Category Archives: Transportation Planning

Cuomo’s State of the State: Platitudes and Pragmatism

If you’re unfamiliar with the tangled mass of hair in a drain pipe that is New York State and New York City’s infrastructure funding mechanisms let me start you off by explaining that almost anything you use to get to work in the morning that is stamped with an italicized “MTA” is the property of the state of New York. Funds for subways, buses, and regional rail are all doled out by Albany which means the money can sometimes, um, find its way into projects that don’t have much to do with public transportation. It’s a delicate relationship, and maybe the only one where the State House has more leverage than Gracie Mansion.

Governor Cuomo’s State of the State address comes little more than a week after the swearing in of New York City’s 109th mayor, democrat Bill De Blasio. It’s the first time we received a public view of how their platitudinal visions for the region will mesh and, thankfully, Cuomo dedicated a not insignificant balance of his speech on infrastructure development. (The speech touched on transportation issues without getting wonky; if you want the fuller plan [and I recommend it] you can check out the SotS booklet.) He concentrated on two topics: the airports and the Bronx.

(Before we go on, yes, his decision to endorse the construction of an interstate highway connector in the great frozen north of the state smacks of pandering to people who are nutty enough to live near the Canadian border.  StreetsBlog covers it much better than I could hope to here.)

Cuomo’s espousal of an MTA plan to route New Haven line trains from Penn Station through the East Bronx while adding four new stations in under served communities in the process is a welcome start the year. The four locales that the MTA plans on adding stations to in the Bronx—Hunts Point, Parkchester, Morris Park, and Co-op City—don’t currently have transit access to Manhattan and adding the station stops could help spur some economic growth just by improving access to business districts on the island. Giving Metro-North trains a west side Manhattan terminus also means that commuters can potentially lop time off their morning and evening commutes and balance subway loads between the lateral sides of Manhattan.

homemap 11 2011 Cuomos State of the State: Platitudes and Pragmatism

(Oh, about those subways—well Cuomo didn’t offer up any plan to improve on the claustrophobic hellscape that is Penn Station during his speech. By shifting commuter loads from the east to the west side, you’re also putting pressure on an already dangerously overburdened Penn Station. Giving south bound commuters access to the different trains on their commutes is great but only if you can build out capacity in the stations, otherwise you’re just packing a lot more people into an already full [and shitty] sardine can.)

The plan isn’t transformative—the rush hour headways would be on par with the Q train I have to take in the morning, which is better than expected—but non-highway capital projects are getting rarer which means we need to stop holding our noses at pragmatism. Penn Station access is at least a little push back towards ambition.

Cuomo’s other transportation talking point hit a little closer to home. (And be warned: This is going to get a little Live Journal all of a sudden. Also this is a story about Newark which isn’t one of the airports Cuomo is talking about but whatever, this is Radials not the Times.) My girlfriend and I were on our way to Florida for a wedding last week and decided that we had enough time to hop NJTransit from Penn Station to Newark Liberty. Penn Station wasn’t as much of a terribly clusterfuck as I was used to and, even though the NJTransit train was packed to the point that I had to move out of the way whenever our conductor wanted to make a breathy, adenoidal announcement about station stops, we got to the Air Train station without much incident.

We come down the escalator into the waiting area for the Air Train (it’s a monorail, imagine something slightly shittier than Disney World’s) and it’s packed, probably a good 8 or 9 people deep. It’s never crowded. Newark is a very busy airport but the majority of customers would rather pay cab fare than the $20 you shell out for a train and Air Train ticket. It turns out one of the rails is broken—probably because it’s cold and monorails don’t work in the cold (?). Oh well, another perfectly good one is still going—though it’s moving kind of slowly and pulls into the station and some red-jacketed man is yelling “this train will not be returning to the terminal.”

ewr airtrain Cuomos State of the State: Platitudes and Pragmatism

Like Disney World, but much shittier.

For people who have never been to the Newark Airport Air Train station: there is no regular exit. Sure, you can trip the emergency doors and honestly no one really cares about them so that’s always an option but other than that there is no way to get out of the Newark Airport station without getting on another NJTransit train and getting off somewhere down the line. It is the most boring purgatory on earth.

So we wait, assuming the powers that be of Newark Liberty International Airport can’t possibly be dumb enough to 1) shut down the only transit link to their airport on a Friday evening at 6 PM and 2) not have any contingency plans like, oh, a fucking bus, to alleviate such a situation. Eventually, I get some valuable information from a young, also red-jacketed woman about a single bus that was coming to bring customers to the terminal. Naturally, being savvy ass holes, my girlfriend and I grab our stuff and wait by the only exit in the waiting area with the tacit understanding that if there is going to be a bus it is going to be outside of this door since the people designing this station were apparently close students of the Thermopylae school of architecture.

Needless to say we got on the bus while some 19 year old backpackers heading to France cried their eyes out because they were going to miss their hostel check in. Tough luck, kids.

