Monday, April 29, 2013

Long distance trains don't work?

Everyone seems to have figured out exactly why long distance trains don't work, and can't work, in the US. I wrote before about the efficiency arguments that Jarrett Walker and Bruce Nourish make against them, and a whole raft of people weighed in in the comments with well-constructed cases against routes longer than 750 miles.

The problem with these arguments is that they're too good. They ignore the fact that in many places outside the US, long distance trains are still popular, even with competition from subsidized planes and high-speed rail. The Trans-Siberian Railway is the most famous, but it is just one line in the large network built by the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Wikipedia lists the networks of India, China and Malaysia, as well as Germany, Italy, Morocco and the United Kingdom. There are even still a few long-distance trains in Argentina and South Africa.

This is not a question of population density: there are parts of Morocco, China, India and the former Soviet republics that are essentially uninhabited. So what do they have that we don't, and how can we get it? I'll leave this to all the commenters, since they know what's going on so much better than I do...

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Apartment buildings near the Rockaway Branch

In 2011, Alon Levy wrote this about the possibility of restoring service on the Rockaway Beach Branch Railroad in Central Queens:

Observe the land use maps of Queens Community Boards 6 (PDF) and 9 (PDF), which host most of the Cutoff: along the Cutoff’s right of way, the primary uses are single-family residential, with only a little commercial. Moreover, the commercial development is often very auto-oriented, for example at Metropolitan Avenue. Indeed, the only proposed station with significant dense development is Rego Park, which is on the LIRR Main Line and could be restored without restoring an entire line. Rezoning near the other stations is possible, but why not rezone near existing subway stations first?

Sure, on the map there are lots of single-family residential areas, but if you go there you see things like the Forest Park Co-ops:

When I took this picture I had my back to the fence enclosing the right-of-way. These are dense developments, with hundreds of residents. There's another condo across Park Lane South that used to be a factory. A little further north you see Forest View Crescent:

This massive twenty-story co-op sits right next to the right-of-way; in fact, one of the initial obstacles when the MTA tried to restart service in the 1960s was the fact that the co-op is using the right-of-way for their parking lot. A few blocks north is the commercial development along Metropolitan Avenue that Alon mentions:
This is indeed auto-oriented, especially the Home Depot and the Metropolitan Avenue Educational Campus, but it is not irredeemable. The Trader Joe's draws people from all over Central Queens, and not just by car. Look at the number of people waiting for the bus across the street, at noon on a Monday:

There were similar numbers waiting on my side of the street for the eastbound bus, and on Woodhaven Boulevard for the buses going north and south. Just a block east of the Rockaway Branch is the beginning of a relatively dense, walkable two-story commercial district along Metropolitan. Finally, north of there is another area of apartments around Fleet Street:

Because of this, I think the Rockaway Branch would get more riders if it had stops at Fleet Street and Myrtle Avenue, in addition to the old stations at Parkside (Metropolitan Avenue) and Brooklyn Manor (Jamaica Avenue). Between residents going to work and shopping, and people coming in to the schools and shops, there are hundreds of people who currently drive or take the bus or slow train. Rezoning the area near the Parkside station to allow more dense development would bring even more riders.

Friday, April 26, 2013

MTA complaints: myth vs. reality

There's actually a lot to say about the few minutes that the mayoral candidates spent discussing transit at the 92nd Street Y forum last month. When the Republican mayoral candidates responded to Selig Alpern, there seemed to be a sense that you could actually complain to the MTA about something.
Lhota: "Had this 89-year-old gentleman called me when I was at the MTA, I would have done something. Because anybody can tell you that I returned every one of my phone calls, and I returned every one of the letters that was a concern of all of the riders of the system. And I consider riders to be customers, and in my world, a customer is always right. ...."

"Since I'm no longer employed I'm taking the bus a lot, often, and I too get peeved at the fact that I see all of these express buses going by, and I want to get on the locals. So I made it a point, and I called Tom Prendergast, literally, last week, and I said, 'What's going on? Why can't these buses stop more locally?' I did not realize how bad it is here on the Upper East Side.'"

Catsimatidis: "You know, It's management. If you do get complaints, as mayor, you have a 311 system. If you get complaints people have to address them. And if the limiteds are making too few stops, then you have to adjust the system. And it's pure and simple: adjust the system where the limiteds make more stops. And you just need qualified people to solve those kind of problems."

