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.

On March 29th the Moscow subway system fell victim to a series of suicide bomber terrorist attacks.  Two female bombers detonated bombs that killed 40 people and wounded another 80 at rush hour that morning.  The attack has raised questions about how safe our American subways are what we need to do to increase security on them.  Subways and buses (and major transportation infrastructure like bridges and tunnels) are of course convenient targets for terrorist attacks for the same reason that planes have been for so long.  Transportation sources have been targets because large numbers of people congregate on them, making them unfortunately efficient for maximal impact.  Moreover, transit is so essential to our consciousness and daily activity, yet something also small, that attacking it jars our very sense of security to the core because nothing feels safe when our means of movement is denied or destroyed.

However, it is notable that American subways have not been subject to a major attack, differentiating the U.S. from Spain, London, and Moscow.  I do not think it has anything to do with our security measures in subways though.  If a bomber wanted to access any American subway system all she would need is a fare.  As long as we do and should prioritize speed and convenience of travel our public transportation systems will be incredibly permeable to attack.   It is simply impractical to put people through any sort of rigorous security screening before entering a subway train.  Moreover, to limit what people can bring on the subway is plain stupid as people rely on subways and buses in cities as residents in suburbs rely on cars.

What will keep us safe is reasonable police presence in our subway systems such that passengers feel safe and that perpetrators feel a reasonable chance of arousing suspicions of authorities.  However, the only true way to keep passengers safe is the same system that applies to preventing any sort of terrorism, quality intelligence services and smart police working in concert.  Fred Kaplan of Slate put it well when quoting Richard Clarke, the former White House Counterterrorism Chief:

Clarke has a few theories on why there haven’t been any suicide bombings here lately. “After 9/11,” he said, “all the security sweeps and the detentions left al-Qaida with the perception that it was very difficult to operate in the U.S.—more difficult than it actually was. Meanwhile, they found it was a lot easier to go after Americans in Iraq. They stopped going after the foreign enemy in the ‘far abroad.’ We came to them, so they went after us over there.”

That is not reassuring.  Is it possible that the moment we leave Iraq and Afghanistan we will be susceptible to greater domestic attacks?  Perhaps.  Maybe at the same time without a military presence in the Middle East an attack will be less likely.  This is all besides the point though.  There is no perfect way to protect from a terrorist attack, especially on our mass transportation systems.  We should concern ourselves with petty theft and assault and the day-to-day crimes and leave the concerns over national security to those who make that their full-time job.

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.

Traffic Congestion

David Owen wrote in the Wall Street Journal that traffic jams, couterintuitively, are good for public transit ridership.  His basic thesis is that “Traffic jams, if they’re managed well, can actually be good for the environment. They maintain a level of frustration that turns drivers into subway riders or pedestrians.”

Consider me unconvinced.  Maybe short term congestion is a good thing as an inspiration for people to ride the subway.  Though in New York people do not need much convincing.  There is a superior subway system that can take people most anywhere in the borough of Manhattan.  Driving in the city is usually out of necessity or vanity, not convenience.  However, as it relates to other cities there may be a point.

If anything, I was confused by Owen’s article as it seemed to meander, arguing against congestion pricing because, “If the result of congestion pricing is simply to spread traffic out, thereby maintaining or increasing total traffic volume while also making driving more pleasant for those who continue to do it, then its putative environmental benefits are fictitious.”  Yet I also very much agree with Owen’s conclusion:

A truly effective traffic program for any dense city would impose high fees for all automobile access and public parking while also gradually eliminating automobile lanes (thereby reducing total car traffic volume without eliminating the environmentally beneficial burden of driver frustration and inefficiency) and increasing the capacity and efficiency of public transit.

Owen and I fundamentally agree that America needs to drive less and take transit more.  Of course no congestion-reducing scheme, whether it is congestion pricing, traffic calming or another project is really marketable or fair without a public transportation alternative available.  However, congestion might be useful for making localities desire better public transportation.

The future is bright though according to the Los Angeles Times, which reports that J.D. Power has found that teens are not interested in automobiles.

“The negative perceptions of the automotive industry that teens and early careerists hold could have implications on future vehicle sales,” said Chance Parker, vice president and general manager of J.D. Power and Associates Web Intelligence Division.“Generation Y could have the greatest spending power of any generation — even surpassing that of the Baby Boomers. It will be essential for automakers to earn the trust and loyalty of Gen-Y consumers, who are particularly critical of brands and products.”

