Thursday, July 3, 2014

From the Wayback Machine: 1992 was the year when everything changed (but not really)

I'm doing a bit of research on historical trends in transport planning, and part of this is trying to figure out the periods when we thought we figured it all out and things were going to change. Every few years we go through phases with lots of claims about how Things Are Different Now For Our Cities. Back in 1992, according to the Wall Street Journal, New Jersey was at the forefront of the nation's shift towards mass transit:
NEWARK, N.J. -- The conventional wisdom for solving the nation's transportation problems, from traffic jams, to deteriorating highways, to pollution, has always been simple: throw money at them. So why has New Jersey canceled $1.2 billion in new highway projects?

Backed by $5.65 billion in federal funds from a new six-year, $151 billion transportation bill, New Jersey officials are making an all-out effort to wean commuters from their autos and the crowded highways. Instead of spending on road projects, they have decided to gamble on mass transit, doubling the state's investments to $580 million in the fiscal year beginning July 1. They plan to tie the state together with low-pollution rail systems-and hope that tens of thousands of commuters use it. And if commuters don't, they'll find the highways even more crowded due to the lack of spending.

Despite Americans' longstanding love affair with the car, some say New Jersey is showing the way to a nation increasingly fed up with traffic and pollution. "We are watching New Jersey closely," says A. Ray Chamberlain, executive director of Colorado's Department of Transportation.
The story goes on to note that Colorado had just cancelled a large road project and did build some bike infrastructure.  There was also a description of the "life style changes" that were occurring and a new penchant for some ridesharing services:
Nonetheless, New Jersey's optimistic planners contend that the changes in its transportation policy will bring big changes in life styles. More people will share rides to work. Others will become telecommuters, linked to their offices through computers and telephone lines. And as more people use improved mass transit, suburban families may be able to shed their second cars.
The planners cite life-style changes in Portland, Ore., which froze the number of parking spaces downtown and built a light rail line. Since opening in 1986, the rail line has attracted more than $800 million of office, retail and residential development near train stations. "A lot of people are riding transit to downtown, and they are coming downtown not just for work but also for shopping and recreation," says Keith Bartholomew, staff attorney for a nonprofit land-conservation organization in Portland.
Lawrence Dahms, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission of the San Francisco Bay Area, also points to life-style changes. He says that in the mornings, commuters now line up along streets in Oakland and Berkeley to get rides to downtown San Francisco. By teaming up, the drivers and their passengers can use the high-occupancy vehicle lane approaching the Bay Bridge and save about 25 minutes compared with motorists driving alone. Mr. Dahms also says new Amtrak train service between San Jose and Sacramento has caught on fast, with ridership far above expectations.

These types of stories are compelling, but the above WSJ story could be written today almost verbatim, and there is no shortage of other similar stories from other years. For whatever meager gains we have realized toward transit, walking, cycling and shared vehicles, we haven't gotten very far for the amount of money and effort expended.  


Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Social Contract for Public Transit

I have a piece in the Atlantic's City Lab arguing that public transit is not meeting its social contract. As I conclude:
So does public transit serve its social obligations? Increasingly the answer is no. The way transit is financed in the United States distorts investment and operating priorities away from those who rely on transit service the most. Transit agencies are also asked to provide a social safety net — offeringreduced transit fares for school kids, senior discounts, or lifeline services to underserved areas that few politicians are willing to pay for. A more relevant question is why public transit agencies are solely responsible for managing disparate social goals. It need not be this way.

Eric Goldwyn's Thoughts on Transport

Columbia Urban Planning PhD candidate (and one of my students) Eric Goldwyn has been busy saying smart things about transport in the New Yorker.

His piece on the Uber challenge to professional driving is here:

And on the politics of Vision Zero is here:

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Celebrating Transit for Others

This post is cross-posted at

Light rail is in the news this week because of the opening of the Twin Cities' Green Line. I noticed this ribbon cutting picture in the Star Tribune's coverage:

I noticed that the people taking credit for the new line (which is what a ribbon cutting photo-op is for) are excited white people. They are not representative of transit ridership by any stretch. So I looked for other recent light rail line openings. Here is the Houston Red Line from a few months ago:

From Phoenix, Arizona a while back:

Salt Lake City's Trax extension last year:

Bayone, New Jersey:

They celebrated Dallas's DART with cake:

And then (because they were full of cake?) the guys celebrating DART made the train drive through the ribbon:

These are not systematically chosen photos. They are just the first few I could find through Google that were confirmed recent light rail openings. 

Perhaps it doesn't matter than those taking credit for new transit systems are very different from the riders who rely on the systems daily. It certainly isn't a very diverse group taking credit. I suspect it does matter, however. Here is a chart from Tom Sanchez's work on equity analysis of transportation funding (also see Moving to Equity, on which he was lead author):

The takeaway is not that all transit or transport decisions should be made by key users. Rather, the decision making and credit taking people are much more likely to be white (and wealthier) than the typical user. In terms of transit, few of those cutting ribbons are even regular transit users. Perhaps if the entire planning process reflected the communities being planned than the current public process could be reconsidered. It would at least be nice to have the communities who are supposedly benefiting from these new investments share the stage and enthusiasm with the ribbon cutters. Transport planning, especially transit planning, is not something that should be done unto others. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Transportation in Transition, Again and Always

In 1982 Milton Pikarsky and Christine Johnson published a paper titled "American Transportation in Transition."

