New York City

Basics: Where Can Ferries Succeed?

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Brisbane’s cross-river ferry

An email from a transit professional asks what I have to say about ferries.

Think of a ferry as a rapid transit line, minus the huge cost of land and rails and power supply, but unable to continue across a land-water boundary.

Like rail, ferries carry the limitation that everyone has to get off at the end of the line.  Obviously you need transit connections there for onward journeys, but the result is multiple connections to continue in one direction, which is always less effective than grid structures where service can flow onward across the city.  Ferries, of course, have even more constraints about where the end of the line must be.  So ferries often struggle to compete with transit lines using adjacent bridges or tunnels, because these can penetrate deeper into the city on both sides to complete logical networks.

Another constraint of ferries is that waterfront land is expensive, so it’s hard to find space at a ferry terminal for everything you’d want at a transit node, including terminals for connecting transit, transit-oriented development, and (if you must) commuter parking.

This means that a really successful ferry line, especially all day, has the following necessary conditions.

  • High frequency. This requires minimizing on-board labor, as labor drives operating cost and thus constrains frequency.  (Marine regulations in many countries are an obstacle to this.)  Ferries with only one employee on board achieve frequency through low labor costs.  See, for example, the privately owned micro-ferries on Vancouver’s False Creek (really a small, sheltered harbor) or the small cross-river ferries in Brisbane.  These can do well with only moderate demand because they are so cheap to operate, and can build up useful frequency for the same reason.
  • Very high density right in walking distance of the ferry terminal, preferably without major grades to climb.  This is a challenge because if you draw a walk-access circle around a ferry terminal, most of it is usually water.  Cities that slope upward steeply from the water, like Seattle, present further barriers.
  • Quality landside access by frequent connecting transit modes, sufficient to draw adequate all-day demand.  This and the previous one can substitute for each other to a degree, but the most successful services have both. In Hong Kong, for example, there are large bus terminals at the major ferry terminals, despite astronomical land value and the many competing demands, because they really understand the importance of total networks, which in turn are built on easy connections.
  • No competition from bridges or tunnels, especially those carrying frequent transit lines (rail or bus).  Ferries just can’t compete, for high volume, with bridge-and-tunnel services.  Sometimes ferries are run to densely populated coves where the competing bridge or tunnel lands too far back from the water to serve the area, as on New York’s East River, but in this case you have to fill the ferry solely with waterfront demand, because people inland will take the bridge or tunnel service.
  • Favorable Pricing.  If there is any possible competition with bridge/tunnel service, the ferry needs to be cheaper to use, counting the total trip including any connections.
The immensely successful Staten Island Ferry has all the necessary features, including huge transit networks converging on both ends.

The immensely successful Staten Island Ferry has all the necessary features, including huge transit networks converging on both ends.

Really successful ferries, like New York’s Staten Island Ferry or Hong Kong’s Star Ferry, have all of these features.

The most common problem in ferry planning is to build too many little terminals, each with too small a market, so that they don’t support much service outside of rush hour and often not even then.  Auckland and Sydney, for example, have lots of ferry terminals in bucolic suburban coves, downhill from most nearby residents, where there are just not enough people.   These tend to become elite services and often not very productive ones.  Fewer terminals with larger demand is the key, just as fewer stops is a key to the most productive land-based networks.

The romantic and scenic qualities of ferries always generate support, just as happens with rail services, but service must be useful, compared to your alternatives, if it is to succeed long-term.  Tourism and recreation are often cited as markets, but unless you have a supercharged tourism sector, and the right kind of service and connections, this market is easily overstated due to inevitable private sector boosterism.

As always, if the ridership prospects are low and the benefits are mostly private, the funding should be private as well.  Encourage the tourist sector to fund tourist ferries directly, just as you would for any service precision-designed around a single interest.  The same could be said for small, low-demand ferries that mostly benefit a single development or specialized community.

So yes, ferries are good at certain things, but destinations along the water, and some local enthusiasm, isn’t enough to ensure a successful ferry project.

New York: “Subway Deserts” and the Bus “Turnaround” Campaign

It’s fun to draw maps of “deserts,” places where some cool thing is absent and where you can therefore imply that people are being abandoned or ignored.  This Chris Whong map of  New York “Subway deserts” for example, just showed up in Citylab:

Source: Chris Whong

Source: Chris Whong

Sure enough, most of the land area of New York city is not near a subway station.

But how many people is that?  It’s a lot of people, but fewer than you’d guess from looking at the map, because so much of the subwayless area is low-density or even open space.  Geographically accurate maps always invite you to misread area as population.

