If you have ever taken any sort of train you have seen that foreboding red device, the emergency brake.  When do we use it?  The New York Times’ City Room blog recently featured a video answering just that question.  The video–“Emergency Brake”–is by Casey Neistat, who risked arrest and prop limbs in the making of his production.

The basic moral of the story is that the emergency brake should never really be used while a train is in motion.  Do not use in the case of a fire, you’ll burn.  Do not use in the case of a medical emergency, the person will be caught in greater peril.  Do not use in case of a crime, you’re trapped with a criminal (probably armed and now angry).  The emergency brake should be saved for those times when the train is in the station and somebody is in danger, either caught in the door or fallen onto the tracks.

As Neistat clearly illustrates this a is a problem of signage and communication.  What the agencies think of as clear communication just has the average commuter confused.  Money quote from the Gothamist:

According to the Times, straphangers should pull the brake if “someone gets caught between the train’s closing doors, or between subway cars, and is about to be dragged to an unenviable fate.” In other circumstances, pulling the cord could make it harder for help to arrive. That’s what happened on a D train last November when a straphanger fatally stabbed another commuter and frightened passengers pulled the brake. The agency has told Gothamist that when a straphanger pulls the cord, it brings the train to an immediate stop using compressed-air brakes. The train crew must notify a control center, which in turn alerts police. The NYPD then advises the control center on how to respond, and that message is relayed to the train crew. It can take between 5 and 15 minutes for the crew to reset the braking function and get the train moving again.

Commuters pull the emergency brake about 1,000 times per year when there is no clear emergency. In 2009, the agency recorded 15 instances in which straphangers pulled the cord to respond to an emergency, like a sick rider, the paper notes. Some subway riders, like Brooklyn resident Zev David Deans, said the agency should more clearly outline when straphangers should, and shouldn’t, use the emergency brake. “They could put it in big letters — ‘Pull in case of …’ — and then the few reasons why,” he said. “If it just says ‘emergency,’ you’re going to pull it for any reason.” An MTA NYC Transit spokesman said the current instructions are more than sufficient: “We think that it is clear.” (bold mine)

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.

Today I would like to connect infrastructure improvements to both jobs and social interactions.

With all the talk of the thus-far jobless recovery, investment in transportation and other infrastructure may never be more important.  We have shipped so many of many of our manufacturing jobs overseas, and that has dramatic consequences because the people who used to have those jobs are not trained to suddenly take desk or service jobs.  However, construction and its related needs–such as concrete production–cannot be shipped overseas.

Bob Herbert noted the tremendous importance of infrastructure in America historically and the incredibly important role it will play in the American future.  He stated the obvious, that we have neglected our infrastructure for too long and that if America is to thrive once again it will be on the back of dependable infrastructure:

We used to be so much smarter about this stuff. A recent publication from the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution reminds us that:

“Since the beginning of our republic, transportation and infrastructure have played a central role in advancing the American economy — from the canals of upstate New York to the railroads that linked the heartland to industrial centers and finally the interstate highway system that ultimately connected all regions of the nation.

“In each of those periods, there was a sharp focus on how infrastructure investments could be used as catalysts for economic expansion and evolution.”

Policy makers all but gave up on that kind of thinking years ago. America’s infrastructure, once the finest in the world, has been neglected for decades, and it shows. Felix Rohatyn’s book on the subject, “Bold Endeavors,” opens with: “The nation is falling apart — literally.”

It’s almost as if we no longer understand the crucial links between infrastructure and the health of the American economy, the state of the environment and the viability of the nation as a whole. We’ve become stupid about this.

While it is a tangential connection, I would like to suggest that building improved transportation infrastructure is also important for the social capital of this country.  We are becoming increasingly disjointed and independent, living in digital social realms and within cubicles that frequently separate us from each other, getting to work individually in cars.  It is rare outside the sporting event and church that we feel immersed in communal space and the larger venture that we acknowledge as society.

Slate recently wrote about social interactions on the subway and how people react to certain requests, such as the ability to take a seat.  There is a certain etiquette to traveling on public transportation, and admittedly different rules for different modes in different places.  However, it is amazing how the little things of seeing people of different socio-economic status, age and ability is of great value to our sense of place and understanding.  Moreover, transportation is the great uniter.  Working for the MBTA this past summer, everyone always reacted to my experience with a story or notion about public transit.

