Club Soda and Salt

No more stains

On the election

Posted by clubsodaandsalt on May 28, 2010

Trinidad had an election on Monday. We’ve known about it for six weeks, of course, but I didn’t post anything. Frankly, I just didn’t have much to say – while I wanted to see Manning repudiated for his incompetence, I found Kamla and company totally uninspiring (quick: name 5 policy promises made by the People’s Partnership. “No more Calder Hart” doesn’t count.) Still, the size of Monday’s landslide was heartening, and it’s hard not to feel at least some of the optimism that our predecessors must have felt in 1986 – with Manning’s resignation, we now have new leadership on both sides of the aisle, and maybe, just maybe, we can put the foolishness that ran rampant between 1991 and now behind us.

In fact, every time Trinidad pulls off an election, it’s hard not to feel a little tinge of pride. We take the peaceful transfer of power as a given in much of the English-speaking Caribbean, but it’s worth remembering that in Trinidad, it hadn’t happened before 1986 (because it hadn’t come up, not because of resistance). It might not seem like a big deal, but it’s a basic requirement of democracy, and incredibly rare occurrence in human history. We’re doing pretty well in this respect, especially for a former colony with two equally balanced ethnic groups, each aligned with one party or the other.

And I have to admit that I also swelled a little while reading about Kamla Persad-Bissessar being sworn in with the Baghavad Gita. It really drives home how unique Trinidad is. I live in a country that considers itself the melting pot to end all melting pots, but where people head to their fainting couches at the mere suggestion that our President (or even a couple of members of Congress) may have read the Koran a couple of times. Meanwhile, Trinidad elects a Hindu Prime Minister and no-one there bats an eyelid (well, about the Hinduism, in any case). Trinidad is a place where diversity is just a part of daily life, rather than an aspiration or a political billy club, and I feel lucky to be from there.

That’s enough positivity. Time to return to the usual complaining about the sad state of Trinidadian government! I’m sure seeing Jack Warner in the cabinet will provide plenty fodder down the road…

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The soft bigotry of bike lanes

Posted by clubsodaandsalt on April 25, 2010

I posted a couple of months ago about the difficulty the livable streets movement has in connecting to the low-income communities that should be our natural allies. While some of the blame lies with the movement itself, sometimes the issue of a complete street becomes just another front in the much bigger gentrification wars. This doesn’t seem to be as big an issue in the Bay Area, but back in New York it crops up all the time. For example, a bike lane project in the Navy Yard area of Brooklyn (which is home to a very large housing project: Farragut Houses) went up against some rather heated rhetoric last week:

Rev. Mark V.C. Taylor, pastor of the Church of the Open Door, a black congregation on Gold Street, read prepared remarks accusing DOT of displaying a “deep and profound racism that masquerades as change,” adding bike lanes for “young white newcomers.” “DOT’s concern for black cyclists is non-evident,” he said, concluding by asking DOT to “transport ideas like this into the waste bin with ideas like slavery.” About a third of the audience belonged to Taylor’s congregation.

You’d hope that a black pastor would be a bit more careful about comparing things to slavery, but here we are. The interesting thing here, though, is that you didn’t see the typical claim that taking space away from autos has negative impacts on black and low-income areas. Rather, Pastor Taylor refers to “black cyclists” above, and some of the complaints focused on the fact that turning Flushing into a one-way street would force bus riders to wait on the highly unpleasant Park Av, a perfectly legitimate complaint in a transit-dependent and not always safe area.

Moreover, the complaints seem generated less by a desire to keep parking spaces than by resentment for gentrification, of which the bike lanes are perceived as part. Back to the post on Streetsblog:

From what I heard, a major question from long-time local residents wasn’t necessarily “Why a bikeway?” but “Why now?” A few people spoke about riding bicycles when they were kids and wanted to know why the city wasn’t proposing this sort of thing 20 or 30 years ago.

In other words: why don’t any of these activists give a shit about bike lanes until white people start moving in? It’s not a fair perception – as Streetsblog points out, this greenway has been in the works since the early 90s, and certainly transit and bike advocates in New York have agitated for better access in a number of neighbourhoods like the South Bronx, Flatbush, and Sunset Park. That said, the DOT’s newfound enthusiasm for these projects has coincided with a noticeable uptick in gentrification throughout Brooklyn in particular. It’s frankly not shocking that these improvements are getting caught up in the broader gentrification issue, and as long as the two are linked, we can expect more vitriol like the stuff from the good pastor.

