Dear New Yorkers

If Governor Andrew Cuomo’s continued blithering idiocy manages to stall Amtrak’s Gateway tunnels until after one or both of the Hudson River Tunnels fails,

and if Mayor Bill De Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton succeed in wiping out the Times Square pedestrian plazas, one of America’s most successful urban street interventions, over a handful (sorry) of boob-related incidents,

please, please, please, do not all move to Philadelphia at once.  There are eight million of you, and as we are in the midst of proving, we have problems when more than a half million people or so show up at any one time.  (We will totally take that first half million, though.)  Also, you seem to have a penchant for electing dumb fuckups who ruin everything, and that is about the last thing we need to do.

 

More in sympathy than in gloating,

-STP

Posted in Amtrak, Legacy Infrastructure, New Jersey Transit, New York MTA, Politics, Service Disruptions | Leave a comment

The Secret Service Is Not a Transportation Agency

Since SEPTA’s service plan for the Papal Visit came out, transportation experts and casual riders alike have been picking apart what seem to be obvious flaws. As suggestions for improvement are met with uncharacteristic silence from 1234 Market Street, the picture has become much clearer: it’s not SEPTA’s transportation plan, it’s the transit component of a security plan, and in that light, of course it makes no goddamned sense as a transportation plan.

Most reporting on transportation for the Papal Mass on the Parkway has focused on a simple syllogism: 1) 1,500,000 people each turned out for the Phillies parade in 2008 and Live 8 in 2005. Both times, every mode of transportation in the area melted down from demand well over capacity. 2) 2,000,000-2,500,000 visitors are expected to come see His Holiness. 3) Every mode of transportation is going to melt down again.

But the SEPTA preliminary service plan only partially optimizes itself for capacity. The restriction of Regional Rail to only a couple dozen stations makes some sense in light of the lessons learned in 2005 and 2008, but the particular station selection is odd, and misses not only high-ridership stations, but also large concentrations of Catholics, indicating a failure of market research if nothing else. Meanwhile, the Broad Street Line, which carries about as many riders by itself as the entire Regional Rail system does put together, also has a bizarre selection of stations open. It is picking up passengers from Fern Rock — with a tiny parking lot and a connection to a Regional Rail station that is being bypassed — and bypassing Olney, with a higher ridership of both walkup riders and riders connecting from bus lines. Stations like Erie that would take up the slack for the closed Chestnut Hill East Line are also to remain shuttered. The express tracks on North Broad are not leveraged at all.

SEPTA knows where its ridership comes from and also how to optimize its own capacity. This plan does not, quite, do that, even considering all of the actual hard constraints.

The other shoe finally dropped in the dead-news period around the Independence Day weekend, with rumors swirling about an eight-foot high security fence around Center City, Girard to South. Nobody in their right minds would ever suggest such a thing in an active, vibrant, residential city like Philadelphia, but we don’t pay the Secret Service to be in their right minds. What we do pay them for, it’s sometimes unclear, but the generally accepted answer is “paranoia”.  Moreover, while there are vibrant, urban, and residential parts of Washington, DC, they tend to be sufficiently far away from the security fortresses on and near Pennsylvania Avenue.  But it’s becoming ever more clear that a security state infrastructure with no idea how to conduct itself in a real city environment (sorry, DC) is coming to town.  That would be an amusing or frustrating annoyance, but it threatens real harm to real people.

City-dwellers rely on their Freedom of Movement no less than rural or suburban residents.  What the Secret Service want to do is kill the city for at least two days, preserve it in amber while the Pope visits, and then return it to working order.  This is not how a society works.  The entire reason to have such a massive event in a city is the pre-existing infrastructure to keep so many people fed, watered, sheltered from the elements, and so forth.  That infrastructure isn’t just buildings, wires, and pipes, it’s the people to run them, and right now as many of those people as can are booking the weekend or the entire week out of town.

