A (Partially) Fond Farewell to Fung Wah

It’s looking like the end of the road for the Fung Wah bus company, and rightly so. Their buses were in dangerously bad shape, their drivers notoriously reckless and short on sleep, and the whole operation run with not much concern for safety. The Federal Department of Transportation has ordered all their buses off the road, pending inpsection – and the state of Massachusetts has already inspected and flunked 21 of 28. For the moment, they are running leased buses, but apparently not getting many passengers. I think they’re doomed.

As I said, rightly so; they were endangering the health and lives of their riders, and sometimes of others (a Fung-Wah bus recently struck two pedestrians in New York, injuring them seriously). They should be put out of business.

But I’ll miss them. I remember when I first heard of the “Chinatown Bus” – so named because it then ran from Chinatown in Boston to Chinatown in New York. For a little while, the riders were mostly Chinese, but that didn’t last long as the young people of both cities heard about their incredibly low fares: about $10 one-way if you bought on-line in advance. The normal fare then was $50-60, so Fung Wah’s cheap travel was liberatory. They attracted a huge following, running every hour and moving from the vans of their early days to real buses.

They kept the fares low through a combination of questionable practices. First, they picked up passengers on street corners, avoiding the fees charged to use the bus station. They still do this in New York, but in Boston the big companies (Greyhound/Peter Pan) got the city to force them to use the station. But by then many competitors had sprung up – first Chinatown rivals like Lucky Dragon and Travel Pak, but then Bolt, Megabus, and probably more — and Greyhound and Peter Pan had to drop their own fares significantly.

So, bad as Fung Wah was and is, we owe them for brining down the cost of travel.

Ironic coda: Of course, I’m a beleiver in the regulatory role of government. We rely on it, as in this case, to protect our health and safety. But I’m also a believer in the theory of regulatory capture, first promulgated by Marver Bernstein in his book Regulating Business by Independent Commission. Over time, regulators are won over by those they regulate, and implicitly redefine their purpose as protecting the industry instead of the public. We need the occasional Fung Wahs to break them out of this pattern.

Another Failure of Vision by Boston’s MBTA

The MBTA, the transit authority for the greater Boston area, has  a new policy. From now on, above-ground trolleys on the D branch of the Green Line will not open their rear doors during off-peak hours. All passengers will have to get on and off through the front door. This policy had already been applied to the other three Green Line branches.

The T’s purpose, obviously, is to reduce fare evasion,which they have to do given their current financial problems. But this is the wrong way to go about it. Almost all (maybe all) of the above-ground stations on the D Line have pre-validation machines that let you pay your fare before boarding. They were installed so that riders could pay in advance, use all doors to board, and therefore speed up the trip in. Now the T is going to reduce service, raise fares, and slow down your ride to boot.

The contradiction of this policy is shown by the decision not to apply it during peak travel hours. At off-peak times the lines to pay will be shorter; but it’s during peak travel that riders can get on a train through the rear doors without being seen. At slow times, the driver can see people getting on at the rear and make them pay, if they have not validated their tickets or passes.

There is a better way: inspection. I was in Vienna a couple years ago, and rode public transit a lot. There are no turnstiles, no conductors taking tickets – you just walk into the station and get on the train, having bought a ticket and put it in your pocket. Why don’t people cheat? Because every so often (it happened to me about once a week) an inspector will ask to see your ticket – and if you don’t have it, you have to pay a heavy fine (about $50, as I recall). No one is going to get caught doing this more than once!

The T is able to mobilize teams of inspectors to do random bag searches, in a ridiculous attempt to counter the non-existent threat of terrorism. If they could put the same energy and personnel into checking for valid tickets, they could let people board through all doors, speed up the process, and make us all happier with their service.

Cahill Indictment – Let’s Not Condemn Coakley Too Fast

If you’re not in Massachusetts, this may not be of interest, but I’ve got to say something about the indictment yesterday of Tim Cahill, former State Treasurer of Massachusetts, on charges that he tried to use state resources – specifically, the advertising budget of the Mass Lottery – to support his failed campaign for Governor in 2010.

Reaction has been mixed – some have supported it as getting tough on corruption, others have condemned Attorney General Martha Coakley as overreaching. All politicians try to look good before elections, after all, so this seems to be more of the same. Some have even charged that Coakley is doing the same thing herself – prosecuting a politician in order to help her own chances of running for Governor in 2014. (However, she took herself out of that race yesterday, and probably doesn’t need any bolstering to win another term as AG.)

