets like Earl's Court Road or worse.

What I'm describing are feelings of anxiety and frustration that I had as a pedestrian, but are they justified? I don't have hard data for London, but in July staffers at the Utah Department of Transportation found that people tend to die and get injured in car crashes more in places with low congestion.

So what can we take away from this? First of all, I think congestion pricing can still help. But we have to keep congestion in perspective. That means that as cars start to flow, we would improve the pedestrian environment, thus slowing them down. Restoring two-way traffic, restoring curbside parking, adding lights at more intersections, removing fences, giving more time to pedestrians - these are all relatively cheap strategies that can be implemented for almost no cost. I hope that London will continue along that path, and that if New York does implement congestion pricing, that we use some of the same strategies to keep the streets calm and safe.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

What's so great about low farebox recovery?

I just want to take a minute to talk about the ... strange statement that came out of the Straphangers Campaign last week, in response to the MTA's fare hike proposal. I'm trying to be polite here, but it's, um, puzzling and frustrating. Here's part of the quote that Ben Kabak ran:

New York City Transit already has the highest fare box operating ratio in the nation at 53%. That is the share of operating costs covered by fares. MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota said in September that “when you compare the public support given to mass transit agencies nationwide on a per customer basis, New York ranks at the very bottom.

In comparison to New York City Transit’s 53% ratio, the average for large systems nation-wide that operate both buses and subways was 38% in 2011. That’s according to the Federal Transit Administration in 2011, its most recent figures. Looking at big cities that run both subways and buses, the farebox operating ratio in Boston was 38%, Chicago 44%, Los Angeles 27%, Philadelphia 37%, and Washington, D.C. 42%.

Forget big cities; let's look at cities with really low farebox recovery. These are the top agencies in the country, right?

AgencyFarebox Recovery Ratio
The Greater New Haven Transit District (does not include CT Transit buses)0.5 %
SunLine Transit Agency (Riverside, CA)1.5 %
Southeast Tennessee Human Resource Agency (SETHRA)2.7 %
Crescent City Connection Division (New Orleans Ferries)2.7 %
City of Glendale Transit (AZ)3.1 %
Twin Cities Area Transportation Authority (Benton Harbor and Saint Joseph, MI)3.2 %
Broward County Community Bus Service (FL)3.4 %
Muncie Indiana Transit System (MITS)3.6 %
Clarkstown Mini-Trans (NY)3.8 %
Cleveland Area Rapid Transit (OK)3.9 %

This is a really weird way to think about farebox recovery. There are a lot of transit systems in other parts of the world, and even in this country. that have a much higher farebox recovery ratio. If you don't want to go to Hong Kong, just head up to the Port Authority for a bus to the exotic land of Hudson County, New Jersey, where all the most frequent routes are privately owned and operated. Sure, the Port Authority runs the PATH trains and the state of New Jersey runs a slew of coverage and anchor routes. But if you added up all the routes, I'm guessing the farebox recovery would be way above 53%.

Does Hudson County have an inferior transit system? Well, yes. They only have two subway lines and one light rail line, and everything else is buses that can get stuck in traffic or ferries that don't go very close to people's homes. Some of the buses are crowded or noisy, or have saggy seats. But that's not because they have a high farebox recovery ratio. It's because the zoning is crazy, and encourages people to drive instead of taking transit. With all the parking that's been built, it's a wonder that anyone takes the bus.

People do take the bus in Hudson County, because it's frequent and convenient. That's a lot more than you can say for the buses run by the Southeast Tennessee Human Resource Agency, even if they are a bit newer and cleaner.

If anything, we should be shooting for a higher farebox recovery ratio. That would insulate transit users from the predatory demands of people like Lee Zeldin and Scott Vanderhoef. If we pay for all our transit, what would they be able to take?

The fact is that farebox recovery doesn't have anything to do with pubic support for transit, and it doesn't have anything to do with the quality of transit. It's a reflection of the efficiency of the transit system (supply) and the lack of competition from cars (demand). That's the bottom line. Hearing Gene Russianoff kvetching about high farebox recovery is discouraging, and hearing Joe Lhota repeating that is depressing.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

In praise of pedestrian sidepaths

Back in August, Chuck Marohn wrote that the roads in our National Parks could be models for the "country roads" he envisions as alternatives to the "stroads" that state transportation departments are currently building all over the country. In response I wrote that my own National Park experience was a frustrating and disappointing, and that we need to do more to make our parks walkable, including providing transit. But I have a further response: I don't think that these would make good country roads.

Old carriage roads are great to walk on. You can find them in many parks like Rockefeller State Park (accessible by foot from the Tarrytown and Scarborough train stations) and Mohonk Preserve. What makes them so nice is that they don't have any cars. They hardly have any carriages either, but as long as there's enough room to pass that wouldn't be so bad.

Today's country roads are not good for walking. To see why, all you need to do is take a long walk or bike ride on one. You'll be buzzed by cars going much faster than you. Some drivers will be going 55 or even 65 on a straight section. Even if you're doing twenty miles an hour on your bike, it's too big a difference. I don't care how wide the shoulders are, nobody wants to walk next to speeding traffic.

