April 2010

As a diversion from more serious discussions of transportation policy, today I bring the transit geeks among you the opportunity to spice up your home with some themed decorations.  I have previously written about subway maps, modeled after the famous London Tube Map, and how they inspire reinterpretation and artistic fun.  These decorative items follow in that tradition of reusing perhaps the most common utilitarian images in our culture.  Transit maps are part aesthetic representation, part pragmatic guide.  However, they are defining images that we all identify with in our own way individually and as metropolitan areas.  The help to define our mental understanding of our cities and how we relate to our space and our neighbors, geographically, culturally, and politically.  With that in mind, enjoy these various transit-oriented products.

Need help planning your route to work?  Do it in the shower with maps of New York, London, Boston, and Washington D.C. on shower curtains.  If you have a shower that has needs a shower curtain this is certainly a fun way to express city pride, especially if you are currently an expat from your city of choice.

The company Extrapete has created a collection of wallpaper maps.  They have prepared topographical and naval maps, but of course I am most interested in the representation of the Tokyo subway map.  They have removed all the place names from the map leaving only the lines and dots for an intriguing collage of shapes and colors that would surely spice up any room.

On the subject of the ubiquitous London Tube Map and its various reappropriations, Suck U.K. has developed a London Underground mirror, placing Harry Beck’s famous graphic schematic on mirror so that you can figure out how to get to Westminster Abbey while shaving. (See the picture at the top of the post)

Lastly, in case you feel that any of these products do not express your love (or obsession) with public transit well enough one person has laid out the New York City Subway Map in tile on the floor and walls of his bathroom.  The person has also provided a tile-by-tile blueprint of how to recreate his masterpiece.

I hope you are all inspired to make your own transit art, or at least attempt to see new beauty and inherent artistic value in the infrastructure we use every day.

[Greg Moran is a new contributor for The Transit Pass.  He develops energy power projects for International Power.]

Twenty years from today, we may just look back on 2010 as the year that electric cars hit the mainstream and put the world on a path toward widespread vehicle electrification.  While niche electric cars such as Tesla and Think are already in limited production and available for purchase today, no major automobile manufacture has to date released a plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) on the market.  However, that will change later this year with the introduction of the LEAF from Nissan.  The LEAF will be the first automobile produced by a major global automotive manufacturer that will not rely on an internal combustion engine fueled by gasoline.  Instead, the vehicle will be fully reliant on a 24 kWh lithium polymer battery developed jointly by Nissan and NEC (other hybrid and electric manufactures use more standard lithium-ion chemistry).

While critics of electric vehicles have voiced numerous objections to the PEV in general, perhaps the most frequent criticism has been on the topic of price competitiveness with traditional gasoline-fueled vehicles.  To this point, Nissan largely puts this issue to bed by starting the LEAF at $32,780.  After factoring in a federal tax credit of $7,500, the price drops to nearly $25,000.  This makes the LEAF competitive with traditional, non-electric automobiles in its class.  In certain states such as California, the LEAF would be eligible for an additional $5,000 in tax credits, thereby dropping the price to approximately $20,000.  Seeing California is chalk full of early technology adopters, Nissan figures the LEAF will sell well in the San Francisco and Los Angeles market (both markets also happen to be hotbeds for battery and electric car company start-ups).

Range anxiety is another consistent fear expressed by PEV critics.  Despite Americans propensity to drive more than our global counterparts, the vast majority of Americans drive less than 40 miles per day.  Nissan officially claims that the LEAF will get approximately 100 miles on one charge.  However, recent test drives have indicated that even this number is conservative and the range will likely be higher.  This 100 mile range will likely satisfy over 90% of Americans driving needs.

Nissan is currently working on fine-tuning its vehicle charging strategy.  At present, the LEAF will be able to reach a full charge in approximately 8 hours by simply plugging the vehicle into a standard garage power outlet.  However, Nissan is currently in discussions with numerous electric utilities and third party charging station technology providers.  In foreign markets, Nissan has signed an agreement with Israeli start-up Better Place to manage the vehicle’s battery by swapping the battery out at swapping stations when it becomes depleted.  Nissan is expected to test this model in the United States by 2012.  The holy grail of vehicle charging is clearly the uber-fast 3 minute charge, which would be akin to a trip to the old gas station.  This is currently technologically unfeasible, however certain fast-charging stations are becoming available that can charge a vehicle in 30 minutes.  Stay tuned for more progress on this front in the coming months as this issue has been grabbing the attention of prominent VCs.

