Snowproofing the morning commute

Hearing the morning travel times near Chicago this morning, I wondered what it would take to reduce the abnormally high drive times due to the lake effect snow. The short answer is easy: get more people to take mass transit. But, this may not be doable. Here’s why:

  1. Not desirable. Even with the troubles presented by daily commuting via car (high costs, getting stuck in traffic, road maintenance), this is what Americans choose to do, even when they have other options. It is simply too attractive to be able to go and leave when you want and to not have to be close to other people while doing so.
  2. Not practical. Much of the American lifestyle, even in a city like Chicago, is built around the car. We have our own private homes with yards and garages (even in many of Chicago’s neighborhoods), we don’t put much emphasis on promoting street life, and our activities (work, school, recreation) tend to be all spread out. If you wanted to get rid of your car, you would need to live in denser areas – which do exist – but this would be a significant change for many.

Another way to put it is that days like today might be terrible for commuting but they are likely not enough to cause significant lifestyle changes. Americans have a high tolerance for putting up with commutes and having to use mass transit 300+ days a year isn’t worth it to many.

An additional option would be to delay commutes on days like these. Can’t more businesses and institutions provide more leeway to commuters? This might free up some road space if more people could delay their start or work from home.

The most congested city in the world is…

…Not much of a surprise. But, Los Angeles does lead the way by quite a bit over other cities:

Drivers in the car-crazy California metropolis spent 104 hours each driving in congestion during peak travel periods last year. That topped second-place Moscow at 91 hours and third-place New York at 89, according to a traffic scorecard compiled by Inrix, a transportation analytics firm.

The U.S. had half the cities on Inrix’s list of the top 10 most congested areas in the world and was the most congested developed country on the planet, Inrix found. U.S. drivers averaged 42 hours per year in traffic during peak times, the study found. San Francisco was the fourth-most congested city, while Bogota, Colombia, was fifth, Sao Paulo ranked sixth and London, Atlanta, Paris and Miami rounded out the top 10…

Study authors said a stable U.S. economy, continued urbanization of big cities, employment growth and low gas prices all contributed to increased traffic and congestion worldwide in 2016, lowering the quality of life.

The city built around the car and highways lives and dies with those same cars and highways.

What would it take to dramatically reduce that time in Los Angeles? The city has both a history of mass transit – extensive streetcar lines in the early 1900s – as well as rumblings about increased mass transit options in the future. See this 2012 post that sums up this potential “mass transit revolution.” But, any such effort must be monumental and involve both infrastructure as well as cultural change. Could we truly envision a Los Angeles in several decades where the car is not at the center of everyday life (both in practice and mythos) or will we have piecemeal efforts (including continuing trying to maximize driving through schemes like boring under the city) that don’t add up to much? Large-scale transformation would take a significant shift in focus by the city and other bodies and require sustained pressure for decades.

Another thought: are there effective ways for angry drivers to protest congestion? Yes, they can vote for certain candidates or policies. What if drivers one day symbolically walked away from their cars during the afternoon rush hour? (Such a protest, unfortunately, only would add to the congestion.) Could drivers clog the downtown streets in protest to block politicians? Refuse to go to work? There does not seem to be many options for the average driver to express their displeasure.

Cities using ride-sharing services to supplement mass transit

Several pilot programs in American cities take advantage of the rise of ride-sharing companies:

Transit agencies, perennially strapped for cash, have embraced these pilot programs as a way to save money and, potentially, provide better service. Outside Tampa, for example, the East Lake Connector bus cost the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority about $16 per person per ride. Riders paid $2.25 each. That route has since been discontinued. In its place, starting this month, riders will pay $1 for an Uber, Lyft, or cab ride from anywhere in the county to the nearest bus stop. The transit agency will achieve the low fare by providing a $5-a-head discount.

And here is some criticism for such efforts:

There are serious concerns with such programs: For starters, the savings are in part derived from trading public-sector employees like bus operators for low-wage stringers like Uber drivers. For the most part, though, the partnerships have made bad service a little better. In Pinellas, for example, the program emerged in response to a 2014 referendum in which local voters declined to adopt a 1 cent sales tax in support of transit.

But now that chain of cause and effect is being reversed. The rise of ride-hailing companies is increasingly viewed not as a fix for bad service but as its justification. It is invoked, as you might expect, in bad faith by conservatives who have advocated against public investment for decades. But even pro-transit politicians and officials have begun to see ride-hailing services as an acceptable substitute for public transit. As a result, cities across the country are making important decisions about transportation that treat 10-year-old companies as fixed variables for the decades to come…

We’ve known for a while that Uber is unprecedentedly unprofitable, its $60 billion-plus valuation notwithstanding. But as we begin to make policy decisions based on it and its competitors’ impact, we have to recognize that this state of affairs can’t last. It is not just the taxi cartel that makes conventional cab rides cost more than Uber rides. It’s the patience and optimism of Silicon Valley investors. Maybe Uber will continue its shift into shared rides, which (as a prior generation of transportation operators learned 150 years ago) are more profitable. Or robot cars will eliminate driver jobs, dropping the marginal cost of providing rides (though adding billions in capital expenditures). But in any case, whether it achieves its desired market share or not, the company will have to start raising prices.

