Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Exporting death to Thailand

Cyclists have been shocked by the death last Wednesday of Mary Thompson and Peter Root in Phanom Sarakham, Thailand. The couple from Guernsey were cycling around the world and blogging their adventures when they were rear-ended by a pickup truck.

Highway 304 in Phanom Sarakham, where Root and Thompson were killed.

News reports quoted the driver as saying he "was reaching down to pick up a cap on the floor" and took his eyes off the road. The Thai tourist agency has apologized to their families, and a transportation professor said that foreign tourists should be warned about the dangerous behavior of Thai drivers.

The problem goes deeper than this, and of course it doesn't just affect European tourists. The Daily Mail mentioned that "Thailand is well known for its perilous roads, with more than 13,000 killed and almost 1million injured each year in accidents." The vast majority of these dead and injured are presumably local Thai citizens. Any response to Root and Thompson's death should make Thailand's roads safer for everyone.

Unfortunately, any safety measures would go against a strong push in the opposite direction. The road where Thompson and Root were killed, Highway 304, is listed as part of Asian Highway 19, the Central Subcorridor of the Southern Economic Corridor (PDF) of the Greater Mekong Subregion. In other words, it's one of the main routes from Bangkok to Phnom Penh in Cambodia.

Since the Greater Mekong Subregion was established in 1992, the Asian Development Bank and various governments have pumped billions of dollars into the highway network. From 2004 to 2007, it helped fund the widening of a large section of Highway 304 from a two lane country road to a divided four-lane stroad.

I wonder how much of that road-widening money came from the United Kingdom government, the de facto ruler of Guernsey, and from companies headquartered in Guernsey. I wonder how much of the money came from the United States and companies headquartered here. Regardless, the ideology of wider roads and faster cars and trucks comes largely from the US and the UK.

Mary Thompson and Peter Root may have been killed by a distracted driver in Thailand, but the seeds of their death were planted in Europe and North America.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

What is the best use for the Flushing River valley?

I've lost count of all the proposals to build things in the Queens Valley. Here's a map from the Wall Street Journal:

In addition to the plans to build on Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, there are also the various proposals for the auto body district in Willets Point, which I covered last year and the year before.

There are several developers and pressure groups (the Mets, Major League Soccer, the United States Tennis Association, the Related Group) in favor of the plan, and a number of groups opposed (Willets Point United, the Fairness Coalition of Queens). Right away, I'm skeptical about the plans, especially the "build lots more parking" parts.

But I'd like to step back a little bit and ask: if we had all the money and power in the world, what would we most like to see there? What use would fit our goals (see up top) best? And what is it already being used for?

The first thing to think about is the valley's natural role as a swamp in absorbing storm surge. A column by Jim Dwyer in the Times and a thorough op-ed by biologist Jason Munshi-South in the Daily News explaining exactly how this works, and how well it worked during Hurricane Sandy. Most urbanists think of Curitiba as a pioneer in "Bus Rapid Transit," but they also set aside swampland as seasonal parks for flood control.

There is a significant amount of swampland along the Flushing River and its tributaries, including the upper part of the river near Willow Lake and the former Flushing Airport. But north of Meadow Lake the river enters a culvert, emerging on the other side of the Fountain of the Planets into a post-industrial wasteland.

As Scott Fitzgerald famously described it, the "Valley of Ashes" was for many years used as a dump for an on-site garbage incinerator. In 1936 Bob Moses bulldozed the ashes and other trash over to the edges of the valley to form the base of the Grand Central Parkway, and erected viaducts to carry the Whitestone Expressway across from Flushing. In 1961 he built the Van Wyck Expressway on the east side of the valley.

The surrounding neighborhoods rely on Flushing Meadows for recreational space. It also hosts cultural centers for the entire borough: the Queens Museum of Art, the Queens Zoo, the Queens Botanical Garden. And of course there are the sports facilities: Citifield, the tennis complex, the skating rink, the boathouse, the "pitch and putt" golf center, and their attendant parking nastiness.

Then there is the transit infrastructure. E, F and R trains are stored in the Jamaica Yard at the southern end of the valley. The #7 train crosses the valley to the north over Roosevelt Avenue, and these trains are stored in the Corona Yard south of the station. Between the station and the yard is the Corona Bus Depot.

