Sunday, April 15, 2018

Transmillennial NYC?

A while back I was arguing with someone about "Bus Rapid Transit," and they suggested that New York should emulate the system used in Bogotá. I was skeptical; I've read about the Transmilenio and seen the Streetfilm, It didn't seem a good fit, but I felt like I didn't know enough.


I haven't been to the Colombian capital, but I've now looked at the network in more detail, and its applicability to New York area is extremely limited. Implementing anything resembling a Transmilenio corridor without converting general driving lanes to busways would require taking large amounts of land that is currently used for housing, retail or industry. I just don't see that happening on, say, Northern Boulevard or Church Avenue, and I don't want to see it happen.

The twelve Transmilenio corridors (not including the Carrera 7 stub) range from four to eight miles long, and are either at-grade or depressed, rarely elevated. They are all anchored by either the downtown or by a connection to another Transmilenio corridor. They fall into three types, as follows:


There is one corridor, the Eje Ambiental, that is roughly sixty feet wide. It could be emulated on any street of that width, like Fulton Street or Bergenline Avenue. I'm not going to consider those here, because they're everywhere.

Four corridors have sidewalks and at-grade crossings, like the Avenida de Caracas (see above); I call them Arterials. They have four to six lanes of car traffic and sometimes a bike path, and range from 120 to 150 feet wide.


The other seven corridors have grade-separated crossings, and at least some of the car lanes are limited access, like the Calle 26; I call these Highway corridors. The corridors can be up to 450 feet wide and include six to twelve car lanes and sometimes a bike path or even two. There are planted medians and sometimes even parks in the medians.

With this in mind, here are the basic criteria for Transmilenio-style corridors:
  1. At least 120 feet wide, so no Route 17 corridor in Bergen County
  2. At least four moving car lanes after the busway is installed, so no Grant Highway corridor in the Bronx
  3. At least four miles long, so no Whitestone Expressway corridor in Queens
  4. At or below grade, not primarily elevated, so no Bruckner Expressway corridor in the Bronx
  5. At least one good anchor, so no Route 18 corridor in Monmouth County
I will add the following for this exploration of New York, in keeping with our principles (see above):
  1. No parallel trains. Some trains are overcrowded, but for this let's focus on corridors with no rapid transit service at all, so no Seventh Avenue corridor.
  2. No adding lanes. If a corridor has functioning, accessible parkland, let's leave it, so no Mosholu Parkway corridor.
  3. At least 140 feet wide if the avenue already allows curbside parking. On-street parking beats off-street parking, and it's really hard to get the city to install bollards, so no 164th Street corridor.
I am not making any attempt to forecast demand in this post, aside from restricting my exploration to New York City and the counties closest to it. If you do try to think about demand, keep in mind that demand is not static, and it responds to the availability of alternatives.

One thing that surprised me looking at the Transmilenio system was how many of the lines (seven out of twelve) are the "highway" type, with separated local and express carriageways and any retail or housing set back from the sidewalks (almost all of them have sidewalks, which is a lot more civilized than most of our highways here). But when people (like the person I was arguing with) talk about adopting Transmilenio designs in New York, they're almost always talking about arterial corridors within the city limits, so that's what I'm going to focus on for this post.

So, are you ready? Here they are, all five of them!


The thing about arterial corridors in New York City is that we don't actually have very many that fit the Transmilenio model. We have a lot of big, wide avenues that feel dangerous, but when we actually measure them it turns out most of them are only a hundred feet wide, like Church Avenue in Brooklyn or Gun Hill Road in the Bronx. Even Astoria Boulevard in East Elmhurst is only 120 feet.

The remaining Arterial corridors do not form a coherent network at all in the five boroughs. They don't even extend the subway network, because stroads like Kings Highway and Linden Boulevard only widen to Transmilenio widths half a mile or more from the subway. The best you can say is that some of them would provide new routes parallel to crowded lines, like West Street.

The most promising corridor is Woodhaven Boulevard. The City has finally succeeded in upgrading it to Select Bus service, but they never proposed Transmilenio-style high island platforms. They tried to get separated center lanes, but after a long, hard fight with motorists and bean counters they settled for converting some of the inner express roadway to dedicated lanes with median boarding.

Woodhaven is also paralleled by the dormant Rockaway Beach Branch of the Long Island Railroad, which would have much more capacity and be somewhat better located. If the Rockaway Branch is ever reactivated, a Transmilenio-style busway would just add capacity to that, the way an Ocean Parkway busway would add capacity to the F and G trains a few blocks away on McDonald Avenue. Not a bad idea, but not the transformative change promised by some people.