Here are the opening paragraphs:
Today, the United States is in a transportation crisis which is of a chronic nature. It may not be sudden like the gas lines of 1974, but it is consistent and the pressures of this crisis are deepening. And because its gradual nature allows people and institutions to adjust, the crisis changes the transportation system more fundamentally than transitory gas lines or transit stop pages.

The current picture of public transportation is bleak. Indeed, each new wrinkle in the financial problems faced by the transit industry brings warnings that a breakdown of public transportation service could initiate a domino effect resulting in an urban economic collapse.
And the conclusion:
Private citizens will have to adjust to the fact that traditional transportation is likely to cost more. To reduce some of those costs, they may have to become vanpool riders or drivers, participate in neighbourhood auto mobile cooperatives, or occasionally rent automobiles or use taxis as alternatives to purchasing second cars. A variety of private transportation providers may once again become party to the transportation social contract. There is evidence that developers, too, may become party to the contract. In an attempt to make their suburban residential and commercial space more attractive, many developers are underwriting bus or shuttle services or arranging van- and carpools.  
Given the position and needs of the various principal actors, it is likely that private employers and providers will become much more involved with the direct provision of surface transportation in the future. In the best and worst of extremes, an individual could face a variety of options and a maze of prices depending on the mode, time of travel, destination, and the number of people travelling. The solution to these new transportation problems may define the future role of the public sector. Rather than owning and operating systems, the public sector may become more of a travel information broker, a facilitator, a technical adviser, and a manager of a set of service contracts.  
There is little question that the process of renegotiating the transportation social contract has begun. Each party is slowly exploring and carving out a new niche. The process will be long and progress slow. We feel certain that at the outcome, when we speak of public transportation, our concept will have grown to include a range of services and providers; rapid rail, bus, vanpools, commuter clubs, subscription services, taxis, jitneys, apartment shuttle, the private automobile, and the rental auto mobile, each serving the trip length, type, and density that is most cost-efficient. 
This piece is over 30 years old. I agree with just about all of it, and I argue many of the same things today. With all of the excitement about ridesharing and transportation network companies it is worthwhile keeping in mind such services are neither revolutionary or new ideas. Perhaps they are finally here to stay, or perhaps not. (I suspect they are, likely with different companies than exist now, but I'll save my reasoning for another time.)

Public transit's demise has been predicted for a long time, as well, and transit operates in a world of permanent financial crisis. Transit finance may not be ideal, but our transit systems have survived and many have improved. Overall, though, transportation is still in transition, and we are still expecting the next big thing to show up.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Two Views on Taxi Regulations

Taxi regulations are big news these days. In many ways it seems that one of the challenges facing taxi regulators and the public is that it is not clear what taxi regulations are supposed to accomplish. Here are two op-ed pieces, one from taxi industry insiders in the Twin Cities, and one from a graduate student in public policy in Vancouver.

The Twin Cities piece is about entry into the market for Uber and Lyft, while the Vancouver piece is about liberalizing entry into the market. Effectively these op-eds are about the rules that regulate entry and who should be allowed to operate. They are also about maintaining license holder value. Both sides argue they are in the right, but they both cannot be. It is also possible that both sides are wrong. Resolving these regulatory issues is much harder than most people seem to believe.

Friday, May 30, 2014

An Easy Explanation for Why Fixed Doesn't Fix as Many Parking Tickets as Expected

The tech company Fixed promises to be the easiest way to fix a parking ticket. The LA Times (reported by Government Technology, link here) did some analysis of how well the company performs as found that Fixed clients are successful 20% of the time having their tickets dismissed. This is better than zero percent but less than the 28% of tickets dismissed by regular (meaning non-Fixed client) people. The founder of Fixed takes umbrage with this discrepancy:
When presented with the numbers by The Times, company founder David Hegarty accused the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency of possibly "willfully discriminating against our contests."
"To rub salt on our wounds," Hegarty said, "when they deny our contests, they do not include a reason for denial."
Perhaps there is discrimination about the tech clients, but I doubt it. Here is the SF MTA response from the story:
A spokesman for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency denied Hegarty's allegations, saying, "We do not have concerns if people want to use this third-party service.... There is no secret to overturning a citation. If there is a valid reason to dismiss, then that citation gets dismissed."
What is almost certainly happening is that David Hegarty has a poor grasp of economic incentives, at least as far as the Fixed pricing structure goes. Fixed clients are almost certainly not representative of the ticketed public overall. The way Fixed makes money is to take 25% of the savings for a ticket that gets dismissed, but does not charge for a failed contestation. Effectively there is no cost to whoever received the ticket for contesting the violation through Fixed, and Fixed clients will contest tickets they never would have before. Because of the high relative cost of contesting a ticket yourself people who contest in person should have a higher rate of dismissal. They likely believe in their innocence more than a Fixed client. If you take time to sit through traffic court to contest a ticket, you are either burdened by the fine or you really believe you shouldn't have been cited. Contra this, there are few reasons not to contest each and every ticket through Fixed as the only costs to the client are the time it takes to take a photo and fill out an online form. Even if you know full well you're guilty you should contest your parking tickets through Fixed. If you can get one of five dismissed you are doing well gaming the system.