Mars and Venus (Earth Loses)

Brac_map I'm often amazed at how really smart people can't seem to put 2&2 together. This last Sunday's Washington Post had a long, in-depth article about the BRAC relocations. It included a great graphic shown here (click on it for a larger view). At the same time, virtually every day brings additional news about the need to take immediate and significant actions to battle global warming. Most of the nations of the world met in Bali recently for the yearly Conference of the Parties that guides the international dialog on climate change. Europe, for one, was pushing for 25-40% reductions in greenhouse gases by 2020 (the U. S. 'succeeded' in watering down much of the language).

If you look at the map you will see that the jobs are primarily moving away from places where transportation options are more plentiful to places where they are not. There is no question that the number of miles driven in the DC area will go up with this realignment. The article points out the need for hundreds of millions of dollars of additional transportation infrastructure just to accommodate the additional traffic. All of it is more roads. Does the BRAC commission read the news about global warming? Are they living on another planet?

What you might hear from them is, "Our job was to blah...blah...blah. Once we met those objectives, then global warming might be a secondary issue, but it wasn't our job." I once attended a presentation in which the presenter posed the question, "Who is in charge of climate change?" The answer is, well, no one really. Which means that we all are. Including the BRAC.

It's probably too late to change the relocations, but it's not too late to make opportunities out of them. Knowing that all these jobs are moving, what changes can be made that will reduce the traffic and greenhouse gases at the same time? The most obvious is to look at which jobs can be done without needing the people to actually be there. Having workers telecommute 2-3 days per week (or full time) would reduce driving and congestion tremendously and also reduce terrorism risk by spreading out the workforce. Comprehensive additional planning should take place immediately, including starting work on extending rail (VRE and Metrorail to the Proving Ground and Fort Belvoir and MARC direct to Fort Meade). Other land use planning needs to be much smarter, both on the bases themselves and in areas that will attract workers. The forts themselves should make themselves examples of places that people can get around without needing a personal car. That way those who come by the train or bus or carpool can get where they want and need to be. One way might be to put in PRT (personal rapid transit), which I'll cover another day.

In any case, it would be great to see the Defense Department take the lead on being forward thinking and progressive on how to achieve their realignment goals without exacerbating global warming.

Intersection of Transportation and Demographics

OldpeoplecrossingThe issue of the elderly and transportation has been a topic of news articles around the country lately (USA Today 12/2, W. Post 12/7, Appleton Post-Crescent 12/9, San Diego Union Tribune 12/8). Most of these focus on providing volunteer or low-cost rides to old or infirm people to help them get where they need to go.

My sense is that transportation planners do not typically take future demographics into consideration very well. In particular, when planning is made for transportation infrastructure that will be in service for 40-50 years, there will always be statistics on future traffic demands on that infrastructure, usually used to help justify and plan the project. My experience with my own aging relatives is that long before they need to stop driving altogether, they find driving on expressways and freeways at high speeds very uncomfortable. All those 40-somethings who are using the Springfield interchange and Woodrow Wilson Bridge now will be 70-somethings in 30 years. Are we designing the long-term infrastructure in a way that will accommodate the demographics not as they are now, but the demographics as they will be decades in the future? I have never read anything in the planning for transportation projects like these that expressly discusses that issue. If you have, I'd be interested in hearing about it.

The PATH to Energy Savings

Houseleakswithtext780The Saturday, October 27, Washington Post Real Estate section had an excellent article that includes 10 tips to consider when remodeling. It highlights the US Department of Housing and Urban Development's PATH program (Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing). The article touches on many of the items that have been discussed on this blog, such as efficient lighting and right-sizing heating and cooling systems.

PATH is primarily a partnership with the housing trades (builders, remodelers, financers, etc.) but has done a thorough job of pulling together comprensive information and tools that will help improve our nation's housing stock going forward. For instance, their web site includes a Tip of the Month. Bookcoverlarge_2This month's is very timely with winter coming on: Air Seal and Insulate.

If you are considering remodeling (or even if not--you just want to know more about how your home uses energy efficiently or inefficiently), I'd like to remind you of my post from a few months back recommending the book No-Regrets Remodeling, an excellent resource to use prior to undertaking any remodeling project.

Battle in Bethesda (Trail users unite to fend off developer)

Bar4Many of the people who enjoy the trails in this area: bicyclists, runners, bladers, walkers, etc. have really come to appreciate the Capital Crescent Trail that connects Georgetown to Bethesda, passes under Wisconsin Avenue through a terrific old railway tunnel, and then continues as a gravel interim trail all the way to Silver Spring (someday it will loop all the way to Union Station, but that's another story). In fact, sections of the trail see more than 20,000 users per week.Westportal

In July a developer submitted plans to Montgomery County to develop the parcel of land at the corner of Woodmont Avenue and Bethesda Avenue where the trail enters the tunnel. As part of their plan they were proposing to close the tunnel for more than two years.

