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.

I recently switched from taking the train to taking the bus for my commute home from work.   I will always be a fan of the rails.  I love everything about them, from the feel of a train ride, to the dedicated space for travel, to generally firm scheduling and the fact that they are independent from other forms of transportation (unless there are grade crossings involved).  However, the bus became cheaper (due to to extenuating circumstances, not merely system prices) and here I am taking it!

However, I will never get used to being stuck in traffic during the commute.  I find it incredibly frustrating to watch traffic go the same speed as the bus or faster.  My transit elitism leads me to believe that I am entitled to go faster than people traveling alone in individual cars.  In fact, if more planners thought this way, I am positive more people would be riding public transit, it’s all about marginal costs and returns.

We all know that the bus has a sad history of being disfavored, sometimes used as an instrument of racial and/or class oppression, and generally is perceived as vastly inferior to the personal automobile.  However, for all those drivers stuck in endless traffic on metropolitan America’s overcrowded highways, think about how much better life could be if most people took the bus (let alone rode a bike).  While I recognize the importance of biking and that more streets, workplaces, and transit stations should accommodate bicycles, it is also relevant that many people due to age, distance, weather, etc. cannot bike to work.

The above image from Transportation Alternatives (a New York advocacy group)–and similar to a more photographically deceptive German image–illustrates the incredible power of public transit.  Moving many people from many moving motorized vehicles into one is a huge coup for traffic flow (not to mention safety) and commuter sanity.  Even though some companies are trying to solve the problem by building smaller cars–and admittedly bikers are very efficient on smaller vehicles–organizing people into larger systems is not efficient and clean, but creates more usable streets.  It is one of the many reasons I applaud New York’s engagement with bus rapid transit.

The next time someone gives you a hard time about the bus, whether it is its speed, its comfort, or its perceived social status, remind that person that if more people rode the bus system, and public transit systems in general, not only would our society feel and be more equal, but those buses would move faster and be better for all people in transit, regardless of their mode.

**Disclaimer: I am working as an extern in the law department of the Chicago Transit Authority this summer.  The CTA does not endorse or sponsor my writing on this blog.**

Being a public transit person creates a lot of conversation, especially with people living in urban centers.  Everyone has a public transit story, or complaint, or idea.  Transit is the great commonality in cities, not merely as conversation, but as public space and property as well.  It is this latter piece, as public property and space that mystifies some people.

At least a handful of people have argued to me that public transit should be privatized or at least support itself financially without any sort of public subsidy.  Ironically, these seem to frequently be the same people that are upset that public transit has not made one sort of accommodation or another, whether it is for the handicapped, or enough service, or insufficient cleanliness.

I am in no way against economic efficiency in the sense that transit systems should work to keep costs down.  However it is problematic when transit systems are expected to fend for themselves financially (as Governor Christie seems to desire for NJ Transit).  Such a system results in a terrible combination of higher fares, less service, and greater inaccessibility for those who least can afford such cutbacks.

The Chicago Reader recently featured a fantastic history of the early years of the CTA.  Robert Loerzel wrote a very-well researched story of how transit systems operated in Chicago from the mid-nineteenth century until the period of public ownership of the urban rails in the mid-twentieth century.  Loerzel used this history to illustrate how private ownership of utilities frustrates public purposes.  Moreover, especially in this era of governmental criticism, he demonstrates why reformers sought public ownership of utilities, including public transit, in the first place.  A great summary quote:

The dream of municipal ownership finally became a reality in 1947, when the Chicago Transit Authority was formed to take over the bankrupt transit lines. Finding enough money to run the CTA has been a problem ever since. “A transit system that was unable to survive on fares as a private enterprise was somehow expected to do so as a public entity in a declining market,” Young wrote. The all-time high for public-transit use in Chicago was the late 1920s, he says, when the city’s streetcars, buses, and trains annually handled more than 1.1 billion rides. In 2009 the CTA handled 521 million rides, not quite half as many.

This history is not unique to Chicago and Loerzel’s article is informative for residents of all cities, not just Chicagoans.   Moreover, the lessons regarding transit apply to all public services (e.g. police, health care, roads, energy, water, etc.).

