Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Uberpool/Lyftline experience

I wrote last year about how the current challenge for transit in cities is not building ridership but making room on transit for all the people who already want to ride, but are getting passed up or squeezed on. A lot of people have been paying attention to Uber and its competitor Lyft, and their Uberpool and Lyftline services may already be reducing car ownership. I've tried them both multiple times over the past couple of years, and they've gotten more promising.

When I first tried Uber, all they offered were big SUVs, that you had all to yourself. It was more convenient than trying to find the number for the local car service and wait on hold, but it was too expensive for me. The smaller Uber, and Lyft vehicles and the ability to share rides with the Uberpool and Lyftline brought the price down to where it was a potential splurge for when I was tired of the subway.

After decades of taking taxis rarely, if ever, I was actually underwhelmed by the taxi experience in general. People pay so much more than for a subway ride, but the ride is often a lot slower and less smooth. Basically, you're stuck in traffic in a car with at least one stranger, who controls the radio and the heat, doesn't necessarily know where they're going, and sometimes really wants to talk. How is that relaxing?

Sometimes it is definitely worth paying for a taxi, to have a guaranteed seat, a one-seat ride, or door-to-door service. For places and times where the buses and trains run at low frequencies it can be a lot quicker.

I was interested to see how well these sharing services work. For the first several months I had the vehicle to myself, even if I took advantage of Lyftline's offer of waiting ten minutes for a lower price. But recently I've had a few shared rides. One couple was on their way to LaGuardia, and taking us home must have added at least fifteen minutes to the trip. I hope they left plenty of time!

One thing that can't come soon enough is services like "Uberhop," currently in pilot in Seattle, where you can get quicker and/or cheaper service by walking to a point chosen by the software. Last year I was waiting for a Lyftline to twist through a maze of one-way Greenwich Village, and noticed that my fellow rider was being picked up a few blocks away. I texted the driver, and was able to get to the car right as the other passenger was getting in. I saved all three of us another four-block loop on congested streets.

A promising application of this technology is when there is an unexpected outage on the subway, or even a skipped bus run, and a surge of SUVs (or even vans) come and whisk the waiting passengers away. Cost is a potential factor, but I think if people could be confident that a car would come quickly and get them there with minimal delay, a lot more of them would do it.

More observations on this issue coming soon.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Better subway station names

Back in October, City Council Transportation chair Ydanis Rodriguez argued that some of our identically-named subway stations really are confusing and should be changed (see the full report in PDF. In general I agree; the worst are those that are on the same line in different boroughs; back when there was a 23rd Street-Ely Avenue stop in Queens, I helped a poor recent arrival on the V train who got it confused with 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan.

I like how in Paris every station has a unique name, and that's part of the navigation system for the city: directions regularly include the name of the nearest Metro station. Of course that's because Paris has no grid, and grids actually make subway station naming kind of boring: do we really want stops called 23rd-Park, 23rd-Broadway, 23rd-Seventh and 23rd-Eighth?

On the other hand, I also agree with Ben Kabak that the names proposed by Rodriguez's staff are not great. They're not as bad as the DC Metro with stations like Archives-Navy Memorial-Penn Quarter, but they're still too long. I'm going to take them one at a time:
  • 7th Avenue 53rd Street: This can be just plain Seventh Avenue, because we're going to rename the other ones.
  • 7th Avenue Prospect Heights: This is in line with the MTA's push to rename stations after the neighborhoods they serve, but it's silly. The next stop on this line is Prospect Park, and there's a 15th Street-Prospect Park stop on the F and Prospect Avenue stops on the R and 2/5 lines. Why not just rename it Carleton Avenue after the street on the other side of Flatbush Avenue?
  • 7th Avenue 4th Street: This is a typo, unless Rodriguez is working with the MTA to fund a subway under Fourth Street. I think we should rename it Ninth Street, and then the Smith-9th Street station can just be Smith, and the Fourth Avenue-Ninth Street station can just be Fourth Avenue.
  • Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall: Take off the "City Hall" part, off of this and the IRT station. There's a City Hall station across the park on the R train.
  • Chambers Street-World Trade Center: Since this is part of the same complex as the E train terminal at World Trade Center, why not call the whole thing World Trade Center? Well, even the south end of the A/C platforms are pretty far from the WTC, and we'll have to make sure the #1 train station won't be called World Trade Center when it opens.
  • Gun Hill Road - White Plains Road: This can stay as just Gun Hill Road.
  • Park Place: Are people really getting this one confused with the Franklin Avenue Shuttle stop? If it's a big deal, call it Park Row instead.
  • Gun Hill Road - Eastchester Road: As Larry Velázquez pointed out on Twitter, it's not even very close to Eastchester Road. We could name it after Seymour Avenue or Hammersley Avenue, both of which are closer.
  • Pelham Parkway - White Plains Road: This is probably the best we can do. We don't want it to get confused with the other Pelham Parkway stop, but there are nine other stops along White Plains Road. so it looks like we're stuck with both of them.
  • Pelham Parkway - Williamsbridge Road: First, spell "Williamsbridge" right. We could just call this "Williamsbridge Road," but then people might think it's close to the "Williams Bridge" station on the Metro-North Harlem Line.
  • 36th Street - Sunnyside Yards: The problem with this one is it assumes that Sunnyside Yards is a destination. I mean, sure, I took Alon Levy there, but we're transit geeks. Does it mean someone in Rodriguez's office is expecting this part of the Yards to be developed soon? How about 38th Avenue instead?
  • 36th Street - Fourth Avenue: If we rename the LIC station to 38th Avenue, we can keep this as 36th Street.

