Thursday, November 29, 2012

Why no parking should be the future of parking

Yesterday, Eric Jaffe of the Atlantic Cities tweeted to his colleague Emily Badger, "One day we'll find something that pleases the Cap'n." They both actually do write a lot that pleases me (such as the Transit Riders' Union post and retailers don't need parking to thrive), but I reserve the right to criticize. Like now, I'm going to criticize Badger's latest post, "Car Elevators: Not Just for Rich People" (from the slug, the working title was apparently something like "Why Car Elevators Should Be the Future of Parking").

My first criticism is that if you didn't know better, you might get the impression from the post that car elevators were a new thing, at least to New York City. In fact, we've had them all my life.

While looking for corroboration of this, I found a story from July about an attendant who drove someone's SUV into the elevator shaft in one of these garages, but the elevator wasn't there so he crashed down five stories and hit another attendant who was actually in the elevator. Fortunately, they both survived.

We also have the columnar car lifts that you see in so many Midtown parking lots:

Now these are not the individual car elevators promised to rich Chelsea condo owners or Mitt Romney, and they're not the automatic garages that Badger talks about. They're run by attendants: you drop your car off and give them the keys. They go park it, and when you're ready to pick it up they get it out for you. You don't have to drive your car in the elevator or wedge it into some tiny space.

This may be a bit less efficient than the Milstein automatic garages, but probably not much so. They're certainly a better use of space than the garages with lots of ramps that Badger compares to the automatic garages. But while elevator garages may not be just for the super-rich, I don't know who Badger thinks can afford to pay fifty dollars a day to store a car in the city, or even twenty-five. In my book, that's just for the rich.

The rest of Badger's argument - that "cars and people live in a constant competition for space," and that these automatic garages can help relieve that tension - doesn't hold up. First of all, cars don't live, outside of cartoon movies. The competition for space is between the small minority who want to drive and park their cars in the city, and everyone else who's just walking here. When minimum parking requirements don't apply, off-street space is allocated by supply and demand. If a developer can get more money from an apartment building than a parking lot, then you'll see that parking lot replaced by apartments. Making it easier for a few rich people to store their cars on top of each other isn't going to free up more space for walking and apartments. At best, it'll free up some more garage space so that the next income bracket can buy cars. Yay.

As Brooklyn Spoke wrote in the comments, unless the cars are entirely symbolic (in which case they're hugely inefficient symbols to keep in a city), people will need to transport them to and from these automatic garages on a regular basis. That means more cars on the streets, which means more pollution and carnage, and less space for pedestrians and transit. The main reason why dense cities are more efficient and less polluting is because people don't have to drive as much. If there are people who won't live in the city unless they can drive, then let them go bankrupt out in the suburbs. Cheering a technology that makes it easier for people to drive in dense cities is missing the point.

Car elevators are the past of parking, and the present. They may also be the future. But that's really nothing to applaud or get too excited about. With any luck, the future of parking will be that there's a whole lot less of it around, regardless of whether it's organized vertically or horizontally. And that's why any new parking should be convertible to other uses when the demand goes away. That's what the future of parking should be.

Monday, November 26, 2012

A bus bridge to the Rockaways

As I wrote before, the best thing for the Rockaways is not to rebuild so much infrastructure-intensive development there; that means no more dense housing projects, and no more car-oriented racist gated communities. If you're going to rebuild those, the next best thing is to rebuild the old rail connection between the Long Island Rail Road and the elevated tracks in Far Rockaway and run express service to Penn Station.

Since I wrote that last post, in fact, I found out that the shopping center that was built across the old right-of-way has been failing for twenty years. The supermarket has been renovated, but much of the other space is vacant, and most of the cars in the parking lot are owned by park-and-riders from Nassau County. So it would be relatively easy for the MTA to buy out the owner, move the supermarket and rebuild the tracks.

Even if we do that, it would take a while to rebuild. The MTA is apparently hard at work rebuilding the trestle across Jamaica Bay. It's not clear how long that will take, but in the meantime, the MTA should have done more with buses. In the few days after the hurricane, the MTA, the DOT and the NYPD worked together to build an impressive rapid bus corridor connecting downtown Brooklyn with Midtown Manhattan. Why can't they do that for the Rockaways?

In fact, it's much easier for the Rockaways, because we're not talking about taking lanes from a relatively narrow, heavily trafficked avenue like Lexington. Instead you've got Cross Bay Boulevard, which becomes Woodhaven Boulevard and connects directly to Queens Boulevard and the Long Island Expressway. Cross Bay Boulevard is 145 feet across, and Woodhaven is 195 feet. There's plenty of room to take two lanes for buses, like this.

This is the rendering from page 41 of this PDF from the DOT illustrating possible layouts for "BRT Phase II." Looks awfully like Woodhaven Boulevard, doesn't it? In fact, here's Google Street View of Woodhaven at 101st Avenue, looking north:

It's a slightly different angle, but the buildings are the same. That's right, four years ago, DOT bus planners were looking at Woodhaven Boulevard as a model for rapid bus service. Even before A train service was wiped out, the Q53 more than doubled its ridership, to 14,844 per weekday, in the four years after it was taken over by the MTA. Imagine how many more people would ride it if it had its own dedicated lanes.

As an idea, this is a no-brainer. With subway service to Manhattan cut, Rockaway residents deserve a rapid bus to Midtown, connecting to the A, J, Z, M and R trains. The only obstacle is political.

Why the 85th Percentile Rule still matters

Earlier this month Pedro Madruga at Copenhagenize found a really bad zombie rule that continues to wreak havoc all over the world: the 85th Percentile Rule. This is the procedure used to set a speed limit:

1. Design the road to permit the highest speeds that the budget and the landowners will let you.

2. Measure the speed of drivers and find the 85th percentile - the speed where 85% of drivers are going at that speed or slower. Round to the nearest multiple of 5. That's the speed limit that you put on your signs.

As Madruga points out, this is a shitty idea, because most pedestrians and cyclists aren't going to go more than ten miles per hour, never mind stopped cars and buildings. Animals too, of course. This leads you straight into Strong Towns' famous Conversation with an Engineer.

However, Madruga doesn't acknowledge that the 85th Percentile Rule does contain two valuable insights. The first is that large differences between the speeds of drivers on a road can be dangerous. If you've taken physics, you know that relative speed is what matters in a crash. With pedestrians and cyclists we're able to ignore that, because the difference between a pedestrian's speed and zero is so much smaller than that between a driver's speed and a pedestrian's. But for drivers and car passengers, it matters.

The other insight is that some drivers follow the speed limit, while others drive as fast as feels safe. The bigger the difference between those two groups, the more destructive it will be when a member of the feeling group hits a member of the limit group. By increasing the speed limit to the 85th percentile, they encourage the limit group to travel at the same speed as the feeling group, minimizing that difference.

