Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The challenge of curbside transit lanes

Back in May I argued that we should be talking about improving surface transit even for avenues with subways or els, for three reasons. First, it can help calm speeding personal cars and trucks. Second, it can provide local hop-on, hop-off service, which is especially valuable to people who have difficulty walking or climbing stairs. Third, especially with New York’s high construction costs and deference to NIMBYs, it can accommodate increases in demand in much less time than building a subway or el.

A couple of weeks ago Sandy Johnston tweeted a great picture from Lisbon to illustrate that street-level transit does not need huge boulevards; the minimum width is not much more than the width of the vehicle. Of course, for it to be rapid transit the route has to be unimpeded by private vehicles, but we could never get a useful network if we only built transitways on our widest boulevards.

The city does have an extensive network of hundred foot avenues, and we can have a decent surface-level rapid transit network once we find reliable ways of making transit rapid within a hundred feet. So what arrangement of road space would do the most to discourage single-occupant driving while still allowing people to get to work and shopping, and to receive and ship things? I’ll talk in future posts about what has worked in the past and what might work in the future, but today I need to talk about a couple of things that don’t work.

The Department of Transportation originally proposed banning vehicles other than transit on Thirty-Fourth Street. That can work; I’ve seen it work on Fulton Street in Brooklyn and yes, on State Street in Chicago. But it only works if businesses can still receive deliveries. I’m not sure what they do in Brooklyn, but I know in Chicago they have alleys. I’ve read promising things about deliveries by trolley and bicycle, but until those are closer let’s plan for some private vehicles, especially on wider avenues.

The Department of Transportation has tried reserving the entire curbside lane for buses on avenues like Second Avenue and 34th Street, with unsatisfying results. To begin with there’s always a major outcry from residents and business owners, who are used to having the curbside lane for turning, unloading and customer parking - and more often than not, parking for residents and business owners.

The city has compromised on this issue in a very counterproductive way, by suspending the bus lanes to allow private loading and even parking during middays, nights and weekends, and allowing turning and passenger dropoffs at all times. But they still painted the lane red, teaching drivers that the lanes don’t really matter and making things harder for an already uninterested NYPD.

I’m not entirely sympathetic: it’s been shown that for businesses in walkable neighborhoods in New York, the majority of customers arrive on foot, by bus or by train. The guy who gets his Goya beans delivered to his apartment on 34th Street can have them wheeled around the corner on a handtruck. But as I wrote a few years ago, a lane for parking suits our goals better than a lane for moving cars. If we have a hundred feet to work with, minus sidewalk and transit lanes, I’d rather fill the rest of the space with a traffic lane and a parking/loading lane than two traffic lanes.

Curbside bus lanes can work fairly well in places like the west side of Fifth Avenue where there are no businesses and relatively few turns - although even that lane would benefit from better enforcement. On avenues with businesses and intersections, it’s not the best approach. I’ll talk about other possibilities in future posts.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Buy American Sprawl

The American Action Forum recently released a critique of “Buy America” laws on the basis that they place undue hardship on transit agencies and set a ceiling on the quality of the equipment they use. I’m not one to put a lot of trust in Republican think-tanks, but I’ve heard similar critiques from transit advocates across the political spectrum.

The idea of "buy America" is initially appealing, especially when you hear about the horrendous conditions in sweatshops overseas. But there are lots of European and East Asian companies that have better working conditions than you find in factories in the United States. In fact, the “American” trains are frequently assembled in the US in a factory owned by one of these companies, out of parts produced by factories in other countries owned by the same company.

The main argument for "buy America" in transit that holds up to any scrutiny is the idea of maintaining or boosting our manufacturing capability. Because of "buy America," there are American citizens in Plattsburgh, Yonkers and Portland who know how to make trains. If the market grows again some day, there may be enough business for an American company to hire some of these workers and go into competition with Bombardier, Kawasaki and Alstom.

Another argument is that manufacturing transit locally builds the constituency for transit. People who might never ride the subway fight for subway funding, because they build the subways. This is potentially valuable for New York, where our tax money is regularly diverted to road building under the guise of "parity for upstate."

