Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Windows on the Van Wyck

A few weeks ago I went for a walk in Briarwood and Kew Gardens Hills. I got off the train at Jamaica-Van Wyck, the first time I’d ever used that station. It was full of red brick, reminding me of other stations that were opened or renovated in the seventies and eighties, like 21st Street-Queensbridge and 49th Street, but it was uncomfortably dark, despite the high ceilings and fairly bright lights.


I looked up and saw an elevated walkway inside the station, leading to the exit, similar to other grand stations of that era like Queensbridge, Auber in Paris, or Dupont Circle in Washington. On the other side of the station I saw what looked like balconies or windows above, but there was no light coming through them.


When I got outside, I crossed the Van Wyck Expressway on Jamaica Avenue. I looked down, and could actually see the outside of the station in the trench next to the highway. It's even more obvious in this Bing aerial photo:


It's hard to tell through the fence, but the panels on the walls look like they could be windows covered with paint or plastic.


I then looked up the station on the web, and found more information. The windows were uncovered as late as 1998, when Wayne Whitehorn took a series of pictures including this one:


Nycsubway.org has that photo, plus a couple of other good ones. According to user R32 3671 on the NYC Transit Forums, they were covered over by the year 2000, due to "vandals." Some commenters on SubChat said that the vandals actually broke the windows; others only say that they spray-painted graffiti over them. There was certainly graffiti all over the window covers when I took these pictures.


If they uncovered the windows now, in 2016, how often would people try to tag them? How much would it cost to keep them clean and guard them? Would it be more than the cost of maintaining the "Low Line" park proposed for the Manhattan Terminal, plus the amortized cost of constructing that park, estimated at $55 million in 2013?

Saturday, June 18, 2016

How carfree is your City Council district?

One of the most eye-opening things I saw during the 2007-2008 congestion pricing debate was a series of fact sheets produced by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and the Pratt Center for Community development for each City Council and state legislative district. Each sheet gave two figures in particular, tabulated from census results: the percentage of working adults in the district who commuted to work primarily by transit, and the percentage of households that had no cars.


I've made maps for the percentage of carfree households for the City Council and State Senate districts, based on the Tri-State/Pratt Center fact sheets. The figures are interesting in two ways: in general, these elected officials tend to promote transit or driving depending on how prevalent car ownership is in their districts, but some are particularly out of touch with the majority of their constituents. These are relevant to a wide range of transportation issues, beyond the question of whether to toll the East River bridges.

These maps were based on data from the 2000 census, and as the years go by they get less and less relevant to contemporary debates. I find myself wondering what effect recent trends have had on car ownership and commuting, but Tri-State has not released updated fact sheets.

The Census website does tabulate data based on state legislative districts. Charles Komanoff analyzed the data for Streetsblog in 2010, and he recently used it to call out Councilmember Daneek Miller for opposing bridge tolls. But because Komanoff didn't have data for City Council districts he used the figures for the 32nd Assembly District, which turns out to be a bad match.

In November, Tri-State criticized Senator Tony Avella for his part in the coalition. They also challenged Miller based on a "special tabulation" - but in both cases this was based on journey to work data, not car ownership.

To make this easier for anyone who is interested, I have written a small Python script that takes GeoJSON files created by the Department of City Planning, and produces a JSON file mapping census tracts to City Council districts. It uses the Shapely library to check whether a census tract is contained inside a council district. It works for either the 2000 or 2010 boundaries. For census tracts that overlap more than one council district, the script gives the proportion of the land area of the tract that overlaps with each district.

I also created two scripts that transform census tables using these tract2census files, one for table HCT 32 from the 2000 decennial census and the other for table B08141 produced by the American Community Survey since 2005. These scripts produce tables showing the total number of households in a district, the number with zero cars available, and the carfree households as a proportion of the total.