We don't want to throw out that insight. But we do want to be less crazy about it. The key is to change the order of the steps:

1. Decide on a speed limit based on the pedestrian, cyclist and built environment you want to see along this road. That's what you put on your signs.

2. Design the road so that 85% of drivers will feel comfortable traveling under that speed.

By reversing those two steps, we make safety and comfort for all a priority over speed, and we acknowledge the value of a safe pedestrian environment in maintaining a livable city. That's the kind of thinking that goes into Twenty is Plenty and the New York City Slow Zones that it inspired. We can get finer-grained and more flexible than that, but it's the right direction.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Civilized walks

Last week I wrote about two self-propelled travel memoirs, and how the travelers seem to have spent almost as much time being driven around as they did on the water or the trail. As I've written before, if I'm going for a walk I want to walk. I don't want to be driven to one trailhead and picked up at the other end. This is not some misplaced authenticity fetish: I know that even before cars, walkers got rides on horses and oxcarts and boats. It's just a matter of taste. I don't like being driven around. I find it infantilizing.

Here's the kind of "civilized walk" that these books make me long for: a long walk from one interesting place to another, taking several days. Ideally, it would run through a mixture of cities, suburbs, parks, countryside and small towns, with some long quiet stretches where I could walk for an hour or two without encountering too many people. It would have a comfortable indoor place to stay every night. Since I don't have the kind of connections that David Morine had, that means a room in a reasonably priced inn, hotel or bed and breakfast.

A civilized walk would not require climbing mountains or crossing large wilderness areas, although it might be nice if there were optional side trails to do those things. It would not involve camping, lean-tos, youth hostels or couch surfing.

For me, a civilized walk would also not require being picked up or dropped off in anyone's car. It would not involve walking on the side of any busy roads or stroads. That means that the entire trip would be on car-free trails, sidepaths or sidewalks, with maybe a few short bits on small streets, country back roads and driveways. It also means that both ends of the walk would be accessible by transit.

You can also have civilized day walks that are transit-accessible at both ends, entirely on trails, sidepaths, sidewalks or pedestrian-priority streets. There are plenty of these in the greater New York area, but they've been covered, at least in part, so I won't focus on them.

I don't know how widely my preferences are shared. It's pretty clear that some people don't want to own cars, and just about everybody hates walking anywhere near a stroad. Beyond that, do other people feel as uncomfortable being driven around as I do? All those Appalachian Trail hikers don't seem to have a problem with it. Do other people mind walking down paved country roads where a drunken tourist might come around a corner at fifty miles an hour? It's not clear.

In future posts, I'm going to explore some of the possibilities for civilized walks like this. There are lots of incomplete options, and some promising leads, but I haven't found anything yet that really looks like it would work.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Real Rockaway train service

As I've written before, the Rockaway Peninsula is one of the least sustainable places in the New York area. This sand bar might be okay for some cheap, replaceable summer bungalows and amusement parks, but it's no place for year-round inhabitants, much less large public housing projects. It's definitely not a place where you'd want to sink lots of money into expensive road infrastructure, but that's what the state has done, and every time it tries to charge people a reasonable fee for maintaining this massive system, they whine about it. The residents also made the mistake of depending for their power on bad sources, first on organized crime and nuclear fission, then on a legitimately underfunded but inept state agency.

For all their tough talk, it sounds like the Governor and the Mayor have passed up the opportunity to dump this money pit. We will rebuild, apparently. We'll rebuild the acres of single-family homes sprawled across the sand. We'll rebuild the parts of the housing projects that were damaged. We'll rebuild the train bridge that makes the commute slightly less polluting. We'll rebuild the telephone poles.

One of the most obnoxious elements of this whole thing was the pride that the MTA staff displayed in putting twenty R32 cars onto flatbed trucks and driving them over to the Rockaways. Don't they get it that this is really bad symbolism? Every time a train car is loaded onto a truck it sends the message that cars and trucks are the "real" transportation, and we have to do all kinds of things with them to get the trains working. On the other hand, these are probably the same MTA managers who live in East Northport and drive to their train yards and bus depots. Their entire lives are spent driving to run a transit system, so how can they ever imagine it could be any other way?

It's not clear how long it will take to restore the trestle across the bay, but the MTA could use some of the reconstruction money to restore the original tracks that went to Rockaway from Valley Stream. That connection came in handy in 1950 when the trestle was destroyed in a fire, and the Long Island Rail Road was able to run trains through Far Rockaway, as shown in this schedule:

Did they learn from that bit of resilience? Nah. In 1956 the LIRR sold the trestle and the peninsular tracks to the city, and in 1958 a quarter mile of track was removed in Far Rockaway. In 1966 the State took over the LIRR, and in 1968 it took over New York City transit, but it didn't rebuild the connection. A supermarket has been built across the old right-of-way, as you can see in this satellite picture:

If the track connection were still there, it would have been a relatively simple matter to move the trains. Better yet, the LIRR could have run trains direct from Penn Station. They wouldn't have to take an hour and a half like they did in 1951, if they went express from Far Rockaway to Valley Stream.

I don't know exactly how much it would cost to buy out the supermarket, rebuild the tracks and adjust the stations platforms for LIRR train cars, but probably only a couple million dollars. For a few million more you could build an elevated trestle over the supermarket and not even have to demolish it. Sure, it's a lot of money, but probably nothing compared to what we're spending to rebuild the trestle across the bay.

On one level, all of this is silly, because we simply can't afford to keep people living on a sand bar year round. It'd be a lot simpler if the train line just had to serve beachgoers; it could be rebuilt every spring if need be. But if we're going to have people living out there all year, they should have some real train service, and despite what Gridlock Sam may say, we shouldn't lower the tolls. That would ensure that they will drive for years more, keeping the trains empty and heavily subsidized.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Squatting and bullying on the sidewalk

There are two related, interconnected phenomena involving the use of public space: squatting and bullying. Squatting is taking over a public space for a use that wasn't intended, usually one that is relatively private. Bullying is using superior force to abuse others.

Some squats are very noble, others are generally positive: a political demonstration, a game of stickball, a tamale vendor. Some are a lot less positive: a race riot, a game of three-card monte, a drug deal. Your own opinion and morality will determine which ones you think are positive, and to what degree.

So far I've been talking about squats where the squatter has roughly equal power to the "legitimate users" of the public space. But when there's a big imbalance of power, things can get really ugly. That's when squatting and bullying combine to form a menace.

