Wednesday, October 23, 2019
Having recently had the opportunity to travel in Italy using their high-speed rail system, I feel compelled to file another in a string of thousands of reports from Americans envying European trains.
The Freccia Rossa (red arrow) is the Italian Railway’s high-speed train, operating at speeds up to 300 kmh (186 mph) on dedicated right-of-way. (FYI, there is a competing high-speed rail company, Italo!) The trains are fast, clean, comfortable, and punctual with all reserved seats. Overhead monitors track location, speed, next station, and other useful information in a very user-friendly format.
Why can’t we do that here?
Wednesday, October 9, 2019
Having recently had the opportunity to ride the Florence tram (“Tramvia”), I’m happy to report that it appears to be a great success. It’s modern, clean, frequent, smooth-riding, and very popular. Although one line has been operational for a few years, a recent extension of that line to the other side of town and the inauguration of Line 2 from the main train station to the airport has created a real system. Most of the system is on reserved – but not grade separated – right-of-way, so there is enough cross traffic to keep speeds slower than I would like and to generate occasional collisions.
As I have commented before with respect to the Strasbourg and Luxembourg trams, this mode really seems to work well in medium-sized cities which can’t justify a full-blown metro but need more than buses. Why can’t we do this in the U.S.?
Thursday, September 5, 2019
Most of the major presidential candidates have now put forward aggressive Climate Change proposals (thanks Gov. Inslee and CNN!). I’ll leave it to others to assess the relative merits of all these programs and the performance of the candidates on CNN and other venues. However, most of the coverage and commentaries I have seen give scant attention to the transportation elements of these programs, which I will attempt to remedy, beginning with Bernie Sanders. Bernie has launched a really big and comprehensive program (available here). I will leave aside the revenue piece for the moment and summarize the spending and policy elements.
The overall goal is to “fully electrify and decarbonize our transportation sector,” which I think is a clear and crisp goal statement.
Some of the specific program ideas (my comments in parentheses):
· Build a national electric vehicle charging infrastructure with open access and interoperable stations. (I’m all for this. No details provided, although I think you could do a lot for the $85.6 Billion proposed!)
· Replace all transit buses and school buses with electric models. (I agree. It’s time for this.)
· Set up a vehicle trade-in program, as well as direct grants for low-income people, to incentivize replacing old internal combustion vehicles with US-made EVs. (There are plenty of successful program models to build on.)
· Replace all diesel trucks with “fast-charging and long-range electric trucks.” (Definitely needs to happen, but the technology to make it happen is not yet reliable and scaleable.)
· Build more public transportation, increase ridership by 65%, promote transit oriented development. (Definitely doable and important, but the devil is in the details.)
· Build regional high-speed rail to complete the Obama proposal. (Important and expensive. The “regional” qualification is key as it recognizes that it’s a big country and not all intercity corridors are suitable for high-speed rail with existing and reasonably predictable technology.)
There are other key transportation proposals included under “Infrastructure”:
· Increase funding for roads. (Yes, but I would add a qualifier that the Highway Trust Fund can’t be used for highway expansion.)
· Repair freight and passenger transportation networks using TIGER grants. (Don’t know how this is supposed to work. I’m all for TIGER grants, but these are best used for targeted innovative projects, not bread-and-butter rehab work.)
· Retrofit public infrastructure – including roads and bridges – to withstand climate impacts. (Absolutely. But not sure whether we are talking about a new program here. The roads and bridges piece could be handled through adjustments to FHWA programs.)
· Adapt to sea-level rise by providing funding to coastal communities. (Same comment as above.)
Wednesday, August 21, 2019
Most of us have been appalled and disgusted by the racist and derogatory comments concerning the city of Baltimore that have been emanating from the White House in recent weeks. I only comment on this topic because it is connected to transportation. How, you might ask?
Those of us who know Baltimore are aware both of its many charms (“Charm City”) and its many problems. A lot of these problems are related to concentrated poverty and economic disadvantage in the city. This poverty and economic disadvantage can and should be addressed by targeted public investment, including upgrading the transportation network so that it can support revitalization.