Much of Nissan’s progress on the electric vehicle front can be traced to its Brazilian born CEO, Carlos Ghosn, one of the most dynamic visionaries in the auto industry today.  I would liken him to Apple’s Steve Jobs (although I think Mr. Ghosn has a general disdain for black turtlenecks) with respect to his charisma and ground breaking ideas.  Mr. Ghosn predicts that over 10% of the global vehicle fleet will be electric by 2020.  No small feat since today that figure stands at less than 1/1000th of 1%.  It remains to be seen whether Ghosn will be as successful of a marketer as Jobs.  This ability to communicate with the public will surely be absolutely essential to the nascent industry’s development going forward.

Currently, Ghosn is already seeking out solutions to some of the most pressing current issues pertaining to electric vehicles such as extended range and secondary usage of the battery after it is no longer capable of working in an automobile.  These are two fundamental issues that will require dynamic innovation going forward and will both be addressed in subsequent posts.

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.

There has been a lot of righteous indignation displayed by government officials (primarily by U.S. senators and Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood) over the proposal by Spirit Airlines to charge passengers for carry-on bags.  Specifically, Spirit Airlines has said that it will charge $45 for carry-on luggage using the overhead bins.  Some of the responses are almost comical:

“We are going from the sublime to the ridiculous with airlines,” Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said at a news conference last week in Washington.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called the fee a “slap in the face to travelers.” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) called it “skyway robbery.”

The lawmakers hope to put the kibosh on the fee by imposing a tax on all airline revenue collected from such charges.

I’m not a frequent flyer, but I’ve flown enough to recognize that baggage fees have created a big problem with boarding airplanes.  In the era of the checked baggage fee people have chosen to cram everything into a carry-on.  Of course, when everyone brings a full-sized carry-on there is not enough room in the overhead bins for all the passenger luggage and the airline inevitably spends a lot of time placing carry-on bags in.

So, to combat that Spirit Airlines has instituted a carry-on bag fee.  What has been glossed over is that Spirit is merely providing incentive for passengers to check their bags in the first place rather than carrying them on.  The first checked bag will only cost $25 if checked online before arriving at the airport ($20 less than for a potentially smaller carry-on).  Therefore Spirit is merely making the carry-on a luxury and giving reason for people to check their luggage.  Oh my!  Senators are really upset that flights will run more smoothly and that Spirit may actually assist with difficulty of TSA security checks?

Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe looks at this issue from a free market perspective.

But if [Senator Charles] Schumer grieves so deeply about travelers being “nickeled and dimed’’ when they fly, why has he never gone after the US ticket tax, which adds 7.5 percent to the price of every domestic flight? Or the $16.50 the federal government charges for each international departure and arrival? Or the $17 in customs and inspection fees paid by passengers flying into US airports from abroad? Or the “passenger facilities charges’’ (up to $18 per round-trip)? Or the “US Security Service Fee’’ ($2.50 per departure)? Or the “domestic segment fee’’ ($3.70 per flight segment)? The government’s unremitting “nickeling and diming’’ of airline passengers doesn’t trouble the sleep of New York’s senior senator. Only when a private firm acts does he toss and turn in anguish.

Reality check: Every airline charges for its overhead bins, just as every airline charges for bathrooms, oxygen masks, and flight attendants. The cost of those amenities is built into the fare you pay when you fly, and you pay whether you use them or not. The same used to be true of the “free’’ meals, pillows, and baggage handling airlines provided, before they unbundled those services, made them optional, and began charging for them separately. Spirit, an ultra-low cost carrier that describes itself as “the unbundling leader in the industry,’’ has decided to do the same for carry-on luggage, simultaneously reducing its base fares by $40 or more each way. …

Is Spirit’s strategy a good one? The free market can answer that question faster and more accurately than any one of us can. The less assistance it gets from grandstanding senators and transportation secretaries, the better off all travelers will be.

