Monday, November 17, 2014

When bike paths are not transportation

I've written before about the capacity of bike paths to move large numbers of people. A dedicated bike path performs this function best when it connects dense residential neighborhoods with dense job centers. The bike paths on the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro Bridges are great examples of this. They may not transport as many people in a day, but they don’t transport thousands of dangerous, wasteful motor vehicles either. This is why we should convert one lane of the Brooklyn Bridge to a two-way bike path.

That said, a frequent train line can beat a bike path, or even a car lane, any day. On the Manhattan Bridge one fall day in 2012, according to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council’s Hub-Bound Travel Study, one car lane carried almost five times as many people as the bike lane, but one subway track carried 36 times as many.


With that in mind, let’s turn to the Rockaway Beach Branch, and to a proposal to convert it to a bike trail instead of reactivating train service. The Trust for Public Land argues that it “will” (not “could”) fulfill a similar transportation function:

Using the QueensWay to connect to subway stations, commuters could save 15 – 20 minutes each way to major work destinations such as Midtown Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn. Residents will also be able to use the QueensWay to connect to stores and other destinations. … Using the QueensWay to connect to subway stations, commuters could save 15 – 20 minutes each way to major work destinations such as Midtown Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn. Residents will also be able to use the QueensWay to connect to stores and other destinations.

Yes, that’s nice, but how many of them would actually use it? I could save ten to fifteen minutes off my commute by biking to the subway station, but I don’t do it because there’s just a plain rack to lock it to. There is no secure bike parking at any subway station near me, and there is none proposed in the trail plan.

Even assuming that secure parking was built, or that every potential bike commuter was comfortable locking their bike up at a plain old rack (and that the city built enough additional plain old racks to accommodate them, how many cyclists are we talking about? I’m guessing it would be far below the 2,601 cyclists that the NYMTC counted on the Manhattan Bridge on that fall day in 2012.

Now let’s assume that instead we brought trains back to the Rockaway Beach Branch. Let’s assume that the service is the crappiest possible: less than once an hour off-peak and a mandatory change to get to Manhattan, like the Long Island Rail Road Oyster Bay Branch. We would still get at least 3,350 riders a day (PDF).

If instead we dug a tunnel under a few blocks of Rego Park and ran the R train out to Howard Beach, we would see a lot more riders. Even if there were only four stations and all of them had the ridership of the 104th Street station on the A train (1,736), that would still be almost 7,000 riders a day. The least popular station on the R train, 36th Street in Long Island City, saw 4,540 riders last year, and I’ve proposed adding stations at Myrtle Avenue and Fleet Street to serve large buildings that were built since the line’s fortune declined. The half million riders heralded by some rail proponents may be too ambitious, but even if the line is a dismal failure it would serve far more people per day than a trail.

If you’re still thinking of the bike trail as a transportation project, look at this quote from the Trust for Public Land:

To ensure safety and security for neighbors and park users, the QueensWay will have gates at all entrances. The QueensWay will close at dusk except during winter months, when it will remain open slightly later to accommodate commuters.

(I’m pretty sure that last part about remaining open slightly later was added after I tweeted about this.) The bike paths on the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro Bridges are open twenty-four hours. That’s because they’re transportation infrastructure, not parks.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Decking the Sunnyside Yards: the history of a fantasy


Becoming the Yards:

1643: Burger Jorrisen receives the first patent for farmland near the swamps surrounding the Dutch Kills.
1861: The Long Island Railroad builds tracks from Hunters Point along the Dutch Kills to Jamaica.
1903: The Pennsylvania Railroad begins purchasing property in the area and draining the land.
1915: The Sunnyside Yards are opened.

(Background from the Greater Astoria Historical Society and Untapped Cities, among others.)

Development proposed on decks over the Yards:

1925: Post Office building
1951: Transportation Hub
1971: Housing
1973: Sports stadium
1989: Housing and offices
1997: Olympic village
2006: Housing, stores, schools, playing fields and parks
2008: Housing
2014: A hospital, affordable housing buildings, a school, a public space or some combination of those

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Moynihan Bus Rapid Transit Station!

Ben Kabak tweeted about a new proposal from something called Woods Bagot to open up Penn Station to sunlight by removing the theater under Madison Square Garden:


For many years I've argued that the "Moynihan Station" proposal contained at least two major design flaws that nullified any improvement to passenger circulation: it has lots of steps, and it's west of where most people want to go. Woods Bagot pays lip service to Moynihan Station proposal, but I would hope that this helps people realize they don't need to use the Farley Post Office to bring light back into Penn Station. Since they talk about "wrapping around" Madison Square Garden, I hope it will also deal with the atrocious pedestrian conditions above Penn Station:


Of course, there is one major drawback to the proposal: it's a wonderful vision for increased mobility, but it's not Pat Moynihan's vision, and may fail to adequately glorify our late Senator.

But wait! The proposal also mentions that "a new location for the well-used theater is unresolved." I've got the perfect place: the old Farley Post Office across the street. And you know what else we could put there? Buses!


