Thursday, December 30, 2010

New Starts and the FTA

I'm very impressed with the New Starts program in general, as a piece of effective policy. The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has been very effective with the new Starts Program. They fund the initial segment, but they insist that each be built with the capacity to expand later on.

  1. Provides quality transit to places that have never had it
  2. Ridership metrics
A new transit system is expensive. The initial length contains a lot of one-time capital costs--stations, storage facilities, the first vehicles, etc. that subsequent expansion doesn't. But for a city that has never experienced quality transit, for whom 'transit' means a slow bus serving those too destitute to afford a car the idea of making that huge investment is preposterous. And the opposition is fierce. No one wants a station nearby, that will only be used by transients. 

Worse still are vanity projects. 'Monorail' has become emblematic of transit projects that over-promise and under-deliver. Something that will revitalize a dying downtown, solve parking problems without competing with the automobile, and attracts tourists!! New Starts helps fight this, demanding both opening day and ten year ridership projections. But New Starts also involves accountability provisions--not just for the local partner, but for the consultant preparing the projections. Inflating the forecast to justify access to 'free' Federal money becomes a much more dangerous game.

Now, if only road projects had to go through similar scrutiny. 

Monday, December 27, 2010

Frequent Network

After five years of living within a half mile of TRAX, I moved to Sugarhouse. Sugarhouse has pretty good transit service.   But my transit use has dropped to almost nothing. Reading Human Transit today, this comment struck me: 

For example, if we specify that the Frequent Network as a whole must be frequent until 9 PM, a few lines that we've included in that category may have to have their evening frequency expanded even though their ridership then doesn't seem to justify it.  That's right: we spend a little and in return we get a network and schedule that we can describe succinctly, and that our customers can remember. 
There was never any uncertainty when TRAX was coming, or when it stopped operating. Every weekday, it runs every 15 minutes, from 6:00 to 23:30. I live within a few blocks of the 21st South, 9th East, and 5th East bus routes. All are 'Frequent' buses, running every 15 minutes. But I haven't got the faintest when they stop running. I can look it up for each bus, but there is no 'branding' that unifies the different services. That should change.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Baby Boomers High-tide Expectations

Due to a psychological phenomenon known as 'anchoring', many baby boomers have had their expectation of the eventual sale price of their homes set by the recent bubble in property prices. These  'High-tide expectations' will continue to influence their expectations of the eventual sale price of their home for years to come.  This is compounded by the tendency to treat the home as their largest asset and retirement piggy bank. And for some Boomers, their home may be their ONLY retirement asset, increasing resistance to sell at anything less than the 'anchored price'. In many cases, these homes are paid off and entirely owned, so their is little financial pressure to sell a home for less than the expected value. Thus, Housing prices can remain sticky for years to come, until Boomers have run down all their other financial assets, and are forced to sell their homes for less than the 'expected' value. 

Monday, November 29, 2010

Public Lounge Chair

Earlier, I wrote about the need for a 'public lounge chair'--a place for long-term seating, for a several hour wait, such as between planes or trains. The immediate objection will be: "But people will sleep in them!" But that is exactly the point--a chair comfortable enough to sleep in, at least for a few hours. (For the weary, for the jet-lagged.)

Smelly homeless dudes is another matter. Longterm, as rail transit becomes faster and more prevalent, I expect to see more airport style passenger/passerby segregation--with facilities provided only for those who have purchased a ticket. You are only permitted on the platform for the Phoenix LRT if you have purchased a ticket, for example. This suggests the emergence of 'semi-public' spaces.

Basic public seating is durable and  easily cleaned. For outdoor seating, this means metal or plastic. For indoor uses, this can include limited use of cloth. Bonus points for the ability to be repositioned, as well as the ability to be stacked. Alternately, heavy can be a virtue, as theft prevention. Padding ages poorly, and so must be minimal, making shape even more critical. 

For volume seating, ledges and benches are difficult to beat, and can entail some personal space issues. (One of the reason airport seating is broken into attached chairs, I suspect. 

I invite you to imagine what a 'public' lounge chair would look like. Google images provides some ideas.

'Mesh' nature of chair evokes other outdoor seating.
Reclining and potentially stackable?
Nice shape, but swiveling capacity is unnecessary
Nice shape, but looks fragile
Very simple, but legs seem vulnerable
Strange, but structurally sound
Functional, but no arm support
No legs, but look very comfortable

Semi-public sofa

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Limits on Connections

Jared Walker talks about connections here. He's established a 'floor' for connections, demarcating when it becomes useful to use connections and avoid the spaghetti overlay. What about the ceiling? How often is is reasonable to ask people to make a connection, in terms of a) Connections per trip, and b) distance between connections?

Regarding a): Personally, if a transit trip involves more that one connection, I either find an alternate that involves a greater than half mile walk, or don't make the trip.

Regarding b): The urban* heuristic is: "Is it faster to walk"? is always a good metric. Ie, if the wait time+transit travel time > walk time, walk. Assume urban Salt Lake City conditions (15 minute headway, 8 blocks/mile). Assume 'random' wait times, so that connections have not been timed, any connection imparts a 7.5 minute wait time. At 3 mph walking pace, you can walk 3/8ths of a mile in that time--3 SLC blocks. At an average 12 mph bus speed (time spent at stops included). Thus, a bus will carry you 12 blocks in the time it takes you to walk 3, once you get on it.

This implies that it is worthwhile for the average person to make a connection, if it will save three blocks of walking. But this analysis presumes a time-only comparison, where real connections have other factors to be considered.

*At the suburban scale, it's almost always faster to wait, simply because the distances you are taking transit is measured in miles, not blocks.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Why Connections Suck--and how to make them better.

I've waited for the bus in the cold, dark, pre-dawn hours, uncertain, doing the 'bus-bob', as I look up the roadway to see if I can spot the bus coming yet. Alone, hoping I'm there at the right time--when the bus actually comes, not when the schedule says it is coming. Sometimes standing in snow, sometimes with a face full of freezing sleet, and sometimes in the burning sun. Asking me to make a 'connection' between two buses asks me to do this twice. As I've mentioned, I'm totally unwilling to make two connections in a transit trip. I'd rather walk a half mile than wait twenty minutes someplace unpleasant. In fact, for most trips, I'm unwilling to make even a single connection between two buses. There is too much uncertainty.

A notable exception is when I'm waiting for TRAX. It's less the vehicle than the amenity the TRAX platform represents. I'm out of the rain, can find some shelter from the wind, and don't have to stand on snow or ice. But it's more than that--I'm not alone. I can see that there are other people there, that a train is coming (I haven't misunderstood the schedule, or just missed the train). And I have access to a train schedule, and a clock, so I know how long my wait is going to be. And, should I so desire, I have someplace to sit. Which is an insignificant thing for a first five minutes, and welcome respite thereafter.

Want to improve the quality of connections? Improve the quality of the connections location.

Monday, November 22, 2010

'Central Station' is not so central...

Salt Lake's 'Central Station' is central to very little. The map below is a pretty good depiction of Salt Lake's downtown. The 'Central Station' is the Intermodal hub at the far periphery of the lower left hand corner of the map. For those unfamiliar with SLC, it has very large blocks-- about 8 blocks to the mile. That puts 'Central Station' a long way from downtown.

If downtown SLC continues to grow westward and redevelop the industrial properties there, the area near 'Central Station' might become a vibrant urban center. But that's an idea I find unlikely. Check out the map below. The big blue line in I-15, a major 'through' interstate. It's over a 100' wide, and a significant barrier to urban growth. I find it much more likely that development will turn head south, until it reaches the 10th South exit.