I've been on narrow country roads in England and France, and they're not much better. Maybe the cars appear a little less often and go a little slower, but it's still stressful to think about them. A gravel road might slow the cars down more, but I would it be enough?

For asphalt roads, as long as we have cars we'll need physical separation for cyclists and pedestrians to feel truly comfortable. We even have a model for this: the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts. All the streets of Amherst, Northampton and nearby towns have sidewalks, and most of the heavily traveled country roads in the area have sidepaths. These are not the shitty stroad sidepaths that you may have encountered in some areas - they don't actually have those on their stroad, Route 9 - but a whole different experience on a two-lane country road.

Walking on a sidepath like the one on South Pleasant Street may not be as nice as a walk on a carriage road or a rail-trail. It's not even as nice as walking on the sidewalk along Pleasant Street in the village of Amherst, but it's a lot nicer than walking on the shoulder of a road.

I hate to say it, but if we want people to walk or ride bikes on country roads, we'll need more sidepaths. It would be expensive to build sidepaths on every country road, but if you look at all the plans to "four-lane" country roads into stroads, it would be a lot cheaper, and the connectivity it would provide would be a lot more sustainable.

Back in late March and early April, I wrote that roads, streets, railroads and country roads have their own optimal vehicles for carrying freight and people - although railroads are better than car roads. I'm now going to add Really Narrow Streets to the mix, because I think they're different enough from the typical American streets that Nathan Lewis calls "hypertrophic." We can also see that they accommodate pedestrians differently:

Type of wayPeople vehicleFreight vehiclePedestrian accommodation
Stroads*SUVsSUVsAlternate route
Highways (roads)*BusesTrucksAlternate route
RailroadsPassenger trainsFreight trainsRail with trail
Really Narrow StreetsFeetWheelbarrowsPedestrian priority
Country roadsHitchhikePickup trucksSidepath

* Deprecated

Monday, October 22, 2012

With TIFIA, a loss for "New York" would be a gain for transit

Newsday reported that the competition for TIFIA loans is "stiff." It was presented as a challenge for New York: will another state beat us out to get the money? But if we look beyond the simplistic rhetoric and shoulder through some boring financial details, we can see that a "gain for New York" would actually be a loss for transit. In fact, it would be a loss for New York, and a loss even for Rockland and Westchester counties.

Okay, first of all, what is a TIFIA loan? TIFIA is a law, the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act of 1998, that set up a program where the federal government offers loans to states and transportation agencies, which are then used to build new roads, rail lines, stations and other big capital projects. Getting a loan from the Treasury instead of selling bonds or borrowing from a private bank can save agencies millions of dollars, because they can get a better interest rate or extend the loan for a longer period.

Earlier this year, Congress put a billion dollars into the TIFIA fund for the next two years, and the Federal Highway Administration will decide who gets the loans. So far they've received nineteen applications, totaling $27 billion, so not everyone can get a loan. The New York State Thruway Authority has put in an application for almost six billion dollars, to build a replacement for the Tappan Zee Bridge. Newsday is clearly expecting everyone in the greater New York area to cheer on the Tappan Zee loan.

Here's where it gets interesting: the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has also applied for a TIFIA loan, for almost the same amount ($5.999 billion instead of $5.900 billion). But their loan wouldn't fund a highway bridge, it would fund a new subway line from downtown Washington through the northern Virginia suburbs to Dulles Airport.

On the surface, the choice is clear for transit advocates. The Tappan Zee Bridge project would take a huge, sprawl-generating highway and double it, possibly with a dedicated bus lane, probably without. The new bridge will make it easier to drive for a few more years, draining the life out of the small but growing movements to rebuild Rockland and Westchester's sustainable infrastructure of compact towns connected by train lines. This inefficiency will in turn waste more local tax money and fuel, increasing demand for hydrofracking and other destructive energy extraction methods.

At the state budget level, the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project will suck up all of the toll money that the state can manage to get out of drivers (while the elected officials from the areas with the most bridge commuters fight to keep the tolls as low as possible). At best, that means that taxpayers statewide will be forced to pay for Thruway improvements that are currently funded out of bridge tolls. More likely, general state funds will be used to pay for various bridge-related expenses, diverting money away from other state expenses, particularly transit.

In contrast, the Silver Line metro project would bring rapid transit to a part of Virginia that has long been dominated by cars. Fairfax and Loudoun counties have made it the centerpiece of their smart growth plans, in particular a project to transform the town of Tysons Corner from a land of detached houses, strip malls and office parks into an urban area with dense, walkable centers. It would ultimately be paid for by motorists on the competing Dulles Toll Road, simultaneously providing a disincentive for driving and an incentive for taking the train.

Now, WAMU is spinning the TIFIA loan as a way to keep tolls on the Dulles Road low, but it's better to have low tolls and a completed train than a toll revolt and no Phase 2.

This is a case where what is good for "New York" is not only bad for Northern Virginia, but bad for transit everywhere, and in fact for the people of New York. New Yorkers should contact the FHWA and tell them to give the cheap loan to the Silver Line train.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The wrong lessons to take from the livery van failure

In his frustrating blog post from June about the "failure" of Chinatown buses, Will Doig also alleged that local private van service had failed:

And most important, it’s been tried before — not just in New York, but in many cities — with miserable results. "There was this expectation that these vans would be a perfect substitute for conventional transit," says Columbia University assistant professor of urban planning David King. But, "There are a lot of real problems when you try to formalize informal transit."

