Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Pedestrian lives matter

Remember when the Department of Transportation seemed so conservative and car-oriented, when it looked like Mike Primeggia was going to be ramming one-way conversions down the throats of New Yorkers forever? Remember when that all changed? It was when our Mayor realized that it was important to make our city safer and take a lead against carbon emissions, that it might help him win re-election if he could make that part of his agenda going up against a hidebound political operative. So he found a no-nonsense manager who cared about these issues, put her in charge of the DOT, and backed her up. Things changed, a lot more quickly than anyone expected.

Remember when the City Council and the community boards seemed so conservative and car-oriented, when it looked like they would fight every bus and bike lane to the death forever? Remember when that started to change? It was when Transportation Alternatives and Streetsblog started putting the word out, covering elections, getting advocates for safer streets and better transportation to apply for community boards. It was when those same advocates formed StreetsPAC to fund candidates who would fight for subways and road diets, and the Riders Alliance to pressure them.

This is what democracy looks like, to borrow a phrase from the protestors. This is information sharing, organizing, holding elected officials accountable. This is getting everyone involved in the political process.

Now, remember when all that hit a brick wall, just like this school bus with fifteen kids hit a brick wall in my neighborhood the other day? Remember the missing piece in all this street safety? Remember when we tried to change the NYPD?

Who refuses to ticket speeding and reckless drivers? Who refuses to patrol for failure to yield to pedestrians? Who shows no interest in getting cars off the sidewalk? Who has blocked the expansion of Summer Streets? Who fills the sidewalks and bike lanes around every police station with their cars? Who looks the other way when the FDNY does the same thing? The NYPD.

More tragically, that same identification with drivers leads the NYPD to prematurely blame victims of traffic violence and exonerate perpetrators. It leads them to ignore evidence that could bring a conviction, and to drag their feet on investigations. It leads them to entrap cyclists and rough up pedestrians.

(And yes, not all cops, by any means. While some rank-and-file cops may be particular assholes to pedestrians, that's probably less true for the NYPD than for any other police department. The problem is more with the orders and priorities that the rank and file get from the top brass.)

Technically the NYPD is a city agency, and I assume that Bloomberg had the legal right to do with it what he did with the DOT: replace Ray Kelly with someone who gave a shit about pedestrians and back that person up until he saw real change. But he’s done similar shakeups at the Taxi and Limousine Commission and the Department of Education, and I figure he just didn’t have the capital to take on the NYPD. You know what? That’s okay. Much as I want my kid to be safe from unlicensed drivers, I know change doesn’t always happen overnight.

So then we get de Blasio, who’s shown a real windshield perspective in the past, and he brings Bratton back. But de Blasio adopts Vision Zero, and his wife and children are black, so he pushes against the NYPD. And we start to see some changes, like at the 78th Precinct in Prospect Heights. I even dared to hope that the outrage over Eric Garner’s death, coming at a time when the city is renegotiating its contract with the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, might bring about a shakeup that would put some brass with Vision Zero in charge.

This is why I’m writing about the NYPD tonight. Because some nutcase killed a couple of hardworking cops the other day, and now Pat Lynch and his friends are trying to use that double murder to attack the Mayor and the movement for more police accountability. It’s clearly a power game, to make de Blasio and his allies weak, win greater concessions from the city in the new contract, and maybe get a little personal power for Lynch, Giuliani, Kerik and so on. And it can have grave consequences for Vision Zero.

Imagine that Pat Lynch’s hateful, divisive tactics are effective. The Mayor backs off any plans for reform he might have had. The NYPD cracks down on the protestors, and the Mayor does nothing to stop them. He continues to make noises about Vision Zero, but nothing happens. In 2018, newly elected Mayor Lynch puts Kerik back in charge and abandons Vision Zero, calling it a noble but misguided crusade.

Imagine, on the other hand, that the Mayor’s allies prevail. De Blasio wins a new contract, with concessions that include no parking for police officers’ private cars. He brings in Eric Adams to replace Bratton and institute reforms to protect and serve the have-nots in New York City. Prominent among those reforms is Vision Zero. Commissioner Adams expands investigations of all crashes that result in serious injury to pedestrians and cyclists, and punishes officers who declare “no criminality suspected” to the media. The NYPD joins the DOT, the City Council and many Community Boards in becoming allies in the fight to protect pedestrians. Once the NYPD cooperates, the District Attorneys come on board too.

That’s one of the many things at stake here. If you think it’s just about race, or just about unions, or just about cigarettes, think again.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Never trust a transit advocate

I’ve been fighting for better transit for over twenty years now, and one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is this: never trust a transit advocate.


I’m not saying that we’re all liars, or irresponsible, or anything like that. I’m saying that you don’t automatically know what it means when you hear that someone’s a transit advocate.

This is why I have my goals right up on top of the blog, and I keep coming back to them over and over. I’m not for transit, right or wrong. I don’t think transit is always right. Transit is a tool to get people out of their cars, bringing with them all the benefits of not driving (less pollution and carnage, more efficiency and better social life). Transit is also a tool to help make access to resources more fair. It’s not the only tool to accomplish either of those things, and it doesn’t automatically accomplish either of them, and I am happy to toss it aside if it looks like the wrong tool for the job. In general, though, it’s a good tool.

For other people, transit is not about any of these things, or all of these things. For one person, transit may be about pollution or efficiency, but not about carnage or social interaction. For another, it may be about social justice or charity, but not about pollution or carnage. For some it may be about questionable values like "mobility" or "cost effectiveness." For some it may be about bringing in consulting dollars, and for some it may be all about their own damn egos.

Here’s the thing: you can’t tell. You don’t know, just because someone is billed as a transit advocate, whether they are going to support the same projects you do. You don’t know that they’re not going to surprise you with some (edgy! counterintuitive!) stance against one of your favorite projects. You don’t know, and that’s why you shouldn’t trust them ... us.

Here are two "transit advocates" that you shouldn’t always trust – and why. The first is a group calling themselves "BRT for NYC." It’s run by our friend Joan Byron, who loves to propose half-baked "bus rapid transit" corridors, but is AWOL when it’s time to fight for them. She’s gotten together with habitual BRT proponents Transportation Alternatives and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, snagged endorsements from the Straphangers Campaign and the Riders Alliance, and convinced the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation to put hundreds of thousands of Standard Oil dollars behind this agenda.

When shouldn’t you trust "BRT for NYC"? When their agenda is not about improving buses - or they would have some mention of citywide proof-of-payment or bus lanes on the Williamsburg Bridge or a 24-hour XBL. When it’s not about better transit or fair access to jobs for NYC - or there would be something in favor of the Utica Avenue subway and the Rockaway Beach Branch. When it’s not about getting dangerous cars out of NYC neighborhoods. When it’s all about taking a single model – center-running busways in large stroads – developed in cheap-labor, authoritarian countries like Brazil and Colombia for cities that didn’t have subways, and corralling government and transit-activist time and money trying to shoehorn it into expensive-labor, NIMBY-happy New York, over and over again, no matter how many times it fails.

The second transit advocate you shouldn’t always trust is the "Queens Public Transit Committee." Committee member Brendan Reed just co-authored an op-ed in the Queens Chronicle with Allan Rosen. Rosen worked as a bus planner for the MTA years ago and came up with what he says is a visionary plan to make the buses in southern Brooklyn much more efficient. The MTA didn’t appreciate his genius, so he took to forums and then blogging to get his ideas out. He has a small but dedicated following among the city’s transit advocates, especially those like the "Queens Public Transit Committee" who promote subways and the kind of government-monopoly bus service the city has been rolling out for the past eighty years.