Moreover, whenever there is such a large gathering of people, there is an uptick in the rate of serious medical emergencies, from the increased population if nothing else.  The last time a Bishop of Rome came to Philadelphia, 40 people were hospitalized for heart problems (and there was also a swarm of bees).  Add in to that the “miles of walking” that the City and the Secret Service are asking the faithful to do this time, and the largely suburban demographics of American Catholicism where walking long distances is less of a thing.  If the weather is sunny and warm, we will see heat exhaustion.  If the weather is rainy and windy, those caught unprepared could suffer hypothermia, even at room temperature.  Overall, the security measures intended to save lives will exacerbate health problems and put many more lives at risk.  And the authorities have made no mention of how emergency vehicles will get around the swarms of pedestrians within the secure zone to reach people in distress.

I have held off on writing this post for a long time, mostly because I don’t know of a good direction to channel the anger I have at this situation.  Fixing this won’t be a matter of adding one station to the list of operating stations, it requires a complete rethink of how we plan for secure spaces, and also the priorities we give to keeping people safe from the most common and present dangers as opposed to the most lurid fears of our imaginations.  The last time the feds tried to pull one on us in the name of security, by closing the 500 block of Chestnut Street to all traffic, we eventually organized to tell them to go pound sand.  Sadly, it seems that the preferred option this time is to just let them do what they like, in the knowledge that they’re only going to be here for a week.  One hopes that, if the disruptions were to last any longer, there would be more signs of open revolt.  For that matter, I live in hope that there will be more targeted outrage between now and September.

Posted in Organization before Electronics before Concrete, PATCO, SEPTA, Service Disruptions | 11 Comments

Visualizing parking is the first step to resolving parking politics

A new map shows exactly which block faces in Philadelphia require the pittance of $35/year to keep a car on them. The terms of parking politics in this city may never be the same.

Permit blocks in Spring Garden and Fairmount

Permit blocks in Spring Garden and Fairmount

Lauren Ancona’s previous magnum opus was a map showing the boundaries of the PPA parking permit districts, a work that landed her a job with the city’s Open Data Office. She’s now followed that up with the next level of detail, a block-by-block accounting of where permits are actually required. Permits aren’t the only tool of parking management in use, of course. Ancona’s map does not (yet?) show which blocks are metered or otherwise have limited parking, so that results in odd blank spaces where those are in use, including most of Center City and Old City.

But the main thing that jumps out at the viewer, as Friend of the Blog Jon Geeting writes pointedly in his analysis at PlanPhilly, is that many neighborhoods that are the most obsessed with parking supply are doing Jack Squat about managing parking demand. In many cases, only a small minority of blocks require permits; some neighborhoods can count their permit blocks on the fingers of one hand.

Basically: a lot of people, in a lot of neighborhoods, who have used parking as a rallying cry for NIMBYism of all stripes, have just been called on their bullshit. If you can’t be bothered to get the actual resident-parkers of your block to agree to pay the PPA $35/year to chase away the people who don’t live on your block, then you shouldn’t get to cry “Parking!” to prevent new residents from coming to your neighborhood.

Geeting specifically calls out Pennsport and its four blocks of permitted parking, which is entirely fair given that neighborhood’s reputation as being full of parking zombies. But Manayunk, and Fishtown north of Columbia, are no better.

Lower Northwest permit parking map

All of the permit blocks in the Lower Northwest. You’d think that keeping Main Street barcrawlers off the neighborhood side streets would be a popular rallying cry.

Fishtown permit parking map

A tale of two Fishtowns: for once, not lifers and newcomers, but split by Columbia Ave.

Given the high rate of car ownership and easy access to the El in Northern Liberties, one might expect more permitting there than not, but no.

Northern Liberties permit parking map

Two errors on this map: 1) “Olde Kensington” is labeled on the wrong side of Girard, and 2) Not enough permits

Now, there are neighborhoods that are doing a good job at requiring permits. They should be encouraged, even if that means, in the case of Graduate Hospital, splitting its parking district off from Center City West’s.

