Friday, December 16, 2016

What if the MTA is interested in bringing back the trains?

I’ve always opposed the proposal to convert the Rockaway Beach Branch of the Long Island Railroad into a bike trail, because I think the land is too valuable as a rapid transit corridor to use for anything else. Trail advocates protest that they too are in favor of transit, and they wish we could bring transit back to the corridor, but gee, sadly the MTA is just not interested.


Not only was the MTA not interested, according to the trail pushers, but it was a waste of time to get them interested. Nobody in the area wants a train. The selfish NIMBYs would block any attempt by the MTA to rebuild the rails, and the parents whose kids use the ballfields “on” (actually near) the line would howl. The line will never be reactivated. But the NIMBYs wouldn’t oppose a park!

A few times they almost had me convinced. Against the power that has now arisen there is no victory, they whispered. Why not make the best of it? Have a nice rail trail. It'll close at dark, but in the wintertime we'll try to keep it open "slightly later" in case you're trying to ride home from work. You like the South County Trailway, don’t you? It’s not so bad!

So here it is a few years later, and it turns out that a lot of the NIMBYs have opposed a park. There are people in the area who are in favor of bringing the trains back. And the MTA is doing a study of reactivating train service! The bike trail advocates (who were really transit advocates that had given up hope, you remember) must be overjoyed!

Turns out that - surprise! - the bike trail advocates, now paid by the Governor and park-oriented nonprofits, are against reactivating the rails, and they’re repeating all the NIMBY arguments. The most bizarre one I’ve seen is that the noise of passing trains would distract students at three schools at the Metropolitan Avenue Campus. This is complete nonsense: my kid went to school for six years across the street from the noisy 7 train el and doesn’t remember ever being distracted by it, and the Rockaway Branch would have brand-new rails on an embankment. But as LLQBTT pointed out on Twitter, the presence of these schools is actually a point in favor of reactivating train service. Wouldn’t an Expeditionary Learning School be much better if the Expeditions could be taken by train? Wouldn’t it be better if kids could take the train to Little league practices instead of being driven by their parents?

The bike path advocates are also making up new, ostensibly pro-transit, arguments that don’t make sense to anyone who actually does transit advocacy. How many riders would we really expect to take the new Rockaway Beach Branch train to Kennedy Airport instead of the AirTrain, and why do we care? They indulge and amplify the fears of a handful of Rockaway residents that Rockaway Branch trains would “end the A train.” And if they believe that it would “cause slowing of trains” on the LIRR main line, why not support finishing the partly-built connection to the Queens Boulevard subway, as described by Capt. Subway?

The worst of all the arguments against bringing back the trains a legal one: that a section of the right-of-way was transferred to Forest Park, and that restoring the trains would constitute “alienation of parkland.” This is absolute hogwash. New York City parks are criss-crossed with transportation corridors, some of which are genuinely oppressive, destructive and deadly, and the City has not to my knowledge raised any legal objections. The Jackie Robinson Parkway - its name an insult to the athlete - has a much bigger negative impact on Forest Park than the Rockaway Beach Branch ever will. It would actually make a great busway and bike path, opening up the park to residents of some of the poorest Brooklyn neighborhoods, but the Trust for Public Land has shown no interest in it.

More than anything else, these statements by the bike trail advocates have given proof to my hunch that they are not in favor of transit, that they think a bike path is more important than anything, and that they are willing to lie through their teeth in order to get one.

Monday, December 5, 2016

We still need more car-free weekenders

Some years ago, I wound up arguing about congestion pricing in my local cafe with a woman I’d never met before. I said that as someone who didn’t own a car I didn’t want to pay to maintain infrastructure for people who did. She responded with the usual, “Well, some of us have to have cars,” and then put a new spin on it. “I need one to get to my farm upstate.”


She clearly felt she had won the argument with that one, and I let her think that, because it was clear there was no getting through to her that evening. I grew up surrounded by farms, summer houses and weekend houses, and I can tell the difference between them. If you’re spending Sunday night in your apartment in Sunnyside, either you have a weekend house with a garden, or you own a farm but you’re paying other people to milk the cows and collect the eggs. Either way, you can leave your poseur pickup truck at the New Paltz park-and ride, and you are not entitled to my tax money subsidizing a free ride for you across the Queensboro Bridge.

Since then I’ve had similar encounters with other people, and read about many more, where someone who identified as a city resident argued in favor of maintaining free bridges, free parking, wide streets or minimum parking requirements, or opposing bus lanes or bike lanes, because they also identified as a driver. This person usually complained about owning a car in the city, either having to pay for parking or to move their car twice a week for alternate side sweeping. It seemed like they hated everything about car ownership.

The people in question didn’t use the car to commute to work, and rarely used it for shopping or to go out at night. So why did they have a car? To go to their country house (or sometimes “farm”) in the Catskills, in Vermont, in Connecticut. Sometimes they didn’t even own a country house, and just used the car to drive to short-term rentals or hotels.

It made me wonder, what if they didn’t need a car to have a weekend away from the city? What if, like me and my family, they took trains and buses to get to hotels? They could even own a house in a small town, walking distance from a bus stop or a train station.

I wrote about this back in 2009, and Alon thought we should concentrate our attention instead on getting suburbanites to move to the city. We see how well that worked out! But the reason I think it would be effective to provide more alternatives for car-free weekends is not based on absolute numbers. It’s based on the fact that so many people who are obstacles in the fight for safe streets, efficient movement, reducing pollution, bringing us closer together and providing access for everyone are people who own cars primarily to get to their country houses and weekend hotels.

If we can give those people an alternative to parking their cars in Manhattan, would they stop identifying as drivers and be more supportive of transit and walking? We can’t know until we try it. And as Bruce pointed out in the comments to my old post, the worst is that we can make it easier for a bunch of non-drivers to have a relaxing weekend away from the city. I’ll talk about some specific idea in future posts.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Is it worth the parking?

Joe Cortright had a nice piece recently where he showed that 83% of the amount of driving in cities can be explained by the cost of parking (and possibly other factors that are correlated with it). I’ve made similar connections between the lack of free parking and the “density” that so many urbanists credit with high transit use.


Was all this nasty parking worth ... whatever they did to the Montclair Terminal?

It’s hard to figure out causation amid several correlations. Cheap parking is also a proxy for the political strength of the motorist community in a city. How much driving is actually encouraged by the cheap parking, and how much is encouraged by free, wide roads or transit subsidy cuts demanded by those drivers?

It might be possible to disentangle these factors eventually, but it seems likely that we’ll find that cheap parking is directly responsible for at least some driving. There are several implications of this:

First, anyone who’s fighting any of the negative externalities of car use should spend some of their time fighting cheap parking. That means people fighting against pollution, carnage, resource depletion and economic insolvency.

Second, there are some people who see cheap parking as a social justice issue, viewing it through the narrow lens of poor drivers vs. rich drivers, ignoring poor non-drivers. Others see it as an economic development issue, ignoring the economic costs of cheap parking. We need to find ways to present that broader picture for these advocates in hope of bringing them over to our side of this issue.