When shouldn’t you trust the "Queens Public Transit Committee"? When their agenda is not about improving buses, but about avoiding any inconvenience to drivers. When they oppose incremental transit improvements while holding out for the particular improvement they want.

What this means is that you shouldn’t trust what either group says about bus service on Woodhaven Boulevard. Yes, Woodhaven is a big, nasty stroad running through areas without good subway service. Yes, dedicated bus lanes would calm the boulevard and help people get places. Yes, those lanes would inconvenience some drivers.

But no, Joan Byron, dedicated bus lanes will not magically solve all the problems of people who live in the area. They will not beautify the boulevard by their mere terra-cotta-painted presence. They are no substitute for reactivated train service on the Rockaway Beach Branch.

And no, Allan Rosen, inconveniencing drivers is not a reason to reject a transit plan. Congestion does not put pedestrians at greater risk. The existence of dedicated bus lanes on Woodhaven will not magically drain the support for reactivated train service on the Rockaway Beach Branch.

The thing is that it’s easy to tell when to trust these guys or not. They say it right there. "BRT for NYC" has it in their name: they’re only interested in helping transit if it’s the right kind of transit. Allan Rosen and Brendan Reed say it in their op-ed: "questions posed by the Queens Public Transit Committee in early 2014 requesting a comparison of the positives and negatives for all users of the roadway, not only bus riders."

You can’t always go by the name. Someone may have "transit" in their name, and not always be in favor of transit. You have to look at their goals, and their arguments. And honestly, I'm creeped out by the level of obsession that both Byron and Rosen have demonstrated over the years, Byron for "BRT" and Rosen for the perfect bus map. I'm not convinced that either of them care about much beyond themselves and their personal white whales.

I’ve got "transit" in my name. Should you trust me? No! Read my agenda; it's right up at the top of this blog. I’m in favor of both dedicated bus lanes on Woodhaven Boulevard and reactivation of the Rockaway Beach Branch, because they would both help to make access fairer and get people out of their cars. Hell, I'd be in favor of the Tappan Zee Bridge if I thought it would do that. Are those your goals too?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Where is the roads and bridges settlement?

It was a big con game, and many of the biggest con artists believed their own hype. "It can never go down!" they cried. They delivered something valuable to people who couldn't afford it, told them it was even more valuable, took a hefty cut for themselves, and left their victims on the hook for billions. But the government has been slow to make them pay.

In part that's because many of those responsible are in government, and many others in government are their friends. In part it's because most of the government regulators were asleep on the job. But mostly it's because so many in the public were asleep too. A lot of them still don't think anybody did anything wrong.


I'm talking about the housing bubble, yes, but not the mortgage fraud. You see, it's hard to tell how much of the bubble came from hype about loans that pay their own interest, and how much came from empty promises of roads and bridges that pay their own maintenance.

Tales of endlessly rising demand for housing and fantasies of endlessly rising demand for driving fed off each other: the new housing pumped up traffic measurements, prompting governments to build and widen roads and bridges, and the new roads and bridges pumped up housing prices, prompting developers to build more housing. In 2008 it all crashed, and if the stimulus hadn't been so focused on "roads and bridges" a lot of it would have stayed crashed.

There's a little good news on the mortgage front: this year the state has brought in over five billion dollars in settlements with several large banks. But when will we see a similar settlement for the road-and-bridge fraud? When will the government sue the people who got us to pay hundreds of millions for these projects that left us on the hook for decades of maintenance?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The cargo cult of railyard decks

I recently wrote about a proposal to build a deck over the Sunnyside Yards. This got me thinking about these projects in general. I'm afraid that railyard decks have become part of what Ryan McGreal called "cargo cult urbanism," along with convention centers, casinos, "bus rapid transit" and a "High Line": things that have high-profile associations with rapid increases in prosperity, things that people latch onto when they're desperate for improvement but unable to think clearly about what will actually improve things, or unwilling to admit that they don't know.

There is always a high-profile example that does plausibly bring prosperity: the original High Line, the Transmilenio, Foxwoods and McCormick Place may well have done so. But in practice when people try to replicate its success, the promised prosperity often does not materialize. In hindsight, it turns out that the actual generator of prosperity was something else, like upzoning, or that there are diminishing returns as the desire for gambling or conventions or office space is satisfied.


Everyone talks about how much money the New York Central Railroad made by decking over the Vanderbilt Yards in Manhattan and building office space and hotels. As the photo above showed, it didn't happen overnight: construction on the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel started more than twenty years after the Grand Central deck. There were a few other conditions as well: the Central already owned the land and construction was relatively cheap. Most importantly, the IRT subway had just been built linking Grand Central with the existing downtown and with new housing on the Upper West Side and the Bronx. There was a huge amount of pent-up demand for new office space, and the Vanderbilt Yards development made it available. It was this new availability to pent-up demand that made the buildings sell and delivered a profit for the Central.

As Stephen Smith has observed, there is currently pent-up demand for housing, but much less evidence of pent-up demand for office space, in New York City and particularly in one decking project, Hudson Yards. And as Ben Kabak reports, the new subway tunnel bringing people to the Hudson Yards is delayed and over budget. These facts in turn mean dim prospects for office towers or convention centers on future decks, including the Sunnyside Yards.

Given the market conditions that Stephen describes, I have to wonder why city officials continue to try to push commercial development on these decks. I think the reason is that unlike when Grand Central was built, developers aren’t finding private financing for decks over railyards. I would think that the financiers might have a good reason for not lending, but the city pushes ahead with public financing, such as the 50% government financing for Atlantic Yards. How does the city make back its investment? With taxes, and office buildings pay a lot more in taxes than apartment towers, even luxury ones.

Our government needs to be a lot more careful about how it finances big projects like decks over railyards. If a deck can’t be built without full private financing, the government has to have a compelling public interest to step in. That alone would cut down on some of the most unwise projects.

For the Sunnyside Yards, I'm not convinced that there is a compelling public interest in financing a deck. I'll talk about that more in future posts.

Monday, November 17, 2014

When bike paths are not transportation

I've written before about the capacity of bike paths to move large numbers of people. A dedicated bike path performs this function best when it connects dense residential neighborhoods with dense job centers. The bike paths on the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro Bridges are great examples of this. They may not transport as many people in a day, but they don’t transport thousands of dangerous, wasteful motor vehicles either. This is why we should convert one lane of the Brooklyn Bridge to a two-way bike path.

That said, a frequent train line can beat a bike path, or even a car lane, any day. On the Manhattan Bridge one fall day in 2012, according to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council’s Hub-Bound Travel Study, one car lane carried almost five times as many people as the bike lane, but one subway track carried 36 times as many.


With that in mind, let’s turn to the Rockaway Beach Branch, and to a proposal to convert it to a bike trail instead of reactivating train service. The Trust for Public Land argues that it “will” (not “could”) fulfill a similar transportation function:

Using the QueensWay to connect to subway stations, commuters could save 15 – 20 minutes each way to major work destinations such as Midtown Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn. Residents will also be able to use the QueensWay to connect to stores and other destinations. … Using the QueensWay to connect to subway stations, commuters could save 15 – 20 minutes each way to major work destinations such as Midtown Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn. Residents will also be able to use the QueensWay to connect to stores and other destinations.

Yes, that’s nice, but how many of them would actually use it? I could save ten to fifteen minutes off my commute by biking to the subway station, but I don’t do it because there’s just a plain rack to lock it to. There is no secure bike parking at any subway station near me, and there is none proposed in the trail plan.

