Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Transit Branding’s Virtuous Cycle

By Josh Stephens

A few months ago, Miller Lite was featured in "Anchorman II" on the momentous occasion of the resurrection of its 1970s can. You know, the gold-trimmed one with “Lite” in Gothic script at the top. The one that reminds you of bowling alleys and Cheap Trick booming out of your Camaro on a hot summer night. Miller Lite is keeping it real.

Thanks in part to Ron Burgundy’s ringing endorsement, sales went up 4.7 percent. I promise, it’s no less underwhelming than it ever was.

The disingenuousness of Miller Lite’s campaign, like that of countless other such campaigns, haunted me as I wrote about the branding of transit agencies for this month’s issue of InTransition. If a beer company can fool the public into throwing away its money on the same old product, then aren’t transit agencies doing the very same thing when they promoting and rebrand themselves?

Yes and no. But mainly no.

The branding of transit involves many moving parts, literally and figuratively. Transit agencies aren’t going back to the ‘70s – many of them have been there all along. So, they upgrade their livery, produce new advertisements, and, in some cases, even adopt new logos and names. At best, this cosmetic work is meant as a “signal” to get the public to pay attention to other, substantive changes.

Meanwhile, some branding efforts include overhauls of communications materials, including that of printed schedules, signage, and electronic communications. Done well, these upgrades are anything but frivolous.

Somewhere between the necessities of knowing when the bus arrives and the aesthetic pleasure of seeing its new, shining face lies the network effect. This is where things get interesting.

Selling all the six-packs in the world still won’t improve the taste of Miller Lite (or make it any less filling). It’ll still be the same delicious refreshment each time. But, to a great extent, even cosmetic changes to transit agencies can create a virtuous cycle.

Consider an agency that upgrades only its logo, graphics, and livery. It might gain discretionary riders purely because they perceive that the agency has improved (or because they discover previously unknown competency). Because the vast majority of transit agencies’ costs are fixed, these marginal ridership increases go straight into the agencies’ coffers. If the riders are satisfied, word will get out, and ridership will beget ridership and, therefore, more money. So far, so good for the agency.

If branding campaigns go really well – and, importantly, as long as the influx of new riders doesn’t lead to overcrowding—they amount to a pretty brilliant win-win, without the BS’ing. If the agency invests some of its marginal revenues into actually improving service, then branding becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. More sales actually will result in a better product. This is the upside to a public monopoly: it doesn’t have the efficiencies of the private sector, but it can still define, and achieve, success in ways that, say, beer companies cannot.

Imagine, then, what would happen in San Diego if Ron Burgundy started taking the bus.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Coming Soon: The “Transportation and Design” Issue

InTransition returns in September with a group of articles exploring visual design's impact on transportation. Here’s a peek at some of the stories that will appear in the issue:

Why Design Matters: New Jersey School of Architecture Director Darius Sollohub on what great infrastructure designs mean to users, the economy and future generations.

Creative Placemaking: Find out how cultural arts programs across the country are reinvigorating neighborhoods and are being integrated into transportation projects and services.

Smart Branding and Transit: Public transportation providers are working to make their services "cool" through creative marketing campaigns and by giving their vehicles vibrant makeovers.

Artistic Bike Racks: The rusty metallic bike racks of old are being replaced by works of art that reflect community culture and make the streetscapes livelier.

TOD Architecture: A look at some of the many shapes and sizes of transit-oriented development projects in New Jersey.

InTransition is FREE for subscribers in the U.S. and Canada. To sign up for a complimentary subscription or update your mailing address, fill out the electronic form at www.intransitionmag.org or email your contact information to intransition@njtpa.org.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Coming Soon …. the Fall 2013 Issue

InTransition returns this month with a group of stories analyzing the lessons from Hurricane Sandy one year later. Here is a quick peak at some of the issue’s top stories:

  • Hurricane Sandy: A Municipal Perspective – Emergency management officials from the storm-devastated Jersey Shore community of Brick Township offer their observations on what local governments can do to prepare for extreme storms.
  • Moving Utility fleets for Power Restoration – Utilities are joining with the public sector to find ways to speed utility fleet movement for future extreme weather events.
  • Q&A: Joel Smith and Russ Jones – An InTransition conversation with a pair of experts on climate change and adaptation issues.
  • Revisiting Florida’s 2004/2005 Hurricane Seasons – What has changed a decade since the costliest storm onslaught in U.S. history?
  • Making Intercity Bus Travel Hip – A crop of colorful new lines like BoltBus and Megabus are reinvigorating intercity bus travel.
InTransition is mailed free to readers in the U.S. and Canada. To subscribe or update your mailing information, email intransition@njtpa.org or call (973) 639-8407.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Reporter's Photo Tour of Hoboken Terminal

By Karl Vilacoba

My visit to Hoboken for the story "Turning Back the Clock (Tower) on Century-Old Ferry Terminal" marked the first time I'd set foot in the building in about 10 years. A lot had changed, thankfully for the better.

Unfortunately, I could only squeeze in a handful of photos of this classic station in with the printed article. There's a lot to see. Below are a few scenes that didn't make it in.

I happened across the top black and white photo in our archives the other day. I don't know exactly when it's from, although I'd guess the mid-80s. (The current shot on the bottom was provided by the project's lead consultant, STV Inc., and taken by Eduard Huber). The difference is stark. What caught my attention most was the condition of the facade behind the LACKAWANNA lettering. Pieces of the bronze siding had gradually fallen into the water over the years, and it was no doubt much worse once the project began. The green pieces in the bottom photo represent the remaining original parts that could be saved.

Before the restoration project, the ferry area's floor was all at the same elevation as the area at the bottom of the steps. The floor was raised a few feet to make it more resistant to flooding. The rising water levels caused by Hurricane Sandy overcame the higher floor, but reportedly caused no major structural damage to the ferry terminal.

Here's a view of the terminal from the land side. The water in front is an old dock area that was carved out for boats. The bronze exterior on the rectangular section of the building to the right, which is now used by the Hoboken YMCA, will soon be refurbished with new pieces like the river-facing side.

A closeup of some of the bronze details on the building's exterior.

The terminal's elegant waiting room was renovated in 2004 and has been used as a set in several movies. Its stained glass work was done by Louis Comfort Tiffany (unfortunately, my camera doesn't do it justice).

The old machinery on the ceilings above the ferry slips was left intact to contribute to the building's historic industrial atmosphere.

Part of the strategy for keeping that industrial feel intact was the use of materials like steel, concrete, glass and hard woods, as were used for the arches along the ferry slips.

The original deteriorating wooden pilings were replaced by 100 ton steel pipe pilings. A challenge facing the foundation engineers was to drive in the new pilings from within the existing structure with only about 10 feet of headroom, according to the lead consultant, STV.

Two wide view and a closeup of a new steel mural along the wall of the boarding area. The green silhouettes show Hoboken terminal riders and workers from many eras. Soft fiber optic lights shine through the perforations in the metal. 

Five of the terminal's original six ferry slips were restored. This one was left as is for historical purposes.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Coming Soon ... Fall 2012 Issue

InTransition will return soon with a fall 2012 issue. If you’ve recently changed any of your contact information, please be sure to correct it by using our online form, e-mailing intransition@njtpa.org or calling (973) 639-8407.

The new issue will include coverage of the new MAP-21 federal transportation law as well as a package of stories that explore the impacts of transportation investments on the economy. Here’s a look at some of the top stories for the next issue:

MAP-21: Insights from policy experts on the bill’s contents and what it will mean for the transportation sector for the next two years.

Transit-Oriented Development & Property Values: A look at how real estate has fared nationally throughout the housing collapse in transportation-rich communities.

United Streetcar: A profile of an Oregon company that is the first domestic manufacturer of streetcars in decades.

Transportation Tech Firms Creating Jobs: This article will highlight a handful of companies that have thrived through the down economy on the strength of their innovative services.

Hoboken Ferry: After 50 years, the historic ferry terminal has been rehabilitated and reopened for modern operations.

Subscriptions are free for residents of the U.S. and Canada. International readers can contact intransition@njtpa.org for copies in PDF format.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Remembering the Moment the Great Tohuku Earthquake Struck Japan

Mid-afternoon on March 11, I was out walking my dog, a 60-pound Siberian husky named Achilles. He heard the quake or sensed it before I did, because some minutes before he snapped and pulled hard on the leash, then moved in front of me and barked again. It is what he has been taught to do when he feels something or someone is threatening.

