Monday, May 17, 2010

Transit mode share to ballparks

In a cute lede in a recent op-ed in the Boston Globe, New York and Boston sports fans were held up as examples of transit users.
Red Sox and Yankees fans can agree on one thing — how to get to the game. In New York, about 45 percent of ticketholders take public transportation. In Boston, more than 50 percent of ticketholders take the T — a percentage higher than any other professional sports franchise in any city in the country. Yet, even as hundreds of thousands pour into rail cars each season, most are unaware that the trains are running on empty.
That makes sense: parking in Boston is atrocious ($40 for a spot, and horrible traffic pre- and post-game) and in New York many fans come from The City, and those who don't face interminable waits to get off of and back on to the Major Deegan. (Google Maps imagery of Yankee Stadium, taken just before a ballgame, shows hordes of people getting off the subway, and traffic backed up from the stadium 3 miles north up 87, and across the Harlem River in to Manhattan towards the GW Bridge, although the CBE is pretty clear.)

This got me to thinking. I profiled Minneapolis's new stadium, Target Field, a few weeks ago, focusing in on how it was built in to a transit system which, when fully developed*, could see a 600-passenger crush load, three car light rail train leaving every three minutes in each direction. (I was biking through Minneapolis last week and saw them using three car trains after a Twins game.) I also went to Kansas City, where there is no transit service to the game, and everyone is forced to park in the huge lots surrounding Kauffman Stadium, setting up a nice little racket for the stadium owners.

I want the data. I want to plot ballpark transit mode share versus overall transit mode share. I'd love to see data on biking to the stadium. This mode is nonexistent in Boston or New York (where your bike is liable to be stolen if you aren't hit by a driver on the way to the game) but in Minneapolis there are hundreds of bike racks and they're full on game day (and the city is planning to complete a bike trail quite literally underneath the stadium which will enable off-street links from most directions). If anyone knows where I can get it (and, yes, I emailed the authors of that article) I'd love to know.

* The Central Corridor to the south and then east, the Southwest Corridor to the north and then southwest and the Bottineau Transitway to the north and then northwest, plus any additional commuter rail.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Will a Midtown pedestrian mall kill Midtown?

In a word, no.

The Next American City had a post regarding pedestrian malls which, in some cases, are having cars reintroduced. They were originally a reaction to suburban shopping malls, and an attempt to retain retail in former downtowns. Their success has been decidedly mixed. The pedestrian movement is moving towards complete streets, which makes more sense. Streets were once rather democratic places, but were completely turned over to automobiles (with things like jaywalking statutes). A few were further segregated, with pedestrian malls.

There seem to be two types of pedestrian mall—those where nearly everyone arrives by car, and those where the pedestrian mall is at the center of an already-pedestrian-friendly area. The former are generally small and medium cities, the latter larger cities with decent transit or college towns. Then there's Manhattan.

Manhattan is not trying to boost a lagging retail sector. Times Square, Herald Square and 34th Street is probably the most bustling area in the whole country. And while downtown retail has suffered in nearly every city in the country, New York has a large enough transit-centric population that Midtown has no trouble even with tight, very expensive parking. New York's attempts at pedestrianization are reactions to having given too much space away to cars—five lanes of traffic with narrow, crowded sidewalks. In addition, the diagonal crossing of Broadway caused traffic havoc, and with the box often blocked, gridlock ensued. (Well, it still ensues.) With traffic stalled and thousands of pedestrians, Times and Herald Squares resemble pedestrian malls more often than not—with a bunch of cars blocking the way.

The New York Times asked a bunch of folks (it's a good read) if they thought that the pedestrianization of Midtown was a good idea, and everyone said yes. Well, everyone except the token nay-sayer. (Actually they had a guy from Reason who was able to say that "pedestrian malls could be viable in Manhattan.") They had to find someone to say that the pedestrian improvements were bad for the city, and they found one Randall O'Toole.

Usually Randall expounds on a laughable, oil- and car-lobby-funded blog where he argues time and again that if we all drove everywhere it'd be great. I choose not to spend my time debunking every one of his articles (for instance: New York would do better with buses than subways) and the straw men and red herrings and use of irrelevant data (in the New York case, he argues that buses cost less per passenger mile to operate, which is true in many cities, but not in New York). But this is not a blog, it's the paper of record (or a blog on the PoR's website). In any case, he makes some very interesting assertions regarding the street closings in Midtown. Here are some choice quotes:

Closing Broadway to auto traffic may reduce congestion on cross streets and avenues, but limiting auto access could also turn Broadway itself into a deserted wasteland.

In 1959, Kalamazoo, Mich., tried to help its downtown compete with suburban shopping malls by closing a street to auto traffic and turning it into a pedestrian mall. Over the next 30 years, more than 200 American and Canadian cities created similar malls.

