Improving transit options in Las Vegas

It may be an iconic scene to drive down the Strip in Las Vegas but the city is looking for ways to improve transit:

But consistent growth has forced a city known for sprawl to start to change its ways. Last year, voters approved a measure that ties fuel taxes to inflation, a move that will address the region’s $6 billion shortfall in road infrastructure. In addition, the Regional Transportation Commission approved a new long-term plan to expand light rail down the Maryland Parkway and massively expand bus service. In mid-March, the RTC submitted a proposal to build a multibillion-dollar light rail system that would connect the Strip with McCarran International Airport.

The Strip has limited transit solutions, most of them privately funded by the gaming industry. A series of free trams that travel from casino to casino allows tourists to move up and down the western side of the Strip without using cars. In 2004, a 3.9-mile monorail opened just to the east of the Strip that serves casinos on that side as well as the convention center. The city also created a double-decker public bus named the Deuce that exclusively serves the Strip…

Brown says comparing Vegas to other cities, especially those in the Northeast with subway and rail systems, isn’t fair. Vegas has a different growth pattern due to the influx of tourists and the large number of workers who serve them—all of whom need to move to one place—and will need a different type of technology to solve its transport issues. “Vegas is about as unique a place in the world as you can find.”

Autonomous vehicles are one option that could improve congestion, lower emissions, and appeal to tourists’ desire for novelty. Brown wants infrastructure that can support and take advantage of that technology. The city and RTC are aggressively courting autonomous vehicle companies and studying “high capacity corridors” throughout Southern Nevada to prioritize opportunities for bus rapid transit.

These options sound like they would help. In particular, giving people an option to take a train from the airport to the Strip is something that should have been done years ago.

At the same time, these are primarily changes that would take advantage of the existing road structure (outside of the monorail and light-rail options). Perhaps it is too much to ask for a city with such important structures – the sprawling casinos built along the Strip – to attempt to create a denser, more walkable streetscape. The amount of work that would need to be done to better tie together the casinos would be massive. But, as someone who has walked the Strip multiple times, wouldn’t it create a more exciting experience for tourists? Wouldn’t it reduce traffic and the long lines at the taxi stands? Maybe the true goal of the Strip is get people to do their recreational walking within the casinos – stroll through Venice or Ancient Rome so you’ll spend some money there – but there are some bigger questions about urban planning than just providing a few more mass transit options.

“Politics of pavement” amidst the start of construction season

Commuters and taxpayers may be unhappy with annoying roadwork but as this summary of upcoming projects in the Chicago region reminds us, roadwork is political:

With no state budget in sight as Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner feuds with Democrats, the idea of a capital plan to fix infrastructure seems as likely as unicorns in hard hats.

That disconnect is not only strangling transportation funding in Illinois, it’s also thwarting a pet project of Rauner’s — adding tolled express lanes to I-55 in Cook and DuPage counties…

For the Illinois tollway, money’s not a problem. But the agency is locked in a dispute with the Canadian Pacific Railroad over land it wants for I-490, a ring road around the west side of O’Hare International Airport.

If Canadian Pacific wins support from federal regulators in a pending case, it’s a potential catastrophe for the tollway.

Roads are power? Any major infrastructure project involves lots of money, voters, and jobs. Additionally, in a country where driving is so important, construction on major roads is a big deal.

So, is anyone winning the political battle through roads in the Chicago region? Big city mayors like to claim that they are different than national politicians because the mayors have to get things done. The same may be true for governors on infrastructure issues. Presumably, limiting the political battles over roads helps everyone win as costs are reduced (prices for big projects only go up over time) and residents can start experiencing the benefits sooner.

Nature, driving, and states closing “old-fashioned” rest stops

When money is tight at the state level, one way to save money is to close highway rest areas:

Cash-strapped transportation agencies are shuttering the old ones to save money, or because they don’t attract enough traffic or are in such bad shape that renovating them is too costly. Or, the stops have been overtaken by tourist information centers, service plazas that take in revenue from gasoline and food sales, or commercial strips off interstate exits.

