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

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Shoup Shows Cities How to “Just Say No” to Parking

By Josh Stephens

Anyone who has ever eaten the exhaust of a Lamborghini understands the visceral charms of driving. Its appeal lies similarly in the curves of the Big Sur Highway, the preening queues on the Sunset Strip, and the anticipatory thunder of a NASCAR starting line.

The notion of a “love affair with cars” has gone from metaphor to cliché to hardened myth in the course of the past century, and even the dowdiest of America’s engineers, transportation planners and public officials have been seduced into serving the auto’s every need. Meanwhile, parking, which is the obvious, and necessary, corollary to driving, gets only whispered about, like condoms at the back of a drug store. Indeed, the most shocking claim in Professor Don Shoup’s magnum opus The High Cost of Free Parking is not that cities have implemented bad policies -- that happens all the time for all sorts of reasons -- but that almost no one has bothered to study those policies.

As it turns out, every car on the road equates to roughly seven patches of asphalt off the road. Cars get stored at home, at work, at the grocery store, and all about town. They take up valuable real estate, and, even then, any given space is more likely to be empty than not, whether they come in the form of flat expanses of asphalt or towering monoliths of concrete. They amount to the greatest, most pointless failure in American planning and design. Were parking not an aesthetic crime, it would, at the very least, be a sin against efficiency.

Yes, call me biased. But to say that a transportation writer shouldn’t descry parking lots is like saying a crime reporter shouldn’t be opposed to murder.

For all the effort that planners exert to create regulations and, on occasion, envision better cities, their approach to parking has been based on specious assumptions and utter irrationality. Why measure peak annual parking rather than averages? Why give away desirable spaces for free? Who knows what an abattoir is, much less how many parking spaces it needs? Arbitrary minimum parking requirements have not only stretched cities out physically -- so that buildings are enshrouded by surface parking lots and therefore separated from each other -- but also stretched them financially. The costs that parking imposes are in the price of every bag of Cheetos at K-Mart, every minute stuck in suburban traffic, and, indirectly, in lost revenue to cities.

It’s tempting to think that in the postmodern world that we’ve outgrown paradigm shifts, but Professor Shoup has done his best to give us one. He calls for a dramatic reinterpretation of the ills and possibilities of parking, and he’s kind enough to prescribe some compelling solutions: higher street parking rates, communal lots, maximums instead of minimums, parking benefit districts, and the rest. The ball is now in the public officials’ court. My article is but the latest (though perhaps longest) in a series of articles dedicated to Shoup’s studies, so no planner or city engineer has any excuse not to consider his prescriptions.

Shoup himself has taken enthusiastically to the lecture circuit, translating dense, statistics-laden work into a call to action. Refreshingly, he is the opposite of the proverbial bureaucratic planner: He is excited by his own work and believes that it can make the world a better place. And his tools offer cities the chance to rebuild themselves in unconventional, inexpensive ways by centering not on infrastructure or unproven technology, but rather on pricing signals and revision of outdated, inefficient regulations.

Cities that have no money for infrastructure investments, are crushed by byzantine planning codes, or are otherwise skittish about upsetting the status quo now have no excuse not to consider parking reform. What developers would not be happier to have their parking requirements cut in half? What merchant open in the daytime wouldn’t be thrilled to share parking with the dinner theater next door? What big box developer wouldn’t be perfectly content to cut down a few fewer trees -- if only the laws allowed them to?

Studies have shown that abstinence education has largely been a failure. The future for parking abstinence, is, however, far brighter. A city with less parking, less traffic, and more pleasant places to live, work, and stroll hand-in-hand would be sexier indeed.

As for what goes on in the backseat: you kids are on your own.

Josh Stephens is the author of "Putting Parking into Reverse," published in the winter 2009 issue of InTransition. He is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

About “Reinventing the Wheel”

By Karl Vilacoba

First, I’d like to thank Professor Jerry Schneider for his assistance with this story. His Innovative Transportation Technologies website is a great resource, and I would encourage anyone reading this blog to browse it when you have some free time.

