Monday, December 30, 2013

Expensive commutes through the XBL

The transit commuting tax benefit parity is expiring tomorrow, and Tri-State has a list of 24 "transit systems" where a monthly ticket can cost more than $130. In addition to the publicly owned transit operators they name, there are several private ones here in the New York area:

Company2012 tripsCommuter ticketMost expensiveMax costLeast expensiveMin cost
New York Trailways528,55010-trip x4Kingston$ 765.00New Paltz$ 660.00
Martz1,004,65144-tripWilkes-Barre637.25Panther Valley514.00
Carl R. Bieber Tourways (PDF)Unreported40-tripKutztown617.00Hellertown509.00
Trans-Bridge Lines1,237,30940-tripAllentown552.00MetLife404.50
Lakeland Bus1,613,36810-trip x4Andover467.60Montville340.00
Short Line (Stagecoach)4,314,78440-tripMonticello460.90Paramus225.95
Academy Lines4,121,596MonthlyForked River445.00Sayreville305.00
Suburban Transit (Stagecoach)2,810,885MonthlyPlainsboro435.00East Brunswick320.00
Community Coach (Stagecoach)587,93510-trip x4Morristown338.40Meadowlands200.00
Red and Tan Lines (Stagecoach)2,908,27420-trip x2Tomkins Cove286.20North Bergen115.60
DeCamp1,977,04140-tripWest Caldwell267.00Rutherford174.00

While many of these are owned by Stagecoach, with profits presumably flowing to Scotland, some of the other companies like DeCamp and New York Trailways are locally owned. Even if the owners take some personal profit from the transit benefit, they have been spending a lot of it here in the Tri-State area.

It's important to point out here that a large number of these "commuters" work from home at least a day or two a week. Many are small business owners, including artists and craftspeople, who travel into the city a few days a week to sell their goods.

Will these people still spend over $400 a month to sit on a bus on the Garden State Parkway or Route 80 for an hour and a half each way? Probably. They get to live in the Catskills or on the Jersey Shore and work in Manhattan.

And yes, the XBL and congestion pricing make it more worthwhile for them to sit on a bus than to drive in to the city.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The safety culture of Northern Boulevard

On December 20, eight-year-old Noshat Nahian was walking with his older sister to P.S. 152 in Woodside, just before the 8:00 AM bell. As they crossed Northern Boulevard at 61st Street, a truck driver turned his vehicle in front of the boy and killed him with its back wheels.

This concerns me directly. My child is not much older than Nahian, and goes to a similar school near a similar big ugly stroad. This could have been my kid. I'm heartened that the new group Make Queens Safer and the Bangladeshi community have helped focus media attention on this tragedy, and that City Council member Jimmy Van Bramer and State Senator Michael Gianaris have promised to fight for changes.

In that light, I want to highlight three factors that I see in this boy's death, and talk about some of the things we can do about them. The first is safety culture. A few hours after the crash, Streetsblog contrasted the treatment of truck drivers with the Federal government's response to the first fatal Metro-North train crash in over thirty years, that killed four people:

The Streetsblog editors make an important point: large numbers of people are killed by commercial drivers on our streets every year, with little oversight. Among the worst places for this are industrial areas like northern Woodside, and big stroads like Northern Boulevard. There's an atmosphere of negligence and lawlessness, and of disrespect for pedestrians, that permeates these places, and when they're mixed with houses and schools, children die. I visited the area on Saturday and took a few pictures to give you a sense of the "safety culture" or lack thereof.

This is what young Noshat saw a few minutes before his death: the sidewalk on the east side of 61st Street just north of Northern Boulevard. As is utterly typical in this area, it was mostly blocked by someone's van. In the boy's few weeks in the United States, he must have quickly learned to walk around large, deadly vehicles.

Looking past the temporary memorial to Noshat Nahian, you can see that this is also happening on the same block as P.S. 152: the car dealership has parked their wares on the sidewalk. Kids going to and from school just have to squeeze around them.

This is the view west along Northern Boulevard towards the Citibank building. A large SUV is driving on the sidewalk, I believe to park. The sidewalk is also partly blocked by a sedan.

This is the view east towards the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. As I took this picture, the staff of Frontier Auto Repair was busy arranging their customers' cars on the sidewalk, and the Saturday morning shoppers were simply an inconvenience to drive around. The day after a kid was killed in front of their store. It's the same when school is in session.

In the days since the killing, reporters have revealed that the driver, Mauricio Osorio-Palaminos, had his driving privileges suspended in New York in 2010 for "driving a commercial vehicle on a road that did not permit that kind of traffic," and then failing to pay the fine, but apparently there was no way to enforce this. His license, granted in New Jersey, was suspended three times as he racked up seventeen violations since 1985, including failing to obey traffic signals, speeding and dangerous driving, but was valid last Friday morning when he killed Noshat Nahian.

I've talked to people like Osorio-Palominos. They almost never have to cross a stroad like Northern Boulevard next to a tractor-trailer, and neither do their kids. They have absolutely no clue that they're putting anyone's life in danger when they drive a truck off a truck route, or speed, or run a light. They see any police activity as random harassment by the government, unrelated to safety, for the sole purpose of shaking them down for money. And like the people at Frontier Auto Repair, they see people like you and me, and kids like my own and like Noshat Nahian, as just stuff in the way of getting their jobs done. That's the "safety culture" of people who drive for a living in Queens. It's bullshit, it's killing our kids, and it needs to change.

A big part of the problem is that the people whose job it is to enforce all these laws and rules, the NYPD, the traffic courts, and the DMV, see this enforcement the exact same way: either as rigid bureaucratic rules that they have to crack down on, or as an opportunity to shake down businesses for the city. They don't see their role as keeping me and my kid safe. That's something that I hope Bill Bratton will change. He didn't change it when he ran the NYPD back in the 1990s, but if our new Mayor de Blasio is serious about his "Vision Zero," hopefully it will trickle down to the traffic cops.

Our District Attorney, Richard Brown, has shown very little interest in traffic justice (or any kind of justice), and I don't really have much hope for him. I was very heartened last month by the defeat of Joe Hynes in Brooklyn by Ken Thompson, which gives me hope that in 2015 we won't bring Brown back for a seventh term, but we'll see how that goes. And Raymond Martinez, Chief Administrator of the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission? Has anyone asked him how Osorio-Palominos was able to get back behind the wheel of a truck with that record? Apparently not.

Who are the leaders of this "safety culture"? Who sets the tone? The New Jersey Motor Truck Association? The Queens Chamber of Commerce? These drivers don't exist in a vacuum. They get their cues about what's right and wrong, and how to manage the tradeoff between profits and lives, from somewhere. If we want to change the safety culture of this area, we need to find out who they are and hold them responsible.