Even assuming that secure parking was built, or that every potential bike commuter was comfortable locking their bike up at a plain old rack (and that the city built enough additional plain old racks to accommodate them, how many cyclists are we talking about? I’m guessing it would be far below the 2,601 cyclists that the NYMTC counted on the Manhattan Bridge on that fall day in 2012.

Now let’s assume that instead we brought trains back to the Rockaway Beach Branch. Let’s assume that the service is the crappiest possible: less than once an hour off-peak and a mandatory change to get to Manhattan, like the Long Island Rail Road Oyster Bay Branch. We would still get at least 3,350 riders a day (PDF).

If instead we dug a tunnel under a few blocks of Rego Park and ran the R train out to Howard Beach, we would see a lot more riders. Even if there were only four stations and all of them had the ridership of the 104th Street station on the A train (1,736), that would still be almost 7,000 riders a day. The least popular station on the R train, 36th Street in Long Island City, saw 4,540 riders last year, and I’ve proposed adding stations at Myrtle Avenue and Fleet Street to serve large buildings that were built since the line’s fortune declined. The half million riders heralded by some rail proponents may be too ambitious, but even if the line is a dismal failure it would serve far more people per day than a trail.

If you’re still thinking of the bike trail as a transportation project, look at this quote from the Trust for Public Land:

To ensure safety and security for neighbors and park users, the QueensWay will have gates at all entrances. The QueensWay will close at dusk except during winter months, when it will remain open slightly later to accommodate commuters.

(I’m pretty sure that last part about remaining open slightly later was added after I tweeted about this.) The bike paths on the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro Bridges are open twenty-four hours. That’s because they’re transportation infrastructure, not parks.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Decking the Sunnyside Yards: the history of a fantasy


Becoming the Yards:

1643: Burger Jorrisen receives the first patent for farmland near the swamps surrounding the Dutch Kills.
1861: The Long Island Railroad builds tracks from Hunters Point along the Dutch Kills to Jamaica.
1903: The Pennsylvania Railroad begins purchasing property in the area and draining the land.
1915: The Sunnyside Yards are opened.

(Background from the Greater Astoria Historical Society and Untapped Cities, among others.)

Development proposed on decks over the Yards:

1925: Post Office building
1951: Transportation Hub
1971: Housing
1973: Sports stadium
1989: Housing and offices
1997: Olympic village
2006: Housing, stores, schools, playing fields and parks
2008: Housing
2014: A hospital, affordable housing buildings, a school, a public space or some combination of those

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Moynihan Bus Rapid Transit Station!

Ben Kabak tweeted about a new proposal from something called Woods Bagot to open up Penn Station to sunlight by removing the theater under Madison Square Garden:


For many years I've argued that the "Moynihan Station" proposal contained at least two major design flaws that nullified any improvement to passenger circulation: it has lots of steps, and it's west of where most people want to go. Woods Bagot pays lip service to Moynihan Station proposal, but I would hope that this helps people realize they don't need to use the Farley Post Office to bring light back into Penn Station. Since they talk about "wrapping around" Madison Square Garden, I hope it will also deal with the atrocious pedestrian conditions above Penn Station:


Of course, there is one major drawback to the proposal: it's a wonderful vision for increased mobility, but it's not Pat Moynihan's vision, and may fail to adequately glorify our late Senator.

But wait! The proposal also mentions that "a new location for the well-used theater is unresolved." I've got the perfect place: the old Farley Post Office across the street. And you know what else we could put there? Buses!


We know that there's a shortage of places to catch a bus in Manhattan, particularly near the Lincoln Tunnel. Meanwhile, good terminals are critical to efficient hub-and-spoke bus networks, but our elected officials would rather pander to private car owners. There is a lot of space (with skylights!) inside the old building where the postal trucks used to go, and more along the sides:


You could even build a flyover across Eighth Avenue, or maybe even an underpass next to the train tracks, if you wanted to spend some money. Back inside, there are big open spaces for concourses:


Two of the biggest annoyances for transit advocates are the Moynihan Station fans with their desire to build a giant sculpture and tell us it's a functioning train station, and "Bus Rapid Transit" pushers who tell us that trains are wasteful luxuries for white people and we should be spending all the government money on buses. I've always argued that the Lincoln Tunnel XBL is the most effective form of bus rapid transit in the country. If we call this the Moynihan Bus Rapid Transit Station, maybe we can get both of these groups together to build a gorgeous temple for bus riders to enter the city like gods.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The problems with the yards

I live in Woodside, Queens, not too far from Sunnyside. I love both neighborhoods, but there are a few problems. Recently, urban planners and some of my neighbors have focused on a few in particular:

  • The rent is too damn high. I own a co-op, but I do know people who have been displaced, and people who want to live here but are having a hard time finding an affordable apartment. Increasing the housing supply would be a big help.
  • We are cut off from Astoria and Long Island City by the Sunnyside Yards to the north and west. These rail yards break up the street grid, leaving about nine ways to walk across them. All but one involve walking through industrial areas, which can have low foot traffic, especially on nights and weekends. Four of these involve crossing long, noisy, boring bridges over the Sunnyside Yards.
  • We don't have big parks. We have a number of small parks and playgrounds, but no big forests or greenways. The parks we do have can get crowded, particularly on hot summer days.
  • There aren't as many jobs as there could be. We've got relatively low unemployment rates, but we could use more jobs.

The planners have been talking for years about addressing these problems by building a deck over the Sunnyside Yards, but my neighbors are afraid of seeing our infrastructure and services overloaded. I'm concerned that there will be too much parking, and that whatever benefit we get won't be worth the cost. I'm pretty sure there are better solutions to these problems. I'll talk more about the proposals and concerns in future posts.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

What do low Tappan Zee Bridge tolls mean for you?

  • Do you drive to work across the bridge? Hooray! Your commute from your house in Rockland with the big yard to the office park in Westchester will continue to be affordable … for you, at least.
  • Do you drive across the bridge for shopping or socializing, or to get to a vacation home? Woo hoo! You will still be able to spend long hours driving to and from the mall parking lot. Enjoy your time off!
  • Do you drive a truck across the bridge? All right! Your business will continue to make a profit, until gas prices get too high.
  • Do you sell things in a mall or strip mall in Westchester or Rockland? Yowza! Your parking lots will still be full, and you may even recoup your investment.
  • Are you a politician or bureaucrat representing the area? Yippee! Pandering opportunities galore!
  • Do you take buses across the bridge, or in Westchester or Rockland? Not so good. People will continue to drive and to pressure their politicians for more roads and parking. Transit agencies will keep struggling for riders and subsidies.
  • Do you sell things in a walkable village in Westchester or Rockland? Sorry! The downtown resurgence you bet on is still a long way off. Hope you've got plenty of seed money to burn through before your gastropub gets out of the red!
  • Do you walk in Westchester or Rockland? Yeah, welp. The sidewalks, trails and density you need will continue to be neglected by elites who drive everywhere.
  • Do you breathe in Westchester or Rockland? Whoops! Why don't you take a nice drive up to New Paltz and enjoy the fresh air up there?
  • Do you take trains or buses in New York State? Oh, gee, sorry! We have no money for new transit. And look at that, we have no money to maintain the subways and buses you currently use. Wonder where all that money went?
  • Do you pay taxes in New York State? Wow! Those services you used to get for your tax dollars, like schools and low college tuition? Sorry to tell you, but the state is broke! We just can't afford luxuries like that any more. It's a new era!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

What is the challenge of our generation in New York?

As I wrote a few weeks ago, speaking about the problem of suburban poverty, Chuck Marohn said, "the challenge of our generation is to make sure that we don't leave those people behind." A group of researchers at the Brookings Institution, led by Alan Berube and Elizabeth Kneebone, have been investigating this important issue, and last year they came out with a book, Confronting Suburban Poverty, with a companion website. By comparing the 2000 Census with the 2008-2012 American Community Survey, they make a strong case that poor people are being displaced from center cities to suburbs.