Over 100 transportation systems are being tracked on Schneider’s website, and boiling them down to a list of only a dozen or so to profile was not easy. To be clear, this was not meant as one of those “10 Most Important” or “10 Technologies You Must Know About” kinds of features. My goal was simply to introduce a sample of these inventions to a broad audience who probably never heard of any of them.

I wanted to show a variety of systems – a little bit of everything, from PRTs to alternative cars to freight movers to pedestrian innovations. Each capsule was meant as a brief overview with links to sites where readers can learn more. I don’t endorse any of these systems, nor do I offer any predictions about whether they’ll succeed in the marketplace.

I started off by perusing all of the systems on the website’s matrix and choosing about a dozen that grabbed my attention. I asked Professor Schneider to recommend some systems I should consider, and to look over my list and advise me of any potential red flags. Our lists had some overlap, and I eliminated a few that were too similar to others. While the odds are that many of these innovations will never see the light of day, I sometimes gave a little extra weight to those that seemed feasible – far along in the development stages, financially well-backed or under serious consideration by legitimate clients (countries, cities, big corporations, etc.), for instance.

Finally, one or two never panned out because the companies’ contact people weren’t responsive (check your e-mails!), but those cases were the exception to the rule. When I reached out for more information, it wasn’t unusual to be called back by the CEO or the inventor themselves. Often they were one and the same.

I believe that’s a good indicator of how competitive this field is. These companies don’t get much media attention, so when an opportunity came, they put their top people in touch and were very accommodating (although some of these companies consist of staffs you can count on one hand). It was one of several factors that made this one of the most enjoyable stories I’ve worked on over the past few years.

Anyone have any favorites of the systems I profiled? Any thoughts on whether these systems could work in your city?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Transit Benefit to Double

By Karl Vilacoba

Some great news for commuters seems to have been lost in the considerable fine print of the federal stimulus package. The law authorizes the IRS to raise the tax-free amount allowed by employer-sponsored commuter benefit programs from $120 to $230 per month, or $1,440 to $2,760 annually.

Under the new formula, set to take effect March 1, mass transit riders and vanpoolers can save nearly $800 per year in federal income taxes, and possibly more than $1,000 once state and Social Security taxes are factored in. Employees whose monthly mass transit fees are less than $230 will be allowed to deduct the full amount from their paychecks.

Over the last few years, the government raised the cap in intervals you could chalk up as “better than nothing.” The last three years saw three consecutive $5 hikes meant to adjust for inflation. In reality, the hikes often didn’t -- the surge in gas costs placed enormous pressure on transit providers to raise fares, in many cases well more than $5.

But by doubling the cap, the government has created a real incentive for commuters to leave their cars home. According to surveys by the nonprofit TransitCenter, one-third of employers who don’t currently offer the benefit said they would if the monthly cap were increased significantly, and 53 percent of employees said they would take advantage of the benefit if it were offered. Employers save money from these programs by lowering their payroll taxes.

Also significant, the law brings the pre-tax allowance in line with the $230 benefit provided for commuters who pay to park at or near their workplaces or at park-and-rides. Transit advocates objected to the previous $230 to $120 disparity, which they argued encouraged commuters to drive rather than ride the rails or bus.

“Given the economic pressures our riders are under, this relief couldn’t have come at a better time,” Steve Schlickman, executive director of the Chicago Regional Transportation Authority, said in a press release. “A thousand dollars a year can make a real difference in the life of a family. This is a victory for Chicago’s commuters.”

Friday, January 9, 2009

Coming Soon ... Winter 2009 Issue

Happy New Year! Work is well underway on the winter issue of InTransition, which should be in the mail in late February/early March. If you’ve changed your address since the summer, 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 upcoming issue:

Putting Parking into Reverse: Four years after its release, cities are beginning to act on the recommendations of Donald Shoup’s influential book “The High Cost of Free Parking.”
The Economic Impacts of BRT: Often overlooked, bus rapid transit can serve as an engine of urban renewal and transit-oriented development.
Innovative Transportation: Inventors around the world have been hard at work on unconventional, gas-free modes of transportation.
Transportation & the Economic Meltdown: Victoria Transport Policy Institute Executive Director Todd Litman shares his views on the connections between the financial crisis and the transportation sector.
Green Pavements: Cities experiment with alternatives to standard pavement materials.

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.