Sunday, March 9, 2014
Of the subways that cross the East River and the PATH trains that cross the Hudson, almost all the bridges and tunnels are packed with trains at rush hour, and those trains packed with passengers. The one exception is the Williamsburg Bridge, which is constrained by technical challenges, by the depopulation of South Side Williamsburg, Bushwick and East New York, by zoning restrictions on building, and by the fact that the J and Z trains only go to lower Manhattan. Since the MTA rerouted the M train to Midtown, ridership has gone up, and so have rents in Ridgewood, but that is the only line that is not at full capacity.
The only new subway crossing that has been given serious consideration recently, the Subway to Secaucus, has been stuck on a shelf somewhere.
MTA Capital Construction has installed an improved signalling system (CBTC) on the L line, which has allowed them to run more trains through the Fourteenth Street Tunnel. This capacity has been rapidly filled by an increase in ridership. They are rolling out CBTC to other lines, as the Port Authority is doing with the PATH trains, but funding limitations have stretched the rollout over years. As with the L train, the increased capacity is not expected to be enough to handle an additional branch on any line, only to allow neighborhoods near the existing branches to add population and to give some breathing room to passengers.
With commuter rail, the constraints are the platforms at Penn Station and the Park Avenue Tunnel. Alon Levy pointed out years ago that the constraints at Penn Station are not technical, but due to the three government-run commuter rail agencies' insistence on terminating all trains there, and our politicians' inability to force them to implement through-running arrangements.
For years the MTA has been pouring billions of dollars into East Side Access, but that will not be finished until 2023 at the earliest. The ARC Tunnel from New Jersey and its successor, the Gateway Tunnel, are being blocked by Governor Christie, who has used ARC funding to pay for road expansions.
Bus capacity into Manhattan is similarly constrained. Buses crossing from New Jersey through the Lincoln Tunnel can terminate at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, but that is also full. Proposals to build garages with public funds have faltered, and no private company seems interested in building a garage or terminal. The Port Authority is renovating the George Washington Bridge terminal, but that is too far north, and connects to a downtown A train that is also very crowded.
Any buses that can't fit into the Port Authority use city streets to pick up and drop off, as do buses from the other crossings. A backlash from NIMBYs, mostly drivers and business owners but aided by misguided pedestrian advocates, has put a lid on any expansion of curbside bus access.
As with commuter trains, there is a potential for through-running with buses along 34th or 42nd streets or Church Street that could relieve some of these constraints, but the bus operators have shown little interest, and political leaders have been too busy pandering to the backlash.
One reason bus operators may be uninterested in through-running or building terminals or garages is that there are also capacity constraints for buses on the bridges and tunnels. Anyone who's tried to take the Q32 into Manhattan in the morning knows what happens to bus travel times when a bridge is free for any vehicle. Passengers on the inbound QM5 express bus know that things run a little smoother when there is a toll and a bus lane, and people who have ridden the Red and Tan number 20 know that congestion pricing makes it even better. But even those passengers say that the bus lanes are too short, and those crossings with lanes and tolls are at capacity as well.
So that's the dismal state of getting commuters to Manhattan. What should we do about it? I'll talk about that in future posts.
Friday, February 28, 2014
Syracuse's Central Station once received trains and then buses, and is now a television studio.
Photo: Crazyale / Wikipedia
Politicians love to do this. In fact, the system is so set up for it that people thought I was nuts when I asked if governments ever save up for big infrastructure projects. And two former mayors of Huntington, West Virginia thought Chuck Marohn was nuts when he suggested that projects should even be judged on whether they can be expected to generate enough revenue to pay off their bonds. Everyone likes to make promises for the next generation, whether it's pensions, Medicaid, infrastructure, borrowing, low taxes or low inflation.
Eventually someone has to acknowledge that the previous generations overpromised and that at least one of these promises has to be broken. There's a smart way to do this, and a stupid way, and a dishonest way. The smart way to is to openly list the promises and prioritize them. The stupid way is to notice one or two promises that you'd like to break and focus on those while remaining blissfully oblivious to the fact that other commitments exist. The dishonest way is to pretend that you don't realize about the other commitments and hope nobody points them out.
Foroohar acknowledges this in the financial sector: in her Time column, she wrote, "My worry was always that, as in parts of Europe or Latin America or even California cities that have gone bankrupt, pensioners [in Detroit] would be left holding a disproportionate share of the burden of cuts, while other creditors took less of a haircut." But it's true beyond finance, in other promises made by these states, counties and cities.