I've been thinking along similar lines to Chuck's for a while now. I want to make sure that poor people aren't getting dispersed from my city, New York, to the suburbs and then left behind, so I looked into it. I've heard stories about people being displaced from Manhattan, from Brooklyn, and even from my own neighborhood in Queens. I want to know where they're going, and how we can preserve their access to New York's jobs and services.

On the Brookings website, it turns out the New York area has one of the lowest rankings in the country for (Edit) the increase in concentrated poverty, 89 out of 100:


Kneebone does observe that "all metro areas saw suburban poverty grow during the 2000s," and in the data table, she and her colleagues list the "New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA" Metropolitan Statistical Area as having a 35.6% growth in the suburban poor population between 2000 and 2008-2012 (from 708,574 to 960,883).

The first question is, what do the Brookings researchers mean when they talk about "suburban" anything? Joe Kriesberg raised that question, and Kneebone and Berube answered it: "We identify cities as the first named city in the MSA title and any other named city that has a population of 100,000 or more. We treat the remainder of MSAs as suburbs." That means that in the New York-etc. MSA they counted New York, Newark, Jersey City, Yonkers, Bridgeport, New Haven, Paterson, Stamford and Elizabeth as cities, but Edison, Woodbridge, Hamilton, Trenton, Norwalk, Clifton, New Rochelle, Mount Vernon and Passaic are suburbs.

I'll talk about what I found in a later post, but for now I just wanted to get this part out there.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Did you bring enough housing for everybody?

When I was a kid, one of the things the teachers told us was that if you bring snacks or candy, you have to bring enough for everyone. If you don't, it winds up going mostly to your friends and excluding a lot of kids, which isn't fair.

I realized recently that this also applies to people who want to keep rents down through rent controls, not increasing the supply, like Tom Angotti:

At bottom, developers typically argue, the housing problem is all about supply and demand. Let us increase the supply, they say, and there will be more housing to go around for all. This, not rent regulation, will keep rents from rising. That’s good old trickle-down economics, which never works. Indeed, we’ve just come through a couple of decades in which the total housing supply has grown dramatically, and so have rents, but there was also a huge loss of low-rent housing. Over the last 20 years almost 250,000 units of rental housing were deregulated.

I want to give Angotti props for two things: unlike many rent control advocates, Angotti actually listens to people who advocate increasing the supply, and he takes the time to write an articulate response. So even though I'm criticizing his arguments, the same criticism is even more true of other people's arguments.

First of all, one sorta-valid question that Angotti raises: if total housing supply has increased (I don’t have the figures, but I’ll assume that it’s true), and rents have also increased, doesn’t that falsify the supply-side argument?

Well, no, because Angotti’s representation of "what developers typically argue" is inaccurate. I honestly don’t know what developers typically argue, because I’m not one and I don’t spend much time listening to them. But if the problem is all about supply and demand, then Angotti left out the demand side. A fairer statement of the argument would be "Let us increase the supply to match the demand, and there will be enough housing to go around for all."

If we phrase the proposal this way, we have to look at demand, and all signs point to a huge increase in the demand for New York’s walkable urban spaces and its well-paying jobs. But Angotti does not want to look at demand. Instead, he shrugs it off as a “speculative real estate fever.” He acknowledges that “the plan claims the city’s population is bound to increase in the next decade,” but argues, bizarrely, that the projected increase is not based on evidence of real demand but of demand induced by “the development of smaller housing units.” That is all he says about the demand side.

To people who currently rent in the city, Angotti’s blustering about "gentrification" and displacement may be comforting, but for me it rings hollow. I’m a fourth-generation New Yorker, but after college (two decades ago, which is as far back as Angotti goes in his piece), I couldn’t afford to live in the neighborhood I knew best, the Upper West Side. Even now, with a solidly middle-class family income, four of the neighborhoods that my family has called home are now out of my range.

Things might have been different if my parents had not done the back-to-the-land thing in the seventies. They might have been different if, when I spent a few years to go to school in another state, I had played the illegal sublet game instead of giving up my rent-stabilized apartment. They might have been different if one of my family members had gotten a bigger apartment for me to illegally inherit when he died. But as it is, my family has given up several rent-regulated apartments, and I am displaced, one of the victims that Angotti and his fellow rent-regulation advocates cry for, and the Upper West Side community is poorer because the studio I inherited there was too small for my family.

Except that I’m not one of the victims that Angotti cries for. My family didn’t live in any of these places for "decades and generations," but instead migrated around the metropolitan area, chasing dreams of suburban comfort, rustic peace and creative success across the generations. Because we left our rent-regulated apartments semi-voluntarily, I don’t count as one of Angotti's displaced. I have no right of return.

You know who else doesn’t matter in the world of the rent-regulation advocates? Immigrants from other countries, looking for cheap places to settle in the U.S. The talented and ambitious from other parts of the country, looking to make it in New York. The queer and the weird and the non-conforming, chased out of their tight-knit communities in small towns and suburbs. Anyone who wants to live without a car and not be part of a small, oppressed minority.

There is no housing for us, because the rent-regulation advocates didn’t bring enough for everybody. They only brought enough for their friends, those fortunate enough to be currently benefiting from rent regulation and subsidized housing. If I were their kindergarten teacher I would have a quiet talk with their parents after school.

Honestly, I’m fine: I have a nice co-op in Queens. But it’s the thought that counts, and the thought that we don’t count is pretty damn offensive. It leaves this old lefty fuming at the cozy club mentality that Angotti tries to dress up as justice.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The light is better on the poor door

I was listening to Tanya Snyder and Jeff Wood treating the latest “poor door” outrage with some well-deserved skepticism. Jeff mentioned the (entirely hypothetical at this point) “luxury” residents of the new development at 40 Riverside Boulevard not wanting to “mix with the mudbloods” and asked, “if you don’t like it, move to Westchester or whatever.”

Jeff’s mention of Westchester brought to mind an important point: that places like Westchester are much more segregated. I grew up on the Upper West Side, and we would walk out the front door and see people of all income levels. Now I can’t afford to live there, but still when I go back I see people who are less well off than I am. If we don’t live in the neighborhood (in the projects, or in rent controlled or rent stabilized apartments), we can come to shop or visit the parks; some come to panhandle. It’s easy to reach by subway and bus.

Westchester County, on the other hand, is a lot more difficult. Yes, you can get to Rye or Scarsdale on the train, but it costs a lot more. The buses to Yorktown Heights and Armonk are a lot less frequent and convenient. And there is no poor door, because no poor people are allowed in the building, unless they’re there to mop the floors. In Westchester they have whole cities for the poor, like Port Chester and Yonkers.

My wife and I once looked at an apartment in Westchester, and on our way in with our real estate agent we saw another couple coming out with a different agent. Once we were inside the agent showing us the apartment grumbled loudly to us at the gall of the other agent. She wasn’t specific, but it was clear that she was angry he was showing the apartment to a black couple. Needless to say, we didn’t go back to that agent, but she was carrying on a long tradition of segregation in the county, a tradition defended by “moderate” gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino.

There's a famous parable of a man who loses his keys in the dark. A friend sees him searching under a streetlight and asks, "is this where you dropped them?" "Actually, no," replies the man, "but the light is better here."

I am reminded of this story when I think of people protesting the network of private employee buses shuttling employees of Google and Apple from San Francisco townhouses to Siicon Valley office parks. Much easier to lead showoff blockades against big white buses than to confront NIMBYs who oppose building more housing in San Francisco or creating dense walkable places in Silicon Valley itself. The light is better on the Google buses.