Has the state of Maryland been providing this targeted investment to its central city? In fact, the opposite is happening. As David Alpert points out with great clarity on his Greater Great Washington blog (here), the state has been systematically disinvesting in transportation in the city and redistributing resources to suburban counties. The cruelest disinvestment has been the defunding of the Red Line light rail initiative, which would link key city and suburban activity centers with a modern transit line while tying together the various area transit lines into a real network. The most blatant redistribution is the plan to support colossal highway widening projects in the wealthiest suburban counties.
Yes, racist and inappropriate language should be called out. More importantly, we should be using public investment as a tool to build infrastructure that supports opportunity and equitable economic growth where it is most needed.
Friday, July 12, 2019
So NASTO 2019 finally saw a re-emergence of some attention to Climate Change issues (NASTO is the Northeastern Association of State Transportation Officials, which recently held its annual conference in Wilmington, DE).
I was happy to see that Resilience was back on the agenda. As usual with transportation people, there was little discussion of “Climate Change.” The focus was on Extreme Weather Events and how to respond to them. The overall takeaway is that Resilience is being mainstreamed in state DOTs, at least in the Northeast. Elements of the developing approach to Resilience include input from academic research, long-range planning, development of greener approaches to hardening of infrastructure, and detailed planning for disaster response. In the works – and coming out shortly – is a “CEO Primer” on Resilience issues for state DOT secretaries and commissioners (information here).
It was also encouraging to see a session on electrification of the transportation sector, which I consider an urgent priority. The two technologies discussed were electric buses and hydrogen fuel cells (for a variety of uses).
Electric buses, I’m pleased to say, are making rapid market penetration throughout the country. The technology is rapidly advancing and the business plan of the leading manufacturer, Proterra, appears solid. They argue that electric buses are now cheaper than diesel vehicles over their lifetime, as the long-term savings in maintenance costs (electric buses are very low-maintenance) overcomes the initial higher cost to purchase. Interestingly, Proterra has no plan for developing in-service charging, reasoning that current batteries will last through a day of typical revenue service – and these batteries are getting better at a rapid rate.
I don’t know much about hydrogen fuel cells, which certainly have many benefits but also have the drawback of requiring considerable new infrastructure. California is rapidly scaling up so that light-duty HFC vehicles, now for sale, can have relatively easy access to hydrogen fueling stations. HFC technology is also very promising for trucks and trains (see my blog posting here).
Unfortunately, counterbalancing these minimal, though promising, discussions on Climate Change issues was a Maryland DOT presentation touting their massive Interstate highway widening plan. They intend to use a public/private partnership arrangement to raise $11 Billion for a major widening of the Maryland portion of the Capital Beltway (I-495) and the I-270 radial freeway in Montgomery and Frederick counties. In my view, a widening program on this scale represents a huge setback on multiple levels to efforts to combat Climate Change (full disclosure: I have provided information in support of this view to my client, the Maryland Climate Coalition, who are fighting the MDOT plan). Sadly, the same DOT that is advancing this oversized widening program has also stopped the Baltimore Red Line transit project, which should have been – and can still be – an enormous step forward in promoting urban redevelopment, greenhouse gas emission reduction, and multimodal mobility.
I should say a word about our host city – Wilmington – and the Riverfront Redevelopment area where we met. The Wilmington Riverfront is a real urban redevelopment success story, transforming a derelict industrial wasteland into a vibrant mixed-use community over a 25-year period. This success was powered by the usual forces: strong political leadership, major public investment, powerful private sector actors willing to support it, and many entrepreneurs willing to take a risk. The process wasn’t always easy (see the video on the Redevelopment website here) but has paid off in a big way. The Riverfront is such a success story that the former director of the Redevelopment agency – Michael Purzyki – was elected mayor!
Congrats to Delaware DOT for hosting a great conference!
Friday, June 28, 2019
I had a chance recently to ride the new (three-year old) Kansas City Streetcar – and I was impressed!
The streetcar runs on a 2.2-mile starter line along Main Street in downtown Kansas City. Financed by a transportation development district, it is fare-free and connects such major activity centers as the financial district, River Market, the Power and Light District and other entertainment areas, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, and Union Station. A major extension south to the Country Club Plaza district and the University of Missouri at Kansas City (as well as a shorter extension to the north) is in the works. (See the Streetcar website here.)
