Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The bus of the future

People tend to forget that one of the reasons that streetcars and other rail transit were replaced by buses is that the existing vehicles were under maintained, not air-conditioned and generally in rough shape. Buses were seen as "young and honest"* and emblematic of a wonderful future. Above is a photo from the LA MTA announcing their new "Dreamliners." The whole set of photos is worth looking at and thinking about in the context of transit plans of today.

Photo from LA County Metro Transportation Authority and Archive

* "Bus Vs. Trolley Car," City Topics, August 1921. (Cited in "The Bus Is Young and Honest": Transportation Politics, Technical Choice, and the Motorization of Manhattan Surface Transit, 1919-1936. Zachary Schrag, Technology and Culture 41.1. p.51-79 (2000))

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Unintended consequences of energy efficiency

Apparently the super-efficient LED stop lights work great except for one thing, which is they don't generate enough heat to melt snow. This seems to be at least one cause of an uptick in crashes during snowy times. Whoops.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The future of driving

Since the future isn't what it used to be, the folks at io9 looked at fiction versus reality for new car technologies. Sadly, the reality for flying cars is the hovercraft and the reality for Dr. Who's Motorway is congested streets. They are pretty optimistic about the Batmobile, however, which is something to look forward to.

There are many potential interactions that will affect how valuable any new technologies are. GPS devices are already talking with each other and providing great data about traffic. This new information and other pricing schemes have the potential to greatly reduce congestion, and if cars become self-driving congestion may not be as onerous as it is now. Whatever happens, many technologies will make driving easier, faster and more pleasant. That is great for drivers but will make it even harder to promote alternatives to driving for personal transportation.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Rethinking congestion with new data

TomTom, the on-board GPS device people, have released their list of the 20 most congested cities using data collected from their devices. Seattle tops the list with 43% of the roads congested, which is a few percentage points worse than Los Angeles. It's a neat use of their data though it doesn't yet tell us much about congestion and cities.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

In Detroit you can buy an 80,000 seat domed football stadium for less than the asking price of a studio apartment in Manhattan

For those in the market for real estate, here a good deal in Detroit. The Silverdome just sold for less than $600,000.

As a helpful comparison, here is a typical studio apartment in midtown Manhattan that you can buy for about the same price. To be fair, you do get almost 550 square feet of living space and a doorman. Parking is extra.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Lessons from New Jersey's Elections

Are there important lessons to learn from yesterday's elections in New Jersey? Some people say that the GOP is back and stronger than ever. Some say President Obama over-reached. Yet others think that the Democratic incumbent was a bit sleezy, and that hurt his chances.

These two articles paint a different picture. This first one suggests that the election was a reaction to high property taxes. Friederich Mueller, a retiree, explains the reaction:
[the community is tired] “of the massive spending and, in particular, the property taxes. They are extremely high here. You wonder, where does the money go?”

So there you go. Lots of spending and high taxes. Let's blame government, vote the bums out and move on. So what does the second article say?

New Jersey voters approved a $400 million bond measure to fund conservation of open spaces in the most densely populated U.S. state.

So there you go, again. This isn't the only time this has happened, either:

Voters in New Jersey have approved all 13 open space questions on the ballot since 1961, providing more than $2.5 billion to keep land from development.

New Jersey carries more debt than all states except California and New York, and a lot of that debt is because the voters wanted it. That debt has to get paid somehow, and that means higher taxes (and roads tolls to a degree). But I don't think you can draw any conclusions about the direction of US politics from what happened in New jersey yesterday. As has been the case many times before in many different places, the voters sent mixed messages. The only thing we can say is that they didn't like Corzine, they don't like taxes, but they do value open space and are willing to pay for it at some point in the future. And those are lessons we probably knew on Monday.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Tough times for transit finance

Here is an editorial by Mitchell Moss in the NY Times that describes an unappreciated piece in the perilous structure of transit finance. What happened is that many transit agencies shifted ownership of their vehicles and equipment to banks, and then leased back the equipment. The transit agencies got money up front and the banks got depreciable assets and favorable tax deductions.

These agreements are no longer allowed, and the existing ones are falling apart because the banks are claiming the transit agencies are in default. There is a lot of money at stake and this could be crippling to transit in many cities. The author of the piece suggests that there are some potential legislative fixes to prevent the existing agreements from coming due. Hopefully this is solvable because transit agencies have enough problems as it is.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Mobility credits

In the latest Provocateur column in Reclaim magazine I argue that credits should be used to remediate inequity in transportation and pave the way for road pricing. How to create a fair and efficient pricing system is crucial. Today's comments by Lt. Gov Ravitch underscore the importance and timeliness of innovative financing solutions.

Image courtesy of Transportation Alternatives

In the future we will all drive Ferraris

Driving a Ferrari is much more environmentally friendly than driving a Prius, with one caveat. This is only true if you compare driving the Ferrari a couple of times per month versus driving the Prius daily. So should we all drive Ferraris? Well, maybe some of us. Is trading daily economy for weekend waste a reasonable idea?