Florida, Michigan, Ohio and South Dakota are among the states that have closed traditional rest stops in the past two years. And a battle is brewing in Connecticut over a proposal to shut down all seven stops on its interstate highways to save money.

But advocates of maintaining traditional rest areas say even if motorists are offered flashier options for pit stops, the ones that sprung up as highways did are still needed for driver safety and convenience. Some view them as a tranquil, environmentally friendly alternative to crowded service plazas and commercial strips…

But unlike service plazas, rest areas on federal interstate highways are prohibited from selling gasoline or food other than from vending machines, the proceeds of which traditionally go to people who are visually impaired. State transportation departments run the rest areas and are responsible for cleaning and maintaining them. That can take a chunk of their budget, depending on staffing and amenities, officials say.

It almost seems quaint that highway driving should be broken up to stops at state rest areas where drivers can experience nature and rest. Can highways and nature go together, especially on a small patch of green land within earshot of the interstate? Highways can of course be used for pleasurable trips but the majority of highway traffic is likely for practical purposes such as going to work or conducting some kind of personal business. In contrast, given our reliance on the trucking industry, the issue of spaces for truck drivers to stop seems like a bigger deal.

Ultimately, this seems to be about whether Americans deserve to have some spaces in life where commercial interests are severely limited or not allowed. Given the encroachment of economic life into many life domains, this change isn’t too surprising.

Which comes first on a mass scale: electric cars or driverless cars?

The car of the future could be quite different but what exactly it will be is still up in the air. Will it be an electric car? We need some significant infrastructure for that to work:

But here’s the thing. As a piece of new driving technology, the Bolt totally works. But the adoption curves and take-up rates of new technologies aren’t driven simply by the efficacy of the technology in and of itself. New innovations require infrastructure to reach their full market potential. Often that infrastructure has to be built by companies other than those who build the original products. And right now, electric cars remain hindered by a massive infrastructure gap…

Tesla has dealt with the infrastructure challenge by building its own network of proprietary superchargers—stations that only Tesla owners can use. But it’s a closed system, and it is part of what makes Tesla a luxury product. Non-Tesla users are out of luck. And while some of the big automakers are establishing partnerships with charging networks, none has taken it upon itself to build the dense, easily accessible, and highly functional network of charging stations that is needed. So it’s great that the Bolt feels like it belongs in everyone’s garage. But until that gaping infrastructure gap is bridged, it won’t be in nearly as many as it could be.

And working out all the kinks of driverless cars and then making them affordable to the mass market may take a while:

Despite technological advances, accidents like these reduce consumer trust and send companies back a few steps. A true autonomous future is perhaps as far away as 50 years, considering all that needs to happen to ensure safety and prepare the average driver.

While one will see the occasional driverless car zipping tech execs around Silicon Valley, new connected cars will still be out of reach for most families.

The internal combustion engine vehicle with a human driver may prove to have quite the staying power. How about we envision the electric self-driving vehicle for all several decades down the line?

Another thought: given all that would need to be done to completely switch over to either option, could the money and time be better spent on other problems?

Atlanta bridge collapses, traffic isn’t that bad

Urban highways are often very busy but when they are completely out of commission, it doesn’t necessarily lead to horrific traffic:

You’ll forgive our excessively clinical attitude about this damage—and it’s going to cost tens of millions to fix—but what we have here is a classic “natural experiment” of the kind economists and students of public policy relish. So what happens when we take a major urban freeway out of service for a couple of months? Are Atlanta commuters in for hours of gridlock every day and grisly commutes? Will the region’s economy grind to a halt as a result? We’ll be watching over the next several months to see.

