Thursday, August 6, 2015

What if Amtrak cared about its Hartford riders?

Welcome to another installment of our "What if?" series, where we ask what would happen if the people who ran our transit system treated it as an essential service that people relied on, rather than a luxury or a charity. In the past we've asked what if New York City Transit gave a shit about passengers at the Smith/9th Street subway station, riders on the #7 train from Woodside to Flushing or the M6 bus, Rockaway subway riders, subway riders in general, or the riders of any bus with onboard fare enforcement.


I've also asked what it would look like if the NYPD traffic brass cared about pedestrian safety, if the LIRR cared about people going through Jamaica, and if New Jersey Transit cared about transit riders or were interested in attracting new riders. I've gone further afield and asked what if the Port Authority of Allegheny County cared about people who want to get dahntahn.

But several of my "What ifs" have been about Connecticut. What if Amtrak cared about riders between New York and Boston crossing the Thames River east of New London, or the Niantic River west of the town? What if Amtrak and Metro-North cared about people traveling between Fairfield and Bridgeport?

Tonight the question is: what if Amtrak and the Connecticut DOT cared about riders between New Haven, Hartford and Springfield? The Hartford line has been neglected since the demise of the Penn Central, and one track has been removed for much of its length. It was treated by Amtrak as part of the Northeast Corridor, and several of the trains from New York and Washington used to go north to Springfield. Some even continued east from Springfield to Boston on the former Boston and Albany main line. When Amtrak introduced the Acela Express service and upgraded the Shore Line through Providence, it rerouted almost all the trains along the Shore, with four connecting "shuttles" running from New Haven to Springfield.

Amtrak and ConnDOT are working on improving service, which means they care, right? The AP says, "Work began Monday on the project that will boost north-south rail transportation from six daily round-trip trains to 17 a day south of Hartford and 12 north of Hartford."

Except if you read the details you'll see that they're destroying the frequency in order to save it. In the previous schedule (PDF) there were six trains a day in each direction; three of them are being bustituted. For two and a half years.

Train numberLeave SpringfieldNotes
1415:55AMThrough train Springfield to DC
4957:10AMBustituted
49310:30AMBustituted
552:50PMThe Vermonter - through train St. Albans to DC
4754:05PMBustituted
4797:40PMNot bustituted

According to Amtrak's monthly report (PDF), between October 2013 and September 2014 there were 370,896 riders on the Hartford-Springfield line, all week long. This does not include the Vermonter, so if we assume that all five other runs have the same number of passengers, and that ridership is the same every day of the week, we're talking about almost 400,000 trips being bustituted over the next two and a half years.

Why are they being bustituted? There is no explanation given in any of the press releases besides "double tracking." Amtrak's website refers to it as "Mid-Day Shuttle Service," which is a funny way of talking about trains that travel s early as 7:10 AM and as late as 6:50 PM. The Environmental Assessment has a bit more:

The project includes replacement of approximately 35 miles of second track removed by Amtrak in the early 1980s. The track, consisting of s sub-ballast foundation, wood or concrete railroad ties and steel rail, will be restored on the previously engineered Amtrak track bed. It will be aligned to support speeds of up to 110 mph. There are five sections of new double track, including one (MP 31.1 to MP 35.1) where the second track physically still remains, but is no longer in service and will be removed and replaced…

I understand that sometimes when you're double-tracking you need to disrupt the existing track, for hours at a time, like in the photo above. I also understand the desire to bustitute a whole bunch of trains for the whole length of the project, so that everyone knows what to expect and nobody gets confused and misses the bus on Tuesday the 17th because they got it mixed up with Wednesday the 18th. And yet, as with all the other Amtrak disruptions in Connecticut, it feels like Amtrak and ConnDOT really don't take Amtrak passengers seriously. I get the sense that they think of their future Commuter Rail passengers as Serious Business People, but the current Amtrak passengers are Recreational Travelers who won't mind sitting on a bus in rush hour I-91 traffic through Hartford or New Haven.

That sense makes me wonder if they're really doing all they can for the riders. How many people are working on this double-tracking project? Does it really take two and a half years? Are we closing all sixty miles of track for just one crew that will be traveling up and down the line, double-tracking as they go? Could the budget be rearranged to add more crews, so that the project could be finished in half the time?

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Our third world airport

I remember when Joe Biden remarked that LaGuardia Airport felt like the Third World to him. I remember thinking, "What the fuck is this guy talking about?" I thought about writing something, but my thoughts were kind of messy and it felt kind of hopeless, so I moved on to something else. Now I'm kicking myself.


I generally like Biden. He has a long record of not only supporting Amtrak but riding it himself, although with all his support it seems bizarre that the company would only have one line going through his state, with two stops. And I like how he seems to genuinely speak his mind.

