Article I Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the authority “To Establish Post Offices and Post Roads”.  Like most enumerated powers of the Constitution, this was not a suggestion to Congress, but a responsibility.  However, in the age of email, UPS, FedEx and DHL, both the monopoly and the seeming necessity of the post office have diminished.  USPS is now seeking to lay off as many as 120,000 workers and close 3,700 post office locations.

USPS, much like its private-public cousin Amtrak, is stuck in an uncomfortable position.  It is a public entity providing an essential service and monitored by the federal government in the process.  At the same time, it is largely expected to run as a for-profit corporation.  That seems to be a broken system, that leaves essential government-owned infrastructure both unable to keep up with private competitors, and underfunded to serve locations and needs that cannot be properly met on a for-profit model.

Despite the presence of email and other private delivery services, USPS still provides an essential service.  It links communities and the people within to the outside world, as well as providing critical jobs.  USPS is also a national and cultural icon, uniting a diverse nation together.  Given that the post office finds its roots in one of the rare enumerated powers of the US Constitution, subsidizing the USPS and spearheading its modernization is something the Tea Party would finally be right to scream about.

While I am not a logistics expert, USPS with its world’s largest civilian fleet of 218,684 vehicles, has a huge transportation problem, as much as anything else.  The Infrastructurist wisely suggested that USPS must modernize its vehicle fleet and emphasize fuel efficiency, ASAP.  I could not agree more.

I believe access to the post office is critical, especially for the poor and for the elderly.  One area where the postal service can save money long term is in fuel costs (especially as gasoline prices continue to climb).  With an enormous fleet of local delivery vehicles, frequently stopping and starting, and moving short distances, USPS is primed for an efficiency mandate.  By making a partial switch to electric vehicles they could also assist in energy modernization by fueling at night and helping to protect consistent energy production on the grid.  Hybrid cars are also key.  USPS could also think outside the box to save money on fuel.  In warmer communities some postal workers could offer delivery via rickshaw or bikes with trailers.

I am not personally familiar with the economics of delivery of the mail and particular services, so I am going to shoot from the hip now.  It seems to me that mail has been sorted into three categories lately: next day or 2 day, moderately fast, and where speed doesn’t matter as long as it gets there.  Perhaps USPS could offer more services like Media Mail that offer slower service at a lower price, and entice some ground shipments away from UPS and FedEx.  While doing so, it could utilize more efficient and cost effective transportation methods, such as freight rail.

Regardless of the solution, the federal government must own up to its constitutional responsibilities.  The Postal Service is critical to America and as such should not be a purely for-profit business.  Those parts that are profitable should be so, and the business should modernize.  However, Congress should subsidize USPS for offices and services, that while necessary for those served, cannot be justified economically.

On September 11th, 2001 I was a junior in high school, living in a New Jersey suburb of New York City.  My father was working in the city that day.  When I was told that a plane hit the World Trade Center, I assumed it must have been a small plane, like the one that flew into the Empire State Building decades earlier.  I was wrong.

The decade since has been the decade in which I have come of age and begun to understand the world around me.  As I look back, not just as a citizen, but as the transportation lover and advocate who writes this blog, I am saddened and dismayed.  I am demoralized by what has been termed a lost decade.  That day, ten years ago, the United States was attacked by men from the Middle East.  America has had a strategic interest in the Middle East for decades for many reason, but the first has always been the oil on which the American economy depends on.

Instead of seeing the attacks as the kick in the pants we needed to change our joint energy and transportation policy, we doubled down on oil.  We did not invest in infrastructure to reduce our dependence through vehicles with better mileage, denser cities, better regional planning, more public transportation, and research into new technologies.  We did not see the irony that the oil inside the planes caused the destruction of the two towers.  Instead we went to war with an oil producing nation and were told to just keep on acting as we had been.  This was a moral failure of leadership, but we as Americans also failed to look in the mirror.

Today, we can do better.  With the benefit of hindsight, knowing how little we have accomplished in the past decade, and understanding that we may have actually fallen behind – now is the time to start working towards change.  We should not rethink energy and transportation system because of terrorism, but we should now understand that our foreign oil dependence can come with consequences that hit close to home.

Today the kick in the pants should be the rising price of oil.  America was built on cheap oil.  There are real questions about where our economy will go without the presence of cheap oil.  We cannot continue to sprawl and drive everywhere, cool our buildings to arctic temperatures, consume plastics as if they are renewable, and just hope that gas gets cheaper.

