Saturday, October 1, 2016

When ridership doesn't matter

In the past couple of years I’ve noticed something that would be baffling in a lot of contexts, and is still kind of hard to believe when you see it. It’s called a pass-up, and it’s when a transit vehicle is so full that it can’t fit any more people, and leaves riders standing on the platform or the curb.


It’s bad enough when there really is another bus coming along in a minute. It’s bad enough when the city doesn’t have enough track capacity or enough train cars to move all the people who want to ride. But what I’m really talking about is when you can’t get on a bus and there isn’t another bus for ten minutes or more, or when one bus or train after another is uncomfortably packed.

It’s possible that the MTA, with its heavy debt service burden and its large employee benefit obligations, is incapable of bringing in a profit on any route at any time, no matter how many people ride it, so that it never helps the bottom line to add buses. But that would be a very different story than they told in 2010 when they cut service.

If you asked some of the people waiting for the M60 how they feel about the prospect of a fare increase, they would probably complain and tell you they couldn’t afford it. But if you asked them whether they’d pay fifty cents more to get a seat on the bus, or to just ensure there would be room for them on the next bus that came, they might say yes.

On the face of it, it makes no sense. These are paying customers; why wouldn’t the agency want their money?

We know it usually works in the other direction: transit providers don’t get enough riders, so they raise fares and cut back service, which drives away some of the remaining riders, in what is known as the Transit Death Spiral. We’ve put measures in place to protect transit systems from that. The problem is that those measures also remove most of the incentives for actually serving passengers.

The Transit Death Spiral is in fact a perfectly normal outcome for anyone who is selling something but is unable to compete. They sell less and less, and with less income they are unable to maintain the quality of their product. Customers give their money to the competitor, who can use it to improve the competing product.

Transit advocates knew there was a public interest in keeping transit around, so they got the government to subsidize it. But the reason transit was losing market share was that the government was subsidizing competing roads. There was a powerful popular consensus in favor of gas, roads and parking, and a popular distrust of railroad companies and “the traction interests.” There were also powerful undemocratic forces attacking transit, like Bob Moses, car companies and road lobbyists.

Transit advocates tried to promote an “all of the above” strategy, but rarely achieved “parity,” let alone more than 20%. They then largely fell back on charity arguments, which are inherently self-limiting because they implicitly accept the idea that nobody would take a bus or train unless they can’t afford to drive.

Then came transit advocates’ deal with the devil, the mistake that we’re still paying for today. After failing in both market competition and popular subsidies, transit advocates tried to beat road lobbyists at their undemocratic, competition-stifling game. They turned to public authorities.

Even today you see transit advocates arguing with a straight face that they can’t improve transit without a regional authority. Public authorities are the tools that Moses used to achieve power without a popular mandate. They allow elected officials to maintain a degree of control, but give the appearance of independence, protecting transit bureaucrats from all accountability to the voters or the market.

The result of this is that now, when there are plenty of passengers, the transit managers seem to have no interest in increasing frequency to serve the people who want to ride. What’s in it for them? They don’t get punished for leaving money on the table, and politicians don’t complain about crowded buses.

There are people who want to serve those people and take their money. But the city blocks them, and self-righteous bloggers spew bombast about “privatization” and “stratified transportation systems.” The state could serve them well, but the governor finds more political value in spending city money to build roads in the suburbs and the country. And on this the social justice advocates are silent.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

New traffic patterns, new driving habits

I'm not a traffic engineer, but I know that old habits die hard. I also know that it's possible to create new habits, and once those habits are in place it's hard to get rid of them. Whenever you institute a new traffic pattern, it's an opportunity to teach new good habits, but also to inadvertently teach bad habits. And I know that here in New York we can't trust the NYPD to consistently enforce protections for pedestrians, so habits and barriers are our main lines of defense.


Because I know this, today it was frustrating for me to see the current state of the eastern end of the Queens Boulevard median expansion at 57th Avenue. It looks like the DOT plan involves four colors of paint (white, yellow green and beige), flexible bollards, stop signs and concrete islands. I only saw bollards at the slip lane just west of the Port Washington LIRR viaduct, and a stop sign in front of the Elks Lodge east of 51st Avenue. They have not laid down any beige paint yet, and green paint stops at Broadway. But the white paint continues east almost to the end of the project.

