Category Archives: Transportation

Hey, Uber, Over Here! Over Here!

Dara Khosrowshahi. Photo credit: Fortune

So, Uber decides to use Washington, D.C., as a test bed for its vision for urban mobility. CEO Dara Khosrowshahi visited Washington Wednesday to publicize company plans to expand its ride-hailing app so customers can access and pay for bike share, car rentals from private car owners, and eventually mass transit.

And what does Washington do? Mayor Muriel E. Bowser has proposed increasing the gross receipt tax on ride-hailing companies from 1% to 4.75%. The tax revenue would pay for about 10% of Washington’s $178.5 million share of increased funding for Washington Metro. (Virginia and Maryland and providing the balance — without taxing Uber.)

Interesting economic development strategy Bowser has there: Tax businesses in the growing innovation economy to subsidize enterprises in the stagnant, money-losing old economy.

Uber’s idea is potentially so transformative that slapping $18 million added tax on the ride-hailing industry may not prove debilitating. (Not for Uber anyway. I’m less sanguine about its weaker competitors.) But one thing we can say for sure: The tax will not accelerate Washington’s evolution toward the transportation future.

“What we want to make sure is that you’re not taxing one form of shared transportation for another form of shared transportation,” Khowrowshahi said in a public meeting with Bowser, reports the Washington Post. “We’re in this to promote shared transportation in general. We want to make sure that proposals like this are not unconstructive to that goal.”

City officials, notes the Post, say the ride-hailing services have benefited from Metro’s problems so it’s only fair that they be part of the solution.

 

 

Bacon’s bottom line: Hey, Uber, come look at Virginia — we won’t tax you!

Your one-stop-transportation-shopping app sounds like a fantastic idea. I can hardly wait until you develop AI that allows people to map multimodal trips integrating everything from walking and biking to gypsy vans and buses to hour-long car rentals. I’m eagerly waiting for a full range of transportation services at varying levels of convenience, comfort and price. If you put a few money-losing public mass-transit enterprises out of business, I won’t have a problem with that. I’d love to put an end to the drain on taxpayers. Likewise, if you force public enterprises to adapt by cutting costs and becoming more responsive to customers, I’m totally cool with that, too!

I regard Bowser’s logic — Uber is part of Metro’s problem, therefore you should be taxed to help fix it — as wildly illogical. You should be allowed to compete on a level playing field with all other transportation business models. I hope you understand, however, that does include paying your fair share of the cost of maintaining and building the road and highway infrastructure that you rely upon. Who knows, you might end up paying more in taxes that way. But at least you wouldn’t be subsidizing the competition.

One more thing, Virginia has localities that would love to cooperate with you. Take Virginia Beach. The resort city has plans for development of its waterfront that include a drop-off zone for ride-hailing services. How cool is that? If cities can provide drop-off zones for buses — typically referred to as bus stops — why not drop-off zones for ride-hailing services? That’s something that municipalities can do at next-to-no cost.

Here in Virginia, we want to accelerate the development of a 21st century model for transportation, not tax it. Use us as a test bed. Please!

AVs, Pedestrians, and Human Perversity

In the previous post, I extolled the possibilities for driverless cars to improve our lives by reducing the number of traffic accidents, injuries and fatalities, provide mobility for the aged and handicapped, and reduce the vast acreage we devote to parking spaces. I guess I’m a techno-optimist. (I’m reading Peter Diamandis’s book “Abundance” right now.) But I acknowledge that, given the perversity of human nature, there is a dark side to just about everything.

In a recent blog post, Charles Marohn, leader of the Strong Towns movement, highlights how people will game the safety programming of driverless cars to the detriment of our human settlement patterns.

When perfected, what will an automated vehicle do on that nasty stroad in your community — the one where the cars today drive too fast and the drivers are too oblivious, where nobody sane would dare to cross…. When all cars are AV, what happens when someone crosses midblock?

The obvious answer is that the vehicles stop and allow the person to cross. They don’t run that person down. They don’t kill them. The automated vehicle will be programmed to always stop when someone steps out into traffic. As a society, we would not have it any other way.

So, knowing this, who is ever going to stop and wait at another traffic signal? What person on foot, in their right mind, would wait for a gap to open so they can cross without impacting the flow of traffic? Nobody.

I have to walk across a nasty stroad every time I go downtown. Why would I wait my turn to cross in minus 20 degree weather, with the wind whipping at my face, when all I need to do is step out and traffic comes to a complete stop? I wouldn’t.

And that is not acceptable. Humans will not be allowed to interfere with the free flow of traffic. Our economy will depend on it, after all. All those commuters that need to get to their jobs, all those potential customers that need to get where they are going. … There’s too much at stake in maintaining efficiency.

So, it will be against the law to step out into traffic except at designated places and times.

Well Chuck, how is that different than today’s jaywalking ordinances? Exactly! It’s not. We don’t even need new regulations, just the courage to enforce existing laws.

Despite the fact that in this country’s best urban spaces, the ones that are thriving, jaywalking is rarely enforced (at least rarely enforced except as a law enforcement pretext, which is a different matter entirely), we’ll make stopping jaywalking a national priority. With cameras on every vehicle, and the motivation of frustrated drivers to use them, enforcement will not be a problem.

And if it is, we’ll do what I posited years ago that we would do: we’ll erect human fences along the edge of the streets to keep people out. The people….excuse me, I need to use the correct language in this context….the “pedestrians” will be allowed to cross only at designated pedestrian crossings. …

Automated vehicle technology will do nothing to make our streets better places to be and, if we continue to have blind faith in it, has the very real chance of setting our cities back another generation.

Yeah, I can see things unfolding that way.  I totally agree with Marohn that we can’t let autonomous vehicles ruin our walkable streets. But I also have confidence that we can find solutions to the issues he raises. We need to start experimenting now, and start learning through trial and error what works. There’s too much to be gained from AVs to give up before we try.  

Virginia as Fast Adopter of Autonomous Vehicle Technology

Mark Riccobono, blind since childhood, navigated an SUV through a race course in 2011. Image credit: Virginia Tech

Virginia may not have Silicon Valley, and it may not be a center of the automobile industry, but the Old Dominion is in the thick of the self-driving automobile revolution. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, with a staff of 500, has established itself as a national-level player in research. Blacksburg-based Torc Robotics develops self-driving technologies used in mining trucks and military vehicles. The University of Virginia is studying how passengers react to self-driving cars. Perrone Robotics, based a few miles away in Crozet, has developed a proprietary software platform for running autonomous vehicles. The Commonwealth Transportation Board has moved to allow testing on express lanes on Northern Virginia. Virginia even has a trade association, the Unmanned Systems Association, to promote autonomous vehicles and drones. Virginia Business magazine has the story here.

Suffice it to say that, despite a highly publicized accident in Tempe, Arizona, in which a self-driving Uber test car killed a pedestrian, self-driving cars are coming. There is too much money behind the industry and the potential safety gains are too enormous for any one fatality, or even a series of fatalities, to turn back the tide.

While Virginia likely will never become more than a niche player in the manufacture and development of self-driving cars and technologies, the Commonwealth has much to gain from making itself hospitable to autonomous vehicles. Just consider these figures from the Virginia Highway Safety Office:

2017 Virginia Vehicle Incidents
Crashes: 127,375
Injuries: 65,306
Fatalities: 843

After many years of improvement, those trends turned markedly worse in 2015, 2016 and 2017 — most likely due to the increase in distracted driving associated with cell phones. Too many drivers are morons. Safe, self-driving cars can’t come too soon.

Integrating self-driving cars into state laws, the tort system, and the motorist culture won’t be smooth. Inevitably, some motorists will try to exploit the driving patterns of self-driving cars. Inevitably, there will be accidents. Inevitably, some self-driving cars will be found to be at fault. But there can be little doubt that over the long-run, autonomous vehicles can be programmed and perfected to drive much more safely than humans. Further, as the Virginia Business article alludes to, autonomous vehicles will provide mobility for the aged, the blind, and the handicapped. Speaking personally, I’m looking forward to the introduction of fully autonomous cars just around the time I turn 80.

The sooner we begin dealing with these issues, the sooner we can reap the benefits. We have so much to learn. Are traffic laws designed for humans appropriate for computer-driven vehicles? How do we apportion blame when human and self-driving vehicles collide? What impact will robotic cars and artificial intelligence have on commuting patterns? How much will car ownership decline as big corporations begin providing Transportation as a Service? How much will the demand for parking garages and on-street parking shrink when people hail rides instead of drive their own cars? Will people drive less or more when they can wile away long-distance commutes reading, emailing, watching TV or surfing the Web?

The sooner we can get answers to these questions, the sooner we can begin pushing down the number of accidents, injuries and fatalities on our streets and roads. The sooner we can revamping our transportation policies and stop squandering billions on highway and mass transit projects that may (or may not) be obsolete a decade from now. The sooner we can adjust our land use practices. The sooner we can devise 21st-century solutions to the insufferable traffic congestion in much of the state.

That’s why it’s a good thing for Virginia to be an early mover. It would be cool if the next great autonomous-vehicle company sprang from Virginia soil, but let’s be honest — that’s a long shot. The real reason is become fast adopters of the technology is simply to better our lives.

Amazon-ification and Vehicle Miles Driven

I visited my daughter Sara the other day and was amused to note that delivery services had dropped off two cardboard boxes in front of her house. When I stepped inside, there was a third box, still unopened. Three packages delivered in one day. Wow, thought I. My wife and I might average one delivery per week. Upon my further inquiries, Sara revealed that she also had begun ordering her groceries online and having them delivered to her doorstep as well.

Sara is the mother of a three-month-old infant, so running errands is a serious chore. I understand why she might be willing to pay a modest delivery fee in exchange for greater convenience, especially when she’s juggling baby care with handling the administrative work for her husband’s law practice.

There’s a lesson here for public policy. The rise of e-commerce and home delivery is changing America’s driving habits, especially among younger people less entrenched than carmudgeons like me in their customary way of doing things. Instead of driving to the grocery store and perhaps combining it with one or two other errands, such as depositing a check or picking up a prescription, more and more people are opting for online delivery.

Online-delivery option takes people like Sara off local streets and roads. In the argot of transportation planners, it reduces the number of trips per household. For decades, the propensity for Americans to take an increasing number of trips per day fed the increasing number of cars on the road. According to Federal Highway Administration data, the average number of trips per household increased from 2.3 in 1969 to 3.3 in 2009, and the number of daily vehicle-miles driven per household increased from 34 to 58.1.

Conversely, more e-commerce means there are more delivery trucks roaming around our metropolitan regions and dropping off more packages than ever.

Here’s a big question for public policy wonks: Are we as a nation experiencing a net gain in vehicle miles driven or a net loss as a result of e-commerce? My hunch is that the trend is bringing about a net reduction in driving. While the typical American stops at one or two retail/service locations on average for each trip, I’m surmising that delivery trucks are stringing together long chains of drop-offs, using computer algorithms to plot the shortest, most efficient routes. (This may be true even for grocery store deliveries by refrigerated trucks.)

In sum, I would expect the net result to be positive for society — fewer vehicle miles driven, fewer vehicle emissions, and less congested streets. (But more cardboard boxes in the landfill.)

While positive overall, one might argue, this trend does not help our biggest headache: rush hour congestion caused by people driving back and forth from work. But even here, I expect there will be a modest benefit from home deliveries. Working people typically tack errands onto their commutes home — picking the dry cleaning, stopping at the grocery store, whatever. Insofar as home deliveries displace those rush-hour errands and shift the trips to non-rush hour times of the day, they might alleviate rush hour traffic to a modest degree.

The truisms that have underpinned our transportation planning are shifting under our feet. Smart planners will take into account the impact of e-commerce and home deliveries before investing billions of dollars on new roads, highways and mass transit projects on the assumption that the trends of the past 30 years can be confidently projected into the next 30 years.

Pony Up, D.C. Or Else!

Uh, oh, the Metro funding deal isn’t sealed yet. The Washington, D.C., city council could be the spoiler. While Mayor Muriel E. Bowser has asked council to back a $178.5 million annual increase in funding for the commuter rail system to go along with $154 million from Virginia and $150 from Maryland, a council faction by Chairman Phil Mendelson is balking.

Reports the Washington Post:

Mendelson (D) and five other council members sent Bowser a letter late Wednesday saying the city should give Metro only $167 million a year. The letter also says the District should contribute no more than Virginia and Maryland, contrary to the Virginia plan that stipulates each jurisdiction make a proportional contribution based on a funding formula that takes into account things such as ridership, population and number of Metro stations. …

Repeating arguments made by city officials in the past, Mendelson and the council members said that formula is unfair to the city, partly because the District has a smaller population than the Virginia and Maryland suburbs served by Metro.

But, as the Post points out, the District has 40 Metro stations, compared to 26 in Maryland and 25 in Virginia.

Furthermore, I’d add, the reason Metro finances are a wreck is that D.C. representatives on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) board have insisted on not increasing fares and have been supportive of labor agreements that have run up operating costs and built up massive unfunded retirement liabilities. Virginia needs to stick to its guns, and D.C. needs to pony up $178.5 million.

Localities, Get in Front of the Transportation Revolution

An Amazon delivery drone — requires no additional investment in roads and highways.

After the General Assembly hashed out a deal this weekend providing the Washington Metro system with an additional $154 million per year in state funding, local Prince William County leaders expressed discontent that more funding for Metro means less money for roads and highways.

Lawmakers had to divert roughly $80 million from regional transportation projects administered by the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority to hit that dollar amount, reports Inside NoVa, “perturbing officials in counties without Metro stations.”

“This is hugely problematic to us,” said Vice Chair Marty Nohe, R-Coles, who also serves as chairman of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. “It’s going to be very difficult for us to fund the sort of megaprojects we’re known for if we lose this money.”

My reaction to the road-builder lobby is the same as it is to the mass transit lobby. The United States is in the early stages of a transportation revolution in which Mobility as a Service will challenge traditional transportation modes such as mass transit and single-rider, owner-occupied vehicles. It is entirely foreseeable that time- and route-flexible shared ridership services in cars, vans, and buses will take away market share from route-fixed and schedule-fixed mass transit enterprises. Likewise, Mobility as a Service will be cheaper than car ownership. While affluent households will always want to own their own car, many will find the Mobility-as-a-Service option to be preferable.

Inevitably, we will see changes in driving patterns — changes that we cannot accurately predict. But committing ourselves to spending billions of dollars on road and highway projects on the assumption that the driving patterns of the past 50 years will remain the same over the next 10 years is nothing short of insane.

Prince William County, like every other jurisdiction in Virginia, needs to get in front of the Uber revolution and ascertain what kind of public investments (hopefully modest) will encourage mobility entrepreneurs to introduce new super-flexible shared ridership services to their locality. As a next step, they might explore how to reduce the number of automobile trips by expediting Amazon-like home delivery services. The transportation policy of the future should focus not on building new highway capacity but on reducing the number of trips.

Approving Metro’s Bare-Bones Capital Budget

Over the weekend the General Assembly agreed to give the Washington Metro $154 million a year in permanent new funding on the condition that Maryland and Washington, D.C., make up the balance of $500 million in new funding, reports the Washington Post. Maryland has passed its own $150 million funding bill, and the District will likely approve at least $150 million more.

Let’s assume for a moment that all the details are worked out, that all three jurisdictions come up with $450 million to $500 million a year for Metro, and that Congress adds $150 million a year to what the federal government has been contributing. Does this latest injection of money get the troubled bus and commuter-rail system out of the woods?

Metro has identified $25 billion in capital “needs” over the next 10 years. The bulk of these needs entail SGR (state of good repair) investments of $15.5 billion to maintain existing capital assets necessary for system preservation. The $25 billion figure also includes $7 billion in “new” needs which “address remediation of hazards or crowding on the rail system in core areas,” plus “unallocated” needs that include regular repairs and maintenance and services.

The added $600 million a year from Uncle Sam, the District, and the states will suffice to cover the critical state-of-good-repair needs and nothing else. Here’s what taxpayers will get for their money:

  • Replacing the 1000-series rail cars, installing a new radio system and cellular infrastructure, and replacing track circuits and power cabling where necessary.
  • Replacing power cable insulators on deep tunnels of the Red Line and other lines particularly where water intrusion occurs, which can disrupt service or cause the need for more frequent and costly repairs.
  • Replacing worn components of track and tunnels on all lines, necessary for safety and service delivery.
  • Upgrading the signaling system, which controls the movement and speed of trains, necessary for safe operations and on-time service delivery.

Nothing fancy here. Hopefully, these investments will reverse the deteriorating quality of service that has caused so many riders to desert Metro. But many desired investments will not be made. I have seen no analysis of what that portends for the quality of service.

The proposed FY 2019 budget for Metro includes no fare increases or service reductions. The operating budget assumes that management can limit spending growth to $12 million, or less than one percent “despite cost growth for legacy commitments, mandates and inflation.”

General Manager Paul Wiedefeld acknowledges that there are “substantial and ongoing risks” in the proposed 2019 budget. Foremost among these are ridership uncertainties in response to telework, gas prices, alternative transportation modes; collective bargaining; and unfunded pension and retiree healthcare liabilities.

Bacon’s bottom line: I continue to believe that the emerging Uber-like Mobility-as-a-Service transportation model poses an enormous threat to all existing transportation modes — both the own-it-yourself automobile model and fixed-route mass transit model. In an affluent society, there will always be some people who want to own their own automobiles allowing them to travel when they wish and with whom they wish, so privately owned automobiles will always be with us. But I’m not confident that there will always be people who prefer to ride in fixed-route, fixed-schedule buses and trains instead of flexible-route and flexible-schedule buses, vans, and cars.

I’m pretty sure that Metro, no matter how competently managed, will continue to loser riders, and that it will be coming back to taxpayers with tin cup in hand in another 10 years. If declining ridership doesn’t do the trick, unfunded retirement liabilities will.

Who Needs a Car, or Bus, When You’ve Got Uber?

The Uber revolution keeps on churning. The transportation service company has finally rolled out a service in the Washington region that resembles the kind of ride-hailing jitney service that I long predicted eventually would enter the marketplace. This service is potentially so disruptive that it could drive public mass transit out of the market for all but the highest-volume transportation corridors — although Uber denies that such is its aim.

From the Washington Post:

Beginning Wednesday … riders will be directed to pickup points within two blocks of their origin and dropped off within two blocks of their destinations, according to Uber. Riders will endure a slightly longer wait for a driver match — up to two minutes — while Uber works to place them along the optimal route. They then will be instructed where to catch their ride.

The perk for riders? Discounted trips. Express Pool is up to 50 percent cheaper than ride-splitting option UberPool and 75 percent cheaper than UberX, the door-to-door ride-hailing service, Uber says.

Finding rides won’t be a problem. Uber has 50,000 active drivers in the Washington region.

Hopefully, local governments will not throw roadblocks in Uber’s way to protect their local transit authorities. Rather, they should ask themselves what they can do to make the service operate more efficiently. In particular, they should proactively brainstorm with Uber to see how to make it easy for riders to congregate at loading spots and for Uber drivers to access them without blocking traffic.

This Metro Deal Literally Smells

As the General Assembly debates the state’s contribution to the bailing out of the Washington Metro system, Virginians are continually reminded of the company’s history of dysfunctional management. The latest news from the Washington Post:

An investigation by the agency’s Office of Inspector General has found that the grimey, orangey-brown, 1970s-era carpet installed in Metro trains are the product of “exceedingly stringent” requirements likely written to favor one supplier. The 100 percent pure virgin wool specification is no longer in use in the industry.

The recently concluded investigation found Metro’s standards for its carpeting were unchanged for two decades and that no other vendor could plausibly compete for the contract.

Moreover, the carpet lacked a required coating to prevent fungus and mildew, according to Metro Inspector General Geoff Cherrington — though it did meet standards for being fire-resistant and mothproof.

Further investigation found the carpet’s compliance testing was not being performed by an independent facility, as Metro requires, but by a laboratory with ties to the carpet manufacturer.

“The director of the lab used by the vendor is married to the Chief Financial Officer of the company that provided the vendor a line of credit” for the carpet order, according to a synopsis of the investigation included in a report to the Metro board.

Over the years, the WaPo reports, the carpet became known for collecting dirt and grime. “Riders are especially put off by the way it soaks up liquids — be it rain, slush, spilled beverages or um, other fluids — and smells.”

Meanwhile, back in the General Assembly, Republicans are far less amenable than Democrats to providing Metro the $150 million a year in additional support the ailing mass transit agency has requested to work down a maintenance backlog that has contributed to safety incidents, schedule delays, and declining ridership.

The new version of a bill sponsored by Del. Tim Hugo, R-Centreville, has been unanimously approved by the House Transportation Committee and will serve as the basis for negotiations with the state Senate over a final Metro funding bill, reports WTOP. Hugo’s proposal would provide Metro $105 million a year, less than the roughly $150 million requested, and provide the funds only if Metro limits operating spending increases to 2 percent per year.

Further, the bill requires studies and reports on Metro’s governance, labor agreements and the federal law that outlines arbitration rules. “Reforms have to go hand in hand with the money,” Hugo said.

Unlike the proposal recommended by former Governor Terry McAuliffe, the Republican proposal would not immediately require changes to Metro’s Board.

Bacon’s bottom line: This is Virginia’s one opportunity to hang tough and demand long overdue managerial, labor and governance reforms to Metro. Once legislation is passed and the money starts flowing, the Commonwealth loses all leverage over the mass transit system. While the current senior management appears to be more competent then its predecessors, the mal-governance of the system has been spectacular, and it costing Virginia taxpayers (especially Northern Virginia taxpayers) dearly. Without fundamental reform, Metro will remain a festering, oozing, pustular sore that will continue to drain Virginia’s scarce transportation resources.

Noooooooooo! Not another Cville Bypass!

State Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, has filed a resolution and budget amendment to study building an eastern bypass around U.S. 29 around Charlottesville, reports the Daily Progress. During the McDonnell administration, Charlottesville residents managed to kill a proposed $230 million western bypass around the city in favor of making extensive improvements to U.S. 29 itself. Now Peake wants to try building a bypass around the eastern side of Charlottesville. Danville built a bypass and Lynchburg built one, he says, and it’s reasonable to ask Charlottesville to build one, too.

I understand Lynchburg’s fixation on the Charlottesville bypass. Back in the days when interstate highways were being mapped out, Lynchburg drew the short stick and got… bypassed. U.S. 29, a state highway, became its major industrial access corridor. But local land use decisions in Charlottesville and Albemarle County gunked up the highway with shopping centers, malls, stop lights, curb cuts, and other encumbrances. U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville became, in essence, a suburbified Main Street at the expense of travelers passing through. Lynchburg residents had every right to complain.

But $230 million is a lot of money, and analysis showed that construction of a bypass, which would circumvent only a fraction of the congestion, would save only a few minutes in travel time. The Virginia Department of Transportation instead invested in the money spot improvements that, along with stoplight synchronization, have eased congestion somewhat.

Enough time has passed, however, that Peake wants to try again, this time exploring the potential for a bypass east of the city.

This proposal won’t fly any more than a western bypass. For starters, an eastern bypass would be longer, hence more expensive. Second, most Charlottesville-Albemarle residents don’t want a bypass, period, they will oppose it with every fiber of their being, and the politics will be just as ugly this time around as it was for the western bypass.

Third, Peake is overlooking an emerging threat to travel times on U.S. 29 — the gunking up of the entire highway between Charlottesville, Warrenton and Northern Virginia. As the Northern Virginia development blob penetrates ever deeper into the rural hinterlands, the highway is attracting more exurban-style development. It seems as if a new stoplight is added with every passing year. While the stoplights tend to be miles apart, the sheer number of delays are equivalent to what travelers encounter in Charlottesville.

Peake and his fellow Lynchburgers should fear the stroadification of the entire highway north of Charlottesville. (Stroads are dysfunctional street-road hybrids, which U.S. 29 is becoming.) Instead of pushing for an expensive, unpopular bypass, he should work on legislation that safeguards the integrity of the remaining highway portion of U.S. 29 by limiting direct access to it.