Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Cheap housing with els

Two years ago I wrote that for truly affordable housing we not only do we need an adequate supply of living space, as Matt Yglesias explains so nicely, but also a decent range of quality. I mentioned that this pricing distribution could be achieved in several ways, some of them very unfair:

To prevent segregating the poor into inconveniently located bad housing with crime and pollution, we need to make some safe, solid housing available closer in, integrated with the rich people's housing. that is still affordable. In order to do that, we need to allow housing that's cheap in the non-dangerous, non-segregated ways. That means housing that's small or ugly, with crappy views and no doormen. Maybe housing that allows loud music if it doesn't bother anyone else. Regardless, it should still be well-built and well-maintained, and safe from pollution and crime.

Stephen Smith is fond of saying that "filtering" will keep prices low on a large enough portion of the available housing. Filtering is the idea that the price of older housing will be lower, reflecting the aging of materials and changes in consumer tastes. Jane Jacobs memorably said it about commercial space: "New ideas require old buildings."

This filtering hypothesis would make sense, all else being equal, but all else is not equal. There has been a serious decline in the quality of building since World War II, with the result that many buyers and renters will choose a prewar apartment with its amenities (hardwood floors, high ceilings, attention to detail, solid construction) over a postwar one with "modern" amenities (Stephen recently mentioned central air conditioning and laundry on premises).

A lot of postwar construction is also anti-urban, even in the hearts of cities, whether through tower-in-a-park architecture like Stuyvesant Town or excessive auto-oriented design like big driveways. Some, like the Big Six towers in my neighborhood, combined the two for that classy tower-in-a-parking lot ambiance. Some, like Wesley Grove in Asbury Park, have their de facto primary entrances and exits facing away from the street and towards the parking lot.

Because of this, it helps to have other ways of generating a range of quality options in the housing market, and one of those is elevated trains. I may have picked this idea up from something Stephen wrote; he certainly likes els.

Now, the el in my neighborhood, the Flushing Line, is really not that nice. In addition to blocking out all the light on Roosevelt Avenue, it makes so much noise that you can't talk when it's clanking over you. And if you look at estimated rents on Zillow, you'll find that two-bedroom apartments facing the train tend to rent for several hundred dollars cheaper than those around the corner.

Els that are built nowadays are much quieter. They're not unpleasant to live near, but they aren't as nice as a subway. The result is a less extreme range of rents, but still enough to provide affordable housing, especially when combined with other factors.

Elevated trains are not only cheaper to build than subways, but when combined with zoning that allows for substantial amounts of housing to be built for relatively low cost (i.e. highrises without parking) they can provide genuine affordable housing, and thus be a real tool in fighting gentrification.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

First impressions of the M60 Select Bus

So I went up to Astoria today to check out the new M60 Select Bus line. I didn't look ahead of time to see where the stops were since I was out for a walk anyway, so when I got to 46th Street I had to walk east to 77th Street. This is not as far as it sounds, due to a bend in the street grid. As I was walking, two articulated M60 buses passed, and I could see people standing inside.

I got to the 77th Street stop, and there was an MTA van parked in it. Two guys in day-glo vests jumped out and inspected the ticket machines. A woman, also wearing a vest, was there to inform passengers. I squeezed past them and got a ticket, but by the time I got back around the machines, a bus was flying past the stop. It said "Next Bus Please," so it may have been full; I didn't get a chance to look. A few minutes later the guys emptied the change from the coin machine, got into their van, and left.

I saw a stack of brochures on top of the ticket machines and read one while I waited for the following bus. One thing that's not so good: if you transfer to the M15 Select Bus, you can't use the same ticket. You have to go to another ticket machine and stick your card or more money in. Presumably it's the same transferring from the Bx12 to the Bx41. That's pretty lame.

Also, the M60 is scheduled for every ten minutes on Sunday, but the local Q19, which replaces the local M60 service, is only every half hour on Sunday. That's not good.

I didn't time how long it took until the bus came, but it was a while, and when it came, it was so packed that only a few people could get on. There were five other people waiting, and since I wasn't in a hurry, I let the others board. The next bus was at least ten minutes after that. There was room to stand but no seats, even for the guy who was carrying a baby.

We flew down the Grand Central Parkway service road to Steinway and then 31st Street, and I got off. I didn't go to see how the buses were doing on 125th Street, but from what I saw on BusTime they weren't moving too fast.

