New Model for Transportation - Take 2

My post from last week: We Need a New Model for Expanding Transit received a long, thoughtful response from Paul Minett: Co-founder, CEO and President at Trip Convergence Ltd. He was responding not to my post here but to my sending similar thoughts to an industry list serve called transp-tdm (TDM stands for Transportation Demand Management, and there is a whole industry of professionals who work in this field). I have edited Paul's response slightly, but have hopefully captured his thoughts and ideas:

Well said, Steve. And since you asked, here is what I think. I think the score card you propose is all wrong. This is not (or shouldn't be) a 'cars vs transit' issue, nor should it be a 'vehicle miles per gallon' issue. Eventually we will be forced to restructure how we achieve 'accessibility', and how much 'mobility' we actually need. In the meantime switching cars for buses or trains is like the proverbial 're-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic': eventually they all become obsolete.

It has been suggested (by
Jonathan Levine, for example) that 'accessibility' is made up of 'proximity', 'connectivity', and 'mobility'. We get what we focus on, and while the focus is on 'mobility' that is what results. A concerted effort to improve 'connectivity' could reduce the need for so much 'mobility'. On the other hand, within 'mobility' sits vehicle occupancy.

It amazes me that when some people look at a jammed freeway they see the solution being to add more vehicles (ie buses). There is enough rolling stock already out there. And it could all be getting 100 passenger miles per gallon, just by filling up the empty seats. We recently got almost 200 passenger miles per gallon on a trip from Portland to Salem: four people in a Prius.
Eventually we must reduce the amount of 'mobility' we consume.

In the meantime we need to put lots of thought (and action) into strategies that increase average vehicle occupancy, and reduce total vehicle counts, and reduce the amount of 'solitary mobility' we consume. Possibly the most energy efficient transport available is the van owned by a worker who carries eight or ten co-commuters for most of its journey, and then parks up while the worker does his job, until doing the return journey.

Highly efficient buses that deadhead empty to collect the next load are only half as energy efficient on a per passenger mile basis as the same buses operating full in each direction. During peak the loadings might justify the deadhead, but outside of peak it becomes questionable.

As a starting point we could all focus on mechanisms to increase the rewards for sharing rides, increase the cost of driving alone, and simplifying the process of sharing rides. We are one of many businesses focused on finding solutions to make progress in this area, and it is not plain sailing. Many seem to be offended that private companies might make a profit in this space. But perhaps more to the point, we find a lack of discretionary time and budget in the offices of the organisations that should be interested in working with us. And when there is funding for innovation the processes to bring it about are complex and very slow. Only the most dedicated stay the course.

I think it is great that you have opened up this discussion. I hope others will find time to comment because this is a fundamentally important issue.

Thanks, Paul, for your ideas and helping to push the transformation to sustainability this blog and millions of others seek.

Going Car Free

Carol_m._browner ChuA couple of Obama's key appointees do not own cars as reported in this article in the Washington Post, which was also picked up by some blogs, including DemConWatch and Kicking Tires. Carol Browner, President Obama's Energy and Environment Czarina and Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy, were reported to not own cars at all. That's two out of the six high level appointees this article reported on. Also, one of the ten aides on the Presidential Task Force on the Auto Industry also reported not owning a car. That's three out of sixteen. Clearly these individuals are making a conscious choice not to own a car, since I presume they could afford one if they wanted. As we transform our transportation systems and our economy to more sustainable models, we need to move away from the concept of one car/one person. The average car sits idle 22 hours or more a day, which is an extremely inefficient use of capital. Creating a more integrated system that allows people to not have to own their cars and tie up many thousands of dollars of capital will serve us better in the long run--both economically and environmentally.

Carfreediet_2Here in Arlington, VA, we have a promotional effort called Arlington's Car-Free Diet. The article did not go into the reasons why these leaders choose not to own a car, but one might guess that they just find it more convenient and cost effective to not have one, and are able to avail themselves of the options available in the DC area, the kind of options that make the Car-Free Diet a model for other places.

We Need a New Model for Expanding Transit

There's been a lot of cheering and excitement about the fact that transit travel is growing while automobile travel is falling. These are good trends, no doubt. I looked at some statistics at the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. This is what I noted:
For 2006, passenger miles on transit were about 52,000,000,000 miles
For 2006, passenger car travel was about 2,650,000,000,000 miles--50 times greater.

