Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Biggest transportation stories of 2016

It's hard for me to stay on top of this, both locally and nationally.  Locally, it is so depressing that a transit system has to decline so precipitously before the political will can be mustered to fix things--although it's not clear yet that the will has been mustered for the DC area and its heavy rail transit system, WMATA/Metrorail.

Dr. Gridlock at the Washington Post ("2016’s top 10 transportation stories: good and bad, plus a lot of ugly") says these are the top 10 stories of the year.

1. Bad Metro.
2. Good Metro.
3. Opening of the DC Streetcar.
4. Sudden snow the afternoon of January 20th, paralyzing the evening commute.
5. Transportation project scoring systems introduced in Virginia and Maryland. (Gov. Hogan in Maryland is not supportive.)
6. I-66 widening/tolls.
7. Virginia's "Atlantic Gateway" project, which will invest in rail and highway expansion in the I-95/DC to Richmond corridor ("What to expect from Virginia's Atlantic Gateway projects").
8. Nuclear Security Summit didn't contribute to gridlock.
9. Beach Drive closing.

Here's my list, separated into local and national. At some point the order becomes arbitrary. What did I miss?

Local

1.  The continued service failures of WMATA. Dr. Gridlock's second most important story is WMATA's improvements.  I'm not there yet, seeing such.

A DC board member's call to not connect the Silver Line extension to the system because "Virginia won't approve a sales tax for WMATA" is grandstanding of the highest order and not helpful.  Then again, DC Councilman and chair of the board Jack Evans' call for the Federal Government to take WMATA over is equally unhelpful--imagine Mitch McConnell in charge of the "local" transit system--hmm, sounds like England, where the national government calls most of the shots.

I don't think there is the political will, not to mention vision and leadership, to pull off the necessary improvements.  Although they are piping music into Gallery Place ("Love the Christmas tunes at Gallery Place? Music may soon come to other Metro stops," Post).

And the agency sure needs a personnel overall in terms of operations and maintenance ("Nearly half of Metro track inspectors disciplined over falsified reports," WTOP Radio).

2.  Virginia's plan to extend HOT lanes to I-395 and I-66 and to toll the road within the Beltway at all times.  HOT lanes promote single occupancy vehicle trips and that isn't good from a sustainable mobility standpoint.  But tolling within the Beltway is interesting (not unlike Toronto's call to toll its two freeways, "How John Tory went from calling tolls 'highway robbery' to crusading for them," Toronto Star).  Whether or not there will be transit and bicycle and pedestrian improvements in association with the project, only time will tell.  (The HOT lane extension and other improvements on I-95 are part of the "Atlantic Gateway" initiative.)

3.  Signing the Purple Line agreement/picking the concessionaire to build and run it, and the Court Case which says that construction should be delayed pending a new EIA ("Transit Agencies Say Metro's Woes Won't Impact Purple Line," Bethesda Magazine).  I argue that the Purple Line will help improve the reliability of the Metrorail system, by allow east-west transfers between subway lines, rather than requiring a trip to the center city ("More on Redundancy, engineered resilience, and subway systems: Metrorail failures will increase without adding capacity in the core").

4. WMATA's cutback on service hours.  This was pushed by GM Paul Weidefeld, to increase the amount of time for maintenance--but peer systems in major systems have about the same time as the current schedule.  In response, WMATA offered a weak expansion of late night bus service ("Metro has a bare-bones plan for late-night buses, but will the board go along"  and "Metrorail is a mess. Can we at least have reliable buses?," Washington Post. The Post says we must take the hit ("Cutting Metro's late-night hours is a hardship we must endure").

5.  The DC streetcar finally opened, although the line is too short to have much transportation impact, but it sure is having impact on real estate development, and on that basis, has already paid for itself ("Update/revision of H Street transit oriented real estate development table"). The failures in opening it have made it much harder to make arguments in favor of expansions to rail transit. I'm sure it is in the minds of people when it comes to the Purple Line.

6.  DC agrees to seek funds to repair the Memorial Bridge in conjunction with the National Park Service ("Park Service makes deadline to apply for Memorial Bridge funds," Post). The DC area is a cross cut of separate jurisdictions.  Because technically, DC extends to the edge of the bank on the "Virginia" side of the Potomac River, Virginia has no financial obligation to fund bridges that cross the Potomac and connect to the city.

This is further complicated by the fact that some of those bridges are under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, like the Memorial Bridge.  Because the Bridge mostly serves commuters, NPS shouldn't be financially responsible for it.  But that's an argument for another day.

