Top Transportation Stories of 2019
I can't claim this is the most comprehensive of lists. It's been a very busy year for me with some major changes, and so I have been blogging a lot less and "mentally" I haven't been on top of tracking topics systematically.
After a certain point, this isn't necessarily in ranked order. The ordering presented tries to balance significance in terms of policy and the number of people impacted.
Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are parked on the tarmac after being grounded, at the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, California. MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images.
1. The massive organizational, design, manufacturing, and engineering failures with Boeing's 737Max airplane, and the related regulatory failures by the Federal Aviation Administration, resulting in two catastrophic plane crashes killing 346, the subsequent grounding of the planes, the cost to airlines, and now the cost to the suppliers and workers as manufacturing of the plan has been halted, pending the re-authorization of the plane as safe to fly.
-- "The Long-Forgotten Flight That Sent Boeing Off Course: A company once driven by engineers became driven by finance," The Atlantic
-- "Flying too closely - Regulatory capture may be responsible for Boeing's recent problems," Economist
2. Resistance to climate change/air quality measures that increase the cost of fuel or restrict vehicle access to city centers. France's gillets jaunes demonstrations ("Who are the gilets jaunes and what do they want?," Guardian") and new conservative city council in Madrid's reversal of the adoption of an LEV zone in the city center ("Madrid's low emission zone identified as one of the most effective in the EU," Eltis; "As Cities Limit Traffic Pollution, Madrid Reverses a Driving Ban," New York Times) although this was reversed after wide criticism ("Madrid low emission zone reinstated after protests," BBC News) but the administration came back and will introduce a plan that still rolls back the program ("Madrid to ease low-emissions zone restrictions: More cars, lower parking fees," El Pais") are examples.
But some banks are adding climate change considerations to loan evaluation processes ("
The Energy 202: Goldman Sachs rules out financing for Arctic drilling. Will other U.S. banks follow?," Washington Post).
3. The continued disruptive effects of ride hailing on the urban mobility system include:
-- the death of Super Shuttle, the system of vans that took people to and from airports
-- continued financial losses for the companies
-- and traditional taxi firms and drivers
-- continued issues with safety and regulation (Uber loses its license to operate in London, again)
-- surcharges on rides.
4. E-commerce and impact of fast, frequent, multiple deliveries on cities. Frequent purchasing, the shifting of our picking and transporting purchases home to third parties, fast shipping even same day service has tremendous consequences in cities especially adding significant congestion, increasing the number of traffic accidents and deaths, etc. ("1.5 Million Packages a Day," New York Times).
According to Professor José Holguín-Verasat at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Center of Excellence for Sustainable Urban Freight Systems, deliveries by passenger vehicles including small vans generate seven times more emissions compared to more traditional methods, such as electrically powered UPS vehicles ("Online Shopping Was Supposed to Keep People Out of Traffic. It Only Made Things Worse," Time).
FedEx worker sorts packages in Upper East Side, Manhattan. Photo: Brittainy Newman, NYT.
A Toronto Star reporter went undercover, working 8 shifts as a package delivery for an firm contracted to handle same day deliveries, "I went undercover as an Amazon delivery driver. Here’s what I learned about the hidden costs of free shipping."
Relatedly, there is the issue of package theft, which is massively on the rise ("90000 Packages Disappear Daily in NYC Is Help on the Way?," NYT), the use of Ring videos as a way to catch thieves, etc.
5. New York City's adoption of a high profile bus "exclusive" roadway on 14th Street. This matters because it's high profile, prevailing despite significant opposition including lawsuits, and will lead to similar deployments elsewhere in the city and likely across the country.
And it's proven all the naysayers wrong, with significant improvements in speed, adding riders, and not having that much negative impact on congestion on other streets, despite regular automobile traffic being displaced ("Speaking of "Just Do It": A 14th Street bus transit mall for Manhattan" and "New York's 14th Street, San Francisco's Market Street (and Toronto's King Street): When major cities adopt innovative practice it makes it easier for other cities to do something similar.")
This is an example of my line that "world class cities give, they don't just take." By that I mean they push better practice forward, making hard choices, and this gives other cities the confidence to implement similar practices.
New York City is not the first city to do this. Paris wasn't the first city to do bike share. Paris was the first city to do bike share on a massive scale, making it highly visible and a world-wide phenomenon.
However, New York City's initiative to give street space back to pedestrians, first in the Times Square-Broadway corridor, through "pilots" which lead to permanent changes to street and pavement treatments, has led to similar transformational projects across the U.S. ("attle for a New Times Square: An Excerpt from Streetfight," Urban Land).
6. The passage of a congestion zone and surcharge pricing for Manhattan. (This would be ranked higher except it hasn't taken effect.) An attempt to do this during with the support of the Bush Administration during the rule of Mayor Bloomberg was scotched by opposition in the State Legislature. This year, with the support of new Democratic Party majorities in the House and Senate, it passed, although it won't take effect until 2021 at the earliest.
I think it passed because the Governor recognizes the huge financial requirements for the MTA transit system outspan the capacity of current tax and other revenue streams ("MTA Capital Program: The Devil Is In The Details," Railway Age). Before he had been opposed.
