Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Chicago takes steps to increase transit use

There's a few things I want to get into, some of which are require a separate post, such as my recent visit to San Antonio. But for this one, I want to turn your attention to Chicago.

The first bit of news is the fact that the mayor is setting a policy that requires city employees to take transit instead of city vehicles where possible. This may seem like a policy set to increase transit use, and to degree it is. However, it is primarily a direct response to employees over billing for car reimbursement forms. Things like car washes were being charged to the city.

I really can get behind things like this. For no added expense for the city (unless it does not offer a transit pass as a benefit) or the employee, we find a way to lower city expenses and increase (albeit marginally) CTA's reach.

The other bit of news from the Windy City is they are trying to join the ranks of those cities with congestion pricing. San Francisco instituted an on-street parking program that adjusts rates to demand, a far cry from flat-rate, all-day rate. The region also adjusts toll rates to correspond with demand. London charges a fee to enter downtown by car, something New York considered, but declined to implement.

Chicago is charging a two-dollar surcharge on all public parking. This will increase demand for alternative transport, primarily transit, but also walking biking and a possible land-use change.

I like the principle. I just don't think this is the best way to go. Private parking is completely ignored here, which is usually in abundance and city codes (I don't know Chicago specifically) usually require a large excess. By ignoring the private and regulatory aspect, the effect is blunted. Unless all people are effected equally, the policy will be ineffective at best and useless at worst.

When it comes to congestion pricing, I usually think something is better than nothing, and this is certainly better than the status quo. I just would approach it differently to increase the effect. Maybe that's why it failed politically in New York. Too much change can also be ineffective.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Why salt is important to planners

The Texas Transportation Institute, out of Texas A&M, released its annual Urban Mobility Report and as usual, large urban metros are clogged with auto congestion. I am not going to get into the details, but know that methodologies used have been under increased scrutiny.

The top 10 cities come as no surprise: 1) Washington D.C., 2) Chicago, 3) Los Angeles, 4) Houston, 5) New York, 6) Baltimore, 7) San Francisco, 8) Denver, 9) Boston, 10) Minneapolis & 10) Dallas. Perhaps the bigger surprise is the preferences of the authors and its intended readers.

To make it simplistic, the authors assign an arbitrary amount ($16 per hour) to each drivers time lost in congestion. If a freeway is not level-of-service A, which is very hard to attain, then there is time lost to congestion.

The report makes the case that time lost to congestion is important, but time lost to commuting is not. For example, if a commuter (already a biased term) lives close to work, but spends all 10 minutes of the commute in congestion, they lose more time than the commuter who lives 40 minutes from work, but five of that is congested. So the latter commuter, which spends more time a day/week/year in traffic doesn't count as much in the congestion cost as the former, even though the former spends only a quarter of that time in the car overall.

Also, transit times are not considered at all into the equation. The certainty of knowing the train will arrive here at X time and get me there at Y time 95% + on schedule means nothing to the report. It does through a bone and says transit saves X amount of time in congestion by multiplying the riders of the system by the $16 an hour. I won't get into the flaws of this line of thinking, as I would hope they are somewhat obvious.

This report is often used as a reason for supporting more freeway lane construction. And again, this bias is skewed toward more freeways. If the latter commuter is ideal in the minds of the authors, then surely their recommendations will mirror that. On top of that, the recommendations ignore the induced traffic principle. I will devote a post to that sometime soon in the future, but just know, simplistically, it means travel is not a supply and demand function, but behavioral and people will travel based on capacity.

A lot of planners are coming around on the idea that more congestion is actually good. More people choose transit when the uncertainty of auto travel reaches a certain point. More people choose to live closer when travel times and costs are high. Others choose different routes, etc. Point is, most planners know more freeways means more low-density suburban development. I suppose the TTI does to.

That is why I say these things must be taken with a grain of salt, even if they support your point. In graduate school, I was working on a research paper for a statistical analysis class. I was working with numbers that were timed based. I ran the numbers at first by the year and didn't get what I wanted. So for fun I ran it by months and still didn't get what I wanted. Finally I tried the numbers by quarter years and it showed what I had hoped it would at the beginning. Needless to say, I switched to the quarter years.

This is why I do not put a lot of stock in non-peer-reviewed pieces, like the TTI's UMR. That saying that figures don't lie but liars figure can always be applied to public policy pieces.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Multiple streetcar recipes

I ran across a great piece from the Transport Politic about streetcars and why cities are opting for them. The author wonders if they are the panaceas promoters claim.

First, I generally agree with Yonah Freemark's assessment. It points out that Washington has shifted gears from funding bus improvements to streetcar projects. All true. Bush's administration put a higher priority on speed. Projects that reduced travel times got the nod for federal funds. That usually meant streetcars didn't get funds. The current administration favors a funding formula that considers streetcars. The stimulus fund also wou8nd up going to streetcars.

He then points out that most money goes to lines that are slower. By avoiding paying for things like grade separation, that could be done cheaply with something like paint, he insists that we are short-changing our transit systems. The only reason he gives for this is that it is politically unpopular to take a lane of traffic away. While that maybe true in some areas, I don't think that is it only.

I also don't think he gets the whole picture. Until we understand that transportation systems are not separate entities from the built environment, we will never have fully integrated communities.

While I don't suggest that streetcars should always be slow, neither do I suggest, as Freemark seems to do consistently, that speed is the ultimate goal. I refer to McKinney Avenue, the main thoroughfare to perhaps Dallas' most urban neighborhood. It is a heavily traveled street with a streetcar line in the middle and dense buildings along both sides.

McKinney is a great urban street. Obviously the streetcar shows transit works here, but many people drive and biking is quite easy, despite heavy traffic (primarily for the reason about to be given). The difference here and elsewhere is the slower speeds. This is what Freemark (and almost all traffic engineers for that matter) misses. The speed, or maybe lack of, is a commonly missed ingredient of urban streets. So much of our time in the transportation field is spent getting things through areas as quickly as possible. That alone is not ther problem. There are times where that is needed. The problem comes in when it is done everywhere, regardless of context.

My favorite Dallas streetcar - the Green Dragon. The nickname comes from the SMU students who used to ride it when Dallas had an expansive city-wide streetcar system.
This is where the streetcar comes in. I can think of nothing as regular as a scheduled streetcar that can help slow traffic down as a streetcar line. Buses can, but not as well, for reasons I can't even articulate. Maybe part of it has to do with the streetcar unloading in the middle of the street, rather than the side, but it isn't the only reason. Even the feel of driving next to a streetcar slows traffic.

In fact, it is amazing how everything but cars work better when the overall traffic speed is lower. Transit does, biking certainly does. Nearby pedestrians are more comfortable.

Freemark did say later that each locality should decide the use that is best, so at least he wasn't advocating speed above all, all the time. But if you read enough of his posts, you'll that he indirectly advocates speed above all things.