Transit planners and lovers wax romantic about the virtues of transit oriented development as well as the potential of current and future urban areas to support successful public transportation.  However, as Yonah Freemark at the Next American City points out, such development is only successful for cities that have sufficient urban density.  Freemark discussed the early 20th century idea and development of streetcar suburbs and why they no longer have their streetcars and whether we will make the same mistakes again with current light rail developments.  (My partner shared this column with me)

Aaron Renn argued last week on the Urbanophile that metropolitan areas with populations of less than about two million inhabitants don’t necessitate the kind of high densities urbanists often promote. Citing the example of Columbus, Ohio, Renn suggested that because these regions are small enough in area to make commuting from one end to the other by car possible within a short amount of time, creating dense, walkable neighborhoods focused around a “huge, packed, downtown core” is not absolutely necessary.

In some ways, his argument rings true: for those driving private automobiles, neighborhoods like the former streetcar suburbs may be ideal. For businesspeople hopping from one side of the region to the other (“to lunch”), driving in medium-sized cities works fine.

On the other hand, for everyone else—the young, the old, the poor, the sick—such neighborhoods provide no alternatives. You can’t easily walk to school or to the store or to the senior center when you live in a streetcar suburb. Nor can transit operators provide adequate service, since densities are too low to make frequent buses possible.

This discussion plays on something conceptually obvious, that to have successful transit there must be a critical mass of people relying on the service or else it is bound to fail.  No government can afford to run buses or trolleys down thoroughfares on a frequent basis when they will be largely empty most of the time. Moreover, with insufficient density and a lack of commercial destinations for residents transit will be underutilized.

However, that idea may not be as obvious as it seems. I cannot count how many times I have been waiting for the Green Line trolley in Boston when I have heard fellow riders complain and wonder out loud why the MBTA is not more like New York’s MTA.  The simple answer is that New York City subways are large, convenient and frequently running because they service a lot of people in a small area in densely populated Manhattan.  Clearly, boarding a trolley with 12 other people in Brookline is incredibly dissimilar from joining hundreds at Columbus Circle.

Therefore, there are many cities that may have large populations that are insufficiently dense to provide the kind of transit service that gives people reason to give up their cars.  In my mind for these borderline and unqualified urban areas there are at least three solutions if transit is to be developed.

1) Local, state and federal policy can encourage zoning changes to allow for greater density before building transit systems.

2) Communities can simultaneously adopt policies restricting the presence of cars per household and/or parking spaces to emphasize transit usage and car sharing.  In this fashion only households which desire to utilize transit will move into these communities, rendering both density and transit-dependent density.

3) Perhaps the least feasible of the ideas, but I will continue to push for pod transit in the suburbs.  I still believe a linkable pod system that utilizes public thoroughfares but simultaneously allows for the malleability of personal motor transit in suburban locations has a reasonable future.

As oil prices go up and American population continues to escalate we will want to develop successful transit systems.  In order to do so we must develop the housing and parking policies that correspond to make both viable.

Post #100 on the Transit Pass!

It is not news that economic downturns are particularly hard on transit, just like all government services.  At the moment that affordable government services and assistance are most needed is also the time when government can least afford to provide them.

The voters of New Jersey reap what they sow.  They dumped their CEO-governor Jon Corzine for the Republican challenger who promised the unattainable Holy Grail of New Jersey politics, lower property taxes.  Now in office, Chris Christie has dealt with New Jersey’s budget deficit by cutting services and refusing to raise taxes, on anyone.  Of course, when you don’t raise taxes you can still effectively tax many people by offering fewer governmental services.  Therefore, Joe Millionaire is barely affected by the situation but Jane Minimum-Wage is put into an even more difficult situation because suddenly day care, transit, health care, etc. are less available and more expensive.  Perhaps that is good politics for a Republican, but it is certainly bad governance.

Governor Chris Christie in February said he would cut the state’s $296 million annual subsidy for NJ Transit by 11 percent, or $33 million, to help close a $2.2 billion deficit in the state budget for the fiscal year ending June 30. Christie, 47, a Republican who took office in January on a pledge not to raise taxes, introduced a $29.3 billion budget last month that contains $10 billion in spending reductions.

Christie, in a March 17 interview, said “there’s no way to fix” NJ Transit’s budget woes without raising fares. The governor also said he supported increasing transit fees over putting tolls on free roads in New Jersey including Interstates 78, 80, 195 and 295.

