Monday, January 27, 2014

New transit and our goals

It's pretty much a no-brainer that anything that optimizes existing transit use will help us toward our goals. Getting people out of cars and onto existing bus runs, or out of buses and onto existing train runs, means less wasted resources, less pollution, less carnage and more transit riding voters. And as Eric Morris has pointed out, the other extreme is true: a hugely expensive, physically disruptive transit project that gets a few people out of their cars for a short period of time but continues to encourage sprawl development and driving is something that we're probably better off without.

The question then becomes: where do you draw the line? Which designs and configurations should we always say no to? If you have a limited pool of money, how do you decide between two new transit projects? First of all, we shouldn't back any project with a competing highway project. Beyond that, we can start with Alon Levy's "trip chaining" principles that I discussed in my "Carfree 24/7" post:

Short trips
Foot or bicycleCar
Long tripsTransitTransit/walkableCommuter suburbs
CarAuto-oriented denseSprawl

When we talk about getting people out of their cars, the goal should be to get them completely out of their cars. That means transit for long trips and walking (or cycling) for short trips. Transit without walkability means that people will be driving to the store and to drop their kids off at school. Walkability without transit means that people will be driving to work, major shopping and vacations.

Transit and walkability also reinforce each other, just as local and long-distance car dependence reinforce each other. Walkability solves the "last mile" problem for transit, and people in cars tend to stay in cars.

This means that the projects with the biggest bang for the buck are ones where there is walkability without transit, or transit without walkability. We build the transit to serve the walkable community, or upzone around the transit station, to bring the transit and walkability into balance.

The next most desirable transit projects are those that build transit and walkability together. I'm often skeptical of these, especially when they're greenfield developments, and that's another principle: infill is better than greenfield, all else being equal.

We can rule out projects that are neither walkable nor transit-oriented, but simply promote 24/7 car dependence. But what about sprawl transit proposals, like the Northern Branch, the Tappan Zee transit and extensions of Metro-North, which are at best accompanied by vague promises of rezoning? What about proposals for dense, walkable villages in locations underserved by transit, if they are served at all, like the Piermont pier and the Piscataquis Village Project?

In general I would say no to projects like these. If we wait a generation, people will probably be more open to transit and walkability, and we don't want to get locked into highways, garages and single-family sprawl. But there are circumstances where they might make sense. Sometimes you need to move fast to lock down a right-of-way. Sometimes you need to spend money on transit before the road people grab it.

There's an argument that's frequently made that park-and-ride transit can function as a ratchet. Get people on transit for a little while and they'll identify as transit riders and support transit expansion. Get people walking a little and they'll demand transit. I'm not convinced. I know too many transit-riding car owners who identify as drivers first and foremost, and vote that identification. If there was some kind of explicit time limit, where termites would gradually eat the park-and-ride or something, I might consider it.

In any case, these "maybe" proposals should be lower priorities than the other ones, in terms of land, money and activist time. So to sum up:

  • Use existing capacity
  • Build transit to serve existing walkable communities
  • Upzone existing transit-oriented communities
  • Infill transit and walkability
  • Greenfield transit and walkability
  • Lock down an existing right of way
  • Spend money while it's there
  • Sunsets
  • Anything with a competing highway investment
  • Park-and-rides
  • Transit-inaccessible walkable villages
  • Ratchet arguments
  • Autosprawl


Alon said...

If they both build the Northern Branch (to its logical terminus in Nyack) and the Piermont village, then it could in principle be fully transit-oriented. In principle because it would require the Northern Branch to be frequent and affordable, and have decent connections to Manhattan.

neroden@gmail said...

I'm not nearly as extreme as you about this; I guess because I live in a small town surrounded by rural areas.

As a result, when serving *existing* communities, I'm happy with improving either of the pink quadrants in Alon's grid, as well as the green quadrant. I just want to stop the red quadrant.

So I think that it's worth supporting something the Northern Branch -- if you're a voter in the car-suburbs, who wants to turn them back into train-suburbs.

And it's worth supporting the "dense, walkable villages" -- if they're rebuilds of land currently occupied by tract houses.

I think greenfield development is almost always bad, though. If the project is serving an existing sprawly community, converting it into either "auto oriented dense" or "commuter suburb" is a good thing.

But if the project is on greenfields, then it's not converting sprawl into anything -- it's converting actual rural space. Actual rural space is not the same as "sprawl" on Alon's grid, because *so few people live there* and *they work where they live*. It is best described as "short trips -- truck filled with goods. Long trips -- truck filled with goods."

Actual rural space, with farms and the occasional craftsman or store owner, functions just fine *due* to the absence of people and due to their *lack* of commuting to work.

Converting rural space into "auto oriented dense" or "commuter suburbs" is *bad*.