Getting people out of their cars and into shared spaces is an important element of reuniting a divided society and to do it we need to invest in infrastructure, one of the keys to jobs for people of all talents and classes, going forward.

where_the_sidewalk_ends1

In eighth grade Mr. Chomskey made my class memorize parts of The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes. The poem begins:

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
Riding—riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

I can still hear that click-clack rhythm of hoofs beating in some recess of my memory.  For those of you familiar with the poem, the tale of two Revolutionary War era lovers torn asunder by King George’s Army, you know that the Highway Man comes to an untimely end on the road in the glow of a midnight moon.

This was my first literary exposure to the danger of transportation, but we all grow up knowing that transportation is an inherently dangerous activity.  Transportation will always be dangerous as long as human actors are making decisions about rapid movement and operating fast-moving and heavy vehicles.  However, there should be an imperative to make transportation as safe as possible.

Two pieces of news strike this chord.  First, Britain has outlawed texting while driving.

Britain’s new guidelines state that using a hand-held phone when causing a death will “always make the offense more serious” in terms of punishment and lead to prison time. Texting is given special treatment.

I hope that Britain’s action is a lead for federal US legislation.  Some states have already begun down this path, but the feds can outlaw texting while driving as easily as they create a national drinking age of 21.  Simply connect federal transportation (namely highway) money to laws banning texting while driving.  That certainly passes constitutional muster.

Second, Transportation 4 America has reported that 76,000 Americans have died in the last 15 years while walking in or along a street.  The FDA wants to ban summer oysters because 15 people (largely people with liver problems) a year die from food poisoning but this nation has yet to take pedestrian and road safety seriously.

This report also analyzes state and regional spending of federal transportation dollars on pedestrian safety, finding that many of the metropolitan areas in greatest need of improvement are spending the least amount on pedestrian safety projects. Nationwide, less than 1.5 percent of funds authorized under the federal transportation law, SAFETEA-LU, have been allocated for projects to improve the safety of walking and bicycling, even though pedestrians comprise 11.8 percent of all traffic deaths and trips made on foot account for almost 9 percent of total trips. SAFETEA-LU created a new safety program and changed regulations to make it easier to use what were once “highway funds” on a wider variety of transportation projects, including public transportation and pedestrian facilities.

At the state and local levels, no state spends more than 5 percent of federal transportation funds on sidewalks, crosswalks, traffic calming, speed humps, multi-use paths, or safety programs for pedestrians or cyclists. This is in spite of a more than 30 percent increase in total federal transportation dollars to states with the passage of SAFETEA-LU in 2005. The 52 largest metro areas averaged annual spending of federal funds on bicycle and pedestrian projects of just $1.39 per person. The average metro area spends 2.2 percent of their federal transportation funds on projects to improve conditions for walking and bicycling.

I’m not really sure when we will wake up to the fact that we are a multi-modal nation and that our culture of depending on cars to get us everywhere actually gets us nowhere.  The number of deaths to pedestrians is downright unacceptable.  It is a sign that we do not encourage walking enough, that we subsidize driving to an unhealthy degree, and that our development and growth has poorly prioritized the types of communities where people can travel safely without turning on a motor.

Transportation is about getting people from one place to another, and all people should have the right to expect to arrive at their destination safely.  That should especially apply to those taking the least dangerous means of conveyance, their feet.  Or else we may end up metaphorically like the highwayman:

Back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky,
With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high!
Blood-red were his spurs i’ the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat,
When they shot him down on the highway,
Down like a dog on the highway,
And he lay in his blood on the highway, with the bunch of lace at his throat.

velib

In Friday’s New York Times was an article about the French bicycle renting system, Velib’.  I was disappointed to learn that the system is being plagued by vandalism and theft.  According to the article, the bike-renting service provides 50,000 to 150,000 rides per day.  However, 80% of the original 20,600 bicycles have been stolen or damaged.  Much of the crime has to do with Paris’s social inequalities and perceived economic and class dynamics of the transportation mode.

The heavy, sandy-bronze Vélib’ bicycles are seen as an accoutrement of the “bobos,” or “bourgeois-bohèmes,” the trendy urban middle class, and they stir resentment and covetousness. They are often being vandalized in a socially divided Paris by resentful, angry or anarchic youth, the police and sociologists say.

Bruno Marzloff, a sociologist who specializes in transportation, said, “One must relate this to other incivilities, and especially the burning of cars,” referring to gangs of immigrant youths burning cars during riots in the suburbs in 2005.

He said he believed there was social revolt behind Vélib’ vandalism, especially for suburban residents, many of them poor immigrants who feel excluded from the glamorous side of Paris.

