Proof that Boston’s public parking is wildly mis-priced — October 3, 2015
Don’t strengthen economic regulations on ride-sharing services; weaken them on cabs: an open letter to my representatives — August 20, 2015

Don’t strengthen economic regulations on ride-sharing services; weaken them on cabs: an open letter to my representatives

From: Steve Laniel
Date: Thu, 20 Aug 2015 18:17:47 -0400
To: Michael J Moran, Linda Dorcena Forry
Cc: William N Brownsberger, Sonia Chang-Diaz,
Anthony W Petruccelli, Aaron Michlewitz, Byron Rushing, Jay D Livingstone

Dear Representative Moran and Senator Forry,

I read in the Globe about your bill, H.3702, that would add more regulations to ride-sharing services in an attempt to level the playing field with taxis. The intention is probably sound, but it seems to me that it’s going in the wrong direction. Why not loosen regulations on cabs? Two types of regulations strike me as hugely detrimental to taxi drivers:

  1. “Dead-heading”: if a cab picks up a passenger in Boston and drops her off in Brookline, that cab has to then drive back to Boston empty before picking anyone up in Boston. In that same situation, ride-sharing services can pick up passengers in Brookline. Each fare is thus more expensive for cabs than it is for the ride-sharing driver. Why not get rid of the dead-heading requirement? There’s no conceivable public-safety justification for such a requirement.
  2. Medallions: cab owners have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, even after ride-sharing services have driven down their value. Ride-share drivers aren’t subject to this requirement — and they shouldn’t be. Naturally we can expect that current medallion owners would hate the idea of their medallions becoming valueless, so of course we expect opposition here. The public good, though, is not served by defending entrenched property owners’ monopoly rents. Medallions introduce artificial scarcity, to no public-safety end.

The net effect of dead-heading requirements and artificial scarcity is that, as of 2011, Boston had the most expensive cabs in the country. And Boston cabs offer notoriously poor service, which is an expected outcome of a market protected by medallions: cab owners fight to protect their monopoly, rather than fight to provide better service to their customers. No wonder ride-sharing services have found a welcome home in Boston. And no wonder that the cab owners, long accustomed to monopoly rents, are outraged.

By the way: I’d be interested to hear the perspective of the cab drivers rather than that of the cab owners. Are the drivers choosing to quit the cab companies and work for ride-sharing services instead? Whose interests are we protecting? I suspect we’re not protecting the interests of the drivers. We’re certainly not protecting the interests of passengers. It looks from the outside like we’re only protecting the interests of the owners.

If what we care about is public safety, then by all means let’s require ride-share drivers to satisfy safety requirements. If, however, the goal is to level the economic playing field, then the way to do that is to weaken obsolete economic rules on taxis rather than strengthen them on ride-sharing services.

Steve Laniel

On Boston’s rejecting the Olympics — July 29, 2015

On Boston’s rejecting the Olympics

Most of the griping seems to be less about the Olympics themselves, and more about how we won’t get things the city needs — such as better mass transit and a “master plan”. (That’s a new one to me. I didn’t know the city needed one of those.)

That’s always been the nature of the pro-Olympics case, and it’s always been an atrocious argument; no wonder the city, in it wisdom, ultimately rejected that argument. Yes, the city has broken infrastructure. But conditioning infrastructure improvement on our accepting the Olympics is tantamount to blackmail. If we want to improve the city’s infrastructure, let’s improve the city’s infrastructure.

I’d be willing to start the discussion right there. If you think the city is a parochial backwater that is unwilling to think big, then the place where that matters is in the lived experience of its residents and the public services that support them; it has nothing to do with whether the Olympics come here. The three biggest challenges in Boston / Cambridge / Somerville / Brookline, to my mind, are that

  1. The public transit isn’t up to the level of a great city. It should break down less often; it should come more often; it should run all night; the vehicles and the stations ought to be so well-maintained that no one would ever hesitate to use them; we ought to have real Bus Rapid Transit; and the subway should reach at least as far out as Lexington: wherever you’re standing, you should be able to walk ten minutes and reach a subway stop. (And not the green line. No one likes the green line.) Even some low-tech solutions would do a world of good: separate bus lanes on Mass. Ave. would make our most popular form of mass transit speedier than the cars that surround it.

  2. The schools are a problem. No Boston / Cambridge / Somerville parents should have any hesitation about sending their kids to the public schools. It’s not uncommon for parents to think of ways to get a toehold in Brookline so that they can send their kids to the famously good schools there; consequently, Brookline property values are astronomical. Let’s talk about how to sunder the link between “the good places to live” and “where the schools are good”, like then-Professor Elizabeth Warren suggested. Parents in Roxbury should be able to send their kids to schools in Brookline. Let’s consider merging the school districts. (And yes, I’m aware that much of this is the legacy of a horrific episode in the 70s.)