It is important to note that this algorithm introduces a potential source of inaccuracy by assigning the households to split census tracts on the basis of area. This assumes that the households are evenly distributed within each census tract, but that is not always the case. For example, a tract with 75% of its area in City Council District A and 25% in District B would have 75% of its households assigned to District A, but if there is a large apartment building in the District B part of the tract, it could contain over 50% of the households.

Interestingly, my results for the 2000 census seem a bit lower than Tri-State's for some districts, but about the same citywide. It's probably due to different assumptions about the data; if anyone has details about the methods they used, please let me know!

Neil Freeman suggested using QGIS for the visualization, and it made a nice pretty map. I've got more to say about these figures and their implications, and maybe get to work on Neil other suggestions, and add a legend to the map, but this is a good place to stop. I've posted the tables in a Google Sheet here.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The safety and comfort of ridesharing

"It’s so 2015," Vogue writer Karley Sciortino's friend said to her in Los Angeles last year. "This girl I know just fucked a guy she met in an UberPool." Intrigued, Sciortino spent some time researching and discovered that there were indeed a bunch of young people hooking up in the back seats of Uberpool and Lyftline cars.


As of press time I have been unable to confirm this, but it doesn't seem too far-fetched. What I have seen is that the vast majority of passengers on Via and express buses are women, of all ages. The first five or six times I took Via, the other passengers were all women.

Contrast these tales of young twentysomething women eagerly flirting with men in Uberpools to the horror stories of women of all ages being harassed and assaulted on subways, and it's clear that women feel a lot more comfortable sharing Ubers and Lyfts than subways with strangers. It's not too hard to figure out one reason: taxis have a driver sitting just a few feet away who could potentially intervene if a guy oversteps any boundaries. Both services also have rating systems for passengers, and a passenger who harasses other passengers is likely to get low ratings - or even be banned from the service.

But women also report feeling more comfortable on local buses (in Manhattan), express buses and commuter trains. Public buses and commuter trains can't ban passengers, but they do have a lower passenger-to-driver ratio than subways. The higher fares on express buses, commuter trains and taxis also discourage overcrowding (but not always, especially on the Long Island Railroad). And that feeds into the hookups as well: a guy who can afford to take an Uber, even if it's an Uberpool, is more eligible in some women's eyes than a guy who takes the subway.

I should point out here that it's not just women who are discouraged by crowds from riding transit. As a guy I've had to deal with belligerent and inconsiderate people. Some of them have even wanted to fight me, but I don't trust them to fight fair.

In my middle age I have aches and pains - not always enough to qualify as a true disability, but enough that I don't want to stand up in crush conditions for an hour. At those times Via or Lyft can be a welcome relief. I don't want to separate myself from other travelers. I just want a little space, a seat and someone who can step in and protect the vulnerable.

Old-style taxis and single-passenger Uber and Lyft services have their own problems. Women are regularly harassed and even assaulted by male drivers, to the point where every once in a while someone tries to start a service with all female drivers. The presence of additional passengers can actually counter this harassment somewhat.

As I wrote last month in response to Emma Fitzsimmons and Sarah Kaufman's posts about the experiences of women on transit, this runs counter to the Spartan aesthetic of some transit advocates. In this view, if even one person is crowded on a train, all must be crowded.

Of course it's not fair for women and guys who aren't tough to pay more for the privilege of not being assaulted on our way to and from work (or shopping, or fun). Poor people will be faced with the choice of an unsafe trip or no trip at all. We should do more to ensure a minimal level of safety and comfort for all.

This does not mean that we shouldn't allow people to pay more for comfort and safety. They have already been doing that for millennia, and most commonly these days they do it by driving their own cars or taking taxis. Uberpool, Lyftline and Via offer that missing middle: safer than the subway but more efficient than a private car.

