Thursday, August 29, 2013

“Moving Off the Road”

U. S. PIRG has followed up on their report earlier this year on the end of the “Driving Boom” with a significant new piece, “Moving Off the Road,” which goes straight at the key question: is the national falloff in VMT just a result of the lousy economy?
The short answer is: No, it doesn’t appear to be.  (My comments and intro to the earlier report, “A New Direction: Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future,” here, the new report here.)
The study sifts through state-by-state data on unemployment and other economic metrics and compares them with VMT data and basically finds no correlation.  (By the way, there isn’t much correlation with other economic and demographic factors either, leaving the differences in state VMT changes still somewhat mysterious.)
The basic facts are that per capita VMT is down – and down significantly – almost everywhere, except in a few outliers like North Dakota, which is experiencing an oil boom.  And that VMT drop has now been observed for some time.  In fact, per capita VMT has been going down for eight street years.
“Moving Off the Road” notes several other reasons for doubting that the decline in driving is just a result of the current economic slump: (1) Per capita driving had already begun to decline before the recession and has continued going down during the recovery, (2) other metrics of “motorization,” such as vehicles per household, have shown the same peak-and-decline pattern, (3) driving has declined among both the employed and the unemployed, and (4) the ups and downs of gross domestic product no longer track with the ups and downs of VMT.
In short, the case is beginning to look more and more compelling that driving patterns have made a dramatic and long-lasting shift over the past several years.
And of course this isn’t just an academic question.  As “Moving Off the Road” concludes, “Accepting that the Driving Boom has ended presents an enormous opportunity.  Our transportation system remains oriented to the goals of the 1950s, focused on creating new highways and expanded mobility for a new era of expanding automobile ownership.  To the extent that driving rates no longer climb, it makes it easier for America to shift priorities.”
Anyone doing long-range transportation planning needs should read both reports.

Congrats to Phineas Baxendall and U. S. PIRG for another excellent and high-impact report!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

New Study Shows British Columbia Carbon Tax is a Success Story – Both Environmentally and Economically!

The British Columbia carbon tax is now five years old, and a new academic study from the University of Ottawa (link here) provides pretty persuasive evidence that it’s working!  BC’s use of fossil fuels has dropped much more rapidly than that of any other province, while its economy (in GDP per capita) is holding its own.  In fact, because the carbon tax is offset against other taxes, BC has the lowest income tax in Canada.
This objective evidence of success is corroborated by a much more subjective indicator: provincial politics.  As I pointed out in a previous posting (here), the carbon tax is notable for not becoming an issue in the last general election.
As I have also suggested (here), the carbon tax should be put on the table as a possible partial solution to future transportation funding in this country.  That’s a different proposition from the revenue-neutral BC approach, but could have many of the same benefits – not to mention raising much needed transportation revenue.

Definitely good news from north of the border!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Roads Must Roll! (….out of the 3-D printer)

While Elon Musk’s Hyperloop has gotten all the buzz lately, a much more obscure announcement may turn out to be a bigger deal.
MIT scientists have announced (link here) that they have engineered a way to have 3-D printers make small pieces of composite materials that lock together to form very large structures.  (OK, I know this doesn’t sound exciting yet…be patient.)
So, as the press release notes, composite fiber materials are light and strong and are ideal for building things like airplanes.  But with current technology, the large pieces (like airplane fuselage elements) need to be formed all at once to have full structural integrity.  Using little interlocking bits, like kids’ building set pieces, you can make really large pieces out of thousands of little ones.  The MIT folks have figured out how to “lock” the little pieces in a way that they have great structural stability in the desired directions, but can be flexible in other desired directions and even disassembled for repair.  They are now working on robotic production techniques to produce and link up the little building blocks.
The MIT scientists suggest that aircraft construction is an obvious application, but the idea could also work for bridges.
Bridges!  And if bridges, why not roads? 
Imagine a “paving” machine consisting of a large-scale 3-D printer ejecting and linking millions of composite “paving stones” along a roadbed.

