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.