When I heard about this, my initial reaction was that there was no way Montgomery County would allow that to happen. But then I had a second thought that if people weren't paying attention, then the ball might not bounce the right way. Well, it didn't take long for trail users and other interested parties to take note. Montgomery County Councilman Roger Berliner (in whose district the tunnel is located) held a public meeting on September 15 to discuss the development (the tunnel closing was a key issue, but not the only one, aired at the meeting). I attended this meeting, and it was packed; well over 100 people were there. So was the developer, who had been invited to discuss the project.

Bar3The developer clearly got the message that the community was not going to accept the tunnel closing. Last week, the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail reported on its web site that the developer has informed the Montgomery County Planning Board that it will keep the tunnel open during construction. This was clearly a victory for everyone. The trail and tunnel are key commuting routes as well as a wonderful recreational trail for thousands of users. In an area like Bethesda, where traffic is a constant issue, providing as many other choices as possible is an imperative for quality of life.

Investments, Efficiency, VA Tech, and the DC Area

Eep400Last Tuesday's Washington Post featured a great article about the confluence of economic value and actions to reduce energy use and climate change. Virginia Tech and investor Hannan Armstrong along with other partners, including PEPCO Energy Services, are investing $500 million to improve the efficiency of at least 100 buildings in the DC area. The initiative is called the Energy Efficiency Partnership of Greater Washington.

It's important to note that Mr. Armstrong is not doing this because he is an environmentalist. He's doing it because he can make money at it. Opportunities to improve efficiency in buildings are enormous and profits can be made. The concept is pretty simple: invest money in energy performance improvements and then share the savings that come out of the utility bills. The building owner pays nothing up front and enjoys same or lower utility bills. The investor creates a stream of income from the utility savings that yields a good or excellent return on the initial capital investment. Both parties win . . .and so does our environment. The expectation is that the buildings they are investing in will reduce their energy use by 20% - 50%.

You can do this yourself, too, actually. In the short term, investing $200 in changing out the lighting in your house can yield up to $100 per year in investment returns--a fabulous return rate. If you have a home equity line of credit you can create your own positive cash flow--it's like printing money. 795pxunited_states_two_dollar_uncutBy investing in efficiency improvements that have rates of return higher than the interest you pay on your loan, you can create a cash cow right in your house. Here's an example: $3000 wisely invested in improvements could save you $30-$40 month or more on your utility bills. A 15-year home equity loan payment is $27.81 at 7.5%. So every month you essentially print yourself a $5 or even a $20 bill (because you save more on your utility bill than you pay on your loan). As utility rates rise your savings go up, too, but your payment stays the same. Many improvements will also add to the value of your home, so if you move your house will sell for more--recouping your investment again.

I've always thought that investment resources like Money Magazine and Kiplinger's should recommend these investments to their readers. They can create better returns at lower risk than a lot of the other investment recommendations they make. The environmental benefits are just gravy.

Bikes and HOT Lanes

BannerpicSunday's Washington Post Outlook section published an op-ed piece by Bruce Wright, chairman of Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling that was spot on. His key point being that as Virginia moves forward with $1.7 billion of investment to move cars better (the new HOT Lanes), the state absolutely needs to think comprehensively about other modes--in particular cycling. Currently it is difficult or impossible to cross the beltway on a bicycle along most routes. Although I have heard of people doing it, it's pretty terrifying for me to imagine riding on Route 50 where it crosses I-495. Most of the other crossings are no better. There are undoubtedly thousands of people who live only a few miles from their jobs or from other places they want to go, but the Beltway is in between, forcing them to drive those short distances.

In fact, VDOT's Policy for Integrating Bicycle and Pedestrian Accommodations makes this statement: "The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) will initiate all highway construction projects with the presumption that the projects shall accommodate bicycling and walking." Here's a golden opportunity for VDOT to demonstrate that it is not just paying lip service and--in contrast to its performance as reported in a previous post on a VDOT missed opportunity--really understands the value of bicycling and walking as viable travel choices.

Thanks, Bruce, for getting this key issue into the Post where our policy makers are more likely to see it.

Smarter than a 5th-Grader?

HurricaneThe Friday, October 19, Washington Post ran an article by Juliet Eilperin in which she reported that the administration's Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, John H. Marburger III, said that the target of preventing Earth from warming more than two degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, "is going to be a very difficult
one to achieve and is not actually linked to regional events that affect people's lives."