I'm thinking specifically of sidewalks. Sidewalks have all kinds of unintended uses, but their primary, intended use is to facilitate walking. They do this by being a pedestrian space where large and/or fast objects are not allowed. They are very important to our goals, because we need walking to be a viable alternative to driving for many trips. If the sidewalks in an area become unusable or absent, people on foot tend to avoid that area, or to get into cars.

Of course it's possible for intended and unintended uses to coexist on sidewalks. Jane Jacobs famously discussed the "sidewalk ballet" of unintended uses that allowed her West Village block to be so vibrant and safe. What I'm concerned about is when there is so much squatting that the sidewalk becomes useless for walking. Some uses are officially permitted - as in, the users have a permit. "Sidewalk sheds" (aka scaffolding) are a big one. Sidewalk cafes, store enclosures and news boxes also tend to take space away from walking. On some sidewalks there's plenty of room; on others, it gets to be a problem.

Some uses are not officially sanctioned, but still on relatively equal terms. Sidewalk cycling, sidewalk used clothing sales and the famous double-wide strollers of Park Slope are examples of this. When two friends walk abreast for social reasons, even though it leaves no room for anyone else to pass, that's a way of abusing the sidewalk.

And then there's bullying. I remember one night when I was eight or nine, and three big guys were walking down the sidewalk towards me. They didn't get out of the way, and just knocked me down. My dad yelled at them, but they laughed and walked away.

Then there's the kind of sidewalk bullying done with cars. It's bad enough when someone parks a car on the sidewalk, but it's worse when they block the sidewalk, and the worst is when they block the sidewalk and drive towards you, so that you have to get off the sidewalk or go backwards.

I'll talk more about this in future posts.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Cap'n's Bookshelf: Two Coots in a Canoe and Becoming Odyssa

One of my recreational pleasures is reading what I call self-propelled travel memoirs. I can't stand travelogues that are full of passages like "Our driver warned us..." and I have a hard time relating to windshield memoirs. I like Paul Theroux's books about train travel, and his books where he travels partly under his own steam, like Kingdom By the Sea where he walks a good deal of the way around the coast of England, and The Happy Isles of Oceania, where he kayaks around a number of Pacific islands (traveling between them by ship and plane). I've discovered a number of memoirs by other authors that involve long walks, bike rides or paddles.

Earlier this year I read Two Coots in a Canoe, by retired conservation advocate David Morine, describing how he and his friend Ramsay Peard canoed the length of the Connecticut River. Morine's conversational style made for easy reading, but some of the emotional content was honest and raw, with a surprising twist at the end.

One intriguing aspect of this memoir was that Morine and Peard, both around sixty years old at the time, agreed that they wouldn't camp out once during the trip. Instead they collaborated with other conservation advocates and used the connections they had built over their lifetimes to arrange for free room and board, usually with local activists involved in preserving or restoring a section of the river. In giving voice to these activists and describing their campaigns, Morine paints a picture of the current state of the river and the challenges in sustaining its flow and its wildlife.

After I finished that, I read Becoming Odyssa, an Appalachian Trail memoir by Jennifer Pharr Davis. Pharr Davis's style is a bit overwrought with metaphors, but she gives you a good feel for trail culture, and her honest discussions of her own emotional reactions to the trail are insightful and illuminating. As an atheist, I appreciated that she described her Christian religious beliefs and observances as matters of fact without any attempt to proselytize.

Sustainable transportation advocates will be most interested in the passage when Odyssa (as the author named herself, an Appalachian Trail tradition) comes upon the scene of a suicide. Realizing that the deed has been done, she numbly continues on the trail and dials 911 from her cell phone. On page 204 there is this exchange with the dispatcher:

"I need to know where your car is," she said.
"I don't have a car. I hiked here."
"Well, where did you park your car?"
"I didn't park anywhere. I'm an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker."
"What county are you in?"
"I don't know what county I'm in. I'm at Sunrise Mountain in New Jersey."
"So where do you live in New Jersey?"
"I don't live in New Jersey."
"Then where is your car?"

After ten or fifteen minutes of this, someone else in the 911 call center overhears their conversation and tells the woman "Patch her through to the police now."

Pharr Davis may not have had a car at the time, but in both books I was struck by how much time all three travelers and their companions spent being driven around by friends, relatives and hosts. The amount of driving involved in the average Appalachian Trail through-hike is pretty amazing.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Can transit save the environment? Not without riders

The latest Eric Morris Freakonomics post, which I hate, got picked by Stephen Dubner for Marketplace Radio's weekly Freakonomics segment. Kai Ryssdal's interview, and whoever wrote the Marketplace headline, trashed Morris's carefully constructed pox-on-both-houses framing and turned it into a standard Tom Rubin muddle-headed transit advocates attack.

As I said last week, the funniest thing is that Morris's general thrust is actually the main point that I've been hammering at for years. That said, given his earlier writing, I'm not sure that Morris didn't want all along to write a muddle-headed transit advocates attack, but then ditched it for the pox-on-both-houses frame. If his point was really that we should have congestion pricing, he sure buried it. So here's the article Eric Morris should have written - or at least what I would have written.

A major reason for supporting transit expansion is that increased transit use will draw people out of their cars and thus reduce pollution and help save the environment. That part is true, but we have to be very careful how we do this, because transit expansion will not automatically lead to increased transit use and decreased car use.

Increasing transit service without increasing its use can even be counterproductive: today in the United States, the average bus trip requires more energy than the average car trip, because the average bus only has about ten passengers. If the energy powering transit comes from a dirty source, like coal or diesel, it can compound the problem. Environmental advocates not only need to get more transit, but they need to make sure people ride it.

The key to this is realizing that if transit is going to get people out of their cars, they have to choose it over driving. When people choose to make a habit out of taking the bus or the train, it's because it provides a greater value than driving. When people choose to live in a place with convenient transit access instead of choosing to buy a car, it's because they want that transit-oriented lifestyle. Instead of just building transit, environmental advocates need to make it a greater value and a more attractive lifestyle. Here are five ways we can do that:

1. Stop building roads that compete with transit systems. Last year a faithful reader wrote a post about disappointingly low ridership on seven new commuter rail lines. For each of these lines I was able to find a parallel road expansion that had been built at roughly the same time, increasing the value of driving and keeping people in their cars.

2. Give transit its own right-of-way. Transit systems that operate in mixed traffic - buses and streetcars, typically - have very little advantage over driving. When transit can get through a bottleneck quicker than private cars, it offers greater value. The highest-ridership bus systems in the country all make use of a single high-capacity queue-jumper, the Lincoln Tunnel Exclusive Bus Lane.

3. Charge market prices for driving-related expenses. Those Lincoln Tunnel buses are all competing (and winning) against high tunnel tolls. There is no easy way to drive from New Jersey into Manhattan without paying the tolls. Similarly with heavily subsidized purchases of gas and parking. You'd be surprised at how much better the bus looks if you have to pay five dollars for an hour of parking.

