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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 the US moves ever so slowly to a transportation mix that includes plug-in electric vehicles (PEV), the lack of mileage range on PEVs has emerged as a critical concern going forward.  Despite many PEVs such as the Leaf, Coda, and the BYD e6 that have made mileage claims of approximately 100 miles per charge, the general public remains extremely worried that these cars will not live up to this stated performance.  Despite the fact that the vast majority of Americans drive far fewer than 100 miles per day, it is the freedom of untethered mobility that has become woven into the fabric of American life.  There is nothing more terrifying to the American driver than the feeling of being stranded.  This is even more magnified when driving a vehicle powered by a battery as oppoed to one simply running on a tank of liquid fuel.

There is no doubt that one of the fundamental obstacles toward widespread PEV adoption is the lack of a successful charging (“refueling”) infrastructure.  At present in the US, there does not exist a distributed network of PEV charging stations.  At best, companies such as Coulomb and Better Place have a smattering of stations across mainly California.  One issue these companies have faced has been finding a location that would provide for a concentrated amount of charging stations to satisfy demand.  In lieu of a highly developed gas station-esque car charging network, consumers will rely on their trusty garage outlet to provide their PEV with all the electrons it will need for a full days charge.  While this could be seen as convenient since one could simply charge the car overnight (though it is not clear this method is suitable for urban residents), this still does not satiate the demands of people who want to refill on the go when they’re out and about.

Now that I’ve laid out the dilemma, I would like to make a rather modest, albeit not novel, proposal.  It would entail massive, widespread deployment of distributed car charging stations.  These would be rolled out en masse in parking lots across the country.  This would have particular appeal in the suburbs as seemingly 99% of our suburban jungles are now paved over to accommodate strip malls or big box retailers.  Coincidentally, it just so happens that parking lots generally provide high solar irradiation compared to rooftops or other structures.  This is largely due to the lack of shadowing both from trees or high buildings.  Several companies have proposed “solar canopies” and several firms are actually developing parking lots with 10-200kW of solar potential.  Pairing the “solar canopy” concept with PEV battery charging stations could provide outstanding synergies.  Firstly, solar is a peaking resource meaning it produces the majority of its electricity during the day when most people are doing the bulk of their driving.  Secondly, with the implementation of the smart grid, this type of natural resource integration will reduce the strain on the local power utility.

Overall, the pairing of the solar parking lot canopy with PEV charging stations has the potential to become as ubiquitious as gas stations.  This will surely rush along the adoption of PEVs.  As for the cost of the solar canopy structure itself, or the battery charging station, I will discuss this in a later post.

As a diversion from more serious discussions of transportation policy, today I bring the transit geeks among you the opportunity to spice up your home with some themed decorations.  I have previously written about subway maps, modeled after the famous London Tube Map, and how they inspire reinterpretation and artistic fun.  These decorative items follow in that tradition of reusing perhaps the most common utilitarian images in our culture.  Transit maps are part aesthetic representation, part pragmatic guide.  However, they are defining images that we all identify with in our own way individually and as metropolitan areas.  The help to define our mental understanding of our cities and how we relate to our space and our neighbors, geographically, culturally, and politically.  With that in mind, enjoy these various transit-oriented products.

Need help planning your route to work?  Do it in the shower with maps of New York, London, Boston, and Washington D.C. on shower curtains.  If you have a shower that has needs a shower curtain this is certainly a fun way to express city pride, especially if you are currently an expat from your city of choice.

The company Extrapete has created a collection of wallpaper maps.  They have prepared topographical and naval maps, but of course I am most interested in the representation of the Tokyo subway map.  They have removed all the place names from the map leaving only the lines and dots for an intriguing collage of shapes and colors that would surely spice up any room.

On the subject of the ubiquitous London Tube Map and its various reappropriations, Suck U.K. has developed a London Underground mirror, placing Harry Beck’s famous graphic schematic on mirror so that you can figure out how to get to Westminster Abbey while shaving. (See the picture at the top of the post)

Lastly, in case you feel that any of these products do not express your love (or obsession) with public transit well enough one person has laid out the New York City Subway Map in tile on the floor and walls of his bathroom.  The person has also provided a tile-by-tile blueprint of how to recreate his masterpiece.

I hope you are all inspired to make your own transit art, or at least attempt to see new beauty and inherent artistic value in the infrastructure we use every day.

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.

I have added Oliver Wyman’s rail planning blog to the blogroll.  I am excited about the addition as it brings some business and technical experience to the blogroll lineup.

An example of the the kind of technical but fascinating insight you will find on the blog is David Lehlbach’s recent post on the future and impact of long trains; i.e. trains 10,000 feet long and longer.  The post illuminates the efficiencies of such trains due to their carrying capacity and staff needs but also ponders the challenges such as whether terminals can handle such enormous loads and whether in the end such trains will slow things down.   I am fascinated by the idea of a 10,000 foot train (as long as I’m not in a car at railway crossing watching it) and I appreciate Lehlbach’s comparison to the impact of Airbus A380 super jumbo jets.  I also imagine such trains can be compared to early cargo ships.  Early cargo ships were efficient in and of themselves but could not transfer all of that efficiency because ports could not properly handle their loads.  If the supertrains are truly cost-effective to a large degree compared to peer trains then terminals likely will be adapted to carry the efficiencies all the way through.

