Author Archive | jroberts

GPS Tolling Gets a Trial in Seattle

What if I said that I had a magic bullet that would guarantee citizens significantly less auto traffic congestion and provide beleaguered transportation departments with much-needed funds. How could you say no?

And yet, tolls and congestion pricing have long been considered political suicide in the U.S. However, in the face of shrinking transportation budgets and increasing congestion in cities around the world, we may have no other choice than to take another look at pricing schemes.
What if I said that I had a magic bullet that would guarantee citizens significantly less auto traffic congestion and provide beleaguered transportation departments with much-needed funds. How could you say no?

And yet, tolls and congestion pricing have long been considered political suicide in the U.S. However, in the face of shrinking transportation budgets and increasing congestion in cities around the world, we may have no other choice than to take another look at pricing schemes.

In fact, for the last few years, London has begun charging significant weekday tolls between 7 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., resulting in a 30% reduction in peak-hour congestion (as well as a round-trip time reduction of 13%). London’s tolling program is also raising significant transportation revenue, which is being invested in improving public transportation. Here is the Victoria Transport Policy Institute’s study of London’s tolls (PDF, 513K).

A new study in Seattle is looking at if or how cash incentives (the carrot to tolling’s stick) alter driving habits. This Seattle Times article compares the reaction of two participants: one didn’t change anything about his commute, while the other reports that he “basically stopped driving.”

GPS monitors mounted on participants’ dashboards track their behavior and automatically deduct charges from prepaid accounts; they get to keep any money left in the account at the end of the study.

The study, called the “Traffic Choices Project,” will see how Seattle-area drivers respond to being paid not to drive during the busiest days, busiest times, and on the busiest roads. Study authors plan to measure any change in travel behavior as well as how participants feel about the impact of monitoring on their privacy. Here is more information about the study from Puget Sound Regional Council.

My Trip: Holiday Transportation Options

What place, if any, does the concept of “alternative transportation” have in celebrating the holidays?

In my friend group, a couple of people are staying in Portland, but for the most part we’re traveling far and wide. Here’s just a sample of where we’re all heading from Portland (map here):

  • Alamo, CA
  • Astoria, OR
  • Auburndale, MA
  • Driggs, ID
  • East Lansing, MI
  • Everett, WA
  • Las Vegas, NV
  • Longview, WA
  • Monterey, CA
  • Nampa, ID
  • Portola Valley, CA
  • Silver Plume, CO
  • Soldotna, AK
  • Toledo, OH
  • Winthrop, ME

Sure, a few of those places are in driving distance (Astoria and Longview), but what do you do if, like me, you don’t have a car?

Flexcar sometimes has holiday specials, and car rental is an option (but remember, if you don’t have your own insurance, it costs a lot).

Still, you can feel isolated by a lack of transportation choices the way you never do during daily life in Portland when it’s the holidays and you can’t get where your family is.

In any case, most of us are going far enough away that it’s a plane or nothing. I believe that my individual transportation choices affect the environment and reflect my values, so what does it mean that I just get on a plane – the least environmentally-friendly form of transportation around – every time it’s a major holiday and I want to see my family?

It’s easy to think that I get a pass on those because I have an emissions-free vehicle 99% of the time, but hey, that sure sounds like justification to me.

Just as transportation can’t be separated from land use, it also can’t be separated from the fact that Americans move around, and we especially move away from our families. My friends in Europe are roughly the same demographic as my friends here, but most of them live within shouting distance of their extended families. That means that you can take a train or even bike to visit family…in America, that’s simply not an option. And as the cost of fuel continues to rise, what will that mean for families and the holidays? Will people move to be nearer to family if they no longer have the option of hopping on a plane 5 times a year? Or will we just miss each other more?

Trackless in Portland: Where’s My Bus?

