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Wednesday, January 26, 2005
Dismal Forecast for Automakers
The Times has an article this morning about Ford Motor Company's declining profitability. It contains some telling details about the state of the industry:
In a worldwide market glutted with millions more cars than there are buyers, financial analysts see Ford's projections as ambitious. . . . For both Ford and General Motors, lending money to car buyers has been more lucrative than selling the cars. . . . Ford was more optimistic than G.M. was in its 2005 forecast earlier this month - G.M. is projecting a steeper decline in earnings this year and pushed back its mid-decade goals. . . . Both have been losing market share despite heavy spending on rebates, and both are weighed down by soaring health care and pension costs. Standard & Poor's has the debt of Ford and G.M. rated one notch above junk bonds.
The automakers put more cars on the planet than people are willing to buy. Then to help move inventory they created all kinds of leasing arrangements to make cars seem more affordable to people who are already up to their ears in personal debt. The system is nearing its logical end now that people can't afford any more debt and already have all the cars they need, and the automakers have wound up one notch above junk status.

Meanwhile, car buyers are stuck paying more for cars than if they had bought them outright. But even if they can't afford cars, people still need them to surivive in the car-dependent sprawl that oozes its way from sea to shining sea. At first, cars were just playthings for the rich, but after five decades of sprawl-building, the all-important need for cars among people of all income levels gives the automakers a captive market. But even this can't prop up the automakers forever.

The declines in profitability are a fitting comeuppance for two companies that helped create the alienating environment that most Americans live in today. New York City is the last place in the United States where it's socially acceptable for middle- and upper-class people to ride the bus. Those of us lucky enough to live here can lead meaningful and productive lives without owning a car. That's what makes this city so great. The automakers can continue to persuade consumers to overextend themselves, and we won't necessarily be affected.

- Posted at 4:41 PM | Permalink | Comments: 1 | Post a Comment |  

Told You So
It turns out that the snafu on the A and C lines will be resolved in six to nine months. Now, in the deepest depths of transit hysteria, when pandemonium broke because everyone thought the lines would be on severely limited service for three to five years, who was the calm voice of reason who predicted that the disruption would last only six months to a year? That's right, it was startsandfits.com, your source for levelheadedness. Thank you very much.
- Posted at 4:13 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |  

Tuesday, January 25, 2005
What About Eighth Avenue Weekend Service?
So the C is curtailed for the moment. In the past, when the MTA has canceled C service for weekend maintenance, it has run the A as a local to pick up the slack. But now, the A service itself is limited. On weekdays, the V is being extended to pick up the C's slack in Brooklyn, allowing the remaining A trains to run express there, while the B and the E are running normally and picking up most of the C's slack in Manhattan. But the B and the V don't run on the weekend. What's going to happen? I think the MTA should run the B on weekends and extend it to the C's tracks in Brooklyn. A new "weekend B" could run local from 168th Street or 145th Street down Central Park West and Sixth Avenue as usual until it would be diverted to share the F's tunnel to Jay Street/Borough Hall. There, it would pick up the C's route to Euclid Avenue as the V is doing on weekdays. This would allow the beleagured A to run express on weekends. Is anybody with me on this?
- Posted at 4:14 PM | Permalink | Comments: 1 | Post a Comment |  

2 Bits of Good News for the City
On a day of disastrous news for the subway, there are two pieces of good news for New York City. First, Mayor Bloomberg, by personally lobbying Verizon's chief executive, has reportedly persuaded Verizon to keep its headquarters in the city! Secondly, the Daily News has broken a story about the mayor's office helping to bring to fruition a 60-story mixed-use skyscraper planned for the corner of West 42nd Street and Dyer Avenue. Manhattan is all about skyscrapers. Each one helps increase the city's uniqueness and set it apart from the vast Walmart/parking lot/gas station/drive-thru/cul-de-sac sameness that continues to spread throughout the rest of the country. As an environmental bonus, every skyscraper that you see in Manhattan represents acres of farmland or wilderness saved from suburban sprawl. The extent of the sprawl averted depends only on how many offices, stores or apartments can fit in the skyscraper.
- Posted at 1:20 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |  

