Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The transportation hypocrisy of civil libertarians

It was in the news yesterday that the Drug Enforcement Administration paid an Amtrak employee over $800,000 over twenty years for confidential passenger information that it could have gotten for free. The Albuquerque Journal reported in April 2001 that they were getting it through "a computer with access to Amtrak's ticketing information." People like Senator Grassley are spinning it as government waste, but to me there's a bigger story: why should Amtrak have given this information to the DEA in the first place?

That was the response of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico back in 2001, and they were then "pondering whether to take legal action." A few months later they clearly had bigger fish to fry, so it's understandable why this issue went on the back burner.

What's not understandable is why transit freedom has gone on the back burner, and pretty much stayed there, since 2001. Some of you may actually be too young to know that before then, you could board an intercity bus or train without giving your name or showing identification. You just walked up to the ticket counter and handed over your cash.

I've been taking Trailways buses since I was a kid, and I remember when it all changed, sometime shortly after September 11, 2001. I walked up to the ticket window at the Port Authority and asked for a ticket, and the person asked for my name. "Why?" "Security." "I don't want my name on some list!" "Nobody's going to put your name on a list." I sounded like a goddamn schizophrenic. After some back-and-forth he said, "Just give me a name!" Okay, I gave him a name that could plausibly have been a nickname for me, but wasn't, and he put it in the computer - and on some list, of course. Soon after that, they began requiring photo ID or a credit card to buy the tickets. I think they even tried to get the drivers to check the photo ID before they let people on the bus, but that one at least didn't fly.

What has amazed me to this day is that there was absolutely no mention of any of this by anyone but me. People complain (with good reason) about taking off their shoes at airports and about no-fly lists, and even about draconian treatment on buses near the Mexican border, but I don't remember seeing a single mention of buses or trains requiring a name for intercity tickets. Hell, I still don't know what counts as intercity. I don't have to give my name for a ticket to Nyack or Poughkeepsie, but I do for a ticket to New Paltz.

But what really burns me up is when civil libertarians complain about license plate scans or toll surveillance. Driving is not a right, it's a privilege, especially in a place like New York where transit is plentiful. And these civil libertarians don't even acknowledge that the MTA has a record of the movements of everyone who buys a Metrocard with a credit card.

And yes, it's true that potential criminals or even terrorists can use buses and trains to move around. But we live in a free country, where it's not a crime to be a potential criminal or terrorist, or just someone who doesn't want to drive. Or at least we used to.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The McCarter Highway, freeway without a future

Back in March I was honored to nominate Newark (together with Michael Klatsky) for Streetsblog's coveted Parking Crater award. I'm also pleased that Newark's nomination helped inspire Sharon Adarlo to write about how the obsession with driving and parking among Newark's elites "skewers [any] chance at revitalizing the struggling city." And I'm encouraged by the quote from Newark's new mayor, Ras Baraka, that "We are going to build up and not across. We are going to look at stormwater runoff."

Now I want to mention another aspect of that obsession that's holding the city back: its roads and streets that are designed to prioritize drivers over pedestrians.

The Congress for the New Urbanism regularly puts out a list of "Freeways Without Futures." These are usually "urban" highways that not only blight neighborhoods with noise, pollution and ugly elevated structures, but cut off neighborhoods from each other and from jobs, shopping and amenities like parks. I've suggested that the designation be extended to include highways like the Pulaski Skyway that aim a "firehose of cars" into walkable dense urban areas that are well-served by transit. That said, here's a highway that fits the current CNU criteria quite well: the McCarter Highway that leads north from Newark to Paterson, New Jersey.

The McCarter Highway was once a boulevard along the Passaic River, and still is a boulevard through most of Newark. As Steve Anderson describes, the section from northern Newark through Passaic to Paterson was "upgraded" to a limited-access highway in sections from the 1950s through the 1990s. To make room for the highway in Passaic, the old Erie Main Line was abandoned between the Passaic River and the Paterson station.

When it was being planned and built, I'm sure a lot of people saw the McCarter Highway as evidence of progress. The waterfront was either industrial, blighted or both, so most people didn't care that they were cut off from it, just as they didn't care about the West Side Highway in Manhattan or the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco.