Monday, January 18, 2016

We need to stop converting streets to one-way

New York is famous for its livable streets revolution, where Janette Sadik-Khan, with the backing of Mayor Bloomberg, turned the city Department of Transportation from an agency focused on moving traffic and placating angry drivers into one that prioritized the safety and movement of pedestrians, cyclists and bus riders. Under Sadik-Khan the DOT took away some car lanes and narrowed others to install pedestrian plazas, protected bike lanes and bus lanes.

Under Mayor de Blasio and his transportation commissioner Polly Trottenberg, the DOT has shown more timidity and more deference to unelected "community leaders," but it has continued to install safety measures and bus lanes, sometimes taking space from cars to do it. Where neither administration has been very good is on one-way streets. It's pretty uncontroversial that one-way streets have less head-on collisions. It used to also be the consensus that they are safer for pedestrians. Instead of looking for cars from two or even four directions, people crossing a one-way street only have to look in one or two (or maybe three, but who's counting?).

More recently, people have come to realize that the old consensus was too simple. Removing most of the danger of head-on collisions only encouraged people to drive faster, increasing the danger of other collisions. Drivers have to drive further to get to their destinations, adding to congestion and turning moves.

One-way streets have also had a negative effect on street life. The difficulty of navigation, and the difficulty of parking next to speeding cars, have discouraged drivers from patronizing businesses on one-way streets. The danger, noise and unpleasantness of speeding cars have discouraged walking. Stores and restaurants have closed, giving people less reason to walk. This is a vicious cycle, because just the absence of other people drives pedestrians away.
New York was an early leader in the movement against converting streets to one way. In fact, it was a plan by the City Department of Transportation to funnel cars into the Barclays Center that demonstrated the livable streets movement's growing power. Stirred by a series of Streetsblog posts, 650 people came out to speak against the DOT's proposal to convert Sixth and Seventh Avenues in Park Slope to one way.

Since then, other cities across the country have converted one-way streets back to two way. The size of the crowd was probably a factor in Mayor Bloomberg's decision to appoint a reformer like Janette Sadik-Khan as Transportation Commissioner. With the support of Streetsblog and Transportation Alternatives, and against the opposition of community boards dominated by local driving elites, the DOT rolled out bike lanes, pedestrian plazas and intersection redesigns to make streets safer.

The odd thing is that as far as I know New York has not converted any one-way streets back to two-way, either before or since 2007. I haven't heard anything about the issue from Sadik-Khan, Streetsblog or TA. The architect John Massengale wrote about street safety last month and even spent a paragraph talking about the dangers of one way streets, but for some reason did not explicitly include returning the streets to two-way in his list of recommendations.

What is even more surprising is that since 2007 the DOT has continued to convert streets from two-way to one-way. For example, under Sadik-Khan they converted 49th Avenue in Long Island City and 58th Street and Maurice Avenue in Maspeth to one-way. Under Commissioner Trottenberg, they have converted Fifth Street in LIC, and have proposed converting 77th Street in Jackson Heights (PDF).

To be fair, these streets are not like Sixth and Seventh Avenues. 58th Street and Maurice Avenue are industrial truck routes, and 49th Avenue and Fifth Street are primarily residential. Both are in areas with higher car ownership rates. These factors can explain why livable streets advocates didn't notice or draw attention to the conversions.
But those factors don't mean that we shouldn't try to stop these one-way conversions, and they don't mean we shouldn't talk about them. People need to be safe where they live and work, not just where they shop. These neighborhoods have a lot of pedestrians, and we need to protect them from the demands of the driving elites who dominate their institutions.

