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May 11, 2007

The RPA has Wheels

Last Friday I attended Regional Plan Association's 17th Annual Regional Assembly, entitled "A Bright Green Future," focused on climate change and energy use in the tri-state region. The keynotes (including Mayor Bloomberg's) and plenary were broad and deep, and of the numerous breakout sessions, I chose to attend, unsurprisingly, the one on transportation -- "The Wheels: Getting from A to B with Less C02."

Generally speaking, my interest in transportation is not an environmental one. I like mass transit because it enables a certain kind of social and economic development that is unique to big cities. Nevertheless, transportation is an important part of the energy and climate change conversation, so a thorough treatment by established experts is always a good thing.

The introductory presentation by moderator Lee Sander, CEO of the MTA, consisted primarily of a number of key statistics:

  • 25% of world petroleum consumption is by US; our share has only shifted slightly downward in last 20 years. In contrast, US has only 5% of world’s population.
  • 28% of US Energy Consumption is in the transportation sector
  • Transportation consumed 67% of U.S. petroleum usage in 2005.
  • Transportation emitted 58% of the nation’s pollution from carbon monoxide, 45% of nitrogen oxides, and 36% of volatile organic compounds.
  • Highway vehicles emitted 82% of all transportation carbon dioxide emissions in 2004.
  • U.S. vehicle-miles of travel (VMT) for all modes of transportation approached 3 trillion in 2004, growing at an average annual rate of 2.9 percent over the last 20 years. VMT is doubling every 24 years.
  • Passenger car vehicle efficiency has not changed in last 20 years.
  • Vehicle miles per capita in US by state – New York is the lowest by far of any state – density, transit, walking is the reason.

The presentations of the four respondents detailed some of the problems with and and solutions to our regional and national transportation and emission trends.

The first panelist was Lee Schipper, Director of Research at EMBARQ, the World Resources Institute Center for Sustainable Transport. Some highlights of his at times riotously funny presentation include:

  • Income correlates directly with CO2 emissions per capita
  • President Bush has 'Kyotus Interruptus'
  • Mileage per Gallon is not going down in the US. All gains in fuel efficiency have been matched with increased horsepower in vehicles.
  • Hybrid HOV subsidies and Ethanol subsidies are silly
  • Fuel share as a fraction of household income is going down, encouraging further driving behavior
  • Alternative 'Fools' are not priced right
  • Compared with the US, Europe has higher gas taxes, and much lower fuel consumption and driving
  • The Mexico City MetroBus BRT project is working -- traffic is down, polluting minibuses are less used. Rigid enforcement of exclusive bus lanes is key

Next up was Steve Winkelman of the Center for Clean Air Policy. With a similar focus on transportation modes and fuel usage, his presentation was somewhat richer in terms of statistics and graphical exhibits:

  • It's all about Travel Demand Management (TDM), and the challenges of sprawl. Examining CO2 production density vs. CO2 production per household yields a rather stark contrast in the San Francisco Bay Area:

  • I also really like this diagram, which illustrates part of the inefficiency of the design of sprawled communities:

  • Fuel efficiency is a great thing, but is not enough to reduce CO2 emissions. The following graphs show the effects of rolling out California emissions standards nationally, with and without travel growth. Controlling travel growth will be an important part of controlling emissions growth:

  • Winkelman believes that compact development can save 20% - 50% of VMT. He cites realtor surveys that actually demonstrate increased consumer demand for compact, transit oriented development (TOD).
  • We have a real opportunity to affect change for the future with good policy today. Citing Arthur Nelson in the Journal of the American Planning Association: "Nearly half of what will be the built
    environment in 2030 doesn’t even exist yet, giving the current generation a vital opportunity to reshape future development."
  • For example, Portland, Oregon, has decreased its VMT by 6% over the last 15 years while the nation as a whole has increased by 10%.
  • In summary, the current ICE-TEA and SAFE-TEA federal transportation legislations are inadequate to help curb emissions and climate change; we need GREEN-TEA

Sonia Hamel, of the Center for Climate Strategies, gave a presentation that was less about the numbers, and more about her experience working in the Office of Commonwealth Development in Massachusetts, tackling climate change at the state level. Her focus was on the benefits of integrating a climate change strategy with other parts of state development agencies.