7.  Beach Drive closings/WMATA closings indicate the failure to adopt cross-jurisdictional "corridor management" approaches ("Transportation infrastructure interruptions as a missed opportunity for improving transportation demand management programming" and "Transportation network service interruptions part 3: corridor/commute shed management for Northwest DC and Montgomery County, Maryland").

8.  Car2Go service privileges between DC and Arlington.  Car2Go one-way carsharing was introduced into DC a few years ago, and to Arlington a couple years ago.  But users couldn't travel between jurisdictions on a one-way trip.  Now we can.

Now if National Airport would allow Car2Go vehicles to park there.  They've opened a lot for "For Hire" vehicles including Uber, why not carsharing?

9.  A plan to rebuild the Nice Bridge.  Like the DC-Virginia bridge issue, similarly, Maryland controls the Potomac River where the state borders Virginia.  That means that the Nice Bridge on US 301 is Maryland's responsibility ("Hogan plans $765 million replacement of Nice Bridge in Southern Maryland," Baltimore Sun), not Virginia's. Ouch.

I don't think 2015's rollback of Maryland's toll prices was judicious given long term demands for replacement and improvement ("Governor Hogan Rolls Back Tolls Statewide – Saving Marylanders $54 million a year," State of Maryland press release).

Collab-18-Anacostia10.  East side Anacostia Trail network is completed, linking trail networks in DC and Prince George's and Montgomery County,  Late November's opening of a long segment of the trail between Benning Road and Maryland enables trips from DC to Greenbelt and various points in Montgomery County, providing a viable commuting route to and from the city for many ("New segment of Anacostia Riverwalk Trail expands the region's trail network," Post), linking 60 miles of trails.

Although there are issues in terms of facilities integration and trail width, the basic wayfinding signage system is great.  And it makes it so much easier to explore the east side of the city by bike.

11.  Virginia Beach votes against extending light rail to their city; the state ceases planning and funding activities for the project ("Virginia Beach light rail referendum vote fails in a landslide," Norfolk Virginian-Pilot; "State stops funding for Virginia Beach light rail project," WAVY-TV).  One of the problems with rail projects taking so long and having so many review and other requirements is that it creates many opportunities for scuttling the project.  That's especially the case in communities with limited experience with transit.

Although as we have seen with opposition to the Purple Line light rail and streetcars in Arlington County, Virginia and DC itself, such opposition is not limited to places with limited experience with transit (shockingly).

National

1. The Election.  It empowers the Republicans who now fully control both houses of Congress and the Presidency.  It's important to distinguish between Congress and "the President."  Congress makes the laws.  Not Trump.

Congressional Republicans aren't big on mobility options other than the automobile, aren't into increasing the federal gasoline excise tax, don't want to fund transit, really don't want to fund biking and walking, etc.  At least the major proponent of rail privatization, John Mica, didn't get reelected.  But that's small consolation.  The Republican campaign agenda was not friendly to transit or cities ("Transport Politic's definitive piece on the Republican and Democratic Party platform positions on infrastructure").

2.  President-elect Trump talks about infrastructure.  To my way of thinking, what he proposes is a wacky concept, putting the onus on the private sector to lead the process, giving them huge tax breaks for providing financing, and ultimately, ownership of the asset, which completely redefines the concept of "public goods" ("Trump's big infrastructure plan? It's a trap," Post). From the article:
First, Trump’s plan is not really an infrastructure plan. It’s a tax-cut plan for utility-industry and construction-sector investors, and a massive corporate welfare plan for contractors. The Trump plan doesn’t directly fund new roads, bridges, water systems or airports, as did Hillary Clinton’s 2016 infrastructure proposal. Instead, Trump’s plan provides tax breaks to private-sector investors who back profitable construction projects. These projects (such as electrical grid modernization or energy pipeline expansion) might already be planned or even underway. There’s no requirement that the tax breaks be used for incremental or otherwise expanded construction efforts; they could all go just to fatten the pockets of investors in previously planned projects.

Moreover, as others have noted, desperately needed infrastructure projects that are not attractive to private investors — municipal water-system overhauls, repairs of existing roads, replacement of bridges that do not charge tolls — get no help from Trump’s plan. And contractors? Well, they get a “10 percent pretax profit margin,” according to the plan. Combined with Trump’s sweeping business tax break, this would represent a stunning $85 billion after-tax profit for contractors — underwritten by the taxpayers.
But because the Republican Congress isn't big on funding investments in much of anything, I can't see this program ending up equal to the hype, especially because such projects take so long to come to fruition, even if Trump were to be re-elected, most of the projects would not be realized until after his second term of office.