The fact is that most American cities made a series of really stupid decisions in the late twentieth century. They relocated valuable infrastructure like canals and railroads out of their downtowns, so those downtowns were no longer "on the way." They built oppressive, noisy highways through those downtowns, allowing drivers to shoot through on their way to someplace else. They copied zoning codes that outlawed mixed-use neighborhoods, and gutted the mixed-use neighborhoods that existed with highways and "urban renewal." Then they built other highways to bypass the downtowns, and subsidized development in the suburbs. I happen to be particularly familiar with Syracuse's tragic flailings in this regard, but you can see the same pattern in Albany, Buffalo or Binghamton, and all over Rockland County.
The people who ran these municipal governments borrowed money to build these highways and other infrastructure. They promised to pay it back with interest (Nocera noted that this was missing from the pension discussions). They promised their residents that no matter how far they spread out, no matter how much they drove, they could still count on roads, bridges, power, water and sewers. They promised that the government would pay for all that indefinitely and somehow keep taxes and tolls low. Oh yeah, and they promised their city workers secure retirements, and their poor people healthcare.
Of all these promises, Cuomo focuses on taxes, Miner focuses on pensions, Aquario focuses on Medicaid and Carey focuses on tolls. We may actually wind up with cheap taxes and tolls while cutting pensions and Medicaid, and that may get these guys elected to powerful political offices for many years. But you and I know that it won't actually solve the real problem: we can't afford to maintain the sprawl that's sucking the revenues out of our hollowed-out cities and towns. And we can't afford to pay back the money our parents borrowed to build that sprawl.
These four are not handling these overpromises the smart way, so that means they're either handling them the stupid way or the dishonest way. Hanlon's razor says "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity," and I know of no evidence that Cuomo, Miner, Aquario and Carey are lying, power-hungry, heartless crooks. For now I have to assume that they're simply incompetent idiots with a particular blind spot for the ugly sprawl that is choking the life out of the many lovely towns of my home state.
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
But as threestationsquare commented on my 2012 post, the length of a road alone does not tell us enough:
Streets that have more pedestrian traffic (e.g. 14th St, Broadway) will naturally see more fatalities than streets that are so obviously dangerous that pedestrians avoid them (e.g. Queens Blvd), but it hardly seems reasonable to call the latter streets "safer". I would be more interested in data that divided the fatalities per mile count by some estimate of pedestrian traffic, so that I can estimate just how much risk I am taking walking near the street in question. Do you know any sources of data on pedestrian traffic counts?
The figure of fatalities per mile is useful because it tells us how many lives can be saved by a relatively concentrated improvement. Fatalities per pedestrian is important because it can suggest how many people are being scared away by bad pedestrian infrastructure. It's also valuable for individuals when deciding where to walk. If there are very few pedestrians in a high-fatality area, that means that everyone who walks there is at a high risk.
Pedestrian counts have been difficult to get in the past, because they involved someone standing on a street corner clicking a counter. The DOT theoretically has pedestrian counts of large swaths of the city, since they're required to take them when studying things like whether to put in a stop light. The city has been releasing DOT data on the web, but so far they have not released any pedestrian counts. I know that most of them are probably very outdated, but even out-of-date pedestrian counts could be useful.
Recently I've had more hope. A start-up called Placemeter has been collecting foot traffic data based on geolocated social media posts and a network of old smartphone video cameras. They created a coarse-grained map and shared some of the data with the Mayor's Office of Data Analytics to produce a Business Atlas. The idea is that if you open a store selling only gourmet rice krispie treats, you want to be in a place where a lot of pedestrians will see it. If you want fine-grained data, I'm sure Placemeter will be happy to sell it to you...
I'm all for the Business Atlas and business owners buying foot traffic data. I would even hope that this kind of data could convince a company not to build a suburban-style drive-up in a pedestrian neighborhood. It'd be nice if Placemeter could donate this information to activists fighting strip mall development.
I still want the DOT to release all their data, but I hope that Placemeter can give us up-to-date pedestrian count data so that we can measure fatalities per pedestrian. I don't want to ask them to undercut their entire business model, but it could save lives.
Sunday, February 9, 2014
Following on my ten recommendations for pedestrians, here are ten recommendations for transit that don't require control of the MTA. Some of them can be done by the DOT, some by the NYPD, and some require cooperation between them, but none of them require action from the MTA or the State Legislature. They all have to do with buses, but unlike Select Bus Service, they don't require months of route planning to implement.
