Archive for the ‘transportation’ Tag

Obscure Externalities – Coal Edition


Coal trains in Wyoming. Photo: KimonBerlin via Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The negative externalities of fossil fuels and coal in particular are fairly obvious and range from its effects on individual health to climate change impacts. But here’s one I hadn’t thought of. Via Pedestrian Observations we learn that coal shipping slows down cargo and passenger rail service in three distinct ways.
– First is the non-surprising fact that coals trains are large and slow. In order to be shipped profitably, coal trains tend to be larger than most freight trains and operate at slower speeds. Even though they may be limited to being on the rails to specific times of day, this still reduces the amount of time for faster freight and passenger service and reduces the speed that other trains can move at when the coal is on the track.

– More obscurely, routes that carry coal must be laid out to handle these larger, slower trains. Specifically, turns cannot be banked as steeply. Banked turns allow a vehicle to negotiate a curve at a higher speed without risking the cargo shifting excessively or unnecessarily causing discomfort to passengers. Beyond the fact that freight is slower and needs a lower banking, extra heavy freight is at more risk from shifting loads causing a crash and so banking must be even lower. All of this slows down all trains no matter what their top speed is.

– Finally there is just the damage to the rails that heavy loads cause to the tracks. Much as in the way that road damage goes up exponentially with the weight of the vehicle (so a 4 ton truck causes 4 times as much wear to a road as a 2 ton car), extremely heavy trains cause significantly more wear and tear than standard cargo and especially passenger trains. Poor track conditions force the fastest trains to be even slower again so this costs both time and higher maintenance costs.

Now, most of these issues are just built in to the fact that in most places freight and passenger trains share tracks. A few less coal trains is not going to change that fundamental limitation to passenger rail in the US. But even minor improvements to the speed of standard freight has benefits, increasing its competitive edge over less efficient truck shipping, improving supply chains, etc. Fewer large, slow trains and tracks in better condition will benefit all other rail traffic.

This will not be the straw that breaks the camel’s back on coal based power generation. But it is a good reminder of the many large and small ways that transitioning away from coal will benefit us in varied ways.

Who’s Faster?

The car versus bike race has been done many times. Usually in a dense urban area with the bike squeaking out a win. But here’s a new twist too good not to post:

In honor of Los Angeles’ Carmegaddon (the closure of a section of freeway for one weekend for construction), Jet Blue airlines is offering flights between Burbank and Long Beach (roughly 40 miles). LA’s Wolfpack Hustle challenged them to a race, and to Jet Blue’s credit, they took the challenge. Door to door, bike vs. jet. My money’s on the bike…

(hat tip to LA Streetsblog)

Fun Facts – Parking II

Knox News (via Market Urbanism) reports that the US has roughly 1 billion parking spots. That’s nearly 3 for every car on the road and adds up to roughly 4,000 square miles of total area (a tad less than the total area of Connecticut).

In the US, the average price for land is $1000 per acre. That equals $640,000 per sq mi. That means we have land worth roughly $2.5 billion assigned to parking. And since parking tends to exist in more valuable areas, that figure is likely massively understated.

No specific point here. But wow.

Put a number on it

I’m usually happy to see numbers enter a calculation instead of bromides like “people here just won’t go for that” or “that’s not how Americans want to live their lives.” When people start talking about how much things really cost, for better or worse, I think that usually means we are starting to have a serious discussion. A few examples:

The Wall Street Journal had a recent article (via Market Urbanism) on how recent cuts to public transit in NYC had affected real estate sales in several neighborhoods. One real estate agent describes trouble selling properties that were served by a long running express bus route which was recently cancelled.

“The buyer who buys in Astoria is looking for a cheaper price and to get into Manhattan quickly,” said Ms. Palmos, adding that she is having the same problem with a condominium building in Upper Ditmars, north of Astoria. Apartments there that she said would have easily sold for $500,000 with the express bus nearby are now languishing on the market at prices about $420,000.

Anecdotes aren’t data of course. But it’s not a stretch to say that you could probably assign a rough number value to proximity to transit in New York. If $80,000 is the market value of that particular transit service for a single unit, imagine how much “value” was destroyed in that neighborhood by the loss of a bus.

