Transit planners and lovers wax romantic about the virtues of transit oriented development as well as the potential of current and future urban areas to support successful public transportation.  However, as Yonah Freemark at the Next American City points out, such development is only successful for cities that have sufficient urban density.  Freemark discussed the early 20th century idea and development of streetcar suburbs and why they no longer have their streetcars and whether we will make the same mistakes again with current light rail developments.  (My partner shared this column with me)

Aaron Renn argued last week on the Urbanophile that metropolitan areas with populations of less than about two million inhabitants don’t necessitate the kind of high densities urbanists often promote. Citing the example of Columbus, Ohio, Renn suggested that because these regions are small enough in area to make commuting from one end to the other by car possible within a short amount of time, creating dense, walkable neighborhoods focused around a “huge, packed, downtown core” is not absolutely necessary.

In some ways, his argument rings true: for those driving private automobiles, neighborhoods like the former streetcar suburbs may be ideal. For businesspeople hopping from one side of the region to the other (“to lunch”), driving in medium-sized cities works fine.

On the other hand, for everyone else—the young, the old, the poor, the sick—such neighborhoods provide no alternatives. You can’t easily walk to school or to the store or to the senior center when you live in a streetcar suburb. Nor can transit operators provide adequate service, since densities are too low to make frequent buses possible.

This discussion plays on something conceptually obvious, that to have successful transit there must be a critical mass of people relying on the service or else it is bound to fail.  No government can afford to run buses or trolleys down thoroughfares on a frequent basis when they will be largely empty most of the time. Moreover, with insufficient density and a lack of commercial destinations for residents transit will be underutilized.

However, that idea may not be as obvious as it seems. I cannot count how many times I have been waiting for the Green Line trolley in Boston when I have heard fellow riders complain and wonder out loud why the MBTA is not more like New York’s MTA.  The simple answer is that New York City subways are large, convenient and frequently running because they service a lot of people in a small area in densely populated Manhattan.  Clearly, boarding a trolley with 12 other people in Brookline is incredibly dissimilar from joining hundreds at Columbus Circle.

Therefore, there are many cities that may have large populations that are insufficiently dense to provide the kind of transit service that gives people reason to give up their cars.  In my mind for these borderline and unqualified urban areas there are at least three solutions if transit is to be developed.

1) Local, state and federal policy can encourage zoning changes to allow for greater density before building transit systems.

2) Communities can simultaneously adopt policies restricting the presence of cars per household and/or parking spaces to emphasize transit usage and car sharing.  In this fashion only households which desire to utilize transit will move into these communities, rendering both density and transit-dependent density.

3) Perhaps the least feasible of the ideas, but I will continue to push for pod transit in the suburbs.  I still believe a linkable pod system that utilizes public thoroughfares but simultaneously allows for the malleability of personal motor transit in suburban locations has a reasonable future.

As oil prices go up and American population continues to escalate we will want to develop successful transit systems.  In order to do so we must develop the housing and parking policies that correspond to make both viable.

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.

Stock pricesI wish I could claim credit for this idea, but I cannot.  Today in a class of mine the idea of car vehicle or vehicle mile traveled cap and trade was briefly bandied about.  Cap and trade is the basic idea of setting some sort of limit on the use of a commodity and then giving permission for those who use the commodity to trade their allotted value of that commodity such that those who see the allotment as a surplus can trade to those who are in greater need of that commodity.  The idea is to spur innovation in use of environmentally hurtful products such as oil and coal, generally.

In the case of an automobile cap and trade either car ownership or vehicle miles traveled could be regulated.  In my opinion it would be far more effective to cap and trade the vehicle miles traveled than the cars themselves.  One author suggests how to pull off such a system:

Such a “cap and trade” (CAT) system would establish a mileage threshold and allow vehicle owners who drive fewer miles to use them later or sell them to vehicle owners whose mileage surpasses the allowable threshold. Credit and debit amounts would reflect relative fuel-efficiency based on EPA gas mileage ratings or similar manufacturer data. Administered most effectively at the state level, such a program would generate massive government revenue to research alternative energy sources. Reducing fossil-fuel consumption comes down not only to increasing miles per gallon (MPG) but to reducing miles driven per vehicle (MPV). Reducing MPV saves oil more directly than either the technological improvements that impact CAFÉ standards or increased gas taxes.