I found the cars very comfortable and the ride very smooth. There appeared to be a wide variety of patrons using the streetcar as a hop-on, hop-off service. Happy to see an old favorite town of mine using the streetcar mode so well! I hope the extensions happen as planned!
Two years ago I wrote a series of blog postings, based on site visits, about New England villages and the promise they hold for better, more sustainable land use forms for the future. One of my subjects was Canton, CT, a charming town centered around a closed axe factory (!) with lots of potential (my blog posting here). Clearly the townsfolk are pursuing that potential, including by adopting a “form-based design code” for four designated villages within the town. That code was recently awarded a “Driehaus Form-Based Codes Award” by Smart Growth America (story and links here).
What is form-based code? In a nutshell, I’d describe it as a zoning tool that concentrates on the location, size, shape, and look of buildings rather than their uses. The general intent is to get away from rigid separation of land uses and instead encourage a mixture of commercial and residential uses (e.g., residential over retail) that make for livelier, healthier, more resilient communities. Typically these plans have more images and less text than more conventional codes. From a transportation point of view, this type of zoning promotes reduced automobile dominance, shorter trips, and more walking and biking trips.
The Canton “Village Districts Form-Based Design Code” is only one piece of a whole suite of local plans and regulations intended to guide development and redevelopment in key areas of the town. Just flipping through the document will give you a sense of what it covers: building form standards (frontages), urban space standards (street types, streetscapes, civic spaces, etc.), architectural standards (everything from windows to signs), adaptive reuse, affordable housing, and more. Congrats to Canton for taking another step forward in revitalizing a very cool town!
And by the way, for transportation people, the best document to help towns tie mobility form planning and transportation planning is still (in my slightly biased opinion) Mobility and Community Form: A Guide to Linking Transportation and Land Use in the Municipal Master Plan. This was published in 2006 on my watch at New Jersey DOT and is still available on the NDOT website (here).
Images below are: a building illustration from the Canton plan, a view of the same building from my 2017 blog posting, and the famous “Transect” image from the Mobility and Community Form document.
Monday, May 13, 2019
A recent story by Michael Freedman-Schnapp on the Greater Greater Washington blog (here) points out some of the social, housing, and transportation issues that the classic “new town” of Reston, Virginia is dealing with.
As you probably know, Reston has been an urban planning icon since it was founded in 1964. It is (as the Reston website (here) says) “the largest planned community in Virginia and one of the most renowned planned communities in the nation” with its development based on the values of “open space, recreational facilities, social heterogeneity and aesthetic beauty.”
Freedman-Schnapp points out the weakness of Reston’s transportation network: The town’s master plan and vision are “completely silent on a vision of how a well-designed transportation system can further the preservation of the environment — a notable blind spot of an otherwise eco-friendly ethic. In its place, the county has provided a transportation system that makes it very difficult, if not outright dangerous, to be a pedestrian in Reston.” His recommendations focus on better pedestrian links around the new Reston Metro stations.
And about those stations: the biggest transportation news in Reston is that the Metro has come to town! The Silver Line reached its current, temporary terminus at Wiehle—Reston East in 2014. Two new Reston stations – Reston Town Center and Herndon – are scheduled to open in 2020. The Fairfax County Office of Community Revitalization has published a very thoughtful and comprehensive paper, “Guidelines for Development: Reston Transit Station Areas” (available here), which sets out a plan for getting the best land use/transportation connection out of these stations. Wiehle—Reston East and Herndon are somewhat limited by their suburban habitats. Reston Town Center is the big opportunity. Unfortunately, the station is not actually in the town center. In an ideal world, the station would be underground, with entrances on Market Street, perhaps at the Reston Town Square Park, stimulating the kind of urban development found in Arlington. But in the real world, the station is half a mile a way on an aerial platform in the median of the Dulles Toll Road. This is what you get when you put transit in these outer suburban settings. Nevertheless, the county planners (in coordination with local officials) have done a good job in planning new connective links and transit oriented development that will “extend and complement” the Town Center.
I had three takeaways from my own visit to Reston a few months ago:
1. Reston Town Center is a real downtown, with a lot going on and a lot of potential. It is definitely “transit ready development!”