As it is, it takes Salt Lake's various transit services a long way out of their way to reach it.

Making it worse will be when the new 'Viaduct Station' is completed at 500 W. and North Temple. Right now, the Central Station serves as a node for buses, Trax, FrontRunner, Amtrak, and Greyhound. Once the North Temple line is completed, the talk is of adding another FrontRunner station, to permit easy transfers between the two.
From a transit planning perspective, it's a great idea--it will make traveling by commuter rail to downtown a great deal easier. But it will do a lot toward reducing the activity level at Central Station, which has never been high to begin with.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Mortgage Sausages

I knew it was taking up to a year for some banks to foreclose on houses, but I was always under the impression they were simply overwhelmed. But it appears there may be a more sinister explanation...
Most mortgages have been chopped up and securitized and if a lender can’t prove they hold the entire mortgage, they don’t have the right to foreclose. - Carl Bunch
That adds an entirely new twist to the mortgage crisis. Traditionally, the bank or at least Freddie Mac/Fannie May would hold your ENTIRE mortgage. Sliced into bits and ground into sausage for mortgage backed securities, the new reality is rather different. Thus the bank reliance on voluntary short-sales to clear housing inventory.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

This is strangely fascinating.

In order of highest spending per capita:
Alaska, New York, Wyoming, Delaware. All the other states follow a pretty linear trend. New York and Delaware could be explained by being high-social net states, but.... Alaska and Wyoming? Although, in fairness, the total population of each state is about the size of a mid-sized mid-western city.

It does a lot to explain transfers of Federal money to the west, though. The price of pork necessary to buy western consent for eastern regulation really isn't that expensive.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Skyscraper Forum

For the best, most up to date, relevant planning and development information on the web, is hard to beat. There are some very smart, and very thoughtful people on the forums there. My hat is off to 'arkhitektor' for producing this very fine diagram:

Transit maps really need to be done at two scales-- a diagrammatic 'system map', and a scaled 'station area map'. Trying to do both with a single image has serious problems for either purpose.

Monday, November 15, 2010

SLC on Transport Politic

It's always nice to see your home city in the news. 

Mostly notable for the diagram. It's a pretty good overview of where major transit expansions are being planning in Salt Lake County in the next 20 years. Certainly, some of the 'bus routes' are news to me. I wonder if these are the routes were mapped as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in the Long Range Plan?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Transit Density

While I've blogged elsewhere about the danger of using 'average density', averages are good for making back of the envelope calculations, which tell you which calculations are actually worth making. The danger lies in using the averages themselves to make the decisions.

Again, my hat is off to the people at We Alone on Earth

10^4 is 10,000 people per square kilometer. There are about 247 acres in a square kilometer, giving it an average density of about 40 people per acre. I'll call that 'Transit Density'. With an average household size of 2.5, that is about 16.2 units per acre. Historic 'Streetcar Suburbs' built out at an average density between 8-12 units an acre, about 5,000 square feet per lot. That is about as tightly as you can pack detached single-family units without turning them into townhouses or apartments. Ergo, ANY detached housing is unsuitable for Transit Oriented Development. That provides a very simple, and very useful metric for assessing developer submitted plans for a 'TOD'.

Also notable is the density 'cap', a level of density at which even NYC has very few people living. 10^5 is about 160 units per acre. What does that kind of density look like? How tall is it? What is considered 'maximum' human density varied by use:
  • Prison Design: 35 sq. ft/prisoner
  • Schoolchild: 50 sq. ft/child 
  • Home Design: 200 sq ft./inhabitant
  • Call Center: 100 sq ft/user
  • Class A Office: 600 sq. ft/person
  • Dorm Room: 180 sq. ft/person 
  • Average 1950's House: 290 sq. ft/person
  • Average 2000's House: 900 sq. ft/person 
 The average American 2 bedroom apartment runs about 1100 square feet, so an acre of ground could be sectioned into about 40 units. Shocking. That means that 'extreme' NYC density averages about four stories of 1100 sq. ft. 2 bedroom apartments.

Even assuming a car for every apartment, at 200 sq ft/car, (for a total of 1300 sq. ft per unit), and 10% of the land area for roads/paths/circulation, that yields about 30 units/acre. Suggesting that the 'most extreme' NYC density of 160 units/acre is only about 5-6 stories tall.

That puts a whole different spin on density--its not how tall the buildings are, but what percentage of the ground acreage they are using. Devoting half the lot to parking and landscaping halves the buildings 'floor area', and doubles the number of stories.

That also puts the employment intensity of NYC in perspective. A 40 story office building on a quarter-acre lot, at 430 sq. ft./employee represents 1,000 jobs.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

University Line Extension

The WFRC RTP shows a an extension to the University line along 400 S. to the University Line, reaching to 400 W. before heading north to the Salt Lake Central Station. I'm instinctively leery of downtown loops. They tend to suffer from a King David Effect--faced with two parties in competition for adjacency for a rail line, there is an effort to split the service, and offer each side 'half a baby', to the detriment of everyone. Two halves of adjacent transit lines tend to compete for riders, to the detriment of both lines. But with four blocks (half a mile) between the lines, that may not happen.

But that will depend on the operations plan. I feel certain the the Downtime Rising and Chamber of Commerce people will agitate for a dedicated TRAX circulator running around the on a continual basis. A better operation plan will include a direct route from the Central Station to the University of Utah, facilitating transfers between FrontRunner and the U of U. Possibly including a station along 400 S. near enough to Courtyard to facilitate transfers between the two locations.
But the North Temple Line will be complete long before the University Extension is, bring another TRAX line down 400 W. Where that will fit into the operations plan remains an open question. Presumably it will terminate at Salt Lake Central Station. An alternate operations plan would route it along the 400 S. University extension to connect directly to the University of Utah.
Time will tell.

Monday, November 8, 2010

TRAX in downtown

The purpose of the Free Fair Zone was always to facilitate  Trax as an 'urban circulator' to shuttle visitors/tourists/convention-goers around downtown, and facilitate the 'out of office lunch'. No one has to buy a ticket, fool around with the ticket machines... just wait, hop on, hop off.

It's the reason that the main line goes from Sandy to Area, rather then Sandy to University--both the University Line and the Main line proceed through downtown, effectively doubling frequency, so that the average headway north of Gallivan is only seven minutes.

 I'm not a big fan of TRAX in downtown.  Once I'm in the area, I tend to get off an walk. Once, coming from Sandy, I rode the Trax around the northern arc to get to the Twilight Concert Series in Pioneer Park, at 300 W. and 200 S. It was slow going, and seemed to take forever. The UTA schedule claims it's a 12 minute trip, over about 7.5 blocks, giving the TRAX an average speed of about 5 mph going through downtown.

I was displeased when Rocky Anderson demanded that UTA add two stations in the TRAX extension to the Salt Lake Central Station. Every station adds five minutes to travel time, for deceleration, boarding, waiting for the signal to turn green, and acceleration. Having two stations instead of one saved about a blocks worth of walking time, and added half a blocks worth of travel time. 