Unfortunately, that potential rarely seems to work out. It’s impossible to tell which legislators supported what project and which ones opposed it, because they do everything in secret. But the bottom line is that these plants have been running for decades and our transit systems are underfunded every year by the Legislature.

Whenever I take the Hudson River Line I like going past the Kawasaki factory in Yonkers. Here’s a former Otis elevator factory making trains for the New York Subway that’s only a few miles from the subway itself. More importantly, it’s walking distance from home for many low-income workers, and a short transit ride for millions.

Contrast the walkable downtown Kawasaki factory with the Bombardier factory built in the 1990s on a decommissioned Air Force base in Plattsburgh. This is an unpleasant forty-minute walk from downtown, and relatively few people live nearby.

There is a bus that runs hourly and stops outside the plant, but it runs in a circle, so the trip back takes forty minutes. I’m guessing the vast majority of workers drive.

The Alstom plant in Hornell, where the new Acela train cars will be assembled, is a bit better. It was built by the Erie Railroad in the nineteenth century, so it was built to be walkable.

But Hornell has no passenger train service, and it is served by only one bus a day to Rochester, and another going back to Elmira. At least Plattsburgh has nine buses a day to Albany, plus daily Amtrak service.

The new CRRC plant in Springfield where they'll be building the new MBTA cars looks like it'll be super sprawly and unwalkable from the renderings.

But if you check out the location on Google Maps it actually looks much better: twenty minutes from downtown on the G2 bus. On the other hand, Siemens's plant in Sacramento is sprawly and a twenty minute walk from the nearest bus stop:

Kawasaki may have built a very walkable and transit-oriented plant in Yonkers, but their plant in Lincoln, where the new WMATA subway cars are being built, is out in the cornfields near the airport, a 35-minute walk from the nearest bus:

Even the Hitachi plant in Medley, Florida, where the trains for the Miami Metrorail are made, is almost two hours from downtown Miami, including an hour by bus from the nearest Metrorail station in Hialeah and then a half hour walk:

So you might have noticed that we're fighting for money to be spent on transit, and it goes to pay people who never take transit, and in many cases couldn't take transit if they wanted to. And what if we didn't have Buy America? Well, notice that all these companies are headquartered in other countries? Some of the manufacturing (and in some cases, most of the manufacturing) is done at plants owned by the same company and located in other countries.

In the case of Bombardier, many of New York's subway cars are made at this old snowmobile plant 87 miles north of Québec city, with no bus or train service.

On the other hand, the main Alstom plant in Valenciennes, France is a half-hour by tram from the main Valenciennes train station - which has multiple trains per hour to Paris, including the TGV.

And the Siemens plant in Krefeld in densely populated Westphalia, is a half hour by commuter rail and bus from the main Krefeld train station, with frequent service to Aachen, Duisberg, Cologne and even Mönchengladbach, wherever that is.

The CRRC factory in Changchun is forty minutes from the main train station.

More importantly it's surrounded by hundreds of high-rise apartment buildings, any one of them big enough to comfortably house a sizable chunk of the workforce of these American factories.

And finally, take a look at Kawasaki's main plant in Kobe, less than twenty minutes on foot from the main high-speed rail station, right near the harbor.

Just a few blocks away we see classic Japanese urbanism: residential high-rises and Really Narrow Streets.

The Hitachi Kasado plant in Kudamatsu is slightly sprawlier, but still a short transit or walking commute for thousands of workers.

The bottom line is that when our transit dollars go to China or Japan or Germany or France, they go to people who commute on foot and by train. When they go to Yonkers or Springfield, they may go to some bus or foot commuters. But when they go to Hornell or Plattsburgh or La Pocatière, or even Sacramento or Hialeah, they go to people who never use transit.

Ordinarily this would not be such a big deal; we're talking a few thousand people total, out of millions of car drivers in North America. But if we're counting the number of vehicle-miles traveled eliminated by the purchase of these trains, we need to subtract the vehicle-miles traveled by all those workers.

