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.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Visit Staten Island!

Staten Island offers lovely architecture, beautiful parks and fascinating museums. Thousands of tourists set foot on the island on warm sunny days. But as Joby Jacob and I discovered yesterday, there's a problem...

Friday, March 25, 2016

Transportation values are arbitrary - somewhat

This has been sitting in my queue for years, possibly in response to this post by Engineer Scotty, and tonight I realized it was pretty much ready to go:


For all you bus-haters out there, I wanted to post this excerpt from the world's greatest writer of train travel. In 1978 Paul Theroux traveled from his childhood home in Medford, Massachussetts to Esquel, Argentina, mostly by train. All over Latin America, he found that people not only preferred buses to trains, but they saw trains as dirty old conveyances for poor people, and buses as fast, modern, classy transportation. Here he is in El Salvador:
But no citizen of this town had any clear idea of where the railway station was. I had arrived from the frontier by car, and after two nights in Santa Ana thought I should be moving on to the capital. There was a train twice a day, so my timetable said, and various people, with hesitation, had directed me to the railway station. But I had searched the town, and the railway station was not where they had said it was. In this way, I became familiar with the narrow streets of Santa Ana; the station continued to elude me. And when I found it, on the morning of my third day, a mile from the hotel, in a part of town that had begun to tumble into plowed fields and cash crops, behind a high fence, and deserted apart from one man at an empty desk — the stationmaster — I understood why no one knew where it was. No one used the train. There was a major road from Santa Ana to San Salvador. WE TAKE THE BUS: it seemed to be a Central American motto in reply to all the railway advertising which said TAKE THE TRAIN — IT is CHEAPER! It was a matter of speed: the bus took two hours, the train took all afternoon.

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Via experience

Here in New York when people talk about "microtransit," they usually mean Uberpool or Lyftline, and those are the services I've been focusing on. Some have mentioned a third service, Via, that works a bit differently. Via is all shared; there is no service where it's just you and the driver, like a traditional taxi. The prices are fixed: currently five dollars per trip on weekdays if you buy credit ahead of time, and up to just under ten dollars for a pay-per-ride weeknight.


I've tried Via several times over the past year. The only real complaint I have is that they don't go to Queens: the service is restricted to Manhattan. I have hope, though, because when I started it was only available from Fourteenth to Fifty-Ninth Streets, and it's now available from the Battery to 110th Street. The next expansion will probably be Brooklyn Heights or Park Slope, but I don't think they'll ignore western Queens for long.

The first couple of times I took Via I had to wait a while, and it was just me and the driver, but the service seems to have caught on quickly. Every time since then, there has been at least one other passenger and the wait time has been minimal. If I've had to wait more than five minutes it was because my "Via-cle" (har) was stuck in traffic less than two blocks away.

Via is much more like a bus than a taxi. Twice I've gotten sedans, but the Via-cles are usually SUVs. I've had at least one trip with three other people, meaning I had to sit in the third row of one of those Suburbans or Navigators or Explorers. Since those aren't really made for people getting in and out frequently, I'm wondering how soon Via is going to start running vans big enough to stand up in.

A number of people have objected to Uber and Lyft because of the “gig economy” arrangements they have with their drivers. Of course, they’re not much worse than the taxi medallion owners in that regard. But on one recent Via trip the driver was chatting with us, and he said that Via drivers are all paid by the hour, possibly even full time. If that is correct, it sounds like a much better deal for them than just about any other taxi arrangement.

As I’ve said before, Uber and Lyft are a huge improvement over the way we did taxis up to a few years ago, but in their current incarnations they won’t do much to help the transit capacity crunch we’re feeling in cities like New York. The Via model is much more promising, and the more Uber and Lyft act on those lines, like with Uberhop, the more helpful they will be in relieving our capacity constraints.

There was another fascinating aspect of my experience with Via, and to some degree with Lyftline and Uberpool, that deserves its own post. I'll write about it soon!