Far from helping retail districts, most of these pedestrian malls killed them. Vacancy rates soared, and any pedestrians using the malls found themselves walking among boarded up shops or former department stores that had been downgraded to thrift shops or other low-rent operations.

That's his opening. He's comparing Midtown Manhattan to Kalamazoo. Uh, Randall, I think there are some minor density differences going on there. And some minor land use and land value differences. Tell me, did Kalamazoo in 1959 have one of the worlds largest subway systems and two of the worlds largest train stations? Was Kalamazoo's pedestrian mall anchored by the largest store in the world (and the flagship of the largest nationwide department store chain) at one end and the largest theater district in the country at the other?

Then, in a study of fallacies, he goes on:

In most situations, automobiles drive retail. Pedestrian malls don’t create pedestrians; they only work on streets that are already dominated by pedestrian traffic.

Where to start. "In most situations" does not, quite specifically, apply to all situations. "Pedestrian malls don't create pedestrians." That's a bit of a straw man, since there's no need to create more pedestrians in Midtown Manhattan, is there? And as for working on streets dominated by pedestrian traffic—anyone who's ever walked in Manhattan would probably agree that that would be a fair description of the streets there.

And if you naïvely think that's all, you'd be wrong:

Broadway might have sufficient pedestrians to maintain retail businesses — but it might not. It may be that many of the pedestrians originally arrived by taxi or in other automobiles. And given the current economy, any change for the worse could put already teetering shops out of business.

Broadway might not have sufficient pedestrians to maintain retail businesses? Seriously? If you took a poll of New Yorkers to see if they thought Broadway didn't have enough pedestrians to support retail business I believe those answering in the affirmative would be pretty darned close to 100 percent. It might be no—from every hundredth person. And are most people arriving by taxi or car? Well, not by car. The few people who do arrive by car are paying enough in parking fees and the time cost of driving in to Midtown that an extra few minutes of gridlock won't make any difference. Those in taxis aren't about to drive to Passaic if the ride was a few minutes longer.

And the teetering shops? Well, I'm pretty sure Macy's isn't going anywhere real soon.

In any case, it's pretty obvious Randall O'Toole hasn't been to Manhattan, or if he did he didn't open his eyes. If he wants to keep a blog where he proffers fabrications, fine. But if he is going to write swill like this, the Times shouldn't give him the time of day.

But perhaps a Times commenter said it best: "Comparing Buffalo to Manhattan is like comparing Randall O'Toole to an actual scholar."

Thursday, May 6, 2010

What's at the corner of Plymouth and Queen?

When traffic is bad and I want to ski at Theodore Wirth Park, I take a back route from Saint Paul which culminates with a stretch of Plymouth Avenue in Minneapolis. Plymouth is not the most attractive of streets—it goes from an industrial strip east of Interstate 94 and then is all urban renewal from Emerson to Penn. It's another half mile from Penn to Wirth Park, and the closer to the park the houses are better kept and a bit statelier, with fewer chain-link fences (a good sign of low income in the Twin Cities).

But one thing caught my eye. On the southwest corner of Plymouth and Queen Avenue is a rather peculiar-looking building. At first, it looks like many apartment blocks in the Twin Cities. It's three stories high and tucked in to a normal city block. The neighborhood is mostly African American today, so it seems like no place to have a building with two six-pointed stars, right? Wrong:

View Larger Map

On a length of street where nearly every non-residential building (and several residential buildings as well) has been torn down and rebuilt (or not rebuilt), for some reason, this small synaguge stands practically untouched. It doesn't seem to be in use. It's just—there. A relic of a half century ago.

It turns out that the neighborhood went through quite an upheaval during the 1960s. North Minneapolis was where you went in the first half of the century if you weren't allowed anywhere else. Plymouth Avenue was a commercial strip with a streetcar line (it still has the #7 bus) and was the center of the north side Jewish community—Litvaks and Russians and other eastern Europeans.

It was also home to one of Minneapolis's African American communities, and the two groups apparently lived in harmony before and after the second World War, possibly because much of the rest of the city and its suburbs were closed to both groups. As with many other cities (such as Boston), the exclusionary titles were lifted piecemeal, and in the 1950s and '60s, as the Jews began to move out (they could get loan guarantees in Saint Louis Park, blacks could not), riots accelerated the process. By the 1970s, the Jewish community had moved to the suburbs, even as it had been building new structures two decades earlier.

Perhaps it still stands because it is not that old. The building was erected in 1948—20 years before the riots that would finish off reshaping the neighborhood. It's not particularly stately or obtrusive—at least not now in its shabby state—but it's amazing that it still stands. Nearly everything else on the street has been demolished (here are several pictures of the street from the 1950s and 1960s) yet this shul looks exactly the same.

Why can't we internalize the cost of commuting?

