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Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

The Rise and Fall of Penn Station

PBS ran a documentary last week on the American Experience called “The Rise and Fall of Penn Station.” Here’s the video if you missed it. I suggest watching it on your TV since it’s long (it’s available through the PBS Roku channel if you don’t have a computer hookup). If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

This covers much more of the rise than the decline, and leaves many questions unanswered. But the look at the personalities, the technical challenges, and the daring that went into this was very good. On the whole I really liked it except for one of the talking heads who kept going on about how rare it was to have a private investment like this that actually benefits the public. He was the walking embodiment of why conservatives want to defund PBS, and his claims were both unsupported and dubious.

I also think they could have done a better job of explaining the financial decline of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Yes, the rise of autos and planes played a role. But the feds continued to regulate railroads as if they were still the only game in town. And if you wanted to make the case for government intervention, this was a great one. Long before the demolition of Penn Station, governments had acquired most urban transit systems if not commuter railroads. So there was already a precedent in place for the government buying out Penn Station, which is what should have happened. Merely landmarking a structure and leaving it in the hands of a bankrupt railroad might have equally have led to its destruction through neglect. Grand Central Terminal shows that this facility could have been reborn under government stewardship.

Yet it’s clear that a shift in the values not just of railroad barons, but also of society had occurred from 1910 to 1963. Much of this was for the worse, but let us also not forget much of it was for the better. We don’t just accept dozens of workers dying on job sites anymore, for example. Yet it’s undeniable that the type of American ambition which built Penn Station, that of a rising power wanting to send a message that this would be the American century, no longer exists. Today the very idea of an “American Century” is outright hateful even to many Americans.

A friend of mine watching this wrote me to say, “My Deep Thought was ‘where have the great minds who produced this kind of magnificence’ gone? Answer: Weapons design… military industrial complex. There’s a reason huge swaths of the country look like crap but drones look so cool.”

There’s clearly a lot that goes into this question. Some of it is as my friend said; this creative daring has been channeled into other fields than the civic. We’ve suffered no decline in our ability to blow stuff up, that’s for sure. And as I’ve said before, in the Great War and the Great Depression, something in the human spirit was grievously wounded. I’m sure there’s more.

But in part it’s simply a deficiency of love, or at least the right kind of love, for our cities. If Penn Station was inspired by the greatness of Rome, then as G.K. Chesterton put it:

Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing–say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is THEIRS, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

Snowboarding New York City

Here’s one that’s been making the rounds of a guy going snowboarding through the streets of New York City. Not as cool as the Detroit urban skiing adventure, but still fun stuff. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

And this week a music break courtesy of Drag City recording artist Joanna Newsom. I’m not sure how to describe her music, but it’s good stuff. This track is called “Good Intentions Paving Company” (a Saul Bellow quote, I believe), from her 2010 album “Have One On Me.” If the You Tube embed doesn’t display, click here:

1 Comment
Topics: Urban Culture
Cities: New York

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

New York: Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero

One of the proposals from New York Mayor Bill de Blasio that received a lot of positive attention is his so-called “Vision Zero” plan. The goal is to completely eliminate deaths and serious injuries from motor vehicle crashes within ten years. As he acknowledges, this idea was copied from a similar goal set by Chicago.

For too long we’ve basically accepted a gruesome death toll from car crashes as the price of doing business in a modern society. The very word “accident” suggests something we simply can’t do much about. But in the same way that Rudolph Giuliani and others questioned the inevitability of sky high murder rates, a new generation of leaders is questioning the premise behind large numbers of deaths from car crashes, deeming them unacceptable.

The Vision Zero report lays it out:

In New York, one person is killed in a car crash every 30 hours. Every 10 seconds, a New Yorker suffers a traffic related injury, and every two hours a traffic injury results in dismemberment or disfigurement. From 2001 to 2010, more New Yorkers were killed in traffic than were murdered by guns.

The consequences for New York families is tragic: being struck by a car is the most common cause of injury-related death among children 1-14 years old, and the second most common cause among those aged 15 and older.

Enough is enough. There is no level of death or injury that New Yorkers should accept on our public streets.

As a starter set of proposals, de Blasio suggests redesigning 50 intersections per year, expanding 20 MPH speed zones, and stepping up traffic enforcement. All good stuff. You can read more about it and watch a Streetfilm of the announcement over at Atlantic Cities.

But while there’s a lot of goodness here, the idea of having a goal of “zero” needs to be rethought. I can appreciate the logic of saying any death is one too many. But there are some practical problems with it. Firstly, it’s unrealistic. The idea that in New York City you can completely eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries just isn’t going to happen. And by making that the goal, any sense of holding de Blasio accountable for results is forfeited. After all, everyone implicitly gets it’s only a feel-good aspiration. The stated goal allows the project to be judged on its inputs – intersections fixed, for example – rather than its outputs, namely the number of lives saved. What we ought to have the reverse.

I’d like to see some aggressive but realistic specific goals fleshed out. For example, continuous annual reductions in traffic fatalities at a rate 25-50% greater than the trend line. That way there can be accountability for actually achieving measurable and realistic targets.

Secondly, complete elimination of traffic deaths would likely entail trade-offs we don’t want to make. For example, the police on one local precinct just started a jaywalking ticketing blitz. An 84 year old immigrant was not just ticketed but bloodied by aggressive cops:

This is pretty ridiculous. As Nicole Gelinas put it, “Targeting errant pedestrians is something like arresting someone who breaks a window because he’s trying to escape a fire.” Streetsblog suggested a better approach is to apply strict liability in car crashes where the driver is always liable in any pedestrian crash, even if the pedestrian broke the law.

