Monday, January 19, 2015

There is no luxury housing

I've noticed lately that it's become popular to scoff at "luxury housing." The people who scoff tend to do it as proof that they’re not one of those middle-class people. Or that they’re one of those poor people who’s mad as hell. "Luxury housing! That’s the last thing this neighborhood needs! Where are all the poor people going to live? They don’t need fucking granite countertops!"

I don’t think the people who scoff at luxury housing are particularly dense, but they must be willfully blind, because they’re not seeing something that’s pretty obvious to me: "luxury" is bullshit. A good deal of the housing that’s called "luxury" is not actually luxury housing, but the people selling it pretend that it is, because that’s what they do to sell stuff. They play to people’s class consciousness, tell them how pampered it will make them feel to live in Luxury Housing in the Classe Toweres with granite countertops and hardwood floors and a concierge.

Even the people who are selling these apartments know it’s bullshit. Yes, maybe they should try a different approach, the Salt of the Earth Solid Working-Class No-Frills Apartments. Maybe you’ve got a hit there, Mr. and Ms. Populist. But maybe not. Maybe there’s a reason they’re in real estate and you’re in journalism or real estate. They know how to bullshit. You know that. Why are you taking them at their word?

Some luxury is not quite bullshit. I lived in “luxury housing” once, with high ceilings, parquet floors, a sunken living room and an eat-in kitchen. It did feel a bit luxurious sometimes. But the intercom didn’t work, and there were rats in the hall and people smoking crack outside our kitchen window. Salsa music blared late into the night on Saturdays. And yet it had been built as luxury housing seventy years before.

Today, in 2015, you can get a one bedroom apartment in my old building for $1200. Meanwhile, a one bedroom apartment where I live now, in a plain brick building built for "workers," can run you over $1800.

There are a lot of factors that go into the rent or sales price of an apartment. The quality of the housing stock is only one of those factors – and the hype that goes into it is only one more. The rents and prices, in turn, are only one factor that determines whether people who currently live in the neighborhood will be able to continue to afford it.

So next time you see an ad for a new "luxury housing" development, and you’re getting ready to roll your eyes and sigh dramatically about What This Town is Turning Into, please do us all a favor. Spare us the fake piety and spend a little time thinking about what really causes displacement.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Driving to the walkway

Among the many crazy things about the new Tappan Zee Bridge, one of the craziest is the way that some environmentalists seem to melt into some kind of reverie whenever it's mentioned that the bridge is planned to have a bicycle and pedestrian path on it (once the original span is demolished and the second span built, sometime in the 2020s). It was one of the most effective greenwashing campaigns I've ever seen, giving liberals permission to dismiss concerns about sprawl and waste while satisfying them that they're doing "something for the environment."

Of course, there are many concerns about the bicycle and pedestrian path itself. I am very much in favor of access to bridges for non-motorized transportation, and I'm sure if nothing else it would see a ton of bike traffic on weekends from the regular cycling crowd that rides up 9W. But how many people would ride three miles over the bridge to commute or go shopping, much less walk? From Nyack to Grand Central via the bridge is over thirty miles each way, and the George Washington Bridge path is not crowded during rush hours. I've ridden and walked the roads at both ends of the bridge, and once you get away from the river towns and greenways they're really not safe or pleasant.

As Jane Jacobs wrote, "Parks are not automatically anything." What could make this a successful park? It would have stunning views, but would it be filled with deafening car noise like the paths on the George Washington and Triboro Bridges? How many people would cross when the weather is bad? How often would it be patrolled during off-hours?

But the crazy doesn't stop there. In November, the State released a study claiming that "151 total parking spaces are needed for both counties; 97 spaces in Westchester and 54 spaces in Rockland." That's right, they expect that more than 150 people would come by car during peak times and want to park and walk across the bridge - or maybe bring their bikes on racks on top of the car. But don't worry, the state planners say, we can just knock down the South Nyack Village Hall for parking - or maybe convert it to a "comfort station." Some day you might be pissing in the Mayor's office!

