Friday, February 28, 2014

Strong towns don't have pension problems

Joe Nocera and Rana Foroohar were talking about municipal pension woes this morning. Or at least that's what Charlie Herman told them it was about. Really, it was about budgets and commitments. It's the same thing when Stephanie Miner talks about pensions, or Andrew Cuomo talks about taxes, or Steve Aquario talks about Medicaid, or Chris Carey talks about tolls on the Tappan Zee Bridge. It's not about pensions or taxes or tolls or Medicaid. It's about the fact that states, counties, cities and towns have committed to spend money, but the taxes and tolls coming in don't cover those commitments.

Politicians love to do this. In fact, the system is so set up for it that people thought I was nuts when I asked if governments ever save up for big infrastructure projects. And two former mayors of Huntington, West Virginia thought Chuck Marohn was nuts when he suggested that projects should even be judged on whether they can be expected to generate enough revenue to pay off their bonds. Everyone likes to make promises for the next generation, whether it's pensions, Medicaid, infrastructure, borrowing, low taxes or low inflation.

Eventually someone has to acknowledge that the previous generations overpromised and that at least one of these promises has to be broken. There's a smart way to do this, and a stupid way, and a dishonest way. The smart way to is to openly list the promises and prioritize them. The stupid way is to notice one or two promises that you'd like to break and focus on those while remaining blissfully oblivious to the fact that other commitments exist. The dishonest way is to pretend that you don't realize about the other commitments and hope nobody points them out.

Foroohar acknowledges this in the financial sector: in her Time column, she wrote, "My worry was always that, as in parts of Europe or Latin America or even California cities that have gone bankrupt, pensioners [in Detroit] would be left holding a disproportionate share of the burden of cuts, while other creditors took less of a haircut." But it's true beyond finance, in other promises made by these states, counties and cities.

The fact is that most American cities made a series of really stupid decisions in the late twentieth century. They relocated valuable infrastructure like canals and railroads out of their downtowns, so those downtowns were no longer "on the way." They built oppressive, noisy highways through those downtowns, allowing drivers to shoot through on their way to someplace else. They copied zoning codes that outlawed mixed-use neighborhoods, and gutted the mixed-use neighborhoods that existed with highways and "urban renewal." Then they built other highways to bypass the downtowns, and subsidized development in the suburbs. I happen to be particularly familiar with Syracuse's tragic flailings in this regard, but you can see the same pattern in Albany, Buffalo or Binghamton, and all over Rockland County.

The people who ran these municipal governments borrowed money to build these highways and other infrastructure. They promised to pay it back with interest (Nocera noted that this was missing from the pension discussions). They promised their residents that no matter how far they spread out, no matter how much they drove, they could still count on roads, bridges, power, water and sewers. They promised that the government would pay for all that indefinitely and somehow keep taxes and tolls low. Oh yeah, and they promised their city workers secure retirements, and their poor people healthcare.

Of all these promises, Cuomo focuses on taxes, Miner focuses on pensions, Aquario focuses on Medicaid and Carey focuses on tolls. We may actually wind up with cheap taxes and tolls while cutting pensions and Medicaid, and that may get these guys elected to powerful political offices for many years. But you and I know that it won't actually solve the real problem: we can't afford to maintain the sprawl that's sucking the revenues out of our hollowed-out cities and towns. And we can't afford to pay back the money our parents borrowed to build that sprawl.

These four are not handling these overpromises the smart way, so that means they're either handling them the stupid way or the dishonest way. Hanlon's razor says "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity," and I know of no evidence that Cuomo, Miner, Aquario and Carey are lying, power-hungry, heartless crooks. For now I have to assume that they're simply incompetent idiots with a particular blind spot for the ugly sprawl that is choking the life out of the many lovely towns of my home state.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The missing denominator is pedestrians

Every year or so, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign produces a report of The Region's Most Dangerous Roads for Walking. It's important to talk about these issues, but in 2012 I suggested that since the roads are different lengths, the numbers of pedestrian injuries and deaths per road are not a great measure for ranking roads, and I ranked them instead by fatalities per mile, with the Bowery coming out on top. They seem to have completely ignored this, and this year's report compares the 89-mile Sunrise Highway (9 killed in 2010-2012) with the ten-mile Woodhaven Boulevard (8 killed in 2010-2012). Transportation Alternatives similarly compared roads regardless of length.