What I say is – let’s not rush too judgment. We haven’t seen the prosecution case yet, but there are hints that there may be specific features of it that move Cahill’s actions from “politics as usual” category to “corruption.” Two of these hints are:

  1. There may be evidence that campaign staff had discussions with Cahill about when and where to run the ads for maximum political effect. If true, this was clearly illegal. Campaign staff should not have any influence over how state resources are used.
  2. The charge is that these ads represented 75% of the budget for the Lottery. If that’s really true, there’s a strong case that Cahill went too far. Even if what is meant is 75% of the advertising budget, rather than the whole Lottery budget, it seems high. Looking good is one thing, distorting state activity is another.

Neither of these charges has been proved. We haven’t seen any evidence yet. But I’d keep an open mind, not condemn Coakley.

Menino Loses It, Orders Crackdown on Occupy Boston

After drawing praise for his low-key tolerance of the Occupy Boston protesters camped out in the city’s financial district, Mayor Thomas Menino suddenly changed course last night, ordering police to clear an encampment in a public park, supposedly in order to avoid possible damage to some shrubbery. Hundreds of police moved in at 3 AM, arrested 50 to 100 protesters, and cleared the park in a manner characterized by journalist Garrett Quinn as “ugly and fast.”

I wasn’t there, I’m sorry to say, but from online sources, including this series of photos on the Boston Globe‘s free website, police were forceful but not completely unrestrained. They were not wearing helmets, which indicates that they did not expect violent resistance (and they were right), but they were clearly trying to intimidate and disperse the protesters, rather than carry out peaceful, orderly arrests as have become typical of civil disobedience. A crowd of flag-holding veterans from Veterans for Peace was dispersed and several knocked down, as this video shows. Garbage trucks were brought in and all tents and other elements of the camp were removed, after which the Greenway (or that part of it) was fenced in by metal barriers. The original protest camp,  nearby in Dewey Square, is still there for now.

To ask the obvious question, what were they thinking? The claim that it was all about the shrubbery is a little hard to believe; but then, this is Menino, a mayor whose overall good policies are seriously marred by an autocratic manner and a penchant for taking petty grievances too seriously. He has never had serious electoral opposition, a status he has attained in part by his willingness to retaliate against critics; the underuse and maintenance difficulties of the Greenway have been a sore spot (that leads to a paywall- here’s a free source); and he may have been annoyed with the protesters for causing one more problem – it may be as simple as that.

But that’s missing the big picture, which is what Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Boston, and the other 1288 cities (as of 8 AM Oct. 11) in this movement are about. It’s about the 99% finally taking a stand, speaking out, and saying that it is no longer acceptable for government to serve the needs of finance rather than the needs of the people. These marches and camps have changed the national conversation, and have the potential to save the United States. Of course every march and camp brings some maintenance cost – although I don’t think the protesters were really planning to tear up the shrubbery (they have been unusually diligent in maintaining their camps and cleaning up trash, from what I’ve heard). This movement isn’t going to stop – and it would be nice to see Boston’s mayor get on the right side.

What’s Wrong with the Silver Line?

It’s been awhile! I had to go to Washington last weekend, got back Tuesday just in time for my class, and have been playing catchup (grading papers, preparing classes) ever since. I started this post on the way to Washington because I was irate about the experience of getting to the airport on public transit. There are lots of world and national issues I should be writing about, but I want to finish this one first. If you don’t live in Boston, the following may be of limited interest, though it does relate to some general themes about urban life.

Public transit to the airport is clearly a good thing for any city. It decreases traffic, decreases the need for huge parking lots, and saves money for the traveller who can use it. Boston’s airport has always been transit-accessible, but this used to involve changing to the Blue Line (which for us Red Line users meant two changes), then taking a free shuttle bus from the Airport subway station to your terminal. So when they built an additional tunnel under Boston Harbor, the planners decided to add some Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), the Silver Line. The concept is beautiful – buses have a dedicated tunnel from South Station (the city’s main rail terminal, and a stop on the Red Line) for the first three stops, then make a short loop on city streets to get into the highway tunnel. The BRT articulated bus stops at every terminal, so you don’t have to make an additional change.

A second branch of the Silver Line runs from downtown Boston to Roxbury. This one is not so great – it runs on city streets, only partly in dedicated busways – and those busways are just painted lanes on the road, frequently blocked by unloading trucks, double-parked cars, or other thoughtless motorists.

But the airport service is, as I said, a beautiful concept. The implementation is another story. Here’s a list.

