November 2009


These days we’re thrilled when can look online to locate where a bus is or whether flights or trains are on time.  However, the nascent technologies tracking flights and buses can tell transportation planners and managers much more about the system.

My friend Greg Moran, a consultant at Fieldstone Capital, alerted me to a new project that MIT is spearheading in conjunction with Singapore as part of the Transportation@MIT project.  This particular project, in conjunction with universities in Singapore will use information technology to evaluate transportation and commerce and figure out how to move people most efficiently in terms of time, energy and sustainability.

At the heart of the Singapore project is SimMobility, a simulation platform with an integrated model of human and commercial activities, land use, transportation, environmental impacts, and energy use. This simulation will be linked with a range of networked computing and control technology-enabled mobility innovations. The project’s researchers plan to use the data generated by these devices, and a range of new analytical tools that harness real-time information and management systems, to design and evaluate new mobility solutions for urban settings in and beyond Singapore.

“The central theme of this project is straightforward and ambitious,” says Odoni. “Can we bring together the extraordinary recent advances in information technology and transportation science and increase the capacity and efficiency of urban transportation systems to provide high-quality service to urban travelers? And can we, at the same time, ensure a sustainable and livable environment?”

In addition to being one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world, Singapore already has a robust urban transportation system, as well as one of the world’s most complete suites of sustainable mobility policies, regulations, and practices. “Singapore is an ideal location to test some of these ideas,” says Professor Cynthia Barnhart, an operations researcher and one of the organizers of the project.

Singapore is an admittedly exciting place to perform this kind of applied research.  Singapore has a large public transit network that about half the population uses daily and the city-state itself is contained and easy to measure given its size and the ability to truly count what each person is doing.

In a future world where all transportation modes may depend on the electric grid in one form or another performing this type of analysis is critical for creating transportation policy.  This research can help localities plan where to build more public transit networks and of what type.  It can help energy companies decide at what point to release the most energy onto the grid.  It can also help governments incentivize travel at certain times and less at others.  It can reward companies for establishing work hours at certain times of the day to coordinate travel.

In a world where transportation is sustainable it must be efficient.  Efficient in time for the person using it, efficient for energy consumed and efficient in the reliability and durability of the machinery and support systems used in the system.  Real-time data and information technology is the wave of the future in understanding how to make transportation systems most efficient, sustainable, reliable and effective.

Today I would like to connect infrastructure improvements to both jobs and social interactions.

With all the talk of the thus-far jobless recovery, investment in transportation and other infrastructure may never be more important.  We have shipped so many of many of our manufacturing jobs overseas, and that has dramatic consequences because the people who used to have those jobs are not trained to suddenly take desk or service jobs.  However, construction and its related needs–such as concrete production–cannot be shipped overseas.

Bob Herbert noted the tremendous importance of infrastructure in America historically and the incredibly important role it will play in the American future.  He stated the obvious, that we have neglected our infrastructure for too long and that if America is to thrive once again it will be on the back of dependable infrastructure:

We used to be so much smarter about this stuff. A recent publication from the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution reminds us that:

“Since the beginning of our republic, transportation and infrastructure have played a central role in advancing the American economy — from the canals of upstate New York to the railroads that linked the heartland to industrial centers and finally the interstate highway system that ultimately connected all regions of the nation.

“In each of those periods, there was a sharp focus on how infrastructure investments could be used as catalysts for economic expansion and evolution.”

Policy makers all but gave up on that kind of thinking years ago. America’s infrastructure, once the finest in the world, has been neglected for decades, and it shows. Felix Rohatyn’s book on the subject, “Bold Endeavors,” opens with: “The nation is falling apart — literally.”

It’s almost as if we no longer understand the crucial links between infrastructure and the health of the American economy, the state of the environment and the viability of the nation as a whole. We’ve become stupid about this.

While it is a tangential connection, I would like to suggest that building improved transportation infrastructure is also important for the social capital of this country.  We are becoming increasingly disjointed and independent, living in digital social realms and within cubicles that frequently separate us from each other, getting to work individually in cars.  It is rare outside the sporting event and church that we feel immersed in communal space and the larger venture that we acknowledge as society.