Some of you are already jumping up and down, shouting that the Mayor doesn't control the MTA, and of course that was the next thing that Lhota said. But it's worse than that. Let me tell you about my experience complaining to the MTA.

A few months ago I was waiting in the cold for 25 minutes with about 30 other people, for buses that were scheduled to run every 5-7 minutes. After a while I decided to spend my time making a formal complaint, so I pulled out my phone and dialed 311.

I knew that 311 was run by the city, but I figured they'd have some connection worked out by now. Not so much. After listening to minutes of bullshit about alternate side rules, I eventually talked to a 311 operator, who forwarded me to 511, which is the state transportation line. I think I was finally able to talk to someone, but I'm pretty sure I didn't get a tracking number, and I definitely haven't gotten a callback or an email.

Maybe Catsimatidis is right; all you need are qualified problem solvers to take the complaints and act on them. But it ain't happening. If Catsimatidis can make it happen, maybe he should run for Governor instead.

I sure as hell don't know Tom Prendergast's direct phone number, and I never knew Joe Lhota's. The Executive Director's contact information is not on the MTA's website. I don't know how easy it would be to leave Prendergast a voice mail by simply calling 511; if you try, let me know. If Alpern is like me, he doesn't have an easy way to call the head of the MTA.

It's not an accident that it's difficult to complain to the MTA. The third candidate, George McDonald, hit the nail on the head: "I believe that we have to have the Mayor accountable, because you all want to have somebody accountable. They create the MTA, and these kinds of agencies, for obfuscation. Who's responsible? Who do you complain to?" The system was designed by the master of public authorities, Bob Moses, to accumulate power while deflecting accountability.

This more than anything convinces me that Joe Lhota is unqualified to be mayor. This is real "let them eat cake" stuff. He ran the MTA for over a year, and apparently he's still clueless about how difficult it is to get a complaint heard, and to get answers. Somehow he thinks that we all have Tom Prendergast's direct line on our speed dials, and that we had his own before that. Lhota really seems to believe that everyone who had a complaint during his time on the job was able to get through to him without being discouraged on the way, so that anyone who didn't, well, it's their own damn fault.

Of course, the reason the MTA doesn't really want to hear from ordinary riders is that its management doesn't actually think of us as customers who are always right. Its customers are the people who pay its bills: the Governor, the legislators, Congress, the real estate power players. Even though we riders actually pay the majority of the MTA budget through the farebox, our power is diffuse enough to ignore.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The density to support long distance trains

There's a new dust-up among transit bloggers, stirred by a recent report showing that while Amtrak's Northeast Corridor makes a profit and the state-sponsored corridor trains break even, the long distance trains are still losing money (although Don Phillips disputes those numbers). Eric Jaffe gives three arguments in favor of keeping the subsidies for the long distance trains, while Jarrett Walker and Bruce Nourish make an austerity case for dropping them. Paul Druce won't go that far, but argues that we should at least charge market clearing prices for berths in the sleeping cars.

Here's the key quote from Jarrett's comment on Jaffe's post: "Rail is optimal for particular distances. Europe has lots of great rail services, but still, if you’re going 2000 miles within Europe, and you’re not a tourist or time-rich wanderer, you’re definitely going to fly. ... Australia is too big for rail networks to be national, and so are the US and Canada."

I've faulted Jarrett in the past for transportation myopia, and here it's causing him to repeat the old "density to support transit" canard. These are the three questions that get you out of this myopic viewpoint:

  1. Would transit work if it had a better mode share?
  2. Does the area have the density to support roads or airplanes either?
  3. Would people live or work more densely if the car or air infrastructure were less subsidized?

1. Would long distance trains work if they had a better mode share? Absolutely. Take the ridership on just about any Amtrak long distance route and there are more than a hundred times that many people driving or flying. Shift half of those drivers or flyers to the train, and you can charge enough to break even.

2. Does the area have the density to support roads or airplanes either? No. There are very few highways that pay for themselves, and I don't think any of those compete with trains. Air service is heavily subsidized: public airports, publicly funded air traffic control, Essential Air Service.

3. Would people live or work more densely if the car or air infrastructure were less subsidized? Yeah. You'd still have people living in Seattle and Phoenix and along train lines connecting them, but a lot less in small towns scattered around the country.