Twitter photo.

3. Gasoline shortages in the South and East.  A pipeline break cut supply to many markets. Something similar happened last year, as a result of a refinery fire.

These experiences demonstrate the dependence of the transportation system on automobiles and gasoline, as did Superstorm Sandy, which led to delays in resupplying gas stations.

From the Montgomery Advertiser story, "Alabama pipeline leak: What we know so far about the spill, gas shortages and more:
The gasoline he was smelling came from Colonial Pipeline's Line 1, an underground pipeline three feet in diameter that normally pushes 1.3 million barrels of gasoline per day from refineries in Houston to distribution centers across the Southeast and along the eastern seaboard.

That 36-inch line, built in 1963, has been estimated to supply the east coast of the United States with up to 40 percent of its gasoline supply. Colonial Pipeline initiated a shutdown of Line 1 within 20 minutes of receiving the report about a potential leak.

That section of pipeline remains closed. Eight days later, official estimates climbed to 336,000 gallons of lost gasoline. More than 700 people were working around the clock to dig up the pipe, plug the leak, clean up the old mining property south of Birmingham and restore supply.
Sustainable mobility is a far more resilient foundation for transportation.

4.  Gas prices remain "low."  The glut of oil on world markets keeps prices comparatively low, stoking car sales, especially of bigger cars, and puts a brake on significant increases in transit ridership.  It also makes electric cars, at least in markets without high gasoline excise taxes, less competitive with gasoline fueled cars.  Nonetheless, many analysts believe that electric cars will overtake the industry ("Oil groups 'threatened' by electric cars" and "Diesel faces global crash as electric cars shine," Financial Times).

Still this has fueled high auto sales, mostly of SUVs and light trucks, but analysts believe the industry has hit its high point ("Americans bought more cars than ever last year: in 2017 things could get bumpy," Post).

This doesn't quite rate a separate item, but consumers waste billions of dollars per year buying premium grade gasoline to fuel cars with engines not built for higher octane ("U.S. Drivers Waste $2.1 Billion Annually on Premium Gasoline" American Automobile Association ).

Even so, rather than agree to gas tax increases, for a time New Jersey Governor Chris Christie let the gas tax funding system shut down ("As roads crumble, Christie treats his job like a sporting diversion," Newark Star-Ledger).

And he got the elimination of the state estate tax in return.

5.  Driverless technologies.  They might not have worked out so well for Joshua Brown ("Tesla driver dies in first fatal crash while using autopilot mode," Guardian"), but this topic is all the rage.  Too many threads and articles to count.  My own take is it will take decades to re/build the road network to integrate the necessary "intelligent transportation systems" required for cars to operate on their own.

It could work sooner on limited access freeways.  And that's where it's likely to be pushed forward, especially with trucks--not just because of the labor cost of truck drivers, but because of the difficulties in finding qualified drivers to begin with ("Self-driving truck makes first trip — a 120-mile beer run," USA Today; "Robots could replace 1.7 million American truckers in the next decade," Los Angeles Times; "Daimler's Freightliner Tests Self-Driving Truck in Nevada," Bloomberg).

But instead all the punditry is focused on the impact of the driverless car "on cities" and presumes huge benefits.  I think it will result in some benefits. Although an article I read recently says that it will cost billions of dollars to set up streets to be able to accommodate driverless technology, money local and state governments don't have.

But the reality is that promoting single occupant vehicle trips isn't necessary a benefit to the capacity of the road network, even if it will result in a significant reduction in crashes. Driverless cars can can induce more trips, not fewer, even if it reduces the amount of land and building space devoted to car storage, a/k/a parking.  Finally, some attention is being paid to this reality ("Self-Driving Cars: A Coming Congestion Disaster?," Human Transit).

From a transit standpoint, driverless buses and shuttles could enable what I call tertiary or intra-neighborhood transit between home and commercial districts, transit stations, grocery stores, schools, etc., because it would reduce the labor cost of providing such a service.  Labor costs are usually what doom such programs.

6.  Ride Hailing.  Remember when Uber said drivers could make thousands of dollars per week, prevaricating about the reality that most people who drive taxis do it because they can't find other better paying work, so it's always a race to the bottom?  I've gotten a couple marketing letters from the firm, stating I could make $140/day driving on the weekend.  That's before gasoline and other expenses.