Slate recently wrote about social interactions on the subway and how people react to certain requests, such as the ability to take a seat.  There is a certain etiquette to traveling on public transportation, and admittedly different rules for different modes in different places.  However, it is amazing how the little things of seeing people of different socio-economic status, age and ability is of great value to our sense of place and understanding.  Moreover, transportation is the great uniter.  Working for the MBTA this past summer, everyone always reacted to my experience with a story or notion about public transit.

Getting people out of their cars and into shared spaces is an important element of reuniting a divided society and to do it we need to invest in infrastructure, one of the keys to jobs for people of all talents and classes, going forward.

where_the_sidewalk_ends1

In eighth grade Mr. Chomskey made my class memorize parts of The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes. The poem begins:

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
Riding—riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

I can still hear that click-clack rhythm of hoofs beating in some recess of my memory.  For those of you familiar with the poem, the tale of two Revolutionary War era lovers torn asunder by King George’s Army, you know that the Highway Man comes to an untimely end on the road in the glow of a midnight moon.

This was my first literary exposure to the danger of transportation, but we all grow up knowing that transportation is an inherently dangerous activity.  Transportation will always be dangerous as long as human actors are making decisions about rapid movement and operating fast-moving and heavy vehicles.  However, there should be an imperative to make transportation as safe as possible.

Two pieces of news strike this chord.  First, Britain has outlawed texting while driving.

Britain’s new guidelines state that using a hand-held phone when causing a death will “always make the offense more serious” in terms of punishment and lead to prison time. Texting is given special treatment.

I hope that Britain’s action is a lead for federal US legislation.  Some states have already begun down this path, but the feds can outlaw texting while driving as easily as they create a national drinking age of 21.  Simply connect federal transportation (namely highway) money to laws banning texting while driving.  That certainly passes constitutional muster.

Second, Transportation 4 America has reported that 76,000 Americans have died in the last 15 years while walking in or along a street.  The FDA wants to ban summer oysters because 15 people (largely people with liver problems) a year die from food poisoning but this nation has yet to take pedestrian and road safety seriously.

This report also analyzes state and regional spending of federal transportation dollars on pedestrian safety, finding that many of the metropolitan areas in greatest need of improvement are spending the least amount on pedestrian safety projects. Nationwide, less than 1.5 percent of funds authorized under the federal transportation law, SAFETEA-LU, have been allocated for projects to improve the safety of walking and bicycling, even though pedestrians comprise 11.8 percent of all traffic deaths and trips made on foot account for almost 9 percent of total trips. SAFETEA-LU created a new safety program and changed regulations to make it easier to use what were once “highway funds” on a wider variety of transportation projects, including public transportation and pedestrian facilities.

At the state and local levels, no state spends more than 5 percent of federal transportation funds on sidewalks, crosswalks, traffic calming, speed humps, multi-use paths, or safety programs for pedestrians or cyclists. This is in spite of a more than 30 percent increase in total federal transportation dollars to states with the passage of SAFETEA-LU in 2005. The 52 largest metro areas averaged annual spending of federal funds on bicycle and pedestrian projects of just $1.39 per person. The average metro area spends 2.2 percent of their federal transportation funds on projects to improve conditions for walking and bicycling.

I’m not really sure when we will wake up to the fact that we are a multi-modal nation and that our culture of depending on cars to get us everywhere actually gets us nowhere.  The number of deaths to pedestrians is downright unacceptable.  It is a sign that we do not encourage walking enough, that we subsidize driving to an unhealthy degree, and that our development and growth has poorly prioritized the types of communities where people can travel safely without turning on a motor.

Transportation is about getting people from one place to another, and all people should have the right to expect to arrive at their destination safely.  That should especially apply to those taking the least dangerous means of conveyance, their feet.  Or else we may end up metaphorically like the highwayman:

Back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky,
With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high!
Blood-red were his spurs i’ the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat,
When they shot him down on the highway,
Down like a dog on the highway,
And he lay in his blood on the highway, with the bunch of lace at his throat.