But I've been to the Third World. Dominicans may not like me calling their country third world, but their airport is a bit lacking in the air conditioning department. I think we can all agree that Abidjan is third world, and when I was there they didn't have jet bridges. You get off the plane, go down the stairs and walk across the tarmac to the gate. Not a bad airport, all in all, but not in the same league as any airport I've been to in the United States. LaGuardia has good air conditioning, and it has fully functioning jet bridges.

I've also flown into a lot of airports with good reputations: Heathrow, Charles de Gaulle, Keflavík, JFK's Terminal 5. I honestly don't see what the big deal is. I like Terminal 5 because they have Cibo. If I could get some fresh vegetables with dip, and a decent ice coffee, to take on the plane at LaGuardia I would be happy.

If I've ever had a problem flying into or out of LaGuardia it's been the crappy bus connections. I hate waiting a long time for a bus to come, and then when it does it's packed with people who got on at the other terminal. I hate how the buses have to fight with all the cars and taxis to get to the curb. I hate how in the winter the curb is blocked by taxis. The Q70 is a big improvement, but there's still a long way to go.

Somehow, whenever people talk about how awful LaGuardia is, they never mention how the buses are blocked by taxis. It's always the low ceilings, and maybe somebody once saw a rat. I've never seen a rat there. I've never noticed the low ceilings, in fact some of them are pretty high. I kind of like the architecture. When I was a kid the Central Terminal would occasionally pop up in my dreams. The new terminals aren't bad for what they are. The Marine Air Terminal is a fucking Art Deco monument.

What would make the biggest difference to me would be a direct train there from Woodside, or even from Astoria (and no, just because it was politically unfeasible in 1995 doesn't mean it's politically unfeasible twenty years later). Andrew Cuomo likes to style himself as the Bold Leader who Gets Things Done. If he really were, he would extend the goddamn N train and tell Gianaris to grow a spine and get on board. But instead we get a proposal for a shitty AirTrain that would dump all the LaGuardia passengers at Willets Point, twenty minutes further out in Queens. That's not boldness, that's cowardice. That's Cuomo running away from a challenge.

What would really make a difference to me would be if we took that four or ten or twenty billion dollars and used it to build a new train along 21st Street and Astoria Boulevard, or the Tribororx, or a Queens Super-Express, or the Subway to Secaucus, or basically any transit improvement that would be used on a daily basis by people who don't work at the airport.

I'll tell you what it is that makes LaGuardia a Third World airport. It's the authoritarian, top-down approach taken by our Governor, and yes our Vice President, who have never come through here or sent staff members to ask what we might want or need. It's the plutocratic approach that puts the optics of the business traveler ahead of the convenience of families going to visit relatives. It's the cowardice of building a flashy AirTrain to nowhere instead of taking on the entrenched elites who want to block a really useful train. It makes me feel like I live in a goddamn banana republic.

(Dragon appears courtesy of the Durian-Project of the Blender Foundation.)

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Transit vs. e-hailing and transit vs. cars

Recently I wrote about some discussion from Timothy B. Lee and Chris Plano about the possibility that "ride-hailing could actually be stealing riders from transit." Building on Plano's musings and some data released by Uber, in April Eric Jaffe envisioned an "integrated system," with larger vehicles, and some challenges:

In an ideal world, microtransit providers would become the feeders to public transportation's core routes. They'd address what experts call the "first-mile, last-mile" problem—that gap at the start and end of every trip that's difficult for traditional transit operators to serve in a cost-effective way. Coverage to low-density corridors or remote neighborhoods becomes very doable. A car-free lifestyle becomes that much more viable.

[...]

An integrated transit system with public agencies as a core and microtransit as a feeder might be the urban ideal, but whether profit-minded private companies would submit to such an arrangement is another question. One reason public transit agencies can't reliably serve feeder routes in the first place is they tend to lose money. Asking microtransit companies to take that role might not harmonize with their business mission.

If an integrated scenario doesn't pan out, the flipside might be an ugly competitive one—with microtransit providers trying to poach bus and rail riders in key high-density corridors. That outcome would create a two-front fight for transit agencies. On one side they'd be battling for riders against private services with potentially greater resources. On the other, as fare revenue eroded, they'd be battling public officials for more funding to stay afloat.

As with the earlier discussion, an important angle that is being missed is pricing. Jaffe talked to David King for his post, and King should have told him that such an integrated system was already tried here in New York back in 2010 and the plan failed miserably, in part because it didn't give the operators the freedom to set their prices. If the "microtransit" providers can charge what the market will bear for feeder services, they might be able to make a profit.

Note that Jaffe is actually claiming that e-hail carpooling and jitneys compete with public transit for two distinct resources: riders, who bring in fares, and political support, which brings in subsidies in the form of cash and land (street space). These are not necessarily the same at all, and the claims should be evaluated separately.