This criticism makes sense: mass transit is all about economies of scale and having large numbers of people following more fixed routes. Failing to build infrastructure now means there will be reduced mass transit options in the future.

But, I think there may be a larger issue that undercuts this criticism: what if large numbers of Americans don’t want to use mass transit, either when given other opportunities or they have enough resources on their own to get where they want or they don’t want to pay for it through taxes and municipal funds? Even with plateauing driving in recent years, this doesn’t necessarily mean Americans want to sacrifice their mobility or personal space to use mass transit more. If this is true, perhaps driverless cars are the true answer for individualized mass transit – not ride-sharing – as they would offer personal space and mobility but without the hassle of driving oneself. Of course, this could also destroy mass transit as we currently know it…

Vancouver reaches goal of 50% of city trips not by car

How did Vancouver reach its goal of limiting car trips ahead of schedule? Here is one explanation:

It all began back in the late 1960s, says the city’s former chief planner (and urban-Twitter celeb) Brent Toderian, when residents rejected a proposed highway that would have torn up the dense urban core and separated it from its famous waterfront. Vancouver is still the only major North American city without a freeway running through it. The open waterfront became the location of the hugely successful Expo ‘86, which was themed around the future of transportation and featured the debut of the elevated SkyTrain, a swoopy automated light rail system. A new extension that opened in December allowed SkyTrain to reclaim its title as the world’s longest fully automated metro system in the world (besting the similarly driverless Dubai Metro). The system also helped pave the way for the dramatic transformation of Vancouver’s waterfront a couple of years later. Hundreds of new residences and offices were built, unified by pedestrian thoroughfares and the city’s seawall—which is “routinely ranked as the best public space in at least Canada,” says Toderian.

The 2010 Winter Olympics encouraged more car-to-pedestrian street conversations, and peppering the in-between years were lots of smart decision-making, such as turning a stretch of Granville Street into a pedestrian mall in the 1970s and the city’s 2008 strategic shift to support cycling as daily form of mobility rather than pure recreation. A mess of new protected bike lanes have pushed Vancouver’s active-transit infrastructure beyond the downtown core: “24 percent of our bike network is now considered [appropriate] for all ages and abilities,” says Dale Bracewell, the city’s manager of transportation planning. A $2 billion plan to expand TransLink, Vancouver’s mass transportation network, was approved last month by the mayor’s council, and stands to bring active transit options to parts of the city that haven’t had them before.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. Such efforts do not happen overnight. This explanation involves decades of consistent efforts to provide other transportation alternatives. Many American places could benefit from less driving but quick fixes are difficult.
  2. Related to #1, how many places could sustain such efforts over decades? Are certain places like Vancouver more predisposed toward such ideas? There could be multiple reasons for this. Perhaps different urban cultures enjoy less driving. Perhaps the government here was particularly effective in funneling funds and resources to mass transit rather than roads. Perhaps the housing in Vancouver is so expensive that it is unrealistic for a lot of people to also pay for cars.
  3. Vancouver is often said to have a very good quality of life. Would Americans made the trade of a better life overall for people versus the individual freedom they often value to drive around when they want?

Building a new subway in a big city is difficult, Rio edition

A new subway line in Rio illustrates the issues of constructing subway lines in large cities:

Though it was barely completed in time for the opening ceremonies on August 5, the fact that Line 4 opened this year, let alone this decade, is undeniably because of the Olympics. The state government, which funded the $3.1-billion line, argues that the subway will vastly improve transportation options in the city. The state department of transportation said in an emailed statement that Line 4 will “provide locals and visitors a transportation alternative that’s fast, modern, efficient and sustainable.”

But many outside the government worry that Line 4 was built to primarily serve the Olympics and the upscale real estate developments that are planned in the event’s wake. Critics say Line 4 prioritizes access to the main event venues and wealthy neighborhoods, and disregards the transportation needs of the rest of the city. “This is to serve only the higher classes,” says Lucia Capanema Alvares, an urban planning professor at the Federal Fluminense University. “It’s not to serve the people.”…

This linear design leaves much of the area inside the arc—and the millions of people who live there and in the hinterlands beyond—with little access to rapid transit.