But there's one more issue: pedestrians. During the day, it's a relatively pleasant walk from, say, the Lemon Ice King of Corona to the Flushing Library, if you cross the Grand Central on one of the two mostly-pedestrian bridges and go under the Van Wyck at the Avenue of Discovery. But walking into the park from anywhere else ranges from fairly unpleasant to borderline suicidal, and walking around it takes hours. In contrast, Central Park, Prospect Park and Van Cortlandt Park have edges and crossings that are much more humane and welcoming.

The Bloomberg administration and the developers are right that we need more housing that's conveniently located to jobs in Manhattan, and where else but Queens? Similarly, with all the soccer fans in Queens (when the World Cup was on, no matter who was playing you could find at least one restaurant from that country where the fans were watching, and dozens in the case of Ireland, Colombia and Mexico), it makes a lot of sense to have a soccer stadium. And I'm on record as being in favor of a casino located near the large population of gamblers. On the other hand, I simply haven't looked at the area and said to myself, "You know what we need? Another shopping mall." But in all these cases, why this part of Queens?

Finally, I don't believe we need lots of parking for every possible park use even in Fresno, much less Queens.

All right, well this is a good place to stop. So I'm not going to answer the question in this post. Maybe later I'll work towards an answer. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments and on Twitter.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Exploring the Death Valley of Commute Options

Recently I argued that there was a "Death Valley of Commute Options" between transit and driving, If you're sick of the crowding on transit it costs a lot to upgrade to driving, and if you can then no longer afford to drive it's a big drop back to transit.

I was a little sloppy with the math behind the car options, and commenters like Christopher Parker and Joel Davis sorted me out. So here's the new version of my chart:

As you can see on the spreadsheet, I've included gas, parking, a car loan and insurance for a total cost of $24.48 each way. Parker claims that "the public uses its perception of the cost which is gasoline only," so I've provided a figure for that too, "Perceived car," which is $15.82.

Alon got ahead of me and pointed out that many civil (and uncivil, PDF) servants get free parking. In addition, most car owners park for free on the street, which would bring the cost down to $12.81.

If we do that, Death Valley almost disappears! But what if you don't live and work in the relatively small areas of the city where an express bus or commuter rail commute makes sense?

There's Death Valley again, especially if you don't have free parking. And what if you can't drive because of disability, prior conviction, or just wanting to be extra careful not to kill innocent people?

Humungous Death Valley, and the taxi option just seems like a silly luxury. That's why so many people drive in the city. The easiest way to get those people out of their cars is to offer a premium commute option, or at least let someone else try.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

What I want from a mayor or city council member

After I laid out the ways that Christine Quinn has disappointed me as a transportation and livable streets advocate, I got a couple of emails from 2013 candidates asking for my support for their campaigns. I'm flattered to be asked at all, being some nameless guy who often defies political realities.

As a famous New Yorker once said: well, you know, we'd all love to see the plan. If you've reached out to me, I'll be happy to talk about your plan. But right off the bat I'll tell you and everyone else on the Web that some things are more likely to win me over than others. I've made some specific recommendations in earlier posts, but here I want to talk more in generalities, based on what's disappointed me in previous campaigns.

Now a lot of these have to do with transit, and I know that the Mayor and the City Council don't control the MTA. But they can accomplish some things. The #7 train extension to the Javits Center is a Bloomberg project. When the MTA cut bus routes, it was the City DOT that shut down Joel Azumah's replacement service, the Taxi and Limousine Commission that launched a clueless attempt at legal jitney service, and the NYPD that is keeping dollar vans out of the bus lanes.