I certainly agree that going after jaywalkers is about the last place you’d want to start your safety campaign. However, at some point you will have squeezed out all the safety improvements you can from street design, traffic enforcement, and liability standards. What then? Clearly if you want to continue making safety improvements, you’d need to enforce the same strict standards on pedestrians and bicyclists.

In a sense, by jumping the gun, NYPD revealed the inevitable end result of any policy that demands a zero risk, zero adverse event profile. Such things always end up going too far. That’s why we have to do the TSA shuffle at airports and the NSA is tapping every phone call in the United States, for example. The truth is, risk is genuinely part of life and we have to be willing to accept at least some of it to live in a functional society.

So while Vision Zero has a lot going for it and is a step in the right direction, I think the notion of “zero” needs to be rethought in favor of aggressive but realistic targets for which officials can be held accountable and which don’t demand ridiculous actions like jaywalking crackdowns. Even if traffic deaths aren’t totally eliminated, they can still be radically reduced. And as the murder rate declines show, even when you don’t get to zero, if you make step change improvements over time you can still drive huge improvements in the livability of the city.

Friday, January 24th, 2014

Bloomberg’s New York

The weekly program the Urbanist on Monocle 24 internet ratio devoted its entire last two episodes to a retrospective of New York under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It’s a lot of material but there are great interviews with Amanda Burden, Dan Doctoroff, various journalists and more.

Here’s episode one (Click here for MP3 file if it doesn’t display for you):

And here’s episode two (Click here for MP3 file if it doesn’t display for you):

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

NYC Streets Metamorphosis

Clarence Eckerson does it again. He edited together a bunch of shots into a great new Streetfilm showcasing the transformation of New York City’s streets under Michael Bloomberg. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here. (h/t Daniel Hertz)

I also wanted to share what appears to be an art project type video by Adam Magyar. It’s some sort of ultra-slomo scene of the passengers waiting for the subway at 42-Grand Central. I just love seeing the people of the city. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here. (h/t Likecool)

This week’s music comes out of Indianapolis. Teenage sisters Lily and Madeleine Jurkiewicz has one of their You Tube videos go viral and got signed to Sufjan Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty Records. I’m a sucker for harmonies, so unsurprisingly I like it. They’ve got a ton of You Tube videos you can explore, and also an album and EP on iTunes. Here’s a live acoustic version of “Sounds Like Somewhere” (if the video doesn’t display, click here).

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

More Fun With Per Capita Incomes

After yesterday’s post, I thought I’d throw up some additional comparisons, this time at the metro level. County and metro per capita incomes only go back to 1969, not 1929, but there are still interesting things to see. I’ll post these without analysis for you to ponder on your own. Again, all data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, with charts via Telestrian.

The five boroughs of New York City (Manhattan=New York County, Brooklyn=Kings County, Staten Island=Richmond County). In the case of Manhattan, it’s worth noting that this is a mean not a median value.

New York vs. Los Angeles. Keep in mind, the exurbs of LA are technically considered a separate metro area (Riverside-San Bernardino) and so aren’t included in the LA metro figures:

Chicago vs. Indianapolis:

Denver vs. the Twin Cities vs. Seattle:

Atlanta vs. Dallas-Ft. Worth vs. Houston:

Memphis vs. Nashville:

Cincinnati vs. Cleveland vs. Columbus:

Sunday, November 10th, 2013

Credibility, Cancelling Projects, and Sunk Costs

I was surprised to see that last Wednesday’s post on Cincinnati’s culture of self-sabotage received such a huge response. In light of that, I want to circle back and more fully address the idea of cancelling projects.

What I do not want you to take away from that is that once started, projects should never be stopped on account of the money spent. That’s called the sunk cost fallacy. Money that’s been spent has been spent. One needs to look forward to the future expected benefits and costs. There are certainly many cases in which pulling the plug can be a good idea. For example, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels reversed the privatization of certain social services functions after he determined it was unlikely the contract would ever work out like originally envisioned. This an example of someone taking a risk, trying to make it work, then acknowledging it didn’t rather than continuing to double down on a mistake.

On the other hand, I do not see the majority of these rail cancellations as having anything to do with benefit/cost analysis. You may notice, it’s only transit projects that ever seem to get the ax. Since the era of the freeway revolts, it’s tough to name any governor or mayor that has ever sent back earmarks on a highway project, or ever cancelled any road project they could actually get money to build on the grounds that it’s a boondoggle. (My hypothesis continues to be that there’s no highway boondoggle big enough that even the most fiscally conservative governor is willing to kill it). Clearly, the cancellations in these cases is based on an ideological animus to transit specifically.

That is, unless it is baser motivations at play. Chris Christie’s cancellation of the ARC tunnel project enabled him to use the funds New Jersey had pledged to the project to bailout the state’s bankrupt highway fund. He’s not demonstrated any hesitancy to push even questionable and expensive transit projects when they involve Somebody Else’s Money. For example, he wants the Port Authority to spend a billion dollars on an extension of PATH service to Newark Airport, which many consider an inappropriate use of funds. Christie’s motivation appears to be bribing United Airlines to add flights to Atlantic City, whose gambling market is imploding. (Read up on the Revel Casino deal if you want to know more about this sordid story).