So let's say transit represents approximately 2% of all travel. I believe it's actually less than this, but we'll use 2% for argument's sake.

Global climate change requires us to make drastic and enormous changes in our emissions from all sources, including transportation. I live in Washington DC where our Metrorail and Metrobus systems are often running at or above capacity (we do better than 2%, but it's still a single digit percentage of all trips in the region), and this year they are talking about service cuts. Cuts due to budget pressures that will not relieve any congestion in the system--and certainly not help provide better service so we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

So what if we need to increase that percentage from less than 2% to something like 20% or 50%! in order to deal with climate change. After all, we can't just keep driving cars 2.6 trillion miles per year. Reducing that 2.6 trillion just a little to 2 trillion by shifting to transit would require a 12-fold increase in transit capacity! What does that mean for your transit system? What would it require to make a 10- or-20-fold increase in capacity. When we talk about increasing transit, our goals are tiny, modest fractions of this kind of increase.

Well, I'm sorry; we're doomed. It will be at least 16 years between the first real plans to build the Silver Line out to Dulles airport and its completion (longer, if you also count the time it was being thought about, proposed and debated). The FTA issued a decision on a short, 5-mile extension of BART in 2006 that will open 8 years later in 2014. I've been hearing a drumbeat for Bus Rapid Transit as a great solution to many transit issues, yet there are few examples of successful systems, and almost every proposed system is small in scope, running behind schedule or bogged down in the idea stage.

How can we possibly increase the capacity of our public transport systems by an order of magnitude if takes decades to complete a single project?

Well, I can't see how our current public agency model for creating and operating and expanding transit will be up to the task. Lincoln said it best:
"The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise -- with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew."
The occasion is global climate change, and we must think and act anew. Somehow we need to change the model for transportation such that the private sector benefits from providing transportation with close to zero emissions. Private streetcar companies built thousands and thousands of miles of lines in just a couple of decades around a hundred years ago. Some streetcar barons made millions of dollars in the process. Was that good or bad? Well, no one in our transit agencies is incentivized by millions of dollars in potential profits and are not consumed by entrepreneurial zeal.

I don't know what the right answer is, but I know the wrong answer is just to keep doing what we're doing now--just a little better or a little faster or a little different. Somehow we have to think and act anew.

16? 2? 53A? &%@**#!!

NumbersIMPORTANT NOTE: In this post I may use ART and Metro as examples. That's because--being in the DC area--I know more about them. The points I am making are intended to apply to mass transit in general and are not intended as criticisms of these particular systems any more than transit systems anywhere else.

In Arlington (and many places) streets are numbered, which can be pretty useful: 10th St. is between 9th and 11th, which can be a huge help to those trying to find an address. In Arlington, the buses are also numbered: 41, 51, 52, 53 (A?), 61, 62, 67, 74, 75, 82. But what do these numbers mean? Like the streets, can I use the numbers to help me find the bus or figure out where it's going or derive any useful information at all? No. As a rider they are entirely meaningless. I asked around in Arlington County Commuter Services and virtually no one knew the "system" behind the numbers. Eventually I found one person who had a clue about the system but readily admitted that it was, in essence, arbitrarily contrived.

