Sunday, January 27, 2013

Incremental Improvements Add Up

Over the Christmas season, my family and I spent two weekends out of town. The first saw a return trip that is normally less than three hours take four hours, the majority of which was filled with a screaming two-month old. For the second trip, we wanted to avoid that outcome so we looked into the options. We settled on Megabus.

They are the Southwest Airlines of buses. They avoid high-cost terminals and are generally a very affordable option. We started our trip at DART's East Transfer Center (ETC). There was a big dust-up between the bus company and the city. They initially wanted to operate out of the parking lot just south of the ETC, but the City of Dallas had other ideas. They finally came to an agreement with DART to operate out of one of their facilities.

From that perspective, I love it. I have always thought the ETC, for many reasons, is heavily underutilized. This gives it a lot more uses. It also turns the ETC from a bus station a couple of blocks away from a rail station into a multi-modal transportation facility.

From DART's perspective, they will make a bit of extra revenue on the lease, but it should also have a slight increase in rail ridership and up the bus ridership by a rounding area. It also gives the ETC a more vibrant use in downtown.

For the rest of the stops we made, Megabus utilized gas station parking lots of the freeways they stopped in. You can definitely see the low-cost approach here. The only downside, as we experienced on the return trip, is when the bus is late, there is no way to know. Our bus was over an hour late and the staff at the Midland Exxon couldn't relay anything.

Overall, the traveling experience was enjoyable, and I'd recommend. As far as the urban impact, this is a positive for downtown. It adds an extra use to an under-performing downtown bus station, and creates more activity in a part of downtown that has none. I really think several small changes like this will have a positive step in downtown Dallas' transition into a bona fide  urban area.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Biking in Dallas: The Comedy

For any following the City of Dallas quest to become more bike friendly, the Dallas Morning News ran a Metro Section article Tuesday about a tour elected officials took to see the current bike infrastructure on the ground. It is behind the paywall, but I recommend the read.

I know I have promised a post on the new bike lanes downtown, but a brief synopsis is this: I am underwhelmed. The article gives a good felling of why, even from the beginning with the headline. "Tour-by van- looks at bike lanes" says it all. People who don't ride design a system for riders and then are perplexed when riders don't use the system.

Fundamentally, it comes down to a flaw of the planning profession in general. The jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none certainly apply to many-to most planners. Some consult a book, see what other cities or counties have done and apply it without context. The system designed by bikers in Portland, for example, may not work here. Just because they see results, doesn't mean Dallas will.

From the article:

In a white city van, four City Council members and several staff members rode past Fair Park through Deep Ellum and downtown and into Oak Cliff to view the different ways Dallas has installed bike infrastructure.
The city's central connection of bike lanes stretches from Victory Park to near Fair Park and leads from the Katy Trail to the Santa Fe Trail.

But it isn't the easiest path to navigate, council members agreed. Because of the inadequate signs and variations in the types of lanes used, bicyclists are often left to figure out where they're supposed to be - while riding in lanes shared with cars. 
Council members were also concerned about the narrowness of some lanes downtown, particularly along Jackson and Wood streets. In some places, the bike lane runs into the storm sewer.
Those touring the lanes saw lots of striping laid down for bicycles. What they didn't see much of were people on bicycles.

Whether it was because of the time of day, the cold weather, a lack of interest of something else, the lanes weren't attracting many users.

Changing that will be the true test of how well the new lanes work.

 I won't go into too much detail of the lanes themselves, as I believe that is worth a post on its own. What I want to address is two-fold.

First, Dallas isn't alone, but I know it the best. They put up a mismatch of infrastructure, some convenient to the biker, some for the street layout, some convenient to the cars. This combination can actually nullify the first one and it no longer is convenient to cycle any amount of distance. Then the cyclist, both hard core and recreational, don't use it and what was built for them sits empty.

A lot of times in planning, the phrase "just get something on the ground" is used as a way to put a policy in place with the rationale that the public will see it and opposition will fade as people see it in use. This is a great example of why I don't like that approach as a one-size-fits-all tactic. In this situation, folks who don't want the lanes are going to point here and say "why build it here if no one uses it there."

The final result ends with no new infrastructure added because the initial ones were implemented poorly and no one uses it. This isn't a good outcome for anyone.

Ultimately, the big stumbling block lies with the city staffers and elected officials who are reluctant to take space now used for cars and allocate them to another mode. Somehow, in order to achieve balance, that has to happen. You can't add any meaningful infrastructure while leaving a seven-lane-wide roadway with a median intact for autos to achieve high speeds. Those high speeds make cycling, walking and transit uncomfortable and therefore inconvenient. As a result, only car-use is convenient and the only mode used on a wide basis. Cities, like Dallas, tread water if their starting point is to leave the auto-only roadways alone.

The second point is this. How many times have we heard alternative transportation won't work in Dallas because Dallasites just love their cars? I have maintained people don't love their cars, they love convenience and I still haven't seen anything to contradict this. Cars are still the only thing that is convenient across the region. There are small patches scattered here and yon where a car isn't needed, but nothing wholesale to really put a dent in regional vehicle miles traveled. I have talked a bit about why DART comes up short. Walking is too fragmented, even in walkable areas. In the DMN article linked, the biking infrastructure is noted for being to erratic and mismatched. The only thing that is close to be seamless and convenient is the car.