I don't think I've heard women who regularly take transit accuse Uber or Via or even Leap of elitism. These accusations come mostly from men and cyclists, who seem to think that transit can create a classless society all by itself. I'm not waiting around for that.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Un-constraining our imagination

There are a lot of things that constrain what we can do to change transit. Ultimately, we can do very little by ourselves, so everything requires political and budgetary buy-in. The terrain and water are very hard to change. Then there are our goals for transit. Is transit always the best way to achieve access from point A to point B, or is it sometimes easier to move point A or point B?

There are people who are talking about whether we should be moving where people live and work. For every new development in my neighborhood there's at least one NIMBY who brings up crowding on the 7 train as a reason to never build anything else again. People talk about developing secondary job centers in Newark, White Plains and Melville. When it's presented negatively as Someone Else's Problem it's stupid and nasty, but when it's presented thoughtfully and constructively it's promising.

Sometimes people talk about changing the terrain and water. These are the plans that are typically labeled as "visionary" by people with limited imaginations. Let's dig a tunnel under the Long Island Sound, build a deck over the Sunnyside Yards, fill in the East River. The spirit of innovation!

What we don't do enough of in New York is imagining what we could do with more money, more land or more political support. There are some great people making fantasy maps, but not enough. People are too ready to lecture each other about "political realities."

That's not to say that a low-budget solution isn't something to be proud of. When I read the proposal for a new Linden Boulevard station my only response was, "Why haven't we done this decades ago?" But we also need to think bigger.

Most importantly, we need to be willing to challenge political power for street space, for bus lanes and loading, and eventually for trolley tracks and stops. Any street that can fit a car lane can fit a dedicated bus lane; the only question is whether bus movement is a higher priority for us and for our government than car movement or storage.

Finally, we need to be open and honest, both with others and with ourselves, about what constraints we're challenging, and what we're holding steady. If we all work within a constraint and never mention it there's a danger that we'll stop seeing it, like fish in water.

I've been thinking about this in terms of two challenges that we're dealing with these days. There's the general problem that we've been successful in getting people to move to New York and ride the subway, but we haven't been making more subway fast enough, so we're all crowded into the subways we do have. Then there are the more specific issues about particular pieces of our transit infrastructure that will need to be taken offline and/or replaced in the next several years: the Fourteenth Street Tunnel, the North River Tunnels, the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

So let me ask you to think of these problems in two ways. First of all, forget about the budget. What if tomorrow, Anthony Foxx and Janet Yellen came to you and handed you a check for ten billion dollars that you can spend in the next five years. What would you in the short term to address specific challenges like the Fourteenth Street Tunnel and the general challenge of lack of capacity? How would you fulfill your goals by spending this on transit?

Second, let's bring back our budgetary constraints, but remove the constraints on land use. Imagine that you had complete control over the streets and highways and buses, backed by a Mayor and two Governors that everyone was unwilling to challenge. So you could put bus lanes absolutely anywhere you wanted them: on Main Street, on Thirty-Fourth Street, on Liberty Place, on Prospect Park West, over the Brooklyn Bridge. You do have a budget to buy as many buses as your plan requires. You can take any piece of land anywhere for bus terminals or garages. Nobody can stop you, there are no Community Advisory Councils, and the MTA has to implement whatever solution you come up with. Oh, and you can go to Jersey too, because you control the Port Authority, New Jersey Transit and NJDOT. What would you do with buses to fulfill your goals? Who would you enjoy telling to fuck off the most?

Friday, April 15, 2016

The majestic equality of subway gropers

In February Emma Fitzsimmons reported on a recent rise in crimes against women on the subways. On Wednesday, in a thoughtful guest post for Second Avenue Sagas, Sarah Kaufman summarized an important point in Fitzsimmons's article: "Women are also the predominant victims of subway-based crimes, specifically robbery, forcible touching (340 cases reported in 2015), public lewdness (223 cases) and sexual abuse (130 cases)."


