The difficulties of promoting mass transit in a decentralized landscape

Mass transit use declined between early 2017 and early 2018; here is one take on what was behind the drop:

Ridership declined in all of the nation’s 38 largest urban areas (and the 39th, Providence, gained only 0.1 percent new riders). Transit systems in Austin, Boston, Charlotte, Cleveland, Miami, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, San Diego, and Tampa-St. Petersburg all suffered double-digit declines, with Austin losing 19.5 percent and Charlotte 15.4 percent despite being two of the fastest growing urban areas in the nation…

Transit apologists offer many excuses for ridership declines, such as low gas prices and crumbling infrastructure. But gas prices were 10 percent higher in March 2018 than March 2017 and ridership is declining even in areas with brand-new transit infrastructure.

The fundamental problem is that big-box transit — moving people in 60-passenger buses, 450-passenger light-rail trains or 1,500-passenger heavy-rail or commuter-rail trains — no longer works in American cities. Such transit made sense a century ago when most jobs were in downtowns surrounded by dense residential areas. But today only New York City comes close to looking like that.

Modern urban areas have far more jobs scattered across the suburbs than concentrated in downtowns. Job location is only one of many factors people consider when deciding where to live. The result is jobs, residences, retail, schools, and other activity centers are widely dispersed.

This discussion encapsulates several important major shifts in the United States in the last seventy years or so: the move of people AND jobs to the suburbs; a whole way of life built around driving; and an increasing emphasis on private life. All of suburbanization presents a particular issue: as noted above, it is not very efficient to use trains or buses to help people move from a variety of residences to a variety of workplaces. Unless there is a certain level of density, suburban mass transit does not appeal to many.

The mass transit available in Wheaton, Illinois is a good example of this. The suburb has two train stations that send riders to Chicago. Few train commuters use this line to go suburb to suburb – though there are some denser concentrations of suburbia along the route – and it would take a long time to go into the city and then ride another train back out to another suburban location. There is also a suburban bus system that tends to run routes between train lines in the suburbs or between concentrations of residents and areas of employment. Ridership is limited and the lines can take a lot of time compared to driving in a car.

Given all of these conditions, mass transit is a tough sell, particularly as the years go by and new mass transit projects have higher price tags.

Extreme cold leaves parting gift: potholes

The cold in the Chicago area and Midwest may have receded but the potholes have just begun:

Streets already showing signs of deterioration are vulnerable to potholes, said Adam Boeche, Mundelein’s director of public works and engineering.

“Once the snow and ice melt, the water begins to infiltrate into the base of the pavement. Then it freezes again, causing the base to heave and expand the roadway surface,” Boeche explained. “If there are already cracks in the surface, they begin to separate more, thereby losing the integrity of the pavement and forming potholes.”

Drivers and residents are encouraged to report potholes to local public works departments. People should drive slowly and cautiously when navigating streets with potholes, said Lincolnshire Public Works Director Bradford H. Woodbury…

Cepeda’s advice on avoiding potholes is simple: Keep your eyes on the road.

So if the driver in front of you is swerving, it may be because they are distracted by their cell phone and it may be because they are trying to avoid a pothole.

More broadly, I’m a little surprised that I have not heard more over the years about construction techniques or research into avoiding potholes in roadways. If we can make permeable roads and roads that can absorb pollution, why not one that is more resistant to potholes or even roads that could be self-healing? The short answer likely is that asphalt roads are relatively cheap to build and repair. At the same time, potholes can be costly and take a toll on many vehicles.

The case for a social problem: over 49,000 pedestrian deaths in the US 2008-2017

A new report addresses pedestrian deaths in the United States:

Harrowing data showed that between 2008 and 2017 the number of annual pedestrian deaths in the U.S. increased by 35.7 percent. A total of 49,340 died in that 10-year period. That’s more than 13 people killed per day or one person every hour and 46 minutes…

“Why is this happening?” authors of the report asked. “We’re not walking more and we’re only driving slightly more than we were back in 2008. What is happening is that our streets, which we designed for the movement of vehicles, haven’t changed. In fact, we are continuing to design streets that are dangerous for all people.”

