Sunday, December 27, 2015

Knowing you killed someone is not punishment

Advocates for safer streets have been pushing back against the use of "accident" to absolve drivers of responsibility for not killing or injuring other people. When drivers engage in behavior that demonstrates a callous indifference to human life - or even an unjustified faith in their own ability to avoid killing people - death is no accident, but a predictable consequence.


The next line of defense is commonly that the driver "has suffered enough," sometimes simply by witnessing a horrific death that (by implication) they were powerless to stop, or even by being forced to consider the possibility that their behavior or choices may have been connected to this death.

In circumstances where there is really no denying that the driver acted recklessly or irresponsibly, the claim is that this knowledge serves as a lesson. The driver now knows the consequences of reckless behavior or irresponsible choices, and will never do it again.

Many drivers flee the scene of the crash, because they believe they will be held responsible for it and do not want to face the consequences. (Some do it for a chance to sober up.) Reckless killer drivers who do this have compounded their crime of reckless driving with another, leaving the scene.

Unfortunately, some people are so upset by this effort to evade responsibility that if the driver is caught they treat that as the major crime. Conversely, they may be so relieved that a killer driver turns themself in, or chooses not to leave the scene, that they praise that and forget any reckless behavior.

This is all bullshit. We have laws specifying the penalties for killing someone with a car. They could use a little more tightening up in the evidence department, but they're pretty clear on the consequences.

To the best of my knowledge we do not say that reckless knife-wavers have "suffered enough" or that negligent builders have "learned their lesson." We do not praise incompetent gun handlers for not running away (although ). We should not treat drivers any differently.

Actually, we also treat some incompetent gun handlers differently - we sometimes say they've "suffered enough" if they negligently kill their own children. In a post about this craziness, some guy named Greg Laden made an astute point:

Suggesting that the decision to hold someone responsible for an irresponsible act that has damaged another should be based on how the perpetrator of that act feels post hoc, extended more generally, means that the standard for punishment under the law is inverse to the severity of the crime. It is suggesting that the severity of the possible punishment be inverse to the seriousness of the crime because how bad one feels is proportionate to the severity of the crime.

Knowing you killed someone is not punishment. Realizing that they might still be alive if you had made different choices is not punishment. Staying at the scene is not accepting responsibility. Turning yourself in is not penance. As long as we continue to treat them as such, people will continue to die.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Our stratified transportation system

A lot of people are nervous about the possibility that privately-run electronic taxi-hailing systems like Uber and Lyft could take over functions that have recently been filled by government-run transit services. Others are disturbed by the sight of privately-run companies like Leap and Bridj marketing local bus services as luxury products. I share some of these concerns, and I've addressed them in previous posts.


What I don't share is the idea that any of these services will create a "two tier" or "stratified" system with one service for the rich and one for the poor. There's a simple reason for this: we already have one.

If you go to a small city like, say, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, you'll see our stratified system in action: the people on the buses are mostly poor and nonwhite, and everyone else is driving. Ride the bus in a city like Kingston, New York, where the received wisdom is that "everyone drives because you need a car to get around," and you'll see that there are still people who don't drive: the extremely poor and the mentally and physically disabled. Here in New York the majority rides the subways, but there is a stratum that drives everywhere, and pretty much runs the city.

The bus and rail strata are largely run by the government and paid with tax money, but some of the money comes from fares paid by passengers. In the strata where people drive, passengers often contribute the labor of driving themselves, and pay a lot of money for the vehicles, fuel, insurance and other costs, and also contribute to the construction and maintenance of road, bridge and parking infrastructure through taxes. But as has been shown time and again, they do not pay the entire cost of the system; a much larger share of general tax revenue goes to driving than to transit.

This stratified system can be very cruel to those in the bottom strata, and it generally gets worse the smaller the share of the population that takes transit. The poorer the average transit user is, the slower, dirtier, more crowded, less frequent and less reliable the transit.

Even here in New York, the driving classes are constantly blocking improvements to transit, whether it's another commuter rail track, extension of an el train, allowing bus pickups or dedicating a bus lane. So yes, I know firsthand how bad it is to have a stratified system with minimal investment in the lowest strata. And I can't see how Uber, Lyft, Chariot and Bridj could possibly make things any worse.

In fact, I see it the opposite way: that people who take these taxi and premium bus services are less likely to identify as drivers and more likely to take transit and support transit expansion. If they don't have cars to park, they're much less likely to go crazy over reallocating street space from parking to transit.

As I've written before, I'm not a libertarian, and I'm not even much of a capitalist. One of my goals is access for all to jobs, housing, shopping and services. I would be open to a state solution, a government monopoly on transportation with a single level of service. But to impose a government monopoly on transportation would require drastic state action. Use your transit quota well, comrade! The government would most definitely be coming for your cars. Who would be first up against the wall - Rory Lancman?

In any case, I'm trying to think of an area where our government provides a monopoly with a single level of service, and coming up blank. Housing, food, energy, school - there is usually some government service, but it always has substantial competition from the private sector. Even services that are nominally single-tier like identification, permitting and licensing have inequalities. If you can afford to pay a rush fee or an expediter, or if you just live in a wealthier area, your interactions with the government will be quicker and smoother.

It's not just our government, either. The most revolutionary, egalitarian governments ever have failed pathetically at imposing transportation equality, when they've even tried it. Even the Soviet Union had its Ladas for the Party officials.

Sadly, these people who bleat about "stratification" don't even have the vision to realize the amount of stratification between cars and transit or the guts to mention it, much less address it. They would never think about taking away cars or parking, or defunding roads. They'd rather make a big show of opposing inequality that doesn't exist than address inequality that exists.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Let a thousand Brooklyns bloom

As I said last year, what many people call "gentrification" in large American coastal cities is the result of the confluence of four or so different migrations. Cities have been drawing the Best and the Brightest and International Migrants for all of history, since the first trading post was set up where a trail crossed a river. They are not the main source of demand for urban real estate. Rents are rising because those two streams are joined by two other major streams, the Empty Nesters and the Small City Exiles.


The conformist Baby Boomers failed to make their utopia in the suburbs, and the back-to-the-landers failed to make their utopia in the country. Now they've got bad knees or bad eyesight or whatever, and if they care at all about any people, deer or trees on the road they'll do the right thing and buy a condo near their kids in the city where they can walk to shopping. Sucks if you wanted that apartment, twentysomethings.

Here's what I said about the Small City Exiles last year:

not the best or the brightest, or complete misfits, but they’re pretty bright, mildly kinky or noticeably nonconformist. Or maybe they can’t drive because they’re blind or epileptic, or they just don’t want to. Eighty years ago they’d have been pretty happy in Rochester or Knoxville or Omaha or San Luis Obispo: reasonably normal, functioning members of society, with enough peers to have a stimulating intellectual and artistic fellowship.

Today, those towns have hardly any jobs at all, especially within walking distance of downtown, shopping and services are sprawled out across the area, and transit between them is inconvenient. With this fragmentation, they can barely sustain a monthly open mike or an Indian restaurant, let alone a poetry slam or a regional Thai place. Our heroes – somewhat large fish in not-so-large ponds – see the grim desperation in the faces of their older neighbors and head to the bigger cities, where there are more opportunities, not just for jobs but for dinner after 8PM.

In that post, and in other recent posts, I've pointed out that the Empty Nesters and Small City Exiles don't need the big cities. They don't need a regional Thai restaurant. They were happy enough in the small cities, but there were no jobs and nowhere to walk. If we can fix those two problems they won't move to the big cities and drive up the prices.

If we make these small cities really attractive, many of the exiles will move back, and some will move to other small cities. What would it take? I'm not an expert on economic development, but I can think of a couple things that would help. First of all, they should be Strong Towns, keeping taxes low by focusing government spending on cost-effective, dense areas and avoiding spreading obligations out over huge distances.

