Monday, June 29, 2009

What to do about labor costs

Back in February, I wrote about some ways of helping transit operations to become independent of government budget battles. In the comments, Christopher Parker wrote:
A lot really does come down to labor costs, which are a very significant amount of the expense of transit.

Christopher is quite right here, and this is a major issue. Transit systems in countries with low labor costs are able to operate more lines with less subsidy. Some have argued that transit will never be competitive with such high labor costs, blamed the transit workers' unions, and recommended finding a way to break the unions.

This is, of course, only one manifestation of the wider labor cost issue. Yes, with enough force we could break the unions, dismantle restrictive labor laws and bring labor costs down to the levels of Brazil or Thailand. But what would we really accomplish? A big part of what makes America (or France, or Japan) a nice place to live is that many people can make a decent living, with health care and a pension, without working seventy hours a week. We do not want to race to the bottom on this.

Our goal should be to accomplish what we want without compromising on labor standards. Like all workers, transit staff deserve enough money to pay the rent and support a family, plus decent health care and retirement benefits. They deserve to work reasonable hours under healthy, comfortable conditions. We should stand in solidarity with the bus drivers and train operators. We are all transit workers.

Actually, we are all transit workers, and that's part of the problem, as Christopher continues:
When you think about it, that's a serious competitive disadvantage because the perceived labor cost of driving is free.

What has happened over the past hundred years is that the government has effectively outsourced the bulk of passenger transportation to individuals and families. They pay much of the capital costs (roads and bridges, roads and bridges), and subsidize some of the rest (Detroit bailout, oil wars), and even pay some of the capital maintenance, which is essentially an operating cost.

The remaining costs (vehicles and their operation) is mostly provided directly by the consumer. This has always been true to some extent, but during the golden age of rail transport it was provided by corporations, usually private, but unionized with strict labor rules. Many of these have been taken over by the government, but unable to compete with the cheap labor of individual drivers, they have shrunken considerably.

Of course, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and we have paid dearly for the de-professionalization of driving. Car crashes are the ninth leading cause of death worldwide and climbing, and the leading cause of death among young people. Buses and trains do kill people, but at nowhere near that rate.

It's time to recognize that we can't get away from paying for well-trained, well-treated professional transit operators. Of course we should work to reduce scams like the golfing "disabled" Long Island Rail Road workers, and other wastefraudandabuse. But there's a limit to how much cost savings can be wrung from labor. If we try to save money by farming transportation out to unprofessional, poorly-trained individuals, or by ruining working conditions - or even by importing desperate immigrants - it will backfire, and we'll wind up dead or wishing we were dead.

As Christopher points out, this outsourcing of passenger transportation provides unfair competition to organizations that do treat their drivers right. If the "externalities" were not hidden - for example, if the cost of medical care for road casualties came out of the DOT's budgets, or if the states had to pay every driver a living wage for every hour behind the wheel - we'd see these costs brought under control quickly, and transit wouldn't look so expensive.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Pick two

In an earlier post, I wrote that transit needs the middle class, because we can't accomplish our pollution, efficiency and safety goals without getting the middle class to shift from cars to transit. To attract the middle class, transit needs to be classy. What might classy transit look like?

In technology fields there is a saying, "Fast, cheap and good. Pick any two." Of course, transportation is nothing if not a technology, and the saying is just as true there as in computers. Yes, you might some day have transportation that's all three, but let's not hold our breath.

The New York subway, which is one of the gold standards by which transit performance is measured, is fast and cheap - in fact, one of the fastest ways to get around town, but there are numerous complaints about the quality. It's gotten a lot better since the 70s, and it's now reasonably reliable, but it's still noisy, dirty and crowded. Cycling is also fast and can be very cheap, but the quality is mixed: some people love the exercise, others hate the sweat and the exposure to the elements, not to mention the abuse.