And in any case, should everyone in New York be close to a subway stop?  The subway is not the whole transit system; it’s just the high-capacity backbone of it.  You build subways only where you expect to fill long trains at high frequency for much of the day.

There may be places in New York that would profit from, and reward, the investment in a subway, but a map of everywhere that subways don’t go doesn’t even start that conversation.

The deserts that really matter are deserts of access, places where people are truly without options.  And to assess that for New York, even just for transit, you’d have to care about the massive bus network.  It’s the bus network job to cover the whole city, getting close to everyone.  Much of the bus system is also very frequent.

That’s why the smart folks at TransitCenter — a New York – based transit advocacy foundation — have launched a Turnaround campaign, meant to call attention to all the things that can be done to make New York bus service more useful, so that almost everyone can get to useful transit.  I deal with the barriers to good bus service all over the developed world, and the problem is always the same.  It’s not the technical limitations to what buses can do.  It’s the official apathy about them.

For example, many elected officials still believe that because buses are supposedly “flexible” they should just be changed so that they go by the house of anyone who requests them, as though fixed route bus lines were taxis or UberPools.  If they get enough phone calls, these elected officials will tell staff to transform the route on the right into the one on the left, with no comprehension of what they’re destroying.

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Obviously, bus lines designed for high ridership run straight, so that they are as useful to many many people as possible, and so that they can run as frequently as possible.  Obvious stuff, but you have to fight this battle over and over, and that’s a lot of what I do.

So bravo to TransitCenter for its review of the New York buses.  It’s something that people in any developed-world city would be smart to review, and contemplate.

defending new york’s subway from british sneers

Guardian journalist Bim Adewunmi recently traveled from London to New York and slammed the subway as compared to her beloved Underground.  The blowback has been delightful.  She seemed especially angry about the information system that isn't exactly what Transport for London would do.

The city’s subway map is dense and needlessly complex. Where in London the Central line (red) is distinct from the Piccadilly (dark blue), which is markedly different from the Hammersmith and City line (pink), New York’s map has designated the same forest green to the 4, the 5 and the 6 lines. The B, D, F and M all rejoice in exactly the same shade of violent orange. … Why would you do this? The whole thing resembles a child’s approximation of a city transit system: it makes no sense.

She's talking about branching lines.  If she were from Paris, whose elegant Métro is nearly branchless, she'd have a point.  But what a comment for someone from London!

In New York's map, the common color helps you navigate the core part of a line while the numbers or letters help you sort out the branches.  This is a very common way of making branching lines clear.  Meanwhile, in London, where transit is presumably designed by sober adults, we have this:

Northern Line map

No 4, 5, and 6 to confuse you!   No, just a beast called the Northern Line even though it's both northerly and southerly, consisting of two entirely different lines through the central city.  Is there a direct train from Waterloo to Mill Hill East?  How would I know? As Clive's Underground Guide helpfully explains:  "The pattern of service … tends to change with each new issue of the timetable."  

You see, Bim, Americans like maps and nomenclature systems that actually indicate where their train will go!   In London I'm sure you just somehow just know what the next Northern Line train might be up to.  But all that aristocratic just knowing that you Brits do is exactly why you lost your Empire!  

😉

more maps of your freedom: job access and transit

The Regional Plan Association, the New York-region planning think tank, has produced a great new map as part of their Fragile Success report:

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http://fragile-success.rpa.org/maps/jobs.html

This map takes the travel time methodology regular readers of this blog know well, but then within that area of access shows all of the jobs, categorized by sector, as a dot density map. The effect is to visualize the quantity and number of jobs that can be reached from a give point in a given time, by walking, transit, cycling, or driving. The map is also able to quickly calculate the number of jobs inside the AM peak travelshed on the fly, and even allows the user to toggle on and off different job classifications. If you want to see all of the education jobs within a 30 minute walk of a given location, now you can. 

To revisit a 2012 post, this sort of map of personal mobility is useful for two reasons:

  • Helping people and organizations understand the transit consequences of where they choose to locate, and thus to take more responsbility for those consequences.  This, over time, can help people who value good transit to locate where transit access is good — something that's very hard to discern from a typical bus map but that becomes very obvious here.  You can even assess access to specific things that you value, based on exactly where the blobs are.  

  • Helping people visualise the benefit of transit — access to your city — as a freedom, and thus to understand more clearly what transit does for them.  It broadens the narrow notion of travel time  – which is often understood for only one typical trip — into a picture of your options for accessing all the things you value.  The percentage of a city's resources (jobs, housing, retail etc) that is in the blobs for a particular location could also form the basis for a meaningful Transit Score that could replace the technologically biased scores now used by WalkScore.com.

new york:a frequent network map

Tumblr_inline_mq8zieIEsm1qz4rgpJust found this map of all 10-minute frequency or better services in New York City, by this not readily identifiable character on Tumblr.  This looks like quite a struggle to make clear given the complex nomenclature that NYCTA uses.  

