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.

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.

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.

Cargo Unloading

Applications for Department of Transportation TIGER (Transportation Invesments Generating Economic Recovery) were due September 15th.  The DOT got an overwhelming response for the available $1.5 billion available.  Applications came in from all 50 states totaling $56.9 billion in applications.  According to the DOT (pdf graph), 1381 applications were received.  Unfortunately, 56% of the money requested was for highways, but 19% of the money requested was for transit and another 10% for railroads.  Here are some of the applications that have received media attention.

I’m just glad I’m not the lawyer who has to read all of those applications.

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?

Courtesy of the Transportationist comes this 4 minute time-lapse video of a cross-country road trip from San Francisco, CA to Washington, D.C.

The producers of the video used a time-lapse camera that took a photo once every 10 seconds over the course of this 3,052 mile route.  As much as I may write about the virtues of rail and the importance of public transportation, there is still something undeniably romantic about the American road trip, especially of the cross-country variety.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics the US had 4,032,126 miles of paved public roads as of 2007.  However, of that, almost 3/4 of the mileage, 2,987,758 miles of it to be exact came in the form of rural mileage.  I adore the fact that Americans can drive just about anywhere and see pretty much any part of this country just by hopping in their cars.  However, the time has come to essentially stop building.  How many more roads do we need?  As of the 2000 Census, 79% of Americans lived in urban places.  Those people need means to get from one urban area to another and out of the urban areas altogether.  That said, we currently have the means to do it.  Building more roads is only a burden down the line of maintaining them.

It is now time to focus our funds on urban areas and sustainable ways of moving people within metropolitan areas and from one area to another.  The focus on building highways should rightfully come to an end.  I too one day want to take the great American road trip and I want those roads maintained for longevity, but we do not need any more for that dream to be realized.

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.

Sprawl

Edward Glaeser posted his last essay in a four-part series on the economics of high speed rail in the Economix blog of the New York Times.  Like other transit bloggers, I have not been fond of Dr. Glaser’s work thus far and have been highly critical of his essays on this blog.  He seems to have responded to the criticisms by providing the work of many other economists to support his work and concluded that he will be back (for better or worse) in three weeks to revisit some of his assumptions and discuss rail links other than one from Houston to Dallas.

Glaeser’s most recent essay focused on urban sprawl and what he perceives to be the lack of significant savings.  However, just because Glaeser seems to provide more empirical support for his most recent essay does not mean that his latest rant is any more intellectually responsible or well-thought-out.  Glaeser points out both that the populations of Houston and Dallas may grow and are potentially mobile.  If these are true infrastructure will need to be built.

Population growth requires investment in infrastructure, both for transportation and utilities (including water, electricity, sewer and telecommunications).  Glaeser’s approach to estimating costs is ridiculous because he makes rail justify itself as opposed to performing a comparative study.  Of course high speed rail is expensive, there is no arguing about.  High speed rail may even lose money.  So what?  Is it more cost effective than building new roads?  Is it more effective over the long term when upkeep is factored in?  He answers none of these questions.  Rail does not exist in a vacuum, it is an option that needs to be weighed against the cost of roads and expanding air travel.

Perhaps Glaeser has never really traveled to Houston or Dallas, but speaking from experience, neither city really has a dense residential core.  Both cities depend on growth at the fringe with new housing projects representing population expansion.  These projects are far more costly than the cost of housing may reflect.  There are real and environmental costs to building on land that is currently undeveloped.  There are intense water issues in Texas regarding both supply and drainage.  There is the cost to the land of covering it in houses and asphalt.  There is the cost of having to build new infrastructure in the cost of expanding the reach of social services or even developing new governments and school boards of new suburban towns.

High speed rail will not immedately bring people back to the city.  Glaeser is correct that having a downtown high speed rail depot is not likely to make people live people downtown or in the urban core.  It’s the same as people in Manhattan being willing (begrudgingly) to trek out to LaGuardia.  However, the development of inter-urban high speed rail with downtown departure points spurs the development of further urban public transportation that encourages people to live and work in the urban core.  This is what prevents urban sprawl.  Sprawl is not going to be discouraged by high speed rail alone, new transportation infrastructure throught a city will, and high speed rail can be a critical component.

jane jacobsrobert moses

Howard Husock wrote a book review in the latest issue of City Journal discussing Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City, by Anthony Flint, and Genius of Common Sense: Jane Jacobs and the Story of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch.

Jane Jacobs was the great self-taught urban philosopher and activist who wrote the Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which she took the lessons she learned from Greenwich Village to expound upon the value of organic urban life, where planning and government have  a limited but instrumental role.  This stood in direct contrast to the most powerful man in New York, the unelected Robert Moses, who built many of New York City’s highways and housing projects.

Husock makes many notable points, including this one:

But good cases can make bad law, and the successful defense of Washington Square Park and the West Village can lead too easily to the conclusion that neighborhood preservation, by whatever means necessary, is always correct—and that opponents of development, by definition, occupy the moral high ground. Thanks partly to their efforts, New York City has not opened a new subway line since 1942, has no easy transit link to its airports, and enforces a system of legally dictated rents that allow affluent tenants to stay forever in cheap apartments and insulate themselves from neighborhood change. Some would even extend such rent controls to commercial properties, thus interrupting the cycle of decline and rebirth that marks dynamic cities.

Neither Moses nor Jacobs had a perfect philosophy.  Any transportation advocate recognizes the need for eminent domain at some minimal level and that good transit can help organic growth.  Think about how commercial and residential centers grow around particular subway stops or how other areas decay when city planners choose to move a bus line or close a light rail stop.  In this day and age there is no such thing as truly organic transit.  The days of paving over old walking and cow paths are over and transit now is a matter of government and the community working to make transit systems and routes that work with and for the community.

Moreover, Moses and Jacobs stand as historic examples of the long-lasting effects of making (or not making decisions in planning).  Moses radically changed the city and Jacobs prevented some of his other attempts and set the tone to make sure that other Moses-like projects would never occur.  In this day and age of 24-hour media we forget that our policy decisions have a longer lasting effect than the day or week they are put into place.  A policy decision, especially one as large as where or whether to build a highway or subway can have ramifications for decades if not centuries.

As we finally begin to give transportation infrastructure its due in the 21st century, we are best served to remember that any decision on transit–whether it is high speed rail, improving our highways, investing in more subways, efficient cars or something else we are bound to imagine–those decisions do not solve only current problems.  Those decisions will have ramifications today and for centuries to come.  Transportation grants should not be handed out for efficiecy’s sake or for mere stimulus effect, but to establish and preserve productive, creative, economically thriving centers of American life.

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