If you take the subway during rush hour, chances are you'll be standing most of the way. If you manage to get a seat, you'll probably find yourself with somebody's bag, newspaper, ass or belly in your face for at least two stops, and then you'll have to fight to get off the train in time. If you've got a flexible enough schedule so that you don't have to travel during rush hour, you may get a seat, but you'll probably still get bumped, jostled or at least cut off - numerous times as you walk from the entrance to the train. If it's an elevated train, you'll have to put up with somebody's obnoxious cell phone conversation. In any case, you'll probably get some jerk who thinks the whole car needs to hear her gospel tape, or who's got the techno cranked on his leaky earphones. You'll also be subjected to aggressive panhandlers, arrogant preachers, and that woman with the flute thing.

It's much worse for women than for men. Women of all ages, shapes and sizes encounter entitled males leering at them, making comments, and sometimes masturbating in front of or even on them. Many women have personally told me about being groped, pinched or fondled on crowded trains.

I have to say that I love the New York subway. It's my main form of transportation after walking. I've grown up with it and I wouldn't give it up. I'll be taking the subway until I can't climb stairs any more - and maybe after, if I last until they put elevators in all the stations. But sometimes I get tired of it. I'd like to be able to sit down at 8:05, maybe spread out and take some notes on a book I'm reading, and get off at 8:50 without having to push my way through twenty people. I'd like to have the option of quality. I'm at the point in life where I can pay for it, and I'm willing to, at least some of the time. Sometimes I'm also willing to sacrifice speed. But for most places I want to go, transit doesn't offer any quality option.

In future posts I'll talk about some quality options, and how they might be implemented.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Redundancy, the Northeast Corridor and high-speed rail

An interesting discussion sprouted in the comments to one of Yonah's posts about high-speed rail, concerning how to reproduce the success of the initial Paris-Lyon TGV line. Chris G observed, "The thing with comparing anywhere to Paris Lyon is that that line was build as TGV only after it was already at capacity. Its not that we must have TGV speeds immediately."

The only line in the US that is anywhere near close to capacity is the Northeast Corridor, and Alon Levy wrote, "Everyone, don’t sell the NEC short. The line was operationally profitable until this year, when the recession killed ridership. If it were rebuilt at HSR speeds, it would make Amtrak as a whole profitable, creating a ready source of funding for further HSR construction."

Avi raised two concerns:
Alon, the NEC obviously has the greatest potential for ridership and profit. The problem is the cost to build a true HSR line would be astronomical. You’re talking about buying land and building a new right of way in the densest most expensive region in the country.

The other issue between NY and DC(especially NY and PHL) is there is too much traffic on the tracks. There is Amtrak Acela, Amtrak Regionals, Amtrak Keystones, random other Amtrak trains, NJ Transit express, NJ Transit Local, and Septa.

Avi clearly didn't read my earlier posts about redundancy, or he would know that there are parallel rights-of-way to the Northeast Corridor the entire way from New York to Boston. Some of them have commuter service, some run a few freight trains, but most of them are railbanked.

Eminent domain would only be necessary in cases where curves need to be straightened. The main expenses would be grade crossing elimination, electrification and rebuilding bridges. This is another way that redundancy can be useful: to run high-speed trains, you need dedicated express track. The Northeast Corridor has too many slower trains on it, but fortunately we have the right-of-way for another line.

So where could the Northeast High-Speed 2.0 Train run? From Boston south to New Haven, the best bet would probably be the Air Line, so named because it was almost as straight as an airplane route. The line is intact except for a bridge or two, and currently used as a rail-trail. From New Haven or Middletown the line could continue west on the former New York and New England line to Brewster and south on the Old Putnam line. It's not clear the best way to get it into Penn Station, but this is one of the many reasons why it's frustrating that the new Hudson River tunnel will not connect to Grand Central.

Between Newark and Philadelphia, the train can use the ex-Reading West Trenton Line. From Philadelphia to Baltimore I was a little worried at first, but looking more closely the CSX Philadelphia Division (ex-B&O) is single-track most of the way, and the NEC is only three tracks. There's plenty of room to add capacity. In any case, all of the alternatives are indirect, going through Lancaster, Harrisburg, York or Reading, PA, but some of the freight traffic could be shifted to those routes if necessary.

