Category Archives: traffic

Making transit an appealing choice

Photo credit: “Old Bus,” Flickr/Mike9Alive

Tim Haab at Environmental Economics relates an anecdote about a car-loving friend switching to a form of mass transit:

“There’s a luxury coach service that has a park and ride stop 6 miles from my house.  The bus is equipped with laptop hook-ups and comfortable seats.  It takes 45 minutes to get downtown and it drops me off at the door to my office.  And it only cost $5 roundtrip.  Also I’m working at home 2 days a week.”

So now I’m doing the math.  That’s a savings of $16.50 a commuting day ($5 in fare plus $2 in gas).  He’s saving $96.50 a week.  $4,439 a year.

This is somebody with a pretty tremendous commute, making the trip at increasingly staggering expense. And still, it’s the luxury coach service that gets him onto the bus.

You shouldn’t make public policy based on anecdotes (even if that’s what politicians do all the time), but there’s plenty of history to suggest that it’s this kind of service that’s most likely to get drivers out of their cars — not a crowded, hot, smelly old bus where they might even have to stand for much of the trip, but a pleasant luxury coach, if not an even more comfortable train. The premium people are willing to pay for comfort is very significant. With the rising cost of gasoline, more people are butting up against their limits, but it’s still not a choice based on pure financial rationalism.

So that’s the challenge for cities and regional authorities hoping to save road money, make planning more efficient, and clean up their air: they’re not just in the business of making transit available, they’re in the business of making it desirable. And in that regard, they’ve got an awful lot to learn from the private sector.

Greening the ‘burbs

Interesting story in the Sunday New York Times on efforts among suburbanites to make their low-density communities greener.

Since 2005, the mayors of hundreds of suburban communities across America have pledged to meet or even beat the emissions goals set by the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty to reduce greenhouse emissions.

In November, Levittown, N.Y., the model postwar suburb, declared its intentions to cut carbon emissions by 10 percent this year. And a few suburban pioneers are choosing solar heating for their pools, clotheslines for their backyard, or hybrid cars for their commute.

But the problem with suburbs, many environmentalists say, is not an issue of light bulbs. In the end, the very things that make suburban life attractive — the lush lawns, spacious houses and three-car garages — also disproportionally contribute to global warming. Suburban life, these environmentalists argue, is simply not sustainable.

Where the environment’s concerned, I’m of two minds (for civic budgeting, I’m not — the suburbs are a major problem for city budgets). They’re certainly unsustainable in their current form, but they’re also where an awful lot of the famous low-hanging fruit is. If current suburbanites just went with xeriscaping instead of heavily chemicalized lawns, kitted themselves out with high-efficiency heating, went with fans instead of air conditioning, and drove fuel-efficient cars, we might find that went a long way.

I do suspect that 21st-century housing-bubble McMansions aren’t going to work, but expensive oil should put paid to those. Post-war suburbs are, I suspect, quite salvageable even in a low-carbon, low-energy future, if the owners are prepared to invest in them.

I have no research to support this, but I think we should push in that direction and see what happens. At a minimum, it’s much more palatable for a mass audience than saying everybody’s got to move into apartment blocks.

Pollution fees, not fines

London mayor Ken Livingstone brought congestion charges into the mainstream by implementing them in the British capital. In extreme cases, they strike me as a reasonable way of keeping traffic moving efficiently — when the road infrastructure is fully jammed and you need some way to limit access to people who’ll use it best.

Charging polluting drivers a fee to drive in your city looks like the same thing and superficially it jibes with the idea of making polluters pay for the clean air they consume. But what “Red Ken” is actually doing is more fine than fee:

Lorries, buses and coaches who don’t meet emissions standards will pay £200, while heavy vans and minibuses, will find themselves on the business end of £100 per day. Cameras will monitor any emission-spewing entrants into the capital.

It’s difficult to imagine that any vehicle that doesn’t meet emissions standards will actually do £100 or £200 a day in damage. This is punitive.  Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but let’s call the move what it is.

A revolutionary idea for congestion pricing


How about letting the municipalities through which toll roads run have the money?

We propose a new way to create political support for congestion pricing on urban freeways: distribute the toll revenue to cities with the tolled freeways. With the revenue as a prize, local elected officials can become the political champions of congestion pricing. For these officials, the political benefits of the toll revenue can be far greater than the political costs of supporting congestion pricing. If congestion tolls were charged on all the freeways in Los Angeles County, for example, and the revenue were returned to the 66 cities traversed by those freeways, we estimate (using a model first developed by Elizabeth Deakin and Greig Harvey) that each city would receive almost $500 per capita per year.

That this idea is in any way controversial speaks to the bizarre way we handle the construction and financing of roads in both the United States and Canada.