But as with the West Side Highway and the Embarcadero, I think people didn't realize how a limited-access highway could be much more destructive than a factory or a slum. From its fifteen exits (depending on how you count them), the McCarter Highway spews cars into Newark, Belleville, Nutley, Passaic, Clifton and Paterson. It takes up some of the most valuable land in these towns and pays no rent or taxes. It spreads noise, gas and particulate pollution. Oh, and it's impervious to stormwater, Mr. Mayor.

The Passaic River may not look like much in this area, but without the McCarter Highway it could have a riverside park with a promenade and bike path. The highway not only cuts Newark and Passaic off from the river, but from towns across the river like Arlington, East Rutherford, Lyndhurst, Wallington, Garfield and Elmwood Park.

With rents rising in Brooklyn, Harlem and Jersey City, many residents find themselves having to move, and many of them are moving to Newark, Passaic and Paterson. They deserve the same amenities in their new homes that they left behind: good urban parks and good walking connections to the surrounding areas. They don't deserve to breathe carbon monoxide and listen to speeding cars, and they don't deserve to see those cars speeding off the highway into their neighborhoods.

This is why New Jersey should tear down the McCarter Highway and replace it with a calm, low-traffic boulevard, an extension of the Newark City Subway, a riverwalk and bike path, and some flood-proof apartments.

(Oh yeah, and the oppressive pedestrian environment in Branch Brook Park is a whole other post.)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Could we build another Park Slope?

Do you like the modern towers of the Upper East Side?

How about a nice gigantic Upper West Side prewar apartment building like the Ansonia?

Or the brownstones of Park Slope?

Or is all that too dense and urban for you? Maybe you'd prefer the lovely Victorians of Irvington, NY?

Gorgeous places to live! Of course, you and I are not the only ones who think so. These are some of the most desirable locations in the country. There are millions of people who would love to live in places like these.

So why don't we build more?

Why not buy up a block of crappy 1960s Stately Homes in Woodside and replicate the Ansonia? Or raze some raised ranches in Massapequa and build a block of brownstones? Build a new Victorian main street leading down to the Croton station, where now there are strip malls?

It turns out that there are some attempts to do this. Andres Duany is involved in a project in Jersey City that looks pretty cool. If you know of any others in the New York area, please let me know!

Unfortunately, those projects are a drop in the bucket. Zoning rules across the region make it next to impossible to build big modern towers on the Upper West Side, or a new Ansonia in Park Slope, or a block of brownstones in Irvington, or a new Irvington in Scarborough. The Municipal Art Society's recently released zoning envelope map confirms that the massive downzoning conducted across the city by Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Burden reinforced this prohibition. And people wonder why rents keep going up...

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Why we need a Brooklyn Bridge cycle track

I remember when you could walk or bike over the Brooklyn Bridge at almost any hour and not feel crowded. Those days are long past: walking over the bridge has become a major tourist activity, and commuting by bike has become extremely popular. Thanks to hard work by advocates, especially Transportation Alternatives, the city reopened the south sidepath on the Manhattan Bridge to bicycles and pedestrians in 2001, and the north sidepath to bikes in 2004, taking a lot of daily commuters and recreational walkers and joggers off the Brooklyn Bridge.

Even with this additional capacity, the Brooklyn Bridge path gets a lot more cyclists and pedestrians than it can comfortably handle. Pedestrians complain bitterly about the cyclists, and vice versa. Often it is deserved: I've seen many thoughtless cyclists bombing down the offramp, and many clueless pedestrians drifting into the bike lane without looking. But mainly, the pie is too small for all the people who now want a slice. We need more capacity.

There have been proposals in the past to simply ban cyclists from the bridge, and the satirical @bikelobby account on Twitter has capitulated, but often the proposal is to build a new bikeway somewhere on top of the existing bridge structure, as with this 2012 proposal by City Council members Lander, Chin and Levin. I don't think we need to spend that much money; we should simply convert one of the current car lanes to a two-way cycle track.

Converting car lanes to cycle tracks is also not a new thing. It's been done over and over again by the city in the past seven years, first on Ninth Avenue, then Eighth and Kent and now even on the Pulaski Bridge, where the current multiuse path between Greenpoint and Long Island City is similarly strained. This would just be the same thing on the main level of the Brooklyn Bridge, and then the upper multiuse path could be dedicated to pedestrians. It's been proposed for the Brooklyn Bridge before, by Streetsblog commenters and Robert Sullivan.