It seems that a lot of our current economic growth is in high technology, and the places with most promise for tech are those that attract techie types, creative types and financial types (and people who are some combination) and allow them to mix and bounce ideas off each other. But I don't think you can declare a "Silicon Mangrove" in the middle of nowhere, upzone and automatically get tech jobs. It also seems that it helps for the city to be a physical port, connected to trade routes that make it easy for them to get materials and ship out products.

To my mind, the most promising small cities are those that are close to established centers like New York or San Francisco, so that staff members can spend a day in the city talking to potential collaborators and funders, and be home for dinner. Just as before the highway era, they can benefit from their proximity to the big port.

Some of these small cities are already coming back; you can tell because they're often called "the next Brooklyn." And where they are, people are already worried about displacement. It's important not to dismiss those displacement fears out of hand. Some towns have more vacancy than others. If rents are rising faster than wages, either the town should loosen zoning to allow more housing to be built in walkable areas, or we should work to boost opportunities in other towns.

Some people in those towns have expressed fear of their unique towns being swamped by a "monoculture," turning them all into clones of Brooklyn. I'm skeptical about these fears in general, but in small cities they're particularly unfounded. Beacon isn't Brooklyn, and neither is Rosendale; they've got way too much of their own personalities to become clones of Park Slope or Williamsburg. In particular, a lot of the people moving there are actually Small City Exiles who grew up in the area and tried to make it in the city.

I'll talk about what I think would help revive these cities in another post.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Could Lyft and Uber reduce congestion?

Charles Komanoff has created an open-source multimodal transportation model for New York City, available for free download as an Excel spreadsheet. In July, after learning that there were almost two thousand Uber cars on the streets of Manhattan every weekday, Komanoff used his Balanced Transportation Analyzer to estimate that these cars had slowed traffic by seven percent.


A month later, some new information came out: taxis were sitting idle on the streets of Greenpoint. Drivers had found that they could make more money with Uber and Lyft than with the medallion giving them the right to pick up street-hailing passengers in Manhattan.

This suggests that instead of adding to the cabs in Manhattan, many of the Uber and Lyft cars have been replacing them. This is confirmed by an analysis conducted by Reuben Fischer-Baum and Carl Bialik for Five Thirty Eight. The net increase in congestion may be a lot lower than Komanoff estimated, especially since, as he mentioned, cabs hailed with apps don't have to cruise the streets.

I emailed Komanoff, and he was aware of this new data. "I revised my approach in mid-summer. I think the main change was a higher assumed displacement of yellows, which resulted in a lower impact of Ubers. The impact of 20,000 Ubers (not all of which are in the CBD all the time, obviously) is now a 4.3% slowdown in CBD speeds," he wrote.

To me this suggests that there is a limit to the number of taxis that we can add in Manhattan's Central Business District ("the CBD"). If vehicle speeds slow below a certain point, some passengers will decide that it's not worth their time and money, and either take the subway, go at a different time, or go somewhere else. The "surge pricing" (in fact, a form of congestion pricing, which Komanoff has advocated for all vehicles for decades) practiced by Uber and Lyft probably also serves as an extra disincentive.

If enough passengers make this decision, the driver doesn't get the hail. Because the fare they get for sitting in traffic is different from what they get while moving, they may decide that even if they pick someone up it won't be worth their time. And in fact, electronic hailing and traffic monitoring allows drivers to read and respond to these signals more quickly. A driver can now get a sense of the number of hails before they even enter Manhattan, and choose to go elsewhere.

The Economist's analysis of trip data suggests that these services are not adding very much to congestion: "During the two years to June 2015, Uber’s pickups in the CBD rose from an estimated 175,000 to 1.8m [per month], while yellow cabs’ hails in the area fell by around 1.4m. This implies that where Uber and yellow cabs compete most directly, just 13% of the growth in Uber rides has added to prior demand. The remaining 87% has replaced trips that would otherwise have gone to taxis."

It's even possible that electronically hailed cars could eventually help reduce congestion, and provide an alternative to subways and buses. Of course, not if they're single-passenger taxi trips: as I said recently, if Uber and Lyft simply take a vehicle with one person who's both driver and passenger and replaces it with a vehicle with one driver and one passenger, it may lead to a reduction in carnage and an improvement in the way people relate to each other, but there would be no net change in the number of passengers per car, and thus no practical change in efficiency or pollution.

There is one major difference in shifting from single-occupant vehicles to taxis: ownership of the vehicle passes from the individual (usually the driver/passenger), to the taxi driver or fleet owner. This means that control of the other passenger seats passes from the driver/passenger to the taxi service. As many people have observed, when combined with real-time schedule coordination, this makes it much easier to add passengers.

Uber offers an electronic carpooling service called Uberpool, and Lyft offers one called Lyftline. With these services, instead of carrying a single passenger, a Prius sedan can carry up to three comfortably, and an Escalade can carry five. The companies claim that they are very popular: Uber said that "almost 50,000 New Yorkers" used Uberpool in the last week of October. In April, Lyft said that Lyftlines made up thirty percent of its rides in New York. Unfortunately, both of those numbers are fairly useless for our purposes because they don't say how many of those rides were in Manhattan during business hours.

Still, each of those shared trips represents one of several possibilities. One is that the person took Uberpool or Lyftline instead of driving their own car or taking a separate cab. If these services do take, say, a thousand cars off the streets of Manhattan every rush hour this way - cars that are not replaced by other taxis, personal cars, or even trucks - that's a very good thing. Komanoff's model indicates that if we could get 32,000 less cars going into Manhattan every day, it would increase speeds by 3.2%.

It may be that the possible congestion limit I mentioned above is actually an optimal congestion point, and every car taken off the road by these carpool services will be replaced with another car, taxi or truck until it reaches that point. In that case, the only way to free up space on the roads would be to increase the price - tolls on the bridges, raise on-street parking rates, reduce government employee parking placards or implement a taxi congestion fee. In the meantime, at least this means more people that will be able to get into Manhattan.

Another possibility is that the person took Uberpool or Lyftline instead of taking the subway or bus, leaving space for someone else. A number of transit advocates have gotten all doom and gloom about this, saying that these services will "poach riders" from the public transit agencies, depriving them of fare revenue, but here in New York today the system is at capacity. All rush hour, people are watching full buses and subways pass them by. Poaching is simply not an issue, and will not be for the foreseeable future.

As I've written before, I do not believe that electronically hailed taxis can be a satisfactory replacement for fixed-route transit. I do believe that they can help us deal with our current capacity crunch, and potentially ease the way to eliminating personal cars. I've got more to say about this in the future.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Coming downstairs, bump, bump, bump

Last year, a number of people noted that recently there had been a significant drop in vehicle miles traveled across the country. At a minimum, this shows that transportation engineers are wrong to base their recommendations on simplistic linear models. Connecting this with similar drops in vehicle sales and sales of sprawly houses, some felt that there was evidence that Americans are "falling out of love with the automobile."

I tend to agree with both of these points, and they're the kind of change I would like to see happen, but more recently the picture has clouded. Vehicle sales are up, the average fuel efficiency of vehicles sold is down, home sales in some sprawly areas are up, and VMT is rising again. What's going on? Was all that good news just a blip? Should we keep building big roads?

The Archdruid has the answer. I've tweeted about him before, and … crickets. If you're reluctant to click through and read him, let me just remind you that you're reading a blog by a guy with a name that sounds like a superhero crossed with a sugar cereal mascot. Go read the Archdruid, he's good.

