Friday, October 10, 2008

Transportation Sector Bonded to Credit Crisis

By Karl Vilacoba

Jim Calpin is a successful public finance banker on Wall Street, but don’t ask him what’s next in this turbulent economic climate.

“We don’t know. The crystal ball at Merrill Lynch is broken,” Calpin told an audience of about 200 at “Beyond the Gas Tax: A Symposium on Funding Future Transportation Needs,” held Tuesday in Syracuse, N.Y. As he spoke, the Dow Jones was well on its way to a 508-point plunge for the day.

What Calpin can say for sure is that the credit crunch crisis is beginning to hamper transportation agencies’ ability to do business. If it continues, he said, it may cripple them.

Even agencies with AAA bond ratings are having trouble getting bond financing now, according to Calpin, who specializes in transportation infrastructure for Merrill Lynch. The funding they’ve been able to secure doesn’t stretch as far as it did a few months back. Calpin displayed a graph showing the dramatic rise in interest rates banks charge public agencies for bonds – the 5 or 6 percent charged in recent months is now closer to 9 or 10 percent in many cases. With their buying power sinking, agencies are going to have to do even less with their already tight budgets.

The indicators he’s seeing are not encouraging. Some of the financial sector’s largest bond insurers are going under fast. America’s financial fears are contagious and spreading globally. Not even tolling revenues are immune. In Orlando, collections are down about 15 percent, in part because unemployment is so bad, he said.

None of this is bound to make Congress’ job any easier drafting the next transportation funding bill.

“Something’s got to give,” Calpin said. “We’ve got to get a new playbook in Washington when we look at [SAFETEA-LU] re-authorization.”

Monday, October 6, 2008

Don't Vote and Drive

By Karl Vilacoba

Your odds of getting killed driving to the polls on Election Day are higher than New Year’s Eve or Super Bowl Sunday.

A new study of U.S. presidential election days from Jimmy Carter in 1976 to George W. Bush in 2004 found an across the board rise in fatal crashes during polling hours. The researchers compared the same hours on the Tuesdays immediately before and after the election days and found fatality rates were 18 percent higher.

Donald Redelmeier, a researcher form Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Ontario, Canada, and Stanford University statistician Robert Tibshirani hypothesized that the combination of the country’s reliance on auto travel and the mobilization of about 55 percent of the population to vote might lead to a rise in fatal motor vehicle crashes. Their investigation concluded that presidential election days averaged 24 fatalities and 800 serious injuries more than normal. The risk was reportedly bi-partisan, as crashes spiked regardless of whether a Democrat or a Republican was elected.

The study mentioned speed, distance, distraction, emotions, confusion over how to get to the polling station and unfit drivers taking to the roads as possible explanations. In a video interview on Sunnybrook’s website, Redelmeier also said rushing could play a part. “I think it’s more of a reflection of speeding to the polls, or away from the polls, or trying to jam one more thing into an already busy day,” said Redelmeier, also a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto.

The researchers suggest that election organizers stress the importance of safety when encouraging people to get out and vote. Other interventions worth considering might include subsidized public transportation, setting up polling places within walking distances, remote voting or stronger traffic enforcement on election days.

The full study was published in the Oct. 1 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Friday, September 26, 2008

HOV Lanes for Dummies

By Karl Vilacoba

Suffolk County (N.Y.) Sheriff’s Deputy Robert Howard saw right through this scheme.

According to CBS News, the officer was patrolling the Long Island Expressway Wednesday when he noticed an animated conversation going on between a driver in the high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane and his perfectly still passenger. Howard pulled up for a closer look, and what he saw was enough to turn on the flashing lights.

“I asked him for license and registration and he said, ‘Officer is there something wrong?’ And I said, ‘Yes, in Suffolk County, Long Island, New York, in the HOV lane, you are required to have two living passengers -- living!”

Police allege a 51-year-old Long Island man dressed up a transparent Plexiglas mannequin with shades, a jacket and baseball cap in an attempt to beat the traffic. New York law requires that vehicles must have two or more occupants to use these carpool lanes.

According to the report, the driver allegedly asked, “Can’t you give me an ‘E’ for effort?” The deputy said he responded, “No, I’m giving you an ‘S’ for summons.” The violation reportedly costs $90 and carries three points.

This isn’t the first scheme someone’s concocted to experience life in the fast lane by themselves. An Atlanta man was caught using the dummy trick in 2001, but in addition to dressing his passenger up, this one was holding a clever prop – an unfolded newspaper. In 2002, a Washington State woman was ticketed for riding with a dummy after reportedly cutting off a school bus and causing a pileup that sent about 20 people to the hospital. And a pregnant Arizona woman pulled over in 2005 for riding alone in the HOV lane contended that her fetus should count as a passenger. The court rejected her claim, contending the standard for riding in HOV lanes was how many seats were occupied.

In a way, all of this speaks well for HOV lanes. The fact that people are willing to go to such lengths to use them would seem to show their success and strong appeal to our highway system’s motorists and their passengers, living, dead or unborn.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Subway Extension Would Make More than a Token Difference for L.A.

By Josh Stephens

Covering what could be the largest infrastructure investment in one’s hometown is naturally a challenge in journalistic objectivity. On the one hand, it would have been difficult for a writer not from Los Angeles to comprehend three decades of background information as well as the present-day complexities of funding, traffic, land use patterns and political wrangling at the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority. On the other hand, one of the proposed portals would be a half-mile from my front door.