“It is an outcry, a form of rebellion; this violence is not gratuitous,” Mr. Marzloff said. “There is an element of negligence that means, ‘We don’t have the right to mobility like other people, to get to Paris it’s a huge pain, we don’t have cars, and when we do, it’s too expensive and too far.’ ”

The Velib’ has expanded beyond the Parisian urban core to 29 other towns and suburbs.  I hope that there are solutions to the problems the Velib’ faces in Paris, because I would love this to be a viable model for other cities and towns around the world, and especially in the US.

While Paris requires a credit card to borrow a bicycle and fines individuals for not returning bikes perhaps they should consider making users better internalize the costs true to form of most car rental systems, including Zipcar.  When you rent a car you can frequently choose to forgo paying for insurance, but most drivers purchase it in case of an accident.  Perhaps Velib’ should make riders pay more for the costs of damage and stolen bicycles and offer insurance to cover such costs.

In addition, social ownership of public transit is a problem throughout the world.  In order to keep public transportation clean and well respected the riders must feel a sense of ownership for the system and a sense of responsibility toward keeping it safe and productive.  I know very little about French socioeconomics, but perhaps more bicycles need to be placed in urban neighborhoods.  Perhaps there need to be discount rates for the underprivileged.  Whatever solutions are available, I hope they can be implemented so more cities look to Paris as a model rather than a warning.

- – – – – – – – – – – -

In unrelated news, the New York Times also had a quirky and enjoyable vacation feature on the Station Inn in Cresson, PA.  It sort of looks like the nightmare train scene from My Cousin Vinny, but it also looks like a really fun vacation.  The Station Inn provides railside views of dozens of freight trains passing through every day and people come from all over the world to watch the trains and discuss rail trivia.  I mostly would want to go to sit on the porch and hear all the rail enthusiasts chat it up.  However, something tells me my partner would not be interested in such a trip.

MetrocardsThe passion of new MTA chaiman Jay Walder in New York is infectious.  I also admit that I have a bit of transit nerd man crush on his use of subway token cuff links.  However, his idea for price restructuring on New York City public transit leaves me a little baffled.  It may just be that the New York Times did an insufficient job explaining the benefits of the policy.

“We might imagine that we offer discounts at later times, or we offer weekend discounts,” Mr. Walder said in an interview on Wednesday. “Time-of-day pricing might be very attractive.”

The goal would be to encourage use of buses and subways during traditionally quieter hours. And it would bring New York’s subway system in line with local commuter rails, which charge a range of fares.

“We have an infrastructure that is set for the capacity of the peak,” Mr. Walder said. “What we really want to do is use that infrastructure all the time.”

The chairman ruled out charging higher prices for longer trips, a system used in cities like Washington and London, saying such a move in New York “would be a mistake.” But he said a frank discussion of changes to the pricing structure “will be an important part of what we’re doing.” A transit spokesman said later that Mr. Walder was not considering higher peak fares.

I understand the desire to have more people riding at non-peak hours in order to make the system run as efficiently as possible.  This is especially true in New York City subways which almost never shut down.  However, I do not follow the logic of reducing prices so people ride more.

In New York there are two types of people who travel at night and weekends, permanent residents and tourists/visitors.  The commuters, who constitute a huge number of MTA’s ridership are avoiding the MTA on nights and weekends if possible.

For the residents and tourists/visitors to ride at night or on weekends requires someplace to go, which is the expensive part in New York, not the subway ride.  Once traveling, though, the only other real option is a taxi and the regardless of the price of an MTA fair, it will almost surely be cheaper than a New York City cab fare which is $2.50 just for getting in the cab.  City residents on the other hand probably own monthly passes which means each additional ride they take, regardless of when they take it, is essentially free.

If anything, it would make more sense to tax certain hours of travel, say 8am-10am and 4pm-7pm to encourage people to take the subway and bus at off peak hours, hence increasing demand the and helping to reduce congestion during rush hours.  However, I like the fact that a transit administrator is excited about transit and trying with innovation to get more people to use it at all times.

Perhaps I am missing something logical and important here.  If one of my readers recognizes it, please inform me and other readers with a comment.

stuttgart-21

Last week’s New York Times published an article about the efforts to expand the rail station in Stuttgart, Germany.  Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote of the project which is designed to house new high speed rail lines and help connect rail lines across the EU:

The clash between builders and preservationists is as old as architecture itself, but it reached a fever pitch in the recent gilded age. And it is especially fraught in Germany, where the construction boom that began with the country’s reunification sometimes seems like a convenient tool for smoothing over unpleasant historical truths.