That's one factor. I'll talk about the others later.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Abusing the sidewalk

Good sidewalks and crosswalks are at least as important to our goals as transit. Trips are rarely transit door to door, and the rest of the trip is usually on a sidewalk. If the conditions are right, many short trips can be made on foot, leaving more space available on the trains and buses for people shifting from driving. Sidewalks can also facilitate social and economic interactions, in what Jane Jacobs termed "the sidewalk ballet." They can be used for exercise and recreation, as in the flâneurs of Paris and the joggers of New York.

Most of the value of sidewalks and crosswalks - as in how people decide to walk or take transit instead of driving, cycling or taking a taxi - comes from simple transportation effectiveness: how much effort do I have to put into the trip, and how long does it take? But a significant amount comes in terms of dignity. It is stressful and discouraging to be told you are an insignificant minority, a lower class of human, and if that happens more frequently on buses and trains and sidewalks than in cars and taxis and parking lots, it figures into your decision.

In this post I'm going to list some things people do with sidewalks that compromise their value, in terms of both transportation effectiveness and dignity. In future posts I'll look at why they do these things, and how we can get them to stop.

In a visit to another part of the country I came across something that blew my mind. I looked down at someone's lawn and saw the remains of a concrete slab. I knew that some cities stopped building sidewalks, but I had no idea that some of them actually tore them out or let them grow over. Apparently in the seventies some people thought that walking was a thing of the past, and that walking infrastructure was ugly and wasteful, exactly as they thought about elevated trains, and exactly as we think about highways.

The tearing up of sidewalks is also connected to the widespread practice of making sidewalk upkeep the responsibility of the individual property owner, while car lanes were maintained by the city. This responsibility is not something people often think about when buying real estate, which leads to resentment and calls to Greg Mocker. Property owners who don't walk in the area, especially drivers and absentee landlords, thus have an incentive to minimize their spending on sidewalks. In response, many cities allowed owners to abandon their sidewalks. I've talked in the past about snow removal, which is a similar situation.

Another time people abuse the sidewalk is when the sidewalk is unusable due to construction. If it makes sense to have a sidewalk in the first place, it makes sense to have a safe, comfortable, dignified alternate route, but too often construction companies and the property owners that employ them just slap up a "sidewalk closed" sign. As I mentioned earlier, property owners and mangers often walk less than average. But when my own co-op replaced its sidewalk we didn't provide an alternate route. The decision was made by the contractors, who always drive because they're carrying heavy equipment, and not questioned by the building management or the DOT.

People can store commercial goods on the sidewalk. A while ago I wrote about the city's 1908 campaign against sidewalk "encroachment" structures, where a business takes over part of the sidewalk for a shop display or cafe. Independent tables and carts are a frequent source of friction. In the past, Transportation Alternatives has campaigned against news boxes. These can be problematic, especially if the encroachment is enclosed and offers value only to a small minority of walkers, but in the general I think they're more likely to add to than take away from street life. If they are really constricting traffic, I would rather see if space for them can be reallocated from the parking lane.

The most egregious abuse of sidewalks is car squatting, and it comes in several flavors. On residential properties, residents and guests often use the sidewalk for overflow parking if the driveway and curb are full. In many residential driveways, especially ones designed for smaller cars, today's SUVs nose out into the sidewalk. Delivery truck drivers, contractors and movers are often persuaded that their "need" to minimize their walk to the truck is more important than another person's safety.

Commercial car squatting is very common in my neighborhood. Car dealers and repair shops use the sidewalk as extra space to store their wares. Delivery trucks can completely block the sidewalk and sometimes even the parking lane. Garages, car rental agencies, gas stations and car washes encourage their customers to queue their cars on the sidewalk. Many businesses encourage their customers and employees to park on the sidewalk or in the crosswalk, sometimes "just to run in for a minute."

Sidewalk abuse is an expression of entitlement, the idea that by virtue of a particular status (driver, property owner, delivery driver) the normal rules don't apply to you. The decision to break the rules can come out of frustration and resentment. I once had a car dealer tell me, "I pay taxes! Do you know how much I pay in taxes?" As if I didn't pay taxes.

Bureaucracies and unionized workers are some of the worst when it comes to entitlement, which is why some of the worst sidewalk squatting you'll see is around schools and police and fire stations. The administrators made a promise of employee parking they couldn't legally deliver on, but because the NYPD controls enforcement, it turns a blind eye to its employees' abuse and those of other civil servants like the Amtrak police (pictured above).

Sidewalk abuse is one of the many factors that contributes to driving, and to all the problems that come with it. The next question is what we can do about it - and what we can't.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Getting around the Meadowlands

If you've spent enough time in New Jersey, you know that it actually has some really nice, walkable, pretty towns, and some hip urban neighborhoods, and some beautiful parks. The challenge is getting between them. Buses and trains help, but some of us like to walk, or ride bikes.

One time I just got on my bike and ride west. That was an experience. I took the ferry to Hoboken and rode over the Palisades, and then I got to the Meadowlands. I got through, but it was miserable. If you've ever tried to get between Jersey City and Newark without a motorized vehicle you've basically got two options, the Lincoln Highway or the Newark Turnpike, and they're both as unwelcoming as they sound. I thought at one point that I should have taken the PATH train to Newark.

It makes sense for the Meadowlands to be not such a walkable place. It is a swamp, after all. As much as we've abused it, it's probably more sustainable not being filled with housing. Why would it be worth anyone's time to make it easy to walk through a swamp that doesn't have much more in it than sparsely placed industrial sites, many of them abandoned? But it is on the way from one interesting place to another. Or rather, it's in the way.

Eventually, I got to thinking: you could walk around the Meadowlands. At a certain elevation the swamp stops and there are some really nice, walkable, pretty towns, and some hip urban neighborhoods, and some beautiful parks. But there's also some yucky sprawl, the kind of stuff that inspired that "what exit?" joke.

When I go for a nice long walk (or bike ride), I want to be treated with respect. I want nice, well-maintained sidewalks and stop lights. I want to walk through friendly towns, past interesting buildings, with welcoming places to eat, drink and rest.

View Getting around the Meadowlands in a larger map

So in the past year I've walked around the Meadowlands, and I found a nice route for you, from the George Washington Bridge to Newark Broad Street Station. I can't promise you it will be like walking through Park Slope or Ditmas Park the whole way. There are occasional spots that are pretty unpleasant, mostly crossing the highways, but they're short. You'll never be too far from a place with wifi and ice coffee. A lot of those are Dunkin' Donuts, Starbucks and Panera, but some are funky independent shops. And when I say funky independent, I mean cute Korean coffehouses in Fort Lee, old Italian-American bakeries in Lyndhurst, and new Brazilian cafes in Kearny. Those don't all have wifi, but they all have atmosphere.