The infrastructure connecting New York to its airports is godawful. There is no one seat ride to JFK and only a narrow band of the city has direct access to La Guardia via transit. I don’t agree with Gov. Cuomo’s assertion that somehow airport experience has a one to one relationship with tourism in New York City (people are going to come here no matter what) but there is a vast amount of ground to catch up on as far as logistics and convenience are concerned and Cuomo at least paid lip service to reestablishing both airports as main cargo hubs which means he’s also, hopefully, thinking of giving freight policy, an ugly but necessary sector of the economy, some much needed public light.

These are not sexy topics. It’s not a new subway system connecting currently hot neighborhoods or high speed rail that can get you from Grand Central to Syracuse in 20 minutes or, like, a fucking Hyperloop or something, but the improvements are, for lack of a better word, thoughtful. You don’t see balanced takes on wonkish topics from these sorts of speeches because politicians are too busy spouting platitudes about job creation and growth and pubic safety. Gov. Cuomo somehow found time to do both.

Among the Evangelicals: Conversions in Urban Planning

At 9:38 Thursday morning, a young woman dressed in a matching set of oversized collegiate sweats skulked out the deli on the corner of Fulton and South Oxford in Fort Greene, lowered her chin against the spitting rain, and ducked into her idling car parked ten feet away. The car was a compact sedan with a familiar pale marigold New Jersey license plate flanked by gently pulsating caution flashers. She had been grocery shopping, or as much grocery shopping as you can do in a Brooklyn corner deli, and threw her two full bags into the empty passenger seat. Her hazards stopped their electric metronome and she drove west on Fulton Street, the traffic crawling towards the borough’s most congested intersection.

Fulton Street runs the east-west length of Brooklyn, from the Queens frontier where it begins as modest 91st Avenue until it hits a kink in Brooklyn Heights and becomes Joralemon Street a few blocks before it empties in Brooklyn Bridge Park. You can’t get from one to the other without switching from the B25 bus to the J/Z subway on Alabama Avenue; the whole length is about seven miles end to end.

In 2004 the New York City Department of Transportation installed bus lanes on Fulton Street between South Oxford Street and Flatbush Avenue in order to facilitate faster travel times for the bus routes that operate in the corridor. Then-commissioner Iris Weinshall (wife of Senator Charles Schumer) prioritized traffic flow during her tenure and saw the installation of “peak direction” bus lanes as the most effective route to harmonizing movement on congested routes. The logic behind the more flexible iteration of bus routes doesn’t take a doctorate in transportation planning to understand: more people are going towards the city in the morning and away in the afternoon, so dedicated transit lanes should reflect those preferences. Travel times decreased by 12% along the affected corridors, leading to extensions past Flatbush avenue in 2010 and the creation of the Fulton Mall transit center. There may be gripes among drivers but transit ridership in the on the rise, and NYC DOT has completely rehabilitated its image from corrupt bureaucracy to administrative talisman. Polls show that most New Yorkers think the DOT is uncannily attuned to their needs, from bike lanes to safety programs. Transportation planning has become improbably trendy.

If I were writing a 5,000 word essay on the genesis of the modern bus lane and how it’s propelled transportation planning into an era of incremental pragmatism, that’s exactly how it would begin. But even with an audience of dedicated transit and planning enthusiasts I’m not sure how much the topic would actually stick. Invention is only interesting in its novelty or re-purposing, and painting a white line down a busy stretch of asphalt doesn’t satisfy either test. Surveying violations is only marginally more interesting, mostly because it gives you an idea of what drivers do when they think no one of consequence is watching.

It’s pretty fucking terrifying.

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Why a Sales Tax on Gasoline Makes More Sense than a Vehicle Miles Traveled Fee

gas pump 1024x768 Why a Sales Tax on Gasoline Makes More Sense than a Vehicle Miles Traveled Fee

Progressive policy makers have a creativity problem. It’s not that they’re stuck in an unimaginative funk where new ideas are simply recycled old ones that include some sort of social media strategy. Rather, it’s the theory that every policy suggestion has to be revolutionary or novel, backed up by data that previously unavailable or unremarkable, and implemented by way of buzzwords and viral marketing. Basics aren’t viable anymore, which is probably why there’s such an issue getting even basic movement on pressing issues.

Transportation policy, for all its swelling influence over the past decade, might be the best example of those doldrums of creativity. Now to be fair, most of the good people who are trying to strike a better balance between pedestrians and cars on our nation’s roads (the scale is tipped almost uniformly towards the latter, of course) subscribe to Occam’s Razor via bike lanes and speed bumps and pedestrian plazas—there is a complicit understanding that keeping it simple works best.

I’m guessing that most people who find themselves here probably know that the Federal gasoline excise tax has been stuck at $0.184 per gallon since 1993, a charge that has lost 38% of its purchasing power in the last two decades, according to shifts in the consumer price index. Essentially, the gas tax has stagnated at levels that render its main beneficiary—the Highway Trust Fund or HTF—toothless and ineffective. We see the results in our ruptures interstate system and our crumbling bridges. Most reasonable people admit that we need to replenish the trust fund at a better clip, but there’s significant disagreement about how we do it and that’s how we get to the navel gazing of the Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) fee.