Legalize private transit. The city Department of Transportation has the authority to allow private buses to operate on city streets, but for as long as I can remember they've only allowed three groups: (a) Buses like Academy that cross state lines, (b) Legacy streetcar companies that were finally taken over by the MTA in 2006, and (c) the gender-segregated Hasidic bus from Williamsburg to Borough Park. We need innovation in transit routing, and the MTA has consistently shown resistance to innovation. It's time to let private operators give it a try.
Restore two-way traffic flow. It makes no sense that I can get a downtown subway on Sixth Avenue, but not a downtown bus. A one-way pair may be a good idea on Eighth and Ninth Streets, but not on Sixth and Seventh Avenues. It would be good for pedestrians too.
Reopen the Union Turnpike entrances for buses. Reader Angus Grieve-Smith commutes from Western Queens to Saint John's University, and realized that the Kew Gardens station has the facilities for a fare-free transfer from bus to subway.
Allow buses on the Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge was built for trains. Maybe it can't support trucks anymore. But can it really not support buses?
Make bus bulbs standard. Pedestrians get more sidewalk space. Bus riders aren't the ones getting out of the way. It's a win-win!
Make signal priority for buses standard. Why should it only be for Select Bus routes? It's expensive to replace the equipment, but as equipment gets updated it should be set to favor buses.
No painted bus lanes that aren't 24/7. The red paint should mean something: Buses Only. It should not mean "For buses, except for turning cars and off hours and you know what? Let's just drive in it and see if they give me a ticket."
Establish a New Jersey to Brooklyn pilot bus. One solution to buses idling in Lower Manhattan is to send them out to Brooklyn. There are people who live in Brooklyn and work in New Jersey and vice versa. Maybe more if you make it easy to commute.
A 24/7 busway on the LIE. It would speed up the express buses and add bus capacity to and from Nassau County.
Real fare inspection. The way the NYPD currently does fare inspection is fucking nuts. In Paris, fare inspectors board a bus just as it's pulling out of a stop, and check everyone's tickets as the bus is moving. In New York, fare inspectors pull up to the bus stop in an SUV and make the bus sit there while they check tickets. We shouldn't keep travelers waiting just because some NYPD people feel they're too good to be more than twenty feet from their own government vehicle.
Wednesday, February 5, 2014
And why dig a tunnel? If you're building a new track that crosses an old track, the cheapest option is an at-grade crossing, but with two busy new tracks crossing lots of existing tracks - including storage tracks with trains parked on them and eight of the busiest tracks in the country - it's easy to see why the design team ruled out that option. It's harder to see why they ruled out a bridge. The yards are in a valley. Just a few blocks west, Queens Boulevard and the three tracks of very busy #7 train line have been crossing them on a double-decker bridge for over a century. There are five or six other bridges, depending on how you count.
There's no concern about blocking the sunlight because the only people in that yard are railroad employees. Sometimes a tunnel is chosen over a bridge to mitigate noise, but the trains will emerge from the tunnel close to the densest residential population, in Sunnyside Gardens. Grade elevation isn't a major concern because the yards are wide and the northernmost tracks are elevated, allowing for a relatively gentle slope, but if the grade is too steep, it would be possible to put in a bend.
And yet in the Final Environmental Impact Statement there is only one option considered for the Queens route: "crossing beneath the railroad yards." There's only one real reason I can think of to tunnel instead of building a bridge: a tunnel would get in the way of the convention center.
For years, developers, city planners and politicians have been quietly preparing to build a deck over the Yards and develop the area. Because NIMBYs were so successful at "protecting the residential quality" of most of the city's neighborhoods, the amount of new housing that can be built as of right in the city is not enough to accommodate everyone who wants to live here and bring rents down. Planners and developers see one of the largest uninhabited areas in the city, right next to the huge Queens Plaza station and the underused 36th Street stop, and they want to put something there. It figured prominently in the city's discussions about Olympic development, and a report from Alex Garvin and Associates to the Economic Development Corporation in 2006 called it "the city's single greatest opportunity to increase the housing supply and simultaneously improve the quality of the public realm."
