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Sunday, February 27, 2005
How to Fix an Overly Wide Street

One hopes that the planners who are working on the 125th Street River-to-River Study will consider Hancock Place, a one block street that connects the oblique portion of West 125th Street with diagonal lower St. Nicholas Avenue. Maps dating back to the 1800s show that this street has always been this wide, and that what is now the western end of 125th Street was once called Manhattan Street. In the horse and buggy days, traffic must have flowed two directions from the Hudson River to Central Park along one continuous diagonal boulevard that pre-dated Manhattan's grid. Today, traffic now flows southeast, in waves. Transportation planners have filled in pieces of the street to the east and west, leaving this block as wide as a north-south avenue, but with a tiny fraction of the traffic. When a wave of traffic is coming through it progresses through a normally sized lane before suddenly coming upon this wide, wide street. It is then funneled onto normal sized 124th Street. The sudden extra width of the block encourage speeding livery cabs and others to try to cut one another off before being channeled back into the more narrow space, creating a bottle neck where one need not be. In between the waves, one finds a desolate, underused stretch that is hard for a pedestrian to cross and gives the sense of vacancy and quasi-abandonment despite the recent investment in the area.
Above and at right is a new BP gas station that takes up an entire tiny city block that anywhere but New York City would be a minor traffic island. At left is "The Flatiron of 125th Street," a $30 million health care facility built in 2003 to serve members of the New York Hotel Trades Council and Hotel Association. The union should have sought to extend that block southward into the street, filling in the unused leftovers of the 1800s thoroughfare. They would have gotten a lot more space for their building and improved the streetscape. That opportunity was missed, but another one remains.

The red lane in the center of the aerial photo above shows the extent of the block that is actually needed for traffic. The blue triangles at the south represent two relatively pleasant plazas that were created where Hancock Place formerly had gone. The yellow area shows the part of the street that the union health care facility should have taken over. The New York City Department of Transportation should change the parallel parking along the north side of the street into perpendicular parking. Besides doubling the number of parking spaces, this would narrow the travel lane, slow the traffic on this block and making it easier for pedestrians to cross. Or this area could be made into a plaza similar to the one to the south. Perhaps the best thing to do would be to widen the sidewalk a little bit and create perpendicular parking. As seen at right, CrashStat.org indicates that from 1995 to 2001 there were nine pedestrians or cyclists injured at the corner of St. Nicholas Avenue and 124th Street, where the traffic comes speeding around this corner, and one injury at the gas station's little island. Slowing the traffic and increasing sidewalk space would help to decrease these injuries.

- Posted at 10:47 PM | Permalink | Comments: 1 | Post a Comment |

Saturday, February 26, 2005
Hartley Pharmacy?????

I was riding the bus yesterday when my eye was attracted to a new bright green sign advertising the Hartley "Pharmacy." This is a small independent apothecary shop that has managed to survive in an age dominated by CVS, Duane Reade, Rite Aid, and other pharmacy chains. The upsetting part is that for some untold number of decades, this shop, at 120th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, was known as Hartley Chemists, as seen below in a photo that was taken in July 2004 as part of an effort to document the cleaning of its building's facade.

The Hartley Chemists. It had such a unique and memorable ring to it. Admittedly, this new name will probably improve their business, since the word chemist to mean a pharmacist has been homogenized out of the language. People probably though that if you walked in that place there would be a mad scientist in there with a goatee, wild white hair, a maniacal cackle and an array of steaming beakers and Bunsen burners. But still. That name was part of the shop's charm. This turn of events is TOTALLY OUTRAGEOUS!!!
- Posted at 1:54 PM | Permalink | Comments: 2 | Post a Comment |

Speeding Up a Slowpoke
To travel to a previously mentioned doctor's appointment in Morningside Heights yesterday, Startsandfits.com took the M60 bus across town on 125th Street. Buses in New York City are unbelievably, notoriously slow. The M34 travels at an average crawl of 4 miles per hour. My M60 is significantly faster at 9.7 miles per hour, according to the straphangers campaign. You can get to Philadelphia on Amtrak faster by the time the M15 finishes one circuit of its route. At base, the most important reason for this is that, despite the fact a bus can carry the equivalent of 100 single-occupancy vehicles, they are forced to occupy the same space as the regular auto traffic. Other cities provide solutions to this problem. London keeps cars out of its center city by charging drivers to enter the central city, speeding the buses enormously. A number of other cities have begun bus rapid transit, which provides buses their own right of way separate from the car congestion. This has the added benefit of encouraging still more people to ride the bus when they see how much quicker it is. Of course, if General Motors hadn't systematically dismantled our nation's streetcar lines, the streetcars that formerly plied the avenues of Manhattan might have continued to operate to this day.

Because New York City's buses are stuck in with general traffic, there are a number of other factors that contribute marginally to their slow speed.

  • People exiting from the front door, blocking those who are trying to board. (The MTA has embarked on an ad campaign to try to get people to change their behavior on this.)
  • People entering the bus and fishing around for their MetroCards while the bus waits for them.
  • Buses stopping for a person who is waiting for a different bus. This happens at stops served by multiple routes because there is no way for people to communicate which bus they're waiting for.

