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Monthly Archives: February 2011

City/Subway

Most of the time here at Radials we focus on discrete issues facing transportation and urban planning, but from time to time the abstract becomes important and fascinating. I’d like to take some time and deal with the mercurial aspects of mass transit because while riding in a aluminum box with 50 strangers may seem mundane, the implications are forgotten too easily.

Travel trends towards the unconsciousness in a city. A routine is set and we tend to only think dynamically when we are forced to: during a service interruption, construction, a water main break. Even then we are directed towards our destination with detailed placards outlining the easiest route home now that our realities have been altered. We know what side of the track to wait on because we’ve always stood on that side going one way and the other side coming back. It’s less about direction than muscle memory.

That’s interesting but like most routines it becomes a banality after it’s done enough. What line we take home gets ingrained in our brain stems and it becomes as natural as breathing, just slightly more expensive.

There’s been a glut of excellent books on cities and what they do for us lately. Rybczynski Makeshift Metropolis, Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City, and Owen’s Green Metropolis represent a new interest in novel views on where most of us live. Each one takes a different path towards urban analysis —historical, cultural, and environmental, respectively— and while there is mention of transportation theory and planning, predominantly in Glaeser and Owen’s books, the anathematic necessity of mass transit is not given proper due.

What is terribly fascinating about mass transit in the city is that it reflects very little of what a city is. I sense some disagreement in the air; so let me explain what I mean.

Cities —and I understand that more learned urban theorists will disagree fundamentally with me here, but I’m talking about the personal facets of cities— are essentially bound by individuals who consider personal space their biggest luxury. Apartments, offices, taxis, even that self-contained sphere of the treadmill, they all represent an urbanite attempting to escape the constant buzz of anonymity en masse.

The subway and the bus instantly take that fantasy away; we realize that our space is not our space but the conflated discomfort of hundreds of other riders. The city is an anonymous place, to be sure, but it is a series of random individual events rather than one extended journey. And we definitely never stand close enough to a stranger that we can identify a cologne or lack of deodorant.

I was riding the Q with my girlfriend the other day when 3 athletic —we wouldn’t find out how athletic looking until one took his shirt off— young guys came on the train and announced that they were “Black Guys Dancing on a Moving Train”. The talents were on par with any breakdancing group you’d see in Union Square, or more likely Times Square, but the added degree of difficulty was the fact that they were, indeed, on a moving train. Life in a city is like life anywhere else, with an added degree of difficulty. We deal with social nuance on a constantly shifting basis and often one experience after another. Exhaustion is a general outcome for most of us, but at least most of us can go home after a long day and revel in the departure of anonymity.

Some days are harder than others, and sometimes we’re on a moving train.

India Enrolls Traffic Managers, Rickshaw Drivers Still Don’t Care

I’ve been to India once and that was for a 6 day whirlwind to visit my brother who was traveling the globe at the time. It’s a delightful country, but a world away from anything I’ve experienced in my life. It’s the type of place you swear you’ll never go back to once you leave, and then find yourself mentally preparing for a return a year later.

Second in sense memory only to the rich and disorienting smell of dust and sweat is the sound of the car horn. It’s shrill and monotone, not the heterogeneous brand we’re used to in U.S. cities. Horns were often stand-ins for the constantly absent side view mirrors and seemed to be a relatively effective substitute.

While drivers in India use horns to proclaim their existence, they also use them in the same way we do: out of frustration for lack of movement. That’s right, India has traffic problems. Who knew, right?

That is presumably why India just opened up its first School of Traffic Management to train the young, ambitious traffic engineers and managers that India must be teeming with. I would assume that the curriculum will take cues from their institutional American counterparts, in which there could be hope for India to go from this:

 

 India Enrolls Traffic Managers, Rickshaw Drivers Still Dont Care

Indian Traffic (Copyright ABC News Australia)

 

To this:

 

 India Enrolls Traffic Managers, Rickshaw Drivers Still Dont Care

Traffic (Copyright Trapster.com)

 

Shubh Kaamnaayein India!

Cool Concepts | High Speed Rail (I)

Introduction.

I’ll be up front about this: I don’t think high speed rail is an effective idea for the United States. I’ll go into all the reservations I have about the concept at some point —I don’t think it’s imperative to this piece— but for now I’d like to just play the skeptic. Before we start though, I’d also like to say that I’d probably be on the train from LA to SF and Boston to NYC as much as any 20-something, which is to say a lot. Just because I don’t think it’s a good idea practically doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s a good idea theoretically. Deep breath, as I’m sure a lot of you will be mad at me after this.

I.

picture 18 Cool Concepts | High Speed Rail (I)

HSR (Copyright America 2050)

President Obama’s heart is in the right place. He wants to reinvest in infrastructure in a (kinda) large way. Infrastructure, especially the interstate highway system (trivia: the entire system is named after Dwight Eisenhower), has a stellar public return on investment (ROI) and I know this administration understands that the economics behind infrastructure development and maintenance needs to be a fulcrum of  domestic policy.Whether the lack of serious investment is a product of the political arithmetic or a simple lack of financial means, I’m not so sure of though.

That hasn’t come through the legislative pipeline though: about $8 billion as “federal seed” money with several different states, most notably California, creating bond vehicles to augment any federal assistance. Let me explain why this is a problem, and let me try to explain it with a question. How much do you, the reader, think one mile of high speed rail costs to construct from scratch? Just one mile, 20 North-South blocks in NYC.

$50 million. That means that if California received 100% of the funding from the federal assistance program, they could build a train that leaves from LA or SF and ends in… Porterville, CA. Yeah, I don’t know where that is either.

6a00e551eea4f588340128760fd578970c 800wi Cool Concepts | High Speed Rail (I)

HSR (Copyright USDOT)

It also means that $1.5 billion that the Obama Administration delivered to the Southeast “corridor” of Tampa Bay- Orlando can go a grand total on 30 miles on federal-only funding. Aside: I understand why Obama went to Florida with this money and I’m actually happy he did. With his impending 2nd term campaign coming up, having shovels in the ground in a swing state can be more useful as a political tool than an infrastructure investment. He is a savvy man.

I will concede a point though: relative to global prices for high speed rail construction, $50 million a mile is actually middling (this info is taken from an excellent report from the UK Gov’t). Japan’s Shinkansen (swoon) is about $124 million, TGV Taiwan is $130 million, and the Italian duo of Naples-Rome and Florence-Turin are $119 million. That doesn’t mean that we can do it cheap though; we all need to consider that we have a lot more geography to work with and relatively cheap labor (compared to Japan at least).

shinkansen Cool Concepts | High Speed Rail (I)

Shinkansen (Copyright Dean Chamberland)

This is Part I. I want everyone to understand exactly how much HSR costs and where we are relative to the rest of the world. Some might point to other places in the budget where small shavings would result in the molding of a great rail system, but is there really the political will for that? Will we ever cede defense spending in favor of domestic development? Politicians have a taste for guns over butter and they have for the last 30 years; I don’t think things are changing there.

Next up: International Policy Comparisons.

Mapping the Future

rotherham buses Mapping the Future

Rotherham Bus Map Screenshot (Copyright Rotherham Metropolitan Council)

I think Rotherham’s heart is the in the right place but I’m not sure this was the best use of government funds. It looks like a rainbow colored nightmare of an anthill. While actually seeing the route of a given bus may really help passengers understand travel paths, some questions need to be asked: why didn’t they separate the maps by bus routes instead of stations? Why didn’t they slow down the animation to a point that is actually useful? Why is it so damn cartoony? All in all, a valiant attempt Rotherham, but let’s stick to concepts that actually help people over ones that just look good.

Rad Buddies | David Kepner Photography

Not to show any favoritism here at Radials but I have to digress from the transportation world for one post.

David Kepner, one of Radial’s oldest friends, is solidifying himself in the ranks of up and coming photographers. I’m as tired as anyone of the 19-year old girl with a Leica, but DK’s photography is a breath of fresh air and can give us all hope that the current generation of mass produced photography may have some extremely talented exceptions.

Dave is heading to Paris later this month to do some shooting projects and I know he’ll come back with prints that would make Doisneau squirm with delight. I would suggest grabbing a print or two before his fees start skyrocketing.

Radilarious | Hate Those Red Light Cameras? So Does This Guy

At least someone has a sense of humor when it comes to traffic planning. He also like Pixar:

3a72d0f82e4ee5afcd89c33c6b475fdf resized Radilarious | Hate Those Red Light Cameras? So Does This Guy

Wall-E Scamera (Copyight The Manningham Leader, AU)

Is that not the cutest red light/speeding camera you’ve ever seen? Though what would a Pixar-based scamera be without a hipster one:

065156 speed camera Radilarious | Hate Those Red Light Cameras? So Does This Guy

Hipster Scamera (Copyright The Manningham Leader, AU)

Are you kidding me? This huckster has captured two of the current memes and used these speed cameras as his medium, and he’s in Australia?. This guy needs to be put up for some sort of award for overcoming the odds —being Australian can be a handicap— while maintaining a great sense of humor.

Another City Beats Us to the Punch

dublinbus 390x285 Another City Beats Us to the Punch

Dublin Bus (Copyright thejournal.ie)

Dublin has introduced real time bus timing to their fair city. I can count on one hand the amount of major metropolitan areas in the US that have widespread use of real-time updates at the actual stations. Sure we have applications that can tell us approximate timing but they’re not accurate enough and not accessible enough to get through to everyone.

It takes me 10 minutes to get from my apartment to my bus so I typically check my not-so-handy “Pocket MBTA” app and plan my trip accordingly. What I’ve found myself doing is adjusting for factors beyond the application’s simple scope but not out of the MBTA’s: traffic, mechanical delays, snow, rain, etc. So in the mornings and evenings I have to add 5 minutes to whatever the MBTA application displays and during non-peak hours I have to subtract the same amount. It’s become a nuisance to the say the least, especially considering the apparent simplicity in designing an effective real-time schedule.
We need these, especially for routes that don’t run on redundant or constant paths. Make them public and you have a PR coup, make them private and you have an effective revenue stream from small businesses, just make them, we’re tired of waiting.

Even the Taxi Commissioner Hates Those Little TVs

taxicabtv alroker Even the Taxi Commissioner Hates Those Little TVsFor those of you in NYC and frequent the cab scene this is for you. I’m not sure how we haven’t seen an article on a cab driver going ballistic on some poor unassuming group of revelers after the 8th cycle of NY1 and Two and  Half Men comes around. Let’s hope the commish starts the rollback ASAP.

Buses Just Don’t Make Money

Cities and Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPOs) don’t create transit authorities to make money; they’re there to serve the people. That being said, it’d be nice if our public transportation systems at least broke even. There’s not a large-scale (more than 200,000 people) transportation system in America that has a balanced budget solely from fares. Las Vegas maintained near neutral budgets with their effective bus system but then shot themselves in the foot (or buried themselves in the desert, if you like) when they built that stupid monorail.

 Buses Just Dont Make Money

The MBTA is a relatively typical transit agency: an above average subway system with a middling, bordering on subpar, bus system. The latter is what this post is about.

The average cost for a bus ride in Boston is $0.71. Now that is based on National Transit Database (NTD) 2008 calculations so let’s just say with inflation and potential changes in demographics it’s $0.75*. The cost to run a route ranges, but let’s take a basic example: the 59. We have a map below:

59 bus route Buses Just Dont Make Money

Now it goes from Needham to Watertown, so the expectation is that the ridership will be a little less robust than if it was downtown or along a population line so I’ll give two incarnations of the calculations below. Before I do that, let me explain what I’m doing here: these are basic calculations performed on Excel based on the National Transit Database spreadsheets and the MBTA’s schedule. The terms are self-explanatory except for “farebox recovery ratio” which is the percentage of costs covered by just the fares that passengers pay. So here are the first set of numbers:

excel 21 Buses Just Dont Make Money

This bus route loses $3,117.20 a day. Does it even matter how much that is over a year? That’s $3k every day. Now here’s something interesting: we can adjust these numbers to create a budget neutral bus route by increasing the average fare (not pictured here) until that 21% magically becomes 100%:

excel 100 Buses Just Dont Make Money

So the budget neutral fare here is $3.37 which is more comparable to commuter rail prices than bus fares. Is that too high a fare? Most likely yes. Public transportation demographics are especially sensitive to price spikes for individual rides. Low income and minorities dominate urban transportation systems and demographics among monthly pass holders, who by definition pay lower per ride fares, tend to reverse that trend though not in volume. An increase to $3.37, or the introduction of a variable rate model, would be an increase of nearly $2.00; beyond prohibitive for the typical T rider.

 Buses Just Dont Make Money

So what do we do? There’s a lot of answers and I’ll most likely be going through a few of them in detail in later posts. I’ll describe the two sides of the spectrum right now though.

1. We charge what it takes to neutralize the budget through fares instead of concessions and subsidies. I don’t think anyone expects the riders to cover the entire MBTA bill though; there’s a reason we pay sales taxes, gas taxes, etc. So let’s say we have a fare hike to $2.50, comparable to New York’s system. It’s a lot, and it will price out low income and minorities while bailing the MBTA out of its crippling debt services, but some one has to lose out in every scenario and raising fares is the simplest and most effective way of doing that. User fees are brutally effective and unquestionably fair.

2. We leave the fares where they are and leave the MBTA to their regularly scheduled fare hike calendar. Public transit is a necessity in a city; urban areas are by definition land scarce and personal vehicles costs are at a premium. By artificially suppressing mass transit fares the MBTA is able to effectively, and appropriately, subsidize those who cannot afford to suburbanize or use private transportation. These fees are better absorbed by those who can afford them through innovative finance vehicles such as congestion pricing and variable tolling. Commuters are a demographic that can and should bear a large portion of transportation costs. They benefit immensely from the agglomeration economies in Boston but do not pay the premiums of living in a densely populated area.

These are two options on either side of the gauntlet and each have clear cut losers and winners. Fare pricing isn’t simple, but it’s something we all deal with on a daily basis whether we like it or not. What’s the answer here? No one’s really sure, but with the MBTA suffocating from debt, letting fares and  user fees stay stagnant can’t be an option much longer.

*This takes some explanation. Because fares aren’t uniform across the board the calculation of average fares is more complicated than it sounds. Seniors, children, and the disabled receive significantly discounted fares and the weight of monthly, weekly, and daily passes count depending on trip volumes which is a tedious exercise at best. The NTD databases are excellent though, so I’ll trust those guys.

Imagine Knowing When the Next T is Coming. Except the Green Line. Ugh.

I actually didn’t see this until today, but apparently the T is posting locational data for subway trains (except for the Green Line, because apparently no one with any clout really cares about it). Check out this picture:

 Imagine Knowing When the Next T is Coming. Except the Green Line. Ugh.

Now has anyone actually seen this thing in action? I honestly don’t go to the Back Bay station that much because it’s in the middle of no where; a basically empty triangle between Copley and the South End. The introduction of this sort of technology has been something we’ve all been waiting for but the problem is that there’s no sort of rhyme or reason to the installation of these thing. Back Bay is essentially a second-tier commuter station that steals a minor market share from South Station and doesn’t do the same volume as a place like Kenmore or Park Street.

Subway systems —and cities in general, but that’s a concept for a different time— obsess over the novel technologies, typically bypassing the introduction of mundane, but hyper-efficient, solutions. The Silver Line, which technically isn’t a subway but is treated like one by the MBTA, does this perfectly at a couple stations as does the entire San Francisco MUNI system. A simple yet devastatingly elegant solution to a problem that was solved by GPS more than a decade ago:

dsc0078 lg Imagine Knowing When the Next T is Coming. Except the Green Line. Ugh.

Imagine that: a bus stop (technically a “Bus Rapid Transit” stop) that tells you when the next bus is coming. Is the MBTA honestly saying that they can’t put these in every subway station to earn the ephemeral praises of a winter-weary and exhausted public? And then maybe, someday, our subways can look like this:

 Imagine Knowing When the Next T is Coming. Except the Green Line. Ugh.

That’s the Japanese Yamanote line; we’re the red arrow and those numbers, yeah those numbers are how long it will take you to get to a given station. Technically the Yamanote line is a commuter rail system that girdles Tokyo’s main centers, but it operates much the same as the expansive subway system does (don’t look at it too long, it will definitely give you a headache). Boston invented modern American subways; can we please catch up with the rest of the world?