Elsewhere, a new site Abogo (via Planetizen) will give you an estimate of the average transportation costs for a given neighborhood. Their goal is to help you “discover how transportation impacts the affordability and sustainability of where you live.” (Interestingly, the average transport costs for my neighborhood are exactly on with my “regional average” while my estimated CO2 emissions are nearly 20% lower than regional averages. I suspect this is due to the impact on their algorithm of a nearby subway stop in my area.)

While numbers like this are so general as to be of questionable accuracy, they do point to a welcome trend. Increasingly it seems that people are making the connection that sustainability and environmental considerations are not just little adjustments you make after you’ve set up your life the way you want it. But that our life choices like where we live have big, direct impacts not just on our environmental impacts but also on how expensive our lives are.

Transportation costs are notoriously difficult for the average person to estimate. The main reason may be that transport costs are an odd mix of small daily incremental costs (gas, car wash), larger annual costs (registration, insurance), and large unpredictable costs (repair, maintenance). This mix tends to lead to people underestimating what they actually spend on transportation which can have a large impact on the choices they make.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles Metro’s in-house blog The Source, wades into the debate on how well people estimate their own transportation costs. They don’t reach any conclusions beyond noting the confusion between daily incremental costs and overall costs and point out that transit users estimate their costs lower on average. I noticed though that taking a rough average of their poll respondents’ numbers gives an estimate of less than $200/month in transportation expenses. By contrast the Abogo estimate I got for the region is $719/month, nearly four times more than The Source’s readers self-estimate. Looks like there is still room for improving people’s awareness of their lifestyle’s costs.

Gas Tax Follies

In California, the governor has proposed a bewildering solution to help fix the massive budget shortfall for the state. One of the issues that constantly plagues budgeting in California is that much of the state’s spending is fixed by voter approved initiatives, meaning that officials have very little flexibility to shift money between priorities or adjust overall spending. But, as always, there’s tricks. (from: The Sacramento Bee via The Source)

The proposal in question is to eliminate the 6% state sales tax on gasoline and replace it with a 10.8 cent increase in the per gallon excise tax. Past voter initiatives have locked in parts of the sales tax revenue to go to schools, local government, and mass transit. But there are no such restrictions on the excise tax, so it would release that money to be used elsewhere. Line item voter approved spending formulas like the one for the gas tax have a long and contentious history in California and few argue that they are an effective way to handle tax collection and spending. I can forgive the administration for wanting to free themselves from complex rules like this in order to deal with what is truly a huge problem with the state’s budget. But here is where I am really left scratching my head. According to the proposal’s projections, the net result will be a $.06 reduction in gas prices. So part of the Governor’s proposal to close a nearly $20 billion gap in the budget is to cut taxes. Interesting.

Now, there are some valid arguments for this. First is that cutting any taxes tends to stimulate the economy, helping businesses and individuals, creating jobs, etc. Gas tax cuts are also fairly progressive as they tend to benefit lower income people more than higher income people whose gas purchases represent a much smaller part of their income. So there is some potential for benefit here. But let’s be honest. Today’s average regular gas price in California is $3.051. So $.06 is a 2% decrease. “Stop those layoffs, our fuel costs just went down 2%!”

Here’s some more problems with this approach. First, gas prices are increasing and widely expected to increase much more as the economy recovers. The new formula locks in a set dollar amount tax instead of a percentage. This means the state won’t collect more as fuel prices rise missing out on a natural revenue source as the economy grows. Most economists are predicting high inflation in coming years which will also rapidly reduce the value of a set tax price. Furthermore, it means that to raise gas taxes in the future becomes a legislative issue. How many politicians will have the will to propose raising gas taxes as inflation and market changes slowly reduce to the value of the excise tax to zero.

Next, let’s talk about the “progressive” nature of this tax cut. In the short term, lower income people do benefit more than higher income, assuming that everyone drives. What about the large population of people who don’t? The change would mean a roughly $1 billion loss of bus and rail funds. I’m speculating that the resulting service cuts that will result might impact people more than a 2% decrease in gas prices.