  • In her office, she helped screen the dispersal of state funds in four key areas:
    • Environmental
    • Transportation
    • Housing/Community Development
    • Energy
  • The primary criteria for screening was lower energy usage, allowing proposals that met appropriate criteria to jump ahead in the line for state funding.
    • In the first year of the program, there was substantial pushback against the guidelines they set.
    • In the second year, everything was different. People got it.
  • The problem with many smart growth initiatives is that they do not directly tie funding to the smart growth criteria.
  • Examples of specific changes she helped affect in MA:
    • Educate communities not to fear local housing development, just because increased population may require more schools
    • 30 TOD projects were completed
    • Highway design guidelines were revised.

Finally Paul Roberts, author of End of Oil, offered some cautionary notes and an amazing example of some of the possible unintended consequences of climate change solutions. Be assured, his presentation was much more convincing than my retelling:

  • The US government is subsidizing corn-ethanol production, in order to help foster an alternative fuel industry.
  • This has driven up the price of American corn which hurts everyone from cattle farmers to Mexican tortilla eaters.
  • The increased price of corn has farmers replacing other crops with corn, raising the prices of all sorts of seeds and grains, including wheat.
  • Which has caused food manufacturers to buy wheat gluten from China, which we have recently learned has its own problems (melamine!)
  • Growing ethanol requires fertilizer, which has high Nitrogen content.
  • Nitrogen in the land and water has all sorts of adverse affects such as harming babies (though I missed how), and feeding algae blooms which disrupt aquatic ecosystems.
  • But what's worse, one primary source of the Nitrogen for fertilizers is Natural Gas.
  • Which we end up needing to import from Russia and Iran, thus curtailing the national security benefits we expect from reduced oil dependence in our transportation systems.

Lots to digest!

PS get a different kind of rundown on the same session at Streetsblog

July 18, 2007

Zero Sum Game (in a good way)

[err, so now NY may get it together on congestion pricing, but the train of thought is relevant nonetheless]

While usually calling something a zero-sum game is a bad thing, in this case I mean it positively. The $500M for a congestion pricing pilot that New York has lost may still lose would go to somewhere else like Dallas, San Diego, Atlanta, San Francisco, Denver, Miami, Seattle or Minneapolis. I am a New Yorker born and bred, and am as disappointed as anyone about this, but I think in this case we all may be suffering from a slight case of New-York-is-the-center-of-the-world-itis.

None of these other cities have nearly the mass transit system that New York has. Probably combined their mass transit systems don’t carry half the passengers ours does, and most people living in those places think of cars as an absolute necessity for practically everything they do. In a broader sense, it could very well be an overall net positive that the congestion pricing pilots happen in other cities. Perhaps those places will make incremental progress in shifting people out of cars and more importantly, changing peoples' value systems when it comes to cars vs. other modes.

If we are really lucky, this could be the first wave in a national shift towards more rational thinking about transportation, which would definitely benefit NYC in the long term. In truth, I'm a lot less worried about NYC than I am about other cities and the country/world as a whole, so I wonder if it doesn't hurt to at least imagine the possibility of some greater good coming from Albany's (seeming) ineptitude.

August 20, 2007

Cars vs Transit is like Packets vs ... Packets

A genius I know once wrote an article that some say brought the distinction between packet-switched and circuit-switched networks into the popular consciousness. In the decade or so since, we have seen packet-switched networks take over the world, and unfortunately some people find themselves tempted to abuse this bit of history in arguing related points. The gist of it will always be something to the effect of: "the thing I support is like Packets, the other thing is like Circuits, and since we all know that Packets beat Circuits, I must be right." (This is not unlike how many in my extended family will take anything they think is sufficiently bad and compare it to Hitler.)

For example, a recent piece (of what I don't know) by Stephen Fleming of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, entitled In Transportation and in Technology, Packets Beat Circuits, starts off "Why are so many mass transit policies doomed to failure? Because packets beat circuits. Let's explore an analogy."

