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.

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.