"Three to Five Years"
The morning newspapers have confirmed news that is nothing short of devastating. The C train has ceased to exist and the A will run at one third capacity and travel to two extra stops: 155th and 163rd Streets. Normal service, we are told, won't return for three to five years. But I have a suspicion it won't be that long. The MTA is great about lowering expectations and then exceeding them. You have to believe that they will put everything they've got on getting this service back up. Service was restored way ahead of early estimates after the 9/11 terrorist attack crushed the 1 and 9 tunnel in Lower Manhattan, and they wrapped up the Manhattan Bridge overhaul months ahead of schedule, if I remember correctly, allowing the B and D to continue south of Herald Square in 2004. Don't be surprised if the full A and C service is back in six months to a year.
- Posted at 10:07 AM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |  

Monday, January 24, 2005
West Siders Saved by Redundancy
Barely a week after my light-hearted entry praising the redundancy of Manhattan's West Side lines, the critical importance of the concept has sadly become apparent. Curbed and Gothamist are reporting that service on the A and C lines may be severely limited for three to five years after a fire in the tunnel near Chambers Street clobbered a subway switching room yesterday. The MTA website is less dire. As of this moment, it says:
A serice is running with extended headways system wide. There is limited A service between Fulton St. - Broadway Nassau and Canal Street, but service is running with delays. . . . C service is suspended. From Monday, January 24th to Wednesday, January 26th, A trains will run on the F line between Jay Street in Brooklyn, and West 4th Street in Manhattan, in both directions between the hours of 10:00 PM and 5:00 AM.
That last sentence makes it sound like the MTA will be doing major surgery on the A/C tunnel in Lower Manhattan for the next three days and hopefully will be able to restore something like regular service after that. The morning Big Media will probably help to clarify how long it will take before things are back to normal.

The good news is that riders from Inwood, Washington Heights, Sugar Hill, Harlem, the Upper West Side, Hell's Kitchen, Chelsea, the Village, the Financial District, Brooklyn Heights and Downtown Brooklyn all have other lines not far away. It's not going to be easy, and as a New Yorker I love to complain about the subway as much as the next guy: I imagine that your 1, 2, 3 and 9 lines are going to be absolutely hellishly miserable for at least the next three days. But West Siders will be able to get to work on the subway. Were a similar fire to knock out service on the 4, 5 or 6 lines, the Upper East Side and a huge swath of the Bronx would be paralyzed.

- Posted at 5:11 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |  

Thursday, January 20, 2005
It's Got to Be a Bubble
The New York Times published an article this morning that described the rise in the prices of consumer goods in the New York region during the past year. The article quoted John Catsimatidis, the chief executive of the New York City-based Gristedes supermarket chain, complaining about low profit margins in the food business. He said, "I would be better off getting rid of all of my stores based on the value of the real estate alone."

Holy schneikes! You can kiss goodbye to the quaint notion that real estate is theoretically as valuable as the activity it supports. Supermarkets fulfill the single most basic human need: food. Now I'm no expert, but if the real estate assets under a chain of supermarkets are more valuable than food the supermarkets distribute, how is the real estate market not overvalued? Put another way, if people are willing to pay more for land than for food, something seems amiss.

In a similarly portentious bit of news, Curbed and Brownstoner are showing a chart from The Wall Street Journal that shows the annual appreciation of housing prices in 10 yuppie-heavy urban ZIP codes where the median income is $40,000 a year. The non-New York nine of the ZIP codes, places from Danvers, Mass., to Philadelphia to Phoenix to Kirkland, Wash., showed a modest average increase of 9.7%: $315,599 in 2003 to $350,007 in 2004. But in Manhattan's East 80s and 90s, prices jumped an incredible 85.6%: $505,790 in 2003 to $938,560 in 2004. New York's ZIP code was already the most expensive of the bunch in 2003, and in '04 it was WAY more expensive than the others. If construction had started on the first phase of the Second Avenue Subway (.pdf), I would agree that the core value of real estate on that part of the Upper East Side really had increased that much more than statistically similar areas across the nation. But that didn't happen. Could it be that these gains are the result of temporary perception and hype?

All right, that does it. I am convinced. Note the date: January 20, 2005. Startsandfits.com officially acknowledges that we New Yorkers are living in some kind of real estate bubble.