Going through Baltimore would probably be a headache, but that could potentially be done on the NEC. Between Baltimore and Washington we have three options, as I wrote before: the former Pennsylvania mainline currently used by the Northeast Corridor, the CSX Capitol subdivision used by MARC commuter trains, and the CSX Old Main and Metropolitan subdivisions, partly used by MARC.

The nice thing about these is that since we're serving the same cities, the alternatives could be phased in. I get the impression that the Shore Line is the most saturated section of the Northeast Corridor, but it's also the fastest, and the alternative Air Line is one of the most expensive to reconstruct. The most promising demonstration project would probably be the West Trenton Line. The right-of-way is already there, there is at least one set of tracks, there is some freight traffic but there are parallel routes for it to be diverted to. It also goes between New York and Philadelphia, where there are plenty of people ready to try it out.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Protecting the vulnerable with barriers

In my last post I argued that pedestrian and cyclist safety is essentially a matter of protecting the vulnerable from bullies. There are many ways to do this, and the most obvious way is with barriers: you got to keep them separated.

Inside buildings you're usually protected from cars, but not always. There are some pedestrian paths that are physically separated from cars, sometimes by miles (as with hiking trails), and some roadways where no pedestrians are allowed within several yards (as with limited-access highways). There are also simple sidewalks, where the raised curb marks the boundary between car territory and pedestrian territory (but is often violated). Sometimes the government will build a fence or bollards to keep the cars on their side, and sometimes the cars parked at the curb form a barrier.

Sooner or later, pedestrian paths and car paths have to cross, and there are all kinds of ways to arrange this. One example comes from Streetsblog commenter Rhywun:
The only "developing" country I've been to is China and I can verify that the streets are pretty much a free-for-all--and the drivers win. Big cities like Shanghai and Beijing address the problem of out-of-control drivers with giant pedestrian overpasses all over the place, which lends these areas all the grace of an airport parking lot.

I've never been to China, but I have been to other cities with pedestrian overpasses and underpasses, and we even have some here in New York. Most of the ones in New York go over and under limited-access highways, and there probably shouldn't be limited-access highways in a city anyway.

There are other overpasses that cross roads that are theoretically "streets" or "boulevards" with sidewalks and shops. Examples include the West Street overpasses to Battery Park City and the Queens Boulevard underpasses in Forest Hills. While they may prevent individual pedestrians from being killed, they also allow the cars to go faster, driving pedestrians away from the sidewalks, and making the street feel less safe to walk along. This sets up a vicious cycle where walkable street uses lose business and close up, giving pedestrians less reason to walk, which in turn encourages drivers to go faster, and on and on.

Grade separation can be even more extreme, for example with the second-story walkway systems that exist in places like Calgary, and the underground walkways of Montreal and Chicago. During very cold (or sometimes very hot) weather, these places provide a sheltered alternative to the street, but in more comfortable seasons they draw pedestrians away from the streets, allowing them to be more dominated by cars than they would otherwise.

Barriers and separation are definitely necessary in the short term to protect pedestrians from motorists and cyclists, and to protect cyclists and pedestrians from motorists. Underground walkways, skyways, greenways and hiking trails definitely have their uses, and it seems like we're stuck with limited-access highways for now. But in keeping with our goals, we want to reduce the amount of car usage. Unless and until we can come up with non-car alternatives for every automotive use for an area (including deliveries and transportation for the disabled), we will need to accommodate cars. Generally, that means allowing cars, cyclists and pedestrians to mix, and that requires other ways of protecting the vulnerable.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Protecting the vulnerable from bullies

Many advocates for walking and cycling demand dedicated infrastructure, such as Steve Patterson in Saint Louis. Others, like Hans Monderman and Ben Hamilton-Baillie, advocate removing infrastructure and barriers, based on studies showing that speed - and crashes - are reduced when signals and pavement markings are removed.

Based on a shallow understanding of Monderman's work, I would be tempted to conclude that Patterson has the perfect pedestrian-friendly environment. The pedestrian spaces are so well-blended with the car spaces that you can't see them at all! On a slightly less shallow understanding, I'd be tempted to conclude that the emperor has no clothes, and that Monderman's methods are a sham. So which is it?