The next concert, I got off at Gallivan Center, and walked the four blocks west. It took about 15 minutes. I had plenty of company on the walk, so I expect a lot of people were doing the same thing. And I was coming from Sandy, so I didn't need to make a transfer. Even with a 7 minute headway, that's a 3.5 minute waiting time, giving TRAX a negligible advantage over walking.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Short Hop Transit

Is it possible to do distance based pricing for Trax? Currently, a pass runs $2.25 and allows 2.5 hours of riding. Which is, depending on trip length, enough to run a short errand, like dropping something off and then returning home. The standard price is great for the longer distances along the Sandy-Salt Lake line.

But paying $2.25 for a trip between any two downtown stations is blatantly ridiculous. None are more than two blocks apart, and most are closer. Fortunately, most of the area is covered by the Free Fare Zone, rendering the question largely moot.


But along 4th South, for the University line, east of the library station, the question is not. Library is 2.5 blocks from Trolley, and Trolley 3 blocks from 9th east. With Salt Lake's 1/8 mile blocks, the distances are not insignificant. But the distance is hardly worth the money--$2.25 is a steep price to save three blocks of walking. I have to imagine fare evasion is rampant.

The obvious option is to expand the free-fare zone to the east, until it reaches 900 E. That would do a great deal to tie downtown to the Transit Oriented Development along 400 S. But the 'free fare zone' isn't free--UTA suffers considerable lost revenue from it. Expanding the zone would entail further loss of revenue.

This suggests a 'Cheap Fare Zone', running along the University Corridor, where a ticket is much cheaper ($1 or so) and only lasts an hour. But I'm extremely leery of the zone model of transit pricing--I'm an 'expert' in transit, and I still find deciphering them to be deeply confusing. It's a memory issue-- 'free-fair-zone' vs. 'not-free-fair-zone' is a binary dichotomy, and simple to remember. Adding another option is twice as difficult to understand or remember--the 'decision tree' of memory has to make two operations.

There has been some discussion of a Salt Lake Streetcar running from the Intermodal Center on 600 W. along  400 S, and reversing on the cross-over at about 500 E., but the Downtown Streetcar Study hasn't been published yet. Time will tell.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

I smell a research project

Transit outcomes don't really depend on how much of this low density stuff there is in a city. They depend on how much high density stuff there is, and the average density of the whole city will tell you nothing about that.
 Average density is a useless statistic when it comes to transit planning. While the WFRC model has a field for % of pop within a half mile of the transit station, that may not be the best metric for transit planning.

..residential density is ideally the density of a single parcel: one house or apartment building. What percentage of the population lives on detached homes on quarter-acre blocks? What percentage lives in buildings taller than five stories? 
 WFRC has pretty good data for the UrbanSim model, data I've recently been told exists not at the Traffic Analysis Zone level, but on the parcel level. This changes everything, because it permits a housing units/households comparison on a per-parcel basis, giving a pretty good idea of the location of transit suitable density.

 I've never seen a map published containing the data, so I presume there must be some sort of privacy issue, although I can't see how the number of housing units per parcel could be considered invasive.

I wonder what kind of data exists as Public Use Microdata from the American Community Survey? The Census collects data on a per-household basis, but the information is geo-coded to a specific address. If the geo-code for census data can be matched to parcel data, it would be possible to connect the two. I assume it would be possible to do some sort of database operation to cluster all the numbered units into a single parcel ID....

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

High Speed Rail in Utah

It's funny, but staring at the ARRA map, it occurrs to me that high-speed rail could totally bypass Utah. 

The fact that Utah has so many highways is a curious accident---we just happened to be along the way.

After all, SLC is not exactly in the big leagues insofar as metropolitan areas go.

And that doesn't seem likely to change.

But High Speed Rail really isn't about city size... it's about city PAIRS. What do you 'pair' any of Utah's cities with? You need distances of about 250-350 miles for a good high speed rail pair.

Denver is 378, 
Boise is 338, 
Las Vegas is 416,
St. George simply isn't large enough. 

 And between Denver and the Wasatch Front lies the Rocky Mountains, no friend to railroads, let alone high speed rail. Even the Western High Speed Rail Initiative doesn't consider Boise to be viable. (Why Reno is considered to be viable I cannot guess. )

There is a certain logic to the proposal--all suggested HSR routes follow existing railroads.

But the game has changed a little bit since the railroads were built-- we have this funky new thing called air travel. I was discussing air service earlier today. If a long distance trip is worth making, the airlines usually have route connecting the two cities.

Perhaps the Federal funding process should start classifying transportation funding by modes, and making states pick--"High Speed Rail or Air Travel?".

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Ogden "Streetcar"

Reading the comments section on newspaper articles never fail to enrage. Regarding the Ogden Streetcar, the comments are nothing short of slanderous.
UTA seems not to understand the difference and is pretending to be experts at streetcars, when neither they nor their consultants have ever planned a streetcar route. 
Unless you count the Sugar House Streetcar or the San Francisco F-line streetcar...

Some are merely ignorant:
..It brings revitalization within two blocks of the rails....
All the data on streetcar revitalization is based on a study done in Portland five years ago. Damn the souls of the consultants who did so, for using blocks as a metric instead of feet. Forever after, everyone else is condemned to making the distinction that Portland blocks are ONLY 200 feet long, which is about 1/3 the distance of an Ogden block.

Some are inane.
The benefits of fixed-rail street cars moving in an existing traffic lane are well-proven in other cities, and are a cost effective way to rejuvenate existing neighborhoods 
Note that he/she mentions no specific cities or street-care lines. Very few streetcar lines have actually been built, and even fewer studies done on their rejuvenation effects. To my knowledge, precisely three. All cite the presence of large parcels of underutilized industrial land and/or rundown low density residential as being critical. Having visited Portland prior to the streetcar renaissance, I can guarantee it had plenty of the former.

Admittedly, some people had thoughtful things to say:
The last I heard the proposed route is 36th Street. This is a two-lane but extremely busy route across town. To interfere with this WSU traffic artery would be foolish. House on both sides of the street would have to be moved, since the last time this street was widened the road was moved to to only a few feet from front doors. There is nowhere to expand without destroying houses. 24th, 25th and 26th street are already wide enough for a trolley line. Population downtown is more concentrated that at the south end of town.
What is missing in his calculation is the section of Harrison between 25th and 27th, which is too narrow to both keep UDOT's lanes for cars AND a streetcar, thus requiring the taking of historic properties.

Some are just blatantly wrong:
UTA is promoting a design that drastically over-engineers the guideway. The projections they are using are almost twice the cost of what they should be ($12-15 mil. per mile). 
That cost estimate comes from a redevelopment project in Kenosha, Wisconsin used to redevelop an automotive plant, and was built on donated right of way, around a public park, and is totally devoid of expensive intersection crossings. It is also notable that a) The Kenosha streetcar is no longer operating; and b) the total ANNUAL ridership of the streetcar totaled about 67,000---about the same as the WEEKLY ridership for the Portland Streetcar. Kenosha built the street-car on the cheap, and is paying the price for it. Estimates for other modern streetcar systems have come out at a very similar cost/mile of $22-30 million per mile.

This one made me think:
The guideway needs to be fixed, but according to the Obama admin. guidelines, it does not need to be exclusive to the streetcar- there is no need for a separate travel lane- but w/ the streetcars operating in the same lane as cars. This is how street cars work- in the flow of traffic- this is not light rail. 
On one level, he/she is right--there is no 'need' for a streetcar to have a separate travel lane. It works in Portland. But it works in Portland because it has 200' long blocks, so a parallel street is never more than 200' away. And as time goes by, Portland is increasingly moving toward dedicated guideway, using 'Bus-Only streets', and prohibiting turns across the light-rail/streetcar lines.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Private Buses

The last few weeks at Cap'n Transit Rides Again and Human Transit have included an interesting discussion on private transit.

