Friday, July 3, 2015

Autonomous cars in the advanced city

Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar, said this to Yonah Freemark last month:

Would you prefer what we have today, [where] only poor people use [most transit service] and it sucks, or would you rather that poor people use the exact same thing that everyone else is using?

This brought to mind a quote that Chase has no doubt heard from Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá:

An advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport.
Peñalosa's quote highlights the false dichotomy that Chase has set up: there are other ways to provide access for poor people besides (a) sucky transit and (b) the exact same thing that everyone else is using. (And really, Chase ought to know that everyone else won't use "the exact same thing." How long did Zipcar offer a single model of vehicle?) As Yonah points out, there are also other options for the non-poor besides autonomous cars that only hold a few people at a time.

Both Chase and Peñalosa make other good points, and both are wrong on other points, but on this point the Strong Towns movement has gathered abundant evidence to back Peñalosa's position. We simply cannot afford to have an advanced city, let alone an advanced society, if we are spending our resources moving so many single individuals long distances at high speeds.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Can the trains really handle weekend passenger loads?

The Daily News had a good piece on subway overcrowding yesterday, featuring some odd comments by MTA officials. Much as I appreciate the work of reporter Dan Rivoli and his colleagues, there's a few things that need some clarifying around these issues. Let's start with the last paragraph first:

Improvements necessary to meet the demand — a new signal system to run more trains, for instance — are funded through the $32 billion five-year capital plan, which has a $14 billion hole state officials have yet to address.

This is actually incorrect in the context of the article, which is non rush-hour demand. The expensive capital improvements like upgraded signaling and additional trainsets are only necessary for increasing the maximum frequency of trains. This only matters at rush hours; at all other times a much lower frequency is enough to avoid overcrowding.

Okay, now to some comments from MTA spokesperson Kevin Ortiz:

The MTA attributes some delays to its effort to give riders even service while they wait at stations, which holds up some trains.

MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said it’s all about the train arriving to the station. By the MTA's measure, wait times at stations are more key to quality of service than delays that make trains late to their last stop.

"On weekends, overall, you’re seeing trains arriving at stations when they’re supposed to be arriving," Ortiz said.

He added that trains can already handle weekend passenger loads without hiking service.

I had to re-read that several times to figure it out. What I think Ortiz is saying is that the trains are going faster than the MTA has scheduled them to, so they have to wait at the stations until they are scheduled to leave. It seems like the obvious thing to do in that situation would be to update the schedules so that they're a better estimate of the time it actually takes for the trains to run, but he doesn't seem to think this is necessary.

I kind of feel bad for Ortiz. He seems like a nice guy, but here he is being paid to defend the indefensible. The News says that there were 2,451 overcrowding delays reported on weekends in April 2015, up from 1,016 delays in April 2014. That's 306 delays per day, or depending on how you count them, one overcrowding delay per line per waking hour. To me that suggests that the current service levels are not adequate to meet demand.

When Ortiz says that the trains can handle weekend passenger loads, he's referring to the loading guidelines that the MTA uses to determine how many trains to run. It used to be that if there was anyone standing on a train on the weekend, it meant that the MTA needed to add more trains. Now the guidelines say that a train can handle the load if twenty percent of the passengers are standing (see pages 28-30 of this PDF).

It's not clear where on the line they count passengers, or which car on a given train, but here is some great info that retired MTA scheduler Capt Subway left in the comments last year, and is worth quoting in its entirety:

The whole problem with the Loading Guidelines, as anyone who actually works / worked "on the ground" with the NYCTA (and not "upstairs" in some executive suite) knows, is that they are, written in sand as they are, a total fiction, pure BS. The only purpose they really serve, from what I could ever discern, was so that those making the day-to-day operating decisions could gauge just how far off the mark they actually were, just how outrageously they were actually lying to the public.

