Thursday, August 9, 2018
The 2018 midterms may turn out to be one of the most consequential elections in American history. A few layers below the big choices will be one that could also have a major long-term impact: carbon pricing is on the ballot in Washington state.
Some time back (here) I wrote about the failure of carbon tax or cap-and-invest legislation to pass in the last sessions of the Oregon and Washington legislatures. The main point of my analysis was that big, controversial legislation is never easy to pass, so failure to get a bill through in a time-restricted session is not necessarily the end of the story.
And in fact in Washington state, the story has a new chapter. The Washington State Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, which unites more than 200 coalition members, including health professionals, businesses, labor unions, faith communities, environmental advocates, and communities of color (website here), didn’t wait for the next legislative session. They put together an initiative campaign to get their own version of carbon pricing on the November ballot – and have succeeded! (story here) The “Protect Washington Act” would levy a fee on the carbon content of fuels – including motor fuels – and electricity and use the revenue to fund clean energy and clean transportation projects. Reflecting the local economy, the bill sets aside funding for clean water and forest projects as well. Finally, the bill would provide funding to help low-income communities and others that might be negatively affected by the transition to clean energy.
Will the initiative pass? I have no idea. Success is certainly not guaranteed, and the fossil fuels industries will no doubt pour money into negative TV ads. I for one will be watching hopefully with at least a small percentage of my attention as I glue myself to my TV and laptop during a long night’s vigil.
Tuesday, July 31, 2018
I say “Gee Whiz” because a lot of the presentations and discussions at NASTO 2018 were all about rapidly evolving transportation technology and what state agencies can do to respond to it. (NASTO is the Northeast Association of State Transportation Officials, which held its annual meeting recently at National Harbor, Maryland.)
Some of the Gee Whiz stuff (of varying degrees of practicality/likelihood):
· Baltimore – Washington maglev trains – Using Japanese technology. 15 minutes DC to Baltimore! (website here)
· JPods – Personal rapid transit system at $10 million per mile. (website here)
· Electric vehicles – Hydro Quebec (blessed with hydroelectric power) investing hugely in Fast Chargers, which they view as “the crux of the matter” and “the determining factor” in spurring the uptake of EVs.
· Automated vehicles – Lots of angst following the Tempe pedestrian death in March, but still advancing rapidly.
· Personal delivery vehicles – Expect sidewalk robots as well as drones!
This is not even to mention Hyperloop (!) (not on the program but the subject of a lot of talk), which Maryland seems to be actively pursuing in partnership with Elon Musk (story here).
State DOTs are struggling, with varying degrees of success, to cope with the onslaught of new tech. My favorite quote of the conference (from Washington State legislation! – here):
“This effort [a study of AVs] is required because robot cars are coming, but robot policy makers are not.”
Special notice goes to OLLI, the automated shuttle, which NASTO goers got to experience on a test ride. We also got to see some of the design lab work at the builder, Local Motors, a cutting edge company called Local Motors (see their website here) which specializes in 3D printing and robotics technology. OLLI is a very promising candidate for “first mile, last mile” shuttle applications and the company plans to be in revenue service at some pilot locations within months. The engineers feel confident that they can overcome fears about automated travel by loading up OLLI with a comprehensive, sophisticated (and expensive) suite of sensors that would not be affordable on personal vehicles. Hope to see them on the road soon!
Tuesday, May 22, 2018
I visited St. Louis recently and rode the Metrolink light rail and found it to be a nice ride. Pros: connects some major activity centers (ballpark, airport, Union Station, Forest Park, Central West End, etc.), connects Missouri and Illinois, comfortable ride. Cons: not a network (they call it two lines but it’s really one line with branches in the Missouri suburbs), some stations (notably Airport Terminal 2) are a longish walk to the actual activity center.
I was also pleased to see the Ballpark Village development (which I wrote about a few years ago) finally beginning Phase Two. Right now, it’s mainly bars and restaurants across the street from Busch Stadium (photo below), but will soon have extensive residential, office, hotel, and additional retail space (website here). St. Louis is definitely another success story in the downtown ballpark revitalization book!