I have to admit that I don’t know how to solve this problem. As with anything, having more black faces in the movement and doing better outreach to community leaders (like pastors) would certainly help. And the news isn’t all bad – as the post points out, surveys conducted in the nearby projects indicate that cycling is a common mode of transport. But as long as bike lanes and other street improvements are seen as harbingers of gentrification, we can expect pretty severe headwinds in places like Brooklyn.

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They can hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach

Posted by clubsodaandsalt on April 18, 2010

Usually, articles about how New York is oppressing drivers by making them pay their fair share for space and infrastructure are the province of rags like the Post and the Daily News. Sadly, it seems like the Grey Lady has decided to horn in on the action:

For [Broad Channel’s] roughly 3,000 residents, daily trips to the peninsula over the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge are something of a necessity. The toll is $2.75 for drivers without an E-ZPass. But for the past 12 years, residents of Broad Channel and the Rockaways have been allowed to cross it without charge.

But their free ride is about to end.

Broad Channel is a middle-class neighbourhood on the fringes of New York City. As you can see below, it is located on a tiny island in Jamaica Bay, and is connected to the rest of the city by two bridges:


The bridge to the north goes to Howard Beach and the rest of New York, and is free. The bridge to the south goes to the Rockaways (another neighbourhood in the bay), and is the bridge at the center of the “controversy”. Since both bridges have been free, the rest of the city has been subsidizing the transportation costs for Broad Channel residents for 12 years. Some would say that the end of this subsidy is a reasonable step given the dire financial situation at the MTA. The New York Times, however, decides to focus on the fact that the locals – shockingly – are upset that the rest of the state will no longer pay to maintain a bridge that largely serves just them:

Under the new rules, residents of Broad Channel and the Rockaways who have an E-ZPass will no longer be credited the $1.13 toll they pay each time they cross the Cross Bay Bridge, although they will not be charged if they make more than two crossings a day.

To many people in Broad Channel, a largely working-class enclave, it means paying to get to the doctor’s office, go to work, pick up a child at school or attend a meeting of the local community board. It is not uncommon for families to have lived there for generations; many of the residents are civil servants.

How cruel! Of course, residents of Broad Channel have another way to get to the Rockaways:

Of course, the subway costs $2.25, but I guess it’s ok for transit riders to pay while drivers use the bridge for free. The times doesn’t think the subway is good enough, though:

The A train stops there, but the ride to the financial district often takes 90 minutes. Someone who uses the bridge to get to work will now have to pay nearly $600 a year.

The ride to the FD is indeed long, but the whole article is about these people needing to go in the *opposite direction*! Total non-sequitur. Moreover, driving to Manhattan will still be free for Broad Channel residents, since the bridge that connects them to the rest of Queens (and ultimately to downtown) is toll-free! So the 90 minute complaint is a total red herring.

So to summarize, rather that be forced to use the subway just like everyone else, middle class folks  people who have chosen to live in a relatively remote part of New York should have everyone else’s taxes pay for their free bridge(s). Do I have that right, NYT? Thanks for clearing that up.

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2012 Starts NOW

Posted by clubsodaandsalt on March 30, 2010

I can’t believe that Obama wasn’t tweaking Mitt Romney this morning when he told NBC that his health care plan is an awful lot like Mitt’s:

When you actually look at the bill itself, it incorporates all sorts of Republican ideas. I mean a lot of commentators have said this is sort of similar to the bill that Mitt Romney, the Republican Governor and now presidential candidate, passed in Massachusetts.

Romney has been scrambling to distance himself from Obama’s plan and not get stuck on the wrong side of a litmus test issue for conservatives, so Obama’s helpful reminder that the two plans are similar is like throwing a drowning man an anchor.

Trying again. That Obama is such a scamp.