I've earlier written on the use of rail as a method for governments to experiment with different types of transit services. I do not mean to advocate the large-scale privatization of transit. For transit to function efficiently, it must function as a cooperative network. But that begs the question: Must the network paths be determined by some sort of central coordinating agency, or can a most-efficient solution emerge from the rough-and-tumble give and take of market competition?

One some level, the network effect is fundamentally valuable, and a private operator would recognize that connections to other transit services is the way to go. In unregulated developing countries, informal 'hubs' for bus, taxi, and jitney operations arise.

On the other hand, private operators don't go where there isn't any money. 'Coverage' services providing essential social services for seniors, the disabled, the young, and the poor... would almost certainly cease to exist. Providing para-transit costs UTA more, on a per-rider basis, then bus, TRAX, or FrontRunner. Largely because Para-transit functions as a sort of specialized taxi. While the price per ride is much higher than a bus ticket, ($4.00) it's still a superior alternative to taking a regular taxi.

Another problem is 'clustering'. Small private operators are bad at providing 'backbone' service, and thus tend to cluster around terminals for other high-volume services. Most taxi operators make their living giving rides to and from the airport, not running people around down-town Salt Lake City. Waiting an hour for the near-certainty of a pick-up at the airport beats out waiting an hour for the hope of a pick-up in downtown.

In New York city, small private jitney operators frequently compete with buses--following established bus routes. On one level, they compete with buses, taking passengers that would otherwise ride the buses. On another level, they act as an unofficial 'frequency boost', adding more vehicles per hour on the route.

For high frequency buses, where passengers arrive at random intervals and expect to be picked up within a reasonable period of time, jitneys would compete with buses. But for less frequent buses (on 1-hour, half-hour or even 20 minute headways), limited privitization of local bus routes would provide a mechanism for agencies to experiment with bus frequency without undertaking any long-term liability.

UTA could 'badge' private providers with licenses to operate along existing UTA routes, with the private providers being allowed to experiment with different schedules (and frequencies) to determine which ones are most effective.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Bad Routes and the Politics of Transit Funding

Clearly, many existing bus routes would not make a profit, and would be unable to make a profit--and yet they continue to exist because of an operating subsidy. In Utah, each city contributes to pay UTA, and on the basis of that contribution, they get a certain number of buses, or a certain amount of TRAX. UTA is pretty scrupulous about matching the amount of transit a city gets to financial contribution its tax assessment makes. More central cities (Murray) get more frequent 'through' transit service, while cities on the periphery (Riverton, Herriman) are forced to content themselves with thrice-daily commuter buses. 

In a sense, each city 'buys' transit service, and has some say about where that transit service goes in the city. But that 'say-so' is often contrary to technical considerations about alternatives offering the best ridership. If a city wants bus service to run to its 'historic downtown' as opposed to the new Wal-Mart on the edge of town, it is going to pay for that choice in lower ridership and lower fairbox recovery. 

Yes! Somebody gets it!

"There's strong emotions that more lanes means more traffic means more danger." - Taylorsville City Manager John Inch Morgan

It's to see somebody make the connection--wider roads don't just get you places faster--they also endanger the people along the way.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

University of Arizona

I was recently in Arizona, visiting the University of Arizona. It's an urban college campus, surrounded by the most shocking parking garages I've ever seen. Numerous six story parking garages. Divide the number of stalls by the total cost, and the average parking stall in a six story parking garage costs about $22,000. If each deck has 100 stalls, each garage costs about $22m dollars. And there were SIX parking garages. I remain aghast.

And this is just the 'cost of doing business', by providing an 'essential service' to students. I've got a better idea---BUILD A BRT. A nice one, a 'Rubber Tyred Light Rail' sort of BRT. Dedicated lanes, signal priority, electric buses with an overhead caternary (to eliminate that diesel-engine rumble), the works.

But therein resides one of the fundamental problems of financing transit systems. The parking garages were not built all at once-- U of A has doubtless been built one every five or ten years for several decades. You can't really build transit that way--transit relies on a network effect. The 'yield curve' for benefits is different. For parking garages, it's linear. For transit, it's exponential.  If you built $22 million of transit every 5 years, you would get:

  • 1/2 mile of light rail
  • 1 mile of streetcar
  • 2 miles of high quality BRT

But those are variable costs, ignoring the 'startup' costs of starting a new transit service--maintenance sheds, 'tail track' to the sheds for rail vehicles, signal control.... Rail is a transit sector with high barriers to entry. Lower marginal costs, but very high fixed costs.

Cost of land seems to be the straw that breaks the camels back. When a University looks at the cost of acquiring 5 contiguous acres for a new parking garage, which has to be within walking distance of campus, other alternatives are on the table. And more transit typically looks good, simply because a new transit system makes use of existing public right of way.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Dimishing Returns for Frequency Enhancements

I was reading this post on Cap'n Transit's blog.

One of the commenters posted:
a route that is by mistake operating at a profit is under-providing, and should have its schedule extended or frequency increased until it gets back down to break-even.
Typically, when a transit line increases either frequency or extended hours, that tends to increase ridership. It would be an open question if ridership was rising fast enough to cover the cost of increased operations. Beyond a certain frequency, I would tend to expect not. But I would anticipate that bumping frequency from 30 minutes to 15 minutes would more then double ridership.

The rule of thumb I've learned is that at 15 minute service, you start attracting more unscheduled trips, where someone will show up at the bus stop, and wait for a bus to come. It would be amazing to have some data to show under what conditions increases in frequency show diminishing returns. If ever.

*I've never seen any study data for this. (If anyone knows of any, please drop me a line.) It would be great to see a case comparison before-and-after study of a transit line's increased or decreased frequency. Sadly, changes to transit schedules or routes are rarely done in isolation for a single transit line. They tend to be done en-masse, making it difficult to disaggregate the effect. The Federal New Starts has made this even more difficult, as upgrades to frequency on a single bus line tend to occur as part of a general upgrade to BRT status, which includes a number of other improvements.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


When the Medical Center Trax extension first came online, the WFRC model predicted heavy ridership. Within the model, it looks reasonable--there are a lot of jobs within a half-mile walk of the final TRAX station. But TRAX comes to the foot of the hill at University medical center, near research park. And it's a brutal hill, with something like a 30 degree slope. Needless to say, ridership was not quite as good as expected. (The extension met projections, but every other TRAX expansion has vastly exceeded ridership projections.) From Gallivan Center TRAX station, it takes an HOUR to make it the 20 blocks east to Huntsman Cancer institute. Riding TRAX from Main to 21st East takes a half hour of that time, meaning the 3 block slog from the foot of the hill to Huntsman Cancer institute takes a half an hour. And that's THROUGH parking garages, up elevators, along passageways. 

What to do? A brutal hill, several major hospitals. In sequence, there is Primary Children's Hospital, University Hospital, and the Huntsman Cancer Institute. Half a dozen parking garages. For doctors, nurses, janitors, food servers, and visitors. 

Utah is already home to a fair number of ski-resorts, who have resolved the issue of steep hills handily. The Canyons resort has a very nice one. And it covers quite a distance. 

Ogden studied using a Gondola pretty seriously, for a five mile corridor. The price tag for capital wound up being something like $10m per mile. Operations costs were higher that for alternate modes, a conclusion I find strange. At the Canyons, the gondola just has a couple of people at each end, where a bus or street-car needs a driver for every vehicle. 