Kaufman continues, "When possible, women prefer another, safer mode, rather than waiting in desolate subway stations or at dimly-lit bus stops. Depending on their economic well-being, women may opt for dollar vans, taxis, livery cabs, Citi Bikes, Lyfts, Vias or Ubers. Women outnumber men in the relatively inexpensive dollar vans (ridership is 63% female, according to Eric Goldwyn), but use taxis less frequently than men do (34% female) and are vastly underrepresented on the comparatively costly Citi Bike (24% of rides are taken by women)."

This may be increasing, but it is not particularly new. In 2013 Kimberly Matus talked about her experience being groped on the subway. In 2009 I remarked that many of the riders on express buses are women, particularly older women who are probably commuting to clerical or managerial jobs. Years ago a middle-aged female friend of mine said that she even preferred the local buses of Manhattan to the subway.

The connection that Kaufman draws between transit and Citibike is insightful. People have criticized the gender imbalance in urban cycling generally, and in particular in the "vehicular cycling" movement, which in its majestic equality, encourages men as well as women to mix with speeding traffic protected only by a light helmet. Citibike is a bit safer, being rolled out only after the installation of protected bike lanes on some Midtown avenues, but the numbers suggest that women feel much less safe.

As with vehicular cycling, there is a movement within transit advocacy that disdains all comfort, and quite a bit of safety, in pursuit of a sort of Spartan equality. They have no power to increase transit funding, but they insist on low fares, resulting in crowded, unreliable subways and buses. All conditions on transit must be completely equal; as the reactions to San Francisco's Leap bus showed, any difference in comfort or convenience is worse than offensive, it is ridiculous. And yet private cars, and the public infrastructure we built to serve them, can be as comfortable or convenient as possible because it is completely off the radar for this movement.

These transit advocates, in their majestic equality, encourage men as well as women to pack into subway cars with thieves and sexual predators, shout down any other options, and somehow seem puzzled when these women buy cars at the first opportunity. Hm.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

What are your #SightsOfSI?

Tourists don't know where to go when they get off the Staten Island Ferry, so let's make some posters for them! Here's one I made:


And here's one Joby Jacob made:


You can make your own!

  1. Find a picture of the sight on Flickr or Google Images, or create your own. It must be freely distributable - either your own picture or one marked as shareable with Creative Commons.
  2. Find the shortest off-peak travel time to the sight, by bus or Staten Island Railway, from the Ferry terminal, using Google Maps or the bus/SIR schedule.
  3. If the route is by bus, find the ramp where the bus leaves from the ferry terminal in the bottom right inset of the bus map (PDF).
  4. Put the name of the sight, the travel time, the bus route or SIR, the ramp letter and the photo credit over the photo.
  5. If you like, you can credit yourself and add the #SightsOfSI hashtag.

Add your photos to this Google+ album or tweet them with the #SightsOfSI hashtag, and I'll feature the best ones on this blog!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Visit Saint George!

Staten Island is home to beautiful parks, lovely architecture, tasty restaurants and fascinating museums. As Joby Jacob and I recently documented, on a warm sunny day thousands of tourists take the ferry to the island, getting a free harbor cruise. While there, they could grab a quick bite, explore the prewar architecture of the North Shore, or take a short bus ride to the museums of Snug Harbor. Instead, the vast majority catch the next boat back to Manhattan without ever setting foot outside the ferry terminal.



Some tourists play it safe, follow the herd, go where they're told or plan in advance. Those kinds of tourists will require more explicit marketing, which deserves its own post. Other tourists like to explore, and many of them do this already.

Part of the problem is that the design of the ferry terminal and the streets around it discourage exploration. The neighborhood by the ferry terminal, Saint George, is charming and walkable, and has been acknowledged by the New York City Economic Development Corporation as the most promising site for "the kind of vital downtown that has long eluded Staten Island." The terminal and the streets obscure the attractions of the area and make pedestrians feel unwelcome. Since tourists getting off the ferry are pedestrians, the design winds up making tourists feel unwelcome.