Anyway, Lyft is having a hard time raising money.  Uber continues to experiment with other forms of delivery (which won't likely have much upside except in a couple markets) and driverless technologies so they won't have to worry about pesky drivers.  There were some high profile regulatory matters.  A vote earlier in the year by residents in Austin, Texas requiring that ride hailing driver get fingerprint checks led Uber to drop out of that market.

Transit agencies have also been working with ride hailing companies on services at the outskirts of service areas, although this is merely a form of shared taxi service ("Intra-neighborhood tertiary transit service revisited").

Meanwhile there has been good writing out there about the anti-government, anti-public good nature of Uber and its business model, such as the article series in Naked Capitalism.

-- Can Uber Ever Deliver? Part One – Understanding Uber’s Bleak Operating Economics
-- Can Uber Ever Deliver? Part Two: Understanding Uber’s Uncompetitive Costs
-- Can Uber Ever Deliver? Part Three: Understanding False Claims About Uber's Innovation and Competitive Advantages
-- Can Uber Ever Deliver? Part Four: Understanding That Unregulated Monopoly Was Always Uber’s Central Objective
-- Part Five: answering reader questions

From the second article:
85% of Taxi Costs Are the Direct Costs of Vehicles, Fuel and Drivers

There are four major components of urban car service costs: driver compensation (take home pay plus the benefit costs they must cover), fuel and fees directly related to passenger service (credit card fees, airport access fees, tolls, cell phone charges), vehicle ownership and maintenance, and corporate overhead and profit (including dispatching and branding/marketing).
7.  Transit expansions in other cities like Seattle and Los Angeles to high in demand places results in significant increases in use.  Interesting about LA is that the weekend ridership increases are greater than during the week.

I think that's because the area is so decentralized, it's hard to capture significant numbers of work trips except over long periods of time as people make job choice and residential location decisions with an eye on transit connectivity.

Amazingly, according to the San Gabriel Valley Tribune ("Why weekend ridership is up on Gold, Expo line trains"), 25% or more trips to Rams football games are on transit.  They say it's because of the high cost of parking.  From the article:
Why do these lines show bigger increases on weekends than weekdays? Riders tell Metro they like saving money on parking.

Parking at the Sept. 18 Los Angeles Rams game at the Los Angeles Coliseum was as high as $200, according to some bloggers and fans. The Expo Line — with stops at USC and Exposition Park — carried 21,000 of the 80,000 who jammed the Coliseum for the Ram’s first win, Metro reported.

“I know some friends from West Los Angeles who are music aficionados and go to the Music Center downtown but hate to pay $35 to park your car,” said Bart Reed, executive director of The Transit Coalition, a nonprofit, pro-mass transit group based in the San Fernando Valley.

While exiting the symphony for the nearest train station may be a breeze, hopping an Expo train with 20,000 riders exiting the Coliseum meant long lines and required plenty of patience. It took about 90 minutes to clear the last passenger, and that was with three-car trains every six minutes, Hillmer said.
If that's not evidence of the "value" of high parking costs in increasing transit use, I don't know what is.  Too bad the new football stadium in Inglewood won't be opening with transit access.

The Seattle Times ran a really cool article on "transit tourism," exploring the various neighborhoods with Link Light Rail stations.  It's a model for what other locales should be doing--and transit agencies should be doing this themselves, not merely expecting media outlets to do it.

Image from "Chevy Bolt EV's battery is as big as a Tesla's," HybridCars.

8.  Chevrolet releases the Bolt electric car.  For all the talk of Tesla, they are more a stock play than a significant manufacturer of automobiles.  Chevrolet re-engineered and re-imagined a new electric car, the Bolt, from the ground up.

It's in production today, by a company that has decades of experience building cars in volume ("GM's electric Chevy Bolt looks to take on Tesla," Financial Times).

 But as pointed out above, comparatively low gasoline costs make electric cars less of an economically rational decision. That being said, electric cars are more reliable and require fewer trips to the mechanic.

What's particularly interesting about the Bolt, is that it is the first electric car by a traditional manufacturer that has been designed from the ground up as an electric car, rather than a car model that had been designed out of the paradigm of the internal combustion engine ("How GM Beat Tesla to the First True Mass-Market Electric Car," Wired Magazine).

9.  Driving while black. Many of the police killings of civilians have involved African-Americans being stopped for infractions that might have been ignored had they been white. See "Philando Castile killing: Officer charged with manslaughter," CNN; "Photo contradicts key claim made by Tulsa police in unarmed black man's fatal shooting," Denver Post.


Image from DownTrend.