It's also much easier to fight a thirty-cent increase in the subway fare than to confront wealthy suburbanites who demand low bridge tolls. It's easier to be outraged by rich people stepping over homeless people on the streets of Manhattan than by rich people strolling the streets of Pleasantville protected from the poor by miles and rivers and highways. And that's the reason the “poor door” got so much more press than Westchester’s segregation. It's dramatic, it’s in your face, and the symbolism is inescapable. The light is better on the poor door.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The challenge of our generation

Rents are rising in cities across the country, and people who can’t afford the new rents have to go somewhere. At CNU 22 in June, Mike Lydon observed (48:15) that “We’re completely unprepared to put people who have the least resources out on the edge … thirty miles from downtown.” Chuck Marohn declared that “the challenge of our generation is to make sure that we don’t leave those people behind.” You can see their conversation with Jason Roberts and Joe Minicozzi, recorded by Gracen Johnson for Strong Towns, or listen to it on the latest Strong Towns podcast.

You got the call, people. Let’s rise to that challenge! I think the best way to deal with it is to bring prices down by building a diversity of relatively dense housing where there already is good transit, but many people will move to the suburbs, and some already have. WNYC made an incredibly useful map showing median income by census tract, based on the 2007-2012 American Community Survey. Here’s the New York area:


Interestingly, on this map the real concentrated poverty that we see in Fort Greene or West Farms – census tracts with median household incomes below fifteen thousand dollars – is only found in three places outside of New York city: Bridgeport, New Haven and the Seth Boyden and Otto Kretchmer projects in Newark (now closed). Instead, there are a lot of census tracts with median incomes between $15,000 and $25,000 a year. But outside of New York, Bridgeport and New Haven those are found in only a handful of other cities. In the rest of the metro area, median income is over $25,000.

The towns that have census tracts with median incomes between $15,000 and 25,000 are as follows: In New York State, Yonkers, Mount Vernon (one project), Spring Valley and Kiryas Joel. In New Jersey it’s Jersey City, North Bergen, Newark, Elizabeth, Asbury Park, Passaic and Paterson.

The primary challenge with the "suburbanization of poverty" is that the farther out people move, the harder it is for them to access good-paying jobs. Someone who is displaced from Fort Greene in Brooklyn to the West Ward of Newark trades a 45-minute subway ride for a trip on a bus to a commuter train to a subway that can take over an hour. Interestingly, it's not so much the cost of transportation that's the problem, as we can see by looking at the Center for Neighborhood Technology's Housing+Transportation index. In all these areas, housing and transportation costs combined were less than 45% of household income (indicated by yellow), which was often not the case for "wealthier" areas nearby (indicated by blue).


Here's the tricky part: these are based on the reports of people who had work, so they could by definition afford their commutes. It may be that the reason they can't access better-paying jobs is that they couldn't afford the commute, but we don't know that. Giving the H+T data the benefit of the doubt, we should focus on making the commute to better-paying jobs quicker, not just cheaper. That means increasing the capacity of the routes to job centers - primarily New Jersey Transit and Metro-North trains - and bringing rapid service to places, like Newark's West Ward and Yonkers's Schlobohm Houses, that are currently only accessible by relatively slow buses.

In future posts I'll talk about some potential investments that could improve job access from these areas.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Ferguson, Missouri is not a Strong Town

A lot of people have had a lot of insights about the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri. I want to highlight a few that I think are particularly important, and add a few thoughts that I hope will help focus them on our goals.

Last week, Doug Henwood had a great interview with political scientist and former Missouri state senator Jeff Smith, who expanded on his op-ed about how economically bankrupt the entire Saint Louis area, and in particular suburbs like Ferguson, have become. Combine that with municipal fragmentation and the mismatch between the city’s majority black population and its mostly white government, and you get a heavy dose of "for-profit policing," where the town relies on traffic stops for a large chunk of its revenue. It’s not hard to see how that in turn leads to the kind of anger that erupted after Darren Wilson, a white police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, a black resident.

First a word about "revenue generation" through traffic enforcement and other police actions. It’s gotta stop, period. Giving government officials a financial incentive to ticket and arrest people is a recipe for disaster – the kind of disaster we’ve been hearing about for days. Obviously, even if Michael Brown stole a few cigarillos (and it’s not at all clear he did), the police response was nuts and completely out of control.

That said, many politicians go too far in reacting to this abuse of the system. Many of our city council members here in New York act as though no tickets are ever warranted, even if the driver is putting lives at risk by blocking a hydrant, speeding or running a red light. The response to overzealous policing is not to make our streets a free-for-all for reckless drivers. People who want to stop "revenue generation" need an alternative way to keep us safe, whether it’s a cap on fines or replacing them with jail time.

Second, I have to point out how this shows up the "Chocolate City" triumphalism of the 1970s. Much as I love George Clinton, much as I support true local control and self-determination and Black Power, and much as I have sympathy for any separatist movement that just wants to get away from the oppressors, at this point it’s clear that when black people gained control of the governments of major cities it was at best a short-lived victory.

Cities are not self-contained little systems. They are porous regions of much larger systems, connected and interdependent with other cities, with their hinterlands and with their suburbs. When we integrated the buses, white people shifted to private cars. When we integrated the schools, white people moved their kids to "Christian Academies" and suburban districts. When black people took control of the cities, white people moved their wealth to the suburbs. Now black people are finding themselves pushed out of the Chocolate City into suburbs controlled by white people. It’s likely that one day Ferguson and other majority-black suburbs will elect black mayors, but what is really important is for everyone to have a fair say in the government of the entire region.


Chuck Marohn took this screen capture of the Google Street View of the Ferguson Market and Liquor Store.

Listening to Smith I couldn’t help thinking, as I had several times in the past week, "Ferguson isn’t a Strong Town." No, it is not. Chuck Marohn has the numbers, and you have to wonder: if the town had retained its walkable and transit infrastructure and built on it over the past sixty years instead of sprawling, how much less desperate would it be? What if the entire Saint Louis region had bucked the trend and stayed dense, walkable and transit-oriented? What would it take to make it strong again?

Finally, as Megan McArdle noted, this is part of the "Great Inversion" or the "suburbanization of poverty," the final step in the growth ponzi scheme where those of us who are aware and affluent enough move to walkable urban neighborhoods. Because we refuse to build more walkable urban neighborhoods, that displaces the poor and powerless to the inefficient, isolated, dangerous, rotting suburbs. What can those of us who care about our fellow humans do about this?

I’m guessing that as more and more people come to grips with the idea that poor black and Hispanic people are living in the suburbs now, some short-sighted person will propose an aid program where we dump massive amounts of money into the suburbs with the goal of bringing their standard of living up to the level of the wealthy inner cities, but with no attempt to make them more efficient. At that point some wiser person should point out that that’s exactly what we did for the past sixty years, and that that’s why the white people left the suburbs in the first place.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The defeat of the power broker

Robert Caro’s The Power Broker is one of the all-time classics of urbanism, assigned in many courses and read even by casual students of history. Caro intended his biography of Robert Moses to be an examination of the nature of political power, and how powerful people rise and fall, as evidenced by the title and by his follow-up multi-volume study of Lyndon Johnson.

What is surprising to me is how often people pair Moses with Jane Jacobs and talk about their conflicts over Washington Square Park and the Lower Manhattan Expressway. You could even get the impression, from the way that some people tell it, that it was Jacobs who brought Moses down. It’s true that Moses and Jacobs showed a striking clash of ideologies and worldviews, but Caro spends very little time on Jacobs, focusing instead on the conflicts that Moses had with the mayors (LaGuardia, Wagner) and governors (Smith, Roosevelt) that he nominally served.


