Archive | November, 2015

Christchurch: A New Transit Hub

It’s almost five years since Christchurch, New Zealand was devastated by the February 2011 earthquake.

A new downtown is under construction in the blocks just south of the ruined cathedral, and one of the first buildings to be opened was the new hub for the transit system.  It’s a fine building: spacious, well-lit, with a little cafe as well as great information, both human and automated.



What will strike a North American visitor, though, is that it does something that we consider impossible.  Buses pull into terminal bays, and then must back out.  This is common in stations for long-distance buses — where the trips are infrequent and dwell for a long time — but it’s very unusual for a high-frequency urban system, where buses arrive and depart constantly.  It makes the waiting area more compact, with shorter walks between buses, but it requires a very wide bus roadway.  It’s easiest to see from the bus side:

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Most North American transit operations people would say that you should never have to back up a bus in normal service; it’s just too cumbersome and dangerous.  To be fair, here they’re backing into a bus-only roadway, where only trained drivers should be present.  Each driver also has a screen in front of them showing what’s behind them.  At first, though, it looked like they could have close calls, such as here between the two blue buses, one backing up as the other passed it.


But it’s ok, or seemed to be.  Drivers back up only into the lane nearest the building, and then circulate only using the other lane, so if everyone’s heads are up there shouldn’t be a problem.  There’s also a control room in the middle of the bus loop with view of it all.  Controllers there direct which bus is assigned to which bay, and watch the whole dance.


There are more routes than bays, so a route may not always go from the same one, but that’s fine; there are many redundant displays and announcements to direct you.  This “dynamic bay assignment”, also a way to make transit facilities more compact, has also been declared impossible in other places I’ve worked.

A feature that’s not unusual, in this part of the world, is the platform door, to maintain climate control and protect riders from fumes.  A complete glass wall separates the bus roadway from the waiting area, and each bay has doors, lined up with the doors of a bus, that slide open when the bus is there:



For comparison, here are some 2010 images of the old facility, destroyed in the 2011 quake.  Even it was impressive to me at the time, with the platform doors, waiting area, clear info displays, and location right in the center of things.  But it was very cramped, too, with bus zones spilling onto crowded streets all around it, and couldn’t have handled much growth.



The new one, certainly, is much more spacious, with room to grow as the service expands.  It feels a little sterile and empty now, partly because it serves a city that is only now being rebuilt.  It will be interesting to see whether other agencies look to these pull-in-back-out bays — and the dynamic bay assignment — as a way to make transit hubs more compact, so that they fit better into the center of things, where transit needs to be.

UPDATE:  Among the great comments below, see those of Brian Smith, who had a role in the design!

Self-Driving Cars: A Coming Congestion Disaster?


We're starting to see professional reports echoing long-standing concerns about how driverless cars will affect our cities. This new one from KPMG, in particular, is getting a lot of press.  It's actually a focus group study about the transport desires of different generations, but it confirms the thought experiments that many of us have already been laying out for a while.  

Much depends on whether these cars are owned or spontaneously hired like taxis, Uber, and Lyft.  A taxi model is definitely better in its congestion impacts, but that doesn't mean it will happen.  The ownership model is closer to the status quo, and the status quo always has enormous power.  Driverless taxis will not always be available on demand, especially in suburban and rural areas, so a legitimate fear of being stranded will make people in those areas prefer the security of having a car just for them. And of course, that's just the effect of rational concerns about relying on taxis.  Less rational desires for car ownership, as an expression of identity or symbol of liberty, will also not vanish overnight.

This leads to a nightmare scenario that University of Washington's Mark Hollenbeck laid out in our recent Seattle Times panel.  Paraphrasing Mark:  A suburban father rides his driverless car to work, maybe dropping his daughter off at school.  But rather than park the car downtown, he simply tells it to drive back home to his house in the suburbs.  During the day, it runs some other errands for his family.  At 3 pm, it goes to the school to bring his daughter home or chauffeur her to after-school activities.  Then it's time for it to drive back into the city to pick up Dad from work.  But then, on a lark, Dad decides to go shopping at a downtown department store after work, so he tells his car to just circle the block for an hour while he shops, before finally hailing it to go home.