So far, the results are consistent with what we’ve seen in Los Angeles and Minneapolis. Monday morning came, and something funny happened: traffic wasn’t so bad

So what’s going on here? Arguably, our mental model of traffic is just wrong. We tend to think of traffic volumes, and trip-making generally as inexorable forces of nature. The diurnal flow of 250,000 vehicles a day on an urban freeway like I-85 is just as regular and predictable as the tides. What this misses is that there’s a deep behavioral basis to travel. Human beings will shift their behavior in response to changing circumstances. If road capacity is impaired, many people can decide not to travel, change when they travel, change where they travel, or even change their mode of travel. The fact that Carmageddon almost never comes is powerful evidence of induced demand: people travel on roadways because the capacity is available for their trips, and when the capacity goes away, so does much of the trip making.

If Atlanta can survive for a month or two without a major chunk of its freeway, that’s a powerful indication that more modest steps to alter road capacity don’t really mean the end of the world. If we recognize that traffic will tend to adjust to available capacity, we then end up taking a different view of how to balance transportation against other objectives. For example, this ought to be a signal that road diets, which have been shown to greatly improve safety and encourage walking and cycling, don’t have anything approaching the kinds of adverse effects on travel that highway engineers usually predict.

I do think that this suggests drivers will adjust their behaviors based on what roads are available. At the same time, there is probably a tipping point where reducing too much traffic capacity would make a big difference. This might be especially true in car-driven places like Atlanta and Los Angeles that are known for sprawl. Presumably, places where traffic capacity could be picked up by other transportation options (such as closing the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco where driving is already a hassle and other options include BART, Muni, etc.) would fare better. Or, perhaps road capacity has to be reduced gradually so that people have time to adjust and make new choices about travel and where they live and work.

See earlier posts about what happened with Carmageddon I and Carmageddon II in Los Angeles

A map that would reveal what was there before the highway was built

This article discusses a cool tool that removes highways on the map so you can see what else is using that space:

In true public-spirited manner, the map is built from an OpenStreetMap, with tags identifying highways, off-ramps, and exits to make the roads vanish or reappear. However, Sisson didn’t set out on a nihilistic quest to annihilate all highways—he just wanted to look underneath them.

I wish this went one step further: when the highway is removed from the map, could we see what was there before? Urban highways have famously altered numerous neighborhoods – whether the highway that was later replaced by the Big Dig in Boston or the fight between Jane Jacobs and activists in Manhattan and Robert Moses to avoid a new highway or the Dan Ryan in Chicago separating black and white neighborhoods – yet those neighborhoods mostly disappear. The highway seems permanent even though most have only been around for 50-70 years. Of course, it would be really difficult to project what those spaces might look like today if the highway had not been constructed but it would still be nice to be able to peel back the layers. Actually, this wouldn’t be a bad idea for many city locations: what if Google Maps had a timeline component where you could set it to 1950 and see what there then (particularly if images could be incorporated) or even earlier?

Self-driving cars will only enhance the private nature of driving

One reason Americans like driving is the private experience of being away from others. New autonomous vehicles may only enhance that:

Your autonomous car could become an extension of your home. A place to eat breakfast, play video games, or have sex. And figuring out which of these activities you want to do most in an autonomous car is already on the minds of automotive designers…

With autonomous cars, he’s found that privacy, the length of trips, and an ability to leave the car when you want to are what people want…

Which means that creating cars with private spaces are a big part of fully autonomous car designs. “I think people may start to consider these in-car spaces as an extension of their home or office,” he says. This could totally change how we imagine transportation…

What people want to do in their cars is likely to change what kind of cars they purchase, Kobayashi said. He imagines that we will have things like sleeper cars, or meeting cars, or kid-friendly cars. This kind of division of car-function also showed up in the workshop section itself as well. Tech 2025 is a media-strategy company that works to educate the public on emerging technologies, so it invited a bunch of non-experts to workshop design ideas with Kobayashi.

For those who don’t like the effects of the car, this may only make things worse as the daily commute could be come a more enjoyable or even fun. This could encourage suburban growth while discouraging the use of mass transit.

At the same time, it would still be worth thinking about how many resources it will take to fully switch over to all self-driving cars – from development to getting them all on the road and instituting the appropriate infrastructure – versus mass transit. This is not a cheap process and could be viewed as doing everything we can to provide Americans with a luxury good (while the money might have been better used elsewhere).