Specifically, Christie has cut NJ Transit’s funding by 11%.  In response, NJ Transit has been forced to raise fares; increasing the cost of local bus and light rail travel by 10% and commuter bus and train travel by a hefty 25%.  I used NJ Transit’s commuter rail for a full year when I worked in New York.  At that time my 35-40 minute ride cost $198 for a monthly pass.  While most people in my hometown probably can absorb the 25% increase without too much difficulty.  However, along the same route are a number of towns with poorer towns, such as Paterson (median 2000 household income: $32,778) and Garfield (median 2000 household income: $42,748), where the residents will have much greater difficulty absorbing such a fare hike.

A monthly pass from Paterson to New York Penn Station is currently $166.  A 25% hike will bring that price to $207.50, or an extra $498 a year, and that does not even include the costs of a monthly pass for the bus or subway in New York City, given that most jobs are not within walking distance of Penn Station.  With the price of a subway pass included a person from Paterson could be required to spend $3,450 a year for transit.  That is simply outrageous when your household income is $32,778.

Governor Christie hasn’t lowered taxes, he has impaired the rights of people throughout the state to procure employment and provide effectively for their families.  For the sake of saving some very wealthy residents the pain of having to pay a a little more in income tax the lower class has been implicitly taxed by virtue of being poor.  Transit justice exists and this is not it.  Governor Christie lacks that sense of empathy that Obama has been smeared for.  He has prioritized the needs of suburban drivers over transit commuters, continuing our history of poor transit priorities.

If you have ever taken any sort of train you have seen that foreboding red device, the emergency brake.  When do we use it?  The New York Times’ City Room blog recently featured a video answering just that question.  The video–”Emergency Brake”–is by Casey Neistat, who risked arrest and prop limbs in the making of his production.

The basic moral of the story is that the emergency brake should never really be used while a train is in motion.  Do not use in the case of a fire, you’ll burn.  Do not use in the case of a medical emergency, the person will be caught in greater peril.  Do not use in case of a crime, you’re trapped with a criminal (probably armed and now angry).  The emergency brake should be saved for those times when the train is in the station and somebody is in danger, either caught in the door or fallen onto the tracks.

As Neistat clearly illustrates this a is a problem of signage and communication.  What the agencies think of as clear communication just has the average commuter confused.  Money quote from the Gothamist:

According to the Times, straphangers should pull the brake if “someone gets caught between the train’s closing doors, or between subway cars, and is about to be dragged to an unenviable fate.” In other circumstances, pulling the cord could make it harder for help to arrive. That’s what happened on a D train last November when a straphanger fatally stabbed another commuter and frightened passengers pulled the brake. The agency has told Gothamist that when a straphanger pulls the cord, it brings the train to an immediate stop using compressed-air brakes. The train crew must notify a control center, which in turn alerts police. The NYPD then advises the control center on how to respond, and that message is relayed to the train crew. It can take between 5 and 15 minutes for the crew to reset the braking function and get the train moving again.

Commuters pull the emergency brake about 1,000 times per year when there is no clear emergency. In 2009, the agency recorded 15 instances in which straphangers pulled the cord to respond to an emergency, like a sick rider, the paper notes. Some subway riders, like Brooklyn resident Zev David Deans, said the agency should more clearly outline when straphangers should, and shouldn’t, use the emergency brake. “They could put it in big letters — ‘Pull in case of …’ — and then the few reasons why,” he said. “If it just says ‘emergency,’ you’re going to pull it for any reason.” An MTA NYC Transit spokesman said the current instructions are more than sufficient: “We think that it is clear.” (bold mine)

MBTA near miss

Last week’s SEPTA strike was deeply unsettling to me and momentarily made me rethink my approach toward transit workers.  However, even if the SEPTA workers were greedy and stubborn, I still believe we should appreciate those who get us from here to there and back.

In particular, we should all be thanking Charice Lewis who operates an Orange Line train for the MBTA in Boston.  On Friday night Lewis managed to pull her emergency break in time to save the life of a passenger who drunkenly stumbled onto the track (the picture above has a link to more photos and the article linked to has video).

The fact that this train stopped is a minor miracle.  The passenger fell off at the front of the platform such that the train had the least amount of time to stop.  Of course the woman who fell off the platform had been drinking for several hours prior.  She managed to survive with just scraped knees.  While the operator should be heralded, the passengers who took care to wave down the train should also be congratulated.  Though it is not quite as impressive as the man who jumped into the NYC subway in 2007 to save another man’s life.

So, thank your public transportation drivers, they are critical to your movement and routine, and just might save your life.  Oh, and please stand behind the yellow line!