Finally, how about long term goals? I won’t even get into the logic of reducing money for education, but California is spending huge amounts of money to expand rail service and add more carpool lanes. The state is leading the drive to improve fuel efficiency standards and reduce the levels of pollution and GHG emissions. So to balance that, apparently we are going to incentivize driving, reduce the service levels of public transit, and increase the budget deficit at a time when the state is looking at record shortfalls.

Let’s be honest, despite their environmental concerns or belief in building strong communities, middle class voters hate high gas prices. The only real logic I see here is bureaucrats, frightened that they will be blamed for draconian service cuts, hoping to balance it with a popular cut in gas prices.  If they think $.06 is going to do it…good luck with that.

Tipping Points

I want to follow up on a tangent from my last point…tipping points in complex systems. This brief discussion is prompted by the following statistic:

In 2008 versus 2007, average vehicle miles travelled on urban highways in the US decreased by about 3%. During the same time period, congestion decreased by an average of 30%. See here and here. How did such a small change in the number of cars cause such a large decrease in congestion?

The answer lies in the way that complex systems handle operating at, near, or beyond their “capacity”. When a road is half empty, adding another car does little to nothing to affect other vehicles’ speed and travel time. But at rush hour, in stop and go traffic, even a single car entering your lane can disrupt or even halt movement for a large number of cars for a significant time. Congestion, speeds, and travel times are subject to a tipping point or “non-linearities” in response to increasing demand. Great. So why is this important?

It is well known that traffic congestion has numerous ill effects. The time wasted has a high economic cost, cars in congestion pollute more and suffer more wear and tear, the added stress and exposure have been shown to have measurable health affects for both the driver and surrounding community, and time spent commuting continuously shows up as a major factor in people’s self reported happiness and life satisfaction. So we know congestion is bad. Isn’t that why we’re doing all these road projects? To reduce congestion?

Where poor road design has resulted in a true bottleneck, it makes sense to invest in improvements to fix the problem. But when the entire system is overwhelmed, does it make sense to expand the complete road system? Even ignoring the other arguments for shifting auto traffic to alternative forms of transport, a simple cost/benefit calculation questions the sense of investing in much of the road “improvements” that occur. Criticisms of most mass transit, bike, and pedestrian projects often center around the idea that money is being spent to serve a ‘tiny minority’ of people who use them. It is true, at least for bicycle projects, that a small percentage of trips occur by bike in even the most bicycling friendly cities in the US. What is ignored, even often by bicycle advocates, is the huge benefit to drivers that even a tiny percentage shift of transport mode can have.

With limited resources, it makes sense to spend your infrastructure dollars where they’ll have the biggest impact. Portland is looking at spending $100 million to build 123 miles of bike lanes. Los Angeles just began a project to spend $1 billion to build 10 miles of car lane. Direct comparisons may not be completely fair. But for the price of 1 mile of freeway construction, Portland will get 123 miles of bike lane. And if those 123 miles shift only 1% of road traffic to bikes (Portland currently has about 7% of commutes going by bike), the entire road system could see a reduction in congestion by a full order of magnitude better.

Vacuum Cleaner Advocacy

BikePortland has a recent post about a talk given by Copenhagenize’s  Mikael Colville-Andersen. He’s touring the US promoting urban cycling. He makes an interesting point about the difference in approach to cycling in Denmark. In Copenhagen he says, “Our relationship to the bicycle is much like the vacuum cleaner. We don’t have five of them that we keep polished and well-oiled, there are no vacuum cleaner enthusiasts… The bicycle and the vacuum cleaner are just tools. One of them we clean our homes with, the other we use to transport ourselves around the city.”

This is something I noticed immediately in Germany. Arriving to find cyclists everywhere, I assumed I’d find a huge, thriving ‘bike culture’. In fact, it appears to be the opposite. There is not that strong of a sub-culture of cyclists because they’ve been absorbed into the culture at large. Sub-cultures don’t tend to stay distinct when your mom, grandma, and little sister also do the same activity. In the US, most cyclists view their riding as part of their identity, an activity that defines them. At least among the middle class who don’t ride purely for financial reasons. The shared identity as cyclists binds groups that otherwise have little in common. What will happen to these sub-cultures as their advocacy slowly changes cycling from a fringe activity into just another tool.