One of the drawbacks of a transit line running mainly on old railroad right-of-way is that it traverses long stretches of semi-desolate industrial zones and rail yards. But this also provides an opportunity for new infill development. In St. Louis, Metrolink is building an infill station called “Cortex” after the expanding high-tech district it will serve (photo below, story here). Another TIGER grant success story!
For literally years now I have been helping the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and local residents fight to preserve the 200-year-old, one-lane Headquarters Road Bridge in rural upper Bucks County, Pennsylvania, which PennDOT insists on demolishing and replacing with a new, longer, wider structure. Why have we not been able to resolve this issue, which looks like a textbook case for applying context sensitive design and collaborative planning? It’s a long story (which has not yet ended).
You can watch my presentation at a recent briefing for press and local elected officials here. The news story from the event is here.Photo below (courtesy of Delaware Riverkeeper Network): yours truly on the left, May van Rossum, the Delware Riverkeeper, on the right.
Friday, May 11, 2018
Electrify America – the initiative born of Volkswagen’s restitution for cheating on car pollution tests – is doing just that: electrifying America.
They have now opened their first “ultra-fast” electric vehicle charger at a shopping center in Chicopee, Massachusetts, just off the Mass Pike. This new charger will be able to charge vehicles at an amazing rate of 20 miles of range per minute (story here). Of course, most EVs aren’t yet ready for that kind of fast charging, but they are on the way too. (For an intro to some of the technical issues involved, see my previous blog posting here.) The Chicopee charger is the first of what will be a network of chargers on key corridors throughout the country (see map below). This is a serious ramping up of EV infrastructure. VW may be atoning for past sins, but we should be very grateful to them for doing a lot of the heavy lifting in electrifying America! And quite a coup for Chicopee too (a town I know well)!
Tuesday, May 1, 2018
Today 14 new electric Proterra E2 Catalyst buses start rolling in the Washington DC Circulator fleet (story here). Since the Circulators are so visible – to visitors and tourists as well as to residents – this could be a real milestone in the electrification of public transportation in this country. We need to make this work.
Yet another cool thing happening in DC! (See my stories on multimodal transportation at the new Wharf development here, dockless bikes and scooters here.)
Monday, April 30, 2018
Having recently written about multimodal transportation in Washington, DC (here) and dockless bikes and scooters (here), I have to provide an update about where the Venn diagram overlaps!
On a recent walk through Georgetown, I noticed a large number of dockless bikes, scooters, and electric bikes, both in motion and parked (see photos below) in this popular shopping and tourist destination. The District government has just extended its trial “Dockless Demonstration Program” which permits 7 companies to provide limited service. The trial program was extended after the District and the providers were unable to reach an agreement about how a permanent program might be regulated (Washington Post story here, Greater Greater Washington here).
As suggested in my previous story, stay tuned for more developments!
I was saddened to learn of the passing of David Billington, engineering professor emeritus at Princeton (story here). David was an outstanding scholar and teacher and a real gentleman. He was best known for his efforts to encourage the infusion of aesthetic sensibility into structural engineering design, which derived from his work on Swiss designers. He hated what he called “GI bridges” and believed that a piece of long-lived infrastructure such as a bridge should reflect and enrich its natural environment and cultural context. If the subject sounds dry, note that David was one of the most popular lecturers at Princeton and presented his views with humor and grace. If you never thought you would enjoy a lecture on bridge design, please take a look at this lecture at MIT (here).
How much influence did David have? Hard to say. There is still a lot of ugly design out there. Thanks to Jack Lettiere, then president of AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials), he gave a lecture at that organization’s 2005 convention, which hopefully started some ripples. And certainly there are some iconic new bridges such as the Swiss-designed Zakim Bridge in Boston, which David references in the MIT lecture. I believe his thinking is still very valuable and I think it will still have an impact well into the future. I know it has influenced me (see poster on my office wall).