You can imagine where it goes from there ("cars are like packets, mass transit is like circuits, so cars are better"). The guy claims to have worked in digital communications for 10 years; I wonder if he's just bitter because he was on the wrong side of the packets vs circuits debate.

For the sake of all 6 people likely to read this, I hereby debunk this terrible analogy:

The fundamental aspect of a circuit-switched network, as stated in the first sentence of the Wikipedia article on Circuit Switching is that it "establishes a dedicated circuit (or channel) between nodes and terminals." That is, the bandwidth for the flow is reserved end-to-end for the life of the circuit. Traditionally, when I make a phone call, part of the 'space' on a bunch of copper wires connecting where I'm calling from to where I'm calling to is reserved even if no one is saying anything over the line.

Clearly a road network is not circuit-switched -- when you start out from your house you don't have a dedicated lane all the way to your destination (if you did, I might just own a car). In a circuit-switched transit network, not only would I have a seat on one R train from Union Street to Union Square, I would have a seat on every R train over the same route for the duration of my trip. Realizing this, the analogy breaks down completely.

Fleming's main argument as to why Transit is like Circuits is that the bandwidth hierarchy, in traveling by train, then bus, then feet, is like the digital transmission hierarchy of telephone (i.e. circuit-switched) networks. Perhaps he lives and works directly on top of an interstate and has never driven by highway, then arterial, then local street in his car. Or never noticed that the bandwidth on his home broadband connection is orders of magnitude smaller than the trans-Atlantic fiber lines that connected me in London to his web server in Georgia.

In a circuit-switched network, I only use as much bandwidth as I need at that moment, and only on the single link I'm currently traversing. When I get to the end of that link, I am put in a queue until the next link on my path is ready to receive me. It's true that it's a bit more obvious to see a road/auto network as analogous to a packet-switched network, but only because of the apparent simplicity of the rules of the system. Transit networks are of the same nature, it's just that the way packets (i.e. people!) are queued and switched where links connect is more complicated and constrained than on roads.

Speaking in data-network terms that we are all familiar with, transit mops up auto when it comes to bandwidth (total bits, or people, per unit time). The problem with transit is, in some circumstances, higher end-to-end latency (the time it takes for the first bit, or person, to get where they're going). But once you get the flow started, we all know that one track of even light rail service can carry the same number of passengers per hour (or was it bits per second) as 7 lanes of freeway or 17 lanes of street (see here).

Unfortunately, people actually read and believe this kind of proof-by-bad-analogy thinking. In a recent newsletter from the Reason Foundation, Robert Poole, Reason's Director of Transportation Studies, claims to have had his "Aha!" moment when reading Fleming's piece. Too bad for him the "Aha!" wasn't a realization to be much more careful with his analogies.

November 20, 2007

Mailer for Mayor (In Memorium)

In 1969 Norman Mailer ran for Mayor. In 2002 my grandfather (probably the most Mailer-like person I know) gave me an original copy of the campaign poster that he had squirreled away for 30+ years. A week or so ago, Mr. Mailer passed away, so it seems like the appropriate time to put this poster on the web, since I have never been able to find a copy online before. I'm about as far from a knowledgeable design critic as you can get, but this thing is an undeniable work of art, especially in the eye of any native New Yorker.



What a platform:



The boroughs, in order of time I've spent in them:



Some lovely embellishments on the Hudson River:



And my favorite little twist:



Not a bad running mate:



But not a good day either (they came in 4th):



For more info on the campaign itself, check out a recent NYTimes podcast and an interview on WNYC with Jimmy Breslin, Mailer's running mate and another icon of New York realness.

November 6, 2008

You Know What I Did Last Summer?

I spent 10 weeks last Summer as an intern on the strategy team of Transport for London's (TfL) London Rail division. This part of TfL is responsible for the London Overground, the Docklands Light Railway, and Tramlink, is the presumptive operator of Crossrail (if and when...), and serves as TfL's interface with the National Rail network. My general task was to help London Rail start to make use of the oceans of data spewing out of the Oyster smartcard ticketing system, but I spent the bulk of my time working on a project that came to be titled Oyster-Based Performance Metrics for the London Overground. I've posted my final report and slides and outline for the presentation I gave to TfL executive management.

