Thursday, November 15, 2018

My favorite bridge defends itself in court

My favorite bridge – the Headquarters Road Bridge in Upper Bucks County, Pennsylvania – has to defend itself in court.  The Delaware Riverkeeper (my client in this affair) is suing FHWA and PennDOT to prevent them from demolishing this 200-year-old one-lane bridge, which sits at the heart of a rural historical district, to replace it with a modern, two-lane structure.  It’s sad to think that the future of this beloved little bridge couldn’t be determined through real collaborative planning.  Or at least it hasn’t happened yet.
My thoughts are summed up in the quote I did for the press release:
“This is a land of narrow, winding, country roads and one-lane bridges that are well-suited to the scenic, rural character of the place.  A two-lane bridge here – at the heart of the Ridge Valley Rural Historic District – is both unnecessary and out of place.  I’m also concerned that building a two-lane bridge here will cause new safety problems by encouraging higher speeds and more truck traffic in an area where you don’t want to see those things.”
Press account here.

(Photo courtesy of the Delaware Riverkeeper)

Thursday, November 8, 2018

How to speed up the delivery of bike-ped projects

People outside the transportation agency world often think that bike-ped projects (sidewalks, bikeways, bike lanes, etc.) should be quick and easy to design and build.  But it ain’t necessarily so.  These projects often have problems and issues just like other, larger projects, including competition for funding, lack of expertise, controversy within agencies, controversy with the local community, and – wait for it – challenges from environmental agencies.
There are ways of speeding up these projects, and I’m happy to have been part of a great team that has put together a workbook filled with tips for doing just that.  Sponsored by FHWA, the workbook is entitled “Strategies for Accelerating Multimodal Project Delivery” and is available here.  Also available on that webpage are a related slideshow and access to a webinar (including my dulcet tones).  The document is based not only on the pooled expertise of the authors but also on extensive conversations with many practitioners, who shared their experience with us.  All this information has been distilled into easy-to-use text, with case studies and links to other sources.
If you are involved in any step in the project development pipeline for bike-ped projects, I think you will find this workbook very useful.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

BBC story on German “hydrogen train”

A few weeks ago I commented on the new hydrogen fuel cell train now in revenue service on a commuter line in Germany (here).  This promises to be transformative technology and bears following.  The BBC has now done a story (here) which gives another (video) look at the new train.

Friday, October 12, 2018

New climate report: What we need to do to stave off disaster

So the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has published a new report (here) focusing on what sounds like a very technical question, but one that turns out to be very important.  The issue is what the difference would be in letting the world warm by 2°C over pre-industrial times (the most widely shared goal) as opposed to 1.5°C (a more aggressive target) and what are the policy “pathways” that would get us to one target or another.  It turns out that that half a degree extra means a whole lot of bad things happening by the end of this century.  Unfortunately, holding global warming to 1.5°C will be much more difficult than holding it to 2°C.  In the words of the press release:  “The report finds that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require ‘rapid and far-reaching’ transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050.”  Reviewers have seized on the 2030 date as a sort of deadline for staving off disaster, although I think it’s probably more accurate to say that the report writers are saying that the data shows we need to be on a very steep trajectory for decarbonizing to avoid a rapidly worsening situation.
With respect to transportation, the report discusses strategies for achieving this target for the various modes.  For instance, electric cars are already spreading rapidly, while technical solutions for rail and aviation are more problematic.  In the case of freight, operational improvements may do more than technical breakthroughs in the short run.  The conclusion: “Deep emissions reductions in the transport sector would be achieved by several means…Since there is no silver bullet for this deep decarbonisation, every possible measure would be required to meet this stringent emissions outcome.”  In other words, the “all of the above” strategy.
The report doesn’t really break any new ground on transportation issues, although it is solidly grounded in current research.  What it does do is underscore the urgency of action.  My own takeaway is that we should concentrate on those areas that we know how to advance – notably phasing out internal combustion engines for light duty vehicles.  (If anything, I find the report too conservative on this point.)
The report has so far had limited impact – certainly in the U.S.  (One commentator noted: “You may have not seen the IPCC climate change report because the mainstream-media focus quickly shifted to the fight between Donald Trump and Taylor Swift.”)  I think part of the problem is that the report itself is not only highly technical, but is poorly written.  (The “Summary for Policymakers” would fail the attention span test of any policymaker I have ever worked with!)  Hopefully, however, the report will percolate through climate change and transportation professionals and push us a few steps forward toward the urgent action we need to take.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