I agree with the first part: it will be difficult to achieve. However, the second part of that statement is undeniably false and, in fact, regional events are already affecting people's lives and are only going to get more severe. The 2003 European heat waves resulted in more than 20,000 excess lives lost and has been linked by scientists to global warming. If that is not a 'regional event that affects people's lives,' I don't know what is. Storm scientists have documented increased storm intensities of tropical storms, including storms like Katrina, which strike me as significant regional events (note of caution here: it is impossible to know if Katrina or any particular storm is more severe due to global warming; what we do know is that the tendency for storms to be stronger is going up.)

MarburgerIt is frustrating to see high-powered officials in the federal government with their heads so deeply buried in the sand. I was recently in the library with my son and browsing in the young adult section. I noticed a book called "Global Warming," and was of course interested in seeing what teenagers might be reading on the subject. Glancing through I noted that the science was solid but a good deal of the information seemed out of date, so I checked the publication date: 1988!! Yes, twenty years ago the basic science on climate change was already pretty much settled and here we are twenty years later with powerful political figures who are--to steal from a popular TV show--dumber than a 5th grader.

More DC Area Commuter Stories

Image002The new Sunday column in the Washington Post on page B2, Commuter, today featured two real people and their actual commutes. I could relate to the first one almost exactly. He lives in Arlington near the East Falls Church Metro (I live in Arlington near the East Falls Church metro) and he works in Reston off Sunrise Valley Drive (I worked in a building about 100 yards from his for about 6-7 months in 2006). Pretty much identical commutes. He drives every day. I drove 2-3 times total in the time I worked there.

As in my post from earlier this month about why people don't use transit more, it appears that this commuter has not been able to get good information. He claims in the article that it would require 3 bus transfers to get from his house to his work. Not true--there is an express bus from the West Falls Church metro that goes directly to his office. It would take a bit longer than his drive (at least in the morning), but certainly a viable option if he's trying to avoid traffic coming home. I'm not sure how he compiled the information about the bus, but clearly he was unable to find good information easily.

However, his better option yet is to bike. The ride is virtually entirely on the W&OD trail. From the article:
"What would you rather be doing?
'I'd rather spend time with my friends, go out into nature, do some biking.' "

Trail06_07Why not do both at the same time? That was my way to and from work for the half-a-year I had the same commute. Biking and out in nature. I saw deer, fox, turtles, bats, groundhogs, birds, joggers, other bikers, and other flora and fauna. Sounds like the perfect solution for him. He's spending $50/week on gas (presumably not all just for his commute, though). He could certainly save some of that by leaving the car at home.

The other commuter lives in Waldorf and works in DC. I don't have any similar experiences to relate for him.

Perhaps most telling about why our traffic is so intractable was their replies to this question: "If you could change one thing about your commute, what would it be?"
Both of them replied that they wished everyone else would get off the road or use transit. This seems like a common sentiment (see my most recent post). . . if all those other people would just quit driving, then it would be so much better for me. Rokas Reipa

We're #2. Do we do it to ourselves?

TrafficToday's Washington Post reported on the annual congestion rankings put out by the Texas Transportation Institute, and the DC area tied for 2nd with an average of 60 hours of congestion for peak period commuters.

What caught my eye, though was this tidbit:

"You feel helpless," an Arlington resident was quoted, who drives between Rosslyn and his job in downtown Washington.

Huh? Helpless?!? He DRIVES from Rosslyn to his office on 15th St. NW! I guess that's his prerogative (maybe), but then he has no right to whine about the traffic and claim that he's "helpless." He could freaking WALK to his office in 45 minutes or less. It's at most a 15-minute bike ride--maybe less. He could squeeze on a metro train for 6-7 minutes from Rosslyn to McPherson Square. He could also get a Metrobus to Farragut Square and walk a couple of blocks.

He complains, but he is also actually part of the problem. Remember, when you are sitting in traffic,Boy_confused_2 you ARE the traffic, too. He's doing both himself and everyone else a disservice by not figuring out all his choices, which are many.

What more can we do? Here's a guy with half a dozen options who still chooses to sit in traffic for a 3-mile commute. No one's going to build a new bridge between Rosslyn and DC, nor add any more roads between the river and his office. Widening I-66 won't make any difference to him. The only thing that would improve his drive is if fewer people were driving. But if he's unwilling to get out of his own car, how can he expect everyone else to stop driving, too? He's his own enemy.