Wednesday, April 25, 2018
On a recent visit to San Diego I was pleased to see the Trolley doing well – appearing to be well maintained, running smoothly, and clearly popular. It’s still only a small piece of the transportation picture in a very auto-dominated metro area, but it provides a key mobility alternative, especially for access to a vibrant, revitalized downtown. A ride to the ballpark on the Green Line was smooth, well-utilized (but not crowded), and delivered us to the heart of the entertainment district, a block from the stadium. (Quite a contrast to the ride to Fenway Park on that other Green Line, rocking and rolling along the old tracks in a jam-packed antique car!)
Happily, construction is underway on an 11-mile extension of the Trolley north to the University City area (San Diego’s “second downtown”) near the University of California at San Diego (project information here). Hopefully a connection to the airport will follow soon.
Also encouraging is a recent report (here) that notes the largely unexploited potential for transit-oriented development at current station sites. I hope that bears fruit!
Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Dockless bikes and scooters are now quite the rage – and stirring up some rage! – in various cities. They can be very convenient for the user, but maybe not so convenient for someone whose driveway or doorstep is blocked by a dropped bike. Cities where this phenomenon has exploded are awash with angry debates about how to manage it (see background piece in the New York Times here), although apparently Lime Bikes were not actually tossed into the Mississippi River in St. Louis (here). (FYI, Lime Bike is the best known and probably biggest provider at this time.)
On a recent visit to San Diego I was able to get an impression of how the issue is developing in that city (see below: Lime Bike at the beach, “no parking” at the ballpark).
How will this kerfuffle play out? Hard to say, but it’s exciting to see that the appetite for innovative mobility is strong!
Wednesday, April 11, 2018
I had a chance recently to visit Washington DC’s new “The Wharf” mixed use urban development on the city’s southwest waterfront – and was duly impressed! The designers have done a fine job of putting together a package of residences, shops, bars, restaurants, hotels, and entertainment venues that work well together and fit the unusual (for DC) waterfront location. Almost the entire development is new, but they have kept the funky old fish market. The target demographic for the development is not too hard to figure out. “Portugal. The Man” was playing when I visited (note my careful use of punctuation).
Fuller reviews of the development can be found at Greater Greater Washington (here) and CityLab (here). The Wharf development’s own website is here.
Transportation access and circulation is appropriately multimodal and hip and urban. Note below the bikeway, water taxi, and woonerf! (If you don’t know the latter term, Google it and impress your friends.)
Looking forward to watching The Wharf develop!
Monday, March 19, 2018
Climate change folks have been in various states of excitement, anxiety, and disappointment in recent weeks as major “carbon pricing” bills came close to passage but fell short in the Washington and Oregon state legislatures.
This stuff gets very wonkish very quickly, so as close as I can get to a TLDR on carbon pricing is this:
· Climate change experts largely agree that making it more expensive to burn high-carbon fuels (which pump out greenhouse gases, making climate change worse) will encourage reduced use, switching to renewable resources, etc.
· There are two ways of putting an extra price on carbon: directly, through taxes, and indirectly, by setting up a “cap-and-trade” system that auctions off permits to sell carbon content.
· In North America, British Columbia has the only carbon tax, while several jurisdictions, the largest being California, have cap-and-trade systems. Either system can be revenue-neutral (as in BC) or revenue-producing (as in California).
Back to the main story: Washington attempted to enact a carbon tax, Oregon a cap-and-trade system.
The initiatives in both states were backed by Democratic governors and Democratic legislators (yes, this is a partisan issue in those places). Both initiatives also have strong business/labor/environmental/community activist support groups. In both cases, the legislature didn’t quite have the time and/or votes to get the business done in this year’s session.
What does it mean?