Meanwhile, many of these cancellations are proving to be costly in their own right. I noted before how Cincinnati had already let $95 million in contracts out the total $133 million cost of the streetcar, how it will have to repay federal grants that were going to pay for a big slug of the project, and likely end up with at best a minor financial win and potentially a loss.

It’s the same in Wisconsin. Gov. Scott Walker trumpeted that he was returning an $810 million stimulus grant for rail upgrades between Madison and Milwaukee. Apparently although the federal government was going to pay 100% of the construction costs through the stimulus bill, he didn’t want the state to have to pick up the estimated $7.5 million in annual operating costs. (How much the state actually would have had to pay incrementally is a an open point. The existing Hiawatha operating costs were being 90% paid for by federal funds. It’s by no means clear that the state would have been on the hook for the full amount anyway). The feds were actually generous enough to reimburse Wisconsin for money it had spent on the rail line it decided not to build. However, that did not prove to be the end of the matter. Train maker Talgo is planning to sue the state of Wisconsin for $66 million for breach of contract. Given that it actually built trainsets for the state, this seems like a strong case. Also, if the state does lose, it might also be forced to immediately repay an additional $70 million in loans. The state could have paid operating costs for a long time for that kind of money – and it would actually having something to show for it other than a hole in its bank account.

So from a financial perspective, it’s not even clear cancelling these projects was a good move – even if you look solely at costs and ignore benefits.

But beyond the financials, these types of things also show communities that have deep internal divides, and which as a result require businesses and residents to apply an additional uncertainty premium into investment business cases there to account for the likelihood that a) promised actions by the government may not actually occur, even if they are in flight and b) that the community may not be able to muster the staying power to make the kind of long term investments that are necessary for any community to retain marketplace relevance. Though hardly immune to infrastructure drama, New York City just put water tunnel #3 into service for Manhattan. This is a project that was started in the 1970s. That’s the type of long term thinking that has kept a place like New York on top. In short, credibility counts for something, and places like Cincinnati and Wisconsin have damaged theirs.

I want to contrast this with one of the legendary stories of Indianapolis. In the late 1980s it embarked on construction of a downtown mall. Maybe that wasn’t the best idea in the world. The city definitely didn’t have its act fully together. Two entire city blocks had been excavated and were literally holes in the ground. No anchor stores had been signed and it wasn’t clear if the project would or even could be finished. A lot of the public suggested scrapping the project. Some suggested turning the empty blocks into ice rinks. Others trying to bring in a Wal-Mart. Instead, city leaders across the board came together to commit to the project, including many of the downtown corporations investing in the project. It got built. While generally successful, the mall has certainly had its share of troubles over the years and may not even survive over the long term given the disfavor of the mall format. However, one thing that project demonstrated is that Indianapolis finishes what it starts. In short, they have credibility and an ability to execute that’s simply better than most places. I suspect that’s one of the reasons metro Indy has so outperformed Cincinnati in population, job, and reputational growth, despite having far, far fewer natural assets to start with. They aren’t constantly shooting themselves in the foot.

This is also why even though there are road projects out there I did not think were a wise use of funds – say I-69 in Indiana, to pick one I’ve criticized – once they are being built I’m all in favor of getting them done as quickly and cheaply as possible. And then letting the communities in question live with the consequences of making that choice, for good or ill. Again, that doesn’t mean no project should ever be cancelled, but you need to pick your battles. Communities are not well served when project debates turn into endless years of scorched earth politics, litigation, etc. in which neither side will ever given an inch on anything.

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

Grand Central Terminal And Penn Station: Will The Beauty and The Beast Ever Get Married? by Robert Munson

This post is part of a series by Robert Munson called North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable – or Not? See the series introduction for more.


Photo by the author to celebrate GCT’s 100th anniversary

In today’s tale, Grand Central Terminal is The Beauty. Admired also for her goodness, she touches souls in ways most civic buildings cannot. Many souls, such as this author, find her exquisite. So when our mid-Century trend of destroying beautiful buildings put GCT on the demolition list, the public’s stored-up admiration stopped her assailants. And this inspired a preservation movement across the nation. Better yet, her Beauty also runs deep with a brilliant design that faithfully works 100 years later; distributing people better and seemingly with social graces that other hubs can only wonder how she does it.

However, our storyline has a dark side. For the past century, suburban passengers — who prefer her east-side location — have been forced to ride past her to the west-side Penn Station; often adding 30 minutes to the daily commute and congesting Midtown surface traffic further.

Who would conspire this denial? As in our tale, it is Beauty’s mean sisters who run the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Long Island Railroad. And like Beauty’s sisters, these bureaucracies seemingly are statues who — to have life again and solve this problem — merely had to admit their mistakes.


Photo of Penn’s main concourse, taken by the author while waiting for gate posting for his LIRR train

Of course, today’s Penn Station is The Beast. Its ugliness is visceral and personal; defying description. Most who enter its maw sense what true ugliness does; instinctually aware of the cramped quarters and negative energy generated by masses of irritated humans. To manage their discomfort, most learn how to get out as quickly as possible. It is hard to imagine how this guy can become Beauty’s Prince.

The fable’s richest lesson tells us that transformation only happens if one changes one’s ways. Today’s real life Beast cannot transform because the governments of New Jersey and New York have self-interested priorities; unconcerned with the collaboration required for the region to benefit from sustainable solutions. Yet, some agent of the public must have the authority to bring transit into the next era.The consequences of not creating suitable authority are immediate and darken the mid-term.