Metro serves 88 constituent cities – of which Los Angeles is only one – totaling 10 million people. The Westside, which is the object of the proposed subway – is, in turn, only one part of Los Angeles. But by some measures, it is the largest informal urban region in the country, on par with the New York boroughs and all but the country’s very largest center cities. I describe it as an amorphous Manhattan, a dynamic area of wealth, global prominence and traffic. But it’s even more complicated than that, because Los Angeles city government does not correspond with the transportation authority, and, moreover, the proposed subway would pass through three other entirely independent cities: West Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica.

If I’m guilty of anything, it’s hometown pride, except without the real town. The subway might change that. It might finally knit together the Westside’s parts while, at the same time, introducing perhaps the most profound symbol of serious urbanism that policy and engineering has ever devised (even more so than skyscrapers, and certainly more so than freeways -- which are, many would agree, downright anti-urban).

I could wax poetic about either subways or the Westside ad nauseam, but the poetry is beside the point. What matters for my contribution to InTransition are, one the one hand, things like accuracy, balance and objectivity, and, on the other hand, expertise and familiarity. It’s hard to fulfill both.

I readily admit that if the subway gets built to the Westside, I will be first in line at the turnstile (assuming that Metro goes forward with an asinine plan to abandon its current honor system). Even my Libertarian anti-subway sources admitted that the extension would be “nice.” For me, it would be more than nice; it would be a revelation.

But, as one of the three largest public transit projects in the country, it would also cost $5 billion. And let’s be real. If ever it gets approved, it would be more like $10 billion or $12 billion. Who knows.

The fun thing about pursuing objectivity in the face of one’s own interests is that you learn a lot. Some of my sources who were most skeptical about the subway were the most eloquent and indeed most cogent. The cost-benefit analysis results in some pretty daunting calculations, mainly because Los Angeles’ entire subway system will always pale in comparison to single lines in New York. One source even noted that historically, the construction of rail projects in L.A. County has correlated with a decrease in overall transit ridership. Aw, snap.

But that doesn’t mean that Metro should not pursue it and that the federal government should not fund it. Whenever my mind wanders into the billions, I think about all the money that is wasted on things that aren’t very nice: inefficiency, misguided subsidies, and, of course, wars. A subway will last generations, and it will not kill anyone. In fact, it might even save a few lives through less pollution and fewer chances for unfortunate meetings between vehicle and pedestrian on the pavement up above.

And as gas ratchets towards $5 and beyond with hardly any chance of ever coming down, the Los Angeles subway – as “nice” as it might be for me and my fellow Westsiders right now – may become every bit as essential for us as our cars once were.

Ultimately the Federal Transportation Administration’s New Starts program will decide whether the subway extension deserves federal funds. And, failing that, Congress may work its magic. In the meantime, we in Los Angeles have to decide whether a little pride and a little less traffic is going to be worth it. Worth $5 billion, that is.

Josh Stephens is the author of “An Underground Movement Forms in L.A.,” published in the Summer 2008 issue of InTransition.

Arena Gives Crowds New Look at Newark

By Karl Vilacoba

Growing up on the Jersey Shore, I often had to choose between the Meadowlands and Madison Square Garden when it came to spending my entertainment dollars. The choice usually boiled down to this question: the highway or the railway?

Whether it was a concert tour or a pro-wrestling card, the venues sometimes hosted the same events days apart. I could make the car trip up the New Jersey Turnpike to the Meadowlands sports complex (home to Giants Stadium and the Izod Center) or hop on a train to Penn Station New York, which is basically the Garden’s basement. Although it was a good half-hour longer, MSG usually won out. The train eliminated the stress of driving as well as the pesky tack-on prices for tolls, parking and gas. But with Newark’s Prudential Center now up and running, I’ll probably be seeing less of MSG in the future.

Pulling out of Penn Station Newark one night, I glanced out the train window at the 4,800-square-foot TV screen on the arena’s exterior and it dawned on me how important transportation is to a venue’s success. Out of this commuter’s daydream was born the idea for this issue’s look at sports arenas and transportation. I learned a lot from reading and writing the various articles in this series, and I hope you did, too.

One of the most thought-provoking of the bunch was a sidebar I worked on called “Academics Say Stadiums Don’t Pay.” The piece features an interview with Professor Rick Eckstein, author of a book that challenges the notion of the sports arena as a catalyst for economic revitalization. Eckstein said that of the dozens of publicly financed stadium projects he’s studied, not one has lived up to its financial promises. When you crunch all of the relevant numbers -- jobs created, tax ratables, sales revenues, etc. -- it never justifies the public investment, he said. And when confronted by these facts, he said, people will defend the stadiums with lame arguments along the lines of community pride.

Which brings me back to Newark. At the expense of sounding just like the suckers Professor Eckstein warned me about, I still think the city’s decision to invest in the Prudential Center was a no-brainer.

Before I started working here, I flat out feared Newark. Notice I said “before.” Because once I spent some time downtown, I felt as safe there as Manhattan. This area today has plenty of great things going for it – the trick is getting people here to see for themselves. That’s exactly what the Prudential Center has been doing, thousands of people a night.

Former Mayor Sharpe James relentlessly pursued a downtown arena a few years ago, casting total faith in the idea that it would be the great economic cornerstone for the city’s future. He offered team owners the heavens to relocate to a blighted patch of properties a few blocks from Newark Penn Station. Just when it seemed like the plan had flatlined, James sealed the deal by pledging $210 million toward its construction. He took some lumps for the move, and rightfully so. After all, the city has no shortage of pressing needs that money could have been spent on.

Let’s say Newark earns back just half of that money through arena-related tax revenues. Can the rest of what it gains really be quantified? In the years since the 1967 riots, attracting tourists has been a huge challenge and good national publicity has been scarce. If you asked me two years ago what the first word to come to mind would be when you said “Newark,” I’d have responded with something like “crime.” Standing around the streets before a recent Devils game, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of those fans would have said the same.