There are several ways to fight cheap parking. The most straightforward ones are simply to institute pricing on existing free parking and raise prices on cheap parking. That means parking meters, gates on lots and garages, and permit systems. Some cities may be tempted to outsource this to a private corporation, the way Chicago did, but advocates seem to agree that this has been a disaster.

Parking prices, like most prices, are influenced by supply and demand. Another tactic is to fight the expansion of parking supply. Minimum parking requirements, subsidized government parking, zoning variances and zoning and tax policies that make it unprofitable to build anything but parking lots: all these are points where advocates can push back on parking.

Among the most important places we can have an impact, though, are projects that we support. I’ve written before about how dense housing, transit, and even bicycle and pedestrian projects are often built with obscene amounts of parking.

There are several projects that I’ve been tempted to support because they would provide alternatives to driving. But I’ve kept my mouth shut, or even argued against the projects in their current form, because they include too much parking. I’ve concluded that we would be better off without a Tappan Zee Bridge bike path, or an expansion of Metro-North to Rhinecliff, or a housing complex on a deck over the Sunnyside Yards, than with those projects and the parking that people want to build with them.

I hope you’ll do the same. If something comes along that you think would be really good, but it includes lots of parking, please ask yourselves, "Would this be worth all the parking?" And then act on that.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Who will save New York City from #SaveNYC?

A lot of people are alarmed by the language Donald Trump, with its emphasis on “taking back our country” and “making America great again.” They evoke the phrases used by ugly, repressive movements throughout history: They have taken over our land and ruined it. We must defeat them and take it back.


Brian Lehrer recently had a great interview with Mark Lilla, a Columbia humanist who’s just written a book on reactionary thinking. Lilla observed that reactionary movements thrive on words like “once” and “again,” evoking past golden ages that were often entirely fictional (Lilla gives the example of Hungarian fascists who imagine a time when their boundaries contained no Jews or Roma) and promising to make them reality in the future.

As I was writing this, I was struck by the realization that these reactionary movements never succeed in bringing about the golden ages they promise. Instead, at best they establish an isolated decline, and at worst they unleash horrific mass murders.

Anyone who knows Trump’s history of racial provocation has not been surprised that his comments appeal to reaction as well. But I’ve been just as disturbed by the rhetoric used by some around recent migrations and developments in cities.

When Andrew Cuomo created a nonprofit organization called “The Committee to Save New York” back in 2011 to provide superficially independent advocacy for his initiatives, it struck me as the messianic delusions of an egomaniac with real power. But Jeremiah Moss’s “SaveNYC” campaign - an outgrowth of his “Vanishing New York” blog, feels like a totally different kind of threat. It feels reactionary.

In his blog Moss bemoans, in inflammatory terms, the loss of small businesses, institutions and landmarks, and the opening of chain stores and trendy spots. If you read it regularly - or if, like Moss, you read the news and walk the streets with an eye for these events - the cumulative weight of all those closings definitely brings a feeling of impending doom. How long before Manhattan looks like the Westchester Galleria?

I have no reason to doubt the individual facts that Moss cites: businesses closing, buildings demolished, chain stores expanding and yes, corruption and inequality. But as with Trump or the other cases Lilla cites, it’s not at all clear that the past was any better, or that the reactions championed by Moss will make the future like the past, or any better at all.

Anyone who knows the history of New York - or human history for that matter - knows that businesses have been closing and buildings being demolished since forever. Many of the beloved businesses bemoaned by Moss and his fans were once the crass new businesses and buildings, taking the place of earlier beloved authentic community businesses and historic buildings, and maybe even longterm residents.

Even chain stores have been in New York for longer than any of the businesses mentioned by Moss. Sure, the chains keep expanding - until they stop. Queens is full of buildings that used to hold Child’ses and Woolworths. They didn’t ruin the city, and neither did Chock Full O’Nuts or Horn and Hardart. Remember when it seemed like Krispy Kreme and Blimpie were going to take over the city?

I’ve never seen any quantitative data to show that the numbers of quirky independent storefronts, soulless corporate chain stores, venerable community institutions, ridiculous hipster playplaces, or beloved family businesses have changed significantly over the years. I also haven’t seen data on the rates at which businesses are opening and closing, and buildings are being demolished.

I suspect that if we had any, it would show that the relative numbers of various kinds of businesses have remained relatively constant over the years, with individual businesses simply moving from despised new invader to community institution over time. I would also guess that the rates of change have been roughly cyclical, without a dramatic increase in turnover in the long term. In other words, what we see here looks less like a response to actual trends and more like the recency effect in action.

Moss also concentrates exclusively on businesses that he sees as providing some unique value. In the Vanishing New York there are no corrupt restaurants, discriminatory boutiques, derivative bodegas or ugly buildings. Nobody goes out of business because they mismanage their finances, provide bad service or sell crappy stuff. Everything must be saved. Nothing must go.

So far this is a simple difference of facts and policy. I think that Moss and his followers are misguided and disagree with their vision of New York. They reciprocate. We each try to convince people to go with our side.

What I find disturbing is when the rhetoric goes beyond factual disagreements into the inflammatory. If we take Moss’s claim that “the soul of New York City is getting murdered” at all seriously, it can only be seen as a call to action. These are drastic times, he is telling us. And drastic times require what?

Similarly, reasonable people can disagree about whether the “Small Business Jobs Survival Act” would actually help any small businesses and their jobs survive (and whether that would actually lead to better lives for people overall). But when the rhetoric goes beyond policy recommendations into scapegoating, that’s not just disturbing but alarming.

Moss has ratcheted up the rhetoric: the hashtag for his SBJSA campaign is #takebackNYC. Who do they want to #takebackNYC from? The claim is that it’s the corrupt real estate developers. I’m not dismissing the undemocratic influence of these business people, but even if there is too much turnover in retail Moss has not made a convincing case that the real estate developers are behind it, or that this bill would do anything to improve the situation.

I’m not really worried for the developers; they can take care of themselves. I’m worried that the idea of “taking back NYC” will spread beyond them. I’ve already covered how the term “gentrification” in general, and Moss’s movement in particular, turn migrants (who often themselves have been displaced by rising rents in other neighborhoods) into the Other, and scapegoat them as the agents of displacement.

One thing I’ve noticed about angry people in political movements is that if they get blocked by opponents who are more powerful, they will often turn their anger on targets that they have a chance of defeating. Thus bus advocates will attack train advocates before they try to defeat road advocates. Pedestrians will attack cyclists instead of drivers. And similarly, I fear that the “take back NYC” crowd will find themselves unable to defeat the corrupt developers and will turn first on the non-corrupt developers, and then on people moving in to the developments.

Think about that the next time you read one of Moss’s jeremiads. When the people he stirs up find themselves unable to Save NYC, or Take Back NYC, what are they going to do? Who are they going to try to take back NYC from?

Saturday, October 1, 2016

When ridership doesn't matter

In the past couple of years I’ve noticed something that would be baffling in a lot of contexts, and is still kind of hard to believe when you see it. It’s called a pass-up, and it’s when a transit vehicle is so full that it can’t fit any more people, and leaves riders standing on the platform or the curb.


