Category Archives: Transportation

Slower Than Molasses in a Minnesota Winter

Remember the Twin Cities light-rail line that was supposed to average 17 mph but, after testing, was scheduled for just 13-3/4 mph? It turns out that, in actual operation, it averages less than 12.5 mph. That means it takes 53 minutes to go from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul, 36 percent longer than the 39 minutes originally promised and more than twice as long as the 26 minutes required by a bus.


A green line train near the University of Minnesota. Flickr photo by Michael Hicks.

What’s slowing the trains down? Traffic signals. Apparently, the city of St. Paul is reluctant to give the trains signal priority over all other traffic. “It is hard to rationalize a train with 300 people stopping at an intersection with no cross traffic,” says Metro Transit’s general manager. But it is also hard to rationalize giving the few people who ride the train priority over the thousands of people who use other modes of travel.

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Portland or Portlandia?

As most Antiplanner readers know, Portlandia is a television comedy dedicated to making fun of the weird things that happen in Portland. The only problem is that (as actress Carrie Brownstone noted), “no matter how far out on a limb we went, we always ran into that person [in Portland] within two days.”

Such is the recent plan to rely on bicycles to rescue the city in the event of an earthquake or other natural disaster. “One of the bright, shining spots for Portland in a disaster like an earthquake is that we’re still going to get around,” a Portland disaster specialist told the Oregonian. “When roads are broken, when fuel supplies are cut, those kinds of things, you can bet that our city will still get around.”

On one hand, even the biggest cargo bikes will not be able to move the fire and rescue equipment needed to truly handle a natural disaster. On the other hand, even the worst earthquakes in modern times in the U.S. did not seriously impede the ability of motor vehicles to participate in rescue and recovery.

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Planning for the Unpredictable

How do you plan for the unpredictable? That’s the question facing the more than 400 metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that have been tasked by Congress to write 20-year transportation plans for their regions. Self-driving cars will be on the market in the next ten years, are likely to become a dominant form of travel in twenty years, and most people think they will have huge but often unknowable transformative effects on our cities and urban areas. Yet not a single regional transportation plan has tried to account for, and few have even mentioned the possibility of, self-driving cars.

Instead, many of those plans propose obsolete technologies such as streetcars, light rail, and subways. These technologies made sense when they were invented a hundred or so years ago, but today they are just a waste of money. One reason why planners look to the past for solutions is that they can’t accurately foresee the future. So they pretend that, by building ancient modes of transportation, they will have the same effects on cities that they had when they were first introduced.

If the future is unpredictabie, self-driving cars make it doubly or quadruply so.

  • How long will it take before self-driving cars dominate the roads?
  • Will people who own self-driving cars change their residential locations because they won’t mind traveling twice as far to work?
  • Will employment centers move so they can take advantage of self-driving trucks and increased employee mobility?
  • Will car sharing reduce the demand for parking?
  • Will carpooling reduce VMT or will the increased number of people who can “drive” self-driving cars increase VMT?
  • Will people use their cars as “robotic assistants,” going out with zero occupants to pick up groceries, drop off laundry, or doing other tasks that don’t require lots of supervision?
  • Will self-driving cars reduce the need for more roads because they increase road capacities, or will the increase in driving offset this benefit?
  • Will self-driving cars provide the mythical “first and last miles” needed by transit riders, or will they completely replace urban transit?

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Wait Six Years to Buy Your Next Car

You’ll be able to buy a car that can drive itself under most conditions, with an option for override by a human driver, in 2020, according to the median estimate in a survey of 217 attendees of the 2014 Automated Vehicles Symposium. By 2030, the group estimated, you’ll be able to buy a car that is so fully automated it won’t even have the option for a human driver.


A demonstrator car with two Lidar laser sensors hanging on the front bumper, five radar sensors hiding behind the fenders, and two optical sensors with 360-degree fields of view on the roof. Click image for a larger view.

Though 2020 is just six years away, there remains a lot of debate over how the industry is going to get there. Most auto manufacturers are incrementalists, adding automated features such as adaptive cruise control, self-parking, and traffic-jam assist, two or three at a time. Google and some others in Silicon Valley, however, are more interested in producing highly or even fully automated cars as soon as possible.