Does that mean there's no application for Transmilenio-style busways in New York? Not quite; things actually look a lot more promising in the suburbs. Stay tuned for that!

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Who's your Suburb Buddy?

Adam Hengels had a good post about fighting rising rents back in 2015. He points out that while "gentrification" battles are almost always fought on the neighborhood level, the problem is actually regional:

The battlefield is not in the gentrifying neighborhoods. It is in the more wealthy neighborhoods where empowered residents fight to keep new people out.


There are tons of pretty suburban towns, and even small cities, that could be cozy, hip, dense alternatives to Manhattan or Brooklyn, but they've got zoning that keeps apartment buildings out and stifles nightlife, giant parking lots surrounding the commuter rail stations, infrequent train service and parking requirements that drive foot traffic away. If they got their act together, a lot of people would be moving there instead of here.

Here's an example: I live in Woodside, Queens. Per capita $24,399, population density 44,500 per square mile. We've got a decent commute to Manhattan (30 minutes to Grand Central), and a nice mix of shops and restaurants (a Walk Score of 94). I'd be happy to have more people here, but if they went someplace else that'd be okay too.

If I walk down to the Long Island Railroad station, I can get a train to Hewlett and take a short walk to the village of Hewlett Bay Park, which Wikipedia lists as the wealthiest per capita place (city, town, village) in the New York metro area at $113,320. Hewlett Bay Park has a population density of just 1,382 people per square mile, and a Walk Score of 42. It's an hour and thirteen minutes to Grand Central: a beautiful walk to the LIRR Far Rockaway Branch station, then change at Penn for the 3 train to the Shuttle.

The population of Hewlett Bay Park is estimated at 437 people, which is about a third the population of my co-op. Their zoning requires that every building be built on a minimum lot size of one acre, which is about a third the size of the lot my co-op is on. If the whole village were the same density as Woodside, it could hold about 17,800 people. Think how rents would go down across the metro area!

Last year we had a huge fight over a ten story building that would have added about 200 units to the neighborhood. That building would have fit on a single one of Hewlett Bay Park's 256 acres. Or if Hewlett Bay Park allowed townhouses near the train station, those 200 units could be spread across ten or twenty acres. My neighbors and I couldn't agree on whether we wanted it here, but I'll bet none of them would have been energetically opposed to putting it in Hewlett Bay Park.

Of course it's unfair to put all the burden on Hewlett Bay Park for accommodating the million or so people who want to live in New York. Right next door is Hewlett Neck, per capita income $88,049, population density 766.2 per square mile. There are a bunch of other wealthy villages and towns that are keeping people out with exclusionary zoning.

So why, even since Adam's post appeared three years ago, do people keep fighting at the neighborhood level? I think there are two reasons: first, the spatial segregation strategy of moving to the suburbs does effectively put a lot of distance between the wealthy and the crowds, not just in terms of raw travel time, or even in terms of social networks, but in terms of migration pressure. My wife and I did look at apartments in Scarsdale, but we're the exception in our class and income bracket. Most of the people moving into our neighborhood have been priced out of Inwood or Ridgewood. The people moving into Ridgewood got priced out of Williamsburg. The people moving into Williamsburg got priced out of Greenwich Village. The people in the Village got priced out of the Upper East Side, and the people there got priced out of Scarsdale. So even if we yell at the people in Ridgewood and Williamsburg it's not going to help much.

The second reason people don't fight Scarsdale is fragmentation. There are lots of wealthy, exclusive suburbs that are keeping people out who then chain-bid my mom's rent up. Why blame Scarsdale for my troubles and not Bronxville? How do I pick one?

It might be possible to do some kind of multilayered market research and find out exactly which set of racist NIMBYs to blame for the migration into your neighborhood, but that's probably not worth the trouble. We can do this quasi-randomly, keeping to a set of basic principles:

  1. It should have a good transit commute. I do not want to take decent car-free Manhattanites and ship them out to Yorktown Heights where they'll all buy Volvos. There are in fact many New York suburbs where you can walk to shopping, walk to the train, walk to everything. If you can't walk to shopping, we'll have to zone for shopping when we zone for apartments.
  2. This should be a place that can sustainably absorb lots more people. That means probably not low-lying areas like Deal or Centre Island. Hewlett Bay Park is on the bay, but it's mostly out of the flood zone and didn't do too bad during Sandy.
  3. Everybody pile on the favored quarter. New York has some suburbs that are not wealthy. Some of them are already changing, like Newark and Rutherford. Others are too poor to be attractive to people who already live in Brooklyn Heights, like Freeport. Let's focus on the top of the food chain.