A few moments later there was a sound. I heard it once before, in Berkeley, Calif., in 1989, but this was amped up. As the horizon began to pitch, I slam-dived Achilles and myself to the road, a one lane blacktop beside a ricefield. I knew better than to look at the horizon, but I watched the road, which to this day looks like the greatest jigsaw puzzle ever invented. It twisted, heaved, bucked. I watched it to see if it would simply sunder and we would have to roll into the rice field. It did not (later that day I would see one road that had split). When it was over, we got up.

My wife arrived soon afterwards with her assistant, and our house, fortunately, had suffered only minor damage. We had lost all electricity and with the mobile phone network down, we were cut off. We rushed to pick up our children from their kindergarten but a relative had already taken them. The one proud moment of that day was hearing from my son’s teacher that, while the children had been scared and screaming, my son had remained calm and told them, “Listen to the teacher, stay together, do not be afraid.”

I was first asked to do this article when all of Japan, including the city I live in, was not only still recovering, but still on alert for radiation leaks from Fukushima. The very idea of doing a “good news” story, a story of something that went right on March 11, was so counterintuitive that I got arguments from other journalists about even pursuing the story. But the story is an important one.

These people -- and it is a cast of hundreds of thousands when we stop counting all involved -- managed a mass evacuation under some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable without loss of life or injury. Of course they were immensely lucky. Luck and chance always play huge roles in disasters. Napoleon is said to have honored one of his generals by saying he was “brave, but more than that, he is lucky.” The same principle applies to the evacuation.

Richard Greenfield is a freelance writer based in Japan. His article "How a Shaken City Kept Steady Nerves" was published in the fall 2011 issue of InTransition.

Photographer's "traumatic train"

This photo by Chris Edwards of Leicestershire, U.K., dramatically illustrates the human side of the transportation crisis in Tokyo as a result of the March 2011 earthquake. The transportation crisis was the subject of “How a Shaken City Kept Steady Nerves,” which appeared in the fall 2011 issue of InTransition. Here’s how Edwards described the scene when he posted the photo to Flickr:

I was on board a train in Tokyo yesterday when the big earthquake struck, I was unbelievably scared, I still now don't understand why the train didn't derail completely.

We was evacuated from the train once the main earthquakes stopped and then after a couple of hours or so of walking we found refuge in a hotel basement, where I still remain, although I have a room now. A very wobbly one though, 9 floors up and we're still having quakes.

In a subsequent email correspondence, Edwards related that while, in the end, the city of Tokyo coped with the many challenges posed by the earthquake —including avoiding the loss of life or serious injuries when the transit system shut down —living through the experience left passengers very much “shaken”:

We were on a very traumatic train for 90 minutes with very little information offered. When we eventually got evacuated, the station we walked to was in turmoil. Nobody knew what to do or where to go and the transport authorities were offering no information other than handing out maps.

Whilst we were in that station more earthquakes hit and masonry was falling around us. The roads were gridlocked for many, many hours. Over the next few days the railways were shut down at random intervals with very little warning leaving massive queues for taxis and gridlocked roads again.

The place was in chaos.

That said, we were travelling at a high speed and the speed the train network shut down was very impressive.

Other photos by Edwards on Japan and other subjects can be seen at: www.flickr.com/photos/bubblesphotos/.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Coming Soon … Fall 2011 Issue

InTransition returns in November with our fall 2011 issue. If you’ve recently changed any of your contact information, please be sure to correct it by using our online form, emailing intransition@njtpa.org or calling (973) 639-8407.

The new issue will include a package of stories dealing with preparing for emergency/catastrophic incidents. Here’s a look at some of the top stories for the next issue:

The Evacuation of Tokyo: Our cover story relives the scene in Tokyo during the March 11 Great Tohuku Earthquake, when millions had to leave the city without the help of its transit system or many other technologies.
Catastrophic Preparedness Teams: Units have been formed in 10 major U.S. metro areas to help unify a wide range of stakeholders’ responses to emergency situations.
Guarding Transit Against Terror: Experts discuss some of the challenges and strategies involved with safeguarding the nation’s rail systems from terrorist plots.
Climate Change and Transportation: N.J. study aims to project how global warming will impact infrastructure by 2100.
DUI Technologies: Emerging technologies designed to stop drunken driving.
Transportation Takes Center Stage: A look at artists using public streets as outlets for creative expression.