Bikes and Road Capacity

New_picture_8About a month ago VDOT repaved a section of North Glebe Rd. in Arlington. According to Charlie Denney, Arlington's bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, VDOT's guidelines require them to make accommodations for bicycles when doing work like this on state highways. For this project that meant that they should restripe the road to allow for bike lanes--or at least narrow the inside lane and widen the outside lane to make more space for cars and bikes to share.

Charlie was in touch with VDOT on the day they were doing the lane painting to remind them of their own guidelines. However, he was unsuccessful in getting them to make any bike-friendly changes to the standard lane widths--a missed opportunity.

According to Charlie, one VDOT official said that before they could make any changes to the plan there would have to be a new road capacity engineering study undertaken. This is, of course, ridiculous, since there would be no actual changes to the lane configurations, intersections or anything--the paint on the road would be moved over a foot or two: no change in capacity. When I hear things like that I often wonder if VDOT includes in their job postings the statement, "Common sense not required," or "Do not expect to be empowered to make intelligent decisions on your own."

Coincidentally, I ride my bike on that section of Glebe Road 2-3 times per week, and I have been paying attention to how the cars and I interact. My experience is that by not narrowing the inside lane to make the outside lane wider, VDOT has actually REDUCED the capacity of the road. Antique2
Here's why: I have observed that cars in the outside lane do not feel comfortable passing me in the space provided, so they move over into the middle lane. If there are cars traveling in that lane, then they need to slow and wait for an opening. My presence makes the road effectively one lane (for cars) in my direction rather than two--decreasing the capacity. If there were a bike lane, both the cars and the bike rider (me) would have a defined space to travel in, and both safety and capacity would be improved.

So here's a case where the attitude that roads are for cars only has created a disservice for all road users--a lose-lose.

HOT Lanes Getting Started Up

Gr2007091000094Today's Washington Post article announcing that work on the N. Virginia HOT lanes will start up early next year is bound to create a lot of "traffic" here, on other blogs and in forums of all types. I think it's great that so many people are really thinking about how to deal with the undeniable problem of traffic congestion in the DC area. And clearly there are differing opinions, which--at least here on the CommuterPage blog--I hope we can express with mutual respect and thoughtfulness.

Problems with traffic congestion are not unique to Washington. One of the great things about our big ol' US of A is that we are big; we have 50 states; we have scores of metropolitan areas. What that means is that we can try different things in different places and learn from those experiences. I'm sure that other metro areas will be watching to see what happens here. "But I don't wanna be the guinea pig," I can hear from some. That's NIMBYism writ large: put it somewhere else; let someone else try it first; make them pay for it. . . .Take that attitude universal and nothing ever happens anywhere at all.

Is this model perfect? I doubt it. Should we allow private ownership of a public good? There's definitely28hotlanes_md some validity to that point. Will the new HOT lanes be completely fair for all users? It's impossible to be completely fair (and definitions of fair are not even consistent). Will the money get inappropriately used, politicized or even wasted somehow? Um. . .this is DC. Do we need to do something? Absolutely.

I'm excited to see our leaders taking action on something innovative and even controversial with the potential for some real gains. If only they would take a similar attitude towards the tunnel in Tyson's corner--bold and innovative instead of trapped in a bureaucratic morass. Maybe that's the real lesson of these HOT lanes. Look how fast they went from crazy idea to implementation. And how long have we been pursuing that rail line?

More Why People Don't Use Transit

Village_at_shirlington_logo_webMy brother-in-law, who lives in Boulder, comes to the DC area three or four times a year on business, so we like to get together for dinner while he is in town. Today's the day. He's teaching a course in the Springfield area, and we decided to meet him in Shirlington at 6:30 this evening and choose one of the many fine restaurants once we are there.

My wife is attending a seminar today at 2400 N Street NW in DC, which she traveled to by Metrorail. I suggested to her that rather than come home first at the end of the day, she go directly to Shirlington and just meet us there. Neither of us has used transit to get to Shirlington from DC, but I'm savvy, so I know I could use the Metro trip planner to get her there.

Home_tripplannerSo I did, and as usual it gave me three options:
1) Foggy Bottom Metro at 5:51 (Blue line); transfer at Crystal City to the 23A; arrive Shirlington 6:27 (36 minutes)
2) Foggy Bottom Metro at 5:49 (Orange line); transfer at Ballston to the 23A; arrive Shirlington 6:26 (37 minutes)
3) Foggy Bottom Metro at 5:46 (Blue line); transfer at Crystal City to the 23A; arrive Shirlington 6:27 (41 minutes). This one's not another option! It's the same bus as #1, just an earlier train.