So John Michael Greer, the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America and an occasional guest on the KunstlerCast (December 2011, July 2014, December 2014), predicted that we'd see something like this. Basically, when a society has built more capital (infrastructure, buildings, mines, etc.) than it can maintain, it begins to defer the maintenance of that capital. When it can't defer maintenance any longer, there is a crisis. This crisis is compounded if the maintenance is dependent on non-renewable resources.

The critical thing to note is that we don't fall all the way down. When someone claims that a situation is unsustainable, one popular response is to deny it and predict business as usual, and another is to predict a complete and sudden collapse, all the way back to nothing. The Archdruid predicts something in between, something a lot like what we've been seeing.

Greer observes that a collapse has the effect of tipping "some fraction of the stuff that would otherwise have to be maintained into the nearest available dumpster." That relieves the society of the responsibility for maintaining it, providing an opportunity to recover some balance and stability. It can seem like the fall is over, and many people will then pick themselves up and resume business as usual. But business as usual will just lead to more capital that the society is unable to maintain, and eventually to another collapse. And so on.

When the resources used to build and maintain the capital are not renewable, it makes things worse, because the periods of stability and regrowth are shorter and the collapses are bigger. The result is what the Archdruid calls a "stair step down": with each crash, the standard of living gets lower and lower.

Our energy and economic crises fit the pattern that Greer describes. In 2008 we abandoned large tracts of McMansions, malls and Mitsubishis for apartments, streets and transit, and that helped us to recover a bit (in combination with unsustainable emergency strategies like fracking and quantitative easing). If we were smart we'd use that time and energy to build more sustainable trains and apartment buildings. But we're not that smart, so a lot of us have gone back to building mega-bridges and sprawl. That means that the next step down is not far off, and it will probably be painful.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

I am Monoculture, Destroyer of Worlds

There's an idea going around that "gentrification" imposes a monoculture on the neighborhoods it touches. In a whirlwind of destruction it sweeps away the indigenous diversity that existed since the dawn of time, tearing up unique old buildings, tossing aging deli owners as for away as Florida and scattering younger ones to the Five Towns. In its wake it leaves a sterile landscape of Vertical Suburbs, identical high-rises anchored by chains like 7-Eleven, the Gap and Trader Joe's!


What's that you say? The old buildings are recent and identical? They're already full of chain stores, clone restaurants and relatively newly arrived inhabitants, selling the same mass-produced stuff? The residents haven't moved out at a higher rate than any other time in the past fifty years? The new businesses aren't chains, and many of them sell handmade and secondhand items?

Well, it's still a monoculture! In a whirlwind of destruction it sweeps away the hopes of immigrants just beginning to put down roots with their first bodegas and Dunkin' Donuts franchises, swamping the old residents with hipsters from Ohio in identically unique flat caps and tattoos who produce a sterile landscape of coffee bars and vintage stores!

The great thing about this argument is that these elements can be combined in infinite ways to fit the situation. Any time there's a change you don't like, just highlight the diversity in the old and the similarity in the new. Bonus if you can sniff out any privilege the new people have over current residents!

Meanwhile, if you look at culture from a place of curiosity and not a place of fear, you find similarities and differences everywhere. Fads, formulas, common suppliers and the desire for a consistent customer experience are indeed forces that promote uniformity, but it is often a superficial uniformity. Uniformity is unsustainable, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics ensures that diversity always wins in the end. The Goths convert to Christianity, but then produce the Reformation. The Romans may have gotten the Iberians to speak Latin, but within a few centuries the Italians can't understand them any more.

When you get people from all over the country, and all over the world, coming together in one city or one neighborhood, of course you get some assimilation. But you also get a lot of continuity. A friend of mine is doing the artisanal hipster food thing, but she's actually using recipes and techniques passed on in her family for generations, knowledge that might have died out if she had taken a nice office job.

Yes, there is displacement, and it's not all good. There's a lot that we should be doing better. But we're not losing our diversity. The encroaching monoculture is a myth, a scary story that people tell their kids at bedtime. We're grown up now, and it's time to face facts. There is no monoculture.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The anti-bus terminal

The Department of City Planning thinks it would be a good idea to have a bus terminal in the new "Flushing West" district that they're planning (PDF). Apparently at one of their outreach sessions people talked to them about "Rerouting of bus routes to alleviate traffic on Main Street" and the "Need for a distinct central bus terminal." So they said they would "Evaluate siting a mixed-use Bus Transit Center (BTC) near northern and southern edges of the rezoning area."

As this map shows, there are twenty MTA bus lines that converge on Flushing, as well as the #7 subway, the Port Washington Branch of the Long Island Rail Road, and private buses to Chinatown and Sunset Park. There are also private buses to various casinos in the region. Of these, the underground 7 train station is the only one that is at all protected from rain or snow. The buses pick up and drop off at a variety of stops along Main Street, 39th Avenue, Roosevelt Avenue, 41st Avenue and 41st Road.

Because the Flushing West district starts at Prince Street, a block west of the western entrance to the Main Street subway station, the proposed bus station could be as close as the corner of Roosevelt and Prince, 225 yards from the subway, or as far away as Northern Boulevard and the river, three quarters of a mile from the subway.

But is there actually even a need for a distinct central bus terminal? It's a good idea to go over the reasons we have them. City Planning gave only one: "Provide relief to bus congestion from curbside layovers in the downtown." But if we think about existing bus terminals like the Port Authority or Newark Penn Station, they provide value in several ways:

  • One-stop shopping for buses. Right now if you're going to Bay Terrace, you can take either the Q13 or the Q28, which is handy because they leave from roughly the same spot in Flushing. But if you're going to Northern Boulevard in Bayside you'll have to decide ahead of time whether you're taking the Q12 or the Q13, because they leave from stops a block apart.
  • Easy transfer between buses, and from buses to trains. Right now if you want to change from a northbound Q44 to an eastbound Q13, or from the 7 train to a southbound Q17, you have to walk a couple of blocks on crowded sidewalks.
  • Short-term bus layovers. Some of the bus routes (like the Q44) pass through Flushing, but most of them terminate there. It makes sense to start and end as many bus driver shifts as possible at transit hubs, because it encourages drivers to commute by transit. Sometimes drivers need a short break between runs, and sometimes they finish a run early. It's important to have enough short-term bus storage to handle those needs.
  • Long-term bus layovers. Demand is not flat for buses; there are rush hours. It is often more efficient to store buses close to the transit hub in the middle of the day instead of sending them to the depot (a two mile trip) and back.
  • Avoiding street congestion. One of the biggest time savers for bus riders at the Port Authority is that most of the buses have direct ramps into and out of the Lincoln Tunnel, and don't have to compete with private cars.
  • Ticketing, shelter, bathrooms, food and shopping for people waiting for buses.

The first thing to ask is what the current arrangement does and doesn't provide. It does not avoid much street congestion or provide for long-term layovers. According to the City Planning powerpoint, the buses stored for short-term layovers get in the way of buses picking up and dropping off passengers. As I detailed above, some of the transfers require walking multiple blocks through dense crowds, and there are a few problems with one-stop shopping. There is very little shelter for people waiting for buses.


On the plus side, transfers from the 7 train to most of the buses are pretty quick and easy. One-stop shopping for the buses that go on Main Street, Kissena Boulevard and Parsons Boulevard works pretty well, and now that bus schedules are available through Google Maps it's even easier to know which bus is scheduled to leave next. There are public bathrooms and Metrocard machines in the subway station. Downtown Flushing's biggest advantage is in terms of food and shopping. If you're transferring in a hurry you can usually pick up a scallion pancake, a Big Mac, a bubble tea or any of a staggering variety of other fast foods and beverages before the next bus leaves. Within a block of the Main Street station there's a Macy's, a Duane Reade and half a dozen Chinese mini-malls.