Few current projects better illustrate this conflict than Stuttgart 21, a plan to build an enormous new railway station, along with 37 miles of underground track, in the heart of this old industrial city. The $7 billion development, which is expected to be approved by the end of the year, is part of an ever-expanding high-speed train network that planners hope will one day link the entire continent. As one of the largest developments in Europe, it could radically transform the city center.

But the design shows a callous disregard for architectural history. Its construction would require the partial destruction of one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks: the Hauptbahnhof, Paul Bonatz’s Stuttgart central rail terminal, a monument of early German Modernism built from 1914 to 1928.

Car have rest stops and airplanes have airports, but no means of transportation has a place to intersect with the mode quite like railroads and their train stations.  Train stations can be magnificent like Grand Central Station and 30th Street Station.  Classic train stations have also frequently been ruined and mocked, like New York’s Penn Station (H/T Infrastructurist).

I appreciate the efforts in Stuttgart to build something magnificent and memorable and forward thinking, but it should not come at the expense of history.  There are certain buildings and places that stand as landmarks and should be preserved not just as art, but also for the sanctity of the identity of the city.  I also believe rail stations should be alluring to the passenger.  Airports and highways are conveniences of necessity.  Railroad stations should not just be practical spaces, but entrances and destinations.  The new design for Stuttgart is impressive, but I hope they can preserve the current station while making the additions.

Railroads are promoted for their convenience as usually being placed in the middle of cities, as opposed to major highways and especially airports.  Those train stations should be city jewels and once built be part of the identity of the city for years to come.  Cities are frequently defined by their architecture, whether it is skyscrapers and bridges.  The appearance of trains is guaranteed to change over the decades, but a train station can always be a classic.  I only hope that trains will be in such demand that stations must grow to accommodate the traffic, but they should not be changed such that they lose their souls.

cellphone_driving_poka0059-325x294This one is just too easy.  The New York Times published a story on Sunday about how truck drivers are lobbying not to have texting laws apply to them.  I fully understand the need for drivers to get to locations on time and the demands of a driver to get their trailers from place to place quickly and efficiently.  However, this is not an excuse for hurting safety.

According to the Times, rather than chatting on cell phones or texting on Blackberrys, truckers are communicating with their dispatch centers via computers in their cabs.  These computer feature screens and often keyboards right in the laps of drivers.  Here is a snippet from the article:

After videotaping truckers behind the wheel, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that those who used on-board computers faced a 10 times greater risk of crashing, nearly crashing or wandering from their lane than truckers who did not use those devices.

That figure is lower than the 23 times greater risk when truckers texted, compared with drivers simply focused on the road, according to the same study. However, the Virginia researchers said that truckers tend to use on-board computers more often than they text.

The study found that truckers using on-board computers take their eyes off the road for an average of four seconds, enough time at highway speeds to cover roughly the length of a football field.

Given all the hype present currently on texting (e.g. this summer’s MBTA crash) and distracted driving in general, the position of the truckers is unacceptable.  If only truck drivers were in danger from their actions, then so be it.  But truck drivers occupy the roads with millions of other Americans, and reckless driving by a driver in a multi-ton 18-wheeler puts the lives of other drivers (truck and automobile) at tremendous risk.

I really have very low tolerance for such action, if we cannot transport our goods effectively and safely on the roads it is all the more reason to invest more in our freight railroads where drivers rarely intersect with the trains.

Damian Ortega, False MovementShana Tova loyal Transit Pass readers.  I welcome you all back and wish you all a happy and healthy new year.  In Sunday’s New York Times, long-time columnist Thomas Friedman wrote about the necessity of a hike in the gasoline tax.  Friedman challenges the masculinity of the nation, saying essentially that even the French have more courage to confront their problems than we do.

But are we really that tough? If the metric is a willingness to send troops to Iraq and Afghanistan and consider the use of force against Iran, the answer is yes. And we should be eternally grateful to the Americans willing to go off and fight those fights. But in another way — when it comes to doing things that would actually weaken the people we are sending our boys and girls to fight — we are total wimps. We are, in fact, the wimps of the world. We are, in fact, so wimpy our politicians are afraid to even talk about how wimpy we are.

Friedman goes on to say that America needs a gasoline tax because it would reduce our dependence on foreign oil, spur energy innovation and investment in alternative energies and improve some of our foreign policy issues (and, oh, people might drive less).