This route is approximate. There are some interesting alternatives, like through the Flat Rock Brook Nature Center in Fort Lee, or down Main Street in Hackensack, or a number of different routes through Teaneck. I routed it mostly along walkable commercial streets, and the major residential corridors connecting them. Feel free to switch over to quieter parallel streets as you like. The one area where I wouldn't counsel much divergence is in West Englewood, where even Palisade Avenue loses its sidewalk for half a block - but the other streets are sidewalk-less for more than that.

You may find it useful if you're planning a long-distance bike or walk through the area, but it's also quite nice for short trips. It's intersected by Red and Tan bus Routes 9, 11 and 20, and New Jersey Transit's Morris and Essex, Main, Bergen and Pascack Valley lines and the Route 4 vans, which can all get you to or from Manhattan in a relatively short time, as well as numerous local routes. So you can, for example, take the Pascack Valley line to Essex Street, grab lunch in Hackensack, walk across the river to Bogota and then north until you get tired, and catch a bus back to the city. Just remember that there's tunnel traffic during rush hour.

If you try this route, or if you know the area, let me know what you think. If you have suggestions or corrections, please leave them in the comments.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Inequality: disease or symptom?

Do you want to see real inequality? Do you want to see well-fed people, satisfied smiles on their faces, walking past lines of hungry people waiting in the cold, or in the hot sun? It's not hard to find, here in one of the richest cities in the world: just go to any restaurant that has a line for brunch.

Yes, I'm being flippant. But I'm making a real point: just because you observe inequality in a place does not mean that that place creates inequality. In fact, imagine if you had a magical machine that turned poor people into rich ones, or even if you just had someone who sat at a desk and handed out stacks of twenties. You'd see poor people next to rich people, because the poor people have to go to that place to become rich people. In fact, if you go to some of the places where smug people tell you you won't see rich people stepping over poor people, chances are very good that they're that way because of segregation, like Detroit.

I've been to places with relatively mild weather - Seattle, Vancouver and Albuquerque, in particular, but I'm sure there are more - and people there told me that their city attracts homeless people because the living is easy. You can see the challenge: suppose that your city has a million poor people, and you come up with a brilliant economic development plan that lifts them all out of poverty in a year. What would happen next? A million more people would move in, ready for their chance to escape poverty. Perfectly reasonable on their part.

What's not reasonable is to blame "the city" - its government, and usually its people - for the inequality, as I often see being done to New York. If you see inequality in a city, it could be that the city is making its residents poorer, or it could be keeping its poor residents down over generations. It could be that everyone's getting richer equally, but the rich had a head start. Or the city could be making its poor residents richer, and they then move out or have a low birth rate, and are replaced by poor immigrants.

There are even ways to tell. Look at adults (living anywhere) who were born to poor city residents. Are they richer or poorer than their parents? How does their change in wealth compare to the children of their parents' wealthier neighbors?

I honestly don't know. I haven't looked at that data. But I'm not the one demonizing New York for "inequality."

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Any way you slice it

Now that the election is over and there's no chance of Joe Lhota being elected this year, I can talk about how much I hated Bill de Blasio's "tale of two cities" rhetoric. Don't get me wrong: I know that there is inequality in New York, and I think we should do something about it. Framing it as "two cities" is wrong and counterproductive. I hope it's over, and I hope it doesn't come back in 2017.

As Matt Yglesias pointed out, “A Tale of Two Cities” is about two different cities — London and Paris. But de Blasio is not the first to use it to refer to the difference between the rich and the poor in a single city. The problem with "two cities" - the same problem that I had with "two New Yorks" when used by Freddy Ferrer and Bill Thompson - is that it's too vague. If you say there are two New Yorks, different people will draw the line between the two in different places.

In particular, some unscrupulous people will draw the line in sneaky places. From my point of view, the most important division in the city is between people who see themselves as drivers and people who see themselves as transit riders. But for the man who really revived the "two New Yorks" meme, Frank Macchiarola, the non-elite New York was that of the outer boroughs:

Outer borough New Yorkers have such low expectations of the city government that they have developed alternative ways of obtaining services. Their transportation “system,” for example, usually includes a private car; some outer borough New Yorkers have not been on a subway or a city bus in years. Even poor people in the outer boroughs avoid city buses by riding in liveries and vans that are often cheaper, cleaner, and more efficient. Outer borough New Yorkers often travel into Manhattan on private express bus lines, which are more expensive and often slower, but invariably safer, than the subways.

In 2008, Lew Fidler used Macchiarola's division to paint congestion pricing as a tool of the elite. Azi Paybarah thought Fidler got it from Ferrer, but it comes from the Manhattan Institute, where it forms part of the conservative strategy to drive a wedge between the working class and the left.

The beauty of this vagueness is that almost any way you slice them, the Two New Yorks are led by drivers, or maybe even the chauffeur-driven. Outer-borough vs. Manhattan? Drivers. Black vs. White? Think about how Al Sharpton and Floyd Flake get around. You'd think that rich vs. poor would wind up with the poor riding transit, as would white collar vs. blue collar, but the leaders of the poor and the blue collar workers always seem to be showing off their poverty by driving an old Buick or Hyundai.

Even in the city, we've got it in our heads that being a Leader - running an organization - requires a car. So whether the Leaders are running city agencies, neighborhood organizations, unions or religious institutions, they think they won't be taken seriously if they don't show up in a car. If they can't afford a car, their funders are willing to pay for one. Even for organizations based in Manhattan whose business doesn't require carrying around anything that won't fit in a wheelie briefcase.

Over and over again I've seen this pattern: Leaders who drive - no matter how radical their thinking, no matter how deep their ties to the working class and the oppressed - don't get transit. Over and over again, their idea of lifting up the Working Man is to give him cheap gas and a discount mortgage on a house with a garage. And we saw this same shit just two weeks ago with de Blasio and the pedestrian plazas:

I have profoundly mixed feelings on this issue. I’m a motorist myself, and I was often frustrated. And then I’ve also seen on the other hand that it does seem to have a positive impact on the tourist industry. So for me, the jury’s out on that particular question. I think it’s worth assessing what the impact has been on traffic, what the impact has been on surrounding businesses. I would keep an open mind.

We do need to talk about inequality in New York and the best way to fight it. As Ben Fried wrote today, transportation is a powerful tool to combat inequality. (But I don't think transit can create a classless society all by itself.) But the "Tale of Two Cities" thinking just short-circuits that.

De Blasio's victory speech last night was very conciliatory. I hope it's the last time he uses the "Tale of Two Cities" for a while, but I'm sure he'll be tempted to dust it off again soon. And when that happens, I hope someone he trusts will look at him and say, "Enough with that bullshit, Bill. Give me a way of thinking about inequality that doesn't end with both sides sitting down to talk - at a nice seafood place on Cross Bay Boulevard with plenty of parking."