I know it's been a few months, but I've had this sitting half-finished in my pipeline, and it leads to an important point. But first, I haven't heard any evidence of an expectation that private vans would be a perfect substitute for conventional transit. Worse, Doig gives no details about what "miserable results" or "real problems" he and King might be referring to. Routes are expanding and the operators are buying bigger and better buses. To me that suggests either success or massive over-leveraging, and the second possibility is highly unlikely in this economic climate.

My guess is that King was referring to the failure of the Taxi and Limousine Commission's 2010 Group Ride program, which I covered extensively at the time. There were indeed several problems, and I came up with eight recommendations:

  1. Jitney service is qualitatively different from scheduled government bus service.
  2. Admitting ignorance is the first step on the path to wisdom.
  3. Consider the customer's perspective.
  4. Transit is in competition.
  5. Thin markets need an anchor.
  6. Sometimes marketing can help.
  7. Gaps in service can kill your business.
  8. Take constructive comments seriously.

The problem with King's statement, and Doig's, is that most of these things are not specific to "these vans," but they're true when you're launching a new transit service of any kind. They're also not about "trying to formalize informal transit," but about the perils of expecting to make a profit on unprofitable routes.

It's just lazy to give something a half-assed try and then say, "oh, well I guess it doesn't work," especially when it's working pretty well right across the river. Of course, King's statement was fairly nuanced and qualified; it's Doig who turned it into a blanket condemnation of privately owned transit.

If anything has failed, of course, it's Taxi Commissioner David Yassky, who's also promised a hybrid taxi fleet and a borough taxi program. It's then-Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, who has been awfully quiet since he left under accusations of domestic abuse, but who showed with this project that he's not a budget-cutting privatization guru. And of course it's Mayor Bloomberg, who hired these guys and gave them their orders.

Legal private transit still has a chance of working in New York City. Hopefully we'll give it a try one day.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

How the high Acela fares save taxpayers money

We know that Amtrak's Acela and Northeast Regional services are among the few Amtrak services that take in enough in tickets to cover their operating costs. We also know that the fares on those trains are considered high: they're higher than any parallel commuter rail line or bus. Malcolm Kenton of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (of which I am a card-carrying member) argues that without sufficient taxpayer support, these high fares are necessary. Here's how necessary they are:

If you wanted to go from midtown Manhattan to New Haven on a weekday morning, you could pay $70 for a business class ticket on the Acela Express, or $123 for a first class ticket. There are 260 business class seats and 44 first class seats on every train, for an average fare of $77.67. Or you could pay $14.75 and take the Metro-North commuter train. That $14.75 is just 19% of the average Acela fare.

All those $70 and $123 fares add up: total Acela revenue from last October through July was $427,414,994. That's a 76% surplus over the operating costs of $242,800,000. That money could be used to buy more train cars or upgrade signals, but currently it seems to be used to cross-subsidize some of the less-profitable lines.

People complain about the high Acela fares, but they haven't gotten Amtrak to lower them. Imagine if they had! What if all Acela seats to New Haven cost $14.75? Then the total revenue from October to July would be $81,167,577, only a third of the cost. That leaves $162 million that would have to be paid by the taxpayer.

The story is similar for the Northeast Regional trains: $38 for coach, $57 for business class, for an average of $39.65. The total revenue for October through July was $446,466,387, a 21% surplus over the cost of $369,000,000. If all seats were $14.75, the trains would only bring in $166,078,642, 45% of the cost, requiring a taxpayer subsidy of $202,921,358.

Just to remind you: these are market rates, and the $374 first class round trip fare between New York and Boston is still a bargain compared to the $470 coach fare on the Delta air shuttle, let alone the $568 first class fare. The trains are mostly full. If Amtrak charged lower fares the trains would always be full, and a lot of people still wouldn't get a chance to ride. Lower fares wouldn't allow more people to ride, they would just give poorer people a better chance to ride.

The reason that there hasn't been much pressure on Amtrak to reduce its fares is because there is a cheaper alternative for people who can't afford to pay $38 to ride to New Haven. They can pay $14.75 for a Metro-North ticket, which takes half an hour longer, doesn't guarantee a seat and has no cafe car. Or they can pay $22 for a Greyhound or Peter Pan bus. They may even get a Megabus seat for $5. For those going to Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Wilmington or Washington, there are also Chinatown buses and Bolt Bus. That frees Amtrak from the requirement to offer charity service in the Northeast Corridor and allows them to charge market rate fares.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Port Authority rooftop should be for buses

As I've written before, there are a lot of buses and trains bringing commuters to Manhattan every morning and taking them home at night. Specifically, there are a lot more peak-direction commuters than reverse commuters. When you have that kind of imbalance, you have four options: run vehicles mostly empty back to the origin, as is done with some of the MTA express buses; run the vehicles through the center to the outskirts on the other side mostly empty, as is done with the subway; "deadhead" the vehicles with no passengers to a yard or garage on the outskirts; or store the vehicles in the center.