It’s bad enough when there really is another bus coming along in a minute. It’s bad enough when the city doesn’t have enough track capacity or enough train cars to move all the people who want to ride. But what I’m really talking about is when you can’t get on a bus and there isn’t another bus for ten minutes or more, or when one bus or train after another is uncomfortably packed.

It’s possible that the MTA, with its heavy debt service burden and its large employee benefit obligations, is incapable of bringing in a profit on any route at any time, no matter how many people ride it, so that it never helps the bottom line to add buses. But that would be a very different story than they told in 2010 when they cut service.

If you asked some of the people waiting for the M60 how they feel about the prospect of a fare increase, they would probably complain and tell you they couldn’t afford it. But if you asked them whether they’d pay fifty cents more to get a seat on the bus, or to just ensure there would be room for them on the next bus that came, they might say yes.

On the face of it, it makes no sense. These are paying customers; why wouldn’t the agency want their money?

We know it usually works in the other direction: transit providers don’t get enough riders, so they raise fares and cut back service, which drives away some of the remaining riders, in what is known as the Transit Death Spiral. We’ve put measures in place to protect transit systems from that. The problem is that those measures also remove most of the incentives for actually serving passengers.

The Transit Death Spiral is in fact a perfectly normal outcome for anyone who is selling something but is unable to compete. They sell less and less, and with less income they are unable to maintain the quality of their product. Customers give their money to the competitor, who can use it to improve the competing product.

Transit advocates knew there was a public interest in keeping transit around, so they got the government to subsidize it. But the reason transit was losing market share was that the government was subsidizing competing roads. There was a powerful popular consensus in favor of gas, roads and parking, and a popular distrust of railroad companies and “the traction interests.” There were also powerful undemocratic forces attacking transit, like Bob Moses, car companies and road lobbyists.

Transit advocates tried to promote an “all of the above” strategy, but rarely achieved “parity,” let alone more than 20%. They then largely fell back on charity arguments, which are inherently self-limiting because they implicitly accept the idea that nobody would take a bus or train unless they can’t afford to drive.

Then came transit advocates’ deal with the devil, the mistake that we’re still paying for today. After failing in both market competition and popular subsidies, transit advocates tried to beat road lobbyists at their undemocratic, competition-stifling game. They turned to public authorities.

Even today you see transit advocates arguing with a straight face that they can’t improve transit without a regional authority. Public authorities are the tools that Moses used to achieve power without a popular mandate. They allow elected officials to maintain a degree of control, but give the appearance of independence, protecting transit bureaucrats from all accountability to the voters or the market.

The result of this is that now, when there are plenty of passengers, the transit managers seem to have no interest in increasing frequency to serve the people who want to ride. What’s in it for them? They don’t get punished for leaving money on the table, and politicians don’t complain about crowded buses.

There are people who want to serve those people and take their money. But the city blocks them, and self-righteous bloggers spew bombast about “privatization” and “stratified transportation systems.” The state could serve them well, but the governor finds more political value in spending city money to build roads in the suburbs and the country. And on this the social justice advocates are silent.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

New traffic patterns, new driving habits

I'm not a traffic engineer, but I know that old habits die hard. I also know that it's possible to create new habits, and once those habits are in place it's hard to get rid of them. Whenever you institute a new traffic pattern, it's an opportunity to teach new good habits, but also to inadvertently teach bad habits. And I know that here in New York we can't trust the NYPD to consistently enforce protections for pedestrians, so habits and barriers are our main lines of defense.


Because I know this, today it was frustrating for me to see the current state of the eastern end of the Queens Boulevard median expansion at 57th Avenue. It looks like the DOT plan involves four colors of paint (white, yellow green and beige), flexible bollards, stop signs and concrete islands. I only saw bollards at the slip lane just west of the Port Washington LIRR viaduct, and a stop sign in front of the Elks Lodge east of 51st Avenue. They have not laid down any beige paint yet, and green paint stops at Broadway. But the white paint continues east almost to the end of the project.

This is not so bad going eastward. The problem is that going westward, the first thing drivers encounter is a few lines of white and yellow paint. There is no beige paint to indicate that this is now pedestrian space, and no green paint to indicate that there is now a bike lane. There are no bollards, or even temporary orange barrels.

Some of these drivers have just come off of the express lanes, some off of Woodhaven Boulevard, some off the LIE. They are in four lanes of traffic being squeezed down to one, and many of them did not know there would be only one lane. They did not have any warning, so they did not know to slip over to the express lanes.

The result I saw today was people driving right over the yellow and white paint, as though it wasn't there and they had two driving lanes the way they've had since the sixties. Private cars, taxis, Access-A-Ride vans, even the Q53 bus drove over the lines. How long have they been doing that? How long will they be allowed to continue? What kind of precedent does that set?


Like I said, I'm not a traffic engineer. Maybe I'm worrying too much about this. Maybe once the green and beige paint get laid down, and the bollards put in, the drivers will all learn to slip into the express lanes, or even to take the train or the bus instead. But it just seems to me that we should have a hard barrier at the place where the median begins, to keep people from driving on it. And this is not an academic concern; the DOT's stats show that 87 people were injured at the 57th Avenue intersection between 2010 and 2015, two of them severely.


You may know that a 22-year-old cyclist, Asif Rahman, was killed on this stretch of Queens Boulevard in 2008. Since then his mother has fought hard to make the road safer for people who travel it in the future. As I was passing Rahman's ghost bike a cyclist overtook me, using the new lane marked only by white and yellow paint. It felt a bit safer already. We're all hoping the DOT does it right and makes it stay.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

A way among the tube socks

I am not a Bicycle Advocate, and I don't believe that Bikeshare is Transit. But I'm now convinced that the combination of bike share and protected bike lanes has improved mobility for a lot of people. It has worked for me when I've traveled to DC and London, and at home here in New York. The cost has been relatively low, whether measured in terms of dollars, square feet of public space, or advocacy hours.


In my experience, bikeshare is not effective for getting people out of cars and taxis and decongesting our subways and sidewalks without that network of protected lanes and quiet side streets. I am a cautious rider, and I avoid streets where it feels like drivers have too much power or speed. Rather than fear for my life I will just walk or take the subway.

A few months ago I was on Irving Place and wanted to go to Soho. I figured I'd ride the relatively quiet Eighteenth Street to the Second Avenue protected bike lane. But when I got to Third Avenue I found my way blocked by a street fair.

I turned south for a few blocks on Third Avenue. I hate riding on big avenues without a bike lane; the drivers are either speeding or frustrated or both. It was also difficult to remember which streets went which way, but I think I avoided the pattern at Stuyvesant Square that sends you back west on Fifteenth Street, and headed east on Twelfth.

I was looking forward to getting onto Second Avenue. But when I got there I found the avenue completely filled by another street fair. These were not genuine community festivals, but the generic fairs that have become the norm here in New York City. My way was blocked by tube socks and mozzarepas. There wasn't even room on the sidewalk to walk my Citibike.

I doubled back and rode down Third Avenue again. I checked again a few blocks later and I was past the fair, but that was just luck; I didn't know until I'd gone all the way down the block.