The whole thing is here.  An NYCTA contact tells me it’s still current except for a change around LaGuardia airport.

When I’m learning a new city — as I do 10 or 20 times a year as a consultant — this is what I need!

 

time for an urbanist “tea party”? the citylab conversations

The "tea party" US House members who currently dominate the news are unlikely allies of urbanists.  But on one core idea, a band of urbanist thinkers are starting to echo a key idea of the radical right:   Big and active national government may not be the answer.

Images-5Last week, I was honored to be invited to Citylab, a two-day gathering in New York City sponsored by the Aspen Institutethe Atlantic magazine, and Bloomberg Philanthropies.  The event featured mayors and civic policy leaders from both North America and overseas as well as leading academics, journalists, and consultants.  

I expected the thrilling mix of new ideas, compelling stories, and quirky characters, but I got one thing I didn't expect:  A full-throated demand, from several surprising voices, for an urbanist revolt against the power of national governments.

Al Gore said it with his trademark fusion of bluntness and erudition: "The nation-state," he said, "is becoming disintermediated."  If you're not an academic at heart, that means: "National governments are becoming irrelevant to urban policy, and hence to the economy of an urban century."  

On cue, the New York Times published an op-ed on "The End of the Nation-State," about how cities are leaving nations behind.  Citylab also featured a terrific interview with political scientist Benjamin Barber, whose new book If Mayors Ruled the World argues for the irrelevance of nation-states in a world where cities are the real levers of economic power.  (According to Barber, the full title of his book should have been:  If Mayors Ruled the World: Why They Should and How They Already Do.)  When I spoke with Barber later, looking for nuance, he was full-throated in ridiculing the US Federal role in urbanism.   On this view, all the well-intentioned money that the Federal government doles out for urban goodies should be spent by cities as they see fit, or perhaps (gasp) never sent to Washington at all. 

Follow this logic and you might arrive at a radical urban Federalism, perhaps even one that could meet tea-party demands to "Abolish the IRS!"   Pay taxes to your city or state, and let them send a bit of it on to central government to do the few things that only a central government can do.  Push power downward to the scale where problems can be solved. 

You might even separate urban from rural governance in a way that enables both to thrive, each at its proper scale, replacing the eternal struggle between these necessary opposites that makes today's political discourse so inane.  The "size of government" debate is just a pointless and eternal struggle between urban and rural experience, both of which are right.  Living in cities means relying on government for many things that the rural resident provides for herself, so of course the attitude toward government is different.   But what's really logically different is the role of local government. Both urban and rural experience provide good reason to be suspicious of big-yet-distant national government, which can be as unresponsive to big-city mayors as it is to a Wyoming county official who just needs to get a bridge fixed.

At most of the urbanist and transportation conferences that I attend, though, any shrinking the national government role is met with horror.  And that's understandable.

In the US, the prevailing local response to declining federal spending is outrage and redoubled advocacy.  In Australia or Canada, two countries I work in extensively, working urbanists and infrastructure advocates seem to agree that of course there must be a bigger central government role in everything, with the US often cited as the model.  In the US itself, it's easy to see the current cuts in Federal spending as a disaster for urbanism and infrastructure.  It is, but it could also be something else: an invitation to governments that are closer to the people to have their own conversations that lead to local consensus about funding and solutions.

If mayors do end up ruling the world, it will be because the city, unlike the state or nation, is where citizenship is mostly deeply felt.   A nation's problems are abstract; if they show up in your life you're more likely to think of them as your community's or city's problems.  And that, in short, is why the city may be best positioned to actually build consensus around solving problems, including consensus about raising and spending money.  

And yet …

Before urbanists join the tea partiers in trying to shrink the national government, they have to grapple with the problem of inequality.  As sites of concentrated opportunity, cities are attracting the poor as well as the rich, and are thus becoming the place where inequality is most painfully evident.  But no mayor can be expected to solve a problem that exists on such a scale.

In small-c conservative terms, of course, the problem is not income inequality but rather the declining credibility of a "ladder of opportunity" that convinces everyone that reasonable effort will improve their circumstances.  One reason to care about transit, walking, and cycling — for many points on the income spectrum — is that transportation can form such a formidable barrier to opportunity.