As a good example: the "regular" or "pick" or "posted" timetables must adhere to the guidelines in effect at that particular moment, albeit insofar as that is possible given any number of other constraints (track, signal, interlocking, terminal capacity, car availability, etc). Unfortunately the "regular" timetable is rarely ever actually run. 90% of the time "supplement" timetables are being run. And the vast majority of these supplements REDUCE service, including right through the peaks. The reasons for these are many. A major cause is "skeletonized" track with a resulting slow speed order in effect, an especially serious impediment to peak service delivery. In the off peak periods it is almost always track / capital work of one type or another. I worked for years supervising the production of "pick" & "supplement" timetables for the IRT lines. The degree to which the "supplements" often totally trashed and eviscerated the "regular" timetables was truly appalling.

This bad situation was made far worse by new "adjacent track" flagging rules that went into effect around 2009.

And one more word on the guidelines. They are based upon field traffic checks. These traffic checks are done by, mostly, low paid, often part time traffic checkers who literally count the bodies in each car of passing trains at a given point. This raw data is than "analyzed" by "experts" back in the office (I worked, from time to time, as one of those "experts"). We were regularly told by our bosses to "correct" obviously wrong data. For example, a number of years ago a Director of our Dept didn't like "lumpy" loading checks. He liked to "smooth out" the load over a longer period of time, thus showing less of an actual peak. In this way he could recommend against adding a train, or trains (along with the trains' two person crews). That made him look good. Hey, he just saved the TA the cost of a train and crew.

So if, like me, you're routinely seeing more than twenty percent of the riders standing on weekend subway trains, you're probably better informed than Kevin Ortiz. I think we should go back to the guidelines where nobody has to stand, but for a start we should audit these passenger counts to make sure that the schedules are actually based on accurate information.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Who's getting out of the way of the buses?

The Transit Workers' Union Local 100 has been campaigning against New York's recently enacted Right of Way law, which gives the police and courts more power to punish drivers who injure or kill people in the crosswalk. Essentially, it established the rule of law where previously the right of a person to pass, to take up public space, and to threaten and even kill others was granted based on the size and power of that person's vehicle, or the extent to which a police officer sympathized with that person. Or the extent to which that person was dead.

The TWU bus drivers see this as a problem because the previous state of anarchy favored them. They're union members piloting some of the largest vehicles on the road. There are many times when I've been crossing the street and had to wait because a driver swung his bus out in front of me. I had to get out of the way. Most people did. Some of them didn't, and some died. Too many.

But there have also been times when I've benefited from that anarchy. I've seen sedans, SUVs and sports cars come to a halt at a green light, as my bus driver takes a left right in front of them. If the driver had followed the rules, we might have sat for a while waiting to make that left turn.

Yesterday, a Local 100 spokesperson tweeted a picture of a bus waiting to turn off of 181st Street while an "oblivious pedestrian" crossed Wadsworth Avenue with the light. Several times in recent months the TWU has threatened to take extreme care to avoid violating the right-of-way of pedestrians, to which pedestrian advocates have replied, "No, please don't fling me in that briar patch!"

When pedestrian advocate Robert Wright observed that the pedestrian crossing Wadsworth had the right of way, a Local 100 spokesperson tweeted, "The point is that there should be a turn signal so that peds can be safe when buses have to turn." And yes, this is one way that the problem could be solved, but having lots of turn phases can cause more problems.

Even before that tweet, the picture had gotten me thinking: what if we wanted to give bus drivers the priority they used to have, but enshrine it into law? We give police cars, fire trucks and ambulances the right to take street space; if we think buses should have more priority, why not give a similar right to them? What if all in-service buses were allowed to turn whenever they wanted, and all other traffic had to yield?

Then it got me thinking that if they had this priority, we would need some kind of signal to tell pedestrians and other drivers to get out of the way. Police cars, fire trucks, ambulances, they all have sirens and flashing lights. Sirens on every bus would be overkill. Flashing lights?

Hey wait a minute! Didn't there used to be lights on some of the buses? Yes, when the first Select Bus line debuted on Fordham Road it had flashing blue lights on the front. The idea was partly to distinguish Select Buses from the local buses operating on the same route, but also to notify drivers that the bus had priority.

You may also remember what happened to the flashing lights. After four successful years of Select Bus Service, when it was rolled out on the S79, Staten Island politicians complained that the lights were "distracting to drivers," and pressured the MTA to shut them off.