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Why I care about Suffolk County

Last year I explained why I care about transportation in the suburbs, even though I live in the city (well, Queens). But some suburbs matter more than others. Here's an illustration: last month I talked about how Staten Island affects our goals. It does, mainly because its strategic political position gives its citizens outsize power over transportation policy, and because they like to drive all over the city. But in terms of other factors, it's a relatively small player. Look at how many vehicle miles were traveled (VMT) in the borough in 2005:

According to the EPA, vehicles were driven 2 billion miles in Richmond County in 2005, or 4,215 VMT per capita. That is just 1.29% of the 155 billion total VMT in the region that year. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 56 people were killed on Staten Island's roads in 2005, which was 1.56% of the 3,601 total people killed in car crashes that year.

If every Staten Islander sold their cars tomorrow, it wouldn't make that big a difference in pollution or death. But if you look at those charts, there are other counties that jump out at you. Queens, Nassau, Monmouth and New Haven counties are all on the bigger, left-hand pie in both charts, meaning they contribute over 4% of VMT and fatalities. And the biggest culprit is Suffolk County.

In 2005 there were 19.8 billion vehicle-miles traveled in Suffolk County, which roughly covers the eastern half of Long Island, 12.8% of the regional total. 402 people were killed on Suffolk's roads, 11.2% of the total. That gave it the largest share of both measures by a wide margin. Any changes we make in Suffolk can have a big impact on the region's health.

On a per-capita basis, there were 13,171 miles driven for every man, woman and child in Suffolk county, and 27 people were killed out of every hundred thousand. The county with the lowest VMT per capita was Brooklyn (1,951) and the lowest fatalities per capita, believe it or not, was the Bronx (11 per hundred thousand).

If the average person in Suffolk county only drove 1,951 miles a year, it would bring the county's annual VMT down to 2.94 billion, an 85% reduction. If we could bring Suffolk's per-capita road deaths down to the level of the Bronx we would save 282 lives.

But that's really ambitious. What if we just brought the road deaths down to the regional median level of 18 fatalities per hundred thousand inhabitants, like Rockland or Hunterdon? We could still save 130 people. And if we brought VMT down to the regional median per capita VMT of 8,722, like Nassau County, its neighbor to the west? That would mean only 13.1 billion VMT, a 34% reduction, and a 4.3% reduction in the total regional VMT.

What does a 34% reduction in VMT get us, in terms of our goals? It's generally considered to be proportional to pollution. There's a correlation with fatalities, but it's not very close, as the charts show. Think, also, about the budget: in the 2012 state capital budget there was $291 million for Long Island roads. Road capital budgets are notoriously unresponsive to VMT decreases, but a 34% reduction would be hard to ignore. I'd say it would save us at least $50 million a year.

Also, since the VMT reduction is per capita, not from a mass depopulation of the East End, all those people would be taking transit instead. That would probably mean that the North Fork Branch would have enough passengers for hourly service, and the Hampton Jitney would make a killing. People would be walking to the train and to shopping, which would mean more sidewalks on those Long Island road. And you bet your ass there'd be local bus service on Sundays.

Next question: What would it take to bring down Suffolk's per capita VMT from 13,171 to 8,722?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Fifth Borough?

On my post about Staten Island, chrismealy commented that we could trade it for Bergen Neck, the peninsula in New Jersey just north of it. This is actually something I've been thinking about for years.

I've called Hudson County "the fifth borough" because Staten Island is so unlike the other boroughs. There's no real good reason why the Arthur Kill is the boundary between New York and New Jersey, rather than the Narrows. It's just a historical accident.

Jersey City, Hoboken and Weehawken share more history with Manhattan than Staten Island, and better transportation links. Development patterns in Hoboken resemble those in Greenwich Village, and those in North Bergen resemble Astoria. From the map above, it looks like car ownership is higher in Hudson County, but that may be misleading. I can't get census data below the municipality level, and there's probably a big difference between car ownership in Journal Square versus Greenville.

Or we could even just let Staten Island secede without any new territory. You could argue that we should preserve the differences in transportation regulations between New Jersey and New York that have shown us that private transit can work in the US if you regulate it right. That's the kind of argument that Chuck Marohn has been making on StrongTowns, and it makes sense to me. We shouldn't say no to annexing Hudson County, but I don't think we need it.

New York without Staten Island means two or three less car-obsessed City Council members. It means one less car-loving state senator, and four less assemblymembers, and that may be the biggest reason that the legislature voted against it when Staten Island voted to secede in 1993.

Letting Staten Island secede would probably mean transferring the Verrazano Bridge to the Port Authority. That would mean less toll revenue for the subways, but also a lot less of our city and state transportation money going to Staten Island's roads and bridges.

Really, though, it's not worth the effort to kick Staten Island out of the city. If they want to go, we should let them. But if they want to be part of the city, I'm okay with that. I just wish they'd start acting - and voting - like it.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Eighth Borough

Some things that have been called the sixth borough of New York City:

Some things that have been called the seventh borough of New York City:

Some things that have been called the eighth borough of New York City:

Monday, September 23, 2013

Who's fighting car dependence?

Earlier this month I talked about how car dependence is overdetermined, with at least seven more or less independent factors influencing it: identification, leadership, NIMBYism, corruption, the "Two New Yorks" lie, the power of drivers and rural bias. I wrote that any good campaign to reduce driving has to tackle at least two of them, and the more the better. Or we can work together to make sure that all the bases are covered. Here are some people working on these factors:

  1. Non-drivers identify with drivers. People want to see themselves as empowered, autonomous citizens with freedom of movement. They need to see empowered, autonomous citizens with freedom of movement who aren't driving. Some bike organizations, like Transportation Alternatives, promote exemplary bike commuters. Blogs like Humans of New York and the Sartorialist celebrate the city's pedestrians. The Underground New York Public Library was a great project to show the erudition of ordinary New Yorkers on the subway, but it seems to have lost steam. Ben Kabak's Second Avenue Sagas helps keep the dream of good transit alive.

  2. Key segments of the population drive at higher rates. Transportation Alternatives ran a site called for a while. Streetsblog has had great coverage of parking permits, and occasionally covers a news reporter or politician who suffers from windshield perspective. At this point I don't know of an organization that is making this a priority.

  3. NIMBY arguments favor drivers. The main way to defuse NIMBY arguments is to remove parking requirements. Streetsblog has been covering this, too, and there's nationwide pressure from Donald Shoup and his followers, but there's no organization that's focused on taking parking requirements out of the zoning code in New York.

  4. Corruption favors road capacity. New York is full of "goo-goo" groups who have been fighting corruption for over 120 years, and they tell us that any day they'll start making some headway. Reinvent Albany, with connections to Streetsblog and Transportation Alternatives, is probably the most promising. In the transportation area, Alon Levy, Drunk Engineer and a number of other railfans around the country have been putting the screws on inflated railroad costs. StrongTowns has been leading an amazing nationwide movement for efficiency in transportation and development, mostly roads. As far as I know, there is no local organization fighting transportation corruption.

