Sunday, February 16, 2014

A response to the DCR anti-bike statement

Recently, UniversalHub posted an exchange with the DCR regarding winter bicycling maintenance. I've seen this as an issue before, but the derision with which the DCR views cyclists is repugnant. I've been stewing about this all morning and have posted a line-by-line rebuttal to the last directive which really makes my blood boil. Not only is it derisive and dismissive, but it shows how little the DCR cares about anything that doesn't have four wheels and an internal combustion engine. I am going to go through it sentence by sentence and provide notes, in italics:
We should all be stating as a policy that DCR has no responsibility or intent of providing "safe" winter biking opportunities on any of our linear paths or sidewalks. 
Since when is this the DCR policy. Is there anything in state statute that directs them not to maintain safe winter conditions on their linear paths or sidewalks? Or is this an internal policy decision.
This is impossible! 
Simply not true. There are several examples of paths which are plowed and maintained in Boston. These include the Minuteman Bikeway, which is maintained by the towns it passes through and well-used. The Somerville Community Path is similar. MassDOT should be applauded for their efforts to keep the Longfellow clear of snow; they have done a stellar job and shown that it certainly is possible to provide a clear path for non-auto users. Additionally, if you look at cities like Madison, Saint Paul and Minneapolis, they have no issue keeping paths trails for cycling. It's been above freezing in Minneapolis 8 days since December 4. So don't give me the "it's too cold in Boston." It's been below 0˚ 42 days in that time frame. Spare me.
Any path or walk where we do snow removal is strictly to provide reasonable continued passage for pedestrians.
Why is the level of maintenance between these paths and the parallel roadways different? The roadways are pleasure roadways, yet they are maintained to the same level as any other roadway. If the DCR ran a single plow after the storm and let drivers fend for themselves, I'd understand them not clearing the pathways. However, that is not the case.
If anyone wants to bike our paths in winter they should assume variable and dangerous conditions, and know they are doing it at there own risk.
Then why call them bike paths? The Paul Dudley White Bike Path is called a bike path because it is a bike path. The Soouthwest Corridor is explicitly signed for bicyclists. We understand that paths might not be free of ice and snow, much like we understand that roadways may have patches of ice and snow on them. However, we expect that when we pay tax dollars these go towards maintaining the pathways—putting some effort in to it. It is clear the DCR does not feel that this is the case.
Frankly, I am tired of our dedicated team wasting valuable time addressing the less than .05% of all cyclists who choose to bike after a snow/ice event. 
Wow. Where to begin. First of all, the DCR is spending a lot of time defending not doing any work. How about spending some of this energy going out and actually clearing off the snow from their properties. Then they wouldn't have to waste this valuable time. Second, 0.05% of cyclists choose to bike after a snow/ice event? This is ridiculous. It's possible someone here doesn't understand math and meant 5% (0.05 is 5%, but 0.05% is 0.0005). They are saying that one in 2000 cyclists bikes after a snow event. I was out cycling this past week and rode with a group of five bicyclists on Main Street in Cambridge. By this calculation, there would be 10,000 cyclists on Main Street on a given morning. I can tell you that is not the case. This is dismissive and wrong. 
Sometimes during winter in Boston you can safely bike, and I do it when it is dry and safe. 
False equivalence. Do we say "sometimes you can drive in Boston, when it is dry and safe?" And just because you don't does that mean that no one should?
This is not one of those winters! 
Please go out and stand on a street corner in Boston and see if there are any safe cyclists. I can attest that there are many.
We should not spend time debating cyclists with poor judgement and unrealistic expectations, and stick with [the staffer]'s recommendation that they find other transportation.
Cyclists who want to be able to bike in the winter have poor judgement? Do drivers who drive in the winter have poor judgement? And is it really unreasonable to expect that bike paths designated as such would be maintained for bicyclists? If this staffer believes that this is the case, they are derelict in their duty and should be removed from their position.
If someone is completely depending on a bike for year-round transportation, they are living in the wrong city.
This is repugnant. The state has a goal of reducing SOV travel, but apparently the DCR is not on board. It is time for the DCR to work with the rest of the Commonwealth, not against it. And if Boston is the wrong city to be a cyclist in the winter, perhaps we should move to Minneapolis or Madison, a city with worse winters, but which actually invests in its cyclists.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Uber surge pricing: anti-congestion pricing and economic externalities

I'm a devotee of NPR's Planet Money podcast, but listening to a recent episode had me screaming at my—well, at my earbuds—when they described how Uber's surge pricing and business model was good for everyone. The episode is moderately informative, but I take issue with a major premise of their reporting: the argument that charging a lot for service and matching supply and demand is a benefit for all users. You can listen to the entirety of the episode here; the segment I take issue with starts around 11:00.

Here's a quick breakdown of the conversation:
  • Uber benefits car drivers, because they can make more money when prices "surge."
  • Uber benefits people with high disposable income ($150 for a trip from Manhattan to Brooklyn), because they can choose to pay a lot of money to get a car when demand is high.
  • Uber benefits people waiting for cabs because Uber gets more cars on the road, so the wait time for other cars is less.
The last piece is where I take issue. In a closed system, this would be the case. But it's not. Here's a quote from the show: "when drivers see an area of the city where fares are high … they all go there." Remember, we're talking about New York City. When there's a congested area, Uber provides an incentive for more drivers to go to this congested area. This creates more congestion, which actually results in slower speeds for taxicabs, and—I would posit—fewer available rides for people not willing to pay a lot of money, not more, as they suggest.

Which is fine, in economic theory. However, when looking at traffic, "congestion" is shorthand for "demand." So by attempting to provide efficient transportation options, it is a transfer of utility from the poor to the rich. Taxicabs are strictly regulated because they serve as a part of the transportation network, both in fare and in number. By sending a fleet of expensive black cars to a congested area, Uber squeezes out the more affordable taxis from the street. Someone willing to pay triple the fare for a ride might call and Uber, but someone who can't afford that service now has a potentially longer wait for a cab (which can't get to the area due to congestion) and then everyone has a longer ride due to the congestion. Part of the taxicab regulations—at least in theory—provide enough cabs to provide service without gridlocking the city (obviously, here too theory and practice are almost mutually exclusive). Adding more and more cars to already congested streets creates crippling congestion. That's—to use economist speak—a major negative externality for everyone.

Now the argument could be made that people waiting for cabs should just take the subway. It's a good argument; in the podcast they interviewed someone waiting in a 30 minute cab line, in the snow, at Penn Station for a ride "downtown," an area well-served by the nearby subway (for lower prices, too). And for some of these riders, they might make that choice. But others probably have rational reasons to look for a cab: perhaps they have a bulky item. Perhaps they're trying to get somewhere not well-served by transit. Plus, the added street-level congestion might drive more people to use the subway, which will create more congestion below-ground too. Adding more vehicles above-ground doesn't seem like a great solution.

Uber's surge pricing, in my view, is the opposite of congestion pricing. What works in London and Singapore has faced stiff opposition in New York City (especially from interests outside the city). With congestion pricing, Uber (in theory) would make more sense, since the overall traffic would (in theory) be mitigated enough that surge pricing wouldn't send more cars in to already-congested areas. Until then, Uber's surge pricing is part of the problem, not part of the solution. And it certainly doesn't benefit the vast majority of travelers.