    The driver of the bus I rode yesterday was a very gregarious fellow who enjoyed using the bus's internal P.A. system. He announced every street clearly and exuberantly. For example, "Seventh Avenue — Also known as Adam Clayton Powell ... [pause] ... Junior Boulevard," and: "Eighth Avenue. Frederick Douglass Boulevard. For that guy who wanted to go to Columbus Circle, get out here and transfer to the M10." [Note: Better advice would have been to get off at the next stop and take the A or D trains one stop, but maybe "that guy" wasn't up for riding the subway for some reason.] He energetically tackled some of the bus slowness problems head on. He had taped a message that said, "This is the M60. Please have your MetroCards and transfers ready. Thank you." Then he transmitted that message over some kind of external P.A. system every time the doors opened. It seemed to help a little, but there were still people who somehow didn't realize they needed their MetroCards until they had already gotten on the bus! He also used this P.A. system to harass a bunch of drivers who had parked in a bus stop. "Hey, move up a little! This is a bus stop. Look at that cop over there! He noticed you! This is a bus stop. Move forward!" Motorists don't respect the No Parking in Bus Stops rule very well, so the buses move even slower. The amazing part is that buses have external P.A. systems. I had no idea.

    - Posted at 12:17 PM | Permalink | Comments: 1 | Post a Comment |

    Agglomeration Economies
    Yesterday afternoon, startsandfits.com went to see a dermatologist for a very serious health problem: acne. Because of my new medical insurance, I am required to get a referral from my primary care physician before seeing a specialist. This is a new concept to me as I was not subject to such a requirement under my previous health insurance. More paperwork? Fine. As long as I don't actually have to pay for health care, I'm happy.

    Upon leaving for my appointment, I had a sinking feeling that I was forgetting something. Some part of my mind, buried deep within my subconscious, knew what it was, but up at the forefront of my stream-of-consciousness, I couldn't quite figure out what it was, so I left for the appointment, trying to forget that vaguely unpleasant, "I know I'm forgetting something" feeling.

    Upon arriving at the doctor's office, I filled out the paperwork and took it back to the receptionist. That's when I spotted the sign that told me what I had forgotten. It said something like, "Patients must show medical insurance card and referral or they will not be seen." Yikes. I had come all the way across town and had forgotten my referral form. This appointment had been scheduled for months, and I knew that if I had to make a new one, it wouldn't be for months. So I prepared to schmooze my way past the receptionist with a promise that, yes, I really had a referral and that I would bring it by the office later, but soon. When she asked me for my card and referral, I said, in the sweetest, most plaintive voice I could muster, "You know what, I'm really sorry, but I forgot my referral." That didn't really work out, because she said that, therefore, I couldn't be seen by the doctor. Just as I was about to go into a panic, she said something that suggested a resolution was possible: "Can you get it from your doctor?"

    Here's where this story changes. It happens that the doctor's office was on the 11th floor of a tower at 1090 Amsterdam Avenue at 114th Street that is filled up to the top floor with doctors' offices (and with Strokos Pizza & Deli at the ground floor). As it happens, my primary care physician's office is on the fourth floor of the same building. Because of this extraordinary luck, I told the receptionist that I would just be right back. I hopped on the elevator, went down to the fourth floor, asked the friendly receptionist there if she could check my file and give me a copy of the referral in question. She did. I took the elevator back up to the 11th floor and proudly presented my referral to the receptionist who needed it. The whole thing took maybe 10 minutes. Then the doctor saw me and everything went smoothly. File this tale as a disaster narrowly averted.

    From a land use and transportation perspective, which is what this blog is all about, I couldn't help but think how much easier the situation had been made by the fact that these two doctors had their offices in the same building. If I had lived in the suburbs, a similar trip would more likely have involved a 20-minute drive somewhere, parking, getting out of the car, getting the form, walking back to the car, and driving back to the first office. By that time, the first receptionist would say, "I'm sorry, you missed your slot." Or I could have tried to call the second doctor and asking the staff there to fax me the form. But such an impersonal approach would be more likely to be met with, "I'm so sorry, but we're really busy right now. Can you call back another time?" It would also require me to remember my primary care physician's phone number, which I don't, or to look it up, which would complicate already complicated matters. The moral of this story is that in health care, as in so many other areas of life, density is better.

    - Posted at 10:15 AM | Permalink | Comments: 2 | Post a Comment |

    Wednesday, February 23, 2005
    Retrofitting the Projects

    Construction is underway at the James Weldon Johnson Houses, a public housing project consisting of 10 residential towers on two superblocks in East Harlem bounded by 112th and 115th Streets, Park and Third Avenues. The housing project, administered by the New York City Housing Authority, is home to nearly 3,000 people who live in 1,308 apartments. The towers were completed in December 1948, early in the Modernist tower-in-the-park era of postwar housing construction. This philosophy tried to suburbanize the city by creating big, detached houses (with lots of people in them) surrounded by lush green lawns that rejuvenate the soul of one who so much as looks at them. It attempted to eliminate the essence of what makes a city a vital, exciting place to inhabit in favor of regimented slabs that lacked a retail presence. The James Weldon Johnson Houses are part of "The Project Wall" — a vast stretch of seven superblocks from Lenox Avenue to First Avenue that contain monotonous, bleak rows of towers that sever the vibrant, low-scale neighborhoods to the north and south. The Project Wall all but obliterated East 113th and 114th Streets and widened East 112th and 115th Streets to Interstate widths that intimidate pedestrians and encourage speeding.

    Thankfully, this mode of development has been discredited and planners are beginning to make furtive steps at incorporating towers in the park and similar Modernist abominations back into the surrounding city fabric. At Lincoln Center, planners are narrowing streets and improving plazas. The Federal Hope VI program aims to achieve similar goals on a broader scale.

