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.