  5. The "two New Yorks" narrative favors drivers. Not enough people are working on this.

  6. Drivers have more political power. The big heroes in this are StreetsPAC, the newly-formed campaign fund for pedestrians and cyclists. I personally know and respect nine of the fourteen board members, and the others by reputation.

  7. Rural bias favors driving. Reinvent Albany is mostly focused on corruption, which is fine, but someone should tackle the conceptual side of things. Even Jim Kunstler, who detests sprawl, talks a lot about gardens and agriculture. The best bet for breaking the "upstate=rural/suburban" myth is Duncan Crary and his Small American City podcast. He's doing a great job, but he's just one guy.

As you can see, Streetsblog, Transportation Alternatives, Reinvent Albany and StreetsPAC are probably the strongest organizations in these areas, and they definitely deserve your support. But their efforts are a bit light in many of these factors, especially leadership, "two New Yorks" and rural bias.

Can we afford to ignore these three factors? Is there an organization or blog that I'm missing? Do you know of a city or region that has successfully overcome challenges like these?

Regardless of what everyone else is doing, I hope that you will take the time to think about all seven of these issues, and then blog, tweet, Instagram or otherwise generate content about each of them.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Staten Island and our goals

This summer I went to Staten Island for the first time in several years. There are some things I like about it, but I don't go there very often because it's hard to get there and I don't feel welcome when I do. I feel similarly about North Carolina, but it's harder to ignore Staten Island. With mayoral candidate Joe Lhota floating the idea of moving the Transportation Department headquarters there, the need to say something about the place is even more urgent. Ben Kabak said his piece this morning, and it got me thinking.

I know there are lots of nice people who live on Staten Island, including some regular readers of this blog. There are many who want it to be a place where you can walk, bike and take transit, and some who are even working to make that happen. I'm glad you're out there and I salute you for your work. But your borough is a problem.

Even more than other suburbs, Staten Island affects those of us who live in the rest of the city. Its residents spend a lot of time driving through Brooklyn, Manhattan and even Queens. They constantly feel slighted by Manhattan politicians and demand that the city and state spend money there. They also demand lots of subsidized services, like low tolls on the Verrazano Bridge.

Most dangerously, as a large bloc of middle-class white voters, the South and West Shores of the island wield disproportionate influence, and use that to get some of their demands. They are an indispensable part of any center or right-wing political campaign, proving particularly valuable to Rudy Giuliani and Christine Quinn. Politicians frequently pander to the agenda of the island's car owners, and the island's representatives on the City Council and state legislature frequently work with representatives from the eastern Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens to oppose progressive transportation efforts.

For some perspective, let's imagine that in the twenties, instead of building the Bayonne and Goethals bridges and the Outerbridge Crossing, the Port Authority had put in double-track high-level railroad connections, upgrading the Arthur Kill lift bridge and building a northbound connection to Bayonne and connecting to the Lehigh Valley line at Perth Amboy. Imagine if in the sixties, instead of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority building the Verrazano Bridge, the Board of Transportation had dug tunnels? Not a parochial local tunnel to Bay Ridge, but a connection between the Long Island Railroad and the national network, plus a high-speed tunnel under the harbor directly to Lower Manhattan? Imagine if they had extended the trolley network (see the map above) to cover the whole island?

You'd have a place that was easy to get to by train, but difficult by car. Instead we got the opposite: the most car-dominated of the five boroughs.

That time is past. The question is, what would help us fulfill our goals (see the top of the page)? What should we do about Staten Island?

Friday, September 13, 2013

Rural bias favors cars

In my last post, I gave six more or less independent factors that combine to maintain car dependence, particularly here in New York City, and observed that any campaign focused on a single one is not likely to succeed. The list wasn't meant to be comprehensive, but I missed an important factor.

7. Rural bias favors drivers. Low population density doesn't cause driving, but they're correlated, and if a politician can pander to drivers in a district where 77% of households are car-free, a politician who represents a district with less than 10% car-free households can feel free to completely ignore non-drivers. That's exactly what happens with the New York State Senate majority, and of course the majority of the US senate. There are thousands of transit users living north of Bear Mountain, but whenever people talk about "fairness for Upstate" somehow it always winds up meaning more money for roads.

The "Senate problem" of disproportionate power given to rural voters is not confined to elected bodies. It's also present in nonprofit associations of bureaucrats, like AASHTO and GHSA, that have a one-state-one-vote policy, and organizations like the New York State Association of Counties, whose mission is to disenfranchise New York City Democrats (and combat complete streets).

Fighting rural bias would be a bit easier, though, if it weren't for the enemies on the left. Small towns and "farms" across Upstate are populated with back-to-the-land hippies and Suburu-wagon liberals who despise cities, fetishize "nature" and romanticize agriculture. David Owen's Green Metropolis and its successors have done a lot to combat this fantasy, but spend a few days in Ithaca, Woodstock or even Astoria and you'll discover that it's still kicking.

Now don't get me wrong. I grew up Upstate. I like small towns and forests, and I value agriculture. I just don't overvalue them, and I don't believe that "counties" and states should get a say out of proportion to the number of people who live in them. It's bad for a lot of reasons, and one of them is that it leads to more government money spent on roads and parking and gas.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Car dependence is overdetermined

I came across a word that I think helped me to put my finger on something that’s been unclear: "overdetermined." It's a Freudian term (he first used it for the content of dreams) that means that an effect has a number of causes, and you don’t need them all to get it. I realized that we've been having so much trouble ending car dependence because it is overdetermined.

If everyone purely voted their interests regarding transportation, and transportation spending were proportional to population, we’d have no drivers in a few generations, because transit is so much cheaper than car infrastructure and subsidies. But car dependence persists, because there are a number of factors that skew the politics, and even if you can knock out one factor, the others often are strong enough to keep things skewed.

The current New York City mayoral campaign is an example of this. In a city where a majority of residents live without cars, and a vast majority commute by transit, even the most progressive candidate, Sal Albanese, finds it necessary to pander to drivers occasionally, and the other candidates go even further. Here are some of the factors that I’ve identified.
  1. Non-drivers identify with drivers. Driving is often the only reasonable way to increase the comfort of your commute, and it’s associated around the world with higher social status. Most Americans want to increase their social status, and as a result most non-drivers spend a significant amount of time imagining themselves as drivers. Part-time drivers imagine themselves as full-time drivers. The result is that congestion pricing, which would have made things more difficult for a small minority of drivers, attracted widespread condemnation from people who imagined themselves driving to work in Manhattan any day now.

