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.