The people-moving capacity used in the Ogden study is almost ludicrous. 10-person cars every 30 seconds? That would move 1200 people an hour at capacity. In comparison, a bus system running every 15 minutes provides 4 buses with 60 person capacity. Halving the frequency of gondola cars to every minute would reduce capital cost significantly. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Average Density

As anyone who has read The Black Swan knows, averages are dangerous. Outside of natural phenomena, nothing follows the Bell Curve. But it's a frequently used metrix, especially in sustainability comparisons.

Pleasingly, someone has taken the time to actually depict the distribution of city density.

It's an impressive comparison, and it helps show why NYC does so much better on transit ridership than anywhere else--there is a LOT of high density there. If we were to cut the graph off at 10^4, and integrate the area under the curve past that point, NYC would beat out all the other cities combined.

Once the new census data is available in shapefile form, it's going to enable all sorts of new analysis. One of which might be doing a nation-wide analysis of the relationship between 'Transit Density' and actual transit networks.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Maximum Density

My brother sent me a fascinating link the other day.

While SimCity 3000 is a game (designed to be fun) rather then a model (designed to be useful) it has enough verisimilitude to be worth considering. Skip to the end, and consider the city with the highest density, and it's transportation network--the city relies entirely on subways, and devotes zero surface area to roads.

Cars take up an enormous amount of land area. Insuring sufficient parking means that there are four or five parking spaces for every registered driver. A standard parking spot is running about 200 square feet, once you count landscaping and space to enter and exit the parking space. About the size of a small studio apartment.

SimCity provides a very interesting perspective on development and scale. Unlike the real world, which is developed by multiple independent agents, a SimCity effectively has a 'single developer', who has the perfect cooperation of all municipal entities. Decisions that make sense in the microcosm don't always make sense in the macrocosm.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Access Control

Access control is the phenomenon where traffic engineers close or limit the number of curb cuts providing access to a roadway, typically a high-capacity facility such as an arterial.

For automotive users, the benefits are less certain. In traffic movement, the ideal is 'laminar flow', where you have a steady stream of cars all moving at the same velocity, until you reach 'maximum saturation' of the lane, where adding an additional car causes the car behind it to slow down, in order to maintain a safe following distance. This in turn causes the second following car to slow down, and so on, rippling back down the line of cars.

Traffic engineers apply an equation to calculate delay based on a number of factors, most notably # of lanes and facility type. Facility type covers a multitude of geometric design factors--curvature, slope, turning radius, speed, etc.

At some point, someone realized that roads with a large number of access points did not move traffic as well as those without. On this basis, it seems logical to reduce access points, because each access point represents a disruption in laminar flow, slowing the speed of traffic. And so traffic engineers began to close access points, to improve traffic flow.

But this is treating the symptom, not the cause. Why does the road have so many access points? Because there are that many business accessing the road?

But closing access points is treating the symptom, not the cause. Acme Widget Co. has 300 employees, and closes at 5 PM, five days a week. Their parking lot has three access points onto the street. 150 cars leave using each exit. Cut it down to one access point, and you have 450 cars leaving via that one way. You have fewer disturbance points to laminar flow, but bigger disturbances.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Bad Guys

Randal O'Toole
Joel Kotkin
John Stossel

I'm not saying they are bad people, or even that they are wrong. But I am saying that they have an agenda, and it is an anti-transit agenda. The are radicals and extremists (which is why newspapers like to quote them).

Also suspect for their anti-transit agenda:

Thoreau Institute
Cato Institute
Sutherland Institute

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Capacity Equilibrium

In California, in San Francisco, they replaced a 3-person carpool lane with a 2-person carpool lane, because it was vacant most of the time. Makes sense, right? Lower the limit, more people will carpool, and the lane will be filled up with carpoolers!

This is exactly what happened on the first week. One the second week, all the new carpoolers realized that the carpool lane was just as congested as a regular traffic lane, so there was really no point in carpooling anyway. And fewer people carpooled until the lane reached some kind of equilibrium, where it made sense for people to carpool again.

So, no problem, right?

Wrong. One lane of 2-person carpoolers is worth as much lane capacity as two lanes for regular cars. One lane of three person carpools is worth three lanes of single-rider cars. Switching from a 3-person to a 2-person carpool effectively sacrifices a lane.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Long Way to Go

Housing prices need to fall yet further.  From Calculated Risk:

After 2000, as the housing bubble inflated, the value of American homes (blue line) spiked in a way outside of historical bounds.  At the same time, mortgage debt constituted a larger percentage part of the American GDP than ever before.  The mismatch between the two of these indicates that for a time, the value of homes was rising faster than mortgage debt. But as the peak in the blue line shows, that is over now. The exponential growth in housing value peaked in 2006 and began reversing itself. But mortgage debt continued to grow in a classic overshoot pattern, as people continued to buy houses in expectation that housing would continue to grow in value. They did not, and instead went into freefall.

The little kink at the end of the blue line is the massive Federal intervention. Whether that represents a break in the trend, (like a falling climber who has caught himself mid-fall) or a temporary hickup remains to be seen. I favor the latter. While the graph seems to show that housing values have returned to something like historical normality, the mortgage debt load has not. To return to something like its historical norm, it would need to return to the level it was in 2000, at a little over forty percent. It is now running closer to eighty percent. Given that 50% of households have no mortgage debt, that means that 50% of mortgages are carrying a debt burden equal to 80% of our GDP.

Historically, the difference between the two data series has been about 45 percentage points. For all of recorded history. It is now running closer to 30%. God forbid the lines should ever cross. But with the 50% of households with no mortgage debt, it looks increasingly viable for homeowners underwater to default, starting the whole fire-sale process of housing price slides again.
The number of customersapplying for a mortgage to purchase a property fell to the lowest level in 13 years last week, a sign the housing market is struggling without government incentives.

This quote shows the fundamental danger of using federal dollars to prop up the housing market--when you remove the prop, the housing market needs to come down. It was a bubble and it needs to deflate. Houses cost too much--they cost more than people can afford to pay. The median national house price should be about 2.5 times the median national income. It is nowhere close. People are still buying houses that are out of their price range, and paying too large a percent of their monthly income. Faced with a financial shock (illness, loss of job, car crash), default is almost inevitable.

The housing market is struggling because it needs to struggle, to return to some sort of economic discipline, instead of the speculative carnival Wall-Street financiers created. Pumping more public money into the housing market only keeps housing prices high, rewarding speculators.

There is nothing wrong with renting. No matter what your real estate agent says, buying a house doesn't automatically build equity.

Friday, May 14, 2010


Hawaii is trying to add a light rail to provide fast transit service across the island. Like all major transit projects, it is a complicated process. The proposed corridor is about 20 miles long, far too long for streetcar or a single bus route. Light rail has been chosen as the mode. But beach-front property in Hawaii is not exactly cheap. Development is pretty dense.

In similar situations, subway is typically built. The Hawaiian islands are volcanic outcroppings; adding so much as a sewer line requires blasting with dynamite. I imagine it would be possible to bore 20 miles of tunnel using special machinery, but the NYC Second Avenue subway ran over $2 billion/mile, so it is an unaffordable option.

The next best option is re-using existing Right of Way (ROW). But a two-track wide light rail corridor would be 25' wide, either forcing the LRT to share ROW with automobiles, or eliminating automobiles from the road. The former would destroy any hope of speed or reliability for the LRT; might as well use a bus. I doubt the latter is politically feasible.