MBTA near miss

Last week’s SEPTA strike was deeply unsettling to me and momentarily made me rethink my approach toward transit workers.  However, even if the SEPTA workers were greedy and stubborn, I still believe we should appreciate those who get us from here to there and back.

In particular, we should all be thanking Charice Lewis who operates an Orange Line train for the MBTA in Boston.  On Friday night Lewis managed to pull her emergency break in time to save the life of a passenger who drunkenly stumbled onto the track (the picture above has a link to more photos and the article linked to has video).

The fact that this train stopped is a minor miracle.  The passenger fell off at the front of the platform such that the train had the least amount of time to stop.  Of course the woman who fell off the platform had been drinking for several hours prior.  She managed to survive with just scraped knees.  While the operator should be heralded, the passengers who took care to wave down the train should also be congratulated.  Though it is not quite as impressive as the man who jumped into the NYC subway in 2007 to save another man’s life.

So, thank your public transportation drivers, they are critical to your movement and routine, and just might save your life.  Oh, and please stand behind the yellow line!

portland_streetcarIs there a correlation between successful public transportation systems and white population of a city? One of the most provocative and intriguing pieces of urban theory I have read in a while was posted by Aaron Renn of Urbanophile at New Geography.  Renn’s thesis is that what unites “progressive” cities that are dense and emphasizing public transit, like Minneapolis, Austin and Portland, is that they are incredibly white.

Renn points out that the average American city is 12.8% black, some cities much more so, such as Cleveland (29.3%), Nashville (27.4%) and Indianapolis (25.9%).  These cities are compared to said “progressive” cities, such as Austin (8.8%), Portland (6.0%) and Seattle (6.2%).

As the college educated flock to these progressive El Dorados, many factors are cited as reasons: transit systems, density, bike lanes, walkable communities, robust art and cultural scenes. But another way to look at it is simply as White Flight writ large. Why move to the suburbs of your stodgy Midwest city to escape African Americans and get criticized for it when you can move to Portland and actually be praised as progressive, urban and hip? Many of the policies of Portland are not that dissimilar from those of upscale suburbs in their effects. Urban growth boundaries and other mechanisms raise land prices and render housing less affordable exactly the same as large lot zoning and building codes that mandate brick and other expensive materials do. They both contribute to reducing housing affordability for historically disadvantaged communities. Just like the most exclusive suburbs.

In fact, lack of ethnic diversity may have much to do with what allows these places to be “progressive”. It’s easy to have Scandinavian policies if you have Scandinavian demographics. Minneapolis-St. Paul, of course, is notable in its Scandinavian heritage; Seattle and Portland received much of their initial migrants from the northern tier of America, which has always been heavily Germanic and Scandinavian.

In comparison to the great cities of the Rust Belt, the Northeast, California and Texas, these cities have relatively homogenous populations. Lack of diversity in culture makes it far easier to implement “progressive” policies that cater to populations with similar values; much the same can be seen in such celebrated urban model cultures in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Their relative wealth also leads to a natural adoption of the default strategy of the upscale suburb: the nicest stuff for the people with the most money. It is much more difficult when you have more racially and economically diverse populations with different needs, interests, and desires to reconcile.

Having lived and worked in Philadelphia, New York and Boston I have spent plenty of time pondering the different attitudes and expectations toward transit in those various cities.  Through those experiences I have come to the conclusion that transportation systems work best when there is investment and ridership from the privileged, educated and economically well-off, i.e. white people.

When public transportation is perceived as charity for those who are poor it will never be invested in and respected by those who throw their weight around cities; business leaders, government employees, professors and doctors. Rather, when public transportation is utilized by people throughout a city and when privileged people depend on transit to get them from place-to-place the system will be invested in and respected.

I am frequently taken aback at the differences between the MBTA in Boston and SEPTA in Philadelphia (beyond the propensity to strike).  In Boston public transportation serves such wealthy and privileged places as Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Boston College, Massachusetts General Hospital, Newton, and Beacon Hill.  In Philadelphia, where most of the wealth resides outside the city or in suburb-like areas within the cities, the public transportation system primarily serves poorer black residents in North Philadelphia and West Philadelphia.  In Boston I’ve never seen anyone smoke on a platform or leave tons of trash behind on a train, whereas I see it happen all the time in Philadelphia.

