Transportation Commentary


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.

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.

If you come to this post expecting a breakdown of some trend in cleantech transit, you will have to kindly wait until next week.  Tonight’s post is fully dedicated to a New York City transit center’s incompetence that this blogger witnessed first hand just a few short hours ago.

For thousands of travelers each day, for both commuters and tourists alike, the New York City Port Authority Bus Terminal serves as a portal to the “city that never sleeps.”  By all accounts, this is one of the most bustling public transit hubs in the United States, as it serves over 58 million passengers annually.  Simply stepping into the main terminal’s entrance on 8th Ave between 41st and 42nd streets, one wonders how this labyrinth even functions to serve it’s purpose of transporting passengers on buses throughout the Northeast.  The answer is barely.  For instance, just today, I had to wait 25 minutes from the time our bus returned to Port Authority until the time we alighted from the bus due to a last second gate logistic switch.  In talking to other friends, apparently this type of experience is the norm, not the exception unfortunately.

It is no secret that buses are treated as second class citizens in New York City.  Simply look to the lack of bus rapid transit lanes, a strategy that has shown time and again to work in South America and Europe.  City planners and policy makers have always favored subways or commuter rail lines over bus transit.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the comparison between Grand Central Station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal.  One is a beacon of architectural reclamation and commercial triumph, the other is a seventh rate architectural structure whose only commercial highlight is that it contains a Heartland Brewery (brewery should be used loosely……) by one of the main entrances.  Such an important transportation hub should be seen as an architectural landmark.  Other nations seem to understand this, even China.  Apparently, we in the US, especially in New York, missed the memo.

If the exterior architecture weren’t bad enough, perhaps one should take a closer look at the circuitous paths leading up to the actual bus gates.  It is time for a Grand Central-esque overhaul.  And while they are at it, why not let the revised structure rise to the sky with gleaming commercial office space like some of these 2008 proposals. I understand this is a massive capital investment that will probably bankrupt the city and state even further.  The city and state probably don’t have a cool $10 billion just lying around these days.  We must continue to put relevant infrastructure in place that will finally elevate the bus to its proper place alongside trains in the perception of the city public transit user.

There has been a lot of righteous indignation displayed by government officials (primarily by U.S. senators and Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood) over the proposal by Spirit Airlines to charge passengers for carry-on bags.  Specifically, Spirit Airlines has said that it will charge $45 for carry-on luggage using the overhead bins.  Some of the responses are almost comical:

“We are going from the sublime to the ridiculous with airlines,” Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said at a news conference last week in Washington.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called the fee a “slap in the face to travelers.” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) called it “skyway robbery.”

The lawmakers hope to put the kibosh on the fee by imposing a tax on all airline revenue collected from such charges.

I’m not a frequent flyer, but I’ve flown enough to recognize that baggage fees have created a big problem with boarding airplanes.  In the era of the checked baggage fee people have chosen to cram everything into a carry-on.  Of course, when everyone brings a full-sized carry-on there is not enough room in the overhead bins for all the passenger luggage and the airline inevitably spends a lot of time placing carry-on bags in.

So, to combat that Spirit Airlines has instituted a carry-on bag fee.  What has been glossed over is that Spirit is merely providing incentive for passengers to check their bags in the first place rather than carrying them on.  The first checked bag will only cost $25 if checked online before arriving at the airport ($20 less than for a potentially smaller carry-on).  Therefore Spirit is merely making the carry-on a luxury and giving reason for people to check their luggage.  Oh my!  Senators are really upset that flights will run more smoothly and that Spirit may actually assist with difficulty of TSA security checks?

Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe looks at this issue from a free market perspective.

But if [Senator Charles] Schumer grieves so deeply about travelers being “nickeled and dimed’’ when they fly, why has he never gone after the US ticket tax, which adds 7.5 percent to the price of every domestic flight? Or the $16.50 the federal government charges for each international departure and arrival? Or the $17 in customs and inspection fees paid by passengers flying into US airports from abroad? Or the “passenger facilities charges’’ (up to $18 per round-trip)? Or the “US Security Service Fee’’ ($2.50 per departure)? Or the “domestic segment fee’’ ($3.70 per flight segment)? The government’s unremitting “nickeling and diming’’ of airline passengers doesn’t trouble the sleep of New York’s senior senator. Only when a private firm acts does he toss and turn in anguish.

