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?