My main impression is that the buses on this new route were doing very well in terms of ridership. I saw five buses, and they all had people standing. Two had no room for more passengers by 77th Street. If this isn't a fluke, the MTA will have to increase service on Sundays just to be able to fit everyone on.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

It's time to extend the N train to LaGuardia

Twenty years ago, Astoria leaders blocked a plan to extend the elevated train line that serves their neighborhood. The proposal would have run the trains a few blocks north past their current terminus at Ditmars Boulevard, then east to LaGuardia Airport. In addition to the value of getting airport travelers out of cars and taxis, the line would have served new stops in areas of northern Astoria and Woodside that currently have no subway service. It would also have made better use of the Astoria Line, where trains were often fairly empty just a few stops outside of Midtown.

In a move that baffled me at the time, "the community," meaning the people with political power in the neighborhood, came out strongly against the plan. Ben Kabak has a good summary with links, but the gist seems to be that they didn't like the idea of an el, and they didn't like the disruption caused by constructing a subway.

This came up in Ben's blog and podcast again recently because the MTA is set to inaugurate the M60 Select Bus Service, and a business group called the Global Gateway Alliance released an open letter calling for "true Bus Rapid Transit" between the airport and the Ditmars Boulevard terminus of the Astoria Line. Ben was baffled by several assertions in the letter (a regular feature of this story is the bafflement of transit advocates at the bizarre reactions of city elites to what seems like a very straightforward case for a subway extension), most of all the blithe dismissal of rail by noting it was "shelved due to community opposition."

The train was indeed shelved due to community opposition, as everyone reminds us, but what they fail to note is that the "community leaders" are all gone. Read through the list of politicians who came out against the plan. Denis Butler and Walter McCaffrey are dead. Peter Vallone, Senior is retired, and so is George Onorato, and Vallone Junior has been term-limited out. John Sabini was hustled off to the Racing Authority after a DUI conviction in 2007.

Not only are these windshield-perspective politicians gone, but their replacements are much less wedded to the idea that cars are the future. Senator Michael Gianaris and his protégée Assemblymember Aravella Simotas are disappointing in some ways, but they've kept their car activism pretty low-key, as has Senator José Peralta. City Council members Jimmy Van Bramer and Costa Constantinides are both progressive on transit issues. Van Bramer, who represents me, has supported congestion pricing and the Midtown Tunnel Bus. Constantinides lost a bit of cred by coming out way too early in support of another term for Jimmy Vacca as head of the Transportation Committee, but has been a strong supporter of livable streets issues overall.

I believe that Van Bramer is a member of Transportation Alternatives, and I know Constantinides has been not just a member but an active supporter, marching with them at public events. They may keep their One Less Car T-shirts in the bottom of their drawers, but they definitely do not see cars as the only way to prosperity for their constituents. Community Board 1 may still be led by trolls who think parking is Astoria's number one issue, but they'll be gone soon as well. More importantly, the voters and donors in that area care more about trains than parking today.

Another baffling element of the 1990s opposition to the extension was that it seemed like the objections could all have been overcome with some thought, but the "community leaders" weren't interested. The line could have been run entirely over the Grand Central "Parkway," or put underground as far south as Astoria Boulevard. A solid proposal that addresses those objections, especially if it has the backing of business leaders like the Global Gateway Alliance, should be able to win over Gianaris, Simotas and Constantinides, and eventually the rest of Astoria. It's not 1999, people, and we shouldn't be acting like it is.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The return of the mixed-traffic streetcar

I wrote before that mixed-traffic streetcars no longer make sense in this country, because whenever a corridor has enough walkable destinations to support the service, it attracts too many private cars. Those cars slow down the streetcar so much that it no longer provides enough value to draw passengers. There is a way to make them work, however: drive the cars away.

Drivers are currently drawn to Manhattan under today's heavy subsidy levels, but if the subsidies are decreased it will attract less drivers. Cordon pricing is the most obvious way to do this, but it could also be accomplished with high enough prices on parking or fuel.

Imagine Manhattan one day in the Future. As it did a century ago, a streetcar again connects Greenwich Village with Soho, Chinatown, Tribeca and the Financial District along Wooster Street and University Place. It runs smoothly and quickly, even at the height of rush hour or the hottest club time on Saturday night. The reason is that, thanks a combination of bridge tolls, parking pricing and ten dollar a gallon gas, nobody wants to be driving. There are cars on the streets, but never enough to slow down the trolley.