For bikeshare to serve as a true transportation option, we don't just need a bike route network , but a reliable one. If any part of it is unavailable, the whole network is compromised, and people will be less likely to rely on it.

Of course it's not just bikes; the car network is disrupted. But drivers have lots of alternate routes: a driver whose way is blocked on Second Avenue would not be terribly inconvenienced by driving on Third. But for me, with Second Avenue blocked the nearest protected southbound avenue is Ninth Avenue/Hudson Street/Bleecker Street, meaning I would have to bike clear across the island and back.

This is also an issue for pedestrians. Walking a long city block out of the way is not always practical, leaving those of us trying to get somewhere mixing with the zeppole eaters.

As many have said, we need to reform these street fairs. We also need to convert more car lanes to bike lanes on the avenues. But in addition, we need to preserve some bike access through street fairs. If they can have fairs on sixty foot cross streets like Eighteenth, they can leave twelve feet of space on a 75-foot avenue like Second.

At a minimum, we should have some notification system for when the bike lane network is disrupted, whether by street fairs, construction or something else. A tweet on the Citibike feed would help.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Windows on the Van Wyck

A few weeks ago I went for a walk in Briarwood and Kew Gardens Hills. I got off the train at Jamaica-Van Wyck, the first time I’d ever used that station. It was full of red brick, reminding me of other stations that were opened or renovated in the seventies and eighties, like 21st Street-Queensbridge and 49th Street, but it was uncomfortably dark, despite the high ceilings and fairly bright lights.


I looked up and saw an elevated walkway inside the station, leading to the exit, similar to other grand stations of that era like Queensbridge, Auber in Paris, or Dupont Circle in Washington. On the other side of the station I saw what looked like balconies or windows above, but there was no light coming through them.


When I got outside, I crossed the Van Wyck Expressway on Jamaica Avenue. I looked down, and could actually see the outside of the station in the trench next to the highway. It's even more obvious in this Bing aerial photo:


It's hard to tell through the fence, but the panels on the walls look like they could be windows covered with paint or plastic.


I then looked up the station on the web, and found more information. The windows were uncovered as late as 1998, when Wayne Whitehorn took a series of pictures including this one:


Nycsubway.org has that photo, plus a couple of other good ones. According to user R32 3671 on the NYC Transit Forums, they were covered over by the year 2000, due to "vandals." Some commenters on SubChat said that the vandals actually broke the windows; others only say that they spray-painted graffiti over them. There was certainly graffiti all over the window covers when I took these pictures.


If they uncovered the windows now, in 2016, how often would people try to tag them? How much would it cost to keep them clean and guard them? Would it be more than the cost of maintaining the "Low Line" park proposed for the Manhattan Terminal, plus the amortized cost of constructing that park, estimated at $55 million in 2013?

Saturday, June 18, 2016

How carfree is your City Council district?

One of the most eye-opening things I saw during the 2007-2008 congestion pricing debate was a series of fact sheets produced by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and the Pratt Center for Community development for each City Council and state legislative district. Each sheet gave two figures in particular, tabulated from census results: the percentage of working adults in the district who commuted to work primarily by transit, and the percentage of households that had no cars.


I've made maps for the percentage of carfree households for the City Council and State Senate districts, based on the Tri-State/Pratt Center fact sheets. The figures are interesting in two ways: in general, these elected officials tend to promote transit or driving depending on how prevalent car ownership is in their districts, but some are particularly out of touch with the majority of their constituents. These are relevant to a wide range of transportation issues, beyond the question of whether to toll the East River bridges.

These maps were based on data from the 2000 census, and as the years go by they get less and less relevant to contemporary debates. I find myself wondering what effect recent trends have had on car ownership and commuting, but Tri-State has not released updated fact sheets.

The Census website does tabulate data based on state legislative districts. Charles Komanoff analyzed the data for Streetsblog in 2010, and he recently used it to call out Councilmember Daneek Miller for opposing bridge tolls. But because Komanoff didn't have data for City Council districts he used the figures for the 32nd Assembly District, which turns out to be a bad match.

In November, Tri-State criticized Senator Tony Avella for his part in the coalition. They also challenged Miller based on a "special tabulation" - but in both cases this was based on journey to work data, not car ownership.

To make this easier for anyone who is interested, I have written a small Python script that takes GeoJSON files created by the Department of City Planning, and produces a JSON file mapping census tracts to City Council districts. It uses the Shapely library to check whether a census tract is contained inside a council district. It works for either the 2000 or 2010 boundaries. For census tracts that overlap more than one council district, the script gives the proportion of the land area of the tract that overlaps with each district.

I also created two scripts that transform census tables using these tract2census files, one for table HCT 32 from the 2000 decennial census and the other for table B08141 produced by the American Community Survey since 2005. These scripts produce tables showing the total number of households in a district, the number with zero cars available, and the carfree households as a proportion of the total.

It is important to note that this algorithm introduces a potential source of inaccuracy by assigning the households to split census tracts on the basis of area. This assumes that the households are evenly distributed within each census tract, but that is not always the case. For example, a tract with 75% of its area in City Council District A and 25% in District B would have 75% of its households assigned to District A, but if there is a large apartment building in the District B part of the tract, it could contain over 50% of the households.

Interestingly, my results for the 2000 census seem a bit lower than Tri-State's for some districts, but about the same citywide. It's probably due to different assumptions about the data; if anyone has details about the methods they used, please let me know!

Neil Freeman suggested using QGIS for the visualization, and it made a nice pretty map. I've got more to say about these figures and their implications, and maybe get to work on Neil other suggestions, and add a legend to the map, but this is a good place to stop. I've posted the tables in a Google Sheet here.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The safety and comfort of ridesharing

"It’s so 2015," Vogue writer Karley Sciortino's friend said to her in Los Angeles last year. "This girl I know just fucked a guy she met in an UberPool." Intrigued, Sciortino spent some time researching and discovered that there were indeed a bunch of young people hooking up in the back seats of Uberpool and Lyftline cars.


As of press time I have been unable to confirm this, but it doesn't seem too far-fetched. What I have seen is that the vast majority of passengers on Via and express buses are women, of all ages. The first five or six times I took Via, the other passengers were all women.

Contrast these tales of young twentysomething women eagerly flirting with men in Uberpools to the horror stories of women of all ages being harassed and assaulted on subways, and it's clear that women feel a lot more comfortable sharing Ubers and Lyfts than subways with strangers. It's not too hard to figure out one reason: taxis have a driver sitting just a few feet away who could potentially intervene if a guy oversteps any boundaries. Both services also have rating systems for passengers, and a passenger who harasses other passengers is likely to get low ratings - or even be banned from the service.

But women also report feeling more comfortable on local buses (in Manhattan), express buses and commuter trains. Public buses and commuter trains can't ban passengers, but they do have a lower passenger-to-driver ratio than subways. The higher fares on express buses, commuter trains and taxis also discourage overcrowding (but not always, especially on the Long Island Railroad). And that feeds into the hookups as well: a guy who can afford to take an Uber, even if it's an Uberpool, is more eligible in some women's eyes than a guy who takes the subway.