Listen, VMT charges are not on the same level of stupidity as Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proposed elimination of the state gasoline tax in exchange for an increased sales tax, a large chunk of which would be dedicated to infrastructure projects. That prospect is insane, not only for its regressive financial tack but also for the conceptual decoupling of driving and its associated user fee, a combination that is an ostensible pillar of American democracy. Instituting a VMT charge, however, is insane politically, financially, and organizationally. Maybe, as we’ve seen in continental Europe, there is an opportunity on the commercial side of the equation for a true user fee but unless there is a sea change in how we would potentially collect information on a given citizen’s driving record then the VMT charge is dead on the asphalt.

I think this is the point in a blog post where I should defend myself: I have no illusions about the state of privacy in this or any other country. I know my phone and credit card and computer are essentially monitoring devices and I am actually completely fine with the specter of Little Brother. I’m going to guess a lot of people don’t feel the same way but that in iterative generations that issue will continue to fade. The location-based aspect of VMT is the political concern in the immediate, but the considerable cost in ripping out a financial infrastructure and replacing it with something considerably more expensive on both capital and operating fronts is just crazy.

gaspump Why a Sales Tax on Gasoline Makes More Sense than a Vehicle Miles Traveled Fee

When you go to the pump in this country you’re paying for a given stack of interests from the actual cost of light sweet crude to the refining and distribution costs to the whims of the station owner. The last tier on that stack costs between two dimes and a couple quarters depending on the state you find yourself in—the total cost of filling the tank is a pretty simple arithmetic. With increased fuel efficiencies, what you pay for at the pump is lasting a lot longer which is, well, a good thing for you but a bad thing for the government since they depend on per gallon sales to keep the HTF afloat. This is the same slow decoupling we’ve seen with general energy costs over the last few decades: when you become more efficient, user fees get less and less accurate. Combine that with inflation eroding the value of a minor gasoline tax and you get our current transportation-related fiscal climate.

There’s a pretty simple solution here, but it didn’t gain any traction or heft until the outgoing executive director of AASHTO brought it up in a speech last month: a gas sales tax. It might seem like splitting hairs—charging by the gallon or charging by the dollar—but the switch in units might save the HTF without affecting much else. Here’s an example:

A 2013 Toyota Prius has an 11.9 gallon fuel tank. The Hess station near my apartment in Brooklyn is charging $3.85 for a gallon of regular unleaded which means you’ll drop $48.82 on a fill up from empty to full. The Federal government’s cut: $2.19. Let’s say that instead of charging per gallon, we treat gas like any other commodity and slap New York City’s 8.875% sales tax on the final price. The Federal government’s new take: $4.34. You’re paying an extra $2 when you fill up (but you’re driving a 2013 Prius so what’s $2 to a rich guy?) and the HTF is essentially doubling its current tax intake. No need for a new tax infrastructure, no messy political discourse on the right to privacy, only the indignation of people who don’t want to pay taxes in the first place.

I’ll admit that there are potential issues with the installation of a gasoline sales tax, most notably the potential effects of price fluctuations and specifically the prospect of price crashes like we saw during Q4 of 2008 and Q1 of 2009 when prices fell to an average of $1.82 per gallon. Price events like this are aberrations—the average price of gasoline since 2005 is $2.86, and the two-year mean is $3.52 (all stats from EIA), hardly indicative of any general downward trajectory. (Plus we might be running out of oil anyway which means that shit is about to get expensive.) Governments deal with shortfalls in revenues constantly, and I’d guess that whomever the next USDOT Secretary ends up being would rather have a buffer against inflation rather than price crashes.

There’s no doubt that VMT charges will continue to receive most of the press in the small corner of the internet that is transportation blogging; it has the requisite combination of novelty and tech potential that is as in vogue as you can get in planning. But policy makers are sacrificing pragmatism for trends and mistaking newness for innovation. In the end the Highway Trust Fund simply needs more money to stay viable (don’t forget: this affects transit as well) and by letting VMT charges dominate the conversation we’re ignoring the solution that’s been there all along.

The Whole Cost of Driving or Why You’re Probably Paying too Much for the Subway

If you drive a car what do you typically pay for? There’s gas, insurance, the occasional trip to the mechanic, tolls sometimes, maybe some lump sum for parking if you don’t work in the suburbs. It adds up to a lot, in fact it’s actually a lot more than you’d be paying if you lived in the city and simply took the subway or rode a bike to work. (Luckily for us the American Public Transportation Association has a little online calculator that can tell you exactly how much money you’re throwing away by hopping into your Camry every day instead of grabbing BART, or Metro-North, or the MBTA or whatever your regional commuter service may be.) Sure, urban denizens might shell out more in rent and groceries (Brooklyn recently became the 2nd most expensive city in America but has a median household income of $32,000—what?) but we save a boatload on transportation costs even though the ever climbing fare schedule is actually beginning to price out the neediest communities from transit.

It balances itself out, right? Car owners have to pay out a couple thousand extra dollars every year in the form of additional expenses while city dwellers pay the higher living costs associated with having access to reliable public transportation. Drivers in major metropolitan corridors have to pay bridge, tunnel, and highway tolls while people closer to the city center have to pay fares for buses and subways. Equals peequals.

We are not equals peequals.

