Longform Sunday: Freedom vs. the Opposite of Freedom

Good morning everyone. I’ve got this post set to go up early this morning, because I have two really big, really important asks on your time today that really need to go together. So I’m setting the timer early so you have plenty of time to watch, read, and process.

The first is this video of a presentation by transit guru Jarrett Walker, given earlier this year in Toronto. Walker’s basic philosophies have been informing this blog since its beginning, and I am ecstatic to see so many of his best concepts distilled into such a relatively short span (27 minutes and 30ish seconds), and posted online in a free-to-watch format.

Jarrett Walker Presentation “Abundant Access” from DeepCITY Project on Vimeo.

The key moment:

“What exactly is it that we do?” “‘Abundant Access’ means:

  • As many people as possible,
  • Able to reach as many destinations as possible,
  • As quickly as possible,
  • So that they have as many real choices and opportunities as possible,
  • And are, therefore… free.

The bedrock foundations of a small-l liberal society, as it turns out, demand very specific things from us, in the built realm, and in the way we operate our transportation systems (of all things!) At least, they demand those things of us if our rhetoric about the rights and responsibilities of the citizen actually means anything at all.

Now, compare that philosophy to the nightmare scenario of suburbia gone septic, as illustrated in this ~10,000-word excerpt from danah boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. The teenagers of boyd’s research turn to social networking sites as their last and only outlet for ordinary socialization. It is their only choice because, in large part, their parents live in a state of constant moral panic and have architected away any possibility that they might be allowed to have any personal contact whatsoever with other actual humans. A paragraph from the most illustrative section:

When I arrived at Sabrina’s house at the edge of a picture-perfect cul-de-sac in this idyllic community, I casually remarked how odd it was that no one was outside. She looked at me strangely and asked me where they would go. I knew that, at fourteen, she didn’t have a driver’s license, so I asked her if she ever biked around the neighborhood. She told me that doing so was futile because all her friends lived at least ten miles away. Because of how the community assigned students to schools, she said, she knew no one who lived in walking or biking distance. She had once walked home from school just to see if she could, but it had taken her over two hours so she didn’t try it again. She told me that there was a shopping mall in walking distance but that it required crossing a major road, which was scary.

(boyd closes her excerpt with a citation to The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in case the point was at all unclear.)

Much as I despise Facebook as software (I do not have WordPress automatically post links to this blog there on principle, despite knowing that it would bring at least twice the traffic of Twitter, where I do autopost), thank goodness for Mark Zuckerberg and his predecessors. Without them, suburban America might have been producing an entire generation of unsocialized neurotics. Instead, Facebook becomes the main provider of city streets in the online world; to crib from Strong Towns’ definition of a street: a platform for creating and capturing value within a place. That the people coming together may be united in their love of Doctor Who instead of geographic accident is not a particularly interesting distinction to me.

But it all points to an enormous cultural gulf between people who believe that their children are best served and protected by maximizing their physical isolation, and people who believe that their children are best served and protected by living in, and among, a watchful society that allows them to become full participants as soon as possible. My own children are strictly Hypothetical and Future at this point in time, but I do know that if I can’t trust them with an unlimited transit pass on or before their 14th birthdays, then I will consider myself to have abjectly failed as a parent. If there’s a culture war on, I know what side I’m fighting for, and for whom.


Wednesday Infrastructure Film Festival

If you couldn’t make it to today’s noon open house at 1234 Market Street, and you can’t make it to the evening show in an hour, you should watch this presentation, given by Jeff Kneuppel to the SEPTA Board back in December. Today’s presentation (given ably by CFO Rich Burnfield) doesn’t actually expand on anything, although the Q&A sessions are yielding valuable information. Although largely, that information is in the form of, “We [SEPTA] are still in the process of finding that out”. At least we’re down to mostly the known unknowns.

If you’d like to see what kind of a bullet we dodged when Act 89 passed last November, I present for your viewing, uh, “pleasure”, this 1974 film produced by the Penn Central Railroad, then four years into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, begging for Federal relief to repair its crumbling physical plant. That intervention wouldn’t come for another two years, when the insolvent railroad, and many of its likewise-bankrupt Northeastern competitors, were nationalized and folded into Conrail.