But as threestationsquare commented on my 2012 post, the length of a road alone does not tell us enough:

Streets that have more pedestrian traffic (e.g. 14th St, Broadway) will naturally see more fatalities than streets that are so obviously dangerous that pedestrians avoid them (e.g. Queens Blvd), but it hardly seems reasonable to call the latter streets "safer". I would be more interested in data that divided the fatalities per mile count by some estimate of pedestrian traffic, so that I can estimate just how much risk I am taking walking near the street in question. Do you know any sources of data on pedestrian traffic counts?

The figure of fatalities per mile is useful because it tells us how many lives can be saved by a relatively concentrated improvement. Fatalities per pedestrian is important because it can suggest how many people are being scared away by bad pedestrian infrastructure. It's also valuable for individuals when deciding where to walk. If there are very few pedestrians in a high-fatality area, that means that everyone who walks there is at a high risk.

Pedestrian counts have been difficult to get in the past, because they involved someone standing on a street corner clicking a counter. The DOT theoretically has pedestrian counts of large swaths of the city, since they're required to take them when studying things like whether to put in a stop light. The city has been releasing DOT data on the web, but so far they have not released any pedestrian counts. I know that most of them are probably very outdated, but even out-of-date pedestrian counts could be useful.

Recently I've had more hope. A start-up called Placemeter has been collecting foot traffic data based on geolocated social media posts and a network of old smartphone video cameras. They created a coarse-grained map and shared some of the data with the Mayor's Office of Data Analytics to produce a Business Atlas. The idea is that if you open a store selling only gourmet rice krispie treats, you want to be in a place where a lot of pedestrians will see it. If you want fine-grained data, I'm sure Placemeter will be happy to sell it to you...

I'm all for the Business Atlas and business owners buying foot traffic data. I would even hope that this kind of data could convince a company not to build a suburban-style drive-up in a pedestrian neighborhood. It'd be nice if Placemeter could donate this information to activists fighting strip mall development.

I still want the DOT to release all their data, but I hope that Placemeter can give us up-to-date pedestrian count data so that we can measure fatalities per pedestrian. I don't want to ask them to undercut their entire business model, but it could save lives.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Ten things Trottenberg and Bratton can do for transit

There have been a few posts about what the new administration of Mayor de Blasio can do for transit. Some have been focused on "bus rapid transit," because it's the fad of the decade and people don't want to think too hard about transit. Some rest entirely on him taking back control the MTA.

Following on my ten recommendations for pedestrians, here are ten recommendations for transit that don't require control of the MTA. Some of them can be done by the DOT, some by the NYPD, and some require cooperation between them, but none of them require action from the MTA or the State Legislature. They all have to do with buses, but unlike Select Bus Service, they don't require months of route planning to implement.

  1. Legalize private transit. The city Department of Transportation has the authority to allow private buses to operate on city streets, but for as long as I can remember they've only allowed three groups: (a) Buses like Academy that cross state lines, (b) Legacy streetcar companies that were finally taken over by the MTA in 2006, and (c) the gender-segregated Hasidic bus from Williamsburg to Borough Park. We need innovation in transit routing, and the MTA has consistently shown resistance to innovation. It's time to let private operators give it a try.

  2. Restore two-way traffic flow. It makes no sense that I can get a downtown subway on Sixth Avenue, but not a downtown bus. A one-way pair may be a good idea on Eighth and Ninth Streets, but not on Sixth and Seventh Avenues. It would be good for pedestrians too.

  3. Reopen the Union Turnpike entrances for buses. Reader Angus Grieve-Smith commutes from Western Queens to Saint John's University, and realized that the Kew Gardens station has the facilities for a fare-free transfer from bus to subway.

  4. Allow buses on the Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge was built for trains. Maybe it can't support trucks anymore. But can it really not support buses?

  5. Make bus bulbs standard. Pedestrians get more sidewalk space. Bus riders aren't the ones getting out of the way. It's a win-win!

  6. Make signal priority for buses standard. Why should it only be for Select Bus routes? It's expensive to replace the equipment, but as equipment gets updated it should be set to favor buses.