The other factor is that these contracts are sometimes presented as a way to build electoral support for transit outside of cities. This may be purely a transaction on the electoral level: a legislator votes to fund the transit agency capital plan, and the agency provides jobs in the legislator's district that they can take credit for. But what happens then? How many train cars does New York need? How long will these legislators keep up their end of the bargain? And what happens when the desire of their sprawl-living, long-distance-driving constituents for more and bigger roads conflicts with the needs of transit users (as opposed to transit agency managers)?

I've already made the case that cutting road and parking budgets can often do more to achieve our goals (see the top of the page) than spending more money on transit. Combine that with the fact (documented by the AAF in the report I mentioned at the beginning) that with Buy America our rail car budgets buy only 75% of what they would otherwise, and they encourage people to drive, what are we really getting for our tax dollars?

Monday, June 19, 2017

How we get safer crosstown streets

The killing of Citibike rider Dan Hanegby by a Short Line bus driver on West Twenty-Sixth Street this week highlighted a number of critical problems with the way buses are managed in Manhattan, and pointed up serious conflicts and contradictions in the agendas of transit, pedestrian and cycling advocates in the New York area and beyond.

It’s true that buses are dangerous to cyclists, and to pedestrians as well. The person who has always articulated this most clearly and forcefully has been Peter Smith. In a guest piece for Cyclelicious he focuses on “Bus Rapid Transit”; in a comment on a Greater Greater Washington post he talks about buses and bikes in general, and in a comment on a Bike Portland post he specifically discusses cases where bus drivers hit cyclists.

On a basic level, Smith is right: if we are really committed to Vision Zero, "the end goal is to do away with all vehicles that cannot live harmoniously with human beings — buses and cars should be the first to go." And although he claims that buses are more scary than cars, he also says that "the single occupancy vehicle in the city is the greatest manifestation of that evil—so it shouldn’t be tolerated."

If buses (and cars and trucks) cannot coexist with cyclists and pedestrians, what do we do about it? Smith’s vision is primarily centered around bikes and pedestrians, but sometimes people want to go further than they can bike. Sometimes we want to carry things - maybe very big things. And sometimes we can’t walk or bike at all. The answer, of course, is trains, as I’ve written before, and as @DoorZone wrote on Twitter in response to this tragedy:

That’s a lovely vision of the future, but how do we get to it? Even the wise cannot see all ends, but it seems like gradually investing more and more in rail (including at-grade trolleys), pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, and ending subsidies and requirements for roads and parking will lead to an incremental shift away from cars, buses and trucks and towards trains, bikes and walking. I think we can also do more with wheelbarrows, hand carts, cargo bikes and other non-motorized freight carriers than we currently do.

Unfortunately, our city’s advocates for walking and cycling aren’t conducting anything like a coherent campaign to shift our long-distance and heavy-goods movement from cars, buses and trucks to trains and trolleys. In fact, many of them are actively hostile to subways and trolleys, treating them as luxuries for the rich. In contrast, they elevate walking, cycling - and buses. In particular, they are fond of "Bus Rapid Transit," which they see as cheap, quick and democratic, and sometimes explicitly tout as a "surface subway."

These proposals are often presented as ways to get working-class New Yorkers to from homes outside of Manhattan to jobs outside of Manhattan, but there are still lots of jobs in Manhattan, and it’s a convenient transfer point to get to other parts of the metro area. In particular, there are lots of working-class people who live in parts of New Jersey and Rockland County where the bus is the most convenient way to get to work - and in fact, the Lincoln Tunnel Exclusive Bus Lane is the most rapid bus facility in the metro area.

But because of the way buses are mismanaged in New York City, there are almost no through-running bus lines. People from New Jersey have to get off the bus at or near the Port Authority Bus Terminal and make their way to jobs or shopping, usually by transferring to a subway.

The "Bus Rapid Transit" boosters are right about one aspect of buses: they can be scaled up quickly in response to increased demand. This worked very well when demand for transit rose beginning in 2007, in response to rising gas prices and crashing home equity. People began taking the bus in greater numbers, not just to get from the New Jersey suburbs in to Manhattan, but from cities like Philadelphia and Washington, and even further afield through the Chinatown bus network and relative newcomers like Megabus, Bolt and Vamoose.