With that in mind, here are the ten places in the New York area with the highest per capita income where Google Maps gives a transit commute time to Grand Central, with their densities and their walk scores. Next time your local NIMBYs come out in force against a building, pick a town from this list. I've already claimed Hewlett Bay Park for the people of Woodside, so spread things out by picking a different town. If you've already heard someone else using a town, pick a different one. If they're all taken, pull up the next twenty. Make a bunch of buttons saying WHY ISN'T THIS BEING BUILT IN DARIEN? and hand them out. Let's see what happens!

PlaceStateCountyPer capita incomeDensityWalk ScoreTransit lineTransit commute to Grand Central
Hewlett Bay ParkNYNassau$113,3201,38242Far Rockaway1:13
New CanaanCTFairfield$105,846322.786New Canaan1:09
DarienCTFairfield$105,846203.927New Haven0:59
North HillsNYNassau$100,0931,54327Port Washington1:01
WestportCTFairfield$97,39550323New Haven1:08
Sands PointNYNassau$95,647222.423Port Washington1:26
PlandomeNYNassau$95,102857.615Port Washington0:58
MatinecockNYNassau$93,559118.15Oyster Bay1:25
GreenwichCTFairfield$90,0871,27894New Haven0:44
ScarsdaleNYWestchester$89,907873.236Harlem0:32

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Stroller bloat on the subways

If you follow transportation politics you’ve heard of induced demand, a principle that activists have been invoking for decades to oppose road widening: Adding more capacity without market pricing simply invites more people to use a valuable resource. We see induced demand in roads and parking, as well as oil.


People have invoked induced demand in opposition to things that are much less destructive than driving. Transit managers have removed benches, lockers and trash cans from stations in the belief that this will reduce the demand for sitting, storing things and eating.

So what’s the difference between good induced demand and bad? It’s all about what it is that’s in demand. What are its real costs and benefits? Do the benefits justify the costs in the long term, and how long is long term? Can we handle the demand in the short term, and what happens if we can’t?

In terms of trash cans, given the staggering amount of money the MTA wastes on other things it wouldn’t be a huge expense for them to buy enough trash cans so that there’s one within twenty steps in all their stations, and to hire enough people to keep them from filling up and keep the platforms and tracks clean. The same is true for lockers and benches Somebody decided that the benefit wasn’t worth the cost, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that person drove to work and never found themselves on a subway platform holding an empty sandwich wrapper, or waiting for a train with tired feet.

In terms of roads and parking, we know that it costs an obscene amount of money to build a single structured parking space. Elevated roads and tunnels are similarly exorbitant. At-grade roads and parking are cheaper, but still cost a lot. They also encourage driving, with its pollution and carnage and waste of energy. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think it’s worth the cost.

I brought all this up to give you an idea of what goes through my mind when I hear people talking about how accommodations for disabled people help everyone. The usual example people give is how curb cuts for wheelchairs make life easier for parents with strollers. Sometimes people go on to talk about how elevators also help people to use strollers. And that’s where I start giving these people the side-eye.

I’m very much in favor of making our buses and trains wheelchair-accessible. I know several people with mobility impairments, including my own parents, I’ve talked with people who use wheelchairs and crutches about the difficulties of navigating the subway, and I’ve been temporarily disabled in the past. If we induce more demand for travel by people in wheelchairs and those with canes and walkers, I’m all for that, because up to now they’ve been forced to rely on Access-a-Ride, which is slow and inefficient, and limits their participation in society.

I have no objections if we build elevators for people in wheelchairs, and they happen to be useful for people with strollers, or even with “granny carts” for shopping. There is an added cost, though: the elevators are designed with a particular capacity of disabled users in mind, and induced demand from stroller and shopping cart users means kore crowds and longer waits. More demand also means more wear and tear on the machinery, more frequent outages (especially if the MTA doesn’t adjust its maintenance budget), and more money for repairs.

It doesn’t stop just at elevators making life easier for people with strollers, though. It starts getting presented as a moral obligation for us to fund elevators for parents. And since most parents who travel with their kids are women, it gets presented as an anti-sexist obligation to fund elevators. Then you get petitions for the MTA to allow parents to take strollers on buses without folding them. And that’s when I get pissed.

Last year I was on a bus in Great Britain, where people are allowed to bring strollers on buses. The bus filled up and people were having difficulty finding places to stand, because all the floor space was taken by strollers. The women traveling with the strollers made no move to take the kids out and fold them, so everyone else had to squeeze around them, including one woman who delayed the bus because she was not expecting to have to fold her own stroller.