Thus, the current initiative is to elevate the light rail. As you would guess, there has been some considerable outcry against this--it would be similar in appearance to a freeway overpass. Needless to say, there was some outcry, notably from the AIA, (American Institute of Architects), on the aesthetics of an elevated railway.

Wikipedia offers a potential alternative:

Wuppertaler is the strange example of a successful mono-rail. It is a suspended mono-rail, using a single overhead rail. This also allows it to minimize the visual impact of overhead wires. Rather than the gargantuan concrete pillars that so blight Seattle, it has much nicer looking iron trusses for support. I imagine it must also be lower cost to maintain--the UTA Trax tramway requires regular sweeping of debris and trash to remain safe. The worst an overhead rail would need to worry about would be pigeons.

A suspended monorail is a viable option for the Honolulu corridor. One of the main problems with a monorail is the astonishing difficulty in changing tracks--it is so time consuming as to be impossible. This makes extending the monorail very difficult, especially if one of the original ends is a dead-end. Honolulu is a single linear corridor with minimal potential for perpendicular routes.

Monorail is typically cheaper than light rail. One of the substantial costs for street-running light rail is the need to move substantial utilities, an extra- expensive prospect for Honolulu. While the support trusses would require some earthwork, they are more numerous than concrete support pillars, allowing the weight to be distributed more evenly, reducing the cost of the associated earthwork.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Access Control and Urbanism

For pedestrians and cyclists closing access points is undeniably a benefit. It reduces the number of potential conflict points where a vehicle can cross the sidewalk or bike lane. For the cyclist, this permits higher speeds and better safety. For the pedestrian, it permits greater attention to be devoted to the surrounding environment.

For pedestrian oriented retail, this is essential--no one can (safely) window shop and dodge cars at the same time. Ergo, to create a more pedestrian oriented environment, ensure the absolute minimum frequency of curb-cuts possible. The Gateway in SLC does this very well. In the entire complex, there are four access points--all leading to the parking garages, none of which are adjacent to shopping areas.

Access Control, Walking and Biking

For pedestrians and cyclists closing access points is undeniably a benefit. It reduces the number of potential conflict points where a vehicle can cross the sidewalk or bike lane. For the cyclist, this permits higher speeds and better safety. For the pedestrian, it permits greater attention to be devoted to the surrounding environment, which makes for a much more pleasant walk. More window-shopping, less dodging cars.

But what goes along with access control is frequently higher speeds along the road. Less of a matter if you are on the sidewalk, and protected by the curb, but for a bike trying to stick to the shoulder... very nervous business.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Lean Manufacturing

Interesting article on 'lean factories',

Factories are no longer doing shifts of 'batch work', with large numbers of workers doing the same thing. They are running lower inventories. While this is more efficient, it is also less robust. According to the article, this makes it very difficult to cut workers or cut costs. This suggests manufacturing will no longer follow the pattern of lay-offs to slim down the company to a more productive level, and will instead follow a pattern similar to dot-com startups--they run onto the last instant, hoping conditions improve, and then declare bankruptcy. Needless to say, this increases counter-party risk, as suppliers expecting payment and customers expecting products are left in a lurch.

In an economy with a robust pool of alternative suppliers, this may not be an issue. But in an environment dominated by a small number of large firms, it could be catastrophic, as the larger companies become 'essential industries', for whom no alternative exists.

The danger is not failure, but sudden failure. Reducing the information asymmetry that permits such surprises would be worthwhile, perhaps through increased mandatory disclosure. Quarterly reports may have been meaningful half a century ago, but the speed of finance has increased by several orders of magnitude.

How to institute a reporting regime that is useful without creating an undue regulatory burden? Sarbanes-Oxely may be the Glass-Steagal of our era, due for repeal decades later.

Given mandatory metrics, accounts will devise ingenious ways of meeting them, demanding increased standards on how those metrics are met, until another arcane body of law and regulation emerges. Mandatory 'transparency', rather than 'reporting' may be solution--a federal agency capable of subpoena-ing raw data on demand, to assess financial stability.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Welfare Transit

As Record columnist Jeff Outhit recently observed, the overwhelming evidence that transit use is dominated by low-income and student riders suggests that Grand River Transit “functions as a social service.” Its main purpose is to provide transportation for local residents who can’t afford cars.
I have serious objections to the idea of transit as a 'social service'. Why does New York have an excellent subway system? Because it was built to shuttle white-collar workers in and out of downtown. If you want voter support, build transit voters will ride. Build transit for 'choice' riders. Not because they are the only riders that matter, but because doing so puts a 'floor' on the acceptable quality of transit, so that transit service can only get so bad before people protest, and that protest is carried about by people with the ability to mobilize, organize, and deputize. And people with the gumption to be both obstreperous and persistent in their protest.

Transit funding should be prioritized toward this type of funding, in preference to riders without choice. This seems brutal.  Being transit dependent is no picnic. I spent several years of my adult life without a car to call my own, reliant on TRAX, bus, biking and walking, and endless rides from friends.  There is a lot of unpleasant walking, and a lot of trips that were too far to be worth making the trip. And a lot of other trips that took hours longer than by car.

But it is a matter of short term pain for long-term gain. Building a better transit network betters transit ridership for everyone. UTA is in the almost accidental process of making this shift, as its budget crisis forces it to cut service while popular support exempts TRAX from most cuts.

Providing transportation access to the transit dependent cannot be solved by ensuring every household in the County is within a quarter mile buffer of a bus route. The urban area is too large and too automobile dependent.

Like homelessness, transit dependency is a housing issue. Building plenty of affordable housing near transit will go a long way toward solving the transit dependency issue. The rest of the issue can be solved by a collection of para-transit, ride-sharing, and other specialized taxi services.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Home Grown Astro-Turf

It's always interesting to run into a beast you've read about, but never seen, in the wild. Today, I present: Home-Growth Astro-Turf.

'Astro-Turf' is political lingo for a false 'grass roots' movement. The site tries to be as inflammatory as possible, by conflating a legitimate grievance (service cuts) with an anti-transit agenda, by defaming UTA, Transit Oriented Development, and TRAX.

Happily, it looks to be defunct--last post was in '08.

A thousand words

Some images are just worth spreading.

NYCDOT is the origin, via The Transport Politic, via Net Density

Home Energy Loans

I've never quite understood the emphasis placed on Property-Assessed Clean Energy bonds. Berkeley did a series of them, but that is Berkeley, and I was inclined to discount them as 'green consumerism'. While it is certainly a fine thing to put your money where your mouth is, I've been sceptical of their value.

But this post from the fine gentleman at Net Density made the reasoning clear.

advantage to these programs is that the assessment stays with the property, not the individual, so homeowners do not have to assume they will live in one place for 20 years to see the benefits of a renewable energy system

For most places in the United States, it doesn't make sense to add solar panels to your home--it takes too long to recoup the investment. Americans move too often. But PACE programs provide a way around that.

But are the solar panels a real selling point? I would say 'yes', if only by providing documentation on energy saved. There is a big difference between the claim that 'solar panels will save you money' and being able to document 'my total utilities run $45 a month'.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Intersection Jump

While driving 7th East along Liberty Park, I found the traffic pattern strange. I'd turned right onto the street, during a green light, and before me lay a vast expanse of unused pavement, and cars bunched together, waiting for the light at 13th South to turn green.