Reality check: Every airline charges for its overhead bins, just as every airline charges for bathrooms, oxygen masks, and flight attendants. The cost of those amenities is built into the fare you pay when you fly, and you pay whether you use them or not. The same used to be true of the “free’’ meals, pillows, and baggage handling airlines provided, before they unbundled those services, made them optional, and began charging for them separately. Spirit, an ultra-low cost carrier that describes itself as “the unbundling leader in the industry,’’ has decided to do the same for carry-on luggage, simultaneously reducing its base fares by $40 or more each way. …

Is Spirit’s strategy a good one? The free market can answer that question faster and more accurately than any one of us can. The less assistance it gets from grandstanding senators and transportation secretaries, the better off all travelers will be.

I agree that politicians have found a pinata not worthy of their attack, especially given that Spirit Airlines has less than 3% of the US market share for airlines.

Post #100 on the Transit Pass!

It is not news that economic downturns are particularly hard on transit, just like all government services.  At the moment that affordable government services and assistance are most needed is also the time when government can least afford to provide them.

The voters of New Jersey reap what they sow.  They dumped their CEO-governor Jon Corzine for the Republican challenger who promised the unattainable Holy Grail of New Jersey politics, lower property taxes.  Now in office, Chris Christie has dealt with New Jersey’s budget deficit by cutting services and refusing to raise taxes, on anyone.  Of course, when you don’t raise taxes you can still effectively tax many people by offering fewer governmental services.  Therefore, Joe Millionaire is barely affected by the situation but Jane Minimum-Wage is put into an even more difficult situation because suddenly day care, transit, health care, etc. are less available and more expensive.  Perhaps that is good politics for a Republican, but it is certainly bad governance.

Governor Chris Christie in February said he would cut the state’s $296 million annual subsidy for NJ Transit by 11 percent, or $33 million, to help close a $2.2 billion deficit in the state budget for the fiscal year ending June 30. Christie, 47, a Republican who took office in January on a pledge not to raise taxes, introduced a $29.3 billion budget last month that contains $10 billion in spending reductions.

Christie, in a March 17 interview, said “there’s no way to fix” NJ Transit’s budget woes without raising fares. The governor also said he supported increasing transit fees over putting tolls on free roads in New Jersey including Interstates 78, 80, 195 and 295.

Specifically, Christie has cut NJ Transit’s funding by 11%.  In response, NJ Transit has been forced to raise fares; increasing the cost of local bus and light rail travel by 10% and commuter bus and train travel by a hefty 25%.  I used NJ Transit’s commuter rail for a full year when I worked in New York.  At that time my 35-40 minute ride cost $198 for a monthly pass.  While most people in my hometown probably can absorb the 25% increase without too much difficulty.  However, along the same route are a number of towns with poorer towns, such as Paterson (median 2000 household income: $32,778) and Garfield (median 2000 household income: $42,748), where the residents will have much greater difficulty absorbing such a fare hike.

A monthly pass from Paterson to New York Penn Station is currently $166.  A 25% hike will bring that price to $207.50, or an extra $498 a year, and that does not even include the costs of a monthly pass for the bus or subway in New York City, given that most jobs are not within walking distance of Penn Station.  With the price of a subway pass included a person from Paterson could be required to spend $3,450 a year for transit.  That is simply outrageous when your household income is $32,778.

Governor Christie hasn’t lowered taxes, he has impaired the rights of people throughout the state to procure employment and provide effectively for their families.  For the sake of saving some very wealthy residents the pain of having to pay a a little more in income tax the lower class has been implicitly taxed by virtue of being poor.  Transit justice exists and this is not it.  Governor Christie lacks that sense of empathy that Obama has been smeared for.  He has prioritized the needs of suburban drivers over transit commuters, continuing our history of poor transit priorities.