A lot of the buses that bring commuters through the Lincoln Tunnel into the Port Authority Bus Terminal turn right around and head back through the tunnel, empty. You can see them in the late morning heading out, and in the early afternoon heading back in to pick up passengers. If you've ever gotten stuck in tunnel traffic alongside them, you know what a tremendous waste of tunnel capacity that is.

Many of the Port Authority buses are actually stored in Manhattan, though. The terminal itself has limited storage space, so some bus operators will park on the street. This is something of a problem in that the bus drivers often circle around Midtown until they find a space, adding to congestion on the street.

Some people are more upset about the lost parking: drivers who want to park in those spots, drivers who want other people to park in those spots instead of in "their" spots, and merchants who believe that all their customers come by car. It also bothers people who think of drivers as "us" and transit users as "them," because they see the space as wasted if it's serving transit riders.

The Port Authority planned to spend $800 million on a new bus garage in Midtown, but one of Chris Christie's first acts as Governor of New Jersey was to take the money and use it to stave off a gas tax increase. With any luck, next year he'll be replaced by someone who actually gives a shit about transit riders, but can anything be done in the meantime?

Hm. Imagine if we could add a floor to the Port Authority Bus terminal and use that for bus parking. We could probably fit a hundred buses up there. Gee, what's up there now?

Does anyone at the Times know about this?

Yes, that's right, more than a city block full of parking. The Port Authority owns a ton of space up there, and is currently leasing it for parking up to 1500 private cars at a time. If you feel like driving through the Lincoln Tunnel, you can pay a company called LAZ to park your car there. The ramp to get there is right next to the bus ramp, at the corner of 40th Street and Dyer Avenue. If you're on foot, check out the elevators at the east end of the South Wing, right near Annie's Pretzels. I assume the rates are competitive with the Midtown parking market, but I haven't been able to find a rate sheet, so if anyone knows roughly how much they charge per day, please let me know.

In any case, if you've just unloaded a bus, sorry, you can't park there. And I kinda sorta understand that for the fifth and sixth levels, because the clearance is pretty low:

You'd have a hard time fitting full-size coaches in there, even if you took out all those pipes. You could probably fit a bunch of vans in there, but the van drivers seem to have made pretty good deals for surface parking all by themselves. Still, why not use the top level for parking buses?

Incidentally, those 1500 cars constitute eight percent of the 18,500 cars that cram through the Lincoln tunnel every morning. That's a relatively small fraction, but big enough to have an effect on congestion. And note that the Port Authority has a conflict of interest here: each car that parks there pays a daily parking fee and a tunnel toll.

Conflict of interest or not, though, this is bullshit. Maybe there's nothing else that can go on the fifth and sixth levels, but the open seventh level should be bus storage.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Gay men, zoning and the High Line's real source of power

You probably already know how annoyed I get by all the people who want "our very own High Line" for whatever little town they live in. As I wrote last year, "If you've got anyone like that in your town, you should print them out a copy of Witold Rybczinski's excellent discussion of the economics of the High Line, and why it probably won't turn your run-down industrial neighborhood into West Chelsea unless you've got (a) dense commercial and residential development nearby, (b) a subway two blocks away, (c) lots of well-connected gay men and artists living and working within a short walk, and (d) LOTS of money, more than your town can really afford to spend."

I'll add two data points to the ones from last year:

First, some documentation of the gay fundraising network that bankrolled Friends of the High Line. Here in New York we've got gay men with power and money! Is your town willing to give that much clout to its gay men? Think you can do it without them? Good luck!

Second, since 1982 there have been no minimum parking requirements in Manhattan south of 96th Street. In 2005 the city approved the Special West Chelsea District (PDF) zoning amendment. It did not add any minimum parking requirements. Would developers building around your "High Line" wannabe have to provide lots of parking?

The zoning amendment also capped any density limitations at a floor-area ratio (FAR) of 5.0. Does your town allow that much density around its "High Line"?

If anything, the High Line is a symbol. It's a symbol of a town that gives power to gay men walking among tall buildings, instead of wasting all its land and money on highways and parking lots. It's a symbol of a metropolis.

If your town doesn't do that, it's not a metropolis, and any "High Line" you build will be an empty symbol. And yes, that goes for you, Rego Park.

(I know, we still have too many highways and parking lots, even in Chelsea. The sooner we get rid of them, the better off we'll be.)

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Amtrak revenue update update

In response to my post last night about Amtrak ridership and revenue, Paul Druce pointed out that Amtrak's revenue numbers include government operating support, but that the same PDF lists ticket revenues on Page A-3.5. So if we combine them into one spreadsheet, here are the top ten routes in terms of "farebox recovery" for Fiscal Year 2012, October through July:

RouteTicket revenueTotal costsTicket contribution (loss)"Farebox" recovery ratio
Acela$ 427,414,994($242,800,000)$184,614,994176 %
Washington-Lynchburg9,654,320(6,600,000)3,054,320146 %
Northeast Regional446,466,387(369,000,000)77,466,387121 %
Washington-Newport News28,270,176(25,900,000)2,370,176109 %
Carolinian15,300,066(16,600,000)(1,299,934)92 %
Albany-Niagara Falls-Toronto20,102,961(23,200,000)(3,097,039)87 %
Keystone27,517,953(37,800,000)(10,282,047)73 %
Empire36,594,768(52,400,000)(15,805,232)70 %
Auto Train62,356,483(89,900,000)(27,543,517)69 %
Palmetto14,320,227(23,500,000)(9,179,773)61 %

It's a whole different game when you look at it that way.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Amtrak ridership update

People have been talking about the gross numbers of Amtrak carrying more riders than at any time since its founding in 1972. I have a couple of thoughts on this.