If James May is right, the car will be reduced to a hobby endeavor where we buy cars to drive for fun rather than utility. For those of us who think owning a Ferrari sounds pretty neat, this is a nice idea. Joe Eaton makes a similar argument in Slate. Eaton has started taking the bus and is devoting his savings to hopefully buy a Porsche.

From a transportation policy perspective, there is merit to this idea. As congestion gets worse and driving becomes more expensive less people are interested in doing it on a daily basis. Where transit is a reasonable options lots of people decide not to drive everyday. This doesn't mean that they give up driving altogether. It means that they are transit-savvy and willing to make their decision about how to travel based on a variety of factors, and make these decisions daily. A future where driving is consumed in moderation is much more achievable than one where driving is eliminated completely.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Commuter Rail Series

The Philadelphia Phillies and the NY Yankees are going to play some winter baseball starting this week. And for the first time since 1950 the Phillies will travel to NYC by train, though Amtrak is a popular choice for a lot of northeast corridor sports travel. While they made the choice because it is much faster and easier than flying or busing the same route, the reception the Phils got on the sidewalk suggests they may stick with the relative seclusion of airports in the future.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Affordable Housing or Affordable Parking?

Today's Columbia Spectator has a story about efforts to raze three city owned parking structures and replace them with underground parking facilities and affordable housing. The area needs affordable housing more than cheap parking, but the quotes in the story explain the problem:
“That’s a good idea,” nearby resident Marquez Aroldo said when he was told of the proposed project. “Most of the neighbors park in the street anyway. I don’t know who parks ... [in those structures].”

The lure of free parking gets them every time (most street parking in this neighborhood is free. Meters are only allowed on commercially fronted blocks, and the neighborhood is question is almost completely residential on east-west streets). The co-chair of CB7's transportation committee summed up the stalemate nicely:
“The bottom line is: some folks would like to see the garages maintained, as low-cost parking is rapidly disappearing from the community,” Andrew Albert, co-chair of CB7’s transportation committee, said in an e-mail. “Then, there are some folks who would like to see housing in their place, as there is a shortage of affordable housing in the community.”

The thing about this situation is that in Manhattan Valley, just south of the Columbia campus, there are transportation choices for people. Those who seek cheap parking are not likely the same folks who are looking for affordable shelter. It is the people who can afford to live in the neighborhood--a typical two bedroom rents for about $4000--who can afford to own a car, but only if parking is cheap or free. There is no defensible public policy that prescribes that parking has to be subsidized to make it affordable in this community. The area is served by three subway lines, multiple bus lines and has lots of stuff to walk to in the vicinity. The accessibility of this area make it an ideal place for more housing and a terrible place to maintain or replace parking. But to maintain or replace subsidized parking is the worst outcome. If the policy choice is between affordable housing or affordable parking, housing should win every time.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Switching sides

This map of the world shows what countries drive on each side of the road. I'm surprised at how many countries have switched sides, but it does seem that the trend is towards driving on the right (Sweden recently switched). Though why Namibia and Angola switched to maintain opposite driving sides seems a bit peculiar.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

How parking requirements distort urban design

This week's featured property in the LA Times is a weird house in Venice, CA that looks like a modernist structure placed on an old bungalow. The owners wanted to tear down the old house and build from scratch, but if they did they would have had to put in the required garage for parking. The space devoted to parking reduced the available living space, so they just designed and built the new structure on top. Whether or not you like the design, it was a compromise solution because of required parking that the owners didn't want or apparently need.

Image source: (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Are the kids of today the drivers of tomorrow?

The LA Times has a piece that discusses a new survey by J.D. Power which suggests that today's American youth are less car obsessed that the kids of yore. This isn't that surprising since this trend has been evident for some time in Japan and, to a lesser degree, Western Europe. In developing countries there is still a strong desire to own a car as income increases.

I like that the survey looked as social media and networks to make inferences. I think the role of social networks and travel attitudes is poorly theorized and understood. Can public policy target a few influential people who will affect the attitudes and behavior of others through their social networks? That sounds a little clique-ish, but I think there is something to it.

Will the attitudes towards car ownership translate into greater transit ridership and other alternatives? If so, we should quickly invest in alternatives to driving. Or does ambivalence point to a greater problem for luxury cars, as people will still buy cars but more for utility than social status.

I think people will still buy cars, but these newish attitudes about vehicles bodes well for the Prius, Insight and other efficient cars that are not luxurious. Most hybrids and other efficient cars are now simple (except for the drivetrain) and well built, and are generally much cheaper to buy and operate. If utility is the primary factor I suspect price will be a much larger concern for buyers. And if price is a concern, people will buyer smaller, more efficient cars.

Making it fun to walk

Volkswagen has an initiative where it is trying to get people to walk and take the stairs more for health benefits. This video shows what happened when they turned a staircase in to a piano. People took the stairs! 66% more according to them. There is no question that urban design matters. How to work it into policy is less clear, but these inexpensive ways to make walking fun and give a unique status to train stations (or neighborhoods) are well worth pursuing.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

All hotel keys should function as transit passes

Bangkok's Chaophya Park Hotel has implemented the best innovation in hotel keys since they started locking doors. The keys are also valid as one-day transit passes. This is a great idea, and goes a long way toward making the transit system more friendly to visitors (and as I recall the system is pretty easy to navigate). Every hotel should do this.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The IRS still hates bicycles

Because I lead a life of excitement and intrigue, I was reading through the IRS publication that outlines the transportation related fringe benefits allowed under current tax law. These are benefits that employees can claim with pre-tax income, thus reduces their and their employers overall tax burden.