The problem was that the "BRT" facility - the Exclusive Bus Lane and the Port Authority Bus Terminal that it feeds into - were already over capacity. So our "BRT" activists immediately demanded that it be expanded, right? No, they were actually pretty quiet about it, which left the bus operators to establish pick-up spots on the street, at handy transfer points in Manhattan, particularly Chinatown and Midtown.

When NIMBY "community members" came out to complain about the buses, were our “BRT” activists there to oppose them? No, they were pretty much AWOL, as they had been when NIMBYs torpedoed the 34th Street Busway. They did nothing as the State Senate forced bus operators to run a gauntlet of NIMBYs before they could legally pick up passengers on the street, and they haven’t had the power to increase off-street infrastructure.

Despite Peter Smith’s allegations I have not seen any proof that buses are any more dangerous than cars. In fact, we would expect them to be less dangerous, since they are operated by trained professionals with their careers potentially on the line. And yet self-proclaimed pedestrian advocates like Christine Berthet continue to repeat these allegations and to lobby for ever-greater restrictions on buses, and others in the livable streets movement echo them.

So what should we do to make our streets safer for cyclists? Some have called for physically separated crosstown bike lanes at key intervals. I like this idea. But what if you’re riding to a destination - or to a Citibike station - that isn’t on one of those streets? Can we create physically separated lanes on every street in the city? I don’t think that’s feasible or necessary.

As I’ve been arguing for years, we need to reconfigure our "side" streets as yield streets. They are all at least sixty feet wide. If you’ve ever been on one when it’s closed for construction or events, you know that they have plenty of room for two-way car traffic, and a hundred years ago they were all two-way. They can even accommodate a lane of parked cars on each side, plus a lane of moving cars in each direction, as long as the vehicles are all relatively narrow. When people started double parking it caused congestion, so the city changed them to one-way traffic flow - which has in turn led to a large increase in traffic as drivers circle the blocks. But when there is no double-parking the driving lane is extra wide, which leads to drivers speeding and crowding out cyclists.

The solution, as recommended by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and the NACTO Street Design Guide, is to reserve space for loading zones throughout the length of each block, return all the streets to two-way flow, and ramp up enforcement of double parking. Then it is important to monitor the situation and increase the space for loading zones as necessary. Additional traffic calming measures like chicanes and pavement treatments may be necessary. If the design is implemented properly, drivers will be deterred from speeding by the prospect of a head-on collision, and will be less likely to pressure cyclists into the door zones.

You might have wondered why, instead of 26th Street in Manhattan where Dan Hornegby was killed, I used a picture of the 137-00 block of 45th Avenue in Flushing to illustrate an over-wide one-way cross street. As you can see from the second photo, the rest of the blocks on 45th Avenue are two-way, and people drive much more slowly and carefully. (Holly Avenue, one block south, is the same width, two-way, and a bus route.) Again, these yield streets are not a substitute for protected bike lanes, but a treatment for streets that are not chosen as high-priority cycling corridors. In other words, it should be the default configuration for all streets that are less than eighty feet wide.

In the long term, yes, we do need to get buses off our streets, but the urgency to get private cars off the streets is just as great. In the short term, we could do a lot more to accommodate buses in Manhattan, like facilitating through-running and stops on major crosstown streets. To make crosstown streets safer for cyclists, we should implement protected bike lanes leading to Citibike stations near all Midtown subway stations. The rest of the crosstown streets should be reconfigured as two-way yield streets.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Long distance coaches should carry bikes

A couple of hears ago I was in Penn Station and heard an announcement about bustitution due to track work. The announcer informed us that the buses would not be able to accept bikes. Just the day before I had been talking with some people about cycling in Montreal. I haven't had a chance to experience it, because I haven't been there since before they rolled out the Bixi bike share. Years ago I had planned to bring my bike there on a visit, but there was bustitution and Amtrak informed me I wouldn't be allowed to take the bike on the substitute buses.

In many small cities, government-run local buses are equipped with a front rack that can hold two or three bicycles. But the policy of long distance, usually private, coach operators (at least in North America) is typically that they will only allow bikes to be stored in the cargo bins if they are in boxes, with the handlebars removed. Of course, it is very difficult for a bicycle rider to carry a box large enough to hold the bike, and removing and reattaching handlebars requires time, skill and specialized tools.