Noel Sheppard has his own rationale on why a bubble exists: Has Greenspan Over-Pumped the Real Estate Bubble?
- Posted at 2:49 PM | Permalink | Comments: 3 | Post a Comment |  

Monday, January 17, 2005
The Transportation/Winning Connection
The Tri-State Transportation Campaign is reporting that plans for a new Yankee Stadium to rise next door to the current stadium include the construction of an adjacent Metro-North Hudson Line station. This is great news for anyone who has ever been stuck in traffic after a major sporting event, which is to say, anyone who has ever attended a major sporting event. When a large event ends and many people wish to leave a place at the same time, the resulting melee of traffic makes plain the inability of the motor vehicle to move lots of people simultaneously. Attempting to leave the Meadowlands is thereby always an exercise in frustration and angst. Not so, leaving Yankee Stadium, which is the most centrally-located of any major league baseball stadium in terms of subway transportation.

Unlike Shea Stadium, which is way out at the penultimate stop on the 7 train, Yankee Stadium sits at the confluence of two lines, the Grand Concourse local (the B stops at the stadium during rush hours, the D other times) and the Jerome Avenue elevated serving the No. 4 train. The D stops in Harlem and then runs express to west Midtown and on to Brooklyn while the 4 makes express stops on the east side before also heading to Brooklyn. Additionally, while most of the subway riders leaving a Yankee game will want to head downtown, a not insignificant number of them will be headed to the 11 stops on the 4 train and the 9 stops of the D train that are north of the stadium. So when a Yankee game lets out, some people head to the downtown D platform, some to the downtown 4 platform, others to the uptown 4 and still others to the D uptown platform. All of this means that Yankee Stadium is better able to handle crowds of fans than Shea, where everyone who wants to ride the subway home has to cram onto the inbound 7 platform.

Fenway Park is served by the Green Line of the T, and the Cubs and the White Sox play on the Red Line of Chicago's El, but there is no baseball stadium that is as well served by subway transportation as Yankee Stadium. There is also no baseball team that draws as many fans to its home games as the Yankees. Is it a mere coincidence that the team with the most transit-friendly home is the winningest sports franchise in history? I think not.

- Posted at 2:58 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |  

Navigating a Complex System
On a night out on the town on Saturday, four of us caught The Shark Show, a hilariously funny improv and sketch comedy hour at Houston and Attorney Streets in the Lower East Side. After that we had to trek up to a party at 88th and Columbus, deep in the Upper West Side. The two of us with unlimited-ride MetroCards convinced the two pay-per-ride MetroCardholders to take the train instead of cabbing it. What's the route? It should be an easy ride: F train at Second Avenue to West 4th Street to catch the C train to 86th Street & Central Park West.

Let me tell you something. That's not the way it worked out.

For some reason, when we got to Second Avenue there was an E train sitting there, even though the E train doesn't usually go anywhere near that station. So we took that to West 4th Street and walked up the stairs to catch the C train (Eighth Avenue local), but the A train, the Eighth Avenue express, came right away. The A doesn't stop at 86th Street, but we planned to transfer at 59th Street for the C. Maybe we'd pass a C train on our express ride to 59th Street. No, the exact opposite thing happened. While our slow-poke express train was lumbering up Eighth Avenue, we were passed by a sprightly C train between 50th and 59th Streets. We pulled into 59th Street just as the C train had left. Damn. We missed our connection. But, no problem, we just walked upstairs to the 1 and 9 platform and hopped on a 1 train, which thankfully came right away.

We learned some hard subway riding lessons that night.
1) Local trains are sometimes faster than express trains. Had we waited for the C train at West 4th Street, we wouldn't have had to go through a second transfer.
2) When you descent into the subway, you never know what your eventual route will be. What should have been an F-to-the-C trip ended up being an E-to-the-A-to-the-1.
3) Redundancy is key to successful subway travel. Luckily for us we were going to the Upper West Side, which is served by the Central Park West line and the Broadway line. The Upper East Side, unfortunately, is served only by the Lexington Avenue line, where there is no chance of making a quick change of course like there is at Columbus Circle. All this is by way of pointing out that plans are finished and it's time to start digging. Support the Second Avenue Subway!