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The Trinidad Express makes Baby Jesus cry

Posted by clubsodaandsalt on March 24, 2010

So there’s been this debate raging on in Trinidad about whether the trial-by-jury system should be replaced with verdicts from judges. I don’t really want to get into that debate (I happen to think that trial by judge is not a great idea, but I can understand the concerns about jury tampering in a place like Trinidad). I DO want to comment on how atrocious this article (click here to read in a format that won’t make your eyes bleed) is. First off, the article starts off as follows:

During the 2005 law term, State prosecutors brought almost two hundreds criminal cases to the High Court for trial.

In only one in five cases did the jury return a guilty verdict. And the jury acquitted in forty percent of the trials, according to the statistics in the Judiciary’s annual report tracking the state of the justice system.

OK, this is actually a really interesting start to an article! So. If 20% of trials ended with a guilty verdict, and 40% with a not guilty one, does that mean that 40% of trials ended unresolved? Were there that many hung juries? That seems like so many! Is it actually a high number, or is that normal? Were the other 40% of trials just not ended in 2005? And are these numbers actually any “worse” than usual? Do we know about comparable percentages from the past? Or from other countries? What about in places with trial-by-judge?

You will be shocked to hear that none of these questions is ever answered (or even asked), and that we never hear about these statistics ever again. I feel uninformed.

Then we get a lot of anecdotal “evidence” with some examples of judges being upset with jury verdicts. I’m sure judges have a lot to say about this issue, and their opinions are obviously valuable, but instead of giving me that, I just get these random stories of one time they were vex. In fact, it’s only really one story that’s discussed, and it’s not even presented well:

’Members [of the jury]’, Justice Narine said, ’I mean no disrespect. I feel compelled to say that this system of justice is not working and it frightens me. It worries me as it should everyone else in this country.”

He had presided in a case in which the nine-member jury took only 20 minutes to find a man not guilty of kidnapping a 16-year-old girl in 2002.

OK. Presumably we are about to hear some details of the trial, so that we can be shocked at how stupid the jurors were! I’m looking forward to being presented with information that I can use to draw a conclusion.

The teenager said she had to jump out a window to escape the man when he took her to a lonely road in Penal. The man’s defence was that the two were friends.


OK. Well, this seems very he-said, she-said. Was there any evidence about their prior relationship? How did she end up in his car (I assume we’re talking about a car window, though that of course is left to guesswork)? Were there signs of a struggle? Anything else I should consider? We’ll never know, because this is the Express we’re talking about. Instead of anything related to what was presented at trial, we get a repitition of the comments from the judge, and then a comment about a completely unrelated case (I didn’t realize at first that this was about a different case, because it is an offhand mention in the middle of the other discussion):

Justice Narine also referred to ’one of the strongest cases I have ever seen, it was a sexual offences case’ where the accused also went home.

He said the accused had been served a sentence for murder, granted a pardon by the President, acquitted on the rape charge and rearrested two months later for murder.

I don’t really know what this is supposed to prove, partly because all the relevant detail is missing. OK, so he was convicted of murder. He was imprisoned to await execution (murder, and I’m assuming that they got the actual charge correct, carries a mandatory death sentence in Trinidad), and then pardoned. Why was he pardoned? It’s not like presidential pardons are terribly common for convicted murderers! The Express feels no need to ask. So, then he goes on trial for rape. I guess the fact that he was convicted of murder was supposed to mean that he was DEFINITELY guilty of a different crime, even though he’d been pardoned? What kind of logic is that? And of course we hear nothing about the rape trial itself, so we have no way of knowing what the jury in question had presented to it, which is of course crucial to the whole debate. And THEN we hear that he was “re-arrested” for murder, but of course we have no idea whether he was convicted, or even went to trial. Seriously, WTF? All this example did was leave me with major doubts about whether judges, especially this one, are equipped to decide verdicts, forget about juries.

Then we hear from the foreman of the jury in the first trial, who basically complains a lot about how his feelings were hurt – irrelevant – but does say this one thing:


The foreman said it was a jury of six women and three men and ’we believe our verdict was truthful. Yes we delivered a verdict in 25 minutes but we were discussing it during the trial, for three days, the problems we had, the doubts in our minds’.

At this point, you will be shocked to hear that details on the doubts appear nowhere in the rest of the article. Which is truly amazing, because the foreman DID EXPLAIN THE DOUBTS:

The juror went through the evidence, and pointed to the prosecution’s weaknesses.