As an occasional transit rider, using the system isn’t completely intuitive for me. Any time I don’t know when the next bus is coming is a moment when I might get frustrated and give up.That’s why the new technologies TriMet has been implementing have made the system a lot easier to use, which makes me more likely to use (and enjoy) transit.

tracker

As an occasional transit rider, using the system isn’t completely intuitive for me. Any time I don’t know when the next bus is coming is a moment when I might get frustrated and give up and get back on my bike. That’s why the new technologies TriMet has been implementing have made the system a lot easier to use, which makes me more likely to use (and enjoy) transit.

Real-time displays at bus stops and on the web that let me know exactly when the next bus or train will arrive are fantastically useful tools that make the system work. (And, of course, there are those who are yet more cutting-edge, who want to unplug the system and be able to track real-time arrivals with wi-fi.)

Making the connection between between the schedule and the real live bus makes a real difference even when things are moving smoothly and basically according to schedule. But what happens to these systems when everything goes haywire?

Tonight was a good test of the system. Portland shuts down when it snows, and even the Commissioner of Transportation strongly recommends that citizens take transit instead of driving. It’s not impossible to ride a bike in the snow, but even in Portland biking drops a fair amount when the ground is white.

So, if transit is the best, if not only, way to get around today, how do you figure out if and how transit is going to work for you in the face of necessary delays and service changes?

I had the chance to test out how TriMet’s emergency information services were doing today. My sister was over for a visit, and while she was here it snowed. Biking back home was not an option, so we checked the TriMet web site to look for detours or delays. The closest bus line had delays, but there was no notice of anything out of the ordinary with the next route south.

We used Transit Tracker to find when the next bus should arrive, and it was coming in a half an hour, so I bundled her up against the cold, and sent her out in the cold world to walk a good long stretch to Hawthorne. She waited and waited at the stop, but even though multiple buses came in the other direction, no bus ever arrived. She had to walk home.

To my mind, this is a failure of the system. If we had known that our route was cancelled or severely delayed, she could have walked home from the get-go, stayed over, or taken a cab instead of waiting for an hours for a bus that never came. Even better would have been if we could have actually known when it made sense for her to leave the house and wait in the cold, because we could be sure a bus would arrive soon after. Luckily for my sister, she could walk a few miles home, but not everyone will be in that position.

I say all this with a great deal of sympathy and respect for TriMet’s engineers, operators, and administrators. I know they’re doing their best out there. But it seems to me that the real-time information and the reliability of the web site are more important in a crisis situation than ever. Take pity on those of us who will be waiting in the cold for that phantom bus this morning, and please just tell us if that bus will really arrive.

If not, I’m staying home.

Bicycling wins big nationally; more trails and Safe Routes for Oregon

The Oregonian picked up on a national AP article yesterday about the growing influence of bicycling in Congress, and how that’s resulted in an increase in federal funds that can be spent on improving bicycling and walking conditions. The Oregonian article notes that President Bush switched to mountain biking from running a few years back because of knee pain, and his personal interest in cycling may well have contributed to the success of bicycling in SAFETEA-LU (the federal transportation reauthorization act that passed earlier this year).

The article notes that bicycle organizations began formal federal lobbying just three years ago, as the umbrella organization America Bikes brought bicycle industry representatives and grassroots biking groups to the same table for the first time to talk about shared goals. In coordination with the national bicycling advocacy group League of American Bicyclists, America Bikes began an annual conference called the National Bike Summit for groups and individuals interested in bicycling to come together, strategize, share information, and, most importantly, spend a day on Capitol Hill visiting Congressional delegates with a coordinated message: we need more funding for programs that increase bicycling safety and facilities.

Unlike many groups, which have full-time lobbyists visiting delegates every week, these ‘lobbyists’ are small fry: bike shop owners from every state, grassroots activists, parents who want their children to be able to bike and walk to school, and ordinary folks who love to ride a bike. The success of such a small and unprofessional group is, I believe, related to the relevance of bicycling and walking in the face of rising childhood obesity and diabetes, rising transportation costs and shrinking transportation budgets that don’t allow for the kind of road expansion projects which used to be the status quo, the conviction that most traffic crashes are preventable, and a renewed concern about fuel costs, air quality, and community livability. In this climate, bicycling is a solution that looks more and more attractive.