For a free subscription (U.S. and Canada only), fill out the simple form on our website. International readers can contact intransition@njtpa.org for copies in PDF format.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Apps Made Easy

By David Schmetterer

There's no app for that?

Generally the advertisements and jokes seem to be right – there is an app for that. And that’s great news if you need something fairly common, like a chess tutor, an electronic compass, or a barcode scanner. But what if you are in possession of that rarest of post-modern commodities, where do you go with your Original Idea?

You're in luck. The major smartphone software developers -- Apple, Google, RIM (BlackBerry) and Microsoft -- have all released software development kits (SDK) for their products. That means that any programmer can develop a mobile app, much the same way that a programmer could create software for a traditional computer. And the current interest in mobile app development is no mystery -- combine a touch screen, a GPS unit, a powerful processor with an always-on-everywhere-you-go Internet connection, and creative sparks start to fly.

Even so, it is, as always, technological limits that push the creative process to new heights. Small screens and relatively slow data connections have driven many websites to recreate themselves in a mobile format or self-contained app, with fast-loading graphics and an easy to navigate interface, and GPS-enabled location awareness. So while you could always go to Yelp.com on your computer, you can now visit a streamlined and location-aware version of Yelp! on your mobile device.

So where do you go with the next idea for a killer app? According to Google, anyone can build an app using their App Inventor website, which takes actual coding out of the picture and replaces it with building blocks of code with variables to change. There are also books by the dozen for beginner programmers and plenty of information available online. If you are really serious about learning on your own, you could take a class on mobile development for the iPhone or Android, like the ones given at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

If you aren’t adventurous, or already a programmer, the only trick is find someone who is. Besides the obligatory Google query, you can contact the authors of programs and apps you think are well made, or talk to faculty at a local school. They may have a class that is looking for real world projects, or know of students looking for part-time work. And remember, in the repetitive marketplace of mobile applications, an Original Idea has value, and programmers who recognize this will want to help make it a reality.

David Schmetterer co-wrote “Whetting Your Travel App-etite,” which appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of InTransition. He is a senior planner at the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority and a man of many smartphones.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Electric Car Movement Gets a Jolt from White House

By Brian Donahue

The electric car movement has a good friend in President Barack Obama. After dedicating billions in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding to electric drive components and battery manufacturing, the president is finding new ways to put electric cars on the street.

During his State of the Union address in January, Obama reiterated his goal of becoming the first country to have 1 million plug-ins on the road, a milestone he hopes to reach by 2015. He pledged more resources and incentives to help carmakers entice consumers to switch over from gasoline-powered cars, and said he would ask Congress to eliminate the billions in federal subsidies to oil companies, instead investing the money in alternative energy development.

The White House is expected to increase federal funding to $8 billion for green energy programs, with much of that channeled to the plug-in movement. White House National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling told the Detroit News that the president’s upcoming budget proposal will target funds to select communities to ramp up infrastructure such as charging stations in order to support the deployment of electric vehicles. Also, as a further incentive for consumers, the administration wants to convert the $7,500 income tax credit given to buyers of electric cars to a $7,500 direct purchase rebate.

Obama’s proposals are indeed good news for electric car advocates, and for the many carmakers getting into the plug-in game and trying to comply with stricter standards on greenhouse gas emissions and fuel economy.

The Detroit News story can be viewed here.

Brian Donahue’s article, “Trading the Pump for the Plug,” appeared in the winter 2011 issue.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Coming Soon ... Winter 2011 Issue

We’re putting the finishing touches on a new issue of InTransition, which will be mailed in February. If you’ve recently changed your address, please be sure to correct your contact information using our online form or contact us via email or phone.

