Saturday, September 29, 2018

Did the Atlantic Ticket accomplish anything?

In June the Long Island Railroad instituted an "Atlantic Ticket" for people traveling on weekdays between southeast Queens and stops along Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. This fits with the RER, S-Bahn and Overground strategies that have been used in European cities like London, Paris and Berlin going back to the late nineteenth century. Instead of treating suburban trains like a completely separate system from the subways (and buses) they are run through the city center, at comparable frequencies to the subway, with the same fares and free transfers. So how does the Atlantic Ticket do in getting us to this goal of using our trains more efficiently?

Of the four differences between subways and commuter trains, the Atlantic Ticket addresses the fare difference and the lack of free transfers. They are the easiest to see: a rush hour commuter who takes the LIRR and the subway pays $13 one way or $346 monthly for a 55-minute trip from Rosedale to Grand Central, compared to $2.75 or $121 for 30 days for a much more crowded ride on a local bus to a subway. Many people take dollar vans to the subway, which brings the cost up to $4.75 one-way or $241 for 30 days. Riding the x63 express bus takes an hour and a half, but you get a seat and it's less than the railroad: $5.50 one way or $238 for 28 days.

The Atlantic Ticket offers a fare close to the express bus: $7.75 for a single one-way from Rosedale to Grand Central and $240 for 28 days. However, it is only good for travel to (or through) Flatbush Avenue, which takes about an hour and ten minutes from Rosedale to Grand Central. This is still quicker than the express bus, but about twenty minutes longer than LIRR trips through Penn Station. Surprisingly to me, it's also longer than taking a bus to the subway.

Why would someone pay extra for a longer ride? Comfort is one reason: LIRR trains are rarely packed, so even if they don't get a seat on the train they would expect some elbow room. But there's still a packed subway ride from Flatbush Avenue to Manhattan. Is riding a less crowded train for half an hour worth paying $3-5 more, but not worth $10.25 more? Maybe.

Another potential advantage is reliability. The subways and LIRR trains run on dedicated, grade-separated tracks controlled by the MTA. The buses and vans all run on busy avenues filled with other commuters. One insensitive driver can hold up bus riders for several minutes.

There's no word yet on how many people have been buying these Atlantic Tickets, but given the mixed benefits I suspect the number is relatively small. The LIRR Board Book this month credited the US Open golf tournament and the Belmont Stakes for increases in ridership (roughly 2% over last year), but did not mention the Atlantic Ticket at all. In a future post I'll talk about the two other factors, a direct ride (or at least a ride that is comfortable end to end), and frequency.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

No, the subway is not in a death spiral

Recently I've appreciated Aaron Gordon's transit reporting in the Village Voice and elsewhere. I like his drive and his passion for justice, and I agree with him about almost everything. But there's one big thing he said recently that I just don't agree with. In fact, I'm concerned about it because I think it could demoralize other transit advocates and direct their energy away from where it's most needed.

Gordon thinks our transit system - specifically the New York City Subway - has entered the dreaded Transit Death Spiral. This is a familiar story from the mid to late twentieth century, if you've read any transit history. He describes it this way:

people, for whatever reason—but usually austerity measures, poor service, and/or service cuts—start opting for non-public modes of transit, lower transit ridership leads to less revenue and service cuts, service cuts lead to lower transit ridership and less revenue, etc. etc.

Gordon neglects another factor that has traditionally been blamed for lower ridership: fare increases. Otherwise it's a decent summary of the story as it's usually told. But is that the whole story? Actually, no, there's a lot missing. If we add that missing information we get a much more encouraging picture. There are still problems - lots - but it's easier to know what to do about them.

The first missing piece is our goals. We do not exist to support a healthy subway system. Transit is a tool: it moves us around so we can function in our economy. The subway is one of the safest, cleanest, most efficient ways to accomplish that, and it helps us to live close enough together to support healthy social relationships.

The second piece is that a transit system is always in competition with some other way to get around. People still need to get to work, to shopping, to visit friends, etc. Some of these, like the subway, are better for our goals; others, like private cars, are much worse. This is why we care which one people use.

If we go back and look at the historical examples that led people to coin the term "transit death spiral," they all involved overwhelming competition from alternatives with more funding, more capacity, more staying power and the ability to deliver a premium product. The only competition Gordon mentions is from for-hire vehicles like Uber, Lyft and taxis. These may have more funding and premium products, but their capacity and staying power are severely limited.

Uber, Lyft, Via, Chariot - they're all backed by truckloads of venture capital money. That's what allowed them to finance so many car and SUV purchases over the past decade. But the Penn Central and the Erie-Lackawanna were competing with thousands of lane-miles of roads and thousands of acres of parking just here in the New York area, plus billions of barrels of artificially cheap gas. The scales are not comparable in any way.