Such a tax would make our economy healthier by reducing the deficit, by stimulating the renewable energy industry, by strengthening the dollar through shrinking oil imports and by helping to shift the burden of health care away from business to government so our companies can compete better globally. Such a tax would make our population healthier by expanding health care and reducing emissions. Such a tax would make our national-security healthier by shrinking our dependence on oil from countries that have drawn a bull’s-eye on our backs and by increasing our leverage over petro-dictators, like those in Iran, Russia and Venezuela, through shrinking their oil incomes.

Friedman and I differ on how to spend the money from a gasoline tax.  He would use most of it on the defecit and healthcare.  I would put a gasoline tax toward improving our transportation infrastructure.  However, that’s small chickens compared to the notion of actually having a gasoline tax.

Americans, since the advent of large road building projects and the AAA and truckers’ unions have depended on largely free roads.  Of course there is no such thing as a free road, it gets paid for somehow.  But Americans have never really had to think hard how their roads get paid for.  On the other hand we’re all too well aware of the cost of public transportation, in the form of a fare.  But roads don’t have fares largely, it’s just pay the cost of a car and the gasoline and go driving. There aren’t even significant car taxes or licensing fees to pay for the upkeep of roads.  We like our big government, just not paying for it.

However, a gasoline tax is incredibly important, if for no other reason than we need to wean people from gasoline and cars because they will eventually be largely unaffordable if we keep driving at our current pace.  The whole notion of auto-based cities and suburbs and sprawling exurbs need to become ideas of the past.  The car cannot and should not be eliminated, but this country needs to emphasize the urban, and the car is not a significant part of our urban future.

There is no debating that our country is growing; the US census estimates there will be 392 million people in the country by 2050.  Those new people have to live somewhere, and the formula of quarter acre lots in the suburbs is not sustainable.  We should not and cannot raze the suburbs, but we can make sure that our cities are beacons for the next generation.  In order to do so the transportation networks must be better, more thorough, reliable and affordable.  A gasoline tax would go a long way towards helping to create those necessary infrastructure improvements.

One final thought, how about tax breaks for car sharing?  If the idea is to get people to drive less and own fewer cars, what better way than supporting car sharing systems with essentially subsidized gas?

I have given Edward Glaeser a very hard time on this blog.  I reviewed all four segments of his contribution to the Economix Blogwrestling with moses on the New York Times regarding the costs of high speed rail.  However, Glaeser has recently reviewed Anthony Flint’s new book, Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City, for the New Republic.  I featured that book in a post I wrote last month about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs.  Given that Glaeser has promised to come back to the topic of high speed rail in the future, and I am sure to disagree with him again, I want to feature an opportunity where I agree with him.

The following is a selection from his book review:

Jacobs was right that cities are built for people, but they are also built around transportation systems. New York was America’s premier harbor, and the city grew up around the port. The meandering streets of lower Manhattan were laid down in a pedestrian age. Washington Square was urban sprawl in the age of the omnibus. The Upper East Side and Upper West Side were built up in the age of rail, when my great-grandfather would take the long elevated train ride downtown from Washington Heights. It was inevitable that cars would also require urban change. Either older cities would have to adapt, or the population would move entirely to the new car-based cities of the Sunbelt.

The best way to keep cities affordable is to allow private developers to build up and deliver space. Jacobs was right that high-rise public housing is a problem, as street crime is much more prevalent in high-rise, high-poverty neighborhoods. But in more prosperous, privately managed buildings, height is not a problem. If you love cities, as Jacobs certainly did, then presumably you should want the master builders to make them accessible to more people.

Successful cities need both the human interactions of Jane Jacobs and the enabling infrastructure of Robert Moses. Anthony Flint has done a fine job describing the battles between these two great figures, but unlike the Louis-Schmeling fight, their conflict should not be resolved. An absolute victory for Moses leads to heartless cities, built to accommodate cars but not pedestrians, with high-rise buildings that are disconnected from their streets. An absolute victory for Jacobs means a city frozen in concrete with prices that are too high and buildings that are too low. New building is needed to welcome the diversity that makes urban magic. No city can survive without the personal engagements beloved by Jacobs, but no city can thrive without master builders such as Moses.

On this I agree with Glaeser (though I am not sure how much disagreement there really is), that cities of course need to be mixed between organic growth and development and top-down city planning.  I am a transportation lover and advocate.  No neighborhood is going to build its own subway system.  Building permanent transportation networks requires the work of many bureaucrats and all of their skill and resources.  Organic growth usually placates the present while bureaucrats need to solve current problems and create systems that prevent future ones from occurring.  The great hope is that our governments going forward reflect the best of both Moses and Jacobs; taking into account the voice of the neighborhood and social justice while creating the larger projects that can define and shape our cities.

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