I am also surprised by how few people got through The Power Broker with any understanding of how Moses was eventually overthrown. I found that to be one of the most captivating parts of the book, like the way the Ring of Power met its fate in Mount Doom. I was in awe once when I got to visit the Chase Bondholder Services Office (not in the same location, but still). And yet I have not heard anyone else mention that part of the story.

I think the main reason nobody talks about how Moses fell from power is that nobody wants to think about it, and that’s because it’s not fair. Moses was not brought down by Jane Jacobs – although she may have helped to finish him off. He was not destroyed by a hobbit, or even a Gollum.

The people who were finally able to take away Moses’s source of power – his Ring, the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority – were two of the most powerful people in the country. Heirs to a multi-million dollar oil fortune, David and Nelson Rockefeller controlled, respectively, one of the largest banks in the country and one of the wealthiest states. Nelson would go on to be Vice President a few years later. And yet, neither brother could have defeated Moses by himself: it was only by combining their powers and working together that they were able to create the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and swallow Moses’s TBTA.

On the face of it, this is not a very inspiring story. Want to defeat a despotic, unelected, arrogant man who is destroying your cities? Sorry, you can’t do it yourself. You have to trust in two plutocrats, one elected, one not, each responsible for his own Corbusian excesses (Chase Manhattan Plaza and Empire State Plaza, respectively). You have to trust them to be strong enough to make it really work (instead of, say, leaving a bunch of free alternatives to the bridges and tunnels funding the subway system), and not to fuck it up (by, say, leaving its funding at the mercy of the notoriously corrupt and undemocratic New York State Legislature). It’s less like Frodo and Gollum, and more like Eärendil calling in the Valar, if the Valar were a bunch of Republican bankers.

But as I think about it, it's not like there was even an Eärendil. From what I can tell, the Rockefellers never talked to a single subway rider, or anyone whose home or business was displaced by their projects or those of Moses. As Bob Fitch explains it in The Assassination of New York (which everyone should read; you can get a taste from this Doug Henwood tribute), the Rockefellers were mainly motivated by their failing real estate investments in the West Side (particularly Rockefeller Center). Getting the Chrystie Street Connection and the Sixth Avenue express tunnels built was a priority, at least for David, so he needed to see the subway capital plan funded for a few years minimum.

I think that’s the true lesson of The Power Broker: sometimes the thing that gets rid of one tyrant is just another tyrant. Sometimes the interests of the new tyrant align with your own enough that you can get something decent going. Sometimes the new power is not a single tyrant but a junta, and its power is diluted by that fact, making it slightly less dangerous. This leaves an opening for smaller powers to come in and get a piece of the action, further diluting the power. It ain't democracy and it ain't fair, but it's better than having Bob Moses screwing everything up.

Any way you slice it, it's not very inspiring for those of us who aren't Rockefellers. And that's why people prefer to talk about Jane Jacobs's minor victory over Moses.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The O Train to Avenue H

One subway expansion proposal that always gets mentioned by people, but has never gotten any official funding or planning, is the "TriboroRx" line, using the Port Morris Branch, the New York Connecting Railroad and the LIRR Bay Ridge Branch to bring riders from Yankee Stadium to the Brooklyn Army Terminal, passing near the commercial centers of Astoria, Jackson Heights, East New York, Flatbush and Midwood.


In 2007, Michael Frumin modeled the potential demand for the line, and found promising results. When he was hired by the MTA I hoped it was a sign that there would be some planning, but it looks like they just wanted his modeling skills.

Some segments of the line only have room for two tracks: the New York Connecting Railroad from the Hell Gate Bridge to Fresh Pond Yard, and the Bay Ridge Branch from the Brighton Line to the Culver Line. The tracks are still used for freight, and will see more use if the Cross-Harbor Rail Freight Tunnel is built.

There are significant bureaucratic obstacles to running reasonably priced passenger service on the same track with freight trains, and overcoming those obstacles would require an amount of political will that no leader has shown recently. The alternative to sharing tracks would be lots of digging, concrete and steel to double-deck the line in those parts, either above or below grade. The Port Morris Branch, currently abandoned and neglected, would also require significant upgrades before it can be used by passenger trains.

Because of this, I suggested that we start the ball rolling by extending the G train south past 18th Avenue and west to the Brooklyn Army Terminal. I also suggested that we run trains along the section between the Brighton Line and Broadway Junction.

The map above shows one such possibility, proposed by the MTA as part of the "New Routes" plan in 1969. Under this proposal, the L train would be split into two routes. At Broadway Junction (or maybe Halsey Street) they would diverge, with one continuing to the L current terminus in Canarsie.

The other branch, which I'll call the O train, would travel parallel to the L within the right-of-way of the Bay Ridge Branch, skipping a few stops but connecting to the 3 train at Junius Street. It would then follow the Bay Ridge Branch west through past Brooklyn College (with a transfer to the 2 train), terminating at the Brighton Line with a transfer to the Avenue H station.

This is only one possibility. Another way to handle it would be to run the B trains 24/7, turning them east on the Bay Ridge Branch to Broadway Junction - although riders in Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay would probably complain about losing express service. A third would be to have the O and B trains overlap, providing more frequent service.

That seems to be all that can reasonably be done with the existing trackage without sharing tracks with freight trains or pouring lots of concrete. There is a four-track section between Broadway Junction and Fresh Pond Yard, but there's not much reason to send L (or J or C) trains up there. If you've ever taken the M to the end of the line you'll understand why - it's not much of a destination.

Running trains on this section would bring train service to a large section of Brooklyn that currently has none, and provide access to potential sites for new housing in these areas. There is no need to wait for a full build of the "TriboroRx" line - that was just somebody's idea. It should be explored now.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The transportation hypocrisy of civil libertarians

It was in the news yesterday that the Drug Enforcement Administration paid an Amtrak employee over $800,000 over twenty years for confidential passenger information that it could have gotten for free. The Albuquerque Journal reported in April 2001 that they were getting it through "a computer with access to Amtrak's ticketing information." People like Senator Grassley are spinning it as government waste, but to me there's a bigger story: why should Amtrak have given this information to the DEA in the first place?

That was the response of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico back in 2001, and they were then "pondering whether to take legal action." A few months later they clearly had bigger fish to fry, so it's understandable why this issue went on the back burner.


What's not understandable is why transit freedom has gone on the back burner, and pretty much stayed there, since 2001. Some of you may actually be too young to know that before then, you could board an intercity bus or train without giving your name or showing identification. You just walked up to the ticket counter and handed over your cash.

I've been taking Trailways buses since I was a kid, and I remember when it all changed, sometime shortly after September 11, 2001. I walked up to the ticket window at the Port Authority and asked for a ticket, and the person asked for my name. "Why?" "Security." "I don't want my name on some list!" "Nobody's going to put your name on a list." I sounded like a goddamn schizophrenic. After some back-and-forth he said, "Just give me a name!" Okay, I gave him a name that could plausibly have been a nickname for me, but wasn't, and he put it in the computer - and on some list, of course. Soon after that, they began requiring photo ID or a credit card to buy the tickets. I think they even tried to get the drivers to check the photo ID before they let people on the bus, but that one at least didn't fly.

What has amazed me to this day is that there was absolutely no mention of any of this by anyone but me. People complain (with good reason) about taking off their shoes at airports and about no-fly lists, and even about draconian treatment on buses near the Mexican border, but I don't remember seeing a single mention of buses or trains requiring a name for intercity tickets. Hell, I still don't know what counts as intercity. I don't have to give my name for a ticket to Nyack or Poughkeepsie, but I do for a ticket to New Paltz.