MetrocardsThe passion of new MTA chaiman Jay Walder in New York is infectious.  I also admit that I have a bit of transit nerd man crush on his use of subway token cuff links.  However, his idea for price restructuring on New York City public transit leaves me a little baffled.  It may just be that the New York Times did an insufficient job explaining the benefits of the policy.

“We might imagine that we offer discounts at later times, or we offer weekend discounts,” Mr. Walder said in an interview on Wednesday. “Time-of-day pricing might be very attractive.”

The goal would be to encourage use of buses and subways during traditionally quieter hours. And it would bring New York’s subway system in line with local commuter rails, which charge a range of fares.

“We have an infrastructure that is set for the capacity of the peak,” Mr. Walder said. “What we really want to do is use that infrastructure all the time.”

The chairman ruled out charging higher prices for longer trips, a system used in cities like Washington and London, saying such a move in New York “would be a mistake.” But he said a frank discussion of changes to the pricing structure “will be an important part of what we’re doing.” A transit spokesman said later that Mr. Walder was not considering higher peak fares.

I understand the desire to have more people riding at non-peak hours in order to make the system run as efficiently as possible.  This is especially true in New York City subways which almost never shut down.  However, I do not follow the logic of reducing prices so people ride more.

In New York there are two types of people who travel at night and weekends, permanent residents and tourists/visitors.  The commuters, who constitute a huge number of MTA’s ridership are avoiding the MTA on nights and weekends if possible.

For the residents and tourists/visitors to ride at night or on weekends requires someplace to go, which is the expensive part in New York, not the subway ride.  Once traveling, though, the only other real option is a taxi and the regardless of the price of an MTA fair, it will almost surely be cheaper than a New York City cab fare which is $2.50 just for getting in the cab.  City residents on the other hand probably own monthly passes which means each additional ride they take, regardless of when they take it, is essentially free.

If anything, it would make more sense to tax certain hours of travel, say 8am-10am and 4pm-7pm to encourage people to take the subway and bus at off peak hours, hence increasing demand the and helping to reduce congestion during rush hours.  However, I like the fact that a transit administrator is excited about transit and trying with innovation to get more people to use it at all times.

Perhaps I am missing something logical and important here.  If one of my readers recognizes it, please inform me and other readers with a comment.

Red LIne to Alewife

Boston media and popular conversation within the city loves to pick on the transportation workhorse of the region, the MBTA.   The T always seems to be held to a very high standard and praise is hard to come upon, especially in the Boston Globe or Boston Herald.

Sunday, the Globe “investigated” why it costs so much to operate the MBTA.  It was far from a positive article, focusing on the costs of the silver line and all-too-briefly discussing the value of per-mile costs versus per-passenger costs.  The data was haphazardly taken from the National Transit Database run by the FTA.

The federal data reviewed by the Globe focus on operating costs and do not take into account debt, the system’s unmet maintenance needs, or chronic problems finishing projects on time and on budget.

But conclusions based on day-to-day operating costs are controversial in transportation circles. The T can look efficient or expensive compared with other agencies, depending on the type of transportation analyzed and how costs are broken down.

Calculating what it costs to run an hour of bus service, for example, yields a different ranking than calculating the cost of running that bus for a mile. Other variables include differences in trip length, size of train cars, and regional cost of living.

Comparisons between transit agencies are “anecdotal at best,’’ said Jonathan Davis, deputy director and chief financial officer at the MBTA. “Our numbers are certainly in line with our peers for operating in an urban environment.’’

This particular article, while critical, seemed to at least cut the T some slack given all the monetary, upkeep, and transit pressures in moving 1.2 million people a day.

While the issues of debt, choices in vehicles used, services provided and cost of maintenance are beyond my knowledge I do wonder how much of any transit system’s economic and service success is based based on the landscape.

Anne Whiston Spirn, currently a professor at Harvard Business School, has emphasized landscape literacy throughout her urban planning career.  So much of the landscape determines how we build and how we design successfully.  Moreover, when we spurn the will of the land, we frequently pay the price.  Much of that landscape determined in Boston how the roads were laid out and where.  That landscape and those roads define the transit system.  I am convinced that the MBTA is less efficient than it could be because the roads are not straight and there are very few easy ways to get from one part of the city to the other.

The roads do not define the debt crisis but I will be intrigued to look at whether systems that have an easier time hewing to straight lines, such as the Manhattan portion of the MTA, are more efficient due to the layout of the system.  The lessons of older systems that impose transit upon existing landscapes have much to teach us about building new transportation systems where cities are still flexible and imagined.

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