Perception and attitude have as much to do with those riding the buses and trains as with those funding the buses and trains.  There must be a correlation between the two, where those invested see the dividends in daily experience.  Perhaps that is why systems like those in Portland and Seattle are succeeding whereas for those in Cleveland and Indianapolis transit may be seen as nothing more as welfare for those not strong enough to pull themselves up by the bootstraps for a car.

The most critical change in thinking that must occur nationwide is that transit is neither progressive nor liberal, but sound policy for all people regardless of race or class.

BNSF System Map

The biggest railroad news in a while occurred yesterday when it was announced that Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway were purchasing BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe).  Buffett agreed to purchase the 77.4% of the company that he did not already own for $26 billion.

BNSF, which is a relatively new railroad as an entity, is actually a combination of many older railroads including the Burlington Northern and the Santa Fe.  The railroad covers 32,000 miles of track, 6,700 locomotives and 220,000 freight cars.  The company’s biggest clients are coal and agricultural product shippers.

That begs the question of why Buffett made the investment.  Is he betting on trains, coal, industrial agriculture, or all of the above?  Streetsblog’s Elana Schor takes a swing at that question:

That environmental rationale for Buffett’s deal struck some in Washington as dubious. Frank O’Donnell, president of the green group Clean Air Watch, wrote on his website that the BNSF deal was “the biggest climate story of the day,” bigger even than the political maneuverings of the Senate environment committee:

This is a $34 billion dollar bet that coal will remain the centerpiece of American energy policy in the future. Buffett clearly believes that coal use will remain strong – and possibly grow. So he is putting his money on a vision of America with no effective climate policy at all – or at least one that doesn’t slow coal growth.

BNSF’s reliance on coal is indisputable; the black stuff has accounted for nearly half of its tonnage this year, and MarketWatch estimates that 10 percent of U.S. electricity comes from coal hauled by the railroad.

As coal-hauling railroads go, however, BNSF has made an attempt to distinguish itself on the energy efficiency end. The railroad is developing an emissions-free hydrogen-powered locomotive, and in May started to test-run a group of GE locomotives that cuts emissions by 40 percent over previous, dirtier models.

My take (and part of Elana’s) is this purchase is a good thing.  I personally don’t care if Buffett is invested in coal – because it is admittedly not going anywhere any time soon – because Buffett will be invested in transportation and rail infrastructure.  He will be invested in making the rail infrastructure solid, having working trains and hopefully growing the network.

Passenger transportation gets the most news coverage, but freight transportation is equally important.  The effect of truck freight transportation on roads and the environment is well documented.  Moving more of our freight to rails is good for everyone, including driver safety and those living close to highways.

Moreover, maintaining high quality rail corridors is also good for passenger rail as Amtrak and many public transit commuter rail systems already run on freight-owned rails.  Expanding networks is good for the future of commuter and inter-city rail too.

Good for Buffett in seeing that America’s transportation future lies on the tracks, not on its asphalt roads.

Septa Market Frankford EL

Well, it happened.  The Phillies staved off elimination in the World Series against the Yankees.  Barely before the dust from the fireworks had settled in the parking lot of Citizens Bank Park the transportation workers’ union did the inevitable, they started to strike.

They strike is based on struggling contract negotiations.  I’ll let the Philadelphia Inquirer explain fully:

Rendell said the union chose to walk away from an “excellent” contract offer that includes 11 percent in wage increases over five years, and 11 percent increase in pension contributions, and no increases in workers’ contribution for health care.

“Think about that,” Rendell said. “Whose pension has been increased in this day and age?”

According to TWU officials, SEPTA management has proposed no wage increase for the first two years of a four-year contract and a 2 percent increase in each of the final two years. It also wanted to increase worker contributions to health coverage from 1 percent to 4 percent and freeze the level of pension benefits.

The union wants a 4 percent raise each year and health contributions to remain 1 percent. It is also seeking an increase in pension contributions from $75 to $100 for every year of service.

The TWU also is seeking changes in subcontracting and training provisions to allow members to do maintenance and repair work on buses and trolleys now done by outside contractors.