Federal and state transportation policies, blueprints and funding are stuck in the age of the automobile, when sprawling growth patterns — especially in the Sun Belt — led to wider roads, longer blocks and street engineering that prioritized high speeds for cars over safety for people on foot, on bikes or using mass transit, the report says.

Among the victims, death rates are disproportionately high for the elderly, minorities and people walking in poor communities, data showed. Older adults are more often struck at an intersection or in a crosswalk than younger victims. In San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, residents organized marches, flash mobs and 20-second performances in crosswalks to campaign for longer signal times for elderly and disabled people.

The numbers are likely shocking for many readers: that many people died over a 10 year stretch from walking? The cause for many a social problem is advanced by such figures which reveal to the average person the scope of an issue they rarely consider.

But, put those figures next to those that died in car accidents and they pale in comparison. Are the two numbers combined – both primarily the result of an automobile dependent culture – more valuable? Or, are they simply what Americans are willing to do for the sake of driving?

To me, the next step is to ask what it would take to reach a critical mass of Americans to push against a car dominated society and press for better options for pedestrians and other non-vehicles on streets and roads. This is not an easy task; diverting resources and attention away from roads and highways is difficult.

Pass through “Viadoom” for a better Seattle waterfront

A number of projects are underway at Seattle’s waterfront and while they are all intended to help the city in the long run, they may lead to short-term transportation issues:

The Washington State Department of Transportation will demolish the viaduct, freeing up 26 blocks of urban land. It will be replaced with a street-level boulevard and 20 acres of waterfront public space designed by James Corner Field Operations. Soon, Highway 99 will traverse Seattle below ground in a long-delayed bi-level tunnel dug by the world’s longest boring machine after a prolonged political fight pitting governor against mayor that made Seattle the laggard in a trio of major urban highway teardowns, alongside Boston’s Big Dig and San Francisco’s Embarcadero.

But this transformation stands to be a painful one. The highway closure kicks off a two-year stretch that City Hall calls the Period of Maximum Constraint and everyone else calls the Seattle Squeeze. The viaduct’s 90,000 cars are losing their north-south waterfront right of way. There’s mass-transit help on the way, in the form of Seattle’s massive light rail expansion, which is set to open a key northern extension in 2021. In between, downtown commuters and residents will contend with a ferry terminal rebuild, a convention center expansion, 600 daily buses moving from the downtown transit tunnel onto surface streets, a streetcar missing link on hiatus, and street closures related to the construction of the city’s second-tallest building.

The first three weeks of the Squeeze—known, somewhat apocalyptically, as Viadoom—are expected to be the worst, until the new State Route 99 tunnel opens on February 4. In anticipation of V-Day, local TV news has been running countdown clocks, and city officials are urging anyone who can to work from home, switch up hours, or take time off. Further amping up the state-of-emergency vibe, Mayor Jenny Durkan hired Mike Worden, a retired Air Force major general, to oversee the city’s response to the Squeeze. (His office did not return a request for an interview.)…

As with marquee waterfront-highway removals in Boston and San Francisco, the hope is that the viaduct’s demise can give downtown a waterfront worthy of Seattle’s setting. The design for the redeveloped space, by James Corner Field Operations, aims to string together several of the city’s major attractions, though some of the bells-and-whistles in the competition-winning design, like a swimming-pool barge and a downtown pocket beach, have been toned down.

It sounds like this will be a win for the city in the long-run. A few years ago, I was some of the locations mentioned in the article and I could see how these changes would benefit both residents and visitors.

At the same time, I could imagine many residents would want to know why this all seems to be happening at once. This is a complaint I have heard regularly in the Chicago area: why is there construction on multiple major roads at the same time that then makes it very hard to find alternatives? People can get the idea about the long-term benefits and still experience frustration at the day to day difficulties these projects pose.