None of these is the best choice, though. Being familiar with the area and our transit system, I was pretty certain that there are buses from the Pentagon to Shirlington. Lo and behold, there are. In fact, 300pxpentagon_city_stationI learned that she could catch a bus direct from the Pentagon to Shirlington at 5:59, 6:02, 6:07, 6:15 (2 choices of bus) or 6:25. This is clearly the preferred choice--for two reasons. First, it's fastest (how come the metro planner failed to find this choice?). She can catch the train at Foggy Bottom at 6:03 and arrive in Shirlington at 6:27 (24 minutes). Second--and more importantly, it's way more flexible--if she misses her bus, it's a short wait for the next one. With the Metro Planner, if she misses the 6:10 at Crystal City, it's a 30-minute wait for the next bus.

All of this took me a good 10-15 minutes and a high-speed Internet connection to figure out. I'm not even sure if there might be some other good options that I missed (the Way to Go Interactive Shirlington map does not even show the 7E or 7C routes stopping in Shirlington Village). The larger point being that if we want people to use transit, it has to be way, way simpler. If people have to be an expert before they even get started, then they will just hop in their cars.

Let me assure you that if I had given her the Metro Planner options (or she had done it herself and not known to look for a Pentagon option) and she missed the bus by a minute or two, I would never get her to do it again. She would either drive or take a taxi. Or more likely, she would leave her seminar early, come home first and then drive with us to Shirlington, an hour-long exercise rather than 24 minutes.

Route_7So I instructed her to go the Pentagon and catch the 7C or the 7E. I had to write it down, though, because the 7A, 7B, 7D, 7F, 7H, 7P, 7W and 7X don't go there or aren't running or something. Why are there 10 different 7's? Just to make it harder on passengers? I'll rant on that on a different post (click here).

Virginia Fines: Right or Wrong?

Turtlesnail_2There has been tremendous coverage in the last month regarding Virginia's new fines for reckless driving and other lawbreaking on the roads.
(A list of the exact fines can be found in this Washington Post article)
(More: ABC News story, Marc Fisher column, list of many articles)

Recent articles have all covered the outcry and rage--seemingly unanimous, or at least widespread--over the outrageousness of these fines. What is much harder to measure, but I believe exists to a great degree, is the support from hundreds of thousands of safe drivers in Virginia. Let the record state that I support strong fines for reckless driving and other unsafe behavior. I am not the slightest bit outraged, because I have absolutely no concern that I will ever be subject to one of these fines, and if they serve to keep people focused on their driving behavior, then good.

I agree that the legislature should look at making improvements to the law. It ought to include out-of-state drivers, too. Pregnant_womenIt doesn't make much sense that a speeding VA driver is somehow more dangerous than a speeding Maryland driver who happens to be in Virginia.

Judges should be given a little leeway to make decisions about those (sarcasm alert!) hundreds of pregnant women rushing to hospitals.

Finland has a progressive system in which fines are pegged to income. There's a certain elegance to this idea, essentially penalizing people with more equal amounts of pain ($300,000/year lawyer fined $3,000; $42,000/year teacher fined $420). Back in 2004, Dr. Gridlock came out opposed to this idea, and despite its appeal to fairness, I think it would be politically impossible in the US.

Is this how we should fund our transportation improvements? Probably not, although having the fines go to providing people with safer alternatives to driving is certainly a good place to put the fine dollars. 0015060326114252_sm
There's the odd inverse relationship between success (more safe driving) and funding. If hugely successful at deterring bad driving, the amount of money collected would plummet, and we'd have to go back and figure out something else--something more dependable and regular. As I mentioned in my post the other day, a more direct relationship between use of the system and funding would be better, i.e., tolls and congestion charges that charge people for using the roads.

Mary Peters: The Folly of Higher Gas Prices

Post1header Today's (Saturday, August 25) Washington Post included an op-ed by US Dept. of Transportation Secretary Mary Peters (who was just mentioned for other reasons on this blog the other day). CollapseHer key point is that raising gas taxes to improve transportation infrastructure (which has been raised in the public's consciousness since the bridge collapse in Minnesota) is the wrong strategy. She cites a couple of reasons:

1) Because the money is deposited into a federal trust fund, its allocation becomes politicized, and Congress is apt to skew the priorities for its use. I would tend to agree with this point.

2) It does little or nothing to reduce traffic congestion, because it does not dissuade people from driving during congested times or on congested roadways. I partially agree. Large gas taxes would push people towards smaller cars and also get them to think about using them less, but it wouldn't necessarily affect congestion. Small increases in the gas tax would probably make little difference.

Red_gas_pump I am in favor of raising gas prices, but for different reasons and in a different way. Burning gasoline creates environmental damage. Gas taxes could be used more appropriately to offset the damage caused by their use by being used for environmental protection. A better strategy in my mind is that gas taxes could replace wage taxes. The taxes collected would be used to reduce wage taxes. This works well for progressivity of tax policy, because rich tend to buy more gas and poor pay more in wage taxes.