4. Sunset your park-and-ride lots. Having people drive to the bus or train may bring down the "cost per new rider" numbers, but the longer people drive to transit, the more pollution they emit. They will also probably drive for most evening and weekend trips. It may be strategically appropriate to build a park-and-ride to get people riding the new line right away, but the plan should be to get rid of the park-and-rides as soon as possible.

5. Legalize true transit-oriented development. The best way to keep people from driving to the station is to make it so that they can live near the station and walk to all their daily shopping needs. Sadly, in most of the country it is illegal to build an apartment building with a supermarket on the ground floor a block from a train station. We need to change that.

Of these five principles, Morris focused on number 3, charging market prices. That makes sense, since Freakonomics is mostly about prices, but at least three of the other factors are also Freakonomics-worthy. Number 1, keeping the road supply down, and number 4, keeping the parking supply down, are central to economic theory. Market prices tend to be lower when supply is higher. Number 5, legalize transit-oriented development, fits with Steven Levitt's libertarian leanings. Number 2, giving transit its own right-of-way, is the only one that requires substantial state intervention.

The main reason you didn't see these factors on Freakonomics, I'm guessing, is because they're not condescending or snarky enough for them. Sorry, guys.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A grand bargain for walkable streets

As I wrote before, after the failure of Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing campaign in 2008, advocates realized that the plan had failed to capture the interest of drivers. "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz then came up with a plan that offered "something for the drivers" to overcome their resistance. The problem is that it offers them too much. The proposed toll reductions and highway widenings would encourage a huge amount of driving, offsetting a large percentage of the reduction in driving encouraged by the added tolls and bus service.

The key failing, which I've also observed in other politicians who claim to be pro transit, is the practice of dividing the world into drivers, transit riders, cyclists and pedestrians, with the assumption that there is never any overlap or change among these categories, and that all people care about is their own transportation. This may be a good simplifying assumption to start with, but when it leads you to disasters like widening the Van Wyck, it's time to step back and revisit your assumptions.

So let's go back to what we actually know: that a significant segment of the opposition to congestion pricing came from people who currently drive. These people will probably not be driving much longer, however. I've been to the congestion pricing hearings. Most of the active opponents are over fifty. In thirty years, most of them will be dead, and many of those who are still alive will be too infirm to drive.

There are of course plenty of people under fifty who love driving, hate paying for transit, and fear that losing their status as drivers will infantilize them and drive all the chicks away. But they're a much smaller proportion of younger generations than they are among the Baby Boomers, and even the diehard motorists will think twice about driving when gas gets up over ten dollars a gallon. We shouldn't be building big highways for them.

The question becomes, then, how do we structure it so that "we" don't wind up taking "their" money? What can we do for the people who are currently drivers, and don't see any benefit to decreased Midtown congestion or increased transit funding? Something along the lines of Donald Shoup's parking benefit districts?

I have one idea. Let's take the sidewalks off their hands.

Although the City Department of Transportation oversees sidewalk maintenance, they report that 99% of the 12,750 miles of the city's sidewalks are the responsibility of whoever owns the adjacent property. The only thing the DOT has to do is send out inspectors and then fine the property owners whose sidewalks aren't up to standards. In practice, they have a program where they repair the sidewalk themselves and send the owner the bill.

From a pedestrian's point of view, that sucks. It means that the sidewalks quality is inconsistent from one property to the next. The city is constantly tempted to cut the sidewalk inspection budget, which provides a huge incentive for the property owners to skimp on sidewalk maintenance and hope that the inspector won't notice. When the inspectors do their job the property owners complain, hence the endless stream of kvetching to elected officials, community boards and the media in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.

It actually doesn't make sense for the property owners to be responsible for maintaining sidewalks. Most of the sidewalks are on city-owned right-of-way, not private property. The city sets strict standards that leave property owners hardly any room for self-expression. While the city DOT can take advantage of economies of scale to save money, small property owners have to pay regular market rate. On the few streets that are missing sidewalks, it is politically difficult for the DOT to force property owners to pay to build them.

Of course, it costs money to maintain all those sidewalks. According to this article, it cost the City of Los Angeles $172,727 to replace a mile of sidewalk. Sidewalk only needs to be replaced at most every ten years, for $17,273 per mile per year, or $220 million. This is a small portion of the $1.4 billion that Gridlock Sam's plan would raise in bridge tolls, leaving almost $1.2 billion for other projects. If enough of "the drivers" are satisfied with this arrangement, then we don't have to widen the Belt Parkway, and we can put all that money into transit projects.

Would "the drivers" like this? The Census website isn't cooperating with me, but I'm pretty sure that most drivers in Brooklyn and Queens own their homes, and a lot of those, especially the vocal ones who show up at meetings and call their city council members, live in single-family or two-family houses. For them, sidewalk maintenance is a big headache that they don't need.

The best part, of course, is that this benefit will accrue to "the drivers" even if they never drive again. Even if they sell their homes, they will still have well-maintained sidewalks to walk on. And so will the rest of us.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

What Not to Rebuild

I'm glad to see that some people have broached the topic of sustainability in the areas devastated by Hurricane Sandy, and in particular the idea that some uses just aren't a good idea on barrier islands.

I have to say, though, that boardwalks and beaches seem like the easiest things. If the sand gets washed away you can bring more in on barges, and boardwalks are pretty easy to rebuild. Even train trestles - simple ones, across a shallow bay or along a sand bar, away from other structures - are cheap compared to a lot of things. Cheap bungalows, especially the summer-only kind that have no heat or insulation, aren't too bad. Here's a short list of things that were really a bad idea to build in the first place, and shouldn't be rebuilt.

  • Racist gated communities. I have sympathy for the people in Breezy Point and Seagate who lost homes and belongings in the floods and fires, and I know it's no fun to be displaced. But we have to acknowledge these places for what they were: segregated enclaves designed to enable white people to live relatively cheaply within the city limits without having black or brown people living next door.

    Beyond the sheer repulsiveness of the idea, it corrodes the fabric of the city. I'm not sure these places should be rebuilt at all, but if they're rebuilt with public funds, it should be on the condition that the gates come down and the streets and beaches are open to everyone.
  • Housing projects. As the Pratt Center has pointed out, the public housing built on Coney Island and the Rockaways, as well as in Red Hook, is not just vulnerable to storms, it is remote from the city's job center, and a prime cause of the problem of poor people with long commutes. The projects on the Lower East Side are less remote, but still not well-served by transit.