Yesterday I was biking from Saint Paul to Minneapolis at rush hour. In to a stiff headwind, which shaved four or five miles per hour off my speed—more on downhills. However, when I crossed over Interstate 94 (*) just east of the Mississippi, I smiled. Both sides of the highway were parking lots. I probably wouldn't have gone any faster in a car.

I hate traffic. Actually, I should rephrase that. I hate being stuck in traffic. I love the concept of traffic, as long as it is not "solved" by building more roads. Livable cities have traffic. (They have transit as well. The ones with traffic and no transit, well …) I continued on a few blocks to my destination and, while I was not particularly happy fighting against the gale, I was glad I wasn't giving myself ulcers in a traffic jam.

There have been several recent articles about the fact that people are unable to properly calculate the cost—both economically, the time cost and the emotional distress—of a long commute. It's been called the commuter's paradox. The long and short of it comes down to the fact that people, when making an important decision (where to live) will worry about rare, very inconvenient occasions more than frequent and not-quite-so-inconvenient-but-still-bothersome occasions. In other words (mostly those of Ap Dijksterhuis of Radboud University in the Netherlands):
Consider two housing options: a three bedroom apartment that is located in the middle of a city, with a ten minute commute time, or a five bedroom McMansion on the urban outskirts, with a forty-five minute commute. "People will think about this trade-off for a long time," Dijksterhuis says. "And most them will eventually choose the large house. After all, a third bathroom or extra bedroom is very important for when grandma and grandpa come over for Christmas, whereas driving two hours each day is really not that bad." What's interesting, Dijksterhuis says, is that the more time people spend deliberating, the more important that extra space becomes. They'll imagine all sorts of scenarios (a big birthday party, Thanksgiving dinner, another child) that will turn the suburban house into an absolute necessity. The pain of a lengthy commute, meanwhile, will seem less and less significant, at least when compared to the allure of an extra bathroom. But, as Dijksterhuis points out, that reasoning process is exactly backwards: "The additional bathroom is a completely superfluous asset for at least 362 or 363 days each year, whereas a long commute does become a burden after a while."
In addition to the environmental catastrophe of building and heating (or air conditioning) superfluous, unused rooms, people have convinced themselves that they need this extra space, and pay dearly for it: first when they buy something larger than necessary, and then when they spend hours a day in the car because they can't get anywhere without turning the ignition key. (Has no one heard of a fold-out bed or a hotel room? It's a lot cheaper than a bigger house.)

The article also goes in to the issue that the worst thing about traffic isn't that it's bad, but that it's unpredictable. With all sorts of technological advancements, the best we can do now are sporadic signs above the Interstate telling us how long we have left in this particular hell. With a little money, we could make the trains and buses run on time (the worst thing about a poorly functioning transit system is, generally, its unpredictability). Making traffic predictable, on the other hand, is all but impossible.

There's another piece up recently regarding a book about car dependence. It goes in to more of the economics, that we don't internalize the costs of driving because they are so ingrained in the American psyche. It's really a problem, and one that will take decades to fix. Whether the current economic status (and, yes, economics, not environmentalism, will be the driver of less automobile use) or higher gas prices will make a change is yet to be seen. However, it may be a generational change, and amongst a generation of always-plugged-in folks who see time in a car for what it is—almost completely wasted—we may see more people who are less interested in driving the latest, greatest shiny new automobile.

[ * Why is I-94 bad going west? Because in the course of about three miles there is a lane drop on the right (Riverside), a lane drop on the left (35W), two horrible merges on the right (from 35W and 11th), and then a sharp curve in to the Lowry Tunnel. There are no lanes which don't disappear or have just brutal merges. You can add all the suburban lane miles you want, but it won't address these bottlenecks.]

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Can we leverage the oil slick in to a gas tax?

We've written about the gas tax before (or the lack thereof). But with a new focus on the perils of offshore drilling (and oil spills in general), it seems that it might be a good opportunity to impose, and properly frame, the gas tax.

As Jonathan Chait (and surely others) adroitly points out, we are not paying for all of the externalities. We're definitely not paying for the rather obtuse problem of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. There are ideas on how to put a price on it (a carbon tax), but none are particularly sellable. Despite the rather dramatic evidence, global warming is a hard sell. Yes, it's one degree warmer than it was, but there are still cold snaps and snowstorms. Try to convince the public that it's a problem, and you're bound to run in to contrary "evidence", even if the evidence is weather while the problem is climate.

In any case, to impose a tax, you often need a good reason. And the oil spill—as bad as it is in the affected area—might be a good enough reason. Yes, we all want BP to pay for the damage. But, likely, the government will kick in, or at last have to pay first and go after BP later. Here's where the framing comes in. Instead of a carbon tax (which we don't understand) we need a "save the birds and marshes fee." Show a bunch of oil-slicked birds, and put a 5¢ fee on each gallon of gas. Because when it happens again (and, oh yeah, it'll happen again), we'll either have more money, or fewer oil tankers and rigs. Neither of which is a bad thing.