Friday, December 19, 2014

Never trust a transit advocate

I’ve been fighting for better transit for over twenty years now, and one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is this: never trust a transit advocate.

I’m not saying that we’re all liars, or irresponsible, or anything like that. I’m saying that you don’t automatically know what it means when you hear that someone’s a transit advocate.

This is why I have my goals right up on top of the blog, and I keep coming back to them over and over. I’m not for transit, right or wrong. I don’t think transit is always right. Transit is a tool to get people out of their cars, bringing with them all the benefits of not driving (less pollution and carnage, more efficiency and better social life). Transit is also a tool to help make access to resources more fair. It’s not the only tool to accomplish either of those things, and it doesn’t automatically accomplish either of them, and I am happy to toss it aside if it looks like the wrong tool for the job. In general, though, it’s a good tool.

For other people, transit is not about any of these things, or all of these things. For one person, transit may be about pollution or efficiency, but not about carnage or social interaction. For another, it may be about social justice or charity, but not about pollution or carnage. For some it may be about questionable values like "mobility" or "cost effectiveness." For some it may be about bringing in consulting dollars, and for some it may be all about their own damn egos.

Here’s the thing: you can’t tell. You don’t know, just because someone is billed as a transit advocate, whether they are going to support the same projects you do. You don’t know that they’re not going to surprise you with some (edgy! counterintuitive!) stance against one of your favorite projects. You don’t know, and that’s why you shouldn’t trust them ... us.

Here are two "transit advocates" that you shouldn’t always trust – and why. The first is a group calling themselves "BRT for NYC." It’s run by our friend Joan Byron, who loves to propose half-baked "bus rapid transit" corridors, but is AWOL when it’s time to fight for them. She’s gotten together with habitual BRT proponents Transportation Alternatives and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, snagged endorsements from the Straphangers Campaign and the Riders Alliance, and convinced the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation to put hundreds of thousands of Standard Oil dollars behind this agenda.

When shouldn’t you trust "BRT for NYC"? When their agenda is not about improving buses - or they would have some mention of citywide proof-of-payment or bus lanes on the Williamsburg Bridge or a 24-hour XBL. When it’s not about better transit or fair access to jobs for NYC - or there would be something in favor of the Utica Avenue subway and the Rockaway Beach Branch. When it’s not about getting dangerous cars out of NYC neighborhoods. When it’s all about taking a single model – center-running busways in large stroads – developed in cheap-labor, authoritarian countries like Brazil and Colombia for cities that didn’t have subways, and corralling government and transit-activist time and money trying to shoehorn it into expensive-labor, NIMBY-happy New York, over and over again, no matter how many times it fails.

The second transit advocate you shouldn’t always trust is the "Queens Public Transit Committee." Committee member Brendan Reed just co-authored an op-ed in the Queens Chronicle with Allan Rosen. Rosen worked as a bus planner for the MTA years ago and came up with what he says is a visionary plan to make the buses in southern Brooklyn much more efficient. The MTA didn’t appreciate his genius, so he took to forums and then blogging to get his ideas out. He has a small but dedicated following among the city’s transit advocates, especially those like the "Queens Public Transit Committee" who promote subways and the kind of government-monopoly bus service the city has been rolling out for the past eighty years.

When shouldn’t you trust the "Queens Public Transit Committee"? When their agenda is not about improving buses, but about avoiding any inconvenience to drivers. When they oppose incremental transit improvements while holding out for the particular improvement they want.

What this means is that you shouldn’t trust what either group says about bus service on Woodhaven Boulevard. Yes, Woodhaven is a big, nasty stroad running through areas without good subway service. Yes, dedicated bus lanes would calm the boulevard and help people get places. Yes, those lanes would inconvenience some drivers.

But no, Joan Byron, dedicated bus lanes will not magically solve all the problems of people who live in the area. They will not beautify the boulevard by their mere terra-cotta-painted presence. They are no substitute for reactivated train service on the Rockaway Beach Branch.

And no, Allan Rosen, inconveniencing drivers is not a reason to reject a transit plan. Congestion does not put pedestrians at greater risk. The existence of dedicated bus lanes on Woodhaven will not magically drain the support for reactivated train service on the Rockaway Beach Branch.