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Autonomous Cars Yes, V2I No!

Yesterday, President Obama gave a speech in Virginia calling for mandatory installation of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications in all cars. By coincidence, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) is holding its annual symposium on autonomous (that is, driverless) cars in California.

V2V allows vehicles to communicate with one another to allow them to avoid accidents, while V2I allows highway infrastructure (such as traffic signals) to communicate directly with motor vehicles. While Obama touts the safety benefits of these technologies, there are at least four reasons why they should not be mandatory.

First, V2V and V2I communications pose serious security risks for travelers and cities. With V2V communications, an automobile that suffers a fender-bender would communicate to all nearby vehicles that they ought to take a different route to avoid congestion.

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San Antonio Petition May Stop Streetcar

San Antonio streetcar opponents submitted a petition today to allow voters to decide whether the region’s transit agency, VIA, should spend $280 million on a 5.9-mile streetcar. They needed about 20,000 signatures, and submitted well over 26,000 of which they personally pre-verified nearly 24,000.

SApetition
Streetcar skeptics hold a press conference on the steps of San Antonio’s city hall as they present signatures for a ballot measure requiring that voters approve any streetcars built in city streets or rights of way. Photo by Michael Dennis.

Unfortunately, this petition still has several hurdles to leap. First, the city is claiming that signature gatherers didn’t follow proper procedures; the petitioners claim they did, and that the procedures the city wants them to follow only apply to recall petitions. Second, even if the measure makes it to the ballot and is approved by voters, VIA argues that it won’t be bound by the results.

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Bus Shelters for the Poor, Trains for the Rich

Low-income residents of the Twin Cities can rest easy, as planners at the Metropolitan Council, the area’s regional planning agency, are proposing a regional transit equity plan. According to the Metropolitan Council’s press release, this equity plan consists of:

  1. Building 75 bus shelters and rebuilding 75 existing shelters “in areas of racially concentrated poverty”; and
  2. “Strengthen[ing] the transit service framework serving racially concentrated areas of poverty” by building bus-rapid transit and light-rail lines to the region’s wealthy suburbs.


The blue line, the yellow line to St. Cloud, and the green line between the Minneapolis interchange and St. Paul Union Depot are open; the next priority is the green line from the interchange and Eden Prairie.

Bus shelters for the poor, light rail for the rich: that sounds equitable! Of course, the poor will be allowed to ride those light-rail trains (for example, if they travel to the suburbs to work as servants), just as the well-to-do will be allowed to use the bus shelters. But for the most part, the light rail is for the middle class.

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Is MagLev a Game Changer?

Much like the proposed Florida passenger trains that can be run without government subsidies (but can we have some anyway?), train supporters are gushing over Japan’s tentative decision to build a magnetically levitated (maglev) line from Tokyo to Osaka. Japan apparently sees this as a way to revitalize its economy, especially if it can sell the trains to the United States and other countries.


Maglev train being tested in Japan. Wikimedia commons photo by Yosemite.

The Antiplanner has maintained that transportation improvements are economic game changers only if they make travel faster, cheaper, and/or more convenient. Maglev meets only one of those criteria: at projected speeds of a little more than 300 mph, maglev would be at least 50 percent faster than existing high-speed trains and possibly even faster than flying over short distances. Flights from Tokyo to Osaka, the route of the proposed maglev, take about 80 minutes, and the maglev promises to reduce times to little more than an hour.

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Uncompetitive Transit

A web site called You Are Here has put together an intriguing series of maps showing the best mode of transportation from any point in various cites to any other part of those cities. So far, the maps cover Manhattan, Brooklyn, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Portland, Salt Lake City, Cambridge, Boulder, and Santa Monica.


Click image to go to the “Best Mode” Portland map.

Select any of the above cities (or click here to see if more cities have been added), wait for the map to load, then click anywhere on the map. Instantly, the map is color coded to show the fastest mode of transportation from the point you selected to anywhere else in the city. Modes include walking, cycling, public transit, and driving.

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