But not after they left. Now the first word they think of might be “Devils,” “hockey,” “arena” or “fun.” If they’ve looked around a little, it could even be something like “museums,” “restaurants” or “universities.” That sure beats “crime.” How much is a change like that worth?

Karl Vilacoba is the author of “The Devils in the Details,” published in the Summer 2008 issue of InTransition. He is the magazine’s managing editor.

When Moving Huge Crowds, a Few Thousand Cars Makes a Big Difference

By Jason Martin

My second trip out to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this summer was quite different from the first. I was back at the track on Sunday, July 27, for the NASCAR Allstate 400, and getting in and out was not nearly the traffic nightmare that I and many others encountered for the Indianapolis 500 back on Memorial Day weekend.

I left my house on the north side of town, about a 10-mile drive, at the same time for both races – four hours in advance of the race start. In May, the trip in was a brutal crawl once I passed the White River on 30th Street and approached Cold Spring Road. We were bumper to bumper for more than an hour, and this is one of the more secretive passages into the track.

Fast-forward to the NASCAR race, attended by another enormous crowd of about 225,000 people, but significantly less than the 300,000-plus that showed up for the 500. For the NASCAR race, I zipped along 30th Street all the way to the light at Georgetown Road by the edge of the track in less than 20 minutes total. I had to wait on police to shuttle pedestrians, and had to merge in front of a tractor trailer, but turning left there was little problem.

Getting out of the track was also less harried this time around. Media parking is inside the lot, and for the Indy 500, it was more than an hour trip home after waiting more than an hour for the race to end. For the NASCAR race, I waited only a half-hour, and it took only 20 minutes to get home.

I use this comparison as a means of demonstrating the effect that public transportation might have on traffic congestion at these races. Seventy-five thousand less people attended, but it made a world of difference in congestion. About 50,000 people take the public shuttles to the Indy 500. Without those shuttles, how much more of a headache would it? With more shuttles, how much easier?

It’s very likely that the shuttles will return next year after IndyGo follows the proper Federal Transit Administration procedures, but this is an example where the government might consider amending its rules to suit certain population centers. The Indianapolis area needs all the public transportation help it can get – it’s the 13th-most populated city in America and I can’t imagine there’s a worse one in the top 20 for moving the public.

A new airport opening in the fall comes with plans to add light rail connecting the terminal and downtown. For a city that thrives on conventions, that’s essential.

Here’s hoping that in regards to public transportation and the track, the city keeps its current service or even increases it instead of taking a drastic step back.

Jason Martin is the author of “A Slow-Go to the Speedway,” published in the Summer 2008 issue of InTransition.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Despite Spike in Paying Riders, Transit Providers Struggle

By Karl Vilacoba

We’ve all seen the reports – public transit ridership is up significantly nationwide. So how are transit agencies responding to this good news? Cutting service.

The Associated Press reported this week that many bus and train service providers are being forced to cut underperforming routes in order to cope with high diesel and gasoline costs. You’d think the rise in paying riders would offset the fuel expenses, but as the story notes, it’s not that simple. One of the reasons is that sales tax revenues that help subsidize these services are flagging, also because of the fuel prices. People just don’t have expendable income these days because they’re giving it all to the gas stations.

The Denver-area’s Regional Transportation District (RTD), which we profiled in our winter issue, was among those forced to trim services, despite record passenger numbers.

“Everything that we do is being undermined by the fuel crisis,” RTD CEO Clarence Marsella said. “It’s really diabolical. The tentacles are everywhere.”

If there’s a bright side to this fuel crisis, it’s that it’s causing Joe Public to take part in serious conversations he wouldn’t have bothered with before. Topics like alternative energies, transportation funding, the nation’s infrastructure and climate change are getting play on the news shows every night now, in part because the people have pushed them into the presidential campaign dialogue. People are realizing, albeit slowly, that the old way of doing things can not be continued forever. The importance of transit as an alternative to single occupancy vehicle trips is a big part of these discussions.

We may soon find out how committed people are to their new commuting habits. Gasoline prices typically peak in the summer, when demand is highest, and drop in the fall. Lately we’ve seen prices slide a little bit due to market forces. If gas plummets back to around $3 per gallon or the high $2s, will the ridership gains be maintained, or will people get back behind the wheel, as if it were all just a bad dream?

If not, transit agencies will have a new base of paying customers with less overhead to pay. We’ll also know the bus and train trips they’ve been making were about more than just sticker shock.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Long-Range Planning Symposium Multimedia Files Available Online

By Karl Vilacoba

In "the snap of a finger,” energy costs have dramatically changed long-range planning goals and demographic expectations, according to Anne Canby, president of the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership and a member of InTransition’s editorial board.

Canby was among a half-dozen panelists at a June 26 symposium held as part of the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority’s (NJTPA) effort to update its 25-year regional plan. (The NJTPA publishes InTransition in partnership with the New Jersey Institute of Technology.) Canby said the rising cost of energy means that people will decide where to live and work based on the combined cost of housing and transportation, rather than simply assuming transportation will be affordable, as in the past.

“Energy is clearly a front and center issue and has to be incorporated into anything we do with transportation from here on out,” she said.

While a few of the experts addressed specific local issues, others delivered presentations that were highly relevant to anyone in the planning and transportation fields, if not any resident of the country.

One of the most compelling speakers of the day was Daniel Lerch, author of the first major municipal guidebook on peak oil and global warming and a program manager at the Post Carbon Institute, which advises government officials how to end their reliance on fossil fuels. Lerch gave a thought-provoking presentation on how much trouble the country is in with its foreign oil dependence. The gas prices we’re seeing are just the beginning, he warned, and the time is now (if not yesterday) for America to fundamentally change its consumption patterns.