A large amount of this competition was funded directly by the federal and state governments, and indirectly by them through eminent domain takings. These subsidies brought the cost to the driver of a private car trip well below the actual cost, and to a point not much higher than the cost of a transit trip, especially after the cost of the car, garage driveway etc. were paid for. The subsidies provided tons of capacity, so that the highway and parking system could absorb large numbers of new drivers.

New York and other transit-rich cities have given way too much to drivers (like the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the FDR Drive), but we did have our "freeway revolts" - preventing the Lower Manhattan Expressway, the Golden Gate Freeway, he Mount Hood Freeway and others from being built through our neighborhoods. Other cities spent hundreds of millions of dollars to destroy their downtowns and scatter their jobs across the land. That too contributed to "transit death spirals" as Northern urbanites bought cars and fled to the glamour of California and the New South.

This subsidized capacity was also maintained by the government until a majority of travellers had invested in cars, car-dependent housing and car-dependent jobs, to the point where when they approached the capacity of the new system they didn't abandon it, they just demanded more subsidies. That in itself required a huge amount of money and political will.

The electronic hailing system has never had anything approaching the capacity dumped into the region's highways and parking lots in the mid-to-late twentieth century. It sits on top of that system, of course. But that system was almost at capacity when the first Uber started accepting rides, and there is not much new capacity. The widened Kosciuszko, Tappan Zee and Goethals bridges are not near the regional core, and they are destructive primarily because they will maintain existing capacity at enormous taxpayer cost. Southern and Western suburbs are collapsing under the cost of maintaining their humongous highway systems. Uber and Lyft can't dump any more cars onto the streets of Manhattan, because they won't fit.

Subsidized capacity can work both ways, another point that Gordon ignores. A big factor in the death spiral of the privately owned subway companies was the gargantuan city-operated Independent System built under Mayor Red Mike Hylan, a former BMT operator, with the explicit intention of driving the private companies to bankruptcy. More recently, when US auto manufacturing companies and sprawl financiers were in a death spiral, the federal government stepped in with billions of dollars.

A massive influx of federal dollars could help the MTA too. Nicole Gelinas recently reported that Standard and Poor's cut the authority's credit rating. This means that the share of the operating budget devoted to interest payments on the bonds they've issued will increase, leaving less available to run the subways. But what if the Fed bought the MTA debt? That would free up a ton of money to fix the signals and the tracks. Hell, if Andrew Cuomo kicked in as much in bank settlement cash for the MTA as he did for the Thruway Authority, we wouldn't be talking about any of this now.

Because the available capacity and funding for ride-hailing services were relatively limited, we're already reaching those limits. The cost of all ride-hailing services has gone up since UberX was introduced, in many cases by two or three times, and customers respond. When fares were artificially low (remember flat $5 Uber and Via trips in Manhattan?) and there were lots of promotions, I took them a lot more than I do now.

One thing I like about app hailing, in fact, is that it requires so little investment. If you already have a smartphone and a credit or debit card, you don't need to buy anything or move anywhere to use Lyft. You just open the app, find a car and pay. An app ride can pretty much be dropped in to replace a transit, bike or walking trip - and vice versa.

The lack of investment means that as soon as a transit provider gets its act together (for example, let's say New York City Transit removes all the unnecessary signal timers from the subways), people will come back. If it's fast, reliable and not too crowded you can't beat a ride across town for $2.75.

Actually, you can't beat a ride like this even if it costs five dollars, maybe seven. This is part of the classic story of the Transit Death Spiral. Gordon only talked about "austerity," but the fare is a factor. The typical cautionary tale is of the transit operator that raises fares too high, driving passengers away. But if raising prices were all it took to bankrupt a seller, we'd have no businesses left.

Often the problem has been that the fares are too low. A major factor in the demise of New York's two private subway operators was that for over 45 years they were prevented by law from raising their fares to cover rising costs, and the city government refused to raise the fare past a nickel until after both companies had gone bankrupt. This is not a concern for the MTA as long as the government is willing to make up the amount needed to cover costs. It was only after the IRT and BMT had been running massive operating deficits for years that they entered the spiral.

The MTA should raise fares, and this is one of the best times to do it. Anyone who uses a ride-hailing app can see how much cheaper the subway is, and we know how much faster it is than any other option - as long as it's not disrupted or the middle of the night. Again, it's a bargain at five dollars.

The big objection to raising the fares was that it placed an undue burden on poor people. That argument was addressed when the City Council passed the Fair Fares plan, which will offer Metrocards at half the current rates to New Yorkers with incomes below the poverty line. The MTA can now raise everyone else's fares while keeping Fair Fares at this level, and thus not hurt poor people!