Some roads are administered by cities, some by regional governments (where they exist, they often build and maintain arterials), some by states or provinces (major divided highways), and some even by federal governments (continent-spanning routes). Where there are no effective junior governments, way out in the hinterland, it can make sense for higher levels to step in, but it’s absurd that Los Angeles County doesn’t control its own freeways, or that Highway 401 through Toronto and Autoroute 40 through Montreal aren’t controlled by those mature cities’ governments.

This often creates an accountability gap, where city politicians who actually have to answer for traffic problems often can’t do much about them without largesse from higher-up governments that have little practical interest in dumping vast piles of money down to help municipal councils out. And when they do it, cities often treat the cash as found money, spending it fast and freely because they don’t have to account for it themselves.

If city councils set road tolls and also got to spend them, it’d be good news for traffic control, good news for transportation planning generally, and good news for keeping governments accountable to voters.

Bloomberg’s congestion charges revived

Duly noted: NYC’s traffic plan first had to crack Albany’s gridlock.

As I read it, this is very, very, very far from a done deal, just a political compromise to meet a deadline to file some paperwork to get some federal funding for the idea, if it actually happens. A key deadlock was between New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, and State Senator Joseph Bruno, a Republican, who, according to the Associated Press, just despise each other:

Although Bruno and Spitzer supported the mayor’s “congestion pricing” concept, negotiations with the skeptical Assembly Democrats never started while Bruno was calling Spitzer a spoiled brat and Spitzer said Bruno chose summer vacation over doing the people’s business. Calls for investigations of each other’s use of state helicopters, Bruno’s claim that Spitzer used state police to spy on him, even Spitzer’s bouncing of a Bruno staffer from a news conference, were part of feuding that became so heated it raised eyebrows beyond New York.

“Now, now boys,” tsked the headline in The Economist of London. “Even by Albany’s standards, their recent feuding has caused new highs, or rather new lows, of dysfunction.”

The Bloomberg plan was just a casualty in the crossfire, before it was bandaged up, given some painkillers and sent back out there to fight another day.

So it’s good the New York City congestion charge hasn’t been killed because this politicking, which had nothing to do with the issue, might have made the city miss an arbitrary deadline set by another government, but again, it’s wrong that that might have happened at all.

Congestion spying

Here’s a strong (inadvertent) argument against congestion charges. From the BBC:

Police are to be given live access to London’s congestion charge cameras – allowing them to track all vehicles entering and leaving the zone.

Anti-terror officers will be exempted from parts of the Data Protection Act to allow them to see the date, time and location of vehicles in real time.

They previously had to apply for access on a case-by-case basis.

The Met will produce an annual report for the Information Commissioner, the government’s data protection watchdog who oversees how material from CCTV cameras is used.

The scheme will also be reviewed in three months’ time after an interim report by Met Commissioner Sir Ian Blair, so the home secretary can be “personally satisfied … that the privacy of individuals is protected”, added Mr McNulty.

That would be the same cabinet minister who’s authorized the change in the first place. The invasions of privacy are going to have to be outrageous and publicly known for her to change back.

The stated justification for the additional powers the police will get is the “enduring vehicle-borne terrorist threat to London,” according to Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. Presumably she’s referring the car bombs that didn’t go off, allegedly planted by the doctors whom the police caught without the new power they’re getting. This “threat” will never go away, of course, long after Osama bin Laden has rotted to dust in his grave and nothing’s blown up in a decade.

There’s always mission creep where government intrusions on privacy are concerned. You let them set up cameras for one very specific reason, and the next thing you know, they’re tailing you in your car, without supervision. What is so wretchedly hard about seeking judicial permission for this kind of thing that fewer and fewer law-enforcement agencies in the world have to bother doing it anymore?

Britain is already off the deep end on surveillance, but this makes things worse, and spoils prospects for future implementations of what is, in principle, a useful and even necessary system.

Congestion charges on life support in NYC

The shame of the stories about the defeat of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal for a downtown congestion charge is that there appears to have been no discussion of whether he actually had a good idea. Instead, it’s all politics and pique — from Bloomberg and from the state legislators whose co-operation he needed.

“If the mayor came in with one vote, he left with none,” said Senator Kevin S. Parker, a Brooklyn Democrat.

“His posture was not ingratiating,” he said. “He says he doesn’t know politics, and he certainly bore that out by the way he behaved.”

So angered were Democrats that they decided to vote as a bloc to defeat the measure, and there were not nearly enough votes among the Republican senators for it to pass.

The mayor moved from meeting to meeting in the Capitol, his expression grim, and he declined to take questions from reporters. He did take a shot at his critics on WROW-AM radio in Albany on Monday morning, saying, “Anybody that says we didn’t have enough time to look at this is ridiculous.

And worst of all, Bloomberg needed the state’s co-operation so New York could get access to hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money, which is just about to be taken off the table.

Why on earth must New York City meet artificial deadlines just so it can exercise reasonable control over what happens within its own boundaries?