    Here at the Johnson Houses, construction is proceeding on what is probably going to be a community facility of some type, perhaps a daycare center, which would help satisfy an important and much needed function. From an urban design perspective, it looks like this building will help to improve the street wall somewhat, making the pedestrian experience more pleasant and channeling a degree of vitality to the sidewalks. This development represents a way that the unused space around housing projects can be put to better use, provided that the massing and orientation of the buildings are done correctly. At right is a map of the general area where the new building will sit.

    The difficulty with adding buildings to the sites of tower-in-the-park projects is that new buildings have the potential block the light and air to existing lower floors. The existing towers were designed to sit in open space, so they don't lend themselves to easily sharing space with other buildings. Worse, all the buildings will decay at the same time, eliminating the organic, continual upgrading and replacement that occurs on normal blocks.

    - Posted at 8:07 PM | Permalink | Comments: 1 | Post a Comment |

    Saturday, February 19, 2005
    $1 Tax Per Gallon, Peak Oil and Amtrak Funding
    Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times last weekend reaffirmed his commitment to a federal $1-a-gallon tax on gasoline. He noted,
    By adamantly refusing to do anything to improve energy conservation in America, or to phase in a $1-a-gallon gasoline tax on American drivers, or to demand increased mileage from Detroit's automakers, or to develop a crash program for renewable sources of energy, the Bush team is — as others have noted — financing both sides of the war on terrorism.
    Then he specifically addresses the gas tax:
    What would that buy? It would buy reform in some of the worst regimes in the world, from Tehran to Moscow. It would reduce the chances that the U.S. and China are going to have a global struggle over oil - which is where we are heading. It would help us to strengthen the dollar and reduce the current account deficit by importing less crude. It would reduce climate change more than anything in Kyoto. It would significantly improve America's standing in the world by making us good global citizens. It would shrink the budget deficit. It would reduce our dependence on the Saudis so we could tell them the truth. (Addicts never tell the truth to their pushers.)
    We could use the revenue from a $1-a-gallon tax on gas to finance our effort to find alternative fuel sources and reduce our dependence on Persian Gulf oil. More importantly, by adding $1 to the cost of each gallon, we would reduce consumption, which would also reduce our dependence on Persian Gulf oil. A reduction in consumption would also reduce emission of global warming gases, help cut the number of motorists who die each year in car accidents and, perhaps most importantly, help rein in sprawl.

    Speaking of sprawl, suburbs are getting plenty of attention lately from those who say that it is the ultimate form of human habitat yet devised, and those who call it a fifty-year aberration that is bound to end in the coming decades as oil becomes increasingly scarce and alternative fuels fail to materialize. On the one hand, you have David Brooks, also of The Times, who argues in On Paradise Drive that American-style suburbs will shape development in other countries, and that, as Publisher's Weekly puts it, "the New York Times op-ed columnist tells readers it's okay to consume, consume, consume-so long as they look toward the future while doing so." That's just the way to soothe us free-spending Americans, sell a lot of books and make a lot of people feel better about their unsustainable behavior. But anyone who looks toward the future would realize that it's not okay to consume, consume, consume because that is what is getting us into the economic, environmental and geopolitical trouble we're in right now. Meanwhile, Joel Kotkin, the author of Rule, Suburbia, lauds suburbs for having "half the poverty of the urban core." Of course, suburbs have half the poverty of the urban core. The escapist mentality that built the suburbs was at best about ignoring the poor and leaving them behind in the cities. At worst, it was about actively excluding the poor, as evidenced by suburbs that zoned out or regulated out affordable housing. Having half the poverty of urban areas is a condemnation of the suburbs, not something to praise. In any event, it is a defining characteristic of suburbia, not something to find as a remarkable indicator of success.

    But all this is practically a moot point for the folks who have brought up the peak oil meme and tend to describe it as, oh, things like "the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced." A video entitled The End of Suburbia, is out, using talking heads to describe just that. The thinking is that oil production follows something like a bell curve of production, and that we are just now reaching our maximum production capacity for oil. They see oil as an irreplacable magic substance that allows us to get something for nothing: lots of energy output with little energy invested. Just as ever more plentiful oil allowed for the meteoric growth of the suburbs in postwar America, our suburbs and national economy will undergo a horrifically painful contraction on the downslope of this bell curve.

    James Howard Kunstler often talks about the need for a strong national rail system to help mitigate the prolems that will arise from the oil crunch. As driving and flying become more expensive in real terms, we will again need our rail transport system in place. But the Bush administration is shortsightedly trying to save a few bucks in the short term by bringing about the collapse of our national rail system. If or when the oil crunch gets more severe it will be harder to restart national rail if it has ceased to exist. Why do our policy makers feel that it is okay for government to subsidize airlines and highways but not rail service? Even with today's low fuel charges, the airlines are struggling to remain solvent, and jet fuel prices are going nowhere but up. As of now, Amtrak provides the only alternative to oil-hungry cars and airlines, yet this is the one piece of the three that the Bush administration wants to cut.

    Some links about peak oil:
    - Simmons & Company International
    - Prof. Kenneth S. Deffeyes
    - Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas
    - Post Carbon Institute
    - Life After the Oil Crash
    - Hubbert Peak of Oil Production
    - Community Solution to Peak Oil
    - PeakOil.org
    - PeakOil.com
    - Peak Oil Action

    - Posted at 12:48 PM | Permalink | Comments: 3 | Post a Comment |

    Monday, February 14, 2005
    The Subsequent Vilification of Robert Moses
    The Off Off Broadway play Boozy: The Life, Death and Subsequent Vilification of Le Corbusier and, More Importantly, Robert Moses opened last night at the Ohio Theater in SoHo. Startsandfits.com had a great time and was delightfully entertained by the production. Using high brow and low brow humor it rightly excoriates single-use zoning, advances some conspiracy theories about the car-highway-suburb growth machine and decries Robert Moses's eminent domain abuse and the lack of public oversight against him. The play anachronistically places Jane Jacobs as the chairwoman of Manhattan Community Board 3 and makes her the hero for putting a stop to the madness, if casting doubt on her motives. The play is hilarious for those of us who take an interest in these issues, and one hopes it will find appeal among a larger audience. The most brilliant piece comes toward the end of the play, and calls attention to the absurdity of following one of Robert Moses's most controversial plans today. This happens when an "ethnically ambiguous" crippled child grabs a pick-axe and encourages the audience to start demolition for the Broome Street Expressway. Imagine the thought!

    Below: the publisher of Startsandfits.com contemplated the Master Builder's legacy while visiting the Bronx last summer.

    - Posted at 10:09 AM | Permalink | Comments: 2 | Post a Comment |

    Sunday, February 13, 2005
    New and Old at a Neighborhood's Edge

    Gentrification in New York City has been overwhelming and relentless in recent decades. Time was when a segment of the young, well-compensated and upwardly mobile people who drive large segments of the city's economy would have had to live in a swath of the East Side from Murray Hill to Yorkville. Now Chelsea is fine for them and the derelicts have been removed from the sidewalks of the Upper West Side. SoHo, DUMBO, TriBeCa and increasingly the Meatpacking District are for living in, not manufacturing. People of means can choose from a panoply of new neighborhoods in Brooklyn that they would have scoffed at or feared decades ago: Park Slope, Carrol Gardens, Cobble Hill, Boreum Hill, Fort Greene, Greenpoint. A friend and I recently walked the length of the L train to determine the exact point where the wave of Williamsburg gentrification had reached into Bushwick, or, ahem, should I say East Williamsburg. (It's at Montrose Avenue, unmistakably, if you judge by the number of curtains visible in the windows of old loft manufacturing buildings and a WiFi-equipped hipster coffee bar inside an idle industrial fortress.) Meanwhile, Red Hook is dubbed "Liberty View," for its sightlines to the Statue, Hell's Kitchen is renamed Clinton, Alphabet City is called the East Village and new areas like NoLIta are carved out of previously indeterminate areas.

    In light of all these changes, I've been surprised to see that the edges of the Upper East Side itself, that queen of all inner city neighborhoods of wealth, have hardly changed. In part because of the Metro-North viaduct on Park Avenue but moreso because of Robert Moses' creation of immovable dull barriers of the concentrated poor, the Iron Line of 96th Street has been pretty much inviolable on the East Side, even as gentry from the Upper West Side have crept northward to meet those in Morningside Heights. Even today, walk along Madison Avenue from 95th Street to 99th Street and in scarcely four blocks you travel between two different planets.

    That is changing. Finally, inexorably, Carnegie Hill is creeping into El Barrio. The photograph above is of 1500 Lexington Avenue, between 96th and 97th Streets, one of two buildings in the Carnegie Hill Place development. It towers over its aging neighbor, 1488 Lexington Avenue, the way a crisp $100 bill, folded and stood on end, towers over a nickel.

    Fifteen Hundred Lex is a $50 million, 22-story luxury rental tower that opened in May 2003 with 211 apartments and ground-floor retail space. It occupies a long-vacant lot that was once seven separate 25-foot-wide lots on which in all probability stood a series of low-rise apartment buildings like the one remaining at the corner. Now, people pay more than $2,500 a month to rent a one-bedroom apartment with one east-facing exposure, even as corner apartments next door go unused.

    By replacing a vacant lot, the building displaced no one, but because it represents a sea change for the area, it was predictably welcomed with less than open arms. In a cover article in The New York Times's City section on Feb. 23, 2003, the writer Ed Morales wrote:
    Whispered buzzwords of gentrification like Upper Yorkville, Carnegie Hill North and SpaHa (for Spanish Harlem), are creeping up from the south. The specter of new luxury high-rise developments with tony names like the Monterrey and Carnegie Hill Place are pushing back the ghetto flavor. The Spanish Harlem of the mind, dotted with the world's greatest cuchifrito stands (fried Caribbean snacks), stickball clubs and old-school piragueros, men who sell flavored ices from pushcarts, is threatened with extinction.
    I don't think the neigbhorhood is threatened with extinction, but clearly, change is on the march.

    Next door is a reminder of that neighborhood. Fourteen Eighty-Eight Lex is a 9,555-square-foot old-law tenement with an assessed value of a paltry $71,555. It has room for 11 apartments, four of which would command corner views over a busy intersection. Most of the building has a highly desirable southern exposure. Yet despite these things, and the building's prime location on top of a station served by the most frequently run subway line in the city, the landlord would apparently rather invest nothing in the upper residential floors and instead just milk off the profits of the ground floor retail. And at present, this retail consists of a tawdry cluster of tiny, low margin shops and one of those ubiquitous New York City cell phone stores.

    It's amazing that so many uptown tenement owners keep their buildings heated and inhabitable simply for the ground floor retail space and leave the potentially lucrative floors above vacant and deteriorating. Somehow, that's what the economics of the pre-gentrified city supported. This phenomenon is a little more understandible in a run-down neighborhood, but here, the building next door proves that people would be willing to pay a lot of money to live in these vacant rooms. It would cost some money to renovate them, cetainly, but clearly there is no question that that investment would be returned many times over.

    This building is a reminder of the tough 1970s and '80s, when buildings like this one were everywhere, and the Koch administration gave building owners those famous decals of wooden shutters and potted plants to make it at least appear that the buidlings were inhabited. One wonders whether the owner of 1488 Lex was approached by the developers of Carnegie Hill Place about buying the decaying little building. While we must wonder what motivates this landlord, because it apparently is not the promise of certain enormous profits, we should be tremendously glad he or she refused to sell and has left the building stand as is.

    Those ratty old stores need a place in the city, and 1488 Lex provides it. The old tenement creates a place that supports the diversity of uses that makes this city the vibrant place it is. As usual, Jane Jacobs put it most clearly:
    If a city area has only new buidlings, the enterprises that can exist there are automatically limited to those that can support the high costs of new construction. . . . To support such high overheads, the enterprises must be either (a) high profit or (b) well subsidized.

    If you look about, you will see that only operations that are well established, high-turnover, standardized or heavily subsidized can afford, commonly, to carry the costs of new construction. Chain stores, chain restaurants, and banks go into new construction. But neighborhood bars, foreign restaurants and pawn shops go into older buildings. . . .

    A successful city district becomes a kind of ever-normal granary so far as construction is concerned. Some of the old buildings, year by year, are replaced by new ones — or rehabilitated to a degree equivalent to replacement. Over the years there is, therefore, constantly a mixture of buildings of many ages and types.

    Because of the old and new construction in evidence here, the same city block allows the coexistence of Bonanza Wireless, Tony's Variety Store, 96th Candy & Magazines, and an unknown number of six-figure account executives and securities analysts. How much richer the city is for having this vivid juxtaposition of old and new — a reminder of the old city and a forerunner of the city to come, standing cheek by jowl at East 96th Street.

    How long can these buildings coexist like this?
    - Posted at 5:43 PM | Permalink | Comments: 2 | Post a Comment |

    "The Buckets," a Great Public Art Exhibition

    I walked to Central Park today because I heard there was going to be a great "public art" display. Since art is always in the eye of the beholder, I was afraid that when I got to the park I wouldn't find anything special. Maybe art to someone else is just nothing much to me. At any rate, I wasn't sure what I would be looking for. But when I got to the edge of the park, I was relieved because I immediately found what I was looking for. The art display I found consisted of five translucent blue buckets were turned upside down in a straight line on the sidewalk. The first few buckets were close together but as one walked closer to the street they became farther apart. There was a sign that said, "The Buckets." The artist was hanging around, and she pointed me to her press release. The Buckets was a thought provoking exhibit. The translucent blue hue to the buckets stood in sharp contrast to the prosaic street scene below, which created a marvelous visual effect. Bravo! What a great day for art at the park.
    - Posted at 4:31 PM | Permalink | Comments: 1 | Post a Comment |

    Flash Gordon Finials Gaze Upon ... Rows of Orange

    Did anybody else notice that someone has placed a bunch of wacky orange thingys in Central Park? I wonder if anybody else blogged this . . .

    At any rate, this is a picture of a few of them waving in the breeze below the El Dorado apartments.
    - Posted at 12:50 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |

    Saturday, February 12, 2005
    Coming to the Cathedral's Rescue
    A group of thoughtful Morningside Heights residents have put together a website that supports sensible development on the grounds of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. This is exactly the development that startsandfits.com is advocating as well because it will improve the city fabric and enliven the streets in an underused area, improve upon parking and barbed-wire fencing on two sites and help finance desperately needed maintenance for the struggling cathedral. Finding this website is a wonderfully pleasant surprise for someone who has come to expect that all neighbors of all institutions everywhere in New York City will blindly oppose the construction of any new building, no matter how ugly, inappropriate or unfortunate the status quo may be. Be sure to sign the petition to allow sensible development on the grounds of the cathedral.
    - SupportTheCathedral.org
    - Posted at 11:30 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |

    Wednesday, February 09, 2005
    NYC Transportation Roundup
    For once the news seems positive for transportation projects that are planned for New York City. Here is a summary:
  • President Bush's budget includes $2 billion for a Long Island Rail Road tunnel between the Financial District and Flatbush Avenue Terminal in Brooklyn that would add service to JFK Airport.
  • As reported here below, the Federal Transit Administration has recommended eventually providing $2.6 billion to bring the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal ($360 million this year) and $1.3 billion for the first segment of the Second Avenue Subway.
  • Officials from New Jersey have increased their pressure for another rail tunnel into Penn Station and an expansion of that station. This project would cost $5 billion, much of which would be paid for by New Jersey. That's New Jersey state money flowing into a project that benefits New York as well.

    Four big projects have momentum. The fifth major project planned for the city is the extension of the No. 7 Flushing line to the far West Side. That's Mayor Bloomberg's top priority, and is expected to be financed without any money from the MTA, so that one seems to be doing just fine too. The Regional Plan Association reportedly supports all of these projects. So does startsandfits.com, which views rail transportation as the mode of the future as oil becomes more and more expensive.

    The two projects with the biggest recent boost from the federal government are the two LIRR projects. At right is a simulated version of what the official LIRR map would look like once it is extended to Grand Central and the Financial District.

    Overall, this news points to the fact that the federal government increasingly sees the metropolitan area as a huge economic growth engine for the nation, and that helping it function helps to build the nation's wealth. This is most clearly seen in the fact that New York State each year sends more to the federal government than it receives back in governmental expenditures, and that New York City sends more to Albany than it receives back in expenditures. The federal government wants to help us pay for much needed transit services, and so does New Jersey. How much will Albany contribute?

