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.