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.

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.

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.

google-maps-transit

This morning’s Boston Globe features an article that Boston’s MBTA has finally been included on Google Maps Transit.  It apparently took a while to make the MBTA’s trip planning system technologically capable of working with Google.

Google Maps Transit offers an amazing array of locations around the world to search for public transit options, 421 of those locations to be exact.  Google spans the spectrum from large systems such as in San Francisco and New York to places you would not expect, such as Flagstaff, AZ and Norman, OK.

However, those from the New York area, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia may also be familiar with the great site hopstop.com.  While hopstop offers far fewer cities in its coverage list the service it offers for each city is far more comprehensive.  Among the features:

  • Point to a location on a map
  • Estimated taxi fare and time
  • Preferences in mode of transportation like subway only or more transfers/less walking
  • Lists of attractions, hotels, restaurants and bars, including rankings of what sites are most searched for.

Google on the other hand tends to offer simply a route as an option compared to walking or driving in its map service.  Overall, I recommend hopstop for the variety of features it covers if you are in one of the cities it is available for.  Google is good, but in reality I think your local transit agency’s website is your best bet over Google because through that site you can learn about the variety of options offered as well as where public transit goes throughout a metropolitan region.

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