SEPTA’s 5,100 unionized bus drivers, subway and trolley operators earn from $14.54 to $24.24 an hour, reaching the top rate after four years. Mechanics earn $14.40 to $27.59 an hour.

I am a huge public transportation advocate and I have made a point on this blog in the past about treating transit workers with respect.  However, I find this strike rather distasteful.  First off, in a city and region that depends on transit you need to give riders greater warning than just walking off the job at 3am.  If you want respect you need to give it back.

Moreover, while transit employees work hard and deserve a living wage, they also do not have any real fungible skills or training.  The $24.40 an hour they can earn after four years (equivalent to $48,480 a year on a 40-hour work week) seems perfectly appropriate given the position.  Two people earning that salary can more than support a full family in Philadelphia.

The healthcare, wage and pension expectations seem plain greedy when 10% of the country cannot find employment at all and many of their riders are working overtime just to make ends meet.  Most importantly, the union is bargaining with a semi-public agency, not a multi-billion dollar publicly held company.  SEPTA is not trying to gouge its workers, rather just trying to make ends meet on an already stretched budge.

This strike needs to end soon, it is not good for any of the parties involved.

velib

In Friday’s New York Times was an article about the French bicycle renting system, Velib’.  I was disappointed to learn that the system is being plagued by vandalism and theft.  According to the article, the bike-renting service provides 50,000 to 150,000 rides per day.  However, 80% of the original 20,600 bicycles have been stolen or damaged.  Much of the crime has to do with Paris’s social inequalities and perceived economic and class dynamics of the transportation mode.

The heavy, sandy-bronze Vélib’ bicycles are seen as an accoutrement of the “bobos,” or “bourgeois-bohèmes,” the trendy urban middle class, and they stir resentment and covetousness. They are often being vandalized in a socially divided Paris by resentful, angry or anarchic youth, the police and sociologists say.

Bruno Marzloff, a sociologist who specializes in transportation, said, “One must relate this to other incivilities, and especially the burning of cars,” referring to gangs of immigrant youths burning cars during riots in the suburbs in 2005.

He said he believed there was social revolt behind Vélib’ vandalism, especially for suburban residents, many of them poor immigrants who feel excluded from the glamorous side of Paris.

“It is an outcry, a form of rebellion; this violence is not gratuitous,” Mr. Marzloff said. “There is an element of negligence that means, ‘We don’t have the right to mobility like other people, to get to Paris it’s a huge pain, we don’t have cars, and when we do, it’s too expensive and too far.’ ”

The Velib’ has expanded beyond the Parisian urban core to 29 other towns and suburbs.  I hope that there are solutions to the problems the Velib’ faces in Paris, because I would love this to be a viable model for other cities and towns around the world, and especially in the US.

While Paris requires a credit card to borrow a bicycle and fines individuals for not returning bikes perhaps they should consider making users better internalize the costs true to form of most car rental systems, including Zipcar.  When you rent a car you can frequently choose to forgo paying for insurance, but most drivers purchase it in case of an accident.  Perhaps Velib’ should make riders pay more for the costs of damage and stolen bicycles and offer insurance to cover such costs.

In addition, social ownership of public transit is a problem throughout the world.  In order to keep public transportation clean and well respected the riders must feel a sense of ownership for the system and a sense of responsibility toward keeping it safe and productive.  I know very little about French socioeconomics, but perhaps more bicycles need to be placed in urban neighborhoods.  Perhaps there need to be discount rates for the underprivileged.  Whatever solutions are available, I hope they can be implemented so more cities look to Paris as a model rather than a warning.

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In unrelated news, the New York Times also had a quirky and enjoyable vacation feature on the Station Inn in Cresson, PA.  It sort of looks like the nightmare train scene from My Cousin Vinny, but it also looks like a really fun vacation.  The Station Inn provides railside views of dozens of freight trains passing through every day and people come from all over the world to watch the trains and discuss rail trivia.  I mostly would want to go to sit on the porch and hear all the rail enthusiasts chat it up.  However, something tells me my partner would not be interested in such a trip.

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