While there are likely unique issues at play in Rio, I suspect these issues would be present in any major city that undertook new subway construction:

  1. Huge costs. Building under a major city is expensive and costs often go beyond budget. The best way to fight this is to have foresight and build such lines sooner rather than later.
  2. Disruption. Again, a large city has all sorts of systems already in place and construction on this scale can take a long time.
  3. Charges of inequality. Who should mass transit serve? Do many major cities primarily have subway and rail service to wealthier areas? (And are these areas better off because they have had mass transit access?) And, why does it take so long to provide service for people who need it?

Such large infrastructure projects are not for the faint of heart but if done well could provide benefits for decades.

Adding aerial cable cars to cities

According to Curbed, cities looking for new transportation options are considering gondolas:

Here in North America, gondolas are usually used on a ski vacation to access amazing terrain in ritzy towns like Aspen or Whistler. Increasingly, however, urban areas in the United States are considering proposals for gondolas and cable cars to efficiently move people from place to place. The Chicago Skyline project wants to use cable cars to transport tourists along the city’s riverfront, while in Austin the Wire proposal would create an aerial system akin to a “moving sidewalk” that would be much less expensive than a comparable light rail system.

Elsewhere in the world, trams, gondolas, and funiculars are common, supplementing other mass transportation systems in an effort to reduce pollution, traffic, and crowding. Compared to subways, highways, or rail lines, which often require displacing huge numbers of people in urban areas or extensive (and expensive) below-ground building, gondolas are a relatively cheap option. City planners only need to find locations to build the cable car towers and the requisite airspace. Gondolas don’t move as many people as other types of mass transit, but as a supplement to existing systems they can be quite effective…

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, aerial cable-propelled transit systems are being considered in Brooklyn, Washington, Chicago, San Diego, Seattle, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Baton Rouge, Austin, Tampa Bay and Miami.

And you can see a number of gondola systems already in place around the world.

While the thrill of flying through the air is unique, I suspect there are some serious difficulties in seeing this as a major mass transit option:

  1. Can gondolas move similar amounts of people compared to buses, trains, and subways?
  2. Are these primarily about tourism?
  3. Do gondolas contribute to visual pollution, clogging up views of buildings and scenery?
  4. Do these work better in cities with hills or varied terrain?
  5. Is a crash or mishap with a gondola more detrimental (since passengers are falling out of the sky) than other forms of mass transit?

As noted in the Wall Street Journal article cited above, some of the more serious proposals are private enterprises. Perhaps it will require the private sector to test this out before many large cities are willing to put substantial public funds into this.

Mass transit users want three basic things

Fast wi-fi? Cushy seats? A recent survey of mass transit users suggest they want more basic features:

Analyses in the TransitCenter report suggest that riders agree. In one, the researchers compared satisfaction levels with various attributes of regional transit systems between respondents who said they’d recommend their transit service to others and those who wouldn’t. Of all the attributes (charted above), frequency of service demonstrated the largest gap in satisfaction between transit boosters and detractors, and it got the very lowest rating from transit detractors. That suggests that frequent service is essential if you want happy riders…In that same analysis, the second-largest gap in satisfaction was travel time—how long it takes to get from station to station. Translation: Fast trains equal more satisfied riders. A second analysis supports this conclusion. Respondents were asked to ranked the relative importance of 12 potential improvements to a hypothetical bus route (the results are charted below). They ranked travel time number one. (Frequency is a close second, with cost reduction in third place.)…

Finally, the report identifies walkability—here, the ability to walk to transit—as the third key factor at the heart of effective, useable transit. To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers broke down riders into three types: Occasional riders, who use transit only once in a while; commuters, who use transit regularly, but only to get to work; and “all-purpose” riders, who take transit regularly to travel to all types of destinations—work, dining, entertainment, and shopping. That last category is especially important for cities to pay attention to, Higadishe said: “When you have lots of all-purpose riders, that’s a signal that a transit system is really useful.”

Across all three rider types, most survey respondents said they typically walked to access transit. But all-purpose riders did so overwhelmingly, with 80 percent typically getting to transit on foot, compared to 53 percent of commuters and 57 percent of occasional riders. In an additional, more fine-tuned analysis of spatial data from TransitCenter’s national transit database AllTransit, the researchers identified a similar relationship…

Infrastructure tends to work this way: it has to work well and consistently. Perhaps then some extra frills could be considered but as long as they don’t compromise the basic features.

So, if these findings hold across a majority of transit users, why don’t politicians and infrastructure authorities pay more attention to these issues? Are they too expensive to address? Or, are these leaders always looking for cool new features (i.e., wi-fi) to impress the public? Perhaps this exposes a gap between who uses mass transit and who doesn’t – politicians and business leaders likely use it less.