Why do they do this? It smells to me of that toxic combination of elitism and liability worries that makes it painful to interact with American corporations. The owners and executives of the coach companies don't take their own buses, and they don't ride bikes. They don't want to take bikes on the coaches: they take up a lot of space, it's time-consuming for the drivers, and they're afraid of being sued if the bikes get broken. Their lawyers said something about liability, so they made a rule: no bikes.

If we could get long distance coaches to accept bicycles in a convenient way, this could easily be used to extend the coach network, with a measurable benefit to the lives of people who don't own cars. When I was a teenager, I was essentially cut off from all the jobs at the local mall because it was five miles from the nearest coach station. The roads from the bus station to the mall were relatively friendly to bike riders, but the roads from my town to the bus station were not. This would also encourage people to take a coach for tourism.

I’ve seen a few blog posts by bike advocates in favor of racks on city buses, or space for bikes on trains. But I don’t recall ever seeing one in favor of convenient bike storage on long-distance coaches. Do you know any coach operators that carry bikes conveniently? Was there anything that overcame their objections and persuaded them to do this?

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Better transit on the hundred foot avenues

We’ve got them all over New York City: avenues that are a hundred feet wide from property line to property line. Some of them are dangerous speedways like Gun Hill Road in the Bronx, and some are congested urban business corridors like Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill. Some run through transit deserts like Little Neck Parkway, while others have four-track subways and multiple bus lines like Seventh Avenue in Manhattan.

I wish I could point to a single one of these and say that its configuration is ideal for our goals, but even Seventh Avenue has many shortcomings That said, some of these avenues are clearly better than others for local transit, some are better than others for long-distance transit, and some are better than others for pedestrian comfort and convenience.

I’ve realized that these avenues work as interesting case studies for how terrain, politics, land use and function interact to produce environments that are better or worse for transit and walking. Transit and pedestrian improvements can be independent, or they can complement each other. Running transit underground, as on Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn, or elevating it, as on Brighton Beach Avenue, is great for transit speed, frequency and reliability, but it’s no guarantee of a safe and comfortable pedestrian environment. Rezoning to allow and encourage shops and residences right next to the sidewalk can also improve conditions for pedestrians.

I’ve talked a lot about subways and els already. You know I’m in favor of them. But while we’re fighting for grade-separated rapid transit - or even if we have it - we still need to talk about surface transit. Surface transit is great for short, local trips, especially for people with mobility impairments, and reallocating street space from mixed traffic to transit, pedestrians or even parking can improve conditions for walking.

I’m planning a series of posts that explore some of these hundred foot avenues and evaluate particular strategies for their effectiveness in promoting transit or walking, or both. Stay tuned!

Friday, January 27, 2017

Do we need the Port Authority Bus Terminal?

In 2015 I talked about the proposal to build a new bus terminal in downtown Flushing, and came up with the following list of six features. The current Port Authority terminal on 41st Street provides some of these some of the time:
  1. One-stop shopping for buses.
  2. Easy transfer between buses, and from buses to trains.
  3. Short-term bus layovers.
  4. Long-term bus layovers.
  5. Avoiding street congestion. There are ramps for the upper level, and an outbound tunnel under Ninth Avenue. This leaves many buses stuck in traffic, particularly those heading north and east.
  6. Ticketing, shelter, bathrooms, food and shopping for people waiting for buses.

Any transit system is easier and more attractive with one-stop shopping, short-term bus layovers and easy transfers. But long-term bus layovers, avoiding congestion and passenger facilities are more important for long distance trips than short ones.

If I’m taking the bus to Binghamton, I might have to wait an hour or more, so it’s really important for me to have shelter, bathrooms, tickets and food. (It would be nice to have seating and a place to store my bag, but that’s a whole other post.)

Cheaper services with higher frequency, like the New Jersey Transit 166 bus, don’t need a terminal, any more than the M5 does. Of course we all need safe places to pee and grab a snack, but people waiting fifteen minutes for a half hour New Jersey Transit bus ride don’t have any more need than people waiting fifteen minutes for a half hour New York City Transit bus ride.