The big news last year was that employees can now claim $20 per month in bicycle commuting expenses. This was hailed as a step towards equalizing how bicycles are treated in the confusing world of subsidies, cross-subsidies and transportation finance. As a symbolic measure, this is a good step. As a practical measure, not so much. For instance, each and every employee in the US can receive up to $120 per month in pre-tax transit benefits AND $230 per month in pre-tax parking benefits. So if you pay for parking at a park and ride lot, you can get money for parking and transit, for instance. But with bikes, once you claim your $20 per month you become ineligible for transit or parking benefits. This reduces the incentive to bike and use transit for a commute trip, or park and bike, or other multi-modal bike combinations.

If you calculate the tax savings by taking a transit or parking pass, they far exceed the total amount--not just the tax savings--available through the bike expenses. There is still a tax incentive to use modes other than bikes.

Huzzah! Mayor Bloomberg has a parking vision

NYC's Mayor Michael Bloomberg has taking a huge step towards improving traffic, raising revenue for the city and really irritating his constituents. He wrote an op-ed in today's Daily News that explains how he wants the city to adopt new technologies that enable people to pay parking fees with their mobile device, find available parking spaces via online maps and make paying tickets easier. We'll see. Hopefully he goes beyond these technological fixes, which will really just catch NYC up with most major non-U.S. cities on these issues. These technologies offer new and improved ways of managing parking. They might also just be expensive ways to do what we are doing now.

He cleverly avoids mentioning how the plan in Riverdale is to raise the price of parking. That's the part that will enrage his constituents. I wouldn't have brought it up, either.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Is this what feminist parking looks like?

Seoul, Korea is admirably undertaking a series of initiatives to make the city friendlier for women. The official slogan is "Happy Women, Happy Seoul." The emphasis is on improving accessibility and safety for women, and this seems like a good idea overall. However, one initiative will paint certain parking spaces pink to designate them for women, and these spaces will be closer to the entrances of malls and buildings so that women in heels won't have to walk as far to get where they are going. From a safety standpoint, this seems reasonable. From a parking and a transportation standpoint, this seems absurd as it is a misdiagnosis of the problem. Access to parking isn't the core problem. Access to opportunities is the real issue regardless of what kind of shoes are worn. As a female economics student says at the end of the article:
"They are saying that they are doing many things for women, but we do not see any noticeable changes," she says. "They are wasting citizens' money out of the tax that they pay. We don't want pink parking spots."

Friday, September 18, 2009

50 years of automobile crash safety in one video

The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety is 50! Yay for them. To commemorate the occasion they crashed a 1959 Chevy Bel-Air into a 2009 Malibu. If only all our birthdays were so exciting.

We've made a lot a progress on safety, and it's worth keeping in mind every major innovation was fought by the auto industry on the bases of costs and a preference for behavioral changes on the part of drivers. The behavioral changes are impossible to predict, however. Ten years ago no one would have thought that texting was going to be a major problem for drivers, though it was already clear that cell phones were dangerous. Many of the behavioral changes in driving take advantage of new comforts and amenities that make it easier to drive. That may make people less attentive or lead to unnecessary risks.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The railroads gave us time zones

Timezones are one of those public policies that people don't really think about a lot, but like all policies, someone had to argue for them. This story in the NY Times about the Grand Central clock room nicely summarizes how it was the railroad operators who wanted time zones for scheduling purposes and pushed to get the U.S. Congress to legislate them in 1883.

I have no idea when time zones were adopted elsewhere (though China only has one), but this map of time zones around the world clearly demonstrates how time zones are allocated politically as much as geographically. I wonder what a bipartisan compromise on time zones would look like.

(Image from

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

When did Brooklyn declare independence?

I know that Brooklyn likes to differentiate itself from NYC, and Manhattan in particular, usually by having its denizens wear t-shirts that say "Brooklyn" on them. But I'm pretty sure it is still part of NYC. That makes this map by showing the most frugal cities in the US confusing. The whole map is confusing for that matter. This is a nice example of the wrong way to visualize data.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

You just can't hide all the parking in a fake mountain

The latest Planetizen Newswire linked to this article in Dwell magazine that describes how one architectural firm addressed the problem of residential parking requirements. As you can see from the picture (taken from the Dwell site), there really isn't any good way to blend parking into that development. The zoning requires a 2:1 ratio of parking to living space, so that's about four acres of parking space to about two acres of living. You can see how such requirements harm urban design and encourage driving. That's not exactly a "walkable" development.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

If Robert Moses really had his way with New York

Since there is a new book out about the fights between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, it's a good time to revisit the Google maps view (put together by vanshnookenraggen) of what NYC would look like if Moses had his way.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Are cab drivers better drivers?

