October 2009


Coal Miner

I do not want to challenge 19 really smart professors, but I am skeptical of all the conclusions in the new report from the National Research Council, Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use.  The report, as titled, examined costs of energy, especially coal, that go unaccounted for in market prices.

The report estimates dollar values for several major components of these costs.  The damages the committee was able to quantify were an estimated $120 billion in the U.S. in 2005, a number that reflects primarily health damages from air pollution associated with electricity generation and motor vehicle transportation.  The figure does not include damages from climate change, harm to ecosystems, effects of some air pollutants such as mercury, and risks to national security, which the report examines but does not monetize.

The report made significant conclusions about transportation, especially cars, according to GreenTech Media:

Overall, the transportation industry incurred $56 billion of mostly health-related damage in the United States in 2005. Driving cars typically contributed to less than a third of the hidden costs and translated into 1.2 cents to 1.7 cents per mile traveled, the report said.

Gasoline has earned a foul reputation because the country’s reliance on foreign oil. But the heavy focus on domestically produced ethanol doesn’t necessary provide less damaging options, the report found.

Impact from corn ethanol production was similar or “slightly worse” than gasoline because turning corn into fuel takes more energy, the report said. Making ethanol from corn stover and other types of plants, on the other hand, inflicted less damage.

Electric and plug-in hybrid cars also aren’t as “green” as they appear. While these cars produce less or no emissions, they are run on power from fossil fuels, the report said. Manufacturing batteries and electric motors also takes up quite a lot of energy.

The report concluded that the non-climate damage caused by manufacturing and operating electric/hybrid cars was “somewhat higher” than other types of cars in 2005, and the same trend would continue in 2030.

Maybe it’s difficult, but how do you release a study like that without taking into account the effect on the environment or admitting the political difficulties of oil.  I’m not going to disagree that electric cars that essentially run on oil are problematic too.  However, electric cars, which are picking up steam from major manufacturers, have potential because they could run on renewable energy.  Yet, that doesn’t mean all oil-based cars are inherently wrong.

Electric cars are only part of a larger transit solution, but if we drive electric cars as we drive our current cars we will still have problems.  Our goals instead should always be as follows (in no particular order):

- Driving less, of any car.

- Taking public transportation, walking and cycling more.

- Owning cars for a longer time.  Fuel efficiency is only relevant if the energy to build a car is not used every 2-4 years.

- Driving fuel-efficient cars.

- Building environments and neighborhoods that emphasize these values.

I’m glad someone is taking account of energy use and not just mindlessly swooning over electric cars.  However, electric cars provide part of an answer in a transit and energy revolution and should not be dismissed just because they may run on coal energy now.  Real economists cannot look at just one sector and claim to have made a whole study, the politics and environmental effects of oil and coal and potential for new energy solutions must be taken into account as well.

Inside Philadelphia 30th Street Station

I have no idea what it costs to charter an Amtrak train, but I love the idea.  As I excitedly noted yesterday the World Series is coming and it’s a pure Northeast thriller with the Philadelphia Phillies taking on the New York Yankees.  Apparently the Phillies chartered a train from Philadelphia to get to New York.

Evoking a bygone era when rail travel was the main mode of transportation in baseball, the Philadelphia Phillies rolled into Penn Station on a chartered train about 6:03 p.m. Monday, but they were not looking to the past century for inspiration.

The Phillies previously took the train to the World Series in 1950, when they were swept by the Yankees. But that dreary omen did not deter the defending champion Phillies from using the same mode of transportation that Philadelphia’s Whiz Kids took 59 years ago.

The reason for the train was neither historical novelty nor an exercise in team building in advance of the World Series, which begins Wednesday at Yankee Stadium. It was pure convenience. The distance between Philadelphia and New York is too short for a flight, and a fleet of buses traveling up the New Jersey Turnpike could spend as much time on the approach to the Lincoln Tunnel as the entire train ride.

The only shame about this trip is that the Phillies got the pleasure of starting in the glory of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station but had to end their trip in the travesty that is New York’s New Penn Station.  That said, I hope this becomes more of a trend for organizations like sports teams as so many cities can be traveled between effectively on rail, such as Boston and New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, Chicago and Milwaukee and Los Angeles and San Diego.  I hope more teams partner with Amtrak for their own sake and as an advertisement for America’s train services.