Public policy expert and Northeastern University (Boston) Professor Joseph Giglio advocated that the government widely reform how our transportation network is funded and administered. He discussed a number of interesting alternative funding strategies that have been tried or are under consideration around the country.

Audio files of the speakers are available online here. In some cases, Powerpoint files corresponding with the presentations were posted.

Coming Soon ... Summer 2008 Issue

InTransition is now putting the finishing touches on its summer issue, which should be in mailboxes over the next few weeks. The issue will feature a group of stories examining the planning, obstacles and investments involved with providing transportation for sports arenas. Among the places we’ll visit are the Prudential Center in Newark, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the new Dallas Cowboys stadium under construction in Arlington.

Also in the next issue:

  • The debate over whether or not Los Angeles should build a Westside extension to its subway system
  • A look at some of the archaeological technologies are being successfully used to assist with transportation projects
  • The second in a three-part series of excerpts from Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McPhee’s “Uncommon Carriers”

Not all of the content that appears in the print edition will be available online. To order a FREE subscription to the magazine, visit InTransition's website and complete the simple form.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

One Man's Dream Is Another's Nightmare

A article headlined, “Is America’s suburban dream collapsing into a nightmare?” has proven to be pretty provocative, judging by the volume and tone of comments posted in response.

The author proposes that in the not too far off future, market forces like the mortgage crisis, gas prices and a housing surplus will change homebuying tastes so drastically that the idyllic suburban McMansion may become the new American slum.

According to the article, demand will rise so sharply for walkable, transit-accessible housing in urban areas that the poor could be priced out of today’s ghettos and forced to move to the outlying suburbs. The writer conjures up visions of abandoned cul-de-sac neighborhoods swamped with for sale signs and overgrown grass. These large homes will be split into multi-family dwellings, and neighborhoods will be in danger of street gang infiltration.

Perhaps more fascinating than the glum future outlined in this article was the feedback it generated. I’ve read theories along these lines before on websites geared toward hardcore planners, but not on CNN, one of the most widely trafficked mainstream news sites in the world.

The interactive comments section became an entertaining battleground between those who view the New Urbanist movement with an almost religious seriousness and suburbanites and country folk who view the word “urban” as code for crime, pollution and a hostile way of life. At last check, there were hundreds of comments posted, apparently so many that they shut down the interactive feature.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Book 'Em, BART

By Karl Vilacoba

What a novel idea!

The San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) has teamed up with a local library to set up a book-lending machine at its Pittsburg/Bay Point Station. According to BART, they are the first transit system in the nation to offer such a service.

Riders can choose from 400 fiction or nonfiction books for free by inserting a valid Contra Costa County library card in the machine. They can borrow up to three books at a time, as long as they return them to the machine within three weeks. The public will have access to the machine during BART’s normal hours of operation.

The county public library plans to install three other machines at a transit village at a BART station in Pleasant Hill, a site in Byron/Discovery Bay and another location that has not yet been determined.

It is also unclear whether standard library silence rules will now apply to the station.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Connecting the DOT with the Public

By Karl Vilacoba

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters is living life in the “Fast Lane,” or at least as far as presidential cabinet members go. On April 29, Peters announced the launch of a new blog of that name, a move that remains a relative rarity for public officials.

By all indications, it’s a hit. An entry she posted a few days ago about the gas tax holiday debate generated enough comments for her to write a follow-up entry responding to some of them. There have also been surprise guest entries written by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine about transportation issues in their regions, and there promises to be more. On Tuesday, Peters claimed to have had an impressive 31,000 hits in her first week.

What gives the Fast Lane a chance to catch on is Peters’ lack of fear to put her opinion out there. That quality caught my attention a few weeks back when she issued a statement expressing strong disappointment when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan, which was quite a hot-button issue, died in the state’s Legislature. The gas tax has also become a major political debate between all three of the major candidates in this presidential race.

Describing her reasons for starting the blog, Peters said, “Fast Lane will allow me and others here at the department to speak directly with interested citizens, members of the transportation community and the blogosphere to engage in an earnest conversation about our nation’s transportation future. I have made 21st century solutions a priority for our transportation system, and now I’m thrilled to be using a 21st century communications tool to reach Americans in a whole new way.”

For a public official, the blog is a medium that carries great risks and rewards. On the plus side, it allows her the opportunity to communicate directly to the public, rather than having her full views boiled down to a three-sentence newspaper quote or five-second TV soundbite. It also gives her the chance to read honest feedback from members of the public who would otherwise never have access to her.

However, that could also become a problem. In my experience, Internet message boards are overwhelmingly negative places. People talk awfully tough when they can hide behind phony names and anonymity. It seems like when I read online papers with feedback enabled, the nasty comments always outnumber the positives, even when it’s doubtful that ratio reflects the public’s true opinion. For now, Peters’ blog has a moderation feature that ensures someone reviews and approves each comment before it goes live.

You’ve got to be willing to run those comments as long as they’re reasonable. If not, a blog can quickly become known as a joke, and the chances are that post will wind up somewhere else, only now it will carry the added complaint that they were “censored for writing the truth.” This negativity can take on a life of its own when a blog develops regulars and cliques start to form on the site.

So far, the blog seems to be handling it well. Peters’ gas tax opinion drew plenty of disagreement, but in many cases, the comments were very well reasoned and quite detailed.

In the months ahead, the Fast Lane could become a newsworthy website. It may even serve as a prototype for officials considering starting blogs of their own.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Do Roadway Guidance Tools Encourage Speeding?