I should point out here that it's not just women who are discouraged by crowds from riding transit. As a guy I've had to deal with belligerent and inconsiderate people. Some of them have even wanted to fight me, but I don't trust them to fight fair.

In my middle age I have aches and pains - not always enough to qualify as a true disability, but enough that I don't want to stand up in crush conditions for an hour. At those times Via or Lyft can be a welcome relief. I don't want to separate myself from other travelers. I just want a little space, a seat and someone who can step in and protect the vulnerable.

Old-style taxis and single-passenger Uber and Lyft services have their own problems. Women are regularly harassed and even assaulted by male drivers, to the point where every once in a while someone tries to start a service with all female drivers. The presence of additional passengers can actually counter this harassment somewhat.

As I wrote last month in response to Emma Fitzsimmons and Sarah Kaufman's posts about the experiences of women on transit, this runs counter to the Spartan aesthetic of some transit advocates. In this view, if even one person is crowded on a train, all must be crowded.

Of course it's not fair for women and guys who aren't tough to pay more for the privilege of not being assaulted on our way to and from work (or shopping, or fun). Poor people will be faced with the choice of an unsafe trip or no trip at all. We should do more to ensure a minimal level of safety and comfort for all.

This does not mean that we shouldn't allow people to pay more for comfort and safety. They have already been doing that for millennia, and most commonly these days they do it by driving their own cars or taking taxis. Uberpool, Lyftline and Via offer that missing middle: safer than the subway but more efficient than a private car.

I don't think I've heard women who regularly take transit accuse Uber or Via or even Leap of elitism. These accusations come mostly from men and cyclists, who seem to think that transit can create a classless society all by itself. I'm not waiting around for that.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Un-constraining our imagination

There are a lot of things that constrain what we can do to change transit. Ultimately, we can do very little by ourselves, so everything requires political and budgetary buy-in. The terrain and water are very hard to change. Then there are our goals for transit. Is transit always the best way to achieve access from point A to point B, or is it sometimes easier to move point A or point B?

There are people who are talking about whether we should be moving where people live and work. For every new development in my neighborhood there's at least one NIMBY who brings up crowding on the 7 train as a reason to never build anything else again. People talk about developing secondary job centers in Newark, White Plains and Melville. When it's presented negatively as Someone Else's Problem it's stupid and nasty, but when it's presented thoughtfully and constructively it's promising.

Sometimes people talk about changing the terrain and water. These are the plans that are typically labeled as "visionary" by people with limited imaginations. Let's dig a tunnel under the Long Island Sound, build a deck over the Sunnyside Yards, fill in the East River. The spirit of innovation!

What we don't do enough of in New York is imagining what we could do with more money, more land or more political support. There are some great people making fantasy maps, but not enough. People are too ready to lecture each other about "political realities."

That's not to say that a low-budget solution isn't something to be proud of. When I read the proposal for a new Linden Boulevard station my only response was, "Why haven't we done this decades ago?" But we also need to think bigger.

Most importantly, we need to be willing to challenge political power for street space, for bus lanes and loading, and eventually for trolley tracks and stops. Any street that can fit a car lane can fit a dedicated bus lane; the only question is whether bus movement is a higher priority for us and for our government than car movement or storage.

Finally, we need to be open and honest, both with others and with ourselves, about what constraints we're challenging, and what we're holding steady. If we all work within a constraint and never mention it there's a danger that we'll stop seeing it, like fish in water.

I've been thinking about this in terms of two challenges that we're dealing with these days. There's the general problem that we've been successful in getting people to move to New York and ride the subway, but we haven't been making more subway fast enough, so we're all crowded into the subways we do have. Then there are the more specific issues about particular pieces of our transit infrastructure that will need to be taken offline and/or replaced in the next several years: the Fourteenth Street Tunnel, the North River Tunnels, the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

So let me ask you to think of these problems in two ways. First of all, forget about the budget. What if tomorrow, Anthony Foxx and Janet Yellen came to you and handed you a check for ten billion dollars that you can spend in the next five years. What would you in the short term to address specific challenges like the Fourteenth Street Tunnel and the general challenge of lack of capacity? How would you fulfill your goals by spending this on transit?

Second, let's bring back our budgetary constraints, but remove the constraints on land use. Imagine that you had complete control over the streets and highways and buses, backed by a Mayor and two Governors that everyone was unwilling to challenge. So you could put bus lanes absolutely anywhere you wanted them: on Main Street, on Thirty-Fourth Street, on Liberty Place, on Prospect Park West, over the Brooklyn Bridge. You do have a budget to buy as many buses as your plan requires. You can take any piece of land anywhere for bus terminals or garages. Nobody can stop you, there are no Community Advisory Councils, and the MTA has to implement whatever solution you come up with. Oh, and you can go to Jersey too, because you control the Port Authority, New Jersey Transit and NJDOT. What would you do with buses to fulfill your goals? Who would you enjoy telling to fuck off the most?

Friday, April 15, 2016

The majestic equality of subway gropers

In February Emma Fitzsimmons reported on a recent rise in crimes against women on the subways. On Wednesday, in a thoughtful guest post for Second Avenue Sagas, Sarah Kaufman summarized an important point in Fitzsimmons's article: "Women are also the predominant victims of subway-based crimes, specifically robbery, forcible touching (340 cases reported in 2015), public lewdness (223 cases) and sexual abuse (130 cases)."


Kaufman continues, "When possible, women prefer another, safer mode, rather than waiting in desolate subway stations or at dimly-lit bus stops. Depending on their economic well-being, women may opt for dollar vans, taxis, livery cabs, Citi Bikes, Lyfts, Vias or Ubers. Women outnumber men in the relatively inexpensive dollar vans (ridership is 63% female, according to Eric Goldwyn), but use taxis less frequently than men do (34% female) and are vastly underrepresented on the comparatively costly Citi Bike (24% of rides are taken by women)."

This may be increasing, but it is not particularly new. In 2013 Kimberly Matus talked about her experience being groped on the subway. In 2009 I remarked that many of the riders on express buses are women, particularly older women who are probably commuting to clerical or managerial jobs. Years ago a middle-aged female friend of mine said that she even preferred the local buses of Manhattan to the subway.

The connection that Kaufman draws between transit and Citibike is insightful. People have criticized the gender imbalance in urban cycling generally, and in particular in the "vehicular cycling" movement, which in its majestic equality, encourages men as well as women to mix with speeding traffic protected only by a light helmet. Citibike is a bit safer, being rolled out only after the installation of protected bike lanes on some Midtown avenues, but the numbers suggest that women feel much less safe.

As with vehicular cycling, there is a movement within transit advocacy that disdains all comfort, and quite a bit of safety, in pursuit of a sort of Spartan equality. They have no power to increase transit funding, but they insist on low fares, resulting in crowded, unreliable subways and buses. All conditions on transit must be completely equal; as the reactions to San Francisco's Leap bus showed, any difference in comfort or convenience is worse than offensive, it is ridiculous. And yet private cars, and the public infrastructure we built to serve them, can be as comfortable or convenient as possible because it is completely off the radar for this movement.