  2. Key segments of the population drive at higher rates. Because the government controls the curb, parking has been used as a perk for politicians and bureaucrats to reward their allies. The result is that teachers, clergy, doctors and journalists get free parking, as do leaders of influential businesses and nonprofits, and the politicians themselves. These “thought leaders” paint the world in their own image, so that when we go to church or turn on the television, or when our kids are in the classroom, the picture is one of driving. People who drive get lots of respect and understanding from civil servants, police officers, firefighters and even transit operators, and people who don’t get lots of disrespect.

  3. NIMBY arguments favor drivers. Ian Rasmussen has observed that "development" used to be seen as a good thing, but in the past sixty years or so has become a negative. A large part of that is that most people think of development as bringing lots of new cars. One fear is that these cars will clog the streets, but Paul Barter has also talked about the parking spillover bogeyman, where people fear that new residents, commuters and shoppers will take up all the parking and leave older residents, commuters and shoppers to fight for the existing spaces.

  4. Corruption favors road capacity. When transit projects are corrupt, we get big ornamental stations that offer limited improvements in capacity or travel time and fail to attract more riders. When road projects are corrupt, we get roads that are too wide, inviting more people to drive. When transit run out of funding they get cut back or even abandoned. When road projects run out of funding the politicians scramble to take money from other projects, including transit projects.

  5. The "two New Yorks" narrative favors drivers. Lots of people are getting screwed in New York: poor people, nonwhite people, disabled people, people who don’t speak English well, people who aren’t US citizens, people who don’t live in fancy neighborhoods, and people who don’t drive. Frank Macchiarola’s odious "two New Yorks" concept, which has recently been reanimated by Bill de Blasio, simplifies all that multidimensional, intersectional oppression into a single dimension: Manhattan versus the Outer Boroughs. The politicians of the Outer Boroughs, painted as the virtuous fighters for justice, tend to be wealthy white able-bodied English-speaking US citizens who live in fancy neighborhoods like Forest Hills, Riverdale and Midwood, or at least five out of those six criteria, and they almost all drive.

  6. Drivers have more political power. In New York the situation is not quite as extreme as in the rest of the United States, but drivers still tend to be wealthier and better-connected, with more free time and a stronger belief in their own power. That means they tend to vote more and pay more campaign contributions, so a candidate may well win an election on pro-car votes in a district where drivers are a minority. This means that even if politicians, journalists and bureaucrats aren’t drivers, they have an incentive to pay attention to drivers. That attention often goes beyond simple respect to outright pandering.

  7. Rural bias favors driving. Low population density doesn't cause driving, but they're correlated, and if a politician can pander to drivers in a district where 77% of households are car-free, a politician who represents a district with less than 10% car-free households can feel free to completely ignore non-drivers. That's exactly what happens with the New York State Senate majority, and of course the majority of the US senate. There are thousands of transit users living north of Bear Mountain, but whenever people talk about "fairness for Upstate" somehow it always winds up meaning more money for roads.

    The "Senate problem" of disproportionate power given to rural voters is not confined to elected bodies. It's also present in nonprofit associations of bureaucrats, like AASHTO and GHSA, that have a one-state-one-vote policy, and organizations like the New York State Association of Counties, whose mission is to disenfranchise New York City Democrats (and combat complete streets). (Added September 12.)

So we’ve got at least six factors that skew the political system towards car dependence: identification, leadership, NIMBYism, corruption, the “Two New Yorks” lie, and the power of drivers. If we take out one of them, the others will keep money flowing to wasteful roads like the Kosciuszko Bridge. Any good campaign to reduce driving has to tackle at least two of them, and the more the better.

Or we can look for people fighting each of those factors and try to make sure that more than one of them succeeds at the same time. I know some good people. What about you?

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Luxury bus to Bethesda

There's a big difference in comfort between trains and buses. Jarrett Walker acknowledges an intrinsic advantage of steel-wheeled vehicles in "ride quality," but asks, "Is the smooth ride of rail indispensable to a useful network? This can be a tough question whose answer may vary from one community to another." I definitely don't think it's indispensable. I can imagine a city with nothing but rubber-tired buses to get people around, but I would still get annoyed by the Lurch.

I definitely agree that there are plenty of ways that buses can approach the ride quality of rail by eliminating other differences or even offering higher quality in other aspects to compensate for the Lurch. I think this is important to increase overall capacity on the Northeast Corridor, since our elected officials seem uninterested in doing what's necessary to increase train capacity. At this point, bus companies have cornered the bottom of the market, but are having trouble competing at the top with trains, planes and private cars.

One of the biggest limitations on ride quality is the size of seats and the fact that on your average full bus, everyone absolutely has to be sitting right next to someone else - as in elbow-in-the-ribs right next to. Anyone who's been on a plane or an Amtrak train knows how much of a difference the space between seats makes. First class cabins routinely have one seat less across than coach. Business class and "premium coach" almost always have more legroom between rows. Premium buses do offer more legroom. But there's a maximum width to a bus, and even if you take Bolt, or Hampton Jitney, or DC2NY you're going to find two seats on the left side of the aisle and two on the right. As long as your seat doesn't get any wider than the one on the cheapest Chinatown bus, you've got a ceiling on quality.

Some bus companies are breaking through that ceiling by offering three seats across. There are services like this in Norway, Spain, Mexico, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Myanmar and the good ol' USA. In Florida there's Red Coach, on Long Island the Hampton Ambassador, on the New York to Boston run the LimoLiner. From New York to Washington, DC there's the Vamoose Gold Bus.

I got a chance to take the Vamoose Gold Bus earlier this year, when I had business in DC. The bus doesn't actually go to DC, but for $60 it goes to Bethesda, Arlington and Lorton, which are other municipal districts in the cultural city of greater Washington, and that worked out well for me, since my hotel was in Friendship Heights, one Metro stop away from Bethesda.

It was a very nice bus. The aisle was wide, the bathroom was large, there were skylights (see the picture). I was hoping for one of the single seats, but they were all taken by the time I got on board. Still, my aisle seat was nice and wide, with a tray table. I had my own armrests, and the woman next to me had her own armrests. The power outlets were conveniently located between us.

Unfortunately, it was still a bus. It lurched, and it lurched big-time when we went through the New Jersey Turnpike construction that Chris Christie is funding with the money he took from the ARC Tunnel. It still smelled a little like diesel, and I was still feeling a little sick when I got off in Bethesda.

There is a lot that Vamoose could do to make the trip even better. After paying $60 online, I still had to stand in line on the 30th Street sidewalk for more than twenty minutes. It was a nice day but it was winter, and the curbside boarding really undercut the luxury experience. The dropoff in Bethesda was similar: a crowded street corner with no sign for the Metro station. There were televisions in the bus that played some cheesy business news, which was unnecessary because we all had devices. Or maybe it was necessary, because the wifi was pretty slow and not that reliable.