As an immediate (and recurring) problem, Midtown has hellish crosstown traffic. Because trains do not connect both stations, too many commuters surface and add unnecessary street congestion. While surface congestion was reduced by making subway trains interconnect six decades ago, that vital lesson still has not been applied to interconnect suburban service.

Similarly a result of ineffective regional authority, through-routing New York suburbanites to New Jersey (and vice versa) will benefit commuters and employers. Yet, this mid-term economic collaboration is a pipedream. Analyzing each station objectively gives us reasoned premises from which to shape solutions. Let’s start with Her, the fun one.


Poster artistically depicting the glamor of Grand Central, photo by the author while riding the subway

Grand Central Terminal: The Beauty As Secular Cement

Score: 81 (see full scorecard)
Category: Likely Sustainables

When GCT was threatened, prominent architect Phillip Johnson joined the civic movement to protect it with this statement: “Europe has its cathedrals and we have Grand Central.”

Also active in the movement to save GCT, the prestige lent by Jackie Kennedy Onassis helped revive the glamor of trains as GCT established a national standard that stations could be great again. After the nation’s Supreme Court decided in favor of GCT in 1977, the preservation movement had an icon and the law to grow its success.

More inspiring and exhilarating than the finest 21st Century airports (yet without the technological building advances of the past 80 years), it is hard to understand how GCT touches the human soul while smoothly handling its daily flurry of 1 million people hurriedly going places. As a museum piece, elegant shopping mall and transit’s single most efficient infrastructure piece, GCT’s magic is completed by generating constant fascination; serving as the sixth most visited tourist attraction with 21,600,000 visitors annually.

Grand Central sets this standard for every station: to serve as a complete destination, somewhere for tourist and commuter alike to benefit and enjoy travel again.

Now celebrating its 100th year, GCT’s excellent design remains an engineering marvel; flexible enough to accommodate ten times more people today than when it was completed at the start of World War One.


Track entrance, photo by author

Excellence starts in the basement with gates to the tracks that are welcoming, elegant and functional; all promising a pleasant commute. To accommodate rush hour traffic, platforms are wide; certainly the widest I’ve seen for a large terminus. Since platforms easily become choke-points as ridership grows, this shows GCT’s capacity to adapt.


Strolling down the ramp from the dining concourse to lower tracks, photo by author

Also adding to more fluid flow, ramps move people between the main, dining and lower concourses. The walk is far more spacious and pleasant than the usual cramped escalators… and wondrously less expensive to maintain or make handicap accessible.

Great design also helps GCT fulfill retail’s formula of location, location, location. Accommodating a variety of retail shops, GCT is unmatched perhaps anywhere; possibly except Tokyo hubs that have Macys-like department stores. But no where are shopping choices more elegantly arranged than GCT. Ranging from a cool Apple Store to upscale specialty boutiques to even a store for the New York Transit Museum to fascinate the inner subway rider of people like this author. And the shopping tour is not complete without a visit to the vast Grand Central Market (below) that ranks near the top of anyone’s list of gourmet cornucopias.


Grand Central Market, photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Unlike any station in the western world, GCT’s 40 stores for shopping exceeds the 36 for dining. GCT’s Dining Concourse and famed Oyster Bar plus the upper level lounges and dining rooms all combine to rival any station on the planet for quality. Also unlike the fast food dominance of other stations, GCT finds ways to offer a more healthful “grab ‘n go.” (GCT’s leasing decisions should be compared to Penn Station’s whose criteria seem to heavily favor impulse-buy foods that are fattening and, generally, lack intrinsic nutritional value; all consistent with the quality of Penn’s public service.)

Shifting from destination-making-made-easier to the general genius of Grand Central’s original design, its long-term value must be compared to today’s addition when the government builds stations. Here is the MTA’s schematic for the East Side Access project.

It will take a century to correct the obvious mistake of bringing all LIRR passengers to Penn Station and their surfacing and over-crowding Manhattan’s streets for the last leg of a commute. But, government finally is making progress. This MTA project will bring about 20% of weekday LIRR passengers into GCT. As the immediate area redevelops under new zoning laws, the influx of new pedestrians and taxi-users probably will compound today’s congestion; in some ways, defeating the purpose of the East Side Access… and causing its expense, in the judgment of history, to eventually appear as unproductive.

I offer two items as a half-time critique of the East Side Access.

First, ridiculous cost-overruns clearly make the MTA inappropriate to direct future improvements. This project to serve the public is starting to look more like a perversion of tax dollars. The 1999 federal budget had the price at $2.2 billion. Functioning as a slow motion lure that promises the public a solution, it took eight long eight years until ground-breaking; creating lots of opportunities for the politically connected to get their piece of the public’s treasury and for bureaucratic battles to work their woe.

By the time digging started, the project cost almost tripled to $6.4B and completion was projected to end this year. Now in 2013, completion has been bumped to 2019 and tagged at $8.4B, a 382% increase since politics got involved. With a performance like this, intuition tells me that we have not seen the end of this fiscal travesty.

There are acceptable explanations for some cost-overruns. But, there are no excuses as far as the taxpayers’ bottom-line is concerned. If the MTA cannot protect its funding source, the MTA should be replaced with an authority that has a core financial discipline.