In Japan, the first major developed country to actually experience a decline in car ownership, disinterest among young people in owning cars — especially in urban areas such as Tokyo — is cited as one of the factors behind “demotorization.”

Of course the research on social network websites seems a little flimsy.  But there is no denying that cars are incredibly expensive especially to a teen, when taking in the cost of a car, gas and insurance.  One can only hope that such trends carry through to their adulthood and those current teens demand better transit and fewer cars.

I have given Edward Glaeser a very hard time on this blog.  I reviewed all four segments of his contribution to the Economix Blogwrestling with moses on the New York Times regarding the costs of high speed rail.  However, Glaeser has recently reviewed Anthony Flint’s new book, Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City, for the New Republic.  I featured that book in a post I wrote last month about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs.  Given that Glaeser has promised to come back to the topic of high speed rail in the future, and I am sure to disagree with him again, I want to feature an opportunity where I agree with him.

The following is a selection from his book review:

Jacobs was right that cities are built for people, but they are also built around transportation systems. New York was America’s premier harbor, and the city grew up around the port. The meandering streets of lower Manhattan were laid down in a pedestrian age. Washington Square was urban sprawl in the age of the omnibus. The Upper East Side and Upper West Side were built up in the age of rail, when my great-grandfather would take the long elevated train ride downtown from Washington Heights. It was inevitable that cars would also require urban change. Either older cities would have to adapt, or the population would move entirely to the new car-based cities of the Sunbelt.

The best way to keep cities affordable is to allow private developers to build up and deliver space. Jacobs was right that high-rise public housing is a problem, as street crime is much more prevalent in high-rise, high-poverty neighborhoods. But in more prosperous, privately managed buildings, height is not a problem. If you love cities, as Jacobs certainly did, then presumably you should want the master builders to make them accessible to more people.

Successful cities need both the human interactions of Jane Jacobs and the enabling infrastructure of Robert Moses. Anthony Flint has done a fine job describing the battles between these two great figures, but unlike the Louis-Schmeling fight, their conflict should not be resolved. An absolute victory for Moses leads to heartless cities, built to accommodate cars but not pedestrians, with high-rise buildings that are disconnected from their streets. An absolute victory for Jacobs means a city frozen in concrete with prices that are too high and buildings that are too low. New building is needed to welcome the diversity that makes urban magic. No city can survive without the personal engagements beloved by Jacobs, but no city can thrive without master builders such as Moses.

On this I agree with Glaeser (though I am not sure how much disagreement there really is), that cities of course need to be mixed between organic growth and development and top-down city planning.  I am a transportation lover and advocate.  No neighborhood is going to build its own subway system.  Building permanent transportation networks requires the work of many bureaucrats and all of their skill and resources.  Organic growth usually placates the present while bureaucrats need to solve current problems and create systems that prevent future ones from occurring.  The great hope is that our governments going forward reflect the best of both Moses and Jacobs; taking into account the voice of the neighborhood and social justice while creating the larger projects that can define and shape our cities.

Impact

The National Transportation Safety Board can account to the fact that public transportation is not perfectly safe.  There are occasionally tragic fatalities as the result of accidents on subways, trolleys and buses.  However, when compared to the number of fatalities on America’s roads, public transit appears to wrap passengers in bubble wrap.  For a culture that is obsessed with safety, it is unfortunate that public transportation discussions do not more frequently cover safety.

Our reliance on roads as the primary means of transportation led to 37,261 fatalities in 2008, not to mention however many countless thousands of other injuries were sustained to both person and property.  There have been 419,321 auto-related fatalities over the past decade.  That is like killing off all of Miami, Oakland or Cleveland over the course of a decade.  Keep in mind that people are generally more afraid of flying than driving, but according to the NTSB, ony 706 passengers have died on American flights in this decade.

We all too frequently gloss over the cost of human life when discussing the cost of infrastructure.  If cities and metopolitan areas have the opportunity to devise systems of public transportation that allow more residents to commute to work via train/bus/light rail rather than driving, those opportunities should be taken advantage of.  The cost in human life alone is too much to bear in order to say people should have the freedom to drive.  More importantly, people should have freedom of choice in their means of transportation.  In too many metropolitan areas in this country people are burdened with the necessity of a car.