All through Citylab, hands were wrung about inequality and the need to Do Something about it, against the backdrop of a New York City mayoral election that is mostly about this issue.  A rent control debate, featuring New York City Planning Director Amanda Burden and economist Paul Romer, found no middle ground on the question of whether city policy can usefully intervene to help low income people.  Income inequality appeared to be one issue where cities can do little by themselves.

When I asked sociologist Richard Florida about this in the North American context, he pointed me to an article proposing that the US create a Department of Cities.  He has good ideas about how to keep this from being just another bureaucracy, but if income inequality is the big issue that only national policy can address, it's not clear that it should be tagged as an urban issue at all.  Cities are not where the problems are.  Cities are just where people see their society's problems most intensely in daily life, because they get out of their cars.  

The great city in the wealthy parts of the world cannot just be an enclave of success.  It will deserve the self-government that the mayors seek only if it relentlessly inspires, supports, and gives back to its suburban and rural hinterland, creating its own "ladder of opportunity" for access to the riches of urban life.  Only a few people can afford Manhattan or San Francsico, so those cities' money and expertise must focus not just on themselves but on making life in more affordable places incrementally more humane.  Turning Newark into Manhattan would just make it unaffordable, so some of the urgency must lie in less photogenic intervention that works for each place's price-point.  It lies in providing safe places to walk and cycle, and  a safe way to cross the street at every bus stop, even in landscapes of drive-through everything that will be what many people can afford, and what some prefer.  

That's why I'm happy to be working not just in San Francisco but also in Houston, where affordability is a leading selling point.   It's why I'm suspicious of transit planning that defines an elite "choice rider" as the only important customer, including much of the transit-aestheticism that comes out of urbanist academia.  Where are the prestigious awards for the best affordable, scalable, but nonsexy intervention that made low-income inner-ring suburbia more safe and functional?  How do we build not just the shining city behind a moat (San Francisco, Manhattan, Singapore) but a chain of humane and functional places, at every price-point, that combine safety, civility and opportunity?

Where is the money in that?    If mayors ruled the world, I hope that would be obvious.  So let's hope they already do.

shutting down new york? think of the kittens

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Readers know I often find it necessary to wade into "efficiency vs emotion" debates, usually to point out that there are emotions at stake in efficiency too.  Yes, there were kitten lovers everywhere, including me, alarmed by the thought of two lost kittens on the tracks of the New York subway. There were also tens of thousands of stranded people missing their appointments and families and last-chance-to-see-dying-parents as two major subway lines were shut down to avoid hitting them. 

But you don't actually say that.

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And of course some obsessive philosopher-geek will want to probe each cat-lover's definition of cute-enough-to-shut-down-a-city.  "What if they had been squirrels?" he'll ask.  "Squirrels are adorable too, but they're rodents, so if squirrels are to be saved, why aren't we braking for all the rats that are down there anyway — mmph!"  No, you gag the philosopher-geek for his own safety.

Unless you are a certain Republican candidate for mayor, you don't actually say that you'd have kept the trains running even if it brought two lost kittens to an untimely end.  If tempted, you see the angry mobs holding photos of kittens.  You see radicals among them hurling dead kittens at you, each bearing a little certificate that it died of natural causes.   You imagine that every internet cat pic, for the rest of your life, will be like an ad for your opponents.  

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Social media have elevated the cat, and especially the cat picture, to a symbolic power not seen since Ancient Egypt.  You don't mess with that.

Which reminds me,  here's the complete collection of cat posts from my personal blog.  Here's an old pic of me holding Cody (1996-2009), whose safety I'd have personally shut down New York for:

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So yes, you efficiency-loving, reliability-loving urban technocrats!  There are purring, furry, carnivorous limits, and I'm there with the cat-lovers, astride the deserted subway tracks, yelling stop!  Isn't this a cute kitten?

new york: playing on fears of subway safety

The Atlantic Cities has a must-read about why people still fear being hit by New York subway trains, even though the subway is one of the safest ways to travel. The union representing New York subway workers is proposing a series of steps to reduce the risk of subway-person collisions, assisted by lurid graphics.  It just so happens that their main ideas require hiring more unionized staff!  This includes the proposal to slow down trains as they enter stations, which will slow down everyone's travel and increase the number of trains, and hence drivers, needed to maintain the current frequencies.

If subway-person collisions were common, these would be valid safety precautions.  Transit agencies do take these expensive steps when an objective safety issue arises.