To be fair to the state planners, they based their estimates in part on projects like the "Walkway Over the Hudson," a similar project that took a valuable piece of transportation infrastructure and turned it into a tourist attraction where people drive from miles around to go for a walk.

The planners did consider the possibility (alternatives C1 and C2) of using meter and permit regulations to discourage tourists from parking on the streets of South Nyack, and constructing a sidewalk next to the three blocks of buildings and gardens that have been constructed in between the end of the Esposito rail-trail and the underused parking crater in downtown Nyack, allowing tourists to use that parking - and shop at local businesses while they're at it. That seems like far and away the most sensible approach, maybe too sensible for this project.

So there you have it, folks: a three-mile "shared-use path" that would not provide meaningful transportation options for more than a handful of people, that will probably be empty 90% of the time, and in the other 10% would attract 150 cars, for which the State may well bulldoze a historic town hall. And you know what? As a tourist attraction, it's probably okay. It's active and outdoors. Just don't try to tell me that it would be "environmentally friendly," or provide any meaningful contact with nature, or justify the money or the sprawl.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Crossing the Yards

One of the arguments given by proponents of decking the Sunnyside Yards is that Sunnyside is cut off from Astoria and Long Island City by the Yards to the north and west.  These rail yards break up the street grid, leaving about nine ways to walk across them.

All but one of the current routes across the Yards involve walking through industrial areas, which can have low foot traffic, especially on nights and weekends.  This can discourage many people, especially vulnerable populations like women, children and elderly people, from walking.  During working hours people tend to park on the sidewalks, contributing to a different hazard.

Four of the routes involve crossing long bridges over the Sunnyside Yards.  The bridges are all pretty boring, especially the ones that have high barriers blocking the view.  They are all noisy because they have heavy car traffic and wide, flat concrete surfaces to reflect the noise back on travelers.  The Queens Boulevard Bridge is particularly noisy because the overhead #7 train viaduct produces its own noise as well as reflecting noise from the cars.

The one crossing without a bridge or much industrial activity, 48th Street, has heavy foot traffic, and that brings its own problems.  The sidewalks can get congested during peak times, and the foot traffic draws sidewalk vendors, who further add to the congestion.

North of the Yards, the routes east of Queens Boulevard all have to cross Northern Boulevard, a notoriously dangerous stroad, due in part to the historic preponderance of auto-oriented businesses but also to a longstanding culture of permissiveness promoted by policies at the Department of Transportation and the NYPD that put the movement of cars ahead of the safety of everyone.

The proposals for the Sunnyside Yards echo current and planned developments in Atlantic Yards and Hudson Yards that include platforms that would support buildings alongside the streets for a better pedestrian experience, cross streets between the buildings to calm the traffic, and new parallel streets crossing the yards for additional connections.

Assuming that the developments get built as advertised, the added buildings and cross streets would definitely improve the experience of walking over the yards.  But they would do nothing by themselves to make the rest of the walk safer or more comfortable.

A walk from Sunnyside to Court Square across the Thomson Avenue Bridge might be a better experience on the bridge itself, but it would still pass through the industrial areas along Queens Boulevard or Skillman Avenue, and across the path of reckless drivers on Van Dam Street and Thomson Avenue itself. A person walking across the 39th Street Bridge would similarly have to deal with dangerous behavior and humiliating treatment on Northern Boulevard and in the industrial areas before and after the bridge.

This is actually not unique to Sunnyside.  It's a widespread problem that affects bridges over rail yards throughout the metro area, and around the world.  We should find ways to deal with it, but a multi-million dollar real estate deal is neither necessary nor sufficient.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The MTA is not interested

One cornerstone of the arguments for the Queensway rail-trail is that the MTA isn’t interested in restoring passenger rail service. Queensway advocate Peter Beadle tweeted, "point is MTA is not building a train, and new study only confirms prior MTA assessment that train not worth it." Former Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, now in charge of studying the rail-trail proposal for the Trust For Public Land, wrote, "The MTA and the LIRR have studied rail reactivation several times and each time concluded it's not feasible." The New York Times Editorial Board wrote, "Then there is the question of when the M.T.A. would get to this capital project, which would be one of many on its overflowing, underfunded to-do list. The likeliest answer is never. The M.T.A.’s capital plan is only half-funded; the agency is strapped by debt and is hard-pressed to protect the infrastructure it has."