Over and over again while writing this post, I've found myself tapping out words like "overwhelming, gargantuan, massive, huge, enormous, humongous, truckloads, tons, billions." I'm using these words to describe the government investment in private cars (and the Independent Subway) that threw competing transit providers into a death spiral. Even today's car infrastructure subsidies, like the Kosciuszko Bridge replacement, are not on the same scale. The venture capital investment in Uber, Lyft, Via and Chariot is definitely not on that scale.

That's not to say that the government and venture capitalists couldn't do some damage to transit ridership. As I wrote years ago, the new Kosciuszko span will make it quicker to travel by car (and Uber) between Brooklyn and Queens. It could poach riders from the G train, and even the Queens Boulevard trains to Manhattan.

Ben Kabak has also expressed that to him, "With the transit crisis, the congestion and the high cost of housing, along with opposition to development, the city feels on the verge of a breaking point." I understand why he feels that way. I'm also frustrated with the slow pace of transit expansion and the constant, know-nothing opposition to building transit or housing.

But we need to keep some perspective. This is frustrating and destructive, but it's really nothing compared to the massive, huge, enormous system of driving and parking constructed in the twentieth century to compete with transit. The government can do more damage, and probably will. But its ability to build something that overwhelming, gargantuan, humongous - twice in a hundred years - is limited.

I won't say for sure that it'll never happen. But I have hope. Oil and natural gas are still getting harder and harder to extract from the ground. Young people have realized that suburbs and small towns are stifling, even when they're run by hippies and punks. I think we'll get out of this.

I still like Aaron Gordon's writing. I'm going to take his historical insights with a grain of salt from now on. Bit I'm going to keep reading it and following him on Twitter, and I encourage you all to do the same.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Can we make the Central Park "drives" two way again now?

They say Central Park is now car-free. The other day I passed five construction trucks, three random cars and four golf carts, one of which was completely empty, with a guy in shirtsleeves standing next to it looking at his phone. Of course it's all relative, and this is a definite improvement over the line of cars pushing their way through the East Drive just a couple months ago.

I also passed several people going the other way - riding bikes, running, walking, even on scooters. They didn't really bother me, because they're narrow and lightweight, and traveling at relatively low speeds. If anything concerned me at all, it was that they sometimes passed me on the right - their left. I could see this potentially causing problems in really crowded situations.

That got me thinking about something I've written about before: a hundred years ago New York's streets were almost all two-way, even narrow ones. One-way traffic was at first almost entirely a response to the explosion of curbside parking. Later it was extended to avenues without parking, and curbside parking was banned in some areas, in response to a massive surge in car commuting and truck freight.

I looked up some old photos of Central Park, and the drives are two-way as late as 1928. According to the New York Times, the drives were made one way on November 29, 1929. There were two stories: a front page story on November 23 quoting Police Commissioner Grover Whalen, and a November 27 story quoting Deputy Police Commissioner Philip D. Hoyt.

Interestingly, the earlier story quoting Whalen doesn't mention safety at all, focusing entirely on the need to "relieve congestion" - without providing any specifics on how bad the congestion was. This must have gotten a reaction from the public, because in the November 27 story Hoyt made it clear there was "No Intention to Make Express Motor Highways of the Drives." Well, that's reassuring!

There's the usual assertion that "those who visit Central Park on foot will find it safer to cross the drives than in the past with two-way traffic," with no explanation of how this would improve safety. Hoyt then supplies the Times reporter with a series of truly horrific stats about car crashes in the park. There were eight people killed in the park during just the first ten months of 1929, and 249 people injured!

It's abundantly clear that the primary source of danger on the Central Park loop roads, in 1929 as in 2017, was people driving cars. It's not that people never die in the Park without a car present, but the danger is not from two-way traffic flow. In fact, the one-way rules probably encourage cyclists to speed, as they did with drivers.

People already use the drives safely in both directions on foot, bike and skate. Let's make it legal!

Photo: Columbus Circle. Ewing Galloway, 1928.

Oh yeah, and now that the cars are truly gone, let's reopen Columbus Circle to bicycles!

Sunday, July 15, 2018

A better express bus map

Express buses are easy in New York City. Just walk over to your express bus stop at the usual time and wait. Eventually the bus will arrive, you get on board, pay, find a seat and relax. When you're getting close to your stop, push the button, the bus stops, and you walk to work. Now they even have BusTime and MetroCard!

Express buses are easy if you're a regular passenger, that is. If you're not, how do you know which bus to take? You look at the complicated bus map for your borough, not posted in any subway station or bus shelter. Except if your borough is Manhattan. All the express buses are designed for trips to and from Manhattan, but the MTA doesn't show any express buses on the Manhattan bus map.

So you look at the bus map for the borough that's not Manhattan in your trip and figure out which bus is passing closest to the stop in that borough. Find the schedule for that bus. It may be posted on the stop, it may not, but the schedule is critical.