    I don't know the current state of the buildings, but we definitely shouldn't put more money into any projects in Zone A. Beyond that, while the Pruitt-Igoe (or Cabrini-Green) treatment is problematic for inner city projects, it makes a lot more sense to dynamite projects on remote barrier islands. Replacing these projects with Section 8 vouchers would probably make the city more sustainable.
  • Toxic industrial sites. As the waters of the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek rose, many feared that water seeping through the Superfund sites along its banks would contaminate the rest of the area. There's value to waterfront industry, but we have to be careful about this kind of danger (also highlighted by the Pratt Center).
  • Car-dependent sprawl. In my last post, I made a connection between car-dependent sprawl and the climate change that enabled this storm. We shouldn't use rebuilding funds to perpetuate these polluting practices.

    According to L Magazine the "walks" on Breezy Point are car-free and safe, but most people get to and from the enclave by car. There's a similar pattern the length of Rockaway and in Gerritsen Beach and Marine Park. Much of the Jersey Shore and the South Shores of Staten Island and Long Island are car-dependent sprawl, especially as you get further away from the train stations.

    Some of these areas should be designated as waterfront preserves, with the only construction allowed being cheap summer bungalows and wooden boardwalks. The rest should be zoned for greater density and mixed use.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Governor Cuomo, climate change and transit

Nathan H. was following my train of thought when I wondered whether a politician - specifically, Governor Andrew Cuomo - could be a "car guy" and still be an effective advocate for transit. That train of thought started with Cuomo's statements on climate change in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy:
It's a longer conversation, but I think part of learning from this is the recognition that climate change is a reality, extreme weather is a reality, it is a reality that we are vulnerable. Climate change is a controversial subject, right? People will debate whether there is climate change … that's a whole political debate that I don't want to get into. I want to talk about the frequency of extreme weather situations, which is not political … There's only so long you can say, "this is once in a lifetime and it's not going to happen again."

The next stop on that train was the Governor's numerous statements announcing storm precautions and service restorations on the transit system, which Noah Budnick of Transportation Alternatives took as an admission that the Governor controls the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. It's obvious that the MTA is a state agency, but from the beginning governors have distanced themselves from it, in part to avoid responsibility for raising fares. Cuomo could not resist taking credit for the positive things the MTA has done in this storm, prompting speculation that he may continue to acknowledge ownership of it for the rest of his time in office.

Let's connect the two. Despite the shell game played by Tom Rubin and perpetuated by his followers like Eric Morris, the more people we can get to shift from cars to transit, the slower our climate will change. The bigger the rail network we can leave for our children and grandchildren, the easier it will be for them to get around without putting more carbon dioxide into the air.

You may ask why we should bother curbing New York City's carbon emissions. Dense, transit-oriented cities already have low per capita pollution; New York's is half as much as Denver's. We emit a small portion of the country's total greenhouse gas emissions (less than one percent), and an even smaller portion of the world's. True, but Cuomo is the governor of the entire state, and a large percentage of the state's population lives and works in dense, older areas easily served by transit. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that if the Governor could shift half the state's population from cars to transit, he could cut the state's greenhouse gas emissions in half.

Beyond that, New York City and New York State may have a reputation as weirdo outliers whose ideas won't fly in Peoria, but there are a lot of people around the country and around the world who are paying attention to us. If Cuomo leads on transit, many of those people will follow. If he ever succeeds in his goal of becoming President of the United States, getting the country to shift to transit would have a huge effect on the world's carbon dioxide emissions. New York State could provide a proof of concept for him.

Until last week, I was sure that Cuomo - who admitted to not having ridden the subway in years - was both clueless and uninterested on these issues. His raising of the climate change issue, awkward and fumbling as it was, changed that for me. It seems now that, like the President, the Governor had chosen to be silent on the issue, afraid that it would make him a magnet for reactionary mockery and ruin his carefully crafted reputation as a Democrat that Republicans could do business with. On October 30, it was clear that he had made up his mind that it was foolish to remain silent.

Similarly with transit, it is clear that Cuomo realizes that the city is dependent on its subways, buses and commuter trains to function properly. He knows what Joe Lhota repeated many times: that millions of people depend on the system every day. He knows that keeping it running smoothly means happy voters.

Has Cuomo gone beyond that and made the connection between a smooth, ubiquitous transit system and slowing the rise of the oceans? Unfortunately, that is not clear. Let's hope he has, and that his days of treating the subways as a trivial service are over.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The cost of climate change denial

One thing I've heard in several places is how much surprise there has been in the areas hardest-hit by the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy. I found that a little puzzling at first. You live in a designated flood evacuation zone. There have been articles about it for years. Why would you be surprised?

On reflection it makes sense. These areas haven't seen such severe flooding, at least in living memory. Then there's the climate change denialism that can be felt even here in New York. Although most people here are cosmopolitan enough to pay lip service to the scientific evidence of global warming, many only believe it on an intellectual level. It seems so abstract, this idea of the sea levels rising, that it's hard to imagine it happening in our lifetimes.

This may explain why so much of Zone A seems to have been geared towards spewing out as much carbon dioxide as possible. The Lower East Side is one of the densest, most walkable places in the country, despite the best efforts of Bob Moses' urban renewal team. Red Hook is pretty urban, even though it's cut off from the subway system. Hoboken is one of the least car-dependent towns in Hudson County, and Mayor Zimmer is trying her best to turn it around, but it's still has less than 39% carfree households.

But the City Council districts containing the Rockaways, Gerritsen Beach, Coney Island and the South Shore of Staten Island are some of the most car-dependent in the city. They're zoned for low-density sprawl, and they fiercely attack any effort to improve non-car transportation.

At climate change events, some of the most dedicated countries are those that could be sunk by rising sea levels, like the Pacific island nations of Tokelau, Kiribati and Tuvalu. Is it time for the Rockaways, Coney Island, Gerritsen Beach and Red Hook to follow Hoboken's lead and be a force against climate change?

Friday, November 9, 2012

What you need for a good bus bridge

It's my hope that New Yorkers will remember three events from the recovery from Hurricane Sandy. The first is the gridlock and chaos that Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens experienced on Wednesday, October 31, the day after the storm. The second is the difficult but functioning system in place on November 1 and 2. The third is the hours-long waits in commutes to and from New Jersey the following Monday and Tuesday, November 5 and 6.

The differences between the three events tell us the importance of three factors to good bus service: (1) having enough buses and drivers, (2) having enough street space and (3) managing how and where people will board the buses.

On Halloween in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, the first two factors were absent. The MTA was running most of its regular bus routes, but did not add any buses to accommodate increased demand from people who couldn't use the subways. Lots of people drove.