Public transit is a heavily subsidized industry and the related numbers are easily gleaned from budget outlays on a state-by-state basis. (Here’s a study that compares the subsidies across modal splits in NYC [PDF] and interestingly includes ferries the oft-forgot way to get to work.) For subways, New York subsidizes about a quarter of each passengers’ ride and for buses it’s about a 70% subsidy. When you get up to a commuter rail service like the Long Island Railroad the total subsidy is 88% for the average ride which is variable based on distance, unlike the other two modes. Balancing out the subsidies is simple for transit administrations: you simply hike the fares. The MTA, New York City’s public transit authority, is set to announce their new fare proposals presumably raising the regular fare from $2.25 to $2.50 which would reduce the subsidy percentage (given the same distribution formula) for subways by about 2.5% and for buses by about 6.5%. (Something that isn’t mentioned here or in the pertinent PDF is that there is a reduction in fare prices for those who purchase “bonus” or “unlimited” MetroCards, which most likely dampens those subsidy reductions.) A portion of your Federal, state, and city tax dollars goes towards funding transit even if you never ride it, a concept that many lawmakers and constituents in suburban and exurban communities are not cool with.

So if you’re an everyday driver you’re probably asking yourself, Where’s my subsidy? Why isn’t the government paying for 30% of my gas or 50% of my tolls or 70% of my Big Gulps?

Brace yourselves, drivers: they already kinda sort of do. You may consider the amount you shell out every month for driving to be exorbitant but the costs of driving (especially gasoline prices) are so artificially depressed that you are receiving an effective subsidy simply because there is no political will to hike the Federal gas tax like we hike transit fares. Car-based infrastructure is also heavily favored in the FHWA/FTA funding schemes; with the FTA (PDF) receiving $1 for every $4 FHWA (PDF) receives, not to mention the $600 billion cumulative difference between gas tax receipts (PDF) and car-based infrastructure costs.

It would stand to reason that if fare hikes are the best way to balance the transit subsidies (just kidding, privatizing transit is the best way to do that!) then increasing the cost of driving by, say, increasing the Federal gas tax by including the social costs of driving (congestion, emissions, public safety, depreciation of public infrastructure) would be the best way to balance out the cost of driving.  We haven’t had a Federal gas tax increase in this country since 1993. Just to put that in perspective the cost of a subway ride in New York and Chicago has increased by 44% (with a slated increase that will drive it to 50%) and in Boston it’s gone up by 57%—even adding a nickel to the current Federal gasoline excise tax (a relatively paltry 22% increase to $0.234/gallon) would add billions in revenue (PDF) to the USDOT budget and would go a long way towards funding the true cost of driving.

How likely are we to see a Federal gas tax increase in the next decade? Not very. There isn’t much favor for state-level gas tax increases either with only Iowa coming close to adding $0.05 to their state excise tax which hasn’t been changed since 1989. Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts also attempted to raise state gas taxes by a more robust $0.19, a hike that would have raised ~$600 per year million for the state—he backed off his proposal after realizing there was almost no political will to pass such a measure. On the other hand transit agencies are almost sure to increase fares that outpace inflation out of sheer necessity, and when you price out constituents from transit there’s not much in the way of recourse; price out drivers and there’s a high likelihood of alternative transportation modes.


An Argument for Privatizing Transit from a Very Liberal Blogger

Access is important here at Radials. We’ve argued that lack of transit options in major metropolitan areas is a major contributing factor to urban poverty and plays a role in the uneven distribution of economic opportunities between neighborhoods in cities. We’ve talked about the differences between bus rapid transit, light rail, and heavy rail and what it means for the affected constituents. Hell, we’ve even talked about why Americans are so much better at basketball than everyone else and a big part of it has to do with access to training infrastructure. Give a community access to something positive and they’ll always benefit—you could say that’s Radials’ shorthand mantra when it comes to urban policy.

The first topic—transit access—isn’t given enough page space here though, so I’d like to offer an opinion that doesn’t really jive with my overall political philosophy (the good folks over at Market Urbanism are already typing “I told you so”): transit is probably best managed by private industry.

Before everyone lets the nightmare of a Mitt Romney-run subway system run away with them, let me explain what a private transit system would not consist of:

  • Profit

That’s pretty much it. Unless you’re Hong Kong and somehow have made a buck off transporting millions of people for $0.30 a ride you’re most likely providing transit at a loss—and for most major American markets the operational deficits can reach anywhere from 50% to 70%. (Reading about MTR Corporation Limited, the publically traded company that runs HK’s metro system and is also 74% owned by the government of HK is absolutely fascinating so if you have a minute, check out the Wikipedia page.) American transit operators are also heavily subsidized by the FTA and state entities, though many would argue correctly that the amounts distributed by the Federal government and more highway oriented SDOTs have unfairly skewed funding mechanisms towards rural transportation development, thus shoving transit systems into further debt valleys than is proportional plus no one has actually included the social impacts of driving on the country at large in the gasoline tax which means we have an artificially depressed coffer, but anyway. The transportation economist John F. Kain (UT-Austin) argues convincingly that those subsidies are actually better used to pay private operators to do what the MTA, MBTA, LACTA, etc. do currently at a heavy cost to taxpayers: provide transit.