This story from the NY Times provides some details about how pervasive cell phone use is by cab drivers, even though any usage has been outlawed for a decade. I can attest that more often than not the cabbie is using the phone while driving. Outside of NYC, where cabs are often dispatched from a central office the drivers usually get their new fares via phone. That's not great, but since too many cities make it illegal to flag down a taxi they have to do something.

But one of the arguments by the taxi drivers in favor of them using cell phones is that cabbies are better drivers than the population at large:
"And they say that as professional drivers, they are less likely to be distracted.

“Private motorists don’t accumulate the kind of knowledge and experience that a professional yellow cab driver does,,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which says it represents 11,000 of the city’s cabbies."

This raises a question I've long had, which is are professional drivers any better than non-professional drivers? I do think that taxi drivers cruising for fares are probably just as distracted (if not more) than if they were on the phone. Taxis get hit all the time swinging u-turns to catch a fare (How many times does that have to happen before 'knowledge' and 'experience' kick in?). But shouldn't taxi drivers and bus drivers be better drivers than everyone else on the road? They do drive around all the time, after all. That's a lot of practice. If they are better drivers then maybe behavioral exceptions could be made to improve productivity or make it a more pleasant job. I'm yet to see any anecdotal or published evidence that they are. Perhaps if the Taxi and Limousine Commission would keep track of accidents we could find out.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Cars are actually ticketed for parking in bike lanes

How about this! Bike lanes are actually being protected in NYC. We'll see how far this goes, but this is a big step towards treating bike lanes as legitimate infrastructure. Now if they will only prevent people from driving in the bike lanes...

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Hybrid car owners drive more

The rebound effect is where the some gains from increased energy efficiency are wiped out because users consume more as the cost of energy declines. This means that a 10 percent increase in fuel efficiency doesn't directly translate into a 10 percent decrease in consumption. The increased efficiency lowers the cost of driving, providing an incentive to drive more. Such effects have been looked at in the literature with regard to income and fuel costs.

A new study by Quality Planning, an insurance consultant firm, estimates that owners of hybrid cars actually drive about 25 percent more discretionary miles than non-hybrid owners. These extra miles diminish some of the gains from having fuel efficient engines. Perhaps even more worrying is that hybrid owners tend to live in urban areas (such as Berkeley), where alternatives to driving are more likely to be present.

Since at this point hybrid owners tend to be 'greens' who are environmentally conscious, we should wonder why they are driving so much. We should also use evidence like this as a basis for user fees that directly price driving to reduce the total amount of miles traveled.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Let's turn Central Park into an airport

I can only assume this is an elaborate joke, but the Manhattan Airport Foundation has gone to great lengths to design a new airport on the site of Central Park. It's hard to tell what is the most outrageous claim they make, but I'll go with 9% of all auto emissions in the city are generated by people traveling to JFK and La Guardia. So the new airport will clean the air!

Driving and the recession

The NY/NJ Port Authority tolled bridges and tunnels reported a drop in traffic for the 19th straight month. The drop in traffic is related to the poor economy, and it is interesting that the bridges and tunnels are affected differently in downtimes depending on their location.

This is more evidence that the high cost of gas last year was not the primary reason for a decline in driving. To me this suggests, at least in part, that it is premature to argue that the era of the big car is over or that permanent changes in travel behavior have occurred.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The risks of cell phones and driving

It's nice to see the NY Times giving major attention to the risks of driving while using cell phones to talk or text. They even provide a little game to demonstrate how lousy you are at multitasking.

Distracted drivers are a serious concern. Christopher Hill, featured in the story, killed a woman because he was using his phone. He got off easy. Had he been drunk, and using a phone while driving has similar effects on reactions, he would be in jail, lose his license, possibly lose his job, be publicly shamed and generally treated like a dirtbag criminal. But since he was using his phone while trying to let his neighbor know about a great piece of furniture (how thoughtful), he only got a misdemeanor. Now he only sometimes uses his phone while driving. Lucky us.

The Oklahoma majority leader brought up a common defense of cell use while driving, which is he has a really long commute and he uses the phone the whole time. This brings up a concern I have and that is our cars are too comfortable. That may sound ridiculous, but consider that many of the efficiency gains in automobile engines have been minimized by the additions of creature comforts. A lot of cars are nicer than the houses of the people who drive them. Nice seats, top notch stereos, air conditioning (or heat), private space (think bigger cars), etc. I don't think that nicer cars have caused more driving directly, but I do think that nice cars make longer commuting distances acceptable, or even enjoyable. I doubt that Oklahoma lawmaker would drive two hours each way if he had a stick-shift, spotty AC and only a radio with cheap speakers. However, using cell phones while driving is one way that driving time, which really should be seen as non-productive or less-productive time, becomes productive time. And people generally try to increase their productive time.

Pat Mokhtarian at UC Davis has explored the positive utility of travel and found evidence that travel is not solely a derived demand. This has implications for what types of cars should be built, and what incentives should be designed to encourage less driving. How utilitarian should cars be? I don't think we want to all drive Ladas, but we shouldn't think of our driving commutes as productive time that should be encouraged through cell use.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Mini E program shows we aren't quite ready for electric vehicles

Dan Neil wrote about some of the troubles with BMW's project to get some electric Minis out on the road in California. Some of the problems, such as BMW delivering cars late, seem minor. However, the problems of infrastructure to recharge the cars is troubling. Apparently the UL has not yet established standards for the high powered electrical infrastructure necessary. There are also problems with trained people to install the new charging systems (are these green jobs?).