SEPTA Bus, Go Phillies

The buses in Philadelphia pass across Broad Street flashing route numbers and the ubiquitous “GO PHILLIES!” but the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that a strike by the transit workers may be impending.  The Transport Workers Local Union 234 – which represents the bus drivers, subway and trolley operators and mechanics – voted to strike as early as the end of the week.  The workers, who have been without a contract since the spring are prepared to strike just as the World Series, featuring the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Yankees, would begin.  It would be ironic for the buses to stop flashing their cheerleading signs just as the team they support would most need the fans who ride the buses.

The impasse is over how much the workers should be paid (isn’t it always?):

Management has proposed a zero wage increase for the first two years of a new four-year contract, with 2 percent increases each in the final two years. It also wants to increase contributions to health coverage from 1 percent to 4 percent; and to freeze the level of pension benefits to members.

The union wants a wage increase of 4 percent each year, and an increase in pension contributions from $75 to $100 for every year of service.

I am no expert on collective bargaining or SEPTA’s finances, but I hope this comes to a peaceful resolution for the residents of Philadelphia who depend on their public transportation system. My personal opinion is limited to the fact that transit workers generally are compensated rather well for a job that by-and-large requires no real skills to apply for.  This is not true for mechanics and sheet metal workers, but drivers and operators are usually trained on the job.  Every worker deserves a living wage, but those workers also must honestly assess the finances of the businesses they work for.

Of course, as the Transport Politic has illustrated so well, if they strike, this will not be the first time SEPTA workers have done so.  In fact, they have done so in 1944, 1998 and as recently as 2005.  So I trust the good citizens of the city of brotherly love will cope should they need to.

SEPTA is not the only transit organization with worker issues, as VIA Rail in Canada is also engaging in contract talks with its unionized workers.

MetrocardsThe passion of new MTA chaiman Jay Walder in New York is infectious.  I also admit that I have a bit of transit nerd man crush on his use of subway token cuff links.  However, his idea for price restructuring on New York City public transit leaves me a little baffled.  It may just be that the New York Times did an insufficient job explaining the benefits of the policy.

“We might imagine that we offer discounts at later times, or we offer weekend discounts,” Mr. Walder said in an interview on Wednesday. “Time-of-day pricing might be very attractive.”

The goal would be to encourage use of buses and subways during traditionally quieter hours. And it would bring New York’s subway system in line with local commuter rails, which charge a range of fares.

“We have an infrastructure that is set for the capacity of the peak,” Mr. Walder said. “What we really want to do is use that infrastructure all the time.”

The chairman ruled out charging higher prices for longer trips, a system used in cities like Washington and London, saying such a move in New York “would be a mistake.” But he said a frank discussion of changes to the pricing structure “will be an important part of what we’re doing.” A transit spokesman said later that Mr. Walder was not considering higher peak fares.

I understand the desire to have more people riding at non-peak hours in order to make the system run as efficiently as possible.  This is especially true in New York City subways which almost never shut down.  However, I do not follow the logic of reducing prices so people ride more.

In New York there are two types of people who travel at night and weekends, permanent residents and tourists/visitors.  The commuters, who constitute a huge number of MTA’s ridership are avoiding the MTA on nights and weekends if possible.

For the residents and tourists/visitors to ride at night or on weekends requires someplace to go, which is the expensive part in New York, not the subway ride.  Once traveling, though, the only other real option is a taxi and the regardless of the price of an MTA fair, it will almost surely be cheaper than a New York City cab fare which is $2.50 just for getting in the cab.  City residents on the other hand probably own monthly passes which means each additional ride they take, regardless of when they take it, is essentially free.

If anything, it would make more sense to tax certain hours of travel, say 8am-10am and 4pm-7pm to encourage people to take the subway and bus at off peak hours, hence increasing demand the and helping to reduce congestion during rush hours.  However, I like the fact that a transit administrator is excited about transit and trying with innovation to get more people to use it at all times.

Perhaps I am missing something logical and important here.  If one of my readers recognizes it, please inform me and other readers with a comment.

Curitiba Bus

Recently I was reading an old Scientific American article about urban planning in Curitiba, Brazil.  The 1.8 million resident city in southern Brazil is a mecca of urban solutions, especially as related to transportation.  Much of the city’s visionary accomplishment is due to the leadership of former mayor Jaime Lerner, who is an architect and urban planner.

