Archive of transportation

We Need a Second Transbay Tube

Gazing longingly back at San Francisco from West Oakland Station. The pinch point of death.

Gazing longingly back at San Francisco from West Oakland Station. The pinch point of death.

In the past year a renewed push to build a second Transbay Tube across the San Francisco Bay floor has heated up.   BART has been plagued with it’s own maintenance problems and to some reports, is steadily worsening with a half-funded backlog through the next decade.  But plenty of transit systems have backlogs, so why is there emphasis on new infrastructure in a time of waning tax money.  I see several factors driving this:

  • Community “consensus” is cited as reason at all levels which seems to be defined as simply people are using BART and agree that more capacity is needed.
  • Bay Area population is exploding at something like a million people each decade.  For perspective, that’s like 90,000 people a month.
  • Not only has BART been barely able to keep up with crush loads, but Bay Area highways are essentially at maximum capacity.  Especially for a highly dense and urbanized area, there is no more room to expand them.
  • The Bay is also geographically not really capable of expansion or bypassing.  There are clearly defined corridors of travel.  Only increasing capacity within existing paths makes sense.

SPUR has been spearheading the effort to get it on the agenda.  Their white paper has a lovely breakdown of all the transportation solutions and contingencies the second tube will serve.

BART Reported Average Weekday Exits from 2001 to 2016 (November). Trendline goes up at a clip of 10k riders a year.

BART Reported Average Weekday Exits from 2001 to 2016 (November). Trendline goes up at a clip of 10k riders a year.

Make BART Great Again (for People)

I think it’s more important to ultimately see what is the rider’s perspective.  Bay Area residents (yes both property owners and renters) already taxed out of their minds and might want something but vote a different way when it comes to it.

So it’s telling to see that 70% of voters approved Measure RR which was the most unsexy $3.5 billion transportation funding proposition I’ve ever seen.  Via the Chron:

Measure RR, unlike most transportation tax measures, lacked marquee projects like a new extension, a new station or a second Transbay Tube. Instead, it featured a collection of decidedly unsexy projects, including replacing 90 miles of original rail, waterproofing San Francisco subway stations, rebuilding the electrical equipment that delivers power to the tracks and trains, and replacing the original train control system.

Most riders and even BART maintenance crew alike are not even sure how rail technology affects them.  The only promise is that replacement of these fundamental systems will ensure BART is reliable.  On-time reliability is perhaps always the most important concern.  As reliability dipped toward the low 90% for BART, riders definitely took notice.

Stop Bleeding at the Edges

As we move towards a Two Tube Future, BART needs to absolutely stop looking at expansion, and focus on the system’s current strengths.   Maybe some residents want BART to go to San Jose, but as a frequent rider, I almost never saw people riding beyond 6 or so stations.  In fact Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor already goes all the way to Diridon Station, so why were such precious dollars wasted when the BART maintenance backlog was about to mount into public outcry.

Spoiler alert, the South Bay extension project is already delayed.  Warm Springs was suppose to open in 2014. There was talk of opening it this year (“achingly close”).  Now nobody knows when!

The Second Transbay Tube is projected to be $12 billion in today’s dollars.   The extension to San Jose will likely reach if not exceed that number.  The public would be wise to keep any future major expansion projects in line of sight of the power makers overlooking the Bay than hidden at the system edges.

Will the U.S. Adopt Scooters

Scoot army via Scoot Networks

Scoot army via Scoot Networks

While Americans are still entrenched in this idea of make the car great again with autonomous systems, there’s another urban transport mode people have overlooked, the scooter.   The scooter or motor bike is ubiquitous in Asia because of historically narrow and uneven roads.  Match that with limited parking and hilly terrain and you have a good argument for scooters as practical mobility.

Bikeshare of Scooters

My first exposure to scootershare as urbantech was with Scoot Networks in San Francisco.  Launched in October 2012, they offer on-demand electric scooters at designated parking areas throughout the City.   Your phone app unlocks the bike key and off you go.   TechCrunch called it “Zipcar for Scooters” but it’s more like bikeshare for scooters since you can take it to your destination and park it for the next person.

There’s no need to have a special driver’s license but you will have to attend mandatory driver training.  This makes sense since few Americans are familiar with these bikes.  It was a breeze to use these in the hilly terrain of San Francisco, jetting up steep streets with ease. These were particularly useful for traversing north-south corridors which are brain-numbingly slow on Muni or rideshare.  The Scoots stow a helmet and have surprisingly nimble maneuvering.