In any event, the lack of a dependable infrastructure to charge the vehicles will greatly harm the prospects of a consumer driven switch to electric vehicles. Who pays for this infrastructure is a really big deal, and one that a small group of enthusiasts and BMW can't seem to work out.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

France wants to be less like Bergen County, New Jersey

The President of France is supporting legislation that will loosen restrictive retail laws on Sunday sales. This will make the country less like Bergen County, New Jersey, where just about everything is closed on Sundays. It makes a mess of Saturdays for driving around. Though it is unclear if this will help increase sales or simply shift some sales to Sunday from other days. Even if there is only a shift it may help reduce some of the associated congestion in stores and on roads.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Russia's lost opportunity for road maintenance

Russia is losing 3% of its GDP because of the poor quality of its roadways according to the LA Times The country failed to invest in paving, maintaining and building roads during the oil rich boom years and now faces transportation problems.

Amazingly, transport costs within the country are now about 20 percent of the value of cargo. So much for declining transportation costs. In addition, the country only has about 40 percent of the estimated one million miles of roadways needed. Since Russia is a country with a shrinking population maybe by the time they can afford to build a lot of new roads they won't need so many miles. I'm curious how the quality of the transportation infrastructure affects the relative economic strength of metropolitan regions. How long can some of the small towns with sporadic transportation access to larger cities survive?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Gov. picks London transit official for NYC MTA head

The guy Gov. Paterson picked to run the MTA is an old new face. He was great for the MTA when he was there in the 1980s, and since then he has worked all over, including in London where he was instrumental in implementing the Oyster smart cards. This is probably a really good pick, and it is likely the beginning of the end for Metrocards. This is potentially good for congestion pricing, too.

I now suspect the NYC MTA will switch to smart cards in the next few years, but who knows if the cards will be used to their full potential (a good thing) or if they will just be an expensive way to do what Metrocards do now (that's a bad outcome).

Lost opportunity on health care and the auto industry?

Years ago then-Senator Barack Obama proposed that the U.S. government take over the health care obligations of retired American automakers in exchange for higher fuel economy standards. At the time I thought this was a great proposal because it was clear then that the U.S. government was going to take over those obligations eventually because the automakers were a mess.

I didn't think the U.S. government was going to take over the automakers themselves. Since GM just came out of bankruptcy, now is a good time to consider if what actually happened is a better outcome than what Senator Obama proposed. I suspect that had the US acted on assuming health care and pension obligations we would have avoided taking over the companies, and potentially could have saved GM from itself.

Greening alternative transit vehicles

The NY Times has a story about a contest to design a cleaner tuk tuk. Tuk tuks are common vehicles in many Asian cities. They typically have three wheels and a two-stroke engine. They are big time polluters for global and local air pollution. (Small engines such as those used in tuk tuks and lawn mowers pollute as much in an hour as a car does in 13. And GOP US Senators such as Kit Bond of Missouri have long blocked efforts to add catalytic converters to these engines in the US. Yet another case of federal involvement getting in the way of meaningful reform.)

Cleaning up the two-stroke engine would be a big step forward in cleaning the air of major cities. Even better, the technology needed to build clean tuk tuks or lawnmowers already exists and could be adopted relatively cheaply.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Hang up and drive: walking edition

A teenage girl fell in an open manhole while texting. This is more evidence that cell phones are safety problems for transportation. Talking while driving is bad,texting is worse, especially when driving a bus or train.

But I never thought people actually fell in manholes. Potholes I understand, like what happened to this bicyclist. It could happen to any of us.

Friday, July 10, 2009

New York City now has 620 miles of bike lanes

NYC just completed their 200th bike lane mile in their current expansion of the network, which is now at 620 miles of lanes. The city claims the bike commuting has increased 45 percent since the project began.

If the increase is accurate, is it because of network effects, where the greater network of bike lanes means you can get many more places than before, or is it simply a linear increase? The amount of lane miles increased by 48 percent, after all. If the bike lane network is doubled what would be the expected increase in riding?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

atnmbl self-driving electric cars coming soon!

Mike and Maaike, the design firm behind the Google phone, has released design ideas for a self-driving electric car. Their idea is that people will trade productive time spent traveling for top speeds and power. The cars will be slow but quiet, and will not have steering wheels or pedals. They envision that the vehicles could be ready by 2040. I think this is a great concept, and while it shares some features with PRT, is solves the biggest PRT problem by operating on existing infrastructure.

From a travel behavior perspective automated vehicles will likely increase the overall demand for travel because people won't mind spending time in traffic as much since they could read, work, watch TV or eat without worrying about driving. Of course, lots of people do those things while driving already, but at least with automated cars those behaviors will be safer. But an increase in demand for underpriced auto travel will increase the strain on our infrastructure and potentially cause shifts in development patterns that make transit more difficult to design.

Tornado vs. Freight Train-TKO!

