Category Archives: Transportation

More Obsolete Than Ever

Bryan Mistele, the CEO of traffic tracker Inrix, argues in the Seattle Times that proposed new light-rail lines will be “obsolete before they are built.” Specifically, he says, automated, connected, electric, and shared vehicles–which he abbreviates as ACES–are already changing how people travel, and those changes are accelerating.

Sound Transit, Seattle’s regional rail transit agency, wants voters to approve a $54 billion ballot measure this November for more light rail. This, Mistele points out, is more than twice the cost of the Panama Canal expansion, yet isn’t likely to produce any significant benefits.

A rail advocate named Joe responds in the Seattle Weekly by calling self-driving cars “snake oil” similar to predictions in the 1950s that supposedly said everyone would be flying around in helicopters. Joe betrays ignorance about traffic, suggesting that a freeway that is congested with stop-and-go traffic could not possibly support any more cars even if they were self-driving. In fact, a road with stop-and-go traffic can move only half as many cars per hour as one with free-flowing traffic, and free-flowing traffic spaces cars six or seven car-lengths apart. Self-driving cars could easily beat that.

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The Politicization of Data

A few weeks ago, the Antiplanner reported on a questionable change in transportation data published by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. An even more questionable change can be found in table VM-1 of Highway Statistics, an annual report published by the Federal Highway Administration.

Before 2009, Highway Statistics regularly appeared months before the Federal Transit Administration published its annual National Transit Database for the same year. There may have been good reasons for that: the highway data depended on reports from the 50 states and District of Columbia, while the transit data depended on data from nearly 700 transit agencies (as of 2008; more than 850 today). Collecting, reviewing, and collating all that data no doubt took a lot of time.

After Obama took office, a funny thing happened: the highway data started coming out after the transit data. In some cases, not just months, but years after. For example, the on-line 2009 Highway Statistics is still missing some minor tables, and one of the most important tables about highway finance, HF-10, is still missing from the 2011 edition.

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Time to Stop Long-Range Planning

The Department of Transportation is inviting comments on a proposed change in the rules for metropolitan transportation planning. Under the current rules, every metropolitan planning organization (MPO) must write a long-range (20 years) transportation plan and update it every five years, as well as a short-range transportation improvement plan that lists that projects the organization expects to fund in its region.

Some urbanized areas, however, have multiple metropolitan planning organizations. For example, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach each have their own metropolitan planning organizations even though (since 2000) they are in the same urbanized area. The proposed rule would require the MPOs to submit a single long-range transportation plan for the entire urbanized area.

On one hand, the purpose of MPOs in the first place is to save the federal government from having to review thousands of grant proposals from the thousands of different cities and counties that make up the nation’s urban areas. Thus, this represents a streamlining from the federal government’s point of view since it reduces the number of grant proposals it will have to deal with.

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Don’t Count on Shared Mobility

The OECD has published a fairly realistic report about the effects of self-driving cars on urban transportation. However, the report contains some implicit assumptions that may not come true.

“Single-occupancy car use generates individual and collective benefits,” admits the report, “but these are eroded and, in some cases, obviated by environmental impacts, loss of transport system efficiency due to congestion, social inequity and exclusion, as well as road crashes and strong dependence on fossil fuels.” Except for congestion, however, most of these problems are exaggerated and even congestion is technically easy (but politically difficult) to solve with congestion pricing.

“Typically, the response to the negative impacts of car-dominated transport systems,” continues the report, “has been to promote public transport.” But this “comes at a heavy cost,” and despite many cities paying that cost, “public transport continues to lose market share to private vehicles in most developed economies.”

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Philadelphia Transit Troubles

Service on Philadelphia commuter trains has been interrupted due to serious defects found in Silverliner V cars, which are less than six years old. The cars were built by Hyundai, which had never built railcars for an American transit line before, and make up 30 percent of Philadelphia’s commuter-rail fleet.


Wikimedia Commons photo by John Corbett.

Last Friday, a SEPTA worker noticed one of the cars was leaning to one side. A close look revealed a 10-inch crack in one of the car’s wheel sets. Further inspection discovered similar cracks in 95 percent of the cars made by Hyundai. These have all been taken out of service, and the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) has urged commuters to find another mode of travel for the foreseeable future.