This is really easy and obvious behavior for a driverless car owner.  It reduces the number of cars someone needs to own, and reduces pressure on inner city parking, but would cause an explosive growth in vehicle trips, and thus in congestion (not to mention emissions and other impacts).  Just the commute behavior doubles car volumes, because the car now makes a two-way trip for each direction of the commute, instead of just one.  And if everyone shopping downtown has a car circling the block waiting for them, well, that level of congestion will far exceed what's generated by cars circling for parking today.  It could pretty well shut down the city.

This is the good old problem of induced demand, which is what happens when you make a resource available at an artificially low price – as we do with most urban roads today.  If you don't pay the true cost of something in money, you will pay it in time, and that's what congestion is.  (It's also why in the old Soviet Union, people spent hours waiting to buy bread: Soviet price controls made the price too low to compensate the suppliers, so there wasn't enough bread, so everyone waited in line.  Congestion — waiting in line to use an underpriced road — works the same way.)  

Pricing of some kind will be the solution, but we tend to do this only when things get really bad.  Notice how bad congestion has to be today before solutions like toll lanes and transit lanes are finally accepted as necessary.  

As always, the very worst scenario won't happen, but some really bad ones still can.  If the economic functioning of downtown is too badly impaired by driverless cars circling the block waiting for their owners, the government will intervene to save the economy, as it always does, probably with some kind of downtown street pricing on the London or Singapore model.  But this only happens when congestion threatens the economy.  That's a very high bar.  Long before that point, congestion will be bad enough to be ruining people's lives, wrecking the urban environment, strangling public transit, worsening climate change, and so on.  

As always, the scary thing about congestion is how bad people (and therefore governments) allow it to get before they start making different choices to avoid it.  The level of congestion we (justifiably) complain about is much lower than the level that we choose to tolerate, and this is the real reason for pessimism about how bad congestion could potentially get, if driverless car ownership — like cars today — are so massively underpriced even in the context of high urban demand.

How Important is “Downtown”?

In North America, the word downtown invites us to imagine the densest and most walkable part of any city, the place where transit and other non-car modes naturally thrive more than anywhere else.  And where this is actually true, it's logical for all kinds of intercity and local transit services to focus there.

But when we project this model of downtown onto every city, we encounter fatal confusions.  Downtown implies a single place; there's just one per city or metro area.  But some cities aren't like that.  Los Angeles and Houston, two take two famous examples, have a place called downtown, but it's really just a slightly larger cluster of towers among many clusters of towers dotted across the region.  Downtown in this model is not like a center of energy around which the whole city revolves.  It's like the brightest of a bunch of stars in a constellation, and not even the brightest by much.  

So if you cling to the notion that downtown means "focal point of travel demand and especially transit", then you have to embrace the concept that an urban area may be a constellation of many downtowns.  This is not just an American sunbelt idea.  Most of the population of the Netherlands is in a single metro area called the Randstad; it's made of many small cities each with its own downtown, with a shared airport near its centroid.  Many Asian cities are so uniformly and extremely dense that almost any point in the city could be called downtown, so long as there is some mixture of uses.  All of Paris is about equally dense, with government, business, and retail districts all over the city and the tallest towers around the edge of it, so good luck finding "downtown" there.  

In Citylab, Eric Jaffe gives us the supposedly bad news that the proposed Dallas-Houston High Speed Rail (HSR) line won't go to "downtown" Houston.  Instead it will end at Northwest Mall, just outside the I-610 loop in the northwest of the city.  

But most of the Houston transit-advocates I've talked with aren't sounding nearly as upset.  That's because:

  • the proposed terminal is close to the centroid of Houston as a whole.  It's also very close to Uptown-Galleria, the region's second downtown, and to Northwest Transit Center, the busiest transit hub in the western 2/3 of the city.
  • the terminal station area is massively redevelopable.  You could easily build yet another downtown there, and if HSR is built, they probably will.
  • the project will provide great impetus for light rail or Bus Rapid Transit linking the station to the original downtown.  These projects have been sketched many times and could include either I-10 nonstop links or a refurbishment of Washington Street, a promising old streetcar street linking the two nodes.
  • in high speed rail, the cost of the last miles into an historic downtown can be a huge part of the cost and grief of the whole project.  So if you want high-speed rail to happen at all, provoking this battle is not always a sensible part of Phase 1.