Her key point is that we currently provide virtually all of our roadways for free. Any free good will tend to be overutilized. The infrastructure itself should be priced rather than the gas. I completely agree with this point. Hap If people and businesses were charged for the use of the roads--more during congested times; possibly more for larger, more damaging vehicles--then they would start to make decisions based on their use. That's the idea behind congestion pricing (another recent blog): charge people for their use. If we tolled every road then a lot more people would choose to take the train or bus or ride their bike or otherwise think a bit harder before hopping in their car and driving.

Our New Hybrid: Update #2

Toyotacamryhybrid2007_2 As I mentioned in my June post, Arlington County passed a tax break for residents who own hybrid vehicles. I am pleased to report that we have received our personal property tax bill for this year and--just as hoped for--our bill was reduced by $750 because of the break. What would have been a $898 tax bill is only $148.

I must admit that this is an unexpected windfall. At the time we bought the car we were not aware that the county was considering this idea. We are, of course, happy about it.

EPA has now updated their website to include the new MPG ratings, which are more representative of real-world driving. It showsWww_fueleconomy_gov_ltblue_bgrd our Camry as 34 MPG combined, which is much closer to our experience, instead of the official 39.

Here are the revised fuel efficiency ratings for the cars that qualify for the tax break.

And here are some of the highest mileage 2007 model year cars for comparison (2008 data are not all available yet). Hybrids that qualify are bolded.



Amber Waves of Grain

Cornfields Today's Washington Post published an article about how surging interest in ethanol as an alternative fuel may increase pollutant flows into the Chesapeake Bay. The crux of the article is that demand for ethanol is causing more farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to plant corn instead of other crops. Corn tends to be more fertilizer intensive, so more fertilizer flows off the fields and eventually ends up in the Bay.

For me, I think the message that keeps reverberating is that there are no silver bullets. Alternative fuels can play a role in helping us toward sustainability, but we have to pursue all paths: more efficient vehicles, better transit services, more well planned communities, etc.

Bike to Work Day Success Story

Cycling_to_work778808 This morning at the end of my bi-weekly commute to Silver Spring, another sweaty cyclist was sitting in front of my building, clearly having just finished his commute, too. We introduced ourselves and he asked where I bike from. I told him Arlington. He raised his eyebrows and said, "Me, too." (He is now the 5th person I have met in the last three months who bike commutes between Arlington and Montgomery County.) We swapped stories.

His story was that he decided to try out the commute for Bike to Work Day this last May. That convinced him that it was doable on a daily basis. He went out and bought a bike to meet his commuting needs, and now he's an every day commuter.Btwd2006

This was exciting for me to hear. Having participated in BTWD for a long time, I had the sense that everyone was already a bike commuter. It's nice to see--at least for this one commuter--that it was a catalyst for him to become a regular.

The Air We Breathe

R310b Sunday's Washington Post Commuter Page (Page 2 in the Metro section) had a nice discussion of air quality. I have not been able to find it online; evidently it is only in the print edition.

The most striking visual on the page was a graph that showed the comparative emissions across several types of vehicles. Here are the numbers from the table but without the visual impact of the chart:

Nitrogen Oxide Emissions in grams/mile:
Light-duty hybrid (Prius, Civic hybrid) 0.02
Passenger car (Camry, Accord, Malibu) 0.10
Light-duty truck 2 (Cherokee, Caravan, Sienna) 0.30
Light-duty truck 4 (F-150, Sequoia, Land Rover) 0.60
Heavy-duty truck (Hummer, RVs) 0.90

That means it would take 5 carpoolers in a regular passenger car before the emissions would be equal to 5 Priuses or 15 passengers in a minivan to equal 15 Civic hybrids. A big SUV emits 30 times as much ozone-causing pollution per mile than a hybrid! A Hummer 45 times as much!

This table makes it clear that increasing the fleet of hybrid vehicles in our area, particularly if they are replacing other vehicles, would make a big dent in our air quality problems. In fact, DC is doing well with hybrid ownership, double the national average (link). Much of this has been driven by the HOV exemption for clean vehicles, prompting some drivers to invest in hybrids in order to be able to drive on the HOV lanes. This year, also, Arlington County has introduced a tax break for people to buy hybrid vehicles.