This is an amazing video of a freight train meeting a tornado. The train didn't fair too well, and the town of Lawrence, IL was evacuated because of one of the derailed cars was filled with hazardous materials.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Are trains sexy?

Here is a comic from Peter Bagge of the Reason Foundation that is libertarian through-and-through but makes some points about a fascination with rail transit that some folks have. I have no idea if the first class of most trains are filled with train buffs, but if so that's not really worthy of subsidy.

Fixing NYC traffic

Felix Salmon wrote about a new research project by Charles Komanoff about the costs of traffic in NYC. There is a really neat spreadsheet that Komanoff developed to estimate the various externalities and direct costs of various modes of travel and potential remedies such as congestion pricing. The two big recommendations are that buses should be free and taxis should be more expensive. This helps equalize travel costs across boroughs and opens the door for congestion pricing.

However, the spreadsheet and analysis makes an error that is all too common in transportation analysis and neglects parking altogether. Managing curb parking through performance priced meters is a very effective way to minimize congestion and travel. In parts of NYC (and elsewhere) the share of traffic simply cruising around for a curb space reaches 40 percent. By raising the price of parking the demand for auto travel will decline. The traffic reduction from eliminating cruising may be enough to reduce other direct costs such as tolls and taxi fees. This would make the overall management and use of the transportation systems fairer. The revenue generated from parking charges could be used to improve the pedestrian or bike facilities in the neighborhoods where the money is collected, or it could be used to improve transit. Any use would be better just watching it drive around the block as is the case now.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

How much planning is too much planning?

By most accounts the conversion of Times Square to a pedestrian mall has been a great success. One way to evaluate success is to count the number of occupied seats, and since nearly all of the seats are always occupied it is a great project that achieved the desired goals. Not so, says the New York Times. The writers for the Times really don't like the plastic chairs. They aren't alone, but I think that the utility of having portable and easily replaced furniture is greater than having fancy cement or other permanent benches. Plazas are hard to design well, and are often over-designed in a way that diminishes their usefulness. Times Square seems to work and people seem to like it. How much more planning is there to do?*

*Obviously maintenance and safety costs need to be accounted for, but those seem minimal at this point.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Open source hydrogen automobiles

There is a new company promising to build affordable hydrogen cars. The cars are designed for use as city cars with limited top speeds and range. While those limits are likely to be problematic as people tend to buy much more car than they ever need, the company intends to make the designs available to everyone so that they can be adapted and improved locally. This open source arrangement may be novel enough to overcome the speed and range limits, though it's not clear how the open source process will work with all of the regulations to which cars are subject. However, because hydrogen powered cars can be much simpler (meaning fewer parts) than conventional autos (because there isn't a transmission and the engine is electric) there aren't the same economies of scale issues as conventional building.

Another critical feature is that the cars will only be available as leased vehicles. The idea is that companies will design the cars, own the cars, and invest in the required infrastructure. By turning to an open source model with relatively low overhead the fueling network can be installed city by city (or region by region). This seems like a much more promising approach for switching to hydrogen than a national mandate, but at least in the US requires the federal government to get out of the way.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Who rides transit?

Transit is too often viewed as a a travel mode that is used by a non-representative sample of the US. But the recent deadly crash of the Washington Metro demonstrates that transit is be used by all types of people. This story about the Metro crash victims is a sad reminder that transit is not only for low-income riders.

NYC MTA sells subway station naming rights

The MTA sold the naming rights to a busy subway station in Brooklyn to Barclay's Bank. If the Nets ever build their arena and start playing nearby, this won't be terrible as the arena will be Barclay's Arena. Regardless of the value of the advertising, I think this can potentially diminish the ease of using the system and create too much confusion. This is particularly true as many of the naming rights deals never reach the end of the contract. It is not assured that Barclay's will even exist in 20 years.

But even the advertising people don't like it:

"Still, while selling station names could bring the authority revenue it needs, advertising experts say companies may not be as well-served.

“To be effective, the viewer needs to understand the relevance of the ad,” said Allen Adamson of Landor, a branding firm. “To rename the 59th and Lex stop the McDonald’s stop — it ain’t going to work. I don’t think it will stick.”

Indeed, other cities have tried this with little success. Boston, for example, tried auctioning off four historic stations a few years ago and received no bids. Though Citigroup paid $400 million to sponsor the new Mets stadium in Queens, the company refused to pay the authority to rename the stop nearby, which is now known as Mets/Willets Point."

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Should cities be allowed to regulate greenhouse gas emissions?

A federal judge has ruled that New York City cannot require taxi operators to drive hybrids. (Never mind that there aren't enough hybrids for the entire fleet to comply with the city ordinance.) The judge affirmed that the U.S. government alone has the authority to regulate gas mileage and engine emissions. This is a bad ruling as it limits policy innovation since the city was only requiring a shift towards existing technologies and not new technologies. Most states and cities are too small to have enough market power to change auto companies ways, but New York City is sufficiently large and can act as a laboratory for innovative transportation policies. (Los Angeles and California are also laboratory opportunities for policy innovation using existing technologies.)