On March 29th the Moscow subway system fell victim to a series of suicide bomber terrorist attacks.  Two female bombers detonated bombs that killed 40 people and wounded another 80 at rush hour that morning.  The attack has raised questions about how safe our American subways are what we need to do to increase security on them.  Subways and buses (and major transportation infrastructure like bridges and tunnels) are of course convenient targets for terrorist attacks for the same reason that planes have been for so long.  Transportation sources have been targets because large numbers of people congregate on them, making them unfortunately efficient for maximal impact.  Moreover, transit is so essential to our consciousness and daily activity, yet something also small, that attacking it jars our very sense of security to the core because nothing feels safe when our means of movement is denied or destroyed.

However, it is notable that American subways have not been subject to a major attack, differentiating the U.S. from Spain, London, and Moscow.  I do not think it has anything to do with our security measures in subways though.  If a bomber wanted to access any American subway system all she would need is a fare.  As long as we do and should prioritize speed and convenience of travel our public transportation systems will be incredibly permeable to attack.   It is simply impractical to put people through any sort of rigorous security screening before entering a subway train.  Moreover, to limit what people can bring on the subway is plain stupid as people rely on subways and buses in cities as residents in suburbs rely on cars.

What will keep us safe is reasonable police presence in our subway systems such that passengers feel safe and that perpetrators feel a reasonable chance of arousing suspicions of authorities.  However, the only true way to keep passengers safe is the same system that applies to preventing any sort of terrorism, quality intelligence services and smart police working in concert.  Fred Kaplan of Slate put it well when quoting Richard Clarke, the former White House Counterterrorism Chief:

Clarke has a few theories on why there haven’t been any suicide bombings here lately. “After 9/11,” he said, “all the security sweeps and the detentions left al-Qaida with the perception that it was very difficult to operate in the U.S.—more difficult than it actually was. Meanwhile, they found it was a lot easier to go after Americans in Iraq. They stopped going after the foreign enemy in the ‘far abroad.’ We came to them, so they went after us over there.”

That is not reassuring.  Is it possible that the moment we leave Iraq and Afghanistan we will be susceptible to greater domestic attacks?  Perhaps.  Maybe at the same time without a military presence in the Middle East an attack will be less likely.  This is all besides the point though.  There is no perfect way to protect from a terrorist attack, especially on our mass transportation systems.  We should concern ourselves with petty theft and assault and the day-to-day crimes and leave the concerns over national security to those who make that their full-time job.

In November a 40-year-old SEPTA passenger car broke down and burst into flames on the R5 route; a signal if ever there was one that the fleet of aging rail cars needs to be replaced.  Well, the plans have already been in the works and my friend Anthony Campisi (aka A-Ton) has reported on the story of the new replacement cars for PlanPhilly (video of the new cars can be seen on his story page).

As shipments of Silverliner V regional rail car shells make it here from Korea next month, it will mark SEPTA’s first major rail procurement in nearly 30 years.

SEPTA is hoping that the new cars will herald a better rider experience and help meet its growing ridership needs, adding about 4,200 additional seats to the current regional rail capacity.

But rail advocates worry that SEPTA’s decision to sell off the older cars for scrap could put it in a bind if the Silverliner Vs have any manufacturing problems.

The authority has purchased 120 Silverliner Vs to replace 73 older Silverliner II and III cars, some of which date back to the 1960s. They point to brake problems that the Acela Express cars have experienced, which forced Amtrak to take them out of service in 2002 and 2005, and the fact that SEPTA has gone such a long time without designing and procuring a new class of rail cars.

The new cars are designed and built by Hyundai Rotem in Korea.  The new cars will continue SEPTA’s current regional rail seating configuration of rows of three-seats across from rows of two-seats. However, I’m personally more excited to see the double deck passenger cars arriving for the MBTA and SCRRA.  As a former loyal NJ Transit rider I’m a huge fan of the double deck cars, especially when they are set up with only two seats per row, as they end the awkwardness of the middle-seat conundrum; i.e. whether to sit there and when to ask to sit in the middle seat.

However, the cars are outfitted with new aesthetic lines inside and some nifty communications systems designed by Info-Vision Technology.  The front destination indicators in bright lights and color-coordinated series will be a welcome departure from the old plastic signs that slid into the front and side of the current rail cars.

In typical SEPTA fashion there are fears about just how well the cars will perform and whether all the old cars should immediately be phased out:

Though the CAC has not issued an official recommendation to SEPTA about the Silverliners, some members pointed out that Hyundai Rotem, the company that is manufacturing the Silverliners in a joint venture with Sojitz Corp., has never handled a rail project like this one before.

The Rotem venture was given the worst technical rating by SEPTA of all the bidders for the Silverliner V contract.
Because SEPTA doesn’t have the yard capacity to store the older Silverliners, Mitchell suggested they lease storage space from a railroad.

Though freight railroads do this quite often, Bob Parker, president and CEO of the East Penn Railroad, an area short-line railroad, said that his company has never stored passenger cars before. He said that doing that is “a different sort of animal” and that it would present different liability concerns.

All-in-all, it is very exciting for Philadelphia and SEPTA, let’s hope there are no fires on the new coaches.

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