Here’s a look at some of the top stories for the next issue:

Trading the Pump for the Plug: Experts say 2011 will mark the start of widespread adoption of the plug-in auto in the U.S.
E-Bikes: Popular as a commuter vehicle in parts of Asia and Europe, the electric-assist bike has made inroads in niche markets domestically.
Hybrid Ferries: A look at some of the vessels planned and already at sea worldwide.
The Tsukuba Express: Japanese rail line has been a boon for transit-oriented development in Tokyo’s suburbs.
On-Street Protected Bike Facilities: Transportation engineer Sam Schwartz details how to design successful urban bikeways.
Travel Apps: Profiles of useful transportation programs for smartphones.

Please note, not all of the content in the printed edition is available online. For a FREE subscription, fill out the simple form on our website.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Audio: Can TravelSmart Work in the U.S.?

Randy Salzman, author of the article “Changing the Car Culture Down Under” in the Spring/Summer issue of InTransition, discussed how Australia’s TravelSmart program has successfully boosted the use of transit, walking and biking, and may provide a model for America during a July 27 presentation at the NJTPA headquarters in Newark.

TravelSmart provides educational, individualized marketing to households about how residents can change from driving themselves to more sustainable travel methods. In one 1.6 million community, TravelSmart was credited with decreasing car starts by 30 million annually while increasing transit boardings by 4.2 million.

Salzman said skeptics often wonder if such an approach would be easier to implement in Australia than the U.S., when in reality, the opposite may be true. He said Australia almost totally dismantled its rail system during a post-World War II population boom, leaving the nation more dependent on the auto than America.

The soft travel demand consultant and former communications professor detailed the root of his strong feelings about America’s need to ween itself off petroleum for travel. Salzman once held a hazardous job drilling for oil in the fields of his native West Texas, and recently welcomed home a son who served the U.S. in the Iraqi war effort.

Audio and PowerPoint files of Salzman’s presentation can be viewed here.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Behavioral Economics: Much Promise But Still Far to Go

By Mark Solof

Insights from the new academic discipline of behavioral economics (BE) are finding their way into the work of experts in a host of fields who are searching for new approaches to age-old problems. New York Times columnists David Brooks and John Tierney have repeatedly used the insights as grist for their opinion mills. As highlighted in "Travelers Behaving Badly," experts in field of transportation are no exception.

Yet, in researching the article, what was surprising to me was the relative scarcity of practical, real world applications of the research findings. The website Nudges.org, launched as a follow-up to the bestselling Nudge book, is compiling many examples of behavioral nudges from readers around the world. But one really has to dig to find interventions that are making a difference – especially in the field of transportation. Mostly, it seems, research focuses on explaining behavior rather than on identifying measures to effectively change it.

This is perhaps understandable given the newness of the discipline. The field is rooted in so-called “prospect theory” developed by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman which was first published in 1979. (Kahneman received a Nobel Prize for this work in 2002.) The first academic appointments of “behavioral economists” took place in the early 1990s. So there has been little time to flesh out real-world applications.

It’s also the case that, as "Travelers Behaving Badly" points out, some interventions for improving travel behavior are unwitting and as-yet-unrecognized applications of BE. That is, they are crafted independently by transportation planners and engineers based on their own intuitions about human nature. Identifying these “intuitive” interventions and drawing connections to BE is a potentially valuable undertaking, promising to facilitate adapting the interventions to similar circumstances or other fields. Nudges.org is making an important contribution in this regard but more extensive and systematic efforts by the research community appear warranted.

There is little doubt that bolstering BE research can have payoffs in terms of improving real-world decisions. Perhaps the most dramatic – and tragic – example of bad decisions brought about by the kind of behavioral biases investigated by BE involves the world’s worst aircraft crash in 1977 on the Canary Islands which killed 583 people. The pilot, previously considered one of the world’s foremost air safety experts, was influenced to rush his takeoff by a “loss aversion” reaction towards further delays, according to Ori and Rom Brafman’s Sway.

Recently, the behavioral tendency to underestimate risks was seen as one of the root causes of the gulf oil disaster. But discouraging bad behavior and its potentially disastrous consequences is not the only payoff of BE. Dan Ariely in his new book, The Upside of Irrationality, suggests that BE research can help encourage altruism and the best of human nature.