The bigger challenge, for folks from strongly single-centered cities, is to notice the limits of the term downtown.  As cities grow, there is no correlation between the sustainability of a city and its single-centeredness.  On the contrary, single-centered cities present huge problems for transportation, because they use capacity so inefficiently.  New York, for example, is spending over $10 billion on a project to fit more Long Island commuter trains into Manhattan, and to put them closer to jobs there.  The demand is mostly one-way, so this requires either storing trains all day on expensive Manhattan real estate, or running them all empty in the reverse-peak direction.   It's very inefficient compared to the transit problem in a multi-centered place like Paris or Los Angeles, where demand is flowing two-way most of the time.

So growing a single downtown isn't the key to becoming a great transit city.  Quite the opposite, it's best to have a pattern of many centers, all generating high demand, and supporting balanced two-way flows between them that let us move more people on less infrastructure.  This is the great advantage of Paris or Los Angeles or the Dutch Randstad over Chicago or Manhattan.

So remember: when it comes to the efficiency and abundance of transit — or roads for that matter — "downtown" isn't all it's cracked up to be.  For transit, big clumps of density and walkability are great, but several are better than one.

Can Taxis and Uber/Lyft replace Paratransit Vans? There’s Money in it …

The Boston Globe has a story about the region's transit agency, the MBTA, launching a pilot program with local taxis to provide paratransit service.  This is worth watching because of the potential to unlock resources for fixed route transit services.

Paratransit, in the strictest sense, is door-to-door service for people with disabilities who cannot use fixed route transit.  In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities mandates that transit agencies provide paratransit wherever and whenever they run fixed route service, and charge no more than double the fixed route fare.  

In the agency budget, this mandated service competes with the services that everyone else uses.  It's common for over 30% of a transit agency's operating budget to be paratransit.  

Subsidizing taxis has always been an option to meet the paratransit requirement, but in big cities the routine solution has been paratransit van services.  These vans can theoretically serve multiple people at once, but the sparseness of paratransit demand means they often carry just one person, or zero between runs.  So paratransit operating cost is often over $30/passenger trip, as compared to more like $5 for an effective fixed route service.

MBTA is now testing using taxis — or in the future, taxi competitors like Uber and Lyft — in the same way that small towns often do.  It will encourage some customers to use taxis instead of paratransit vans — which is not hard to do, since taxi service is much more flexible.  (Paratransit vans must be booked 24 hours in advance, but these taxis can be called spontaneously.)  The customer will pay a reasonable transit fare, $2, and MBTA will add an average of $13/trip to round out a typical average taxi fare of $15.  

That's $13 per ride for the transit agency instead of (usually) over $30.  For service that is more useful to the paratransit customer.  

Remember, paratransit expenditures by US transit agencies often exceed 30% of the operating budget.  Cut that in half, and you can expand fixed route service dramatically.  

Guest Post: Autonomous Vehicles and the VMT Problem

 This guest post is by Ron Kilcoyne, general manager of Lane Transit District in Eugene, Oregon and formerly the head of transit in Bridgeport, Connecticut and Santa Clarita, California. 


The flurry of speculation about the future of autonomous vehicles is mostly ignoring a signficant downside: the impact on vehicle miles travelled (VMT).  Safety and congestion resonate with people while VMT doesn’t.  Yet reducing per capita VMT is also essential for combating climate change. The potential increase in VMT when self-driving cars become prevalent could negate any congestion reduction benefit. Indeed it could be far worse than today.

Reducing VMT or per capita VMT is usually viewed as restricting individual freedom. But is it? If high quality pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure and high quality transit service is provided, individuals have attractive choices to driving and many use them. Add to this mix car sharing, bike sharing and transportation network companies (TNC) like Uber and Lyft and many households are choosing to go car free or reduce the numbers autos owned without sacrificing mobility and accessibility.

Much has been written about autonomous cars in this blog and elsewhere. Countless predictions on the impact autonomous vehicles have been voiced – and they are probably all wrong. One good analysis on the introduction of autonomous vehicles is here, Zipcar founder Robin Chase has a heaven or hell scenario here.

Autonomous vehicles will not eliminate the need for high capacity transit (and Jarrett makes this case here) and we should be concerned that opponents of transit investment will use the prospect of autonomous vehicles as a reason not to invest in transit.