There are innumerable benefits to public transit, but the human benefit of lives saved or otherwise unaltered by severe injuries, should never be taken lightly.  No transit method is ever free from danger, and that includes the simple act of walking.  However, moving our populaces via mass transit rather than the individually controlled method of the automobile is sure to preserve the sanctity of life going forward.  The more people are on larger systems and the less they must rely on cars the better off both individuals, families, businesses, communities and society will be.

transit oriented development

Courtesy of Smart Growth America comes a review of a new Transportation Research Board (TRB) report on the role of planning and transportation on carbon emissions.  The report is titled TRB Special Report 298: Driving and the Built Environment: Effects of Compact Development on Motorized Travel, Energy Use, and CO2 Emissions. While this blog focuses on transportation there is no doubt that transportation policy and land development, especially housing models, are deeply interconnected.  The history of American sprawl, suburban development and exurban expansion are deeply based on the fact that American policy for an entire century was based on building roads and making individual home ownership a priority.

Geoff Anderson of Smart Growth America summarized the conclusion succinctly:

Because the transportation sector accounts for nearly a third of greenhouse gas emissions and 70 percent of our oil use, we have to find a way to reduce the amount each of us has to drive each day, especially as population grows toward 400 million.

Market research shows that a majority of future housing demand lies in smaller homes and lots, townhouses, and condominiums in neighborhoods with nearby access to jobs, activities and public transportation. The researchers note that demographic changes, shrinking households, rising gas prices, lengthening commutes and cultural shifts all play a role in that demand.

While demand for such smart-growth development is growing, the authors note that government regulations, government spending, and transportation policies still favor sprawling, automobile-dependent development. Changing those policies should play a role in addressing climate and energy issues, the report concludes.

Developing or redeveloping community to feature new more dense housing and mixed use communities has a positive effect on transit.  It is hard and impracticable to develop public transportation in areas that are not dense.  Moreover, the report also points out that such development has also positive effects on land use in terms of environmental effects, construction of infrastructure like sewers and telecommunications, and prevention of sprawl.  In addition, denser communities could potentially have positive social effects as Jane Jacobs would observe.

There are hurdles to such construction, as the report points out, because American and state policies are not geared toward the development of such neighborhoods.  However, developing new mixed-use communities with multi-modal transit are two parts of the same solution.  Building dense communities is useless and building transit without a community is equally so.  America is waking up the insanity of its transportation and housing policies in light of climate change and the housing foreclosure crisis.  We cannot expect Phoenixes and Las Vegases to spring up again, it is time to build new communities that are focused on walkability, public transit, and places where people can still own their own houses, but do not necessarily have a huge back yard with it.

Bus_stop

Whether you have lived in a city for years or are visiting one for the first time you probably prefer to take some sort of train when using public transportation.  I believe this is due to the perceived superior reliability, safety and ease of use for trains.  After all, trains are on tracks that only go in two directions and there are defined stops.  Buses are just enormous cars that could go anywhere, even if they supposedly are supposed to go certain places.  However, I think a lot of it has to do with maps.  We are all tube_mapused to the transit maps like that used in London.  It’s a relatively abstract system of lines and colors showing where the various subway trains travel to and where they intersect with each other.

Have you ever seen a bus map like that?  I have not, but that does not mean they do not exist.  Certainly such maps are easier when there is a guaranteed bus line such as bus rapid transit systems, like those in Las Vegas or Hartford.  Systems that have dedicated lanes or demarcated lanes where buses go are much more analagous to light rail.  This is even more true where bus stops have fare gates, such as certain places on Boston’s Silver Line.

The Transportationist (see blogroll) has discussed improving bus signage to make buses more desirable.  I believe this is critical.  Buses are intimidating to the unitiated, becasue unless you’ve ridden one before or are intensely familiar with a neighborhood, where a bus goes and where it stops seem intensely mysterious.  When you enter a subway station on the other hand you usually are shown at least a system map and many times shown a system map overlaid upon a geographic map.  I cannot remember the last time I saw this at a bus stop.

brt_bogotaI recognize the difficulties of producing bus maps; the malleability of bus routes, fluctuation in stops, the lack of permanence of many stops, the challenge of portraying dozens of bus maps on one map.  I agree that to portray every bus route on one map would be beyond chaotic.  However, I believe urban transit systems could begin with their most heavily travelled lines.  Maps should show where buses go, how frequently they travel, how frequently they stop (because if the bus stops every block or two blocks it is not necessary to portary every stop) and where the bus route intersects with other routes and other transit options.  If buses travel on city routes it would also be potentially helpful if lines were painted on the street to show where buses travel.  There is no doubt where trains go, just follow the tracks or the subway stops.  However, it’s not always so clear for buses, especially, if there is no shed or covering at the stop.  Therefore, better signage is required at stops to alert people where they in fact are.  They should be visible from a distance, not small like no parking signs.