Where was the Transit Workers' Union in this? I haven't found any mention of them. If they tweeted or sent out a press release, it wasn't picked up. But they did endorse State Senator Bill Perkins for re-election, after he repeatedly opposed plans to extend the M60 select bus lanes to West 125th Street.

Local 100's choice of 181st Street for this action is telling. 181st is a critical bus corridor connecting the A and #1 subway lines with transit-poor neighborhoods in the western Bronx. The buses are constantly getting stuck behind double-parked cars. The Department of Transportation tried hard to speed them up, but local politicians watered the plan down to nothing. Where was the TWU?

These issues - stiffer penalties for hurting pedestrians with the right of way, dedicated lanes for buses, and lights to reinforce the priority of buses in those lanes - are all issues about who's getting out of the way. In that sense, they're like the bus bays in Tenafly, or pedestrian overpasses: an indication of the priorities of the government. The right-of-way law says that pedestrians are as important as bus drivers and riders, and the TWU has fought that tooth and nail. The dedicated lanes and flashing blue lights said that private motorists were less important than bus riders, and the TWU didn't lift a finger for it.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The new short game in transit advocacy

In my last post I focused on the difference between playing a long game in transit advocacy, which requires thinking strategically about what government priorities will encourage people to choose car-free lifestyles, and a short game, where the focus is on getting more people to take transit and making it easier for them.  But even the short game changes over time.  It has changed dramatically, just over the past year, and as Josh Barro's column shows, many advocates have not caught up.

For decades, the main challenge for transit providers was that their trains and buses were running without enough riders.  For for-profit providers that means that there weren't enough riders to cover costs.  For subsidized providers it means that there weren't enough riders to justify the subsidies.  Governments were pouring so much money into roads, bridges and parking that if the transit providers raised prices, they risked falling into a death spiral.

This was even true here in New York City, which has consistently led the country in transit ridership.  In the seventies and eighties, crime and unreliable service drove people away from the subway, away from the city, and away from the region, while heavy subsidies lured them into cars and out to the suburbs and exurbs.  Transit advocates, with Simpson curtains over their eyes, ignored the sprawl subsidies, fought for scraps from the government, and focused on "marketing" to build ridership.  Transit was so obviously the moral choice; if people weren't using it, they must not be getting the message!

As the country cuts back on sprawl subsidies, and Baby Boomers and Millenials move back to big, walkable cities like New York, ridership is no longer the main challenge, no marketing required.  In 2015 at rush hours, every subway (with the possible exception of the G train) is overloaded, and so are many bus routes.  The old short game was getting riders, so what's the new short game?  Let's go back to our goals.

In order to achieve most of these goals (reducing carnage and pollution, and increasing efficiency and social cohesion), we need to get people out of their cars.  That's happening, but our progress is limited because the alternatives are getting less reliable and less comfortable.  Why would you sell your car just to get stuck on a packed train?  These problems with crowding and reliability are also limiting our ability to provide adequate access to jobs, shopping and services for all.  This means that in these cities our new priority should be improving capacity.

In future posts I'm going to talk about a range of possibilities to increase capacity while minimizing pollution and carnage and maximizing efficiency and social benefits.  I will discuss the pros and cons of each one, and recommend strategies that have the most potential.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The long game in transit advocacy

While I generally appreciate other transit activists, I’ve criticized plenty of them in the past. Recently I’ve figured out what it is that bothers me most: a lot of them are playing a very short game.

They’re playing up routing improvements and park-and-rides as long as they don't inconvenience drivers, supporting billions of dollars for new roads in exchange for supporting millions of dollars for new buses, promoting a car bridge with the hope of getting a bus lane on it, ignoring existing plans for new subway lines and demanding inadequate bus route plans, complaining about wasteful transit projects with only the barest mention of bloated highway budgets, and declaiming Our Nation's Rotting Infrastructure without setting any priorities for what gets repaired or rebuilt.

All of these strategies reveal an impoverished vision of the world. In this vision, if there is economic equality it means everyone driving to the health food store in their own personal Subaru Wagon – or everyone commuting to work in a packed Transmilenio bus. Wasteful comfort or cheap discomfort.