However, such a cap and trade program is effective and efficient only if it is coupled with a variety of other transit investments including new public transportation resources.  In addition, such a cap and trade system would be effective for encouraging re-engineering of zoning plans that facilitate sprawl and low urban density.   Without giving people better options of where to live and how to get around such a cap and trade program is simply a tax for those who live further away from their place of employment.  However, encouraging people to move closer to the central and regional cores of metropolitan areas is a relevant goal in itself.

Such a system, by making driving less desirable, also drives down our reliance on oil, always a good thing for political, social, economic and environmental reasons.

Of course, my notion right now is exceedingly vague and specifics would have to be developed on just what the cap on vehicle miles traveled would be, whether to create such a system at the federal or state level, how commercial vehicles would be allotted credits and by what means the vehicle miles traveled credits could be traded.

I personally would suggest establishing higher credits for commercial vehicles like delivery trucks and tractor trailers.  We cannot get rid of vehicles like FedEx trucks or bakery delivery vehicles.  However, you will find little love lost from me regarding 18-wheelers.  The sooner we can get a percentage of that freight off the roads onto the rails the better, if you ask me.

America needs to shed its auto infatuation.  That automobile is a tool and a useful one, but it should not be the source of daily existence for hours a day.  Getting people to live more densely, to utilize alternative transportation options and to be less dependent on oil all could be accomplished by a VMT cap and trade system.

Trinity Railway Express- Dallas, TX

Growing up outside of New York, the threats by Congress to do away with Amtrak in one way or another were always taken with serious alarm.  People in the metropolitan area understood the importance of Amtrak in terms of getting between Boston and Washington, D.C.  The area did not particularly care if no one rode Amtrak in Utah or Mississippi.  As I grew up I came to realize that conservatives hated Amtrak because passenger rail was somehow European (and hence effeminate) and weak because it was perceived to diminish the extreme masculinity of the American automobile.  After all, real Americans get themselves places, they do not depend on others to do it for them.  Of course we should all ignore the CEO’s and extremely rich with their chauffeurs and private jets.  The train made people seem less independent as they could not set their own individual course.

This is of course all hogwash.  Conservatives should be supporting transportation and infrastructure investment in droves.  Alex Kummant’s article at American Thinker on precisely this topic made me happy.  He makes several important points about the role of transportation in America’s economic success.  He also points out that the free market is not the best strategy for transportation planning.

The 250-year economic miracle of the United States has been enabled, in no small part, by the unparalleled transportation capability first found and then built on this continent. It began with the remarkable St. Lawrence Seaway and the harbor-rich East Coast, without which the coastal colony system and its robust trade would have developed very differently. This was followed by the western expansion powered first by the Ohio River system and then by the Mississippi and Missouri river systems. Technical development linked with geography (river banks and plains) then drove the railroad economy, followed by highway and air, always in the international vanguard. Today we falter, as we idle in traffic on the way to the local home building supply store, and have little or no transportation advantage over other nations and geographies.
In the passenger transportation world, conservatives have lost their way with the libertarian mantra of “let the free market work,” as though this absolves them of wrestling with the real details of real problems. Witness the chaos of the commercial airlines in the last 25 years, the 150-year boom-bust history of the railroads, and the gradual unwinding of major elements of the troubled British rail privatization.
He points out that “Few realize that on a per-passenger basis, Amtrak has had less capital input than auto transportation nationally.”  But he also issues a call to arms to conservatives that I welcome:
It is entirely appropriate for the federal government to create a detailed national passenger transportation plan and then to work with local, state, federal, and private sector entities to realize the proposed networks.
Conservatives should make this issue theirs. There are, no doubt, large political pitfalls with earmarks and bridges-to- nowhere, but that can always be an excuse to do nothing. The current approach of the right, basically ignoring the national competitiveness implications of transportation and the related energy issues, is an abdication of responsibility.
Conservatives have a critical role to play in any transportation discussion.  Conservatives have a huge stake in promoting business and the movement of goods, people and ideas that is necessary to keep the economy active.  Conservatives also depend on stability and transportation is critical to such stability.   This is why I’m so frustrated when Republicans like Senator John McCain seek to remove funding from public transit.  Fortunately McCain’s most recent efforts were defeated in the Senate.
Transportation is not a liberal folly not a conservative punching bag.  Transportation is essential for this country.  Roads are a critical part of that, but the nation needs forward-thinking transportation policies that are multi-modal, energy efficient, promote density and high public ridership and are efficient and cost-effective to operate.  These are not liberal or conservative values, they are American values.


commuter rail

Sorry for the short layoff loyal readers.  After a summer working for Boston’s MBTA I am very familiar with the fact that the T provides 1.2 million rides daily.  That’s an impressive sum, but still not the highest in the country.  Here are the most total rides per day (for the first quarter of 2009), according to the American Public Transportation Association.