You might think that the city could not afford to give up that car capacity, but in fact it might wind up increasing the total number of people who cross on the Brooklyn Bridge. There are no buses (or trucks) currently allowed on the bridge. The Manhattan Bridge bike path is well traveled, especially during rush hours, and the number of cyclists can rival the number of cars on nearby lanes.

Last month, at 7:30 on a Tuesday, Clarence Eckerson of Streetfilms took a quick count on the Manhattan Bridge. He counted a hundred cyclists in two minutes and 23 seconds, a rate that corresponds to 2691 2517 vehicles per hour. By contrast (PDF), in 2010 the three outbound car lanes of the Brooklyn Bridge carry 3509 vehicles between 5:00 and 6:00 PM, or 1170 vehicles per lane per hour. The five outbound car/bus/truck lanes on the Manhattan Bridge carried 2382 vehicles, or only 476 vehicles per lane per hour.

In a subsequent tweet, Clarence acknowledged that his sample may not have been representative. "well I am sure that pace didn't hold up!" he wrote. "A dozen were on a tour group" But even if the typical peak counts are not that high (see this PDF from the city DOT), they are probably higher than 476 per hour, and maybe higher than 1170 per hour. This suggests that one of the lanes on the Brooklyn Bridge's main deck would carry more people in the peak rush hour as a two-way cycle track than it currently does as a single car lane.

Clearly there is more research to be done: more samples of peak hour bike and motor vehicle traffic, on both the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. I'm looking forward to the Streetfilm!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Five migrations in gentrification

In a recent post I noted that the demand driving up rents and prices ("gentrification") in big cities like New York, San Francisco and Chicago is a result of at least three distinct migration streams. Thinking about it now, I can identify five major streams. It's important to keep them straight, because they do not have the same cause, and thus the actions we can take (if any) to reduce or redirect the flow of migrants is different in each case.

The best and brightest have been migrating to cities since time immemorial, seeking fame and fortune. So have rural misfits – heretics, gender and sexual minorities, people with mixed ethnic, religious or class backgrounds, people with disabilities, anyone who has been shunned by small, close-knit communities. Some of them migrate from small cities to larger cities, searching for a better opportunity, more anonymity, more tolerance.

Immigrants often wind up in cities, because that is usually where the entry points and crossroads are, and where there are the most opportunities. They come through Ellis Island or Kennedy Airport, across the Rio Grande at El Paso or San Diego, and find their way to East Los Angeles or Chinatown or Washington Heights. Maybe they eventually wind up in a small town, or even start out picking berries in the Central Valley or tobacco in the Coastal Plain, but many families spend at least a generation in a big city.

Those two migration streams – the best and the misfits, and international migration – have been going on for as long as we’ve had cities and nations. Recently, what’s been capturing a lot of people’s attention is the white return – the repudiation by Anglo, Jewish, German and others of their parents’ search for comfort and tranquility in the suburbs, supposedly safe from the nonwhite people they feared and hated. I’m part of a similar migration, Back to the City, where the children of hippies and beatniks realized that communing with nature isn’t quite as spiritually uplifting as our parents thought – and it’s not all that great for the environment, either.

The fourth big migration stream that has been getting attention is the move of the white-flighters and back-to-the-landers themselves. Baby Boomers and other people who are now elderly have realized what we knew when we were fourteen: that life sucks in Amityville or Great Barrington if you can’t drive wherever you want to go. They’re buying small apartments in the city themselves, many of them in neighborhoods that they couldn’t afford in 1972.

There’s a fifth migration that I think doesn’t get enough attention: the small city exiles. These are people who are not the best or the brightest, or complete misfits, but they’re pretty bright, mildly kinky or noticeably nonconformist. Or maybe they can’t drive because they’re blind or epileptic (I learned about this last one from Sally Flocks), or they just don’t want to. Eighty years ago they’d have been pretty happy in Rochester or Knoxville or Omaha or San Luis Obispo: reasonably normal, functioning members of society, with enough peers to have a stimulating intellectual and artistic fellowship.