We know that there's a shortage of places to catch a bus in Manhattan, particularly near the Lincoln Tunnel. Meanwhile, good terminals are critical to efficient hub-and-spoke bus networks, but our elected officials would rather pander to private car owners. There is a lot of space (with skylights!) inside the old building where the postal trucks used to go, and more along the sides:


You could even build a flyover across Eighth Avenue, or maybe even an underpass next to the train tracks, if you wanted to spend some money. Back inside, there are big open spaces for concourses:


Two of the biggest annoyances for transit advocates are the Moynihan Station fans with their desire to build a giant sculpture and tell us it's a functioning train station, and "Bus Rapid Transit" pushers who tell us that trains are wasteful luxuries for white people and we should be spending all the government money on buses. I've always argued that the Lincoln Tunnel XBL is the most effective form of bus rapid transit in the country. If we call this the Moynihan Bus Rapid Transit Station, maybe we can get both of these groups together to build a gorgeous temple for bus riders to enter the city like gods.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The problems with the yards

I live in Woodside, Queens, not too far from Sunnyside. I love both neighborhoods, but there are a few problems. Recently, urban planners and some of my neighbors have focused on a few in particular:

  • The rent is too damn high. I own a co-op, but I do know people who have been displaced, and people who want to live here but are having a hard time finding an affordable apartment. Increasing the housing supply would be a big help.
  • We are cut off from Astoria and Long Island City by the Sunnyside 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 involve walking through industrial areas, which can have low foot traffic, especially on nights and weekends. Four of these involve crossing long, noisy, boring bridges over the Sunnyside Yards.
  • We don't have big parks. We have a number of small parks and playgrounds, but no big forests or greenways. The parks we do have can get crowded, particularly on hot summer days.
  • There aren't as many jobs as there could be. We've got relatively low unemployment rates, but we could use more jobs.

The planners have been talking for years about addressing these problems by building a deck over the Sunnyside Yards, but my neighbors are afraid of seeing our infrastructure and services overloaded. I'm concerned that there will be too much parking, and that whatever benefit we get won't be worth the cost. I'm pretty sure there are better solutions to these problems. I'll talk more about the proposals and concerns in future posts.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

What do low Tappan Zee Bridge tolls mean for you?

  • Do you drive to work across the bridge? Hooray! Your commute from your house in Rockland with the big yard to the office park in Westchester will continue to be affordable … for you, at least.
  • Do you drive across the bridge for shopping or socializing, or to get to a vacation home? Woo hoo! You will still be able to spend long hours driving to and from the mall parking lot. Enjoy your time off!
  • Do you drive a truck across the bridge? All right! Your business will continue to make a profit, until gas prices get too high.
  • Do you sell things in a mall or strip mall in Westchester or Rockland? Yowza! Your parking lots will still be full, and you may even recoup your investment.
  • Are you a politician or bureaucrat representing the area? Yippee! Pandering opportunities galore!
  • Do you take buses across the bridge, or in Westchester or Rockland? Not so good. People will continue to drive and to pressure their politicians for more roads and parking. Transit agencies will keep struggling for riders and subsidies.
  • Do you sell things in a walkable village in Westchester or Rockland? Sorry! The downtown resurgence you bet on is still a long way off. Hope you've got plenty of seed money to burn through before your gastropub gets out of the red!
  • Do you walk in Westchester or Rockland? Yeah, welp. The sidewalks, trails and density you need will continue to be neglected by elites who drive everywhere.
  • Do you breathe in Westchester or Rockland? Whoops! Why don't you take a nice drive up to New Paltz and enjoy the fresh air up there?
  • Do you take trains or buses in New York State? Oh, gee, sorry! We have no money for new transit. And look at that, we have no money to maintain the subways and buses you currently use. Wonder where all that money went?
  • Do you pay taxes in New York State? Wow! Those services you used to get for your tax dollars, like schools and low college tuition? Sorry to tell you, but the state is broke! We just can't afford luxuries like that any more. It's a new era!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

What is the challenge of our generation in New York?

As I wrote a few weeks ago, speaking about the problem of suburban poverty, Chuck Marohn said, "the challenge of our generation is to make sure that we don't leave those people behind." A group of researchers at the Brookings Institution, led by Alan Berube and Elizabeth Kneebone, have been investigating this important issue, and last year they came out with a book, Confronting Suburban Poverty, with a companion website. By comparing the 2000 Census with the 2008-2012 American Community Survey, they make a strong case that poor people are being displaced from center cities to suburbs.

I've been thinking along similar lines to Chuck's for a while now. I want to make sure that poor people aren't getting dispersed from my city, New York, to the suburbs and then left behind, so I looked into it. I've heard stories about people being displaced from Manhattan, from Brooklyn, and even from my own neighborhood in Queens. I want to know where they're going, and how we can preserve their access to New York's jobs and services.