But what really burns me up is when civil libertarians complain about license plate scans or toll surveillance. Driving is not a right, it's a privilege, especially in a place like New York where transit is plentiful. And these civil libertarians don't even acknowledge that the MTA has a record of the movements of everyone who buys a Metrocard with a credit card.

And yes, it's true that potential criminals or even terrorists can use buses and trains to move around. But we live in a free country, where it's not a crime to be a potential criminal or terrorist, or just someone who doesn't want to drive. Or at least we used to.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The McCarter Highway, freeway without a future

Back in March I was honored to nominate Newark (together with Michael Klatsky) for Streetsblog's coveted Parking Crater award. I'm also pleased that Newark's nomination helped inspire Sharon Adarlo to write about how the obsession with driving and parking among Newark's elites "skewers [any] chance at revitalizing the struggling city." And I'm encouraged by the quote from Newark's new mayor, Ras Baraka, that "We are going to build up and not across. We are going to look at stormwater runoff."

Now I want to mention another aspect of that obsession that's holding the city back: its roads and streets that are designed to prioritize drivers over pedestrians.

The Congress for the New Urbanism regularly puts out a list of "Freeways Without Futures." These are usually "urban" highways that not only blight neighborhoods with noise, pollution and ugly elevated structures, but cut off neighborhoods from each other and from jobs, shopping and amenities like parks. I've suggested that the designation be extended to include highways like the Pulaski Skyway that aim a "firehose of cars" into walkable dense urban areas that are well-served by transit. That said, here's a highway that fits the current CNU criteria quite well: the McCarter Highway that leads north from Newark to Paterson, New Jersey.


The McCarter Highway was once a boulevard along the Passaic River, and still is a boulevard through most of Newark. As Steve Anderson describes, the section from northern Newark through Passaic to Paterson was "upgraded" to a limited-access highway in sections from the 1950s through the 1990s. To make room for the highway in Passaic, the old Erie Main Line was abandoned between the Passaic River and the Paterson station.

When it was being planned and built, I'm sure a lot of people saw the McCarter Highway as evidence of progress. The waterfront was either industrial, blighted or both, so most people didn't care that they were cut off from it, just as they didn't care about the West Side Highway in Manhattan or the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco.

But as with the West Side Highway and the Embarcadero, I think people didn't realize how a limited-access highway could be much more destructive than a factory or a slum. From its fifteen exits (depending on how you count them), the McCarter Highway spews cars into Newark, Belleville, Nutley, Passaic, Clifton and Paterson. It takes up some of the most valuable land in these towns and pays no rent or taxes. It spreads noise, gas and particulate pollution. Oh, and it's impervious to stormwater, Mr. Mayor.

The Passaic River may not look like much in this area, but without the McCarter Highway it could have a riverside park with a promenade and bike path. The highway not only cuts Newark and Passaic off from the river, but from towns across the river like Arlington, East Rutherford, Lyndhurst, Wallington, Garfield and Elmwood Park.

With rents rising in Brooklyn, Harlem and Jersey City, many residents find themselves having to move, and many of them are moving to Newark, Passaic and Paterson. They deserve the same amenities in their new homes that they left behind: good urban parks and good walking connections to the surrounding areas. They don't deserve to breathe carbon monoxide and listen to speeding cars, and they don't deserve to see those cars speeding off the highway into their neighborhoods.

This is why New Jersey should tear down the McCarter Highway and replace it with a calm, low-traffic boulevard, an extension of the Newark City Subway, a riverwalk and bike path, and some flood-proof apartments.

(Oh yeah, and the oppressive pedestrian environment in Branch Brook Park is a whole other post.)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Could we build another Park Slope?

Do you like the modern towers of the Upper East Side?


How about a nice gigantic Upper West Side prewar apartment building like the Ansonia?


Or the brownstones of Park Slope?


Or is all that too dense and urban for you? Maybe you'd prefer the lovely Victorians of Irvington, NY?


Gorgeous places to live! Of course, you and I are not the only ones who think so. These are some of the most desirable locations in the country. There are millions of people who would love to live in places like these.

So why don't we build more?

Why not buy up a block of crappy 1960s Stately Homes in Woodside and replicate the Ansonia? Or raze some raised ranches in Massapequa and build a block of brownstones? Build a new Victorian main street leading down to the Croton station, where now there are strip malls?

It turns out that there are some attempts to do this. Andres Duany is involved in a project in Jersey City that looks pretty cool. If you know of any others in the New York area, please let me know!

Unfortunately, those projects are a drop in the bucket. Zoning rules across the region make it next to impossible to build big modern towers on the Upper West Side, or a new Ansonia in Park Slope, or a block of brownstones in Irvington, or a new Irvington in Scarborough. The Municipal Art Society's recently released zoning envelope map confirms that the massive downzoning conducted across the city by Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Burden reinforced this prohibition. And people wonder why rents keep going up...

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Why we need a Brooklyn Bridge cycle track

I remember when you could walk or bike over the Brooklyn Bridge at almost any hour and not feel crowded. Those days are long past: walking over the bridge has become a major tourist activity, and commuting by bike has become extremely popular. Thanks to hard work by advocates, especially Transportation Alternatives, the city reopened the south sidepath on the Manhattan Bridge to bicycles and pedestrians in 2001, and the north sidepath to bikes in 2004, taking a lot of daily commuters and recreational walkers and joggers off the Brooklyn Bridge.


Even with this additional capacity, the Brooklyn Bridge path gets a lot more cyclists and pedestrians than it can comfortably handle. Pedestrians complain bitterly about the cyclists, and vice versa. Often it is deserved: I've seen many thoughtless cyclists bombing down the offramp, and many clueless pedestrians drifting into the bike lane without looking. But mainly, the pie is too small for all the people who now want a slice. We need more capacity.

There have been proposals in the past to simply ban cyclists from the bridge, and the satirical @bikelobby account on Twitter has capitulated, but often the proposal is to build a new bikeway somewhere on top of the existing bridge structure, as with this 2012 proposal by City Council members Lander, Chin and Levin. I don't think we need to spend that much money; we should simply convert one of the current car lanes to a two-way cycle track.

Converting car lanes to cycle tracks is also not a new thing. It's been done over and over again by the city in the past seven years, first on Ninth Avenue, then Eighth and Kent and now even on the Pulaski Bridge, where the current multiuse path between Greenpoint and Long Island City is similarly strained. This would just be the same thing on the main level of the Brooklyn Bridge, and then the upper multiuse path could be dedicated to pedestrians. It's been proposed for the Brooklyn Bridge before, by Streetsblog commenters and Robert Sullivan.

You might think that the city could not afford to give up that car capacity, but in fact it might wind up increasing the total number of people who cross on the Brooklyn Bridge. There are no buses (or trucks) currently allowed on the bridge. The Manhattan Bridge bike path is well traveled, especially during rush hours, and the number of cyclists can rival the number of cars on nearby lanes.

Last month, at 7:30 on a Tuesday, Clarence Eckerson of Streetfilms took a quick count on the Manhattan Bridge. He counted a hundred cyclists in two minutes and 23 seconds, a rate that corresponds to 2691 2517 vehicles per hour. By contrast (PDF), in 2010 the three outbound car lanes of the Brooklyn Bridge carry 3509 vehicles between 5:00 and 6:00 PM, or 1170 vehicles per lane per hour. The five outbound car/bus/truck lanes on the Manhattan Bridge carried 2382 vehicles, or only 476 vehicles per lane per hour.