Today, those towns have hardly any jobs at all, especially within walking distance of downtown, shopping and services are sprawled out across the area, and transit between them is inconvenient. With this fragmentation, they can barely sustain a monthly open mike or an Indian restaurant, let alone a poetry slam or a regional Thai place. Our heroes – somewhat large fish in not-so-large ponds – see the grim desperation in the faces of their older neighbors and head to the bigger cities, where there are more opportunities, not just for jobs but for dinner after 8PM.

This is why rents and prices have been rising so drastically in New York, Washington and San Francisco, and to a certain extent in Boston and Chicago. In addition to the eternal migration of the ambitious, the misfits and immigrants, we’re on the receiving end of the White Return and the Back to the City – both the old and the young. On top of all that we’re getting the moderately bright and kind of weird who can’t make a home in the small cities.

Any solution to the problems of rising rents and prices will have to address all three of these new migrations. We can build more big city for them: taller buildings, more transit, upzoning around transit. But the returning retirees and the small city refugees don’t need big cities. They’d be perfectly happy if we could make the existing pedestrian and transit infrastructure of Scranton and Pueblo and Fort Smith work for them again, rebuild what was lost and thrown away, and find a way to make those towns relevant again. They’d be happy if they could live in prewar suburbs like Bethpage and Whiting without having to own a car for every adult family member. This is what the Strong Towns movement is about, and what Duncan Crary says about Troy.

You may say that it’s a tall order, that these towns are never coming back. But I ask you: if we rebuilt the rail connections, rebuilt the housing and shopping and offices where now there is just parking, and tore down the bypasses that made those downtowns irrelevant, don’t you think some of them would start to sputter back to life? Is that really any harder than trying to build whatever mind-numbing amount of "affordable housing" we need in New York to accommodate all these people, and the subways we will need to move them around once the elites admit that “Bus Rapid Transit” will never suffice?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

21st Street and Astoria Boulevard

In a recent post I argued that the Astoria elites no longer have the same opposition to extending the N train that they did just seven years ago. This extension would not only connect to LaGuardia, but it would be able to serve parts of Astoria east of the current line. But Astoria is so big that even an extended N train and the existing R and M service on Broadway leave large stretches of it unserved.

For this map I used the half mile circles that are so standard in transit planning that Jeff Wood named a blog after them. They're not always the best tool for estimating transit coverage, but my previous apartment was just inside one of these circles, and taking the train was frustrating but doable, so it's about right for this job. I even think that some people would walk into LaGuardia Airport to catch a subway.

The big gap between the current circles for the #7 train and the potential circles from stops in and near LaGuardia Airport corresponds rather neatly to a cluster of red dots on this map made by the Pratt Center in 2008:

This is a map of the homes of people commuting more than an hour to jobs where they earn less than $35,000 per year. Many of them live in the Astoria Houses and western Astoria generally, but there is a large concentration in East Elmhurst and northern Jackson Heights, where a long walk or a slow bus ride to stations fairly far out on the #7 train makes for a tedious commute.

There is a potential solution, and it's not the battle for "BRT" on Junction Boulevard that the Pratt Institute recommends, but is not going to fight. As the Hub-bound Travel Survey showed, there is capacity in the 63rd Street Tunnel for more trains. The Sixth Avenue local tracks are shared with the M train, but they run about 22 trains in the 8AM hour, leaving space for 8-10 more trains.

What service could we feed into the tunnel? The city examined this question 75 years ago, and their answer still makes sense today. The line would run north on Twenty-First Street, then east on Ditmars and Astoria Boulevards. It would turn south on 108th Street and east along Horace Harding Boulevard, which is now the Long Island Expressway.

At this point the demand for new housing is so high that any improvement in access to Manhattan is likely to fuel concerns about gentrification. In other words, we would build a train for the poor people in East Elmhurst, and then the rents would go up and no poor people would be able to live in East Elmhurst anymore. To allay those concerns, I propose building it as an elevated train. It would probably also be easier to build it elevated along 21st Street, so that it will be well above the water table. If the people on Ditmars complain, we can put it underground there.