Building over a rail yard is a strategy that made millions for the New York Central Railroad a hundred years ago. Railroad managers, now mostly government employees in the city, long to replicate that success. That was the idea behind the Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn and now the Hudson Yards development in Manhattan, and they've got other yards in the Bronx to follow Sunnyside. Never mind that Atlantic Yards was a crappy deal for the MTA and the Hudson Yards isn't looking quite as successful as forecast. The city's elites are still hung up on the idea: in 2012 Dan Doctoroff found some interest for it at the Municipal Art Society.
If you look at the map above, the East Side Access tunnel is there, under sections B and C. If it had been built as a bridge, at least part of it would be right where the deck would go, and get in the way of some of the buildings and streets.
I don't know for sure how much the East Side Access designers were thinking about this. But if it played a role at all in their decision to dig a phenomenally expensive tunnel instead of building a bridge, then a significant portion of this multi-billion-dollar federally-funded "transit" project is actually subsidizing a possible future residential and commercial mega-project. Yay?
Friday, January 31, 2014
Another factor is the very size of the trucks. The left and right hook deaths I cited before all involved large trucks. I had a hard time avoiding cars in a 35-foot rented moving van, and the number of deaths show that even professionals have difficulty avoiding pedestrians, especially in larger trucks.
The City recognizes this, with laws restricting trucks to designated routes, unless they have local business, and forbidding some trucks from entering the city at all. But the size of trucks making local deliveries has increased over the years. The supermarket in my neighborhood has a loading dock that is gated and locked, because it's never used. The trucks that deliver to that market today would not fit even if they blocked the entire street. Instead they line up on the avenue, and the store employees break the pallets on the sidewalk and handtruck everything in through the front door.
If you go out west things are worse, with gigantic double trailers barreling down the highway, and the trucking companies are lobbying for even bigger trucks to be allowed. We already restrict the size of trucks on our city streets, which means that there are warehouses to take things off of big trucks outside the city limits.
We should go further. We can't keep our kids safe with even 55-foot machines on the road. We need to envision a city without big trucks. I wouldn't be surprised if it drives up the cost of things we buy, and the cost of doing business in the city, but I know my son's life is worth it, and I hope you agree.
Monday, January 27, 2014
The question then becomes: where do you draw the line? Which designs and configurations should we always say no to? If you have a limited pool of money, how do you decide between two new transit projects? First of all, we shouldn't back any project with a competing highway project. Beyond that, we can start with Alon Levy's "trip chaining" principles that I discussed in my "Carfree 24/7" post:
|Foot or bicycle||Car|
|Long trips||Transit||Transit/walkable||Commuter suburbs|
When we talk about getting people out of their cars, the goal should be to get them completely out of their cars. That means transit for long trips and walking (or cycling) for short trips. Transit without walkability means that people will be driving to the store and to drop their kids off at school. Walkability without transit means that people will be driving to work, major shopping and vacations.
Transit and walkability also reinforce each other, just as local and long-distance car dependence reinforce each other. Walkability solves the "last mile" problem for transit, and people in cars tend to stay in cars.
This means that the projects with the biggest bang for the buck are ones where there is walkability without transit, or transit without walkability. We build the transit to serve the walkable community, or upzone around the transit station, to bring the transit and walkability into balance.
The next most desirable transit projects are those that build transit and walkability together. I'm often skeptical of these, especially when they're greenfield developments, and that's another principle: infill is better than greenfield, all else being equal.
We can rule out projects that are neither walkable nor transit-oriented, but simply promote 24/7 car dependence. But what about sprawl transit proposals, like the Northern Branch, the Tappan Zee transit and extensions of Metro-North, which are at best accompanied by vague promises of rezoning? What about proposals for dense, walkable villages in locations underserved by transit, if they are served at all, like the Piermont pier and the Piscataquis Village Project?
In general I would say no to projects like these. If we wait a generation, people will probably be more open to transit and walkability, and we don't want to get locked into highways, garages and single-family sprawl. But there are circumstances where they might make sense. Sometimes you need to move fast to lock down a right-of-way. Sometimes you need to spend money on transit before the road people grab it.
There's an argument that's frequently made that park-and-ride transit can function as a ratchet. Get people on transit for a little while and they'll identify as transit riders and support transit expansion. Get people walking a little and they'll demand transit. I'm not convinced. I know too many transit-riding car owners who identify as drivers first and foremost, and vote that identification. If there was some kind of explicit time limit, where termites would gradually eat the park-and-ride or something, I might consider it.
In any case, these "maybe" proposals should be lower priorities than the other ones, in terms of land, money and activist time. So to sum up: