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Sunday Train: Reflections on a visit to the East Coast

BruceMcF's picture

Cross-posted from The Sunday Train ~ apologies for the jet-lag induced cross-posting delays

Your intrepid sustainable energy and transport reporter was recently required to engage in some official business with an overseas consulate located in New York city, and in order to be able to afford to sit and wait as the wheels of bureaucracy as long as might have been required, obtained lodgings in a relatively cheap motel in New Brunswick and took the NJ Transit Northeast Corridor train back and forth. This week's Sunday Train is a collection of scattered observations made along the way.

Volunteer Sidewalks

New Brunswick is the original home to Rutgers University, the University my Post Keynesian Macroeconomics professor from UTK taught at for a time before coming to Tennessee. Its is a college town on the Northeast Corridor, with the train station near the entrance to one of the Rutgers campuses in New Brunswick. I ended up taking a cab to my motel from the train station, planning on using the motel internet to find the bus stop on the bus route to get back to the station, which I had located earlier, before booking the motel.

As a college town, for a certain distance around the campuses, New Brunswick is a town with sidewalks. However, I was staying to the east of the eastern campus, across an interchange between the expressway along the south bank of the Raritan river and US Highway 1. and following the Google Map directions to get from my hotel to the bus route to get to the station ... it became clear that this sidewalk thing wasn't a universal. Following the way toward the bus stop, I quickly came to an area where brush grew right up against the expressway ... and behind the brush was a rocky dirt path, which I followed ... a volunteer sidewalk.

Now, I had ended up leaving in a rush, with a crisis in running out of ink in printing out higher priority forms, so I hadn't printed out the google map directions to the bus stop before I left home. And so when I didn't spot the intersection I was looking for, I started following one of the two roads in the intersection looking for some sign of a bus stop ... and, as it turned, walking away from the bus stop.

I gave up on that and decided to go back the other way. And along the way I encountered more volunteer sidewalks ... as well as volunteer stairs, with one steep path from and underpass road to its overpass road having large rocks placed to make it easier to navigate. I eventually got across the interchange and came to the bus shelter on the other side of US Highway 1, from which I caught a bus to the station to catch the train to Penn Station.

When I took the bus back in the evening, I got off at the stop that I had originally been looking for ... the road I had been looking along was the cross street for the road I wanted, with bus shelters along the side of the road. And with no sidewalks on either side to get to the bus shelters. The next day when I went to the correct sidewalk to again get to the New York train, I found that in the last couple of hundred feet, it was necessary to walk on the road itself ... not even in a marked shoulder, as there were no shoulder markings ... to get to the bus shelter.

Hence the volunteer sidewalks. Inside the mental model of whomever invested in both the expressway interchange and the bus shelters, ensuring that the road functioned for pedestrians, including the pedestrians that were walking to bus shelters, just wasn't something that bore consideration. Nor bicycles: while walking across dirt alongside an underpass, protected from traffic by a guardrail, I spied the track of bicycles that had used the same route.

The demand for the sidewalks is clearly there, otherwise the volunteer sidewalks would not have been formed by the foot-traffic ... indeed, in some parts improved to support the foot traffic ... but that demand would have included people cleaning the rooms in the hotel or waiting on the tables at the restaurant next door, as well as University students not living in places designated as places where University students are supposed to live, and so essentially invisible to whomever it is in charge of building the sidewalks of that area.

I was clearly in an area that was designed to rely on a One Size Fits All automobile transport system ... and observing the traces left behind by those that it does not fit. Including the odd mismatch between whomever allocates bus shelters and whomever specifies where sidewalks go, with bus shelters entirely lacking in official pedestrian access and entirely dependent on people walking with traffic or making their own walking paths.

Over the coming decade, we are going to see an increasing number of volunteer sidewalks and cycleways, as we are hit by a number of oil price shocks which make previous assumptions about affordability of a One Size Fits fall apart for an increasing number of people. One of the strategies we may consider deploying it reconnoitering for paths already being used by sufficient numbers of pedestrians to form a rough walking path, and upgrading that path. That is likely to be a path which more people will take if the path is upgraded.

A mediocre or bad bus or train system beats no bus or train system

There has been a kerfuffle in July/August about streetcars being bad, bad, BAD!!! among a number of transport-bros such as the neoliberal self-identified 'libertarian' Matty Yglesias. Based on bus timetables, planned streetcar schedules, and an ability to ignore the actual real world service intervals resulting from bunching of buses, Matty was able to conclude that the DC Streetcar would be worse than the bus that it replaced.