Related would be various Black Lives Matter protests conducted in a manner which halts traffic on roadways ("Black Lives Matter protesters block highway in Minneapolis," ABC-TV; "'Black Lives Matter' protesters block I-64 in downtown St. Louis," FoxTV2, and "Why highways have become the center of civil rights protest," Washington Post).

(Note with regard to the latter, during my student protest days in college, I used to say we shouldn't bother taking over the Administration building, which is more about visibility, but taking over the parking garage across the street, where their cars were parked, and the university's two computing centers.)

10.  Automakers investing in technology firms, opening offices in the Silicon Valley, etc.  Tons of stories about this, including the traditional European firms too.  Not just Ford ("Ford Motor Company as a transportation company, not just a 'car' company").

WTVF-TV photo, Nashville.

11. School bus crashes.  A vehicle-centric school transportation system puts children at risk.  This past year there were particularly devastating crashes with deaths in Baltimore and Chattanooga, and a scary crash in Metropolitan Nashville that didn't kill anyone, but injured 23.

-- past entry on Walk to School Day

12.  Many transit votes succeeded (Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco) while others failed (Detroit, Virginia Beach, etc.).  Generally they pass, at about a two-thirds rate.  But it's really hard in places with limited modern-day experience with transit.

13.  Trains.  Amtrak ridership up ("Amtrak says rail ridership hit record numbers in last fiscal year," Richmond Times-Dispatch) but train crashes like in Hoboken, New Jersey get a lot of publicity also demonstrating commuter train crashes often happen in an environment of systematic underfunding ("Experts Blame Chris Christie For Underfunding NJ TRANSIT," CBS/NYC"and "NJ Transit Funding Under Scrutiny," Wall Street Journal) and the need to speed up implementation of positive train control and better hiring practices and risk management ("What's key to preventing train crashes," Yahoo).

Still, wrt those crashes, "More than 70 people killed in US commuter train crashes since 2000," (WPIX-TV11) while in the same period about 550,000 people died in motor vehicle accidents.

In DC, at the end of the year the first double stack freight train traveled through the Virginia Tunnel, enabling double stack container trains in this part of the Mid-Atlantic. I have since noticed double stack containers on the freight trains on the Metropolitan Branch CSX line. But generally, freight railroads are having a tough time, with the decline in trade with China, the oil glut, and a decline in the use of coal for power generation.


14. Relatedly, HSR is dead in the Northeast Corridor. In the last week of the year, the Federal Railroad Administration announced its support of improvements all along the Northeast Corridor ("Feds Back Ambitious Plan To Speed Up Northeast Rail Service," WBUR/NPR).

-- Northeast Corridor Future website, Federal Railroad Administration

 There has been coverage of this in newspapers from Boston to DC, focusing on regionally-specific provisions. For example, in Connecticut some cities don't like a proposed "straightening of the line" in one area, which would go through their community unlike the current alignment ("Shoreline Officials Want To Hit The Brakes On Federal Railroad Proposal," Hartford Courant.  From the article:
Mayor David Martin said Thursday he likes the plan to expand capacity at Stamford's busy train station. But he's against building new track routes to Greenwich and to Westport that might eat into his city's neighborhoods or commercial base.

"This plan looks more like fantasy than fact, and we're going to fight it," U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal told reporters.

The Federal Railroad Administration's proposal to overhaul sections of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor route in Connecticut has already hit heavy resistance in southeastern Connecticut, where the agency wants a new 30-mile inland segment to bypass the curving, twisting tracks between Old Saybrook and Kenyon, R.I.

Martin is the first Fairfield County leader to raise concerns about how it would affect the southwestern region, but Blumenthal predicted that opposition will keep growing.
15.  Bike share. The first death of a bike share user in Chicago ("Family of Divvy rider killed in crash sues truck driver, company," Chicago Tribune).  Bike sharing systems continue to open, although not necessarily to great success ("L.A.'s new bike-share program isn't as popular as in other cities," Los Angeles Times) and other systems are going through changes ("Seattle's failing Pronto bike share program to end in March," Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

-- "The problem when you define every outcome as a succoess, you don't learn, and therefore failure is more likely: bike share in Seattle and Los Angeles as examples,"
-- "Bike share and sustainable bike share systems: sometimes other programs can have more effect for less cost"

16.  Shots fired: not! at JFK Airport.  False reports of shootings can be as chaotic as real ones ("False Reports of Gunfire at J.F.K. Airport Offer a Real Case Study in Security," New York Times). 

Since airports are are increasing target for shootings and bombings (Brussells, today in Ft. Lauderdale) it's important to be able to distinguish truth from fiction.

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1 Comments:

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