From coast to coast and even internationally, places that have a legitimate choice and offer convenient alternative transportation options, their citizens choose alternatives. In places that don't, folks don't choose it on any meaningful scale.

Dallas can do it, but I just wonder if there will ever be enough people to hop out of the van to ever get it done.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Hidden Costs

I was shopping the other day, and a transportation and land-use question popped into my head.

I was at one of the big box stores when I told the cashier that I had my own bags and wouldn't want more plastic bags. She scanned a code that gave a five cent discount per bag. The premise, from the store's perspective, is those who use their own bags are saving the company bags, and therefore aren't charged the amount of the bags.

In turning this around to transportation policy, what happens to transit users who don't use their parking lot? The store either owns the lot and pays for construction, maintenance and taxes, or leases the property from an entity that pays for for construction, maintenance and taxes and that cost is included in the lease. Either way, that cost isn't going to be a sunk cost to the store. That is passed on in the price and is paid for by consumers. That's okay if you actually use that service.

But in the case above, my wife and family took the train there. Yet we still paid for the parking space.

Cars are virtually the only thing that gets a pass. There are so many hidden costs such as this. Some economists have pegged the hidden cost/subsidy of a gallon of gas at 6-10 dollars. City taxes are derived primarily from property and sales taxes, regardless of whether the payee uses or owns a car. Free parking, as I briefly describe above is paid by any customer. Increasingly, the federal gas tax is coming up short on highway funding, so the general fund is being tapped. In fact, as highways become more expensive, regional planning agencies are getting creative in getting the money.

This is also why I am a fan of tolling roads. It shifts the cost from hidden into the open. There has to be a lot of changes at so many levels to shift this. I think the start has to be from ubiquitous city zoning codes with their origins in the 1950's to be abolished in favor of a market-based strategy pioneered by Donald Shoup. I think that alone will solve much of the negatives associated with auto-centric land-use and development.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Why Planning can never be Precise

I hope everyone had a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Mine was quite enjoyable.

Prior to the holidays, I was checking e-mail and on the front page was a headline about congestion reduction. When I clicked on it, I initially dismissed the report, but have thought about it since so what happens when I over-think an urban issue? I blog it o' course.

The basis of the article is that if select neighborhoods decided against making car trips, then overall congestion would be reduced dramatically. From the lead:

Canceling some car trips from just a few strategically located neighborhoods could drastically reduce gridlock and traffic jams in cities, a new study suggests.

 They go on to list individual cities' neighborhoods and their effects on overall city congestion:

"In the Boston area, we found that canceling 1 percent of trips by select drivers in the Massachusetts municipalities of Everett, Marlborough, Lawrence, Lowell and Waltham would cut all drivers’ additional commuting time caused by traffic congestion by 18 percent," said researcher Marta Gonz├ílez, a complex-systems scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "In the San Francisco area, canceling trips by drivers from Dublin, Hayward, San Jose, San Rafael and parts of San Ramon would cut 14 percent from the travel time of other drivers."

The problem with this, as is any hard science when they delve into the soft or social science, is that everything is a mathematical formula, a linear cause and effect. Water boils at a certain temperature, oxygen is composed of two oxygen atoms, the day is 23 hours, 56 minutes long, etc. are all measurable, repeatable things. One person can do it, report it and pass it on to someone who can independently do the same thing.

In social sciences, that is impossible. Human behavior, like nature itself, is chaotic, erratic and unmeasurable. That is where statistics come in. Human behavior can be measured in a bell curve, but it is not precise. Traffic modeling is an example of this measuring of human behavior. There are several different types of mathematical models out there for MPO's to use, but most follow a basic formula, trip generation, trip distribution, mode split and trip assignment.

However, there is a step called calibration. Ever seen a meter strip in the street? That helps calibrate the model. Using the formula, modelers see where the model says trips are coming from and where they are going. They then compare that to real world measurements and repeatedly calibrate the model until it resembles the observed numbers. This model is then forecast out for however long the modeler chooses too extend it, usually 30 years.

The reason calibration is needed is human behavior. New York is different than Dallas for example. The exact same mathematical formula would be highly erroneous.

It, like the study linked above, ignores the human behavior and attempts to quantify it scientifically. I am an alternative transportation advocate. There have been times where I decided to use different modes at different times for the exact same trip. Add in things like Induced Traffic and the flaws become more noticeable.

Individually, there is no way to model behavior. But, using the bell curve, there are ways to measure, but it isn't exact, and that's okay. What isn't okay when folks portray human behavior as a linear function. I don't for a minute, believe that study. Procedurally, it may be sound, the math exact and correct. But it ignores the fact that social sciences aren't neat, compact and unerringly precise. Spouting off precise numbers such as 18 or 14 percent reductions ignores human behavior, and that may cause more problems in a different way.