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.