It’s one thing to bring an unfolded stroller on an empty bus in Lebanon, New Hampshire. It’s a very different thing to bring one on a crowded bus or subway in New York City. We don’t have the capacity for it, so insisting on that space is taking away capacity from everyone else, including parents who carry their kids and fold their strollers. If you think there’s a significant value to society in giving that public space to unfolded strollers, get off your high horse and let’s talk about why it’s valuable and how we’re going to pay for it.

The weirdest thing about this debate is that it's not like people don't take small children on subways and buses. They do, and they always have. It’s not always easy, but traveling with kids by car isn’t always easy either. So why are people talking about taking kids in elevators now? I think it's the size of strollers.

When my wife was pregnant we went shopping for a stroller. The “normal” strollers were all large, heavy and difficult to fold. They were also fantastically expensive, with models costing hundreds of dollars. We settled for a “city” model that cost under a hundred and was lighter weight and could be folded with one hand, but it was still pretty heavy and bulky. I think we took it on the train maybe three or four times, and yes, it was a pain in the ass.

We wound up using a sling and a Baby Bjorn to carry the kid for the first year or so. Once he was old enough to hold his own head up we got an umbrella stroller for twelve dollars at Toys R Us. It made a huge difference. Either one of us could push it to the subway stairs, unbuckle the kid, pick him up with one hand, fold the stroller with the other hand, pick that up and head into the subway. With a little practice we could get it done in two seconds. Once we were on the subway (or bus) the stroller slid neatly under the seat.

Even when it was unfolded the umbrella stroller took up relatively little floor space and sidewalk width. It was light enough that either of us could pick the kid up in it and carry them for short distances. It wore out within a year, but I just went back and got another one. By the time we were ready for a third stroller, the kid was ready to walk.

I can understand why people hesitate to fold “city” strollers and drag them up stairs, and I sure as hell understand why nobody wants to carry a full size Graco anywhere, with or without a kid in the other arm. What I don’t quite understand is why people don’t use umbrella strollers.

I mean, people do use umbrella strollers. I just saw one a few minutes ago. What I don’t understand is why so many people assume that you only need one stroller, and the standard suburban models are fine for the city. Why aren’t there periodic articles in Queens Parent and Time Out Kids about the Best Subway Strollers? Why don’t people get schooled in umbrella strollers in the cafés of Park Slope and Sunnyside the way they get schooled in bike seats and breast pumps? When someone complains about being asked to fold their stroller on the subway, why isn’t the first response simply, “Have you tried an umbrella stroller?”

I can think of three reasons. Time Out isn’t running any stories about umbrella strollers because they’re cheap and they’ve been around for years. They’re not writing any stories about plain old bibs and sippy cups either. For similar reasons, umbrella strollers are no good for yuppie prosperity signaling, and because they’re complex aluminum structures they aren’t good for hipster artisanal credit.

The main reason people avoid umbrella strollers is that they can’t hold anything but the kid. Modern strollers have huge compartments that can hold diaper bags, breast pumps and groceries, plus cup holders, bag hooks and even running boards for older kids to stand on. Even the “city” models have at least one basket. When people have one they fill those compartments with everything they might possibly need, which can weigh as much as the stroller, or even a toddler.

This is exactly like “sport-utility vehicles ” which get filled up with all kinds of stuff that the passengers never use, but the driver carries around just in case. Or the large house with rooms full of belongings that the inhabitants haven’t touched in years. And the reason is the same: induced demand. When land and buildings are cheap, people hold on to their stuff. When gas, roads and parking are cheap, people shove their stuff in the SUV and use the gas, roads and parking to cart it all over town. And when train, bus, sidewalk, stair and elevator space is cheap, people shove their stuff in giant strollers and push it all over town.

I wouldn’t have a problem with this if the space really were cheap, but buses and elevators are expensive. I would even be willing to subsidize bus and elevator space for unfolded strollers if we had a real discussion and concluded that this subsidy would bring a real benefit to society. I think there’s a real case for it for groups with more small children than adults, or where the caregiver has a disability that makes it hard for them to carry a child, an umbrella stroller and a diaper bag.

Unfortunately, that is not the discussion we’re having. The discussion we are having is polluted by induced demand, by the assumptions that all small children are carried in giant, unfoldable strollers by physically and politically weak women who are incapable of selfishness, bad judgment, ignorance or any other failings. Can we change that, please?