On September 11th we should remember that our love of cheap oil contributed to our situation.  A decade later we have not changed that love, but we have all the proof we need to know we cannot keep doing the same things we are currently doing.  On this September 11th we should be committed to ensuring that the next decade is not lost as well.

As much of the nation is walloped by another storm, our transportation needs again come to the forefront.  However, while the news focuses on delays and cancellations at airports and traffic on the roads, I am concerned about our sidewalks.

Prior to today Boston had been pounded by over 60 inches of snow.  Day in and day out, I have trudged across banks of snow and over poorly shoveled walks in my trusty winter boots.  But each time I do so I wonder how the elderly and those with disabilities are traversing their neighborhood streets. How are they getting to work, to the grocery store, even out of the apartment to walk the dog?

I am shocked by the pathetic response by homeowners and landlords to snow on their sidewalks.  Many people have shoveled, but few fulfill the 42 inch requirement stated in the Boston Municipal Code.  It seems even those who shovel rarely complete the responsibility within the time dictated by the law.  In fact, there seems to be a proportionate inverse relationship between the amount a property owner drives and the quality of his or her sidewalk.  I have been particularly dismayed by the sidewalks of many wealthy suburbanites.

However, cities like Boston do have recourse against what is not just lawlessness, but a disregard for civic responsibility.  Local laws permit municipalities to fine those who do not appropriately shovel their walks.  In a time of fiscal challenge for most municipalities actually levying the fines on not shoveling would have the dual benefit of raising revenue and creating greater incentive for property owners to shovel.

In the age of the Americans with Disabilities Act, there is no excuse for any property owner not clearing his or her walkway of all impediments, especially snow and ice in the winter.

The photo above is of the Chicago landscape at night.  I had the pleasure of seeing a similar image as I flew into Midway airport recently.  I was mesmerized as I looked out my window and could not peel my eyes off the glittering landscape below. During daytime one can usually discern the layout of a city by the blocks and ribbons of white and red lights on the road.  However, at night, cities frequently turn into patches of fuzzy yellow light and darkness.  Chicago is startling, for the logic of the city is actually more apparent at night than during the day.

This view illuminates Daniel Burnham‘s genius.  Chicago’s grid – not quite radiating, but rather flowing – from its central loop is traced by row upon row of perfectly aligned street lights.  The grid at once appears startling simple – straight lines conversing an entire city – and and overwhelmingly complex – thinking of how many people utilize that landscape, and for how many purposes.   Moreover, as a directionally-challenged individual, I love seeing straight streets, logically spaced, running perfectly north, south, east and west.  Perhaps it also arises from my love affair with Philadelphia’s Penn-laid grid.

In my opinion, cities are one of the greatest creations of man.  Cities themselves are organisms, incredibly complex and beautiful.  There is an astounding brilliance in the operation of a great city.  The grid of Chicago makes the city look both like a beautiful organism and an astounding machine.  Each city has its imperfections, but the night view makes Chicago glimmer.

Why are our highways built the way they are?  What makes driving safe, or at least safer?  Is speed alone dangerous, or is it contextual?

Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us) is one part research investigation, one part history, one part psychological analysis, one part cultural analysis, and 100% fascinating.  As a fellow amateur transportation enthusiast, I admire Vanderbilt for his drive to self education on the systems we all participate in.

I highly recommend the book to the transportation enthusiast and casual reader alike.  The book does far more than describe our roads and how they work.  Vanderbilt shares dozens of fascinating tidbits that will amuse and amaze you and your friends.  More importantly, he sheds light on human behavior and American culture.  Roads in and of themselves are rather characterless; what matters is how we use them and how those roads shape us as individuals and as communities.

After all, is there really a difference between old suburban and city roads with their right angle intersections and roads and communities developed over the last 50 years with their sweeping gentle curves?  Is one safer than another?  After all, all roads with cars traveling on them are inherently dangerous.  Cars are multi-ton machines carrying delicate human cargo, all while moving at speeds evolution did not prepare our bodies to handle.  Our bodies are not evolutionarily designed to handle the challenges of observing our surroundings at those speeds, or handling the trauma of collisions at those speeds.

It turns out that the old roads are safer, with their definite intersections, because cars are forced to stop and look, rather than casually yield.  Similarly the straight roads typically leading to these intersections provide for better sight lines when looking down the road and anticipating oncoming traffic.  All of this means that our older, pre-automobile designed roads are actually safer – for both the driver and the pedestrian – than the road designed with modern cars in mind.