I've talked about this before and I've got more to say about it in a future post, but right now I just want to reiterate that in the big coastal cities like New York and Los Angeles - basically, the cities where Uberpool and Lyftline either currently operate or are likely to be successful - the game has changed, and transit agencies are no longer hurting for riders. Any passengers attracted by these services will simply make room for more passengers on the public trains and buses.

Jaffe's second concern, that electronic carpooling services will take political support from public transit, reminds me of the old joke by Apocryphal Winston Churchill: we've already established that competition can affect the level of political support for transit, we're just debating how much - and where it comes from.



Jaffe's concern about political competition is part of what I call the Cycle, and have been discussing for years. Yes, the level of political support for transit subsidies is affected not only by the number of riders, but by their aggregate political power. But that's far from the only factor, even when the government is not as corrupt as New York State.

For decades, transit was losing riders to government-subsidized systems of highways, parking and cheap gas, but for some reason people tend to not want to think about that. Jaffe has occasionally written about it, but think about most of the people who wring their hands over the plight of the poor bus. Remember them talking about how massive subsidies to roads in the State budget, or the Tappan Zee Bridge, will drive public transit out of business? Me neither.

It's always been a bit of a weird argument that we should not allow private services that compete with government services. In the Soviet Union, maybe, where you had a carefully planned economy, you might not want anyone disrupting that. But this isn't the Soviet Union. We don't complain, as far as I know, about private universities putting public universities out of business, or for-profit cheese companies competing with government cheese. And yet somehow transit is a great opportunity for people to rail against those nasty big businesses - as long as you don't mention the competition from massive government subsidies to private cars.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Do New York's "manufacturing zones" promote driving?

I read on YIMBY that some people who live or work in the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx are concerned that rezoning the area to allow residential development could price out many of the auto body shops and other car-related businesses that operate in the area. I sympathize with the concerns, but I think things have to change. And the more I think about it, the more important it seems to me.


It seems pretty clear that allowing residential uses will price out auto-related businesses. There is a tremendous demand for housing, and housing is displacing auto services wherever they are allowed to compete, from the gas stations of the East Village to the garages of the Upper West Side to the used car lots of Woodside. I am not including Willets Point in this: there is no competition there, only government fiat.

As a business owner, I am not exactly happy about small businesses being unable to survive. My brother-in-law is an auto body mechanic, so I also appreciate the value of good technical jobs that do not require a college degree. And yet, there is such a thing as a job that costs too much. I have argued that the costs of each Tappan Zee Bridge construction job, in terms of sprawl, pollution and yes, death and destruction, are too high. I would say the same thing is true for auto related jobs along Jerome Avenue, and elsewhere in the city.

We have driven away many of the port jobs and the manufacturing jobs, and auto related jobs are a good chunk of what is left. As my friend Stephen Smith, who used to write for YIMBY, has observed on Twitter, the vast majority of businesses in M zones around the city are not involved in manufacturing anything.

Every time I have heard about a gas station closing or a parking garage converted to apartments, I have smiled inside. I smiled because I remembered the difficulty of crossing in front of these gas stations and garages. "Difficulty" is too nice a word: I remembered the dread I felt trying to walk in front of the gas stations as drivers cruised in and out across the sidewalk at high speeds. I remembered the humiliation I felt when garage customers parked across the sidewalk, forcing me out into traffic. I smiled at the thought that nobody else would feel that dread and humiliation again.

I and many other pedestrians have been similarly threatened and humiliated in front of car dealerships and repair shops in "industrial zones" across the city. Some have been killed. You will forgive me if I am not horrified at the prospect of losing an industry with such little regard for safety.

But we still have millions of cars stored in our city, and millions more that come in for the day. Where will their owners buy and sell them, and bring them to be serviced, if not on Jerome Avenue, Northern Boulevard, Jamaica Avenue or Atlantic Avenue?

Well, if they had to they would go to Hempstead Turnpike, or Kennedy Boulevard, or Boston Post Road. But that makes me think: if these businesses can't survive on Jerome Avenue or 21st Street without being protected from competition from housing, that means that we are essentially subsidizing the cheap rent, and thus the cheap repair jobs, with our expensive apartments. My mom is paying more every month so that the guy who cuts her off in the crosswalk can pay less to have his oil changed.

And that makes me wonder: what if we didn't have these bogus "Manufacturing" zones? What if we allowed people to build apartments wherever they thought they could rent them? Would the rents continue to rise? Would there be the same pressure to waste public money on railyard decks? Would we still have as many cars clogging Queens Boulevard every day? Would we still have Levels of Service that make our traffic engineers loath to build real crosswalks? Would we still have community boards packed with parking-obsessed NIMBYs?

Please, let's find some jobs for these people so that we can shut down the M zones.