I already commented on this in the 3 August Sunday train, Sunday Train: Fast and Slow Transit Should be Friends. However, it occurred to me while waiting for the bus to get back to the motel after my second jaunt to Midtown Manhattan that the bus frequencies for these New Brunswick bus routes was pretty bad. These seemed to be the kind of buses that the "kill off slow, infrequent bus routes and put the resources into fast, high frequency routes" crowd would be likely to kill off, as being incapable of getting people out of cars.

On the other hand, I had already seen that there were people willing to walk along rocky dirt paths, including scrambling up ersatz staircases made of larger rocks, and cross roads, including expressways, to get to and from the bus stops on those routes.

Back home in Portage County, Ohio, nobody would voluntarily take the bus system to get to the Akron MTC to catch an intercity bus ... if they had an option of getting dropped off by car, as I did. Given when I received the required documents and when the last Greyhound to Cleveland ran, to catch the overnight express bus to NYC, I would not have been traveling to NYC until the following day, if I had to rely on the bus, catching the interurban route to the Kent transit center, and from there the express Akron bus to the MTC, to catch a Greyhound's affiliate bus to catch a Greyhound Express bus.

IOW, a bus to catch a bus to catch a bus to catch a bus.

But, on the other hand, I would have been able to get to NYC, even if I had no car. Just as the cleaning ladies at my motel in New Brunswick were able to catch the inadequate bus to and from work.

And the Port Authority bus terminal where my route ended is a confusing maze of a place ... indeed, our driver got lost and we zoomed through the wrong part of the Port Authority, having to leave the building and come around again to get into the part of the terminal that the Greyhound uses ... and Penn Station New York, the anchor of the New York side of my train trips is only a bit better. And the system they have in Penn Station to tell people which platform a train is going to be departing from ten minutes before its ready to board is a terrible way to do things. And I am sure that the transport-bros would criticize the conductors on the NJ Transit train checking each ticket and putting up a tag to indicate which stop you would be getting off at ... that costs a lot more in labor costs than the lost fares if you go to a Proof of Payment system where people hold their tickets and roving ticket inspectors work on a spot-check system.

But for all of their flaws, I was better off having the imperfect system available to me than I would have been to have the perfect system in a plan on a shelf somewhere.

So, yes, to be sure, the NJ Transit trains terminating in Penn Station and the Long Island RailRoad trains terminating in Penn Station would make more sense as a French RER style through service running through Penn Station in either direction ... but OTOH, having them at all is better than not having them.

I love Street Vender Gyros & Two Brother's Pizza

Part of the brief respite of wandering around lost in New York looking for the place to file my paperwork was a $5 Gyro from a street vender. It was just as good as the best Gyro I'd ever had in Newcastle or Sydney.

Then on my way wandering around lost looking for Penn Station (I hadn't slept in the Express bus, so the fact that I was heading toward 24 hours without sleep probably made the "finding things" part of my brain less efficient) ... I saw the hole-in-the-wall Two Brother's Pizza establishments, advertising two slices and a can of pop special for $2.75. I made a promise to try it out when I returned the next day, which I did ... though the one that I tried had a broken fridge, so I just had two slices for $2.

It was just a cheese pizza, with a fairly pedestrian sauce ... but it was hot from the oven, since they were selling the $1 slices as they came out of the oven. Sprinkle some pepper flakes on that slice, fold it, eat it ... with the hunger that came from hoofing it around Midtown Manhattan to add extra flavor to the hot, fresh crust & cheese ... man that was good. So good that was my lunch the next day, though the next day I went up 9th Ave instead of 8th Ave to get to a Two Brother's Pizza with a working fridge.

Both of these were in part courtesy to the sidewalks and the subways, and the LIRR and NJ Transit trains and, yes, the city buses and the regional buses making their way to that horrible Port Authority bus terminal ... which makes the density possible which makes the level of foot traffic possible to sustain the Gyro streetcart and the version of Two Brother's Pizza that I encountered on the streets of Midtown Manhattan.

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BruceMcF's picture
Submitted by BruceMcF on

... though I can't say I don't know when I'll be back again, since I'm supposed to be back in the States in February.

Submitted by lambert on

I always look forward. Gradually education myself on this field, as are we all...

And density is good. Not for everyone, and not everywhere, but cities are definitely one of the great achievements of civilization. This whole post is very Jane Jacobs-y.