According to that Scientific American article:

Most cities grow in concentric fashion, annexing new districts around the outside while progressively increasing the density of the commercial and business districts at their core.  Congestion is inevitable, especially if most commuters travel from the periphery to the center in private automobiles.  During the 1970’s, Curitiba authorities instead emphasized growth along prescribed structural axes, allowing the city to spread out while developing mass transit that kept shops, workplaces and homes readily accessible to one another.  …

The details of the system are designed for speed and simplicity just as much as the overall architecture.  Special raised-tube bus-stops, where passengers pay their fares in advance (as in a subway station), speed boarding, as do the two extra-wide doors on each bus.  The combination has cut total travel time by a third.  Curitiba also runs double- and triple-length articulated buses that increase the capacity of the express bus lanes. …

To build a subway system would have cost roughly $60 million to $70 million [in 1996] per kilometer; the express bus highways came in at $200,000 per kilometer, including boarding tubes.

This bus rapid transit system carries 75% of the commuters to work every day.  To get a better picture of how this system operates I recommend the short documentary below.

Curitiba was fortunate to still be developing while they built much of their transit system, something cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas can still to some extent take advantage of.  However, I am enamored with the philosophy of both the bus rapid transit system and the tubes servicing them.

I firmly believe that what frequently makes subways more attractive than buses is their permanence and hence perceived reliability.  Having buses that more closely resemble subways and having permanent stops not only creates permanence, but creates efficiency.  We have all been on the bus and sat there waiting for all the passengers to feed their money into the fare box.  By allowing people to pay before boarding there is a huge efficiency advantage over most bus systems in the US.

Curitiba Bus TubeOf course most buses tend to pick up curbside where there is no room for something as large as a Curitiba tube.  However, the potential for a dedicated lane is not dependent on new systems.  Every city has thoroughfares that are essential to traveling through the city and many of them are multiple lanes.  Dedicating one of those lanes, even walling it off such that regular traffic cannot access it would make buses much more desirable.

Currently most buses not only are crowded but go slower than the speed of traffic due to stops.  If buses had dedicated lanes they travel much faster than the rest of the traffic as they will not have to compete with cars.  Imagine as opposed to building a 2nd ave subway in Manhattan one or two lanes of 2nd avenue was just dedicated to rapid transit buses.  Now this isn’t as advantageous in New York, which already primarily travels underground, but you get the idea.

Red LIne to Alewife

Boston media and popular conversation within the city loves to pick on the transportation workhorse of the region, the MBTA.   The T always seems to be held to a very high standard and praise is hard to come upon, especially in the Boston Globe or Boston Herald.

Sunday, the Globe “investigated” why it costs so much to operate the MBTA.  It was far from a positive article, focusing on the costs of the silver line and all-too-briefly discussing the value of per-mile costs versus per-passenger costs.  The data was haphazardly taken from the National Transit Database run by the FTA.

The federal data reviewed by the Globe focus on operating costs and do not take into account debt, the system’s unmet maintenance needs, or chronic problems finishing projects on time and on budget.

But conclusions based on day-to-day operating costs are controversial in transportation circles. The T can look efficient or expensive compared with other agencies, depending on the type of transportation analyzed and how costs are broken down.

Calculating what it costs to run an hour of bus service, for example, yields a different ranking than calculating the cost of running that bus for a mile. Other variables include differences in trip length, size of train cars, and regional cost of living.

Comparisons between transit agencies are “anecdotal at best,’’ said Jonathan Davis, deputy director and chief financial officer at the MBTA. “Our numbers are certainly in line with our peers for operating in an urban environment.’’

This particular article, while critical, seemed to at least cut the T some slack given all the monetary, upkeep, and transit pressures in moving 1.2 million people a day.

While the issues of debt, choices in vehicles used, services provided and cost of maintenance are beyond my knowledge I do wonder how much of any transit system’s economic and service success is based based on the landscape.

Anne Whiston Spirn, currently a professor at Harvard Business School, has emphasized landscape literacy throughout her urban planning career.  So much of the landscape determines how we build and how we design successfully.  Moreover, when we spurn the will of the land, we frequently pay the price.  Much of that landscape determined in Boston how the roads were laid out and where.  That landscape and those roads define the transit system.  I am convinced that the MBTA is less efficient than it could be because the roads are not straight and there are very few easy ways to get from one part of the city to the other.

The roads do not define the debt crisis but I will be intrigued to look at whether systems that have an easier time hewing to straight lines, such as the Manhattan portion of the MTA, are more efficient due to the layout of the system.  The lessons of older systems that impose transit upon existing landscapes have much to teach us about building new transportation systems where cities are still flexible and imagined.