  • See transit as a system. Having a "transit plan," a "freight plan," a "livable streets plan" and a "transportation plan" - that's a recipe for chaos and cross-purposes. Transit is all about one thing: getting people and stuff from one place to another. During the next administration there will be billions of trips; the goal should be to make them all as safe, healthy and efficient as possible, without regard to mode.
  • Get people out of their cars. As I've written before, my goals - that you see at the top of the page - all depend on getting people out of their cars. You can have the best transit plan in the world, but it's worth nothing if your road plan is more effective at encouraging people to drive. If you don't see that improving highways more than transit is regressive, you're not thinking clearly. If you think that you have to have "something for the drivers" in your transportation plan, but you leave no possibility for "the drivers" and their kids to accomplish their goals without driving, you've failed New York.
  • Connect transit, walkability and land use. Transit works best when people can walk to it from where they are. Places work best when people can walk to them from transit. That means locating housing, jobs and shopping near transit; locating transit near housing, jobs and shopping; and making sure that the routes between them are safe and pleasant. Not like Edgewater.
  • Inspire us. Who the fuck wants to ride an elevated busway over an ugly late-Bob Moses highway? Who wants to climb fifty steps to get into a station with underground platforms? Not me. What inspires me? New lines that actually go someplace I'd want to go. New or reopened stations where I want to go. Improved connections between lines.
  • Give us real value. Why would people who happily fork over an extra two dollars care about saving $1.25 on an arbitrary subset of their trips? How many people really care about keeping the subway fare at $2.25, aside from it being a symbol of the government's commitment to transit riders? We'll pay more if we're getting more. That means getting where we want to go faster, more reliably and more comfortably.
  • Get it passed and fund it. Yes, we want to be inspired, but we also want to know that at least some of what you promise is going to happen. How are you going to get your partners in city and state government to go along? Most importantly, where is the money going to come from? Anyone who says "the commuter tax" without a feasible plan to get the Legislature to pass a constitutionally valid commuter tax is full of shit.
  • Foster innovation and adaptation. Do we really want to live in a city where it takes over a year to get a single bus route that runs every half hour? I don't. I want to live in a city that tries new things and rewards people who try new things on their own.
  • Don't be afraid to say no - to unions, politicians, business owners, landowners, or even "the community." You can't give everything to everyone. If you try to, what you'll wind up doing is giving everything to the most threatening people and ignoring the weaker ones. That's no way to run a city. I'm not happy with everything Mike Bloomberg has done, but one of the things I've liked the most about him over the years is that he has a nose for bullshit. But this isn't like Andrew Cuomo or Chris Christie who cry poverty one minute and drop billions on superficial projects the next.

    Bloomberg can often tell the difference between someone who wants to make the world a better place and someone who wants to protect their unearned advantage. When he hears a sob story from somebody who was born on third base and thinks they hit a triple, often he'll listen politely, look them in the eye and tell them to take a hike. Having someone in City Hall who isn't constantly pandering is hugely refreshing.
  • Do something about the NYPD. There are a lot of good cops out there, but the leadership sucks. As Streetsblog has documented extensively, under Ray Kelly, the department has let killer drivers off the hook, ignored dangerous driving, harassed cyclists, and hogged pedestrian and cyclist space. We need a mayor and a city council who will hold the NYPD accountable for protecting those of us who don't carry expensive multi-ton steel boxes around with us.

I'll support any proposal that fits with these principles. If you have enough proposals like that - or if your competitors are dismal enough - I may endorse you for Mayor, Public Advocate, Comptroller or City Council. I can't promise that it'll get you elected, or that you'll even get one more vote. At best, I hope you were leaning in this direction, and that this post helped to bring you clarity. It'd be even better if we had more than one candidate making proposals along these lines.

And if you go banging the "two New Yorks" drum, well don't you know that you can count me out.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Christine Quinn's disappointing record on transportation

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn is running for mayor of New York. In theory I like the idea of the city's first lesbian mayor, and she seems like a nice person. She did get the council to pass congestion pricing in 2008. But overall her record on transportation has been negative, and there is no indication that she has any interest in taking a more progressive stand on the issue.

In addition to the contempt she has shown in writing, here are several actions Quinn has taken that show how low issues like pedestrian safety, fair access to jobs, clean air and water, resource conservation and protection, and prevention of global warming rank among her priorities. Thanks to Streetsblog for keeping an eye on her.

  • Jimmy Vacca's Kvetch Committee. When Transportation Committee chair John Liu was elected comptroller in 2009, Quinn appointed Jimmy Vacca to chair the committee. Vacca represents a conservative part of the southeast Bronx where 62% of households have at least one car, and the neighborhood elite simply ignore the other 38%.

    Over the past three years Vacca has continued Liu's pattern of pandering to the city's wealthy car-drivers, flattering their fantasies that they're a disadvantaged, oppressed class and attacking anyone who gets in their way. When he has shown interest in pedestrian deaths, it has been temporary and fleeting, but he always seems to have time to dream up new giveaways to drivers. All this time, Quinn has stood with Vacca and even reiterated some of his kvetches.

