Opinion

Felix Salmon

How roads could beat rail

Felix Salmon
Jan 24, 2013 17:24 UTC

The best conference panels, like the best blog posts, are the ones which change your mind. And while I haven’t done a U-turn on anything, after yesterday’s panel on smart cars I’m now thinking very differently about the relative merits of various ways of improving how we move around where we live and travel. While I’ve generally been a fan of just about any alternative to the automobile, now I’m not so sure: I think that smart car technology is improving impressively, to the point at which it could be the most promising solution, especially in developed parts of the world like California.

One reason is simply fiscal. Projects like the self-driving car, and the Sartre platooning project in Europe, move the costs of new technology onto companies (Google) and individuals (people buying smart cars). As such, while the total amount of money spent might well be enormous, the money doesn’t need to be spent up-front by any state or national government. That stands in stark contrast, of course, to rail projects, which cost billions of dollars up front; if they ever do pay for themselves, they do so only very slowly.

It makes perfect sense for dense urban areas to invest in subway systems, of course — as China is doing; India should follow suit. A pedestrian-friendly city with a great bike-path network and a fast subway system is basically any urbanist’s dream, both energy-efficient and reasonably low-tech. But between cities and suburbs, or between cities, you need other ways of getting around. And here there are real choices to be made, between rail and roads. Or rather, given that roads are necessary, do you build roads and railways, or can you solve all your problems with roads alone?

China of course is happily blasting new railways through the country as part of its massive national-infrastructure project. But the more developed a country becomes, the more expensive and time-consuming any new rail line will be. And if you’re looking out say 20 years, there’s a pretty strong case to be made that the kind of efficiency that we can get today only on rail lines will in future be available on roads as well — with significantly greater comfort and convenience for passengers.

Right now, technology is arguably making roads and cars more dangerous. Drivers are notoriously bad judges of their own driving ability, and they’re increasingly being distracted by devices — not just text messages, any more, but fully-fledged emails, social-media alerts, and even videos. What’s more, when car manufacturers roll out things like stay-in-lane technology, that just makes drivers feel even safer, so they feel as though they have some kind of permission to spend even more time on their phones, and less time paying attention to the highway. The results can be disastrous.

But once we make it all the way into a platoon, or in a self-driving car, then at that point we become significantly safer than even the safest human driver. While we’re very bad judges of our own driving ability, we’re actually incredibly good at intuiting how safe our driver is when we’re a passenger. And the experience of people in self-driving cars is that after no more than about 10 minutes, they relax, feel very safe, and are very happy letting the car take them where they want to go. They even relax so much, I’m told, that they lose the desire to speed — maybe because they know that they’re getting where they’re going, and in the meantime can lose themselves in their phones.

If and when self-driving cars really start taking off, it’s easy to see where the road leads. Firstly, they probably won’t be operated on the owner-occupier model that we use for cars today, where we have to leave our cars parked for 97% of their lives just so that we know they’re going to be available for us when we need them. Given driverless cars’ ability to come pick you up whenever you need one, it makes much more sense to just join a network of such things, giving you the same ability to drive your car when you’re at home, or in a far-flung city, or whenever you might normally take a taxi. And the consequence of that is much less need for parking (right now there are more than three parking spots for every car), and therefore the freeing up of lots of space currently given over to parking spots.

What’s more, the capacity of all that freed-up space will be much greater than the capacity of our current roads. Put enough platoons and self-driving cars onto the road, and it’s entirely conceivable that the number of vehicle-miles driven per hour, on any given stretch of road, could double from its current level, even without any increase in the speed limit. Then, take account of the fact that vehicle mileage will continue to improve. The result is that with existing dumb roads, we could wind up moving more people more miles for less total energy expenditure in cars — even when most of those cars continue to have just one person in them — than by forcing those people to cluster together and take huge, heavy trains instead.

