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.