Look for the field of BE to continue to spawn bestselling books -- adding to the current shelf-full already published -- given the relevance of many BE insights for day-to-day decisions we all make. In years to come we’re likely to see increasingly powerful, and possibly revolutionary, findings as BE research is extended to draw upon investigations into how thought processes actually occur in the brain, as seen through functional magnetic resonance imaging and other techniques. The new field of “neuroeconomics” is focused on doing just that. In the future, we’ll all still be a bit crazy but at least we’ll better know how to better guard ourselves and others from the consequences.

Mark Solof is the director of public affairs at the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority and the author of "Travelers Behaving Badly," which appears in the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of InTransition.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

InTransition Honored for Excellence in Journalism

For the second consecutive year, InTransition has been recognized by the New Jersey Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for its quality reporting on transportation issues.

InTransition Managing Editor Karl Vilacoba took second-place in the Magazine Business Reporting category of the NJSPJ’s 2010 New Jersey Excellence in Journalism Awards. His story “Re-Inventing the Wheel,” which appeared in the Winter 2009 issue, examined some of the unique, non-gasoline powered alternative transportation modes under development around the world. Vilacoba previously won a first-place award in the same category in 2009.

The contest was open to any individual or news organization that published in New Jersey or wrote about topics in the state in 2009.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Coming Soon ... Summer 2010 Issue

Work is well underway on a new issue of InTransition, which should hit mailboxes in July. If you’ve recently changed your mailing address, please be sure to correct your contact information using our online form or contact us via email or phone.

Readers can expect a new-look InTransitionMag.org to be unveiled with the release of the new issue. The revamped site will take on a more modern feel and offer new user-friendly features. Stay tuned for more information.

Here’s a look at some of the top stories in the next issue:

Social Media & Transportation: Article explores how transportation agencies are using online tools like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to get their messages out.
Changing Car Culture Down Under: Through a combination of innovative educational outreach programs and non-highway investments, Australia is successfully luring commuters out of their cars.
Solar Infrastructure: From traffic signs to the roads themselves, businesses are finding new ways of incorporating solar technologies into transportation infrastructure.
Automated Parking: These systems, sometimes called “robotic parking,” accommodate high parking demand in tight spaces, allowing cities to preserve their urban fabric.
Nudging Transportation: A look at the science behind irrational road behavior and how subtle psychological prodding techniques can be used to control it.

Please note, not all of the content in the printed edition is available online. For a FREE subscription, fill out the simple form on our website.

Monday, November 9, 2009

You Can't Spell Subsidy Without B-U-S

By Josh Stephens

It's funny to consider the circumstances under which Americans are willing to accept government subsidy or programming. Education: good. Agriculture: Good. Fire and safety: sure. Health care: no comment. As for transportation, we seem to be OK with ambulances, whether they're transporting us to publically supported hospitals or not. But mass transit to someplace else -- be it work, recreation, or your Botox appointment -- is another, more complicated matter.

Public transportation seems like a business because the fare structure is so familiar. Paying for a bus ride feels no different than paying for a movie ticket, so it's natural to think that the marginal cost to the consumer covers the marginal cost to the provider and away we go. Except that hidden from every fare is the 50-70 percent of operating costs that are covered by the public. Since we don't get a receipt saying "70 of your ride has been brought to you by the taxpayers of your city and state," it's even easy to imagine that the people who use public transportation can, and do, just pay for it themselves.

These assumptions complement the fallacy that riders are the only beneficiaries of the system. But as we have seen during this recession, public transportation's benefits are more than vast enough to justify public intervention. Buses and trains rescue people who can no longer afford to drive, and they enable urban economies to function by matching employees with employers -- which is the whole (economic) purpose of cities. This is why a certain radical fringe contends that the benefits to free transit -- that is, transit with a 100 percent subsidy (a la schools) -- would pay for itself many times over.

That might sound a little nuts, except that it's hard to define a substantive difference between the argument in favor of fare-free transit and that in favor of toll-free roads. It's tempting to imagine that, through the magic of elasticity, if you divide the quantity demanded by a price of zero you get infinite demand and therefore an infinite reduction in traffic. The math doesn't work out quite like that, but without the burden of pulling out a wallet, a great many discretionary riders would have a few bucks left over for food and rent.