The January-February TR News has an interesting piece about research which suggests some of the most common devices used to lower crash rates may actually accomplish the opposite. Alison Smiley, a Canadian human factors specialist, compiled several studies on improving roadway visibility and guidance and found that these measures often lead to increased speeds and crashes.

Smiley attributed the findings to the phenomenon of “driver adaptation” -- if driving tasks are made easier, the driver will change their behavior. While post-mounted delineators and raised pavement markers improve the level of information available to drivers at night, that information also gives them the confidence to drive faster and leads to more crashes, she said.

Guidance improvements that aren’t visible do not embolden drivers to speed and were therefore suggested as more effective. Rumble strips, which give an audible warning and rattle the vehicle, were mentioned as an effective means to help distracted or fatigued drivers. Statistics show rumble strips placed on the road shoulder reduce run-off-road crashes by 21 percent, and those along the centerline reduce frontal-impact crashes by 25 percent.

According to Smiley, the Dutch believe setting up less guidance on busy neighborhood streets is best because it makes drivers uncertain about the proper right-of-way delineations, causing them to slow down. A similar school of thought involves the roundabout, which entails a heavier workload for drivers. The intimidation factor of navigating roundabouts encourages drivers to slow down and observe all of their surroundings, according to Smiley. When roundabouts replace signalized intersections, she said crashes have been shown to drop by one-third.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Color by Numbers: Site Maps Affordability of Areas by Transportation + Housing Costs

By Karl Vilacoba

A new interactive website constructed by the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) estimates the cost of living in 52 metro areas by considering housing and transportation costs. Neighborhood by neighborhood, these areas are mapped out and color coded according to their affordability.

Visitors can view the areas with one of three maps:

  • Housing: Neighborhoods where housing costs more than 30 percent of median household income are blue, yellow where it’s less

  • Housing + Transportation: Areas where the combined cost of housing and transportation are estimated as more than 48 percent of household income are blue, yellow where it’s less

  • A Goal for Affordability: Areas where housing and transportation costs are more than 45 percent are blue, yellow where it’s less

Census data was used to determine housing costs. Variables like residential density, transit availability and location of jobs and amenities were used to predict car ownership, car usage, transit usage and ultimately total transportation costs. The site can be used as a tool for home seekers, urban planners, policy-makers and transportation and housing advocates looking for information on housing costs, according to CNT.

The website is part of the Housing + Transportation Affordability Index research project being completed by CNT in partnership with the Brookings Institution and the Center for Transit Oriented Development. InTransition carried a piece in 2007 about the development of the index and map.

The overall conclusion of the research, according to the CNT and its research partners on the project, is that living in the burbs is not the great deal it’s cracked up to be.

“The real estate pages may list 2- and 3-bedroom homes for under $175,000 in suburban communities. That sounds affordable, right? But once you factor in transportation costs, the bargain goes away,” CNT President Scott Bernstein said. “Transportation costs can be as much or more than housing costs. The index protects consumers by divulging those costs and helps planners and decision-makers work toward providing truly affordable housing.”

Naturally, when I checked the site out for myself, the first place I looked was my home area. With the easy rail, bus and major highway access we have, my neighborhood was safely in the yellow for each map.

It was interesting switching from map to map and seeing which areas changed colors once you factored in transportation. I imagine we’d be seeing plenty more blue neighborhoods if/when gas hits that feared $4 mark this summer.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Snakes (Almost) on a Plane

The madness just ended for hoops diehards, but at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), it’s apparently a year-round deal.

While doing some research yesterday, I stumbled across a rare outward display of humor by a government agency. The TSA maintains a website it calls “Terminal Madness,” a board with links to news of the weird-style stories that have taken place in airports around the country.

Here you can read about the guy who tried to sneak a baby alligator on board in his sock (while he was wearing it!), someone who got nabbed with dead snakes and bird parts in their luggage and the strange places people attempt to hide contraband. There’s not much content there yet – it looks like they only started the board late last summer – but it could be entertaining if they keep it up.

Friday, April 4, 2008

All Roads Lead to Russia for U.N. Conference

By Karl Vilacoba

Question: What’s the number one killer of people ages 10-24 worldwide?

If guessed “road deaths,” you knew something I didn’t.

Earlier this week, a co-worker brought to my attention an interesting nonprofit called the Make Roads Safe Campaign, which promotes public awareness of dangerous road conditions in developing countries and advocates worldwide investments to help combat the problems. According to the group, traffic injuries account for 3,000 deaths per day worldwide, and 1.2 million per year.

Make Roads Safe took out an ad in The New York Times Monday to publish an open letter to the United Nations calling on the body to hold a first-ever global conference on road safety. Later that day, the U.N. passed a resolution deciding it would go ahead with the conference in Russia sometime in 2009. Supporters of the cause claimed a victory, but vowed to press on for concrete results to come out of the conference.

“I am delighted that the U.N. has today recognized the scale of human suffering and economic loss caused by road traffic deaths and injuries,” Lord George Robertson, chairman of the Commission for Global Road Safety, said in a Make Roads Safe press release. “Now we must ensure that the U.N. Conference is not just another talking shop, but secures real commitments and takes real action to reverse the tide of global road deaths.”

The campaign would like to see a few specific items placed on the conference’s agenda. Among them are: a commitment from the international community to fund no less than a 10-year, $300 million action plan to increase road safety in low- and medium-income countries; and assurances that 10 percent of road infrastructure budgets funded by international donors be earmarked for safety.

For more on the Make Roads Safe Campaign, visit

Friday, March 28, 2008

Seatbelt Use Among Truckers on the Rises, But Still Low

By Karl Vilacoba

Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters issued a report Tuesday showing that the number of heavy duty commercial motor vehicle (CMV) drivers wearing seatbelts jumped 17 percent from 2003 to 2006. Although that rise is impressive, to me, it wasn't the number that jumped off the page.

