Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Homeland Security discovers commuter rail

This morning the TSA, in conjunction with local police forces, will "carry out a show of force" at 150 rail stations on the East Coast. This is an effort to prepare for any potential terrorist threats.

One thing this signals is the beginning of the end of one of rail's greatest conveniences over air travel. Transportation planners have steadily maintained that security measures now in place at airports will eventually reach rail travel, and they have been steadily ignored by rail proponents, who have argued that rail is a more convenient mode of travel because you can just walk up, buy a ticket and get on board. Once this advantage is lost it will be interesting to see how ridership responds. The additional security will certainly diminish the viability of any new intercity rail projects.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Musical roads

The city of Lancaster recently allowed a company to cut grooves in a local road so that Honda Civics would play the "William Tell Overture" when they drove by. It was for a commercial for Hondas, which is why the road was tuned to the size of a Civic. Other sized cars played the song but a bit off key.

I hope the city was paid handsomely for this, and I hope that the neighbors who are now complaining were adequately compensated. A musical road is a pretty clear externality, and this is potentially an interesting twist on the classic textbook example of a Coasian bargain.

It seems that is the neighbors were to get the payment from the TV company for the rights to turn their street into a turntable they might go for it. Or perhaps this is the kind of novelty a city might want to do to encourage people to travel to a particular neighborhood. But mostly this seems like a sure-fire way to irritate a lot of people by getting the Lone Ranger theme stuck in their heads.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Personal rapid transit fixes the wrong problem

There is a conference at Cornell about the viability of Personal Rapid Transit as a future transportation technology. The proponents of PRT argue that their preferred mode is environmentally friendly and generally a forward looking progressive approach to personal transportation. While I admire their goals, there is no reason that their main concerns can't be addressed on the existing transport system.

Mostly we shouldn't be looking at a system that requires brand new infrastructure. We can better manage what we have and simultaneously encourage cleaner and more efficient vehicles. Overhead lines will harm the sidewalk and road environment by reducing the views and sunshine while increasing noise. In addition, the energy expended to build a brand new transportation infrastructure will greatly diminish any potential environmental gains, even if we (wrongly) assume that the only way to have a system of electric vehicles is through PRT.

Perhaps PRT has a role for niche markets such as airports and maybe colleges. As a large scale transit system, however, it will likely fail to achieve the stated goals, and it will divert precious resources in the process leaving us with a transport system that is worse off than we have now.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Year of the Parking Space

It's Park(ing) Day today. It's also Talk Like a Pirate Day, and I'm sure there are some people celebrating both simultaneously.

In light of Park(ing) Day, the NY Times City Beat wonders if parking 2008 is the high water mark for parking as an issue. I doubt it. I'm pretty sure parking is only going to become more contentious and important for public finance, transportation planning and quality of life in cities. It is clear that cities are doing themselves or travelers any favors by underpricing a resource as valuable as a parking space.

I do appreciate the NY Times putting every piece the paper has published about parking this year into one column and in chronological order.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Rethinking transit investment: buses and fees in lieu of parking requirements

The NY Times has a story about the Rochester transit system. The system is noteworthy because it is runs a financial surplus and recently was able to lower fares. From the story it seems there are a couple of important policies lessons to learn. One thing to keep in mind from this example is that referring to the system as profitable is not accurate. There are plenty of state and federal subsidies going into the coffers, but the agency seems to be well run.

A notable lesson here is that transit use is up and fares are down with a bus only system. I doubt that the agency would be in surplus if they invested in light rail. Rather they seem to be investing in technologies that improve service for everyone on the system (satellite routing, for instance). There are very few cities where rail systems make financial sense, and rail investment diverts money from the core mission of providing mobility and access.

The second thing that is important is that local businesses invest directly in transit service. I'm not sure if they can invest in lieu of parking requirements, but this shift has the potential to dramatically improve transit service and the built environment. For instance, there is an apartment building owner mentioned in the story who pays $1,200 per year to get bus service to his building. Compare that outlay with the cost of supplying parking spaces for his tenants. Even if a parking space cost $10,000 to build (a very low estimate), a mid-sized lot might cost a couple hundred thousand dollars. It seems if building owners and developers were able to make in lieu payments to the local transit agencies instead of building expensive parking structures they would all do it is a heartbeat. This would lead to more transit oriented development and less hidden subsidy for cars.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Car fail

From the always funny and occasionally sad failblog.org, here is a picture that illustrates the universal desirability of cars:

Paying for transit with pre-tax income

The LATimes Bottleneck blog highlighted a story about San Francisco passing legislation requiring employers to offer transit passes (or transportation to and from work) as part of the overall benefits package with pre-tax income. This is a great idea. Parking is already provided as a non-income perk for many employees, though often in violation of California's Parking Cash Out legislaton. By offering transit with pre-tax ncome the hidden subsidies to driving are reduced a bit. Not everyone will switch to transit of course, but not everyone needs to. Making transit more attractive and treating it as a viable alternative to driving is as important to encouraging people to switch from driving as building new transit facilities.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Laying blame for traffic crashes

Washington Post columnist Robert Novak unfortunately has a brain tumor. He wrote a column about this and he described how he found out something was wrong. As he put it, his "2004 black Corvette struck a pedestrian on 18th Street while I was on my way to my office downtown."