All movement is quicker if you don’t have a lot of people or vehicles in your way. But for someone who’s getting off right on the other end of the Lincoln Tunnel, going up three flights of stairs cuts out most of that time savings. Trips with more than a mile between stops benefit more from grade separation, because they have the time for a bus to get up to speed.

As I pointed out in my post on the proposed Flushing bus terminal, there are actually advantages to having buses pick up and drop off on the street. It allows for through-running, so that passengers whose destination is beyond the terminus can just stay on the bus, which then heads out to a layover point in a less congested area. Street pickups can also make transfers more efficient and robust by spreading them out across multiple stops.

Street-level transfers are better for the local economy. Bathrooms and shelter are public goods that need to be provided by the government, but food and shopping? That’s what downtown streets are for, in a very real sense. In Flushing the streets do an excellent job of providing snacks, drinks and banking for bus and train passengers. A government-owned building filled with corporate concessions is necessarily less dynamic and less friendly to small businesses.

The Port Authority Bus Terminal in Midtown provides all these services for long-distance bus lines like Greyhound, Peter Pan and Adirondack Trailways, but it claims to have no room for other long-distance carriers like Megabus, Fung Wah, Vamoose and Hampton Jitney. Some of these companies claim they save passengers money by not paying gate fees to the Port Authority, which is another way of saying that the City doesn’t charge enough for what is essentially a rental of valuable commercial real estate.

Other bus companies say that they offer more convenient pickups in Chinatown and the Upper East Side. But that just begs the question: if bus terminals are so great, why we don’t have them for every direction that buses go? Someone decided it was better to have apartment buildings at the mouth of the Midtown Tunnel, and office buildings near the Holland Tunnel. Were they wrong?

The other claim, that there is no room in the Port Authority terminal for Bolt and LimoLiner, is also questionable. Why do Red and Tan, Academy and Suburban load all their buses in the terminal, when most of them leave frequently for short runs? Why is New Jersey Transit, a government-owned provider of short-haul services, the biggest carrier in the terminal?

Imagine if New Jersey Transit shifted just half of their bus pickups to the street. First of all, I’ve been told that there are more jobs in East Midtown than near the Port Authority. Some of the buses could pick people up and drop them off closer to their jobs. Second, the buses could provide transfers to other trains beside the Seventh and Eighth Avenue, Broadway and 41st Street lines. That would all take a load off the E, 7 and Shuttle trains.

Moving some local NJ Transit buses to the street would free up space in the terminal. I’ve heard that the tight schedules are a source of delays, so just having more wiggle room would improve reliability on the remaining routes. This would still leave room to bring in some long distance services off the street. If it turns out we still need room for long distance services, we can move more NJ Transit buses to the street, as well as some of the shorter, more frequent runs by private carriers.

Some people might complain that the buses would just get stuck in Midtown traffic. This is why it is essential to give them, and the jitney vans, full access to the dedicated bus lanes on 34th, 42nd and 57th Streets, and to make those lanes real busways instead of the half-assed arrangement we’ve had since the DOT botched the process on 34th Street. It would also help to make them true through-running routes, going through the Midtown Tunnel or over the Queensboro Bridge.

You may have heard that the Port Authority board has declared its bus terminal to be at the end of its life, and said that it wants to use eminent domain to acquire a new property somewhere west of the current terminal, build a new terminal there at a cost of billions of dollars, and sell the current terminal to developers. The main thing wrong with this is that it would be horrible for subway transfers.

It’s bad enough to have a terminal where only the east end touches Eighth Avenue, meaning that some passengers have to walk more than two avenue blocks to get to their trains. The Port Authority Board wants to add at least another full avenue block. From what I’ve heard, most of these people have chauffeurs and all of them have free parking, and they’re baby boomers who equate driving with success, so none of them ever make this transfer.

Stephen Smith has argued that any amount in the billions should be spent building enough train tunnels under the Hudson to accommodate all the bus passengers, so that bus transfers can be made in New Jersey, and the terminal can be torn down and not replaced.