Which brings us to the recession: All the great ideas in the world matter little if transit agencies have no money to spend and more riders than they know what to do with, which is exactly the state of affairs today, as the nation's transit agencies face a collective deficit well into the billions. My article approached these deficits from a distant, abstract perspective, as if to assure everyone that, indeed, misery loves company. But let's not forget that the real misery is that which afflicts the riders, forced to abandon jobs, remain housebound, or suffer interminable waits while the bus plies its route.

Many agencies don't quite know what they're going to do to close their budget gaps, save raising fares and eliminating service. No matter what, one encouraging outgrowth of this crisis -- from a reporter's standpoint -- is the outpouring of candor from these agencies. While government bureaucracies are notorious for obfuscation and euphemism, my reporting uncovered very little sugar-coating, as if the global crisis has finally allowed public officials to let down their guard.

Their collective message is clear: Transit agencies are asking for patience, understanding, and even a little sympathy. Whether or not we're willing to give them any more of our money is, however, another matter.

Josh Stephens’ article, “Mass Transit’s Reversal of Fortune,” appeared in the fall 2009 issue. He is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

Technologies Must Connect Quickly With Public to Thrive

By Karl Vilacoba

Connected vehicle technologies have the potential to transform the driving experience in the century ahead. They may also have the potential to fizzle out before they really get started.

Inventions like these live or die by the enthusiasm of their earliest adopters. Their success depends on the quick spread of related technologies, and promoting early buy-in is tough work. Think of the first radio stations, broadcasting across miles of landscapes to populations that didn’t own radios. Likewise, a connected car can’t “talk” to a mute car. Generating an initial flow of information – enough to hook the first wave of users and influence them to spread the word to friends and family – will be crucial.

This is a dilemma explored in a 2008 study by the Center for Automotive Research (CAR), which looked at some of the upsides, costs and obstacles to building a connected auto fleet and road system in the U.S. The report compared the situation to the advent of cell phones a decade ago, but noted an important difference – cell phones could at least call hard lines. Without other cars or infrastructure to interact with, connected vehicle technologies are useless.

Sources I spoke to for my article, “Car-Respondence,” stressed the importance of retrofitting older cars, at least to a point that they can transmit a basic level of information. Again, that will be difficult – people won’t shell out money for the equipment unless they’re convinced it’s worth it.

Perhaps the best way to accomplish a mass retrofit is to package the technology with gadgets that do other things – as a bonus feature of a satellite radio or an app in a BlackBerry, for instance. Once people get the taste for it, and the quantity of information transmitted begins to make a difference, they’ll be more likely to buy cars outfitted with the most cutting-edge capabilities of the day.

Some predict connectivity and hybridization/electrification are the two most profound changes the auto industry will see in the years ahead. This could be a big opportunity for Detroit -- oft-criticized as lagging a step behind the world’s automakers -- to take the lead and get back its Motor City mojo.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Coming Soon ... Fall 2009 Issue

Work is well underway on the fall issue of InTransition, which should be in the mail in November. If you’ve changed your address since the spring, be sure to update your contact information on our website or send us an e-mail letting us know what’s new.

Here’s a look at some of the top stories in our next issue:

Transit & the Economic Crisis: Even with ridership at record levels, transit agencies around the country are facing budgetary nightmares due to the economic downturn. A look at how they’re getting through it.

Connected Vehicles: Along with hybridization/electrification, some say connected vehicle technologies represent the greatest change the auto industry will see in the decades to come.

Cab-Sharing: Like matchmaking services for taxi riders, these new businesses are cropping up across the Web. Will they last?

Digital Billboards: With far more revenue potential than traditional static billboards, new digital signs are becoming more common along the nation's highways.

Please note, not all of the material in the printed edition will be available online. To sign up for a FREE subscription to InTransition, just fill out the simple form on our website.

NJ the Next to Debut Cutting-Edge Traffic Technologies

This article first appeared in Mobility Matters, a regional newsletter also published by the NJTPA.

By Karl Vilacoba

Gazing out the window of an English pub, a light bulb went on in Richard Nassi’s head—three actually, in an arrangement that would become one of the most statistically effective traffic signals in America.