I expected some difference between CMV and regular drivers, but not as pronounced. Even at the improved current level, only 65 percent of truck and bus drivers wore seatbelts. The national average for passenger vehicle drivers is about 82 percent, according to the U.S. DOT, a number which is also lower than I would have guessed.

I'll never understand the resistance to wearing seatbelts. For some, I suspect it's a generational thing. I've constantly got to remind my mother to put hers on when she gets in the car with me. She learned to drive at a time when seatbelt awareness wasn't nearly as emphasized, and I don't think she ever quite got in the habit.

For others, it's a comfort issue. Many a time, my wife has pulled out of the driveway only to have the annoying seatbelt warning beeps go off a block away. She probably would have ignored it, too, if I hadn't been there to insist otherwise. She just plain doesn't like the feel of a seatbelt, and won't put one on for a short drive, when it's "safe." I suspect this comfort issue is a big factor in the low use among CMV drivers, who spend a major percentage of their lives behind the wheel.

According to the study, trained traffic counters observed a total of 15,864 commercial drivers at 654 sites in 2007. Seatbelt use was found to be higher in states where failure to wear one is considered a primary offense (69 percent) than a secondary offense (59 percent). Use among drivers and occupants associated with a regional or national fleet (67 percent) were observed to be higher than independent owner-operators (56 percent).

The study did not delve into possible reasons for the lower use among CMV drivers, and that made be curious about the subject. Searching around the web, I didn't come across any scientific studies that looked at this, but I did find some materials posted by the DOT about five years ago, when raising this rate was made a point of emphasis. In a public outreach brochure titled "9 Myths About Safety Belts for Truck Drivers," the comfort issue is the first subject mentioned. Included among the other "myths" are beliefs that:

  • It's a personal decision that won't affect others.
  • They prevent escape from a burning or submerged vehicle.
  • Good drivers don't need them.
  • A large truck offers protection enough.

"Some commercial drivers tell us they do not want to buckle up because they think the size of their rigs will keep them safe," Annette M. Sandberg, Administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) said in 2003, when the brochure was circulated. "The grim reality is that when it comes to saving lives every one of us, especially truck drivers, needs to buckle up."

Monday, March 10, 2008

Studies: CO2 Emissions Must Cease Altogether to Stop Warming

An article in today’s Washington Post supports the grim outlook on climate change Josh Stephens outlined in our previous post. The story details two recent studies that concluded it may realistically be too late to thwart a dangerous rise in temperatures.

In order to accomplish that, the world’s population must change its behaviors radically beyond what was previously thought adequate to stop the warming trend. The release of carbon emissions would essentially have to cease altogether within a matter of decades, according to the story.

See “CO2 output must cease altogether, studies warn.”

Friday, February 29, 2008

Has the Time for Action on Climate Change Passed?

By Josh Stephens

For this issue of InTransition I spoke with a wide array of scholars, public officials, businesspeople and activists from around the United States to find out what the field of transportation planning can do to combat climate change. I got a different answer for every interview I conducted. It is only natural that a problem on the order of climate change -- arguably the greatest problem that humanity has faced or ever will face, short of a wayward asteroid -- would elude simple solutions.

The only agreement was that, despite good intentions and a concerted effort to conceive of solutions, America's response to climate change is in its infancy. And there isn't much time for it to grow up.

The question I did not ask in any of my interviews, perhaps because it is too depressing (or because I wanted to save it for another article) is, "What happens if we fail?" Actually, I'm not sure that "if" is at issue. The question should refer to "when." Judging from some of the projections, the matter may already be out of our hands.

Put together, all of the world's climate change mitigation efforts might, if we're lucky, reduce the amount of pollution we put into the atmosphere -- as opposed to merely reducing the rate of increase. Even if clean fuels, innovative engines and compact development can help cut greenhouse gas emissions by one tenth, one quarter or even a half, the atmosphere will continue to heat up from the gases that have already been released. (Never mind China, India, and the other developing countries that are asserting their right to unfettered commerce.) Ocean currents will continue to change. Storm patterns and rainfall will still go haywire. Waves will still lap at the ankles of Miami, Dhaka and Venice. Crops will still fail, and species will go extinct.

In fact, greenhouse gas emissions are not expected to fall to zero for another two centuries. Not because we'll have solved the problem but rather because that's when the earth's crust will finally be exhausted of fossil fuels. In the meantime, demand for those fuels continues apace and the rate of extraction will fall while fuel prices rise.

But there is no telling when pedestrian-friendly suburbs will be built; because zoning laws and the myth known as “the American dream” continue to spawn tract after tract of detached, dispiriting homes. And, having already sent the electric car to a premature death, there is also no telling where all this fiddling with hybrids, hydrogen and Smart Cars will lead. More likely than not, this country, and its transportation planners, will have to figure out how to operate its transportation network when many people can afford to drive -- whether they like it or not.

We have built a world -- of freeways, boulevards, suburbs and office parks -- that was designed and honed for a certain commodity at a certain price. So what do we do about would-be commuters marooned many miles from work by gas prices? How do we get cars off crowded, inefficient urban streets if there's no money to buy buses or build rail lines? How do we fix tens of thousands of crumbling bridges when the costs of steel, concrete, and gas are making billion the new million? What do we do with our ports and airports when the wheels of globalization begin to turn backwards? Where do we put the people driven off their land by rising tides -- and how do they pay for their relocation?

These questions are, perhaps, far more urgent than those about solutions. Solutions are uncertain. But the ravages of climate change are all but assured. In the future, all planning may be disaster planning.