WTF? So this guy explains the jury’s reasoning to you, the reasoning that is at the root of the story you’ve built the article around, but you leave it out?

God, the Express is awful.

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Spreading the benefits

Posted by clubsodaandsalt on February 16, 2010

Following on from my post on what I’ll call “social justice capture”, I was interested to come across this piece on Grist (via @theoverheadwire). The author talks a bit about the new light rail in Seattle, mentioning that he found it to be an inferior route to the airport, largely because of the stops along the way. He then notes that residents of the neighbourhoods where the light rail runs felt differently, and fought for those stops. This gets to the root of who these systems are for – neighbours, or passersby? I think it’s pretty clear which approach gets you to a system that has higher ridership and adds more value, but too many times those of us who live in the nice parts of town just want express routes to get us to a handful of places.

The article also talks briefly about the tension between smart growth and social justice, which centers around gentrification. This is an area where we simply do not have a good model (rent control/stabilization programs don’t work very well), and I can’t help but think that’s because a lot of us have limited experience with being on the wrong end of the gentrification stick. I’m hoping to write a bit about some thoughts on a good model soon.

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Half the story has never been told

Posted by clubsodaandsalt on February 8, 2010

Focus on coinage, not carbon (image from size8jeans on Flickr)

If  you’re trying to convince the public of anything, the face you put on your efforts is fairly important. This is especially true for a movement livable streets and urbanism, which seeks to do unpopular things like remove highway lanes and charge money for parking. Unfortunately, the movement is terrible at this. Despite pushing policies that disproportionately help the working class (good transit, jobs in downtowns, etc.), urbanists manage to be viewed as a bunch of white cycling-crazy technocrats, while people pushing for more lanes and parking and cars get to claim the populist mantle. It’s bloody tragic. And Streetsblog – and I don’t mean to pick on them, because they do great work – provided a pretty good example of why this week with this post talking with some degree of fascination about the fact that a lot of people bike not by choice, but out of necessity.

So what to do about this? How can people who love cities and transit claim the social justice mantle? I’m not ready to do the heavy lifting here, but I’ve got a few ideas about how to start:

1. Dial down the climate-change rhetoric: I hear a lot on the blogs about how transit is great for the environment, but fair or not, environmentalism is frequently viewed as a luxury concern of the upper-middle class. Hitching our star to the climate change bandwagon just confirms people’s suspicions that livable streets advocates are part of the nanny state that wants to tell them how to live and judge them for using cars. It certainly doesn’t broaden the appeal, even if it helps get the message out there a bit more.

2. Talk about jobs: Why is transit great? Why do we love walkability? For me, a big part of it is that transit helps everyone get to work more cheaply, and walkability can allow for more vibrant and healthy downtowns that create more jobs. I know that this gets a lot of play in a broad way, but there’s not that much focus on the impact on the working class. Yes, a walkable and accessible downtown is a delight for middle class families, but it’s a lifeline for a working class person looking for and commuting to a service industry job. This should be a bigger deal.

3. Talk about suburbanites too: Suburbs continue to grow, and grow faster than the cities they surround. But their faces are changing – inner ring suburbs in particular are becoming more diverse, and poverty is on the rise. These towns are going to look more like cities in some ways, and while I don’t expect a subway in every suburb, I do think that tweaking our solutions to appeal to different settlement models will provide an opportunity to widen the constituency.

4. Faces matter: Let’s be honest – it’s pretty rare to see a minority face or voice on Streetsblog. When it is, it’s usually a child or an elderly person. This is a serious problem. Streetsblog NY likes to get annoyed with NYC pols who avoid making hard decisions about transit funding, but then turn around and stage rallies with a bunch of “regular folks” about how awful all the subway cuts are, but it works. It’s time to play that game and make the movement look as diverse and grassroots as it is, or at least as it should be.

The fact is that livable streets are a huge boon for the middle and working class. Lower transportation costs, more jobs, and greater variety of affordable housing are all goals that have every right to be popular, but are currently painted as “elitist”. It’s time to think about how to turn that around. Recognizing that we’re not our own target audience is the first step.