These transit advocates, in their majestic equality, encourage men as well as women to pack into subway cars with thieves and sexual predators, shout down any other options, and somehow seem puzzled when these women buy cars at the first opportunity. Hm.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

What are your #SightsOfSI?

Tourists don't know where to go when they get off the Staten Island Ferry, so let's make some posters for them! Here's one I made:


And here's one Joby Jacob made:


You can make your own!

  1. Find a picture of the sight on Flickr or Google Images, or create your own. It must be freely distributable - either your own picture or one marked as shareable with Creative Commons.
  2. Find the shortest off-peak travel time to the sight, by bus or Staten Island Railway, from the Ferry terminal, using Google Maps or the bus/SIR schedule.
  3. If the route is by bus, find the ramp where the bus leaves from the ferry terminal in the bottom right inset of the bus map (PDF).
  4. Put the name of the sight, the travel time, the bus route or SIR, the ramp letter and the photo credit over the photo.
  5. If you like, you can credit yourself and add the #SightsOfSI hashtag.

Add your photos to this Google+ album or tweet them with the #SightsOfSI hashtag, and I'll feature the best ones on this blog!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Visit Saint George!

Staten Island is home to beautiful parks, lovely architecture, tasty restaurants and fascinating museums. As Joby Jacob and I recently documented, on a warm sunny day thousands of tourists take the ferry to the island, getting a free harbor cruise. While there, they could grab a quick bite, explore the prewar architecture of the North Shore, or take a short bus ride to the museums of Snug Harbor. Instead, the vast majority catch the next boat back to Manhattan without ever setting foot outside the ferry terminal.



Some tourists play it safe, follow the herd, go where they're told or plan in advance. Those kinds of tourists will require more explicit marketing, which deserves its own post. Other tourists like to explore, and many of them do this already.

Part of the problem is that the design of the ferry terminal and the streets around it discourage exploration. The neighborhood by the ferry terminal, Saint George, is charming and walkable, and has been acknowledged by the New York City Economic Development Corporation as the most promising site for "the kind of vital downtown that has long eluded Staten Island." The terminal and the streets obscure the attractions of the area and make pedestrians feel unwelcome. Since tourists getting off the ferry are pedestrians, the design winds up making tourists feel unwelcome.


The problem begins with the elevation of the main passage of the ferry terminal. While the roof deck has a clear view of some interesting-looking buildings in Saint George, tourists are not guided up there. Instead they are confronted with a series of ramps leading up to bus platforms, a stairway down to the Staten Island Railway, and a stairway marked "Richmond Terrace." None of these provide a view of anything outside the terminal; the line of sight is blocked by stairs and canopies.



Some tourists find their way up the stairs to the walkway. It affords a decent view of Saint George, but it is mostly bare, exposed concrete with a minimal canopy protecting people from the elements. It is very wide right outside the terminal, but narrows to a twenty-foot sidewalk when crossing the SIR tracks before the intersection with Richmond Terrace. Half the width of this sidewalk is currently blocked by construction for the Staten Island Wheel and outlet mall project.


The intersection between the ferry terminal approach and Richmond Terrace is the third part of the problem. The walkway is now just a sidewalk for the Ferry Terminal Viaduct, four two-lane ramps carrying buses, cars, taxis and bikes over the Railway. The intersection is designed for the cars and buses, with slip lanes, recessed crosswalks and lots of extra asphalt. It is confusing and intimidating to pedestrians.


The fourth and final obstacle is the buildings that greet visitors leaving the ferry terminal: Staten Island Borough Hall, the Richmond County Courthouse and the Saint George branch of the New York Public Library. According to my AIA Guide they were all designed by Carrère and Hastings in the early twentieth century. I should rather say that they fail to greet visitors, because they all have turned their backs to the ferry.


On one visit in 2014 I passed a troupe of thespians performing scenes from Shakespeare on the steps of Borough Hall, but this past Saturday Joby and I found the steps deserted, and the courthouse entrance permanently closed (without even any markings to indicate what it was). The handful of shops on the next block of Richmond Terrace were either closed or of no interest to tourists, or both.


A short walk around the corner showed us a different scene. Stuyvesant Place offered a variety of modest but inviting restaurants and shops. The courthouse has a fully functioning door on that side. So does Borough Hall - with parking for the Borough President and various high-level functionaries. The Library still presents a closed door to Stuyvesant Place, but you can walk around the block again and find a welcoming entrance, as well as the new Supreme Court building.


These buildings, shops and restaurants may not be things that every tourist would find interesting, but Joby and I saw a number of tourists who were tempted to stay on Staten Island for more than ten minutes. Many of them made it past the first two obstacles of lack of visibility and the exposed walkway (it was a warm Spring day), only to disappear at the intersection with Richmond Terrace.

I can easily imagine more tourists spending an hour or two in Saint George, New Brighton and Tompkinsville. We saw a number of storefronts that were either empty or closed on Saturday. It wouldn't take many more tourists to support a few more cafes and shops, which would in turn bring more tourists.

It would cost a lot to reconfigure the terminal so that arriving passengers can see the way to Saint George. It might not be worth spending that much right now, but we should talk about that when it comes time to redo the terminal for other reasons.

The walkway from the terminal to Richmond Terrace needs to be wider for its entire length, so that tourists never feel like second-class citizens, even if they are on foot on Staten Island. It needs to be better protected from sun, rain and wind, but also to be more interesting for tourists. A few signs advertising nearby attractions and businesses would help, but the city could also grant permits for vendors and buskers in the wider parts.

The intersection where the terminal viaduct meets Richmond Terrace needs to be reconfigured to be more welcoming to pedestrians. This is the kind of thing the DOT has done all over the other boroughs. They know how.

Finally, the institutions of Richmond Terrace - Borough Hall, the Courthouse, the Library and even the Post Office - need to turn around and welcome tourists. The Shakespeare performance I saw was a nice start, but the borough could do a lot more with that plaza. What about a Bryant Park-like cafe? Or the Supreme Court could rent the space inside its east facade to the Staten Island Museum, which is a block north on Stuyvesant Place.


Saint George is a pretty, walkable neighborhood just steps from the ferry. There is no good reason for eighty to ninety percent of people who arrive in the ferry to turn right around without leaving the terminal.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Saint George's Hidden Treasures

The AIA Guide says there are a bunch that we didn't get to. See this album in Google Photos.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Visit Staten Island!

Staten Island offers lovely architecture, beautiful parks and fascinating museums. Thousands of tourists set foot on the island on warm sunny days. But as Joby Jacob and I discovered yesterday, there's a problem...