2. The town is (as Freedman-Schnapp notes) very auto-centric. You may be able to walk to your local village center for a few goods and services, but if you don’t have a car you’re largely stuck.
3. The Lake Anne village center is definitely cool (I agree with Freedman-Schnapp here). My own photo of this location is below.
Neither the Freedman-Schnapp piece nor the county planning study touch on how to get people from the neighborhoods to the Metro stations or the Town Center. To make Reston really sustainable, it seems to me one would want to have some sort of transit shuttle service connecting the “village centers” to the Metro stations, the Town Center, and possibly to one another. Local transit can be expensive, but this one might provide a good application for automated transit (OLLI anyone?).
Monday, April 29, 2019
I am pleased to see that Beto O’Rourke has proposed his own version of a Green New Deal (summary on candidate website here, LA Times story here).
As I said in a previous posting (here), I believe that the overall Green New Deal concept – vigorously attacking climate change through (1) organizing a massive investment program around green infrastructure and (2) pricing out carbon, with lots of transitional and equity protections – is a sound way to go.
Beto’s version is very similar to the AOC/Markey approach, although with a tighter focus on climate change and fewer “socialist” components, such as guaranteed jobs (not that that will make it any more acceptable to the Grim Reaper of the Senate).
The initiative is basically a laundry list of policy proposals, organized under four broad action statements:
1. Start Cutting Pollution on Day One and Taking Executive Actions to Lead on Climate
2. Mobilize a historic $5 Trillion for Climate Change with Investment in Infrastructure, Innovation, and Our People and Communities
3. Guarantee our Net-Zero Emissions Ambition by 2050
4. Defend our Communities That Are Preparing for and Fighting Against Extreme Weather
As with the AOC/Markey version, there are general references to infrastructure but not much detail on transportation. Here are the major transportation-related bullets:
· Adopt a policy of “setting a trajectory to rapidly accelerate the adoption of zero-emission vehicles,”
· “Transportation grants that cut commutes, crashes, and carbon pollution — all while reducing the costs paid by people and communities and boosting access to public transit,”
· Adoption of a “legally enforceable standard” for phasing out GHG emissions, including a “clear price signal” (presumably pricing carbon through cap-and-trade or similar mechanism), and
· “Advancing consumer choice and market competition in electricity and transportation” (not sure what this means).
It doesn’t bother me that there is detail missing at this point (my suggestions for starting to fill in the blanks for transportation are in my previous post here). What’s important is that Beto is endorsing a bold program. This also leads me to think that some sort of bold climate change initiative is going to become a standard policy component of every major Democratic campaign (I hold out no hope for the Republicans at this point). An important step forward!
Tuesday, March 12, 2019
I want to talk today about the Green New Deal and how those of us in the green transportation community can contribute to filling in the policy details in our field.
The Green New Deal has stimulated lots of discussion, although perhaps there has been more heat than light in much of that discussion. As I have said previously (here) I support the concept of the Green New Deal, believing that it provides an excellent framework for formulating the work that needs to be done to guide our nation through the dangers of this century while improving the lives of our citizens and advancing our values.
Right now, the Green New Deal is a name, a congressional resolution setting out broad goals and objectives, and a miscellaneous set of documents. Supporters of the Green New Deal recognize that it is a unifying concept, not a program, that now needs detailed policy work in a dozen fields. It’s time for those of us in the transportation policy space to begin that work for transportation.
As I noted in my previous posting, the transportation provisions of the Green New Deal (as represented in the Congressional resolution, H. Res. 109, available here) are limited to a broad goal with only three specific strategies mentioned:
“overhauling transportation systems in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as much as is technologically feasible, including through investment in – (i) zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing; (ii) clean, affordable, and accessible public transportation; and (iii) high-speed rail.” This goal – which I think can be restated as “decarbonize the transportation sector” – will require thinking about a variety of issues, including some not mentioned or implied by the language of the resolution and related documents.
So let me do a quick review of some of those issues to – hopefully – help advance the discussion. As I am presenting a generally “can do” assessment I will from time to time refer to the “no can do” arguments, which I think are best articulated by Eric Adams in his article in The Drive entitled “Here’s Why the Green New Deal’s Bold Transportation Ideas Are All But Impossible to Pull Off” (available here).