The elbow room did make the trip more relaxing. There are two more things that would have made the trip much more relaxing. The first is seat reservations. There was a deli right next to the bus stop, and I would've sat in there, but I stood online hoping to get a single seat close to the front. If I had been able to reserve that single seat when I bought the ticket, or even to know that I couldn't get one, I could have waited in the deli until the line was short.

The other thing would be a real terminal. Not the Port Authority, where they took out the benches in the 1980s and I'd have to stand for twenty minutes anyway. I'm imagining a real waiting room with comfortable chairs and a decent bathroom, where you can get a nice cappuccino but you don't have to buy anything because you've already bought your ticket. Where you can check your bags ahead of time and sit comfortably. Where you can wait to be called a few at a time instead of standing on line. I have just the place, too.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Take the Chinatown Van to the U.S. Open

There were some chuckles on my Twitter feed over the Times article about U.S. Open champion tennis players getting stuck in traffic as they were being chauffeured from Manhattan hotels to the courts in Queens. If you absolutely must stay at a five-star hotel in Midtown, well, I'm afraid you will just have to leave early and sit in traffic. If you're prepared to be a bit more flexible, there are several alternatives, and they'll will work if you're a US Open spectator as well.
  1. Get a hotel near Flushing Meadows. There are many fine hotels within a ten-minute chauffeured car ride of the Tennis Center, including ten that are conveniently located near the food and nightlife of Downtown Flushing. There are even two four-star hotels in the area, but they're a bit more isolated and car ride would be a little longer.
  2. The Long Island Rail Road. You can stay at the four-star Hotel Pennsylvania, right above Penn Station, and take the train right to the park. You may have to deal with some crowds along the way, but you'll probably get a seat, especially if you wear your tennis whites, and the trip is under half an hour if you time it right.
  3. The number 7 train. This was recommended by a number of people, but I honestly can't recommend it. The 7 is my train, and the entire tournament it's been packed with tennis fans. If crowds (as in, someone's texting hand in your shoulder blade crowds) help your game, go for it. Otherwise, consider alternate routes.
  4. The Chinatown van. They leave as soon as they're full, so you always get a seat! From the three-star Hotel Mulberry, it's a short walk down to Division Street, where the vans load up just east of the Bowery. For two dollars, you get a ride to Flushing, often with Chinese pop or opera music. In Flushing, most of the vans will let you off at College Point Boulevard and 59th Avenue, where you can walk through the park to the tennis center. If you speak a Chinese language you can ask ahead of time, but generally if you're not on the highway you can just call out, "Stop, please!"

    To return to Manhattan you'll have to catch the vans in Flushing, on 41st Avenue just off of Main Street, but you can get there by the #7 train from the park (which will be much less crowded than the opposite direction) and have a tasty Sichuan dinner in Flushing after the match.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Five rail-trails we'd like to see reactivated

Last month, the (Greater) Detroit Free Press told us of a section of trail the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (near Marquette) that had once been an active railroad, and will now be converted back to freight rail. "This is how it’s supposed to work," Humboldt Township Supervisor Joe Derocha told the Free Press, but it doesn't work that way as often as it should. In honor of that railroad, let's take a look at five rail-trails in the New York area that I'd like to see converted back to passenger use.

  1. The Harlem Valley Rail-Trail

    The Berkshires and Taconics are beautiful in the fall. A hundred years ago you could have taken the train up to Copake, Chatham and even beyond to Pittsfield, North Adams and Boston. But if you're up for some leaf-peeping, your only option is the slow bus that winds its way up Route 7. And you can't even get to Millerton without a car - unless you take the train to Wassaic and ride your bike for over an hour on this trail.

  2. The Joseph P. Clarke Trail

    Villages like Piermont, Sparkill, Orangeburg and Nanuet grew up around junctions where the old Erie Main Line intersected with north-south lines. These towns have decayed since the railroad stopped running. They have recovered a little with Rockland County's population boom and the popularity of Route 9W among racing cyclists, but they can't compete with the Thruway-fueled strip malls. If you want to live in a cute village like Piermont you can get halfway decent buses to the city, but local bus service is woefully inadequate. Regular train service, ideally connecting to the city through the "new" Main Line or the Northern Branch, would breathe new life into these towns.

  3. The South County Trailway, North County Trailway and Putnam Trailway

    If you go to a place like Ardsley or Elmsford, you'll find a cluster of buildings very similar to what you'd see around a railroad station, and there's a good reason for that. When the buildings were built, there was a station there. Now these places are stuck in the middle of Westchester, and the people who live there have to take the bus or drive to stations on the Harlem and Hudson lines. Businesses that depended on a steady flow of commuters shut down long ago. In northern Westchester and Putnam County, bus service is so spotty that villages like Yorktown Heights and Mahopac are car-dependent.

    These trails are popular with families on weekends, but during commuting hours they're essentially abandoned. Instead, they could run passenger service direct to Grand Central, or possibly even be connected with the subway system.

  4. The walkway Over the Hudson and Dutchess County Trailway

    The Northeast Corridor, our country's highest volume train line, has a tremendous vulnerability: there is one single train line, with two to four tracks. If anything happens to that line, as it has several times over the past few years, all traffic in that section stops. There were once many parallel lines, but some have incompatible power systems and many don't have tracks anymore. The Poughkeepsie Bridge Route offers a valuable alternate route that in the past has allowed trains to bypass New York City and its tunnels completely, while still allowing New York-bound passengers to transfer to any of five radial lines.

  5. The Nyack-Piermont Trail

    I've written before about the problems with New Jersey Transit's current plans to reactivate passenger service on the old Erie Northern Branch. The main challenge, from the point of view of funding, is a lack of what Jarrett Walker calls an "anchor" on the northern end. Villages like Norwood, Northvale, Demarest and Closter are too small to pencil out in the transit planners' metrics, and the planners can't imagine anyone being willing to upzone, so the planners build large park-and-rides to try to capture people who will drive from the sprawl further north.

    We'd really want to see the planners ditch their crappy proprietary models and look at induced demand. But we can also look at strong anchors, which means Nyack. Nyack doesn't have the population of Englewood or even Tenafly, but it has enough to provide a nice anchor for the Northern Branch - which was why it ended there in the first place.
    To get to Nyack means running trains through the part of the Northern Branch that's now the Nyack-Piermont Rail Trail. Which is unfortunate, because it's a nice trail with great views. But trails don't get people out of their cars. Trains do.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Bikeshare budgets, how do they work?