The thing is that it’s easy to tell when to trust these guys or not. They say it right there. "BRT for NYC" has it in their name: they’re only interested in helping transit if it’s the right kind of transit. Allan Rosen and Brendan Reed say it in their op-ed: "questions posed by the Queens Public Transit Committee in early 2014 requesting a comparison of the positives and negatives for all users of the roadway, not only bus riders."

You can’t always go by the name. Someone may have "transit" in their name, and not always be in favor of transit. You have to look at their goals, and their arguments. And honestly, I'm creeped out by the level of obsession that both Byron and Rosen have demonstrated over the years, Byron for "BRT" and Rosen for the perfect bus map. I'm not convinced that either of them care about much beyond themselves and their personal white whales.

I’ve got "transit" in my name. Should you trust me? No! Read my agenda; it's right up at the top of this blog. I’m in favor of both dedicated bus lanes on Woodhaven Boulevard and reactivation of the Rockaway Beach Branch, because they would both help to make access fairer and get people out of their cars. Hell, I'd be in favor of the Tappan Zee Bridge if I thought it would do that. Are those your goals too?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Where is the roads and bridges settlement?

It was a big con game, and many of the biggest con artists believed their own hype. "It can never go down!" they cried. They delivered something valuable to people who couldn't afford it, told them it was even more valuable, took a hefty cut for themselves, and left their victims on the hook for billions. But the government has been slow to make them pay.

In part that's because many of those responsible are in government, and many others in government are their friends. In part it's because most of the government regulators were asleep on the job. But mostly it's because so many in the public were asleep too. A lot of them still don't think anybody did anything wrong.

I'm talking about the housing bubble, yes, but not the mortgage fraud. You see, it's hard to tell how much of the bubble came from hype about loans that pay their own interest, and how much came from empty promises of roads and bridges that pay their own maintenance.

Tales of endlessly rising demand for housing and fantasies of endlessly rising demand for driving fed off each other: the new housing pumped up traffic measurements, prompting governments to build and widen roads and bridges, and the new roads and bridges pumped up housing prices, prompting developers to build more housing. In 2008 it all crashed, and if the stimulus hadn't been so focused on "roads and bridges" a lot of it would have stayed crashed.

There's a little good news on the mortgage front: this year the state has brought in over five billion dollars in settlements with several large banks. But when will we see a similar settlement for the road-and-bridge fraud? When will the government sue the people who got us to pay hundreds of millions for these projects that left us on the hook for decades of maintenance?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The cargo cult of railyard decks

I recently wrote about a proposal to build a deck over the Sunnyside Yards. This got me thinking about these projects in general. I'm afraid that railyard decks have become part of what Ryan McGreal called "cargo cult urbanism," along with convention centers, casinos, "bus rapid transit" and a "High Line": things that have high-profile associations with rapid increases in prosperity, things that people latch onto when they're desperate for improvement but unable to think clearly about what will actually improve things, or unwilling to admit that they don't know.

There is always a high-profile example that does plausibly bring prosperity: the original High Line, the Transmilenio, Foxwoods and McCormick Place may well have done so. But in practice when people try to replicate its success, the promised prosperity often does not materialize. In hindsight, it turns out that the actual generator of prosperity was something else, like upzoning, or that there are diminishing returns as the desire for gambling or conventions or office space is satisfied.

Everyone talks about how much money the New York Central Railroad made by decking over the Vanderbilt Yards in Manhattan and building office space and hotels. As the photo above showed, it didn't happen overnight: construction on the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel started more than twenty years after the Grand Central deck. There were a few other conditions as well: the Central already owned the land and construction was relatively cheap. Most importantly, the IRT subway had just been built linking Grand Central with the existing downtown and with new housing on the Upper West Side and the Bronx. There was a huge amount of pent-up demand for new office space, and the Vanderbilt Yards development made it available. It was this new availability to pent-up demand that made the buildings sell and delivered a profit for the Central.