Electrifying the passenger vehicle fleet
The Green New Deal resolution doesn’t actually set a target for electrifying the passenger fleet but it specifically calls for investment in EV manufacturing and infrastructure. And it is clearly a key element in getting to a “zero net GHG emission” state by 2050. This goal is nothing new and many of us have been working on it for several years. Can we get to a completely decarbonized passenger fleet in the next 30 years? Adams (my “no can do” advisor) is skeptical, citing a report that estimates that only 14 percent – at best – of passenger vehicles on the road will be electric by 2030. And, he adds, assuming we can ramp up the manufacture and sale of EVs, how do you turn over the huge existing fleet? In my view, although the task of electrifying the passenger fleet is big, it isn’t particularly complicated. We pretty much know how to do everything that needs to be done. It’s largely a matter of scaling up. What are some of the ways ahead?
· Subsidies and more subsidies – This is a proven way to move the market. (And no, I have no compunctions about “picking winners and losers”.)
· Carbon pricing – Many states are exploring “carbon cap and invest” and similar techniques for making fossil fuels more expensive and using the revenue gained to advance clean energy.
· “Cash for Carbon Clunkers” – Adams suggests this (perhaps sarcastically?) but it worked in the Stimulus program and it can be easily scaled up to deplete the old inventory of internal combustion vehicles.
Other issues? Yes, environmental justice (poor people drive clunkers for a reason), transitional hardships, urban/rural equity, etc. More work to do!
Electric vehicle infrastructure
Electric vehicles need charging. Although most EV owners charge their vehicles at home and battery range is improving rapidly, many people in the field believe that an extensive public charging network is needed (this includes me, but by no means everyone in the field – still a debated issue). My view is that providing an extensive network of publicly accessible rapid chargers, especially on the Interstate and National Highway System networks, will enable easy intercity travel by EV owners, assuage “range anxiety” by potential buyers, and demonstrate a solid government commitment to making EVs work. Adams (no can do) cites a report which estimates that a vast number of chargers (both home and public) will be needed and that “some sort of magic” may be required to make that happen. I am unpersuaded. I can cite another report (link here), which estimates that a relatively small number of strategically placed charge points can make a national travel network possible. I believe that a vigorous national program to build a rapid charger network, perhaps spurred by making FHWA funds available at a 100% rate, can put that network in place fairly rapidly. That strategic network, combined with the development of a smart electric grid, faster charging technology (for instance, see here), more and better home storage batteries, and improved car batteries, can solve the charging problem.
Clean, affordable, accessible public transportation
Most folks in the climate change fight believe that a better, more extensive transit system is an essential part of the portfolio of GHG reduction measures in the U.S. Improved transit also has big transportation equity implications, as the poorest segments of society depend heavily on buses to get them to jobs and other essential destinations. And of course better transit can support more sustainable settlement and development patterns. Unfortunately, the Green New Deal debate has arrived just as public transportation in this country is in a crisis. First, chronic funding shortfalls have caused the level of service to decline in most places. Second, this decline in the level of service, combined with the rapid rise of Uber and other alternative modes, has caused ridership to fall. Third, these factors, together with increasing capital costs, hostile legislatures, and an ideological assault funded by fossil fuels interests, have stalled or killed transit expansions in most places. Yeah, not good times. Fortunately, many of these factors can be turned around:
· Funding – The answer for a funding shortfall is……..more funding! Significant funding is needed at the federal, state, and local, both for capital and operating.
· Ridership diversions – Some people believe that the rise of transportation delivery companies (Uber, etc.) spells the end of mass transit. I side with the Jarrett Walker position that the actual geometry of cities (density) means that they won’t work well without the means to move large numbers of people efficiently along corridors, in other words, transit. Transit systems, of course, need to deliver faster, more convenient services to fill their role successfully.
· Cost of expansions – We need to make a lot more money available for transit expansions while at the same time dramatically improving project delivery and cost control. More rapid transit lines in separated rights-of-way are absolutely needed to make cities thrive. A prime example is the city of Baltimore, where the proposed Red Line light rail line would provide major leverage toward revitalization of that troubled city. Killing that project (as has been done, at least for the moment) may have condemned it to decades of failure.