So what would the proposed bus terminal provide that we don't already have? Shelter and space for short-term layovers, maybe shorten a couple of the transfers and make one-stop shopping a bit easier. Hmmm, maybe that would be worth it if someone else paid for it...

But note that the terminal proposal doesn't do anything to address the biggest obstacle to bus flow: private cars. And it would make the single most important transfer - the transfer from the 7 train to any bus - at least a block long, and potentially much longer. People currently disperse from the corner of Main and Roosevelt in all four directions to board buses using six staircases and two escalators; the proposal would concentrate them all along one route, accessed by one staircase: the one at the northwest corner.

Some people go to Flushing specifically for the restaurants. Others go for specific shopping and cultural anchors, and stop at restaurants on their way. But if you think about it for a minute, it's clear that the dispersed pedestrian flow from the subway to the bus stops is one of the biggest drivers of business at the shops and restaurants in the area.

There are of course other factors at play, but I wonder how much of the affluence and growth of Downtown Flushing relative to other transit hubs like Jamaica and Journal Square can be credited to this layout, where businesses are on the way in a sense that can't be said of the other hubs. How many people would cease to walk by the Quickly+ on Roosevelt if the B12 terminus were moved west of Main Street? Are the Flushing merchants ready to find out?

Sadly, I'm guessing that they are. That first quote from the City Planning powerpoint, "Rerouting of bus routes to alleviate traffic on Main Street," sounds just like the kinds of quotes that Flushing's elites give to papers. No matter how clear the evidence that the vast majority of shoppers arrive by bus or train, both the old white elites and the new Asian elites seem utterly convinced that anyone who matters comes by car.

Despite what livable streets advocates, city planners and the developers themselves wanted, these merchants and politicians insisted on raising the amount of parking in the new Flushing Commons development to an insane level. They fought bitterly a recent attempt to increase bus speeds through the area by dedicating lanes of Main Street to buses (PDF). The new mall south of Roosevelt Avenue comes with a staggering amount of parking.

It would not surprise me at all if it were a merchant or politician who asked for "Rerouting of bus routes to alleviate traffic on Main Street." This is clearly someone who sees the upper-middle-class white and East Asian drivers as the rightful users of Main Street, and the bus riders, many of them black and South Asian, as interlopers who must be banished to the periphery.

This is yet another situation where we have to ask "who's getting out of the way?" The only way that I could see a bus terminal as an improvement is if it (a) directly connected to the subway and (b) bypassed a large amount of car traffic. No long nasty tunnel like the one to the Port Authority; I'm talking about demolishing a big chunk of one of the blocks at the corner of Main and Roosevelt. I'm talking about bus-only underground ramps from further out on Main, Kissena, Parsons and Northern that flow right into the bus bays and layover garage.

Of course, that would be a humongous cost, and if you're going to dig a tunnel you might as well put in an orbital subway connecting Flushing to Jamaica, the airports, Astoria and Upper Manhattan. None of it sounds like it would justify the cost of construction, so let's drop that, at least for a few decades.

What could we do that's cheaper? In 2012 the Department of Transportation considered reconfiguring Main and Union Streets to provide dedicated bus lanes, and rejected those options because they didn't want to slow down private cars and trucks (PDF). If we really want to improve bus service, we could revisit those options. We could also widen the sidewalks on Main Street to make room for bus shelters.

What we should not do under any circumstances is move bus stops away from Main Street and into the Flushing West area. Transit advocates need to be clear: that is not a bus proposal, it's an anti-bus proposal. The staff at City Planning listened to the anti-bus people; now they need to listen to the pro-bus people and kill any effort to put a bus terminal in Flushing West.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

It's time to stop saying "gentrification"

Gentrification is a bad word, because it blames the wrong people. Don't talk about "gentrification" or "gentrifiers." Talk about what the problem actually is: high rents, high prices, displaced residents, displaced businesses, losing old buildings, ugly new buildings, or not enough trains, buses, classrooms or parks.

Everyone knows that gentrification is the biggest problem facing our cities, and that it's the fault of the hipsters and techbros and greedy developers. The rents and prices jump sky-high, displacing poor people and small businesses. Historic structures are torn down and replaced with out-of-scale apartments. This strains the already burdened infrastructure serving the neighborhood, resulting in crowded buses, schools and parks. Everyone knows that, but everyone is wrong.

It is true that the rent is too damn high in some neighborhoods, and prices are pretty high too. Some people are getting priced out of neighborhoods where they've lived. Some good-looking old buildings get torn down, and some ugly new buildings get built. The government isn't always quick to increase transit, school or park capacity to meet demand.

What is not true is that these high rents, high prices, displacements, ugly buildings and strained infrastructure are somehow caused by hipsters (whatever they are), techbros, or greedy developers (or even non-greedy developers). In fact, we know the cause: we've turned our suburbs, small cities and countryside into hellish car-scapes, and severely limited the growth of places where you can get around on foot or by train. People try to move to those places anyway, driving up the rents and prices. Developers respond to that by building where they can.

The solution is to stop subsidizing car-oriented development and legalize more walkable, transit-oriented development. It has nothing to do with developers, hipsters or techbros. They are the symptom that will go away when the disease is cured.

The word "gentrification" automatically places the blame on the "gentrifiers." There is no way to hear the word without assigning the blame to them. If you know that they are not to blame, you have to make your mind do extra work to remove the blame from them each time you use the word. The people who hear you will not always do that work.

That's why I've stopped using the word "gentrification." Maybe you haven't noticed, but it's been absent from my blog and Twitter feed for over a year, except when I'm challenging the concept. But I still hear a lot of my friends and comrades-in-arms using it, even the ones who should know better.

So please, don't say "gentrification" unless you're attacking the concept. Think about what your focus really is - high rents, high prices, displaced residents, displaced businesses, losing old buildings, ugly new buildings, or not enough trains, buses, classrooms or parks. And then say that. And tell your friends!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Private or public what?

Recently with Uber, Lyft and even Leap, here has been a lot of discussion of public versus private transit. The stark opposition that some people draw between public and private obscures several important points. If we look at the history of transportation, nothing has ever been completely private or completely public. There are in fact three different ways that the public can be connected to a transportation project: money, control and accountability. These operate in many different areas, to different degrees.

Funding for capital construction, maintenance, procurement, or operations can come from general taxes, taxes on specific activities, fees and tolls on other kinds of transportation, or from fares. Fees, tolls and fares can be levied on transportation services and spent on things not directly related to transportation, including kickbacks, bribes, padding and profits. Money can be borrowed from private individuals, private companies, private nonprofits or government agencies.

Land, water and airspace can be owned by the government or private entities, as can the buildings, tracks, paths, roads, bridges and tunnels on, over, under and through them. The owners can grant access equally to all parties or reserve it for specific parties or classes of parties. Owners can charge money for access, and limit length and times of access.

Publicly elected officials or their employees can regulate scheduling and routing of the transportation services, and the policing of passengers. They can grant licenses to transport passengers and goods, and impose rules. They can regulate access to transportation facilities and services. The rules and regulations can be reasonable or arbitrary, or somewhere in between.

Publicly elected officials or their employees can regulate the way that a transportation provider interacts with its workers. The workers can form unions, and the transportation providers can form syndicates. These unions and syndicates can in turn form agreements with the governments and private transportation providers, with some degree of control over scheduling, routing and access, and over the hours that the employees work and the wages they are paid.

No transportation provider can provide everything, so transit providers need to purchase goods and services from other entities. Some of these services must be purchased from government entities. Publicly elected officials or their employees can regulate any aspects of this.

Funding, resources, operations, labor, procurement - all these things are some mix of public and private. The government itself can be more or less democratic, and more or less corrupt. Some entities look private but are wholly controlled by the government, and vice versa. This is all I can think of right now, but I'm sure I'm missing some things, and that's why I get frustrated when people present "public vs. private transit" as some clear binary opposition.