- Posted at 1:09 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |  

Sunday, January 09, 2005
Preserving Parking as Cathedral Decays

The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, the largest cathedral in the world, is struggling to maintain financial solvency in Morningside Heights. The trustees want to allow the construction of modest buildings on two adjacent sites that are now occupied by a parking lot and an ugly thicket of trees. Allowing construction on these sites would enable the cathedral to pay for years of deferred maintenance on its crumbling facade and help to integrate the cathedral into the city that surrounds it. But neighborhood preservationists blocked a deal in 2003 that would have allowed construction to move forward, and continue to agitate toward restricting the cathedral's options.
- Read the full Starts & Fits opinion on this smoldering issue.
- Posted at 2:50 AM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |  

Wednesday, January 05, 2005
Blog Found, Loved Immediately
I've added a permanent link to Clusterfuck Nation by James Howard Kunstler, a blog by the author of Geography of Nowhere and other criticism of American development patterns. He recently returned from Paris and had some withering but insightful comments to share about American public life. Here are two samples:

There, we would duck into a "brown bar" (so-called because of the dark wooden wainscotting) at five p.m. and it would be full of well-dressed, gainfully employed adults in animated conversation. Public life in Europe is only minimally about shopping and maximally about spending time with your fellow human beings. American public life by comparison is pathetic-to-nonexistent. Americans venture out only to roam the warehouse depots, and only by car. In most American places bars are strictly for lowlifes, and the public realm for the employed classes is pretty much restricted to television, with its predictable cast of manufactured characters and situations. The alienation and isolation of American life is so pervasive and pathological, compared to life lived elsewhere in this world, that all the Prozac ever made will never avail to make things better for us. . . .

America has become a country of sad, lonely, and frightened people. We say that we like our way of life, but I suspect that many Red staters have never known anything else besides the six-lane highway, the box store, and the life of cable TV.
Yes, nowhere style development is more prevalent in the red states, but it is capable of infiltrating our own beloved Brooklyn, where Ikea is demolishing a Civil War-era building in Red Hook that has more character than a hundred perfectly convenient roadside strip malls. This demolition is to make way for a parking lot that will serve the same type of anonymous, soulless big box store that could be found off of any Interstate highway, anywhere in the nation. Economic growth is great for New York City because it encourages people to come here to live, work, shop and otherwise enjoy leisure time. But why does it have to be done in a way that rips apart a piece of the pedestrian-scaled urban fabric that makes New York different from the rest of the nation?
- Posted at 1:42 PM | Permalink | Comments: 2 | Post a Comment |  

Monday, January 03, 2005
Gate Closed

Here is a celebration about the new car-free overnight hours in Central Park that officially began tonight. (This is the party that I mentioned here earlier.) The submerged transverse roads will remain open, as they should, but thankfully the park's loop drive will be closed to cars from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. nightly. Perhaps even better: Four entrances were closed permanently: West 77th Street, West 90th Street, East 90th Street and East 102nd Street. Transportation Alternatives: Great job collecting the 77,000 signatures needed to get that done. Thanks due also to Mayor Bloomberg and Iris Weinshall, the transportation commissioner, for making it happen.
- Posted at 10:45 PM | Permalink | Comments: 1 | Post a Comment |  

Saturday, January 01, 2005
Auto Traffic Perseveres Despite Cyclists

Startsandfits.com conducted a scientific study of last night's Critical Mass bike ride to determine what kind of effect the group of cyclists would have on automobile traffic. The ride started at 7:31 p.m. at Union Square North and proceeded west along 17th Street before turning right at the Avenue of the Americas to head uptown to a point or points unknown. The photo above was taken on the avenue at 7:42 p.m., some four to six minutes after the riders had gone by. It appears that traffic is moving along quite nicely despite the presence of some 200 cyclists. This study has bolstered the hypothesis that the greatest threat to an automobile's forward motion is that posed by other automobiles. Reducing the number of those cars, which is the aim of many of the Critical Mass riders, would improve traffic flow. The City should thank riders for pointing that out instead of arresting them out of fear that they would block car traffic. Anybody know how many people got arrested last night? I can't find it anywhere in the news media or online.

Here are some more photos from the ride: Milling about beforehand, a pedicab full of coats to be donated to the police and the forward motion at the start.

- Posted at 11:10 AM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |  

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