· More buses – Comparatively, buses are cheap. When run with upgraded service, as Bus Rapid Transit, they can outperform private autos and approach light rail speed and service and can be good candidates for automatic operation.
· Electric buses – What can be done right now? Flood the country with electric buses! These are just now approaching market competitiveness and are ripe for robust government subsidies (see my posting on the topic here).
OK, this is a tough one. In the heyday of high-speed rail planning, following the Obama Stimulus, several projects looked promising in the near term. Now, with California HSR imploding, no project looks promising. Upgrading the Northeast Corridor, if not yet to full HSR standards, should definitely be in the top tier of a Green New Deal transportation program. At the national level, the future is murkier. If willing candidates are found, perhaps some of the 2009 initiatives can be relaunched (I’m talking to you, Wisconsin). Beyond that, I think there will be some years of planning before there is anything like a national program.
I won’t attempt to sort through all the issues affecting goods movement in this country. I’ll just say that this is an area where we need to count on technology to help us deal with greenhouse gases. Fortunately, that technology is on the way (or at least almost on the way.)
Delivery trucks: Electric power beginning to work here.
Long-haul trucks: New electric rigs debuting (my comments here).
Rail: Hopefully hydrogen fuel cells (my comments here.)
This subject has attracted lots of attention in Green New Deal talk – although it’s not even mentioned in the resolution! Some of the associated documents have mentioned the high GHG emissions associated with air travel and suggested that high-speed rail could replace some or all of that travel demand. I talked a bit about the problems with HSR above. The U.S. is a very big country, and while you can make a strong case for rail replacing a lot of air travel in 300-mile-long corridors, it’s hard to see that working for 3,000-mile trips. I’m afraid we’re going to have to look to new technology to help us out here.
There is a widely shared view in the transportation community that we need a massive investment in infrastructure in this country to restore our systems to a state of good repair, to address unmet needs, and to prepare for the future. Many – but not all – of these needs can easily be classified as Green New Deal. Some thoughts on the connection between the Green New Deal and broader transportation infrastructure questions:
· Fix it first—A lot of money needs to be spent on bringing elements of our legacy systems to a state of good repair. This work doesn’t always advance the Climate Change fight, but it needs to be done. Funding generated for the Green New Deal must not draw resources away from these bread-and-better needs.
· Resiliency—The Green New Deal for transportation should include goals and strategies for making the system more resilient to Climate Change and the associated extreme weather events. This subject doesn’t seem to have attracted much discussion, but it is vitally important. The work that needs to be done under this heading includes hardening of facilities, elevating roads and bridges, and building redundant facilities.
· Materials—More work needs to be done in the research and development of materials (concrete, asphalt, etc.) with reduced GHG impacts during their production and application. I’m looking forward to seeing more “smart” materials!
I want to give just a few final thoughts on how and why the Green New Deal can be accomplished.
Perhaps the best argument I have seen for the Green New Deal – and certainly the best defense against the barrage of opposition – is the recent piece by David Roberts on Vox (available here). The title says it all: “This is an emergency, damn it: Green New Deal critics are missing the bigger picture.” Roberts’ central point is that the Green New Deal represents the “courage and fresh thinking” we need to address the Climate Change crisis on an urgent basis. The various critics “seem oblivious to the historical moment, like thespians acting out an old, familiar play even as the theater goes up in flames around them.” He believes that the political energy generated by supporters of the Green New Deal may be the only way to jolt the U.S. political system into taking the actions needed.
I certainly agree with the need for a sense of urgency, and I suggest that we remember the real success that was achieved under the Obama Stimulus Plan. I believe that if we had sustained that level and overall shape of a transportation program on an annual level, much of what we are seeking to do would already have been achieved. Although “one off” and thrown together in a hurry, the Stimulus demonstrated that a high level of funding – especially when tied to high aspirations – can produce great results.
Finally, if this work is as necessary and urgent as many of us believe it is, we just really need to figure out how to do it. My favorite analogy is the famous CO2 scrubber scene in the Apollo 13 movie (which actually happened), in which engineers had to figure out how to solve a problem using only what materials and techniques that they had at hand. Let’s do it.