Greenhouse gas emissions are certainly a global concern, but particulate matter, noise pollution and other direct effects of gasoline engines are strictly local concerns and should be regulated locally. I wonder if the Mayor required that taxis operated quietly would pass muster legally. Certainly the city ought to be able to regulate particulate matter that causes asthma and other respiratory problems.

If the city is serious about reducing the environmental effects of driving they absolutely should price curb parking at a level that eliminates cruising, which can be as much as 40 percent of traffic in some neighborhoods, and get rid of minimum parking requirements, which incentive driving to work.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Training your customers

Ford has decided that it is in their best interest to offer driving lessons to Chinese. Jalopnik has the press release and many nice videos that demonstrate how insane Chinese intersections can be.

Any new technology requires training, and most Chinese cars are sold to first-time buyers. Not only first time buyers, but first-time drivers. Unlike the U.S., the driving education system in China is virtually non-existent and teaches weird techniques like how to drive on two parallel beams. In the U.S. driver education creates a public good that comes from having well trained motorists. What Ford is doing with their educational efforts in China is anticipating that the public benefits of good drivers will translate into private gains through increased vehicle sales. In addition, by lessening the environmental and social damage from autos Ford can also avoid potential regulations in the future. Though I wonder if the Chinese penchant for queue jumping is manifest in their driving behaviors.

A new congestion pricing proposal for NYC

New York has a real problem with congestion, and the biggest culprit is all the food trucks. Citydesk jokes that the city will start charging food trucks a $15 fee to use certain roads during peak hours. The fake pricing plan led to a fake protest where the food trucks slowed traffic during a PM rush hour. Industrial discrimination, they say! If only there were an El Camino filled with baked beans cruising the city.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Road tolls at the Indianapolis 500

The Indianapolis 500 will use road tolls at the race this year, according to The Onion. The race organizers are even using value pricing, offering the inside part of the track for a 25 percent premium. That's the kind of innovative approach to transportation finance this country needs.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Are NYC taxis countercyclical?

The NYC Taxi Commission released some data that shows that NYC taxis are not suffering in the economic downturn. The number of taxi rides in the city over the past few months have been slightly higher than the average of 400,000-450,000 daily rides. The Commission makes two points that help explain why this is, considering that taxi fares seem like a logical place to cut discretionary spending for individuals. First, there has been a sizable jump in fares paid by credit cards. Since November all cabs are equipped with a credit card reader, and now 20 percent of fares pay this way. The second thing is seemingly related to the first, and that is businesses are substituting taxis for black cars (limos). Taxis are cheaper, and now that the can be easily expensed on a corporate card they are preferred. This claim is supported by a 30 percent decline in black car rides. This is a great example of unexpected benefits from technological adoption of card reading machines. Of course the limo drivers see it differently, but it seems a more efficient use of the existing taxi fleet.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Yet another flying car!

There are so many flying cars available these days it's like we live in the future. Terrafugia is the latest entry into the crowded marketplace. Their design is similar to the Aerocar, which was a model of roadable aircraft. What this means for metropolitan structure is unclear, but if these become popular there will be a spike in traffic at smaller airports. While it may seem unlikely that these vehicles will become commonplace, it's important to remember that about 85 percent of Americans live within 20 minutes of an airport. These cars can be convenient if their cost comes down and the price of fuel stays low (both are unlikely). Then we can worry about designing roads in the sky and how to keep the flying drivers off of their cell phones.

Aramis, Part Deux: Dreams of a post-Kyoto Paris

The New York Times has a story about new designs for Paris' master plan.* The proposed changes to the transportation systems are amazing in their technological innovation and system complexity. The proposals are the result of President Sarkozy's challenge to rethink Paris as a post-Kyoto sustainable city.

The article claims that the architects and designers "forsook flashy imagery for a deep analysis of the city's diverse communities and the fraying tissue that binds them together." They still managed to get a couple of flashy pictures in the Times, and they apparently forgot to provide any of the "deep analysis." Nevertheless, they proposed lots of ambitious designs that include putting tracks underground and building parks on the reclaimed land, building a "hard" green belt that acts as an urban growth boundary, building a giant new train station and, of course, an elevated maglev train. (At least they didn't propose a monorail.)

I think all of the architects and designers (and the President, for that matter) should go back and read Aramis, or The Love of Technology by Bruno LaTour, in which he describes the unbelievably expensive and ultimately doomed attempt to build a new persoanl rapid transit (PRT) system under Paris. LaTour paints a picture of misplaced priorites and incentives, and ultimately a fruitless chase for far more revolutionary transport technology than was possible politically or financially. As LaTour put it, the Aramis project resulted in "the most expensive armchair in the history of technology." The New York Times thinks the current proposals are the most radical in decades, but Aramis was finally put to rest in 1987.

*The headline of the stoy is "A New Paris, as Dreamed by Planners." This is incorrect. It's as dreamed by architects and designers. There is a difference.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A lack of light rail isn't the problem in Detroit

Here is a project that is helping to give light rail a deservedly bad reputation, at least as far as capital costs go. The Detroit's Downtown Development Authority just approved $9 million to help build a $120 million LRT line. The good news is most of the money for the line is privately supplied. The bad news is Detroit doesn't have the necessary conditions for LRT to succeed. The biggest problem is Detroit is shrinking, specifically the employment base is shrinking. As employment centers are the biggest predictor of transit usage, this doesn't bode well. It's also not clear if there is any residential density near the stations in order to fill the trains, and as the city is losing population this is not going to get better. I also doubt Detroit is suffering from heavy congestion.