Scoot launched with Chinese manufactured bikes as the bulk of their fleet (I suspect they are made by Luyuan).  They were smart to go with a Vespa inspired model and a red color scheme (instead of the originally proposed black).  Munich-based Govecs provides the recent Scoot “cargo” fleet.  These German Go T1.4s are very BMW in design.  They recently announced a partnership with GenZe for the next generation of Scoots.

Tesla of Scooters

On the other side of the Pacific, Gogoro launched in 2014 in Taipei.   As the “Tesla of electric bikes,” Gogoro designs, manufactures, and sells sleek electric bikes that run exclusively on their own battery swapping network.  Instead of gas stations, you go to recharging kiosks where you swap batteries like exchanging water jugs.  You can charge at home too.

Gogoro’s bikes may look like traditional Vespas but the details are futuristic, with smoothed molded panels and a Star Trek-like command center.  Following Tesla’s model, they own the vehicle production and the recharging network, so it makes it easy to innovative and scale up fast.  Gogoro bikes have become practical transport on a regional level.

Will the U.S. Scoot

It’s unclear whether residents of an equally dense U.S. city will prefer sharing or owning electric bikes.  Gogoro’s plug and play battery eliminates a lot of the logistical issues Scoot users face.  For charging, scoot relies on users bringing low-energy bikes to charging garages throughout San Francisco, and leaving it there to slowly recharge.  For travel, users have to be aware of the current battery level of the Scoot which equates to available travel distance.

On the flip side, curiously Gogoro has does not include 3G in its bikes, so you can’t rent out your bike in an easy way.   Tesla software has always been intimately reliant on internet connection.  Elon imagines a world where people will leverage their idle Model 3s as on-demand self-driving Ubers in his latest master plan.  But I imagine Gogoro’s founder is following Elon’s plan of building an expensive product to gain money to build a less expensive product and so forth.  Sharing bikes would definitely eat into sales. The starting price in Taipei is US $4,000 which is twice an entry-level Vespa at any local moto shop.

Scoot’s pricing is very affordable.  Without a $20/monthly plan, it’s usually $4 for one trip. It’s about what you would expect between the choice of a bikeshare (time) and transit (cost and maybe time too).   But in San Francisco, everything is cheaper and faster than a car.   Uber is always surging and often gets stuck in the same traffic.   In other sprawl cities, an electric bike fits a narrower portion of residents, and weather of course plays a role.  So it will be interesting to see where Scoot expands.

In Minneapolis, I once worked with a young father who Vespa’d from the city to an adjacent inner ring suburb.  His direct path was mostly residential and tree-lined, the travel time equated a car, and he saved on gas.  For typical U.S. cities with lower densities, these short-medium distances (< 10 miles) may prove in-demand for electric bikes.

On Ride-Sharing Becoming Permanent Transportation

It’s clear that ride-sharing’s reputation has been rather tarnished by public policy backlashes this year, but this hasn’t diminished its popularity.

In my view, I see Uber and Lyft as technology companies in the same vein as freeways, railroads, steamships, and jumbo jets that heralded new eras of transportation.

But hold on you say, it’s just an app that tells someone to pick you up. The car already exists. The app is just an on-demand ride board. You need a cell phone. It’s VC smoke and mirrors! It all seems like a fad until we look at history.

Old Man River

Before railroads, people floated a wooden barge down a river or drove horses down dirt roads. Then someone invented a steam engine and a better steel track. Before cars, people walked, biked or galloped on a horse. Then a series of inventors fiddled with putting an engine in a carriage. Before freeways, people drove hours on whatever road led to the city center. Then engineers envisioned massive segregated speeding roadways.

Pan Am Clipper over San Francisco in 1942. Read more about Clipper planes

Pan Am Clipper over San Francisco in 1942. Read more about Clipper planes

Prior to the advent of these transportation eras, it must have seemed bizarre to ask if people thought of a faster more ingenious way to get around. For example, trying to explain riding in a flying aluminum shell powered by windmills taking you half-way across the world in less than day.

But what seem like overnight revolutions are actually incremental enhancements or combinations of existing ideas, not very unlike a little app that connects drivers and riders together.

Users Drive Demand

These tech companies are not the ultimate pioneers though, we are. We think of transportation as being “created” by someone but in reality the adoption of any tool or vehicle into a main mode of human transportation requires users. Uber’s explosion and disruption results from millions using the service en masse, filling travel gaps and trip demands most planners would not know existed.

Take a curious analogy of transportation technology that has experienced great waxes and wanes in popularity, the bicycle. It was invented to replace horses in Europe, quickly dismissed as a toy, became a ubiquitous transportation mode in the United States, and then was left behind in urban renewal.