Based on those of my peers who have suggested privatizing transit I think many are just deluded by Reaganomics.  The others who believe more sincerely in privatization usually have more sinister anti-urban or racist or classist goals that go along with cutbacks in public transportation.

In these tough financial times it is difficult to find money for all services.  However, suggestions to privatize our public transportation systems is not the answer to our woes.  Private companies will not put people first, but rather profits.  The good of our cities depends on continuing investment (and reasonable expectations of sound fiscal policy with that investment) in our great public properties and spaces, our transportation systems.

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.

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.

In light of some high-profile automobile accidents involving older drivers Massachusetts has begun the policy discussion regarding enforcing more stringent licensing requirements for those individuals.  State legislators and DOT officials are contemplating a range of requirements to protect the elderly as well as other drivers and pedestrians.

I support measures that require older drivers (i.e. drivers over 65 or 75) to renew licenses more frequently than other drivers and ensure that the renewal involves a driving test and vision test.  This is not age-based discrimination, but rather steps necessary to protect all people on the road.  However, such restrictions which may limit and indeed deny many older individuals access to the driver’s wheel need to be coupled with increased access to public transportation and paratransit services.

I researched precisely these issues this semester in an independent study.  Here is a selection from my research:

While not all elderly individuals are disabled, age significantly affects the ability of people to drive, forcing them to rely on means of public transportation. Cognitive and physical abilities decline as people age, and elderly drivers are the drivers most likely to be in a crash except those under 25. The aging of the body affects drivers in many ways: declining vision affects the ability to judge distance and speed, metabolism changes slow reaction times, and withering muscle mass increases the difficulty of making rapid movements like sudden braking.  Elderly drivers are also more likely to be injured in a car crash than other drivers.

More to the point, older drivers are more likely than younger drivers to be killed in car crashes relative to miles traveled; drivers 85 and older have a fatality rate in crashes nine times higher than drivers 25 to 69 for each mile driven.  Many states are taking proactive measures to protect the elderly and other passengers and pedestrians by requiring older drivers to renew their drivers’ licenses.  Illinois and New Hampshire already require drivers over 75 applying to renew their drivers’ licenses to take a driving test and a vision test.  While New Hampshire and Illinois have the most restrictive regulations, other state have taken precautions, such as Iowa, which requires drivers over 70 to renew their licenses every two years in person with a vision test, rather than every five years for younger drivers.

Elderly Americans without cars are severely restricted in their ability to be active members of society.  Regardless of the reasons why elderly people do not drive, for the 21% of Americans over 65 who do not experience 15% fewer trips to the doctor, 59% fewer shopping trips and outings to restaurants and 65% fewer trips for social, family and religious activities than their driving peers.  These issues are already becoming particularly pressing in certain areas of the country, such as Florida where 19.6% of the driving population is over 65 and older; the national average is 14.9% of the driving population is 65 and older.

Some states, such as Arkansas, where drivers over 65 account for 29% of all accidents, may be compelled to deal with these issues sooner than later.  There is also an ethnic justice component to the need for improved public transportation for the elderly, because minorities are disproportionately affected by the lack of transit options. In the population of Americans over 65 just 16% of white people do not drive, but 42% of African Americans, 39% of Latinos and 45% of Asian Americans do not drive.

Unfortunately, all the transportation safety news tends to focus on airlines, especially given the attempted terrorist detonation last week.  However, America’s roads are still the most deadly form of transportation.  The elderly desire, deserve and need transportation as much as anyone else, but not at the expense of others’ safety.

As the baby boomers age and the elderly population grows (The United States Census Bureau estimates that in 2010 there will be 5,751,000 people over 85 and by 2050 there will be 19,041,000 people over 85, accounting for 4.3% of the projected overall American population of 439 million.) the needs of this population will only become more apparent.  We need to develop alternative means that are coherent with general transportation, especially public transportation, priorities.  Or else our grandparents and us will all be in unnecessary danger every day.


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.

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