And there are other neighborhoods where a high concentration of people with cars registered out of state (i.e. students) makes the current process for establishing a permit block politically impossible. But for once, our system of Councilmanic Prerogative offers an opportunity for good progressive urbanism. A progressive District Councillor can short-circuit the process by creating permit blocks, by legislation, where they will do the most good: immediately adjacent to commercial streets with temporary parking only, and within a block of Subway and El stations to reduce the amount of parking arbitrage available in those areas. While I would like to see entire neighborhoods with some type or another of curb parking control, I am willing to take this one step at a time, and push the higher priority locations first.

Map of permit parking near Broad and Girard

This is an express stop on the subway. This is not OK. And thanks to Temple students and their landlords, it will never fix itself.

This is not just a one-way street, politically. With more permitting comes more data; if those who today we can easily dismiss as parking zombies who only have anecdotes backing them up, could instead show up to RCO zoning presentations and show data that more cars have permits than there are curb parking spots in the district, that is powerful evidence that new development should include off-street parking (unbundled and market-rate, of course), which can be used to convince parking supply skeptics like me. This actually just happened this week with the story about Graduate Hospital’s permits, which brought me around to support of structured parking at new development along Washington Avenue, where previously I was hardline against. Hopefully this can open up wider discussions of car ownership, land use, and parking arbitrage. (As a hypothetical, land-poor Manayunk may want to build its structured parking at Ivy Ridge, or in an auto-oriented location in Upper Roxborough. If MDC can acquire properly-zoned land for it, why shouldn’t that happen?) But the first step to resolving a deep political difference, is to establish a common reality that all parties agree exists.

Posted in Land Use and Zoning, Organization before Electronics before Concrete, Philadelphia City Hall, Threats to Life and Safety | 7 Comments

Wednesday morning service disrupted on PATCO and SEPTA after storm

The violent thunderstorm that swept over Greater Philadelphia Tuesday evening, disrupting all modes of travel during the evening rush, has apparently let the magic smoke out of at least six area rail lines. The most serious outage is PATCO, which is entirely without electric power and does not expect restoration until after the morning rush.

New Jersey Transit buses will have three extra burdens this morning, since in addition to cross-honoring PATCO fares and contending with detours around storm-damaged roads, they will be carrying passengers from the Atlantic City line, which also remains suspended. NJT has, in its usual inimitable way, been less communicative about what is wrong with the ACRL and when they expect it to be fixed. The only statement that affirmatively said that service would remain bustituted through the morning was a tweeted @-reply:

And on the PA side of the river, SEPTA is reporting that the Media/Elwyn and Fox Chase Lines are out entirely, the Paoli/Thorndale Line is out west of Malvern, and the Norristown High Speed Line will be suspended between Norristown and Radnor. The NHSL outage is the only one that has been definitively stated that it will last through the morning. Also, bus routes may be on detour due to debris. As usual, the most up-to-date information can be found on SEPTA’s eye-bleedingly designed system status page.

Posted in Fox Chase Line, Media/Elwyn Line, New Jersey Transit, Norristown High Speed Line, Paoli/Thorndale Line, PATCO, Service Disruptions | Leave a comment

Indego stations bedeviled by power problems

Today, for the second day running, the Indego bikeshare system’s twitter account was apologizing to users in the early morning for dead docking stations.

The gist of the problem is very simple: Indego stations are powered by a battery that charges from a photovoltaic solar panel. They have no connection to the electrical grid. For the last week or so, it has been unseasonably rainy and overcast in Philadelphia, so those solar panels haven’t been getting the sunlight they need to top off the batteries. Therefore, some stations are no longer able to last through the night, and are still dead at 7:00 when early bird commuters walk up expecting to check out a bike. With no power, the station cannot communicate with the central servers to check bikes in or out, or accept payments, or do anything else other than resemble a large paperweight on the sidewalk. The stations generally stay dead until a Bicycle Transit Systems tech comes and swaps out the dead battery for a charged one.

In a way, it’s a good thing that this problem has cropped up so soon, since it will hopefully be resolved on a temporary basis on the first bright sunny day. Long runs of overcast days are unusual for early June, but they’re more seasonal in November, when the problem is compounded by shorter days. Indego is meant to be a transportation system for all seasons. If the B-Cycle station design isn’t electrically robust enough to handle the light conditions of even the mildest Philadelphia winter, that is a design flaw that BTS has to fix, systemwide.