So there's the distinction I'd make: if a "car-oriented" is largely composed of people who have to travel to get to their jobs, it's sprawl; if it's composed of people who work on adjacent farms, it's actual rural area.

Actual rural area should not be developed. We need our farmland.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks, Neroden! I'm not convinced that rural areas need cars either. I've lived in rural areas, and the vast majority of trips were not trucks filled with goods. How many days out of the year are you actually bringing truckloads of goods to and from a farm?

I've also been to rural villages in Europe and Africa where the goods were mostly moved on wheelbarrows and donkeys and people's backs. The "adjacent farms" were adjacent to the village where everyone's house was, so that they could socialize with other farmers and villagers. The other towns and villages were an hour or two's walk away. To get further there was sometimes transit, or you could find someone to hitch a ride with. So even these rural areas were in the green quadrant.

I agree that we need our farmland and it shouldn't be developed, but farmers need villages.

Alon said...

Doesn't Upstate New York have a major problem with people needing to drive long distances just to get groceries? Streetsblog had this "burn a gallon of gas to get a gallon of milk" thing about Upstate in the context of Buffalo exurbs, and friends of friends who live around Ithaca need to drive long distances as well.

Active agricultural areas are a small percentage of the rural population in the developed world today. In the US, farmers are about 1% of the population, but rural areas are about 20%. The numbers in other developed countries are broadly similar.

neroden@gmail said...

"How many days out of the year are you actually bringing truckloads of goods to and from a farm?"


neroden@gmail said...

Active agricultural areas are a small percentage of the rural population in the developed world today. In the US, farmers are about 1% of the population, but rural areas are about 20%."

And there's your sprawl.

Support networks for farmers only amount to about the same number of people as the farmers. There are some retirees.

But the rest are people who are living a very long distance from their workplaces.

And in a situation where they can't be supported by mass transit, because there's no mass.

Ithaca suffers from a serious shortage of in-town housing. (This is finally being remediated somewhat.) As a result, "drive 'till you can afford it" is very common here, and people do drive vast distances to get groceries.

This is sprawl at work. A small fraction of the people doing this actually *want* to live out next to the farms -- most just can't afford to live closer.

The first-order solution is to get more density into the areas within walking distance of Cornell and IC and downtown (where most of the jobs are). The construction of the necessary mid-rise and high-rise buildings has only just started happening in the last couple of years.

The densely urbanized area has gotten just big enough that there's a need for some more decent public transportation to get across it from one side to the other; that's the second-order solution. It's not entirely urgent to get better crosstown public transportation... but the thing is, because nobody is thinking long-term, Cornell University is building buildings on top of all the right-of-way which would have allowed for bus lanes or rail lines. Which is going to create a lot more work later. *sigh*

neroden@gmail said...

OK, I should clarify "weekly". During the operating season (i.e. not winter), goods are brought to town to the farmer's market or to stores or to CSAs weekly.

Shopping is usually done weekly as well.

neroden@gmail said...

So here's an attempt to see what the situation in Ithaca means in terms of "good project" vs. "bad project":

- transit line from Lansing (mall, piles of doctors' offices, sprawl heading out for miles) to Cornell to Downtown to IC: worthwhile

- transit line beyond Lansing into the sprawl -- probably not worthwhile

- commuter line running from Cortland to Dryden to Ithaca (not stopping in between) -- probably worthwhile. (Yes, we have a stupidly large number of commuters from Cortland, due to the lack of housing in Ithaca proper. We have commuters from *Binghamton*.)

- dense development replacing single-family houses or vacant lots downtown -- definitely worthwhile. (This stuff was prevented by zoning fights until the very most recent city administrations.)

- dense development next to IC -- definitely worthwhile

- dense development next to the mall/doctors' offices/etc in Lansing -- probably worthwhile

- dense development in downtown Dryden, near Tompkins Cortland Community College -- probably worthwhile

- dense development out in Mecklenburg or Enfield or Danby -- NO. (And yes, we DO have proposals for this sort of stuff.)

- infill single-family houses between other single-family houses, outside the downtown/Cornell/IC area -- probably not. This can make districts dense enough to create traffic congestion but not dense enough to support public transportation. (I live in one of these. It was what was available with wheelchair access at the time.)

- tract house development encroaching on farms -- NO. (We already have too much of this. Way too much.)

Looking at this, the common element I see is that Euclidean zoning ideas -- keeping houses away from workplaces -- are bad bad bad. Houses need to be clustered next to workplaces.

This is how I think of it.
- If there's already a cluster of workplaces, it's OK to cluster housing;
- if there's already a cluster of housing, it's OK to cluster workplaces; - and it's OK to connect these clusters by public transportation

What's not OK is developments, of any sort, which gratuitously create new commutes.

Most people would rather live near their workplaces and use public transportation for (say) their spouse to get to work.