On a deeper level, these understandings are both true and not true. Transport the Sam's Club parking lot from Saint Louis to Drachten (kind of like a reverse Cloisters), and it would be a heck of a lot safer. Drop Monderman's famous roundabout at the intersection of I-44 and Big Bend, and you'd have to call in the Red Cross. The physical form is not what makes the most difference.

What it comes down to is protecting the vulnerable from bullies. You may have caught the recent Times article about the health consequences of bullying - both for the bully and the victim. Well, the bullies aren't just in the schools. They're everywhere that they're allowed to be. Everywhere that there are power imbalances, and nothing to counter them. They're definitely on the roads - anyone disagree?

So how do we protect vulnerable road users like pedestrians and cyclists? Tune in next time to find out.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Phoenix Sky Train and the limits of intermodality

Some people at a place called Air Rail News have been sending me their newsletter for a while. It's basically just recycled press releases, and I'm not all that interested in airport rail connections, but every once in a while they have something interesting. This week they noted Phoenix's Sky Train project.

Sky Train will be an automated, rubber-tired "train" in a dedicated, elevated right-of-way, connecting the terminals and long-term parking to the airport light-rail/bus stop. It will replace the current shuttle bus, which sounds like a good thing, because the last time I went to Phoenix the shuttle bus took a while to show up.

It's great that they're improving connections between terminals and to the light rail and local buses. But they're forgetting about intercity travel. The new Sky Train will not connect to Union Station, which is understandable since Union Station hasn't seen regular train service since 1996. But the Greyhound bus station, now also served by several Mexican bus lines, is just a few blocks west of the airport.

In fact, it's one of Phoenix's ironies that the airport is four miles from downtown across from the bus station and along the new light rail line, while the train station is thirty miles south of the city in a little town with no bus service to speak of.

Another weirdness of this plan - and many airport rail services - is that it's completely incompatible with the light rail system. The Sky Train FAQ gives a lame excuse of not wanting to inconvenience light rail riders who weren't going to the airport. Of course, they wouldn't have to run all the light rail trains through the airport. Just those bound for Union Station.

The Sky Train will be built in two phases, so let's add a third: connect the airport with the Greyhound station to the west. I would also like to see the Sky Train built with the same rail and power systems as the Metro Light Rail so that they could be connected later.

Another possibility is that the Sky Train could act as a local loop from light rail to airport to Greyhound, but the elevated structure could be built wide enough to accommodate a second set of tracks for light rail. Phase 4 could be a light-rail branch through the airport to Greyhound and then continuing west to Union Station and reconnecting with the current light rail line somewhere downtown. It would only have to make one stop at the airport; passengers for other terminals could transfer to the Sky Train there.

Monday, June 15, 2009

CRC not OK

Another day, another group who won't stand for an oversized bridge replacement. In Portland, OR they're protesting the DOT's plans to replace the six-lane Interstate Bridge with one that could be eight, ten or twelve lanes.

Our State DOT wants to replace the seven-lane Tappan Zee Bridge with one that's ten lanes. Lots of options in the scoping process, but somehow the idea of a six or eight lane bridge is completely off the table. Do we get protest rides? Editorials? Anything? No, because the new bridge would include "BRT."

Sorry, but that's not BRT in the bridge plans, it's HO/T, which is completely different. If someone doesn't do something soon, we're going to get screwed big-time.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Let's lower the floor?

Last year I argued that one of our priorities for transportation in the New York area should be to increase clearances in the Haverstraw tunnel so that the West Shore Line can be double-tracked again. In Bellows Falls, Vermont they had a similar issue: a single-track tunnel constructed in 1851 right under the village green.

