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?

Sunday, March 29, 2015

NYCHA and the fetishized green space

Today the Daily News published a hyperbolic "EXCLUSIVE: NYCHA selling off green space to developers!" As one person remarked on Twitter, this was a bait-and-switch: the headline now says "NYCHA quietly selling off parking lots, green space, playgrounds to help ease budget woes." In the diagrams accompanying the article, it looks like mostly parking lots.


The "selling to developers!" framing suggests that these developers would build for-profit "luxury" housing on these parking lots in between the projects, but if you read deeper, it's quite a bit less sensational. The article says that since 2013 the Housing Authority "has sold vacant or what it deems 'underutilized' land to developers to build affordable or senior housing." The News asked the NYCHA Chairwoman Shola Olatoye about future sales, and she said that they would be announced in May, "promising to sell land exclusively for affordable housing and spreading the projects across the boroughs."

News reporter Greg B. Smith was even unable to frame the article as "Community protests city initiative," because a lot of residents supported the plan: "Some tenants are angry that the limited open space they enjoy will soon be displaced by towers of apartments. Others are ecstatic, hoping much-needed senior housing will rise on what they see as wasted space."

Okay, so it's not really "NYCHA selling off green space to developers!" Instead, NYCHA may sell some parking lots and maybe an occasional ball field or "leafy triangle" to people who want to build low-income housing, and a lot of people who live in the projects can't wait for it to happen. Oh, the scandal! But there's more.

If you've ever walked around a NYCHA project (go ahead, these days you're pretty unlikely to get shot), you know that they have some of the shittiest "green space" you can imagine. If it's not fenced off, it's a big empty lawn or a grove of trees with no place to sit. If it's on the way between two places that people want to get to, it still probably doesn't get that much traffic because of its high-crime reputation.

How often do you see project residents actually hanging out in the "green space"? Usually they're on the edges of the project where they can interact with the rest of the world, the world that doesn't feel welcome in their green spaces.

One of the most hilarious things for me was seeing this posted by certain people who like to invoke Jane Jacobs, because Jacobs absolutely hated the "green space" in the projects. Over and over in The Death and Life of Great American Cities she lambasts the projects for their despotic design, and contrasts their failure to the success of human-scaled, organic streets. Here is a quote from Page 90 (with an unfortunate comparison to "savages") about the general uncritical love of what was then called "open space":

In orthodox city planning, neighborhood open spaces are venerated in an amazingly uncritical fashion, much as savages venerate magical fetishes. Ask a houser how his planned neighborhood improves on the old city and he will cite, as a self-evident virtue, More Open Space. Ask a zoner about the improvements in progressive codes and he will cite, again as a self-evident virtue, their incentives toward leaving More Open Space. Walk with a planner through a dispirited neighborhood and though it be already scabby with deserted parks and tired landscaping festooned with an old Kleenex, he will envision a future of More Open Space.

More Open Space for what? For muggings? For bleak vacuums between buildings? Or for ordinary people to use and enjoy? But people do not use city open space just because it is there and because city planners wish they would.

And here is a quote from Page 15 specifically about open space in NYCHA projects:

In New York's East Harlem there is a housing project with a conspicuous rectangular lawn which became an object of hatred to the project tenants. A social worker frequently at the project was astonished by how often the subject of the lawn came up, usually gratuitously as far as she could see, and how much the tenants despised it and urged that it be done away with. When she asked why, the usual answer was, "What good is it?" or "Who wants it? "Finally one day a tenant more articulate than the others made this pronouncement: "Nobody cared what we wanted when they built this place. They threw our houses down and pushed us here and pushed our friends somewhere else. We don't have a place around here to get a cup of coffee or a newspaper even, or borrow fifty cents. Nobody cared what we need. But the big men come and look at that grass and say, 'Isn't it wonderful! Now the poor have everything!'"

Yes, the poor have everything, including "green space." But they don't want it, the silly things. They want places where they can live when get old, so they don't have to move too far away from their families and friends. And the city may "quietly sell off" some land to developers so they can build that senior housing. Oh, the scandal!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Transportation myopia of the week: 7- make that 6 ways transit can be financially sustainable

Alex Block has a summary of a discussion between David Levinson and Lisa Schweitzer on making transit sustainable from last June and July. I was quite dismayed to see three otherwise intelligent people wasting their brainpower on problems that were pretty much irrelevant. They were all three suffering from transportation myopia: the condition of seeing transit as a self-contained system rather than as an option in competition with private cars and other modes, and of seeing transit as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end.


Levinson's initial piece did actually mention a couple of times that transit is competing with publicly subsidized roads and parking. In particular, he observes that, "An independent transit utility can raise fares, with the approval of a public utilities commission, so that average farebox recovery approaches and eventually exceeds 100 percent. This should be accompanied by full cost pricing for competing transportation modes — in other words, higher gas taxes or road fares."

Schweitzer devotes an entire blog post to every one of Levinson's seven "ways transit utilities could reverse the long decline the current governance model has provided" - except for Way #2, "raise fares," which I quoted above. I think this is actually an honest mistake on Schweitzer's part: she gave her commentary on Levinson's Way #1 a title beginning with "Part 2," so when she started "Part 3," she went on to Way #3. And yes, this can happen to self-described nerds, even ones with PhDs.

Unfortunately, in overlooking Way #2 Schweitzer skipped over one of the few really meaningful parts of Levinson's post. Here's the other main one:

From the mid-19th century through the mid-20th, transit was privately operated, usually running on public rights-of-way (which companies often were obligated to maintain), charging a government-regulated fare. This model was hugely profitable for decades, until it wasn't.