This isn’t unheard of. Traditionally, when a government needs to build a bridge they’ll put a contract out for something called “Design-Bid-Build” which means exactly what it says: a private entity will design the bridge, bid on the contract, and build the bridge. Often they’ll add another stipulation to the contract: Operate. (There are a bunch of other combinations, such as including “Own” which means that the entity quite literally owns the piece of infrastructure.) When you get an operate stipulation in your contract as a private corporation you are entitled to toll revenues in exchange for providing maintenance and upkeep on the bridge (these are called “concession contracts”), all of which is outlined in stacks and stacks of paperwork that, if you work in any city administration office, is the bane of your existence.

This isn’t the only example: Chicago infamously privatized the Skyway; the toll roads near my family home in Orange County are all private operated; bus systems that serve the Orthodox Jewish communities in New York City are contracted out to private transportation operators. Privatization can be a scary prospect for public services, though, and the introduction of any program would need to be ironclad in its dedication to serving wide swaths of communities—the lack of profits would be filled by subsidies at lower levels than states and cities’ are currently distributing because of efficiency gains in switching from a publically operated system to a private one.

I’ll admit that there’s something unnerving for me in writing about the merits of privatizing municipal services. Orange County’s attempt to essentially privatize city government backfired famously, the aforementioned privatization of the Chicago Skyway is not necessarily popular nor effective, and transit privatization has only been applied in smaller communities save for Denver’s bus system which is 50% contracted out. It’s by no stretch of imagination a new concept—people have been clamoring for this brand of privatization for decades and there’s a renewed interest from larger cities (London is the best good example) in at least dipping their toes into transit privatization. In a climate of municipal austerity maybe it’s time to jump in with both feet.


The Braess Paradox: Choice as Famine

A friend of mine who chiseled his own undergraduate curriculum at UCLA is invaluable when it comes to getting an opinion on city planning and transportation outside of the very large echo chamber that is the urbanist blogosphere. He sent me an interesting thread from Quora, the crowd sourced question-and-answer forum like Yahoo! Answers if it was made up of mostly smart people and a few PhDs, where the topic was on transportation efficiency: If you replaced 2 train tracks with a dedicated 2 lane road and ran passenger buses would it be more efficient? It’s a question that isn’t all that rare anymore with Bus Rapid Transit emerging as a low cost alternative to light rail in cities through South America and Asia; shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars to dig out new tunnels and install what amounts to be one of the more complex feats of human engineering shouldn’t be a priority for emerging economies.

The top answer on this Quora thread (again, it sounds like Yahoo! Answers but I promise it isn’t) comes from a guy named Amar Prabhu who posted a detailed economic model of transportation modal choice based on efficiency ratings (passenger load, CO2 emissions, average speed, etc.) complete with caveats and assumptions. I mean he pared down the analysis so it didn’t turn into a dissertation but, Christ, this is on a glorified knowledge forum so apparently there’s more than three dozen people actually interested in transportation that don’t hold professorships after all. I won’t go into Prabhu’s analysis (you should read it yourself) but his conclusion is that in the very short term BRT is more efficient but after three or four years a metro system becomes the better choice. Prabhu openly admits to flaws in his analysis especially on the human and policy side which are inherently tougher to model from an empirical perspective, but his number crunching is right on even if I choose to disagree with it.

As a follow up to this Quora thread, my friend sent me a Wikipedia entry on something called Braess’ Paradox (a large part of his independent curriculum was advanced economics) and, because I regret never dipping more than a toe into the intersection of traffic engineering and consumer economics, I got giddy just reading through the first paragraph. The problem is essentially this (and I encourage you to read the Wikipedia entry because I am likely to butcher this delivery and the functional notation): If commuters (let’s say exactly 4000 of them) are given two paths to work, A and B, where half of each route is a function of the number of commuters on the route (the 1st half of A and the 2nd of B; (Fc) = C/100 where C is the number of commuters) and the opposing halves have constant travel times (45 minutes in this example) then the drivers will logically split into two evenly weighted groups reducing the total travel time to an efficient equilibrium. However, if you provide the commuters with a transfer point at the halfway mark of their journeys and the transfer time is effectively 0, commuters will always choose the selfish option: take the 1st half of Route A (40 minutes with 4000 commuters) and the 2nd half of Route B (ditto) which gives us an 80 minute commute.

Easy enough right? Unfortunately these commuters have become lobotomized by choice. If you evenly split the groups into groups of 2000 like we did before the path between A and B was built then the travel times for each group would be 65 minutes; 20 minutes on the function-based halves and 45 minutes on the constant ones. Instead the commuters are choosing to reduce their travel times by five minutes by all traveling on the same route on either side of the halfway point but increasing their overall travel times by 15 minutes because of the existence of that transfer point.

500px Braess paradox road example The Braess Paradox: Choice as Famine

I’ll give everyone a chance to consider their arguments against this sort of choice paradox (here’s some starting points: “this only applies in very limited circumstances,” this is true because you have to have a population of commuters that makes both ends of the equation work which is why this is an elegant theory and not an easily applicable policy; “this applies to road choice rather than modal choice,” again, true, but on routes where two modes of transit overlap you could apply the same theoretical rigor.) but please remember that this is a vein of economics with a lot of history in transportation planning and that most of us are idiotic creatures of habit when it comes to route choice so the likelihood that we would take an 80 minute commuter over a 65 minute one because we “saved five minutes” each leg is not small.