The tunnel was too low to allow double-height trains to pass through, so in 2007 the engineers did what they had previously done back in 1897 and 1987: dig further down to lower the track bed. It cost them $2 million, and allowed 5,000 additional freight cars per year to pass through the tunnel. The Vermont AOT has a Word document with some cool photos. So why can't we do this in Haverstraw?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Being proactive about the Niantic River Bridge

Following up on last year's replacement of the Thames River Bridge in Connecticut, Amtrak has received $105 million in stimulus funds to replace the Niantic River Bridge a few miles to the west. This is good, and will not only allow Acela trains to go faster, but will avoid slow orders that would be required if the bridge deteriorates further. The new drawbridge will also be taller and longer than the current one, meaning that it will not have to open for boats as often, allowing Amtrak to run more trains.

Unfortunately, as with the Thames bridge, this replacement will probably require Amtrak to shut down the Shore Line again. Last time, after objections from passengers, Amtrak agreed to run an alternate train along the Inland Route - but only one.

Let's see if we can do better this time. Stimulus money is already being used to fix broken cars, so Amtrak will hopefully have more equipment available. It would be nice if some of the money could also be used to upgrade the Inland Route. That would allow them to run more trains, not just for this outage but over the long term, serving more communities and providing needed redundancy.

As I've written before, to bring the Inland Route up to the standards of the Shore Line we need more tracks, electrification and high-level station platforms. As far as I know, the old Hartford line and Boston and Albany line never had electrification or high-level platforms, but they did have two tracks for almost this entire route. As I understand it, the second track on the Hartford line was scrapped some time during the 1980s. Some awesome guy has posted track maps for the B & A showing it as two tracks from Rensselaer all the way to Framingham, and four tracks from there to Boston.

How much would it cost to restore the second track? Fortunately, the Connecticut Department of Transportation has done a study of just that, for the always-just-around-the-corner New Haven to Springfield "commuter train." Bizarrely, although the study documents were online just a couple weeks ago, they now seem to have disappeared. Let's see how much of it I can recall from memory.

Basically, they say that you would get enough of a performance boost from double-tracking part of the line, and they recommended not double-tracking the entire line all the way to Springfield right off the bat. On average, it could be done for about $800,000 per mile. I don't think that includes the switches and signals necessary to make full use of the double tracks, and I'll be damned if I can remember what the total was for that whole section of the line. The shortest single-track section east of Springfield is the one between Springfield and Palmer, only about eight miles. It could be completely upgraded for a lot less than ten million dollars.

For a few million, we could get one additional double-tracked section, which would probably be enough to run two trains a day during the outage and any subsequent outages, and permanently increase capacity on the line. Amtrak is planning to spend $100 million of the stimulus funds on replacing the bridge. They should try and get a few more million for double-tracking the Inland Route. They could either upgrade the Hartford line and save Connecticut a few bucks whenever they get around to upgrading service, or they could upgrade the ex-B & A line between Springfield and Worcester, and although those tracks are owned by CSX as part of their Boston Subdivision, an upgrade would improve the running of Amtrak's Vermonter and the Lake Shore Limited trains.

Either way, we should be spending more to mitigate the impact of this outage, and these would be permanent improvements that would benefit the system in the long run.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Amongst our objectives...

The folks at Transportation for America seem like they're really good people, and I don't want to give them a hard time. But they seem to be striving for clarity, and they're failing, so here's some constructive criticism. They recently released their Blueprint for America, which says "T4 America calls on Congress to clearly define the national interest and purpose of the federal transportation program by adopting and implementing the following set of National Transportation Objectives." To reach each of those Objectives it gives a number of federal-level strategies.

The Executive Summary (PDF) says, "The next federal surface transportation bill should articulate a clear and compelling national vision with specific goals for implementation that will build and maintain a comprehensive National Transportation System." I wholeheartedly agree, but you can't get Congress to articulate a clear and compelling vision if you don't articulate one yourself, and I regret to say that the vision they articulate is a mess.

The problem is that there aren't actually six objectives. Most of the ones on the list are actually multiple objectives conjoined. If you have to put "and" in your objective you're failing at simplicity. If we pull them apart, it actually comes out to thirteen or fourteen Objectives. That's just bad PR, and it may get people thinking that the objectives aren't the real reason, but actually post hoc justifications for their federal funding priorities.