    In part, this is clearly a political calculation. Quinn has seen transportation as an issue where there is no strong case for progressive action. With that gone, it is simply a political bargaining chip, to be traded to outer-borough power-brokers in exchange for their support.
  • Four more years of Ray Kelly. Back in January the Post reported that Quinn is planning to reappoint Ray Kelly as Police Commissioner. Under Kelly's leadership, the NYPD has actively obstructed enforcement of laws protecting pedestrian safety, while harassing cyclists in Central Park.
  • No taxi reform. Mayor Bloomberg made a heroic, if flawed, effort to increase the supply of taxis, especially in the "inner boroughs." He tried to get a bill passed in Albany because people seem to agree that the taxi lobby has bought the City Council, and thus it will never pass a bill that the medallion owners don't want.
  • Limiting pedicabs. In 2007, Quinn shepherded a law through the City Council, over Bloomberg's veto, to drastically reduce the number of pedicabs in the city and their ability to cross bridges. It was widely speculated at the time that she did this as a favor for her friend and neighbor Emily Giske, who introduced Quinn to her future wife Kim Catullo. Giske is a registered lobbyist who was working for motor taxi companies at the time.
  • No increase in transit funding. When the MTA was first established, the city and state governments both contributed to the subway and bus budget. Rudy Giuliani cut the city's contribution in the 1990s, as George Pataki was cutting the state's share. Bloomberg hasn't cut the city contribution as much as Giuliani did, but it has gone down. Yes, that's something to critique him for, but the City Council has never challenged him on it.
Remember these things when people ask you to support Quinn. I think we can do better.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

If you care about the Northeast Corridor...

Last week I mentioned that the Northeast Corridor between Washington, DC and New York City has a wealth of transit options, all of them generating operational profits for the transit provider. Credit for this success is in part due to the citizens of New York and New Jersey, who have resisted pressure from road builders to destroy town and country for planned highways like the Somerset Expressway and the Lower Manhattan Expressway, and in part due to the managers at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who implemented high tolls with congestion pricing.

When our governments did not simply continue to build roads and keep the tolls low, people needed alternatives. As car traffic has increased on the New Jersey Turnpike and parallel highways and the price of gas has risen, people have steadily switched to trains and buses. The result is that Northeast Corridor passengers now subsidize the rest of the Amtrak network, and a whole range of bus operators from Eastern up to Vamoose Gold make enough money to not just pay for gas, wages and maintenance, but for new buses, and even generate a profit.

Those options are under threat now from unchecked government spending to interfere in the market, and the person directing this interference is none other than that darling of the right and famed budget-cutter, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. You may remember, specifically, that Christie cancelled the ARC Tunnel project because he thought it would place too great a burden on future generations of New Jersey taxpayers.

It turns out that Christie didn't just lie about New Jersey's share of the cost and redirect three billion dollars to road projects. Tri-State has the news (from the Star-Ledger) that even three billion dollars isn't enough to finish those projects, and the Turnpike Authority will borrow an additional $1.4 billion to complete them - putting that burden on future generations of New Jersey drivers and taxpayers.

One of those projects in particular is a really bad idea and could seriously undermine transit in the Northeast Corridor. There is a bottleneck on the New Jersey Turnpike between Mansfield and New Brunswick where the highway is "only" six lanes wide. A lot of that $4.4 billion is being spent to widen the Turnpike to twelve lanes in that section.

Eventually, as with most road expansions, those twelve lanes will probably be just as congested as the six lanes are today,. Or maybe not. If other driving costs like gas and insurance continue to rise, driving may drop there just as it is all over the country. But for a while it will be smooth sailing, and that could spell trouble for Northeast Corridor transit.

It's no coincidence that the Pennsylvania and Lehigh Valley railroads started to lose money after the Turnpike was opened, or that the Erie and New York Central lost money after the New York State Thruway was built, or the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western went downhill after Routes 78 and 80 opened. The Northeast Corridor, which is the successor to the Pennsylvania Railroad, is just beginning to recover.

Just as those highways drew passengers from the parallel railroads, the time savings on this newly widened Turnpike will draw passengers from the trains and buses of the Northeast Corridor. This is massive government-sponsored, debt-financed sabotage of a profitable market, done by a Republican with a reputation as a budget-cutter. Combined with the way the Democrats gummed up curbside bus pickup here in New York City, we may well see a drop in Northeast Corridor bus and train ridership over the next several years. I hope I'm wrong.

After the Port Authority raised tolls in 2010 there was a huge stink. After Christie cancelled the ARC Tunnel there was outrage from transit advocates. So far this massive highway widening hasn't gotten much more than a few angry Tri-State blog posts, and nothing from budget hawks. Will anything change?