On the next day, the City instituted the HOV-3 rule, which drastically cut the number of cars on the streets. The DOT and the MTA instituted the "bus bridge" from Brooklyn to Midtown, putting hundreds of additional buses to use. They planned to keep a lane on Third and Lexington Avenues clear for the buses, but it turns out that the HOV-3 restriction took care of that. They had factors 1 and 2, but not 3. There were gigantic mobs waiting for buses at Jay Street and Atlantic Terminal, but in general people were understanding.

On Monday, New Jersey Transit sent hundreds of buses to it eight park-and-rides to pick people up and bring them to the ferries. A lot of people couldn't or didn't want to drive to the park-and-rides, so they formed long lines at train stations and bus stops. The situation going home from the Port Authority Bus Terminal was worse: commuters tweeted picture after picture of Port Authority corridors filled with passengers waiting on line. A gasoline shortage kept some people off the road, and the Holland Tunnel was only open to buses, but there were no HOV restrictions on or near the Lincoln Tunnel, and the only dedicated street space is the morning rush XBL. That meant that NJ Transit didn't have factor 1 (buses) or 3 (terminal management), and very little of factor 2 (street space).

On Tuesday, NJ Transit shut down four of the eight park-and-rides and used the buses to supplement existing routes that were overloaded. Over the past few days, New Jersey has gotten loans of hundreds of buses, and deployed them on these routes. Tomorrow it will start additional service from train stations to the ferries. By using more ferries, it shifts passengers from the overloaded Port Authority terminal to the relatively uncrowded (I hope) ferry docks. So now it has factor 1 (buses) and 3 (terminal management) but not factor 2 (street space). Already people are tweeting that there's improvement; we'll see how it goes tomorrow.

There are a few lessons we can take away from these three incidents. First of all, private cars can't provide anything remotely approaching the capacity of a good subway or commuter rail system. I hope I don't hear the words "surface subway" out of anyone's mouth for a long time.

Second, at this point it seems clear that in order to run a bus system at anywhere near the capacity of a train, you need all three factors: (1) buses, (2) street space and (3) terminal management. You might be able to get away with two out of the three factors if passengers are patient, but not indefinitely.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Why I hate Eric Morris's latest post

Eric Morris is only the most recent wannabe transit expert to discover that empty buses aren't very efficient. His analysis is strikingly reminiscent of Tom Rubin's, but he brings to the topic a splash of condescending Freakonomics overconfidence, and that special ignorance of real-world transit that only someone who's driven to Brian Taylor seminars can pull off.

Back in 2009, Kevin Libin used Rubin's numbers (with proper credit) for a National Post transit hit job. It was wrong then, and it's wrong now.

Of course, Morris and Rubin are right that it's dishonest to compare the efficiency of a single-occupant car with that of a full capacity bus. But the report that they criticize (PDF, page 4) is careful to give figures for buses with one, five, eleven, forty and seventy passengers, and in the Reason "debate" the authors insist that they were not making such a comparison.

Morris and Rubin quote figures from the National Transit Database that the average bus in the United States has ten people on it (about forty people can sit on a bus, and seventy can fit on if some people stand), for 25% occupancy, and light rail has 24%. Morris acknowledges that heavy rail (metro) systems have 46% occupancy, but he doesn't mention that rail systems are much more energy-efficient than buses.

25% occupancy is also not normal for a bus outside of this country. In places where transit is more widely used, there are more than ten people on average. For example, in Zurich and other Swiss cities (PDF) there are 14 on average (35%). Trams carry 53 people on average, and if you assume that each tram can seat 100 people, that's 53% occupancy. In the Czech Republic and in major African cities (PDF, bus occupancy ranges from 63-80%.

There are actually quite a few systems right here in the US that have higher average occupancy rates than 25%. In fact, there are twenty with rates over 40%, including Morris's own LA County MTA and Brownsville, Texas. Here's a graph of the occupancy from 2007 (given in passengers, not percentages, so you have to divide by 40) with the farebox recovery ratio:

So Morris has three straw men here: the report that compares a single-occupant car to a fully loaded bus, picking on the inefficient bus, and using US bus occupancy figures. But he actually admits that 25% occupancy is not destiny, even in the US, in the second half of his post: "Given its current low load factors, transit generally has plenty of capacity to absorb new customers with practically zero additional energy expenditure."

There's a lot more to say about this post. The funniest thing is that Morris's general thrust is actually the main point that I've been hammering at for years: you can accomplish more of your transit goals by restricting or pricing car use than you can by building more transit. He's right: I hate his post. Not because I disagree with his point, but because he does such a sloppy, condescending job arguing it.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The disaster of New Jersey's emergency transit plan

New Jersey's transportation infrastructure is in crisis. New Jersey Transit told Businessweek that 257 rail cars and 65 engines (23% and 35% of the total, respectively) were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. Some of the rail lines were washed out, or blocked with boats and shipping containers. Hoboken Terminal and the PATH train, which connect New Jersey Transit passengers with lower Manhattan, were flooded. The state is in the midst of a gasoline shortage. They needed a plan.

Unfortunately, the emergency plan that New Jersey Transit came up with was horrible. They borrowed 31 buses from SEPTA and are getting another 350 from around the country. They chose eight park-and-ride lots around the northern half of the state, and set up buses to take people from these lots to the ferries and the Holland Tunnel, twenty in the morning and twenty in the evening from each lot. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, quite a lot, actually. Turns out that even people who had gas in their cars didn't want to waste it driving to some park-and-ride and back. They probably also didn't want to have their car stuck at some park-and-ride out by the highway with no bus to get them to it, if they had to go home in the middle of the day or late at night. They wanted to walk to the bus, so that's what they tried to do. In towns across the metro area, including Montclair, South Orange, Hoboken and Woodbridge, people waited up to 90 minutes to board packed buses bound for Manhattan. There was only one lane open for buses in the Holland Tunnel, and the usual one-lane XBL in the Lincoln Tunnel, limiting the total number of buses that could cross the Hudson. Many of those who did take the park-and-ride buses were dropped off at ferry terminals, where there was another wait for a boat.

In the ultimate craziness, after trains from Woodbridge attracted unmanageable crowds, New Jersey Transit simply cancelled the service and told everyone to drive to Metropark to catch a Northeast Corridor train. And, you know, let them eat cake on the way.

The commute home was similarly frustrated. The Port Authority Bus Terminal was packed with commuters - first waiting for buses, then waiting to buy bus tickets, finally waiting just to get into the terminal.

As I write this at 9:30 PM, many people are still at the terminal waiting for buses. Some of them are afraid that at a certain point New Jersey Transit will stop running buses. I'll update this when that part of the saga is over.

The problems in the morning rush attracted some attention from the media. First, WNYC reporter Nancy Solomon discussed the long lines at South Orange. (I've been trying to find that report online, but haven't been able to.) Then it got mentioned by Wall Street Journal bloggers and Capital New York.