1. The transit authority (MBTA) has a bunch of articulated buses made for the airport service – they have build in luggage racks, an obvious necessity.  Since the racks take up space, they have other buses for the non-airport branches of the line, which go to various destinations in South Boston. However, about 30% of the time they use buses with no luggage racks for airport service. (This happened to me last Friday, inspiring this post!)  So people have no choice but to pile up their bags in the center aisle of the bus, effectively blocking passage down that aisle to anyone else. (I have also been on non-airport Silver Line buses that had luggage racks – so it seems that whoever assigns buses and drivers to routes is simply not paying attention.)

2. Boston’s light rail system, the Green Line, has pre-validation machines at most stops. e stops. These let people pay in advance, then get on the trolley using any door. The Silver Line has none of these. So unless you get on at one of the three underground stations – and, in particular, if you get on at the airport – you have to queue up at the front door with all your luggage, then make your way – past other people with luggage – to the rear of the bus to sit down and, if you are lucky, find open space in a luggage rack (see point 1).

3. Police make no attempt to keep the bus stops free of parked cars, and bus drivers make little attempt to pull completely into the bus stop; so, while the buses are designed with no internal steps, so that luggage could be rolled aboard – it can’t be, because the bus doesn’t pull up to the sidewalk. (In any case, the floor of the bus is slightly higher than most sidewalks, so you have to do a little lifting – a problem that could easily be fixed by raising the platforms in the stations).

Those are just the problems with the airport service. The Roxbury service is much worse. The biggest failing: isthat the MBTA reneged on its commitment to dig a new tunnel to bring the Roxbury buses underground at South Station, so that Roxbury users would have a no-changes ride to the airport. But that would have cost a billion or so, so let’s leave it aside. The other huge problem is that the service is simply not BRT. I’ve been on BRT – for example, in Ottawa – and it has two essential features: dedicated busways, and prepaid stations (you know, like a subway station, where you pay your fare as you enter the station, then board the bus or train through any door when it comes in). The Roxbury Silver Line has neither: its “busway” is a painted stretch of the street, its stations are just gussied-up bus stops. When the MBTA moved the Orange Line from Roxbury to Jamaica Plain, they had promised a replacement service. The community asked for light rail; they said no, but BRT is just as good. What the community got was neither; it’s just a regular bus line with a fancy paint job.

The airport service could be improved at very little cost; they mostly need to pay attention, plus installing some of those validation machines they already have on the Green Line. The Roxbury service would take more – they really should put in light rail – but it would be worth it. The city of the future will be basically car-free, and we have to start moving that way now.

The Persecution of Chuck Turner

Let me be clear from the start: if Chuck Turner took that money (and the jury says he did), it was wrong, and his conviction was proper-a tragic end to a great career.

However, Turner’s guilt or innocence is only a small part of the story. The bigger part involves the decision by Federal Attorney Michael Sullivan – a former Republican State Representative – to go after him. Bear in mind that even if we accept the prosecution’s case at face value, the following points are true:

1. This was not an investigation of a crime. No crime was committed until the investigation of Turner was under way.

2. Ron Wilburn, the guy who gave $1,000 to Turner, was paid $30,000 to do so by the federal government.

3. Wilburn has told the press that several other individuals were implicated by his evidence, but the only people prosecuted were two African American elected officials with progressive politics, Turner and then-State Senator Dianne Wilkerson. Logically this has to be true — elected officials can’t issue liquor licenses themselves, they have to get someone in City Hall to do it.

It’s hard not to conclude then that this was not an attempt to root out corruption in city politics, but an attempt to silence a strong progressive voice from Boston’s inner city.

In this regard, I have to take note of an editorial in today’s Boston Globe with the title “Chuck Turner’s World of Lies.” Here’s the concluding paragraph:

Turner, to be fair, isn’t a venal man. He doesn’t live it up on ill-begotten funds. But he has spread unreality among his supporters for decades. And that may be his greatest crime. In a Boston neighborhood that so desperately needs sensible leadership to address crime, joblessness, and poor education, Turner has fed his constituents a steady diet of political fantasy

Wow! It is the considered opinion of the Globe editorial board that to advocate ideas they disagree with is a serious crime! More serious than bribery, for example. It follows that Turner deserved to be punished whether or not he took a bribe – so perhaps it was justifiable to arrange for him to be offered one. With Boston’s leading newspaper advancing views like that, it’s no wonder that many of us are very skeptical indeed of the Turner prosecution.