MIT City Car

I stumbled upon images of MIT’s City Car while reading up on various transportation issues today.  Unfortunately, I cannot find anything more on the project more recent than 2007, which is a shame because the idea is so cool.  The City Car is a stackable car, sort of where ZipCar, Smart Cars, folding chairs and bicycle racks all intersect.

The CityCar is a stackable electric two-passenger city vehicle. The one-way sharable user model is designed to be used in dense urban areas. Vehicle Stacks will be placed throughout the city to create an urban transportation network that takes advantage of existing infrastructure such as subway and bus lines. By placing stacks in urban spaces and key points of convergence, the vehicle allows the citizens the flexibility to combine mass transit effectively with individualized mobility. The stack receives incoming vehicles and electrically charges them. Similar to luggage carts at the airport, users simply take the first fully charged vehicle at the front of the stack. The City car is NOT a replacement for personal vehicles, taxis, buses, or trucks; it is a NEW vehicle type that promotes a socially responsible and more effective means of urban mobility.

The CityCar utilizes fully integrated in-wheel electric motors and suspension systems called, “Wheel Robots.” The wheel robots eliminate the need traditional drive train configurations like engine blocks, gear boxes, and differentials because they are self-contained, digitally controlled, and reconfigurable. Additionally, the wheel robot provides all wheel power and steering capable of 360 degrees of movement, thus allowing for Omni-directional movement. The vehicle can maneuver in tight urban spaces and park by sideways translation.

General Motors was collaborating on the project, but perhaps the project has not gone any further.  I think it’s a really cool idea, the whole notion of a stackable car.  The notion of a two-passenger car taking up the room of a motorcycle is just fun to think about.  It would be the kind of thing that would be great for a company like ZipCar or Philly Car Share to invest in, since it would cut down on the space necessary to house the cars, as long as those cars were for intra-city driving only.  Either way, I hope this project is still alive just because I want to see one in person.

Stackable Cars

Traffic Congestion

David Owen wrote in the Wall Street Journal that traffic jams, couterintuitively, are good for public transit ridership.  His basic thesis is that “Traffic jams, if they’re managed well, can actually be good for the environment. They maintain a level of frustration that turns drivers into subway riders or pedestrians.”

Consider me unconvinced.  Maybe short term congestion is a good thing as an inspiration for people to ride the subway.  Though in New York people do not need much convincing.  There is a superior subway system that can take people most anywhere in the borough of Manhattan.  Driving in the city is usually out of necessity or vanity, not convenience.  However, as it relates to other cities there may be a point.

If anything, I was confused by Owen’s article as it seemed to meander, arguing against congestion pricing because, “If the result of congestion pricing is simply to spread traffic out, thereby maintaining or increasing total traffic volume while also making driving more pleasant for those who continue to do it, then its putative environmental benefits are fictitious.”  Yet I also very much agree with Owen’s conclusion:

A truly effective traffic program for any dense city would impose high fees for all automobile access and public parking while also gradually eliminating automobile lanes (thereby reducing total car traffic volume without eliminating the environmentally beneficial burden of driver frustration and inefficiency) and increasing the capacity and efficiency of public transit.

Owen and I fundamentally agree that America needs to drive less and take transit more.  Of course no congestion-reducing scheme, whether it is congestion pricing, traffic calming or another project is really marketable or fair without a public transportation alternative available.  However, congestion might be useful for making localities desire better public transportation.

The future is bright though according to the Los Angeles Times, which reports that J.D. Power has found that teens are not interested in automobiles.

“The negative perceptions of the automotive industry that teens and early careerists hold could have implications on future vehicle sales,” said Chance Parker, vice president and general manager of J.D. Power and Associates Web Intelligence Division.“Generation Y could have the greatest spending power of any generation — even surpassing that of the Baby Boomers. It will be essential for automakers to earn the trust and loyalty of Gen-Y consumers, who are particularly critical of brands and products.”

In Japan, the first major developed country to actually experience a decline in car ownership, disinterest among young people in owning cars — especially in urban areas such as Tokyo — is cited as one of the factors behind “demotorization.”

Of course the research on social network websites seems a little flimsy.  But there is no denying that cars are incredibly expensive especially to a teen, when taking in the cost of a car, gas and insurance.  One can only hope that such trends carry through to their adulthood and those current teens demand better transit and fewer cars.

HOT-lanes

USA Today wrote in September that the percentange of people driving alone to work dropped from 76% to 75.5%.  In addition, the paper reported that the number of households with one or zero cars rose from 41.8% to 42.2%.  Both of these may be consequences of the recession, with people cutting back on costs all around.  Given that transportation is an American family’s second largest cost after housing, on average, makes it no surprise that some people are cutting back where they can.