So we see that it's not that Australia, the US and Canada are too big for national rail networks. It's that they're too big for three national networks, road, rail and air. Cut the subsidies to one of the other two, and we can get enough passengers for rail.

Jarrett makes a further argument based on efficiency with his remark about the "time-rich wanderer," which is echoed by Nourish. That may have merit, but it's a separate issue, and it doesn't help anyone if you conflate them. I'll deal with it in another post.

Monday, April 15, 2013

In 2013, subways raise property values

Suppose that you live in a detached single-family home a block from the old Brooklyn Manor train station in Woodhaven. Your neighbors are selling a house a lot like yours, containing about 2000 square feet of floor area on a 5,000 square foot lot abutting the Rockaway Beach Branch railroad embankment, for $439,000.

That's one of the few houses that can even be sold; Zillow says that 20-30% of mortgages in this area are underwater. You want to see your property values go up. Maybe your mortgage is underwater; maybe you just want to get a good price when you're ready to sell. What can you do? Reactivate the railroad.

Your house is currently an hour door-to-door from downtown Manhattan on the rickety, unreliable J or Z tracks. If you're trying to get to Midtown, where there are more jobs, you would have to change for the F or M trains, adding another fifteen minutes. But what if you could cut that travel time to forty-five minutes, say by running the R train on the Rockaway Branch tracks? We don't have to imagine; we can just look at a very similar train line.

This 15000 square foot house, 2163 East 15th Street in Brooklyn, is currently for sale at $489,000. That's $50,000 more than your neighbor is asking, for a house that's a little smaller. Okay, your neighbor's house has termite damage, but it also has a huge back yard with no trains running on the tracks.

If you compare properties along the Q train in Sheepshead Bay and Homecrest you find that they're typically $100-200,000 more than you would get for "comparable" properties along the Rockaway Branch, like this 1600 square foot semi-attached house asking $729,000. And according to Zillow, only 5-10% of mortgages are underwater. That 15-30 minute difference in commute time makes a big difference in home prices. Crime is lower, too.

This may be a surprise to you. You may remember the sixties and seventies, when properties near active train lines went down in price and properties near highways went up. Things have changed. People can't afford to drive, and they're realizing that the train and the city aren't so bad.

What about the opposite problem, gentrification? Well, I took a walk through Sheepshead Bay yesterday, and let's just say I didn't see any creative facial hair or skinny jeans. Don't take my word for it; go look for yourself.

Reopening the Brooklyn Manor train station would be a huge boon to people who live nearby. But you can only do it if you get out of the 1970s mental traffic jam and ride the train into the twenty-first century. Please, sign the two petitions to reopen the Rockway Beach Branch, on and on Assemblymember Goldfeder's site.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Will "Willets West" relieve Flushing Meadows's parking curse?

One of the least pleasant things about Flushing Meadows is the sheer amount of parking, as I've helpfully highlighted for you on the Google satellite photo below. Unfortunately the photo doesn't do justice to the enormity (and I do mean enormity) of the situation. Even the smallest of these parking lots, like the one behind the Hall of Science, is depressing. The Citifield lots are just soul-crushingly huge; the Mets organization says there are 8,500 parking spaces available.

This parking doesn't just waste space that would be better used as parkland or even swamp. It ruins everything around it, because as we know from study after study, more parking means more driving. The parking is why it's almost impossible to walk anywhere in the park without some self-righteous asshole in a minivan forcing you off the walkway. It's why the only entrance to the park that's at all pleasant for pedestrians is the number 7 el that carries you over most of the parking and connects you to a boardwalk that crosses high above the rest. It's why even the other entrances near the Botanical Garden and the Hall of Science are still pretty nasty.

Citifield is actually a minor improvement over Shea Stadium in that it's relatively close to 126th Street, making the walk to the bay a little less oppressive. These parking lots are much more of a blight than the auto body shops of Willets Point, which do after all constitute a functioning business district. I think on some level the Wilpon family realize that - and of course they're getting a lot of pushback from the Willets Point business owners.

This probably explains why the latest proposal to develop the area involves putting a giant mall entertainment complex on the site of the parking lot. In theory, this could be a very good thing for the pedestrian environment. It will replace the parking on the entire west side of Citifield with mall fa├žade, which may actually interact with the pedestrian space more than your typical mall. It's hard to tell for sure from the rendering below, but it may also make that stretch of Roosevelt Avenue less of a hellscape.