Metro is even worse. Not only are the numbers essentially arbitrary (I'm sure there's a system, but if it'sRoute_2 opaque to the rider then it is no better than no system). Take the #2 bus. It comes in 6 varieties (2A, 2B, 2C, 2G, 2W. . . and 2T on a separate timetable). The 2W and the 2T are so different from the other 2's, they need a separate map and timetables. Why even call them # 2's? I'll bet you there isn't a single rider who can explain why those buses are called #2, why there are 6 different ones, why those particular letters of the alphabet are used, and why the 2W and 2T are somehow paired with the other 2's. The numbering is worthless to the rider (who is, after all, the customer). So here's a system that not only provides zero useful information but actually provides the disservice of confusing customers.Confused
Imagine the streets were numbered like this: 8th, 11th, 5th, 1st, 4th, 9th, 2nd, 7th, 6th, 10th, 3rd, 12th. The numbers are meaningless (actually there's a "system"--revealed at the end of this post). If you tell someone you live on 5th Street you still have to describe where it is: "I live on 5th, which is between 11th and 1st." The numbers have become meaningless. Actually, this "system" is even worse than that; it creates more confusion than purpose. Better that the streets were given names like colors or trees.
"But how do you tell the buses apart?" Yes, of course they need to be identified. Everything needs some sort of identification: streets, animals, our friends, schools, devices, food. They all have names, and those names evoke meaning. Imagine if all the food in the grocery were just numbers. Milk_carton_2"Be sure to pick up some 22, 135, 16 and--oh yes--311 on your way home, honey." I find it hard enough to remember bread, milk and artichoke hearts, and--oh yes--toilet paper!
Eventually I would learn that 22 is milk, but it's so much harder. Our brains are not wired to apply numbers in an arbitrary way like that. We don't remember our friends by their phone numbers.
From early childhood we are taught that numbers are most usefully used as ordinal or cardinal identifiers--they help us put things in order or quantify them. But on buses they serve neither purpose (these are called "nominal" numbers), and so we have to deliberately undo a lifetime of learning and try to understand the number on the bus as nothing more than an abstraction that equates to a name. Better the bus be called the "phor" than 4; it would actually be easier. In fact, the metrorail lines being identified with colors is easier to remember than if they were numbered. And, although the colors are also essentially arbitrary, it is easier for the brain to bring meaning to them.

"But transit systems have been using numbers for generations, and it's been working." Thanks, Dilbert. Just because something has been done for decades doesn't make it good or leave no room for improvement. In fact, just the opposite: often it's the things that we assume ought to be a certain way are the things that should be questioned the hardest. Also, how do we know it's been working if we haven't tried something different to compare it with?
Dash_small_2Boulder Colorado is one place I know of that has thrown out the number system (at least partially). Many of the buses have names: Hop, Skip, Stampede, Bolt, Dash, etc. The more complete names are things like "Skip Along Broadway" and "Dash down South Boulder Road." Skip_smallNow that's useful info to a customer. Personally I like the Jump (also called the Short Jump) and the Long Jump (which is the extension of the Jump--now there's a name that really works).
If the goal of transit is to help people get around better and more easily, that goal needs to consider everything: ease of use, cost, convenience, etc.. The names of the buses are a key piece of information critical to people using the system. Is what Boulder's done the best system? I don't know, but it's a lot better than everywhere else. In any event, the only system I can think of that would be worse than the arbitrary number system in common use is a system in which the buses have no identification at all.
(originally posted November 10, 2007 on CommuterPage blog)
(Answer: the streets are listed in alphabetical order)

Miles Grant for Delegate

Miles Grant, who is running for State Delegate in Virginia, stopped by my house yesterday. I know Miles through a professional connection and follow his blog: The Green Miles. He's an environmentalist like I am, and we had a chance to discuss some local and statewide environmental issues. (Click here for his campaign site)

In our discussion, we talked about coal, including the new Wise County coal plant, which neither of us thinks was very wise. I agree with him that it's long past time to stop building coal plants and start transforming our energy economy and our energy systems to an entirely new paradigm. Coal cannot be part of that paradigm. Unfortunately, I don't think the state of Virginia perceives itself as being a leader on climate change or on our environment. Come to think of it, I'm not sure the state considers itself to be a real leader on anything. I believe Miles will strongly bring those issues to Richmond if he wins this primary and goes on the win the election. Good luck to him.

Recycling is the Worst Thing to Happen to Our Environment

Okay, it's not the worst thing. But sometimes I think that the recycling movement has actually served at cross purposes to making significant environmental progress. Others (here, here, here) have opined that recycling itself may actually be bad, and I'll let those arguments stand or fall on their own merits. I take the viewpoint that even if it's environmentally good, the emphasis on it is bad.

When I talk to people and tell them what I do: that I'm an environmentalist, they undoubtedly cite the fact that they recycle as evidence that they are, too. Rarely do they come up with much else beyond that, but for most of them they seem to feel that is sufficient.

Yet recycling has a remarkably negligible overall effect. Even on the waste stream. Household waste represents well less than 2% of all the waste in the economy, so even if every household in the country recycled 100% of their waste, it would only reduce our solid waste stream by about 1%. 99% of the waste generated by our economy would still be thrown out. A great viewpoint on this can be found at The Story of Stuff.

The much bigger problems have to do with overall consumption and with our use of energy. That's where it really makes a difference. But unfortunately, the focus on recycling as the "environmental" behavior that really makes a difference has distracted most Americans from taking more significant actions. They feel good about their environmental performance based on their weekly recycling activities and completely ignore the fact that also in a week their vehicles have burned over 100 pounds of gasoline--ten times what they recycled--and emitted 300 pounds of CO2.