  7. No painted bus lanes that aren't 24/7. The red paint should mean something: Buses Only. It should not mean "For buses, except for turning cars and off hours and you know what? Let's just drive in it and see if they give me a ticket."

  8. Establish a New Jersey to Brooklyn pilot bus. One solution to buses idling in Lower Manhattan is to send them out to Brooklyn. There are people who live in Brooklyn and work in New Jersey and vice versa. Maybe more if you make it easy to commute.

  9. A 24/7 busway on the LIE. It would speed up the express buses and add bus capacity to and from Nassau County.

  10. Real fare inspection. The way the NYPD currently does fare inspection is fucking nuts. In Paris, fare inspectors board a bus just as it's pulling out of a stop, and check everyone's tickets as the bus is moving. In New York, fare inspectors pull up to the bus stop in an SUV and make the bus sit there while they check tickets. We shouldn't keep travelers waiting just because some NYPD people feel they're too good to be more than twenty feet from their own government vehicle.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The expense of East Side Access

The news is that the Long Island Rail Road East Side Access project, initially forecast to cost $4.3 billion and be completed in 2009 is not due to open until 2023, and it will cost $10.8 billion. Some have faulted the tunneling process and the engineers' estimates of the cost. Some have faulted the decision to run the trains into a deep cavern under Grand Central rather than on the loop tracks. I agree completely. But it recently occurred to me that a big part of the expense and delay - what makes it "the biggest " is a tunnel. Not the tunnel under the East River, that was dug 44 years ago. A tunnel through unstable soil in a filled swamp under the Sunnyside rail yards.

And why dig a tunnel? If you're building a new track that crosses an old track, the cheapest option is an at-grade crossing, but with two busy new tracks crossing lots of existing tracks - including storage tracks with trains parked on them and eight of the busiest tracks in the country - it's easy to see why the design team ruled out that option. It's harder to see why they ruled out a bridge. The yards are in a valley. Just a few blocks west, Queens Boulevard and the three tracks of very busy #7 train line have been crossing them on a double-decker bridge for over a century. There are five or six other bridges, depending on how you count.

There's no concern about blocking the sunlight because the only people in that yard are railroad employees. Sometimes a tunnel is chosen over a bridge to mitigate noise, but the trains will emerge from the tunnel close to the densest residential population, in Sunnyside Gardens. Grade elevation isn't a major concern because the yards are wide and the northernmost tracks are elevated, allowing for a relatively gentle slope, but if the grade is too steep, it would be possible to put in a bend.

And yet in the Final Environmental Impact Statement there is only one option considered for the Queens route: "crossing beneath the railroad yards." There's only one real reason I can think of to tunnel instead of building a bridge: a tunnel would get in the way of the convention center.

For years, developers, city planners and politicians have been quietly preparing to build a deck over the Yards and develop the area. Because NIMBYs were so successful at "protecting the residential quality" of most of the city's neighborhoods, the amount of new housing that can be built as of right in the city is not enough to accommodate everyone who wants to live here and bring rents down. Planners and developers see one of the largest uninhabited areas in the city, right next to the huge Queens Plaza station and the underused 36th Street stop, and they want to put something there. It figured prominently in the city's discussions about Olympic development, and a report from Alex Garvin and Associates to the Economic Development Corporation in 2006 called it "the city's single greatest opportunity to increase the housing supply and simultaneously improve the quality of the public realm."

Building over a rail yard is a strategy that made millions for the New York Central Railroad a hundred years ago. Railroad managers, now mostly government employees in the city, long to replicate that success. That was the idea behind the Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn and now the Hudson Yards development in Manhattan, and they've got other yards in the Bronx to follow Sunnyside. Never mind that Atlantic Yards was a crappy deal for the MTA and the Hudson Yards isn't looking quite as successful as forecast. The city's elites are still hung up on the idea: in 2012 Dan Doctoroff found some interest for it at the Municipal Art Society.

If you look at the map above, the East Side Access tunnel is there, under sections B and C. If it had been built as a bridge, at least part of it would be right where the deck would go, and get in the way of some of the buildings and streets.

I don't know for sure how much the East Side Access designers were thinking about this. But if it played a role at all in their decision to dig a phenomenally expensive tunnel instead of building a bridge, then a significant portion of this multi-billion-dollar federally-funded "transit" project is actually subsidizing a possible future residential and commercial mega-project. Yay?