 The Braess Paradox: Choice as Famine

It’s also something not uncommon in real world planning: commuters (especially drivers) are constantly choosing roads and highways that may have an apparent rather than real impact which is why you may see some deserted stretches of arterials that could potentially redistribute travelers efficiently. Other issues come into play when you’re discussing real world transportation issues (latent/induced demand associated with new lane construction is probably the biggest) but the Braess paradox is a novel way to look at commuter psychology.

It’s also a potential argument for more robust state-sponsored transportation systems (I’ll have to give a citation to my friend for raising that theory) because in a typical economic system choice leads to a higher performing equilibrium. If each set of commuters has two extremely well funded and maintained routes to work then there’s a higher likelihood there would be no funneling of actors from A to B and you’d reach the more stable inflection point where everyone’s travel times are reduced to a minimum. Don’t you love reading about economic paradoxes on Fridays?


Dollar Vans: Bringing Shadow Transit Out of the Cold

One of the first things I always do when friends visit me in Brooklyn is point out an endless fleet of unmarked Ford cargo vans flying up and down Flatbush and Vanderbilt Avenues. “So those are the dollar vans and,” as I point to some one flagging one down, “I mean, I’ve never taken one but they’re all over the place and I have no idea how that system works.” I’ll blame my suburban squeamishness for never raising my hand at a pleading, high pitched honk from a shoddy looking E-350 and catching a ride to wherever they end up going but there’s no doubt they provide a service to Brooklynites who have lived here far longer and have had to suffer through the dearth of transit investment in this borough far longer than I have.

There’s not really any mystery behind this shadow transit service: Lisa Margonelli covered it on the Atlantic’s blog late last year, and outlets from the Post to the Times have given the service ink, not to mention the thousands of people who take dollar vans (alright so they’re actually $2 vans) everyday because of a lack of efficient transit in their neighborhoods. They’re mostly unlicensed which means that riders are taking a certain granule of risk in their daily commute and if you’ve ever seen a 14-passenger van weaving in and out of residential traffic you’ll understand that it’s perhaps not that insignificant a risk. Dollar vans are also crushingly efficient, especially compared to MTA bus services in “forgotten” corners of Brooklyn. (A study cited by Margonelli points out that “on some corners there [are] four city buses an hour and 45 to 60 vans.” I encourage everyone to read her piece for details on the legal and cultural history of these services.)

It’s no secret that the outer boroughs are sort of screwed when it comes to transit access—I’m lucky enough to live within walking distance of Atlantic Terminal and a couple express lines but friends of mine in Bed Stuy, Ft. Greene, and Bushwick don’t exactly have a lot of options when it comes to commuting. There’s also no chance that the MTA will be expanding service any time in the near future, especially with the fiscal climate pushing gradually closer towards cold pragmatism and austerity. (There’s actually not much wrong with this but the idea that closing routes and stations with measurably low ridership levels is somehow more palatable than engaging internal audits or making strides in administrative efficiency strikes me as misguided at best and taking advantage of people with shallow pockets at worst.)

For everyone thinking that the market has corrected itself again and that entrepreneurs are shrewdly filling a gap that government can’t logically fill, well it’s not exactly that easy. The City’s Taxi and Limousine Commissions attempt to install van service along a now defunct bus line (B71) sputtered in 2010 and never made it past the pilot program, which shouldn’t be that surprising considering these routes were closed because very few riders used them. It’s actually best to think about both the regulated (MTA) and unregulated transit markets (dollars vans; and in this instance “transit” will mean bus service because running a black market subway, which extremely cool, is probably not going to happen) as two different peaks flanking a valley that contains an amalgam of different people that have been left behind by both transit markets.

Now here’s an idea that comes straight from the most Keynesian part of my soul: the job of the MTA should be to look out for the most disenfranchised urban residents and provide them an opportunity to get to and from economic centers of activity and since bus services are the easiest to change (yes, there will always be residents who clamor about buses steaming through their neighborhoods; the B65 goes by my bedroom window like clockwork every 20 minutes) there’s opportunity for realignment that caters towards that Keynesian-cum-altruistic bureaucratic worldview.

On the other hand, there’s ample opportunity for ambitious entrepreneurs to augment transit services on already busy routes, such as up and down Flatbush Avenue and they shouldn’t, at least in this writer’s completely personal opinion, be punished for picking up some administrative slack. I know the cries of “where would it stop? Do you want to outsource housing as well?” are coming, so I should say that I wouldn’t even think about beginning a discussion on what exactly could be opened to private enterprise on a city-by-city basis because I’m barely an “expert” in discussing experimental transportation projects, something I get paid to do. I’m saying that perhaps these shadow services deserve the Bunny Colvin treatment (without the later exploitation of a complacent population of law breakers): Let them operate with oversight but without the same scrutiny as other public services.

It’s unfortunate that we’re in an era where urban infrastructure is seen as the easiest fat to cut out of a bloated budget, but that’s the reality of the New New York. The dollar vans are just filling a gap that no one wants to fill—conservatives should be lauding the market-based solution to a governmental shortcoming and liberals should be happy about the transit (sorta) access for low-income neighborhoods, instead there’s a lot of hand wringing about licensing and curb pickups. Closing subway stations, though? Not a problem.