Bicyclists on the Golden Gate Bridge before opening in 1932. Via SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY

Bicyclists on the Golden Gate Bridge before opening in 1932. Via SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY

The Bicycle isn’t an app so why does it receive so much opposition. It too is seen as a passing fad and disruptive to existing modes of transport. NIMBYs fill City Council meetings in opposition to bike lanes. Supporters push back on helmet and licensing regulations. Sound familiar?

People Need to Get Around

Our public policy discourse treats Uber and Lyft like segueway tour companies to the annoyance of some locals. But the discussion forgets that real people of all types and ages use the service. If we can talk about transportation in this context, I think we’ll have more meaningful.

People need to get around and are searching for better ways of doing so.

It’s not rocket science that we need fast, convenient and reliable alternative transportation. On-demand bus service has been a difficult effort by transit agencies for a long time now. Uber not only meets all these metrics but makes it easy, accessible and most of all palatable to the masses. What lessons can we learn from empowering local citizens to serve each other.

Transportation is trending to radically change due to the internet.

The internet has always promised a merger of the real and digital world. In Steve Case’s “internet of everything” we will see even more instantaneous interaction across distances. Doesn’t matter if it’s self-driving cars or remote locking bike share, policy makers need to anticipate this forthcoming era, not simply react. Lead officials and staff on roundtables and educational outings. Forging partnerships and understandings will underwrite good policy decisions.

Ride-sharing is introducing potential users to transit.

As someone who use to be very car-oriented, detaching oneself from their personal vehicle is sadly a precarious feat. It is a huge step to put ones mobility into the hands of a stranger, and plan out your movements well in advance. It encourages people to mull about urban spaces, not being tied to their car, and potentially look at other options. This gets suburbs off their car diet.

Let’s Move

In the words of Marc Andreessen, “software is eating the world,” and we are looking at technology networks heavily influencing or even merging with transportation networks. Ride sharing apps are getting people around, games like Pokemon are getting people outside, let’s leverage these for the public good.

Transit Tech Startups Part 1: Intercity Travel

Caltrain is the traditional intercity transport method.

Caltrain is the traditional intercity transport method.

Shaun Abrahamson of Urban.us detailed a list of “Pop-up Mass Transit” startups operating now.  From a VC perspective, he’s concerned about how game theory will make or break their mobility promises.  Can shuttle startup A beat out carshare startup B on price and retain users when the true cost of providing these services becomes reality.

I couldn’t help but think maybe transit-like startups should be concerned about their actual role in transportation and urban planning.  What niche do they serve in the transit ecosystem, not necessarily that one can get from point A to B.   A city is inherently multi-modal, with different ways of getting places and the messy synergy between these paths.

Transportation startup’s should aim to merge into the existing transit fabric, not simply create an overlay or new “platform.”   Lyft boldly pushed it’s “Friend’s with Transit” stats out there to show that between 20-33% of all rides start or begin at a transit station in DC, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, and New York.   If a third of your business is generated by other transit, that’s not just economics, it’s good urban planning.

Here’s Part 1 of my take on Shaun’s list:

Intercity Travel

Greyhound was the original startup in this category, providing low cost bus service between cities especially as Amtrak dismantled itself through the ’80s-’90s.  Megabus jumped in before iPhones were even a thing and now we have plenty of similar “coach” services especially in Midwest and Northeast corridors.   Tech startups of course want to give you the power to provide or at least discover these services instead of running the buses themselves.