BruceMcF's picture
Submitted by BruceMcF on

... to study economics. An excellent vaccine against the worst stupidities of mainstream regional economics, which all too often boils down to "move to a better place, and don't ask how your current place can be made better."

jo6pac's picture
Submitted by jo6pac on

Thanks for the write up and found interesting in the fact no sidewalks, driver get lost in station and on. Like you point out there seems to be not effort in fixing small problems like this. This kind makes me believe that the goal of the ones that control transportation like this want it to fail leaving the people to fend for themselves. If does fail in the years to come right ways like LA, Calif. area will be sold so the system can't be built again. Sad.

In my dreams I hope some day we could have systems like the below that worked together and with rail thrown in for good measure, of course the only thing in the way is the entire govt. of Amerika.

Thanks again for your time on these stories/info.

BruceMcF's picture
Submitted by BruceMcF on

I think its more that different people are responsible for different design decisions, and their models are out of sync.

I really do think that the people who plan the sidewalks have a mental model for how "normal transport" works in their area. Meanwhile, the people who decide where bus shelters go have figures of who catches the bus at which stop, so the bus shelter is going up based on reality, and the sidewalks are being allocated based on a mental model that is out of touch with reality.

The Greyhound driver getting lost in the Port Authority Bus Terminal seemed more a driver on their first time through a route. Of course, the fact that they had the overnight express bus driven by a driver on their first time through the route likely says something about the union busting, cost shaving, scumbags who run Greyhound.

This was actually "Plan B", since in Plan A I had free lodging and that money was going into riding the Regional back and forth between NYC and VA, and in "Plan A" I was catching the Amtrak to Virginia. But Plan A fell through and I was left with the DogBus.

Submitted by lambert on

Always interesting and cheap! And at least back in the day, all the loud conversation was in Chinese and so not bothersome, at least to me, because I couldn't understand it!

jo6pac's picture
Submitted by jo6pac on

What exactly do you mean by goal driven. The goal seems to me is to make clean energy and make money and provide jobs on the solar hiway. The buses looks like a great idea and mobile charging is being worked on many fronts one is Formula E racing. It should be ready for next race season.

The only thing I would think that would better is hydrogen made from water and solar.

Submitted by lambert on

... that there is no over-arching goal (like "working toward the Fuhrer) but different institutional silos working on their own goals. The result is some simulacrum of public purpose as clashes/interactions/contacts between institutions combine to build systems.

Submitted by lambert on

.... and I don't have language for the idea yet.

See here on the state.

It's like we can think of the policy outcome as the summation of different forces pulling in different directions as opposed to a sort of pyramid where some guy at the top phones down his orders.

jo6pac's picture
Submitted by jo6pac on

in a way but I'm wondering if we are all talking about the same thing at this time. I'm talking about the solar roads and electric buses. I do understand what you're both saying along with Matt that govt. agency work for different bosses and for different powers to be announced late or never.

I do truly in enjoy Bruce's work on the this subject something I have no understanding about because I've really have never lived in an area were there was any type of transportation near by. I mean within 10 miles.

Off to the yard to get ready for winter.

BruceMcF's picture
Submitted by BruceMcF on

I mean with respect to this: "This kind makes me believe that the goal of the ones that control transportation like this want it to fail leaving the people to fend for themselves."

... I don't think that they have any such goal. Its rather that they goals that they DO have don't, in fact, take deliberate care to see to the needs of pedestrians / transport cyclists / bus passengers, and so the end result is that people are left to fend for themselves as a side effect.

You have people in charge of these local transport departments who got a degree in some transport or transport-engineering related field and worked their way up, who have spent their whole life assuming that the primary task is to get the cars through as fast as possible and then as safe as possible at that speed, and if someone proclaims that the idea that the public right of way should service all of the public, including both those who cannot afford or for whatever reason cannot operate a car and those who do not wish to drive, though they will if its the only useful option ... that is like hearing a foreign language, like I am in Beijing confronted with Chinese characters that I cannot make any sense of.

Its not so much a passive-aggressive assault on pedestrians by knowing that something should be done and refusing to do it ... but rather a passive assault by both not knowing that something should be done and never looking to see whether it should be.

I guess that's why the Complete Streets approach has two prongs, to both educate transport planning professionals, but also to win adoption of Complete Street rules in local city councils so that planning for the effectiveness of a public right of way as a pedestrian and cycle and public transport user corridor becomes the responsibility of planning departments that had previously been Auto Uber Alles departments.