This vision creates a dilemma, when we start facing choices about building rail lines or new suburbs. We’re not in a self-driving-car utopia yet, and the transportation problems we have are both real and solvable using rail. So do we use the tools we have, or do we wait and hope that future technology will solve our problems in a more efficient way?

And the question of building infrastructure applies to cars, too: do we just allow the auto industry to build ever more efficient gas-powered vehicles, which will eventually become self-driving, or do we spend billions of dollars building out an infrastructure capable of supporting and recharging electric cars wanting to travel substantial distances? Again, whatever solutions we put in now could end up being obsolete surprisingly quickly.

So while I’m convinced that now is an excellent time for the US to embark on a substantial round of infrastructure investment, I’m less convinced that we should be investing in rail in particular. A smart electricity grid, definitely. Improvements on existing bridges and tunnels, absolutely, including that new tunnel to New Jersey. But I’m less convinced about things like a high-speed rail link between San Francisco and LA. Especially so long as there aren’t any self-driving cars to pick up passengers when they arrive.

COMMENT

Mr. Salmon,

At the beginning of your essay, you said that “the best blog posts…are the ones which change your mind.”

Based upon that criterion, this piece is an abject failure.

To put it another way: if your view of our collective transport future, replete with its burgeoning suburbs, is accurate, I hope I’m dead before it arrives.

Sincerely,
Garl B. Latham

Posted by gblatham | Report as abusive

The problems with measuring traffic congestion

Felix Salmon
Oct 17, 2012 18:25 UTC

Back in July, I gave a cautious welcome to TomTom’s congestion indices. The amount of congestion in any given city at any given time does have a certain randomness to it, but more data, and more public data, is always a good thing.

Or so I thought. I never did end up having the conversation with TomTom that I expected back in July, but I did finally speak to TomTom’s Nick Cohn last week, after they released their data for the second quarter of 2012.

In the first quarter, Edmonton saw a surprisingly large drop in congestion; in the second quarter it was New York which saw a surprisingly large rise in congestion. During the evening peak, the New York congestion index was 41% in the first quarter; that rose to 54% in the second quarter, helping the overall New York index rise from 17% to 25%. (The percentages are meant to give an indication of how much longer a journey will take, compared to the same journey in free-flowing traffic.) As a result, New York is now in 8th place on the league table of the most congested North American cities; it was only in 15th place last quarter, out of 26 cities overall.

So what’s going on here? A congestion index like this one serves two purposes. The first is to compare a city to itself, over time: is congestion getting better, or is it getting worse? The second is to compare cities to each other: is congestion worse in Washington than it is in Boston?

And it turns out that this congestion index, at least, is pretty useless on both fronts. First of all there are measurement issues, of course. Cohn explained that when putting together the index, TomTom only looks at road segments where they have a large sample size of traffic speeds — big enough to give “statistically sound results”. And later on a spokeswoman explained that TomTom’s speed measurements turn out to validate quite nicely with other speed measures, from things like induction loop systems.

But measuring speed on individual road segments is only the first step in measuring congestion. The next step is weighting the different road segments, giving most weight to the most-travelled bits of road. And that’s where TomTom data is much less reliable. After all, on any given stretch of road, cars generally travel at pretty much the same speed. You can take a relatively small sample of all cars, and get a very accurate number for what speeds are in that place. But if you want to work out where a city’s drivers drive the most and drive the least, then you need a much larger and much more representative sample.

And this is where TomTom faces its first problem: its sample is far from representative. Most of it comes from people who have installed TomTom navigation devices in their cars, and there’s no reason to believe those people drive in the same way that a city’s drivers as a whole do. Worse, most of the time TomTom only gets data when the devices are turned on and being used. Which means that if you have a standard school run, say, and occasionally have to make a long journey to the other side of town, then there’s a good chance that TomTom will ignore all your school runs and think that most of your driving is those long journeys. (TomTom is trying to encourage people to have their devices on all the time they drive, but I don’t think it’s had much success on that front.)