In the afternoon, New Jersey Transit released a revised plan for tomorrow. "Buses that were used in emergency service at Bridgewater, Woodbridge and Willowbrook Mall, as well as Newark Liberty International Airport have been redeployed to ease crowding on buses traveling through South Orange, Jersey City, Hoboken and Newark, to New York, the agency said." In other words, there were nowhere near as many cars in the park-and-rides as the planners expected, and a lot more people at the walkable bus stops.

We'll see tomorrow how much better the revised plan is. In the meantime, can we all agree that this shows the utter bankruptcy of the standard park-and-ride mentality that still preoccupies transit planners? No, New Jersey Transit Planners, most transit riders don't want to maximize the time they can spend behind the wheel, especially during a post-hurricane gasoline shortage.

Can we also agree that buses are not better than trains? The "Bus Rapid Transit" zealots at the Institute for Transportation Development Policy have mesmerized too many of New York's transportation thinkers, to the point where we get the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, the Pratt Institute and former Streetsblog editor Aaron Naparstek all arguing that buses should be a higher political priority than trains. In the current world buses have their place, and the "bus bridge" instituted by the MTA last week seemed to work fairly well. But to replace either one of the PATH tubes or the North River Tunnels with buses would take a huge number, and they'd need serious street priority.

I have to admit that I was disappointed in the performance of the private sector. I had expected private bus operators to be more flexible, adding service as needed to meet demand. Since New Jersey's laws allow private bus operators, I had hoped to find that they stepped up to fill the obvious holes in New Jersey Transit's plan. Instead, there is no evidence that any of the major private bus companies (DeCamp, Suburban Transit, Academy or Coachusa) added buses to their existing routes or sent buses to supplement routes that were overcrowded. Apparently the private vans were running their usual routes, but they haven't had enough capacity to get everybody home from the Port Authority.

Of course, it's hard to add extra buses, especially if the route is relatively complex and you have to bring on drivers who don't know it. That's why it's nice to have relatively simple routes like "you go all the way down Route 3 to the end, then turn around and come back."

It's possible that the "cross-honoring" system is contributing to the lack of interest from private operators. I don't know exactly how it works when someone with a monthly New Jersey Transit pass shows up on a DeCamp bus, but it may be that DeCamp doesn't get any money from it, or enough to make it worth running extra buses. It's also possible that DeCamp and friends have simply grown fat and lazy on its government-protected monopoly.

The bottom line is that New Jersey Transit's park-and-ride culture has to change. We know how much Governor Christie likes drivers, and it's possible that that attitude is shared by Executive Director Weinstein, and from him on down. But New Jersey can't go on functioning as a car-dominated society. The longer that Christie and the NJ Transit planners try to stave off the inevitable, the worse it will be.

Chasing New York's Phantom Inequality

In the wake of the destruction left by Hurricane Sandy, a number of narratives have emerged. One is the Triumph of the Bicycles - the bicycles are always triumphing, I'm happy to see, and one day maybe they'll even move the needle on mode share. Another is the Need for Resilience - I'm all in favor of resilience, but we need to be careful about it. I'm going to focus on one narrative in particular that's been bugging me. This one, I believe, is false, and it's dangerous.

I'm talking about how Sandy Laid Bare our Underlying Class Struggle. On Tuesday as the storm surge receded, Yves Smith warned of "Some Hidden Casualties of Hurricane Sandy." The next day David Rohde of Reuters wrote that Sandy "humbled some more than others in an increasingly economically divided city." Jonathan Maimon took a long bike ride across the city and wrote to Gothamist describing the "powerless zone" in a tone of outrage. Those two pieces were picked up by Alternet's Sarah Seltzer. On Thursday, Michelle Chen of In These Times wrote of "New York's Landscape of Inequality Revealed."

In the three days since those articles were written, they've been retweeted and reblogged numerous times, and I've kept my eye out for evidence of this predicted woe. I had actually written half this blog post and was about to talk about how it never materialized, when across my twitter feed came this pathetic screed by Sarah Maslin Nir.

That byline should tell you right away that something's up. The name of Sarah Maslin Nir strikes contempt in the heart of New York City urbanists. Back in March, this former nightlife reporter packaged the grudges and hidden business agendas of some Jackson Heights business owners into a hopelessly biased piece about the new pedestrian plaza that had been installed by the Department of Transportation, running with a misleading early-morning photo of the plaza by Librado Romero. In June, Nir ran another attack on the plaza masquerading as a story about a purse-snatcher foiled by Christian missionaries from North Carolina.

Nir's whole carefully constructed "two New Yorks" narrative about the bureaucrats from 40 Worth putting one over on the honest working people of Queens collapsed when the business owners formed a group to maintain the plaza and held a successful Eid al-Fitr celebration. In the most dramatic demonstration of the value of the plaza, a few weeks ago a group of young Bengali-Americans chose it as the location for a large flash-mob dance to the Korean hit "Gangnam Style."

After failing to stir up outrage over the pedestrian plaza, Nir is now trying the schtick out in the Rockaways, Red Hook, Gerritsen Beach and Belmar, which are apparently seething with resentment at those champagne-swilling, electrically-lit Manhattan elites. Yes, the same people who live in what Jonathan Maimon called "the powerless zone." They can't both be right, I don't think.

Paul Krugman provides some much-needed context by comparing the aftermath of this storm to that of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans seven years ago. Now that was real inequality and oppression, where white residents fled by car but black and Vietnamese residents were menaced with guns and kept in squalor in the Superdome arena.