Additionally, what are the odds that all the projects finish on time and on budget? Major infrastructure projects in American cities can end up with significantly larger price tags and seem to last forever as circumstances (and budgets) change. Again, these projects often need to happen but residents may perceive that officials and those involved in the construction do not care much for their time or pocketbooks.

Of course, an easy solution to all of this is to simply pursue these projects far before they become such boondoggles. That, however, is far easier said than done.

Small Illinois town becomes intermodal facility and warehouse central; long-term benefits are not good

Elwood, Illinois is home to facilities of a number of important American companies but the small community experiences few benefits:

It’s hard to find anyone who will admit to it now, but when the CenterPoint Intermodal freight terminal opened in 2002, people in Elwood, Illinois, were excited. The plan was simple: shipping containers, arriving by train from the country’s major ports, were offloaded onto trucks at the facility, then driven to warehouses scattered about the area, where they were emptied, their contents stored. From there, those products—merchandise for Wal-Mart, Target, and Home Depot—were loaded into semis, and trucked to stores all over the country. Goods in, goods out. The arrangement was supposed to produce a windfall for Elwood and its 2,200 residents, giving them access to the highly lucrative logistics and warehousing industry. “People thought it was the greatest thing,” said Delilah Legrett, an Elwood native…

But this corporate valhalla turned out to be hell for the community, which suffered a concentrated dose of the indignities and disappointments of late capitalism in the 21st century. Instead of abundant full-time work, a regime of partial, precarious employment set in. Temp agencies flourished, but no restaurants, hotels, or grocery stores ever came, save for the recent addition of a dollar store. Tens of thousands of semis rumbled through Will County every day, wreaking havoc on the infrastructure. And as the town of Elwood scrambled to pave its potholes, its inability to collect taxes from the facilities plunged it into more than $30 million in debt…

According to the Will County Center for Economic Development, at least 25,000 tractor trailers a day come through the Intermodals. That amounts to three million containers annually, carrying $65 billion worth of goods. A staggering $623 billion worth of freight traversed Will County infrastructure in 2015 alone, roughly equivalent to 3.5 percent of the U.S.’s total GDP…

But when it comes to the long-term prospects for the region, optimism is scarce. Paul Buss’s son, who works as a building inspector in Joliet, told his dad there’s concern “these companies are gonna come in, they’re gonna build these buildings, and they’re gonna use them for however long they can get a tax break on them, and then they’ll move someplace else.” The threat of empty warehouses looms large.

The freight industry, composed of both railroads and trucks, has to be placed somewhere. The southern edge of the Chicago region is a logical place with close connections to major highways, cross-country railroad lines, airports, and both the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River as well as proximity to the third largest metropolitan area in the United States. And there are likely benefits to these companies and industries to have a concentration of facilities rather than scattering them across multiple communities and regions.

But, the article suggests we should not view the communities where these facilities are placed just as collateral damage. There are real consequences to the trucks and trains that ship all the goods we need on a daily basis. People’s lives are affected. Could the facilities should be placed outside of towns and away from residences as possible?

Perhaps the true test of all of this is whether the next town that is chosen or selects itself as the possible next facility center turns down the opportunity or they dive headlong into the same issues.

 

Comparing 4 years to finish rebuilding a major interchange to other major undertakings

After the Illinois Department of Transportation recently announced construction on the Jane Byrne will take four more years, the Chicago Tribune compared this time frame to other tasks:

Two world wars were fought and won in less time. Rows of skyscrapers went up in less time. The transformation of Navy Pier, less time. New Comiskey Park, less time. Dan Ryan reconstruction, less time. Millennium Park, less time. The Deep Tunnel Project — oh, wait. That engineering feat began in the mid-1970s and isn’t expected to be completed until 2029. Somebody, go pick on them…

Still, four years is a long delay. Especially for a network so central to Chicago. We’ll never understand why IDOT didn’t order more intense work or bigger crews around the clock and on weekends. Let’s just say that if Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker shares Emanuel’s devotion to penalties and accountability, he’ll make new friends by the thousands.

Is this part of a larger trend of major infrastructure projects today running over schedule and over budget? There are hints yet people are unlikely to hear much about or celebrate projects that are completed on time and near budget.