I agree that politicians have found a pinata not worthy of their attack, especially given that Spirit Airlines has less than 3% of the US market share for airlines.

Post #100 on the Transit Pass!

It is not news that economic downturns are particularly hard on transit, just like all government services.  At the moment that affordable government services and assistance are most needed is also the time when government can least afford to provide them.

The voters of New Jersey reap what they sow.  They dumped their CEO-governor Jon Corzine for the Republican challenger who promised the unattainable Holy Grail of New Jersey politics, lower property taxes.  Now in office, Chris Christie has dealt with New Jersey’s budget deficit by cutting services and refusing to raise taxes, on anyone.  Of course, when you don’t raise taxes you can still effectively tax many people by offering fewer governmental services.  Therefore, Joe Millionaire is barely affected by the situation but Jane Minimum-Wage is put into an even more difficult situation because suddenly day care, transit, health care, etc. are less available and more expensive.  Perhaps that is good politics for a Republican, but it is certainly bad governance.

Governor Chris Christie in February said he would cut the state’s $296 million annual subsidy for NJ Transit by 11 percent, or $33 million, to help close a $2.2 billion deficit in the state budget for the fiscal year ending June 30. Christie, 47, a Republican who took office in January on a pledge not to raise taxes, introduced a $29.3 billion budget last month that contains $10 billion in spending reductions.

Christie, in a March 17 interview, said “there’s no way to fix” NJ Transit’s budget woes without raising fares. The governor also said he supported increasing transit fees over putting tolls on free roads in New Jersey including Interstates 78, 80, 195 and 295.

Specifically, Christie has cut NJ Transit’s funding by 11%.  In response, NJ Transit has been forced to raise fares; increasing the cost of local bus and light rail travel by 10% and commuter bus and train travel by a hefty 25%.  I used NJ Transit’s commuter rail for a full year when I worked in New York.  At that time my 35-40 minute ride cost $198 for a monthly pass.  While most people in my hometown probably can absorb the 25% increase without too much difficulty.  However, along the same route are a number of towns with poorer towns, such as Paterson (median 2000 household income: $32,778) and Garfield (median 2000 household income: $42,748), where the residents will have much greater difficulty absorbing such a fare hike.

A monthly pass from Paterson to New York Penn Station is currently $166.  A 25% hike will bring that price to $207.50, or an extra $498 a year, and that does not even include the costs of a monthly pass for the bus or subway in New York City, given that most jobs are not within walking distance of Penn Station.  With the price of a subway pass included a person from Paterson could be required to spend $3,450 a year for transit.  That is simply outrageous when your household income is $32,778.

Governor Christie hasn’t lowered taxes, he has impaired the rights of people throughout the state to procure employment and provide effectively for their families.  For the sake of saving some very wealthy residents the pain of having to pay a a little more in income tax the lower class has been implicitly taxed by virtue of being poor.  Transit justice exists and this is not it.  Governor Christie lacks that sense of empathy that Obama has been smeared for.  He has prioritized the needs of suburban drivers over transit commuters, continuing our history of poor transit priorities.

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)

I have added Oliver Wyman’s rail planning blog to the blogroll.  I am excited about the addition as it brings some business and technical experience to the blogroll lineup.

An example of the the kind of technical but fascinating insight you will find on the blog is David Lehlbach’s recent post on the future and impact of long trains; i.e. trains 10,000 feet long and longer.  The post illuminates the efficiencies of such trains due to their carrying capacity and staff needs but also ponders the challenges such as whether terminals can handle such enormous loads and whether in the end such trains will slow things down.   I am fascinated by the idea of a 10,000 foot train (as long as I’m not in a car at railway crossing watching it) and I appreciate Lehlbach’s comparison to the impact of Airbus A380 super jumbo jets.  I also imagine such trains can be compared to early cargo ships.  Early cargo ships were efficient in and of themselves but could not transfer all of that efficiency because ports could not properly handle their loads.  If the supertrains are truly cost-effective to a large degree compared to peer trains then terminals likely will be adapted to carry the efficiencies all the way through.

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