Buses have a long history in this country of being portrayed as an undesirable means of transportation.  In the first third of the 20th century General Motors bought out trolley systems across the country and replaced them with bus systems for the twofold reason that they could produce the buses and fewere people want to ride buses than trolleys and would therefore be more likely to drive.  However insidious it was also insightful.  Trains are more desirable than bus lines, but much can be done to improve bus lines such that they are more rider friendly.  Visitors and residents to cities alike should see the bus system as a matter of access, not a burden less worthy of their patronage than rail.

jane jacobsrobert moses

Howard Husock wrote a book review in the latest issue of City Journal discussing Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City, by Anthony Flint, and Genius of Common Sense: Jane Jacobs and the Story of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch.

Jane Jacobs was the great self-taught urban philosopher and activist who wrote the Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which she took the lessons she learned from Greenwich Village to expound upon the value of organic urban life, where planning and government have  a limited but instrumental role.  This stood in direct contrast to the most powerful man in New York, the unelected Robert Moses, who built many of New York City’s highways and housing projects.

Husock makes many notable points, including this one:

But good cases can make bad law, and the successful defense of Washington Square Park and the West Village can lead too easily to the conclusion that neighborhood preservation, by whatever means necessary, is always correct—and that opponents of development, by definition, occupy the moral high ground. Thanks partly to their efforts, New York City has not opened a new subway line since 1942, has no easy transit link to its airports, and enforces a system of legally dictated rents that allow affluent tenants to stay forever in cheap apartments and insulate themselves from neighborhood change. Some would even extend such rent controls to commercial properties, thus interrupting the cycle of decline and rebirth that marks dynamic cities.

Neither Moses nor Jacobs had a perfect philosophy.  Any transportation advocate recognizes the need for eminent domain at some minimal level and that good transit can help organic growth.  Think about how commercial and residential centers grow around particular subway stops or how other areas decay when city planners choose to move a bus line or close a light rail stop.  In this day and age there is no such thing as truly organic transit.  The days of paving over old walking and cow paths are over and transit now is a matter of government and the community working to make transit systems and routes that work with and for the community.

Moreover, Moses and Jacobs stand as historic examples of the long-lasting effects of making (or not making decisions in planning).  Moses radically changed the city and Jacobs prevented some of his other attempts and set the tone to make sure that other Moses-like projects would never occur.  In this day and age of 24-hour media we forget that our policy decisions have a longer lasting effect than the day or week they are put into place.  A policy decision, especially one as large as where or whether to build a highway or subway can have ramifications for decades if not centuries.

As we finally begin to give transportation infrastructure its due in the 21st century, we are best served to remember that any decision on transit–whether it is high speed rail, improving our highways, investing in more subways, efficient cars or something else we are bound to imagine–those decisions do not solve only current problems.  Those decisions will have ramifications today and for centuries to come.  Transportation grants should not be handed out for efficiecy’s sake or for mere stimulus effect, but to establish and preserve productive, creative, economically thriving centers of American life.

SkyTran Seattle2 - new head final

My friend Greg Moran, who knows a thing or two about infrastructure,  sent me this fascinating link to SkyTran.  The developers of SkyTran describe the product thus:

SkyTran is the Auto 2.0 or Auto2 – not just auto-mobile but auto-matic. This new-generation vehicle holds two passengers and weighs just 200 pounds empty. It moves on lightweight “guideways” one-foot wide and 20-30 feet above the ground, riding on magnetic levitation (“maglev”) coils inside the guideway instead of wheels. Because vehicles floating on a magnetic field can switch on and off the guideway easily, there will be stations every few blocks – or several per block in busy areas – little platforms 10′ above the sidewalk or attached to the side of buildings.

GreenTech Media provides a great illustration of what such a system might look like as well:

For a mental picture, think of a magnetic levitation (maglev) trains cross-bred with that thing that shuffles around shirts in a dry cleaner.

The first lines would be along heavy-duty transportation corridors, i.e., delivering passengers from central downtown stations to the airport, or inside the redesigned city of the future. Over time, the lines could be extended to individual homes with parallel tracks for exits. The cable required to propel the vehicle and hold them in the air is only about 18 inches wide and two feet wide, said John Cole, Unimodal’s COO.

“You could install it on standard utility poles. It would require the same gauge [of pole] that would hold up a traffic light,” he said.

(more…)

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