The way he worded this intentionally makes it sound like his car was off driving badly while he was innocently heading to work. But he was driving his car at the time his car hit someone. That means he hit someone, but he is absolving himself of any blame because he has a brain tumor. (He also mentioned that the guy he hit was homeless as though that lessens the seriousness of the crash.)

Not to pick of Novak, but how we deal with medically related traffic crashes is an important issue for local and state policy (these are the governments who regulate traffic). As the elderly population increases, the likelihood of crashes caused by people who shouldn't be driving will go up. How proactive should policy be for reducing these risks?

I think policy should be extremely proactive, and the consequences of violating the law severe. There should be no more deference to old age or medical conditions than to drunk driving because the outcomes of crashes are the same. If Novak was drunk rather than debilitated by cancer he would be facing attempted manslaughter charges. Obviously he didn't mean to hit anyone (his car certainly didn't mean to hit anyone), but drunk drivers don't mean to hit anyone either. His attitude that he wasn't at fault is problematic because it is the prevalent feeling about elderly drivers. There needs to be more alternatives to driving to allow those who shouldn't be behind the wheel the mobility to which they have the right to, and the testing required to continue driving should be increased.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Short hop air service: the flying cars of the present

Today's LA Times has a story on a new air service specializing in short hop travel. I wrote about the possibility of this type of service being a viable transportation choice for my Master's degree and I'm pleased to see it has come to fruition. The service is advantageous for many trips within a metro area that could only be reasonably taken by car. In LA, there are two factors that make this service appealing. First, the metro area is huge. You can drive for 100 miles and still be in the urbanized region. Second, congestion can be terrible. In the story the author notes that a journey from John Wayne airport in Orange County to Santa Monica airport took 1.5 hours by car and only 35 minutes by plane. You can imagine that there are many people who value their time highly enough that the $95 ticket for the flight is worth the cost.

This service takes advantage of the fact that 85% of people live within 20 minutes of an airport. That's a lot of potential terminals. I suspect that this will have a niche market, much like helicopter service to the airports in Manhattan, but there is more interest in this as a potential mode than you might initially expect. James Fallows wrote a book about it, and NASA has been pursuing personal aircraft vehicles as a transportation technology of the future. As our physical infrastructure gets increasingly degraded and congested, looking to the sky is a great idea for many trips. I'm all for anything that gets us closer to flying cars, though the environmental problems of air travel still need to be worked out.

Highway Trust Fund shortfall and the future of transportation finance

As gas tax revenues have declined because of slackened demand for gasoline and diesel, the Highway Trust Fund has seen it's fortunes decline. It now has a potential shortfall which will limit the amount of money transferred to the states for their local road projects that are dependent on federal dollars. There are many policy questions to contemplate about the future of the Trust Fund, and there is no time like a crisis to change the status quo.

Perhaps the first policy question is what exactly should the federal role in transportation finance be? Federal monies pay up to 90 percent of federally aided road work, but often these investments are made towards new facilities and infrastructure rather than maintenance. New road projects, porky as they are, make for great ribbon cutting experiences. Bridge maintenance doesn't have the same gravity with voters even though maintenance is critical and underfunded. In the absence of federal funding for road projects I suspect that far fewer new highways would be built, and I think that's okay. I don't think that maintenance would improve at all, however, if the onus for funding was local or state.

One solution to the trust fund shortfall identified in the NY Times article is to transfer money that is reserved for transit to highway projects. While federal transit subsidies distort the types of transit investments, for instance light rail would not be nearly as popular with transit agencies if they had to pay for it themselves, transit needs shoring up. Any transfer of funds from transit to highways is going to be difficult to reverse and would harm transit at a time when it has the potential to make some gains as a mode choice.

The last policy point is that the delicate state of finances for the trust fund is not going to get better at any point in the future. The trust fund is best suited for times when gas prices are low and fuel efficiency is terrible. When people drive a lot and use a lot of gas per mile they contribute a lot to the fund. As people drive less and economy increases the per mile and overall contribution declines (though there is a rebound effect where people increase their driving as economy increases because the price of driving declines on a per mile basis). In an efficient system these changes would be offset by reduced need for new investment. However, politically new investment is desirable-and John McCain can't change the desire for pork projects no matter how hard he tries-and future declines in the trust fund will have to be made up somehow. It seems to me that user fees of some sort will have to be implemented. At the very least, a transition to a new fuel offers opportunities to revisit our highway finance system. The trust fund won't last forever.