In general, TomTom is always going to get data weighted heavily towards people who don’t know where they’re going — out-of-towners, or drivers headed to unfamiliar destinations. That’s in stark contrast to the majority of city traffic, which is people who know exactly where they’re going, and what the best ways of getting there are. There might in theory be better routes for those people, and TomTom might even be able to identify those routes. But for the time being, I don’t think we can really trust TomTom to know where a city as a whole is driving the most.

I asked Cohn about the kind of large intra-city moves that we’ve seen in cities like Edmonton and New York. Did they reflect genuine changes in congestion, I asked, or were they just the natural variation that one sees in many datasets? Specifically, when TomTom comes out with a specific-sounding number like 25% for New York’s congestion rate, how accurate is that number? What are the error bars on it?

Cohn promised me that he’d get back to me on that, and today I got an email, saying that “unfortunately, we cannot provide you with a specific number”:

The Congestion Index is calculated at the road segment level, using the TomTom GPS speed measurements available for each road segment within each given time frame. As the sample size varies by road segment, time period and geography, it would be impossible to calculate overarching confidence levels for the Congestion Index as a whole.

It seems to me that if you don’t know what your confidence levels are, your index is pretty much useless. All of the cities on the list are in a pretty narrow range: the worst congestion is in Los Angeles, on 34%, while the least is in Phoenix, on 12%. If the error bars on those numbers were, say, plus-or-minus 10 percentage points, then the whole list becomes largely meaningless.

And trying to compare congestion between cities is even more pointless than trying to measure changes in congestion within a single city, over time. As JCortright noted in my comments in July, measuring congestion on a percentage basis tends to make smaller, denser cities seem worse than they actually are. If you have a 45-minute commute in Atlanta, for instance, as measured on a congestion-free basis, and you’re stuck in traffic for an extra half an hour, then that’s 67% congestion. Whereas if you’re stuck in traffic for 15 minutes on a drive that would take you 15 minutes without traffic, that’s 100% congestion.

Cohn told me that TomTom has no measure of average trip length, so he can’t adjust for that effect. And even he admitted that “comparing Istanbul to Stuttgart is a little strange”, even though that’s exactly what TomTom does, in its European league table. (Istanbul, apparently, has congestion of 57%, with an evening peak of 125%, while Stuttgart has congestion of 33%, with an evening peak of 70%.)

All of which says to me that the whole idea of congestion charging has a very big problem at its core. There’s no point in implementing a congestion charge unless you think it’s going to do some good — unless, that is, you think that it’s going to decrease congestion. But measuring congestion turns out to be incredibly difficult — and it’s far from clear that anybody can actually do it in a way that random natural fluctuations and errors won’t dwarf the real-world effects of a charge.

When London increases its congestion charge, then, or when New York pedestrianizes Broadway in Times Square, or when any city does anything with the stated aim of helping traffic flow, don’t be disappointed if the city can’t come out and say with specificity whether the plan worked or not. Congestion is a tough animal to pin down and measure, and while it’s possible to be reasonably accurate if you’re just looking at a single intersection or stretch of road, it’s basically impossible to be accurate — or even particularly useful — if you’re looking at a city as a whole.

COMMENT

Auros is right. Between counting cars going past specific points, and accurate point-to-point times, you can make some pretty good estimates of congestion, even if you don’t know the distribution of cars along each route.

Posted by AngryInCali | Report as abusive

Traffic congestion datapoints of the day

Felix Salmon
Jul 10, 2012 16:12 UTC

TomTom has released its first congestion indices today, comparing 31 cities in Europe and 26 cities in the US and Canada. (They call that North America, which is a bit disappointing, because I’d dearly love to see how Mexico City compares to other North American cities, and it’s not on the list.) The rankings are interesting, but even more interesting, to me, are the way that the rankings have changed over the past year.