  1. New York (MTA/Long Island Railroad/Staten Island Railroad): 10,758,600
  2. Chicago: 1,635,700
  3. Los Angeles (MTA/DOT/RRA): 1,608,300
  4. Washington, DC: 1,421,200
  5. Detroit (including Flint): 1,322,100
  6. Boston: 1,217,500
  7. Philadelphia: 1,145,100
  8. San Francisco: 1,060,900
  9. Atlanta: 487,900
  10. Seattle: 449,700
  11. Baltimore: 408,900
  12. Miami: 349,900
  13. Portland: 323,000
  14. Houston: 307,700
  15. Denver: 292,100

It is exciting that there are eight metropolitan areas in the United States transporting over 1,000,000 rides per day.  However, there are several major metropolitan areas that are missing from this list.

The following are the top 17 largest metropolitan areas and their populations according to Wikipedia.  I cut off at 17 as these are all metropolitan areas of 3,000,000 people or more.

  1. New York: 19,006,798
  2. Los Angeles: 12,872,808
  3. Chicago: 9,569,624
  4. Dallas: 6,300,006
  5. Philadelphia: 5,838,471
  6. Houston: 5,728,143
  7. Miami: 5,414,772
  8. Atlanta: 5,376,285 0
  9. Washington, DC: 5,358,130
  10. Boston: 4,522,858
  11. Detroit: 4,425,110 0
  12. Phoenix: 4,281,899
  13. San Francisco: 4,274,531
  14. Riverside/San Bernardino/Ontario: 4,115,871
  15. Seattle: 3,344,813
  16. Minneapolis:  3,229,878
  17. San Diego: 3,001,072

The cities from the population list that are most conspiculously missing from the ridership list are Phoenix (214,000 rides per day) and Dallas (217,000 rides per day) as well as Houston’s low ridership.  These three cities represent the worst of car culture in America.  They were built around the car and without public transit in mind.  However, there is certainly hope in both Dallas and Houston as they build up their respective public transit systems.

Public transit is a necessary growth item across the country, but if it is to be successful, it should be aimed at the largest metropolitan areas first.  These areas have the best captive audience seeking to get to work and other downtown or central areas.  The country as a whole is in need of more transit options.  However, the culture of transit must occur in our largest cities first.  New York is doing its part as is Chicago and Boston (not that there isn’t room for improvement).  More energy needs to be focused on America’s heartland cities, that do not have the culture and were largely built up in the age of the automobile.

Senatorial Transport Index 09

As per usual, the Transport Politic has provided an innovative insight into the world of transportation.  This week he has developed a Senatorial Transport Index for 2009, measuring how progressive senators are regarding transportation issues.  For further explanation of how these ratings were measured you should click on the link to get the breakdown of what votes were measured.

What is interesting to me is the curious correlation or lack thereof of votes to urban density.  I understand the role of party affiliation and how that affects the votes of various senators, but states with high urban density are most likely to get federal public transit funding, especially regarding high speed rail.  It makes all the sense in the world that the senators from Wyoming do not support such funding, but that the senators from Texas are lukewarm is odd; especially given that the state is home to three of the eight largest cities in the country (Houston, Dallas and San Antonio) and six of the 21 largest.  The truly perplexing state is Arizona, given that 81.4% of it’s population lives in the Phoenix and Tuscon metropolitan areas.  However, Phoenix is built on the American dream of sprawl, roads and now foreclosure.  At the same time, only politics can explain the “good” behavior of the senators from Montana, Vermont and West Virginia.  Although we can all hope that senators truly have the nation’s best interest at heart and realize that what is good for the country may be good for their constituents, even if the money does not flow directly.

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