Transit Indicators – BNSF, School Buses

When I look at the state of US transit, especially public transport, the two biggest indicators of the failure of US transit are BNSF and School buses.

Why BNSF?

The Burlington North Santa Fe Railway Corp. was the dominant rail company when I lived in Texas, and here in Colorado. Without a detail look into their tracks, trains, and business model, my summary is, they run massive trains, often over thousands of miles of single track lines. The tracks often run right through the middle of cities, the track commands significant space either side of the track.

This isn’t their state of the art crossing, but it’s pretty typical. This crossing was just north of the Dell campus in Round Rock Texas. The train crossing is average, appears to be pulling a lot of cars that contain, well, err,  cars! An epically long train, over 100 cars and 4 engines.

If, as in many towns, you want to add commuter rail, either alongside the existing line, or on the existing tracks, BNSF both take forever to evaluate the capacity; then charge absolute top-dollar for either access or for land acquisition. This report, on a commuter rail line that voted on in 2004, likely not finished until 2042. BNSF can’t even give an estimate as for the timeline.

While some people don’t mind the train horns being blasted 24hrs per day, many do. The old fashion crossings, seen in the video above, are universally disliked. They are not the optimal safety design, people do stupid things. Also, the train are required under federal legislation to use their horns. In Austin, it has been 10-years and there are still not quiet zones through the key residential areas or downtown. Up the road in Boulder, same story. Hugely expensive. long delays. Construction supposed to start this month, finally.

School Buses?

School Bus in rear view mirrorWe live 3-miles from our daughters elementary school, a mile of which is pretty much uphill. We also cross the BNSF railroad track, and a CO state highway to get there. One thing you notice, a lot, are the school buses. Almost every day around 7:45 a.m.  an RTD public transpory bus is in front of us. Occasionally, we sat are sat behind the bus, while we wait at the BNSF crossing.

I wondered, why don’t more kids take the public buses to school? The bus we sit sit behind, goes right past the middle school, so that will be an option, especially since we have a stop less than 150yds from the house. But why don’t more kids?

I don’t know if school buses/busing was chicken or egg, but I do know the few other countries depend on specialist school buses, like the US does. Of course, busing in the US has a tortuous past. When I was attending High School in the UK, we exclusively used public transport. My bus was the 322. At peak times it was a double decker bus, and for the rest of the day, a single level bus.

Each year, school buses provide an estimated 10 billion student trips in the United States. Every school day, 475,000 school buses transport 25 million children to and from schools and school-related activities.

Looking at the public bus routes through Louisville, while the buses travel through build up areas. With the middle school being the exception, it’s on Main St. the buses don’t go anywhere near elementary schools. Centaurus High School is well situated, and adjacent to a number of bus routes. Yet, students, by and large, take private school buses.

If we are to address climate change, we need to think about transit in a meaningful way, increased train service, electric where possible, and rethinking busing, converting it to public transport and electric vehicles is essential. Imagine if we could use public buses for the majority of those 10 billion student trips, what other transit options would open up?

 

 

Residential Parking Permit Programs

This is bound to come up here in #louisvilleCO sometime, given the city wants to expand downtown, and doesn’t have a parking solution. Back in my old town, Austin Texas, it’s still a thing. I read this excellent blog post by Meghan Skornia.

I’d like to have commented on her blog directly, sadly it requires a facebook ID, which regular readers will know, I don’t have anymore.

IMG_20180324_124023

I tried to reply via twitter but it was typo-ridden and out of sequence. So, here it is with corrections.

I lived on the 600-block of W Johanna St for 10-years. The block west of S 1St Street. Although I was asked twice, and S 2nd at the end of my block was RPP, We never had RPP while I lived there. I wouldn’t sign, and the guy next door was the manager of Polvos Restaurant and he wouldn’t sign for obvious reasons, so didn’t happen.