Vanderbilt peers inside the mind of the driver and exposes just how amazing it is that we can drive at all.  It is amazing what we can see when we are driving, and how we can coordinate our sight and muscle movements at the fast speeds of the interstate.  However, with such miracles come some real challenges.  This book will be sure to make you rethink not only how you drive, but why you drive, and how our policy shapes our communities.

Traffic does not preach and does not lecture.  Vanderbilt’s adventures with bureaucrats, scholars, and business people illuminates what makes driving fantastic, what makes it dangerous, and how our culture is shaped by an activity we largely all take for granted.

 

On a different note, I apologize for my extended absence from this blog.  My last semester of law school took control of my life.  I will be working rather than studying this semester and anticipate dedicating much more time to this blog.  Thank you for your patience and continued patronage.

The transportation idea that has been making the internet rounds this past weeks is the “straddling bus“.  The idea is to combine the best (worst?) of buses and trains to simultaneously preserve auto traffic.  The bus would run on tracks or guided lanes above moving cars on a typical road and connect to above ground stops to let passengers on and off.

Consider me unimpressed.  I admit that it is thinking outside the box.  However, if we’re going to go through the cost of building tracks, why not just build a train?  It has to be cheaper to build and operate than this behemoth.  Again, if we’re going to build dedicated stops, why not just run bus rapid transit or a train?  Isn’t that easier?

What I hate about this idea is that it prioritizes the movement of cars.  Haven’t we already learned that it is a mistake to build cities that depend on cars first and foremost?  Let’s build transit systems that encourage citizens to utilize public transportation first, rather than as an alternative.

The last part I do not trust about this concept, is the skill of the drivers passing through and around this giant machine.  I work for the Chicago Transit Authority’s law department currently and I can tell you that the CTA’s buses and trains get into an awful lot of collisions with bad drivers, or just because there is a lot of traffic.  I would not trust drivers to successfully navigate around and through this hulk.  It is sure to be dinged, bumped, or straight-up collided with on a frequent basis, drawing all positive attributes to a screaming halt.

I appreciate transportation ingenuity, I welcome it.  I just hope no city dedicates its resources to these unwieldy wheels of innovation.

Takeoff Group by Carlos Rubin

One of the best parts of running this blog is finding the images to put in my posts.  However, as I search for applicable images I often find pictures that are beautiful, interesting, or thought-provoking, but are off topic.  I have decided to introduce a weekly feature of great transportation images to utilize that surplus.

To lead off the feature I have chosen the title-appropriate “Takeoff Group” by photographer Carlos Rubin.

Hot air balloons are not likely to be featured often in this blog, as their transit relevance seems dated to Jules Verne.  However, they are a striking sight to see (and I would imagine quite a thrill to ride in).

My readers have many-times-before provided me with great resources.  If you have any suggestions of where to find great images of transportation, please let me know in the comments.

With the announcement of the list price for the Chevy Volt ($41,000 before tax breaks), the time has never been better to constructively talk about the electric infrastructure that will fuel the Volt and the electric cars of the future.  The Volt joins other mass-produced electric models that are starting to hit the market, including the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla.

What makes the electric car so tantalizing is that it can run on clean energy, and be responsible for far fewer emissions than traditional gas-powered vehicles.  The electricity that we use to power electric cars could come from wind, solar, hydroelectric, or nuclear energy, and never make a substantial contribution to carbon emissions.  Even if the electricity comes from coil and gas power plants, it is still more environmentally friendly than combustion engines, because centrally-generated power is more efficient.

While the question of where we will fuel these cars is tantamount, the question all-too-often glossed over is how to best fuel these cars.  We can measure fuel efficiency for gas-powered vehicles only by miles per gallon.  However, the electric car’s efficiency can be measured not only by how many miles it travels per volt, but also how efficient it is at utilizing the electric grid from which it receives its charge.

The idea for a smart charge has been formally proposed on General Electric’s Ecomagination Challenge, which is a $200 million competition to find the best new ideas on how to create, connect, and use a better electric grid.

“Charging electric cars at night is cheaper and cleaner than during the day because energy demand is lower. But what if you drive more in a day than your battery’s range? Software anticipates when you need power based on your driving habits and manages recharging.”