There are actually two claims here: the MTA as expert, and the MTA as leader. Both of these are pretty bizarre claims to anyone who has ever dealt with the MTA. They are clearly meant not as real arguments, but as quick ways to silence opposition.

First, the "MTA as expert" claim relies on a series of dubious assumptions: The MTA is an organization of highly skilled, knowledgeable professionals. They have conducted a thorough cost benefit analysis of all service restoration possibilities, and decided that none of the possibilities would produce benefits that justify the cost. Their ideas of costs and benefits are in perfect alignment with those of both the rail and bikeway proponents, and their judgment is valid for eternity.

In reality the MTA does indeed employ many talented, well-educated people, but they also employ some ignorant and unimaginative ones, and there’s no guarantee that the right ones were studying the question. There is also no guarantee that the MTA’s priorities at the time of the study have any relationship to my priorities now. This is why I want to see the reports of "prior MTA assessment." These reports are not on the MTA website. Presumably the rail-trail advocates have copies, but with one exception they have not provided any, although they have been asked directly.

On December 30, one rail-trail proponent, Doug McPherson, posted a link to a 2001 study hosted on the Capital New York website. If you read the study, you can see why the trail advocates don’t want to share them: it was specifically investigating the value of train service as a one-seat ride between Midtown and Kennedy Airport, and didn’t consider the potential value to people going anywhere else. It put the basic cost of restoring the tracks and third rail at $250 million (about $350 million in today’s dollars), which is substantially lower than all the scary numbers that the trail advocates like to throw around.

I suspect that the other "several" studies cited by Benepe are similarly either irrelevant or supportive of restoring train service. Maybe someday one of the advocates will post a link so we can decide for ourselves. Maybe not, though: one advocate, Anandi Premlall, was "delighted" by a 2001 Wave article saying a report had recommended against restoring train service.

The "MTA as leader" claim is similarly suspect: the MTA must take the lead on all subway expansion. Their priorities never change, so if they have ever expressed a lack of interest in anything it is final, and no amount of public demand will convince them to do it.

The reality is that the MTA takes its lead from others. The Governor has enough control over the MTA Board that its Chair essentially serves at his pleasure; if he made it a priority, the MTA would make it a priority. The current Governor also controls a lot of pork in the form of the “Regional Economic Development Councils” that have steered a million dollars towards planning the trail.

The Mayor of New York City can also set priorities, as we saw with the extension of the #7 train to Twelfth Avenue. This was nowhere on the MTA’s priority list until Bloomberg decided he wanted it done and arranged the funding for it. A Mayor who can get similar funding could get this moved to the top of the list; so could a Senator or a powerful congressmember.

Rail-trail advocates’ claims that “it’s never going to happen” are just bluster, and their claims to want rail “if it were possible” are transparent lies. If these advocates spent the amount of time and political capital on getting train service instead of a bike trail, the city would be clearing trees right now.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Pedestrian lives matter

Remember when the Department of Transportation seemed so conservative and car-oriented, when it looked like Mike Primeggia was going to be ramming one-way conversions down the throats of New Yorkers forever? Remember when that all changed? It was when our Mayor realized that it was important to make our city safer and take a lead against carbon emissions, that it might help him win re-election if he could make that part of his agenda going up against a hidebound political operative. So he found a no-nonsense manager who cared about these issues, put her in charge of the DOT, and backed her up. Things changed, a lot more quickly than anyone expected.