If there is to be any accountability moving forward to complete the East Side Access or any current MTA project (or any future project such as remaking Penn Station), the accountability process should start this year with inspector generals of New York City, New York State, Connecticut and, possibly, the federal government making an expanded report. Better yet, a joint report will help taxpayers understand what has happened to their money and suggest ways to help restore the public’s trust.

It will be curious to see if reports indicate the lack of cooperation between MTA subsidiaries (LIRR and Metro-North) led to these ridiculous cost-over-runs. For example, why did the LIRR platforms have to go 91 feet under Metro-North’s?

As a separate item, how are these cost-overruns related to the shared tunnel on 63rd Street ? (See map below.) Didn’t that two decade construction project — starting in 1969 — also end in a fiasco in which it wasn’t useful until the 21st Century when subway connections were made ?

From this tunnel fiasco that so far spans half a century, what are the lessons from this overall lack of authority so that taxpayers can be protected in the future?

And in the Big Picture, would a through-routing strategy have made a lot of these costs unnecessary and still improve the chances to achieve the objective of reducing congestion?

But alas, all this money does not contribute to the strategic solution of through-routing. (Don’t forget, the “marriage” in this piece’s title refers, in part, to the sustainable benefits of through-routing.) Future capacity of Penn and Grand Central can be increased by trains running through it. Yet, the East Side Access project terminates these LIRR trains along with GCT’s 67+ other tracks. The future needs through-routes to contribute to sustainable regional solutions.


Drawing courtesy of Foster + Partners prepared for MAS competition and its website

Easier to grasp than this mind-boggling waste of tax dollars, my second criticism starts more micro. The East Side addition is too far below the standard of GCT’s elegant design; largely resulting from an inability to reconcile differing systems. While more passengers will be able to enjoy GCT (an improvement over Penn’s discomfort), they first get pinched (as in the red pressure points above.) There appears to be a poorly designed exit from the the East Side Access into GCT’s lower level concourse.

There is an even more serious constriction of customers seeking to transfer to the subway, the primary solution to Midtown’s street congestion. MTA also supposedly has authority to manage the subways. (On page 51 of the Foster proposal’s link above, a solution is offered; but, of course, the MTA has no money given its cost-overruns.)

So, we see yet again the weakness of MTA’s authority upon entering the subway system. Lines 4 and 5 (in the lower right corner) already are the nation’s most over-burdened. The ESA will bring some 12,000 more riders from the LIRR. And if the MTA plans to relieve this congestion by finishing the 2nd Avenue subway one long block away, I remind everyone that the Elevated was torn down and used as scrap in the war against facism… and east-side Manhattan riders have been waiting ever since.

Back to belief in today, these problematic transit connections are reviewed starting on page 31 of a study released for GCT’s 100th anniversary, A Bold Vision for Midtown. Prepared by the Municipal Arts Society, MAS has served as the primary civic organization and Guardian Angel throughout Beauty’s life. Opening yet another chapter of great public service, this excellent 65-page publication analyzes GCT. Particular attention is paid to public spaces and mobility within its original surrounds that sprung up in the 1920s. Known as the Terminal City, it remains NYC’s best contribution to the City Beautiful movement. Terminal City also is the original application of the “value capture” concept being talked about by cities today. For a relevant primer on value capture, refer to this 2012 post in “Urbanophile.” And for a longer discussion, see this recent post.

Using the rezoning of GCT’s surrounds, “Bold Vision” turns the coming redevelopment into an opportunity to evolve East Midtown. (The booklet also is a bit of a pre-emptive strike to prevent the surrounds from further reducing Beauty’s prominence.) I certainly hope MAS successfully guides and monitors deals between developers and City planning agencies to improve public spaces, streets and sidewalks to cope better with Midtown’s congestion.

But, all of these real estate updates beg several questions. First of all, why focus municipal attention on a center that, on a relative basis, works pretty well now? Instead, shouldn’t all these plans of increasing density be preceded by solving the congestion caused when commuters surface to get to their destinations?

And given that the MTA will be ridiculously over-budget and decades late in getting the LIRR to stop at GCT, should it be the agency to through-route GCT’s trains? Through-routing makes several contributions to regional sustainability. For GCT to advance in that direction, some lines need to go through.


Photo taken by author while riding the Lexington Ave subway

It is not my intent to challenge MTA’s competence. Per the photo above as an example of many improved efforts to serve the public, MTA is trying. (And relative to Chicagoland’s agencies, MTA gets an “A”.) But, here is the real question: is MTA the correct agent to solve problems economically?

Here also follow bigger questions for the sustainable era; most are so far beyond MTA’s purview that a true authority will be needed if the future is to look better than today.

But….. As beautiful as GCT is and as positive as the MAS influence on land use agencies and developers seems to be, how does remaking a 21st Century Terminal City fit into a strategy for regional redevelopment? Offering the more objective perspective of someone who lives in the nation’s second densest city, I ask: isn’t Manhattan’s problem really that it has too many people? Don’t Midtown’s insanely high land costs drive even more density that we currently cannot afford infrastructure for?

Let’s face the Big Picture. Manhattan bound trains serve its CBDs, but also congest these districts. Terminating commuter lines merely compounds connections to other transit and, thereby, raises the cost for everyone.

