Monthly Archives: June 2011

Trains on Your Schedule

Getting around in cities all over the world has remained relatively the same over the last half a century: we get picked up by buses or subway cars and, after a few stops and the inevitable delay, we disembark and step onto well-stamped concrete or pavement. The evolution of public transportation -outside of the meteoric rise of information technology- has been a boring, straight line, but the systems themselves, those systems cannot be reduced to linear conclusions. Transit maps, while a feat of utilitarian beauty (and now, interactive dynamism), are views from 30,000 feet where lines are perfectly straight and bank at distinct angles rather than gradual turns. That level of analysis can’t define rider demand at the individual level and demographic mapping from sources like the Census and Immigration Bureaus aren’t granular enough to predict demand sources on an individual scale.

mta kick vign maps 1024x500 Trains on Your Schedule

Demand based transit planning has always been a conundrum for the luminaries at transit planning administrations across the country. Transit theorists borrow a term from economics in calling public transit demand “lumpy” because it faces peaks, plateaus, and nadirs on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. More buses and trains in the mornings and afternoons, less in midday. The lumpy economic theory is good for broad analysis. There are obviously more riders going to and coming from work in cities that have large populations using transit to get to work and most of them arrive around 9 AM and leave around 5 PM. In cities like Boston where a major demographic population is students, the schedules have more flexibility: some students have their first class at 10 or 11 AM —oh, how I miss being a student— and leave their designated zones much earlier or much later than their professional counterparts.  Still, typical demand based model are employed: 9 and 5 are peaks, all other times are not.

A potential 3rd way for transit planning may exist at the crossroads between internet startups and industrial ingenuity. The two paths represent a divergent means to similar end: provide a consumer a product while altering traditional precepts concerning supplies. The dissolution of boundaries between supply and demand allowed Japan to become a behemoth in automotive and electronics manufacturing and spurred some business savants to base a multi-billion dollar industry off the collective desires of the American public.

Japan’s reinvention of Fordism-era stock rooms, dubbed the “just-in-time” or JIT economy, allowed a land-scarce nation to become the lynchpin of Asian automotive production. Instead of storing parts onsite and paying housing fees for things that may not be needed for days or weeks, the pioneers at Toyota designed a system where parts were delivered only as they were needed. The desired effect is a streamlining —see: less costly— of supply chains and almost non-existent onsite storage costs, a strangely high cost item for auto-manufacturers. This is where we can see the mercurialization of supply but the true abstraction of demand comes from a team of stateside innovators.

The emergence of demand based services like Groupon and Living Social aren’t based on novel economic ideas driving consumers. For consumer demand sites that use a “trigger” to determine when a deal goes on and when it doesn’t —Groupon requires a given amount of people purchase the “groupon” before it is actually offered, hence the playful moniker— the concept is tangentially and, potentially, unconsciously based off the keystone economic theory of market equilibriums. One caveat to this theory is that corrective forces for a glut of demand, which typically include prices increases because when more people want something they’re rationally apt to pay more for it, don’t find a home in these companies; prices for the “groupon” remain flat for the duration of the deal.

 Trains on Your Schedule

What does that have to do with public transportation? Unless you’re riding SEPTA or some of the older systems in Europe and Asia, you now use a card, not a token, to pay your fare. Those cards produce time stamped records of riders and generate volume records that feed into a central database and those receipts are used for the demand models that have been discussed earlier in this essay. What if, instead of those ridership statistics (displayed with graceful practicality in the National Transit Database) going towards long-term demand models they were applied dynamically and geared towards deploying buses and subway cars where they were most needed any time of day. Riders would swipe, tap, or insert their cards and, for the purposes of illustration, the mercury inside a sort of demand thermometer would rise until a train or bus is deployed on its efficient track or route. Instead of subway cars perpetually packed at 5 PM because of linear deployment schedules, there would be a smoothing of the deployment process coupled with real-time ridership numbers.

Would the difference in operating costs run expenses past the burgeoning weight of MTA salaries and benefits? If there was a chance to run fewer trains or buses due to a dynamically produce demand model, would Jay Walder be able to balance his books a little easier?

Broad brushes never end in masterpieces for transportation planning. To say that all we need is a Groupon-based transit-on-demand system is ill-intentioned simplicity and may end up damaging routes that don’t serve very many and at the same time those that need the most. Equality will always be the foil to efficiency and pulls that turn to pushes are inevitable when the only options you have on the table are fare hikes, layoffs, and service cuts. There is opportunity, though, for a dynamic alternative where instead of using swaths of populations as our starting points, we begin the process with a single rider swiping a single card riding a single route. We exist at the center an ever-rising pinnacle of innovation, not just with technology but also in ideas. Transportation planning has not just been a footnote to those advances; it’s been near the center, where it belongs.


Do it for the Capital, Cycling Ovechkin

Boston is a small city; you can walk from one official end to the other in under an hour at a brisk pace. Being small has its advantages. Most Bostonians can walk to work when the weather is nice when they have the will and public transportation tends to serve areas of dense employment pretty thoroughly. Lacking megalopolis status also means that Boston has a relative affinity for its bicycle-bound commuters and late this past April, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino made the push for bicycles to become a permanent part of Boston’s infrastructure landscape by initiating a bike-sharing program.

Bike sharing is a fledgling concept in the United States and has the tendency to be scattershot geographically. Chicago, Minneapolis, and Des Moines have programs in the Midwest while shares in Miami, Boston, and Washington, D.C. dot the coastlines. Two cities known for their high share of cycling commuters and typically progressive agendas, New York and San Francisco, are exploring their options. The most robust of these programs, Capital Bikeshare in Washington, has about 1,100 bikes and 114 stations distributed throughout the metro area, about one-fifth the size of Montreal’s Bixi (the largest in North America) and one-twentieth the size of Paris’ Vélib´.

 Do it for the Capital, Cycling Ovechkin

The relative size of the American bike programs to their international counterparts has more to do with the lack of political and economic will to invest in a program that is seen as both detrimental to the car industry —still one of the most powerful lobbies in the US even post-bailout— and impractical due to the still burgeoning suburbs. America is, ostensibly, an urbanized country (82%) which should provide a population that would make wide use of bike shares, but the statistics are misleading as the geographic idiosyncrasies of American metro areas lead to demographics much more wont to use their cars, not their bikes. Sunny and sprawling Phoenix, Arizona spans more than 500 square miles and every resident that resides within that plane is counted as an “urban” dweller.

That being said, bike sharing has been gaining momentum in major metropolitan areas in recent years and months and it’s best exhibited by the Capital Bikeshare (C.B.). While there are cities with higher percentages of cycling commuters —Boulder, Colorado, an idyllic college town has one of the only double-digit modal share among U.S. metro areas— Washington, D.C.’s program is a model for other densely populated cities. Sam Kelly, a Peace Corps volunteer on his way to Namibia in August, took his first ride on C.B. Two weeks ago. “The two stations near to me were pleasant surprises,” he said in an interview last week, “and as I got towards the city center I started seeing more of them. The system seems like it’s working great.”

 Do it for the Capital, Cycling Ovechkin

This is what a bike share program is all about. The demographics that won’t use bicycles for reasons personal and principled are staunch, but there is a large population that doesn’t use them because they lack access and the ancillary products of using bikes —storage, maintenance, practicality— are prohibitive for their lifestyles. The station method of sharing bikes solves those problems simultaneously: ease of storage is a keystone for bike sharing systems and that you never, in practice, own the bike means that taking care of them during inclement weather doesn’t fall on the rider.

New York City has the potential to take those concepts and scale them up to a size unseen on this side of the Atlantic. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a man the transportation community has a complicated relationship with, has been dangling a transformative bike sharing program in front of alternative transportation advocates since 2009 when New York’s city planners issued an “exhaustive proposal” that included a 10,000 strong fleet of safety-equipped, GPS-ready bikes. Economically, the deal is a victory for innovative financing because it puts the burden of maintenance, damage, and —as this is a city— theft, vandalism, and “artistic destruction.” New Yorkers would buy their memberships on weekly, monthly, or yearly bases and get an unlimited number of free rides that take less than 30 minutes; ride a little longer, pay a little more. New York has decided that an initial burst of capital will serve their purposes the best not least because of their uniqueness among American cities in terms of density and population.

Other cities have taken the incremental approach: Boston won’t crack the four-digit bike mark during its initial rollout but does intent to create a “proxy path” by placing its stations along a designated bike-way. San Francisco will ultimately be a successful program — even with its significant topographical challenges— because of its archetypically progressive population ready to take on whatever environmental mantle they can. And the Capital Bikeshare seems to have a positive trajectory based on its recent expansion and glowing reviews from riders. Bike sharing programs in the United States are young but ready to hit adolescence running not least because we seem to be progressive on transportation projects when presented with detailed proposals. Americans, while taking fierce independence as a sort of sovereign heirloom, are looking for ways to reconnect to their surroundings and have begun to crave community after decades spent in detached homes and detached neighborhoods. It’s amazing how a simple bike program may get us closer to both.

A version of this article first appeared in This Big City on 6/24/2011. This is the author’s personal blog.


Thankful for the Opportunities

I want to thank both Joe Peach of the blog This Big City, an excellent, excellent UK-based urban affairs blog, and Anne Schwieger, editor of Next American City, one of the best American-based urban issues publications we have, for the opportunity to write pieces for their respective journals. I will be writing more for them in the future and I look forward to continuing the relationship!

Transit News Roundup (6/17)

Transit News for the week of 6/17/11 and there’s some good stuff (thanks as always to Bernie Wagenblast):

- Where’s the bar? Metro-North posts which trains have bar cars and which ones do not, finally solving the last conundrum facing the homeward-bound drinker (via The New Haven Register)

- It seems like some transit agencies just understand the concept of intuition. Google, in all its infinite wisdom, is attempting to change that mindset and showing that the big winners are the riders. (via StreetsBlog)

- And the expansion of smartcard uses continues: cyclists can now pay for bike parking with them. Now they just need to get them to do, well, everything else. (via SecureIDNews)

- And the movement towards videoscreens EVERYWHERE continues! (via Chicago Sun-Times)

- The French and the Dutch are arguing over what music should be played in Brussels’ subway stations, can’t we just agree both of them are awful and play some BRUCE?! (via Times Union)

- Leaving political ads off the T? I’m just going to say it’s probably a good idea. Who knows what would have happened if Rep. Weiner was from Brookline instead of Brooklyn? (via Boston Globe)


It’s STATION DOMINATION…with advertising. (via Boston Globe)

- And from our friends in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle), what happens when the guy who runs an entire transit application leaves to work for Google in, um, Zurich? They don’t know. (via Seattle PI)

Transportation Voyeurism

6a00d8341c630a53ef015432996d38970c Transportation Voyeurism

Copyright LA Times

The 405 will be closed between I-10 and CA-101 for a couple days over the weekend of July 15th. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to fly home, grab a couple lawn chairs, and sit back to enjoy the mayhem. I cannot imagine what is going to happen that weekend. There is no sort of advice the City of Los Angeles can give drivers to make those days easier outside of “stay in your home and lock the doors” and “don’t play with anything sharp because ambulances aren’t coming to save you.”

No, but seriously, I assume the luminaries at the various city halls being affected by this closure —I, literally, cannot think of a more disastrous corridor stoppage, I’m giddy just thinking about it— are deploying their tactical plans for emergency services. LA has dealt with raging fires and riots in that section of highway before, so I think they have the best alternative routes put together. Speaking of which, does anyone know what those plans look like? I would love to get a hand on those.

Anyone who’s going to be in LA for that weekend? Please send pictures, this is transportation voyeurism at its very best.

The artwork below is all me, by the way.

TRAFFIC Transportation Voyeurism












From the Department of Obvious Mistakes

When I was a kid Stamford, Connecticut was where the big movie theater and the better malls were (I spent a few years as a middle schooler in Greenwich, CT). In the 10 years since I lived in that part of the world, the “City that Works” has apparently become a bastion of business and media because of favorable tax packages and minor property taxes compared to its behemoth neighbor to the southwest. UBS has its North American headquarters there, along with the largest trader floor in the world, and Bank of Scotland relocated its operations on this side of the Atlantic right next door. Reuters also  maintains a large commercial property about an exit down the I-95.

UBS trading floor From the Department of Obvious Mistakes

It’s not surprising to see brands like these moving outside New York City proper: taxes are lower, office space is significantly cheaper, and there is still the illusion of proximity to a major hub. One thing that wasn’t considered by the execs at UBS and other companies was that the best and the brightest may not want to move to southern Connecticut when they may have offers in Manhattan and lofts in Brooklyn. The New York Times pointed out that relatively obvious mistake:

Now, though, UBS is having buyer’s remorse. It turns out that a suburban location has become a liability in recruiting the best and brightest young bankers, who want to live inManhattan or Brooklyn, not in Stamford, Conn., which is about 35 miles northeast of Midtown. The firm has also discovered that it would be better to be closer to major clients in the city.

As a result, UBS is seriously considering a reverse migration that would bring its investment banking division and up to 2,000 bankers and traders back to Wall Street and a new skyscraper at the rebuilt World Trade Center, according to real estate executives and city officials.

Why is this significant to a progressive transportation policy? It shows that people still want to live in a place where, if they’re going to be working 80 hours a week, they can blow their paycheck on things that Stamford just can’t offer. Urban areas are still going to be popular with the driven, intelligent, and dynamic and companies cannot move the workforce just because they move the office space. Compact development is actually a driving factor in our high-finance community…as well as every other business community. We get the agglomeration economies integral to getting our lead in the creative economy as well as the spill-over effect when those creative geniuses have a couple beers and start sharing ideas in the local bar.

UBS building stamford 1024x395 From the Department of Obvious Mistakes

The cities have tried to move to the suburbs just because it’s cheap but they forgot about everything else that makes a city attractive to the people who work there.

Well Look What I Found…

The family bulldog had to go in for some x-rays in Tustin, CA and I took the opportunity to walk around the office park where the veterinary emergency offices are. For those of you familiar with the less-dense areas of Orange County (Tustin used to house the El Toro air force base) the dominant landscape features are bi-level concrete office buildings and 6-lane roads with an afterthought of a sidewalk. Typically it’s intimidating to even get out of your car much less wander around, especially with summer flowering. But I had some time to kill and didn’t see much to eat, so I took a stroll and look what seemed to pop out of nowhere:

train station 1 1024x764 Well Look What I Found...

A big, beautiful train station. Tustin isn’t a hub of major economic activity in California much less Orange County. Like I said, office parks dot the various arterial roads and there are some long-range bus routes that provide spoke service to this station’s hub, but there aren’t more than a few hundred jobs within walking distance of this station, though those bike racks suggest a potential cycle-bound population, hopefully. That being said I’m encouraged by even seeing an Amtrak/Metrolink station somewhere within shouting distance of some jobs in Southern California (Santa Barbara’s station is in the middle of downtown which is great) because it at least provides an ample commuter population that could feed public transit investments.

The Amtrak and Metrolink network in Southern California also stretches from San Diego to Santa Barbara, a corridor of about 300 miles. The map, rendered below, resembles a transit directory more than a train geography which is a nice change from the typical landscape out here (Tustin is one stop south of John Wayne Airport):

train map metrolink Well Look What I Found...

I had no idea I could have a one seat ride from Orange County to Ventura, for $16.50 no less. The fare calculator on MetroLink’s no frills website actually shows drivers how much it would cost to drive from one station to another; the same trip wold cost $55.18 if I packed up the car and spent the weekend in Ventura.

As Californians we’re predisposed to an auto-addiction. Car culture is the dominant culture here and it’s near impossible to get anywhere without driving if you live in the suburbs like my mother does, but the fact that this map even exists speaks to the willingness to go after public works projects in a landscape that can be unforgiving to anything without four wheels. Who knows, maybe the tired soul below is the first of many who, instead of firing up the engine, grab their bikes and a train ticket:

train station with bike 764x1024 Well Look What I Found...

Electric Assisted Planning

Bicycles have their cultural fittings depending on where you are in the world. In China they were the transport of choice for city dwellers until disposable incomes allowed domestic car production and consumption to dominate urban roads. In Amsterdam they’re representative of utilitarian elegance. Here, well, there’s spandex and there’s tight jeans, representative of two equally fleet demographics.
 Electric Assisted Planning
The electric-assist bike, a nerdy, more-mechanized cousin of the original bicycle, only conjures up images of industrious delivery guys who would rather rest their legs for the flights of stairs they will have to climb in the line of duty. While that corner of our culture is an important vein of urban living, it seems like e-bikes have been limited in their distribution—and I’m not really sure why.

I don’t know much about electric-assists or if there’s any sort of stigma from the manual cyclists. In terms of power, they lay somewhere between a Vespa and a moderately talented messenger which, while not ideal for everyone, does allow for a significant demographic to use them as a daily way to get to work safely. Singapore has invested in them —as a bike share no less! — for their university population complete with GPS, although the size of the last city-state makes them a little less than useful.

So why can’t we start using them here? The bike infrastructure in major cities isn’t where it needs to be to support those quotidian two-wheelers, much less e-bikes. Wouldn’t a strong e-bike community only bolster the attempts to create dedicated bicycle infrastructure, though? Bikes instantly become accessible to those who may struggle with the physical exertion of biking to work everyday and multiply the constituency for bigger and better managed bikeways.

 Electric Assisted Planning

Bicycle lane planning usually gives up a lot to traffic planners; often new lanes are only planned when there isn’t a reduction in automobile capacity which is why transformative urban planning programs need to act in conjunction with each other to be effective. Piecemeal successes like the Williamsburg bike path are the rarity where neighborhoods have significant and vocal support; it was the hipsters versus the Hasids and somehow the hipsters won. Here’s a scenario:

Commonwealth Avenue in Boston (pictured below) runs two lanes each way between the Boston Public Garden and Massachusetts Avenue and forms one of the main thoroughfares of the well-heeled Back Bay area. There are bike lanes —median bound rather than sidewalk— but they’re as narrow as legally possible because that’s what’s needed for bicycles. If e-bikes, somehow, become a viable transportation choice for commuters then there’s a chance to expand the lane because it would legally need to support two types of vehicle that shouldn’t be in close proximity because of control differences.

 Electric Assisted Planning

Expanding those lanes opens up the door to other levers of traffic planning: congestion pricing, variable tolling, smart parking, and, well, an overall reduction in city car ownership.

It’s, admittedly, a stretch, but there’s potential for a mode share shift here. Cascading effects aren’t immediate, they’ll take years to prove themselves theoretically and a few more to build towards practicality. Electric-assist bikes have a potential market here in the U.S., and it could help move us towards a city less focused on the car and more focused on the person.