Rather than try to explain the work, I've just cut and pasted the executive summary from the report and included some of my favorite figures (with no explanation). It's not a terrible paraphrasing, but if there is a lot of really good meat in the document if you are bored and hungry. Snooze on...


The London Overground is a pre-existing rail service in London whose operating responsibility and revenue risk were recently granted to Transport for London (TfL). Here we discuss the prospect of using data from the Oyster smartcard ticketing system to evaluate the performance of the London Overground explicitly from a passenger’s perspective.

The core idea behind our approach is to directly measure end-to-end individual journey times by taking the difference between entry and exit transactions stored by the Oyster system. The focus of this study is Excess Journey Time (EJT), calculated on a trip-by-trip basis as the difference between the observed journey time and some standard. In this case, the standard is determined for each trip with reference to published timetables, indicating how long the trip should have taken under right-time operations. A positive EJT indicates that the journey took longer than was expected.

Excess Journey Time is interpreted as the delay experienced by passengers as a result of services not running precisely to schedule. The distribution of EJT indicates reliability. We validate these interpretations using a detailed graphical analysis, and then aggregate them to the line and network level over a variety of time periods. Our analysis is conducted on large samples of Oyster data covering several months and millions of Overground trips in 2007.

At the aggregate level, relative values of Excess Journey Time are largely in line with expectations. The North London Line has the highest average Excess Journey Time of all lines on the London Overground, around 3 minutes, and the widest distributions (i.e. least passenger reliability). On all lines, there is significant day-to-day variability of Excess Journey Time. For the whole London Overground, and for the North London Line in particular, Excess Journey Time is worst in the AM and PM Peak timebands.

The current performance regime for the London Overground is the Public Performance Measure (PPM), which measures the fraction of scheduled vehicle trips arriving at their destinations fewer than five minutes late. Over time, EJT shows a strong correlation to PPM. There is clear additional variation in EJT, indicating that it captures certain information about passenger experiences that PPM does not. This variation tends to increase as PPM decreases, particularly in the AM and PM peak timebands, which suggests that the effectiveness of PPM as a measure of the passenger experience decreases as service deteriorates.

Another quantity of interest derivable from Oyster data is the time between passenger arrival at the station and the scheduled departure of the following train. The spread of this distribution of this quantity indicates the degree to which passengers arrive randomly (i.e. "turn up and go") rather than time their arrivals according to schedules. We have found that on the North London Line, especially during the AM, interpeak, and PM peak periods, passengers tend to arrive randomly. This is apparently in contrast to conventional wisdom for National Rail services, and has distinct implications for crowding levels and timetabling practice. In an appendix to this report we look at this in detail, and recommend that even headways be prioritized in timetabling the North London Line.

The Overground is, by design, part of a larger integrated multimodal network. Oyster data, by nature, is somewhat ambiguous in representing passenger trips on such a network that involve transfers or multiple routing options. This poses certain problems to our methodology, but also presents the opportunity to quantify and understand the experience of passengers across the entire network. We discuss these problems, potential solutions, and opportunities at length, as well as other applications for this methodology, and future research directions.

We have concluded that Oyster-based metrics are effective for monitoring and identifying problems as experienced by passengers on the London Overground. They may be even more effective for use across the whole of London's public transport network, particularly as Oyster is in the process of being rolled out to all National Rail services in the Greater London Area.

March 7, 2012

Time for MTA Bus Time

In mid-January, MTA launched MTA Bus Time, its real-time bus tracking and customer information system. It's currently live on Staten Island and the B63 route in Brooklyn, is expanding to the Bronx this year, and will cover the whole city in 2014

It has web map, mobile web, and SMS text interfaces, along with a fully featured, standards-based developer API. Smartphone users can scan the QR code at each stop to be automatically directed to the Bus Time page for that stop.

Particularly compelling to the author is the approach we've taken to delivering this project quickly and inexpensively (for the short and long term). With MTA as the overall systems integrator, we've ensured that the system is constructed using open standards for all interfaces, and open source software licensing when appropriate. And, oh yeah, it runs on Amazon's cloud.

Please, let us know what you think.

Better late than never right? (this post, not the project...)

About transport

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to Frumination in the transport category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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