If our governments cannot follow a de-congestion strategy such as through-routing that European cities solve almost as a matter of course, then how can current agencies ever guide something as complex as the much talked-about goal of economically rational regional redevelopment? Fundamental to our economic competitiveness, this topic is explored in later articles. But for now, truly sustainable stations — of which GCT could lead the way — must also contribute to systems that guide rational redevelopment.

To end where we began our story….. In my personal opinion, The Beauty is doing just fine. She can age more gracefully with better streets and sidewalks. But giving her implants in the form of bigger buildings will just make her sag… or at least cause her to lose her shape… if you don’t mind my metaphor.

As for marrying her off to a Beast… we have to believe in miracles. Specifically, New York must try through-routing and other transit connection methods to relieve congestion… or else the marriage fails to improve the household’s economics. These methods are explored in the remake of Penn Station… the next article in this series on how stations can support truly sustainable transit.

Sunday, October 13th, 2013

My Presence Is a Provocation

The urbanist internet has been a ga ga over an article by artist and musician David Byrne (photo credit: Wikipedia) called “If the 1% stifles New York’s creative talent, I’m out of here.” Now David Byrne himself is at least a cultural 1%er, and at with a reported net worth of $45 million, isn’t exactly hurting for cash. In fairness to him, he forthrightly admits he’s rich. He also is bullish on the positive changes in New York in areas like public safety, transportation, and parks, and does not fall prey to romanticizing the bad old days of the 70s and 80s. However, in his assigning blame for New York’s affordability, he points the finger squarely at Wall Street, neglecting the role he himself played in bringing about the changes he decries, changes in which he was more than a passive participant.

Back in the early 90s I liked to hang out in a neighborhood called Fountain Square in Indianapolis, a down at the heels commercial district near downtown largely populated by people from Appalachia. I enjoyed browsing the low end, marginal shops and eating at diners where the food was mediocre and the waitresses sassy but not all that attractive (not that I let that stop me from flirting with them). Today, Fountain Square is not exactly gentrified, but is seeing a lot of investment and new residential construction. It’s a long way from unaffordable, but it isn’t impossible to conceive of a day when it features almost entirely higher prices (by Indianapolis standards) in the way some other zones downtown do.

About that time I also liked to drive around the city and take pictures of various neighborhoods in the inner city. One time I was on the East Side and was walking around taking snaps of streetscapes. I apparently pointed my camera too close in the direction of a white minivan whose owner took umbrage. The driver, who was white, long-haired, with a bit of a redneck air about him, circled the block and pulled up next to me to berate me in a semi-menacing way, alternately demanding to know why I was taking pictures of his van and warning me I should never do it again. (I generally take pains to try to avoid including people in my photographs when possible, and things like this are one reason why).

I’m not going to claim there was any hidden agenda here other than this guy being directly suspicious of my pointing a camera his way. But I can’t help but wonder if subconsciously he was aware of a more subtle but potentially more dangerous threat that I posed to his neighborhood and way of life.

I’m not taking credit or blame for neighborhood change in Indianapolis. But I do know that I’m part of the dynamic of the city I’m in. And when I guy like me walks into a neighborhood, my mere presence can be a provocation. Cities are inherently dynamic places, and we are agents of the forces of change whether we want to be or not. (Which is as true for the poor as for the one percent, we just label it “fair housing” when poor people move into rich neighborhoods, but “gentrification” when the reverse occurs).

While I am a writer and observer on cities, I’m an endogenous not exogenous observer. All of us are players in the development of the places we live and visit, event if only bit players in some cases. And oftimes in the complex world of the city, our actions are part of forces or trends we are not event aware of, ones that may have consequences we would never have desired. That does not absolve us of our role.

As for David Byrne, the role of artists and musicians in paving the way for gentrification is so well known as to be conventional wisdom. Similarly today the hipster. And what’s one of the original signature markers of the hipster? The fixed-gear bicycle.

Just as reductions in crime obviously have an effect of dramatically raising property values (and thus rents) in a place as intrinsically attractive as New York, so do other quality of life improvements such as bicycle infrastructure. By making New York an even more desirable place to live, these improvements, wonderful as they may be and which I would heartily endorse, clearly attract more well-off residents and drive up prices.

Byrne has even taken a direct role in this. He created a series of nine public art type back racks from the city, all but one of which is in Manhattan, and which even includes this delightful example from Wall Street:


Photo Credit: Flickr/zombiete

These racks and his activism with regards to bicycles are what give Bryne his standing an urban commentator.

I for one am glad he made the bike racks as they are fantastic and I’m a fan of New York’s improved cycling infrastructure. But I also recognize that this sort of quality of life improvement contributes towards New York’s attractiveness to the wealthy. It’s just not realistic to think one can clean up the crime, the parks, improve infrastructure, etc. and then expect that prices will remain what they were back in the 70s when Bryne moved to the city. Rather than pointing the finger at the Other, the finance industry in this case, it would be more helpful if those of us who advocate for better urban environments would recognize the inevitable side effects many of our proposed policies would produce, and our own role in bringing them about.

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

Newark Penn Station by Robert Munson

This post is part of a series called North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable – or Not? See the series introduction for more.


Photo from City of Newark website

A visual pleasure inside and out, Newark’s Penn Station is more than a pretty face. An excellent workhorse, this station helped save one of America’s most troubled cities. Seemingly married to a special Destiny, this station was born in spite of the Great Depression and has endured as a leading Economic Engine; pulling its city through half a Century of hardship.