Update: I understand that countries from Guatemala to Egypt to Namibia to Burma have services exactly like this that are used at least as much as publicly sanctioned transit—I wanted to take this on from an American, and specifically New York, perspective which is why I didn’t talk about the aforementioned locales.

The Stadium on the Corner: Atlantic Yards, the Barclays Center, and Unsolicited Urbanism

When I moved to Prospect Heights—a community of 30,000 nestled between the well heeled bohemia of Park Slope and the rapidly reconditioning Crown Heights—last year, the neighborhood seemed to be finishing a particularly robust round of gentrification. You can still get a cup of coffee at the corner store for $1.00, or you can try out a $4.50 latte at any of the half dozen high end coffee shops that have sprung up along Washington, Vanderbilt, and Flatbush Avenues. You can still rent a two bedroom apartment for under $2,000 or you can splurge on a $3,250,000 penthouse in the new Richard Meier-designed glass-and-steel behemoth with panoramic views of Prospect Park and Manhattan (Jay Z and Beyonce are reportedly interested, as well).

Brooklyn’s slow march towards becoming Manhattan-lite could be coming to a climax, though, with the SHoP-designed, Bruce Ratner-backed Barclays Center slated for a grand opening in September 2012. (Frank Gehry was the original architect of the project but the starchitect’s design, which included a park on top of the stadium, was deemed “too expensive” by the developers.) The $1 billion complex will house the Nets (who just landed Joe Johnson! And Deron Williams! And gave Brook Lopez $60 million!), a professional basketball team moving 10 miles east from Newark, NJ as well as a couple hundred other events from Justin Bieber to Andrea Bocelli. There will be a 500 space parking lot a block away. There will be a $550,000/year “clubhouse” inspired by part-owner of the Nets, Jay Z.

 The Stadium on the Corner: Atlantic Yards, the Barclays Center, and Unsolicited Urbanism

Barclays Center Rendering. Copyright SHoP Architects

I hope everyone is sufficiently excited now because no one in Brooklyn seems to be. I can’t seem find a single person in my neighborhood who thinks the Barclays Center is a municipal blessing, much less a necessary evil on the path towards cultural relevance—in fact this crossroads of Brooklyn was pretty resoundingly significant before Target, Chuck E. Cheese, and Kris Humphries showed up. Some bar owners are salivating over the extra foot traffic through Prospect Heights, Park Slope, Boerum Hill, and Ft. Greene, of course, but are also weary of dismissing Cash Only policies, a quaint Brooklyn calling card that endlessly pisses off visitors who think they’re too good for those standalone cash points outside of shady bodegas and lets watering hole owners hold onto that ~5% that the good folks at Visa and American Express take for the privilege of plastic.  Other residents and business owners worry about the specter of commercial ghost towns surrounding the Barclays Center since concertgoers and Nets fans (?) don’t have much need for dry cleaners or daycare centers.

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A Conservative Argument for Progressive Transportation Policy

If you somehow find yourself making a list of buzz phrases for the Republican party chances are that somewhere between “Strong Defense” and “Traditional Values” you’ll come up with “States’ Rights”. States should be able to decide what they want to do about environmental regulations, illegal immigrants, gay marriage, abortion, etc., etc. It’s the bedrock of modern conservatism—at least rhetorically—and from time to time it proves a willing facilitator of progress in states with proportionately willing populations. You hear a lot of States’ Rights invocations on those sexy, politically salient topics from Republican lawmakers but transportation, in all its pragmatic dowdiness, doesn’t really get the same rhetorical treatment from the GOP and it’s unfortunate because it’s one section of politics that could use a healthy injection of local prerogative.

washington united states capitol washington d c dccap11 A Conservative Argument for Progressive Transportation Policy

The new Federal Transportation Bill that passed overwhelmingly on Friday—President Obama is primed to sign it into law this week—is almost identical to other bills that have passed over the past few decades: the majority of the money goes towards highway maintenance (slightly more than $40b annually), a few billion is tossed to the FTA (slightly more than $10b annually), and some scraps are left over for transportation alternatives, typically enough for a few major bidders to conduct cursory research and potentially get to project groundbreaking (some key numbers to take away: New Starts get $1.9b which means more BRT projects can get funding; MPOs get a bump from 12.5% of highway funds to 14%; Transportation Alternatives drops from $1b to $700m annually and those dollars are now eligible to be spent on things like… turning lanes. Government at work, folks. All numbers are courtesy of the amazing and prompt work over at Transportation Issues Daily and the Transport Politic.)