Don't get me wrong, I know why "privatization" has such a bad name. Often, from British Rail down to New York's "Group Ride Vehicle Program," what passes for privatization is some weird sandbox thing where the "private" operators are subject to so many conditions, regulations and oversight that you have to wonder why they're private. It's almost always an excuse for either reducing a useful government service, or looting publicly held resources, or both. The other reason the private operators are brought in is to do something that elected officials are worried will alienate voters, like raising fares.

As I wrote almost six years ago, we need to move beyond simplistic fears of privatization - or of government control - and recognize that every transportation service is a mixture of private and public funding, private and public control, private and public accountability. We need to lay out specifically how it fits our goals, and how it falls short. Some of you are doing that. More of you need to.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Which should we fight harder, job sprawl or housing sprawl?

Eric Jaffe had a good review of a University of Denver study about job sprawl. The study shows, basically, that if you make transit more convenient to people's jobs (or vice versa), they're less likely to drive to work than if you make it more convenient to their homes.


Thinking about it, that makes sense. If you own a car, you're much more likely to want to keep it at your end of the transit line than at the work end. Is there even anyone who lives in the city, keeps a car overnight in, say, North White Plains, and drives it to work in the sprawl every morning? I tried to think of actual economic or legal disincentives to this, but the real answer seems to be more primal: a car is a big expensive thing that you paid for, and you want it at the home end of the train line.

What I'm a bit less sold on is where the study authors, Gregory Kwoka, Eric Boschmann and Andrew Goetz, go from here. As Sandy Johnston highlights in a blog post, they also look at "non-work related personal trips" and conclude that working near a transit station is a bigger factor for determining whether you drive for those trips than living near a transit station is.

I can kind of see it. If you work in Manhattan, or even in downtown Denver, you're more likely to walk over to Walgreens or the Gap to pick up some necessities before you hop on the train home. You might meet friends or a date in the city after work. You might even buy groceries. On the weekend you might take the train into the city to go to a museum.

On the other hand, if you take transit out to the sprawl, you're probably just going to take transit right back rather than trying to walk around. But what I have a hard time with is the idea that when you get off the train from the sprawl and walk to your house, then you're going to get right in your car and drive to the supermarket or your kid's school or your AA meeting. I can't really see any of the New York drivers I know doing this. I know some who live in walkable communities, take the train to work in Manhattan, and then drive around on the weekends, but any car owners who live someplace walkable and work someplace not so walkable pretty much drive to work.

My guess is that this part of the study is a quirk of Denver geography. When I was last in Denver, they had only built part of the first light rail line, and there were some stations that didn't have much around them besides housing. Maybe there are a lot of stations where there isn't a supermarket or even a deli on the walk home from the train. Maybe these people live a short walk from the station but drive there anyway because there's a huge "free" park-and-ride.

I'm also not sure how this affects the land use and public investment cycles. In my experience, transit riders who don't own cars tend to be relatively strong advocates for dense development patterns as well as investment in transit and pedestrian infrastructure. People who take the train to work but drive evenings and weekends tend to identify as drivers and support sprawl zoning and investments in highways and parking lots. And sadly, even people who take transit or walk most of the time, but keep a car in the garage to drive to their country house in Vermont every few weeks, tend to identify as drivers and vote like drivers.

I think the best conclusion is that job sprawl is a slightly bigger problem than housing sprawl, but housing sprawl matters too. And even vacation sprawl matters.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Expanding transit and taxis

I wrote recently that by making taxi service more convenient and flexible, electronic taxi hailing services like Uber and Lyft have the potential to replace private car trips and even some car ownership. But some argue (or worry) that they can go further and replace public transit. I've already pointed out that even in this unlikely event, it would not necessarily be a bad thing.

The main value of transit is that it gets people out of cars, and the main challenge of transit in the 2010s (in large, walkable US cities at least) is that it doesn't have enough capacity to accommodate all the people who want to get out of their cars. The main goal for transit advocates right now should be to grow that capacity.

Since the days of Red Mike Hylan, transit advocates have focused on funding capacity expansion through government contracts, and big business has been a dirty word. But it's not at all clear that Hylan was right: the fact that the new 7 line extension was the first real rapid transit expansion in New York City since 1989 shows that we can't just forbid private investment in transit and expect the public sector to step in.

Some subway and commuter rail expansions are massively over-engineered and take forever (the Second Avenue Subway, East Side Access). Others are loaded down with park-and-rides (the Northern Branch), and eventually deep-sixed by ambitious politicians (the Rockland-Westchester corridor). Politicians have shut down many promising subway (Astoria extension), commuter rail (LIRR Third Track) and bus (Main Street bus lanes) proposals at the behest of NIMBYs or even cycling advocates (the Rockaway Beach Line).

The most shameful smothering of transit expansion was where ostensibly left-wing, pro-transit Manhattanites and their ostensibly left-wing, transit-loving representatives tightened constraints on the capacity for bus movement and storage, and blocked attempts to expand them, without a peep out of supposed bus advocates.

If we can’t count on government to expand transit fast enough to meet demand, or to even allow private buses to meet that demand, we have to see if someone else is willing to meet it. And that’s where Uber and Lyft, and less well known services like Via, come in.

These electronic taxi hailing services have essentially used venture capital to finance a massive expansion and upgrade of New York's taxi fleet. Hundreds of late-model Priuses and Suburbans have begun cruising the streets of New York, replacing Lincoln Town Cars and Ford Tauruses.

This is happening not because The People demanded an expansion and upgrade of the taxi fleet. (The bourgeois poseurs who claim to speak on behalf of The People would never demand such a thing, because it sounds too bourgeois.) It is not happening because the Sensible Bureaucrats conducted a study and decided to spend the money. (The Sensible Bureaucrats made some headway, but their colleagues were too busy cowering in pathetic fear of the power of the taxi medallion owners.) It is happening because Uber and others are making a profit on the financing of these vehicles, and the venture capitalists pouring money into Uber and Lyft are expecting to eventually make a profit themselves.

Of course, that's just taxis, and as I wrote earlier, by itself it won't get us to our goals. But is it a sign of a potential way forward for transit expansion?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Next stop: 34th Street-Hudson River Greenway

I rode the 7 train to the new 34th Street stop for the first time today. Too late? Well, I figured you all had the opening covered. I want to talk about the new connections that this station makes possible. The Times has mentioned that it's right across the street from the High Line, but I'm one of the few who have pointed out that the massive Megabus stop complex is right there too, and BoltBus is a block away. But also across the street is a Citibike dock, and a block away is the Hudson River Greenway.


This makes 34th Street-Hudson Yards the closest subway station to the river in Midtown. Only a handful of other stations come that close: Bowling Green and World Trade Center downtown, 79th and 96th on the Upper West Side, 145th in Harlem, 157th in Washington Heights, and Dyckman Street in Inwood. None of the ones above 79th currently have Citibike docks.

Thanks to the new station, a Citibike transfer to the Hudson River Greenway is now available. I've done similar connections before, but mostly the other way: riding a Citibike up the Eighth Avenue bike lane to 40th Street. Even then, that one long block on unprotected Midtown streets ends the bike ride on a sour note.

I once tried going the other way, riding a Citibike from Times Square across 41st Street to Ninth Avenue, but those two blocks were worse than one, and the abuse of the bike lane at the back of the Farley Post Office was depressing. I've ridden all the way across 42nd from Times Square to the Hudson River Greenway, once in each direction, and neither is an experience I want to repeat.

So today I took the 7 to 34th Street, rode the slow-ass funicular to the surface, hopped on a Citibike and only had to deal with one, relatively low-traffic, block of 34th Street. Then I was flying south on the Greenway, mostly protected from cars for a nice long way.