The attempted terrorist-attack on a Christmas flight to Detroit ended in the inevitable security restrictions on international flights, including the removal of blankets in the last hour of flight.  While the New York Times was wondering how terrorism has affected the American desire to travel and Slate was commenting on the idiocy and inefficacy of our security spending I have been wondering what would happen if another form of transit were attacked.

Our transportation security measures are incredibly reactionary rather than visionary or proactive.  Just look at how much security there is when boarding a plane and how non-existent a real security presence is at an Amtrak station or major bridge entrance.  I am afraid both of the consequences of this passivity and the consequences of potential increased security.

Forgive me for my non-politically correct statement, but it is rather surprising that a terrorist has not struck an American train as happened in Spain in 2004 or another place of large congregation such as a bridge entrance or bus terminal.  After all, that has to be a lot easier to do than getting through airport security.

As much as I fear the tragic consequences of such an act, I am more afraid of Americans having their mobility restricted.  Terrorists almost certainly are more likely to hit a train or bus than a series of cars on I-95.  Therefore restrictions are likely to hit passengers getting on trains and buses, even commuters and regular subway and bus riders.  Not only is this extraordinarily costly as the TSA demonstrates, but it may serve to do exactly what this country does not need: promote cars over public transit.

I’m not saying that police should not patrol transit stations and dogs should not sniff luggage lying around and that passengers should not report suspicious activity, but making train security similar to airplane security could kill any high speed rail venture.  America’s transit future depends on development and transportation investment that encourages and allows people to travel together rather than individually.  Of course communal transit is more attractive to a terrorist (the same reason we go crazy when an airplane crashes but most ignore individual car crashes even though cars claim thousands more lives than planes do).

America’s economic and cultural future depends on the population having equal freedom of physical movement as it does freedom of ideas and personality via electronic transmission and paper delivery.  American security agencies must keep Americans safe on the rails and the roads as well as in the air.  However, placing similar restrictions on train riders will have disastrous consequences as time-savings via train are not nearly as dramatic as via flight.  To keep us safe the work must be done behind the scenes, not by aggressively screening every passenger and forcing unnecessary restrictions while riding and boarding.

We are all familiar with public transportation maps based on the famous London Tube map with its colored lines and dotted stops. Cameron Booth has developed a map of the US Interstate System based on that style (click above for a link to a larger image) and the map is available in print for sale on his website.

I believe this map is a great cultural commentary on American transportation.  The car may not be as mythic and the road trip may not be as legendary anywhere in the world as in the United States.  In a country where you cannot take a train nearly anywhere long distance and where planes are increasingly expensive and burdensome, the automobile is still the great expression of freedom.

However, as freeing as the car is we are still largely constrained to certain thoroughfares for major long-distance travel.  Yet this map, reducing the country to the format of a city-transportation map also reduces the magnitude of the country to the size of a city.  There is a certain irony in that given just how vast the nation is and how many days it takes to cross by car.  However, there is also something profound about how that Eisenhower Interstate Map shaped our consciousness of physical and cultural space in the country. The interstates made some great cities greater and raised other from the abyss into places of status.

Moreover, the interstates may have done more than anything else in the nation’s history in creating a sense of national community and greater connection.  Eisenhower was first interested in national highways when participating in a post-WWI exercise attempting to transport military materiel across the country on existing roads.  The interstate project suddenly made most of the nation accessible to every American with a car, a little bit of cash, and the time to travel.

The interstates more than any other system my have crashed down the provincial mental and physical walls defining states to trump intense locality with a sense of national community.  Hopefully one day a high speed rail map will once again redefine our national sense of geography, community and nationalism.  Transportation has been and will continue to be the means by how communities are partially defined.

PS: to those who read this blog frequently I sincerely apologize for my extended absence.  It was not intentional, finals and the end of the semester just caught up with me.  I hope to be back to posting nearly daily for the foreseeable future.  Happy and healthy new year to all.

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