Consider Edmonton, for instance: a town in the midst of a massive oil boom, where road construction can’t even begin to keep up with population growth. That was obvious back in September 2009, in the city’s transportation master plan:

As Edmonton evolves from a mid-size prairie city to a large metropolitan area, it is inevitable that congestion levels will increase, particularly during peak periods. Physical, financial and community constraints in many areas make it unfeasible or even undesirable to build or expand roads to alleviate congestion.

TomTom doesn’t give data as far back as 2009, but at least we can see what direction the city is moving in. Last year, Edmonton had a congestion index of 24%, which means that on average, travel times were 24% longer than they would take if traffic were flowing freely. That meant Edmonton was the 8th most congested city on TomTom’s list. This year, the Edmonton congestion index has plunged to just 13%, placing Edmonton 23rd out of the 26 cities, with an enormous decrease particularly during the evening rush hour:

edmonton.tiff

I have no idea why traffic in Edmonton has improved so much over the past year; certainly I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if it had gotten worse rather than better. But the point here is that there’s an important stochastic element to congestion. Consider New York: in 2008, Mike Bloomberg proposed a congestion charge, which passed muster with city legislators but which was ultimately killed in Albany. Again, we don’t have data for what congestion was like in 2008. But between 2011 and 2012, congestion rates in New York overall fell from 23% to just 17%: a very impressive improvement. And today, New York is only the 15th most congested city on the list — behind metropolitan areas like Tampa, Ottawa, and San Diego.

What’s happened in New York to cause the drop in congestion? You can’t say higher gas prices, since those are a nationwide phenomenon, and don’t explain the drop in relative congestion. Plus, congestion in North America overall has stayed stable at 20% even as gas prices have risen. So if it’s not gas prices, what is it? Could it be all those bike lanes? Could it be that John Cassidy needs to eat some crow, and admit that bike lanes reduce congestion, rather than increasing it?

Perhaps: the jury’s still out. And maybe what we’re seeing here is more a function of random variation, and less a function of anything under the control of New York’s Department of Transportation.

What this report does tell me is that it’s going to be very difficult indeed to judge how effective any congestion-charging system is, just by looking at what happens to congestion after such a charge is introduced. I’m sure that if Edmonton had introduced a congestion charge at the beginning of 2011, the city would have claimed a huge amount of credit for the drop in congestion that resulted. But in fact, as we’ve seen, that drop in congestion would have happened anyway.

I’m planning to talk to the people at TomTom next week, and I’ll ask them whether they have any bright ideas when it comes to separating out causative factors for changes in congestion. In the meantime, we now at least have reasonably reliable league tables for the least pleasant cities to drive in. In North America, you want to avoid Los Angeles and Vancouver; in Europe, you want to avoid pretty much every major city. (Stockholm and London, with congestion charges, both have 27% congestion rates, putting them on a par with the very worst US cities.) But especially avoid driving in Warsaw, Rome, and Brussels. They’re even worse than LA.

Update: JCortright, in the comments, makes the excellent point that these numbers are much better at showing congestion changes within a city than they are at comparing congestion between cities. If you have a 45-minute commute in Atlanta, for instance, as measured on a congestion-free basis, and you’re stuck in traffic for an extra half an hour, then that’s 67% congestion. Whereas if you’re stuck in traffic for 15 minutes on a drive that would take you 15 minutes without traffic, that’s 100% congestion. So this methodology makes denser, smaller cities (like Europe’s) look worse.

COMMENT

I live in London. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: scooters are the way to go. More practical for longer distances, and with filtering, excellent in cities. I effectively don’t experience any congestion at all in London. You have to live quite a long ways out, and positioned right beside stations on either end of your trip, for any rail-based public transport to be remotely competitive. Trips that take an hour+ owing to bus to and from tube station at one end normally take less than 30 minutes, and the primary thing slowing you down is red lights.

@JustinCormack: I can’t speak for Copenhagen, but central Amsterdam is very small and doesn’t really accommodate cars at all. Probably the traffic flow is structurally different – if you draw straight lines between start and finish, I’d bet fewer would cross in Amsterdam.