Photo by Robert Munson

Score: 79 (see full scorecard)
Category: Economic Engine

Overview: Stations in this series’ third category, Economic Engine, perform perhaps the key function of daily urban life: facilitate transit systems that give a competitive edge to downtown employers and retail. This strategic goal helps explain why so many cities recently want to redevelop their central stations and, in the last third of the 20th Century, why preservationists succeeded so often in keeping alive their civic centerpieces.

To distinguish Economic Engines from the highest category (called the Sustainables), a related theory assumes that stations centering well their mobility networks also boost property values with more Transit Oriented Development. This creates a happy economic cycle for a growing middle class that uses transit more; raising both tax and farebox revenue, while creating savings from lowered household transportation costs and government road maintenance. This combination puts a network on the road to fiscal sustainability; particularly as discussed in this series’ earlier article on Philadelphia’s growing middle class that resides downtown. We should expect more of these more complete downtowns as the sustainable era emerges.

Usually with too little residential, Economic Engines are less complete and only stimulate the commercial downtown; but should improve the network as steps toward our more robust category. (While most of these correlations are good, causation is still squishy.)

Newark’s Penn Station is a good test of this TOD theory that transit is an economic enabler and stimulant. In my opinion, Newark potentially centers the nation’s largest suburban operator. (This assumes two combinations under good governance: PATH and NJ Transit technically count as one integrated system; and, Newark’s Penn and Broad Street stations are essentially one station with eight lines connected by a one mile light rail.)  Yet, Newark is only a small, mid-sized city with 278,000 residents while Long Island’s railroad (currently the nation’s largest) can serve some 7.7 million.


Photo Credit: Flickr/Dougtone

Newark’s relatively successful commercial downtown looks like a much larger city. But its chief obstacle is the City’s middle class is way too small. While having some diverse neighborhoods, Newark still has the highest poverty rate (25%) of any American city. So if Newark turns around that statistic by using its transit advantage to rebuild its middle class, it further makes the social argument for every other city to invest in its station and reinvent its mobility network. Until that happy day, other cites can be well served by this analysis of Newark’s main station and how it encourages one of the nation’s better transit systems.

How The Economic Multiplier Works At Newark Penn

This station has two key factors in its equation: design; and transit as a top priority.

A great design may not be mandatory for success, but it sure helps. If a station is designed well, its functions fall into place easier and are less costly to update. If a station functions well, it gets used more and it is more possible for a downtown to flourish. Newark proves these operational and capital efficiencies. Twice. Most improbable was the second time; occurring now.

The first time, of course, was when Penn Station was built. With a 1935 ribbon-cutting and carefully orchestrated promotion, this equal investment from the City and Pennsylvania RR promised to work well for everyone. And it still does.

The station functions well. Integrating its three levels, one walks down from the almost airy platforms into a concourse with a relatively high ceiling so it doesn’t seem as if eight tracks could have trains rumbling above you. The concourse then smoothly distributes passengers to parking, taxis, buses or the exquisite Art Deco detail of the waiting room pictured above all on the street level. The basement is a light-rail subway; a short ride connecting to universities, medical centers and the Broad Street Station. Here is the agency’s recent blueprint. (The extensive local bus station is unmarked, but adjoins Penn Station’s north wall.)

While still working well through the 1970s, Newark’s decline caught up with the Station. It has undergone two decades of updates starting with $41M from NJ Transit in the 1990s. Then in this century and largely using the above drawings, NJT teamed up with federal money (including 31M from the 2009 ARRA stimulus.)  All this brought the Station to as good a condition as could be expected; given the economic disaster of many Newark neighborhoods.

For more details on Newark Penn, visit this website sponsored by Amtrak that helps citizens preserve their stations.


Street map posted throughout ped-shed, photographed by the author.

The concourse and connection to other modes are done well (see scorecard details.) As in other good stations, improving passenger convenience and increases ridership. But, the real reward is the economic impact on the downtown. The above map captures this best. Its economic anchors are Prudential (absolutely key) and quasi-government corporations (New Jersey’s largest light and gas company and the state’s Blue Cross/Blue Shield.)  Typical of recovering downtowns, it also has government centers.

Overall, Newark’s employers are not much different than you would expect a former industrial and port town to have after four decades of disinvestment preceded by a particularly awful 1967 race riot and very rapid white flight. In brief, the downtown needs more private employers.

But, that problem is being turned around. Of the recent large scale construction in all of New Jersey, one-third is in Newark; despite the City having 4% of the state’s population and the disadvantage of its per household income being 42% less than the state’s.

There is further evidence that Newark’s transit quality is attracting capital. It has combined well with the tax breaks to build a downtown sports arena for its NHL team. (Prudential got naming rights.) Panasonic’s North American HQ was just lured from neighboring, upriver Secaucus and added an attractive high-rise to Newark’s surprising skyline. While lures other than tax breaks are used, transit is the key amenity; and Newark and New Jersey know how to use it.

Many give Prudential credit for saving this downtown. I add that it probably took the largest life insurer (whose portfolio is invested heavily long-term in real estate) to recognize long-term value of a town with a great station and good transit.

Newark equals Chicago’s 26.5% of ridership to work. And transit should help rebuild Newark’s middle class to overcome downtown’s main drawbacks: it has very few residents, sparse retail and partial amenities that residents require.