DVRPC long-range plan video tells the story

Anyone who’s ever been responsible for a long-range transportation plan (been there, done that, no t-shirt) will appreciate the difficulty of gaining stakeholder and public involvement and ensuring that the “message” of the plan is communicated back through those stakeholders and (to at least some extent) the broader public.  Communication is vital to effectiveness.
One of the agencies that does this best is the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, the MPO for the greater Philadelphia area (full disclosure: I am a long-time partner of DVRPC, wearing various hats, and currently serve on the Futures Group). 
I recommend you watch their new 5-minute video (here), which does a great job of telling the story of the region’s long-range plan in a simple narrative with vivid images.  Note particularly how the video involves key local elected officials, agency heads, and stakeholders as storytellers, often speaking to the parts of the story that are most salient to their constituencies or expertise (e.g., PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards speaks to funding challenges, including the future of the gas tax; Montgomery county commission chair Valerie Arkoosh, who is a doctor by profession, speaks to healthy communities; Camden mayor Frank Moran, whose city has a major poverty problem, speaks to the need for inclusive economic development). 
Well done, DVRPC.
Oh, the other challenge for long-range planners:  now that the 2045 long-range plan is in the can, it’s time to start working on 2050!

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Pondering the future of public transportation

For anyone pondering, mulling over, arguing about, or otherwise using mental capacity on the future of public transportation – and many people are – you should take a look at the recent special edition of the Journal of Public Transportation (available here), which is devoted to the topic.
As you might expect from a compendium like this, some contributions are more pertinent and incisive than others.  I’ll just mention a few highlights I find interesting:
Carol Schweiger explains the concept of “MaaS” – Mobility as a Service – and argues that we should redefine public transportation in terms of mobility rather than modes.
My old friend and colleague Jerry Lutin offers some very practical answers to how transit can adapt to and benefit from the development of autonomous operation technology, including:
·      Collision avoidance and emergency braking,
·      Steering and lane keeping,
·      Bus platooning,
·      Improved service to disable passengers,
·      Precision docking for buses, and
·      Autonomous BRT as an alternative to LRT.
Jill Hough and Ali Rahim Taleqani, in a paper on rural transit no less, go deep into the future, where no transit planner has gone before: flying cars (Jetsons!), teleportation (Star Trek!), and hologram telecommuting (maybe more near term, but I have to say: Isaac Asimov!)
Jarrett Walker is – as always – insightful and thought-provoking.   His essay, “To Predict with Confidence, Plan for Freedom,” bears careful reading.  My supercondensed version of his thesis is that transit planners should worry less about predicting future ridership trends – which is an unproductive task at best – and think more about urban form and the geometry of urban transportation.  I find his notion of mobility as freedom especially compelling.  If you find his arguments fascinating, as I do, you should check out his website, perhaps starting with a lecture/presentation video from Santa Cruz, CA (here).
All in all, plenty to ponder!

Monday, September 24, 2018

Hydrogen Fuel Cell trains now in revenue service in Germany

Decarbonizing rail transportation is a challenge.  Electrification is very expensive.  Batteries don’t have enough oomph to move heavy trains.  And the current fossil fuel – diesel – is relatively cheap and efficient.  One proposed solution is the use of hydrogen fuel cells.  And the good news is that real hydrogen fuel cell trains are now in actual revenue service in Germany!
The manufacturer Alstom has provided two prototype train sets to a transportation authority in the state of Lower Saxony in Germany.  These are multiple-unit trains sets used in regional, commuter operations.  They promise to be efficient, very quiet, zero emission, and hopefully economically viable.  (See the story in Engadget here, International Railway Journal here.)
Good luck, Alstom – this could be a big step forward!