The ultimate in pervious “paving”!

It’s winters like this one, where I wonder if it would be worth it to run a pilot program replacing the asphalt pavement on some trinity streets with gravel. I’m speaking specifically of cartways of 15 feet or less in width (i.e. too narrow for parking), the ones that aren’t already done in brick or Belgian block. It’s a step backwards, until you realize that gravel is a lot less hazardous than the potholes that are frickin’ everywhere right now. PWD would love it, for the reason of the title.

This is not an advocacy post, just thinking out loud.

How do you solve a problem like DRPA? Kill it.

(OK, the scansion needs a lot of work.)

The idea of a transportation authority is very simple. By isolating an important public function from direct interference (and oversight) from elected officials, you can create an atmosphere of continuity and stability that allows the authority to issue bonds without undue distress (in the form of higher interest rates) on the part of the bond vigilantes on Wall Street.

That, at least, is the theory. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen repeatedly in the unfolding drama of Bridgegate, just because there’s not a direct chain of command that runs to elected officials doesn’t mean there’s not ways for them to wield power over these nominally independent entities. Not only does Governor Christie stand accused of placing personally loyal associates in the hierarchy of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) to do his bidding, but also of conducting multibillion dollar raids on the Port Authority’s treasury for New Jersey state transportation projects outside its purview. So much for independence from political interference, not to mention the supposed checks and balances of PANYNJ being a bistate agency. Even when the PANYNJ is functioning as designed, it tends towards spending money like a drunken sailor, without the slightest hint of cost control. While real transportation needs go unaddressed, the Port Authority sees fit to build a $225 million hallway and a $1.5 billion (budgeted) redundant PATH extension to Newark Airport Raillink Station. Observers of the Port Authority are in nearly universal dismay at the prospect of it being reformed; Stephen J. Smith and Matt Yglesias have both written eloquent and well-reasoned arguments for breaking it up into component parts. And last week, the New Jersey Assembly’s transit consolidation bill clearly called out the Port Authority’s PATH rapid transit system as a target for merger.

So it seems clear to me, if we can call for the rightful destruction of the larger and, frankly, slightly more useful PANYNJ, then our own local patronage-and-graft mill, the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA), needs to die. And it needs to die now.
Continue reading How do you solve a problem like DRPA? Kill it.

Mister Gorbachev, open this gate!

Commenter Noah asks the following:

Do you know more about this, from Wikipedia?

“SEPTA’s Market-Frankford Line (also known as the “El”) and all of SEPTA’s Subway-Surface Lines stop at the 30th Street subway station, less than 1/2 block (< 1/10 mile) from the southwest entrance to 30th Street Station. A tunnel connecting the underground subway station and 30th Street Station was closed due to crime and vagrancy concerns."


Whose decision would it be to re-open this tunnel? I've always been surprised they're not connected underground.

I’m not quite sure if SEPTA or Amtrak owns that tunnel, but the portal on the Amtrak station side now has Bridgewater’s Bar on top of it, so it would be a significant disruption to reopen the tunnel to the public. On the SEPTA side, you can see the stairs down to the passageway underneath the stairs up to street level at the Northwest corner of 30th and Market.

Photo of tunnel portal from SEPTA subway station
The tunnel to the Amtrak station is through the gate on the right — you can see the handrail going down.

Honestly, the decision to close the tunnel was correct at the time. It’s too far from SEPTA-side cashiers and Amtrak-side shopkeepers, and there’s no good sightlines into the tunnel, for it to have eyes-on-the-street security. Today, the option of cheap cameras supplementing occasional foot patrols exists, to possibly provide a middle ground between 24/7 patrolling and closure. I would recommend separate cameras, controlled by Amtrak PD, SEPTA PD, and PPD, for operational clarity and redundancy.