I really had only one worry: when I pulled up the Spotcycle app, it only showed me one free bike at the station. There was a second bike, but it was unavailable. I'm glad nobody took that bike before I got to it. I hope Citibike adds more docks or schedules it for more rebalancing, because it looks pretty popular.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The value of Uber and Lyft today

Over the past few weeks in New York we heard a lot of overheated rhetoric about electronic taxi hailing apps like Uber and Lyft, particularly from the former taxi monopolists and their proxies in the de Blasio administration and City Council member Ydanis Rodriguez.


Reading their tweets and soundbites actually reminded me of the way I felt reading the end of the Power Broker. I find Uber to be super creepy, and Lyft only somewhat less so. But I hate the medallion system and how it's enriched a select group of millionaires while saddling my city with crappy service. In that respect, Uber and Lyft are a huge improvement.

The first time I used Uber I was way out in eastern Queens and hadn't seen a boro taxi, never mind a medallion cab, in fifteen minutes. I could have looked up the local car services and called around until I found one that had cars available. Instead, I had an Uber in ten minutes. I should have checked the app sooner.

More recently I was standing in Union Square with my elderly mother at 4pm on a weekday. I raised my arm, and a cab pulled over. The driver stuck his head out the window: "I'm only going to midtown." Another taxi: "I'm going downtown."

My mom said, "I really need to get home, Cap'n." I pulled up the Uber app: 1.4x surge pricing. I hit "request" and in five minutes my mom and I were relaxing in the back of a car on the way to Queens, with no grumbling from the driver.

Uber and Lyft can be a lot more convenient for allocating car resources in times and places of scarcity, like eastern Queens or the shift change in Manhattan. They, and other taxi services, are also a lot faster and more convenient than buses or Access-a-Ride. It's a great alternative to owning a car for people who can't climb stairs and don't have a station with an elevator nearby. It's a lot more expensive than a subway or bus, but if you can walk for most trips they're a lot cheaper than owning a car.

Bizarrely, some crazy Queens old-timers have actually accused me of mistreating my mother by relying on taxis to get her to appointments instead of doing the responsible thing and buying a car. It's a very weird way of thinking, but a lot of people buy into it and drive their parents or their kids all over the city in bad traffic.

That's one way that Uber and Lyft provide value on an individual level, but how does it scale? If they replace car or taxi trips that's great, because they don't require as much parking. If they can help people to give up car ownership, even better, because that requires less parking and may convert someone who identifies primarily as a driver into a pedestrian or taxi rider with a different set of priorities.

Shifting to Uber or Lyft or boro taxis may also help reduce carnage. Forget driverless cars: most driving is currently done by amateurs who are frequently distracted, fatigued, enraged or just not very good. Police, prosecutors and judges hold them to a lower standard, and usually identify as drivers themselves.

In contrast, the professionals who drive for Uber and Lyft will hopefully have more training. This is less true outside of New York where drivers are not required to have taxi licenses, but still more likely than complete amateurs. Drivers will also have more accountability, because Uber and Lyft know that bad driving is bad for business.

On the other hand, if we're simply replacing car trips with taxi trips, that does not reduce the average number of passengers per vehicle, and thus its effect on congestion, pollution and energy use are negligible. For those areas, we will need more carpooling.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

What if Amtrak cared about its Hartford riders?

Welcome to another installment of our "What if?" series, where we ask what would happen if the people who ran our transit system treated it as an essential service that people relied on, rather than a luxury or a charity. In the past we've asked what if New York City Transit gave a shit about passengers at the Smith/9th Street subway station, riders on the #7 train from Woodside to Flushing or the M6 bus, Rockaway subway riders, subway riders in general, or the riders of any bus with onboard fare enforcement.


I've also asked what it would look like if the NYPD traffic brass cared about pedestrian safety, if the LIRR cared about people going through Jamaica, and if New Jersey Transit cared about transit riders or were interested in attracting new riders. I've gone further afield and asked what if the Port Authority of Allegheny County cared about people who want to get dahntahn.

But several of my "What ifs" have been about Connecticut. What if Amtrak cared about riders between New York and Boston crossing the Thames River east of New London, or the Niantic River west of the town? What if Amtrak and Metro-North cared about people traveling between Fairfield and Bridgeport?

Tonight the question is: what if Amtrak and the Connecticut DOT cared about riders between New Haven, Hartford and Springfield? The Hartford line has been neglected since the demise of the Penn Central, and one track has been removed for much of its length. It was treated by Amtrak as part of the Northeast Corridor, and several of the trains from New York and Washington used to go north to Springfield. Some even continued east from Springfield to Boston on the former Boston and Albany main line. When Amtrak introduced the Acela Express service and upgraded the Shore Line through Providence, it rerouted almost all the trains along the Shore, with four connecting "shuttles" running from New Haven to Springfield.

Amtrak and ConnDOT are working on improving service, which means they care, right? The AP says, "Work began Monday on the project that will boost north-south rail transportation from six daily round-trip trains to 17 a day south of Hartford and 12 north of Hartford."

Except if you read the details you'll see that they're destroying the frequency in order to save it. In the previous schedule (PDF) there were six trains a day in each direction; three of them are being bustituted. For two and a half years.

Train numberLeave SpringfieldNotes
1415:55AMThrough train Springfield to DC
4957:10AMBustituted
49310:30AMBustituted
552:50PMThe Vermonter - through train St. Albans to DC
4754:05PMBustituted
4797:40PMNot bustituted

According to Amtrak's monthly report (PDF), between October 2013 and September 2014 there were 370,896 riders on the Hartford-Springfield line, all week long. This does not include the Vermonter, so if we assume that all five other runs have the same number of passengers, and that ridership is the same every day of the week, we're talking about almost 400,000 trips being bustituted over the next two and a half years.

Why are they being bustituted? There is no explanation given in any of the press releases besides "double tracking." Amtrak's website refers to it as "Mid-Day Shuttle Service," which is a funny way of talking about trains that travel s early as 7:10 AM and as late as 6:50 PM. The Environmental Assessment has a bit more:

The project includes replacement of approximately 35 miles of second track removed by Amtrak in the early 1980s. The track, consisting of s sub-ballast foundation, wood or concrete railroad ties and steel rail, will be restored on the previously engineered Amtrak track bed. It will be aligned to support speeds of up to 110 mph. There are five sections of new double track, including one (MP 31.1 to MP 35.1) where the second track physically still remains, but is no longer in service and will be removed and replaced…

I understand that sometimes when you're double-tracking you need to disrupt the existing track, for hours at a time, like in the photo above. I also understand the desire to bustitute a whole bunch of trains for the whole length of the project, so that everyone knows what to expect and nobody gets confused and misses the bus on Tuesday the 17th because they got it mixed up with Wednesday the 18th. And yet, as with all the other Amtrak disruptions in Connecticut, it feels like Amtrak and ConnDOT really don't take Amtrak passengers seriously. I get the sense that they think of their future Commuter Rail passengers as Serious Business People, but the current Amtrak passengers are Recreational Travelers who won't mind sitting on a bus in rush hour I-91 traffic through Hartford or New Haven.

That sense makes me wonder if they're really doing all they can for the riders. How many people are working on this double-tracking project? Does it really take two and a half years? Are we closing all sixty miles of track for just one crew that will be traveling up and down the line, double-tracking as they go? Could the budget be rearranged to add more crews, so that the project could be finished in half the time?

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Our third world airport

I remember when Joe Biden remarked that LaGuardia Airport felt like the Third World to him. I remember thinking, "What the fuck is this guy talking about?" I thought about writing something, but my thoughts were kind of messy and it felt kind of hopeless, so I moved on to something else. Now I'm kicking myself.