First, we now need a new benchmark to measure Amtrak ridership by. It's tricky, because Amtrak didn't take over all the passenger trains in the country. Commuter services were often retained by the railroads, eventually being taken over by state-run agencies or authorities like Metro-North, New Jersey Transit, Metra, the MBTA and Caltrain. When they are reinstated, they are often controlled by state agencies or authorities like Sound Transit, Valley Metro or Denver's RTD.

We could compare Amtrak ridership with pre-Amtrak ridership on all non-commuter trains, but now Amtrak runs some routes that primarily serve commuters (the trains to Lynchburg and Newport News in Virginia, for example), and some current non-commuter routes are run by other organizations, such as the LIRR's Montauk service, the Alaska Railroad and the Grand Canyon Railway. So it would be nice to see the ridership on all pre-Amtrak long-distance trains compared to all Amtrak long-distance trains, for example.

My second point is that there are some very interesting specifics in the data, particularly on Pages C-1 and C-2 of the July Monthly Performance Report (PDF). Last July, there were only four services that ran an operating surplus from January to July: the Acela and Northeast Regional, the Lynchburg service and the "Non NEC Special Trains," whatever they are.

This year all four of those are making a larger operating surplus, and so are the "NEC Special Trains," the Washington-Newport News service ($3 million surplus), the Pere Marquette (Grand Rapids to Chicago, $100,000) and the Carolinian (Raleigh to Charlotte, $700,000).

Even more interesting, many of the "state sponsored trains" are close to breaking even. The Ethan Allen Express has a year-to-date loss of less than $100,000. The Piedmont, which goes from Washington to Charlotte, has a year-to-date loss of $300,000. Kansas City-Saint Louis service is down $1.4 million. All three of them earn a significant chunk of their revenue in the fall, presumably from leaf-peepers and skiers, and all three will probably run a net surplus for this year.

The following trains all have year-to-date operating losses of less than three million dollars: the Adirondack ($2 million), the Heartland Flyer (Fort Worth to Oklahoma City, $2.2 million), the Maple Leaf ($2.3 million), the Illinois Zephyr (Chicago to Quincy, $2.4 million), the Downeaster ($2.5 million), the Vermonter and the Hiawathas ($2.6 million), and the Blue Water (Chicago to Port Huron, $2.8 million). Of those trains, only the Blue Water had an annual operating loss over a million dollars in 2011. Most of them will probably make a slight operating profit this year.

The question then is what to do with these services. I don't know the details of Amtrak's agreements with the states. It may make sense for the states to shift their contribution from operating to capital and buy more rolling stock. If we get a congress that wants to invest in Amtrak, it may buy the rolling stock, leaving the states with money to invest in new routes.

The most profitable routes, like Washington-Lynchburg, may be of interest to private companies. What makes the most sense would be for the host railroad, in this case Norfolk Southern, to take it back and maybe extend it to Danville and Greensboro. In any case, it's good news.

The limits of naive Monderman analysis

I've talked before about the revolutionary approach to traffic engineering that was pioneered in the Netherlands by the late Hans Monderman, father of the woonerf. The crux of Monderman's idea is that too many signs and signals slow down traffic and make roads more dangerous. It's an application of the general principle that micromanaging anything can make it worse.

In one well-known example, Monderman replaced a confusing multiway intersection in Drachten with "something resembling a public square that mixes cars, pedestrians, and cyclists" and removed all the signs, thereby encouraging motorists to make eye contact with each other and with pedestrians and cyclists. He famously demonstrated the safety of the new design by walking through it backwards.

Like all revolutionary ideas, Monderman's techniques can be overapplied simplistically in situations where they are not valid, leading to bad results. In fact, the very micromanagement that it's a reaction to is a naive overapplication of the perfectly valid idea that sound management can make traffic - or anything - work better.

Having said that, what I don't want anyone to do is give up on Monderman out of fear of getting it wrong. Monderman is one of the most important transportation thinkers of the past fifty years. So how do we carry out the kind of sophisticated analysis that Monderman undertook and not the naive applications I've seen?

The key lies in not applying Monderman's ideas and techniques indiscriminately, and instead knowing what circumstances warrant a Monderman technique like stop light removal. If the circumstances don't warrant removing the stop sign, but you think it would be better off without one, you need to know what circumstances would warrant such a removal and how to get to that.

Stop light removal is an interesting example. It calms traffic by replacing rules (follow the light) with negotiations (communicated through eye contact). So why aren't the numerous "unsignalized" intersections in Queens, Santo Domingo and parking lots worldwide examples of Mondermanian harmony, equality and pedestrian safety?