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That good hair

Posted by clubsodaandsalt on February 6, 2010

A lot’s been written about the differences between the experiences of black Americans and West Indians, and I’m no Ta-Nehisi Coates, so I’m not going to take on that challenge. But, being a West Indian who’s lived in the cold for a while, I sometimes notice ways in which my view of race has changed. I had one of those moments today when I saw this picture:

After looking at the picture for a few seconds, I had a visceral reaction: this is creepy! Why is a table of white women curiously touching the hair of a black woman? I am disturbed! But here’s the thing – that was a purely American reaction. There’s not much remarkable about the picture from a West Indian perspective. It’s a bunch of rich ladies at an event shilling overpriced hair gunk sampling the goods. The weird racial undertones that would accompany something like this in the States just aren’t there in Trinidad (though there are shadows of class undertones for sure).

There’s nothing terribly profound to say, but it is a reminder of how having lived here for a while has changed me in certain subtle ways.

As an aside – the reason I came across the picture was that I saw the teaser for this execrable article, and had to click through to determine whether it was as embarrassingly shill-y as it seemed. It was. The Guardian should be ashamed. I assume we’ll soon find out that the product is being distributed by Ansa McAl…

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Death by a thousand curb cuts

Posted by clubsodaandsalt on February 1, 2010

From ehoyer on Flickr

Spend any time driving in San Francisco, and you’ll notice that there isn’t a lot of parking. Then, just before you give up and put the car in a garage, it dawns on you that while there aren’t that many spaces, there also aren’t that many parked cars. Instead, driveway after driveway chops up the curb, leaving the street space unusable. Curb cuts are everywhere, of course, but San Francisco buildings seem particularly fond of them.

The effective transfer of public property to private hands is bad enough, but there are a lot of other reasons to dislike curb cuts. They increase conflicts between pedestrians and vehicles, they set up hazardous situations as cars back out onto busy streets, they encourage sidewalk parking (an epidemic on some blocks of the Mission), and, when you’re talking about a commercial street, garages aren’t nearly as good for walkability and economics as storefronts.

You’d think that with all these externalities, you’d have to pay. Well, not yet, but the city is finally going to start charging $100 per year for the privilege. A pittance considering that off street spaces go for $200 per month in some neighbourhoods, but at least it’s a start. Perhaps as the city’s finances continue to deteriorate, owners of curb cuts will be made to pay a fairer share.

And, full disclosure: we currently lease a parking space in our building, and a curb cut is involved. I think that the owner (and us, by extension) should be taxed heavily for it.

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Slashing our way to uselessness

Posted by clubsodaandsalt on January 31, 2010

Whenever I read about service cuts, I think about the B71 (PDF). See, getting around Brooklyn can be a bit tricky; if your destination is on your subway line, it’s quite easy, but otherwise your trip is nigh on impossible unless you want to pay for a cab or take the bus. When I lived in Brooklyn, I lived in Prospect Heights, but sometimes wanted to try out the restaurants on Smith St. This was one of the neighbourhood pairs that the subway just didn’t work for. But! The B71 offered a solution – a bus that went from my block straight to the heart of Smith St! I’d have taken it all the time, except that it (1) stopped running at the insanely early hour of 9:30pm, and (2) it only came every 20-30 minutes, which, given how unreliable a bus schedule is, made it pretty much worthless.

The B71 is a good example of a phenomenon that I think is under-appreciated by transit agencies – sometimes low ridership doesn’t mean that you are providing too much service – it means that you are providing too little. There’s a threshold below which you make your system so inconvenient to use that you force people to mode shift, or to avoid certain trips entirely. SF Muni seems to be headed right in that direction – 10% service cuts on a system that is frankly already decidedly inadequate (ever ride Muni Metro during the morning rush)? And over what is ultimately a relatively small amount of money as well – the Muni deficit is just $17 million, compared with the $440 million that BART is spending on the silly Oakland Airport Connector, or the $1 BILLION being spent to widen the 405 in LA. Muni carries 700,000 trips a day. It’s the transportation backbone of the city, even if Mayor Newsom never uses it. Commerce would absolutely plunge without it. Why are we letting it shrivel? It’s insanity, and it’s depressing to watch.

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