Friday, July 10, 2015

No, e-carpooling will not replace fixed-route buses

A lot of people have been talking about "microtransit" lately - sometimes meaning shared e-hailing services like Uberpool and Lyftline, but also some larger services like Bridj, Via and Leap, and even dollar vans. I've read some wise things, and other things that are ...less wise. I think this is going to be a few posts, and I'm going to start with the question of whether electronic taxi-sharing services like Uberpool and Lyftline will, or even can, drive public buses out of business, and the role of pricing.


Last August, Timothy B. Lee wrote,

In the short run, these services will be a way for yuppies to pay a little less for their taxi rides. But they're also starting to blur of the line between taxis and buses. In the long run, that line is likely to disappear altogether, as all conventional buses are replaced by smaller and nimbler just-in-time transportation options.

No, "flexible" transportation services are not going to replace buses, ever, as long as they're competing on a level playing field. Jarrett Walker had the ultimate takedown years ago, and then reprised it again and again when people kept repeating the same nonsense:

You can spare yourself a lot of confusion about flexible service by keeping in mind the physical facts of the matter: Driving a special routing to respond to a customer request takes more of a driver's time than picking up a customer along a fixed route. Since we pay for service mostly in hours of labor, we have to care about how many passengers we'll serve with each labor hour, so flexible service is intrinsically limited on that important score. That's why when flexible routes near their (very low) capacity limits, we usually try to turn them back into fixed routes.

In February, Uber analyzed its data from Los Angeles and concluded that many people were using it as feeder service to get to the Metro, leading Chris Plano to reiterate Timothy Lee's speculation in March:

On the other hand, ride-hailing could actually be stealing riders from transit. If the same trip can be completed in less time with an Uber or Lyft than using the Metro, some riders will choose the speedier option. However, at the moment, it is unlikely that hordes of people will abandon transit for ride-hailing simply because transit is still less expensive.

Jarrett himself, in a comment on Plano's post, mentions that Uber and Lyft executives "are often quite explicit about wanting to draw people away from public transit," and seems to believe that because the e-hailing services are less regulated than the public transit agencies, they might actually succeed.

I'm not convinced at all. I'm guessing that these are actually people who might have driven to the Metro station, but even if they switched from riding feeder buses, Plano is dancing around an important point: these are people who are willing to pay a premium price for a faster trip. Let's say they're spending five dollars for an Uberpool to the train station. They would probably be happy to pay four dollars to ride a public bus, and for four dollars a pop (no free transfer), LACMTA would probably be able to run the buses frequently enough to satisfy them. But because LACMTA charges a consistent $1.75, and would probably be bitterly attacked if they tried to charge more in some neighborhoods, this leaves an opening for Uber. I really doubt that Uber could make that work, even with driverless cars, for less than a bus fare.

Stay tuned for more!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Montauk Branch should go to Queens Plaza

I was pleased to see that Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley has come out in favor of restoring passenger service on the west end of the Long Island Rail Road's Montauk Branch, which actually goes from Jamaica to Long Island City. I took a Long Island Rail Road train along this once, years ago, when they still ran passenger trains. It was pointless except for a railfan experience: there was one train a day in each direction, and it went nonstop to Jamaica.


I'm not sure how light rail would coexist with the freight trains that still use the Branch, but with the Federal Railroad Administration making it easier to run lighter trains, there should be some relatively cost-effective way to run frequent service along the line, not only to the Atlas Park Mall in Glendale, but to Fresh Pond Road in Ridgewood, Forest View Crescent, Forest Park, and Hillside Avenue in Richmond Hill.

There is one change that I would strongly recommend at the western end that would make a huge difference in the value of the line. The old passenger service terminated at the old Long Island City station in Hunter's Point, which was once really convenient when it was served by frequent, massive ferries to Manhattan. Now it is a relatively long walk to the East River Ferry, which runs every twenty minutes, or a similarly long walk to the #7 train at Vernon Boulevard and Jackson Avenue, which is crowded at rush hour. You could move the station closer to Vernon-Jackson, but then it would be further from the ferry, and vice versa.

Instead of using the old Long Island City terminus, the passenger trains should use an existing flyover that crosses the Sunnyside Yards. This part of the Yards is currently being used as a staging area for the East Side Access project. There is room to build a two-track line along the north side of the Yards, terminating at a new station under Queens Boulevard. This would bring passengers one short block from the Queens Plaza subway station where they could change for the E, M or R trains.

For a light rail train, it might be possible to build another stop at Pearson Street, a block from Court Square. Depending on what gets built along Northern Boulevard, it might also be possible to extend the train east to 48th Street, Woodside Avenue or even Broadway. But regardless, the line should go to Queens Plaza. It would give residents of Ridgewood and Glendale better access to jobs and better connections to Manhattan.

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.