It made me realize that most roadway congestion occurs at intersections, where everyone has to stop and wait. The larger the intersection, the worse it gets, because there are more people waiting who have to get going. And all the while, the area between the intersections is bare of cars. Anyone who has ever driven the Bangerter Expressway is aware of the phenomenon.

That suggests that more efficient use of roads could be made if some cars were allowed to cross the intersection while the other street of the intersection was turning. This could be made possible through the use of a single-lane single lane tunnel.

A tunnel is typically an expensive beast, largely because it is engineered to handle very heavy, very large vehicles--18 wheelers and the like. This requires them to be engineered to much higher weight and slope standards then the normal passenger car requires. If a single-lane tunnel were engineered for passenger cars only, it could be much shallower, steeper, and shorter--and thus much cheaper.

Only one lane in each direction would need to be tunneled--the other 2 lanes in each direction would function normally, subject to normal intersection delay. But it would do a great deal to facilitate 'queue-jumping'.

It has been done elsewhere, as a solution for very large intersections. Really, once you hit Primary Arterial status (Redwood Road, State Street, 7th East) where the two way left hand turn lane has been removed and replace with a barrier, you might as well sink a couple of lanes. Sinking the lanes would also reduce the last-minute pre-intersection lane changes that are the cause of so many accidents.

Monday, April 12, 2010


Good ideas are worth spreading.

Income based traffic fines

A fine is intended to deter repeat behavior. It must be high enough to hurt, but not so high as to hurt terribly. There are people who go to jail for speeding tickets, due to inability to pay. Great system, eh?


The urban environment is never a 'clean slate' Transforming cities to the modernist ideal required displacing existing urban development. Still-functional urban development, dominated by subways, streetcars, elevated railways, and pedestrians, resisted encroachment and sabotaged the creation of the auto-centric utopia.

This is worth remembering--the new transit metropolis will be impeded by the old automobile metropolis as it was once impeded by the old transit city. If the pattern holds, the biggest change will be in right of way, and not in urbanized area. The built environment changes very slowly, over generations, and as long as the urban form remains, so must the transportation system to serve it. Highways will not go away or casually vanish.

Service Concentration

I'd rather have fifteen minute service every half mile then thirty minute service every quarter mile. Its worth the walk to save the wait. In an urban environment, I walk a 20 minute mile so an extra quarter mile is an extra five minutes. Five minutes of walking to save fifteen minutes of waiting? Sign me up!

But what about seven minute service every mile? Tempting, but I don't think it's worth it. Another half mile is 10 minutes of walking, while the doubled headway will only save me, at most, 7 minutes.

As a transit dependent renter, proximity to transit is my #1 search criteria. Two blocks (1/4 mile) was simply too far to walk every time I want to go someplace. I don't even look at apartments outside that radius. On that basis, a network of transit lines every half mile provides service to every location.

Not everyone is as able as I-- the old, the infirm, children, and young women have a harder time of it. But I would argue that for the first two, the lack of seating while waiting is actually harder then the walking. And for the latter, I think the wait at the bus stop is the most vulnerable part of the trip.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Danger of Service Cuts

Providing premium transit has done wonders not only for transit agencies bottom line, but for their political capital. It has changed them from a 'social service' agency providing essential services to a few (and so ever vulnerable to cuts) to a 'utility' that requires funding to continue providing a valuable service for many.

Part of the reason for the furor that so often surrounds mode for transit projects is the association of mode with service quality. Neither streetcar nor light rail inherently provide better transit then a bus. But because of the New Starts funding criteria, rail has become associated with service quality.

With recent cuts to TRAX service (It now comes every 20 minutes on Saturday, rather than 15), I worry about further declines in service. New Starts already mandates service levels necessary to receive funding for new projects, but there is already a lot of existing transit. I'm opposed to Federal support for transit operations on principle--I'd rather see the roadway subsidy eliminated than a competing subsidy for transit created. But I expect that any operations support will come at a price--mandatory service standards. I'd be pleased to see that--I'd rather have a few good routes then a lot of bad ones.

Bus vs. Rail

From a transit planning perspective, I can name one certain advantage rail has over bus--its resistance to loops and detours. The cost of an extra quarter mile of rail is a capital cost that must be addressed today. The cost of an extra mile of bus is an operations cost that is tomorrows problem.

Further, once determined, a rail alignment is SET. It is very difficult to add a loop or detour at a later time. I was recently enraged to discover that UTA had added a detour to the 205 route between my place of work and the FrontRunner commuter rail station. The detour is only one block, but requires two left turns, through congested signalized intersections, destroying the routes reliability, and thereby it's value as a connection to FrontRunner.

I become increasingly enamored with busways--dedicated fixed guide-way at a fraction of the cost of rail.

Land Price Economics

The effect that highways had upon the expansion of urban areas--rather then driving the price of existing urban land ever higher, the highways provided access to vast tracts of cheap rural land, triggering a vast expansion in the urban area. The demand for built space that had previously driven skyscrapers ever higher instead drove the urbanized area ever wider. As destinations became more widely separated, Americans are obliged to drive further and further, traveling more miles to make the same trip to the supermarket. Increasing trip length means more cars per mile of road, and thus more congestion, creating the demand for additional roadway right of way.

Eventually, congestion begins to create a 'time price' in the way distance once did, and proximity once again becomes valuable, driving up land prices near already desirable locations.

Density Limit

In my last post, I wrote that:

There are fundamental limitations on how dense automobile development can be.

But that begs the question--what is that limit? The highest density recent residential development I've seen in transit-less locations was an apartment complex with five residential stories over a garage podium. This, along with the success of the Gateway in Downtown, SLC seems to indicate that there is no limit--once land values rise high enough, developers simply start building parking structures and underground parking.

Taking this to its theoretical limit and it begin to approach the sort of city that early highway designers imagined--towering structures with comparatively tiny building footprints, with the rest of the land used for roadways. (Why it didn't turn out that way)

This suggests that the transit emphasis on density is to some degree a red herring--density alone does not make for a transit supportive environment. Perhaps a different calculation is needed. Density is typically estimated using households and jobs per acre. But one of the notable characteristics of sprawl is 'openness'. Sprawl development is sparse. This suggests that a simple figure ground drawing would be a powerful tool is assessing actual density. But building height is important, so perhaps a combination figure ground/contour map would be would be the best tool. A 'proximity' could then be calculated, dividing an area's gross square footage by its gross acreage. Doing so would separate areas where there are a lot of places in proximity to one another from areas where there is one thing in proximity to nothing.

In the end, the real limit to automotive density may be more social then economic--People like to walk. Not too far, and they like to have lots to look at and watch while they do it, but they like to walk. How else can the Vegas Strip be explained?

Market Segmentation

Successful transit agencies are in the process of discovering market segmentation. They are providing different types of transit, with different qualities, at different price points. Most transit agencies have taken advantage of their forays into rail transit to provide premium transit--fast, frequent, and reliable.

Recall that most transit agencies begin as 'caretaker' agencies, receiving the nubbins of private transit companies to ensure the 'critical' bus service was still provided. One of the by-products of this merger was a single system-wide fare.

This presents an operational obstacle. Without the ability to change prices, and charge what the market will bear, competition for additional bus service becomes political, specifically the 'politics of need', where the vulnerable, weak, and otherwise unable to drive are provided special service. Hence, the development of ridership as a technical metric for evaluating how 'good' a bus line is.