Usually, the vision is not even that complete. The short game players simply assume that the world will always be dominated by drivers who monopolize the money and the space. Their vision is not compatible with a future where the vast majority gets around by transit. They have no way of dealing with their own success.

What would real success look like? It's not a reworked bus network. It's not an abundant supply of the latest buses. It's not one lane for buses and eight lanes for cars and trucks. It’s not a train tunnel and a highway bridge being built simultaneously with the latest efficient methods. It’s a world where personal motor vehicle use is minimal, and public transit is abundant, safe, comfortable and reliable.

We have to be prepared to put that vision into practice, and that means taking the long view. It means doing some things that may seem inefficient now, but that will pay off in decades. It means taking advantage of the transportation cycle. It means pushing cost-cutters to cut roads, even if that upsets some potential short-term allies. It means pushing big spenders to spend big on transit, even if they waste billions in the process.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The most important post of 2003

Josh Barro is not alone in being stuck in the mindset that transit always needs more riders. It seems to be a hard thing to grasp, but sometimes you have enough riders to fill your buses and you have to create more capacity so that you can take more people out of their cars. These people must have a hard time going on weekend trips with tiny purses and briefcases, or buying large sodas when they're really thirsty.

You might think that Barro would be familiar with crowded transit since he lives in Sunnyside, where the 7 train has been crowded and unreliable for the past few years. At least some of our neighbors have figured out that we need more capacity, and organizing a Facebook campaign that has attracted over 800 members in just a few weeks. Some of their anecdotes and photos, on top of my own experience, have convinced me that the NYMTC's capacity estimates are inaccurate, out of date, or otherwise unrepresentative.

So what can we do to increase capacity on the 7 train? Some people say that once the MTA finishes installing the new Communications-Based Train Control signaling in 2017, we will have more trains. At the very least, CBTC will help things run more smoothly. But there are reasons to be skeptical.

As Capt. Subway and Alon Levy have taught us, a train line requires both trunk capacity and terminal capacity to function properly. CBTC may help increase our trunk capacity (but keep reading), but how much use is that if we're still constrained by our terminal capacity?

Well, the MTA actually tested that almost exactly thirteen years ago: they spent the morning of Saturday, April 13, 2002 trying to run thirty trains an hour on the 7 line. I remember when they did it, but didn't hear much about the results. If you're wondering why, here's a report by an independent observer named Stephen Bauman (still posting today) who watched the test from the 111th Street station and compared it with his observations of the normal rush hour on the previous day.

Bauman calculated that the MTA was able to increase the number of trains per hour from 25 to 28. Since they were running ten cars per train instead of the normal eleven, that represented a decrease in capacity. With more train cars and newer ones, they might be able to run 28 eleven-car trains today.

A bigger concern that Bauman conveyed was that the MTA was simply not up to the task, organizationally. As he observed, the dispatcher's clock in Main Street didn't even show seconds, the published timetable is vague and the internal timetable may not be any better, the trains were likely not timed right leaving 111th Street, the conductors did not wait for a signal before closing the doors, and "they ran out of trains around 8:30."

There was one train that sat in the station for six minutes. Bauman writes, "I would definitely catagorize the delay of nearly 6 minutes in getting operating personnel to operate a departing train to be part of the TA's lack of operational ability. There were about 5 supervisors on the Flushing bound platform. There weren't any on the platform where the trains were supposed to leave for Manhattan."

Some of these shortcomings are self-correcting: if the MTA tried this on a weekday the passengers would prevent the trains from leaving early. Others may just be kinks that could be ironed out over time. But overall the outcome is discouraging. We should expect and demand more, but we may not be able to get more any time soon. That means we'll have to look into other improvements, like bus lanes on the bridge and the tunnel, and increased frequency on the Long Island Rail Road.