Hyperbolic? I hope so. But the more people are afraid to talk about it, the worse the consequences will be.

I dearly hope that the strategies and solutions outlined in my article come to pass and that they work. I hope that everyone who reads it will take it not as a point of interest but rather as a mandate for action. In fact, I believe that this mandate is already taking hold, and my article is only a tiny part of a growing movement. But we must move quickly indeed.

In my article I compared this challenge to that of Sysiphus. But Sysiphus had one luxury that we do not: his mountain never got higher.

Josh Stephens is the author of the Winter 2008 issue’s cover story, “Transportation Planning Warms Up to Climate Change.”

Point-Counterpoint: Walking Distance to Transit

An item in last issue’s Research Exchange section titled “Pedestrians Walk Farther Than Expected” discussed an award-winning study that reported commuters were willing to walk more than the quarter- to one-third of a mile distance to rail stations conventionally viewed as the maximum. After reading our coverage and reviewing the study (“How Far, by Which Route, and Why? A Spatial Analysis of Pedestrian Preference”) in its entirety, a transportation consultant wrote to InTransition to challenge its findings. We contacted the study’s authors, who agreed to review these criticisms and offer a response. You can read that exchange here.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Amtrak Quiet Car: Where Silence Sells

By Karl Vilacoba

My Tuesday morning train ride felt like it broke new ground for the rudeness of fellow passengers. At one point, there must have been a half-dozen cell phone conversations going on in my direct comfort zone, a maddening feeling for a guy who depends on that extra hour of pre-work shuteye.

On my train, people who loudly subject the rest of us to the unimportant details of their lives are usually scorned. I’ve seen out-of-hand cell phone talkers heckled, confronted and, in one case, even given a round of applause by a whole car full of riders once his conversation was done. But on this morning, it seemed the rules of commuter etiquette were collectively thrown out the vestibule.

My wife warns me I shouldn’t hold in my anger so much because it gets pent up, and one day it will blow. But my fantasies of meting out vigilante commuter justice aside, I’m too mild-mannered to turn around and tell someone to put a sock in it. I just wish a conductor would do it for me.

Out of curiosity, I searched around the Web the other day to see if any companies or transit agencies had come up with any interesting rules regarding cell phone abuse, and I came across a very novel approach being taken by Amtrak. In late 1999, a group of frustrated regular riders of the Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., morning train banded together and requested a car be set aside as a sanctuary from the beeps, blabbing and Beethoven symphonies. The Quiet Car soon became a reality and a patented concept.

The Quiet Car’s success shows not only that silence is a virtue, but silence sells.

“It has been popular enough that we’ve extended the Quiet Car to several Amtrak trains,” said Tracy Connell, a spokesperson for Amtrak. “I don’t have any stats on it, but I know the response has been very positive and we’ve had a lot of compliments on it.”

Quiet Car rules state that riders may not use any noise-making devices such as cell phones, pagers, laptops with audible features enabled, or handheld games and music players without headphones. Conversation must be kept in quiet, subdued tones. Conductors are instructed to ask anyone who disregards these rules to leave the car, Connell said.

The Quiet Car seems like a sensible way for Amtrak to balance the needs of riders seeking peace and quiet with those of business travelers who have work to do that requires their being in touch with the outside world. It also addresses a problem that will only get worse. At the time those passengers first took a stand in 1999, about 86 million people had cell phone subscriptions in the U.S., according to CTIA-The Wireless Association, an organization representing members of the wireless telecommunications industry. That number has since nearly tripled to about 254 million subscribers today.

So what’s the lesson here? If you’re looking for some peace and quiet on your commute, your best bet may be to gather up some friends and ask for it. Just please don’t do it over your cell phone, sitting next to me.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Presidential Forum on Transportation & Infrastructure

The presidential campaigns have faced questions from Russert, Williams and even a YouTube audience. Now it’s “Gridlock Sam’s” turn.

Sam Schwartz, New York Daily News traffic columnist and CEO of Sam Schwartz Company, will serve as a moderator of “Moving America Forward: A Presidential Candidates Forum on Transportation & Infrastructure.” The bi-partisan forum will be hosted Jan. 31 by the NYU Wagner Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management.

According to Micah Kagan, a NYU graduate student and event organizer, no actual candidates will take part, but representatives on behalf of each campaign from both parties have been invited, and as of Thursday, several had accepted. Audience members will be allowed to ask questions.

The event is free, but space is limited. Those interested in attending or obtaining more information should visit The event will be held in the Eisner and Lubin Auditorium, located on the fourth floor of the Kimmel Center, 60 Washington Square S., New York City.

Kagan said those who can’t make it will still be able to view the forum on a webcast, which he expects will be posted shortly after its conclusion.

The forum will be co-sponsored by the American Council of Engineering Companies of New York, the American Society of Civil Engineers; CUNY Institute for Urban Systems, the General Contractors Association, the League of American Bicyclist; the Municipal Art Society; the Regional Plan Association; Transportation Alternatives; the University Transportation Research Center, Region 2 and the Wagner Transportation Association.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Commuter benefit rises $5

For a second consecutive year, the IRS has approved an increase in the monthly allowable tax-free amount toward commuter benefits, raising the maximum from $110 to $115 for transit costs. The change became effective Jan. 1.

The IRS reportedly raised the commuter benefit amount to adjust for inflation based on the Department of Labor’s Consumer Price Index. However, the $5 may offer little comfort to many public transit riders. With fuel costs skyrocketing in recent years, transportation agencies have hiked their fares to compensate – by almost double in some cases – but transit benefits haven’t nearly kept the pace.