But the difference is service provided by premium transit must be considerable--fractional improvements are insufficient. It must be better not only than the AVERAGE service provided, but superior to the BEST service provided. The essential threat to high quality bus service such as BRT is that it will be seen as 'just another bus'. Federal guidelines for BRT include conspicuous branding and 'substantial' stations largely to prevent that.

While marketing is important for the success of transit agencies, it cannot change reality--a pig with lipstick on it is still a pig. Charging more for transit will require providing better transit, and providing good transit costs money.

On Local Density

"You do need density, even if it's local density."

This may be the most important lesson for reshaping cities. There is no need to make everything denser, or even to make most of the urbanized area denser. What is necessary is to create 'nodes' that are denser then the surrounding area, and the provide the correct infrastructure for that density. And hint, that ss not wider roads.

There are fundamental limitations on how dense automobile development can be. The rule of thumb I've heard for converting raw land into residential subdivisions is that 20% of the land will go for roads. When plotting a commercial center, every thousand square feet of retail requires about the same square footage. Developing at higher densities requires alternative modes of transportation. Amusement parks and airports understand this, and accordingly, make use of shuttles, trolleys, sky rides, moving walkways, etc. There simply isn't room for everyone to drive.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Spain Does Trains Right

Spain does High Speed Rail Right

...sprawling, mostly rural yet worldly Spain...
...delays of five minutes or more get you full refunds in cash...

Midsize towns like Ciudad Real, once lifeless and losing population, have been able to attract software companies, university professors and doctors from Madrid, 120 miles away, because the painless commute for the new "Avelinos" is now only 50 minutes.

"more people travel between those cities by rail than by car and airplane combined."

The AVE cuts nearly four hours off the 6 ½-hour trip by car and virtually matches the door-to-door flight time (over some 315 miles) when you add at least 90 minutes at airports for arriving early, deplaning and retrieving baggage. Air passenger traffic for this highly profitable route has dropped more than 40 percent in 18 months.

Compare this to the the increasingly obvious mess that is the the Tampa-Orlando HSR initiative. I'm starting to worry that the Obama administration may not have put their HSR money in good places. Shaving an hour off the connection in the North East Corridor is estimated to take $10 billion. You could buy a lot of ugly, flat, cheap, cheap Right of Way between Salt Lake and St. George, or Salt Lake and Sacramento, double-track and electrify the whole mess.

Transit is a network, and I begin to wonder if connecting two lesser nodes at a lower price is not more efficient then connecting two larger nodes at a much greater price.

Lines v. Buses per Day

There was some outcry about the elimination of service when UTA cut the number of bus lines along North Temple, a couple of years back. A third party was good enough to do an off-the-cuff analysis of service changes, denominated in "buses per day", rather then in bus routes. On that basis, North Temple did rather well when the big service change came.

The number of bus lines in an area a measure of complexity, not of service. More things to (mis-remember), more confusion, more avoidance.

Go go 209

Props to UTA. The 209 weekday service now runs late.

TRAX has many virtues not shared by UTA's buses. Besides speed and reliability, TRAX has always had the highest frequency in the system. But the striking appearance of the UTA of the late-night 209 as I was biking home made me realize another: Hours of operation. For as long as I've been riding Trax, it has operated 18 hours a day. While in school, I consistently caught the last train Sandy (the 11:24 @ Gallivan Center).

I would never have dared do anything similar with the buses. Early on in my Salt Lake Transit dependency, I took buses out to E-Center during the peak hour, only to be stranded with no return trip. After repeated efforts to find alternative ways home (walk, bike, other buses), I finally abandoned that dojo.

I'm pretty excited about the 209. It not just a single bus--it's a transit spine. With TRAX, I'll make a trip to anyplace within a half-mile of a TRAX station with relative impunity, regardless of how far south along the line that location is.
Now, I have a second 'spine'. Three blocks from my house, I can now reach any place within a half mile of the 209. Running along 9th East, that doesn't quite overlap, but it's still a big improvement. (TRAX from 7th West to 1st East, and the 209 from 5th East to 13th East). If UTA were to do something similar with a bus in the middle, such as the 203 or 205, it would be fantastic.

TRAX as a summer bike-lift

It is extremely common, especially during the summer, to see recreational longboarders and bikers riding TRAX up to the University hospital, and then cruising downhill (often at very high speeds of 25-30 MPH), along the Trax Route, and then dismounting to use it again.

There is also the role of Trax in the equation--If I need to go anyplace further east then 13th East, it's not uncommon for me to Bike to the University line, ride the line up the hill, and then head south along 13th. I wonder how much the phenomenon has to do with Utah's ski culture, where most people are already highly familiar with the concept of one-way mass transit.

I wonder if that could be put to good use...

UCarShare & Transit Dependancy

One of the big hassles with UCarShare has been the need to return the car to the same location, so I really can't make a one way trip with it, or even a trip with a long duration.

My habitual trip is out to karate, in either Park City or Sandy (both about 16 miles away). Neither location is well served by transit--Park City not at all, and Trax is about two miles away, downhill of the dojo. Karate lasts somewhere between an hour and an hour and a half, and the drive typically takes a half hour. Using UCarShare for the drive would require a rental of about 2.5 hours, and about 35 miles of travel. It's a trip I typically make 2-3 times per week. Net, that comes to about $12 for every training session, which is totally unsustainable.

One alternative is forty five minutes on Trax, fifteen minutes drive to the dojo, an hour of training, a fifteen minute drive back, and forty five minutes on tracks. So for every hour of training, I spend 2 hours traveling. Which costs about $7.50, plus $2.00 for Trax.

I'm fortunate to have several dojo mates who live within a mile, so car-pooling has often been an effective solution for Saturday trainings, but less so for evening trainings, as we all come from work, rather than from home.

The biggest impact of transit dependency is not the time spent traveling, but the trips that aren't made (or can't be made) because of timing.

VeLib, in Paris

Paris has apparently gotten serious about Bike Sharing, and invested a fare amount into the infrastructure.

I wonder if that would work in SLC. Salt Lake has a pretty strong bike culture, especially downtown, and especially during the summer. But I'm not sure there is enough demand, especially given the ferocious hills between 10th and 13th East.

Most interesting is their pricing procedure, for moving vehicles around. Effectively, it provides a bonus for returning bikes. Salt Lake might do well to do Paris one better, and actually PAY for the return of bikes. With fewer bikes, SLC's distribution of bikes, and especially one-way trips, would tend to be lumpy.

As I wrote of earlier, getting more people engaged in the process of managing the metropolitan metabolism, by promoting semi-formal arrangements through market incentives, seems to be the way to go.

Salt Lake had an earlier (failed) experiment with bike-cabs, partially because the local regulations governing cabs (still?) are brutal--there is something like a 50% tax, and until recently, it was illegal to hail a cab. (No, really). The pedal-cab drivers were renting the pedal-cabs and then working for tips, largely to evade the regulatory burden.

But I'm inclined to believe that the same type of people who were working the pedal-cabs would be equally likely to 'work' the bike-return system. There are a lot of factors that go into the VeLib system--the bike non-equilibrium would need to be allowed to emerge on its own because providing immediate subsidies. Doing otherwise might provide unnecessary and distortive subsidies. Doing so effectively, in an easily implementable manner, would be difficult. When you read about the VeLib system, it simply stipulates that some stations will receive the subsidy. All stations receiving the subsidy receive the same subsidy, at all times of the day. Static pricing is much quicker an easier to implement then dynamic pricing, even if it is less efficient.