Stockholm, London, and Singapore are noteworthy existing examples. London and other cities are creating "low emissions zones," with restrictions on cars pumping out high emissions.
7. Bay City, Michigan selling its bridges, which will be tolled, because they can't afford to fix them ("Bay City Commission approves selling 2 drawbridges to private company," Bay City Times). This is as important as "free transit" or congestion pricing in what it communicates about the cost of maintaining infrastructure and how smaller units of government have limited options for coming up with the money to do so. From the article:
“I’ve heard a lot of comments today, I’ve heard a lot of comments for four years. And this is probably the hardest decision I’ve probably ever had to make in my entire life. What I’m about to do tonight with my fellow commissioners is vote on something that could change the city forever," Commissioner Brentt Brunner said before the vote took place.8. Car technology: electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles. The adoption period for both EVs and AVs is likely to be a lot longer than all the media coverage indicates. EVs are more expensive to buy and gasoline is still relatively cheap. The complexity of driverless car technology in most road settings is far higher than most people have realized, and it is not likely to be deployed on a wider scale in non-Interstate freeway settings until the 2030s.
United Bridge Partners will pay Bay City a total of $5 million — $2 million when the agreement is signed and $3 million when ownership of the bridges is transferred. ...
The company will shoulder the multimillion dollar cost of repairing Liberty Bridge and replacing Independence Bridge with a new span.
Tolls will be implemented after work on both the Liberty and Independence bridges is completed, according to United Bridge Partner’s plan.
9. Virginia's announcement of a big deal with CSX which will allow a significant expansion of passenger rail, especially between Richmond and Washington, DC ("Virginia, CSX, Amtrak Get Serious About Passenger Rail," Railway Age). A lot of the significant developments in expansion of passenger rail are at the regional and state scales. Amtrak as the "national passenger rail system" has been designed for failure ("Amtrak Survived Richard Nixon—Can It Overcome Donald Trump?," Wired), although it is on the verge of turning a profit. This is a premier example of how to move a state's rail agenda forward.
(Also see the past blog entry "A "Transformational Projects Action Plan" for a statewide passenger railroad program in Maryland").
Other significant railroad-related items include the 150th Anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in May; Amtrak's cancellation of the traditional dining car on certain routes; Amtrak turning a profit; and the private Brightline railroad service in Florida is going to add stations to certain cities, with cities paying towards stations, and has negotiations underway to have a station at Disney World, the state's #1 tourist attraction. Plus the continued service failures of NJ Transit and expansion planning for PATH.
10. Maybe more HOT lanes for DC's Maryland suburbs isn't a top issue, it's gone back and forth and is now in 2020, moving forward again, after it seemed in December that the project was being sidelined. What stands out for me is how the "traffic congestion program" for HOT lanes involves zero in the way of transportation demand management and transit expansion. It's all about cars.
So much for being concerned about climate change.
11. Another disruptive effect of ride hailing is the death of one way car sharing in the US and Canada, because the main provider, ShareNow--formerly Car2Go, announced it would be shutting down at the end of February 2020. (However, Free2Move, a subsidiary of Groupe PSA, does have a single operation in DC. Could they expand?)
From the Financial Times article, "German automakers do U-turn on car-sharing push":
“There are potentially ‘disrupting’ business models that rely on car usage rather than car ownership,” Mr Zipse said in a speech to analysts. “But they are focused on very specific areas with high population densities to ensure high utilisation rates.”I made a similar point in these blog entries, "Further updates to the Sustainable Mobility Platform Framework" and "DC is a market leader in Mobility as a Service (MaaS)." Car sharing is awesome when you have the right conditions: short distances between residential districts and activity and employment destinations; tight parking inventories; reasonably dense population; the need for access to a car but at less than the amount of time justifying car ownership, etc.
“In our three main markets — Europe, China and USA — only a small fraction of people and of our customers live in these super-urban areas,” he continued. “For those who do, in the premium segment, owning a car remains a matter of convenience and privacy. This is our target group.”
More on this in a separate blog entry.
12. The ups and downs of micromobility. Micromobility is the new term of art for e-scooters, bike share, and e-bikes. I am doubtful that it can be the kind of widely adopted service that is touted. For the same reasons listed as why one way car share is difficult to make successful, alternative transportation modes work very well in specific conditions requiring population density and relatively short distances between origin and destination. Most U.S. cities lack those conditions.
Plus, electric powered bikes and scooters require a significant infrastructure to stay in operation and the cost becomes so high that the cost to use the micromode is equal or greater than ride hailing ("Uber is trying to make bikes and scooters a profitable business," Fox5 San Diego).
Also there is the issue of "wrangling" scooters especially. Many users "park" them haphazardly in the public space, creating problems for pedestrians.
Lime is offering a $5/week pass in Baltimore.
13. If we count "regular" bikes as micromobility, which we should, apparently bike sales are down but revenues are steady because people are buying more expensive bikes. But I wonder, outside of major cities, how much "biking for transportation" is going on? I don't see a lot of it in places I've been traveling in lately, like Los Angeles and Orange Counties, California or Salt Lake City, Utah.