Comparing the completion time to other projects may not be fair. Some of these sites were closed or not in use when the construction happened. Some happened with some private money at play. Others had more space to work with. Doing the work when the state and other taxing bodies had more money (or were less worried about debt) could help. And World Wars have their own logic compared to construction projects. (That said, I am still amazed how much the United States was able to mobilize and produce in a roughly 5 year span during World War II. Such devotion to the war mission led to unbelievable change.)

Would it simply be better for the Chicago region to accept a Carmageddon week where the interchange is closed and all the possible crews are brought in for 24 hour shifts for that time to rush work forward? Find a week with less traffic, probably a summer week, and give drivers plenty of notice about other options (ranging from mass transit to alternative highways, such as I-294, that can route traffic around the center of the city). Suffer short-term pain, make some serious progress, and show that efforts are underway to reduce the long-term burden of the interchange construction.

Debating mass transit: a format for discussing whether it is dead or can be revived

Even though I did not attend a recent debate in Washington D.C. between two mass transit commentators, I wish we could have more conversations like this one:

O’Toole opened with a whirlwind of statistical bullet points documenting the transit death spiral. He seized on the latest national transit ridership data, but his message was vintage O’Toole: Government funding of public buses, trains, light rail, and streetcars has failed and should stop. “I’m fundamentally pessimistic about the future of the transit industry,” O’Toole said. “Transit ridership has been declining steadily and it’s declining in all major urban areas, whether it’s rail or bus. I don’t see hope of recovery because the forces that are causing it to decline are not going away.”

Subsidies can’t overcome what shapes people’s preferences, O’Toole argued, and what people want is to live out in the suburbs and drive their cars. In recent years, transit ridership has really only grown in places where there’s been a dramatic boom in downtown jobs, such as Seattle…

For Walker, a consultant who works on improving transit systems in cities around the world, the narrative that O’Toole spins about declining transit ridership doesn’t frame the story quite right—it’s zoomed out too far. “A lot of what seems like an urban-rural culture war is actually just people at different densities understandably trying to solve the immediate problems of where they live. The national statistics are useless. [The decline of urban trips since 1976] is also a history of urban density, of course, because transit is a response to density.”..

Rather than directly rebutting each bullet point on O’Toole’s laundry list, Walker made a more values-based case, stressing that the big problems public transportation systems now face come down to just a few things: emissions, labor, and space. And those can be addressed with fleets of electric vehicles that are either large—think electric buses—or small e-boosted bikes and scooters. He’s optimistic about self-driving technology, but believes that their truly transformative deployment will be in city bus fleets, where they could dramatically trim labor costs.

It sounds like the debate accomplished two major tasks:

  1. Each side was able to put forth their arguments. One goes more with data. The other talks more about values. Both can explain what they think the problems are.
  2. The two sides had good conversation before, during, and after the debate. They found some common ground as well as points at which they still disagree.

Contrast this to two other public conversation options often employed by colleges as well as think tanks and other organizations interested in public conversations. It is common to have a single speaker present their book, article, or idea. There might be some back and forth with the audience afterward but the format generally assumes the one expert has the knowledge to share with the audience. In thirty to sixth minutes, the speaker can really get into their topic with some detail. A second option is the panel discussion where multiple people with insight to the issue talk in front of an audience. Each person might have a few minutes to share (this can’t go on too long or it becomes multiple mini-single person presentations) and there might be some robust discussion (though this can be difficult depending on the size of the panel and the temperament of the moderator and participants).

The debate seems like a better format to discuss difficult questions like the one these two debaters addressed. It works better if the two are skilled at presenting their sides and responding to others. The audience gets to hear two sides (better than the single talk but in less detail) and the conversation is only between two sides/perspectives (perhaps worse than the panel because some views will not be expressed but it is much easier to provide time for all participants).

And as for the result of such a debate? Perhaps the goal is less about winning and more about engaged listening, conversation, and trying to find a way forward between two people who might still disagree about important points.