  • Skedaddle (https://www.letskedaddle.com/) is taking the age-old Craigslist (shady) rideshare age and putting it on steroids.   Instead of just “hey please get into my car cuz I wanna split gas cost kthxbai” they’re encouraging fun trips to festivals and Tiesto, although it’s role as commuter A to B is the majority of routes.  It gamifies the process by only offering the ride when a minimum number of people sign up (like Kickstarter), and increasing the per head price as the number of users sign up (like Ticketmaster).  It appears to me that most offered rides were existing trips that would have happened anyway, so hopefully Skedaddle may improve the efficiency of vehicle usage, especially for leisure trips which accounts for a quarter of our driving.
  • Buster (https://www.buster.com/) matches groups to rides instead of individuals.  I imagine they approach coach companies and say, “Give us an idea of where you’d be willing to serve, how many people you can serve (vehicles), your rates and we’ll plug you into Buster.”   I asked it to take 15 people from Penn Station to Woodstock, New York, and it gave me a bunch of options from school buses to limos.  From an efficiency point of view, it better utilizes existing fleets that only have occasional use.  For example the local church’s Sunday school bus sit idle most of the week.  And for planners, we’d prefer one vehicle than 15 people splitting up into many vehicles and needing to park them everywhere on a single weekend.
  • Rallybus (http://rallybus.net/) combines Buster (hiring local providers) and Skedaddle (crowd sourcing events).  It differs in looking at long-distance intercity travel by having a provider offer multiple “rally” pick-up spots along pre-selected routes to a particular destination.  The website is rather confusing, but appears to be focused on special events.  I selected a Fallout Boy concert in New York and I’m presented a map of routes from various cities around New York getting to the event in March.  I picked a marker in Philadelphia for $55 and it indicated it needed 25 more people to actually confirm this ride. Fortunately another ride to a Dixie Chicks concert from Dupont Circle had the minimum.  It’s like Buster but instead of customized trips, it’s offering pre-planned trips based on potential special-event demand (sounds like an airline!).  To me, Rallybus exemplifies trip efficiency by both placing minimums on what the trip is, and how many people are going.   It knows people are going to a concert or conference already so it wants to encourage them to group ride.

The true difference between these tech startups and a typical coach service is that the coach services are focused on capturing riders in specific transportation corridors.   Rallybus and Buster require complex itineraries, compared to BestBus or Wanderu. These itinerary costs are also a little opaque and it’s hard to quickly search a route or the routes are customized.  So they succeed in very unique travel situations while Skedaddle lets one discover and compare costs more quickly.  Contrary to that, apps that are essentially rideshare boards have a hard road ahead because coach services are already fairly low cost, guaranteed rides with more amenities than someone’s car.  And even luxury car drivers will be hard to compete with the highly booked Royal Sprinter.

Intercity travelers must inherently spend more time to plan and consequently more time to compare, that is something startups will need to address.

More in Planning: The Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development studies Intercity Bus Travel.

On Being a Transit User

Interior of a Muni Orion VII, the workhorse for lower density routes. Not particularly powerful.

Interior of a Muni Orion VII, the workhorse for lower density routes. Spartan, austere, practical.

During my Masters program, I pondered the life of a transit user, specifically someone who uses transit as an exclusive mode of transportation. If cities are on this push to reimagine themselves as transit-oriented communities, then why is it so much of its eventual design and implementation never concerns people.

We know the demographics of the current transit “community” has users that are mostly poor, below median earnings. (see Governing’s Public Transportation’s Demographic Divide by @mmaciag). A point missed is that transit users are actually working, they’re employed, and so it seems under-emphasized that transit users use transit to get somewhere.

Transit as Utility

Transit design is typically utilitarian and lowest-bidder, yet the systems themselves lack utilitas or expediency, and add unnecessary costs. A great example is Metro Transit METRO Green Line. The current running time between Downtown Minneapolis and Saint Paul is 46 minutes, but typically more, given badly timed stop lights. The concept of the line succeeding the former streetcar line was bizarre, because the streetcar’s actual successor is the 16 bus. Streetcars are meant to stop frequently, maneuver with traffic, and are subject to obstacles. Light rail, the low-cost subway alternative for underfunded metropolitan transit agencies, is better categorized as “medium” rail for its ability to provide capacity movement on long distances. It shouldn’t be running with traffic and yet Green Line not only constantly pits it against traffic for most of its travel length, but succumbed to community (lawsuit) pressure to add unnecessary stations (cost in time and money).

On the other hand, the route 94 bus (named for I-94) brings one from 6th and Hennepin to Union Station in less than 30 minutes. My colleagues who (force themselves) to ride Green Line love it but hate it. It’s still very eerily empty all hours, when in the past, the 16 bus was known to be full throughout the day. Mode shift has shifted people away.

To consider the life of a transit user then is to imagine someone who is subjected to constant struggle to move about in a timely and efficient manner. And at times, to have one’s needs ignored by policymakers.

Transit as Hauler

Another element of using transit is the ability to carry possessions around. I imagine backpack and bag makers crunch each day how to design bags to be sturdy yet light weight, and what environmental issues will luggers encounter. So when one is faced with filthy transit stations and vehicles, one wonders what risk to health if they place their bag on the ground. The alternative is to place the bag upon one’s lap, sometimes taking up maneuverable space for others. And standing in a packed car with a hefty load, it’s only polite to place it on the ground. In some cities with “dirty” climates, this is unavoidable like in Chicago (Gripes about dirty rail cars rise as mercury drops by @jhilkevitch).