As Stephen Smith has observed, there is currently pent-up demand for housing, but much less evidence of pent-up demand for office space, in New York City and particularly in one decking project, Hudson Yards. And as Ben Kabak reports, the new subway tunnel bringing people to the Hudson Yards is delayed and over budget. These facts in turn mean dim prospects for office towers or convention centers on future decks, including the Sunnyside Yards.

Given the market conditions that Stephen describes, I have to wonder why city officials continue to try to push commercial development on these decks. I think the reason is that unlike when Grand Central was built, developers aren’t finding private financing for decks over railyards. I would think that the financiers might have a good reason for not lending, but the city pushes ahead with public financing, such as the 50% government financing for Atlantic Yards. How does the city make back its investment? With taxes, and office buildings pay a lot more in taxes than apartment towers, even luxury ones.

Our government needs to be a lot more careful about how it finances big projects like decks over railyards. If a deck can’t be built without full private financing, the government has to have a compelling public interest to step in. That alone would cut down on some of the most unwise projects.

For the Sunnyside Yards, I'm not convinced that there is a compelling public interest in financing a deck. I'll talk about that more in future posts.

Monday, November 17, 2014

When bike paths are not transportation

I've written before about the capacity of bike paths to move large numbers of people. A dedicated bike path performs this function best when it connects dense residential neighborhoods with dense job centers. The bike paths on the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro Bridges are great examples of this. They may not transport as many people in a day, but they don’t transport thousands of dangerous, wasteful motor vehicles either. This is why we should convert one lane of the Brooklyn Bridge to a two-way bike path.

That said, a frequent train line can beat a bike path, or even a car lane, any day. On the Manhattan Bridge one fall day in 2012, according to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council’s Hub-Bound Travel Study, one car lane carried almost five times as many people as the bike lane, but one subway track carried 36 times as many.

With that in mind, let’s turn to the Rockaway Beach Branch, and to a proposal to convert it to a bike trail instead of reactivating train service. The Trust for Public Land argues that it “will” (not “could”) fulfill a similar transportation function:

Using the QueensWay to connect to subway stations, commuters could save 15 – 20 minutes each way to major work destinations such as Midtown Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn. Residents will also be able to use the QueensWay to connect to stores and other destinations. … Using the QueensWay to connect to subway stations, commuters could save 15 – 20 minutes each way to major work destinations such as Midtown Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn. Residents will also be able to use the QueensWay to connect to stores and other destinations.

Yes, that’s nice, but how many of them would actually use it? I could save ten to fifteen minutes off my commute by biking to the subway station, but I don’t do it because there’s just a plain rack to lock it to. There is no secure bike parking at any subway station near me, and there is none proposed in the trail plan.

Even assuming that secure parking was built, or that every potential bike commuter was comfortable locking their bike up at a plain old rack (and that the city built enough additional plain old racks to accommodate them, how many cyclists are we talking about? I’m guessing it would be far below the 2,601 cyclists that the NYMTC counted on the Manhattan Bridge on that fall day in 2012.

Now let’s assume that instead we brought trains back to the Rockaway Beach Branch. Let’s assume that the service is the crappiest possible: less than once an hour off-peak and a mandatory change to get to Manhattan, like the Long Island Rail Road Oyster Bay Branch. We would still get at least 3,350 riders a day (PDF).

If instead we dug a tunnel under a few blocks of Rego Park and ran the R train out to Howard Beach, we would see a lot more riders. Even if there were only four stations and all of them had the ridership of the 104th Street station on the A train (1,736), that would still be almost 7,000 riders a day. The least popular station on the R train, 36th Street in Long Island City, saw 4,540 riders last year, and I’ve proposed adding stations at Myrtle Avenue and Fleet Street to serve large buildings that were built since the line’s fortune declined. The half million riders heralded by some rail proponents may be too ambitious, but even if the line is a dismal failure it would serve far more people per day than a trail.

If you’re still thinking of the bike trail as a transportation project, look at this quote from the Trust for Public Land:

To ensure safety and security for neighbors and park users, the QueensWay will have gates at all entrances. The QueensWay will close at dusk except during winter months, when it will remain open slightly later to accommodate commuters.