There are a couple of good analytical pieces that sort through some of the possibilities. (See the story in The Atlantic here, and Think Progress here.) I would start with a simpler explanation, which is that complicated and controversial bills always take time and effort to push through the legislative process. (The course of true legislation never did run smooth.)
Both legislatures will very likely re-engage with carbon pricing bills, but probably not until their 2019 sessions. Stay tuned.
But what do these stories mean for the transportation sector?
Transportation fossil fuels would be covered under both the Oregon and Washington bills, meaning the prices at the pump would go up, perhaps by 10 cents a gallon or more.
And would the transportation programs benefit from these revenues? Yes, but it’s unclear how much and how many strings would be attached. Both states have constitutional encumbrances on their motor fuels programs, which would appear to limit the use of whatever money gets funneled into the state’s transportation program. Ideally (in my opinion) funds raised by carbon pricing on transportation fuels should be targeted toward transit, electric vehicle infrastructure, active transportation (bike/ped) infrastructure, and other “clean transportation” uses. No one has explained to me how that will happen in Washington and Oregon.
My takeaway? Transportation folks need to be involved at the beginning of carbon pricing legislative initiatives to make sure that the outcome works to advance the 21st century sustainable transportation system we need.
Friday, March 2, 2018
Dickinson College, in Carlisle PA, has been a leading edge institution on environmental issues for some time, and has now broken ground on an ambitious solar farm that will provide 25% of campus power needs (story here).
The college has entered into an agreement with Tesla, who will own and maintain the 12-acre array. How will they prevent the panels from becoming overgrown? Grazing sheep!
Model developments like these are especially important in Pennsylvania, which for historical (and geological) reasons is more attached to fossil fuels than any other state in the Northeast.
Thursday, March 1, 2018
Happy 10th Birthday to the Pennsylvania/New Jersey Smart Transportation Guidebook!
This remarkable document (full disclosure: I was one of its “fathers”) is a citizens guide to linking transportation and Smart Growth. The subtitle says it all: “Planning and Designing Highways and Streets that Support Sustainable and Livable Communities.”
The guidebook was the product of a remarkable collaboration between PennDOT (led by Al Biehler) and New Jersey DOT (led by Jack Lettiere and later Kris Kolluri), facilitated by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC). Both state DOTs had been struggling for several years with the failure of the old model of building new highways as an answer to congestion and had been experimenting with new techniques of multimodal corridor planning, collaborative planning, linking transportation and land use, and environmental stewardship. The Smart Transportation Guidebook was a distillation of that learning experience and was intended to stimulate informed, community-oriented transportation planning.
How well has the Guidebook been implemented in the two states over the past decade? I think the answer has to be a less than enthusiastic “sometimes well, sometimes not so much.”
Are the principles and practices recommended in the Guidebook still relevant and useful? YES. (Feel free to discount my opinion a few points for “parental” favoritism.)
I will give just one extract: the six principles of Smart Transportation:
1. Tailor solutions to the context. In the words of the Guidebook, “Roadways should respect the character of the community, and its current and planned land uses.” The design of a road should “respond to its unique circumstances” and should consider the presence of environmental resources.
2. Tailor the approach. Project team members and stakeholders should tailor their approach to the specific need, type, complexity, and range of solutions of a transportation problem.
3. Plan all projects in collaboration with the community. Collaboration between the state DOT and local stakeholders is critical and should involve “the integration of land use planning with transportation planning, and a focus on the overall transportation network rather than a single roadway.”
4. Plan for alternative transportation modes. Roadway project development should consider the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users where appropriate.
5. Use sound professional judgment. The project team should use its best judgment, considering the “specific circumstances” involved. “The smart solution on some projects may be to seek design exceptions or waivers to allow for true context-based design.”
6. Scale the solution to the size of the problem. The project team should look for a solution that “fits within the context, is affordable, is supported by the communities, and can be implemented in a reasonable time frame.”
Can we please do this all the time?
I’m happy to report that the Smart Transportation Guidebook is still available on the New Jersey DOT website (here) and the DVRPC website (here).