Transit as Your Home

A colleague of mine who works transit operations indicates most agencies, at minimum, do one cleaning a day with only emergency mid-day cleanups. The quality of this clean is most definitely not sufficient — to save costs, it was one mop bucket for the entire bus. This is even if they mop at all, the FTA has a report Transit Bus Service Line and Cleaning Functions that indicates 64 percent of responding agencies still use hand sweeping to clean buses for dust. Light rail systems tend to fare better, being given larger operational budgets since stations must also be maintained. But with old school light rail agencies like Muni, its almost impossible to keep up with the grime embedded into its 1997 Breda LRV floors.

Yet we see systems like New York’s subway, Hong Kong’s MTR, and London’s underground which carry substantially more passengers, able to keep up. People often say underfunded agencies simply cannot fund cleaning budgets, but cleanliness didn’t happen with a mop, it happens on a multi-level organizational level which builds these costs into the lifetime of the cars.

Still the lonely transit user doesn’t have much a say, other than some days to think if they had a mop or spray bottle, they’d simply wipe up that bit of grime missed by the cleaners.

The feeling is, if we are to embark on this transit first initiative, we have to consider riders as ordinary people who have needs. We also have to consider that current paradigms failing transit planning and operation are still there and will be there in the future. Now’s the time to break them to make people first.

San Francisco’s Terrible Bicycle Lanes

A short lived failed attempt to do off-set parking as a faux bike lane barrier.  Via Richard Masoner

A short lived failed attempt to do off-set parking as a faux bike lane barrier. Via Richard Masoner

Coming from Minneapolis, once crowned by Bicycle magazine as America’s forward-thinking bicycle city, I am a little bit biased when it comes to bicycling infrastructure.   In fact my Master’s capstone team thesis (co-wrote with some lovely planners including @AmbroseManor) was critical on Minneapolis’ testing of bicycle turning boxes–at the time some of the nations’ first federal funding pilot efforts with Portland.  So when I do my typical rounds of the San Francisco bike lanes to see how they progress over time, I continually come to one conclusion:

It’s whack.

In high school we’d use whack to describe people, things, and situations.  I think this describes everything about the current system.  It’s badly designed for people, it has bizarre patterns, and it constantly places you in dangerous situations with other traffic.   The problem is, the issues are not isolated, rather they are systemic to the design as a whole.

Here are my critical points in regards to the bicycle system as designed for Market Street to FiDi and then throughout SOMA:

  • Constant shuffling of bike lane to accommodate vehicle turn lanes creates unpredictable behavior, and transition choke points.
  • Unpredictable lane shifting also makes faster one-way roads more dangerous by forcing user to continually shift left and right to follow the lane while car traffic is all in a straight line.
  • Inconsistent spacing of road marking to facilitate bike lanes across long intersections.  One intersection may get a very regular pattern while others one must strain to look for where the bike lane re-enters.
  • Constantly changing and inconsistent lane widths, creates chaos during bicycle rush hour.
  • All these road marking pattern problems make passing fellow bicyclists dangerous.
  • Lack of clear, consistent, and readable signage.  Currently only features AASHTO’s old white bike lane sign (not helpful) and a green navigation bike highway sign with the smallest font size imaginable.
  • Difficult to ascertain if a cross intersection also contains a bike lane — an issue for novice users.

So this is just a general start to formalize what I’ve been telling people.  Even taking 1-2 hours out of your day to riding the system in and out will reveal all these shortcomings.   Of course I haven’t even touched on all the double parked vehicles or confused drivers, but in my opinion all of those issues are just parts of eventual adaptation of all road users to the new system.

My beef with the bike lanes is that the entire system is setup badly.  If you start with a bicycle system foundation like this and tell all the public works engineers, police enforcers, infrastructure contractors, concrete pavers, government officials, non-profit advocates, and regular Joe users, that this is what we got.  Well then it’ll be hard down the road to say, actually, we need to tear it all up and redo it.   Minneapolis went the route of piloting all projects, calling them tests, that was smart, so that they could eventually adapt the best uses at the best locations.  And then duplicate them elsewhere in similar situations so that we’d end up with a very consistent system.

Of course I’ve seen San Francisco prior to bike lanes, I didn’t ride it, but it was certainly car dominated.  In fact San Francisco use to have a campaign of signs to tell people to stop running red lights (which they did in the multiples).   This is still reflected in the recent campaign “What’s the Rush?”  So perhaps waving my arms around about a rather scary bike lane system is not productive since sans any kind of bike lane, San Francisco streets would just be downright dangerous for everyone.   Still I was taught to be critical about the investments we make since the Public pays for it in the end, and we should be even holding the “nice things” accountable.