Monday, October 15, 2012

Southern Towns: Atlanta, Some Thoughts

I’m sure there is very little I can say about Atlanta and transportation that hasn’t been said before, but after spending a few days there (the first in a while), I can’t resist putting a few points on paper:
MARTA – I found the MARTA connection at ATL to be very convenient.  Headways were a little longer and service was a little slower than I would have liked, but it delivered me to midtown Atlanta very comfortably.  I did notice that most of the stations we passed in the southern part of the city were surrounded by low-density development, with some parking.  Why no TOD?  MARTA apparently has a pretty low reputation in Atlanta, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me.  Perhaps the sparse coverage?  MARTA’s cousin, the Washington Metro, on the other hand, is choking on its own success.
Atlantic Station – I had heard a lot about this Smart Growth infill development and was eager to see it.  The central part of this development was very impressive, with high-quality, well-scaled buildings, streets, and open spaces.  Atlantic Station as a whole seems to be a transit-oriented development without the transit!  Attractive stairway openings lead down from the surface level, but to a vast underground parking garage, not a light rail station!  Unfortunately, the whole development is located at a place that is “not on the way” for transit planning purposes, inJarrettWalker’s language, and so is unlikely to have rapid transit access at any time in the near future.
Georgia State Capitol – Really?  A beautiful building facing freeway ramps and parking lots and home to a concentration of homeless people.
Up-and-coming neighborhoods – I was pleased to see some nice development and redevelopment activity in some up-and-coming neighborhoods: West Midtown, Virginia Highlands, Inman Park.  A key factor holding these neighborhoods back is that they are overrun with auto traffic.  High-speed traffic roars through local high streets, and pedestrians use the rare crosswalks at their own risk.  A little basic traffic calming and pedestrianizing would work wonders in promoting sustainable economic development in these places.
Atlanta of the future – At a very brief glance, there appears to be plenty of room in Atlanta for infill urbanizing and upgrading.  The necessary transit upgrades will not be complicated, just expensive.  In rough terms, I think tripling the mileage of the MARTA network would give a pretty decent transit grid.  Georgia remains one of those places where using gas tax money on transit is verboten and where taxes and public expenditure generally are the subject of not-very-enlightened discourse.  But there are plenty of smart and energetic people in Atlanta, so one hopes for a bright future.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Tesla Continues to Make News with Model S and Superchargers

You may have read the recent New York Times rave review of the Tesla Model S sedan.  If not, you should.  You may find yourself putting a Model S on your win-the-lottery wish list!
Perhaps a more important Tesla development – from a transportation policy point of view – is Tesla’s launch of “Supercharger” fast charging stations.  Six of these high-tech, solar powered fast chargers have already opened at strategic intervals on California highways.  They may (or may not) be part of a solution to a problem a lot of people (including me) have been struggling with: how do you design, fund, build, and operate fast charging stations on Interstate corridors?  Slower chargers are fine for overnight or daytime charging but are a problem for longer-distance travel.  Fast chargers, which can “fuel up” and EV in half an hour or so, are expensive and require special equipment.  Without a network of fast chargers, users of electric vehicles might consider themselves stranded on electrified islands in urban centers.
The Tesla Superchargers look very promising.  Unfortunately, they also raise some serious technical issues (taking another step away from standardization in fast charging) along with an unproven (some would use harsher terms) business plan.  Still, these are bold and visionary steps, and I wish Elon Musk and the Tesla folks well (and if I win the lottery I will buy a Model S for sure!).
You can look here for the Supercharger launch video, complete with pyrotechnics, or here for Motor Trend’s more sober account.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Exciting New Raleigh Union Station Project Moves Ahead

An exciting new rail station project is taking shape in Raleigh, NC.  The Union Stationproject will convert an old warehouse building into a new multimodal transportation center in downtown Raleigh.  Amtrak will be a key tenant, to be followed by developing commuter and light rail services.  The project looks like a classic example of using a high-quality transportation project as a lever for urban redevelopment.  (Raleigh has recently trailed Durham on the “hip and trendy” scale, but watch developments in Raleigh’s Warehouse District – which will get a real lift from Union Station.)
The Triangle area is poised for future transit oriented development as well as high-speed rail connections.  As the Raleigh News and Observer story mentions, a key component of success for North Carolina rail will actually be found in Virginia, where freight rail bottlenecks cause chronic delays in already slow-paced Amtrak schedules.  The highway congestion is so bad between Washington and Richmond that an improved train service could be very attractive to travelers.
This looks to be a very successful project, which also demonstrates that we’re still getting good results from stimulus funding!