These seem like good policies as we strive to improve regional air quality. There has been controversy about whether the clean-vehicle exemption for HOV should be terminated. I think this information supports the position to keep it in place, since 3 single-occupant Priuses only emit 60% or less emissions than a car (or worse, an SUV or minivan) with three passengers. Some parties believe the exemption should end, because too many single-occupant vehicles will clog the carpool lanes. I66I will only be convinced after much more aggressive efforts, including much higher fines, are taken to eliminate the HOV violators, who I see all the time on I-66.

Keep in mind that owners of these vehicles are contributing to better air quality with 100% of the miles they drive, even though only 15% - 50% of their driving might be on HOV lanes, so it is in the interest of all who want cleaner air to encourage more purchasing of cleaner cars.

(In the interest of disclosure, I own a Toyota Camry hybrid, but do not have the requisite license plates to drive in the HOV lanes. I also have a personal interest in improving air quality, because my daughter suffers from asthma.)

Our New Hybrid: An Update

Toyotacamryhybrid2007_2 Back in March I posted about our brand new 2007 hybrid Toyota Camry. It looks silver, but it is actually "titanium!" We've now driven it about 1800 miles, and I have a report.

It has some cool features. Probably the coolest is the "smart" key that allows you to unlock, start and drive the car without ever taking the key out of your pocket or purse. Once you start using a smart key, you'll wish you had one for your house, too. Also, the hands-free Bluetooth connection to your cell phone is a nice convenience and safety feature.

However, the most important feature, fuel economy, has been a big disappointment. We've averaged only about 31 miles per gallon--no better than lots of economy vehicles that are not hybrids. I still feel good that the air quality emissions are much better than the vast majority of vehicles--especially since the DC area has such poor air quality, but I've not been impressed with the mileage. Because the vehicle has regenerative braking and often shuts down instead of idling, it's supposed to be better in city driving, which is the vast majority of what we do. That has not been our experience. We did pretty well on our one road trip to Philadelphia. Our highway mileage was over 40 mpg, and our total trip including the city driving while we were there averaged about 36-37 mpg.

The Logo_gh_wreflect_3 web site keeps a database of fuel efficiency for the various hybrids. Our mileage is in the bottom 10% of the Camry hybrids reporting there (average is 37 mpg). So, why? I think it's because of the short trips that we take. For mosts trips of under 3 miles it is very difficult to get the car to average above 30 mpg for that trip (oh, yeah, another feature is that it tells you your fuel efficiency for every trip at the end of that trip). It doesn't do well for the first couple of miles. Probably 60% - 70% of our trips are shorter than 3 miles.

The good news is that shortly after we purchased it, Arlington County adopted a tax break for hybrid cars, so we'll save several hundred dollars on our personal property tax this year, which will more than make up for the difference in fuel economy that I had hoped for and what we are actually getting. It won't, however, make up for the greenhouse gas emissions I had hoped we would be reducing.

What's Your Price

Kauai_gas_prices_2 Today's Washington Post reported on a joint Post/ABC poll that asked people how current high gas prices are affecting or will affect their driving habits. Only 11 percent said that current prices would curtail their driving in the coming weeks. In fact, gasoline consumption is up 2.6% over the same week as last year.

I find it interesting that the price at which people say they will start to make changes is always about $0.50 - $1 higher than whatever the price is now. However, I believe that most people can only make changes on the margins in the short term (moving, buying a new car, etc. are long-term changes that are also freighted with many other factors). Jackson Landers blogs today about his situation, which is not that atypical for much of America. In the DC area, more people have more choices than he does, but it's not all that much better.

Trying to change our "addiction to oil" cannot be done by raising fuel prices alone. $5 or $6 gas will not change the driving habits of most people very much. It will probably start to change their buying habits; however, even that has only a limited effect. Lexusrx400hWith the advent of leasing over the last decade or two, the people who are most likely to be affected by higher gas prices are actually buying used cars--not new ones. Rich people buy new cars, and they are less influenced by gas prices than by gadgets like navigation systems, safety features, style, etc. Manufacturers don't manufacture cars for the used-car buyers; they manufacture them for the new car buyers.

As much as I like the idea of using economics (I have an MBA after all) to move markets, the only good solution to our oil addiction in the transportation arena is to drastically and rapidly increase fuel efficiency standards. Unfortunately, that has proven to be politically impossible for more than two decades. Good luck, and drive safely this weekend.