    - Rail to Kennedy given $2 billion in budget [NYT via UTU]
    - N.J. senator prefers river tunnel to JFK link [Reuters via UTU]
    - Budget boosts LIRR project [Newsday via UTU]
    - U.S. backs N.Y.C. subway, midtown rail plan [NYT via UTU]
    - NJ Transit to push new river tunnel [NYT via UTU]
    - Access to the Region's Core

    - Posted at 11:30 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |

    Second Ave. Subway Pressure Mounts on Pataki
    The Federal Transit Administration has given the Second Avenue Subway and the L.I.R.R.-to-Grand-Central project the two highest ratings among 34 planned transit projects from around the nation. This is tremendous news for both of these worthy projects and a big boost for its backers like Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney and New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. For ridership-per-dollar, this seems like a logical choice for the FTA. Mass transit is far more heavily used in New York than elsewhere in the nation. New York City is the only place in the states where you can get on a standing-room-only subway train at 12:30 in the morning.

    As The Times explains, the pressure is now on Pataki to come up with matching money.

    Out of 27 [sic] projects throughout the country assessed in an annual evaluation by the Federal Transit Administration, the two New York City projects were the only ones to be "highly recommended." Congress uses the recommendations to decide where to spend transit money. That endorsement may do little, however, to alter the situation in Albany, where Gov. George E. Pataki proposed a budget last month that would give the Metropolitan Transportation Authority $19.2 billion for its next five-year capital program, far less than the $27.7 billion requested.

    The [New York State] budget would include $2 billion over five years for expansion projects like the subway line and the rail extension, about a quarter of what the authority says it needs to open the first segment of the subway by 2011 and the Midtown rail extension by 2012. . . .

    The administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, an arm of the Department of Transportation, said she envisioned ultimately spending $2.6 billion, or 34 percent, of the $7.7 billion cost of the 3.5-mile rail extension, and $1.3 billion, or 30 percent, of the $4.3 billion needed for the initial 2.3-mile segment of the Second Avenue subway. She suggested that support from New York State would be critical to keep the projects moving.

    While this is fantastic news for the projects, especially at a time when the Bush Administration is under enormous pressure to reduce expenditures, it bears remembering that the Feds are still talking about financing only a third of the costs of these projects. During the days of our enormous highway expansion, the federal government took care of 80 percent of the Interstate highway needs — meaning that any state officials who declined to meet their 20 percent would have been fools.
    - U.S. Backs Second Ave. Subway and Midtown Rail Plan [NYT]
    - Annual Report on New Starts [Federal Transit Administration]
    - Summary of FY 2006 New Starts Ratings [Excel spreadsheet via FTA]
    - Posted at 9:11 AM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |

    Monday, February 07, 2005
    Raising the Gas Tax
    The New Jersey state legislature and acting governor are considering doubling the state's 14.5-cent gas tax. Meanwhile, an influential state senator in Pennsylvania wants to make a "temporary" 4-cent increase to that state's gas tax permanent, and then tack on another cent-and-a-half, to make the total gas tax 31.5 cents a gallon. Both of these are great ideas, and both indicate how difficult it is to pay for all our roads — especially when we've been maintaining them with borrowed money for a decade. The New Jersey gas tax would increase prices there to make them in line with prices elsewhere in the metropolitan area. Here are two graphs that show New Jersey prices in blue, far below prices in New York and Connecticut. The first graph shows gas sprices for the past two years, the second, for the most recent month.

    This shows the need for regional coordination of transporation policy. If people can travel across state lines to get a deep discount for gas, why shouldn't they? This serves to artifically undercut New York retailers. A regional planning authority could set an even, rational tax structure across the board. In any case, the writing is on the wall. It looks like driving will get more expensive for large segments of the regional motoring public.
    - New Jersey Faces Pressure to Increase Gas Tax [NYT]
    - Pennsylvania May Pump Up Gas Prices [Pocono Record via UTU]

    - Posted at 9:07 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |

    Is It Safe?
    Often when out-of-towners come for a visit and consider their transportation options, they think about the subway and then dismiss it as being "unsafe." You could get mugged down there, they envision, or stabbed or shot. You're going to be shoved in the same space as all kinds of other people. What if one of them did something! It just seems like something could happen, especially for those people used to traveling in the comfort of a four-ton metal box. People over the years have grown less accustomed to the public realm as the car has gained an ever greater share of our transporation needs.

    It's not just visitors — many native New Yorkers and suburbanites feel the same way. Granted, this tendency has been diminishing in the years since Mayor Giuliani merged the transit police into the regular NYPD and subway crime has plummeted, but the prejudice against the subway as unsafe space remains. Here is a stark reminder that it's actually far, far safer to ride the subway than it is to drive in New York City. In the five boroughs in 2004, 292 people were killed in traffic accidents. What's more, this is the lowest number of people killed in traffic accidents in New York City since 1910! That's the first year that people started keeping track of such things.