By the way, this applies to narrower streets too.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Knowing you killed someone is not punishment

Advocates for safer streets have been pushing back against the use of "accident" to absolve drivers of responsibility for not killing or injuring other people. When drivers engage in behavior that demonstrates a callous indifference to human life - or even an unjustified faith in their own ability to avoid killing people - death is no accident, but a predictable consequence.

The next line of defense is commonly that the driver "has suffered enough," sometimes simply by witnessing a horrific death that (by implication) they were powerless to stop, or even by being forced to consider the possibility that their behavior or choices may have been connected to this death.

In circumstances where there is really no denying that the driver acted recklessly or irresponsibly, the claim is that this knowledge serves as a lesson. The driver now knows the consequences of reckless behavior or irresponsible choices, and will never do it again.

Many drivers flee the scene of the crash, because they believe they will be held responsible for it and do not want to face the consequences. (Some do it for a chance to sober up.) Reckless killer drivers who do this have compounded their crime of reckless driving with another, leaving the scene.

Unfortunately, some people are so upset by this effort to evade responsibility that if the driver is caught they treat that as the major crime. Conversely, they may be so relieved that a killer driver turns themself in, or chooses not to leave the scene, that they praise that and forget any reckless behavior.

This is all bullshit. We have laws specifying the penalties for killing someone with a car. They could use a little more tightening up in the evidence department, but they're pretty clear on the consequences.

To the best of my knowledge we do not say that reckless knife-wavers have "suffered enough" or that negligent builders have "learned their lesson." We do not praise incompetent gun handlers for not running away (although ). We should not treat drivers any differently.

Actually, we also treat some incompetent gun handlers differently - we sometimes say they've "suffered enough" if they negligently kill their own children. In a post about this craziness, some guy named Greg Laden made an astute point:

Suggesting that the decision to hold someone responsible for an irresponsible act that has damaged another should be based on how the perpetrator of that act feels post hoc, extended more generally, means that the standard for punishment under the law is inverse to the severity of the crime. It is suggesting that the severity of the possible punishment be inverse to the seriousness of the crime because how bad one feels is proportionate to the severity of the crime.

Knowing you killed someone is not punishment. Realizing that they might still be alive if you had made different choices is not punishment. Staying at the scene is not accepting responsibility. Turning yourself in is not penance. As long as we continue to treat them as such, people will continue to die.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Our stratified transportation system

A lot of people are nervous about the possibility that privately-run electronic taxi-hailing systems like Uber and Lyft could take over functions that have recently been filled by government-run transit services. Others are disturbed by the sight of privately-run companies like Leap and Bridj marketing local bus services as luxury products. I share some of these concerns, and I've addressed them in previous posts.

What I don't share is the idea that any of these services will create a "two tier" or "stratified" system with one service for the rich and one for the poor. There's a simple reason for this: we already have one.

If you go to a small city like, say, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, you'll see our stratified system in action: the people on the buses are mostly poor and nonwhite, and everyone else is driving. Ride the bus in a city like Kingston, New York, where the received wisdom is that "everyone drives because you need a car to get around," and you'll see that there are still people who don't drive: the extremely poor and the mentally and physically disabled. Here in New York the majority rides the subways, but there is a stratum that drives everywhere, and pretty much runs the city.

The bus and rail strata are largely run by the government and paid with tax money, but some of the money comes from fares paid by passengers. In the strata where people drive, passengers often contribute the labor of driving themselves, and pay a lot of money for the vehicles, fuel, insurance and other costs, and also contribute to the construction and maintenance of road, bridge and parking infrastructure through taxes. But as has been shown time and again, they do not pay the entire cost of the system; a much larger share of general tax revenue goes to driving than to transit.

This stratified system can be very cruel to those in the bottom strata, and it generally gets worse the smaller the share of the population that takes transit. The poorer the average transit user is, the slower, dirtier, more crowded, less frequent and less reliable the transit.

Even here in New York, the driving classes are constantly blocking improvements to transit, whether it's another commuter rail track, extension of an el train, allowing bus pickups or dedicating a bus lane. So yes, I know firsthand how bad it is to have a stratified system with minimal investment in the lowest strata. And I can't see how Uber, Lyft, Chariot and Bridj could possibly make things any worse.

In fact, I see it the opposite way: that people who take these taxi and premium bus services are less likely to identify as drivers and more likely to take transit and support transit expansion. If they don't have cars to park, they're much less likely to go crazy over reallocating street space from parking to transit.