The causes for transit's decline are many, but rising incomes, suburbanization, and of course a much faster competitor in the automobile and highway system are among them. At that point, which ran from the 1930s to the 1960s depending on where you were in the United States, the private sector abandoned transit and the public sector took over.

Levinson himself acknowledges that transit was "hugely profitable" until competition from publicly funded roads and parking took away their ridership. And he acknowledges in his Way #2 that this could be reversed by charging the full cost for those roads and parking facilities. This is essentially the Magic Formula for Transit Ridership described by Michael Kemp back in 1973. And that's really all you need. No need for Way 1 or Ways 3 through 7.

What we need to talk about is how to get full cost pricing for roads, including potential challenges and ways to overcome them. But for some reason Levinson doesn't talk about any of that, he just goes on to talk about smart cards and land value capture and bond markets.

This is like reading an article about How to Keep Cool in Hot Situations that observes, "The causes for your house being on fire are many…" and goes on to list "seven ways burn victims could reverse the dramatic rise in heat-related discomfort." Way #2 is "put out the fire," and the rest are things like wearing an asbestos suit or putting a fan in front of a bowl of ice cubes. And then Dr. S writes a long post about the known dangers of asbestos suits, while forgetting to mention that you could just call the fire department except that the fire department is run by the arsonist's brother.

And this is the problem not just with Levinson and Schweitzer, but with other transportation experts like Jarrett Walker and Yonah Freemark when they talk about transit funding and profitability. Ultimately it's not a transportation problem at all, it's a political problem, and the transportation experts don't really have anything useful to say about it. But we insist that they say something so they come out with this kind of bullshit, which is not really wrong, it's just beside the point.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

To Save Money on Marketing Buses, Try Running Enough Buses

I like bus improvements. I hate Governor Cuomo's terrible proposal to run an elevated "AirTrain" from Willets Point to LaGuardia Airport. So you'd expect that I would like Josh Barro's post last week arguing that we should improve the buses to LaGuardia instead of building the AirTrain. He writes, "Transit agencies are spending millions of dollars on new rail infrastructure that is no faster than existing bus service, simply because riders perceive a train as better than a bus." And then he goes on to make a nice argument that we should tell these poor deluded people that the train is actually not better.

This is wrong nationwide, but it's wrong on even more levels in the case of transit to LaGuardia. This is because people are already riding the bus to LaGuardia. On the first weekend of the M60 Select Bus Service I rode the bus, and it was packed. Since then I've ridden it twice more, and both times it was crush-loaded. The Q70, Q72 and Q48 aren't quite as heavily packed, but they have very healthy ridership. The Q70 probably gets even higher ridership than I give below, because it had only been in service for three months by the end of 2013.

RouteM60Q48Q72Q70
2013 average weekday ridership17,013279057643716 (August 2014)*
2015 weekday buses139627196
Average riders per bus122458139
Loading capacity112707070
Seated capacity62404040

The M60 is packed, and the other buses are pretty full. If I were wealthy, or if my employer were paying, I would take taxis over the M60 almost all the time. I would probably take taxis over the Q72 or the Q48 as well; the Q70 experience is the only one that has been close to comfortable for me.

Why does the MTA not run enough M60 buses to bring the loads down to reasonably comfortable levels? I have no idea. but imagine that someone did what Barro suggests and spent a ton of money on "marketing" these buses. Imagine if that marketing succeeded in attracting the 70-90% of people who currently arrive by taxi or private car (PDF). The MTA would not be able to serve the people that they attract. They would have a horrible time and take a taxi from then on out.

Barro frames this with a quote from the National Bus Rapid Transit Institute, "Bus-based public transit in the United States suffers from an image problem." Yes, the BRT people keep repeating that buses are just as good as trains, and everyone just needs to be shown the light, but notice two things. First, the actual report (PDF) that Barro drew the quote from gives a much more nuanced picture and hardly makes a strong case that marketing is all you need. Second, this report and Barro's post, and this lame entry from EMBARQ a couple weeks ago, are just three more in a long line of bus scoldings where someone patronizingly tells you to love your bus without showing any interest in taking the bus themselves.

When Barro first tweeted the link to his post, I responded by telling him that the M60 is frequently packed. His response to me was simply, "even more reason not to spend $1 billion on a train." Well, I don't know about a billion dollars, but as Stephen Smith frequently reminds us, high bus ridership is actually one indicator that a potential train line is worth spending money on.

What bothers me most about Barro's piece is how since he posted it on February 10, several people have uncritically cited it as either an argument for more bus marketing, or an argument against subway expansion. It is neither, because it is based on inaccurate information. I hope that Barro will post something correcting those mistaken impressions as soon as he can.

* Thanks to @AHInQueens for the Q70 ridership figure.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Transit setback roundup: I can't even

These past few weeks have been discouraging for me as a transit advocate. From almost every* level of government I've heard elected (and appointed) officials promoting "roads and bridges," or crappy, uninspiring, unproductive transit, or opposing reasonable transit improvements.

* I say almost because I haven't heard anything stupid from a local congressional representative recently. Added: I just heard from Maloney! To the contrary, Jerry Nadler's efforts to promote the Cross-Harbor Rail Freight Tunnel project seem to be making progress.

So much crap, so much of it things that transit advocates have discussed for so long, I feel exhausted thinking about writing more than a sentence about each one. Thanks to Streetsblog for going into the details in many of these so that I don't have to; you can donate here. Also thanks to Ben Kabak, Yonah Freemark and Alon Levy for taking the time to call bullshit on Cuomo's AirTrain proposal, and Ben again for calling bullshit on de Blasio's ferry proposal.