Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Transit + Technology = Algorithm of Multiple Possibilities

If you are perturbed that the $230 transit benefit was not extended (the monthly benefit went back to $125 and the New York Times opinion page is not happy either), here are tools for transit and transit boosters.

According to 'I Hate the Blue Line' and Other Things Transit Systems Can Learn From Twitter, an article that appeared on the Atlantic's Cities page, transit systems should employ the free customer service data that twitter provides. What are the riders praising or complaining about? The answers are easier to find on twitter than via conventional tools, such as carefully-worded customer surveys, the author argues. I would agree that is the case in places where ridership is well connected - to apps and smartphones.

[Cute animal sculptures in Portland.]

What do people want in terms of public transportation? View this video from Kansas City. Lots of transit love and energy even from people accustomed to using their cars.

Penguins: Better than Mad Men?

And if you have 30 seconds of work time to waste, I mean be productive, view a transit ad from Belgium. Cute, has penguins; need I say more?

American Public Transportation Association
APTA's public transit ridership numbers are out and the numbers are up. What is causing the momentum in favor of transit? Thrift, environmental consciousness, quality improvements, free wifi, desire for a vacation from doing traffic battle before and after work?
This is a 2.0 percent increase over the same quarter last year, representing an increase of nearly 52 million trips. Ridership in all public transportation modes increased, led by light rail which increased by 5.8 percent.

This is also the first time in three years that ridership has increased for all three quarters. The ridership increase is attributed to a number of factors including high gas prices, improved real time passenger information, and a recovering economy.
The full ridership report is available. I usually read the whole thing, but this time I relied on the summary. If you have an extra 10 minutes or so, there are always thought-provoking details in the report as well as interesting statistics by mode and locations. APTA also posted an explanation about the transit benefit reduction and the increase in the parking benefit.

Can Technology Boost Ridership?

The answer is yes if the technology provides real-time information regionally. The Daily Iowan reports that ridership is up five percent in the one month since real-time information monitors were installed around the University of Iowa's campus - even in dorms. The article, Officials: Bus monitors help to increase ridership, goes into more detail, but implies that the transit system is the same otherwise, so that the jump in business is attributable to the one significant change. Thank you to the TransitWire for the link.

Interesting blog post from Planetizen about mapping health, commuting, income and educational patterns across the United States.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Apps for Local Trips and Long-Distance Travel Options

Department of Transportation
None other than Secretary of Transportation Ray Lahood is getting on the smartphone apps bandwagon. The apps are providing transit riders in many places with real-time information. But not enough places, according to the Secretary.
In fact, a review of 276 transit agency systems revealed that only 45 of them provide some information on mobile devices. And of those 45 agencies, only 15 offered their riders the real-time information precise planning requires.

We think we can do better for our nation's transit riders. So last week, Deputy Secretary John Porcari and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra gathered a variety of stakeholders to see what we can do to help millions more transit riders get better access to information.

Some transit agencies want to share this information with their customers, but lack the resources. So one of the challenges for the folks around the table was to find a way to reduce the cost of providing the data in a format that can make riders' lives easier.
For more information, visit the Fastlane.

Amalgamated Transit Union
ATU is featuring on its homepage links to articles with depressing news for transit workers and for public transportation - attacks against bus drivers and transit equipment.

[Buses and bikes at the Takoma Metro station, which serves the Washington,DC/Maryland border community.]

American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials
AASHTO's President is praising rail performance around the country. Systems in Virginia and Michigan, as examples, have recently delivered service to double the riders they had a few years ago. "Ridership on Amtrak's many long-distance lines are at all-time highs, ... From October 2010 to September 2011, more than 30 million trips were recorded on America's intercity passenger rail lines." More from AASHTO President John Horseley's post about rail in the AASHTO Journal.

American Bus Association

The ABA presents an update to its advocacy for the past few years that Congress should save money and fund essential bus service to rural residents far from airports. In a report issued in the fall, Keeping Rural Communities Connected: Comparison of EAS Program To Coach Bus Service, ABA "compares the cost and environmental impact of current subsidized air service provided to rural communities under the Essential Air Service (EAS) program, to an alternative method of connecting these rural communities to the nationwide air transport system." Costs for bus transportation would be almost 70 percent cheaper than EAS currently funded. However, travelers would spend more time en route were bus service to replace EAS, though two-thirds would only need an hour or less of extra time to reach their destinations.

According to ABA's data:
The use of scheduled coach bus service instead of air service would also reduce annual fuel use by 5.7 million gallons, would reduce annual CO2 emissions by over 63,000 tons, and would reduce annual emissions of NOx, HC, CO, and SO2 by 13.2 tons, 1,186 tons, 2,066 tons, and 27.8 tons respectively.
ABA also makes the case that buses could operate profitably on most of these routes, after initial expenses, whereas EAS is heavily subsidized. The report includes details about the methodology and assumptions that produced its conclusions.
[California landscape from Amtrak's Coast Starlight train.]

Monday, January 23, 2012

Transportation Camp

A camp that does not require or supply duffel bags, trunks, bunks, tents, swim instruction, or counselors, Transportation Camp is an unconference - no pre-planned sessions or experts - with transit, alternative mode, planner and data, self-described geeks gathering for a day of exchanging ideas and learning.