Nassi was traveling with his wife, who was in the U.K. on business, but his mind was on a terrible crash that occurred back home in Tucson, Ariz. Five youths were struck by a vehicle while crossing a street in 1998, killing two of them. The driver fled the scene and, despite the best efforts of police, was never caught.

Nassi, Tucson’s traffic administrator at the time, caught a glimpse of an unconventional beacon the English call a “level crossing signal,” and began jotting down notes on how it might be adapted to prevent future tragedies in Tucson. “It started there on the back of a napkin and flew across the Atlantic with me to the U.S.,” he said.

The High-Intensity Activated Crosswalk (HAWK) debuted a year later in Tucson and has since spread to several other states, including an upcoming site in New Jersey. Although it is still considered an experimental technology, the HAWK will soon be listed in the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA)Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, the standard for signs, signals and pavement markings in the U.S.

The HAWK consists of three lights that overhang traffic, typically at mid-block crosswalks and unsignalized intersections. The HAWK remains dark until activated by a bicyclist or pedestrian. The beacon initially flashes yellow, then shines solid yellow, warning drivers to prepare to stop. It then turns solid red while showing the pedestrian a “Walk” sign. Finally, alternating flashing red lights indicate that drivers can proceed if the pedestrian has safely crossed.

A study of HAWKs in Tucson showed crashes were reduced by 30 percent and the compliance rate by drivers was 97 percent, better than any other American traffic signal, Nassi said. The only apparent confusion by motorists—some remained stopped as the red lights flashed.

“If you’re worried about delays, it’s an issue,” Nassi said, “but if you’re worried about pedestrian safety, it doesn’t hurt one bit.”

Unfortunately, a fatal accident took place at what will be the first HAWK site in New Jersey. About three years ago, a mother and two children were struck by a motorist while crossing Route 27 in Roselle, killing one of the youths, according to the New Jersey Departmentof Transportation (NJDOT). A crosswalk and standard flashing beacon were installed at the site a few months later, but drivers still weren’t yielding to pedestrians on the busy four-lane highway. A HAWK is expected to be installed on the site soon, helping people walk and bike across safely.

Another new pedestrian crossing technology that will soon see action in New Jersey is the Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacon (RRFB), sometimes called the Enhancer. The RRFB was first piloted in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 2004, and was approved for interim use at crossings by the FHWA last summer. “The RRFB’s very high compliance rates are previously unheard of for any device other than a full traffic signal and a ‘HAWK’ hybrid signal, both of which stop traffic with steady red signal indications,” the FHWA noted in a memo on the beacon’s approval.

The mid-block crossing beacons feature super bright LED lights that flash rapidly in a “stuttering” pattern that’s hard for motorists to miss. St. Petersburg reports a 17 percent drop in pedestrian crashes since they started using RRFBs, and in observations at 19 test locations in the city, 82 percent of drivers stopped once the system was activated.

In northern New Jersey, RRFBs will be installed near the Metropark train station in Edison and on Route 4 in Elmwood Park.

Photos: Top right, A High-Intensity Activated Crosswalk (HAWK) in Tucson, Ariz. (Photo courtesy Tucson DOT). Above left, Enhancer beacons feature bright, rapidly flashing LED lights that are hard for drivers to miss (Photo courtesy City of St. Petersburg).

Monday, June 1, 2009

InTransition Recognized by NJSPJ

InTransition Managing Editor Karl Vilacoba took first place in the Magazines -- Business Reporting category in the New Jersey Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists’ 2008 Excellence in Journalism Awards.

Vilacoba’s winning story, “The Devils in the Details,” discussed the transportation challenges involved with opening the new Prudential Center in downtown Newark. The piece appeared in the summer 2008 issue.

The feature was the lead article in a package of stories called “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” which examined the planning, obstacles and investments needed to move huge crowds of people to sports stadiums in an orderly way. Other story topics included the transportation preparations behind the Indy 500 and the debate over what mass transit services should be available for the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium.

The contest was open to any magazine that published in New Jersey or wrote about a New Jersey topic in 2008. To view the full list of winners, visit http://www.njspj.org/contest_winners/08events.htm.