This is not so bad going eastward. The problem is that going westward, the first thing drivers encounter is a few lines of white and yellow paint. There is no beige paint to indicate that this is now pedestrian space, and no green paint to indicate that there is now a bike lane. There are no bollards, or even temporary orange barrels.

Some of these drivers have just come off of the express lanes, some off of Woodhaven Boulevard, some off the LIE. They are in four lanes of traffic being squeezed down to one, and many of them did not know there would be only one lane. They did not have any warning, so they did not know to slip over to the express lanes.

The result I saw today was people driving right over the yellow and white paint, as though it wasn't there and they had two driving lanes the way they've had since the sixties. Private cars, taxis, Access-A-Ride vans, even the Q53 bus drove over the lines. How long have they been doing that? How long will they be allowed to continue? What kind of precedent does that set?


Like I said, I'm not a traffic engineer. Maybe I'm worrying too much about this. Maybe once the green and beige paint get laid down, and the bollards put in, the drivers will all learn to slip into the express lanes, or even to take the train or the bus instead. But it just seems to me that we should have a hard barrier at the place where the median begins, to keep people from driving on it. And this is not an academic concern; the DOT's stats show that 87 people were injured at the 57th Avenue intersection between 2010 and 2015, two of them severely.


You may know that a 22-year-old cyclist, Asif Rahman, was killed on this stretch of Queens Boulevard in 2008. Since then his mother has fought hard to make the road safer for people who travel it in the future. As I was passing Rahman's ghost bike a cyclist overtook me, using the new lane marked only by white and yellow paint. It felt a bit safer already. We're all hoping the DOT does it right and makes it stay.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

A way among the tube socks

I am not a Bicycle Advocate, and I don't believe that Bikeshare is Transit. But I'm now convinced that the combination of bike share and protected bike lanes has improved mobility for a lot of people. It has worked for me when I've traveled to DC and London, and at home here in New York. The cost has been relatively low, whether measured in terms of dollars, square feet of public space, or advocacy hours.


In my experience, bikeshare is not effective for getting people out of cars and taxis and decongesting our subways and sidewalks without that network of protected lanes and quiet side streets. I am a cautious rider, and I avoid streets where it feels like drivers have too much power or speed. Rather than fear for my life I will just walk or take the subway.

A few months ago I was on Irving Place and wanted to go to Soho. I figured I'd ride the relatively quiet Eighteenth Street to the Second Avenue protected bike lane. But when I got to Third Avenue I found my way blocked by a street fair.

I turned south for a few blocks on Third Avenue. I hate riding on big avenues without a bike lane; the drivers are either speeding or frustrated or both. It was also difficult to remember which streets went which way, but I think I avoided the pattern at Stuyvesant Square that sends you back west on Fifteenth Street, and headed east on Twelfth.

I was looking forward to getting onto Second Avenue. But when I got there I found the avenue completely filled by another street fair. These were not genuine community festivals, but the generic fairs that have become the norm here in New York City. My way was blocked by tube socks and mozzarepas. There wasn't even room on the sidewalk to walk my Citibike.

I doubled back and rode down Third Avenue again. I checked again a few blocks later and I was past the fair, but that was just luck; I didn't know until I'd gone all the way down the block.

For bikeshare to serve as a true transportation option, we don't just need a bike route network , but a reliable one. If any part of it is unavailable, the whole network is compromised, and people will be less likely to rely on it.

Of course it's not just bikes; the car network is disrupted. But drivers have lots of alternate routes: a driver whose way is blocked on Second Avenue would not be terribly inconvenienced by driving on Third. But for me, with Second Avenue blocked the nearest protected southbound avenue is Ninth Avenue/Hudson Street/Bleecker Street, meaning I would have to bike clear across the island and back.

This is also an issue for pedestrians. Walking a long city block out of the way is not always practical, leaving those of us trying to get somewhere mixing with the zeppole eaters.

As many have said, we need to reform these street fairs. We also need to convert more car lanes to bike lanes on the avenues. But in addition, we need to preserve some bike access through street fairs. If they can have fairs on sixty foot cross streets like Eighteenth, they can leave twelve feet of space on a 75-foot avenue like Second.

At a minimum, we should have some notification system for when the bike lane network is disrupted, whether by street fairs, construction or something else. A tweet on the Citibike feed would help.

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?