On the Brookings website, it turns out the New York area has one of the lowest rankings in the country for (Edit) the increase in concentrated poverty, 89 out of 100:


Kneebone does observe that "all metro areas saw suburban poverty grow during the 2000s," and in the data table, she and her colleagues list the "New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA" Metropolitan Statistical Area as having a 35.6% growth in the suburban poor population between 2000 and 2008-2012 (from 708,574 to 960,883).

The first question is, what do the Brookings researchers mean when they talk about "suburban" anything? Joe Kriesberg raised that question, and Kneebone and Berube answered it: "We identify cities as the first named city in the MSA title and any other named city that has a population of 100,000 or more. We treat the remainder of MSAs as suburbs." That means that in the New York-etc. MSA they counted New York, Newark, Jersey City, Yonkers, Bridgeport, New Haven, Paterson, Stamford and Elizabeth as cities, but Edison, Woodbridge, Hamilton, Trenton, Norwalk, Clifton, New Rochelle, Mount Vernon and Passaic are suburbs.

I'll talk about what I found in a later post, but for now I just wanted to get this part out there.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Did you bring enough housing for everybody?

When I was a kid, one of the things the teachers told us was that if you bring snacks or candy, you have to bring enough for everyone. If you don't, it winds up going mostly to your friends and excluding a lot of kids, which isn't fair.

I realized recently that this also applies to people who want to keep rents down through rent controls, not increasing the supply, like Tom Angotti:

At bottom, developers typically argue, the housing problem is all about supply and demand. Let us increase the supply, they say, and there will be more housing to go around for all. This, not rent regulation, will keep rents from rising. That’s good old trickle-down economics, which never works. Indeed, we’ve just come through a couple of decades in which the total housing supply has grown dramatically, and so have rents, but there was also a huge loss of low-rent housing. Over the last 20 years almost 250,000 units of rental housing were deregulated.

I want to give Angotti props for two things: unlike many rent control advocates, Angotti actually listens to people who advocate increasing the supply, and he takes the time to write an articulate response. So even though I'm criticizing his arguments, the same criticism is even more true of other people's arguments.

First of all, one sorta-valid question that Angotti raises: if total housing supply has increased (I don’t have the figures, but I’ll assume that it’s true), and rents have also increased, doesn’t that falsify the supply-side argument?

Well, no, because Angotti’s representation of "what developers typically argue" is inaccurate. I honestly don’t know what developers typically argue, because I’m not one and I don’t spend much time listening to them. But if the problem is all about supply and demand, then Angotti left out the demand side. A fairer statement of the argument would be "Let us increase the supply to match the demand, and there will be enough housing to go around for all."

If we phrase the proposal this way, we have to look at demand, and all signs point to a huge increase in the demand for New York’s walkable urban spaces and its well-paying jobs. But Angotti does not want to look at demand. Instead, he shrugs it off as a “speculative real estate fever.” He acknowledges that “the plan claims the city’s population is bound to increase in the next decade,” but argues, bizarrely, that the projected increase is not based on evidence of real demand but of demand induced by “the development of smaller housing units.” That is all he says about the demand side.

To people who currently rent in the city, Angotti’s blustering about "gentrification" and displacement may be comforting, but for me it rings hollow. I’m a fourth-generation New Yorker, but after college (two decades ago, which is as far back as Angotti goes in his piece), I couldn’t afford to live in the neighborhood I knew best, the Upper West Side. Even now, with a solidly middle-class family income, four of the neighborhoods that my family has called home are now out of my range.

Things might have been different if my parents had not done the back-to-the-land thing in the seventies. They might have been different if, when I spent a few years to go to school in another state, I had played the illegal sublet game instead of giving up my rent-stabilized apartment. They might have been different if one of my family members had gotten a bigger apartment for me to illegally inherit when he died. But as it is, my family has given up several rent-regulated apartments, and I am displaced, one of the victims that Angotti and his fellow rent-regulation advocates cry for, and the Upper West Side community is poorer because the studio I inherited there was too small for my family.

Except that I’m not one of the victims that Angotti cries for. My family didn’t live in any of these places for "decades and generations," but instead migrated around the metropolitan area, chasing dreams of suburban comfort, rustic peace and creative success across the generations. Because we left our rent-regulated apartments semi-voluntarily, I don’t count as one of Angotti's displaced. I have no right of return.

You know who else doesn’t matter in the world of the rent-regulation advocates? Immigrants from other countries, looking for cheap places to settle in the U.S. The talented and ambitious from other parts of the country, looking to make it in New York. The queer and the weird and the non-conforming, chased out of their tight-knit communities in small towns and suburbs. Anyone who wants to live without a car and not be part of a small, oppressed minority.

There is no housing for us, because the rent-regulation advocates didn’t bring enough for everybody. They only brought enough for their friends, those fortunate enough to be currently benefiting from rent regulation and subsidized housing. If I were their kindergarten teacher I would have a quiet talk with their parents after school.

Honestly, I’m fine: I have a nice co-op in Queens. But it’s the thought that counts, and the thought that we don’t count is pretty damn offensive. It leaves this old lefty fuming at the cozy club mentality that Angotti tries to dress up as justice.