I generally like Biden. He has a long record of not only supporting Amtrak but riding it himself, although with all his support it seems bizarre that the company would only have one line going through his state, with two stops. And I like how he seems to genuinely speak his mind.

But I've been to the Third World. Dominicans may not like me calling their country third world, but their airport is a bit lacking in the air conditioning department. I think we can all agree that Abidjan is third world, and when I was there they didn't have jet bridges. You get off the plane, go down the stairs and walk across the tarmac to the gate. Not a bad airport, all in all, but not in the same league as any airport I've been to in the United States. LaGuardia has good air conditioning, and it has fully functioning jet bridges.

I've also flown into a lot of airports with good reputations: Heathrow, Charles de Gaulle, Keflavík, JFK's Terminal 5. I honestly don't see what the big deal is. I like Terminal 5 because they have Cibo. If I could get some fresh vegetables with dip, and a decent ice coffee, to take on the plane at LaGuardia I would be happy.

If I've ever had a problem flying into or out of LaGuardia it's been the crappy bus connections. I hate waiting a long time for a bus to come, and then when it does it's packed with people who got on at the other terminal. I hate how the buses have to fight with all the cars and taxis to get to the curb. I hate how in the winter the curb is blocked by taxis. The Q70 is a big improvement, but there's still a long way to go.

Somehow, whenever people talk about how awful LaGuardia is, they never mention how the buses are blocked by taxis. It's always the low ceilings, and maybe somebody once saw a rat. I've never seen a rat there. I've never noticed the low ceilings, in fact some of them are pretty high. I kind of like the architecture. When I was a kid the Central Terminal would occasionally pop up in my dreams. The new terminals aren't bad for what they are. The Marine Air Terminal is a fucking Art Deco monument.

What would make the biggest difference to me would be a direct train there from Woodside, or even from Astoria (and no, just because it was politically unfeasible in 1995 doesn't mean it's politically unfeasible twenty years later). Andrew Cuomo likes to style himself as the Bold Leader who Gets Things Done. If he really were, he would extend the goddamn N train and tell Gianaris to grow a spine and get on board. But instead we get a proposal for a shitty AirTrain that would dump all the LaGuardia passengers at Willets Point, twenty minutes further out in Queens. That's not boldness, that's cowardice. That's Cuomo running away from a challenge.

What would really make a difference to me would be if we took that four or ten or twenty billion dollars and used it to build a new train along 21st Street and Astoria Boulevard, or the Tribororx, or a Queens Super-Express, or the Subway to Secaucus, or basically any transit improvement that would be used on a daily basis by people who don't work at the airport.

I'll tell you what it is that makes LaGuardia a Third World airport. It's the authoritarian, top-down approach taken by our Governor, and yes our Vice President, who have never come through here or sent staff members to ask what we might want or need. It's the plutocratic approach that puts the optics of the business traveler ahead of the convenience of families going to visit relatives. It's the cowardice of building a flashy AirTrain to nowhere instead of taking on the entrenched elites who want to block a really useful train. It makes me feel like I live in a goddamn banana republic.

(Dragon appears courtesy of the Durian-Project of the Blender Foundation.)

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Transit vs. e-hailing and transit vs. cars

Recently I wrote about some discussion from Timothy B. Lee and Chris Plano about the possibility that "ride-hailing could actually be stealing riders from transit." Building on Plano's musings and some data released by Uber, in April Eric Jaffe envisioned an "integrated system," with larger vehicles, and some challenges:

In an ideal world, microtransit providers would become the feeders to public transportation's core routes. They'd address what experts call the "first-mile, last-mile" problem—that gap at the start and end of every trip that's difficult for traditional transit operators to serve in a cost-effective way. Coverage to low-density corridors or remote neighborhoods becomes very doable. A car-free lifestyle becomes that much more viable.

[...]

An integrated transit system with public agencies as a core and microtransit as a feeder might be the urban ideal, but whether profit-minded private companies would submit to such an arrangement is another question. One reason public transit agencies can't reliably serve feeder routes in the first place is they tend to lose money. Asking microtransit companies to take that role might not harmonize with their business mission.

If an integrated scenario doesn't pan out, the flipside might be an ugly competitive one—with microtransit providers trying to poach bus and rail riders in key high-density corridors. That outcome would create a two-front fight for transit agencies. On one side they'd be battling for riders against private services with potentially greater resources. On the other, as fare revenue eroded, they'd be battling public officials for more funding to stay afloat.

As with the earlier discussion, an important angle that is being missed is pricing. Jaffe talked to David King for his post, and King should have told him that such an integrated system was already tried here in New York back in 2010 and the plan failed miserably, in part because it didn't give the operators the freedom to set their prices. If the "microtransit" providers can charge what the market will bear for feeder services, they might be able to make a profit.

Note that Jaffe is actually claiming that e-hail carpooling and jitneys compete with public transit for two distinct resources: riders, who bring in fares, and political support, which brings in subsidies in the form of cash and land (street space). These are not necessarily the same at all, and the claims should be evaluated separately.

I've talked about this before and I've got more to say about it in a future post, but right now I just want to reiterate that in the big coastal cities like New York and Los Angeles - basically, the cities where Uberpool and Lyftline either currently operate or are likely to be successful - the game has changed, and transit agencies are no longer hurting for riders. Any passengers attracted by these services will simply make room for more passengers on the public trains and buses.

Jaffe's second concern, that electronic carpooling services will take political support from public transit, reminds me of the old joke by Apocryphal Winston Churchill: we've already established that competition can affect the level of political support for transit, we're just debating how much - and where it comes from.



Jaffe's concern about political competition is part of what I call the Cycle, and have been discussing for years. Yes, the level of political support for transit subsidies is affected not only by the number of riders, but by their aggregate political power. But that's far from the only factor, even when the government is not as corrupt as New York State.

For decades, transit was losing riders to government-subsidized systems of highways, parking and cheap gas, but for some reason people tend to not want to think about that. Jaffe has occasionally written about it, but think about most of the people who wring their hands over the plight of the poor bus. Remember them talking about how massive subsidies to roads in the State budget, or the Tappan Zee Bridge, will drive public transit out of business? Me neither.

It's always been a bit of a weird argument that we should not allow private services that compete with government services. In the Soviet Union, maybe, where you had a carefully planned economy, you might not want anyone disrupting that. But this isn't the Soviet Union. We don't complain, as far as I know, about private universities putting public universities out of business, or for-profit cheese companies competing with government cheese. And yet somehow transit is a great opportunity for people to rail against those nasty big businesses - as long as you don't mention the competition from massive government subsidies to private cars.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Do New York's "manufacturing zones" promote driving?

I read on YIMBY that some people who live or work in the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx are concerned that rezoning the area to allow residential development could price out many of the auto body shops and other car-related businesses that operate in the area. I sympathize with the concerns, but I think things have to change. And the more I think about it, the more important it seems to me.


It seems pretty clear that allowing residential uses will price out auto-related businesses. There is a tremendous demand for housing, and housing is displacing auto services wherever they are allowed to compete, from the gas stations of the East Village to the garages of the Upper West Side to the used car lots of Woodside. I am not including Willets Point in this: there is no competition there, only government fiat.

As a business owner, I am not exactly happy about small businesses being unable to survive. My brother-in-law is an auto body mechanic, so I also appreciate the value of good technical jobs that do not require a college degree. And yet, there is such a thing as a job that costs too much. I have argued that the costs of each Tappan Zee Bridge construction job, in terms of sprawl, pollution and yes, death and destruction, are too high. I would say the same thing is true for auto related jobs along Jerome Avenue, and elsewhere in the city.

