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An Argument for Privatizing Transit from a Very Liberal Blogger

Access is important here at Radials. We’ve argued that lack of transit options in major metropolitan areas is a major contributing factor to urban poverty and plays a role in the uneven distribution of economic opportunities between neighborhoods in cities. We’ve talked about the differences between bus rapid transit, light rail, and heavy rail and what it means for the affected constituents. Hell, we’ve even talked about why Americans are so much better at basketball than everyone else and a big part of it has to do with access to training infrastructure. Give a community access to something positive and they’ll always benefit—you could say that’s Radials’ shorthand mantra when it comes to urban policy.

The first topic—transit access—isn’t given enough page space here though, so I’d like to offer an opinion that doesn’t really jive with my overall political philosophy (the good folks over at Market Urbanism are already typing “I told you so”): transit is probably best managed by private industry.

Before everyone lets the nightmare of a Mitt Romney-run subway system run away with them, let me explain what a private transit system would not consist of:

  • Profit

That’s pretty much it. Unless you’re Hong Kong and somehow have made a buck off transporting millions of people for $0.30 a ride you’re most likely providing transit at a loss—and for most major American markets the operational deficits can reach anywhere from 50% to 70%. (Reading about MTR Corporation Limited, the publically traded company that runs HK’s metro system and is also 74% owned by the government of HK is absolutely fascinating so if you have a minute, check out the Wikipedia page.) American transit operators are also heavily subsidized by the FTA and state entities, though many would argue correctly that the amounts distributed by the Federal government and more highway oriented SDOTs have unfairly skewed funding mechanisms towards rural transportation development, thus shoving transit systems into further debt valleys than is proportional plus no one has actually included the social impacts of driving on the country at large in the gasoline tax which means we have an artificially depressed coffer, but anyway. The transportation economist John F. Kain (UT-Austin) argues convincingly that those subsidies are actually better used to pay private operators to do what the MTA, MBTA, LACTA, etc. do currently at a heavy cost to taxpayers: provide transit.

This isn’t unheard of. Traditionally, when a government needs to build a bridge they’ll put a contract out for something called “Design-Bid-Build” which means exactly what it says: a private entity will design the bridge, bid on the contract, and build the bridge. Often they’ll add another stipulation to the contract: Operate. (There are a bunch of other combinations, such as including “Own” which means that the entity quite literally owns the piece of infrastructure.) When you get an operate stipulation in your contract as a private corporation you are entitled to toll revenues in exchange for providing maintenance and upkeep on the bridge (these are called “concession contracts”), all of which is outlined in stacks and stacks of paperwork that, if you work in any city administration office, is the bane of your existence.

This isn’t the only example: Chicago infamously privatized the Skyway; the toll roads near my family home in Orange County are all private operated; bus systems that serve the Orthodox Jewish communities in New York City are contracted out to private transportation operators. Privatization can be a scary prospect for public services, though, and the introduction of any program would need to be ironclad in its dedication to serving wide swaths of communities—the lack of profits would be filled by subsidies at lower levels than states and cities’ are currently distributing because of efficiency gains in switching from a publically operated system to a private one.

I’ll admit that there’s something unnerving for me in writing about the merits of privatizing municipal services. Orange County’s attempt to essentially privatize city government backfired famously, the aforementioned privatization of the Chicago Skyway is not necessarily popular nor effective, and transit privatization has only been applied in smaller communities save for Denver’s bus system which is 50% contracted out. It’s by no stretch of imagination a new concept—people have been clamoring for this brand of privatization for decades and there’s a renewed interest from larger cities (London is the best good example) in at least dipping their toes into transit privatization. In a climate of municipal austerity maybe it’s time to jump in with both feet.

 

MBTA Fare Hikes: Where Idealism and Pragmatism Never Meet

A few weeks ago in this space I mentioned Jay Walder’s lecture to a group of transpophlic students at the Kennedy School of Government where he presented the Cerberus of budget balancing tactics for cash strapped transit agencies: raise fares, cut service, increase efficiencies. The first two almost always get press—streamlining data storage or eliminating redundant administrative jobs don’t make for good headlines—and, if you live in the Boston area, you’ll no doubt have seen grumblings about the MBTA’s 23% general fare hike which will be rolled out this summer. (The elimination of four lonely bus routes will has only been mentioned tangentially.) Subway riders will shell out $2.00, bus riders $1.50, and a monthly pass will go from $59.00 to $70.00. Outrage has come from the usual suspects like the T Rider’s Union (who took over a public MBTA meeting clad in superhero garb) and LivableStreets Alliance, a local progressive transportation advocacy group.

But I just can’t really muster up any righteous indignation on this issue. Alright, the MBTA should have balanced their books and lobbied the State House to change the outdated funding techniques which are based on tax revenues projected during headier times. And yes, raising transit fares hits low income neighborhoods especially hard since higher income households are typically car commuters. And yeah, it would have been great if salaries had risen parallel with inflation rates and real costs of living instead of stagnating in the post-Reagan era so low income families wouldn’t have to shell out an increasing proportion of their income towards a transit system that hasn’t seen a capital improvement in decades.

It’s going to sound cold, but these uneven consequences are an intractable aspect of the current transit vernacular. Maintenance, engineering, consulting, accounting, benefits, pensions, etc. are all financially chained to a timeline; it only stands to reason that as those expenses grow the other side of the ledger needs to balance and fare hikes are the simplest and, in many ways, the most appropriate technique to accomplish that. And it completely sucks, but it’s the way  transit is paid for and will continue to be paid for.

Until it’s changed. And there are ample opportunities to change funding mechanisms (some of which have been discussed in this space in the past) but they require complete reconceptualizations of systems and bureaucracies and languages that have been entrenched in every major metro center through the country. There is a dusty linearity here, a mildewed inequality that only starts to run afoul when fare hikes are penciled into administrative schedules like President’s Day and Halloween because no one really considers alternatives—just gripes.

In the end, $2.00 for a subway ride will do minimal damage to most family and personal budgets. (I pay $`104 for a subway pass in NYC—talk about exorbitant). But eventually the nominal price hikes for transit service will catch up to higher and higher cuts of the population unless the prevailing economic realities of the American working class change or transportation administrators rethink how we pay for our buses and subways. Go ahead and guess which one is easier.

Would Mitt Romney Invest in the Highway System?

National HS first project Would Mitt Romney Invest in the Highway System?

Obama was a law professor—so was Clinton—and a community organizer (I hear there’s a good buck in that). W. Bush was an oil man, just like his father and his father before that. Reagan was in pictures. Jimmy Carter was into nuclear engineering, Ford was a Navy lifer (until he was a political lifer) and Nixon much the same. The list of what-Presidents-did-before-they-were-Presidents reads like a very particular brand of boring superlatives; military accolades, Ivy League degrees, etc.

As of this writing, though, we have a potential presidential candidate from a major party in Mitt Romney who emerges from a professional background essentially foreign to the Executive branch: financial services. Whether it’s the maturation of a generation raised on GMAT prep-tests or simply the process of natural political selection—you can actually make the argument that Romney’s days as a private equity savant were simply an interlude between his politically powerful father and his own personal ascension—this is something novel, a businessman potentially grabbing the White House and bringing his conservative financial acumen into budget meetings.

Conservative politicians have been advocating for the transformation of government into business for decades, though the clamoring has hit a bit of a lull in favor of battling greater evils like “European-style socialism” and “aggressive secularism.” The odd thing about Romney is that the Grand Old Party has finally found some one who’s industry of choice reflects a breadth of exposure comparable to the Federal Government, albeit in relative dollar figures. I’m not saying that Bain Capital has to weigh the moral and political  heft of their investment and restructuring decisions (they don’t) and I’m not saying that the Federal Government measures potential profit margins with scrutinizing exactitude (they don’t), but if conservatives want a businessman in the White House to balance the books and give Uncle Sam a yearly performance review, Mitt Romney is your manager.

But, then, what if Romney really did treat Washington more like his boardroom at Bain than the highest seat of government? Would he be able to sort the Staples and Dominos from the KB Toys? Would Mitt Romney invest in American infrastructure?

National Highway System Would Mitt Romney Invest in the Highway System?

We’ve poured in around $500 billion into the Dwight Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways (yes, that’s the full name) since its inception in 1956 and to celebrate the 50 year anniversary of the NHS’ original enabling legislation, USDOT published a series of technical reports on the state of the system including this summary of NHS’ arc: “During the 1950s, highway network investments’ contribution to annual productivity growth was 31 percent; it averaged 25 percent in the 60s; by the 1980s, it contributed 7 percent to U.S. productivity growth in the 1980s (for some reason the calculations don’t include the 1970′s but let’s assume a conservative estimate of 12% contributions from 1970-1979.)” Now, this isn’t exact monetization but we can take some liberties with the numbers and give a decent projection of exactly what the highway system added to US GDP (in chained 2005 $’s) in its initial 30 years: $756.5 billion.

Given the obvious law of diminishing returns we see at work here we can assume that the value added for NHS probably plateaued somewhere in the low single digits in the last two decades especially considering that there simply isn’t much room in the budget or geography for additional capital projects. Let’s say that the 90′s saw a paltry 3% added growth from NHS and the 00′s added 2%—that’s still $112 billion in added production over the course of two decades without significant capital investment. Nearly 100% ROI in six decades? Pragmatically speaking, I think Romney makes that long play every day and twice on January 20th.

To say there’s something lost between numbers and politics is an understatement, though. Romney isn’t in the business of espousing where the Federal government has had resounding success, that won’t gain him any votes in the upcoming primaries and it won’t gain him any votes in the looming general election either. We’ve seen conservative politicians slash the infrastructure planning bill down to its barebones including shrinking the budget for next generation infrastructure development into near non-existence and there’s no reason to think Romney wouldn’t do the same. We’ve seen the former Massachusetts governor attempt to put as much distance between his government experience in Boston and his proposed plans for Washington, but there’s a chance he’s left what made him such a great business mind behind too.

 

 

 

Smart Growth Federal Funds Coming to the Boston Suburbs; Do It Yourself Bike Lanes in Mexico

A couple of stories have been floating around the interweb that address at progressive urbanism from either end of the spectrum. First, the suburbs around Boston are receiving an influx of funding from the Federal government that are expressly dedicated to “smart growth.” While the terminology might be nebulous the projects are surprisingly well-targeted. Here’s a couple of examples from the Boston Globe (via Planetizen):

In Everett, $52,796 in federal funding will be used to develop specific goals for housing, transportation, economic development, and public services. Throughout the process, planners will employ innovative techniques to engage residents of diverse backgrounds.

The $60,000 federal grant in Lynn will be used to develop the best ways to reach local immigrant entrepreneurs and help them increase their businesses so that the most successful initiatives can be replicated in other urban gateway communities.”

Just as a quick geography lesson for non-New Englanders: Everett is a predominantly white (~80%) working class (median income: $49, 830) north Boston suburb; Lynn is more mixed ethnically with a slightly lower comparative economic profile (median income: $41,993) up on the North Shore. The semantics of the Globe article are important as the money—minor on the Federal ledger but a decent influx to middle class communities—goes towards studies that are predicated on utilizing “innovative techniques [and] initiatives” and not the projects themselves necessarily. It might seem like a silly use of money, i.e. using small amounts of grant funding to initiate studies, but (and this is coming from some one who used to consult for a living so there’s a little bias alert here) analyzing the project before getting too far down the road can save millions in project delays and potential fines.

Overall, the study funding will be interesting to follow as shovel-ready projects emerge in several communities around Boston. Boston itself is beginning to progress on the urbanism front with a bicycle share program unveiled this summer and the expansion of food truck permitting following soon after (yes, food trucks are important to liberal metropolitanism). Here’s hoping that the entire urban area moves forward in the same vein.

On a completely different plane we see the construction of a do-it-yourself bike lane in Mexico (via Radials’ good friends over at This Big City, I encourage everyone to check out the excellent pictures on Mr. Peach’s blog, they are especially inspiring for velo-activists; StreetsBlogNet picked it up as well):

Mexico City’s government pledged in 2007 that it would build 300 km of bike lanes around the city by 2012. However, the city still only has 22.2 km because most money is allocated to car infrastructure, leaving aside non-motorized mobility. That’s why the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and the National Network for Urban Cycling (BiciRed) launched a campaign called ’5% for bicycles and pedestrians’, which asks national legislators to assign at least that percentage of the transportation budget to non-motorized infrastructure.

To promote that campaign and pressure legislators into action, several cycling and pedestrian organizations decided to paint their own bike lane in front of Congress on October 20th. This was our way of showing how little money and time is required to create quality infrastructure. We wanted to show that governments just need the will to promote non-motorized transport. However, that bike lane was efficiently erased just two days after it was painted, and no city official claimed responsibility.

We were all understandably angry, so we decided to do it all over again but better. We set a goal of painting a 5km bike lane that would end at Congress, the Wikicarril (wikilane). We funded our effort through Fondeadora, a crowd-sourcing site, and we managed to collect 13,500 pesos (about US$1,000) in just 4 days thanks to the collaboration of 37 generous supporters.”

The project title may not be the catchiest thing in the world (believe me, it’s not much smoother in Spanish) but the concept is pragmatic, achievable, and popular, a public policy trifecta. These are also exactly the brands of community development projects that Mexico’s neighbors to the North could stand to emulate: cheap, grassroots, and inherently beneficent. While the initial bike lane was erased by public officials the stalwart efforts of a few dozen activists, paired with even keeled interaction with police officers and city officials, put DIY-community development front and center for bicycle activists in D.F.

As Richard Davey Prepares to Take Reign at MassDOT, a Lack of Continuity at Northeast Transportation Authorities

For some reason, no one wants to run transportation agencies in the Northeast. The departure of managers like Jay Walder, former MTA general manager, and the impending vacancy of MassDOT’s Jeffrey Mullan –apparently over a pay squabble with Governor Deval Patrick—shouldn’t come as a surprise: running these systems is a big headache. There’s never enough money to run subways and buses on time, not to mention the harsh winters that accelerate the wear on buses and stress on stations while simultaneously draining the budget. Clearing tons of snow doesn’t come cheap.

Walder’s replacement hasn’t been found yet, but looking for a luminary with a résumé like his —he’s credited with introducing the Oyster card in London and pushed for a tap version of the MetroCard  (coming in 2015, hopefully)— is going to be left up to a task-force headed by New York’s Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch and is quite the order.  Commissioner Mullan’s job description is broader but relatively easier; more highways, less subways. His replacement is Richard Davey, a sort of Jay Walder-lite, and he is leaving his post as the chief of the MBTA for the commissioner’s desk at the Massachusetts Transportation Building, across the Boston Common from the State House.

 As Richard Davey Prepares to Take Reign at MassDOT, a Lack of Continuity at Northeast Transportation Authorities

Jay Walder, Former MTA Chief (Copyright NY Daily News, Xanthos)

Davey isn’t taking over until September 1st, and he’s inheriting a mess of disappointment, anxiety, and general disdain for the Bay State’s infrastructure. Commuters from the West hate the tolls, Bostonians don’t like the prospect of bus and subway fare hikes (there hasn’t been one for the past five years), and there are parking lots doubling as thoroughfares in the suburbs to the south and north. Davey’s office is a crosshair of discontent making a typically easy target for public griping –public transportation—even easier to find.

Reform is the status quo now at MassDOT

-Richard Davey

The news isn’t all bad for soon-to-be Commissioner Davey: the shape of the Massachusetts economy is sturdier than the country as whole and unemployment numbers are far below the national average at 7.6%. That means that while Bay Staters may dislike any impending cost increases to their daily commute, they are in a better position to afford it. That won’t be reason enough to refrain from protest should any combination of an unholy trinity occur: toll increases, fare hikes, and gas taxes. These strategies are not levers for the sake of pulling: transportation costs for single drivers commuting from the suburbs outweighs costs for those taking public transportation as a proportion of income and the savings incurred by carpooling would make any frugal commuter from Framingham or Swampscott squeeze in the backseat between Ashley from accounting and Jackson from HR.

 As Richard Davey Prepares to Take Reign at MassDOT, a Lack of Continuity at Northeast Transportation Authorities

Richard Davey, left, Incoming MassDOT Commissioner with Governor Deval Patrick (D-MA), center. (Copyright Governor's Office)

Davey is also appreciably realistic and honest about the state of transportation infrastructure in Massachusetts (bad), the implications that has for the economy (also, bad), and the brand of strategies that need to be in play in order to shore it up (rough). But Davey has to equivocate like any holding political office–and running buses and trains in a major American city is a unique political act. “Reform is the status quo now at MassDOT,” he told WBUR’s Meghna Chakrabarti in an interview last week, referring to that department’s efforts to streamline operations and find savings before it went looking for new cash. Remaining mum on anything outside of a general fare increase is a shrewd but obvious reference to Governor Patrick’s failed bid to add $0.19 to the state’s paltry $0.235 gasoline excise tax, a move that would have raised $500 million annually and gone a long way towards disarming the debt bomb ticking away at 10 Park Plaza.

Overseeing a public transportation system, as Davey did for a little more than a year, is slightly worse than a thankless job. Subway and bus riders assume –just like pedestrians and motorists—that there infrastructure lacks considerable complexity in providing service at a high level and low cost. Straphangers have taken on an odd brand of roundabout logic regarding transit: the subway has been there because it’s always been there and –this is critical—it will never not be there. Complaints about efficiencies and delays sound more like an amateur chef criticizing the saltiness of a dish at Le Cirque or O Ya; a problem with a blunt, linear solution. The reality is overwhelming and complex – unless, of course, maintaining personalities, budgets, complaints, politics, and equity while simultaneously attempting to keep one’s job sounds like the managerial equivalent of making grilled cheese. Riders often neglect the basic thermodynamic logic behind a public transportation infrastructure: it is a system, and systems are inherently inefficient. Davey will, hopefully, go a long ways towards “squeezing every ounce of savings [he] can out of the organization”, but more importantly (and potentially more hopelessly) he can also educate riders, drivers, and walkers on what exactly goes into his job, a position that has remained a black box for most American cities.

Of course, these are still difficult times to get anything done in Massachusetts transportation when there is still the echo of overdrawn budgets reverberating through the Big Dig tunnels. It is harder still when you consider that the design and implementation dysfunction at that very same project may push the bottom line even higher. Davey discusses that project with the same tenor a cheater might save for a particularly terminal infidelity: “Was it mismanaged? Yes it was. Was it overpriced? Absolutely. But you know what, we have to manage the situation and that’s what we’re going to do.” Admitting institutional mistakes, even if the missteps were on someone else’s watch, is especially satisfying coming from a transportation official where colossal successes and failures are almost always cut from the same cloth, and only the former ever find an owner.

Was it mismanaged? Yes it was. Was it overpriced? Absolutely. But you know what, we have to manage the situation and that’s what we’re going to do.” -Richard Davey 

Chakrabarti’s interview with the commissioner-nominee, his first after Gov. Patrick’s announcement, centered on the one question he says will define his tenure: “What kind of transportation system do we want?” The crystalline rhetoric (what other answer could one have besides “good” or “great” or “really great”?) isn’t pointless. If Davey’s position is geared towards educating Massachusetts residents on the subtle and unglamorous issues facing infrastructure then he will have not only taken his predecessor’s path to its logical extension but also conducted an exhibition in bureaucratic pragmatism, a task only slightly more simple than fixing the Green Line.

Innovative Public Spaces? Boston Could Take a Lesson from New York and NYCDOT

With the near-5.5 mile stretch of road closed between Park Avenue at 72nd Street and the Brooklyn Bridge closed for New York’s Summer Streets campaign, lower Manhattan took on an unfamiliar soundtrack. You could still hear the cars on Broadway a block over, but the lack of idling engines and tourist buses was unsettling in a good way. After the requisite euphoria subsided it felt like a natural oddity in a city that was doing most things right by way of transportation policy.

Lafayette Summer St 1 1024x764 Innovative Public Spaces? Boston Could Take a Lesson from New York and NYCDOT

Lafayette St. During Summer Streets

Walking up Lafayette Street with the cyclists, pleasantly surprised tourists, and the equally pleasant (but not surprised) natives, it was evident that New York was at the vanguard of turning threatening asphalt into remarkable experiments in public space. A Mayor with considerable disdain for the glacial pace of government and a disproportionate faith in what it can do to transform geography paired with a transportation commissioner who has considerable literacy in realpolitik and a Moses-lite attitude towards urban planning (without the highways) have taken roads and made them sidewalks. The simplicity of the transformation doesn’t negate its innovative definition, and other cities are starting to get the point—slowly.

Portland, Oregon, a sort of practice in progressive urban utopianism, would have legitimate reason to challenge a New York’s forward looking supremacy, but the Rose City does not have the same sort of entrenchment issues that New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago have. The ability for a city like Portland to have significant flexibility in its design separates it from larger cities; the bike paths and robust transit system a beneficent byproduct of that same latitude. More important than that, though, is a more apparent advantage: it’s small. Not all small cities are so easily transmuted though, and Boston in particular has stalled where there are significant opportunities.