Posted by BarryKelly | Report as abusive

The case of the $400 million bike lane

Felix Salmon
Mar 26, 2012 07:24 UTC

Everybody’s favorite transportation geek, Charles Komanoff, has a fascinating new paper out on the economics of New York’s new Tappan Zee Bridge. The old bridge is decrepit, and needs to be replaced — everybody agrees on that. And the replacement is now in the works, at a cost of $5.2 billion. But does it need to cost that much? Komanoff makes a strong case that it doesn’t.

I won’t try to summarize Komanoff’s paper here. Instead, I’ll just point to one fact which is buried there. The new bridge comes with a combined bike/pedestrian lane, 12 feet wide. And the cost of building that lane — the amount that the cost of the bridge would decrease if you simply built it without that lane — is an astonishing $400 million.

To put that number in perspective, Komanoff tells me it would cost roughly $40 million, in the same 2015 dollars, to build two bike/pedestrian lanes on the Verrazano Narrows bridge — lanes which would get vastly more traffic than the one lane on the new Tappan Zee.

As for the cost of the first three years of New York City’s ambitious bike program under transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, that was just $8.8 million, 80% of which was paid by the federal government.

In other words, for the $400 million which governor Andrew Cuomo is planning to spend on a white-elephant bike lane almost nobody is going to use, you could utterly transform the bicycling infrastructure for millions of New Yorkers in all five boroughs.

Oh, and I almost forgot — it looks as if the old Tappan Zee bridge is going to be converted into a bike/pedestrian walkway anyway, making such a facility on the new bridge even more superfluous.

But this is how big projects always work: it’s weirdly easier to raise billions for something huge than it is to add millions to an annual budget somewhere. “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, for instance, in his clever new congestion-pricing plan, is proposing three new massive bike/pedestrian bridges: one from Jersey City and Hoboken, in New Jersey, would span the Hudson River and land just north of Chelsea Piers. A second would go from Long Island City and Hunter’s Point, in Queens, and would cross the East River to midtown Manhattan. And the third, and most ambitious, would start in Red Hook, in Brooklyn, head over to Governor’s Island, and then continue on to the Financial District.

These are utterly wonderful ideas. If beautiful new pedestrian bridges can be built by Santiago Calatrava in Venice or by Norman Foster in London, there’s no reason New York can’t follow suit. Still, it’s a bit depressing that we don’t seem to have the mechanisms to take the billions available for vanity projects, and use some small fraction of that money for things which would make a huge difference to the daily lives of millions of New Yorkers.

This phenomenon isn’t confined to government, of course: anybody working in a big corporation has seen some huge acquisition made, using money which was never available for smaller projects from existing teams which had much clearer benefits. And there are hundreds of museums around the world which never have money for important things like conservation, but which somehow manage to find enormous sums for glossy new starchitectural projects. Basically, people want to be able to see where their money is going, in the form of something large and grand and headline-grabbing. Even if there are much more sensible uses for it elsewhere.

COMMENT

What the lane looks like is only half the story?

Whether car drivers drive like steroid-charged idiots,
and whether bikers cycle like methamphetamine-charged teenagers and terrorize pedestrians — those are common realities why responsible cyclists avoid certain streets in cities.

I know a bike lane which abruptly ends half a block before a busy intersection, and where the pedestrian sidewalks narrow to half its size. The result: cyclists go up the sidewalk and literally terrorize pedestrians,
and the police turn a blind eye. As a result, some residents of that block have to resort to driving, instead of walking, even for just a few short blocks, to avoid getting run over by bikes! Now tell me, does that save gasoline, or the environment. Worse, how many more anxiety stricken residents have to talk to their doctors for medications or lack of exercise because they don’t feel safe enough to walk to the park!