(I’m pretty sure that last part about remaining open slightly later was added after I tweeted about this.) The bike paths on the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro Bridges are open twenty-four hours. That’s because they’re transportation infrastructure, not parks.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Decking the Sunnyside Yards: the history of a fantasy

Becoming the Yards:

1643: Burger Jorrisen receives the first patent for farmland near the swamps surrounding the Dutch Kills.
1861: The Long Island Railroad builds tracks from Hunters Point along the Dutch Kills to Jamaica.
1903: The Pennsylvania Railroad begins purchasing property in the area and draining the land.
1915: The Sunnyside Yards are opened.

(Background from the Greater Astoria Historical Society and Untapped Cities, among others.)

Development proposed on decks over the Yards:

1925: Post Office building
1951: Transportation Hub
1971: Housing
1973: Sports stadium
1989: Housing and offices
1997: Olympic village
2006: Housing, stores, schools, playing fields and parks
2008: Housing
2014: A hospital, affordable housing buildings, a school, a public space or some combination of those

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Moynihan Bus Rapid Transit Station!

Ben Kabak tweeted about a new proposal from something called Woods Bagot to open up Penn Station to sunlight by removing the theater under Madison Square Garden:

For many years I've argued that the "Moynihan Station" proposal contained at least two major design flaws that nullified any improvement to passenger circulation: it has lots of steps, and it's west of where most people want to go. Woods Bagot pays lip service to Moynihan Station proposal, but I would hope that this helps people realize they don't need to use the Farley Post Office to bring light back into Penn Station. Since they talk about "wrapping around" Madison Square Garden, I hope it will also deal with the atrocious pedestrian conditions above Penn Station:

Of course, there is one major drawback to the proposal: it's a wonderful vision for increased mobility, but it's not Pat Moynihan's vision, and may fail to adequately glorify our late Senator.

But wait! The proposal also mentions that "a new location for the well-used theater is unresolved." I've got the perfect place: the old Farley Post Office across the street. And you know what else we could put there? Buses!

We know that there's a shortage of places to catch a bus in Manhattan, particularly near the Lincoln Tunnel. Meanwhile, good terminals are critical to efficient hub-and-spoke bus networks, but our elected officials would rather pander to private car owners. There is a lot of space (with skylights!) inside the old building where the postal trucks used to go, and more along the sides:

You could even build a flyover across Eighth Avenue, or maybe even an underpass next to the train tracks, if you wanted to spend some money. Back inside, there are big open spaces for concourses:

Two of the biggest annoyances for transit advocates are the Moynihan Station fans with their desire to build a giant sculpture and tell us it's a functioning train station, and "Bus Rapid Transit" pushers who tell us that trains are wasteful luxuries for white people and we should be spending all the government money on buses. I've always argued that the Lincoln Tunnel XBL is the most effective form of bus rapid transit in the country. If we call this the Moynihan Bus Rapid Transit Station, maybe we can get both of these groups together to build a gorgeous temple for bus riders to enter the city like gods.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The problems with the yards

I live in Woodside, Queens, not too far from Sunnyside. I love both neighborhoods, but there are a few problems. Recently, urban planners and some of my neighbors have focused on a few in particular:

  • The rent is too damn high. I own a co-op, but I do know people who have been displaced, and people who want to live here but are having a hard time finding an affordable apartment. Increasing the housing supply would be a big help.
  • We are cut off from Astoria and Long Island City by the Sunnyside Yards to the north and west. These rail yards break up the street grid, leaving about nine ways to walk across them. All but one involve walking through industrial areas, which can have low foot traffic, especially on nights and weekends. Four of these involve crossing long, noisy, boring bridges over the Sunnyside Yards.
  • We don't have big parks. We have a number of small parks and playgrounds, but no big forests or greenways. The parks we do have can get crowded, particularly on hot summer days.
  • There aren't as many jobs as there could be. We've got relatively low unemployment rates, but we could use more jobs.

The planners have been talking for years about addressing these problems by building a deck over the Sunnyside Yards, but my neighbors are afraid of seeing our infrastructure and services overloaded. I'm concerned that there will be too much parking, and that whatever benefit we get won't be worth the cost. I'm pretty sure there are better solutions to these problems. I'll talk more about the proposals and concerns in future posts.