Squeezing More out of Metro with Operational Improvements

Metro ridership has been steadily rising for years. The Orange Line in Arlington and Fairfax, the "Orange Crush," has the worst crowding. In 1994, when I lived near Court House Metro, I could get a seat on my commute into DC. By 2000, I would only occasionally get a seat living two stops further out at Virginia Square. Now East Falls Church is my closest station, and most mornings it's unlikely I'll get a seat. There is no way someone at Court House ever gets one.

Metro has added some 8-car trains, which help. There is a fairly simple operational change that I believe can add capacity at no extra cost. Philadelphia has used this since 1956, and call it A and B trains. New York City called it "skip-stop" until they recently ended the practice.

Here's how it works. During rush hour each train is either an "A" train or a "B" train. Each train skips some stops. "A" trains start at Vienna and skip Dunn Loring and Virginia Square. "B" trains also start at Vienna and skip East Falls Church and Clarendon. (Skipped stops should be the least used stops, and should come in pairs, to balance ridership between the A and B trains).

The trip from Vienna to, say, Farragut West becomes 24 minutes instead of 27, a 10% time savings. The entire trip from Vienna to New Carrollton shrinks from 57 minutes to 54, saving 5%.

That time savings could allow Metro to save cars and run longer trains. There are more than 20 trains operating on the Orange Line during rush hour. Freeing up one train will allow 3 6-car trains to be extended to 8-car trains, thereby increasing the capacity.

The shorter runs could also allow more trains. Right now, Metro can't fit more actual trains through Rosslyn, but one day that might change if they send Blue Line trains up the Yellow Line, change signal technology, or build new river crossings. If it does, or if they try this on a different, less constrained line, Metro could run the same number of physical trains more frequently. Instead of 360 second headways, for example, they can reduce to 342 second headways, increasing the capacity of a line by 5%.

How does this affect passengers? Most will benefit, but some will be inconvenienced. Here are outcomes for commuters to DC from Virginia stations:

  • Vienna to DC: 2 stations reduced ride time (BIG WIN!)
  • Dunn Loring to DC: Increased waiting time and 2 stations reduced ride time (about a wash)
  • West Falls Church to DC: Either 1 or 2 stations reduced ride time (WIN!)
  • East Falls Church to DC: Increased wait and 1 station reduced ride time (slightly negative)
  • Ballston to DC: 1 station reduced ride time (WIN!)
  • VA Square to DC: Increased average wait and 1 station reduced ride time (slightly negative)
  • Clarendon to DC: Increased average wait; no time savings (lose)
  • Court House/Rosslyn to DC: No change
A small minority of riders traveling to one of the skipped stations also experience increased times waiting for their train. In a few cases, they may actually have to change trains if both their boarding and deboarding stations are served by different trains.

Vienna, WFC and Ballston riders all benefit, Clarendon riders lose about 3 minutes average waiting time, and Dunn Loring and EFC riders may be slightly negative or about even. The three benefiting stations represent roughly two-thirds of the ridership of these 7 stations, while Clarendon represents about 8% of the ridership. Therefore, two-thirds of the riders benefit directly. And everyone benefits from reduced crowding on the trains because of the increased capacity afforded by longer trains.

Plus, this same system could work on the other lines, too, including ones not at maximum capacity. It's probably easiest on the Red Line, since it does not have to merge with another line like the Orange does with the Blue and the Yellow does with Green.

They've been doing it for more than 50 years in Philadelphia. When I lived there (near a "B" station), it was just considered normal operating procedure. If it can work there, why not here?


(This post is cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington, along with almost 50 comments.)

Live Blogging on Thursday

Join me and my fellow contributors to the Greater Greater Washington blog tomorrow, Thursday March 4, for a dynamic discussion of issues related to the Greater Washington area, particular related to development, transportation and urban environment. Hope to see you there!
Click here for more information.

Marketing Genius!

Here's a quick diversion from the usual stuff that I hope you'll enjoy.
I noticed this pen at a local restaurant and asked the host if I could buy it. He just let me have it.

It's a 3-sided pen. Here's one side:

And here's the next side with their web site url:

And here is their ingenious slogan!!