Posted by Janeallen | Report as abusive

Market failure of the day, Connecticut commuter department

Felix Salmon
Oct 25, 2011 04:40 UTC

Shelly Banjo’s article about the multi-year waiting lists for parking spots at Connecticut train stations is going somewhat viral, for good reason:

The waiting list for a Fairfield Parking Authority permit has 4,200 people and stretches past six years…

“It’s like season tickets to the Giants—even when you’re dead they get passed down to your children,” said Jim Cameron, head of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council…

Connecticut’s parking crunch is, in large part, a problem of supply and demand: More than 60,000 commuters head toward Manhattan on Metro-North’s New Haven train line on weekdays, but transportation officials say stations have public parking for nearly 20,000…

John Eck, a former television executive from Fairfield, kept his permit after he left his job last spring—”just in case” he needed to start commuting again.

“You hear horror stories of people missing the renewal deadline and losing the permit in other towns,” Mr. Eck said. “I wouldn’t give it up for anything.”

Eugene Colonese, the transportation department’s rail administrator, said the task force “came to a certain point and well, stopped its work for a little while.”

He said the department is still “looking for the best way to get commuters to stations, a balance we think will be between building more transit-oriented development, looking at shuttles and other public transportation, as well as parking improvements.”

The parking lot at Fairfield train station is big enough for 1,053 cars; the station sees 2,942 people, on average, ride in to NYC, and the waiting list now has 4,278 names on it. These are all big numbers. The price for a spot, however, is low: just $340 per year. Obviously, that’s well below market, and causing all manner of problems. But there’s another number that’s lower still:

We recently spoke to Director of the Fairfield Parking Authority, Cynthia Placko…

Placko told us there isn’t room for many more than the 24 bike lockers that are already there, and those are totally filled.

My guess is that it really isn’t all that hard to take the space given over to 1,053 parking spots and use it effectively to house transportation for 2,942 people. Unless, that is, those people are all taking up the space of some enormous SUV.

In a place like Fairfield, it’s hard to raise the price of parking so much that you start to incentivize car-sharing directly. So here’s my proposal: rip out a bunch of car spaces, and replace them with covered, secure parking for bicycles and scooters. Maybe motorbikes, too. Surely that’s an obviously better way of getting commuters to stations than giving them each a couple of hundred square feet of massively underpriced prime Connecticut real estate, and then acting shocked when they flock to the opportunity.

Update: Fairfield could even buy back parking slots for more than they were sold for, and convert them to two-wheeled parking. Continue to do that until there’s one empty two-wheeled parking space. And then auction off the rest to the highest bidders.

COMMENT

A parking garage is about $4M to build. That’s only $1k per person in the queue.

Posted by mattmc | Report as abusive

New Jersey’s stupid parking-privatization plan

Felix Salmon
Dec 13, 2010 01:48 UTC

In cases like that of the Chicago parking meters, I have a certain amount of sympathy for the privatization argument. But New Jersey Transit parking spaces aren’t Chicago parking meters, and so I’m entirely in agreement with Yonah Freemark that privatizing NJ Transit’s parking lots is a very bad idea.

Frankly, all you need to know about the plan in order to hate it is its name — it’s called the System Parking Amenity and Capacity Enhancement Strategy. But there are three more substantive reasons to dislike it.

Firstly, press coverage of the scheme has revealed nothing about the state’s willingness to cap or guide the amount charged for parking in these lots. Indeed, the official RFQ states that “it is currently contemplated that this transaction will include an opportunity to adjust parking rates in accordance with market demand” — and the stated aim of the privatization is to raise as much money as possible. As a result, the successful bidder is likely to give themselves a lot of freedom to hike parking rates in the future.

The problem is that right now no one knows what the revenue-maximizing market rates might be. If New Jersey thinks that a revenue-maximizing strategy is the way to go, it should try to implement such a strategy itself first, just to get an idea of how much revenue it could generate that way. Otherwise, there’s a serious risk that it will sell of the lots for a fraction of their actual worth.

