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.

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.

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.

Rapid Transit w Key Bus Web

In the past I have written about the need to get better maps for bus routes.  Well, apparently the MBTA in Boston was several steps ahead of me.  They are about to publish their first significantly upgraded rapid transit map in apparently 40 years (see above).

The new map shows some of the most highly trafficked bus routes, such as the Rt. 1, 66, 77 and 39 buses.  The bus lines are thinner and clearly distinct from heavy and light rail lines, along with the Silver Line (a combination trackless trolley and motrorized bus line).  The map also displays ferry routes.

One can argue that there should not be a differentiation on the map between modes of surface or subsurface transit, but I’ll take the progress.  (H/T Human Transit).  At least the map shows where the buses intersect with track-bound transportation modes.  Now, we just need better maps at bus stops as well.

Bus_stop

Whether you have lived in a city for years or are visiting one for the first time you probably prefer to take some sort of train when using public transportation.  I believe this is due to the perceived superior reliability, safety and ease of use for trains.  After all, trains are on tracks that only go in two directions and there are defined stops.  Buses are just enormous cars that could go anywhere, even if they supposedly are supposed to go certain places.  However, I think a lot of it has to do with maps.  We are all tube_mapused to the transit maps like that used in London.  It’s a relatively abstract system of lines and colors showing where the various subway trains travel to and where they intersect with each other.

Have you ever seen a bus map like that?  I have not, but that does not mean they do not exist.  Certainly such maps are easier when there is a guaranteed bus line such as bus rapid transit systems, like those in Las Vegas or Hartford.  Systems that have dedicated lanes or demarcated lanes where buses go are much more analagous to light rail.  This is even more true where bus stops have fare gates, such as certain places on Boston’s Silver Line.

The Transportationist (see blogroll) has discussed improving bus signage to make buses more desirable.  I believe this is critical.  Buses are intimidating to the unitiated, becasue unless you’ve ridden one before or are intensely familiar with a neighborhood, where a bus goes and where it stops seem intensely mysterious.  When you enter a subway station on the other hand you usually are shown at least a system map and many times shown a system map overlaid upon a geographic map.  I cannot remember the last time I saw this at a bus stop.

brt_bogotaI recognize the difficulties of producing bus maps; the malleability of bus routes, fluctuation in stops, the lack of permanence of many stops, the challenge of portraying dozens of bus maps on one map.  I agree that to portray every bus route on one map would be beyond chaotic.  However, I believe urban transit systems could begin with their most heavily travelled lines.  Maps should show where buses go, how frequently they travel, how frequently they stop (because if the bus stops every block or two blocks it is not necessary to portary every stop) and where the bus route intersects with other routes and other transit options.  If buses travel on city routes it would also be potentially helpful if lines were painted on the street to show where buses travel.  There is no doubt where trains go, just follow the tracks or the subway stops.  However, it’s not always so clear for buses, especially, if there is no shed or covering at the stop.  Therefore, better signage is required at stops to alert people where they in fact are.  They should be visible from a distance, not small like no parking signs.

Buses have a long history in this country of being portrayed as an undesirable means of transportation.  In the first third of the 20th century General Motors bought out trolley systems across the country and replaced them with bus systems for the twofold reason that they could produce the buses and fewere people want to ride buses than trolleys and would therefore be more likely to drive.  However insidious it was also insightful.  Trains are more desirable than bus lines, but much can be done to improve bus lines such that they are more rider friendly.  Visitors and residents to cities alike should see the bus system as a matter of access, not a burden less worthy of their patronage than rail.

Dutch_ICE

My friend Greg Moran alerted me to this article in the Wall Street Journal concerning state grant applications for part of the federal high speed rail funding from the Federal Railroad Administration.  While reading this I couldn’t help but wonder about how much planned high speed rail tickets in various parts of the country may cost.  Will rail be competitive with the cost of airplane tickets?  Will tickets be subsidized?  If so, by how much?  Will high speed rail be cheap enough to be bought by students, blue collar workers or white collar business travelers only?  Will high speed rail connect business communities only or schools, think tanks, families and contractors as well?

Picking a random day, a month from now September 25th, Amtrak tickets on the Northeast Corridor traveling from South Station Boston to Washington DC start at $65 and $149 for the Acela.  This is rather incredible given that you can fly the same route on weekdays for $120 according to bing.com.  Moreover, the flight is only 80 minutes, compared to 6 hours and 46 minutes on the acela.  Clearly Acela is a faulty example, because it is not really high speed rail, just higher speed rail.  One last comparison, AAA estimates that it will cost $82.60 (plus tolls) to drive that distance.

My point is that as states apply for funding to build high speed rail or improve their rail lines I want to know where future subsidies are coming from to keep the cost of travel on rail down.  In order for high speed rail to be competitive it must not only be fast and comfortable, it must be relatively cheap.  I wish the best of luck to all those who have applied for funding and are in the planning and construction phases.  I sincerely hope that rail is an option for all Americans, not merely those traveling on corporate accounts.

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