One thing that's kind of puzzling in all this is that I haven't seen any mention of floodproofing. The entire valley flooded during Hurricane Sandy, like salt marshes do, and will probably flood again every year for the foreseeable future. It should be possible to build this mall in a way that is less vulnerable to flooding, but all the EDC says is that it's "necessitating a significant increase in grade," meaning that they'll dump some rocks or dirt and build on top of them.

The biggest improvement, in theory, could come from reducing the amount of parking in the Flushing River Valley. People are driving less and taking the train more, and new development means a chance to change old travel habits. This would not only make for more pleasant places to walk, but also remove a number of the worst-behaving drivers from the streets.

"In theory," I said. But even the current plans are disappointing. Before a shovel is dug in "Willets West," they call for a twenty acre parking lot to be paved where there are now auto body shops in Willets Point. Willets West itself will contain 2,500 parking spaces. It's not clear that there will be any net reduction in the amount of parking available, and the planners seem to be pushing right ahead with their plans to open new exits off the Van Wyck Expressway.

Another thing that isn't clear is who all is going to drive to this "entertainment complex." Another mall, Atlas Park, has been dying a slow death because of the economic troubles and because it's not near any subway lines. (Yes, I know, it's a "lifestyle center" and not an "entertainment complex," but it's close enough.) This mall will probably survive because it'll be right under a major subway station and near a Long Island Rail Road station, but then who will want to park? (Yes, I know, the LIRR station is only open when there are major sporting events. They'd be stupid not to stop the trains there when the mall opens, which will be another improvement for park users.)

All these deals are laid out behind closed doors (it's not clear whether the rooms are still smoke-filled), but it may be possible to amend this one with public pressure. Save Flushing Meadows-Corona Park is urging people to testify against the plan at the Community Board 7 meeting tomorrow night (Monday, April 8), and on May 13. The project is not on the agenda, but CB7's Buildings and Zoning Committee will be discussing it Thursday night with no public comment, so tomorrow is your chance to frame the issue for them.

I hope that some of you will attend the meeting and speak about the benefits of reducing the parking in the area and elminating the new highway offramps. I hope that some will also talk about more thoughtful, proactive ways to deal with the flooding. Have fun!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Enough riders for what?

In many discussions of transit feasibility, the question arises: will it attract enough riders? This can lead to some heated discussions, because not everyone agrees on what counts as enough.

The most basic criterion for the transit rider is personal: I am enough. If the transit route takes me where I want to go when I want to go, and has enough room for me to sit down comfortably, I don't really care whether it has one person or none.

From the transit manager's perspective, though, that's not good enough. Transit costs money to operate, so it needs enough riders to justify its operating expenses. If it doesn't attract them, the money will probably be spent somewhere else. For me as the rider that's bad news, although transit providers usually don't share that information with riders.

Similarly, transit costs money to build and maintain, and it needs enough riders to justify its capital expenses. If it doesn't attract them, the money will probably be spent somewhere else. I've separated capital and operating expenses out, because they are usually separate decisions, often made by separate groups of people with different goals.

Now we come to another question: what does it mean to justify operating or capital expenses? That depends on the goals of whoever is spending the money. Here's where the concept of "enough riders" really diverges.

The easiest goal to understand is operating profit, and that's why so many people are fixated on it. It depends on the laws of supply and demand: can the service attract enough people, paying a high enough fare, to recoup the operating costs? Overall profit covers the operating costs and that service's share of the capital costs.

Often with transit, especially these days, either the fare or the ridership or both are not high enough to earn an operating profit, let alone an overall profit. That means that the service is subsidized with the aim of achieving some other goal.

After profit, the simplest goal is an internal one. Jarrett Walker discusses the value of network effects in transit, where running "empty" buses on off hours or in sparsely populated areas may increase ridership on popular routes or during peak times.

What if your goal is reducing pollution or increasing efficiency? Despite what Eric Morris and Tom Rubin say, an average of eleven riders on a bus is enough to pollute less than a private car, according to a report (PDF) prepared for the Environmental Defense Fund; similar ridership levels can be calculated for other types of pollution and efficiency based on the data in that report. Of course, only riders who've shifted from driving count; riders who would otherwise have walked, ridden a bike, taken a different transit route or stayed at home don't reduce pollution or improve efficiency by taking this route.