Last year’s Oregon delegation to the Bike Summit (pictured above with Congressman DeFazio) included representatives from the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, Cycle Oregon, and locally-owned bike businesses Team Estrogen and the Bike Gallery. We visited every Oregon delegate, and I’m proud to say that they not only gave us their time and attention, but also that every one of them is a member of the National Bike Caucus. The resulting Federal Highway Act, though several years overdue, has now been passed. Titled SAFETEA-LU, it includes $1 million annually for Safe Routes to School programs, $5 million dedicated to six Portland Metro-Area regional trails, as well as designated money for a recreation bikeway in the Columbia River Gorge, Sellwood Bridge improvements, and other trails throughout the state (here is a complete list of the Oregon bicycling projects included in the bill).

Ordinary Oregonians who want to ride a bike for transportation, fun, or exercise will all benefit from these community projects, and we’ll be seeing the effects of this new legislation for years to come.

My Trip: Jumping the Queue

I recently flew to the East Coast for a long weekend. As usual, I left straight from downtown Portland, leaving my bike at work, and riding the Red Line MAX to the airport. As we sped by alongside I-84, I looked at the hundreds of cars creeping along, nearly at a standstill, and I couldn’t help wondering–why would anyone want to drive to the airport?

My trip was comfortable, convenient, stress-free, and, best of all, I knew exactly how long it would take me to get there. Sure, in the middle of the night it might take less time to drive to the airport, but at any other time…who knows? It could be smooth sailing, or it could be a parking lot.

I’m interested in this experience because it’s one of the few times when the alternative transportation user actually has a clear advantage over the private automobile driver. I’m afraid that’s not always the case. The key to helping people make the change to environmentally-friendly modes isn’t to appeal to their sense of responsibility, and even less so to make them feel guilty. The key lies in making the alternative mode trip better than the car trip: faster, easier, cheaper, more fun, more beautiful, more reliable. Even one of these may be a deciding factor, but better yet is if we can combine them.

I can think of a few other local examples. During rush hour, bike lanes on major streets are like shortcuts for cyclists, allowing them to zoom past stopped cars. Likewise, bike boulevards (such as SE Ankeny or SE Clinton) offer cyclists direct routes while slowing down cars and restricting car access (such as enforced turns for cars while bikes can go straight through). Bikes also park free downtown (and everywhere), while the drive-alone worker faces a hefty monthly bill for the privilege of parking downtown. And, at least theoretically, HOV lanes on freeways offer an advantage to drivers who share their trip with others. Similarly, employer-funded transit passes offer a free ride on transit compared to the expense of driving.

These examples are few and far between, though. If you already own a car, it’s still the fastest and most convenient way to get around for many trips in the city. What can we do to truly make the right thing to do the easiest thing to do as well? And how can we make sure that both politicians and the public understand and support these efforts? What are the tangible benefits we’re trading for?

Here are a few ideas about what we could try:

  • No more right turn on red–provide a truly protected phase for pedestrians to cross the street
  • More bike priority signals (like at the Esplanade/Rose Garden) allowing bicyclists priority crossing
  • A new Willamette River bridge only for streetcar/light rail, bikes, and peds
  • Neighborhood intersections blocked to cars but open to people on foot and on bike
  • More traffic calming to slow down traffic and make neighborhood routes less appealing to cars
  • More bike boulevards that give priority to bike traffic and offer a truly superior route
  • Rush-hour pricing on our most congested freeways and bridges (and maybe, eventually, into downtown?)
  • More bike boxes, that allow cyclists to safely bypass stopped traffic and “go to the head of the line”
  • Car-free days and car-free areas in our city