  3. Property values are insane, to the point that I don’t understand how those earning the median household income of $53,000 can afford to own their homes. Let’s talk about building more densely. Let’s talk about making America’s Walking City truly the best city in the world for pedestrians.

These are the conversations we need to have. If we don’t address these things, that is what makes us parochial. If we can only have conversations about how to make Boston a great city when those conversations are based around a fantasy Olympics nine years in the future, that makes us juvenile. We should be able to improve Boston because we want to improve Boston, not because the International Olympic Committee told us to.

Note to Boston: our population still has a ways to go — January 15, 2015

Note to Boston: our population still has a ways to go

Graph of Boston's historical population, and its population's rank among US cities, over time. Population peaked in 1950, and the rank has been ever-increasing: we were the second- or third-largest city in 1800, and now we're the 20th-largest or so.
(Source: raw data, gathered from the Census Bureau)

In fairness: if you look at the population of Metropolitan Statistical Areas, the Boston metro area is 10th rather than in the 20s. The metro area stretches west to Worcester, north to southern New Hampshire, and south to Rhode Island, last I checked.

Boston should be proud that it’s growing at a healthy clip (healthier than the Commonwealth’s growth rate as a whole). Personally, I’ll be a lot happier when the suburbs shrink and the city grows.

A note to my fellow yuppies about the Ink Block Whole Foods — January 11, 2015

A note to my fellow yuppies about the Ink Block Whole Foods

I went to the new Whole Foods at the Ink Block development (so-named because it sits where the Boston Herald used to publish) in the South End yesterday. I want to clarify that when the press release says it offers “a large beer, wine and spirits selection”, they are not at all kidding about the “spirits” piece. I was not expecting that. I expected that they’d have only wine, but no: they have enough bottles to stock a full home bar with top-shelf liquor. In particular, they have a lot of local stuff, including from Bully Boy and Berkshire Mountain Distillers. I checked one of their prices against what I’d get at my favorite local liquor store, and it was identical. Not sure if that’s true in general, but it’s a hopeful sign.

Some trivial notes on riding back from New York to Boston — August 3, 2014

Some trivial notes on riding back from New York to Boston

1. The Yglesias Method still works. The ratio of people who use the stupid, default method — the one I used from the first time I ever rode Amtrak out of Penn Station until approximately Thanksgiving of 2013 — to those who use the Yglesias Method must be on the order of 100 to 1.
2. With the lead time that you have over the unwashed masses, you can get yourself to the quiet car. Amtrak happily tells you where to find the quiet car. On the Northeast Regional, it’s “adjacent to the business class car”. The only difficulty is knowing where, exactly, the business-class car is. Today the business-class car was the frontmost car; I assume that that’s normally the case when taking the train from Penn to South Station. Though you can always ask a conductor.
3. No trip to New York is complete, for me, without grabbing a dozen bagels at Absolute Bagels on the Upper West Side. Perhaps one day soon Bagelsaurus will deliver unto Cambridge the bagels which were foretold in scripture.
4. It’s really incredibly awesome that I can travel from the Upper West Side to Cambridge via walk-subway-train-subway-walk. I never want to live in a place where I need to own a car to make a similar journey. And I never want to take for granted that, despite its problems, the MBTA is better than what 90% of the United States has available.
5. Momomfuku’s vegetarian ramen didn’t live up to the billing. The veggie ramen at Chuko is the original and still champion.
6. To all my New York friends whom I neglected to see this time around: I’m sorry! I’ll see you soon.

“America’s Walking City” — July 15, 2014

“America’s Walking City”

Boston loves to call itself that, but I would like to observe a few reasons why that’s kind of nonsense:

1. New York is obviously America’s real walking city. Sorry.
2. If we’re being picky about it, Cambridge holds a better claim on being America’s walking city than Boston does. (Yes, that may be kind of cheating, given the student population here.)
3. Follow Google’s directions from Central Square in Cambridge to Deep Ellum in Allston, and you will regret the day you ever thought of walking in Boston. (The presence of a rail yard along your route might begin to suggest the difficulty.)
4. The intersection at Charles/MGH was just not meant for walkers. And there’s a series of ugly footbridge hacks around there to get you onto and off of the Esplanade. “A series of ugly hacks” defines a large part of Boston. (Sorry, I love this city, and I would like to raise a family here, but let’s be honest about this place.)
5. The snow. It’s only been falling around here for 400 years or so. Give it another 400 and the city may figure out how to make sidewalks walkable in its presence.