Remember when the City Council and the community boards seemed so conservative and car-oriented, when it looked like they would fight every bus and bike lane to the death forever? Remember when that started to change? It was when Transportation Alternatives and Streetsblog started putting the word out, covering elections, getting advocates for safer streets and better transportation to apply for community boards. It was when those same advocates formed StreetsPAC to fund candidates who would fight for subways and road diets, and the Riders Alliance to pressure them.

This is what democracy looks like, to borrow a phrase from the protestors. This is information sharing, organizing, holding elected officials accountable. This is getting everyone involved in the political process.

Now, remember when all that hit a brick wall, just like this school bus with fifteen kids hit a brick wall in my neighborhood the other day? Remember the missing piece in all this street safety? Remember when we tried to change the NYPD?

Who refuses to ticket speeding and reckless drivers? Who refuses to patrol for failure to yield to pedestrians? Who shows no interest in getting cars off the sidewalk? Who has blocked the expansion of Summer Streets? Who fills the sidewalks and bike lanes around every police station with their cars? Who looks the other way when the FDNY does the same thing? The NYPD.

More tragically, that same identification with drivers leads the NYPD to prematurely blame victims of traffic violence and exonerate perpetrators. It leads them to ignore evidence that could bring a conviction, and to drag their feet on investigations. It leads them to entrap cyclists and rough up pedestrians.

(And yes, not all cops, by any means. While some rank-and-file cops may be particular assholes to pedestrians, that's probably less true for the NYPD than for any other police department. The problem is more with the orders and priorities that the rank and file get from the top brass.)

Technically the NYPD is a city agency, and I assume that Bloomberg had the legal right to do with it what he did with the DOT: replace Ray Kelly with someone who gave a shit about pedestrians and back that person up until he saw real change. But he’s done similar shakeups at the Taxi and Limousine Commission and the Department of Education, and I figure he just didn’t have the capital to take on the NYPD. You know what? That’s okay. Much as I want my kid to be safe from unlicensed drivers, I know change doesn’t always happen overnight.

So then we get de Blasio, who’s shown a real windshield perspective in the past, and he brings Bratton back. But de Blasio adopts Vision Zero, and his wife and children are black, so he pushes against the NYPD. And we start to see some changes, like at the 78th Precinct in Prospect Heights. I even dared to hope that the outrage over Eric Garner’s death, coming at a time when the city is renegotiating its contract with the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, might bring about a shakeup that would put some brass with Vision Zero in charge.

This is why I’m writing about the NYPD tonight. Because some nutcase killed a couple of hardworking cops the other day, and now Pat Lynch and his friends are trying to use that double murder to attack the Mayor and the movement for more police accountability. It’s clearly a power game, to make de Blasio and his allies weak, win greater concessions from the city in the new contract, and maybe get a little personal power for Lynch, Giuliani, Kerik and so on. And it can have grave consequences for Vision Zero.

Imagine that Pat Lynch’s hateful, divisive tactics are effective. The Mayor backs off any plans for reform he might have had. The NYPD cracks down on the protestors, and the Mayor does nothing to stop them. He continues to make noises about Vision Zero, but nothing happens. In 2018, newly elected Mayor Lynch puts Kerik back in charge and abandons Vision Zero, calling it a noble but misguided crusade.

Imagine, on the other hand, that the Mayor’s allies prevail. De Blasio wins a new contract, with concessions that include no parking for police officers’ private cars. He brings in Eric Adams to replace Bratton and institute reforms to protect and serve the have-nots in New York City. Prominent among those reforms is Vision Zero. Commissioner Adams expands investigations of all crashes that result in serious injury to pedestrians and cyclists, and punishes officers who declare “no criminality suspected” to the media. The NYPD joins the DOT, the City Council and many Community Boards in becoming allies in the fight to protect pedestrians. Once the NYPD cooperates, the District Attorneys come on board too.

That’s one of the many things at stake here. If you think it’s just about race, or just about unions, or just about cigarettes, think again.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Never trust a transit advocate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Where is the roads and bridges settlement?

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

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

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

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

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