I met friends from the worlds of transit technical assistance, mobility management, and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). I also ran into people whom I had not met before, but have been in contact with through twitter and blogs. Two surprises were meeting TransitWire (Susan Bregman, who started the blog/twitter service as a Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) project) (I felt like I was meeting a transit celebrity) and someone from Austria who knows all about mobility management in the European Union and pointed me to performance measures developed in Sweden. There were even a couple of people from my neighborhood who are involved in local transit and alternative mode issues.

[Multi-modal in Denver at the under-construction hub at Union Station.]

Designing Your Own Unconference

Because there were so many sessions, maybe 10 at a time, everyone's experience was different. I attended a mix of sessions on topics I know something about and others about which I acknowledge total ignorance. So, on the ignorant side, I went to a demonstration of an open trip planner that provides route information for walkers, bikers, wheelchair users and transit riders. Incredibly impressive, especially for bikers because the program allows for input of preferences, but not on a real-time level. For example, for wheelchair users, the program has data about accessible streets and transit entrances and exits, but it does not collect or transmit data that an elevator just went out of service at a particular station. I do not doubt, however, that the techie folks will get there.

I also went to Greening the Suburbs, which connected two DC-exurban planners from far outside different circumference points on the Beltway, to discuss common issues of residents who drove til they qualified for a mortgage and others who want a country-like lifestyle. The question is not preference as the idea of green is popular (where would we be without Kermit?), but how to make green convenient, particularly in relation to travel habits, as that is a prime consideration of people with long commutes and no infrastructure to walk or bike to a convenience or grocery store even if it is only a few blocks away. Arlington's decades-long effort to be a green city/suburb and Houston's decentralized employment nodes were examples discussed. A Houston native said that high energy prices would soon green the suburbs whatever the preferences of their residents, while another decried the huge expenditures to support the expense and costs of the auto-centric lifestyle.

[A Portland tech-savvy bus stop with wait times, seating and protection from precipitation.]

I also went to a session in which a rural Virginia transit employee asked for ideas about promoting and improving transit, particularly for young professionals. Though, like many sessions, conversation veered off course at times, he walked away with suggestions about how to engage transit leadership, market transit and make low-cost improvements that will attract riders.

For a wonderful synopsis of the energy and connections made at Transportation Camp, read today's TransitWire.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

AARP Informs Reauthorization Conversation with Equity Considerations

Expecting transportation reauthorization to happen, AARP in Transportation Funding Reform: Equity Considerations for Older Americans "examines whether current or proposed transportation funding sources at all three levels of government are in some way inequitable for low-income people, rural residents, people with disabilities, or older adults."

AARP is analyzing this issue now because revenues from the gas tax are decreasing and are increasingly inadequate to pay for our transportation infrastructure needs.

Gas Tax Most Popular Road Fee

While the current gas tax is equitable in that users pay the fees, the current gas tax is described as regressive - disproportionately costing low-income users - and further distributing costs unevenly in that it is a relative bargain for those who own fuel-inefficient vehicles and it does not charge for peak-time usage of the roads. The report also looks at alternatives to the traditional gas tax that have been popping up at the state and local levels. These include tolling and mileage fees.

The report notes that the current federal gas tax only takes into account use, but not impacts.
Many analysts think it is only fair for travelers to pay a fee that takes into account the negative impacts their travel has on the highway itself (through the weight of their vehicle, for example) and the time and health costs they impose on other travelers (when they travel in the peak period or drive polluting vehicles). Without this link, drivers partially escape the financial, pollution, and health costs they impose on others and create excess demand for new highway capacity. Drivers who act to conserve gas end up subsidizing those who do not. For example, off-peak users subsidize peak-period users. Some highway advocates note that paying for public transportation (and underground storage tanks) from the HTF [Highway Trust Fund] breaks the link between those who pay and those who benefit. The transit advocates’ response to this argument is that payments into the Mass Transit Account help offset drivers’ pollution and congestion costs.
Three quarters of states charge a gas tax in addition to the federal tax. States also charge user fees for car ownership, licensing, and tolls. In terms of new types of taxes, the report analyzes the equity ramifications of fees based on vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and high-occupancy lane usage (which it finds relatively non-regressive because they are not usually located in areas where people with low incomes travel in great numbers). Not mentioned are public transit fare rates.

Sales and Other Taxes Unrelated to Driving

Though income taxes are the most progressive, they do not account for impact. Property and development-related infrastructure taxes are relatively regressive, while sales taxes are completely regressive.
The improvements funded by a retail sales tax, for example, while failing to link payment to transportation system use, may provide benefits even to people who infrequently travel by car or public transportation. Living in a community with uncongested roads, a good transportation system, or a safe cycling network may have intrinsic value.
The report calls for equity in terms of mobility availability for all.
Increased investment in public and community-based transportation options, highway modifications, driver assessment and training, pedestrian facilities, and attention to urban design and land use policies would help to ensure that those who pay receive their fair share of benefits.
Fairness for Older Americans

In terms of older Americans, the AARP report observes that they are more likely than the general population to live in rural areas (20 percent of rural residents are over 65) and more likely to live in suburban areas of metropolitan areas. The report's interpretation of the numbers is that 70 percent of older Americans live in "low-density places, where, for example, regular fixed-route public transit use may not be a practical option." Their travel patterns indicate that older people travel more during mid-day than those 16 to 64 and less during rush hours. Their cars are older; they travel less on highways and they do not drive for much of their miles traveled.