In the Queens unsignalized intersections, the drivers obey rules that exclude the pedestrians. There are stop signs for the cars crossing the intersection. The drivers on the crossing street are looking out for the drivers on the through street, and vice versa. Pedestrians are seen as a distraction.

In Santo Domingo, interestingly, drivers have invented a system that allows them to communicate with each other while excluding pedestrians and cyclists. People complain about the honking in that town, but they don't realize that the honks are signals. A driver approaching an unsignalized intersection will honk. Whoever honks first gets to go first, and everyone else has to yield.

Note also that the Queens stop signs and the Santo Domingo honking both allow the drivers to go faster and not make eye contact. Monderman was very clear that a driver can only be expected to yield to a pedestrian if "the speed is at the same level." These systems increase the relative speed, making yielding less likely.

In the parking lots, the purpose is to get into cars. Although parking lots are used for many other things, their designed purpose is to store cars. People therefore see any other activity, including walking to cars, as secondary, and devalue them.

Those parking lots are not woonerven, because Monderman felt that a street or an intersection should signal to its users through design. In clip four of this video, he points out a marked crosswalk that was requested by a senior citizens' group. He reluctantly agreed, but in the video he acknowledges its value: "You can see the pedestrian crossing is also some social protection, not just traffic, and as a social function I love it." He also describes his use of raised intersections to signal to drivers that "there might be people" - and that people matter.

So if you like Monderman (as I hope you do), go ahead and apply his ideas! But recognize the depth of his thinking and the care that he put into his designs, and learn from him. The videos by Jerry Michalski and the Tom Vanderbilt article that I linked to above are a great place to start.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Party out of bounds

Okay, so you're having a party. You call a bunch of friends and put the word out on Facebook. None of you have much money, but you cash your paycheck and pick up some twelve-packs of Coors Light. Your friends bring what they can: a bottle of vodka, a bottle of rum, some soda, and a couple 40-ouncers of malt liquor.

But the drinks start to run out after a few hours. Of course you don't blame your cousin Jimmy who got laid off, or Jenny's ex-boyfriend who just got out of prison. There's a few moochers in the place, but everybody else deserves a good time, and they brought what they could afford.

You and Jimmy are getting some air outside and you say hi to a couple walking past. They're definitely not from the neighborhood. They dress wild, and the guy might be gay. But they look like decent people. Then they hear the music coming out of your place, and the woman stops. She says, "Is this Billy's Fun Cave? I saw on Twitter that you're having a party." Before you can answer, the guy says, "I got beer!" and he holds up a six-pack. Well, all right then.

These new people are kind of fun. The woman has a whole bunch of songs on her Ipod that you loved dancing to when you were a kid. The local microbrew they bought is definitely an acquired taste, but it beats Night Train and you might actually acquire a taste for it if you could afford it. They're texting their friends, so you tell them the friends can come too.

The friends show up, and most of them bring beer, so you and your friends are happy. But not that much beer, and you're wondering if you're going to run out again when you hear someone shout, "Alex is coming? Tell him and his gang to bring booze!"

You're polishing off the next-to-last Sam Adams when Alex and his gang show up. They bring booze, and lots of it. One lady even shows up with a box of wine. They're dressed very classy, not the same funky crowd that you first invited in. They start blasting oldies on your stereo and complementing you on keeping your apartment's original trim.

All of a sudden you realize that you don't know any of the people in your own living room. The funky crowd is hanging out in the kitchen. All your friends have either left the party or retreated into a back room. Even Alex and his gang have moved on to find a new party.

And that, folks, is the party analogy applied to gentrification. Not a perfect fit, but no metaphor is.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

How to stop them taking our money

Okay, so what do you think all these things have in common?

  1. Bridge tolls
  2. Parking meters
  3. Traffic tickets
  4. Gas taxes
  5. Wealth taxes

That's right, they're taxes, fines and fees that people resent paying to the government. And sometimes politicians and bureaucrats have noticed that they can get a substantial revenue stream from these taxes, fines and fees. They've gone beyond simply collecting these taxes, fines and fees and resorted to chasing them, by overzealous enforcement, imposing unnecessary fees and keeping taxes too high. Worse still, many people accuse government officials of chasing revenue in this way, whether or not they're actually doing it.

Now, what do these things have in common?

  1. Bridge tolls
  2. Parking meters
  3. Gas taxes
  4. Cigarette taxes
  5. Alcohol taxes

You got it, they're Pigovian taxes, named after the English economist Arthur Pigou, who argued that when an activity creates a "negative externality" - a cost to society beyond its cost to the individual - a tax can discourage people from engaging in that activity. Tax cigarettes, and the number of people who smoke goes down.

The thing about Pigovian taxes is that people are already prone to resent them. They want to smoke, or drink, or drive over bridges, and here the government is slapping a tax on it. Now suppose that you have a Pigovian tax that the government also happens to get lots of revenue from. Well, first of all it's an incentive for the bureaucrats and politicians to discourage people from stopping the activity. Why would you want to stop people from driving over your bridge, if you'd lose that revenue and maybe default on your bridge bonds?

Secondly, relying on Pigovian taxes for revenue is a bad idea because it creates the suspicion that the government is chasing revenue. That provides the people who already resent the tax with an ready-made scrap of populism to cloak their selfish resentment in.