Since there is only room in the Sixth Avenue tunnel for one additional service, we can't run express trains. It's not clear that there would be demand in Glen Oaks or Fresh Meadows for an all-local train to Manhattan via East Elmhurst, but it should probably serve Queens College at the very least.

Should this be a priority? Maybe, maybe not. The projects mentioned in Alon's recent posts all have a lot of merit to them, and at this point I don't have a good way of judging. If you pooh-pooh this idea, though, I want to hear what your alternative is to make use of the spare capacity in the Sixth Avenue local tunnels.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Unpacking gentrification

Transit advocates, pedestrian advocates, urbanists and in general all the people who are trying to improve the quality of life in cities need to talk about gentrification. Not because improvements to transit or walking or urban quality of life lead to gentrification, but because some people think they do. Others, bizarrely, are scapegoating the people moving to urban areas, as though their migration were the result of either nefarious conspiracy or a spontaneous coincidence of individual greed. Some of these demagogues are willing to attack the transit and quality of life improvements, the people promoting those improvements, or the migrants themselves, in a desperate attempt to prevent this change.

The fact of the matter is that the transit and quality of life improvements are largely the effect, not the cause, of the move back to the cities. The suburban growth ponzi scheme and the hippie back-to-the-land fantasy have run out of money, and the jobs are leaving. As the jobs leave the suburbs and the country, the quality of life goes down, and people flee for the cities.

These migrants may be a bit insensitive, but they are not conspiring amongst themselves to take from city dwellers, and they are not acting out of greed and jealousy; rather, their own dislocation from their homes deserves as much sympathy from anti-gentrification activists as that of the people they are displacing.

This migration is much more powerful than the anti-gentrification demagogues. Even if they manage to keep cities as inconvenient as they are, people will keep coming. The only way they could stem the tide is if they somehow manage to bring the cities down to the level of the suburbs. Short of bringing back the crack epidemic and setting the South Bronx on fire again, I just don't see it.

The demagogues may not succeed in stopping the migration to the cities, but they can do some damage, and make cities, suburbs and country miserable places all around. Fortunately, some of them are motivated by a heartfelt desire to help others that has been twisted to scapegoating and destruction. They may be amenable to reason, and that is why we need to be prepared.

Really, it is the concept of "gentrification" as a thing that leads to this misradicalization. Gentrification may seem to be a neat, easily identifiable phenomenon - uh oh, there's a new coffee bar over here, and a vintage record store over there! - but the effects that people complain about are hardly that simple.

Even though some people may complain about restaurants and "hipsters," these are not the substantive concerns that others take seriously. The worst effects of gentrification are (a) rising prices and rents, which squeeze the budgets of old-time residents and businesses whose incomes have not risen, (b) displacement as those residents move to cheaper areas, (c) loss of services as the businesses close or move away, and (d) disconnection as people and businesses that are displaced may move to different areas and have difficulty keeping in touch.

In general, I'm not really swayed by the loss of services argument. I may mourn the passing of Big Nick's Burger Joint or Shakespeare and Company, but I actually think the Shake Shack burgers and the browsing experience at Barnes and Noble are better than their predecessors.

I'm also not troubled by displacement in itself: migration is a fact of life. The idea that the children of African Americans or Puerto Ricans who moved to the neighborhood forty years ago have more of a right to it than the grandchildren of Jews and Italians who moved there eighty years ago is just bizarre. The problems come when the displacement is too fast and too extreme, and scatters people who otherwise want to be together.

The real question is not whether to avoid or stop "gentrification," it's whether we can slow or ease the displacement, and make it so that when people do get displaced, they wind up in places that are almost as nice as the places they left.

In order to do that, we need to further unpack "gentrification." This migration is not a simple one: in fact, it is at least three migrations combined, and not all of them equally necessary. We need to do what we can to reduce that inmigration. The displacement is not automatically necessary: we need to increase the amount of housing and jobs in the city, so that the old-timers can live alongside the newcomers instead of being forced out. We need to make sure that poor city dwellers aren't simply being displaced to the same dangerous, unpleasant, disconnected suburbs that the middle-class migrants are leaving behind - with less ability to afford cars.

Will this convince the misguided radicals who see gentrification in black and white terms? Hard to tell. Will it help me feel better promoting transit and urban life? Yes. I'll talk more about these issues in future posts.