Colville-Andersen says that this is not just an outgrowth of increased cycling, but also a key approach to take when planning cycling infrastructure. “Enthusiasts” will go out of their way to do an activity, no one else will. Infrastructure needs to be built where people are and linking the places they want to go.

Efficient Flow

TrafficThe main justification of the drop bar riding position is that it is “faster”. This of course is correct in terms of aerodynamics, power output, and the like. What it doesn’t take in to account is the environment you are riding in. For urban riding, what is the fastest? When you’re the lone biker on a busy street full of cars, speed is usually your friend. I believe it is safer to have less of a difference between your speed and that of the cars around you. Since lights are timed for fast moving cars, you are also more likely to move through intersections if you are closer to automotive speeds. The flip side of riding hard though is time spent before and after the ride. Special shoes, secure your pants leg, maybe even a full outfit change? After the ride comes the cool down period before you’re ready to reenter polite society. Like many a car I’ve seen gunning the gas, just to hit that red light, I wonder if we sometimes mistake max velocity for speed. Door to door, what really gets us there faster?

In Berlin, I’ve seen this affect amplified. Nearly everyone seems to trudge along at an easy 8-10 mph pace. Pleasant enough, but it feels painfully slow for someone used to revving up the heart rate on every ride. But I quickly notice the housewife I passed in a flurry 2 blocks back catching up to me at the next light…and then again after my normal cruising pace sends me past her once we start moving again. Why am I breathing harder than she is when we’re covering the same distance in the same time?

In this town, what seems leisurely, is actually efficient. With most people riding the same style bike, a dominant speed takes over, and trying to exceed it means you are constantly trying to find a place on the bike path to pass, zipping away only to run up to the next group cruising along. When there are enough bikes about to actually constitute “traffic”, suddenly, other factors apply. Like the impatient commuter making 20 lane changes in stop and go traffic only to find himself back behind that same truck, sometimes the fastest speed is the one that moves you smoothly and evenly with those around you.

In Los Angeles, you become so accustomed to viewing the riding environment as a threatening wilderness, full of threats to be avoided…challenges to conquer. Beyond the efficiency of moving through space as part of a steady, non-turbulent flow, what does it mean to the other parts of our routine to move in concert with those around us rather than trying to grab the most (speed or whatever else) the situation seems to allow?

That new bike (blog) smell

Hello. Long planned, but repeatedly delayed, this blog has begun. I’ll be using it to write about a variety of topics from a number of viewpoints. But a recurring theme will be bicycles, and I couldn’t think of a better way to begin than with a new bike.

HKSNew to me anyway. Few purchases are as fun as the new bike; learning the ride characteristics, figuring out the quirks…realizing what needs some work. Here is an HKS city bike. Made in Germany, sturdy, simple, and unglamorous. It will be my main means of transport while I am on an extended visit in Berlin.

It can’t rightly be called a classic. It has early Shimano Positron shifting (the first wide spread indexed shifting system) which probably dates it to around 1980. But it has all the design goals that really define what cycling in a city like Berlin is all about. The upright riding position that emphasizes comfort and visibility, simple gearing to handle moderate terrain at a reasonable speed, fenders and chain guard to make it a bike that is ridden in all weather wearing regular clothes, generator light and rack so it is transport for any time of day for most simple trips. And finally just a bit of flair. I love the just slightly rakish half chain guard.

This is the bike as “tool”. It is not ridden for its own sake, it serves as a means towards other ends. The bike as an integral part of one’s daily life rather than as a distinct activity. In many ways, that is the most obvious quality of bicycles in Berlin. While in America the bike is almost exclusively a hobby, sport, or lifestyle, here it is mainly a utilitarian object, simple effective transportation.

I hope to explore many of the issues behind and effects of this simple distinction. I’m pretty confident my new ride will help me explore the city as well. Now I just need to get my 20+ year-old drum brake to stop squealing.