For what it’s worth, while I was dockblocked yesterday morning at 7:15 by the #solarsorry troubles, I was able to use Indego for a 4:00 hoagie run this morning with no problem at all, so the problem is not entirely debilitating. Like other availability problems, one of the easier ways to fix it is to proliferate more stations throughout the service area, so the next available station is no more than a couple of blocks away.

Posted in Bike sharing | 1 Comment

Would anybody ever say no to a carshare car?

Spoiler alert: Betteridge’s Law applies.

Friends of the Blog Malcolm Burnley (of Citified) and Jon Geeting (of Plan Philly) have been taking very hard looks at the economics of putting more carsharing cars on the streets of Philadelphia, and it’s very good reading. But I’d like to unpack something that Jon mentioned in his piece:

The reason [we aren’t seeing Zipcar and Enterprise more aggressively going after cheap curb spaces] appears to be that the process the city has devised for renting out PPA-managed spaces adds too many soft costs to be worth it for rental companies to spend the time pursuing them.

If Zipcar or Enterprise wants to rent just one publicly-owned parking space, they need a letter from the adjacent property owner (if applicable), they have to make a presentation to the local Registered Community Organization (RCO) and get a letter of support from them, and they also need a letter of support from the District Councilperson.

Something about this is very broken. Even under the most venial interpretation of the support requirement, the RCO and District Councillor veto points are a waste of everybody’s time. District Councillors can pressure (or even shake down) the companies much more effectively, through means other than approving or disapproving individual pod spaces. And no RCO in the city is ever going to going to find a legitimate reason to say no to an amenity in their neighborhood that reduces the demand for on-street parking. Even RCOs with a BANANA ideology usually think that abundant parking is a good thing, or at least fret about every household having two cars. In neighborhoods where parking is tight, reducing parking demand will result in an immediate uptick on everyone’s quality of life. In neighborhoods where parking is abundant, who is going to even bother caring?

As Geeting points out, the current system has led to an absurd state of affairs where Enterprise has 74 on-street spaces, mostly inherited from local predecessor PhillyCarShare which accumulated them aggressively despite the soft costs, while national sector leader Zipcar has only 11 curb spaces, citywide.

We’ve run the carsharing experiment for over a decade now. Enterprise and Zipcar are good neighbors that provide a good service that helps not only their members, but the city overall. It’s time to update the law and let them put a shared car on any block where a property owner or owner wants to invite them, and the market will support it staying there. Let a thousand pods bloom.

Posted in Philadelphia City Hall | 6 Comments

About the engineer lawyering up

I’ve seen quite a lot of nonsense being written about the engineer of Amtrak 188 lawyering up and not giving a statement to the Philadelphia Police, and I can’t let it all slide. So here’s a few words on the subject.

In the Navy (American or anybody else’s), if a ship away from the pier touches anything other than water, the ship’s captain is automatically court-martialed. The captain might be subsequently cleared of wrongdoing, but he’s definitely going to trial first. In much the same way, if a train touches anything other than rails, the engineer and conductor responsible for that train are going before a disciplinary hearing of some sort. Everyone knows this. Even if there were no possible criminal or civil jeopardy, anyone who’s been around a railroad for any length of time would know to lawyer up immediately.

Moreover, the reports of what the engineer has said, indicate that he has an incomplete memory of the crash itself; the NTSB says he activated the emergency brakes, he says he doesn’t remember doing that. That’s not evidence that the engineer is lying; the windshield of locomotive #601 is spiderwebbed in such a way that strongly suggests that it was broken when the engineer’s head struck it with considerable force. Quite honestly, I’d be surprised if the engineer could remember anything about the crash. That said, it’s still a truism that nobody in an interrogation room ever talked their way out of charges, so in the interests of justice, I’m glad that the engineer has the access to legal counsel he deserves. Because he’s going to need it.

Posted in Amtrak, Service Disruptions | 1 Comment