Before Newark Can Solve Its Poverty Problem, Build Downtown Residential

Newark has good bones for downtown residential. It has the second lowest rate of car ownership, after New York City.  In addition to transit, other assets should be leveraged for downtown residential. For example, four major institutions (Rutgers-Newark, NJ Institute of Technology, the nation’s largest health service university and a community college) bring some 50,000 students to downtown’s University Heights. These largely commuter colleges could facilitate more housing for students and staff.

As with many cities revitalizing its downtown using the “eds & meds” strategy, Newark knows it has to diversify; as represented in its 2008 “Living Downtown Plan” that stretches to University Heights on the west and troubled areas around Broad Street Station on the north. (Plan consultants were SOM and Sam Schwartz Engineering).

As Mayor for seven years, Newark’s Cory Booker has done much to refurbish his city’s image. In addition to imprinting many economic deals, he is a public safety champion. During the 1990s, Newark was considered the most dangerous city in America. Mayor Booker, an African-American, has been a frontline advocate for restoring public safety. This needs to continue if the downtown is to attract enough residents.  Yet continuation depends on his successor, as Mr. Booker is likely to move up as the next Senator from this state.

The mar on Booker’s legacy is he has done too little for poor neighborhoods. Because some border the downtown and are stigmatized by housing projects, this remains an obstacle. In this series on how stations lead transit systems that support a middle class, I cannot start or finish the argument that we have a welfare regime that perpetuates poor people’s plight. But, we should not forget that transit is one of the easiest ways to reduce household costs; enough so every family can save more and move up the ladder.

Unlikely to get as complete a package as Mr. Booker to serve as its next Mayor, Newark needs a strategy that persists past his dynamic persona and take its currently stymied “Living Downtown Plan” and make it a reality. Let me propose a deal for new methods of regional redevelopment. (This concept will be explored throughout this series.) To encapsulate this strategy, look at this map of the PATH.

The Port Authority Trans Hudson is the nation’s 7th largest subway system by ridership. The four small cities it serves have 620,000 residents for an impressive ratio of 3 residents for every 2 riders, highly concentrated. (The nation’s next largest belongs to Philadelphia’s subway with a ratio of 5 residents to 1 rider.) If you add the four New Jersey Transit commuter lines that connect Newark (Penn and Broad stations) to New York’s Penn Station. Suddenly, poor Newark is a very rich transit connection. As the state’s largest city, Newark should be a natural mega-hub for the New York metropolis.

My future article on New York stations uses two assumptions. First, Midtown Manhattan has too many people for transit improvements to work cost-effectively. Second, there are cheaper places to live than Manhattan. Both proven.

Newark has an under-utilized and effective transit network.  And second, Newark is an inexpensive place to live.

This begs a few questions. Wouldn’t the world’s main financial center benefit from a farm team eight miles away that already is the nation’s third largest insurance center?  And for the common sense and stability of our financial system, shouldn’t investment banking learn something from the nation’s largest life insurer that required zero public dollars to make it through the worst real estate market since The Great Depression?  And besides, didn’t banks just make its “Wall Street West” by bringing many players to Jersey City, Newark’s peer on the PATH? (Jersey City has four PATH stops.) And didn’t this expansion raise Hoboken and Jersey City housing prices to those in many parts of Manhattan? Does this make Newark the next city to expand to?

And because it is in-land, Newark would cost substantially less to bulwark against hurricane flooding; possibly a show-stopping cost for Manhattan and Jersey City?

So if all these assumptions make sense, the clincher is: what agency helps fix this match-made-in-Heaven between the first and second largest cities in the New York metropolitan area? And don’t forget the bride’s dowry: Newark has the metro’s second largest airport and it is the most convenient to Manhattan; plus, it has the largest container port on the East Coast.

I’m not done having fun with this scenario… nor laying out its logic for Newark and, by analogy, how other central stations can serve as Economic Engines. Solving transit’s problems are increasingly expensive and ineffective because of how we govern our urban areas. If we are to compete in an era of sustainability and if that model rebuilds regions with mega-centers (instead of one over-crowded midtown), then the New York metro needs to take advantage of Newark’s assets and Newark needs New York’s investments. In ways politicians obviously don’t understand, cooperation will pay great dividends to everyone. (But first, we must un-employ the turf-fighters).

Newark’s social problems won’t get solved overnight. But over-time, they must be improved as they currently use public monies very ineffectively and these otherwise could get a much higher social and economic return if invested in infrastructure. As a drain, urban poverty is a strategic obstacle that prevents transit systems from getting on a path to fiscal sustainability.

So for today… How can every city’s central station, as an Economic Engine, do preliminary work to overcome this obstacle?  Answer: we still are finding out.

But… History gives us more answers than we admit. Consider the exhibit created from a brochure promoting Newark Penn at its 1935 ribbon-cutting. This exhibit fills the waiting room’s far wall. Reading this one panel below, it is clear that the Pennsylvania Railroad saw something worth promoting and, in so doing, defined this Station’s destiny.


Photo by Robert Munson

In 1935, the City of Newark had just split the cost of building the Station. This investment tied New York to Newark’s downtown. Four generations later, it still pays dividends. This is a great public value and should make taxpayers feel good (something that doesn’t happen often enough). Newark’s Station remains a great opportunity for all types of progress. But, it is under-utilized; blocked by out-dated laws for redevelopment.

Newark Penn is an Economic Engine for the downtown that is running at, let’s say, half capacity. Who is failing to use that asset to serve public goals?  Let’s show politicians and transit bureaucrats the light. And if that doesn’t work, show them the door.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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