Now what do all the following have in common?

  1. Buses
  2. Sidewalks
  3. Public schools
  4. Bike lanes
  5. Trains

Yup, they're things that the government usually funds with the taxes, fines and fees listed above. Critically, of the people who pay the taxes, fines and fees above, many don't see these things as being for them.

So imagine I'm a car owner. I park my car at the curb, or in a municipal lot. I see my parking fee (me!) get collected by the government (them!) to spend on buses (them!). The source of the money is separated from control over the money and benefit from it. Who wouldn't resent that?

Of course I'm not the first to observe this. Matt Yglesias has been talking about it for years, as I wrote in 2010. Yesterday he had a particularly apt critique of a plan by Bill deBlasio to tax the wealthy to fund school improvements. Donald Shoup has long argued that his Pigovian parking fees should be returned to the parkers in the form of "parking benefit districts." On Wednesday, Stephen Smith argued on Twitter that allocating toll funds to transit leads to overspending. "Toll money is unearned, economically or politically, and thus is ill spent. Easy come, easy go."

So what's the solution? Something along the lines of Shoup's parking benefit districts. Yglesias writes, "We'd start out with things like congestion fees and carbon taxes that serve non-revenue policy goals but do raise money. Then we'd add on some land taxes and VATs and such to fun public services. Once that's squared away, you can do redistribution with a progressive payroll tax, a small wealth tax, whatever."

The point is to get it from "They're taking my money and giving it to those people" to "We're getting our money back in a form we can use." The trick with Pigovian taxes is to give it back to people in a form that doesn't further encourage that negative externality. You don't want to use parking fees to build more garages. You want to think, "What did the people park here for?" and use it to fund the things they like - ideally an alternative to parking there that they will find acceptable.

This brings me back to the congestion pricing disaster. People resented congestion pricing because it felt like "them taking our money and giving it to those people." Gridlock Sam is thinking along these lines with his something for the drivers, but by building more highways he gets it drastically wrong. Bridge toll money needs to go into something that the drivers will appreciate, but not driving.

Incidentally, the MTA payroll tax was a disaster despite being a broad-based tax just because it was so badly handled that it pissed everybody off, having to file a bunch of forms just to pay thirty dollars a year. I'm sure it was designed that way from the beginning.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Can we push for more buses AND trains?

Alon Levy has posted a nice long response to my posts about bus service on the Northeast Corridor. Now, Alon and I are friends and we could probably hash this out over coffee the next time he's in New York. But I think it's helpful to air this discussion on our blogs so that you all can join in, and of course get the benefit of our tremendous knowledge and wisdom.

First, some clarifications. I really, really don't want you to start loving the bus. I don't particularly like them myself. Even if they weren't smelly and cramped, they're always going to lurch. I would love it if we had enough passenger train capacity that I could go wherever I wanted to go by train.

I am advocating investment in bus stations at various locations around the metro area, but not government investment. Of course, where there are existing government-owned bus stations, like in White Plains, the intercity buses should be offered space. Similarly, they should be allowed to use municipal lots and garages, like those in Flushing and Williamsburg, for pickups and layovers. And in Chinatown, as in most of Manhattan, land may be so expensive that none of the bus companies can afford to build their own terminals.

That said, it seems likely to me that if we provide a reasonable amount of curbside pickup space in places like Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Bay Ridge, a bus company will eventually be able to accumulate enough profit and/or credit to build a terminal. That also assumes that there would be the necessary zoning and/or waivers to allow such a terminal to be built in a convenient location.

Alon is probably right, in part at least, that what's motivating me to advocate expanding the bus network is "desperation" and "defeatism" about the likelihood of reforming Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration - or about getting another train tunnel dug under the Hudson. Part of my motivation is also that we may have extra advocacy hours beyond what we need to get rail improvements, and we should spend those on expanding the non-car, non-plane mode share. But that's not all.

It's also that the timeframe for bus improvements is shorter. If we get the FRA to relax its regulations, and then get Amtrak to buy more train cars, we still need to get Congress to pay for the new cars, and then it takes a few years for the cars to be built. A new tunnel would take even longer.

We should absolutely do all of those. But what do we do in the meantime with all the people who really want to go to Boston without driving? Let's satisfy that demand over the short term with buses, warehouse it, and then when Amtrak gets their new train cars it will free up a bunch of bus capacity, which will then be available to absorb the next wave of transit demand. This process can be repeated when the new tunnels are completed, and again when the Poughkeepsie Bridge is reactivated.

The question, I guess, is how much time anyone's putting into these goals, besides just writing about it on blogs. If someone spends half an hour writing a letter to Steve Levin asking for his support in putting a bus stop in Williamsburg, is that a half hour they wouldn't have spent writing to Nydia Velasquez asking for FRA reform?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Why Fifth Avenue is so great

When I first moved back to New York City in my early twenties I was living with my dad on the Upper West Side. I had a friend living on the Upper East Side and another in Greenwich Village. When we got together, we shook the world. We would stay up until dawn taking dangerous drugs, having kinky sex with beautiful artists, creating the definitive rock and roll record and brainstorming solutions to the city's problems.