Airport Story (A HOT Allegory)

Recently I was flying back to DC and had this conversation with my seatmate:
Me: Hi; I'm Steve.
Him: Pleased to meet you; I'm James.
Me: This looks bad. I see about eight planes ahead of us for takeoff. It'll probably take 20 minutes just to get off the ground.
Him: No kidding. I've noticed this is common on Thursdays.
I see that this airport has two parallel takeoff runways to handle more traffic. That seems like a good idea.
(We observe a plane taxi onto the parallel runway and take off without waiting)
Me: Hey! Why didn't that plane have to get in line? Some congressman on board I presume.
Him: (chuckling) Possibly! Actually, I'm from here, and they have some interesting restrictions they've put in place for that runway.
Me: Really? Like what?
Him: Well, the other runway is reserved just for planes with certain fuel efficiency and load factors. There's never a wait on that runway like we have on this one.
Me: That's not a bad idea. I presume it would encourage airlines to improve their fleets and their operational efficiency if they know they can improve their on-time performance by not having to wait in line.
(A plane in our line takes off.)
Him: True. But it seems sort of silly right now with us waiting behind seven more planes while that runway is just waiting to be used.
Me: Well, how much does it get used?
Him: Some of the time it gets good use, but there's also some unused waiting time like now, too.
(Five minutes go by; two more planes ahead of us take off.)
Him: I often wonder why don't they let some of the planes in our queue use that runway when there are gaps like now?
Me: Yeah, like us! Wouldn't it be great if our pilot just cut out of line and took off. I'm getting a little tired of waiting.
(Another plane in our line takes off.)
Him: In fairness, maybe they could come up with a system. Airlines that paid an extra fee could get first priority to use the empty takeoff slots. Airlines that want to improve their on-time performance could pay the extra; those that don't care so much could use this one.
Me: That doesn't seem fair somehow. People with more money get some special treatment or something?
Him: I don't know. If I want to pay an extra $10 for my ticket to have a better chance of getting where I'm going on time, I might do that--particularly if I'm trying to get to an important meeting. Can you think of another way?
Me: How about planes with passengers who have names that start with "S?" I'd like that!
(Another plane ahead of us takes off. Line is down to four.)
Him: "S" or "J!"
Me: Wouldn't every airline just start paying the fee, and then that runway would be just as crowded as this one and there would be no incentive for the airlines to improve performance?
Him: Air traffic control could make sure that the taxiway for that runway has no line, so any of the preferred planes would be able to take off without delay, just like now. And obviously they still get to use that one for free. It wouldn't take long to figure out the prices to charge to control the traffic flow on that runway.
(Another plane in our queue takes off.)
Him: And, you know, our line would be shorter now, too, if a couple of planes ahead of us had been able to use that runway over there. Whatever the system, though, what we're doing right now--making everybody wait while that runway is not being used--is stupid.
Me: No kidding. Everyone would get where they're going faster. Hey! I just remembered; I'm an environmentalist. It would sure save some jet fuel if these planes weren't just sitting in this queue waiting to take off.
Him: Another good point.
(Another plane taxis onto the parallel runway and takes off without delay.)
Me: Good thing I've got my book with me. I guess I'll get an extra chapter or two read today.

Him: Enjoy.
(this is a fictional story intended to make an analogy about the value of HOT lanes)

What is Wrong Here

Tn_bike I'm getting ready to participate in Bike to Work Day, as I've done every year for the last decade or so, if I haven't been traveling out of town. I came across this nice idea on the BikeArlington site: you can borrow a bike for free to use for Bike to Work Day. Bike the Sites is making them available at the Bike Oasis. Unfortunately, neither of their web sites, nor the WABA web site mentions this great opportunity, so I'm not sure how people will find out about it.

Bopic3 So I'm looking at the Bike Oasis web site and I noticed their pricing: $7/hr & $35/day for a comfort bike; $10/hr & $50/day for other bikes.

Something seems wrong to me here. About 6-8 times a year I go to Enterprise and rent a car for $17/day over the weekend. I can rent it all weekend and pay for gas for under $50. Even on a weekday I can usually get a $35/day rate. That's to rent a $17,000 car. How can it cost just as much to rent a $650 bicycle? If I have a family of 3, am I going to spend $150 to rent 3 hybrids for a day? Even just 3 hours on the comfort bikes would set me back $63. . .and I'd be checking my watch to make sure I get back before the 3 hours are up so it doesn't cost me another $21.
I understand that Bike the Sites is a business, and they have to make money, but something still seems out of whack when I can rent a car for less than I can rent a bike.

A Little Culture With Your Commute

Jbell If you didn't happen to see this article in last Sunday's Washington Post magazine, it is quite a compelling read. The set-up: world-acclaimed violinist, Joshua Bell, disguised himself as a busker at a Metrorail station during the morning commute and played for commuters emerging from the station. If you find yourself intrigued by the article, you can also check out the online discussion held Monday.

I suppose you can put a CD of Josh (or any other artist) on your car stereo if you're driving to work, but I doubt you could hire him to play in your back seat.