The schedule has tables telling you whether there is a bus scheduled to leave when you want to leave, and when it is scheduled to arrive in Manhattan. Everything besides the original departure time is approximate, and the buses almost always get stuck in traffic, so be prepared to board up to half an hour late depending on how close you are to the origin, and to get to your destination up to an hour late. Be sure to check BusTime so you know whether the bus is even coming.

The schedule does tell you where the buses stop in Manhattan. There used to be buses with suffixes after the route number (or not) indicating whether they stopped on Third Avenue or Downtown instead of Sixth Avenue, or maybe other routings, but the MTA has been gradually reorganizing them into separate numbers.

One key bit of information that's in the schedules but not the borough bus maps is where the buses stop and where they go express. It may seem obvious because most of the buses go on expressways, but some of them stop on the service roads of those expressways, and some don't. A few stop on Queens Boulevard or Woodhaven Boulevard, but most don't.

As you're probably saying to yourself right now, it doesn't have to be this way. Do the express buses really need to be on the same map as the local buses? Probably not. Is there a way to indicate on the map where the buses go in Manhattan? Probably. Is there a way to indicate on the map where the buses go express? Yeah.

The biggest thing that would make these maps easier to read is not showing extra information. Outside of Staten Island, where a bus network redesign is being implemented this summer, there are fifty express bus routes in the city. Almost half of them run only on rush hours, in the peak direction. Only sixteen of them run seven days a week. So if you're looking for an express bus on a Sunday you don't need to see the QM44, the X63 and the BM5. The resulting map is much cleaner.

That said, as I've written before, it's crazy not to offer Sunday service everywhere. When the Department of Transportation first started subsidizing private companies like Green Lines, they should have made funding contingent on seven day service. When the MTA took over their operations it should have immediately instituted Sunday service wherever there was Saturday service. Running buses on Saturdays and not Sundays is religious discrimination, and it has no place in New York City.

I'll have more to say about this map in the future.

Friday, June 22, 2018

What's the real story behind those photos of abandoned dockless bikeshare bikes?

At this point you've probably seen at least one, maybe several: pictures of "abandoned" or "discarded" dockless bikeshare bikes in China. I'm talking about the ones with hundreds, if not thousands, of bikes in the same picture. They're either very tightly stacked side by side, or more frequently jumbled on top of each other in a humongous heap, in a field or an empty lot. There's usually at least two different colors of bikes, representing different bikeshare companies.

There's almost never any explanation beyond a short caption. When I read "abandoned" I had this vision of some guy riding along on a bikeshare bike. All of a sudden the bike has a flat next to a field, so he casually tosses the bike into the field and walks on. A little while later a woman comes along. She gets tired of riding and stops next to the field, and sees the previous bike lying there. She tosses her bike on top of that one and walks away. Then some ill-behaved youths come running up carrying a bike that they found on a sidewalk, and throw it on top of that. It becomes the thing to do in this obscure Chinese city (Fuzhou? Chongqing? Qingdao?). For some reason, the bike companies have no interest in recuperating these hundreds of bikes, which have cost them tens of thousands of dollars. The bikes sit in the field and rust.

These photos are designed to scare, and they have been effective. Since they've appeared I have read several tweets, blog posts and articles where various people express their fear of "what happened in China." Ofo comes to town and next thing you know the hayfield behind the old Lowe's is full of bikes and there's nowhere to go smoke a joint. Those arrogant tech companies. We can't let that happen here!

You know what I haven't read? An explanation of how the bikes actually got in the field. Because the story I told is completely implausible. Yeah, I've heard about how wacky! and exotic! those Chinese people are. Then I got to know some, and it turns out they're just people. Sure, they'll do things in large numbers for money (like moving to cities) or social interaction (like the annual Lunar New Year travels) - just like Americans. They don't just do random stuff like throw bikes by the hundreds in some field.

What is the real story of what happened to those bikes in China? I'd be interested to know, but for now here's my guess: those bikes were thrown in that field - or stacked in that lot - by some organized group of people, led by a particular person or a small group. And the most likely organized group is the government. I strongly suspect that in every one of those pictures, the bikes were put there by government employees, on orders from some petty bureaucrat. Why? Maaaybe because they were broken. Maybe because the company had no permit to operate in that area. Maybe because that bureaucrat hates bikes. Maybe that bureaucrat is just an asshole.

When I think about it that way, it's no longer a story about arrogant tech companies or unsustainable bike share. It's not even about Those Wacky Chinese. It's about arrogant bureaucrats, supported by reactionary old people who drive, intent on maintaining control and preserving the hierarchy that puts them on top. And they're all boosted and broadcast by reactionary media people who love to get a rise out of us with scary photos.

That's a story as old as time, and it should scare us all that it's happening with bikeshare.

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
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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?