I can now tell you that I'm a proud Citibike annual member, and I've been enjoying it. The biggest advantage is being able to use all that great Manhattan bike infrastructure without having to go through the inadequate bike infrastructure to get to it. The Ninth Avenue bike lane was installed in 2007, and I still haven't used it, because I haven't wanted to ride across from the Queensboro Bridge on 55th Street. With Citibike, I can take the subway to the West Side, or to Greenwich Village where the streets are calmer. I still haven't ridden the Ninth Avenue lane, but I have ridden the Eighth Avenue one.
It would be nice to have Citibike here in Queens, and in nearby parts of Brooklyn, and I'm glad that my City Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer and State Senator Michael Gianaris are lobbying for it. But there's one thing I don't understand: where the money comes from. I've read a lot about potential Citibike expansion, and everyone just repeats the claim that the expansion will have to be paid for by the government. There is no explanation; it's just treated as though it's obvious, and then people move on to the question of where the government will get the money.

It's not obvious to me, though. Imagine a private bike rental business with five locations. The business can expand without money from the government. All it has to do is earn a surplus that the owner reinvests in new locations. The owner can even make a bet on future success by taking out a loan to pay for expansion. If Citibike can earn a surplus, it can do it too.

Is Citibike earning a surplus? I haven't seen anything one way or another. There are three main possibilities. It could be running a deficit and burning through the initial Citibank outlay of $41 million plus the Mastercard $6.5 million. It could be earning a surplus, but not enough to expand at any significant rate. Maybe it's not at a surplus yet. Or maybe the surplus is going to something other than expansion.

It turns out that we can actually estimate quite a bit. We know, from the Citibike website, that as of Sunday there were 69,830 annual memberships. The rate at which new people are joining is constantly dropping, as is standard, but the system may get up to a hundred thousand members a year, bringing in $9.5 million. There are about 1500 24-hour passes and 150 seven-day passes sold per day on average, earning $18,750 per day, which will come out to about another six million dollars a year, allowing for weather conditions. So the total membership income for the year will probably be around $15 million, which dwarfs the $10 million per year that the city gets from its sponsors.

So what are the expenses? According to this article, Bixi costs $400,000 Canadian a year to run 1800 bikes in Toronto, for an average of $222 per bike. Everything's more expensive here, so let's say $1.5 million a year for our 6,000 bikes. That means that we could pay for the the system out of 24-hour passes, or that it broke even with annual memberships before it even launched. Or about $23 million in profit, which is split between the city and Alta, leaving $11.5 million a year for expansion.

(Interestingly, this means that we don't actually need sponsorship; even without it, the city would still be on track to earn $6 million a year from the deal.)

The next question is how much expansion we can get for $11.5 million. Alta got $47.5 million from the sponsors, a $42 million loan from the vampire squid, and $5 million from its insurance company, for a total of $92.5 million. But a lot of the equipment was damaged by Hurricane Sandy, and it's not clear how much the bikes currently in use cost.

That said, before Sandy hit Alta told its insurance company that it had $20 million in equipment on the ground, so let's assume that that was for 7,000 bikes. That means that for $11.5 million we could expand the system by more than half its planned launch size - 3,500 bikes - every year.

To me that suggests that by this time next year I could be riding Citibikes from the Upper West Side to Long Island City to Bed-Stuy to Red Hook. In 2015 I could ride from my house to Tremont to Inwood, and south to Ridgewood and Brownsville. In 2018, who knows?

Feel free to go over my "back of the envelope" and point out anything that doesn't look right. But if I'm right, we don't need government money to expand Citibike. We only need it if we want to speed up the process. And you know, if we're spending $800 million to widen a bridge that carries hardly any transit, I have to wonder if we couldn't find a hundred million for Citibike expansion. Imagine what that would get us.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Detroit is not a city

Last month, the municipality of the City of Detroit filed for bankruptcy. Every so often Detroit is in the news for some symptom of urban decline: its famous ruins, particularly the Central Station; its vacant houses bulldozed to vacant lots, which have fed the fantasies of so many urban farmers; its cutbacks to emergency services, which result in hour-plus wait times; its transit history of trolleys torn up and replaced by promises; its half-assed projects like the People Mover and the light rail that may one day appear; the demands that the municipality sell the collection of its Institute of Art to pay its debts. The median household income is $31,011.

I've long avoided talking about Detroit, because I've never really been there. I passed through once, changing buses, and again on my way back from the same trip, but it was at night and I never left the bus station. But all this pointless chatter about bankruptcies and vacant lots misses an essential point, one that's true of most urban areas.

The problem with all these stories is that Detroit is not a city. Sure, it's a municipal corporation chartered by the State of Michigan. But it's not a coherent urban system, just as New York City and the City of Los Angeles and the City of Chicago are not really cities. Greater New York, including everything from Montauk to New Brunswick and from Asbury Park to Poughkeepsie, and more, is a city. Metro Detroit, including at least Oakland and Macomb counties in Michigan and Essex County in Ontario, is a city.

If we look at Metro Detroit as a city, the picture looks a lot better. The median household income for the Detroit Metropolitan Statistical Area is $48,198 Eight of Michigan's top ten richest municipalities are in Metro Detroit, all with per capita incomes above $59,000. Windsor, Ontario, just across the river, had a median family income of $72,204 CAD in 2006.

Windsor also had no homicides for over two years. Metro Detroit contains places like Bloomfield Hills, with a world-class golf course and an art school featuring impressively manicured grounds and stunning architecture.

For many years Metro Detroit has been segregated, with black people living in the municipality of Detroit and white people living in the surrounding suburbs, although that has been changing lately with black people moving to some of the inner suburbs. The boundary between the municipality and the northern suburbs of Oakland County, 8 Mile Road, has long been an object of fascination of alienated white suburbanites, as highlighted by the musician Eminem and others.

These white suburbs are not all doing so well, but for years they prospered as the municipality declined. Some have argued that the city of Metro Detroit is now declining because it didn't take care of its center. I don't have the space or the expertise to comment on what caused the city to decline or what could save it, but I will point out, as a caller to the KunstlerCast observed years ago, that the city still has the same things going for it that led Henry Ford and other automakers to build their factories there: a key position on shipping routes. Essentially, you could argue that the suburbs have cut the city off by reconfiguring those shipping routes. I don't know what to do to reverse that, or at least to provide some justice and keep valuable riverside space from being wasted, but I hope somebody figures it out.

I've been happy to see that some people commenting on the bankruptcy have acknowledged that Detroit doesn't stop at the municipal boundary. Among them are Andrew Heath, Ariella Cohen, and the Planet Money team.

To someone who's observed regional issues unfolding in my own city of Greater New York and many others, this stuff is all pretty obvious. But for a lot of other people who talk about Detroit, the parts of the city across 8 Mile Road and across the river don't exist; they might as well be in Minnesota or Pennsylvania. I have a rule for reading news about the economic fortune of "Detroit": does it mention what's going on in Bloomfield Hills, or Grosse Pointe, or Windsor? If not, I close the tab immediately or skip to the next podcast. Because if they miss that part of the story, you have to wonder what else they're missing.