    - No Data, No Peace [MTR]

    - Posted at 8:47 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |

    Sunday, February 06, 2005
    Hit-and-Run Leaves Rider Shaken and $40 Poorer
    Startsandfits' associate futurebird, not one to be put off by a shouted non sequitur, was riding her bicycle at 60th and Columbus on Thursday evening and was knocked off her bike and thrown into a snowbank by a New Jersey driver making an illegal right turn against a red light. (How many right turns on red are made each day in New York City by suburban motorists who don't know its illegal?) Thankfully, my friend was not injured and was helped up by a group of shocked pedestrians. Sadly, though, her rear wheel had to be replaced, which cost some $40. After hitting her, the driver paused, thought about his actions for a moment, and then decided the best thing to do was to take off before anyone could note his license plate number. The driver was behind the wheel of an SUV and he hid behind tinted windows. What a coward.
    - Posted at 8:59 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |

    Bush Expected to Slash Amtrak Funding
    Reuters has reported that President Bush is expected to recommend that Amtrak receive no operating assistance from the federal government in his budget proposal expected to be unveiled tomorrow. This year's Amtrak funding was $1.2 billion. Bush is undoubtedly feeling the heat from conservatives and Democrats alike for massive deficit spending over his first administration. But why not reduce highway funding by $1.2 billion and put the same amount into Amtrak?

    How much will Bush propose for highway funding? How much will the federal government give to bail out the failing airlines? We'll see tomorrow.

    The real question is why do lawmakers and public opinion ask that Amtrak be "profitable" but do not hold highways up to the same standard? The railroad provides the same public service as highways — transporting people. But the railroad provides a second benefit as well. It reduces traffic and therefore our dependence on Saudi oil while promoting dense land use around stations that help create real communities. Highways promote alienating sprawl and ever more traffic and resource consumption. Nobody seems to feel that highways should be "profitable," and thus they drain taxpayers to the tune of billions of dollars every year, far more than Amtrak would in a decade.

    - Posted at 8:44 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |

    Saturday, February 05, 2005
    New on 125th Street, Part II

    This is as good as it gets for big box retail. If Wal-Mart must come to New York City, it should follow the lead of this building, which is as least disruptive of the city's fabric as possible. This is the Harlem Center building, which opened about a year ago and occupies the west side of Lenox Avenue from 125th to 126th Street. Here, the big box presence, Marshall's, is placed in between upper floor office space and smaller scale retail on the ground (tenants are Dunkin' Donuts, Washington Mutual, Staples and CVS). Unlike most big box retail outlets, this building offers a great mixture of uses. What's more, it is pedestrian-friendly and oriented to transit: The building is appropriately big for its spot atop the 125th Street stop on the 2 and 3 express subway lines. The architecture isn't great, but the textured brickwork indicates that someone at least thought about the impact this building would have on the public realm.
    - Posted at 4:04 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |

    New on 125th Street, Part I

    This is a school called the Harlem Children's Zone that is nearing completion at the northwest corner of 125th Street and Madison Avenue. Bill Clinton helped open it on Jan. 19. The building could have used some retail on the ground floor — this is 125th Street, after all. The Thurgood Marshall Academy at 135th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in Harlem is a great example of urban, mixed use school building that is succeeding and generating activity at different times of day. (The school has a bustling IHOP on the ground floor.) But overall it's great to see continued investment in Harlem. The most exciting feature of this building is at its western end, where a the sidewalk provides a second-floor view of a submerged basketball court. Expect a crowd watching, a la the village's West 4th Street Courts, if any big games happen there. Here are two links that talk about the educational philosophy of the school's founder, Geoffrey Canada.
    - The Harlem Project [NYT Magazine via Center for Collaborative Education]
    - Geoffrey Canada's Crusade [WBUR radio]
    - Posted at 3:35 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |

    Wednesday, February 02, 2005
    New Yorkers, the Best Patriots
    Environmentalists have begun a very smart and appropriate campaign to get people to sign The Patriot's Energy Pledge, which is an attempt to reduce the United States' ever increasing foreign oil consumption by appealing to those red blooded red staters who consume so much gasoline per person yet don't grasp the connection between their expensive lifestyle and our military campaign in Iraq. Here is the pledge:
    1. In the next year I will:
  • Keep my car tuned and running smoothly
  • Keep my tires properly inflated
  • Use low-friction motor oil in my engine
  • Use mass transit, carpool, telecommute or bike to work one day a week
  • Observe the speed limit, avoid fast starts and limit the time my engine idles
  • Buy the gasoline octane and the renewable fuel blends recommended in my owner's manual
    2. The next time I shop for a car I will buy one of the following:
  • A vehicle, such as a hybrid, that gets at least 40 mpg with full safety and comfort
  • A vehicle that uses renewable fuels
  • A vehicle that is among the most fuel-efficient models which meet my needs
    3. I will support sensible energy policies that reduce America's reliance on oil and preserve our environment.
  • Notice how many of the most important things one can do to reduce oil consumption are automobile-related? Most people in New York City don't even own cars, let alone worry about whether they are using low-friction motor oil or keeping their tires properly inflated. These represent tiny reductions in the amount of oil used per person. The real reduction would be accomplished by getting people to live near their work and leisure places and that happens when people live in cities.

    Startsandfits.com hasn't even been inside a car since Jan. 25, and that was for a 2.5-mile round trip that a guy was going to make anyway. I can't remember the time before that that I was in a car, but it must have been even longer. In the past weeks I've probably saved more gasoline than a typical motorist would save in a year by using a low friction motor oil, avoiding fast starts and using the manufacturer-recommended octane level. My round trip to work, a five block walk, consumes 70 calories a day, which is equivalent to three Hersey's Kisses or three quarters of an apple. It also wears out my shoes a little bit. There are millions of other transit riding, bike riding, walking New Yorkers who consume similarly low amounts of gasoline. What is our reward? We New Yorkers should be given a big thank-you from the motoring public for decreasing demand of gasoline, keeping prices low and lessening traffic congestion, air pollution and the pressure for development in rural lands and wilderness. But instead people deride us as elitists for talking about this subject. So we take our reward in the form of cash savings. Here are some of annual transportation-related costs for the average American, as calculated by AAA, compared with those of myself, a proud "inner city" resident:

    Component of CostAverage American's PaymentMy Payment
    Vehicle depreciation$3,782$0
    Auto insurance$1,603$0
    Gasoline costs$975$0
    Car maintenance$915$0
    Automobile finance charges$741$0
    Speeding tickets and other moving violations???$0
    Parking at paid lots and at metered spaces???$0
    Tolls at bridges and tunnels???$0
    Parking tickets???$0
    Tax, title and registration fees???$0
    Unlimited travel, 24/7/365, to 468 subway stations and on scores of bus lines in the nation's premier city using the TransitChek MetroCard$0$338
    Total$8,431 + considerable unknowns$338

    This table summarizes the obvious costs of car ownership on a person. It doesn't factor in the hidden ones. For example, the owners of the buildings where I live and work had to pay $0 to build parking garages or parking lots at their sites, and have therefore passed $0 of that cost on to me. How much do exurban office park employees and suburban residents pay in hidden parking fees? Most probably don't know. Similarly, I have spent 0 hours stuck in traffic jams in the past few months, and have thus wasted 0 minutes per day staring blankly at license plates and tailpipes or listening to inane drivel coming out of the mouths of morning shock jocks or right-wing talk show hosts.

    Thankfully, many people are starting to realize that city life is more sustainable in the long term. The New Urbanists are among the people who are most aware of this. Hopefully, by getting people to think about the effects of their gasoline consumption, the Patriot's Energy Pledge will carry that notion a little bit further into our collective consciousness.

    - Posted at 9:27 PM | Permalink | Comments: 1 | Post a Comment |

    Using Common Sense to Save Money
    Here is something that just came across the Startsandfits.com transom that is worth quoting in full for its sheer brilliance.
    Umanoff and Parsons, a baker and wholesaler of cakes and pies in Brooklyn, accumulates a large quantity of corrugated cardboard boxes from the deliveries of their ingredients. Through New York Wa$teMatch, a local materials exchange broker, Umanoff and Parsons found a nearby business that was interested in purchasing the boxes.

    United Shipping and Packaging (USP), a packaging, crating, and shipping company in Long Island City, periodically purchases nearly 3,000 of Umanoff's leftover corrugated boxes at a time, saving roughly $2,500 in purchasing costs. Umanoff makes roughly $300 or more on each sale, or about 10 times what they would get from a recycler.

    This is a tremendous example of how two companies can save money while working together to reduce harm to the environment. Kudos to all involved.
    - Posted at 9:14 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |

    Startsandfits.com herewith diverts for the first time from its mission of bringing you the latest land use and transportation news to draw your attention to a very serious matter brought to the public by U.S. Representative Jerrold Nadler. I've seen a lot of Congressional press releases in my day, but none executed in exactly this manner.
    - Posted at 9:00 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |

    Different Boroughs, Different Rules
    A certain close personal associate was bicycling today on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. She moved from the bicycle lane over into the left-hand turning lane in light traffic, cutting off nobody and near no cars. As she was waiting at the mid-street median that follows the entire path of the Concourse, a guy drove up, rolled down his window, and said "This isn't Manhattan! You need to ride on the sidewalk or something." He then hit the gas and took off before our erstwhile bicyclist could think of a witty retort. The motorist seems slightly annoyed, perhaps, but certainly not angry. Mostly just confused and genuinely concerned for the safety of our biker.

    What does this mean? New York City law requires bicyclists over the age of 14 to to ride in the street citywide. Do people think this rule is somehow not applicable to the Bronx? Does our cyclist appear to be under the age of 14?

    Manhattan has a lot of bike messengers and a lot of bike-mounted food delivery guys, two groups of people not particularly known for their tenacity in following traffic laws. Our associate's hypothesis is that these Manhattan riders push the envelope for what motorists come to expect, making law abiding bikers like herself appear to be excellent road sharers. In the Bronx, which has less biking going on than Manhattan, even timid, helmet-wearing, light-having bikers must seem too outlandish. They therefore come to think that even law-abiding bikers shouldn't be on the street at all in the borough that is home to anti-bike City Councilwoman Madeline Provenzano. Does anybody else have another hypothesis?

    - Posted at 8:34 PM | Permalink | Comments: 2 | Post a Comment |

    Tuesday, February 01, 2005
    Renewal That Leaves a Plaza

    Here is a renovation site at the southeast corner of Manhattan Avenue and West 116th Street in Harlem -- another project financed through the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The building to the left is 316 West 116th Street and the one to the right is 374 Manhattan Avenue. Both abut a corner site, which was an an empty lot where it appeared that a building had once stood. Instead of building on the corner, the architects have decided to leave it alone and gain space instead by expanding the avenue-fronting into the rear of its yard. The creation of that odd little plaza has the unfortunate effect of breaking the continuity of the street wall and creating what in Midtown could be derided as a bleak, uninviting plaza. This plaza will serve, in my mind at least, as a permenent reminder of the decades of disinvestment in urban neighborhoods where buildings burned or collapsed and left rubble-filled vacant lots in their place. But otherwise, it is great to see the renovation of these buildings, and the construction of new buildings behind the shells of old buildings. This way we can capture a charm that seems impossible to replace with new architecture while allowing for large new interior spaces. The developers may even have connected the interiors of these buildings, which would be cool. I used to walk past this site every day. The old tenements were falling apart -- one could see the sky right through them.
    - Posted at 1:00 AM | Permalink | Comments: 1 | Post a Comment |

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