But the real concern is on the impact on society and the communities in which we live. Will the trend toward walkable communities and more active transportation be thwarted? Will we become a more isolated society moving about in our autonomous pods? Will sprawl spread? And to the main point, how much will VMT growth inhibit efforts to combat climate change.  Even electric vehicles contribute to climate change if the electricity comes from fossil fuels, and fast growing VMT implies accelerated road construction, with its own environmental impacts.

No one knows how fast autonomous vehicle availability and use will occur. But let's focus on two of the most discussed impacts of the growth in autonomous vehicle penetration in urban areas:

  • reducing the amount of land devoted exclusively to the movement and storage of automobiles (a benefit) and
  • the increase of Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT), causing inevitable pressure to pave more of the earth (a negative);

The former will only occur, and the latter will only be tamed, if we price the movement and storage of vehicles correctly.

Improper pricing of automobile use and storage has put public transportation at a disadvantage since the end of WWII and maybe even longer than that. There is plenty of literature that makes the case for proper pricing of road space, but as impressive as these arguments are there is little public support to increase the cost of driving or storing a car. Without public support there will not be political support.

Car sharing and bike sharing have been growing over the past few years. The prevalence of these options result in some households shedding an car and using alternatives, including using transit more frequently.  Indeed the two are mutually supportive. It is likely that households will reduce the number of cars they own (some may become car free while others will reduce the number of vehicles owned) if they have choices including a good car share program and good transit service.

If car ownership declines, and trips using shared cars are accurately priced, then individuals are more inclined to walk, bike or use transit when those modes are attractive alternatives.  High-ridership transit, in particular will still be cheaper than shared cars.  Therefore it is in the transit industry interest to partner, promote and facilitate growth of the sharing economy, but also to ensure that these services are priced fairly.  If so, the sharing economy and high-ridership transit should be the best of friends, offering complementary services at different price points and often connecting with one another.

Shared autos, whether in the Zipcar or Uber model are still not paying anywhere near the cost of using road space.  Once autonomous vehicles enter the picture, ZipCar and Uber will become indistinguishable.  Articles such as the one referenced at the beginning of this blog make an appealing prognosis about the potential to repurpose significant chunks of urban land but fail to acknowledge the impact of increased VMT.

If VMT grows dramatically we may find that the promises of freeing our cities of parking craters an illusion.   And for the same reason widening roads doesn’t end congestion – induced demand — the promises that autonomous vehicles will end congestion could be just as fleeting. Therefore the need to properly price road usage and parking spaces; and to include externalities such as greenhouse gas emissions (tailpipe for liquid fuels or at the source for electricity) becomes more imperative.

Any combination of greenhouse gas tax, vehicle mile traveled tax, weight –distance tax, congestion pricing, or variable tolls can accomplished this if priced properly. However getting any of these fees enacted is daunting. Opponents of ending auto subsidies are much more effective in framing the issue in ways that appeal to the average citizen. The human inclination to resist change and oppose paying are also on their side. Yet we have seen sea changes in societal attitudes happen in our life time – some take decades (smoking); others less than a decade (gay marriage). In this case we don’t have the luxury of waiting decades.  

Individuals and organizations that care about climate change, the quality of our urban spaces, and protecting open space need to brainstorm on how to frame this issue to build the needed political support to accurately price road and parking space usage. We can start by using the comment section by focusing on how we can accomplish this rather than giving reasons why we can’t.

To keep our cities moving and not overrun with vehicles, we need high quality transit in an autonomous vehicle world. Most modeling relating to the impact of autonomous vehicles indicates an increase in VMT even in scenarios that assume the availability of high quality high capacity transit. Unless the number of people arriving at a destination equals the number of people leaving at the same time there will be a lot empty autonomous vehicles moving about going to their next trip. If we can call up a vehicle wherever we are and, and if use of street space is heavily subsidized enabling these services to be inexpensive, induced demand will overwhelm our road network even with these vehicles travelling closer together.  

With parking taking up to 25% of the space in our communities large and small and road space another 25% or more, the prospect of reducing this is very appealing. One futurist claims we can reduce the need for parking by 80%. That may seem fantastical but even a 10% reduction in land devoted to parking can result in more green space, housing and employment opportunities in our cities without destroying the character of existing neighborhoods and allowing cities and small communities to grow preventing sprawl.

This can only happen if road space is properly priced, and if we invest in high quality pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure and high quality transit service. The question we need to think about and answer is how do we succeed in getting pricing and investment decisions right.