Friday, March 25, 2016

Transportation values are arbitrary - somewhat

This has been sitting in my queue for years, possibly in response to this post by Engineer Scotty, and tonight I realized it was pretty much ready to go:


For all you bus-haters out there, I wanted to post this excerpt from the world's greatest writer of train travel. In 1978 Paul Theroux traveled from his childhood home in Medford, Massachussetts to Esquel, Argentina, mostly by train. All over Latin America, he found that people not only preferred buses to trains, but they saw trains as dirty old conveyances for poor people, and buses as fast, modern, classy transportation. Here he is in El Salvador:
But no citizen of this town had any clear idea of where the railway station was. I had arrived from the frontier by car, and after two nights in Santa Ana thought I should be moving on to the capital. There was a train twice a day, so my timetable said, and various people, with hesitation, had directed me to the railway station. But I had searched the town, and the railway station was not where they had said it was. In this way, I became familiar with the narrow streets of Santa Ana; the station continued to elude me. And when I found it, on the morning of my third day, a mile from the hotel, in a part of town that had begun to tumble into plowed fields and cash crops, behind a high fence, and deserted apart from one man at an empty desk — the stationmaster — I understood why no one knew where it was. No one used the train. There was a major road from Santa Ana to San Salvador. WE TAKE THE BUS: it seemed to be a Central American motto in reply to all the railway advertising which said TAKE THE TRAIN — IT is CHEAPER! It was a matter of speed: the bus took two hours, the train took all afternoon.

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Via experience

Here in New York when people talk about "microtransit," they usually mean Uberpool or Lyftline, and those are the services I've been focusing on. Some have mentioned a third service, Via, that works a bit differently. Via is all shared; there is no service where it's just you and the driver, like a traditional taxi. The prices are fixed: currently five dollars per trip on weekdays if you buy credit ahead of time, and up to just under ten dollars for a pay-per-ride weeknight.


I've tried Via several times over the past year. The only real complaint I have is that they don't go to Queens: the service is restricted to Manhattan. I have hope, though, because when I started it was only available from Fourteenth to Fifty-Ninth Streets, and it's now available from the Battery to 110th Street. The next expansion will probably be Brooklyn Heights or Park Slope, but I don't think they'll ignore western Queens for long.

The first couple of times I took Via I had to wait a while, and it was just me and the driver, but the service seems to have caught on quickly. Every time since then, there has been at least one other passenger and the wait time has been minimal. If I've had to wait more than five minutes it was because my "Via-cle" (har) was stuck in traffic less than two blocks away.

Via is much more like a bus than a taxi. Twice I've gotten sedans, but the Via-cles are usually SUVs. I've had at least one trip with three other people, meaning I had to sit in the third row of one of those Suburbans or Navigators or Explorers. Since those aren't really made for people getting in and out frequently, I'm wondering how soon Via is going to start running vans big enough to stand up in.

A number of people have objected to Uber and Lyft because of the “gig economy” arrangements they have with their drivers. Of course, they’re not much worse than the taxi medallion owners in that regard. But on one recent Via trip the driver was chatting with us, and he said that Via drivers are all paid by the hour, possibly even full time. If that is correct, it sounds like a much better deal for them than just about any other taxi arrangement.

As I’ve said before, Uber and Lyft are a huge improvement over the way we did taxis up to a few years ago, but in their current incarnations they won’t do much to help the transit capacity crunch we’re feeling in cities like New York. The Via model is much more promising, and the more Uber and Lyft act on those lines, like with Uberhop, the more helpful they will be in relieving our capacity constraints.

There was another fascinating aspect of my experience with Via, and to some degree with Lyftline and Uberpool, that deserves its own post. I'll write about it soon!

Friday, February 19, 2016

A Century of Subway Scolding

Jessica Hester had a great post detailing how we've been trying to alternately shame and cajole people into being respectful and not taking up too much space since the subways were built more than a century ago. But she didn't explicitly draw the conclusion I did: that there is no evidence these campaigns have actually decreased manspreading, blocking doors or rude language on the subway.


Don't get me wrong: there's a lot of stuff on the subway that annoys me, and I want it to stop. But it's not the same stuff that annoys other people. For example, I can't stand cell phone conversations or some asshole playing deejay on their tinny little speakers, but I have no problem with people clipping their fingernails. I would do it myself if so many people hadn't told me they hate it. And that's what I think a lot of these people are missing: the understanding that even if you can't understand why something bothers other people, it still does, and maybe you still shouldn't do it.

It may be simply that evil will always exist in the world, and the campaigns are necessary to simply keep us running in place against the forces of backpacks and panhandling. But if you've been doing something for a hundred years without making any progress, maybe you should try something else? As Hester points out, these conditions respond to forces outside the system: there is a lot less boombox-playing, smoking and tobacco-spitting today than there were in previous decades, and more mobile video games, cell phone music and Showtime.

Police Commissioner Bratton visited the subway last week, and as Ben Kabak observed, his comments were mostly clueless and out of touch. Outsider perspective can be valuable, but only if the outsider watches, listens and thinks before saying anything. I think Bratton was correct that if we are seeing more fights it's a symptom of overcrowding.

There are some transit problems that are encouraged by underuse of the transit system, like muggings, rape and graffiti. But there are others that are exacerbated by overuse and crowding, like unwanted sexual contact, door-blocking and fighting over seats. This means that the real solution is to increase transit capacity, and efforts to get people to be more polite and take up less room are mostly a waste of time.

That said, there is at least one area I can think of where a real education campaign - not a scolding campaign - could make a small difference. I'll talk about it in a future post. In the meantime, keep doing what you can to increase capacity!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Uberpool/Lyftline experience

I wrote last year about how the current challenge for transit in cities is not building ridership but making room on transit for all the people who already want to ride, but are getting passed up or squeezed on. A lot of people have been paying attention to Uber and its competitor Lyft, and their Uberpool and Lyftline services may already be reducing car ownership. I've tried them both multiple times over the past couple of years, and they've gotten more promising.


When I first tried Uber, all they offered were big SUVs, that you had all to yourself. It was more convenient than trying to find the number for the local car service and wait on hold, but it was too expensive for me. The smaller Uber, and Lyft vehicles and the ability to share rides with the Uberpool and Lyftline brought the price down to where it was a potential splurge for when I was tired of the subway.

After decades of taking taxis rarely, if ever, I was actually underwhelmed by the taxi experience in general. People pay so much more than for a subway ride, but the ride is often a lot slower and less smooth. Basically, you're stuck in traffic in a car with at least one stranger, who controls the radio and the heat, doesn't necessarily know where they're going, and sometimes really wants to talk. How is that relaxing?

Sometimes it is definitely worth paying for a taxi, to have a guaranteed seat, a one-seat ride, or door-to-door service. For places and times where the buses and trains run at low frequencies it can be a lot quicker.

I was interested to see how well these sharing services work. For the first several months I had the vehicle to myself, even if I took advantage of Lyftline's offer of waiting ten minutes for a lower price. But recently I've had a few shared rides. One couple was on their way to LaGuardia, and taking us home must have added at least fifteen minutes to the trip. I hope they left plenty of time!

One thing that can't come soon enough is services like "Uberhop," currently in pilot in Seattle, where you can get quicker and/or cheaper service by walking to a point chosen by the software. Last year I was waiting for a Lyftline to twist through a maze of one-way Greenwich Village, and noticed that my fellow rider was being picked up a few blocks away. I texted the driver, and was able to get to the car right as the other passenger was getting in. I saved all three of us another four-block loop on congested streets.