It’s now been 101 years since Edison put down his Concrete Mile in Warren County, New Jersey, demonstrating the practicability of concrete paving.  Maybe it’s time for a “3-D Printed Mile!”

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Paris or Secaucus?

OK, not really close, but a recent visit to Secaucus demonstrates that the Plaza at Harmon Meadow development (link here

) actually has a very nice pedestrian scale to it.  Even on a rainy day, people are out and about (although not so much at the many sidewalk cafes).

I say “actually” because the Meadowlands area of northern New Jersey is not famous for pedestrian-scale development.  The whole idea of developing the Meadowlands – an area previously best known for movie mobsters being murder, buried, or both – has been continuously controversial in the state for years.  So it’s nice to see one piece with good scale. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Brasilia or Albany?

OK, of course it’s Albany.  Many commentators and critics over the past 40 years have compared the Empire State Plaza with Brasilia and other “modernist” monumental government developments – and with many of the same criticisms.
I’m sure nothing significant can be added to the record at this point, but I have to say that on a recent visit I came away with the observation that the Plaza (the surface portion – I didn’t go underground) looks pretty good.  The scale is really decent and the buildings, although too modernist for my taste, have weathered decently.  And of course the longitudinal vistas – especially toward the Capitol – are beautiful.
My biggest negative takeaway is the lack of pedestrian activity.  A relatively sterile environment looks even worse with only a few stragglers and workmen around.  (These shots were taken on a beautiful weekday afternoon.)  I will note that a colleague reported much more activity at lunchtime, with a small farmers’ market and people moving around.
My advice would be to (1) do something with the rather scruffy monumental staircase to the state museum (which doesn’t actually offer an entrance to the museum) and (2) splash some color of some sort on the “Egg,” which is a theater with no posters, banners, marquees, or other markings.  With no trappings of a theater it rather gives the impression of being an anti-aircraft missile battery.

Albany has a long way to go, but the Empire State Plaza, if given a thoughtful makeover, could be part of a better future.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Call for Papers: How Did We Lose Our Fortitude as a Nation to Levy Gasoline Taxes to Fund Transportation Improvements, and How Do We Get it Back?

No, it’s not a real call for papers, but maybe it should be. 
Most of my readers will be familiar with the TRB (Transportation Research Board) annual meeting in January in Washington, DC, which brings together more than 10,000 transportation academics, agency officials, consultants, and other transportation professionals to cram into stuffy hotel meeting rooms to hear the latest research results and best practices on a wide variety of topics.  (We non-engineers often ask: How many research topics can possibly be left regarding the properties of asphalt pavement?  The answer: an endless number.)
More than 5,000 papers were submitted by the deadline for the January 2014 conference.  Papers can be submitted on virtually any transportation topic, but many are submitted in response to calls for papers from TRB subject area committees.  These calls for papers suggest topics that the leading lights in a particular specialty feel need urgent attention.
Below are some calls for papers I found on transportation finance issues for the coming session:
·      How to Creatively Stretch the Dollars We Have Through Partnering and Process Management
·      Exploring Innovative Transportation Financing Methods in an Era of Constrained Resources
·      Public-Private Partnerships Research, Education & Evaluation
·      Issues Relating to Privatizing Roads
·      Understanding Traveler Behavior in Response to Pricing Using Behavioral Economics
·      Public-Private Partnerships Research, Education & Evaluation
·      The Impact of Congestion Pricing and Managed Lanes on Mobility Performance
·      Doing More with Less: Improving Transportation on a Shoestring Budget
Notice a common thread here?  Something between despair and resignation concerning public funding of transportation infrastructure?
I don’t know how many papers were submitted on these topics, but I’m hoping someone has submitted a paper entitled: “How Lost Our Fortitude as a Nation to Levy Gasoline Taxes to Fund Transportation Improvements, and How We Can Get it Back.”

If not, maybe I’ll submit my call for papers idea for the next round.