That's the kind of environment where a mixed-traffic streetcar can work. Without something to keep private cars out of the way, streetcars are just buses with a smoother ride.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Imagining desire lines

You've seen them: lines where the grass is worn down, the evidence that enough people have walked a particular route as to kill the grass. They are called "desire lines" by landscape architects, and they are used to decide where to put new concrete or gravel paths.

The key point is that these bottom-up paths represent the desires of the people - the users of the space - in contrast with the top-down concrete paths that represent the desires of the planners and architects. The use of desire lines is an acknowledgment that sometimes the “wisdom of the crowds” – the aggregate of thousands of decisions made by hundreds of people, or more – can produce better outcomes than a handful of principled decisions made by educated professionals who may never actually use the space.

What are these better outcomes? Why do we care if people are walking on the concrete or the grass? Well, concrete is expensive and takes up space that could otherwise be planted with grass, so it pays to pour the concrete where it will be used. Dirt paths can be less comfortable, and some people don’t like the way they look. In general it’s more efficient for people to go where the infrastructure is, and for infrastructure to go where the people are.

It’s important to note that desire lines don’t tell you the whole story, because the decisions that create them operate within constraints imposed by others. For example, people may leave an asphalt path and cross a quadrangle diagonally to get to a door, because the asphalt path does not lead to a convenient door. Once they get through the door, they may travel down a corridor to a point just on the other side of a wall from the asphalt path. The best solution may not be to pave the diagonal path, but to open a new door in the wall.

Last week, Michael Kimmelman invoked the idea of desire lines to support his proposal for a streetcar running near the East River waterfront in Brooklyn and Queens. I read his post looking forward to hearing about how people are already trying to get from one part of the waterfront to another. Then I read it again, and again, but found no actual desire lines.

Kimmelman writes, "Cities also have desire lines, marked by economic development and evolving patterns of travel." Evolving patterns of travel, sure, but the only evidence he gives of these patterns is the Kent Avenue bikeway. Now I love the Kent Avenue bikeway, but it is no desire line. It’s a top-down effort, the result of years of collaboration between bike activists and city planners. Its popularity is largely due to the scarcity of safe alternatives.

I took Kent Avenue to work for a while when I worked downtown, but it was a significant detour for me. The quickest way for me to get downtown is the route of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, but I can’t ride my bike on it, there is no bike access on the Kosciuszko Bridge, and the parallel streets are hostile to cyclists. It is the planned concrete path. My desire line is the one traced by the young, tough, fast cyclists commuting down Metropolitan Avenue.

Similarly, the economic development invoked by Kimmelman represents not the desires of the residents, workers or shoppers, but the desires of developers and city planners, and the hate – the opposite of desire - of NIMBYs. The process of planning and zoning in this city favors people who have a lot of money, people who have fancy degrees, and people who have the time and energy to sit through community board meetings and the connections to get appointed to the community boards. That is why those buildings are rising along the waterfront.

Stephen Smith pointed out that Kimmelman is ignoring true desire lines, notably the ridership of existing bus lines. "What is the logic in investing a billion or more in upgrading a moderately-trafficked bus route in Astoria before far more heavily-traveled routes in neighborhoods like Flushing and Elmhurst?" he writes. "It’s hard to discern any motivation beyond the fact that existing high-ridership routes like the Q44 or Q58 simply don’t pass through gentrifying areas."

Other desire lines include the presence of non-government-sanctioned transit lines, like the Jamaican and Haitian dollar vans on Flatbush Avenue, or the Chinatown vans to Flushing and Sunset Park. Patterns of travel in taxis and private cars (or even bicycles, but with care) are other possible indicators. The replacement of any one of these by a faster, more efficient, less crowded train would be an improvement comparable to the replacement of a dirt path with a concrete walkway.

But the existence of housing developments and a bike path do not constitute desire lines, even if they are popular. Using these signs of the will of developers and planners to plan a train line is not like the bottom-up process of using the tracks of multiple individuals to plan concrete paths.

I'm honestly puzzled as to why Kimmelman misused the term "desire lines" in such a conspicuous way. I don't think he's deliberately being misleading, but I really expected him to know better. My most charitable explanation is that he was so excited at this idea (which he got from Alex Garvin) that he didn't really think through the idea of "desire lines" before hitting "send."

At least he's smart enough to avoid calling it "a desire named streetcar."