Monday, April 6, 2015

They can't go back to Ohio

One of the nastiest aspects of NIMBYism in New York City is the scapegoating of people who moved here from somewhere else. For years I've heard complaints about "people from Ohio" or "from the suburbs," and a veneration of "native New Yorkers." I can sometimes escape these complaints because I was born here, but if they say "lifelong New Yorkers" I don't qualify because my family yanked me out of here when I was a toddler, and apparently it doesn't matter if I came back as soon as I could. My father, who moved here when he was in his twenties and never owned a car, would not have qualified either.

Even Jeremiah Moss, who rages against the "suburbanization" of the city, acknowledged that he comes from the suburbs, and got a "dose of my own vitriol" in 2008 when Danny Hoch raged "Go home!" at non-natives. Moss gives a list of non-lifelong New Yorkers who have made the city great (to which I would also add Billy Joel, Donald Fagen and Jane Jacobs), and ends with a great quote by E.B. White about "three New Yorks," with the greatest being that of the non-natives: "the settlers give it passion."

In typical No True Scotsman fashion, Moss's commenters leap to draw a distinction between White's "person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something," and the "moneyed masses" that they were yearning to hate. Some people call them "hipsters," Moss previously called them "yunnies" for "young urban narcissists."

I think the difference is mostly exaggerated. Moss asks, "while there were probably always normal tensions between natives and newcomers, today it feels like a war, soaked in hate. as a long-timer, i look at newcomers with, at the very least, suspicion. so what happened between e.b. white's days and today?" I'll tell you what happened, Moss: now you're on the "long-timer" side of the war. The hate runs mostly from the long-timers to the newcomers, and at worst the newcomers regard the long-timers with contempt. Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg weren't narcissists? Gimme a fucking break.

And yet there is a kernel of truth there. While my dad, and Patti Smith, and Lou Reed, came to New York because it was the center of the world and they wanted to be there, a lot of people who are here now would be happy in other places. But they are here in New York because there are no other places for them.

A lot of the people I know would be just as happy in Saint Louis or Schenectady or Syosset or Saugerties. They wouldn't mind living in another big city, or a medium-size city, or a suburb, or a small town. But despite the breathless articles about suburbanites driving in Manhattan, most of them want to live someplace where they don't have to drive everywhere, or at all.

Here's what life is like for most people outside of the city, especially parents: drive the kid to school, drive to work. Drive to pick the kid up and bring them to soccer. Drive to shopping. Drive to the doctor's office. Drive to dinner. Drive to visit friends. Drive home. Drive drive drive. This is life for both parents, and for the kids (if they don't kill themselves driving drunk), and for the grandparents (if they don't kill themselves driving while disabled).

All this driving is killing us, and it's killing the planet. We want people to stop driving. We want them to live in walkable neighborhoods. But my wife and I tried living in walkable neighborhoods in two other cities, and we still felt the constant pressure to drive. Even if we could walk to work and to some restaurants, the stores and offices and friends were still far away and not well served by transit. So we moved back to the city, along with thousands of others.

This is the thing that pisses me off the most about the vicious scapegoating from Moss and his friends: these people are doing what we want them to do! They walk to shopping, and to visit friends. They walk the kids to school. They take the train to work. They take the bus to the doctor's office. So what do we do? In San Francisco people throw rocks at their buses. In New York we call them dirty hipsters and tell them to go back to Ohio.

They can't go back to Ohio. As Chrissie Hynde pointed out, their cities are gone. Even if they manage to find a reasonably safe place where they can walk to work and their kids can walk to school, there are hardly any jobs, and those jobs are an hour's drive out in the suburbs.

If we really want to keep the people who come to New York because it's New York and get the rest to go away, bringing rents down, we need to give them what they want elsewhere. That means bringing jobs back to the downtowns of Saint Louis, Schenectady, Syosset and Saugerties. It means tearing down their bypasses, reconfiguring their one-way pairs, reforming their zoning and undoing all the other changes that have turned their centers into parking craters. It means reconnecting them to the rest of the country with trains and buses that go downtown.

It means solving the underlying problem instead of wasting a bunch of people's time in a counterproductive attempt to stop the symptom. It means looking at these "hipsters" and "yunnies" as people making more or less rational decisions, instead of as faceless monsters. Are you up to the challenge, Jeremiah Moss?