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?


Anonymous said...

You obviously don't believe in fairness.

I tried to respond to you in detail, but received a message that I am only entitled to use 4,096 characters. You, however, can take two pages to bash others.

So I will address you in my blog piece on Monday at Sheepsheadbites.

capt subway said...

Well said.

I know some of these people. I know the drill. Lets have BRT - but don't take away any traffic lanes, or parking spots. Say what? It's a zero sum game. The space is finite.

BTW, these same people (no names mentioned) never met a reckless driver who (in their opinions) didn't have some truly compelling excuse for their recklessness - right down to some mysterious, undiagnosed ailment that caused them to loose control and drive up onto the sidewalk and mow down some school kids. Hey - WTF- no criminality suspected!

Alon said...

I don't think it's really correct to call 2000's Colombia authoritarian.

Cap'n Transit said...

Fair enough, Alon.

Allan, I do believe in fairness, but fairness doesn't mean that I have to give you equal space on my own blog. You are welcome to link here to your response elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

Here is my response: