Arguing that $40 congestion charges are good for drivers

The new express lanes on I-66 outside Washington D.C. may just be what driving looks like in the future:

The express lanes on Interstate 66 near DC, previously reserved for vehicles carrying two or more people, opened up to solo travelers. Except those single-occupancy vehicles have to pay a toll, one that fluctuates according to demand. The world watched, aghast, as tolling prices hit $40 for folks headed into the capital on Tuesday morning…

“Transportation pricing usually takes several months or even years to achieve its full effects, so the current maximum prices are probably two or three times what will occur once everybody becomes familiar with the system,” says Todd Litman, executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in British Columbia. “Over the next few months, many travelers will probably change when and how they travel, so the maximum price will probably decline to a few dollars per trip.”

One of congestion pricing’s greatest strengths is convincing drivers to skip trips they don’t really need to take, or convince them to go at another time. Though the express lane scheme targets commuters, not everyone who travels during those periods is going to work. In fact, some might be taking totally optional trips—grabbing milk, meeting a friend for coffee. “The percentages vary by metro area and travel corridor (as do the timing and duration of peak periods) but the data show that about half of peak period trips are for other purposes,” says Elizabeth Deakin, who studies regional planning at UC Berkeley and has evaluated congestion tolling in the Bay Area.

Eventually—and you’ll have to wait a while to see this—congestion pricing can influence where people choose to live. If you don’t have to pay for tolls, the big house out in the suburbs with the huge backyard looks like a great option. When it costs $20 in tolls to get to work every day, not so much. If every one of those McMasion abandoners drives to work, well, that can make a dent in a traffic jam. Remember: You’re not in traffic. You are traffic.

The main purpose of such charges is to get drivers to think twice about traveling to that location via car or using that route. Not everyone will take the alternative – and Americans do like their driving and the freedom they think it offers even as they regularly complain about all the traffic in urban areas – but enough will do so to at least stop the increase in congestion.

As these options expand, it will be interesting to see how residents of each area respond. Will they protest by not taking those roads? (I remember such claims here in the Chicago region a few years back when tolls were raised.) Will they pursue public referendums? Will they refuse to pay? Would they vote out those who enabled these traffic changes? Even though there is likely to be a lot of complaining, it is also difficult to mount a serious political response to congestion pricing.

AAA’s negative Thanksgiving traffic outlook a lot of common sense and normal conditions

Over a week ago, predictions by AAA about record Thanksgiving driving traffic started circulating. However, the reports did not add much useful information. Here is how the Chicago Tribune summarized it:

In fact, Chicago is expected to log one of the worst traffic jams of any big city during the Thanksgiving holiday season on Tuesday afternoon, according to an analysis by AAA and global transportation analytics company INRIX. Motorists should beware that the worst time will be between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. Tuesday, when holiday travelers are expected to join post-work commuters on Chicago-area interstates. Already long travel times could quadruple, according to AAA…

In Chicago, area interstates may not only see one of the worst traffic jams over the holidays, the city also may come in second place for longest commute times to a major airport, analysts predict. The absolute worst time to take the Kennedy Expressway between downtown and O’Hare International Airport is 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m Tuesday, when it could take an hour and 14 minutes, the analysis shows. Only a trip to New York’s Kennedy International Airport — the same day and around the same time of day — is longer at nearly two hours.

And from aaa.com:

Based on historical and recent travel trends for the holiday week, INRIX, in collaboration with AAA, predicts drivers will experience the greatest amount of congestion during the early evening – as early as Tuesday of Thanksgiving week – as commuters mix with holiday travelers. At its peak, drivers on Chicago’s interstates, for example, could see a delay of nearly 300 percent over the optimal trip.

“Thanksgiving has historically been one of the busiest holidays for road trips, and this year we could see record-level travel delays,” says Bob Pishue, transportation analyst at INRIX. “Knowing when and where congestion will build can help drivers avoid the stress of sitting in traffic.”

Two quick thoughts regarding this data. First, traveling during rush hour is a bad idea in any major American city. There are simply too many vehicles on the highways at these times and the traffic flows everywhere these days, not just into the city in the morning and out in the evening. Whether planning relatively short or long drives, it is necessary to plan to avoid rush hour.

Second, saying that the delay in Chicago could be “nearly 300 percent over the optimal trip” or the trip from downtown to O’Hare will take slightly over an hour is really not that abnormal. Perhaps the key is the comparison to the “optimal trip” which in metropolitan areas tends to be somewhere between 8 PM and 6 AM when truck and car travel is limited. I have this optimal trip in mind all the time when I make a drive to the local airports: without traffic, the trip takes this amount of time but adjustments need to be made for any daytime or early evening hours. In the Chicago area, all it takes is a little rain or snow or an accident and the Thanksgiving travel times predicted here are fairly normal occurrences.

All that said, this is good PR for AAA. Americans may like driving but they do not like traffic.

Self-driving cars could benefit suburban residents the most

While reading an article considering what daily life may be like with autonomous vehicles, a thought hit me: suburbs – compared to cities and rural areas – will benefit the most from self-driving cars. Sure, cities could remove a lot of cars off the streets and enhance pedestrian life. Rural areas could benefit from easier driving and trucking. Yet, as far as daily life is concerned, not having to pay attention to driving could help suburbanites the most as so much of their life involves driving from one place to another.

Here are the primary advantages of self-driving vehicles for the suburbs:

1. The commute to work changes as passengers can now work or relax or sleep on the way.

2. The other various trips in the suburbs now can be more enjoyable (like commuting in #1).

3. Suburbanites do not need to own as many vehicles.

4. Two groups disadvantaged by auto-dependent suburbs – teenagers and the elderly – now have access to transportation.

5. Suburbanites can live even further away from work and urban centers, possibly providing cheaper housing as well as more options regarding what communities they can live in.

6. The cheap goods suburbanites expect from big box stores and online retailers may be even cheaper as retailers and businesses also utilize autonomous vehicles.

7. Suburban congestion and traffic will be decreased due to both the new vehicles handling roads better and a reduction in vehicles (#3 above).

Granted, these reasons might not account for the ongoing costs of driving. For example, suburbanites may not need to own as many cars or may enjoy their regular drives more but roads still need to be built and maintained.

American dilemma: electric cars vs. trucks

Americans like to drive but it is unclear whether they will be driving electric cars or trucks in the future:

The auto industry is at a crossroads, with the future of legacy automakers like Ford, General Motors Co and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV uncertain as governments float proposals to ban internal combustion engines over the next two decades.

But in the present, consumer enthusiasm for trucks and sport utility vehicles is strong, especially in the United States. And that is providing Ford, GM and other established automakers with billions in cash to mount a challenge to Tesla…

Electric cars are money losers, which explains why global automakers have been slow to roll them out until now. But regulatory and consumer pressures are forcing established automakers to put more electric vehicles in their fleets over the next several years. In a cash-intensive industry, profits from pickups and SUVs may give them a competitive edge.

Ford said on Thursday that the average price of one of its F-series pickups rose $2,800 to an average $45,400 a truck in the third quarter. Sales of F-series trucks, which range from spartan work trucks to Platinum models with the features – and price tags – of a European luxury sedan, were up nearly 11 percent to 658,636 vehicles for the first nine months of this year.

This is not just a consumer preference issue. There are potential repercussions for the auto industry (a fairly large one), urban and transportation planning, tax revenues for governments, and a whole space – the suburbs – built around driving around. Oh, and many Americans seem to prefer driving larger vehicles and intertwining their identity and the related activities with these vehicles.

Finding the price and usage at which to not own a car

Two researchers crunched the numbers and have some thoughts about when you should not own a car:

The decision for owning a vehicle or using mobility services is unique to every individual. If you purchase a highly efficient vehicle for less than $25,000 and drive it more than 15,000 miles per year until it falls apart, then you should definitely own a car if your goal is to save money.

But, if you drive less than 10,000 miles per year, face long waits in traffic, or place a high value on your time that would otherwise be spent driving, our calculations show that mobility services might be the cheaper option. Geography can also play a role—it’s not a coincidence that there have historically been so many taxi cabs in New York City, where the high cost of parking and slow pace of traffic consume time and money.

As noted before on this blog, owning a car can be a substantial part of middle-class expenses. With their physical layout, the sprawling suburbs probably then do not make much sense for not having a car. Yet, those denser suburbs for the older millennials and companies hip to them may be the true spots where suburbanites can ditch their cars. A combination of walkability, some mass transit, and car sharing in these denser suburbs could be enough to push people toward limiting car ownership.