There is one very good side benefit of the closure, although I will be the first to admit it doesn’t look like a benefit when you’re there: because all connecting passengers have to cross 30th Street on the surface, it creates a large flow of foot traffic across that intersection, which helps calm traffic coming in from I-76 and re-acclimates drivers to the city street grid. That’s a hard benefit to quantify, but it’s there. It also tends to create a lot of delays for vehicles coming off of 30th Street, thanks to aggressive mass jaywalking, which I approve of, because jaywalking is the sign of a civilized society. Unfortunately, buses also get caught in those delays. Can’t win ’em all…

Why It (Probably) Couldn’t Happen Here

I’ve been wrestling with the recent Spuyten Duyvil derailment on Metro North; other people have covered what we know about it much better than I could, and honestly there’s very little more to say in the face of a human tragedy such as this. I’ve been swinging wildly between despair and vitriolic anger, and had no desire to inflict any of that on you. But it does merit a few words here.

If you are looking for a good summary of the crash itself, I would commend you to The LIRR Today’s writeup, which is the best I’ve seen. I will not attempt to duplicate that work. Continue reading Why It (Probably) Couldn’t Happen Here

Bridgeport viaduct reopens today as capital funding becomes grave crisis

It is 4:45am. The first northbound Norristown High Speed Line (NHSL) train in revenue service is about to cross the Bridgeport viaduct into Norristown, ending a four month closure for critical repair work. NHSL Norristown riders can breathe a sigh of relief, with cumbersome shuttle busing no longer part of their daily routine.

But as one major repair project ends, the prospect of starting others that are just as needed grows dimmer. Not a week has gone by since mid-September, that either House Majority Leader Turzai, Governor Corbett, PennDOT Secretary Schoch, or some other elected official (or their anonymous-source staffers) have repeatedly pledged a vote in the House of Representatives on the SB1 transportation funding bill within the week. No vote has occurred, presumably because the votes to pass aren’t there yet, and the forecasts coming out of Harrisburg are dismal.

The ongoing hangup seems to be an insistence on the part of conservative Republicans to remove prevailing wage rules on transportation projects between $25,000 and $100,000. That is a move designed to antagonize unions, although the level of the provocation far outweighs the level of damage to union workers’ interests, especially compared to the most likely alternative, which is a massive cutback at PennDOT. This mostly reads as what Josh Marshall once called the “Bitch-Slap Theory of electoral politics” — the substance of the attack is irrelevant, while making the attack is a goal in itself. Unfortunately for Pennsylvanians, House Democrats have closed ranks with their union supporters, and there aren’t enough Republican votes to pass transportation funding out of the House without Democratic help. It’s admirable that the Democratic Party isn’t throwing labor under the bus, but it wasn’t necessary in the first place; they and we are all already under this bus, by virtue of having lost all three elected branches of government. SB1 was already a Tea Party-friendly shit sandwich, going through extra circumlocutions to give cover to Gov. Corbett and his no-new-taxes pledge, but it was the best we could do under the circumstances.

Harrisburg Democrats have clearly been tempted by the strategy option to wait out Tom Corbett, who will no longer be Governor come January 20th, 2015, barring the biggest choke job in Pennsylvania since the 1964 Phillies. Unfortunately, SEPTA’s riders can’t wait that long; according to SEPTA’s Service Triage plan, the Cynwyd Line will be out of service before then, and the Media/Elwyn Line will follow almost immediately thereafter. Crum Creek Viaduct is in as bad of shape as Bridgeport was, and apart from some emergency repairs to keep it open on recent weekends, there is no money for SEPTA to keep it safe to operate. More than 11,000 daily riders will lose service on these two lines. Construction unions should signal to their Democratic allies that they should take the deal on the table if it means getting transportation projects like Crum Creek Viaduct repair funded, in exchange for a rollback of the offending change, and possibly other concessions, in 2015. The towns of Delaware County along the Media/Elwyn Line, both the white-collar professional boroughs west of Swarthmore, and the blue-collar working class townships east of Morton, will remember (or, with any amount of skill by the Democratic general election candidate, be constantly reminded).

SB1, with the prevailing wage rule change, is even more of a shit sandwich than it was as a clean bill, but it’s the only thing on the table that will get SEPTA through the next two years. If you have a Republican representative, call them and urge them to support a clean SB1. If you have a Democratic representative, tell them to negotiate with the construction unions to get to a deal. It is 4:45am now, but the clock is still ticking down to midnight.