Help could be on the way. Bills introduced both in the House of Representatives and the Senate last year would revise the laws to increase the monthly transit and vanpool limit to $200 per month, if passed. Both, as of this writing, were assigned to committees for review.

In a press release, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) praised the $5 hike as a win for commuters and the environment. The organization cited a recent study which claimed riding public transportation could reduce a commuter’s daily carbon emissions by 20 pounds.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Putting Mountaineers in Gear

By Karl Vilacoba has posted a column which took me down Memory Lane – which in this case is an elevated, electrified roadway traversed by unmanned blue and gold vans.

In “Personal Rapid Transit: The Connective Tissue of Better Mobility,” University of Washington Professor Emeritus Jerry Schneider discusses two PRT systems and how they might serve as models for other cities. Schneider was enthusiastic about PRTs’ potential to provide relatively cheap, reliable and environmentally friendly public transportation. The two systems he focuses on chiefly – the ULTra PRT at London’s Heathrow Airport and the Vectus PRT in Sweden – are both under construction and considered cutting edge. A PRT I grew to know well was once, too, but those days are long gone.

In the early 1970s, Morgantown, W.Va.’s PRT was built to connect West Virginia University’s original downtown campus to a newer one springing up two miles away in the city’s Evansdale section. The system has five stops: Walnut Street, in the downtown shopping area; Beechurst Avenue, in the heart of the downtown campus buildings; Engineering, the stop for the Coliseum hoops arena, engineering school and other university buildings in Evansdale; the Towers dorms; and Medical, the drop-off point for Mountaineer Field, the medical school and local hospital. You can ride from one end of the line to the other in about 20 minutes; going by foot would mean crossing a mini-mountain that separates the two areas.

Before I put in my dorm request as an incoming freshman, I sought living advice from an upperclassman I knew. He laid it out like this: The Towers dorms are modern, cleaner, and have better cafeterias and amenities, but you have to ride the PRT to class every day. The downtown dorms are ancient, cold and crumbling, but are in the middle of it all. Ever the Jersey boy, I gravitated to the more urban downtown area.

Although I lived downtown, the PRT nonetheless became a major part of my college life. On football game mornings, when Morgantown becomes the largest city in West Virginia, ridership swelled as visitors and students like myself sardined ourselves in the (allegedly) 20-person capacity cars. You’d also be hard-pressed not to get stuck with at least a few courses out in Evansdale over your career, no matter how hard you tried to avoid it.

I can’t imagine how I would have gotten by without the PRT. It ran steadily from morning to the evening, and cars weren’t difficult to come by. Rides were free by swiping your student ID through the turnstile and 50 cents for anyone else; next to a newspaper or a postage stamp, can you think of a better value today than that? I lived in a house with a track running through my backyard, yet it was so quiet I rarely even noticed it.

There were also times I thought PRT could have stood for Pain in the Rear Tailbone. The university touts its 98 percent reliability, but I’m willing to bet that 2 percent failure came inordinately during the rough Morgantown winters, when you dreaded getting stranded the most. There were other times when it felt like the so-called “PRT Gods” –faceless operators who controlled the cars from a remote location, never making themselves known except to scald a misbehaving student on the platform over the loudspeaker – were playing tricks on me. You’d push the button for your destination, then watch a car pull up to you and just idle there, doors closed, for minutes on end.

Today, the PRT is an indispensable part of campus life and a selling point for prospective students. According to a recent New York Times piece, there’s a debate going on now over whether to expand the system by five more stops. If something were to happen that caused the PRT to vanish tomorrow, it would be a disaster. Morgantown is an old city of narrow, wildly sloped streets that were not planned to handle anything near its modern traffic. Anything that means getting cars off these streets is profoundly positive, especially when you’re talking about drivers 18-22 years old.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Less Stress Express

By Karl Vilacoba

I’m seeing more grays than I’d care to when I look in the mirror lately, but I read something the other day that reminded me it could be worse.

A recent study suggests that commuters who take the train to work were less stressed by their trip than those who drove. According to “Leave the Driving to Them: Comparing Stress of Car and Train Commuters,” motorists reported significantly higher levels of stress, more negative moods and indicated their trip took more effort and was far less predictable compared to rail riders.

I can certainly relate to this study. When I joined the magazine a few months ago, I had a decision to make: To drive or not to drive. I, too, would be choosing between the NJ Transit rails or the highways. Even my commute time was the same as the average for people in the study, roughly 75 minutes.

I decided to base my decision on a drive I took to our Newark offices for an interview. The meeting was set for 9 a.m., so it would serve as a pretty good indicator for the rush hour traffic I’d face each morning behind the wheel.

On my way in, I got confused by the signs in a construction area and missed my exit. I allowed myself about a half-hour extra to be on the safe side, but I watched in panic as the minutes ticked off on my dashboard clock while I desperately sought a way to turn around in the glorified parking lot that was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard gridlock traffic. I made the embarrassing call to let my future supervisor know I was running late.

I explained what a disaster Route 280 was to a current co-worker who sat in on that meeting, and he asked with puzzlement why I would ever take that road. I told him that’s what the directions on the Web site said to do. “They do?” he said with a chuckle. “Oops.” Thanks, partner!

If it were purely a matter of speed, I would drive. It would save time, although not enough to be a deal-breaker. If it were purely a matter of money, I probably would save by getting a parking pass and driving, although parking garage fees, tolls, high gas prices and the attrition on my car all add up. But there’s something to be said for living without the fear of getting in a high-speed crash, or the relatively few surprises of a train ride. At the end of the day, it’s a quality of life decision, and I devised a checklist about my drive to help myself make it.

Congestion? Check. Expensive? Check. Stressful? Check. Check. Check. … So where can I get my monthly pass?