But as the article states, the facts are these:

And yet, subway deaths remain exceedingly rare. The fatality rate has not changed significantly over the last decade. Of the 55 fatalities on the subway tracks in 2012, 19 were suicides. The remaining 36 accidental deaths on the New York City subway in 2012 occurred on 1.66 billion subway rides. That’s one death for every 46 million rides.*

For infrequent riders, death on the rails is less likely than being hit by lightning. If you’re a twice-a-day commuter, you’re likely to be killed once every 100,000 years. …

A significantly more dangerous feature of city life is car traffic. Even the most dedicated mass transit commuters are twice as likely to be hit and killed by a car than a train. One in 50,000 New Yorkers is killed by a car each year, and one in five hundred is injured.

If your desire to continue living is quite clear in your mind, it's very easy not to be hit by a subway train.  Stay behind the yellow line.  If that doesn't feel safe, stay back still further.  

The real question is: Why do we reward the media for giving us lurid details of every subway fatality but not for every road fatality?  The Atlantic article has some ideas about that, though I think it dwells too long on the late-20c period when New York was much more objectively dangerous than it is today.

Let's also note that some subway systems are installing platform walls with doors (like these in Singapore) opening only when and where a train door is present.  These further reduce risk and are useful in stations with very high crowding, but are very expensive (Over $1m per station) and technically difficult to fit into the already-compact New York platforms.  The MTA appears to be considering these, and other technological options.  The goal, however, would be to increase the feeling of safety, since actual safety is already extremely high.  How infinitesimal does the risk need to be before we focus our investments on other things, like more useful service?

dissent of the week: praise for new york city’s bus rapid transit

SBS_articulated_busIn my recent post on incomplete Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) I made a one-sentence reference to New York City's BRT services, called Select Bus Service:  " New York's supposed BRT is so compromised that many refused to call it BRT anymore."  The comment was based not just on the linked article but also on what I hear endlessly from transit advocates and professionals there, plus one experience riding the First/Second Avenue line, which has a lane on the Avenues but is in mixed traffic all the way across Lower Manhattan.

A transit professional fired back: 

Look at the numbers before you criticize NYCT!  I'd call a 15% increase in speeds on Fordham Road and First/Second Avenue pretty significant.  As I recall from talking to their schedulers, it was somewhat greater than expected on Fordham Road and somewhat less in Manhattan.  But how can you ignore these numbers in an article talking about a one-minute difference?  And to pull off the first implementation of off-board fare collection in the Bronx (I grew up about a mile away from Fordham Road) is not something to be taken for granted!  NYCT and NYCDOT did the footwork to address concerns of businesses in the Bronx. Yes, there are enforcement problems – this is New York City, after all.  And of course it's not ideal BRT in terms of separated lanes and high-level platforms (how well do these blend into an urban environment?  Don't join the cheap-shot artists!!

Fifteen percent is a good start, no question.  Advocates often hate percentage increases because they are used to validate progress from dreadful to just very bad, but for the professionals who fought this fight in the context of massive forces demanding the status quo, the percentage increase is the only way to give any validity to what they've achieved, and they deserve praise for that achievement.

Still, there is another equally valid frame, which is to ask "How fast does BRT need to be to be achieving something sufficiently transformative — something on the scale of the actual mode share and sustainability targets of a city like New York?"  And there's often a huge disconnect between the two.

This is why, in my own work, I routinely cite those targets and encourage people to think about what it would mean to actually aim that high.  I do this not to criticize those who fought the fight with inadequate support and ended up with something that's much less though still a real improvement.  All praise on those people!  Rather, the targets are important because they can form the basis for a more widely-endorsed argument for why the status quo has to be defeated — an argument that should be made at higher levels, in a form that transit planners can cite, so that transit planners don't feel like they're fighting alone in the cold.

For example, in the original Seattle Transit Plan that I worked on in 2005, we asked not "what interventions can we make to speed up those buses a bit?" but rather "how fast (and frequent) do the buses have to be to deliver the scale of mode shift that is essential to what Seattle wants to be as a city?"  San Francisco's Transit Effectiveness Project is a similar model.   Get influential policy people thinking about the second question, and the battlefield changes, because now each struggle to remove a parking space is part of a citywide or regionwide sustainability mission.  

So when planners fight the good fight with insufficient support, and end up with only 15% improvement over a possibly-dreadful pre-existing travel time, they have to be (a) thanked, and (b) reinforced by even more talk about the urgency of the citywide goals that they are fighting for, block by block, foot by foot, parking space by parking space.

new york: instant bus rapid transit

If you ever wondered how fast you could really create a Bus Rapid Transit line, well, New York City has done it just in the last couple of days:

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Could use embellishment, but everything you need for speed and reliability looks like it's there.

This happens to be a replacement service for an out-of-service subway line.  For more, see here.