For example, Objective 2 is "Improve Transportation System Conditions and Connectivity." Did you ever wake up and say to yourself, "Gee, I wish my transportation system conditions and connectivity were better"? Not unless you work in transportation. Transportation systems are a means to an end. Their conditions and connectivity are not the objective. Same thing for Objective 1(b), "Improve ... Transportation System Efficiency."

Because I think these people are really trying to do what they think is best for the country, and because their Performance Targets fit with my own goals, I'll try to "normalize" their Objectives (as the database people say) and see if I can pare them down.

The first thing is simply to get rid of Objectives 1(b) and 2, because they're not ultimate goals that any sane person should have. Okay, that brings us down to ten or elven Objectives. Now let's try to combine some of them.

Objectives 1(a) and 1(c), "Improve Economic Competitiveness ... and Workforce Development Opportunities" are in fact pretty much the same goal, and it boils down to money. We can call it "Increase prosperity."

Objective 3(a), "Promote Energy Efficiency," can contribute to Prosperity, but it can also fit with Objectives 4(a) and (b), "Ensure Environmental Protection, Restore Climate Stability." Those all basically mean keeping the earth functioning as a nice place to live, so let's pack them all into Objective 4(a).

Objective 3(b), "Achieve Energy Security," really stands on its own.

Objective 4(c), "Resolve Persistent Environmental Justice Issues," fits better with Objective 6. We can just say, "Make things fairer."

Finally, Objective 5(a) and (b), "Ensure Safety for All Transportation Users and Improve Public Health Outcomes," pretty much means to keep everyone alive and healthy. We can say, "Maintain safety and health," and if you don't like that conjunction in there we can bundle health in with Prosperity.

Ladies and gentlemen, I now present five suggested revised objectives for transportation policy (they don't just work at the federal level):

1. Safety
2. Sustainability
3. Fairness
4. Independence
5. Prosperity

In keeping with our new Objective 3, the Blueprint does articulate some of these more clearly, but they're not in the list of Objectives, and they're not the organizing principle of the Breaking down the Blueprint series of blog posts. Wouldn't it be simpler if the targets were linked to "Prosperity," rather than to "Economic Competitiveness, Efficiency, and Opportunity"?

I'm sure it's too late for this Blueprint. The funders have already spent their money, the thing has been printed and distributed to Congress, and by now they've incorporated these Objectives into many Powerpoint presentations and blog posts. But those of us who don't work for the campaign can use these objectives in promoting our short-term goals.

I'll go first: here's how my list of goals (up in the header) fit into these Objectives:

a. Reducing pollution -> Safety, Sustainability, Prosperity
b. Increasing efficiency -> Sustainability, Independence, Prosperity
c. Reducing carnage -> Safety
d. Improving society -> Fairness, Prosperity
e. Transportation for all -> Fairness, Prosperity

Monday, June 8, 2009

Building a Constituency of Car-free Weekenders

Several times in the past few years, both online and in person, I've been told by New Yorkers, "I wish I could get rid of my car, but I need it when I go away for the weekend." Now it's possible that that's just a convenient excuse, and that they're really afraid of giving up their middle-class status symbols, but let's assume that there is a significant number of New Yorkers who currently own cars but would give them up if they could get the same quality vacations without the car.

In 2008, the DMV reports that there were 1,751,505 cars registered in New York City, and there are probably a lot more registered in vacation homes and stored here. Imagine if we could get even ten percent of that number off the streets. First of all, taxpayer-funded free parking wasn't set up for the purpose of subsidizing middle-class vacations, and there would be a lot more parking available to people who might use it on a more short-term basis. Second, weekend getaway driving is a significant component of the pollution that New Yorkers emit, and of the petroleum we consume. Third, it contributes to human and animal carnage throughout the region.

Perhaps most importantly, weekend driving perpetuates a driving constituency that would not otherwise be there: a significant number of the voices demanding more roads and more parking - and consequently less space for pedestrians and cyclists, and less money for trains and buses - in the city, in the inner suburbs and in the vacation areas.

In upcoming posts, I'll discuss what can be done to reduce weekend vacation driving in the city.