Public Transportation


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.

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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.

When lay individuals consider the new electric economy as it pertains to transportation, they typically think of a trendy electric sports car or its corresponding charging station.  I would venture to say that seldom, if ever, do these individuals think about the stodgy old bus.  Well, the bus designed and built from Golden, CO based Proterra, formerly Mobile Energy Solutions, is far from the lumbering, belching bus your grandmother knew.  The 6 year old company is dedicated to making the drive components and energy storage systems for electric and hybrid buses, delivery vans and other commercial models, as well as the vehicles themselves.  Just this month, Proterra landed a $20 million investment from MK Energy and Infrastructure to build an assembly plant in Greenville, SC by 2011.

Unlike the majority of cars on the road, buses generally drive a fixed route that is highly predictable and routine.  This repetitive pattern makes it the perfect vehicle to adopt a range restricting electric engine.  Apparently, other cities feel the same way as Proterra has stated that as many as 21 transit agencies around the country had requested government funding for the purchase of more than $400 million worth of its vehicles.

From a technical perspective, the Proterra designed bus will travel 30 to 40 miles at 11 to 13 miles per hour before it needs a recharge, which it gets by passing under a contact arm at a bus stop or a bus yard.  According to Proterra founder Dale Hill, batteries can be recharged in under 10 minutes.  At present, the companies first and foremost objective is to reduce the price of the vehicle from approximatley $1 million to under $300,000.  This can only be accomplished by manufacturing scale, an issue currently being addressed with the new South Carolina plant.  From there, the largest technical challenge lies in extending the range of the battery and improving speed.  2012 appears to be the date that the company is targeting for these improvements.

While the electric car field is already crowded with competitors, the nascent electric bus and truck market is releatively spacious.  Smith Electric Vehicles of Kansas City, MO is one of the other companies attempting to make a dent in the heavy vehicle electric market.  For now however, it appears that Proterra has a significant headstart over its competitors in the US.  Generally, a good trend in cleantech power and transportation is to look at China.  If the nation of nearly 1.4 billion capitalists is pursuing an initiative, chances are it will have staying power in one form or another.  Well, plenty of Chinese manufacturers and state owned companies are pursuing electric buses.  Just one example here.

The electric bus has particularly outstanding potential.  This market is truly massive.  Just imagine a day in the next decade when cities like New York and Los Angelas have rapid bus networks that zip people across town while emitting zero noxious gas (so many more al fresco dining options…..).  Or, envision a time when all school buses are powered by a battery, thereby making a mere mild buzz as they pass by and not the standard rumble?  These days are no doubt coming.  Likely, sooner than we might think.  Companies like Proterra will help us get there.

**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.

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.

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)

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