The biggest worry is more fundamental. Why are business leaders in Detroit fighting for a partially privately funding LRT line in the first place? Not having LRT is not Detroit's biggest problem. Not enough cars probably is closer to the top of the list. Granted, Detroit sees the demise of the carmakers and wants to broaden their industries and occupations, but direct subsidies to businesses and residents is a much better way to spend money than on LRT. Detroit should focus on generative economic policies, not redistributive transportation projects.

Bad ideas in transit finance

New York's MTA has not been able to get on the gravy train of corporate sponsorship. They have been trying to sell the naming rights to the subway station closest to Citi Field, the new home of the Mets. They don't have any takers, however. That's probably for the best since it is unlikely that the name of the stadium will remain Citi Field very long. Stadia tend to get renamed every few years through mergers, acquisitions or fraud. (Remember Enron Field?) That's fine for a stadium. If Citi is replaced there won't be any confusion about where the Mets play. For a subway stop, that's bad. If the station is replaced, or worse yet, if the name gets moved, there is a lot of potential confusion. System knowledge makes transit easier to navigate. Switching station names reduces this knowledge and will likely discourage some future transit trips. I know the MTA needs to raise money, and I'm all for selling advertising on trains and within stations, but the naming rights are a bad idea.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Are VMT a predictor of a recession?

Last year when vehicle miles traveled (VMT) were plummeting, I suspected that the spike in gas prices was less of a driving force for declining VMT than rapidly shrinking housing activity. Part of my evidence for this was based on the uneven increase in transit use. If gas prices were shifting people away from driving but the demand for travel remained constant then most of the shift should be captured by transit. The rest of the shift would go towards car pools, walking, biking and telecommuting. But the case was that overall travel was declining, and I thought that this was a leading indicator of a weakening economy.

I never got around to making a chart showing this, so fortunately Calculated Risk has finally produced one. It's pretty clear that a rapid and large decline in VMT growth occurs right before a recession. Once VMT growth hits about one percent or less year over year, the economy goes bad. Obviously this is a simple apparent correlation and does not suggest causality. Since travel is largely a derived demand, economic performance is a major predictor of VMT. But in the future when we owonder hos the economy is doing we should look to VMT as a proxy measure of health. When VMT declines rapidly we should worry about the overall health of the economy rather than patting ourselves on the back for increased light rail transit boardings.

The chart is from calculated risk.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

President Obama's new wheels are equipped to pay tolls

(via Jalopnik and the Telegraph)
The new presidential limo has many safety features. One of them is that the only window that goes down is the driver's, and it only goes down three inches in order for the driver to "pay a toll or talk with Secret Service agents running alongside." Maybe he's planning to usher in an era of congestion pricing and will lead by example, though I expect he'll want to get an EZ Pass transponder rather than use tollbooths. This is a guy who won't have to stop for a red light for at least the next four years. You'd think they wouldn't need the driver to "pay a toll."

Friday, January 16, 2009

We will soon all drive flying cars

The first flying car is going from London to Timbuktu. I doubt this will actually usher in a new era of personal transportation. I'm a bit disappointed that the vehicle is less Jetson's and more schlep car.

Monday, January 5, 2009

IBM thinks congestion pricing is good business

Congestion pricing is a politically unpopular but very effective way to reduce traffic congestion. While technological applications for administering road tolls used to be a major obstacle for implementation of pricing programs, this is no longer the case. Companies such as IBM invested a great deal of time and money developing new tolling technologies, and now they want to sell them.

I was surprised to see an IBM ad during a NFL game promoting their congestion pricing technologies as part of their Smart Traffic program. (I suspect this was the first nationally televised ad arguing for widespread congestion pricing.) The ad featured all the benefits of congestion pricing but somehow forgot to mention that drivers will have to pay for road space. Rather IBM is promoting tolls as "smart" roads. It's a clever way of phrasing the applications, though I doubt it will increase political support for tolls.

Here is the overview of their argument for smarter roads in the future. They again forgot to mention that drivers will actually have to pay money to get on the roads.

"Clogged roadways need new approaches
Next time you're stuck in traffic ground to a halt, think about this: as smart as our cars have become, our roadways are about to get a whole lot smarter.

It's certainly needed. Cities everywhere are battling an increase in demand and an inability to build sufficient infrastructure to cope. For example, in the U.S., as population grew nearly 20% between 1982 and 2001, traffic jumped 236%.

Building new roads and new lanes often just isn't possible any longer, but building intelligence into the roads and the cars—with roadside sensors, radio frequency tags, and global positioning systems—certainly is.

In Stockholm, a new smart toll system has reduced traffic and carbon emissions by impressive percentages.

In London, a congestion management system has lowered traffic volume to mid-1980s levels.

In Singapore, a traffic prediction system is helping re-route and manage traffic citywide, preventing major back-ups and congestion."