Here Come New York's Cargo Bikes," New York Times). Again, in areas with what I call the preconditions for the sustainable mobility platform.
Relatedly, the way you can tell that there is a wider uptake of biking for transportation is the use of a wider range of bikes by riders, cargo bikes for trips to the supermarket and taking the kids to school, etc. I do believe, at least in the core, especially Greater Capitol Hill, that there is greater biking uptake based on the wide range of bike vehicles I had been seeing.
Better Buses, Better Cities, published by Island Press.
Which I promise to review this month, finally, alongside another Island Press tome, TRAINS, BUSES, PEOPLE, by Christof Spieler.
A couple of other examples of coverage on bus transit issues includes bus shelters ("A shelter may be on its way to your TTC bus stop," Toronto Star), shade ("‘Turn Off the Sunshine’: Why Shade Is a Mark of Privilege in Los Angeles," New York Times), and wi-fi ("Free Wi-Fi now available across MATA fleet," Memphis Business Journal).
15. Free transit. In late 2018, Luxembourg announced it would shift to 100% free transit, including certain connections from neighboring countries, as a congestion fighting measure. Currently, they are planning the rollout, which will take effect in March 2020 ("The cost of Luxembourg's free public transport plan," BBC News).
Recently, Kansas City, Missouri announced it would move to a free transit paradigm. ("Revisiting free transit in the wake of the decision in Kansas City"). Olympia, Washington started free transit on January 1st, arguing that farebox revenue made such a small proportion of revenues--2%--that it wasn't worth paying for a fare equipment upgrade ("Olympia becomes largest city in Pacific Northwest to offer free public transit," The Hill).
Lawrence, Massachusetts has made three intra-city bus routes free, which excites the Boston Globe ("In Boston, let's make the bus free").
The issue for me is that I'd rather there be a focus on better, faster transit, and financial subsidy for low income riders, instead of making a whole transit system free. Even systems that are relatively successful have plenty of opportunities for improvement.
16. Pedestrian deaths from car crashes are rising ("Pedestrian Deaths Reach Highest Level In Decades," NPR). Brilliant reporting in the Toronto Star finds a direct correlation between declining traffic enforcement as measured by the number of tickets issued and crashes and deaths ("U of Toronto expert attributes dozens of deaths to decline in Toronto police traffic ticketing").
Probably it's also due to the prevalence of bigger cars, as a preponderance of consumers shift to SUVs and trucks ("Low Rates, Cheap Gas and Deeper Debt Sustain Car Buying Boom," New York Times). From the article:
The auto industry has been on a roll for a decade, and its resurgence shows few signs of coming to a halt — at least for now.And speeding because of relatively stable gas prices not encouraging parsimony when driving. Bigger vehicles driven faster are more deadly in a crash.
Strong employment, low interest rates and robust consumer confidence combined last year to extend a record run of auto sales.
Americans are also continuing to buy ever bigger cars, at prices escalating faster than the overall inflation rate. And they are taking on more debt to do so. ...
Low fuel prices have also helped. The average retail price of regular gasoline was at $2.57 this week and has not been above $3 in more than five years, according to the Energy Information Administration.
That helps explain why consumers continued gravitating toward pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles and other roomy models, offsetting another steep fall in sales of sedans and compacts. Nearly two out of every three new models purchased last year were classified as light trucks — which includes minivans and even some small, S.U.V.-shaped cars.
17. Toronto's old streetcars were retired in December, as the city has finally received enough new vehicles ("Why I’ll miss Toronto’s old CLRV streetcars," Toronto Star). Toronto doesn't get a lot of attention for the fact that it (along with Boston and San Francisco) is North America's preeminent example of an existing somewhat robust streetcar system, not unlike Brussels, Melbourne, or Zurich (Philadelphia also has a number of still operational streetcar lines, but not as extensive a network as these other cities). There are about 180,000 daily riders on Toronto's ten streetcar routes.
Vintage photo of Toronto streetcars, both PCC and CLRVs (Canadian Light Rail Vehicles), makes clear the much larger capacity of the CLRV.
Toronto's King Streetcar line carries 84,000 riders daily, and more recently has been the subject of a streetcar prioritization over motor vehicle traffic that has improved trip times and brought more riders to the line. According to the article a streetcar has the capacity equivalent to three buses.
Other very important issues include:
-- Iran's bombing of Saudi oil fields and the subsequent listing on the stock exchange of the Saudi oil company, Aramco
-- large supplies of oil, driven by fracking
-- the merger of Groupe PSA and Fiat Chrysler, after FCA had first considered a deal with Renault-Nissan
-- bankruptcy of trucking companies in the U.S.
-- the impact of the decline of coal shipping on the financial picture of freight railroads
-- accessibility in general, in transit, in tourist destinations ("Machu Picchu now wheelchair accessible," Artnet).
-- microtransit services ("Cities Struggle to Boost Ridership With ‘Uber for Transit’ Schemes," Wired)