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.)