On the other hand, perhaps driverless cars will render this all moot within a short amount of time. Within ten or twenty years, few of us will even need to own a vehicle if we just buy into a car sharing option.

Traffic deaths increased in 2016

Explaining the rise in traffic deaths in the last two years may be difficult to explain:

Cars may be safer than ever, but 37,461 people died on American roads that year, a 5.6 percent hike over 2015. While fatalities have dramatically declined in recent decades, this is the second straight year the number has risen. It’s too early to say why, exactly, this is happening. Researchers will need much more time with the data to figure that out. But here’s a hypothesis: It’s the economy, (crash) dummy.

“People drive more in a good economy,” says Chuck Farmer, who oversees research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “They drive to different places and for different reasons. There’s a difference between going out to a party in the middle of the night in an unfamiliar area and driving to work—that nighttime driving to a party is more risky.”…

Researchers have long known that driving deaths rise and dive with the economy and income growth. People with jobs have more reason to be on the road than the unemployed. But this increase can’t be pinned on the fact of more driving, the stats indicate. Even adjusted for miles traveled, fatalities have ticked up by 2.6 percent over 2015. You can still blame the economy, because people aren’t just driving more. They’re driving differently. Better economic condition give them the flexibility to drive for social reasons. There might be more bar visits (and drinking) and trips along unfamiliar roads (with extra time spent looking at a map on a phone).

The DOT numbers seem to confirm that drivers involved in traffic deaths were doing different things behind the wheel last year. The feds say the number people who died while not wearing seat belts climbed 4.6 percent, and that drunk driving fatalities rose 1.7 percent. Contrary to what you might expect, the numbers show distracted driving deaths dropped slightly, but experts caution against putting too much faith in such info. The numbers are based on police reports. They’re reflections of what cops are seeing at crash sites, but also of what’s in the zeitgeist at the time. It could be that first responders weren’t, for example, looking out for distracted driving last year because it wasn’t in the news as often.

Official statistics do not provide all the information we might want. In this case, the figure of interest to many will simply be the total number of deaths. Is an increase over two years enough to prompt rapid action? If so, I would imagine the regulatory structures regarding driverless cars might attract some attention. Or, do car deaths continue to be the costs we pay for having lifestyles built around driving?

The same LA bridges in many car commercials

One interesting set of locations is fairly common in car commercials: bridges in Los Angeles. This is not what you might expect: how many people know that bridges are even necessary in Los Angeles? (The Los Angeles River does exist.) This has a long history: a 2004 New York Times story suggests the presence of production companies in southern California plus good weather leads to many shoots in Los Angeles.

One of the past bridge locations was the Sixth Street Viaduct which closed in 2016:

According to Film L.A., the organization that helps the film industry book municipal locations, over 80 movies, television shows, music videos, and commercials are shot on or underneath the Sixth Street Viaduct each year. That’s partially because of the bridge’s swooping metal arches, perched on an art-deco concrete platform; and partially because of the river underneath and that access tunnel: if you want to film something set in Los Angeles that makes reference to the city’s automotive culture, or if you’re just looking for a place to shoot a car chase that’s cheaper and more available than a clogged freeway, the channelized, concretized bed of the Los Angeles River is your best choice.

Except that the bridge officially no longer functions that way, as of last week. It’s going away completely. And the river? It’s on its way to becoming a river again.

Here is a short montage of the bridge being taken down alongside iconic images from films.

The Fourth Street Bridge is also home to a number of shoots and features Art Deco columns as well as views of the downtown skyline. Here is a Google Street View image:

FourthStreetLosAngeles

Are viewers of car commercials more likely to purchase a vehicle if it is shown in Los Angeles compared to other settings? Los Angeles has its own aesthetic which may or may not match with many other places. (In urban sociology, Los Angeles is often held up as the prime example of decentralization. Yet, it also does have a downtown as well as numerous other scenic sites such as the hills behind the city.) In the Chicago television market, we see some car commercials shot in Chicago. Might this help viewers envision themselves driving a new car when they see it in a familiar location? It would be more difficult to do this for all of the metropolitan markets in the United States.

Here are some other common car commercial locations with several more in the Los Angeles area.