The problem begins with the elevation of the main passage of the ferry terminal. While the roof deck has a clear view of some interesting-looking buildings in Saint George, tourists are not guided up there. Instead they are confronted with a series of ramps leading up to bus platforms, a stairway down to the Staten Island Railway, and a stairway marked "Richmond Terrace." None of these provide a view of anything outside the terminal; the line of sight is blocked by stairs and canopies.



Some tourists find their way up the stairs to the walkway. It affords a decent view of Saint George, but it is mostly bare, exposed concrete with a minimal canopy protecting people from the elements. It is very wide right outside the terminal, but narrows to a twenty-foot sidewalk when crossing the SIR tracks before the intersection with Richmond Terrace. Half the width of this sidewalk is currently blocked by construction for the Staten Island Wheel and outlet mall project.


The intersection between the ferry terminal approach and Richmond Terrace is the third part of the problem. The walkway is now just a sidewalk for the Ferry Terminal Viaduct, four two-lane ramps carrying buses, cars, taxis and bikes over the Railway. The intersection is designed for the cars and buses, with slip lanes, recessed crosswalks and lots of extra asphalt. It is confusing and intimidating to pedestrians.


The fourth and final obstacle is the buildings that greet visitors leaving the ferry terminal: Staten Island Borough Hall, the Richmond County Courthouse and the Saint George branch of the New York Public Library. According to my AIA Guide they were all designed by Carrère and Hastings in the early twentieth century. I should rather say that they fail to greet visitors, because they all have turned their backs to the ferry.


On one visit in 2014 I passed a troupe of thespians performing scenes from Shakespeare on the steps of Borough Hall, but this past Saturday Joby and I found the steps deserted, and the courthouse entrance permanently closed (without even any markings to indicate what it was). The handful of shops on the next block of Richmond Terrace were either closed or of no interest to tourists, or both.


A short walk around the corner showed us a different scene. Stuyvesant Place offered a variety of modest but inviting restaurants and shops. The courthouse has a fully functioning door on that side. So does Borough Hall - with parking for the Borough President and various high-level functionaries. The Library still presents a closed door to Stuyvesant Place, but you can walk around the block again and find a welcoming entrance, as well as the new Supreme Court building.


These buildings, shops and restaurants may not be things that every tourist would find interesting, but Joby and I saw a number of tourists who were tempted to stay on Staten Island for more than ten minutes. Many of them made it past the first two obstacles of lack of visibility and the exposed walkway (it was a warm Spring day), only to disappear at the intersection with Richmond Terrace.

I can easily imagine more tourists spending an hour or two in Saint George, New Brighton and Tompkinsville. We saw a number of storefronts that were either empty or closed on Saturday. It wouldn't take many more tourists to support a few more cafes and shops, which would in turn bring more tourists.

It would cost a lot to reconfigure the terminal so that arriving passengers can see the way to Saint George. It might not be worth spending that much right now, but we should talk about that when it comes time to redo the terminal for other reasons.

The walkway from the terminal to Richmond Terrace needs to be wider for its entire length, so that tourists never feel like second-class citizens, even if they are on foot on Staten Island. It needs to be better protected from sun, rain and wind, but also to be more interesting for tourists. A few signs advertising nearby attractions and businesses would help, but the city could also grant permits for vendors and buskers in the wider parts.

The intersection where the terminal viaduct meets Richmond Terrace needs to be reconfigured to be more welcoming to pedestrians. This is the kind of thing the DOT has done all over the other boroughs. They know how.

Finally, the institutions of Richmond Terrace - Borough Hall, the Courthouse, the Library and even the Post Office - need to turn around and welcome tourists. The Shakespeare performance I saw was a nice start, but the borough could do a lot more with that plaza. What about a Bryant Park-like cafe? Or the Supreme Court could rent the space inside its east facade to the Staten Island Museum, which is a block north on Stuyvesant Place.


Saint George is a pretty, walkable neighborhood just steps from the ferry. There is no good reason for eighty to ninety percent of people who arrive in the ferry to turn right around without leaving the terminal.