As I've written before, I'm not a libertarian, and I'm not even much of a capitalist. One of my goals is access for all to jobs, housing, shopping and services. I would be open to a state solution, a government monopoly on transportation with a single level of service. But to impose a government monopoly on transportation would require drastic state action. Use your transit quota well, comrade! The government would most definitely be coming for your cars. Who would be first up against the wall - Rory Lancman?

In any case, I'm trying to think of an area where our government provides a monopoly with a single level of service, and coming up blank. Housing, food, energy, school - there is usually some government service, but it always has substantial competition from the private sector. Even services that are nominally single-tier like identification, permitting and licensing have inequalities. If you can afford to pay a rush fee or an expediter, or if you just live in a wealthier area, your interactions with the government will be quicker and smoother.

It's not just our government, either. The most revolutionary, egalitarian governments ever have failed pathetically at imposing transportation equality, when they've even tried it. Even the Soviet Union had its Ladas for the Party officials.

Sadly, these people who bleat about "stratification" don't even have the vision to realize the amount of stratification between cars and transit or the guts to mention it, much less address it. They would never think about taking away cars or parking, or defunding roads. They'd rather make a big show of opposing inequality that doesn't exist than address inequality that exists.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Let a thousand Brooklyns bloom

As I said last year, what many people call "gentrification" in large American coastal cities is the result of the confluence of four or so different migrations. Cities have been drawing the Best and the Brightest and International Migrants for all of history, since the first trading post was set up where a trail crossed a river. They are not the main source of demand for urban real estate. Rents are rising because those two streams are joined by two other major streams, the Empty Nesters and the Small City Exiles.

The conformist Baby Boomers failed to make their utopia in the suburbs, and the back-to-the-landers failed to make their utopia in the country. Now they've got bad knees or bad eyesight or whatever, and if they care at all about any people, deer or trees on the road they'll do the right thing and buy a condo near their kids in the city where they can walk to shopping. Sucks if you wanted that apartment, twentysomethings.

Here's what I said about the Small City Exiles last year:

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, 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.

In that post, and in other recent posts, I've pointed out that the Empty Nesters and Small City Exiles don't need the big cities. They don't need a regional Thai restaurant. They were happy enough in the small cities, but there were no jobs and nowhere to walk. If we can fix those two problems they won't move to the big cities and drive up the prices.

If we make these small cities really attractive, many of the exiles will move back, and some will move to other small cities. What would it take? I'm not an expert on economic development, but I can think of a couple things that would help. First of all, they should be Strong Towns, keeping taxes low by focusing government spending on cost-effective, dense areas and avoiding spreading obligations out over huge distances.

It seems that a lot of our current economic growth is in high technology, and the places with most promise for tech are those that attract techie types, creative types and financial types (and people who are some combination) and allow them to mix and bounce ideas off each other. But I don't think you can declare a "Silicon Mangrove" in the middle of nowhere, upzone and automatically get tech jobs. It also seems that it helps for the city to be a physical port, connected to trade routes that make it easy for them to get materials and ship out products.

To my mind, the most promising small cities are those that are close to established centers like New York or San Francisco, so that staff members can spend a day in the city talking to potential collaborators and funders, and be home for dinner. Just as before the highway era, they can benefit from their proximity to the big port.

Some of these small cities are already coming back; you can tell because they're often called "the next Brooklyn." And where they are, people are already worried about displacement. It's important not to dismiss those displacement fears out of hand. Some towns have more vacancy than others. If rents are rising faster than wages, either the town should loosen zoning to allow more housing to be built in walkable areas, or we should work to boost opportunities in other towns.

Some people in those towns have expressed fear of their unique towns being swamped by a "monoculture," turning them all into clones of Brooklyn. I'm skeptical about these fears in general, but in small cities they're particularly unfounded. Beacon isn't Brooklyn, and neither is Rosendale; they've got way too much of their own personalities to become clones of Park Slope or Williamsburg. In particular, a lot of the people moving there are actually Small City Exiles who grew up in the area and tried to make it in the city.

I'll talk about what I think would help revive these cities in another post.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Could Lyft and Uber reduce congestion?

Charles Komanoff has created an open-source multimodal transportation model for New York City, available for free download as an Excel spreadsheet. In July, after learning that there were almost two thousand Uber cars on the streets of Manhattan every weekday, Komanoff used his Balanced Transportation Analyzer to estimate that these cars had slowed traffic by seven percent.

A month later, some new information came out: taxis were sitting idle on the streets of Greenpoint. Drivers had found that they could make more money with Uber and Lyft than with the medallion giving them the right to pick up street-hailing passengers in Manhattan.

This suggests that instead of adding to the cabs in Manhattan, many of the Uber and Lyft cars have been replacing them. This is confirmed by an analysis conducted by Reuben Fischer-Baum and Carl Bialik for Five Thirty Eight. The net increase in congestion may be a lot lower than Komanoff estimated, especially since, as he mentioned, cabs hailed with apps don't have to cruise the streets.

I emailed Komanoff, and he was aware of this new data. "I revised my approach in mid-summer. I think the main change was a higher assumed displacement of yellows, which resulted in a lower impact of Ubers. The impact of 20,000 Ubers (not all of which are in the CBD all the time, obviously) is now a 4.3% slowdown in CBD speeds," he wrote.

To me this suggests that there is a limit to the number of taxis that we can add in Manhattan's Central Business District ("the CBD"). If vehicle speeds slow below a certain point, some passengers will decide that it's not worth their time and money, and either take the subway, go at a different time, or go somewhere else. The "surge pricing" (in fact, a form of congestion pricing, which Komanoff has advocated for all vehicles for decades) practiced by Uber and Lyft probably also serves as an extra disincentive.

If enough passengers make this decision, the driver doesn't get the hail. Because the fare they get for sitting in traffic is different from what they get while moving, they may decide that even if they pick someone up it won't be worth their time. And in fact, electronic hailing and traffic monitoring allows drivers to read and respond to these signals more quickly. A driver can now get a sense of the number of hails before they even enter Manhattan, and choose to go elsewhere.

The Economist's analysis of trip data suggests that these services are not adding very much to congestion: "During the two years to June 2015, Uber’s pickups in the CBD rose from an estimated 175,000 to 1.8m [per month], while yellow cabs’ hails in the area fell by around 1.4m. This implies that where Uber and yellow cabs compete most directly, just 13% of the growth in Uber rides has added to prior demand. The remaining 87% has replaced trips that would otherwise have gone to taxis."

It's even possible that electronically hailed cars could eventually help reduce congestion, and provide an alternative to subways and buses. Of course, not if they're single-passenger taxi trips: as I said recently, if Uber and Lyft simply take a vehicle with one person who's both driver and passenger and replaces it with a vehicle with one driver and one passenger, it may lead to a reduction in carnage and an improvement in the way people relate to each other, but there would be no net change in the number of passengers per car, and thus no practical change in efficiency or pollution.

There is one major difference in shifting from single-occupant vehicles to taxis: ownership of the vehicle passes from the individual (usually the driver/passenger), to the taxi driver or fleet owner. This means that control of the other passenger seats passes from the driver/passenger to the taxi service. As many people have observed, when combined with real-time schedule coordination, this makes it much easier to add passengers.

Uber offers an electronic carpooling service called Uberpool, and Lyft offers one called Lyftline. With these services, instead of carrying a single passenger, a Prius sedan can carry up to three comfortably, and an Escalade can carry five. The companies claim that they are very popular: Uber said that "almost 50,000 New Yorkers" used Uberpool in the last week of October. In April, Lyft said that Lyftlines made up thirty percent of its rides in New York. Unfortunately, both of those numbers are fairly useless for our purposes because they don't say how many of those rides were in Manhattan during business hours.

Still, each of those shared trips represents one of several possibilities. One is that the person took Uberpool or Lyftline instead of driving their own car or taking a separate cab. If these services do take, say, a thousand cars off the streets of Manhattan every rush hour this way - cars that are not replaced by other taxis, personal cars, or even trucks - that's a very good thing. Komanoff's model indicates that if we could get 32,000 less cars going into Manhattan every day, it would increase speeds by 3.2%.

It may be that the possible congestion limit I mentioned above is actually an optimal congestion point, and every car taken off the road by these carpool services will be replaced with another car, taxi or truck until it reaches that point. In that case, the only way to free up space on the roads would be to increase the price - tolls on the bridges, raise on-street parking rates, reduce government employee parking placards or implement a taxi congestion fee. In the meantime, at least this means more people that will be able to get into Manhattan.

Another possibility is that the person took Uberpool or Lyftline instead of taking the subway or bus, leaving space for someone else. A number of transit advocates have gotten all doom and gloom about this, saying that these services will "poach riders" from the public transit agencies, depriving them of fare revenue, but here in New York today the system is at capacity. All rush hour, people are watching full buses and subways pass them by. Poaching is simply not an issue, and will not be for the foreseeable future.

As I've written before, I do not believe that electronically hailed taxis can be a satisfactory replacement for fixed-route transit. I do believe that they can help us deal with our current capacity crunch, and potentially ease the way to eliminating personal cars. I've got more to say about this in the future.