For a lot of us who were expecting a potentially transformational transportation bill (and there was no guarantee that one would have passed during the most recent Democratic triumvirate) the status quo is profoundly disappointing. Where’s the ambition? Where are the grand ideas? The unfortunate reality of major transportation spending is that it’s still a top down process and since alternative transportation advocates don’t have much of a lobby except for, you know, everyone who lives in a major metropolitan area there isn’t much hope for a Federal renaissance when it comes to infrastructure spending. Washington will still be distributing transportation funds to the states for the next two years, and there is an overwhelming likelihood that we’ll be stuck in the same place in 2014 with either side of the aisle fighting for an equally uninspired bill.Democrats want policies that embrace innovative and potentially economically unpalatable projects like Bus Rapid Transit and High Speed Rail while Republicans would rather target spending on unimaginative and environmentally detrimental business-friendly areas like highways. The gulf between the two wish lists has yawned wider in the last five years with political rhetoric reaching new troughs every week. There’s a chance here, albeit a small one, for a potentially unifying concept when it comes to infrastructure development: competitive funding programs.

Of course, we already have a laundry list of acronymical grants (TIFIA, TIGER, GARVEE, etc.) that are dolled out on a competitive basis, but they make up a fraction of total Federal transportation spending. The majority of funds are distributed to State DOTs based on basic formulas and, typically, those DOTs actually tack more conservative in their spending portfolios than Federal initiatives do (e.g. Missouri DOT dedicating 0.54% of their budget to “pedestrian-friendly” projects). By switching the rules of distribution to slide more towards competition and by proxy away from Federal distribution formulas you actually come up with a resoundingly conservative argument that has the potential to deliver on transformative transportation projects in a huge way.

Would Republicans take the chance on a place like Houston or Portland or Cleveland grabbing $300m from the transportation vault and spending it on improved bike and transit facilities all while snubbing the suburban road system? Would Democrats cringe at Wyoming and Utah having more control over their infrastructure fates? There are pitfalls on either side of the aisle, but at the rate Congressional approval percentages are going now, any risk they take is a good one.

Why a Compromised Highway Bill Means No One Wins

With an impending vote on the Highway-Bill-No-One-Wanted slated for today we have a chance to discuss what, exactly, is coming down the barrel over the next two years and $109 billion. We’re not going to see a shift in transit funding or strategies, nor are we going to get much in the way of Federal seed funding for diverse transportation projects. (USDOT just announced the last round of TIGER grants totaling $500 million as a not-s0-subtle signal to conservative lawmakers that supplemental infrastructure funding acts as effective local stimulus.) We will see a speedier permitting process for construction projects (a Republican pet amendment) and the survival of dedicated transit funding, a concept that was inexplicably on the chopping block and may have been eliminated if the bill was voted on after a Republican victory in the November elections. Fortunately for me the venerable Tanya Snyder over at Streetsblog has covered the immediate impacts of the bill in detail which leaves me with the interesting—but ultimately theoretical—job of covering the long term impacts of a short sighted bill.

Transportation projects are typically talked about in terms of long-term horizons; everything from a new bridge to a bike sharing program can take years to design, bid, and build and the draconian bureaucracy associated with infrastructure development has been derided by everyone between Jane Fonda and Jerry Falwell. Ms. Snyder points out that this bill is essentially a reaffirmation of the status quo—essentially the best we can hope for with the current climate in Washington and the Obama administrations understandable shift away from infrastructure in an election year (as much as our cozy echo chamber likes to think to the contrary, highways and transit don’t win votes. Or useful things don’t win votes. Either way.) Snyder hits what is the most saliently cynical point of this whole process: this bill won’t change anything and for those of us who are interested in seeing a shifting infrastructure landscape it means we have to wait another two years until the Federal government joins the parade that cities like Portland, San Francisco, and New York already have a hangover from.

$109 billion is not a small sum, obviously, and I think that anyone who finds themselves here probably wishes that there was more room for a competitive bidding process on at least a percentage of those funds rather than the blind allocation that USDOT has in place right now. The lion’s share (i.e. >99%) will go to highway-and-auto-based projects which is (unfortunately and infuriatingly and shortsightedly) understandable as cars are still the economic and political drivers in this country. For those of us who thought there was potential in this bill for more accesible avenues to innovative funding mechanisms and a potentially slight shift towards alternative transportation it’s definitely a depressing situation at least in the short term.

I don’t think it’ll surprise anyone to hear that I consider the current bloom of urbanism has more than a tint of confirmation bias to it, even with the recent Princeton/America Bikes poll stating that 83% of Americans “favoring level or increased federal funding for sidewalks and bike lanes.” (Aside: there are several semantic issues I have with that otherwise very interesting poll: Princeton/America Bike’s choice of language [“Do you support maintaining or increasing the small percentage of funding that helps build sidewalks, bike lanes, and bike paths?”] strikes me as more than a little convoluted and loaded as you can easily disarm antagonistic respondents with the a squishy term like “small” and packaging those three alternatives together almost guarantees a higher positive response rate, but I digress and perhaps have a problem with confirmation bias as well.) Nationally, I would guess the embrace of true progressive transportation planning is lukewarm especially in suburban enclaves like Irvine and Colorado Springs.

This isn’t as depressing as it sounds because, well, the new vernacular in transportation is based on local projects rather than national ones—even the current pipe dream of high speed rail in this country will be resoundingly regional, not nationwide. An effective bill would present alternative routes for funding outside of the Federal structure and expand the current programs we have with the Office of Innovative Program Delivery and RITA. The one hope we can gleam from the passage of this bill is that its horizon is significantly shorter than the majority of transportation projects worth their salt and maybe, at some point, Congress will get their language to catch up to ours.