We have driven away many of the port jobs and the manufacturing jobs, and auto related jobs are a good chunk of what is left. As my friend Stephen Smith, who used to write for YIMBY, has observed on Twitter, the vast majority of businesses in M zones around the city are not involved in manufacturing anything.

Every time I have heard about a gas station closing or a parking garage converted to apartments, I have smiled inside. I smiled because I remembered the difficulty of crossing in front of these gas stations and garages. "Difficulty" is too nice a word: I remembered the dread I felt trying to walk in front of the gas stations as drivers cruised in and out across the sidewalk at high speeds. I remembered the humiliation I felt when garage customers parked across the sidewalk, forcing me out into traffic. I smiled at the thought that nobody else would feel that dread and humiliation again.

I and many other pedestrians have been similarly threatened and humiliated in front of car dealerships and repair shops in "industrial zones" across the city. Some have been killed. You will forgive me if I am not horrified at the prospect of losing an industry with such little regard for safety.

But we still have millions of cars stored in our city, and millions more that come in for the day. Where will their owners buy and sell them, and bring them to be serviced, if not on Jerome Avenue, Northern Boulevard, Jamaica Avenue or Atlantic Avenue?

Well, if they had to they would go to Hempstead Turnpike, or Kennedy Boulevard, or Boston Post Road. But that makes me think: if these businesses can't survive on Jerome Avenue or 21st Street without being protected from competition from housing, that means that we are essentially subsidizing the cheap rent, and thus the cheap repair jobs, with our expensive apartments. My mom is paying more every month so that the guy who cuts her off in the crosswalk can pay less to have his oil changed.

And that makes me wonder: what if we didn't have these bogus "Manufacturing" zones? What if we allowed people to build apartments wherever they thought they could rent them? Would the rents continue to rise? Would there be the same pressure to waste public money on railyard decks? Would we still have as many cars clogging Queens Boulevard every day? Would we still have Levels of Service that make our traffic engineers loath to build real crosswalks? Would we still have community boards packed with parking-obsessed NIMBYs?

Please, let's find some jobs for these people so that we can shut down the M zones.

Friday, July 10, 2015

No, e-carpooling will not replace fixed-route buses

A lot of people have been talking about "microtransit" lately - sometimes meaning shared e-hailing services like Uberpool and Lyftline, but also some larger services like Bridj, Via and Leap, and even dollar vans. I've read some wise things, and other things that are ...less wise. I think this is going to be a few posts, and I'm going to start with the question of whether electronic taxi-sharing services like Uberpool and Lyftline will, or even can, drive public buses out of business, and the role of pricing.


Last August, Timothy B. Lee wrote,

In the short run, these services will be a way for yuppies to pay a little less for their taxi rides. But they're also starting to blur of the line between taxis and buses. In the long run, that line is likely to disappear altogether, as all conventional buses are replaced by smaller and nimbler just-in-time transportation options.

No, "flexible" transportation services are not going to replace buses, ever, as long as they're competing on a level playing field. Jarrett Walker had the ultimate takedown years ago, and then reprised it again and again when people kept repeating the same nonsense:

You can spare yourself a lot of confusion about flexible service by keeping in mind the physical facts of the matter: Driving a special routing to respond to a customer request takes more of a driver's time than picking up a customer along a fixed route. Since we pay for service mostly in hours of labor, we have to care about how many passengers we'll serve with each labor hour, so flexible service is intrinsically limited on that important score. That's why when flexible routes near their (very low) capacity limits, we usually try to turn them back into fixed routes.

In February, Uber analyzed its data from Los Angeles and concluded that many people were using it as feeder service to get to the Metro, leading Chris Plano to reiterate Timothy Lee's speculation in March:

On the other hand, ride-hailing could actually be stealing riders from transit. If the same trip can be completed in less time with an Uber or Lyft than using the Metro, some riders will choose the speedier option. However, at the moment, it is unlikely that hordes of people will abandon transit for ride-hailing simply because transit is still less expensive.

Jarrett himself, in a comment on Plano's post, mentions that Uber and Lyft executives "are often quite explicit about wanting to draw people away from public transit," and seems to believe that because the e-hailing services are less regulated than the public transit agencies, they might actually succeed.

I'm not convinced at all. I'm guessing that these are actually people who might have driven to the Metro station, but even if they switched from riding feeder buses, Plano is dancing around an important point: these are people who are willing to pay a premium price for a faster trip. Let's say they're spending five dollars for an Uberpool to the train station. They would probably be happy to pay four dollars to ride a public bus, and for four dollars a pop (no free transfer), LACMTA would probably be able to run the buses frequently enough to satisfy them. But because LACMTA charges a consistent $1.75, and would probably be bitterly attacked if they tried to charge more in some neighborhoods, this leaves an opening for Uber. I really doubt that Uber could make that work, even with driverless cars, for less than a bus fare.

Stay tuned for more!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Montauk Branch should go to Queens Plaza

I was pleased to see that Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley has come out in favor of restoring passenger service on the west end of the Long Island Rail Road's Montauk Branch, which actually goes from Jamaica to Long Island City. I took a Long Island Rail Road train along this once, years ago, when they still ran passenger trains. It was pointless except for a railfan experience: there was one train a day in each direction, and it went nonstop to Jamaica.


I'm not sure how light rail would coexist with the freight trains that still use the Branch, but with the Federal Railroad Administration making it easier to run lighter trains, there should be some relatively cost-effective way to run frequent service along the line, not only to the Atlas Park Mall in Glendale, but to Fresh Pond Road in Ridgewood, Forest View Crescent, Forest Park, and Hillside Avenue in Richmond Hill.

There is one change that I would strongly recommend at the western end that would make a huge difference in the value of the line. The old passenger service terminated at the old Long Island City station in Hunter's Point, which was once really convenient when it was served by frequent, massive ferries to Manhattan. Now it is a relatively long walk to the East River Ferry, which runs every twenty minutes, or a similarly long walk to the #7 train at Vernon Boulevard and Jackson Avenue, which is crowded at rush hour. You could move the station closer to Vernon-Jackson, but then it would be further from the ferry, and vice versa.

Instead of using the old Long Island City terminus, the passenger trains should use an existing flyover that crosses the Sunnyside Yards. This part of the Yards is currently being used as a staging area for the East Side Access project. There is room to build a two-track line along the north side of the Yards, terminating at a new station under Queens Boulevard. This would bring passengers one short block from the Queens Plaza subway station where they could change for the E, M or R trains.

For a light rail train, it might be possible to build another stop at Pearson Street, a block from Court Square. Depending on what gets built along Northern Boulevard, it might also be possible to extend the train east to 48th Street, Woodside Avenue or even Broadway. But regardless, the line should go to Queens Plaza. It would give residents of Ridgewood and Glendale better access to jobs and better connections to Manhattan.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Autonomous cars in the advanced city

Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar, said this to Yonah Freemark last month:

Would you prefer what we have today, [where] only poor people use [most transit service] and it sucks, or would you rather that poor people use the exact same thing that everyone else is using?


This brought to mind a quote that Chase has no doubt heard from Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá:

An advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport.
Peñalosa's quote highlights the false dichotomy that Chase has set up: there are other ways to provide access for poor people besides (a) sucky transit and (b) the exact same thing that everyone else is using. (And really, Chase ought to know that everyone else won't use "the exact same thing." How long did Zipcar offer a single model of vehicle?) As Yonah points out, there are also other options for the non-poor besides autonomous cars that only hold a few people at a time.

Both Chase and Peñalosa make other good points, and both are wrong on other points, but on this point the Strong Towns movement has gathered abundant evidence to back Peñalosa's position. We simply cannot afford to have an advanced city, let alone an advanced society, if we are spending our resources moving so many single individuals long distances at high speeds.