Lafayette Summer St 2 1024x764 Innovative Public Spaces? Boston Could Take a Lesson from New York and NYCDOT

Lafayette St. During Summer Streets

Boston blurs the line between petite malleability and historical institutionalism—unfortunately progressive planning initiatives have been limited to fledgling bike path network and a new bike sharing network sponsored by the New England footwear brand New Balance. The city does do large-scale well though; the green hook of the Esplanade running along the Charles River and the engineering alchemy that resulted in miles of highway buried below a park.

Boston comes with its own set of quirks and planning idiosyncrasies, not least of which is its unorthodox—or organic—street map. There are neighborhoods like the North End and sectors of Allston and Brighton where the series of short darts from long thoroughfares represent a Jacobean ideal. In fact the North End, representing one of the only barrios with any community glue is experienced in getting road closure permits for public celebrations like St. Anthony’s feast in August. This transformation of major arterial roadways into a smorgasbord of street vendors and revelers shouldn’t be viewed as an annual departure from traditional ideas about roads because it’s exactly what a city like New York bases its brutally effective piecemeal approach on. You take a street, regardless of the traffic load it endures on a daily basis, and instead of talking to commuters you talk to local business-owners who would see their revenues rise if you inserted a makeshift park next door and a public space instead of a road. Those cosmetic changes are not without ancillary effects: real estate values rise, revenues go up, and traffic fatalities fall precipitously.

Lafayette Summer St 3 1024x764 Innovative Public Spaces? Boston Could Take a Lesson from New York and NYCDOT

Lafayette St. During Summer Streets

Boston has a chance to adopt the incrementalist approach that New York has put in play so effectively and gracefully. A road closure here, a public space there, a bike path yonder, and pretty soon the city has had a facelift and instead of a bisection of city space by cars you have a conflation of public geography. And pretty soon people start coming here for the space, not just the sports.

Radilarious | Vilnius Mayor Must Crush Cars Parked in Bike Lane, Proof that Tanks Make Things Better

A friend of mine shared this video with me and I have to say that while I’m kind of sorry he didn’t crush the Ferrari or the Rolls, doing some work on an old school Benz was still amazing. With all the illegal parking in Boston and New York (I’m sure it happens all over the country) it would be something to see Mayor Menino or Bloomberg rolling over a Prius with a garbage truck or see if the street sweepers have some 4-wheel drive on them.

Seriously though, don’t park in the bike lanes. Lithuania still has some soviet planes leftover and I’m pretty sure Mayor Zuokas wouldn’t mind riding a Panzer through Brooklyn.

Hubway Brings Bikeshare to Boston; Food Trucks Also Cool

It’s rare that progressive urban policies happen in pairs, especially in Boston. Bike lanes don’t come with traffic calming techniques, public space expansion doesn’t come with market parking rates or toll increases, etc., etc. This morning, or at least I found out about it this morning and it looks like I’m on-time for the party on one and city planners were a little late for the other, I saw that most elusive of pairs when I passed the new Boston Hubway —or bike share— and a brand new food trick space occupied currently by the Dining Car on Boylston Street near Copley Square.

boston hubway bicycles Hubway Brings Bikeshare to Boston; Food Trucks Also Cool

Boston Hubway copyright IBM Smart Planet

A couple bikes and some delicious sandwiches doesn’t qualify as the vision of a beautiful urban future that most of us have in mind. But unless you’re New York, where resources and public will typically overflow, or China, where one matters and the other doesn’t, the changes in a city are gradual and painful; the Hubway program by itself took years to find the correct balance of political and financial fortitude to come into being, but at least we got one before New York did.

dining car at copley Hubway Brings Bikeshare to Boston; Food Trucks Also Cool

Dining Car Food Truck Copyright Keramurphy Tumblr

That doesn’t mean we’re in a new age, there’s still a significant resistance to novel programs as an assault on traditional New England stoicism and, to be frank, staleness. Boston has been more than antagonistic towards mobile provision providers pushing most of them to that liberal and hungry enclave to the North across the Charles. The city has also been slow to adapt to cyclists whose ranks are growing but still represent slightly more than 2% of commuters while personal automobiles are still north of 50% (the reluctance to expand the city’s burgeoning bike lanes significantly before the rollout of the Hubway, a service that is likely to see its share of map-wielding tourists, is still a cause for concern though). It seems like the temprate Julian swoon put Mayor Menino and the city planning department in good spirits, and I hear from a good source that Governor Patrick likes the sandwiches over at the Clover Food Lab truck as well.

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.

 

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)

- SUNDAY, SUNDAY, SUNDAY

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)