Secondly, the plan comes on the heels of the price of rail tickets being hiked by 25% in May. If the cost of traveling by train and the price of parking at train stations both rise substantially, it’s pretty obvious what’s going to happen to the number of people taking mass transit as opposed to simply driving to their final destination. While the headline revenues from the privatization contract might look attractive, no one seems to be thinking about the hidden costs to both the state and its citizens in terms of extra congestion.

New Jersey Future’s Jay Corbalis makes this point another way, saying that privatizing NJ Transit’s parking lots only makes sense in the context of broader congestion pricing, where the cost of the driving-only alternative rises commensurately:

“By privatizing parking facilities, this proposal will have the effect of further raising costs for many NJ Transit riders,” Corbalis said. “If New Jersey wants to move toward a user fee-based system to pay for transportation, it should apply the same approach to roads and bridges as it does for mass transit.”

Finally, there’s the likelihood that the best and highest value for all that land currently being given over to parking spaces is probably not parking at all. Instead, it’s new residential and commercial development, centered on the transit services already there. (See San Francisco for an example of this in work.) The term of art for this is transit-oriented development, or TOD, and the RFQ is well aware of it:

Many of NJ TRANSIT’s parking facilities are key properties that have the potential for TOD and certain Concession Assets are currently under active consideration for TOD. Consequently, Prospective Proposers are advised that NJ TRANSIT is strongly interested in ensuring that TOD opportunities are not negatively impacted by the award of this Concession. To that end, Prospective Proposers will be encouraged in the RFP stage to submit TOD proposals as an option in their responses…

The selection of a Concessionaire will be based entirely on the proposals for the Concession Assets submitted pursuant to the RFP; however if the selected Concessionaire has submitted a TOD proposal that is deemed advantageous to NJ TRANSIT, NJ TRANSIT may, but shall not be obligated to, negotiate an independent and exclusive development agreement with the Concessionaire.

If NJ Transit will pick the winning bidder entirely on the basis of what they want to do in terms of parking, then it’s almost certainly not going to pick someone who’s ideally qualified to build new development on those parking spaces. More to the point, if NJ Transit does not negotiate an independent development agreement with the concessionaire, then the chances are that the land will simply remain a parking lot for decades to come, since the concessionaire at that point has the right and indeed the obligation to continue to run that land in exactly that manner. While it’s possible that NJ Transit might be able to team up with a third-party developer to buy out the concessionaire’s parking rights, that’s a very expensive and complicated way of doing things.

Writes Stephen Smith:

Rather than taking on entrenched suburban interests, we’re just adding another layer of government dependents, this time of the monied corporate variety (bidders include KKR, Morgan Stanley, Carlyle, and JP Morgan). The land on which transit parking lots sit is uniquely positioned to be converted into dense development, and the only thing worse than sitting on the land would be for the agencies to sign away their rights to change that within the foreseeable future.

None of this is particularly surprising, coming from the government of tunnel-killer Chris Christie. But it’s very depressing, all the same.

COMMENT

can someone tell me how to get the little avatars to appear in my comments section? thanks!

Posted by register124 | Report as abusive

The congestion pricing debate

Felix Salmon
Jun 2, 2010 22:26 UTC

I recorded a lively sit-down discussion today with Charles Komanoff, the subject of my Wired article; Reihan Salam; Skymeter CEO Kamal Hassan; and Corey Bearak of Keep NYC Free. We were safely ensconced in Reuters’s fourth-floor studio overlooking the traffic of Times Square, and the full talk should be available on Friday. But here’s a couple of teasers, courtesy of Hassan: firstly, might it be possible to implement a de facto congestion-pricing scheme using only parking fees, with no fees for driving? Is that the way Chicago is headed? And secondly, did you know that after London implemented its Congestion Charge, subway ridership went down, rather than up?