If the government wants to capitalize on these trends, and battle the conspicuous consumerism and misguided dependence on the automobile that has led this country to own almost as many cars as people that live here it must not only fund transit, but stop subsidizing both cars and parking so much.  Streetsblog effectively exposed how much the government subsidizes parking rather than transit:

But the subsidy debate often overlooks the government tax exemption for workers’ parking expenses. And federal parking subsidies are skyrocketing, as Subsidyscope revealed yesterday in its data-packed report on U.S. transport spending: the value of tax-free parking will reach $3 billion this year, compared with $500 million in subsidies for transit use.

The imbalance might be corrected if the government treated parking and transit equally when it came to tax benefits. Workers can write off a maximum of slightly more than $200 in monthly parking benefits, while the maximum tax-free value of transit passes is about $100 less per month.

All of this contributes to why I was not so upset when Detroit began faltering last year.  I have the utmost sympathy for those who have lost their jobs, but I have little love for America’s obsession with driving, especially driving alone.  The government could do a lot to encourage people to drive less to work alone.

Transit cannot be built overnight and is expensive to operate and build.  However, the government can encourage people to commute together, and not just through HOV and HOT lanes.  The subsidy for parking should be done away with or reduced such that people are given greater reason to commute with neighbors, friends and coworkers.

Moreover, while new transit systems, especially rail-based systems require radical infrastructure investments, park & ride systems or other bus systems that travel on existing routes can be immensely effective.  If the parking subsidy were transferred to park & ride subsidies such that people could still take the highway it would be effective.  In fact, if current HOT and HOV lanes were reserved only for public transit buses those who took public transit would actually get to work more quickly!

Americans need cars, but they don’t need multiple of them and they do not need to drive them alone every day.  The recession is an opportunity to mold transit habits while people are willing to make changes.

WVirginia-PRT-system-full

I have written about pod transportation here many times in the past.  Therefore, I was pleased to see a feature on pods in the Boston Globe on Sunday.  The article did an effective job of communicating the challenges and promise of pod transportation.  There is no debating the upfront cost of such a system and the fact that such personal rapid transit (PRT) systems are not effective everywhere.  However, no means of transportation is effective everywhere.  Try flying a 747 to the grocery store!

That said, I believe there is enormous hope for pod transportation in places that are currently urban but not quite dense enough to support thorough public transportation by bus or light rail.  There are dozens of neighborhoods in every city that are distinctively urban: multi-family housing, integrated commercial and residential property, little open land beyond parks but are not quite suitable for anything but the ubiquitous car.  Such neighborhoods are plagued by the catch that if they established bus service there is not enough ridership to support a bus frequently and if the bus doesn’t run frequently it no longer is convenient. Regardless of the relative costs of transportation, people will always be willing to pay more for convenience and time.  If public transportation cannot compete with private means it cannot be effective.

While some true believers hope PRT will eventually become a dominant mode of transit, others see it more as a gap-filler. It could serve places like airports, university campuses, and medical centers. As a “distributor,” it could branch out into less dense areas to bring riders to other mass transit hubs. And it could provide a valuable service in “edge cities,” to ferry people from residential areas to shopping areas or office parks – routes that are now taken almost exclusively in automobiles.

“We’re typically looking for niche applications,” says Steve Raney of Advanced Transit Systems, the company that is building the system at Heathrow. Likening PRT to “a shuttle bus on steroids,” he says that although it won’t completely obviate the need for cars, “what previously was a two-car family now becomes a one-car family.”

The Globe article suggested elevated tracks, but that is not necessary, as seen at Heathrow airport for parts of its new pod system.

Pod systems are idea for getting people between places highly traveled like a parking lot and an airport or various parts of a neighborhood and major transit hubs.  It is the latter that I think has the most promise.  In an airport parking lot people will accept the option given to them, but when traveling around a neighborhood and to work people make fundamental decisions that affect the environment socially and physically.

I try to remind the readers that the population of the US is going to expand to over 400 million residents by 2050.  These people are going to have to live somewhere and the extent to which we can continue to create suburban and ex-urban communities is peaking or has peaked.  Our urban neighborhoods are our future and creating transit systems that service them appropriately is key to their success.  Pods may be a great solution for making urban neighborhoods denser, more sustainable and importantly less car dependent.

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