If your goal is reducing carnage, then you should know that a trained professional driver is less likely to crash than an amateur, so even one rider shifting from driving should improve safety, and it goes up from there. Whether the safety improvement is "enough" depends on how you value safety.

If your goal is encouraging people to live, work and shop in walkable areas, maybe to improve your tax base Strong Towns-style, the effect per rider is really hard to measure, and it depends in part on whether you have park-and-rides. Car ownership levels or the price of walkable housing may be better indicators than transit ridership.

If your goal is access for all, as a social justice measure, you need to drill down further. Are you concerned with access to work, shopping, social interaction, participation or social services? The best way to figure it out is to survey your population, and then it would depend on whether there are other ways of serving that population that are more efficient.

Once you get past those bare minimum levels the question arises of what an acceptable return on your subsidy is. How much pollution reduction or energy efficiency is worth a hundred million in light rail tracks? How much carnage reduction, sales tax receipts or newly employed at-risk residents is worth a million dollars a year in bus driver salaries?

The next thing is to keep in mind that it's almost always relative to an alternative. How much pollution reduction could you get by converting boilers to natural gas? How many seniors could you get to the doctor with a demand response system?

There is also the compounding effect of the cycle. Each person who shifts from driving to transit not only helps to accomplish our goal, but also provides political and financial support to expand transit and reduce driving further.

That said, there are other alternatives that get people out of their cars without building transit. Some of them may not only be cheaper than transit, they may be revenue-positive in that they involve cutting the road budget.

These are some things to keep in mind the next time someone asks, "Will it attract enough riders?" While you're pondering them all, hit the ball back in their court by asking them, "Enough riders for what?"

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Federal Pies of Evil

In this week's Strong Towns podcast, Chuck Marohn expressed the frustration he felt with other advocates at the national Bike/Walk Summit. I share his frustration as I see people spending our scarce donations lobbying for a handful of millions of dollars that are swamped by the billions being spent on roads, parking and other anti-bike, anti-walk elements of sprawl.

Chuck gives a great illustration of this in terms of Safe Routes to School funding, where advocates busted their asses to win tens of millions of dollars a year for the whole country, and then have to bust their asses all over again in every transportation bill and appropriations cycle just to maintain this funding, and maybe get a small increase if they’re lucky. Meanwhile, the government spent $14.6 billion on school construction in 2010, most of it building new unwalkable, unbikeable schools.

Chuck’s response is to give up on the whole federal system and devolve spending to the states. If that’s what it takes I’m with him, but I want to at least try one more strategy before I endorse that. Here’s the strategy: go negative. Austerity for roads and parking. No more Mr. Nice Guy. No more "all of the above."

Imagine that your dad makes great pie, but you’ve got a selfish older sister who hogs the pie. It’s true, she’s bigger, but it’s still not fair for her to get almost all of the pie while you only get a tiny sliver. Every time your dad makes pie you plead with him and your sister for just a little bit more.

Eventually your sister comes to you and says, "I’ll make a deal with you. Let’s get together and ask Dad to make a pie that’s twice as big. Then we’ll both get twice as much pie as we usually do!" So you do that, and it works, but the time after that she convinces your dad to only give you a little more than what you got before the pie was doubled. Still, it’s an increase, so you shouldn’t complain, right?

Now imagine that this is a magical pie that makes everyone who eats it more persuasive. It has a side effect that it also makes them hungrier. So each time your sister gets most of the pie, she wants more and more, and she gets better and better at convincing your dad to give her more. Would you really want your sister to get any more than she gets now? Wouldn’t you want to cut back her share drastically?

Finally, imagine that your sister is abusive, and each time she eats the pie she gets stronger, and beats up on not just you, but your mom and dad and the family dog too. Why would you want your sister to get any pie at all?

This is the situation that bike, walk and transit advocates have gotten us into in Washington. Roads and parking are not just competing with pedestrian, bicycle and transit infrastructure; they steal users from those other modes and reduce their lobbying strength further. On top of that, they’re bad for our health, bad for our safety, bad for our security and bad for our sanity. Chuck has also shown that they’re bad for the fiscal health of our local, state and federal governments.