I get the feeling that Nir and Maimon, and maybe others, really want to be the ones to find the same kind of institutionalized hatred that we saw in New Orleans. But it just doesn't fit reality. Here are some of the ways that this narrative falls short.
  • Some of the hardest-hit areas were wealthy. The blacked-out parts of Manhattan included some of the most expensive real estate on the planet. One resident of Staten Island's South Shore calmly told a reporter, I believe for Channel 7, that they weren't in such bad shape compared to others. I appreciated the refreshing honesty. It's true that Atlantic City has a lot of poverty, and there are tons of low-income housing projects in Red Hook, Coney Island and the Rockaways. But Nir really wants us to get worked up about the struggling masses in Belmar? Is she going to uncover seething resentment in Cape May next? Hoboken hasn't been a working class town since Hudson Hawk got sent up the river.
  • Some of the "working class" areas were doing pretty well. Rohde writes that "the city’s heroes were the tens of thousands of policemen, firefighters, utility workers and paramedics who labored all night for $40,000 to $90,000 a year." Those salaries aren't too shabby at all, especially towards the high end. Those are the people who live in Seagate, Breezy Point and Belle Harbor - all neighborhoods that were carefully configured to keep nonwhite strivers from moving in. The towns in Long Island and New Jersey where people complain about being lorded over by Manhattanites are the same ones that in the 1970s were openly contemptuous of the same (white) Manhattanites for being stuck living in highrises and taking the subway with their black and Puerto Rican neighbors.
  • Some of the policies favor the lower-income. The HOV restrictions and "bus bridge" put in place by the City and the MTA, and the City's decision not to go after dollar vans picking up people on the street, prioritized transit riders over drivers in ways that haven't been done in this city in a hundred years. Bloomberg refused to take any car kvetching from CBS2's Marcia Kramer. Cuomo kind of spoiled it with all the talk of free gas, but it was nice while it lasted.
  • People are getting what they need. One of Nir's interviewees, Orlando Vogler, refuses to complain. "It’s finally starting to come together," he said. "Now you see hundreds of volunteers coming down the street." Another report, by Annie Correal, also collapses in a sea of hope and appreciation. In Coney Island, "volunteers came four times," Mr. Kharak said. Just about everywhere that reporters and activists go looking for neglect and oppression, they find people who have gotten help from both the government and private volunteers.
  • The worst conditions are in the evacuation zone. Jacob Riis Houses. Red Hook. Coney Island. Gerritsen Beach. Far Rockaway. All in Zone A. All places where the Mayor told residents to leave and go to shelters, because he couldn't guarantee their safety if they stayed put. He told them that well before the elevators and trains stopped running. He made arrangements for pets and wheelchairs. I heard him. So did all the people interviewed. If they were in the shelters they'd all be warm and well-fed. They chose to stay. Maybe they had good reasons - I really wouldn't want to camp out in some high school for weeks. But you can't really blame the city for not doing more for them. They're not where they're supposed to be, but the city and volunteers are finding them anyway.

I don't think inequality is a good thing, and we definitely have too much inequality in this city. But New York is not New Orleans. We don't have that kind of inequality and oppression, and we take care of everybody when there's a disaster. Hopefully, the honest people will give up after searching for oppression and not finding much, and the dishonest people like Nir will fade away. Then we can get down to rebuilding the city in a fair and sustainable way.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Being a car guy in the age of transit

It's well known that Governor Andrew Cuomo is a "car guy." In a 2010 Esquire profile, he and his brother Chris discussed their love of "seventies muscle cars" like Corvettes, Firebirds and El Caminos. He travels mostly by car, and otherwise he prefers helicopters and planes, occasionally riding a bike or paddling a canoe, but hardly ever setting foot on a subway or bus. Can he legitimately govern a state where over thirty percent of the population commutes by transit?

I have to admit at this point that when I was a teenager I was something of a "car guy." Or at least, I wanted to be. I could identify the make and model of most cars on sight. I had one of those seventies cars in my yard, and my mom's mechanic friend always promised he'd come by and help me get it running.

I like machines. I'd probably still be into cars if it wasn't so hard to operate them without killing people, and if they didn't destroy our environment so badly. Instead, I play with other kinds of technology. But as a mechanically inclined person I totally respect and endorse other people's mechanical hobbies. I know people who like other dangerous technologies as well, like explosives and blades, and I don't judge.

I also like recreational walking and bike riding, so I respect and endorse other people's hobbies that have to do with transportation. Governor Cuomo is certainly not the only governor to have such a hobby. Aside from Mark Sanford's well-known love of hiking, there is also former Nevada Governor Jim Gibbons, who likes horseback riding. Triathlete, Presidential candidate and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson likes skiing in addition to his other hobbies.

The key is that I never saw Governor Sanford throwing billions of dollars into hiking trails, or Gibbons reestablishing a network of intercity horseback stages, or Johnson building massive bridges that can only be used by cross-country skiers. These governors may have been informed by their hobbies to some degree, but they did not make them the basis for policy. Instead, they built policy around what they believed was right for their states - or not, depending on their level of corruption.

Thus it should be for car guys like Cuomo. We still have horse guys and women even though no governor rides a horse to the capitol, and we will always have car guys, even if some day it will be unthinkable for a governor to get to Albany any way other than the train. Andrew Cuomo is a car guy, and at home he probably always will be. But when it comes to transportation policy, even Andrew Cuomo should not be a car guy. It's bad for our state, and bad for the world.

Rebuilding better than before

Since they began to realize how much the subway system had been damaged by the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy, leaders have been making statements like this one from Governor Cuomo: "We will rebuild the subway system and it will be better than before." Tonight Stephen Smith scoffed at that claim, but I think it's important to take it seriously, and to think about what it could mean.

It is often said that the Chinese word for "crisis" is spelled with the characters for "danger" and "opportunity." It's also been pointed out that this is a crock, so let me give you a better metaphor, one that a friend once learned from a plumber: if you have a small leak in a pipe in a wall, it's better to wait for it to bust than to fix it right away.

The reason is that either way you need to tear out the wall. You might as well wait until it ruins the wall by itself. Obviously this is not always the best course of action; the busted pipe could ruin some valuable papers or equipment, but it seems relevant to our current situation.

We don't know the full extent of the damage to New York's transit system. We know that the Cranberry Street (A/C) tunnel is still flooded, and that the Rutgers Street (F) and Steinway (7) tunnels are not in great shape. We know that almost all of the PATH system was heavily flooded. We also know that there have been washouts along the Northeast Corridor between Newark and Secaucus, and in other parts of the commuter rail system.

Let's look at this as an opportunity, like a really long Fastrack: if you could rip out a section of the subway or commuter rail system and replace it, with 90% federal funding, what would you improve? Obviously, some parts, like Hoboken Terminal, were recently renovated and it's just be nice to have them back the way they were. Others, like the South Ferry station, are brand new and have never worked very well, and we'd just like them working. But some parts were kind of old and decrepit to begin with.

We've already missed our opportunity to connect the PATH system with the #6 Lexington Avenue line after the attack on the World Trade Center. Last year we missed the opportunity to use emergency powers to electrify the Port Jervis line or rebuild the Erie Main Line. Here are some other ideas:

The PATH train tunnels are very narrow and twisty. This constrains the Port Authority to use short, narrow train cars. Could the tunnels be widened and the curves smoothed out, to the point where they could handle bigger cars?

Many signals will probably need to be replaced. Why not replace them with signals compatible with the new Communications-based Train Control system that the MTA is planning on installing at some point anyway? This is particularly relevant in the Steinway Tunnel, which is supposed to host the next line to receive CBTC. The Port Authority had already planned to install CBTC and Automatic Train Control in the PATH system by 2015; could that happen sooner?

Some of the stations were in really bad shape, like the G train station at 21st Street/Van Alst. It'd be nice to see them rebuilt.

What improvements would you like to see?