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Traffic Fatalities Up Nearly 8 Percent in 2015

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that 35,200 people died in motor vehicle accidents in 2015, a 7.7 percent increase from 2014. This increase is a result of a combination of a 3.5 percent increase in vehicle miles of travel plus a 4.1 percent increase in fatalities per billion miles traveled.

The 32,500 number is a “statistical projection,” not an exact count, which won’t be available until this fall. NHTSA’s previous statistical projections have been fairly accurate; the estimate for 2014 turned out to match the final number exactly, while the average for the previous six years was off by only 26. The worst was in 2012, when the projection was 298 too high.

According to NHTSA’s estimate, fatalities increased the most in the Northwest (Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington), with a 20 percent gain. Fatalities declined 1 percent in the South Central region (Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas), while they grew from 4 to 10 percent in the rest of the country.

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First Self-Driving Car Fatality

Tesla announced yesterday that one of its self-driving cars was involved in an accident in May that killed the occupant, who was in the driver’s seat but letting the car drive itself at the time. The car was on a Florida expressway and, instead of stopping when a large tractor trailer crossed its path, attempted to drive under the trailer. The low height of the trailer sheared off the top of the car.

Last March, Duke University roboticist Missy Cummings testified before Congress that auto companies were “rushing to market” before self-driving cars are ready, and “someone is going to die.” She didn’t mention Tesla by name, but since that is the only car company that has produced a car capable of not just avoiding collisions but passing other cars, she must have had it in mind.

The person who was killed in the Tesla crash, Joshua Brown, had posted two dozen videos on Youtube showing how his self-driving Tesla responded in various situations. One of them received 1.7 million views for showing a near collision that the car avoided when a truck pulled into the car’s lane.

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Ignorance and Bias About Self-Driving Cars

The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has issued a policy statement regarding self-driving cars that betrays ignorance about the technology and bias against cars in general. This summary boils down the policy statement to five recommendations, a few of which make sense but most of which do not.

First, NACTO wants to forbid the use of partially automated vehicles on city streets, allowing them only on limited access highways. “Such vehicles have been shown to encourage unsafe driving behavior, with drivers reading more, texting more, and generally being inattentive while the vehicle is in motion.” Maybe so, but the real question is: do partially automated vehicles increase safety even if drivers are less attentive? Since partial automation measures (such as adaptive cruise control, lane keeping, and collision avoidance) are aimed mainly at increasing safety, banning them without considering the safety implications is being deliberately ignorant.

Second, they advise cities to “rethink. . . currently planned expressway expansions” that could become “white elephants” when self-driving cars effectively increase road capacities. The Antiplanner has actually offered the same advice, suggesting that new highways be built only where populations are growing rapidly. But the Antiplanner urges that the same advice be applied to transit projects, which are far more likely to become white elephants than highways, yet the city officials remain mum on this subject.

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Columbus Wins $90 Million Burden

Columbus, Ohio won the competition for a $40 million “smart transportation” grant from the federal government (plus $10 million from Paul Allen). The city must match this with $90 million in local funds, so it is questionable who is the real winner: Columbus or the cities that applied but didn’t win.

Columbus’ application is somewhat vague. The specific things it proposes hardly seem worth $140 million, and many of them could be done by the private sector without any government prompting.

For example, the city proposes to create an app that would allow truck drivers to find the most congestion-free way to reach their destinations and another app to help tourists reach sporting events and other popular destinations. Don’t we already have such apps in Google maps? And if not, isn’t it likely that private developers can or will make such apps without huge government incentives?

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Honolulu Rail More Boondoggly Than Ever

The Federal Transit Administration’s latest estimates suggest that the Honolulu rail line now under construction could cost nearly $10.8 billion, or more than twice the $5.1 billion originally promised. That’s the “highest possible cost” calculated by its estimation process, while the “likely range” is $7.2 to $8.0 billion. However, two years ago, the highest possible cost was estimated to be $7.6 billion, which is right in the middle of today’s likely range.

Any of those numbers are drastic overruns. Typically, transit agency officials have denied there is an overrun. But now they are proposing to not build the last five miles of the rail line into downtown Honolulu. Since they started construction in middle of farm lands 20 miles from downtown, they would truly have a rail line going from nowhere to hardly anywhere.

Even if it doesn’t finish the line, the city has already purchased and may continue to purchase land in the downtown area for the rail line. This creates uncertainty among property owners. Even further uncertainty is generated by reports of shoddy construction. Meanwhile, the FTA has hinted it might withhold some of the federal government’s share of funding if the line isn’t completed.

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