I agree with Stephen’s vision as the ultimate goal, but in the medium term there will be short trips that are best made by bus through the Lincoln Tunnel, and those trips should have access to our streets for pickup and dropoff. There will also be long distance bus trips that will be more convenient if they connect to the subway than to a commuter train, and we should have a terminal for them in Manhattan.

The good news is that a terminal serving a few long-distance routes can be much smaller than the current one. It could fit on the site of the South Wing of the current terminal, and probably doesn’t need as many levels - or the parking garage. If that wing really needs to be rebuilt, some of the buses could be relocated temporarily to the lower level of the North Wing - or the Farley Post Office.

The bottom line is that we don’t need a huge bus terminal if we have trains. If we want to spend billions improving our transit system, rail is a much more efficient, sustainable and wise place to spend it.

Friday, December 16, 2016

What if the MTA is interested in bringing back the trains?

I’ve always opposed the proposal to convert the Rockaway Beach Branch of the Long Island Railroad into a bike trail, because I think the land is too valuable as a rapid transit corridor to use for anything else. Trail advocates protest that they too are in favor of transit, and they wish we could bring transit back to the corridor, but gee, sadly the MTA is just not interested.

Not only was the MTA not interested, according to the trail pushers, but it was a waste of time to get them interested. Nobody in the area wants a train. The selfish NIMBYs would block any attempt by the MTA to rebuild the rails, and the parents whose kids use the ballfields “on” (actually near) the line would howl. The line will never be reactivated. But the NIMBYs wouldn’t oppose a park!

A few times they almost had me convinced. Against the power that has now arisen there is no victory, they whispered. Why not make the best of it? Have a nice rail trail. It'll close at dark, but in the wintertime we'll try to keep it open "slightly later" in case you're trying to ride home from work. You like the South County Trailway, don’t you? It’s not so bad!

So here it is a few years later, and it turns out that a lot of the NIMBYs have opposed a park. There are people in the area who are in favor of bringing the trains back. And the MTA is doing a study of reactivating train service! The bike trail advocates (who were really transit advocates that had given up hope, you remember) must be overjoyed!

Turns out that - surprise! - the bike trail advocates, now paid by the Governor and park-oriented nonprofits, are against reactivating the rails, and they’re repeating all the NIMBY arguments. The most bizarre one I’ve seen is that the noise of passing trains would distract students at three schools at the Metropolitan Avenue Campus. This is complete nonsense: my kid went to school for six years across the street from the noisy 7 train el and doesn’t remember ever being distracted by it, and the Rockaway Branch would have brand-new rails on an embankment. But as LLQBTT pointed out on Twitter, the presence of these schools is actually a point in favor of reactivating train service. Wouldn’t an Expeditionary Learning School be much better if the Expeditions could be taken by train? Wouldn’t it be better if kids could take the train to Little league practices instead of being driven by their parents?

The bike path advocates are also making up new, ostensibly pro-transit, arguments that don’t make sense to anyone who actually does transit advocacy. How many riders would we really expect to take the new Rockaway Beach Branch train to Kennedy Airport instead of the AirTrain, and why do we care? They indulge and amplify the fears of a handful of Rockaway residents that Rockaway Branch trains would “end the A train.” And if they believe that it would “cause slowing of trains” on the LIRR main line, why not support finishing the partly-built connection to the Queens Boulevard subway, as described by Capt. Subway?

The worst of all the arguments against bringing back the trains a legal one: that a section of the right-of-way was transferred to Forest Park, and that restoring the trains would constitute “alienation of parkland.” This is absolute hogwash. New York City parks are criss-crossed with transportation corridors, some of which are genuinely oppressive, destructive and deadly, and the City has not to my knowledge raised any legal objections. The Jackie Robinson Parkway - its name an insult to the athlete - has a much bigger negative impact on Forest Park than the Rockaway Beach Branch ever will. It would actually make a great busway and bike path, opening up the park to residents of some of the poorest Brooklyn neighborhoods, but the Trust for Public Land has shown no interest in it.

More than anything else, these statements by the bike trail advocates have given proof to my hunch that they are not in favor of transit, that they think a bike path is more important than anything, and that they are willing to lie through their teeth in order to get one.