Here’s a video promo for the debate:

COMMENT

Certainly the buses seem to be fuller (and are definitely more frequent) than they used to be pre-charge, but then I’ve moved several times since then so it could just be the different routes.

Posted by GingerYellow | Report as abusive

Tolling the Cross Bronx Expressway

Felix Salmon
Apr 5, 2010 15:01 UTC

Those who live close to it won’t be surprised to hear that the Cross Bronx Expressway is officially the most congested road in the US. It has an astonishing ability to instil deep-seated passions in drivers:

The Cross Bronx carries 184,000 cars a day, according to the State Department of Transportation, and Mrs. Moore’s intersection is congested 94 hours a week, with cars traveling at an average speed of 11.4 miles per hour at those times, according to Inrix.

Long portions of the expressway have no shoulder, so even minor accidents can snarl traffic for miles. The lighting is poor, and exit and entrance ramps are too short. Most of the road sits inside a trench, leaving commuters to stare at concrete walls, longing for the distraction of scenery. After too long the trench can feel like a crowded coffin…

Mr. Nolan, a traffic reporter for WPLJ-FM, has watched the Cross Bronx Expressway for 30 years…

“I absolutely, positively, completely, totally believe that that is the worst road in the metropolitan New York area,” Mr. Nolan said. “I can’t imagine there being a worse road anywhere.”

He has had holidays ruined by the Cross Bronx — he still gets angry describing the Thanksgiving dinner that was delayed for nearly two hours because relatives were stuck in Cross Bronx traffic.

“I go as far out of my way as I possibly can not to have to take the Cross Bronx,” he said. “I avoid it at all costs to the point of adding 20 or 30 miles to a trip I’m taking.”

The disastrous phenomenon being seen here is the way in which highways in general, and the Cross Bronx Expressway in particular, clog up dramatically once they reach a certain tipping point. A badly-designed highway might be able to carry say 3,000 cars per hour flowing freely — but the minute that traffic gets heavier than that, a jam appears, and the throughflow plunges to less than 1,000 cars per hour.

This is the kind of problem where a congestion charge is a blindingly obvious solution. Put a small toll on the Expressway, and more cars could travel on it, and they would travel faster. The trick is to keep the toll just high enough that those short entry and exit ramps don’t clog up; indeed, putting the toll simply on a few strategically-chosen entry ramps might suffice. You don’t need to toll every car on the road, you just need to hit the bottlenecks. (Research into cordon pricing, as seen in cities like London, shows that congestion is reduced significantly even when the cordon is porous: you don’t need to charge every single entry point into the city in order to have a significant positive effect.)

When Mike Bloomberg was trying to introduce a congestion charge in Manhattan, he got a huge amount of pushback from elected officials in the Bronx. It wasn’t particularly rational pushback: Bronx drivers would likely have benefitted from less through traffic from points north, while barely paying the toll themselves, since they rarely drive into downtown Manhattan.

Maybe a few tolls on the Cross Bronx Expressway would help to show the residents of that borough just how effective such measures can be. It’s got to be worth a try: make it so that for a few key on-ramps, you need an EZ Pass to get onto the road, and it will charge you a few bucks each time. If it works, Joe Nolan, for one, would surely thank you.

COMMENT

new york is a sewer, the problem isn’t the cbe, it’s the attitude, developed over generations, of new yorkers to push, shove and elbo their way to the front! most times for no obvious gain to themselves even. they can’t help themselves….ignorant, anxious, and cruel…WILL NOT GIVE ONE INCH TO ALLOW A MOTORIST TO CHANGE LANES IF NECESSARY! everyone is not from nyc, and therefor they do not know the layout of exits as locals do….I often wonder if any ny local motorists would piss on me if I were on fire…I think not! ONE WAY!! caused their own problem, now deal with it. I travel the east coast and have never witnessed such cold, ignorant, self serving people in my life . PERIOD ! maybe appointing a team of law enforcement officers, that focus on ticketing and towing vehicles of these ignorant pushy almost non humans would help best

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