Okay, we actually just drank a lot of root beer and watched Star Trek until midnight. But after that, we walked on Fifth Avenue. Fifth Avenue was great after midnight.

It wasn't great in a dramatic way, like Saint Mark's Place might have been. It was quiet and beautiful, and it felt safe.

I could have walked home through Central Park, but it still had a reputation for being unsafe at night. I could have taken the crosstown bus, and sometimes I did, but those were infrequent, and crowded when they did come. When the weather was nice it was better to walk.

I walked down Fifth, across Fifty-Seventh Street and up Central Park West. Fifty-Seventh was also great after midnight. The Steinway piano showroom with its convex window was still lit up, and there was always a deli or a cafe open late. Without the crowds, the wide sidewalks were luxurious.

I recently listened to an old KunstlerCast, one of the best, called "Missing Teeth in the Urban Fabric." There's a ton of great stuff in that episode, but one of the best is Kunstler's summary of a discussion by the architect William Rawn about why Fifth Avenue works.

Fifth Avenue is what Rawn calls a "one sided street": it has buildings on one side and a park on the other. Like Rawn, I've seen a lot of one sided streets, many of them probably inspired by Fifth Avenue, that didn't work as pedestrian spaces.

In my neighborhood there's a section of Queens Boulevard that runs along a cemetery. Like Fifth Avenue it has an unbroken stretch several blocks long with a wall, trees and maybe a bench or two. Unlike Fifth Avenue it feels deserted, exposed and unsafe. Most of the pedestrians in the neighborhood avoid it.

Why do Fifth Avenue and Central Park West feel so quiet, beautiful and safe, while Queens Boulevard does not? Here's what Rawn has to say on Page 42 of his thesis (PDF):

Upper Fifth Avenue is a well-known street. Though not a commercial street and admittedly quite different from the Fifth Avenue south of 59th Street, nonetheless it is exceedingly vibrant and full of activity. Here is a street which has no shopping and yet is always full of people. Some are walking fast with a strong sense of mission; others are simply strolling. It should be noted that the strong side of the street is marked by a series of apartment and hotel buildings usually 10-15 stories high. The weak side, along the park, is marked by a set of factors of continuity. There is a high wall (seven feet high, too high to see over) running along the edge of the park. There are several rows of trees paralleling the street. There are periodic openings to the park but these usually occur every three or four blocks. Walking along this street, one is not really part of the park, except that the trees and sometimes the hills of the park can be seen over the wall. One knows that he is part of the street; one sees what is ahead and behind. There is a sense of balance. In effect, one does not feel he is about to fall off the edge into an undefined park setting, but instead feels that he is part of a well defined street setting.

Rawn goes on to talk about three other "spines" (the Alamitos Bay Boardwalk in Long Beach, California; the Rue de Rivoli in Paris and the cafe fronts of Ibiza), but Fifth Avenue is enough to talk about tonight. The walls are definitely not seven feet high in the picture above; I think they're only four feet, but the trees behind them create a barrier that is opaque but not blank. They may be seven feet high north of Eighty-Fifth Street.

Regardless, I think Rawn is right about the value of the walls defining the space. Compare that to any place where there is a tall fence, like the Queens Botanic Garden. You can see into the garden, so the visual separation is not sharp, but the height of the fence makes it feel inaccessible. The regular openings in the Fifth Avenue walls are also important, because they make it clear that the wall is a boundary, not a barrier.

Queens Boulevard along the Calvary Cemetery in Woodside has a high wall and at least one row of trees paralleling the street, but there is only one opening to the cemetery on that side. The wall is at least seven feet high, maybe nine.

What Rawn doesn't note is the luxuriousness of the pedestrian environment along Fifth Avenue. The street is a hundred feet wide in some places, the same width as many of the most dangerous streets in the city, like the Bowery in Manhattan, 21st Street in Queens, Broadway in the Bronx and Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. So why does it feel so nice to walk on? Maybe because there are only two lanes of general traffic, a bus lane and a parking lane, for a total of four lanes for motor vehicles, spanning only forty-five feet. The rest of the street is available for pedestrians: twenty feet on the east side and thirty-five feet on the west. That western sidewalk is not all paved, but much of it is available for walking or standing, and there are many benches.

This immense width has an interesting effect. When I walk down Fifth Avenue I don't mind not being inside the park, because the Fifth Avenue sidewalks are themselves a kind of park. With the line of trees, sometimes I can even ignore the cars and just think of the sidewalk as Fifth Avenue.

By contrast, on Atlantic Avenue the cars have four travel lanes and two parking lanes, for a total of sixty feet. The sidewalks are twenty feet each, relatively generous for Brooklyn, but not wide enough to give that feeling of luxury. Queens Boulevard by the Calvary Cemetery is two hundred feet wide, with only fifteen feet of sidewalk. Of the sidewalk on the south side by the cemetery, only ten feet are usable; the rest is depressed grass filled with litter.

This is what I take away from Rawn's study, what makes a good one-sided street. You need a wall, not a fence and not too high, and you need gaps in the wall. And this is what I add: you need wide sidewalks.

Finally, let us all give thanks that this "multiply signed" petition from 1905 to tear down the Fifth Avenue wall and "create a new Park drive and bridle path" never went anywhere.