I encourage all of my readers to both check out the ideas and vote for this particular one because it exemplifies the ideals of the Transit Pass (registration and voting will take approximately 1 minute total).

A number of products already allow consumers and property owners to observe their electricity and other utility usage.  However, while these products may help people and institutions lower usage, they do not help advance efficient use.  The proposed idea would allow car users to fuel their cars most efficiently.

The software would help car users to fuel their cars at times when energy demand is lowest (typically at certain times at night) as well as how to make the most of mid-day re-charges.  This would be a boon both to the consumer as well as our overall energy use and overtaxed grid.  By charging when overall electricity demand is lowest, it takes some pressure off the grid during the day and allows electric companies to generate kilowatts on a more consistent basis over time.

This is important not only to the individual electric car owner but also to institutional users such as car-sharing services like Zipcar and fleet owners who could implement electric vehicles such as the postal service and other delivery companies, police departments, taxi services, and other governmental entities.

Companies and drivers would benefit from the device as they could potentially re-charge at a a cheaper price if kilowatt usage is based on time and demand.  Likewise, utility providers benefit from insuring that their grid will not be swamped at the worst times of day.

Again, I encourage you all to vote for a great idea.  It is a small device that could have a big impact on the success of America’s utilization of electric vehicles, the diminishing demand for foreign oil, and a way of insuring that our fragile electric grid not only stays safe, but potentially improves.

I recently switched from taking the train to taking the bus for my commute home from work.   I will always be a fan of the rails.  I love everything about them, from the feel of a train ride, to the dedicated space for travel, to generally firm scheduling and the fact that they are independent from other forms of transportation (unless there are grade crossings involved).  However, the bus became cheaper (due to to extenuating circumstances, not merely system prices) and here I am taking it!

However, I will never get used to being stuck in traffic during the commute.  I find it incredibly frustrating to watch traffic go the same speed as the bus or faster.  My transit elitism leads me to believe that I am entitled to go faster than people traveling alone in individual cars.  In fact, if more planners thought this way, I am positive more people would be riding public transit, it’s all about marginal costs and returns.

We all know that the bus has a sad history of being disfavored, sometimes used as an instrument of racial and/or class oppression, and generally is perceived as vastly inferior to the personal automobile.  However, for all those drivers stuck in endless traffic on metropolitan America’s overcrowded highways, think about how much better life could be if most people took the bus (let alone rode a bike).  While I recognize the importance of biking and that more streets, workplaces, and transit stations should accommodate bicycles, it is also relevant that many people due to age, distance, weather, etc. cannot bike to work.

The above image from Transportation Alternatives (a New York advocacy group)–and similar to a more photographically deceptive German image–illustrates the incredible power of public transit.  Moving many people from many moving motorized vehicles into one is a huge coup for traffic flow (not to mention safety) and commuter sanity.  Even though some companies are trying to solve the problem by building smaller cars–and admittedly bikers are very efficient on smaller vehicles–organizing people into larger systems is not efficient and clean, but creates more usable streets.  It is one of the many reasons I applaud New York’s engagement with bus rapid transit.

The next time someone gives you a hard time about the bus, whether it is its speed, its comfort, or its perceived social status, remind that person that if more people rode the bus system, and public transit systems in general, not only would our society feel and be more equal, but those buses would move faster and be better for all people in transit, regardless of their mode.

For transit lovers and planners across North America, and perhaps around the world, Jane Jacobs — the great opponent of highway builder and ultimate mid-century planner, Robert Moses — has achieved reverential status.  I fall into that group; forever grateful that Jane acted to save Greenwich Village, and forever inspired by her insights in the Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Two generations of urbanists, planners, activists and legislators have been influenced by Jacobs’ startling review of the obvious.  With an eternally curious and unassuming eye Jacobs reintroduced the beauty and intelligence of mankind’s greatest creation, its cities.  At the same time, Jacobs who was anything but dogmatic, has become the tabula rasa to be written upon by the sustainability movement, in its varied facets.  Some people complain Jacobs is cited too often.

The new essay collection in What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs illustrates the breadth of her influence and the genius of her observation.   While Jane was not a transportation theorist her descriptions of how cities operate and what makes for successful urban planning (or lack thereof) directly implicates sound transit policy.  The way we lay out our streets, the way we get to and from work, and the way we integrate uses of buildings into blocks, neighborhoods and cities all influence how citizens ideally move and how their choices are influenced. (more…)

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