  1. If all houses on either, or both sides of a block have kerb cuts or alley access, that’s a disqualifying condition for RPP. You already have nearly 8ft of public road reserved by your kerb cut. It’s not the cities problem if you use your garage for storage or park a trailer or old klunker on your drive. Nor is it the cities problem if you have 3-cars in your house, park parallel to the kerb cut and work it out. You can’t have RPP if people block your drive. That’s already an offence, call the cops, get the cars towed.
  2. Minimum price for RPP is the cities price per Sq yard for road maintenance and rebuilding. One side is 1/3 of the total price of the block length, want 2-sides then that’s 2/3 of the total price of the block. If your block is 270ft long, minus 20ft at each end for turning, that’s 240ft by 29ft giving, 773.33 sq/yds. Typical paving cost, is circa $31.40 per sq/yd for residential streets. 773.33 x $31.40 = $24,178. Divide by 1/3, or 2/3 depending on what RPP you want. That’s the upfront cost, in this case for both sides circa $18,600. Obviously streets are assets, otherwise you wouldn’t want to reserve space on them. Now you have to maintain the asset on yearly book value. You’d need to estimate how many years the RPP would run for, 25-years would likely be a good road lifespan. You then pay into ROF (road owners fund) that the city maintains for you to rebuild the road. Annualized, maybe $5k per year?
  3. If 2. above seems too complicated, you have to pay the TXDOT Road User Costs Per Vehicle Hour, it’s currently $29.35 per hour. Want ten hours per day on Saturdays and Sundays. That’s $587 per week, but for that you get a side of a block rather than a single space.
  4. No kerb cut? No problem. Since you bought the house at market price knowing it had no off street parking you can have the frontage of your house reserved, put a kerb cut in and use your yard. Doesn’t work for you? Ruins the neighborhood character? Sorry, not sorry.
  5. You are not entitled to park on a city street just because you live there, anymore than everyone else. Unless you moved in 80 years ago, you only EXPECTED to be able to park there, there was no legal agreement. Times change, so does need. Move on, literally.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  6. There is a quid per quo. Especially in Austin where they still have parking minimums. A Business may not expand either the size of the building, or add outdoor seating, if afterwards the total space occupied doesn’t have the correct parking minimums. No wavers. No fees. This is a deliberate constraint on the business. It gives residents the ability to limit commercial expansion, in exchange for not having RPP. This is why Polvos never expanded between 2006 and 2016, everytime they tried, I stopped it. They wanted to add more and more outdoor seating, they didn’t have the parking minimum spaces. Don’t like it? Get rid of parking minimums. Enough said

Finally, Meghan, was a little disingenuous when she mocked residents about the trash issue. In my 10 years I had people walking across the front yard, stopping and urinating against the fence, including a woman hiking up her skirt and peeing standing up. I found condoms and tissues on my drive a few times, and once a syringe/needle. Really. I also had people park on my driveway while one ran out to get takeout. It’s more of a problem  than simply trash.

I was able to get a discount on my property taxes for all this commercial blight. Everyone else should do the same.

Cyclists and Pedestrians generate more income for a town

forbesThis Forbes article came up again recently. My hometown, Louisville CO, is still struggling with how to incentivise redevelopment downtown, following the “collapse” of their parking garage initiative run for the city by the Louisville Revitalization Commission (LRC).

I even applied for a vacant seat on the LRC, which I didn’t get. Better that than being one of those people who just complain at every opportunity.

I’ve encouraged the Mayor and Councillors to do more to make it easy for people that could get downtown without using private cars, to do so. Disappointingly, nothing has happened in the 3-years I’ve been here. The trail connection underpass long promised for 2018, which doesn’t really help get people downtown, has even been delayed. It’s even allegedly in the mix for the cities new Transportation Master Plan prioritization. Which assumes it might not get priority?

Car drivers often operate under a car “driven” mindset/false dichotomy that they can drive somewhere else for “free”

Car drivers often operate under a car “driven” mindset/false dichotomy that they can drive somewhere else for “free” to get a cheaper deal, a different meal, a better choice etc. When the opposite is true, not only are they using their car, fuel, wear and tear, but they are also doing the same to the roads. Ten of thousands of journeys quickly add up.

Cyclists & pedestrians don’t have the same mindset. Even with good, frequent, easily accessible transport options, they are much less likely to think, “oh, I’ll pop to xyz to see what they have.”. I should be obvious that non-car drivers value their time more, and instead of spending it travelling to the mall, to the next city over, they take advantage of what’s close by.

There is though a symbiotic relationship between how people travel, and the what is there when they arrive. This is why a city believes they have to provide parking, otherwise people won’t arrive by car. In a small city like Louisville, with close-in neighborhoods that’s not the way it has to be.

Just because people don’t drive a car, doesn’t mean the place they are travelling to can be a take-it-or-leave-it, subpar destination. Start by prioritizing non-car travel. Make it easy, convenient, and safe to get to by foot, by bike, e-bike and yes. scooters, and then re-develop the properties to provide a first class destination.

That makes a ton more sense than building an expensive parking garage, that causes years of disruption during construction and then incentivise developers to re-develop. The more people you can get out of cars now, the less space for them you will need in the future and the less people will demand it.

Kohl’s and Car Oriented Development

Back in July, @_anthonyhahn wrote an article which appeared in both the Daily Camera and the Colorado Hometown Weekly about a potential new Kohl’s store in Lafayette CO, and what that meant for the Louisville CO store.

While pitting the two adjacent cities against each other in a battle for sales tax is valid, it totally misses the point about all the new development around the 287 Corridor, north of Lafayette.

At the time, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Colorado Hometown Weekly and sent it in. I just got to checking, and as far as I can see, it never made publication for either space, or editorial reasons. As always, waste not, want not, here it is. Comments?

FOR PUBLICATION

Re: July 11th Anthony Hahn Kohls move to Lafayette

I’m a Louisville resident, but this isn’t Louisville versus Lafayette, it’s the past vs the future.

How much longer can we continue sleep walking into the future with car oriented development?

The city of Lafayette believes a new Kohl’s on 287 is worth, and will pay off its $2-million subsidy in 2-3 years. Add to that the limited benefit of some extra jobs, and extra sales tax receipts during construction. It still means the Residents will have to shop hard, and drive regularly to make another out of town store pay off.

Louisville development director Dejong says the McCaslin corridor tax receipts are up year on year to $420,000, but that’s from a whole lot of small stores and restaurants that are almost always busier than any of the big box stores. Kohls will need to do much more than it does with it’s Louisville store to make it work. The current store in Louisville often looks like it’s been ransacked by people on a scavenger hunt, and the parking lot is frequently less than 1/4 full.

Kohl’s itself we likely be shielded from a failure, tax write-offs against losses, writing off development and moving expenses. The development company, Hix Snedeker can do the same. It’s not the McCaslin corridor thats in economic crisis, it the whole sector.

It’s always easier to build new development, urban sprawl has funded and driven America for the last 80-years. The real question is, what does this contribute to the community? More driving, more concrete, more parking spaces? The 287 location certainly seems more attractive than the current Louisville location, it has more passing traffic in a superficial way. The question is how many will stop, rather than shop online and have it delivered at home?

Lafayette residents should ask, is this worth the money, the tax breaks, etc. ? What type of development do they want, and is this the right type of development rather than just easy development?

Mark Cathcart

Ripping off customers

I saw the following tweet and literally laughed-out-loud. In the past two years I’ve got to the checkout confirmation step on music and theatre events and cancelled out and closed the browser window more times than I care to remember. Ticket “fees” and “convenience” charges are rampant.

The airline industry over the past year has gone the complete opposite direction, some forced by legislation, some by marketplace competition. They nickel and dime you for charges for everything. The Trump administration has rescinded a rule requiring Airlines to disclose baggage fees upfront. This rule previously made it easier to compare airfare prices across airlines.

Enjoy!

The machines are coming – 2049?

It is notoriously difficult to predict the future. I lived my life at IBM, following Alan Kays 1982 aphorism

The best way to predict the future is to invent it

In my career I got many things right, and many things wrong. While Amazon was still a small time bookseller, and Youtube for the most part didn’t exist, it was obvious both business models would thrive. While I couldn’t convince IBM to pursue either of these opportunities with ny success, we demonstrated the technology perfectly. My “Wired for Life
Presentation contains some of my wins, and many of my losses.

It was much easier to build on these, especially the societal impact in my 2003 “Trends and Directions” presentation.  Societal impact is much easier to predict as you can demographic data, current trends and it’s pretty easy to extrapolate. Technology adoption is much harder.

Many of these predictions are not useful, after all who needs  a robot to write high school essays? Many though will continue to fundementally change work and life as we know it.

What they are though is a signal in the way the World Economic Forum predicts the technology will develop, and to some degree it’s a self fulfilling prophecy. Watching this and reading many of the “machines are coming” articles that have been published over the past 5-years, it’s easy to become depressed about the rise of automation, AI, and robots. In a year when the sequel for Blade Runner will finally appear on our screens, there are some key things to remember.

  1. There is no magic, no silver bullet – If they can’t explain it, or worse don’t understand it, they have not invented it. Machine learning is great, but the machines can only learn with the machine learning constraints they have.
  2. Listen to the doubters – Doubt is very different to dismissal. People who dismiss possibility out-of-hand either don’t understand the opportunity and the potential, or are afraid of the change. It’s the doubters who have thought things through and understand the problems and the weaknesses.
  3. Don’t fear automation – If you do, you will be left behind. Learn, adapt, change; if possible work to invent the future By all means be a doubter, don’t be a dismisser.
  4. Find a problem, don’t start with a solution – AI, Robotics, Big Data, Machine Learning, Algorithms, Neural Networks are all speciality fields, grabbing onto them and asking how can we use them isn’t useful. The more specific you can be about a problem that needs solving, the easier it will be to identify the correct technology.
  5. Be Human – the more we automate, the more important human interaction becomes. The more empathy you have for someone who has a problem, the more likely you are to be able to understand how to solve it. Empathy, the arts, sports and human interaction are all fields where robotics and automation are least likely to take over.

More Human than Human – Dr Eldon Tyrell, The Tyrell Corporation

Trains, horns and taxes

I’ve been  frustrated that my blog has been withering but I just didn’t want to be an endless stream of rants about the #potus45 administration.

So this isn’t about them, at all. While I have in mind a summery I’ll steer clear for now. So, meanwhile back in beautiful Colorado, the natives are getting worked up over a plan to install “quiet zones”  for all the railroad crossings in town.

As much as I can’t envisage enjoying the horn blowing, and we can barely hear them in the night, apparently many can and do like them and have a nostalgia for them.

Well the whole thing went  awry went Rene posted, she said.

If you don’t like the trains, don’t live near the tracks. No body would build within spitting distance of a rail road track if nobody would live there, then no body would be bothered by the noise. All the high density housing along the tracks is ruining my wonderful, small home town. I resent that people come in and then start to try to change it.

Which of course completely misses the point that most of old Town was built around the railroad out of economic necessity, which made people want to live there, rather than people who loved the sound of the horns and built a house there.

Rene, change is not only inevitable but essential.

For the most part the city carries most of its infrastructure on its book as assets, which means they depreciate it over its lifespan, and they have scramble to find ways to replace it.

In essence the only way they have to do that is to raise property and sales tax, or get new residents who make up the difference. Bonds are indirectly taxes.

If there is some road, building or other city or state asset you’ve been using since you arrived here, that hasn’t been rebuilt or replaced, then you have been subsidized by either earlier generations or the new residents. This is especially true for water, sewage, and roads.

As has been previously articulated here, essentially the quiet zones are really doing no more than returning the crossings to pre-2005 safety and horns for post 2015 traffic volumes.

It’s not the new residents that are to blame, I’m one of them. If anyone is to blame its the people that have lived here for 25+ years.

They’ve not been accounting for city resources as liabilities, not taxing enough to support those liabilities, and then selling property off to developers to make a buck for themselves.

Unfortunately development in America, not just Louisville has been a ponzy scheme for 100 years. You either keep growing or you’ll wither and die, or become Boulder. Louisville is headed for the latter since it’s mostly built out.

Edit:8/02/17 12:40 – Add links, change @potus45 > #potus45 and correct typos.

Giant fleet of small scheduling nightmares

In tenuous link between my recent posts on automation, here and especially here, where back in November I discussed autonomous vehicles and their impact on employment. I also said:

While many cities are salivating over the ability of self-driving, autonomous vehicles to fix their broken road and transport infrastructure, that’s missing the point.

Sometime between then and last weekend I became a weekend subscriber to the (Boulder) Daily Camera, a great local paper for the Boulder/Denver metro area. Right on queue, my first Sunday paper was laying in the snow on the drive this weekend and I opened it up and parsed it during the day. One item that particularly caught my eye was Dave Kriegers main editorial entitled “Imagine a giant fleet of tiny buses“.

serveimageI grabbed a pen, marked the editorial up, scribbled in the margins and sat down on Monday morning and wrote an open forum letter. It didn’t get published, I have no idea if it’s policy not to publish corrections on staff written op-ed pieces, or they just didn’t think it interesting enough to include?

Since a big fuss has blown up about an Uber self driving car today, running a red light yesterday(in full transparency, Uber self driving development has a big office here in Louisville that is a build-up from the Uber acquisition of Microsofts Bing mapping service.) I thought I’d turn Mondays open forum letter into a blog post.

This also lets me correct one misstatement. Self-driving cars will help with congestion theoretically. In heavy traffic, they will drive at a regulation speed, a safe distance from the vehicle in front, thus avoid the hard braking and the impact that can have on several miles of traffic.

It is hard to respond to Dave Kriegers editorial imaging “a giant fleet of tiny buses” in 300-words, but I’d like to have a try.

First, I completely agree with his sentiment that if you keep trying the same old thing, you’ll keep failing. However, when it comes to his “giant fleet of small buses” he falls into the same trap most transport ‘imagineers’ do when the come to self-driving vehicles. For the sake of brevity, let’s assume they’ll be electric; let’s assume they can dock themselves; let’s assume they have a slightly better range than current electric cars.

Dave jumps to the conclusion that less space will be needed for parking. Sort of, except the cars have to be charged somewhere. But yes, they could be charged in either fields or reclaimed parking garages outfitted with self-docking chargers. Dave then makes the confusing jump to the conclusion that “[they] could reduce congestion because fewer cars would serve more people”.

Anyone that’s given any serious thought to scheduling and transportation would understand implicitly that that isn’t true. It’s implied because it fits the paradigm of autonomous vehicles. If 20,000 people want to get into Boulder today between 7:15am and 9:00am in their own unshared transportation, and the demand is the same in the era of self-driving cars, then, you’ll have the same number of journeys. Add in the recharging trips, the fact that using Daves logic, there will be less self-driving cars, then some of those cars will have to drive in and out and back into Boulder, actually increasing the number of journeys and therefore contributing to the congestion.

If we take Daves “less parking space” claim at face value, then what will the space formerly used by parking garages be used for? Green space… err no, more offices/accommodation, with the potential to further increase the number of journeys and congestion.

Don’t get me wrong, self-driving cars are great, but until we have flying cars they will only help indirectly with congestion won’t help with congestion. The only way is shared transport. Bus Rapid Transport isn’t it either. Trams, street cars, metro-rail are the only real fix.

Dystopian Future it is then

In his acceptance speech, President elect Trump said, among other things:

We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals. We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.

This from a man, who tweeted:

I’ve no idea what to expect now from the Trump Presidency, but it’s an amazing  coincidence that the original Blade Runner film was set in In Los Angeles in November 2019, just two years from now.

Hopefully Blade Runner isn’t a metaphor for a Trump Presidency; the weather and the blade runners, especially Gaff, do not foreshadow Trumps Immigration cops; and hopefully the Los Angeles in the film, nothing like the real LA in 2019; and the replicants not an extreme of the automation I wrote about yesterday.

blade-runner

What we don’t know is how Trump will do this. Just running up the deficit doesn’t seem likely given he’s from the GOP/Republican party. Taking much of what he’s said, closing tax loopholes, defunding Nato, closing overseas bases in place like Germany, Japan and more won’t likely save enough money. Your move President Trump.