A promising application of this technology is when there is an unexpected outage on the subway, or even a skipped bus run, and a surge of SUVs (or even vans) come and whisk the waiting passengers away. Cost is a potential factor, but I think if people could be confident that a car would come quickly and get them there with minimal delay, a lot more of them would do it.

More observations on this issue coming soon.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Better subway station names

Back in October, City Council Transportation chair Ydanis Rodriguez argued that some of our identically-named subway stations really are confusing and should be changed (see the full report in PDF. In general I agree; the worst are those that are on the same line in different boroughs; back when there was a 23rd Street-Ely Avenue stop in Queens, I helped a poor recent arrival on the V train who got it confused with 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan.


I like how in Paris every station has a unique name, and that's part of the navigation system for the city: directions regularly include the name of the nearest Metro station. Of course that's because Paris has no grid, and grids actually make subway station naming kind of boring: do we really want stops called 23rd-Park, 23rd-Broadway, 23rd-Seventh and 23rd-Eighth?

On the other hand, I also agree with Ben Kabak that the names proposed by Rodriguez's staff are not great. They're not as bad as the DC Metro with stations like Archives-Navy Memorial-Penn Quarter, but they're still too long. I'm going to take them one at a time:
  • 7th Avenue 53rd Street: This can be just plain Seventh Avenue, because we're going to rename the other ones.
  • 7th Avenue Prospect Heights: This is in line with the MTA's push to rename stations after the neighborhoods they serve, but it's silly. The next stop on this line is Prospect Park, and there's a 15th Street-Prospect Park stop on the F and Prospect Avenue stops on the R and 2/5 lines. Why not just rename it Carleton Avenue after the street on the other side of Flatbush Avenue?
  • 7th Avenue 4th Street: This is a typo, unless Rodriguez is working with the MTA to fund a subway under Fourth Street. I think we should rename it Ninth Street, and then the Smith-9th Street station can just be Smith, and the Fourth Avenue-Ninth Street station can just be Fourth Avenue.
  • Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall: Take off the "City Hall" part, off of this and the IRT station. There's a City Hall station across the park on the R train.
  • Chambers Street-World Trade Center: Since this is part of the same complex as the E train terminal at World Trade Center, why not call the whole thing World Trade Center? Well, even the south end of the A/C platforms are pretty far from the WTC, and we'll have to make sure the #1 train station won't be called World Trade Center when it opens.
  • Gun Hill Road - White Plains Road: This can stay as just Gun Hill Road.
  • Park Place: Are people really getting this one confused with the Franklin Avenue Shuttle stop? If it's a big deal, call it Park Row instead.
  • Gun Hill Road - Eastchester Road: As Larry Velázquez pointed out on Twitter, it's not even very close to Eastchester Road. We could name it after Seymour Avenue or Hammersley Avenue, both of which are closer.
  • Pelham Parkway - White Plains Road: This is probably the best we can do. We don't want it to get confused with the other Pelham Parkway stop, but there are nine other stops along White Plains Road. so it looks like we're stuck with both of them.
  • Pelham Parkway - Williamsbridge Road: First, spell "Williamsbridge" right. We could just call this "Williamsbridge Road," but then people might think it's close to the "Williams Bridge" station on the Metro-North Harlem Line.
  • 36th Street - Sunnyside Yards: The problem with this one is it assumes that Sunnyside Yards is a destination. I mean, sure, I took Alon Levy there, but we're transit geeks. Does it mean someone in Rodriguez's office is expecting this part of the Yards to be developed soon? How about 38th Avenue instead?
  • 36th Street - Fourth Avenue: If we rename the LIC station to 38th Avenue, we can keep this as 36th Street.

Monday, January 18, 2016

We need to stop converting streets to one-way

New York is famous for its livable streets revolution, where Janette Sadik-Khan, with the backing of Mayor Bloomberg, turned the city Department of Transportation from an agency focused on moving traffic and placating angry drivers into one that prioritized the safety and movement of pedestrians, cyclists and bus riders. Under Sadik-Khan the DOT took away some car lanes and narrowed others to install pedestrian plazas, protected bike lanes and bus lanes.


Under Mayor de Blasio and his transportation commissioner Polly Trottenberg, the DOT has shown more timidity and more deference to unelected "community leaders," but it has continued to install safety measures and bus lanes, sometimes taking space from cars to do it. Where neither administration has been very good is on one-way streets. It's pretty uncontroversial that one-way streets have less head-on collisions. It used to also be the consensus that they are safer for pedestrians. Instead of looking for cars from two or even four directions, people crossing a one-way street only have to look in one or two (or maybe three, but who's counting?).

More recently, people have come to realize that the old consensus was too simple. Removing most of the danger of head-on collisions only encouraged people to drive faster, increasing the danger of other collisions. Drivers have to drive further to get to their destinations, adding to congestion and turning moves.

One-way streets have also had a negative effect on street life. The difficulty of navigation, and the difficulty of parking next to speeding cars, have discouraged drivers from patronizing businesses on one-way streets. The danger, noise and unpleasantness of speeding cars have discouraged walking. Stores and restaurants have closed, giving people less reason to walk. This is a vicious cycle, because just the absence of other people drives pedestrians away.
New York was an early leader in the movement against converting streets to one way. In fact, it was a plan by the City Department of Transportation to funnel cars into the Barclays Center that demonstrated the livable streets movement's growing power. Stirred by a series of Streetsblog posts, 650 people came out to speak against the DOT's proposal to convert Sixth and Seventh Avenues in Park Slope to one way.

Since then, other cities across the country have converted one-way streets back to two way. The size of the crowd was probably a factor in Mayor Bloomberg's decision to appoint a reformer like Janette Sadik-Khan as Transportation Commissioner. With the support of Streetsblog and Transportation Alternatives, and against the opposition of community boards dominated by local driving elites, the DOT rolled out bike lanes, pedestrian plazas and intersection redesigns to make streets safer.

The odd thing is that as far as I know New York has not converted any one-way streets back to two-way, either before or since 2007. I haven't heard anything about the issue from Sadik-Khan, Streetsblog or TA. The architect John Massengale wrote about street safety last month and even spent a paragraph talking about the dangers of one way streets, but for some reason did not explicitly include returning the streets to two-way in his list of recommendations.

What is even more surprising is that since 2007 the DOT has continued to convert streets from two-way to one-way. For example, under Sadik-Khan they converted 49th Avenue in Long Island City and 58th Street and Maurice Avenue in Maspeth to one-way. Under Commissioner Trottenberg, they have converted Fifth Street in LIC, and have proposed converting 77th Street in Jackson Heights (PDF).

To be fair, these streets are not like Sixth and Seventh Avenues. 58th Street and Maurice Avenue are industrial truck routes, and 49th Avenue and Fifth Street are primarily residential. Both are in areas with higher car ownership rates. These factors can explain why livable streets advocates didn't notice or draw attention to the conversions.
But those factors don't mean that we shouldn't try to stop these one-way conversions, and they don't mean we shouldn't talk about them. People need to be safe where they live and work, not just where they shop. These neighborhoods have a lot of pedestrians, and we need to protect them from the demands of the driving elites who dominate their institutions.

By the way, this applies to narrower streets too.