In a subsequent tweet, Clarence acknowledged that his sample may not have been representative. "well I am sure that pace didn't hold up!" he wrote. "A dozen were on a tour group" But even if the typical peak counts are not that high (see this PDF from the city DOT), they are probably higher than 476 per hour, and maybe higher than 1170 per hour. This suggests that one of the lanes on the Brooklyn Bridge's main deck would carry more people in the peak rush hour as a two-way cycle track than it currently does as a single car lane.

Clearly there is more research to be done: more samples of peak hour bike and motor vehicle traffic, on both the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. I'm looking forward to the Streetfilm!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Five migrations in gentrification

In a recent post I noted that the demand driving up rents and prices ("gentrification") in big cities like New York, San Francisco and Chicago is a result of at least three distinct migration streams. Thinking about it now, I can identify five major streams. It's important to keep them straight, because they do not have the same cause, and thus the actions we can take (if any) to reduce or redirect the flow of migrants is different in each case.


The best and brightest have been migrating to cities since time immemorial, seeking fame and fortune. So have rural misfits – heretics, gender and sexual minorities, people with mixed ethnic, religious or class backgrounds, people with disabilities, anyone who has been shunned by small, close-knit communities. Some of them migrate from small cities to larger cities, searching for a better opportunity, more anonymity, more tolerance.

Immigrants often wind up in cities, because that is usually where the entry points and crossroads are, and where there are the most opportunities. They come through Ellis Island or Kennedy Airport, across the Rio Grande at El Paso or San Diego, and find their way to East Los Angeles or Chinatown or Washington Heights. Maybe they eventually wind up in a small town, or even start out picking berries in the Central Valley or tobacco in the Coastal Plain, but many families spend at least a generation in a big city.

Those two migration streams – the best and the misfits, and international migration – have been going on for as long as we’ve had cities and nations. Recently, what’s been capturing a lot of people’s attention is the white return – the repudiation by Anglo, Jewish, German and others of their parents’ search for comfort and tranquility in the suburbs, supposedly safe from the nonwhite people they feared and hated. I’m part of a similar migration, Back to the City, where the children of hippies and beatniks realized that communing with nature isn’t quite as spiritually uplifting as our parents thought – and it’s not all that great for the environment, either.

The fourth big migration stream that has been getting attention is the move of the white-flighters and back-to-the-landers themselves. Baby Boomers and other people who are now elderly have realized what we knew when we were fourteen: that life sucks in Amityville or Great Barrington if you can’t drive wherever you want to go. They’re buying small apartments in the city themselves, many of them in neighborhoods that they couldn’t afford in 1972.

There’s a fifth migration that I think doesn’t get enough attention: the small city exiles. These are people who are not the best or the brightest, or complete misfits, but they’re pretty bright, mildly kinky or noticeably nonconformist. Or maybe they can’t drive because they’re blind or epileptic (I learned about this last one from Sally Flocks), or they just don’t want to. Eighty years ago they’d have been pretty happy in Rochester or Knoxville or Omaha or San Luis Obispo: reasonably normal, functioning members of society, with enough peers to have a stimulating intellectual and artistic fellowship.

Today, those towns have hardly any jobs at all, especially within walking distance of downtown, shopping and services are sprawled out across the area, and transit between them is inconvenient. With this fragmentation, they can barely sustain a monthly open mike or an Indian restaurant, let alone a poetry slam or a regional Thai place. Our heroes – somewhat large fish in not-so-large ponds – see the grim desperation in the faces of their older neighbors and head to the bigger cities, where there are more opportunities, not just for jobs but for dinner after 8PM.

This is why rents and prices have been rising so drastically in New York, Washington and San Francisco, and to a certain extent in Boston and Chicago. In addition to the eternal migration of the ambitious, the misfits and immigrants, we’re on the receiving end of the White Return and the Back to the City – both the old and the young. On top of all that we’re getting the moderately bright and kind of weird who can’t make a home in the small cities.

Any solution to the problems of rising rents and prices will have to address all three of these new migrations. We can build more big city for them: taller buildings, more transit, upzoning around transit. But the returning retirees and the small city refugees don’t need big cities. They’d be perfectly happy if we could make the existing pedestrian and transit infrastructure of Scranton and Pueblo and Fort Smith work for them again, rebuild what was lost and thrown away, and find a way to make those towns relevant again. They’d be happy if they could live in prewar suburbs like Bethpage and Whiting without having to own a car for every adult family member. This is what the Strong Towns movement is about, and what Duncan Crary says about Troy.

You may say that it’s a tall order, that these towns are never coming back. But I ask you: if we rebuilt the rail connections, rebuilt the housing and shopping and offices where now there is just parking, and tore down the bypasses that made those downtowns irrelevant, don’t you think some of them would start to sputter back to life? Is that really any harder than trying to build whatever mind-numbing amount of "affordable housing" we need in New York to accommodate all these people, and the subways we will need to move them around once the elites admit that “Bus Rapid Transit” will never suffice?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

21st Street and Astoria Boulevard

In a recent post I argued that the Astoria elites no longer have the same opposition to extending the N train that they did just seven years ago. This extension would not only connect to LaGuardia, but it would be able to serve parts of Astoria east of the current line. But Astoria is so big that even an extended N train and the existing R and M service on Broadway leave large stretches of it unserved.


For this map I used the half mile circles that are so standard in transit planning that Jeff Wood named a blog after them. They're not always the best tool for estimating transit coverage, but my previous apartment was just inside one of these circles, and taking the train was frustrating but doable, so it's about right for this job. I even think that some people would walk into LaGuardia Airport to catch a subway.

The big gap between the current circles for the #7 train and the potential circles from stops in and near LaGuardia Airport corresponds rather neatly to a cluster of red dots on this map made by the Pratt Center in 2008:


This is a map of the homes of people commuting more than an hour to jobs where they earn less than $35,000 per year. Many of them live in the Astoria Houses and western Astoria generally, but there is a large concentration in East Elmhurst and northern Jackson Heights, where a long walk or a slow bus ride to stations fairly far out on the #7 train makes for a tedious commute.

There is a potential solution, and it's not the battle for "BRT" on Junction Boulevard that the Pratt Institute recommends, but is not going to fight. As the Hub-bound Travel Survey showed, there is capacity in the 63rd Street Tunnel for more trains. The Sixth Avenue local tracks are shared with the M train, but they run about 22 trains in the 8AM hour, leaving space for 8-10 more trains.

What service could we feed into the tunnel? The city examined this question 75 years ago, and their answer still makes sense today. The line would run north on Twenty-First Street, then east on Ditmars and Astoria Boulevards. It would turn south on 108th Street and east along Horace Harding Boulevard, which is now the Long Island Expressway.


At this point the demand for new housing is so high that any improvement in access to Manhattan is likely to fuel concerns about gentrification. In other words, we would build a train for the poor people in East Elmhurst, and then the rents would go up and no poor people would be able to live in East Elmhurst anymore. To allay those concerns, I propose building it as an elevated train. It would probably also be easier to build it elevated along 21st Street, so that it will be well above the water table. If the people on Ditmars complain, we can put it underground there.

Since there is only room in the Sixth Avenue tunnel for one additional service, we can't run express trains. It's not clear that there would be demand in Glen Oaks or Fresh Meadows for an all-local train to Manhattan via East Elmhurst, but it should probably serve Queens College at the very least.

Should this be a priority? Maybe, maybe not. The projects mentioned in Alon's recent posts all have a lot of merit to them, and at this point I don't have a good way of judging. If you pooh-pooh this idea, though, I want to hear what your alternative is to make use of the spare capacity in the Sixth Avenue local tunnels.